Photo by Ester Marie Doysabas on Unsplash

Over the past few months, as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I have been working mostly from home. During this time, I have thought a lot about what Jesus says in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in which he tells his followers not to worry about what they will eat or drink or wear. “Strive,  first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Then he concludes: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:31–34 NRSV).

We are living in a time of great anxiety.  How can we live without worry?  Is it possible? And if it is, how would we go about putting it into practice?  As I reflected on these questions, I was reminded of something that Thomas Merton had discovered on this topic in the writings of the 6th century Syriac bishop and monk Philoxenos of Mabbug. I will come to that in a minute, but first, let me say something about Merton and Philoxenos. 

The American Trappist (Cistercian) monk, writer, theologian, poet, and mystic Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968) was among the greatest Christian spiritual writers in the 20th century. The 1948 publication of The Seven Story Mountain, Merton’s autobiographical account of his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his decision to become a Trappist monk, was propelled by critical acclaim to the best-seller lists of the day and led to an enormous increase in the number of people seeking monastic vocations. 

During my seminary training, I studied ancient Syriac, a dialect of ancient Aramaic that bears a close resemblance to the language that Jesus spoke. There were vast numbers of Syriac-speaking Christians in the early centuries of the church, but many people in the West are entirely ignorant of the great wealth of theological and spiritual treasures that were written down in Syriac language along with the central importance of ancient Syriac texts and translations for the study of the text of the Holy Scriptures. 

Because of my interest in Syriac literature and language, I became interested in what Merton had to say about Philoxenos of Mabbug (Aksenāyâ Mabûḡāyâ, ܐܟܣܢܝܐ ܡܒܘܓܝܐ (ca. 440-523 A.D.). His monastic name, ’Aksenāyā means “the stranger,” or, in other words, a person who was a lover of hospitality. In Greek that was translated as Philoxenos (a friend or lover of strangers,” or “the hospitable one.”)

Philoxenos was a monk and bishop in the Syriac Jacobite Church that separated from the Churches of Rome and Constantinople following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. That council declared that the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, had two natures, one human and the other divine and that those who held otherwise were heretics and were no longer welcome in the church. The Syriac Jacobite Church, formed in reaction to the Council of Chalcedon,  was officially miaphysite, that is, they insisted that after the incarnation the human and divine natures were merged in such a way that the incarnate Word had only one nature (Gk. mia = one and Gk. physis = nature). This might seem to be of minor theological importance today, but at the time and for the centuries that followed, it was a church-dividing issue. 

An important source for Merton’s wisdom is found in the conferences that Merton, known as Fr. Louis within the monastery,  held with the novices at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton was the novice master and as such was responsible for the academic formation of monks in training. While recordings exist of many of these conferences (or what we might also call classes), most of them have not been published.[1]

What drew Merton to Philoxenos was their shared monastic vocations. Despite the fact that Philoxenos was from a separated church, the deep wisdom of his reflections on how to live simply as a monastic ineluctably drew Merton to his writings. This wisdom, as Merton demonstrates in his conferences, is just as valuable to those living out monastic vocations as it is to those of us who are not.

The genre Philoxenos employed in his Discourses was the mēmrā (Syriac plural, mēmrē) The genre can best be described as metrical poetry in the form of a homily addressed to a monastic audience. The thirteen Discourses of Philoxenos begin with an introductory mēmrā followed by pairs of mēmrē, each pair centered on the same theme but developed in different ways. It is not immediately clear why two separate mēmrē were written on the same theme. Sometimes the first of the two mēmrē takes a moralistic tone while the second takes a more mystical tone. Or, perhaps the second is a later reworking of the first. There is no consensus on this. 

Mēmrē 4 and 5 both focus on the topic of “simplicity.” After a brief analysis of a passage from Philoxenos that Merton identifies for discussion,  I will look to see what Merton does with this topic in the conferences with his own monastic students. 

In Mēmrā 4,  “On Simplicity,” Philoxenos discusses the simplicity of Jacob who was unfairly deceived more than once by Laban his father in law. In spite of this, Philoxenos writes, “The purity of Jacob was not afraid and his simplicity was not shaken, and his innocence did not become inflated.” As long as Jacob was attending to his own concerns, God was concerned for him about the other external things that happened to Jacob. Jacob, thus, “is an example of enlightened instruction to all who wish to labor with the Lord: one should not let his thoughts cease from reflection on God nor occupy them with devising schemes by which to harm his enemies.”[2]  From the example of Jacob, Philoxenos turns to the monastic audience and exhorts them with the following words. 

