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Understanding of Christian life by St. Nicholas Cabasilas and its contemporary significance

November, 16

In his outstanding book Histoire des idées politiques, Philippe Nemo presents a very interesting review of the anthropology of Nicollo Machiavelli, the famous author of The Prince. Machiavelli has a very pessimistic view of human nature. Human beings are irredeemably corrupt. They are ‘good’ only when this serves their interests. Nemo observes that Machiavelli’s pessimism regarding human nature is related to ‘the instability, the insecurity, and the violence that characterized Italy at his times’ (early 16th century)[1]

This may well hold true for his namesake, Nicholas Kabasilas too. In his youth Cabasilas lived a tumultuous political life. His experience of the civil wars of the 14th century and of the atrocities committed by the so-called ‘zealots’ in his native city, Thessalonica, must have contributed to his pessimistic view of humanity.

In his celebrated book The Life in Christ, which was written at a later stage of Cabasilas’ life and which will be the focus of our attention, Cabasilas expresses this pessimism in very explicit terms. In this work, which discusses the significance of the sacraments of Baptism, Crismation, and the Eucharist, Cabasilas argues that man, before baptism, is nothing, he is non existent[2]  –  and we should not fail to notice here the typical patristic link between non existence and sinfulness. According to Cabasilas, man outside of the church is darkness[3] and possessed by demonic forces[4]

Cabasilas thinks in very negative terms of humanity as a whole. According to him, before the incarnation humanity went from bad to worse. Its spiritual condition constantly deteriorated. Human beings were so corrupt that they did not even desire to free themselves from the tyranny of sin[5].  The sinfulness of humanity was so deep and all-pervasive that even the Old Testament righteous were captives to it. For Cabasilas the Old Testament righteous were subject to the law of sin almost as much as everyone else. The main difference between them and all other sinners was that the latter felt comfortable and happy with their sinfulness, whereas the former were sighing and desired to see the destruction of their bondage to sin[6]. For Cabasilas these righteous Old Testament figures prepared themselves for the future righteousness, which is the only true righteousness[7]. What this amounts to is shown by an example that Cabasilas puts forward. There are two categories of sick people, he writes. The members of the first category are looking for a doctor and feel very happy when they see him arriving. The members of the second category are not even aware of their illness and feel aversion to medicines. The doctor, writes Cabasilas, calls the former healthy, not because they are healthy, but because they will become healthy, in contradistinction to the latter. The Old Testament righteous belong to the first category[8]. They are healthy only proleptically and righteous only in comparison with the other people of their times. Their righteousness is only relative[9].

Cabasilas is a pessimist also with regard to the effects that words can have on the souls and the lives of people. He clarifies his view with reference to the lives of the apostles. As long as the apostles were simply hearing the teaching of Christ they made no progress and exhibited nothing new and worthy of admiration regarding virtue[10].  The failure of the apostles was similar to that of the Old Testament righteous, who were also assisted only by the word of God[11] and as a result could not achieve true righteousness.

Cabasilas’ emphasis on the one hand on the sinfulness of human beings and on the other hand on the inability of words to heal their spiritual wounds serves his purpose to emphasize the efficacy of the sacraments, namely of baptism, chrismation, and the eucharist. Cabasilas believes that baptism gives man a new life. Chrismation gives him the capacity to move, it endows him with a new spiritual activity. Holy communion is the food that sustains him in his new life in Christ[12].

These three sacraments bring about an almost complete transformation in one’s identity and life. The grace they confer is abundant and most powerful – Cabasilas sometimes presents it as almost coercive and irresistible[13]. Man contributes nothing to his spiritual birth as is the case also with his natural birth[14]. This new birth is exclusively the work of God[15]. Man should, of course, co-operate with Christ for his salvation, but his co-operation takes place only after he has received the sacraments, and often appears to be rather easy. The victory, writes Cabasilas, belongs to Christ, not to us[16]. We participate in this victory only because we applaud Christ and we celebrate his victory[17]. He won the victory but we are crowned too. Our co-operation with him for the purpose of our salvation consists only in this, in not removing from our heads the crown of glory that Christ had placed there, in non committing spiritual suicide by turning the sword against ourselves[18]. Later in his On the Life in Christ, however, Cabasilas will show in some detail how a Christian should act and fight in order to keep the candle of grace lit[19].

