Tag Archives: Orthodoxy

Beginning to Pray

Beginning to PrayBeginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom

What we must start with, if we wish to pray, is the certainty that we are sinners in need of salvation, that we are cut off from God and that we cannot live without Him and that all we can offer God is our desperate longing to be made such that God will receive us, receive us in repentance, receive us with mercy and with love. And so from the outset prayer is really our humble ascent towards God, a moment when we turn Godwards, shy of coming near, knowing that if we meet Him too soon, before His grace has had time to help us to be capable of meeting Him, it will be judgment. And all we can do is to turn to Him with all the reverence, all the veneration, the worshipful adoration, the fear of God of which we are capable, with all the attention and earnestness which we may possess, and ask Him to do something with us that will make us capable of meeting Him face to face, not for judgement, not for condemnation, but for eternal life.

Beginning to Pray is a slender book, but it’s slender in the same way a blade is slender: it can still get into the cracks of your heart and pry them open. The book is conversational, a short treatise on prayer written by the Orthodox archbishop Father Anthony Bloom. It does not have a central thesis except perhaps this, which is carried in much of the ascetic tradition of Orthodoxy: that prayer is difficult and that it must be directed inward at one’s own heart. That it is a dangerous labor that cannot be entered into lightly. That there is a cost.

Perhaps the most innovative point of the book (from the perspective of a former protestant) is that Bloom says prayer must be aimed into one’s own heart, that the door to the kingdom at which we must knock is within us and that we have to aim our prayers into our own hearts like an arrow. Prayers are not launched into the sky, hoping to hit God. He is closer than we know. So Bloom says we aim them into ourselves, hoping He meets us at the doorway of our heart. With that in mind, prayers must be words that are true and that can cut deeply. They need to be sound and strong, to get past the deadness of spirit and our own internal deafness. They have to pierce. Where does one find such prayers? They can, on occasion, be written, and (according to Bloom) they can very rarely be extemporaneous. But mostly they need to be mined from the scripture and the traditions of the Church.

The other aspect of prayer that Bloom emphasizes is the practice of silence. To truly be able to pray, one first must learn to be silent. I had a privilege this past summer of a three day retreat, alone with a lot of spare time, and among other things I read this book and savored (and attempted to practice) the invitation to silence that it extended. I immediately began a re-read upon returning back home into the hectic, busy world, but I found the words that before had been an invitation now seemed almost a rebuke. Prayer must be hemmed with silence, Bloom says, and the silence that is not simply the lack of noise. It’s built up through time and practice. Yet such a thing seemed, upon returning home, pretty distant and unattainable.

You need time with this book. I don’t feel I can do it justice in a summary, and I don’t really need to, as the book itself is brief and accessible. Instead I’ll just pull out a few of Bloom’s most relevant quotes:

On humility in prayer:

Humility [from the Latin ‘humus,’ fertile soil] is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold out of every seed.

On letting go of expectation and desire:

Outside the realm of “right,” only in the realm of mercy, can we meet God . . . Everything we taken into our hands to possess is taken out of the realm of love. Certainly it becomes ours, but love is lost . . . [A]s long as we have nothing in our hands, we can take, leave, do whatever we want.

On prayer and action:

We must each take up our own cross, and when we ask something in our prayers, we undertake by implication to do it with all our strength, all our intelligence and all the enthusiasm we can put into our actions, and with all the courage and energy we have. In addition, we do it with all the power which God will give us . . . Therefore prayer and action should become two expressions of the same situation vis-a-vis God and ourselves and everything around us.

On praying continually:

If we could be aware . . . that every human meeting is judgment, is crisis, is a situation in which we are called either to receive Christ or to be Christ’s messenger to the person whom we are meeting, if we realized that the whole of life has this intensity of meaning, then we would be able to cry and to pray continuously, and turmoil would be not a hindrance but the very condition which teaches us to pray.

Kindling the Divine Spark

Kindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual ZealKindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal by Abbot Herman

Only the benumbed soul doesn’t pray. Preserve in yourselves the feeling of need, and you will always have stimulation for prayer . . . Necessity teaches everything. The need for prayer teaches one to pray. (70)

Of all the aspects of the Christian faith, monasticism (either of the male or female variety) may be the most misunderstood. Yet I would venture to say that the health of a church, the help and the hope of the faith, depends on the strength of its monastic communities. A friend has said that in the history of the church, renewal has often come from the monasteries. They’re like the spiritual batteries by which the church occasionally must be recharged.

