Having noted the importance of context and the meaning of words in his preface to Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality, Father Alexander Golubov turns his attention to the confusion around the word “spirituality” in the contemporary West. Quoting Paul Evdokimov, he notes that:

the word “spirituality” has nowadays acquired an almost faddish quality. It is glibly used in many different, almost contradictory, contexts to point to, or describe, certain aspects or modes of human “being,” as represented by beliefs and practices that are deemed to be of a “spiritual” nature, but which most often do not easily fall into the comfortable frameworks either of so-called “institutional religion” (as elements, properly, of religious belief or religious doctrine), or, alternatively, of an essentially secular-humanist, rational and empirical mindset that tends to negate religiosity on principle, as something vaguely old-fashioned and retrograde, thus inappropriate for modern public consumption, and tends to see the primary locus of spirituality as being somehow situated apart from, or in opposition to, religion. (Kindle Location 99)

Nevertheless, spirituality can include a curiosity about Christian and non-Christian ascetical and mystical traditions. This includes:

expressions of Orthodox culture as seen through the prisms of Orthodox liturgy, architecture, iconography or literature (i.e., the “writings of the fathers”) all of these, indeed, can easily fall into loosely construed denotative and connotative categories of this fuzzy and slippery word. (Kindle Location 109)

Given this, it is hardly surprising that some Orthodox theologians should be wary of the word “spirituality.” Golubov highlights the concerns of Father Stanley Harakas and Giorgios Mantzarides who reject the use of the word in an Orthodox context. Harakas argues that, in contrast to terms such as “spiritual life,” it has a “reified, objectified and ‘substance-like’ connotation” that he sees as related to western ideas about grace. He writes:

The parallel between ‘spirituality’ and grace understood as ‘created,’ an objective substance which is ‘conveyed’ by the sacraments, is too obvious to need documenting. It is no accident that a theological milieu accustomed to the understanding of divine grace as a created substance which was capable of being dispensed or withheld by the official Church, could in a quite analogous way, create the term ‘spirituality’ and live comfortably with it. (Kindle Location 120)

Mantzarides likewise argues that the term “spirituality” is unknown in the biblical and patristic tradition and derives from Western theology, contrasting the religious life of the faithful to that of the world, and being in danger of reducing Christianity to an ideology. He writes:

Spirituality is an abstract concept which has no place in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Spirituality is the mother of materialism, together with whatever distorts and dissolves the universality of the truth of Christianity. Therefore, the concept of ‘Orthodox spirituality’ must be abandoned. (Kindle Location 130)

While both Harakas and Mantzarides make claims that could be challenged, it nevertheless seems clear to me that much of the language of “spirituality” emerged out of a western Christian context that had lost the earlier unity between theology and a lived life of faith. And it is this unity that persists in an Orthodox understanding and that should make us cautious about adopting words that have a particular history. However, as Golubov notes, this concern is not unique to Orthodox Christians but has also been discussed among western scholars.

To be continued…

I have recently started reading Father Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality and it seems that it could be a book worth blogging on. Despite all appearances to the contrary, I do intend to resume blogging on Father Georges Florovsky. However, my copy of Bible, Church, Tradition has been in a box in Cape Town for the last few months (although it is now on its way here), while I have Orthodox Spirituality on my Kindle. Whether I do blog through the rest of this book remains to be seen (and for those who are interested Emma Cazabonne has reviewed it here).

However, it occurs to me that the foreword by Father Alexander Golubov addresses a topic that I have long been interested in, and that I have sometimes alluded to on this blog, namely, “Spirituality in an Orthodox Perspective.” “Spirituality” is a word that has become popular in many Christian and academic circles – in stark contrast to the suspicion with which it was viewed in my undergraduate days thirty-odd years ago. Yet in the meantime, I, who once devoured books on the “mystics” and persuaded my lecturers to allow me to shape courses around them, have become decidedly wary of it (and of its cousin “mysticism”).  But it is not that easy to articulate this wariness, or at least I have not yet got down to doing so. And, frankly, I sometimes wonder if I am just being impossibly pedantic objecting to it at all.

It was therefore rather a relief to realise that the publishers of a book with such a title considered that there was at least a question to be addressed, and Father Golubov’s essay resonated with me at several points. It therefore seems worth noting some of them.

