I’m afraid that this blog has been very neglected of late (I do intend continuing the series I launched in the last post and then promptly abandoned, but…) and I had meant to do this book review much earlier. But let me at least get it up before Lent actually starts!

Vassilios Papavassiliou. Meditations for Great Lent: Reflections on the Triodion, published by Ancient Faith Publishing. Amazon Paperback & Kindle.

In November, I reviewed Father Vassilios Papavassiliou’s Meditations for Advent; Preparing for Christ’s Birth, which had just been published and I wrote about his very welcome entrance into the world of contemporary Orthodox literature. Apart from Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which came out in 2012, he has just published Thirty Steps to Heaven on the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and another book on Holy Week is due out soon. While some of us struggle to write single blog posts, he has been churning out books at an incredible rate. And they are, moreover, very good. As I said previously, they are accessible to a wide readership and yet they also contain a theological depth that really gets to the heart of the matter.

Meditations for Great Lent was published in 2012 and is somewhat shorter than Meditations for Advent. In fact, it is very much a “to the point” book. By this I mean that there is a fair bit that it doesn’t include, such as a discussion of most of the Sundays of Great Lent. But I suspect that that was a conscious decision so as not to distract us from the central thrust of the book, which is to open up for us the true meaning of our Lenten repentance as we journey towards Pascha.

As the subtitle indicates, Father Vassilios draws heavily on the liturgical texts of the Church and this is one of the great strengths of these books. I seem to never tire of quoting Father Cyprian Kern’s statement that “The Church choir is the school of theology,” yet the reality is that for many people these great riches are virtually unknown. And, to be honest, they are probably also not that accessible to many people. But these books provide an entrance point, providing the great riches of the Church in a truly accessible way.

Interestingly, about half of the book deals with the period before Great Lent actually starts. Most of The Sundays that Father Vassilios focuses on are actually the first four Sundays of the Triodion and I suspect that the reason for this is that it is these Sundays that really teach us what the Fast is about and how we are to approach it. Here we find reflections on humility, repentance, ascetic love, fasting, not judging and forgiveness. There are stern warning against self-righteousness, the dangers of piety and an with obsession outward rules. We are reminded that “pride renders fasting useless” and are told in no uncertain terms that:

If the fast is not a means to improving our spiritual lives, if we fast from food but not from sin, then we are no better than devils! The demons do not eat, but they are no closer to God for it. (Kindle location 196)

Central to the purpose of the Fast is that it is there to teach us the true meaning of repentance. Such repentance

… looks forward and not back; it looks upward and not down. It is, ultimately, something that leads us to joy and liberation. God calls us to true joy and true freedom, and we cannot attain that until we have rejected the false joy and freedom of sin. (Kindle location 271)

This positive destination is seen in the chapter on the Return to Paradise in which we see the role of food both in the loss of Paradise by Adam and Eve, and also in our journey back to God.

The purpose of our fasting is spiritual. Spirituality must not be viewed as something that does not concern the body, but as something that is made possible through and within the body. We all too often find within ourselves a conflict between body and soul. The desires and needs of the flesh can all too often overpower the spirit. Fasting is a means of restoring the balance between soul and body, a means of bringing the flesh under the control and will of the mind and spirit. In restoring this balance, we turn back to Paradise, to the life of Eden. Then we can have hope that, like Moses, we too may see God. (Kindle location 329)

Of crucial importance on this journey is the struggle against the passions and the cultivating of the virtues, and there is an exceptionally good chapter on this which is based on the prayer of Saint Ephrem, and which really deserves a separate discussion. There is also an important chapter on the joy of Lent. Consider this:

Those who think of Lent purely in terms of fasting and obligations can never fully experience the joy of Lent. The joy of Lent is offered to us in the Lenten worship, through the services of Great Compline and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. These solemn services help us gradually to change our hearts and lives by entering into the bright sadness of Lent, through which we are able to make our own the joy of repentance, the joy of returning to God. (Kindle Location 476)

This positive orientation is continued in the chapters on the Sunday of the Cross and the Canon of Saint Andrew, and it ends by reminding us of our true destination.