But contemporary misunderstandings arise because we don’t see what such communities are actually for, what they’re supposed to be doing, how they influence or interact with the “normal” life of the church in the rest of the world. They’re not practical. They’re antiquated. They’re disconnected. What have poverty, chastity, and continual prayer to do with marriage, children, career, or even evangelism?

St. Theophan the Recluse was a bishop in nineteenth-century Russia who had a passion for starting monasteries and convents, and he gave regular sermons at these various communities in which he spelled out for their members the goal of lives as monks and nuns. Many of these sermons, along with some brief biographical sketches, are collected in this volume, Kindling the Divine Spark: Teachings on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal. There is a gap of culture and of a century or so, so while reading it’s easy to slip into an analysis of this work as an authoritarian bishop working to keep communities of women (nuns) under his influence. Except for the fact that Theophan ultimately abandoned his position to spend decades as a recluse, living out the life of austere monasticism that he had preached.

Besides being a living testimony to the spiritual heritage of Christianity across the world and throughout history, the power of monasticism, as illustrated in these sermons, is the example it provides for us in the world. Every Christian is called into the same struggle, and monasticism reminds us of the cost that we might otherwise be able to forget: that Christianity is not a system of knowledge or principles but a life lived out in community with the goal of perfection, of sanctifying individuals into the likeness of Christ.

Peace and tranquility and fulfillment are either the crown of perfection or a state of extreme fall, in which all spiritual striving and needs are extinguished . . . The state of those who are progressing toward perfection, however, is a state of struggle—intense, laborious, and full of tribulation. This state of progressing—is the narrow path. (40)

Of Theophan’s sermons, I thought “The Healing Pool” (Chapter 18) was the most profound. It talked about the paradox of considering oneself as the least, most humble, most struggling Christian and how this disposes the soul to be a source of help and healing for others. Advancing in the spiritual life, according to Theophan, does not make one more confident or sure of one’s self but rather more aware of one’s weakness and one’s innate and continual need for God. If the Christian life is one of resisting or overcoming the passions, Theophan argues, the more we understand ourselves and are aware of these passions, the more the struggle grows. We cannot resist passions of which we are not even aware.

What to take from all this into a life outside the monastery? The awareness of Christianity as a struggle—not a thrown switch or single-time salvation experience—is paradoxically a source of encouragement. When will I finally arrive at grace? When will I be delivered from the struggle against my own selfish, awkward, grasping nature? Theophan says: never. At least, not here. This is the testimony of monasticism, that sanctity is a process, and a process that grows more difficult as one progresses.

This had profound implications for prayer, the awareness that it is driven by necessity. We cannot manufacture a desire to pray, but we pray out of need. The more awake and aware we are of our need—and the more we open our hearts to the needs of others—the more we find within us the desire to pray.

Isn’t this view of salvation rather discouraging though? I mean, all this talk of struggle. How could that invite anyone to follow after Christ? And what good would it do? Here’s where empiricism comes into play, the testimony of experience and the test of Theophan’s claims: what kind of people are those from whom you find grace, healing, and encouragement? Who are those through whom real good is done? In the world, we go after those with confidence and firm leadership, often to our enduring disappointment and chagrin. But the saints of the church are those who embody the struggle: their humility and self-emptying, all of the things they give up or walk away from, their self-denial—all of this becomes a means of healing for those around them.

And then we’re back at Christ, the exemplar of the whole Christian life, who gave himself up in humility, who made himself the least of all—not simply (or even) to propitiate some kind of cosmic justice but to show that the nature of God himself, that the hidden secret at the heart of the universe, was this kind of love. And it was a struggle, even for him. (Read the account of the garden of Gethsemane.) So the monk or the nun (or the Christian) follows this example, and the struggle is not one of despair but of hope, because the testimony of Christ reveals the ultimate outcome of such a life of self-emptying love: union with God.

In this context, the sermons of Theophan take on a deeper significance than simply exhortations to men and women over a century ago who were participating in a practice of Christianity that no longer has any bearing on the contemporary world. His words, while still difficult, are for all of those who have taken up the struggle of living out the Christian faith.

Praying with Icons

Praying with IconsPraying with Icons by Jim Forest

Sometimes arguments are not won by logic or reason or even by words. Sometimes the best case for certain beliefs is made by a story, an experience, or the testimony of beauty. How many people have chosen to create a marriage by following a logical argument to its conclusion, for instance? With our evangelical theological heritage though, we often tend to think our religious beliefs play out almost exclusively in the realm of logic and reason. Or at least we act like we do. (This is where you get the modern ugliness of young earth creationism and strict Biblical literalism.) Theology though—or at least the religious life—is the testimony of beauty played out through history. One of the ways this is most apparent in Orthodox Christianity is in the heritage of icons.