In order to convince his readers of the reality of the transformation that only the sacraments can bring about, Cabasilas refers to the martyrs of the Early Church. These martyrs not only bore the sufferings inflicted upon them but also felt a great love and desire for these sufferings as well as for the very death that would bring them closer to Christ[20]. Cabasilas gives a more specific example by referring, among others, to martyr Porphyrios[21]. Porphyrios was a mimic. Once he performed a mock ceremony of Christian baptism. In the course of the performance the audience was laughing, but for Porphyrios this mock ceremony became a true regeneration. He immediately confessed the Christian faith and was executed on the same day. This mimic who attempted to ridicule Christian baptism, eventually became a Christian and a martyr. This was due not to the power of Christian teaching, with which he was familiar, but to the overwhelming power of the sacrament of baptism[22]

However, there is an objection against what Cabasilas writes. How is it possible, the objection goes, that so many Christians live such sinful lives in spite of their having received sacramental grace? Cabasilas counters this objection by saying that this is so because they have in fact freely denied and opposed this grace in their lives.

Cabasilas argues that the fruits of the grace conferred by the sacraments are unspeakable joy, supernatural love and admirable works[23]. His view that sacramental grace leads to and shines through admirable works is further elaborated in the 6th chapter of On The Christian Life. There Cabasilas explains what Christians should do in order to remain in communion with Christ and to keep experiencing the abundance of his grace. It is here that Cabasilas elaborates his moral teaching. For example, a substantial part of this chapter is an analysis of the blessings that form part of the Sermon on the Mount.

The 7th and last chapter of On The Life in Christ bears the title ‘what kind of person will become the initiated Christian who has kept sacramental grace through his efforts’. Both the title and the content of the chapter make it clear that, for Cabasilas, the end of the life in Christ is the sanctification of the Christian, the formation, we might say, of a holy character. So, the whole process begins with the sacraments, continues with ethics, and results in personal holiness. This process will be completed only in the eschaton, because, as Cabasilas states already in the very first sentence of his work, ‘The life in Christ is planted in this life and receives its beginnings over here, but is perfected in the future, namely when we reach that day [of the eschata]’[24].



This has been a short summary of the fundamental aspects of Cabasilas’ theology as this is expressed in his important work On the Life in Christ. But let us now turn our attention to the implications of this theology for the Christians’ moral life. In what follows I will point out seven important implications of Cabasilas’ theology for the way in which we should live our Christian lives in the contemporary world.

1. From the way in which Cabasilas understands the condition of human beings before baptism (and probably also, at least to some extent, of those who through their sinful way of life have deprived themselves of the grace of God), it becomes obvious that non-Christians cannot keep God’s commandments – something that, according to Cabasilas, is true even of the Old Testament righteous. Therefore, although the commandments of God are mandatory for all, they can be kept by Christians only. This means that we cannot expect from people in general to do what they should do, simply because they cannot do what they should do as long as they are not transformed by the grace of God through the sacraments. Christian ethics, therefore, is not applicable to everyone, simply because only Christians can live up to its standards. It is by becoming a member of the Christian community, of the Christian Church, that one is enabled to live in a truly human, namely in a holy manner. This, of course, makes mission imperative for the life of the world.

2. Cabasilas clearly states that the impact that words can have on people’s lives is limited. People do not change simply by words; they change by the grace of God, which is given primarily through the sacraments. This is not to say that preaching and teaching are useless. If this were the case, Cabasilas would not have written his book. Education and wisdom are important. This is why in an early work of his Cabasilas argued that uneducated Saints are inferior to educated ones and must seek their advice[25]. However, the Church should not understand itself primarily as a religious ideology or as a philosophical or religious ‘school’, but rather as a Eucharistic community. Christian preaching must be rooted in the Eucharistic experience of the Church. Moreover, Cabasilas’ limited trust in the power of words may help Christians question the authoritarian claims of human logos either in terms of logic or in terms of ideological, political, or other rhetoric.