The first point that Golubov makes is the relationship between the context in which theological language operates and the broader frame of reference in which it is heard. Christian truth is not meant to be preserved in some cultural ghetto, but preached to the whole world. The context in which Orthodox Spirituality was written was that of the confessing Orthodox Church in twentieth century Romania in which

the authentic ‘Orthodox spirituality’ of the Church, in a very real sense, stood in understated opposition to an all-encompassing pressure of a patently ‘false spirituality’ propagated by the social and religious doctrine of Marxist scientific atheism, a battle standard, as it were, that permitted not only resistance and survival in a hostile environment, but also inspired the inners struggle for victory. (Kindle Location 53)

Golubov argues that contemporary Western culture has much in common with this hostile environment. He quotes Father Georges Florovsky who writes:

It is precisely because we are already engaged in the apocalyptic struggle that we are called upon to do work as theologians. Our task is to oppose the atheistic and anti-God attitude, which surrounds us like a viscosity, with a responsible and conscious profession of Christian truth… Unbelieving knowledge of Christianity is not objective knowledge, but rather some kind of anti-theology. There is in it so much passion, at times blind, often obscure and malignant… Here again, theology is called not only to judge, but also to heal. It is necessary to enter into this world of doubt, illusion and lies, in order to answer doubt as well as reproach. But we must enter into this world with the sign of the Cross in our heart and the name of Jesus in our spirit, because this is a world of mystical wanderings, where everything is fragmentalized, decomposed and refracted as it were through a set of mirrors. (Kindle Location 72)

While Orthodoxy and the West share a common history, as Orthodox theology once more engages in a Western context, it faces the challenge of finding a comprehensible language in which to be faithful to the patristic tradition.

Here, too, spirituality as a concept acquires layers of meaning and significance not simply as descriptive terminology applied to the topography of Christian life, or as designating a particular field of academic inquiry and a formative goal of the seminary curriculum, but also as a significant commonality bridging the cultural fissure between Christian East and Christian West. (Kindle Location 79)

To be continued…

These are some thoughts that I’ve had going through my head for some years, and I was finally motivated to write them down a couple of months ago in the context of certain discussions I heard concerning the Great and Holy Council. I shared them on Facebook then, but am posting them here now in order to have them more readily accessible.

When I was a Cistercian novice many years ago, I learnt an important lesson about order in the Church that I have been reminded of recently and that I suspect may have broader relevance.

As some may recall, the Rule of Saint Benedict states that the rank of the monks in the monastery is dependent on their date of entrance, irrespective of their age or social standing. Therefore, “someone who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day must recognize that he is junior to someone who came at the first hour.” Likewise, when a priest enters the monastery, his rank is based on “the date of his entry into the community, and not that granted him out of respect for his priesthood.” This rank orders the daily life, so that “when the monks come for the kiss of peace and for Communion, when they lead psalms or stand in choir” they do so in order of their entry into the monastery. While the abbot may make changes to this rank based on the virtue of their lives, he cannot allow this to be based on worldly considerations.

All this talk of rank may sound alien to our supposedly egalitarian world, but there is something crucially important going on here. Saint Benedict acknowledges and insists that a healthy community needs order. But, by basing that order on something relatively arbitrary, such as the hour of entry into the community, he is also explicitly ruling out an ordering of the community based on age, social distinction, wealth, or other worldly means of exercising power.

I didn’t pay too much attention to any of this initially when I was a novice. Like anyone else who enters a community, I was last in rank for a while, with those ahead of me being both younger and less educated than I was, but I never really bothered about it. But then somebody entered after me who had previously been in another community and who had great difficulty in having to be last in rank. That, and the way she had to work through it, made me realize that there was actually something very significant going on. I realized that it is precisely the arbitrariness of the rank that is a great gift, for it asks us to lay aside all our other identities and power games and accept the truth of who we are in real humility. What matters is not our rank, but our willingness to obey and accept the place given to us – and it is precisely this willingness to obey that indicates spiritual maturity.

I have been reminded of this as I witness some of the rather distressing power play going on in the Orthodox world at present. Like the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Church also has an order that she has inherited from her formative years, in which the ancient patriarchates have a certain rank and are expected to follow a certain order. And yet we now hear voices arguing that certain patriarchates should no longer be accorded primacy because they no longer have worldly might, while others that boast great wealth and power should be accorded a greater rank.

There is no doubt a certain logic to this, but I suspect that it is the logic of my fellow-novice (who was perhaps only articulating what all of us feel in some way) and not the logic of the Gospel, or of the Rule, or of the Church’s order. For this logic is based, not on our achievements or worldly power, but on our willingness to lay aside our own agendas and accept the place that is given to us in real humility. And it is precisely the arbitrariness of that place that is the greatest gift. For it allows all to submit to an order that is already given, rather than one that expresses our own will to power that constantly seeks to reassert itself.

This post is much overdue, and I am afraid that I have not been very good at keeping in touch with all sorts of people, much less doing much on this blog. There are various reasons for this, which I won’t go into here, but it may be good to give a brief update on where I am now.

Just before Christmas last year, His Eminence Archbishop Sergios asked me to consider moving to Pietermaritzburg to take responsibility for Saint Mark’s Orthodox Mission in Edendale. This was totally unexpected to me (we had been discussing a possible move, but Pietermaritzburg had not crossed my mind), but the more I considered it, the more I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this was what God asking me, despite being aware that it would be quite a challenging situation.