As Jim Forest’s book illustrates, the concept of the icon itself is in some ways an icon of the Church itself. Theologically, icons are a symbol of the Incarnation—that what before was ineffable has now become flesh. They are also a representation of sanctity: saints whose lives have been transfigured by holiness into Christ-likeness remain not simply as a concept or memory but as an abiding spiritual presence. And again: they are windows into the historical life and testimony of the Church— who these people were, how they lived, how they have been cherished. This historic testimony is alive in all its forms and hymns, in its music and liturgy, but it is perhaps most present in the vivid, luminous faces of its icons (both on wood and in flesh).

Because of all these reasons, though Forest does not lay them out systematically, his work, Praying with Icons, is not as much a manual of praxis or a straightforward study in iconography (though there are introductory chapters on these topics as well as on the creation of icons). Instead it becomes in some sense a primer on the Church itself. The bulk of the book is a series of meditations on several important icons. Though to me the selection seemed a bit haphazard and heavily Russian-influenced, these chapters introduce a wide array of Church tradition, history, and belief through the lenses of icons. The feeling of an introductory primer to Orthodoxy in general was also born out by the selection of prayers included at the conclusion of the volume.

Praying with Icons was published as part of an ecumenical series of texts aimed at all believers, so the feeling of a presentation of Orthodox spiritual practice through icons is apt and accessible. My primary complaint with the book is the low quality of images throughout. Though the book is built on the concept of their great beauty, the images reproduced (including the image chosen for the cover of the volume) are poor quality and do little to communicate visually their richness. Though Forest has seen many of these famous icons in person, some images seemed simply too low quality for high-resolution reproduction. Having seen other books where the icons were reproduced with great clarity and color, this was disappointing.

This is a book I would pass along to others curious about Orthodox practices or even to fellow parishioners looking for a simple, accessible adjunct to their own spiritual practice. The meditations Forest writes on each icons are lovely and concise and would be useful to those looking for basic “devotionals” built around these silent but somehow expectant witnesses in color and light to the life of the Church.

Saint Siluoan the Athonite

Saint Silouan the AthoniteSaint Silouan the Athonite by Sophrony Sakharov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What does it mean to be holy? I’ve asked this before, in a previous review of the theology of Archimandrite Sophrony. Sophrony was a monk who lived for a time in the monastic community of Mount Athos and served as an assistant of sorts to an older monk, St. Silouan. Sophrony saw Silouan as a great spiritual leader, and this volume is an account of Silouan’s life by Sophrony (which takes up the first half of the large book), followed by the collected writings of Silouan himself.

Silouan was a Russian peasant who came to Mount Athos as a monk in the early twentieth century and who lived there in poverty, prayer, and ascetic practice for decades. In the minds of many, this is a waste: a life of chastity, cut off from the rest of the world, without practicing good deeds or serving others, simply a life of “navel-gazing”—fretting about one’s own spiritual life and a constant, morbid attention to death, to unworthiness, to begging for repentance and the love of God. As some of my students would point out, this seems very much like a “works-based” salvation.

But I’ve already argued for the merits of something like this, so I won’t go down that road again. Let’s just make the assumption that the ascetic life is a recognized and integral part of the Christian tradition, and once that assumption is made let’s see what we might learn from it. Because I doubt many who read this book will actually be called to that life (and Silouan is careful to point out that no one should embark on such a life unless they are called by God). Rather, there’s the idea that maybe folks who go up the mountain have some wisdom for those who remain below. And if nothing else, anyone who’s interested in diversity of views and perspectives (and what could be stranger than someone who self-consciously rejects what most of the rest of us spend our lives pursuing?) should occasionally peruse the writings of the Christian mystics.

For Siluoan, prayer and repentance are central to the life of the Christian. For those who claim that the life of a monk is one of inactivity, Siluoan (and tradition) would argue that prayer is the most essential, ontological reality of the world, and that this is thus the action of all true monks, the center of their existence. Indeed, there is the idea that if prayer ceases, the world itself ends. Prayer is the proper orientation of reality to God, the source of all reality, and for women and men like Siluoan, learning to pray—disciplining the mind and the will so that ceaseless prayer becomes a reality—is the primary task of the monk (or nun).

But the prayer Siluoan speaks about might be a bit foreign to those of us who are used to saying a few prayers on behalf of our own interests and the interests of our friends and family each day. True prayer, for an Orthodox monk like Siluoan, springs from repentance, which is not a “once and done” kind of thing. Rather, repentance is a constant posture before God: a sort of humility that borders on self-hate, a realization that the monk is the least in the kingdom of God, that others are sure to be saved but that there is no hope for the penitent, no excuse. It is for the monk an echo of the humility of Christ, that one must consider himself the least of all, must descend in humility and brokenness as Christ did, must shed bitter tears.

