In the last two blog posts I presented Father Georges Florovsky’s essay “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” which forms the first chapter to Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View.* Before proceeding to the rest of the book, I want to briefly note some points for ongoing reflection and possible discussion in this post. (I am aware that I am rather theologically out of touch, and seem to have difficulty remembering the details of historical topics I once did know something about, and am sort of thinking aloud here, so if others want to pitch in, please feel free…)

Florovsky’s Context and Ours
Reading this essay, and noting that it was published in The Christian Century in 1951, I could not help but be struck by the context in which Father Florovsky was writing. As Daniel Greeson noted in a comment here,

What is interesting to think about is the intellectual milieu in which Florovsky was moving in at the time. He would have recently moved to NYC and been moving around in the same hallways as Niebuhr and Tillich. Demythologizing would have been at its height if I am not mistaken? Publishing this in the Christian Century at that time, mighty interesting.

Add to this his involvement in the ecumenical movement and the founding of the World Council of Churches,** and we see an Orthodox theologian who was in touch with the modern western theological world. This was in keeping with his oft-quoted statement:

Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world—a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church—and resolve the question with his historical findings.

Reading this essay, I was struck by how Florovsky was responding to a fundamentally Protestant context that was dominated by liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, with what he saw as their respective temptations to Nestorianism and Monophysitism. And, as Dan notes in his comment, “the resonances feel different to me now.” While I agree, I am not sure how to accurately categorize current theological contexts, not only because I am out of touch, but also because they have become more diverse – and the context in which I find myself is rather different from that of many readers of this blog. However, I would tend to see liberal Protestantism as having morphed, together with some other influences, into various theologies of liberation, as well as having re-emerged, together with other influences, in some emphases on spirituality. And I wonder if its major temptation today is not to a form of monism? (As for neo-orthodoxy, I’m not really sure what’s become of it. I’m tempted to say that the “monophysite” temptation is now represented by the resurgence of Calvinism, but I’m also aware that the two cannot be identified).

However, messy as this may be, when I look around me at Christians in South Africa, I do see something that seems to line up with Father Florovsky’s two alternatives. On the one hand, there is an emphasis on “inclusiveness,” a wariness of dogma and of drawing barriers, and the desire for a “human redeemer.” And, on the other hand, there are various forms of fundamentalism and/or Calvinism (and, to give them their due, it is the Calvinists who seem to be the most intellectually serious) with their anthropological pessimism that reduce humanity to “complete passivity.”

A Renewal in Ecclesiology?
This is something that Father Florovsky only touches on in this essay, but he seemed to put some hope in a rediscovery of the Church among western Christians. Again, this reflects the context of his involvement in the WCC, and also the renewal in ecclesiology among both Protestants and Catholics in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet I am inclined to think that the results of this renewal have been rather disappointing and am not sure what is really left of it. Certainly, the trend in the WCC to becoming a parachurch movement rather than seeking the visible unity of its various members, together with the various roadblocks that bilateral ecumenical dialogues have faced, makes his optimism about it seem a little naïve. However, that does not detract from his conviction that:

“In a time such as this” one has to preach “the whole Christ,” Christ and the church – totus Christus, caput et corpus, to use the famous phrase of St. Augustine. Possibly this preaching is still unusual, but it seems to be the only way to preach the Word of God efficiently in a period of gloom and despair like ours. (16)

Does Dogma Matter?
Shining through this chapter is Father Florovsky’s conviction that it is nothing less than the historical faith of the Church that can save his – and our – era. Yet, as noted above, one of the key features of one strand of contemporary Christianity is precisely its aversion to dogma, which it perceives as oppressive and excluding. This is a topic that I have considered writing on before, but I have hesitated for I suspect that the reasons for this are complex and wide-reaching. Nevertheless, it is a question that accompanies me as I read this work, for I am convinced that one of the key challenges in “bearing witness” is to enable our contemporaries to see the truly life-giving nature of Christian dogma. And I hope that Father Florovsky’s works will help us to see that better.

