|VOICES FROM THE PAST WE NEED TO HEAR TODAY|
|The British philosopher, mathematician, and Nobel laureate, Bertrand Russell, gave a talk in London in 1927 entitled: Why I Am Not a Christian. In the lecture he not only thoroughly enumerates the reasons why he rejects the Christian faith as mere superstition, he denies the very existence of God based on philosophy and human intelligence. He writes: “The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men.” Russell was a precursor of coming agnostics and atheists who sought to dismantle religion, expose what they saw as the church’s fraudulence, and re-direct the attention of humans to their own power and freedom merely as human. These were the disciples of the Enlightenment. Russell died in 1970 at 97 years of age, leaving an intellectual legacy that reached around the world. Who would dare respond to his razor-sharp precision of thought? Who would lay out a contrary argument for God? Who would clarify the place of spirituality and religious belief in a convincing but genuinely personal way? Who would witness that intellectual truth was and is subservient to the Living Truth? Russell was undoubtedly sharp and intimidating and few would brook the power of his thought.
The Orthodox Church faced a similar dilemma in its earliest days and, by God’s grace, was given an answer. Many of the early teachings of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church began with the phrase: “Following the Divinely-inspired teaching of our Holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic (Universal) Church….” We hear about these “Fathers” so much. They are a critical part of our liturgical and prayer life, and are at the center of our Tradition, “that which has been handed on.” They are guardians of our phronema (φρ?νημα, mindset, or purpose), the spiritual and theological patrimony of the Church. Yet, as Father Stephen Freeman, a contemporary spiritual writer notes: “More people talk about the Fathers of the Church than actually read them.” This brief reflection is designed to open up the world of the Fathers to you, so that you will know them – not primarily in your head, but in your heart, not for the sake of intellectual satisfaction but for your soul’s hope and healing. Many of Orthodoxy’s greatest contemporary theologians maintain that unless we return to the Fathers and grasp their message and their spirituality, no genuine transformation can take place in the Church. It is a call for a Patristic Renaissance.
How did the Fathers and Mothers of the Church receive such a designation? Father Johannes Quasten, eminent German Patristic Scholar (+1987), notes that because of their special position as witnesses of the living Tradition of the church, the Church Fathers/Mothers were designated as such by four criteria: 1) Orthodoxy of doctrine: Their theology had to be in agreement with the Church’s accepted common teaching, rooted in the Sacred Scripture. 2) Holiness of life: In the early Church, veneration of the Saints was not based on explicit canonization but instead on the recognition and veneration of the person’s recognized holiness of living. 3) Approval of the Church: Requires that the person’s teachings and writings were recognized by the Church, either directly or implicitly; 4) Antiquity: Requires that the person belong to the period of the ancient church (circa AD 50 – 750, ending with the repose of St. John of Damascus in AD 749). Within this period is included the Desert Fathers and Mothers, including Amma Syncletica, Amma Thecla, St. Macrina, St. Paula and St. Pelagia and after this period is included the spiritual Fathers and Mothers such as St. Gregory Palamas and St. Symeon the New Theologian. And St. Theophan the Recluse.
The Fathers of the Church of antiquity (AD 50-750) were generally associated with the young Church’s battle against various heresies or aberrations of Christian doctrine.. It was a period where the Church was refining and defining the core of its kerygma and belief against prevalent erroneous theories, often proffered by well-intentioned but misguided Orthodox clerics. These were addressed in seven Ecumenical Councils when the entire Church came together to defend what it considered essential elements of the Christian Orthodox faith, for example the nature of Christ as equal to the Father (Nicea, AD 325), the Theotokos as God-Bearer and Mother of God (Ephesus, AD 431), and Christ’s nature as fully human and fully Divine (Chalcedon, AD 450). St. Athanasius the Great (AD 279-373) wrote himself: “Let us look at the very Tradition, teaching, and faith of the universal Church from the beginning which the Logos (the Word) gave — the Apostles preached and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded.” (First Letter to Bishop Serapion of Alexandria)
The Fathers were concerned not only that people believe, they were fervently insistent about the truth of what they believed. For the Church Fathers, theology was always in the service of spirituality, of the encounter in the human heart with God, and never an end in itself as, indeed, it would become in the universities of the Medieval West. The Church Fathers sought not to protect ideas but an experience, not merely to engage in academic precision, but to guard the great conclave between the human and the Divine, the touching of earth by Heaven, the making seen of “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to God’s people.” (Colossians 1:26) The precision of the language they employed, the passionate way in which they expressed the Truth of the faith – all were intended to express the μυστ?ριον (mysterion, mystery) that has, as its root, μ?ω (mý?) meaning “to shut one’s mouth.” Their theology originated in and was ultimately shaped by prayerful silence in the face of the God who, at once, attracted them intensely yet before Whom they stood in utter awe.
This is a critical element of the place of the Church Fathers and Mothers in our Orthodox spiritual life today. Evagrius of Pontus (AD 346-399) was a monastic theologian some of whose writing are included in the Philokalia. In that work he writes: “The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian prays.” Simply put, the heart of theology is prayer, not academics. Prayer, even the desire for prayer, is always a movement, drawing us to God; it is the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit in the human heart. Before our ideas and constructs about God, comes our dialogue with Him. Without that on-going prayer life, without doing the asceticism that it includes, our ideas about God are hollow, virtually empty. Dostoevsky reminded us not to seek God “in the empty firmament of the mind but in prayerful love.” This is one lesson the Church Fathers and Mothers teach us to this day. It is a lesson that the Church needs to rediscover today amid its quest to “cerebralize” theology. Again, it is encounter, not concept. That has always been the gift of the Byzantine East to universal Christendom — the difference between knowledge and wisdom.
As brilliant as were the Cappadocian Fathers (Ss. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Athanasius the Great who were bishops in the fourth century), their writings revealed a numinous quality, direct evidence that it came from the experience of God in Christ in their hearts not from mere syllogistic reasoning, construct, or the dryness of their intellectual prowess. The counsel of the early Fathers to “move your mind into your heart” underscores the unique role that the experience of the heart had in the existential encounter with God Himself. The Church Fathers/Mothers wrote such powerful yet touching texts because, in the first place, they were people of prayer, people who knew what the “unseen warfare” was all about, strugglers like you and me who battled the passions, fought the darkness of their own egos, and then dared to write of the Divine. They truly followed Anselm of Canterbury’s adage: I believe so that I may understand – I understand in order to believe.” It was the prayer that made them theologians, just as it is that dialogue with God that shapes our faith – before ever we have a thought about Him. Is this your faith? Is it a matter of engagement with God in your heart or only in your head? Do you simply rely on the “stuff” you learned when you went to Sunday School? Is your faith alive and a living part of your everyday?
St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, the leading Bishop in the Church of Africa in the mid-third century and a Church Father describes the spiritual transformation he underwent before ever he wrote a word of theology: “I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night, wavering back and forth, tossed about on the foam of this boastful age, and uncertain of my wandering steps, knowing nothing of my real life and remote from truth and light…but then, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years had been washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, was infused into my reconciled heart.” (The Treatises) Do you see yourself anywhere in his words? If you do, you have begun to appreciate the power and depth of the Fathers of the Church. May that power grow to fill each of you with their wisdom!
Faithfully your servant,
(Please find attached Sunday’s Bulletin for your prayerful preparation for the Divine Liturgy.)
|NOVEMBER 3, 2019 7TH SUNDAY OF ST. LUKEfinal.pdf|