Lent is a journey to Pascha. It is thus a season of joyful expectation. If we take Lent seriously, the journey is arduous, but this only makes Pascha all the more radiant and joyful. But throughout Lent, we are never allowed to forget the Resurrection, which fills all things, all ascetic labors, all solemnity, sorrow, and contrition, with gladness and brightness. (Kindle location 552)

And,

Lent is the rediscovery of that which is most essential in our lives. In this rediscovery, we return to God and to the very meaning of life. (Kindle location 557)

As I said of Meditations for Advent, this is a book to be read and then re-read slowly a prayerfully as we enter this holy season.

This is another one of those thinking aloud posts and one which I have put off writing because it feels like such a complex subject that could go in all sorts of directions. I have mentioned my frustrations with the language of “mysticism” before and have been wanting to probe, unpack and explain my discomfort with that discourse for some time. I did actually write something a couple of months ago, but then decided that it was too much of a rant and didn’t sufficiently explain the background against which I was reacting – and I have since lost what I wrote when my computer died last week. (Yes, I know about backups in theory, but…)

Those concerns were primarily with a general contemporary Christian discovery of or emphasis on “mysticism” or “mystical experience.” My reactions tended to be sparked by things like the much-quoted statement by Karl Rahner that the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or will not exist, or, in the case of my last rant, someone tweeting a quote from Pope Francis that “a religion without mystics is a philosophy.” While such interest is understandable for people coming out of heavily cerebral religious traditions and seeking a healthier integration of faith and experience, and a theology rooted in a life of prayer, and while I should, I suppose, have a certain sympathy with them, having been there myself, I have found myself getting more and more concerned with the uncritical glibness of such assertions. Much of this relates to the way in which mysticism and experience are contrasted to dogma, which is invariably viewed in negative terms. This erosion of dogma – which is a consequence of the failure to understand the true nature of dogma – undermines the richness of the Christian revelation and becomes something fundamentally anti-ecclesial. It also opens the door to monism, which is another topic that I have been intending to address for ages.

However, in addition to these general concerns about “mysticism” there is also a related assertion that one sometimes hears, namely, that it is Orthodoxy – or “the East” – that is mystical. I have had people expressing interest in Orthodoxy because they believed it to be mystical and yet at the same time insisting that they were not interested in “ritual and dogma.” And I have also come across Orthodox Christians contrasting East and West and claiming that the East is mystical, experiential and apophatic, while the West is philosophical and rational. When I came across such assertions twice in one week recently, I decided that the time probably had come to probe this further.

The reality is that such assertions do contain a grain of truth, but it is often a rather messy truth in which blanket statements are made about two traditions that – at least in their earlier years – were by no means unrelated. While the West did develop in ways that, from an Orthodox perspective, are indeed problematic – and the rise of scholasticism is a fundamental part of this – pushing this back to the fourth century and laying the blame at the feet of Saint Augustine as is often done, strikes me as simplistic and problematic.

I have hesitated to write on this as I’m aware that I’m not nearly as thoroughly immersed in the early Fathers as I would like to be. But as I have reflected on such arguments, it has struck me that there is considerable confusion about the terms that are used in making such claims about East and West. More specifically, what exactly do we mean by the words mystical, experiential, apophatic, philosophical and rational. Unpacking these could, I suspect, help to provide a much more nuanced understanding both of the differences between East and West, and of the differences between how the early Fathers viewed the life of faith and how it is viewed in some contexts today. And it is this later divide that I would argue is far more fundamental – and which the current enthusiasm for “mysticism” only serves to entrench.

I had originally intended to explore this in one blog post, but it has become clear that that is unrealistic. So instead, I am going to devote a post to each of these terms, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. If it achieves nothing else, it may at least get me writing…

 I’m sort of thinking aloud here and may not be expressing myself well.

This is more than a day late for the feast of Saint Nicholas, and the things I had been considering saying on the punching of heretics will have to wait. But as I drove around Cape Town yesterday, seeing flags flying at half mast and feeling shaken by the news of Nelson Mandela’s death, I couldn’t help being moved by the appropriateness of him dying on the eve of the feast of the great saint of Myra. (Sister Catherine Wybourne has some thoughts on this connection here and Deacon Stephen Hayes has written on what it means to speak of Madiba as an icon here).