But you, O disciple, remain in the purity of your mind. It is the Lord’s to know how to guide your life, and which things are beneficial for you that he should do for you. Have you heard about others that are preparing to do harm to you; and others that are lying in ambush to take your life; … and others that reproach your glory and find fault with your way of life; and others that dig in order to throw you on the earth from the height on which you are standing; … or others that speak against and revile you, and hurl mocking abuses on you…? But you, in all of these things, remain in your simplicity and do not turn your back from where you have been watching, and do not cease from your secret conversation with God.[3]

Philoxenos continues: 

Do not let the coercion of these things outside of you defeat the coercion of the hidden anchor on which your life is suspended, but hold on to Christ with the hope that is not found false, according to the promise of Paul to us, “Let us hold on to the hope that was promised to us, which is to us like an anchor tied onto our soul” so that you may not be moved.[4]

It is quite interesting to see what Merton makes of this passage. As he interprets it to his own monastic audience, Merton seems to have Jesus’ admonition not to worry about what is going to happen to us in the future in the back of his mind, even though neither Merton nor Philoxenos mention it explicitly. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:34).

In his monastic conferences, Merton frequently relates what Philoxenos has to say with examples from Zen Buddhist themes and texts. It is the juxtaposition of the texts of Philoxenos with the Holy Scriptures and Zen Buddhist ideas that makes Merton’s idiosyncratic interpretation so remarkable.[5]

After talking about what Philoxenos wrote on the topic of simplicity in much more detail than have outlined here, Merton makes the following, somewhat colloquial, observations:

Anxiety about yourself. What is going to happen to me? Now this, I would say, is extremely important. This is the big thought. And this is the thought that we as monks really need to learn how to handle. This is the thought. What is going to become of poor me? One year from now, ten years from now, where am I going to be? What is going to happen? How’s it going to be? So I’m going to croak, but how, when, where? It doesn’t matter. What we have to do is attain this purity of spirit and let God take care of it. What is going to happen to me is of no importance. Why? Not because in itself it is of no importance. But it is useless for me to worry about it because it is already taken care of. So this is purity of spirit in this particular context. And this is simplicity.[6]

As Merton continues his reflections about the anxiety that each of us faces in our own ways, he relates it first to the experience of his monastic colleagues, who even in their partially cloistered existence can never be sure what tomorrow will bring. As Merton talks, he gradually brings his monastic audience back to what Philoxenos says about hope and why when we put our ultimate “hope” in God we find not only simplicity of life but rest from the overwhelming anxiety that so often clouds our ability to see that hope. Merton says:

[You] don’t stand back and judge what God is making out of your life. This is absolutely essential. What we are constantly doing [is] constantly looking at our lives: where are we going, how is it going, how are we going to get there, how am I going to get around the next corner and what happens at 5 pm or 5:26 and what’s going to happen at 5:27? How am I going to get this done? What’s going to happen if he says this, what do I say? And if Reverend Father makes the foundation in Norway, then what? This is what we have to learn not to do. It’s extremely important for the contemplative life. And this is the real contemplative life to stop doing this! But it’s extremely hard. It’s very difficult indeed. And so what we have all got in our heads is a whole lot of gimmicks about ‘how to make it’ and ‘how can I handle this’ and all these eventualities and so forth. So there’s a great deal of anxiety. And the answer is hope. We have got to have real hope in God, because when we’re thinking about ourselves and figuring out about ourselves we’re not hoping—we’re figuring! To figure is not to hope! We have to put all the important stuff in God’s hands.[7]

At this point, Merton makes a turn in his interpretation of Philoxenos that seems to interweave what Merton’s reading of Buddhist texts, particularly as they relate to the illusory nature of the self. Here, Merton offers his most profound insight on what Philoxenos has to say about simplicity. Merton observes: 

