September 2013


This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

Central to the biblical understanding of the human being is the affirmation that we are created in the Image and Likeness of God (Gen 1:26) and this affirmation became fundamental to the Christian understanding of what it means to be a human being. Creation establishes a relationship between God and humankind. Moreover, Jesus Christ, the true Image of God was the model according to which we were created, even before His Incarnation. We are images of Christ and therefore images of the Father, although not in the absolute way that He is. This is what gives human beings their true worth.

Central to our being created in the Image of God is the freedom and royal dignity that we have as human beings, and this freedom is a reflection of God’s own freedom. However, instead of using this freedom to stay close to God and to continue to grow in relationship with Him, human beings used their freedom to drift away from God. The early Fathers developed this understanding in various ways, but they were aware that the Image of God in us has been affected by the entry of sin into the world. This Image is not destroyed, but has become tarnished and corrupted. Some of them spoke about having kept the Image and lost the Likeness, but, whatever the vocabulary, there was a recognition that we are no longer able to reflect the divine likeness as we were created to do.

The Christian answer to this state of alienation from God came in the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the Image according to which we were created, and by assuming our human nature, He restored what had become corrupted, and by His death and Resurrection destroyed the power of death. Through this He opened up the way for us to recover the Image and Likeness of God according to which we have been created. It is, fundamentally, about the restoration of our original beauty, a beauty that resides deep within us but which has been covered up and distorted by sin. Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes:

Evil, however, overlaying the Godlike pattern, has made the good useless to you, hidden under a curtain of shame. If, by conscientious living, you wash away once more the filth that has accumulated on your heart, the Godlike beauty will again shine forth for you.

The reference that Saint Gregory makes here to the heart is central to the understanding of the Fathers of the Church. What is called for is not simply a moral response, nor is the heart about something emotional. Rather, in the biblical and patristic tradition, the heart is the centre of the human person and the seat of all consciousness and desires. What is required is the transformation of “the inner person of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4) or, as Saint Paul puts it, “the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2) – and we should note that the word “nous” that is translated mind is far closer to the biblical “heart” than it is to the modern idea of the cerebral mind. Saint Gregory of Nyssa describes this transformation as follows:

When iron is stripped of rust by a whetstone, what once was dull itself shines as it faces the sun and gives forth beams and shafts of light. So also, when the inner human being, which is what the Lord calls “the heart,” has wiped off the rusty filth that has spread by evil decay over its form, it will again recover its likeness to its model and be good. What is like the good is surely good.

This salvation is a life-long task. It can be said to be both Christological and Pneumatological in that it relies on the work of both Christ and the Holy Spirit, whom St Irenaeus describes as the two hands of God, and who work together in a reciprocal relationship. We are fashioned and refashioned after the Image of Christ who shares and renews our human nature. But it is also accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit in us, for the whole purpose of our life is to become a Spirit-bearer, to live and breathe in the Spirit of God whose task it is to refashion us into the Image of the Son, enabling us to return to the Father and to become partakers of the Divine Nature. (2 Pet 1:4)

This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some.

The title of this series is an allusion to two statements of Saint Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” And “the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” Saint Seraphim, an early nineteenth century Russian hermit has come to be seen as a true spirit-bearer whose life and teaching are reminiscent of the early desert Fathers and sum up much of the Orthodox understanding of Christian life. (This teaching can be found in his On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit).

To begin, it may help to clarify two things about what I mean by an Orthodox understanding of the Christian life.

Firstly, the Orthodox Church, for those who are unfamiliar with her, understands herself as being the one Church of Christ which has continued the faith of the Apostles and of the early Fathers. Battered somewhat by the vicissitudes of history, she has sought to preserve the truth of the faith and has resisted attempts to change this. In one sense, for us, to speak of Orthodox Christianity is simply to speak of Christianity, and hopefully other Christians will recognize something of our common origins in what I present.

Secondly, I am deliberately using the words “Christian life” in an attempt to avoid speaking about “spirituality” or the “spiritual life” – something that I’m not always successful at doing. This is partly because I have a life rather than a spiritual life, and it is the whole of that life that needs to be transformed by the Gospel. And it is partly because the vocabulary of spirituality is part of a later western development – a consequence of the divorce between theology and spirituality in the later Middle Ages – that is foreign to the ethos of the Orthodox Church. We cannot separate life from dogma, or prayer from theology. In the oft-quoted words of Evagrius of Pontus: “The one who prays is a theologian and the theologian is the one who prays.”