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this seems appropriate – they were, after all, two very different figures and comparisons are probably dangerous. There is also a danger in viewing Madiba in ecclesial terms which are inappropriate for him – to speak of a secular saint is a contradiction in terms.  Plus there is the real danger of trivializing his legacy as those who once did everything in their power to work against him now seek to co-opt the once-banned image.

But as I drove around thinking about this, I kept being reminded of Father Thomas Hopko’s words about Saint Nicholas. In The Winter Pascha, he writes that Saint Nicholas is not known for anything extraordinary, but that what stands out about him was that he was a genuinely good man. Father Hopko continues: (more…)

On my Life-Giving Spring site I have written about a project that we have begun with a group of children who have been coming to Church in Robertson for some time. Like many South African children who are victims of social poverty and an often dysfunctional education system, they have serious learning challenges, but one of the things that we have identified as a viable project is to try and get them reading and to encourage a culture of literacy. You can find more information  about this via the link below, but we really need books and especially Afrikaans children’s books – although other books are also accepted as are financial contributions. If you are able to help us, please do so! And, please also remember this project in your prayers – the need is huge and it could develop into something bigger, but we need to take one step at a time.

An appeal for children’s books.

I have sometimes thought of writing on the topic of the Church, for I suspect that it is issues around ecclesiology that often form a stumbling block for many people. I have often encountered other Christians who are fascinated by Orthodoxy, want to learn from us and “use” our tradition, but who balk at the full implications of what Orthodox tradition really means. You cannot, to be quite frank about it, have Orthodoxy without the Church – and by this we mean the visible, historically mediated Church which is the Eucharistic community gathered around the bishop. Yet it is this Church that is often the stumbling block.

The Orthodox understanding of the Church is often either completely unknown to other Christians, or else it is seen as scandalously arrogant. There is a common – basically Protestant – assumption that “the Church” is an invisible entity made up of various “denominations” that makes it very difficult for Orthodox (or Roman Catholic) Christians to engage in discussions without appearing arrogant or exclusivist.

Linked to this is a widespread horror at our insistence that the reception of Holy Communion is limited to Orthodox Christians – and those who are suitably prepared for it, at that. Such practices fly in the face of contemporary demands for “inclusivity,” which has come to be seen as far more important than the theological integrity of the Church and its Liturgy.

There are issues around this that I keep wanting to explore more, but Father Stephen Freeman has expressed some of them far better than I could in his recent post The Politics of the Cup. Drawing on Hauerwas, he writes:

Many Christians fail to see the “politics” of their faith. They think one thing and do another (it is another aspect of the “two-storey universe”). Almost nothing is as eloquent an expression of the Church’s life than the “politics of the Cup.” What we do with the Eucharist and how that action displays the inner reality of our life is a deeply “political” expression (in the sense that Hauerwas uses the word).

The one common thread throughout the Protestant Reformation was its opposition to the Church of Rome. Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican Reforms were all embraced by various rising nation states, not so much for the appeal of the particularities of their teaching, but for their willingness to provide cover for the subjugation of the Church to the political demands of secular rulers.

Those demands are far less transparent in the modern period. The legitimacy of the state is today rooted in democratic theories. Those same theories are legitimized by the individualism of popular theology. Eucharistic hospitality is the sacramental expression of individualism. The Open Cup represents the individual’s relationship with Christ without regard for the Church. It is the unwitting sacrament of the anti-Church.

In the last few decades, the same individualism has taken on great immediacy within a consumerist economy. At the same time, we have seen the rise of arguments for a radically individualized reception of communion, one that no longer insists on Baptism. Only the secret intention of the recipient is required. The Eucharist becomes inert – reduced to the status of an object to be chosen or rejected according to the desire of the individual. It is a consumer’s communion with himself.