3. For Cabasilas, sacramental grace is very, very powerful. Man can do nothing to save himself before he is baptized. But after baptism, chrismation, and communion, the grace he receives, albeit not irresistible, is so powerful, that man only needs not to oppose it in order to gain salvation. Even the knowledge of God, which leads to salvation, is not that much a matter of thoughts and words, as it is a matter of sacramental experience. For Cabasilas the most important practice of the Christians is their participation in the holy sacraments, in the sacrament of the Eucharist in particular. Everything else depends on this. A Church life organized on the principles of Cabasilas’ theology must give to practices such as the daily celebration of the liturgy and the frequent participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist a central place.

4. Cabasilas’ aforementioned attitude distinguishes sharply his theology from moralism. Cabasilas is not an antinomian. He firmly believes that man should obey the commandments of God. The keeping of the commandments, however, must be placed within the context of man’s sacramental unity with Christ. Man is transformed by Christ through the sacraments and only then is he able to keep Christ’s commandments. By doing this, he maintains his life in Christ, which he has received through the sacraments[26]. But, although ethics is important, man’s unity with Christ is not this kind of external, forensic, moral unity which is exhausted in man’s keeping God’s law. By contrast, it is an ontological, organic unity, on account of which man is a member of the body of Christ, he is a holy vessel of Christ’s blood, and therefore his moral life is the outcome of his Christocentric identity.

5. Cabasilas is very much in tune with some insights of the so-called called ‘virtue ethics’. Christian life is not primarily about doing but about being. Doing is a result of being. Sin is not only an act but also – I would say primarily – a condition, a state of corruption and sickness[27].  Christian transformation, which begins with man’s participation in the sacraments, is the healing and the sanctification of man, which cannot be reduced to the improvement of behavior. The aim of the Christian life is to make people holy. Holy persons will perform holy acts. These acts will in turn make Christians holier. Holiness of character is the basis of moral behavior. This holiness is both given and sustained by the sacraments. It is kept by man’s keeping of God’s commandments and leads to a mature, holy Christian character.

6. Cabasilas’ emphasis on the centrality of sacramental life qualifies the emphasis of the hesychasts on several monastic practices. Cabasilas was a friend of Gregory Palamas and of other distinguished leaders of the hesychastic movement, whereas his uncle, Neilos Cabasilas, archbishop of Thessalonica, was also a supporter of the hesychasts. However, in Cabasilas’ theology we do not find the typical emphasis on monastic practices such as the unremitting recitation of Jesus’ prayer[28], fasting, vigils, the importance of the departure from the world, or even the significance of the vision of the uncreated light, which was a burning issue in the course of the 14th century hesychastic controversies[29]. In a famous passage Cabasilas writes that every Christian can have his mind focused on Christ without needing to move to the wilderness or to eat an unusual kind of food, or to be dressed differently to other people, or to damage his health, etc. On the contrary, one may well stay in his home and continue his profession: the general may well continue to be a general, the farmer may well continue to be a farmer and so on, and yet live fully the life in Christ.

  These remarks constitute an implicit but very clear qualification of the emphasis on a peculiarly monastic spirituality that was so widespread and powerful in the Byzantine world and that often gave the impression that there are two classes of Christians: the monks, who are called to perfection, and all the others, who are a kind of second-class Christians who cannot aspire to the heights of Christian perfection. Cabasilas’ theology is more catholic. Sacraments are for all Christians and no one has a privileged access to them. Since all else, including Christian teaching and monastic life, is of lesser importance than participation in the sacraments, and since monks living in monasteries and people living ‘in the world’ are equal to each other in terms of their sacramental incorporation into the body of Christ, there is no reason to overemphasize the monastic practices as the main, let alone the only, way to Christian perfection[30]

7. Although Cabasilas moves beyond an at times excessive domination of monastic spirituality over Christian theology and life by emphasizing the centrality of sacramental life, which is equally open to both monastics and seculars, he is not always successful in overcoming the traits of monastic spirituality in his wider moral theology. It is to his credit that in his youth he wrote a couple of works castigating the practice of usury, which had led many Christians of Byzantium to financial misery. In these works Cabasilas’ moral discourse reaches politics and economics, and aims at the transformation of society and its institutions in a way that is simultaneously radical and prophetic. Cabasilas made a similar attempt to deal with issues relevant to politics and economics in his wrongly so-called ‘anti-zealot discourse’[31], which he also composed at the first part of his life, when he was still politically active. There he criticised the expropriation and heavy taxation of monastic properties by both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. However, as the O’ Donovans have shown, in this work we may discern an one-sided interest in protecting the property rights of monasteries on the basis of appeals to Roman secular law – totally disregarding the theological question of whether it is legitimate for monasteries to be land-owners in the first place. Moreover, we may even discern some indifference for the common good at a time when Byzantium was in desperate need of funds in order to defend itself (including its monasteries and religious institutions) against Turkish aggression, which would soon destroy Byzantium[32].  