Prayer is fundamental to this life. Vasilii Rozanov writes: “There is no life without prayer. Without prayer there is only madness and horror. The soul of Orthodoxy consists in the gift of prayer.” Prayer is not an add-on extra, but is rather a gift that we are called to integrate with all of life’s struggles. Yet there are many misconceptions about prayer in our world and while we may agree that it is important, we have often been wounded by modernity’s emphasis on the cerebral, which makes it difficult for us to really appreciate the importance of prayer.

Moreover, for Orthodox Christians, prayer is part of an all-embracing vision of reality. Taking bits and pieces from different religious traditions that appeal to us has become common in our society, but it is also dangerous and can distort them, as well as leading to more dislocation and uprootedness. This is something that Orthodox Christians are often confronted with today. People often want to use things from our tradition – icons, the Jesus prayer, bits of the Liturgy and music – in a way that distorts them, emptying them of their integrity and making them into something that they are not.

Therefore, in introducing an Orthodox understanding of Christian life, I begin with the “big picture” or the backdrop against which all of our practices occur and in which they are integrated. This is the big picture of Christian revelation, of our understanding of salvation which is coming to share in the Divine Life. (2 Pet 1:4) It is ultimately the Mystery of the relationship between God and human beings.

To be continued…

I have recently been exploring the world of social media a bit (with some mixed feelings, but that’s another matter) and have had some interactions on Twitter that were both interesting and frustrating, the latter mainly because of the very limited character of Twitter. I’ve sometimes wanted to follow up on those discussions by blogging, but usually my intentions, as with many other blogging intentions, have come to nothing.

But this week I had another one. This one was actually sparked by a blog post by Mark Penrith and I should probably have responded on his blog. But the topic that he was addressing just struck me, from an Orthodox perspective, as really, really weird. While he seems a nice enough person, and while I agreed with him in this instance, Mark is a Calvinist and our theological world views are, well, galaxies apart. But in this instance I agreed with him, for he was reacting to people who argue that one shouldn’t pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Now, given the quote from Saint Seraphim of Sarov which is the title of this post, and given that this pretty much sums up an Orthodox understanding of the whole point of Christian life, this struck me as rather difficult to relate to, although I suspect that that is because of the rather different theological galaxies we inhabit. For at the beginning of virtually all the services we pray:

O Heavenly King,
Comforter, the Spirit of Truth,
You are everywhere present
and fill all things.
Treasury of blessings and Giver of life:
Come and abide in us,
Cleanse us from every impurity,
and save our souls, O Good One!

Anyway, our brief conversation on Twitter did remind me of a talk I’d given earlier this year which took Saint Seraphim’s words as it’s departure point in outlining how we Orthodox understand Christian life. It is fairly basic and could possibly do with reworking but seeks to set our beliefs and practices in a broader context which is nothing other than a lifetime’s work of transformation by the Holy Spirit in order to regain the Image of Christ according to which we were created. And so I thought that I’d post it here as a six-part series in the hope that it may be helpful to some.

bks all
In addition to the Bibles that I mentioned previously, I have just added a page to my bookbinding site where I am selling a variety of hand-bound notebooks and journals, most of them with quite creative covers. I’m presently exploring various options as earning a living from bookbinding is not proving that simple. There is work, but the situation is quite complex, and I either need to get it more streamlined or explore something else. In any case, I am exploring various options at present, including selling these sorts of books. I will probably move them all to another online shop before long, and the prices may also go up, but I am selling them on my own site for the time being. So, if you are interested, please have a look…

It is possible to sing praises to the Lord without ceasing. ‘The soul is a consummate musician, an instrumentalist. The instrument is the body, which serves as lute, harp and lyre… Desiring to teach you that you should sing praise to Him and glorify Him always. God joined together instrument and player [that is, the body and the soul] in a permanent union.’ (1)

In the Orthodox Church, we do not use musical instruments in worship. Every believer is a musical instrument made by God, and at the same time a musician. If the musician (the soul) keeps the instrument (the body) pure and uses it properly, the two together raise to the Creator a hymn of praise that is pleasing to God. For the hymn that is sacred ‘is born of the soul’s piety, nourished by a good conscience, and accepted in heaven by God.’ (2)

(1) St John Chrysostom, Homily on Holy Week and on Psalm 145, 3, PG 55.522.
(2) St John Chrysostom, Homily on being ordained Priest, 1, PG 48.694.

Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, (Cell of St John the Theologian, Koutloumousiou Monastery), 139-140.

I was given this book when I became Orthodox, but have only recently got to reading through it seriously, as part of my preparation for a (very basic) series that I am doing on the Liturgy in Evangelion. But I was struck by these words, which are largely quotations from Saint John Chrysostom. In recent months, I have come across some discussions on Christian worship which have left me wondering about the criteria that people use for determining what is and is not appropriate in worship, or even whether there can be any criteria for what constitutes Christian worship. For many Christians worship seems to have simply become about entertainment or about “what works for me.”

I am raising this not to criticise others or to condemn all use of musical instruments – although I am very pleased that the tradition of the Church is as it is! – but rather to point out that, in the tradition of the Church, worship is not something subjective but is, among other things, a pedagogical activity that leads us to God and therefore has a real and objective content. Moreover, while this content has a clear textual and intellectual content – “The Church choir is the school of theology” in the words of Archimandrite Cyprian Kern – it also has a less immediately identifiable but no less real spiritual content which does its work on us through the bodily acts of singing and hearing, together with a host of other physical and sensory “texts”.

Being more or less musically illiterate, I dare not say anything much about music! But it has become increasingly apparent to me that, in large part, the point of Christian worship is to lead us into silence. Prayer consists of quietening the mind and the heart so that they can be purified in order to see, encounter and receive God. And the sacred music of the Church (and possibly also of other traditions) has been developed over centuries and in an era when people had a far better understanding of the relationship between the body and soul that we would appear to have today.

 

nat Theotokos 2
Today the barren gates are opened and the virgin Door of God comes forth. Today grace begins to bear its first fruits, making manifest to the world the Mother of God, through whom things on earth are joined with heaven, for the salvation of our souls.

from Vespers of the Nativity of the Mother of God

In recent months I have sometimes thought of writing on the differences between a Roman Catholic approach to the Mother of God and an Orthodox one. This is not that post, which may or may not get written, and I am a little hesitant about writing it, both because it is not a clear cut topic and would need to be written with a fair bit of nuance, and because I am unsure to what extent I am simply reflecting my own experience, and my own earlier blindness. While that certainly does play a role, I’m pretty sure that there is more to it than that, but that is another topic for another day.

But what I have been struck by in recent years – and certainly becoming Orthodox has played a large role in this – is how deeply biblical our understanding of the Mother of God is. I remember years ago having discussions with Protestants on the supposed paucity of biblical references to Mary, and the discussion then focused on the historical references in the Gospels and (fleetingly) in the Apostle Paul. But what I have realised more recently is that Scripture, rightly understood, is full of references to her, precisely because it is – again, rightly understood – entirely focused on the bringing forth of Christ to the world so that He may conquer death by death.

And today’s feast is a striking example of this. From one perspective, we do not have scriptural evidence for it – i.e. the biblical writers do not speak directly about the birth of the Virgin Mary. But from the perspective of the believing Christian, all of Scripture, or at least all of the Old Testament, speaks of it. For what is the birth of the Mother of God about if not the culmination of God’s long work of preparation in the history of Israel? In the words of Vladimir Lossky:

Like the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the birth of the Mother of God, promised by an angel after the parents had long been sterile, finds Old Testament antecedents which are habitually considered as prefigurations of the Resurrection. But the Nativity of the Mother of God is more than a figure; for in the person of St. Anna – a woman freed from her sterility to bring into the world a Virgin who would give birth to God incarnate – it is our nature which ceases to be sterile in order to start bearing the fruits of grace. The miraculous birth of the Holy Virgin is not due to an arbitrary action of God, entering in to break historical continuity: it is a stage of the Providence which watches over the safety of the world, arduously preparing the Incarnation of the Word, a stage which precedes the last decisive act – the Annunciation, when the chosen Virgin will assent to be “the King’s Palace, in which is accomplished the perfect mystery of the two natures reunited in Christ” [Vespers hymnography].

Vladimir Lossky, “The Birth of the Holy Virgin” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 146.

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