I have more thoughts on this, including on the violence implicit in inclusivist agendas – if everyone can receive communion, then it will not be long before everyone must do so – and on the underlying monism that influences such thinking, but I don’t know when I’ll get them together. But Father Stephen’s post helps to unmask what many people take for granted, and articulates the true vision of a genuine hospitality that is offered to all. Do go and read the whole post.

Vassilios Papavassiliou. Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, published by Ancient Faith Publishing. Amazon Paperback & Kindle.

I had meant to do a review of this recently published book before the Nativity Fast started, but didn’t get to it. But I have just finished reading it – although it is certainly worth another reading and a slow, prayerful pondering – and want to say something about it, for it is a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.

For those who haven’t heard of him, Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain and has recently emerged as a popular but very worthwhile Orthodox author. I have been wanting to do a review of his Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and will try and do that before long although Father Deacon Aaron also has a short reference to it here. There is also Meditations For Great Lent. Reflections on the Triodion which I’ll come back to again.* I’m not sure if it’s because he’s British rather than American, or because he’s Greek but living in Britain, or because he’s a “cradle” Orthodox who is obviously used to interacting with the non-Orthodox world, but his books strike me as refreshingly free from the sort of triumphalistic self-absorption that sometimes characterizes some contemporary popular Orthodox writing. They are accessible to a wide readership, but they contain a theological depth that really gets to the heart of the matter.

Advent, as Father Vassilios points out in the introduction, is not a word that is often used in historically Orthodox countries and the Orthodox Nativity Fast differs from the western Advent not only in the details of its celebration, but also in its dominant symbolism. Instead of being focused on the First and Second comings of the Lord, the Orthodox Advent focuses primarily on the Mystery of His Incarnation. It is a forty day fast that precedes the celebration of the Nativity, just as Great Lent is a fast that precedes Pascha – indeed it is sometimes referred to as a “Lent,” just as the Nativity has been referred to as a “Winter Pascha,” – for the meaning of the Incarnation is inseparable from that of the Crucifixion and Resurrection as we see in many of the liturgical texts.

Father Vassilios explores the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ in the four major sections of this book, which help to elucidate the depth of the Church’s faith in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The first section is entitled “Prepare, O Bethlehem” and focuses on the underlying themes of the feasts in this period, as well as in the two Sundays before the Nativity. By looking at the feasts of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, Saint Andrew and the Conception of the Mother of God by the barren Anna, and the imagery associated with the Ancestors of Christ and the Saints of the Old Testament, the book shows how the longing for the Saviour that is found in the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New. It helps us to identify ourselves with this longing as the Church’s hymnography helps us to encounter something of the depths of its meaning as we too are brought to the Forefeast of Christmas and are confronted with the astounding truth that the God of all has come to us as a child and can only be encountered with the childlike qualities of wonder, joy, faith and humility. And it is the learning of such attitudes that is surely the point of the repentance that is at the heart of our fasting.

The second section is entitled “Search the Scriptures” and is a reflection on the Scriptural imagery found in the hymnography for Advent, and especially in the Katavasias. This section could do with an extended discussion on its own, and I may come back to it again, but it helps to illuminate the author’s statement in the introduction that “Advent is one great Bible study that sheds light on the meaning of the Old Testament as a preparation for the New.” The hymns for this season are full of references and allusions to Old Testament theophanies, prophecies and types of the birth of Christ. This section provides enough background information for us to understand these references and provides an entry into the Orthodox approach to understanding Scripture.

The third section is entitled “The Icon of the Nativity” and illustrates how the Church’s theology is passed on not only through her hymnography, but also through her iconography. As in the hymnography, the icon of the Nativity makes a clear link between Christ’s birth and His burial. It also illuminates the Scriptural basis for the oxen and donkeys found in Nativity plays – far from being about sentimentality, the presence of the animals in the icon (which was taken up by later western imagery) comes from the prophet Isaiah (1:3) and challenge us as to whether we truly recognize Christ’s presence. “Heathens [the Magi] and animals are seen worshiping the one true God. It is a humbling image. Are we Christians worse than heathens and animals? Will we deny God while they accept Him?” Finally, the discussion of the star in the icon provides a link to the icon of the Transfiguration, showing that this was no ordinary star, but a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

