During the academic year 2016-17, I was continually reflecting on William A. Johnson’s concept of “reading communities” (Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities, 2010). Naturally, as a student of Patristics, I focused my attention on how this concept applies to communities in the early Church. However, from July 31 until August 5 of this year, I participated in the annual Pappas Patristic Institute held at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline MA. This was the second time I participated in the program, after attending in 2015, but missing 2016. This year I left with a greater appreciation not only for how “reading communities” function, but also for the vital role of the shared reading of texts both in the life of the Church and in the spiritual development of my soul.
In order for a reading community to materialize, the group must share some common beliefs about the texts being read. In particular, the community must have a common belief about what texts are important to read, why those texts are important to read, and how those texts function to create a sense of communal identity (Johnson, 12-16).
The Pappas Patristic Institute possesses all those characteristics. All the participants share a common belief that the Church Fathers are important to read. We also share a common belief that the Fathers are important to read because, as the foundations of the Christian tradition, they continue to have relevance and meaning for today.
Finally, through our annual reading and discussion of patristic texts, we have formed a community of individuals, many of whom dedicate this one week out of the year to return to Brookline for reading and discussion. Many of us, scholars and non-scholars who value the spiritual treasures of the Fathers, have developed friendships and connections that, on the one hand, are enriched during our annual pilgrimage to Brookline, and on the other hand, persist beyond the Institute.
The week-long Institute is structured so that participants register for two courses, one morning and one afternoon session. In the morning, I served as a Teaching Fellow for my good friend Don Springer’s course, “The Ascending Pilgrimage: The Spiritual Life According to Irenaeus of Lyons.” In the afternoon, I took a course titled “Taming the Thoughts: Ascesis in the Monastic Writings.” The reading list for each course is focused almost exclusively on primary texts, but the instructors do include some supplemental secondary literature. The end product is two 2½-hour sessions each day dedicated to group reading and discussion of patristic texts.
There are two particularly delightful aspects of the Institute. First, as alluded to above, the participants are a combination of scholars working towards master’s or doctoral degrees, those who already possess PhDs, and non-scholars who are simply looking for spiritual nourishment. This makes for a truly diverse community of readers.
Secondly, probably the most valuable feature of the Institute is the ecumenical make-up of the participants. This is not just a program for Orthodox. In addition to the Orthodox participants, I am a Roman Catholic, and there are a few other Roman Catholics who participate. There is at least one Eastern Rite Ukrainian Catholic, and a large number of participants from the various Protestant churches.
In the course on Irenaeus, there were six participants altogether, including myself and the instructor. Of the six, we had one Roman Catholic, one Lutheran, one convert to the Orthodox Church from Roman Catholicism, and three who had at one time been Baptists. To my recollection, one of these three still belonged to a Baptist Church, one said that he “no longer identified” as Baptist, and one converted to the Anglican Church.
Needless to say, we did not always agree in our readings of Irenaeus, but our disagreements were respectful and produced genuinely fruitful dialogue. I greatly appreciated the insights from my friends in that course, and they certainly taught me to be open to other perspectives. As a Roman Catholic—and I’m sure some of my Orthodox friends agree—it is strange to talk about “tradition” with my Protestant friends. I am frequently reminded that their tradition only began 500 years ago (this year!).
But the influx of patristic scholarship from Protestants has been a refreshing phenomenon, which has produced some of the best current research in Patristic Studies. Add to that the growing number of Protestants who participate in the Institute, and the future is looking bright for Christianity. Now, if I can only convince some of my Catholic colleagues to read more Origen, the Cappadocians, Athanasius, or the Desert Fathers, than Rahner, Ratzinger, or even Hegel!
Greater than the academic and professional development that this program provides is the spiritual nourishment I receive. Doctoral study, much like any other occupation, is riddled with stress and anxiety. I find that I am constantly dealing with deadlines, worrying about my performance, and other daily responsibilities that come with being a doctoral student. And despite the fact that I do get spiritual nourishment from my studies (I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t get any spiritual benefit), nevertheless, the daily stress and anxiety of doctoral study often clogs my spiritual senses. I often feel like one of the Israelites fleeing Egypt with Pharaoh hot on their tails. As Origen said in his Third Homily on Psalm 77, life is full of ups and downs, with the spiritual Pharaoh attacking us from the left and the right. And just as God fed the Israelites manna for their nourishment in order to survive the hardships of life, so too do I need the heavenly manna to withstand my daily stresses.
This is what the Pappas Patristic Institute does for me. For one week per year, I get to escape my own spiritual Pharaoh and gather together with friends to nourish my soul with the heavenly manna through the reading and discussion of our Church Fathers.
John Solheid is a PhD student in Theological Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.