  Be this as it may, we must point out that in spite of his partly successful and perhaps also partly unsuccessful engagement with politics, economics, social ethics, etc. in his early years, in his later mature works Cabasilas adopted a more ‘monastic’ theological attitude. In his great theological synthesis, which is crystallized in his On the Life in Christ and in his Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, and for which he is mainly remembered, Cabasilas remains within the typical context of ‘spirituality’, without sufficiently expanding his theological vision of the Christian life to areas such as politics and economics.

Moreover, Cabasilas overlooks some important moral questions. For instance, we saw earlier his failure to discuss the question of whether it is legitimate for monasteries to own large properties. We also saw that in his On the Life in Christ he claimed that a general does not need to change his profession in order to live the Christian life. But how is this profession compatible with the Christian life given Christ’s non-violent example of life as well as his command to love our enemies? That is, how is it possible for a general, namely a professional killer of his (or of his Empire’s if you wish) enemies to be at the same time a Christian, let alone a good Christian, namely someone who is called not only not to retaliate but also to forgive and love his enemies? As far as I am aware of, Cabasilas fails to raise this question either in his ‘anti-zealot discourse’ or in his later works. Saint Symeon of Thessalonica, another important figure in the area of sacramental theology who would become the bishop of Cabasilas’ beloved Thessalonica a little after Cabasilas’ death, would almost turn the killing of Turks into a Christian virtue and would go as far as to anathematize all those who even considered the option of peaceful surrender to the Turks[33]. It seems that here we come dangerously close to an overturning of Christian values. He who opts for peace and refuses to defend himself and kill his enemies is anathematized, but he who fights and kills is praised as a faithful member of the Empire and the Church.

The fact that Cabasilas first overlooked questions like the above-mentioned, second did not always deal with moral questions in a satisfactory manner (for instance in his ‘anti-zealot discourse’)and third did not manage to incorporate his earlier moral theology (against usury, for instance), written when he was politically active, within his later great theological synthesis, written after his retirement, perhaps in a monastery, shows the limits of his moral theology in a way that has been typical of a large part of Byzantine and in general Orthodox theology for centuries.

In our days, if Orthodox theology wishes to avoid withdrawal within pietistic surroundings and to become instead more catholic and transformative of the world, it must find ways to address the whole human life, including politics, economics, bioethics, environmental ethics, sexual ethics, etc. and not only its strictly speaking ‘spiritual’ dimensions. All this must be done of course within a wider framework of biblical and patristic theology and of liturgical – sacramental spirituality. In this endeavor, St Nicholaos Cabasilas’ work may constitute both a great source of learning and inspiration, and an invitation to expand it to all areas of Christian moral life.

[1] Philippe Nemo, Histoire des idées politiques aux Temps modernes et contemporains (Puf, 2002), pp. 48ff. For the quote, see p. 48.

[2] On the Life in Christ, B, 8 and 30.

[3] On the Life in Christ, B, 30.

[4] On the Life in Christ, B, 20.

[5] On the Life in Christ, B, 41. Here we see a view that seems similar to Luther’s view on the bondage of the will.

[6] On the Life in Christ, A, 30.

[7] On the Life in Christ, A, 29.

[8] On the Life in Christ, A, 31.

[9] On the Life in Christ, A, 29. Παναγιώτης Νέλλας attempts to qualify this view of Cabasilas by reference to his Mariology, which Cabasilas expounds in three relevant sermons (see Παναγιώτης Νέλλας, Η περί δικαιώσεως διδασκαλία Νικολάου του Καβάσιλα: Συμβολή εις την Ορθόδοξον σωτηριολογίαν (Pireaus: Καραμπερόπουλος, 1975), pp. 92-100. See also Παναγιώτης Νέλλας, Η Θεομήτωρ: Τρεις Θεομητορικές ομιλίες Νικολάου του Καβάσιλα, κείμενο, εισαγωγή, νεοελληνική απόδοση (Athens:  Ίδρυμα Ευαγγελιστρίας Τήνου, 1968). However, a detailed discussion of Cabasilas’ Mariology and its place within his wider theological vision cannot be undertaken here.

