If we keep vigil in church, David comes first, last and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the Psalter by heart. Nor is it only in cities and churches that David is famous; in the village market, in the desert, and in uninhabitable land, he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, last and central. In the convents of virgins, where are the communities of those who imitate Mary; in the deserts where there are men crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God, David is first, last and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep. David alone is active, and gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.

Saint John Chrysostom, quoted by Father Lazarus Moore, Orthodox Psalter

A few months ago I discovered Father Lazarus Moore’s translation of the Psalter, which is available online here. (It’s available in Word somewhere too, but I can’t find it now). Apart from being a highly recommended translation of the Septuagint Psalter (the esteemed Esteban Vázquez praises it here as “at once laconic and lyrical”), it also has an introductory essay on the Psalms that is one of the best things I remember reading on them. In it Father Lazarus discusses not only the nature, content, and theology of the Psalms, but also their use and impact as the prayer book of the Church. Here are some rather pithy snippets that suggest the riches to be found in this article and the themes it raises:

The songs of Israel find their full meaning only in the New Adam. …

The eternal Spirit transforms history into theology. …

We need to learn afresh the Christian use of the Psalter. …

The Church never merely studied the Psalms. …

Orthodox theology as a unity of knowledge is a means to an end that transcends all knowledge. The end is union with God. The Psalms sum up the whole salvation history and theology of the Old Covenant. The lights and shadows of the total panorama are all here. …

The meaning of the events lies in man’s meeting with God. …

The light that judges us, transfigures and saves us. …

The Psalms are the Bible in miniature. By a kind of divine tom-tom they drum into our consciousness the truth that we meet God in the world of persons, things and events. Here and now we are to pass through the visible and transient to the invisible and true. Yet the initiative always rests with God. …

The Psalms were the utterances of both David and Christ. …

A striking and mysterious figure looms larger and larger, and gradually takes shape, as we read and re-read the Psalms. He is the Son of God, appointed King on Zion to rule the nations (Ps. 2). … different facets of the same face and person are sprinkled throughout the Psalter, and we need them all to get the full portrait. …

We are at the same time in the wilderness and in the Promised Land. …

The Psalms teach us to enlarge our hearts or consciousness to embrace all mankind. …

…the cross is the key to the Psalms, as it is the key to the Kingdom. …

The Psalter is the expression of the heart of the true man. It is the prophetic portrait of the mind and heart of the coming Saviour. …

One of the images that struck me most in this essay was the comparison of the Psalms to “a kind of divine tom-tom.” I suspect that many of us were brought up expecting religious texts to be clear-cut and to easily and immediately reveal their meaning. I have heard many people saying that that they dislike the Psalms because they are dark or violent or do not express what they are feeling. The Church’s discipline of praying the Psalter – the whole Psalter and not only the bits that we pick and choose – confronts us with a range human realities and does not allow us to escape into our own subjective preferences at any given moment. But it also hold before us a reality that cannot be reduced to any one set meaning; it presents a range of voices and many layers, which, over the years, yield their meaning to us. But this is no simply cerebral meaning – praying the Psalms is a also a physical act, an act that involves our whole person and in which we immerse ourselves, allowing ourselves to be shaped and ultimately transformed by them. As Father Lazarus writes:

People talk of haunted houses. The Psalter is a house of prayer haunted by the Spirit of Christ Who inspired the Psalms. Used aright, they cannot fail to lift us above and beyond ourselves. They confront us with God and we find ourselves haunted by His presence and gradually brought face to face with Him. They bring our hearts and minds into the presence of the living God. They fill our minds with His truth in order to unite us with His love. The saints and fathers of the Church, like the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, were haunted by the living reality of the Redeemer revealed to the world in the Psalter. He is the Word of God hidden in these ‘words of God’. As you persevere in praying the Psalms, you will be drenched with the Holy Spirit as the trees are drenched with the rain (Ps. 103:16), you will be rapt in God and penetrated from time to time with vivid intuitions of His action, your mind and heart will be purified.