We have to put all the important stuff in God’s hands. [Which means] not being preoccupied with this ‘I’ who is going to be there tomorrow. Where the trouble comes [from] is this centering our thoughts on the ‘I’ that is here: ‘Here I am.’ But this ‘I’ is not all that important because it isn’t all that real. What we experience as ourselves is 99% imagination. We construct an imaginary self that we have to live with, and this is not for real. And it’s not important. The real self, the depth of our true self that is going to last, is a self that we don’t see, we can’t observe and can’t plan for. And that self is in God’s hands, and is constantly safe, constantly secure, can’t get out of God’s hands. Everything that is real in us belongs completely to God and he isn’t going to let go of it for two seconds. He is not worried about the unreal in ourselves, but we are. So constantly if we are worrying about the unreal part of ourselves, which is the part that we worry about, then we have to constantly keep constructing it, and protecting it, and defending it, and fixing it up so that it won’t collapse and pushing it along so that it will get through these things and so forth. And there’s nothing there! But we waste all this time worrying about this. And if we can get rid of this we [would have] a great more time for doing more important things and we can forget about this business of keeping this self which isn’t really that important and really isn’t that much there. We can forget about this and think about God and not worry about ourselves and He’ll take care of the rest. So hope then is this great important thing.[8]

These words of Merton are extremely profound. Hope is an antidote to worry and anxiety. Real, authentic, hope is more than just wishful thinking. It is found in our willingness to put our fragile selves into the hands of God so that God can hold them for us. When we put ourselves in the hands of God, we can re-focus the energy we waste trying to shore up the illusory self that we mistake for our real self. The real self is in God’s hands and it “can’t get out of” them. As Merton concludes, “Everything that is real in us belongs completely to God and he isn’t going to let go of it for two seconds.”[9]

I think it’s worth paying attention to what Philoxenos says about how we should deal with the things that give us worry and anxiety.

Do not let the coercion of these things outside of you defeat the coercion of the hidden anchor on which your life is suspended, but hold on to Christ with the hope that is not found false, according to the promise of Paul to us, “Let us hold on to the hope that was promised to us, which is to us like an anchor tied onto our soul” so that you may not be moved.[10]

In these troubled times, may you find rest for your souls (Mt. 11:30) anchored to the hope we have in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 6: 19-20). 

[1] Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos were recorded at Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown, KY between April and June of 1965 and some excerpts from them have been published. For selected passages, see Thomas Merton, OCSO, “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug (April-June 1965): Philoxenos on The Foundations of the Spiritual Life and the Recovery of Simplicity,” Edited, with an introduction, by David M. Odorisio. Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Vol. 13.2, (2010), 251–271. Merton makes additional comments about Philoxenos in Thomas Merton, “Rain and the Rhinoceros” in Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1964), 9-23. See, 14-23. 

[2] The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug: A New Translation and Introduction, Cistercian Studies Series # 253, trans. Robert A. Kitchen (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2014). See, Mēmrā 4: 30, 101.  

[3] The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 31, 101 

[4] The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 32, 101-102. 1 Philoxenos cites Hebrews 6:19-20: We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”( It is generally accepted today that Paul did not write the book of Hebrews but that authorship was widely accepted in the time of Philoxenos.) 

[5] See,“Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 258 and 261.  

[6] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 268-269.

[7] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 269.

[8] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug,” 269-270.

[9] “Thomas Merton’s Novitiate Conferences on Philoxenos of Mabbug, 269.

[10] The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, Mēmrā 4, 32, 101-102.


  1. Your meditation on anxious times and Merton’s “homily addressed to a monastic audience” formed the perfect backdrop, in my mind, to the homily addressed to us this past Sunday, July 5, by David Brooks, the guest preacher at the Cathedral. (You can watch/hear it here: https://youtu.be/82RTNaG3JHI ) Brooks starts by noting his own Jewish background. He sees Jesus not through a Christian lens but through the Jewish perspective on those tumultuous years in the 1st Century CE when all was military chaos and political upheaval and social ferment and anxiety in Jerusalem — how Jesus challenged and indeed pierced all that, particularly by addressing the poor and downtrodden directly. This background of course is exactly what you have had us reading in N.T. Wright’s book (which Brooks mentions). In that historical context Brooks calls us to remember the beauty of Jesus’ message in the midst of the storm that was Palestine, beauty that, in Brooks’ view, is what it takes to inspire faith. “What keeps faith alive during storms like now is the awareness of the beauty, the essential goodness at the ground of our being.” And he elaborates: there is the response in us that calms us, “Be not afraid; storms are a normal part of life” and, the aesthetic beauty that leads to “compassion in the midst of strife.”

    I went back and revisited your sermon this past Sunday (https://youtu.be/-MWWAYcz_V0 ), touching on the paradoxical lightness of the burden of the yoke of faith in the midst of these anxious times. It seems to me Brooks’ message and yours are equally hopeful, and equally needful.


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