[10] On the Life in Christ, B, 75. Cabasilas will also argue that the sacramental experience of God is superior to the knowledge that comes about as a result of teaching (ibid. 71, 87, 100).

[11] On the Life in Christ, B, 74.

[12] On the Life in Christ, A, 17.

[13] See, for instance, On the Life in Christ, A, 13, where Christ is presented as almost compelling man’s transformation acting like a man-loving tyrant. On this, see also Αθανασίου Α. Αγγελοπούλου, Η εν Χριστώ ζωή κατά τον Νικόλαον Καβάσιλαν τον εκ Θεσσαλονίκης (Athens, 1967), p. 19.

[14] On the Life in Christ, B, 16.

[15] On the Life in Christ, B, 43-44.

[16] On the Life in Christ, A, 42 and 49.

[17] On the Life in Christ, A, 49 – 50.

[18] On the Life in Christ, A, 15. Cabasilas makes it clear that no-one will be saved against his will (ibid., 54, 58, 59 etc.).

[19] See his 6th sermon on The Life in Christ in particular.

[20] On the Life in Christ, B, 65.

[21] Porphyrius was martyred in 361AD, when Emperor of the Roman Empire was Julian the Apostate.

[22] On the Life in Christ, B, 78-79.

[23] On the Life in Christ, B, 103.

[24] On the Life in Christ, A, 1.

[25] See his Οστιαρίω Θεσσαλονίκης τω Συναδηνώ, in Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 46 (1953).

[26] See the title of his 6th sermon on The Christian Life.

[27] See Cabasilas’ discussion of sin in On the Life in Christ, B, 39-40.

[28] However, Cabasilas takes the obligation of Christians to pray unremittingly for granted; see, for instance, On the Life in Christ, 7. 25.

[29] Athanasios Angelopoulos argues that Cabasilas ‘does not touch the question of the uncreated light, because apparently he does not share fully the psychophysical method of prayer, through which the hesychasts achieved their main aim, the vision of uncreated light’ (Αθανασίου Α. Αγγελοπούλου, Νικόλαος Καβάσιλας Χαμαετός: Η ζωή και το έργον αυτού (Thessalonica: Πατριαρχικόν Ίδρυμα Πατερικών Μελετών, 1970), p. 78). Angelopoulos is wrong. The vision of the uncreated light was by no means the main aim of the hesychasts, nor does Cabasilas disagrees with their method of prayer. It is rather his emphasis on sacramental grace, which is equally available to all Christians, that makes the difference. 

[30] However, the infrequent participation of the laity in the Eucharist, which was the norm in Cabasilas’ days, undermined the reality of sacramental incorporation of laymen, and gave a privileged position to the clergy, who could celebrate the liturgy, and thus receive the body and the blood of Christ, more often. Cabasilas does not make any comments on this. However, it is noteworthy that Saint Symeon of Thessalonica, who lived a century later, and had the same love for the liturgy and the sacraments as Cabasilas, emphasized the importance of frequent communion for both clergy and laity.

[31] See Ihor Sevcenko, ‘Nicolas Cabasilas’ “Anti-Zealot” Discourse: A Reinterpretation’, in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 11 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), pp. 79-171.

[32] See Oliver O’Donavan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan (eds.), From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought (100-1625) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 476-7.

[33] Let me also note that while I was writing this article, I came across the message that the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece addressed to the Greeks on the occasion of the attack of Italy on Greece on 28 October 1940. The Synod urged the Greek nation to fight ‘the holy, defensive fight for the sake of the faith and the country’, to which the King and the President of the government (that is dictator Metaxas) called them. ‘The Church is blessing the sacred arms’, reads the message, and presents the defense of the nation as ordered by God (κέλευσμα Θεού). It refers to Matthew 10: 28 and reassures the addressees that God will be on their side as they fight against this unjust aggression, imitating their glorious ancestors – some of whom, let it be noted, were pagans (see newspaper Καθημερινή, 29 October 1940, p. 2).

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