Like so many things in Orthodox Christianity, this is balanced in paradox: this deep repentance cannot give way to despair, because in the midst of all there is the hope of the mercy of God. This is the source of Siluoan’s famous statement, which he said he was given by the Lord Himself: “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” That is, keep your mind on your own wretchedness and brokenness, keep a posture of ultimate humility and depth of need in prayer, but trust in the mercy of God.

There is a purpose to this disposition. It is not self-flagellation or psychological masochism in order to earn some kind of salvation; rather, it is the path to true prayer, because only from such a posture of humility can one begin to bear the burden of the world, can one begin to shed tears of compassion not simply on behalf of one’s own sins but for the sins of the world. And this, Siluoan argues, is the ultimate purpose of the monk’s life in prayer: to offer up the world itself to God, to ceaselessly intercede with tears and compassion for everyone.

It is in this context that Siluoan makes what I think is perhaps his most powerful (and helpful) claim regarding prayer and the presence of God. In today’s climate of religious fervor and fundamentalism, of preaching and emotivist appeals, Siluoan claims there is one true way to know whether the Spirit of God is actually present. In Siluoan’s world, this sort of discernment was necessary for monks who claimed to have received a word or a vision from God. I think it holds equally true for us outside of the monastery, surrounded by people who claim to speak for God.

Siluoan’s statement is this: where the Spirit of God is, there is true humility, true love for enemies, and tears for the whole world. That is, if you claim to have any sort of deep experience with God, and the results are pride, derision, or division, this is a false claim. The true marks of the presence of the Spirit of God, according to Siluoan, are recognition of one’s own unworthiness (humility) and a compassion that extends to even those you thought you hated. Siluoan emphasizes this multiple places in his work, arguing that Christianity is never violent, never cajoling, but always something built on humility and compassion.

This struck me as incredibly profound: that an encounter with God brings about, not confident fiery preaching or denunciations or clearly-defined lines between us and the other, but rather tears, compassion, and a reticence to speak because we’ve finally realized how broken we actually are. Replace our confidence to denounce others we believe are wrong with a heartfelt compassion for our enemies and a humility that says they are more deserving of God’s grace than we ourselves, and Siluoan says you have a much more genuine Christianity and the true marks of encountering God.

For those who might immediately protest that God hates sin and that we have a responsibility to speak about the righteous judgement of God, I’d offer the saying of another monk, St. Isaac the Syrian, who, hundreds of years ago, offered this advice: “Do not speak of the judgement of God. His judgement is not evident in His dealings with you.”

What this thread of Christian thought is speaking to is this: Christianity is praxis, and the center and the goal of the Christian life is to know the love of Christ. Learn the love of Christ, these fathers would say. This knowledge is not book-knowledge. This is not a system of thought to be absorbed and repeated. This is an experiential knowledge, one arrived at through action, discipline, and the grace of God. Focus on that, bend your energies to that, to learning the love of God in Christ. Then and only then, these writers would say, worry about the implications of your theology for the life and practice of others. And then what you will find, according to their testimonies, is that you’re more interested in serving them, in serving even your enemies, in humility and love and compassion, then you are in condemning them.

Siluoan’s work is a hard read. The book is long and repetitive, and for a Western reader the nuggets of profundity seem buried in a lot of chest-beating and woe-is-me rhetoric. But for Siluoan, that’s the point. You have to do the hard work of self-abnegation to arrive at true knowledge of the love of God. The first portion of the book is a difficult go because it’s written by Siluoan’s protege and the tone is very hagiographic; it’s hard to see where the actual person was in the midst of all this. And then the second portion is Siluoan’s own writings, which, as the editor explains, are the occasional, unorganized scraps of a barely-literate peasant. So this portion is very repetitive and lacks a certain polish, but if anything it provides a more genuine glimpse into the mind and heart of someone who would forsake the world and spend a lifetime in the desert for love of God. Along the way, you also get some anecdotes about life on Mount Athos, which at times seems like another planet or at least another time period. And in the midst of this all, you get a sense of the things outlined above, of the goal of prayer and the life of repentance for the monk.

Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius

Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia's Unknown da VinciPavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia’s Unknown da Vinci by Avril Pyman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We seem to have a fascination with imagining the end of society. We like to talk as if we’re at the end of an era, the twilight of Western civilization or something similar. This appears in our rhetoric, but it also appears in the glut of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies and books of late. I often find myself wondering if the Byzantines felt the same way in the late 1300s, or the early Britons in the face of the Norman invasions, or anyone at all during the long twilight of Rome.