Postscript: I had been thinking about this text for some time. But yesterday I happened to listen to a lecture by James K.A. Smith entitled Redeeming Ritual: Penance Takes Practice and realized that it was quite applicable to the praying of the Psalter. While what he says shouldn’t be anything new for Orthodox Christians, he does articulate well what we may take for granted and which I suspect goes rather against the grain for some Protestants, or at least for some of the rather glib things many people say about ritual.

I have been listening to the Conferences of Saint John Cassian, which I found in audio form here (incomplete and the NPNF edition, but worthwhile to listen to while bookbinding). I was recently given the Ramsey translation of both the Conferences and the Institutes (a wonderful gift!) and have also been reading Simon Cashmore’s Master’s thesis on Saint John Cassian (yes, the spirituality language jars a bit, but I am grateful that a South African is taking him seriously!) and so have been thinking that I should really get back to paying some attention to him. But, time and energy being what they are, listening while I work is easier to manage than reading, and the Conferences tend to lend themselves to that.

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of  Julia Hayes

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of Julia Hayes

Anyway, as I listened to the first two conferences, my thoughts turned to Abba Moses, or Saint Moses the Ethiopian, who is quoted extensively. Although I know that this is Cassian’s later reworking and re-presenting of the teaching that he found among the Desert Fathers, it struck me that it is difficult to deny that Saint Moses plays a crucial role in them. His teaching in the first two conferences on the goal and end of the monk and on the importance of discretion would go on to shape centuries of monastic understanding and Christian practice in both East and West.

I have written before on the infuriating cluelessness that many contemporary South African Christians seem to have about the history of African Christianity. And this now strikes me even more. While there are some – rather challenging – sayings of Saint Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which I have quoted previously, they belong to a particular genre and are perhaps easy to overlook. But when I was suddenly struck by the central role that he plays in the Conferences, I couldn’t help wondering that he has not received more attention from those interested in African Christianity and “African theology.”

Of course, part of the explanation for this may be that Saint John Cassian was himself viewed as suspect in the West after his run-in with Saint Augustine, and his legacy was largely kept alive in Benedictine monasteries. (Actually, as this post shows, he was once considerably more influential than he later became). But what suddenly struck me while I was binding was that this process of ignoring of Saint John Cassian’s works has not only deprived Western Christians of one of the foremost early teachers on Christian life, but it has also deprived African Christians of access to the rather centrally important teaching that he conveys of one of the leading lights of the African Church, namely, Saint Moses the Ethiopian.

I mentioned quite a while ago that I had been listening to Father Thomas Hopko’s series on the Divine Liturgy, Worship in Spirit and Truth. It’s been a somewhat disrupted listening, but then it is a rather long – albeit worthwhile – series and it took him thirty podcasts to get to the beginning of the Liturgy! Anyway, having just listened to his podcast on the opening words of the Divine Liturgy, I was struck by what he had to say about the words that we use in worship, and in our own personal prayer. I have touched on this before, having quoted Father Florovsky’s words about the point of the prayers of the Church being to teach us to pray. And I have also noted how I have been struck that it is those religious traditions that are most insistent on the use of the right words in prayer – and theology, for that matter – that are, seemingly paradoxically, also most aware of the limitation of words.

I can’t help being aware that this goes rather against the grain of what many people in our society consider prayer to be, and what I was brought up to see it as. Yet I am also aware that, growing up in an Evangelical Protestant home, I was often profoundly uncomfortable with the expectation that prayer was primarily speaking to God in one’s own words. Without wanting to offend anyone, it somehow sounded, well, trite, projecting, and somehow banal, although that sounds like a terribly judgmental thing to say. However, listening to Father Hopko this afternoon, I was able to understand some of my discomfort more. Prayer is a training, as Saint Benedict tells us, to put our mind where our mouth is. Words train us and form us. They form the heart and the mind. And it therefore matters what words we use in prayer. This is an extract from the transcript of Father Hopko’s podcast, and the rest is found here:

The animals and the plants worship God just by their very being. The animals worship God just by their very nature, whereas the human being, who is a free being, has to open their mouth and their lips and show forth God’s praise through their speech. We have speech, and Christian worship is logike latreia, the worship of those who speak; those whose words and sounds have a content to them.