The fourth and final section is entitled “The Incarnation” and – using again the liturgical texts and their understanding of Scripture – it opens up some of the depths of the Church’s faith and what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human. At the heart of the Nativity is the understanding of Jesus Christ as the New Adam who has come to restore Adam to paradise, restoring the Image of God in us that had become tarnished by sin. This reminds us of the purpose of the fast: “A simple choice has been laid before us: to die to Adam— that is to sin, passion, and self— and live to Christ; or to go on living as though the Incarnation never happened.” The Incarnation does not remove us from the reality of the world. Christ is the true Light who has come into the world, but no sooner have we celebrated the coming of this Light, than we are plunged into darkness with King Herod’s killing of the children.

Many think of Christmas as something sweet and sentimental. But this grim event in the midst of the Nativity narrative reminds us that there is nothing sentimental about it. Instead we are shown the harsh reality of evil, of the kind of violent world that Christ enters as a newborn baby. In becoming one of us, in taking on human existence in everything but sin, He subjects Himself to human tragedy, to suffering and death. Already, from the moment of His birth, we see Christ offering Himself to the reality of our own pain and mortality, with no power, no authority, no means of defense. Yet in spite of this, the Light of the world was not extinguished by the darkness.

As I said before, this is a book that needs to be read slowly and prayerfully. I would see its strength as threefold. Firstly, it provides an entry into the way the Church reads Scripture. Secondly, and through this, it leads us ever-deeper into the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ which we can only really grasp in a liturgical context (once again, I am reminded of Father Cyprian Kern’s statement that “the Church choir is the school of theology”). And thirdly, and related to these, it focuses us on what really matters. As he did in his book on the Liturgy, Father Vassilios has produced a book that, by focusing on Advent, introduces people to the fundamental faith of the Church.

* Father Vassilios Papavassiliou also has a blog entitled orthodoxymoron here and is on Twitter here.

One of the things that I have been aware of for some time is the concern that one sometimes hears that people will become involved in the Church for the wrong motives. Particularly in a society like ours with its rampant poverty, there is a fear that people will come to Church for what they can get out of it. And this can be more subtle than simply a desire for material gain – as Thomas Scarborough expressed it in a recent post:

if all is working as it should, people may find many privileges they do not find elsewhere: status where they have had none, forgiveness where they have been stained by sin, a voice where they have been ignored — and so on. This applies to people high and low.

Now I do think that there is a point to these concerns. I have heard horror stories of missionary activities that effectively sought to buy people’s conversion. And I agree with Thomas that there needs to be a true discernment of motivations.

However, sometimes when I hear such concerns raised, or when I raise them myself, I become uncomfortable at what seems to be a clear-cut distinction between right and wrong motivation, and, indeed, between “us” and “them” – as if the motivation of those of us expressing these concerns is necessarily one hundred percent pure. The more we grow in self-knowledge, the more we discover that our motivation is all too often mixed. It is relatively easy to spot the tainted motivation of those seeking material gain, or even some forms of affirmation. It is considerably more difficult to discern the many more subtle ways that our egos are built up and our passions are fed by things that can appear most “holy.”

With this in mind, I was pleased to come across this response of Abba Poemen recently which also reminds me of the parable of the wheat and the tares. Instead of worrying too much about how mixed all of our motivations are, we should perhaps rather accept them for what they are and pray and work for their purification.

A brother said to Abba Poemen, ‘If I give my brother a little bread or something else, the demons tarnish these gifts saying it was only done to please men.’ The old man said to him, ‘Even if it is to please men, we must give the brother what he needs.’ He told him the following parable, ‘Two farmers lived in the same town; one of them sowed and reaped a small and poor crop, while the other, who did not even trouble to sow reaped absolutely nothing. If a famine comes upon them, which of the two will find something to live on?’ The brother replied, ‘The one who reaped the small poor crop.’ The old man said to him, ‘So it is for us; we sow a little poor grain, so that we will not die of hunger.’

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984])  173.

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