A public seminar held at St Andrew’s College
Within the framework of T8581A Church Fathers: An Introduction, a course unit which I offer this semester for the second time ever, I organised a public seminar, Dreaming in the Ascetic and Philosophical Traditions of Late Antiquity, on 21 April 2015. The two speakers who joined me on this occasion are dear friends of the College, where they already contributed – and still do – to the establishment and consolidation of a vibrant research culture not deprived of spiritual dimensions. Indeed, even their contributions at this seminar have once again illustrated both their scholarship and interest in the spiritual foundations of the Christian mindset and ethos.
The whole idea of this seminar emerged with the recently initiated project of Associate Professor Bronwen
Neil, FAHA (Centre for Early Christian Studies with the Australian Catholic University, Brisbane QLD), which we discussed in the wake of her last visit at St Andrew’s, when she offered a keynote for our sixth patristic symposium, From Alexandria to Cappadocia and Back Again. Brownen is, in truth, a great friend and supporter of St Andrew’s. She is a member of the editorial board of our journal, Phronema, and she has offered keynotes for a couple of our patristic symposia. She has also contributed a guest paper to the first ever volume of our Faculty, Cappadocian Legacy: A Critical Appraisal, which I co-edited with Dr Philip Kariatlis. Back to Bronwen’s project, it researches dreaming in Late Antique Christianity and Judaism, and in early Islam; for this project, Bronwen was awarded a generous grant from the Australian Research Council in 2014. It has been a great honour for the College and I to host her once again, as it has been a great joy for our small community to have her joining us in prayer, just before the seminar, for the daily vespers chanted by our students.
On this occasion I invited her to share with us a few thoughts after the service, and she pointed out two aspects that impressed her in the order of vespers, namely, the reference, in the Septuagint Psalm 103, to natural disasters which make us aware of the need for God’s providence, and the prayer for travellers in the great litany. Why these two matters? On the one hand, it is because of the stormy New South Wales weather, which, we have seen later on, resulted in unfortunate human casualties and immense property damage; on the other hand, it is because Bronwen was thinking of her Argentinian colleague, Dr Patricia Ciner, who was travelling from Brisbane to Sydney in order to attend our seminar.
Back to the seminar, Bronwen offered the paper ‘Dreams in Early Eastern Monastic Literature’. She explored a range of ascetic authors and sources pertaining to Eastern Christianity, in the Greek, Latin and Syrian traditions. In terms of the representatives reviewed in this paper, Bronwen looked at St Athanasius’ Life of St Antony, Evagrius Ponticus, the Sayings of the Desert, St John Climacus, and John Moschos’ Spiritual Meadow, for the Greek side; St John Cassian the Dacian’s Conferences and Institutes for the Latin side; and St Isaac of Nineveh and John of Dalyatha for the Syrian side.
This both informative and formative paper introduced us to the fascinating monastic world of dreaming, together with the various attitudes toward dream, vision and prophecy in the monastic milieus mentioned above. Of particular interest to me was the point Bronwen made in relation to the need to reticently consider the meaning of dreams – at least as long as one is not spiritually purified and advanced to be able to decipher them properly.
Bronwen’s presentation was followed by that of Kevin Wagner (PhD candidate with John Paul II Institute, Melbourne VIC, and Lecturer at University of Notre Dame, Sydney NSW), ‘Live Right, Sleep Right: The Role of the Virtues in Synesius’ Theory of Dream Divination.’ Kevin is a newer friend of the College; this was his third presentation at St Andrew’s, after he offered papers for two of our patristic symposia. He has already published a journal article in Phronema, which will be shortly followed by another one, in Phronema 30:2 (2015).
In his contribution to the seminar, Kevin focused on the philosopher bishop Synesius of Cyrene’s dream theory, which recommended both the practice of virtue and a more scientific approach to dreams, by recording and analysing them comparatively. The paper introduced the audience to the Neoplatonic mechanisms of dreaming and divination, mechanisms which were both adopted and adapted by Synesius. I found it very significant that Synesius did not dissociate the more ‘technical’ approach of recording dreams and their analysis from the virtuous life of the dreamer.
On the one hand, Synesian approach illustrates a way of ‘doing science’ in tandem with cultivating a virtuous life and ethical concerns; on the other hand, it shows that in order to assess dreams one should consider a rigorous framework where their meaning has to be authenticated. In this point, Kevin’s contribution intersected with that of Bronwen and my own. My paper, titled ‘Sleeping and Dreaming in the Athanasian Psychological Theory and Ascetic Theology,’ highlighted the contradictory views of St Athanasius in relation to sleep and dreaming, sometimes assessed positively and other times negatively. I proposed that these contradictions dissipate when one looks at the context of the respective statements and, likewise, considers them in the light of the great shepherd’s appraisal of nature within a transformative perspective. I have pointed out also that St Athanasius’ reticence towards the oneiric space has to be referred to his conviction that only the saints are worthy recipients of divine messages and able to discern their meaning.
The College generously offered supper to all participants, after which unfolded a very lively Q&A session.
The event was very well attended, thinking of the terrible Sydney weather. Like forty people braved the storm and wormed up the great hall of St Andrew’s with their presence and interest. They have my deep gratitude. So do the clergymen present, The Very Reverend Archimandrite Sophronios Konidaris, The Reverend Athanasios Giatsios and The Reverend Dimitrios Papaikonomou, together with the enthusiastic representatives from Kogarah Fellowship. My gratitude goes also to Dr Patricia Ciner (National University of San Juan and Catholic University of Cuyo, Argentina), who currently undertakes a research séjour at Centre for Early Christian Studies in Brisbane, and Dr Graham Lovell (Macquarie alumnus), for their contributions during the Q&A session. Many thanks to Mario and Chris Baghos who, acting as support staff, took photos and video recorded the event, my colleague Dimitrios Kepreotes, our excellent guest speakers, our other guests and, last but not least, our admirable students.
Protopresbyter Dr Doru Costache
Senior Lecturer in Patristic Studies
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
Source: The Greek-Australian Vema Newspaper – May 2015