It is a little difficult for me personally to know how to introduce this book since it’s such a tremendous work that I don’t really know where to begin. Accordingly, it seems the best thing to do might be to reproduce Daniel’s forward to it. I plan to give more of a taste of Philemon in a review of Philemon meditates Matthew. Here is Daniel’s introduction:
When Tischendorf, in 1859, made his famous discovery in the monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai of one of the most ancient manuscripts of the Bible, he left the monastery with a number of other manuscripts; one of these, which was anonymous, did not attract his attention since the Greek script led him to date it to the 11th century. He entrusted this manuscript to a monk friend, an excellent Hellenist, who passionately set about a translation which he made into Latin, as was the custom of the time. Unhappily, because of his age, this monk died before he could finish his work. The manuscript was then stored away in his monastery, there being no other monk to take up the task.
Some decades later a French monk joined the community and one day came across the manuscript. With his abbot’s authorization and helped by the Latin translation, he set to and retranslated the whole work, this time into French. A very good Hellenist and also very humble, he did an excellent job while maintaining his anonymity. It became apparent that the 11th century manuscript in fact contained a text from the 6th century, written by one Philemon, a monk from Gaza who, to our knowledge, wrote nothing else. At this moment, there is no other document that mentions this author; the manuscript is the first and perhaps only thing he wrote; he is cited by no other ancient author. Today he belongs to the company of the humble who sing the glory of God in the heavenly choir, but one day this unknown’s name emerged when the translator noticed it inscribed in acrostic form in the first letter of the opening chapters. We can imagine his joy when he saw appear before his eyes, little by little, letter by letter, “Philemon of Gaza, servant of God.” His interest in the translation increased tenfold and he now had a personal interest in the author, whom he thenceforth considered to be a Church Father.
I met the translator some thirty years ago during a retreat I made in this same monastery; he showed me his work with an enthusiasm which he communicated to me, and I stayed in touch with him through the years until his death. I should own that down these many years, I have become familiar with Philemon of Gaza to the extent of my spiritual walk being significantly affected by him. I owe him a great deal, as will easily be perceived by those who know me. I give infinite thanks to the Lord for everything he has given me through this man. Before his death, the translator asked me if I would be so good as to edit the text, making me promise not to divulge his name, a promise I have respected. As the text is so lengthy, comprising a meditation of the four gospels, I am only publishing here the first gospel meditated by Philemon, which is to say, the Gospel of Mark; it’s for Philemon himself to say why he began with Mark; whatever the reason, the text is of great interest to us as one of the very rare patristic texts devoted to this gospel.
The text is a collection of meditations, not a commentary; this needs to be borne in mind. The author of a commentary endeavors to make every detail of a text clear; in contrast, the author of a meditation pauses over some one detail which touches and speaks to him. He then takes the necessary time to receive in his heart everything that this detail says to him, taking it as coming from God to help him in his life.
A meditation, then, is always very personal and is not undertaken with the intention of it being shared with others; it belongs to the intimacy of the author with God. A commentary is not intended to be personal and can therefore be passed on to others.
If and when an author sets his meditation down in writing, above all this is going to be for himself. He might pick the draft up later, deepen his thinking and further his conversation with God; whatever the case, modesty forbids that it be made known because the writing belongs to the place of intimacy with God. Philemon was one of those who was not writing for others but for himself; as indicated at the very beginning of our manuscript, his text was only discovered high on a shelf in a monastic cell where it was left long after his death, we don’t know just when. Is it perhaps the case that we are betraying him by now publishing it? If so, may he forgive us! Perhaps he would wish to give thanks with us if his meditation helps us too to meditate; he would no doubt be happy to serve us in our walk with God.
While the manuscript is from the 11th century, it is a copy of an older text; the copy was edited very well but we can’t know if any errors found their way into the original text between the 6th and 11th centuries because we have no other copy.
One part of the manuscript is badly damaged, which makes some passages impossible to read; this is the case, for example, with the meditations on the parables of the lamp and the scales (Mk 4:21-25) and the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-26). For this reason, these passages don’t figure in the present edition.
There are a number of gaps, due mainly to the poor condition of the lower part of the manuscript. Each of Philemon’s meditations begins at the top of a page and closes at the foot of the page with a prayer, so the poor condition of the manuscript explains why these prayers are incomplete or absent. That said, we can still profit from them because we are more or less invited to continue them in our own prayers.
At this point, I yield to Philemon, asking God to bless you in your reading, that it may stimulate and feed your own meditation.
The dating to the 6th century is due to the authors cited in the text, the most recent of whom undoubtedly belong to that time. It cites Dorotheos of Gaza, Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, all from the 6th century, as well as Abba Seridos, who founded the Gaza monastery at the very end of the 5th century; he entrusted to Philemon the role of gatekeeper. All this enables us to locate Philemon in the first half of the 6th century.