Now, it’s very interesting here to note that when we’re calling on God to open our lips and to put the words into our mouth, we have to really pay attention to the fact that we are praying in the words that are given to us by God. These are words given to us by God. Worship is not done in our own words, certainly not in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. We do not pray in our own words, so to speak. We pray in the words God gave us to say.

St. Benedict, a great monk of the Western Church; very much influenced by the Eastern Tradition, says that in liturgical prayer, in the Church’s worship, we do not put our mouth where our mind is. We put our mind where our mouth is. In other words, we don’t say what comes to our mind. The words are first put on our mouth, our lips. They are given to us by God, and then we put our mind on what we are saying, and we’re saying it because God has commanded us to say it. He has inspired us to say it.

As Saint Anthony the Great said, “In the worship of the Christian Church, God gives His own words for His own glorification.” He puts His words into our mouth. And that’s very important, because in traditional Biblical worship when the Kahal Israel, the People of God, the People of Israel, the Ekkli̱sía tou Theoú, the Church of God, the Church of the Lord gathers, the words of the Lord are provided by God. We don’t make them up. We don’t express what’s on our mind and heart when we go to Church.

Now, when we pray privately, we even then don’t begin in our own words, at least in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We begin private, personal prayers in our room; in our heart in the words God gave us. We say, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.” We say, “Holy God. Holy Immortal. Holy, Holy, Holy.” We say, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Those are words that God gives us.

We say the words of the Psalms, which are the words that are inspired in human beings by God. They are the words of God in human words. But they are ultimately God’s words. They are inspired words. They are the Holy Spirit praying within us. Now, we begin with those words that God gives, and then in our private devotion, we can move in several directions.

We can move where, taking those words that God gives, we somehow use them as a formation or a pattern for what we ourselves might personally wish to say. So sure, we can pray in our own words or fill our own content with these words, but we never do that publicly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We always use the words together. We use the same words, and these words are primarily those inspired by God; given to us by God.

But then also, the words of prayer, both in our heart, in our room, in our closet, and the corporate worship of the Church can lead human beings into the wordless prayer; into the silence from which God’s words emerge and into which God’s words lead us. So in the Orthodox Tradition, the hesychastic prayer, the prayer of silence, is deeply connected to the prayer of words.

But you begin with words. You don’t begin with silence. You are led into the silence through the words. And the words lead us deeper into a meaning, which even the words themselves cannot really contain, limit and totally express. So there is a communion with God in silence that is beyond and above words, the wordless prayer of the heart.

St. Isaac of Syria and St. Seraphim or Sarov even say that there’s a condition beyond worship. There’s a condition beyond petitionary prayer where you are just one with God. The Holy Spirit is in you totally, so to speak, and you are in communion with Christ; in communion with God; in a love relationship; a union of love that’s beyond words.

And we know that really love is always beyond words, even the best of words. All the best of words are limited and in some sense, if taken too literally, are misguiding. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “When it comes to words, even the words inspired by God, every man is a liar, because this reality so transcends words.” But they are words, to use the expression of St. Gregory the Theologian now, theoprepic. In other words, they are appropriate to God. They are true words, or to use the line of the Psalter, they are pure words.

Something I’m reading at the moment that seemed worth sharing:

Holy souls are led and guided by the Spirit of Christ, who directs them wherever he wishes them to go. Sometimes he leads them by his will through heavenly thoughts, sometimes through the body. Wherever he wishes, there they minister to him. Just as the feet of the birds are the wings, so the heavenly light of the Spirit takes up the wings and thoughts worthy of the soul and leads and directs the soul as he knows best.