*****

* This post is part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through the Collected Works of Father Georges Florovsky, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

** See here and here for more background on Father Florovsky’s role in the ecumenical movement.

This post continues to present the opening chapter of Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition* entitled “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” which I began here. In the following post, I plan to discuss some of the issues that this chapter raises…

Having argued that one should preach “the doctrines of the creed,” Father Florovsky continues to consider why this is problematic for “modern man” and argues that this is because it is seen in metaphysical terms that “is for him nothing more than a piece of poetry, if anything at all.” (12) However, Chalcedon was never intended to be seen in these terms; rather, it is a statement of faith and “cannot be understood when taken out of the total experience of the church. In fact, it is an ‘existential statement.’” (12-13)

Chalcedon’s formula is, as it were, an intellectual contour of the mystery which is apprehended by faith. Our Redeemer is not a man, but God himself. Here lies the existential emphasis of the statement. Our Redeemer is one who “came down” and who, by “being made man,” identified himself with men in the fellowship of a truly human life and nature.

… this mystery was a revelation; the true character of God had been disclosed in the Incarnation. God was so much and so intimately connected with the mystery of man (and precisely in the destiny of every one of “the little ones”) as to intervene in person in the chaos and misery of the lost life. The divine providence therefore is not merely an omnipotent ruling of the universe from an august distance by the divine majesty, but a kenosis, a “self-humiliation” of the God of glory. There is a personal relationship between God and man. (13)

This means that the whole of human tragedy appears in a new light, for the Incarnation is the mystery of the divine identification with lost humanity, which culminates in the cross of Christ, the turning point of human history. However, this “awful mystery” can only be comprehended within the wider perspective of an integral Christology in which we believe that “the Crucified was in very truth ‘the Son of the living God.’” (13) There is

an amazing coherence in the body of the traditional doctrine. But it can be apprehended and understood only in the context of faith, by which I mean in a personal communion with the personal God. Faith alone makes formulas convincing; faith alone makes formulas live. (14)

Father Florovsky goes on to argue that, while it may seem ridiculous to preach Chalcedon “in such a time as this,” it is only the reality to which this doctrine bears witness that can bring true spiritual freedom. Moreover, the ancient Christological controversies are far from irrelevant.

It is an illusion that the Christological disputes of the past are irrelevant to the contemporary situation. In fact, they are continued and repeated in the controversies of our own age. Modern man, deliberately or subconsciously, is tempted by the Nestorian extreme. That is to say, he does not believe in the Incarnation in earnest. He does not dare to believe that Christ is a divine person. He wants to have a human redeemer, only assisted by God. …

On the other extreme we have in our days a revival of “monophysite” tendencies in theology and religion, when man is reduced to complete passivity and is allowed only to listen and to hope. The present tension between “liberalism” and “neo-orthodoxy” is in fact a re-enactment of the old Christological struggle, on a new existential level and in a new spiritual key. The conflict will never be settled or solved in the field of theology, unless a wider vision is acquired. (14-15)

Father Florovsky then proceeds to bemoan the neglect of theology in modern times. While preaching in the early church was decidedly theological, and was not “vain speculation,” the modern neglect of theology has led to both the decay of personal religion and “that sense of frustration which dominates the modern mind.” (15) Yet both clergy and laity are hungry for theology and, moreover,

… because no theology is usually preached, they adopt some “strange ideologies” and combine them with fragments of traditional beliefs. The whole appeal of the “rival gospels” of our days is that they offer some sort of pseudo theology, a system of pseudo dogmas. They are gladly accepted by those who cannot find any theology in the reduced Christianity of “modern” style. (15)

Within this context, the first task of the contemporary preacher is the “reconstruction of belief.” Florovsky refers to belief here as “the map of the true world.” (15) The modern crisis has been brought about by the rediscovery of the real world, which is “no more screened from us by the wall of our own ideas.” (15-16) Moreover, the rediscovery of the church is also key here:

It is again realized that the church is not just a company of believers, but the “Body of Christ.” This is a rediscovery of a new dimension, a rediscovery of the continuing presence of the divine Redeemer in the midst of his faithful flock. This discovery throws a new flood of light on the misery of our disintegrated existence in a world thoroughly secularized… (16)

In contrast to those who see them as outdated and out of touch with our realities, Father Florovsky argues that this is the time to return to the Fathers of the Church.

I have often a strange feeling. When I read the ancient classics of Christian theology, the fathers of the church, I find them more relevant to the troubles and problems of my own time than the production of modern theologians. The fathers were wrestling with existential problems, with those revelations of the eternal issues which were described and recorded in Holy Scripture. I would risk a suggestion that St. Athanasius and St. Augustine are much more up to date than many of our theological contemporaries. The reason is very simple: they were dealing with things and not with maps, they were concerned not so much with what man can believe as with what God has done for man. We have, “in such a time as this,” to enlarge our perspective, to acknowledge the masters of old, and to attempt for our own age an existential synthesis of Christian experience. (16)

* This post is part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

What, then, are we going to preach? What would I preach to my contemporaries “in such a time as this”? There is no room for hesitation: I am going to preach Jesus, and him crucified and risen. I am going to preach and to commend to all whom I may be called to address the message of salvation, as it has been handed down to me by an uninterrupted tradition of the Church Universal. I would not isolate myself in my own age. In other words, I am going to preach the “doctrines of the creed.”