The truth seems to be that society goes through transitions– some quite painfully abrupt and others so gradual as to be unapparent until years or centuries later. For Christians, ideas about these collapses or transitions often take the form of fantasies of persecution or monastic retreat. We wonder what the Church might look like, how it would endure or be transformed, in such transitions. Ironically though, we forget that we have examples from the recent past of what the Church looks like when society collapses or transforms abruptly beyond recognition. Besides the more relevant example of Christianity in the Middle East today, we have the story of the Orthodox Church in Russia. It’s a story that I still don’t know all the details of, the collapse of an old order and the transition from one form of civilized society to another very different. What did the Bolshevik Revolution mean for the practicing faithful and for the institutional Church itself?

Pyman’s book doesn’t answer all these questions. In fact, it assumes the reader already has the context in which to situate the story she’s telling: that of the life of Pavel Florensky (1882 – 1937), a Russian scientist and intellectual, a father, a priest, and ultimately a declared enemy of the Soviet state. This was one of my primary frustrations with the book: I was dropped into a narrative that I still don’t have enough bearings to navigate. Pyman discusses Florensky’s early work in a plethora of Russian names I don’t know, and when the drama of the cataclysmic revolution that would have such an effect on the Church and Florensky’s life within it take place, again the reader is assumed to already understand the contexts of the events being alluded to. It’s difficult to understand the nature of Florensky’s role and reactions to these transformations if, for instance, you don’t already have a grasp on the role the Church played with respect to the government under the last Tsar and a basic knowledge of its hierarchical structure. All this knowledge is assumed. Indeed, not having much of the context of late Tsarist and early Soviet Russia made Florensky’s eventual brushes with the Soviet authorities seem to me perhaps as arbitrary and obscure as they must have to the new Soviet citizens who found themselves in a wash of acronyms, bureaus, committees, and police services that seemingly sprang up overnight.

But Pyman is not writing a book about social transformation or the plight of the Church after the revolution as it found itself in an increasingly and militaristically atheistic society. (If someone could recommend such a book, I would be interested.) Rather, Pyman’s book is about a man, Pavel Florensky, who came to age in the flourishing of the pre-revolutionary intellectual and literary scene and shocked many of his avant-garde social circle by coming to faith and ultimately joining the Church, an organization thought to embody many of the oppressive, traditionalist forces the young guard were rallying against. His first major work, The Ground and Pillar of Faith, which I have not read, is an intellectual apology for faith (something along the lines of a Russian Mere Christianity) lived in the life of the Orthodox Church and still influential today.

Florensky was also recognized and highly regarded as a scientist, and when the theological schools at which he taught were closed after the Soviets came to power, he worked and published extensively as an electrical researcher on behalf of the state. He ultimately lost his parish and in many ways his priestly vocation, but he famously retained his beard and cassock working and lecturing on science in an increasingly hostile environment. His life is the story of intense learning and service, but also of a rear-guard action, a long defeat, trying (for instance while serving on the board of antiquities for Russia’s most revered monastery) to save the traditions and artifacts of the Church (even, according to this account, smuggling away the head of a saint whose tomb was to be desecrated) in an increasingly grim time.

It’s the story of a long failure, as Florensky is finally arrested, does more scientific work for a time in a Siberian camp, writes his wife and children beautiful letters from a crumbling monastery converted in a labor camp and prison on the North Sea, and is ultimately shot on obscure charges and buried in a mass grave outside Moscow. It is in these final days that Pyman’s account becomes most poignant, balancing a despairing narrative of the wearing away of individuality in the gulag archipelago with passages of hope from Florensky’s letters home.

I’m stuck by the deep Christian heritage there is to draw upon in the Russian tradition. Florensky the scientist and father was a contemporary of the Athonite monk St. Silouan, whose work I’m also reading now. Silouan represents a deeply contemplative, mystical approach to faith lived out in obedience and humility in a Russian monastery on Athos. Florensky, on the other hand, was an intellectual (though also with a mystical bent), a family man, with a wife and five children, writing and teaching in the tumult of Moscow. Florensky and Siouan lived very different embodiments of the common faith, and Florensky’s life gives some hope in the possibility of living in grace in the context of home and science.