Therefore, when you hear such things, look to yourself and see whether you really possess these things in your own soul. These are not mere and empty words, but we are dealing with a work that truly goes on in the soul. And if you do not possess these very important spiritual goods but you are lacking in them, be moved to sorrow, grieve and be continually in mourning as one who is still dead in regard to the Kingdom. And as one lies wounded, continually cry out to the Lord and ask with confidence that he may deign to give you this true life.

And so God, who made your body, did not give it life from its very own nature nor from the body itself, nor from the food, drink, clothing and footwear that he gave the body, but he arranged it that your body, created naked, should be able to live my means of such extrinsic things as food, drink, and clothing. (If the body were to attempt to exist only by its own constituted nature without accepting these exterior helps, it would deteriorate and perish.) In a similar way, it is so with the human soul. It does not have by nature the divine light, even though it has been created according to the image of God. For, indeed, God ordered the soul in his economy of salvation according to his good pleasure that it would enjoy eternal life. It would not be because of the soul’s very own nature but because of his Divinity, of his very Spirit, of his light, that the soul would receive its spiritual meat and drink and heavenly clothing which are truly the life of the soul.

As, therefore, the body, as was said above, does not have life in itself, but receives it from outside, that is, from the earth, and without such material things of the earth it cannot live, so the soul, unless it be regenerated into that “land of the living” (Ps 27:13) and there be fed spiritually and progress by growing spiritually unto the Lord and be adorned by the ineffable garments of heavenly beauty flowing out of the Godhead, without that food in joy and tranquillity, the soul cannot clearly live.

Saint Macarius the Great, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 10-11 (pp. 42-43).

I really don’t intend to get into a discussion of Mariology, but after publishing the previous post I saw a reaction on Facebook that typifies the sort of views that are common in some circles. They see the early Church’s understanding of the Mother of God as rooted in a sort of pagan longing for a mother goddess. By making Jesus God, so the logic goes, the Church had made Him remote and inaccessible and so natural pagan longings re-emerged and made His Mother into a goddess.

Now I wouldn’t really bother engaging this, except that such views are actually quite widespread in certain circles, including in some academic circles that should know better. But this reaction did remind me of a letter I wrote a couple of years ago in response to a newspaper article that made similar claims. It was never published, but I thought it would be worth hauling it out and quoting it here:

… To suggest that Mary was declared Theotokos because of a sort of proto-feminist pressure for a mother goddess makes absolutely no sense to anyone familiar with the patristic texts and with the sort of theological debates that were raging in the century preceding the Council of Ephesus.

That Christian theology did not arise in a vacuum is clear and there is some evidence that at a popular level some people may have misunderstood the teaching to be simply replacing one goddess with another. But to suggest that popular longing for a displaced mother goddess gave rise to the Council’s decision can only be done by ignoring three things. Firstly, one would have to ignore the intense debate on Christological issues that had preceded it. Secondly, one would have to ignore the conciliar texts themselves. And, thirdly, one would have to ignore the liturgical hymnography that resulted from them and that is permeated by a profound awareness of the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ in one person who is both God and human.

Moreover, while the Christian Church was influenced by the social and religious context in which she developed, this did not happen in the straightforward manner that some people like to suggest. The Church also rejected and/or transformed elements of both Jewish and pagan religion, and indeed of Greek philosophy. Thus, while other religions had mother goddesses and female priests, Christianity rejected these, not because it was a patriarchal religion as feminists like to claim, thereby ignoring the evidence of female leadership in the early Church, but because the fertility symbolism associated with these undermined the very message that she was proclaiming, which is that in Christ the limitations of biological life have been overcome. In the Incarnation of Christ we find the meeting of the divine and the human, which enables the healing and the transformation of our humanity. And, by enabling that meeting, the Theotokos plays a far more important role than she would have played as any mother goddess.