Father Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, 11*

The opening chapter of Father Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition is entitled “The Lost Scriptural Mind” and originally appeared as an essay in The Christian Century in 1951. It begins by addressing the question of what gospel Christian ministers are called to preach – and of how they can be sure that what they preach is the same gospel originally delivered rather than an accommodation to the whims of a particular age. This is a serious problem precisely because “Most of us have lost the integrity of the scriptural mind, even if some bits of phraseology are retained.” (10) Scripture is seen as written in an “archaic idiom” that has to be “demythologized” in a continual process of “reinterpretation.” However,

… how can we interpret at all if we have forgotten the original language? Would it not be safer to bend our thought to the mental habits of the biblical language and to relearn the idiom of the Bible? No man can receive the gospel unless he repents – “changes his mind.” For in the language of the gospel “repentance” (metanoeite) does not mean merely acknowledgement of and contrition for sins, but precisely a “change of mind” – a profound change of man’s mental and emotional attitude, an integral renewal of man’s self, which begins in self-renunciation and is accomplished and sealed by the Spirit. (10)

Writing in 1951, Father Florovsky referred to the “intellectual chaos and disintegration” of the age and argued that the only “luminous signpost” we have in this context is the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” He is not unaware that this faith is considered obsolete and archaic and that the “doctrines of the creed” are a stumbling block for many. However, he points out that the early creeds were deliberately scriptural, and he argues that “it is precisely their scriptural phraseology that makes them difficult for modern man.” (11)

Moreover, in contrast to those who view the traditional language of the creeds as “antiquarian” or “fundamentalist,” Florovsky points to “their perennial adequacy and relevance to all ages and to all situations, including ‘a time such as this.’” (12)

“The church is neither a museum of dead deposits nor a society of research.” The deposits are alive – depositum juvenescens, to use the phrase of St. Irenaeus. The creed is not a relic of the past, but rather the “sword of the Spirit.” The reconversion of the world to Christianity is what we have to preach in our day. This is the only way out of that impasse into which the world has been driven by the failure of Christians to be truly Christian. Obviously, Christian doctrine does not answer directly any practical question in the field of politics or economics. Neither does the gospel of Christ. Yet its impact on the whole course of human history has been enormous. The recognition of human dignity, mercy and justice roots in the gospel. The new world can be built only by the new man. (12)

To be continued…

* This is the first post in a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

Note: Given my recent blogging history, I am a little hesitant about announcing this project too loudly, lest I do not manage to keep it up. I am doing it primarily because I need to get back to some serious theological reading, and blogging has helped me with that in the past. But I hope that it may also be helpful to others. Much of my blogging simply consists of summarising books, although I may also comment now and then (and will probably comment on some things raised in this post when I complete the chapter in the following post). But I think that, particularly with Father Florovsky’s works, making summaries available and encouraging people to read the actual works, and any discussion that may ensue from that, could be rather worthwhile…

This blog has been horribly neglected – what’s new? – and all my good intentions of writing have of yet come to nothing. But, despite feeling decidedly uncomfortable about self-promotion, I need to share some of my recent bookbinding work that I have just put up on my Etsy shop, not least because some of it is geared at a rather niche market that I need to find ways of reaching. And it’s possible that some of this blog’s readers – if it still has any readers! – may be interested in it.

Some time last year I finally betrayed Luddites worldwide and acquired a Kindle – but nevertheless decided that I wanted a Kindle cover that looks like a real book. One thing led to another and I started making them to sell on Etsy. Here are some examples – if you click on the photo, you will see more details and photos of the inside.

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But my most recent work involves the addition of specially rebound Bibles that I have just added to the shop, and there will be more to come. This one, in particular, is a project that I have been wanting to do for some time. It is a copy of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest book that exists in its original binding, which was found in St Cuthbert’s tomb and dates from the seventh century.

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Here is the back cover, which in some ways I prefer to the front cover:

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And there is also a nice little New Jerusalem Bible pocket edition, as well as a variety of journals and notebooks.

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.

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