As far as Florensky’s actual scientific contributions, Pyman does a good job documenting his career and giving summaries of his theological work, but her treatment of his mathematical and scientific works are less satisfactory. We’re told he was a great mathematician, that he anticipated certain developments in quantum mechanics even, and that he drew on this to construct some kind of theology of number, but none of this is expounded on, and as far as his context among Russian science in general, very little is said. This is likely due to the writer’s background, but it leaves the true extent and lasting influence of Florensky to be taken on faith by those outside the Russian scientific sphere. (The question of Florensky’s influence is one I would have liked to have heard more about. The narrative stops abruptly with his death, offering no discussion of the fate of his family or how his writings and influence began to make themselves felt during the long Soviet thaw.)

For those who are trying to practice a life of faith lived out in writing, in intellectual dialogue, teaching, and service– and this in the spheres of both family and asceticism– the account of Florensky’s life, successes, and long fading will be inspiring and poignant. They will recognize a kindred spirit. And for those who bemoan the uncertainty of the times, the transitions or dissolutions of the culture, and the fate of the Church within all this, they will find an example of what a life of faith looked like played out in a “post-apocalyptic” society.

Take heart, little flock.

The Orthodox Liturgy

The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine RiteThe Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite by Hugh Wybrew

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend and I have been having an enduring, good-natured disagreement on the nature of the Church and Christianity. He sees the history of Christianity as the accumulation of dogmatic and hierarchical barnacles that must be scraped away in order to get back to the pure, original Christianity of Christ and the first apostles. If you look at the history of the institutionalized church, he says, you see accretion, abuse, and general messiness that wasn’t an initial part of what Christ intended. The history of the Church, I think he might say, is a long history of missing the mark.

There’s certainly some truth to this. But if we’re using the analogy of barnacles encrusting something original and true, my answer to this metaphor is that I don’t think Christ came to entrust the apostles and the early Church with a boat. That is, I don’t think His purpose was to create or deliver something whole and entire that was supposed to be passed down, static and unchanging.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Christ did not come to deliver the truths of the kingdom of God or that those truths evolve or develop over time. I’m talking about the Church itself. It did not spring whole and mature at Pentecost like Athena from the mind of Zeus. Christ did not deliver a boat that we have to scrape the barnacles off to get back to the original shape. Rather, something was born at Pentecost, something given life by the descent of the Holy Spirit, and that thing is better represented (in my mind) as a thing living and growing in history (like a tree) than a shape or structure that needs to be restored.

This difference comes out most clearly when we talk about the actual practices of the Church. What is it here to do? My friend might say that all the dogmatic and ecclesiastical elaborations— incense and vestments and hierarchy and everything else that goes with liturgical worship— are examples of encrustations that need to be cleared away. It’s obvious these were not what the apostles were doing in the generation or two after Christ’s ascension.

On the other hand though, neither was the Canon of Scripture established, the dual nature of Christ articulated, or the trinitarian dogma formalized in those first generations. These were things the Church did in response to the historical events of the life and resurrection of Christ. They didn’t fall out fully formed and articulated. They were the result of the Church wrestling with what they knew to be true under— we believe— the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Christ didn’t deliver a body of beliefs or a structure of worship; he birthed a Church: a living, organic, growing, evolving thing.

To me, this view is necessary for understanding the work of the Holy Spirit in the narrative of history. It’s never made sense for me to see the Church as almost immediately “going wrong,” though proponents of this view often disagree about just when it started to depart from the “pure” faith of the apostles. If, as many do, they point to the reign of Constantine, this is also the same point at which the Nicene Creed is first articulated. So if we want to throw up our hands at the Church getting in bed with Imperialism, we also have to throw up our hands at the first attempts to formalize statements of Christian belief, which came about by the instigation of the Emperor.

I say all this to say that whichever view you take— barnacles or growth— will influence how you interpret the work of Hugh Wybrew in The Orthodox Liturgy: the Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite. Either it’s a story of how multiple encrustations of liturgical worship grew up from the first to the fourteenth century to obscure the Church’s early and pure form of worship, or its a story of the development of the liturgy to the rich, vibrant form it has today. Enrichment or encrustation is a matter of perspective and teleology.

Wybrew, former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, offers a comprehensive, in-depth survey of the development of the liturgy in the East— the liturgy celebrated by Orthodox Christians each Sunday around the world— from the the earliest Christian documents until its more or less fully developed form in the fourteenth century. One the one hand, you can’t read this book and then maintain that your Church worships in the same way as the apostles, or in the first generations after them, or even as the Church did in seventh century Byzantium. The liturgy has evolved. On the other, you’ll find surprising consistencies throughout. Wybrew follows both these aspects, change and continuity from the apostolic days until the fourteenth century, in this work.