To be honest, the more I encounter such voices but also the views of some Christians, the more I realize that the Incarnation has really made very little impression on some people’s understanding of Christianity. Granted, we cannot grasp the Incarnation, but it is precisely this overwhelming “ungraspability” that is witnessed to in the Church’s faith and worship – and which undergirds everything that she says about the Holy Theotokos.

I recently read Father Alexander Schmemann’s little book, The Virgin Mary, in the Celebration of Faith series. I’m not going to discuss the whole book, which is a combination of helpful reflections on the feasts of the Mother of God and various papers that he had presented on “Mariology,” usually in an ecumenical context. But what struck me, and got me thinking, was his discussion on the virgin birth near the beginning of the book.

Father Schmemann notes that, while miracles are an indisputable part of the New Testament witness and of the faith of the Church, we would nevertheless do well to ask about their meaning. Jesus Christ did not “use” miracles in order to prove anything, much less to force our belief, for that would be to override our human freedom.

Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to “prove” His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: “He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…” (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: “…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). (17)

Instead of trying to “prove” anything, the miracles presented in the gospels are motivated by Christ’s compassion and rooted in His love, for “He cannot endure the suffering of a human being hopelessly imprisoned by evil.” (18)

However, this does not appear to explain the miracle of Christ’s birth and the need for the virgin birth. Father Schmemann argues that this unique miracle that is also rooted in God’s love that, out of love for us, “took upon Himself our humanity in order to save it.” (19)

But to save it from what? From its total and inescapable slavery precisely to nature and those merciless laws which reduce us to just another human species, just matter, just “flesh and blood.” Man, however, is not merely of nature. Above all, he is of God, of God’s freely given love, of the Spirit. And therefore what our faith affirms is this: Christ is from God and of God, that His Father is God Himself. In Christ, in His birth, in His coming into the world a new humanity is born that comes not from the flesh nor from our self-imposed slavery to passions, but from God. God Himself is betrothed to humanity in the person of the most sublime fruit of His Creation: the all-pure Virgin Mary. The New Adam enters the world to be united with us and to lift up the first Adam who was created not “by nature” but by God. (19)

Leaving aside a terminological quibble about the word “nature,” which I think Father Schmemann is using to mean “fallen nature,” his words reminded me of Metropolitan John (Zizioiulas) of Pergamon’s discussion on the biological and ecclesial hypostasis in Being and Communion. For Metropolitan John, it is precisely the necessity of the biological that is overcome in the person of Christ, who thereby also opens up the way for us to become truly free persons. In such a perspective, it is necessity that keeps us enslaved and a radical freedom that is the mark of human persons who reflect God’s Image. In this context, the virginity of the Mother of God, in overcoming biological necessity, becomes the herald of a new way of being, a truly ecclesial hypostasis.

Of course, this may all be totally obvious – and from an Orthodox perspective it should be obvious – and I may just be slow in coming to grasp it. But I also think that it touches on themes that are not easily understood in our contemporary western context. I sometimes have the impression that some of those who defend the virgin birth do so more out of commitment to God being able to work whatever miracles He likes than any particular meaning that it conveys. And then it becomes no big deal for more liberal Christians to sit rather lightly to the dogma, especially given the way it is often presented as tied up with negative views about sexuality – and the layers of misconception in those assumptions still need to be seriously unmasked. But the reality is that the virginity of the Mother of God is a fundamentally eschatological reality, for in her we recognise the “Bright Dawn of the Mystical Day.”

There has been much discussion, in the latter part of the last century, of our ‘denial of death’. But it would seem to me that the problem is deeper and more difficult. If it is true that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as a human being, then, quite simply, if we no longer ‘see’ death, we no longer see the face of God.

John Behr, “The Christian Art of Dying” in Sobornost, 35:1-2, 2013. 137.