The study is chronological, drawing on surviving documents and accounts to give a representation of liturgical worship (which, it needs to be pointed out, was not simply one way of worshiping but the structure of Christian worship) in different periods in the Byzantine Empire. Early on there are different forms of the liturgy, all with certain common traits, but by the seventh century the form practiced in Byzantium comes to dominate and become the standard throughout the Eastern Empire. Here the book’s focus is delineated: Wybrew isn’t looking at the rites of other non-Chalcedonian Christianities, nor is he doing a detailed comparison between the liturgy of the Greek East and the Latin West. It’s the evolution of a single species, albeit one that for various reasons became the dominant form of worship still practiced in almost all Orthodox churches around the world.

Wybrew— himself not an Orthodox— does not idealize this process, though he clearly sees the liturgy itself as a meaningful, historically rich, and important aspect of Christian worship. He points out places, for example, where changes over time have obscured the ritual’s original form, where certain important practices (such as Old Testament readings) have been dropped, or where vestigial practices (for instance the intonation of “the doors” before the reading of the Creed) have lost their original meanings. The most problematic trend that Wybrew sees though is the move throughout the centuries to separate the clergy from the laity, making the liturgy clergy-centric to the exclusion of the common people. Aspects of this include the practice of saying certain prayers inaudibly, closing off of the alter from the rest of the church, and infrequent communion by the people. All of these things served to separate the laity from the liturgy itself and make them more and more simply spectators of things they couldn’t fully hear or see or understand. (This perspective though also helps one appreciate how important are recent trends to correct this.)

Another helpful part of this work is that Wybrew doesn’t only provide a historical narrative of how the liturgy developed; he also outlines a history of its interpretation. That is, as the liturgy developed, it became something itself interpreted by theologians, linking the different aspects of the liturgy with scenes from the life of Christ, for instance, or with various representations. Like Scripture itself, the liturgy has an superabundance of meaning. The Great Entrance, for example, may historically be a vestigial practice that grew out of bringing the bread and wine from a separate building where they had been deposited by members of the congregation to the church itself, but today it is seen as also symbolizing the entrance of Christ into the temple, for example, or the beginning of His earthly ministry, or more generally simply the coming of the Word of God into the World.

Which illustrates something important about the Orthodox Liturgy, and something that brings us back to the idea of barnacles and boats. Is something like the Entrance a piece of encrustation that obscures the original practices and life of the Church? If by this question one is asking whether it’s something that was practiced from the very beginning or something vital to an understanding of Christianity, then the answer is probably no. So should it then be abolished? An Orthodox Christian would say no, because it’s a part of the organic growth of the practice of the Church. It has a place and a significance and a meaning. The Holy Spirit was the gift of God to the Church at Pentecost, and that Holy Spirit has been continually creating the Church and its realities in our world since. Things like the Entrance are part of a living heritage of faith.

The liturgy, as Wybrew shows so well in this text, has been a process of growth and development. It has been an evolution. It continues to evolve. It’s alive.

A random and perhaps theologically-flawed analogy: in some ways my view of the Church is like my view of marriage. Sure, I want to remain focused on the faith and the promise of my marriage and at times work to get back the simplicity of love that drew my wife and me together. But marriage isn’t something static; it’s the beginning of a unified life. I don’t look on everything that’s developed over our years together, all the practices and realities of a relationship and family and the traditions that have grown up in our home, as barnacles I need to scrape away to get back to the true purity of our original wedding day. I wouldn’t even know what that means.

A theologian could probably point to flaws in my analogy, and Wybrew’s work is certainly not an argument toward this understanding of the liturgy or the faith itself. Wybrew’s work is simply information: a comprehensive and well-researched outline of how the liturgy has developed and been interpreted over the centuries. How you view that information— as illustrating pointless accumulation of dead ritual or organic growth of living worship— is up to you.

Christ, Our Way and Our Life

Christ, Our Way and Our Life: A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite SophronyChrist, Our Way and Our Life: A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite Sophrony by Archimandrite Zacharias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We are persuaded that man’s vocation is incomprehensibly wonderful and great. (99)

What do we do with this idea of holiness, the ideal of saintliness? The belief that in this life one can become like God in humility and love and empathy and prayer is one of the things that holds me in hope to Christianity.

Yet different traditions understand the concept of holiness in different ways. In many traditions, holiness and salvation are an either/or, on/off, you have it or you don’t, sort of thing: you’ve either been granted salvation and subsequent holiness by the grace of God and your faith therein, or not. In Orthodoxy, however, the process of theosis– of becoming like God– is not a thrown switch. It is certainly possible, by the grace of God, but it is claimed by few (likely no one, least of all those who approach it) and seen only as the fruit of a long process of ascetic practice and discipline.

That’s not to say holiness is only for monks. But it is to say that Orthodoxy recognizes holiness as a gradual process, an organic and often painful growth, a “ladder of divine ascent.” It doesn’t mean the only people going to heaven are the Mother Teresas of the world, but it does mean there are degrees of holiness and there are those who have advanced much farther along that road than others. And sometimes it’s good to take a long look at the abyss that separates someone like us (me) from someone like that.

For a time I used to regularly read the blog of Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest living and working in Tennessee. In his excellent posts he would consistently make reference to the works of Archimandrite Sophrony, an Orthodox monk whose life spanned much of the twentieth century. In particular, Father Stephen would quote from a study of Sophrony’s life entitled Christ, Our Way and Our Life, written by another monk, Archimandrite Zacharias, originally as a PhD dissertation and translated into English in 2003.

Sophrony and his mentor, St. Silouan, spent their lives in the pursuit of holiness. They devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation, and they said things like, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not” and “Stay on the verge of despair, but when you see that you are going to fall over, draw back and have a cup of tea.” They lived in chastity and obedience, poverty and humility, and they attempt to forsake the priorities of this world completely. What’s the point of such endeavors? If salvation is by faith alone, are they missing the point of Christianity? Or are they of the handful of faithful few on whom the salvation of the world rests?

These are deep waters, and I waded out onto them with some trepidation. I’m no mystic, but I tried to wrap my mind around the themes of their theology. Those themes included utter humility and self-loathing to the point of despair to reach the point at which one can truly pray for the entire world. Sophrony believes this is what Christ did and that the ultimate goal of a Christian is to be able to truly pray on behalf of all (something embodied in the liturgy we celebrate each week).

No one besides monks are much into self-loathing or humility today. Yet Sophrony and Silouan maintain that a form of self-loathing is necessary to gain true repentance, that we need to see ourselves as we actually are in comparison to the love and purity of God, and that only by living through the pain of this self-knowledge (which led the publican to beat his chest and cry, “Lord, have mercy”) can we know the extent of redemption and love of God.

Most of us, I think, would prefer repentance and salvation be quick and painless. But for the Orthodox ascetics, it’s painful. It’s a burning. It’s something that’s achieved with rivers of tears. The more we know who we truly are, the more we know the extent of our own sin, the more we understand the love of God.

If they left it there though, it wouldn’t be much in the way of good news. For Sophrony and Silouan, despair over our own condition– and then beyond that, despair over the condition of the human race itself– is necessary to be like Christ. They understand the entire life of Christ as a descent– from the right hand of God to a lowly place on Earth, and then from Earth to Hell itself. Christ sits at the bottom of an inverted pyramid of creation, occupying the most lowly, painful, humble position, and from that position bearing the sins and weight of the world. When we embrace the painful humility of our own brokenness and start to feel the weight and pain of the world itself in our prayers, we are following the path of Christ. Salvation is not upward toward heaven and redemption– or at least not initially; it is downward toward the pain and humiliation of Christ.

“Keep your mind in hell,” are the words reported to have come to St. Siluoan from Christ Himself, meaning we must live in that struggle and that pain, that in taking up the suffering of our own sins and the sins of humanity, we are with Christ. “Keep your mind in hell,” he was told, “and despair not.” Despair not, because Christ did not remain in Hell, and by taking on the sins of the world He was able to redeem the world and conquer death. But, Siluoan and Sophrony would say, we focus too much on this second part alone, but we neglect that Christ only ascended by first descending and that we must follow the same path.

Christ did not descend so that a switch could be flipped and we could live the rest of our lives in redeemed comfort. He came so that we could emulate Him in taking on the burdens of the world and offering them up to God. Generally speaking, man bears witness to his kinship with God when, in every aspect of his life, he thinks, feels, and acts with the consciousness that God has placed all of creation into his care. (63) For them, this is a very real, ontological act centered in prayer, not simply in a role of stewardship of nature or talents (though that’s certainly a part of it).

If this repels, reflect on the saints. Who are the saints, in whatever tradition you find yourself? What makes them saintly? Is it simply that they’ve been saved and sanctified, or is it that they recognize this salvation as a means of taking up the pain and the burdens of others and by doing so sanctifying them to God? And how are they able to do this? By recognizing their own brokenness, by living at the edge of despair and not yielding to it, and by constantly orienting themselves toward humility, patience, and descent.

That seems pretty difficult. And right.

For those who have not been given such a state, copying his way of fulfilling St. Silouan’s word may prove unbearable. A lighter form of this teaching may, however, be realized by anyone, if he gives thanks to God at all times for all He bestows upon him, acknowledging always his own unworthiness. Continual thanksgiving makes up for what is lacking in us. (273)