The last issue of Sobornost contains a compelling essay by Father John Behr on the importance of taking back the Christian art of dying. Our culture’s denial of death is something that has been widely commented on, and something that I have become more aware of in recent years. This is not only related to becoming Orthodox (or, perhaps more broadly, engaging more seriously with the Christian tradition), but it does have something to do with it. There is nothing like going to a family funeral when you really need to grieve and pray for the departed, and realising that something crucial is desperately missing. And, linked to this, I have also become aware of the contrast between how aging is viewed in the Christian tradition and how it is viewed by our contemporary western society – as well as the related and potentially huge question of cultural (and religious) shifts in how the body is viewed. So it was against this backdrop that I thought this essay well worth noting and sharing with others.

However, this article takes these generally acknowledged issues a step further, for in it Father Behr argues that the fact that contemporary western culture no longer lives with death and dying as an ever-present reality undermines our ability to see something that is at the heart of our Christian faith, for it is in death that Christ shows us what it is to be God. Indeed, “the way that he dies as a human being sums up the theological heart of the creeds and definitions of the early Councils.” (137)

Facing death is an unavoidable human reality, but it is an even more crucial task for Christians. And it is in fact, Father Behr argues, the coming of Christ that has made our facing of death so crucial. Prior to the coming of Christ, death was simply a natural reality, but with Christ’s victory over death, death itself has been revealed as “the last enemy.” (1 Cor. 15:26) For, in the light of Christ, we see that people die not simply from biological necessity, but as a result of having turned away from the Source of life. And this is not simply a once-off occurrence that happened with Adam, but is a constant temptation for us – the temptation to live our lives on our own terms and turned in on ourselves.

It is precisely in death that Christ has shown Himself to be God and in His conquering of death, He has, in the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor, “changed the use of death.”

Through his Passion, destroying death by death, Christ has enable us to use our death, the fact of our mortality, actively. Rather than being passive and frustrated victims of the givenness of our mortality, complaining that it is not fair, or doing all we can to secure ourselves, we now have a path open to us, through a voluntary death in baptism, to enter into the body and life of Christ. Whereas we were thrown into the mortal existence, without any choice on our part, we can now, freely, use our mortality, to be born into life, by dying with Christ in baptism, taking up our cross, and no longer living for ourselves, but for Christ and our neighbours. In doing this, our new existence is grounded in the free, self-sacrificial love that Christ has shown to be the life and very being of God himself, for as we have seen Christ has shown us what it means to be God in the way he dies as a human being. (141)

Christian life is about learning to die so that we may be born to new life – and it is our physical death that will reveal the extent to which we have done this, for it will reveal where our hearts truly lie.

One way or another, each and every one of us will die, we will become clay. The only real question is whether, through this life, we have learnt to become soft and pliable clay in the hands of God, breaking down our hearts of stone so that we may receive a heart of flesh, merciful and loving. Or whether, instead, we will have hardened ourselves, so that we are nothing but brittle and dried out clay that is good for nothing. (143)

Father Behr uses two examples of martyrdom – of Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Blandina – to illustrate this understanding of death as revealing the deepest reality of being born into the new life of Christ. Such accounts have nourished the Church throughout the ages; they have changed our perception of “the use of death.” However, as the essay concludes:

If it is true, as I suggested earlier, that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as a human being, then, if we don’t see death (as I claimed that modern society doesn’t), then we will not see the face of God either. If we don’t know that life comes through death, then our horizons will become totally imminent, our life will be for ourselves, for our body, for our pleasure (even if we think we are being ‘religious’, growing in our ‘spiritual life’). And so, I would argue, we need to regain the martyric reality of what it means to bear Christian witness. Our task today is not just to proclaim our faith in an increasingly secular world; it is, rather, to take back death, by allowing death to be ‘seen’, by honouring those dying with the full liturgy of death, and by ourselves bearing witness to a life that comes through death, a life that can no longer be touched by death, a life that comes by taking up the cross. (147)

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