This is an old photo from the Archbishopric website - I still need to take some good current photos...

This is an old photo of the mission from the Archbishopric website – I still need to take some good current photos…

I moved here at the beginning of May, and it has indeed proved rather challenging, but also hopeful. The original plan was that I should live at the mission, where there is a church and a house. However, that turned out to not really be viable and instead I have found a hermitage at the bottom of someone’s garden that overlooks a forest and is quite idyllic! I am continuing to support myself and hope to continue selling books (and possibly other things) on Etsy once I am more settled. And I have gradually been making contacts with people in the area. Lots of things are going to have to develop slowly, but there are hopeful signs and I have met some wonderful people. I’ll post more news about some developments in due course.

hermitage

I am planning to do a website that will give more information about the mission, provide a contact point for people around here who search for information about Orthodoxy, and also enable people to support us if they would like to do so. I am also seriously hoping to revive this blog, and possibly do some other things online, so watch this space. But I would also value your prayers for the whole situation – it is challenging, but it also has much potential.

Every year at this time (when we start using the Liturgy of Saint Basil during Great Lent), I am reminded that the Anaphora of Saint Basil is one of the best statement of the Christian faith that I can think of. I saved this as a draft post two years ago and never got to posting it. But I was reminded of it again this morning and thought it worth posting, for I can think of few better expressions of what we believe.

Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages. He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ. He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works.

Source.

The second chapter of Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition,* entitled “Revelation and Interpretation,” having discussed the historical and personal nature of revelation, continues by noting the intimate relationship between God and human beings found in the Covenant, an intimacy that culminates in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

In the Bible we see not only God, but man too. It is the revelation of God, but what is actually revealed is God’s concern about man. God reveals himself to man, “appears” before him, “speaks” and converses with him so as to reveal to man the hidden meaning of his own existence. (21)

Moreover, Scripture also shows us the human response to God, so that the Bible is not only the voice of God, but also “the voice of man answering him” ensuring that “human response is integrated into the mystery of the Word of God.” (21) Yet,

…all this intimacy does not compromise divine sovereignty and transcendence. God is “dwelling in light unapproachable” (1 Tim. 6.16). This light, however, “lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1.9). This constitutes the mystery, or the “paradox” of the revelation. (21)

Revelation comprises a “living historical web,” which is not so much “a system of divine oracles” as “a system of divine deeds,” the climax of which occurred when God entered human history Himself. Yet revelation is also “the book of human destiny,” and human beings belong organically to its story, and “the whole human fate is condensed and exemplified in the destiny of Israel, old and new, the chosen people of God, a people for God’s own possession.” (22) While this election is specific, it is orientated to the ultimate purpose of universal salvation.

The redeeming purpose is ever universal indeed, but it is being accomplished always by means of separation, selection or setting apart. In the midst of human fall and ruin a sacred oasis is erected by God. The Church is also an oasis still, set apart, though not taken out of the world. For again this oasis is not a refuge or shelter only, but rather a citadel, a vanguard of God. (22)

Moreover, there is a centre in the Biblical story and “the distinction between the two Testaments belongs itself to the unity of the Biblical revelation.” (22) The two Testaments are organically linked together, and “primarily in the person of Christ.” Jesus Christ belongs to both Testaments; He fulfils the old and inaugurates the new because – as the archē and telos – He is the very centre of the Bible.

The Old Testament is therefore ultimately to be understood as “a book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” (23) It was the time of prophecy and expectation, but the whole story was prophetical or “typical” – and the promise has been accomplished.

The history of flesh and blood is closed. The history of the Spirit is disclosed: “Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1.17). But it was an accomplishment, not destruction of the old. Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet [The Old Testament extends into the New]. And patet means precisely: is revealed, disclosed, fulfilled. Therefore the books of the Hebrews are still sacred, even for the new Israel of Christ – not to be left out or ignored. They tell us the story of salvation, Magnalia Dei. They do still bear witness to Christ. They are to be read in the Church as a book of sacred history, not to be transformed into a collection of proof-texts or of theological instances (loci theologici), nor into a book of parables. Prophecy has been accomplished and law has been superseded by grace. But nothing has passed away. In sacred history, “the past” does not mean simply “passed” or “what had been,” but primarily that which had been accomplished and fulfilled. Fulfilment is the basic category of revelation. (23)

* This post forms 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.

In the hope that this series doesn’t simply go the way of other good intentions, I am going to try and continue to work my way through Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition.* The posts may become somewhat shorter and deal with less material at a time, we shall just have to see what happens…

The second chapter of this book is entitled “Revelation and Interpretation” and, like the other chapters, first appeared as a separate article. It begins by questioning what the Bible is, whether it has a message as a whole, and to whom it is addressed. Father Florovsky notes that the Bible as a whole was the creation of a community; it is a selection of texts that were selected for a particular purpose, namely, “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. (John 20.30-31)” While the message comes from God, “it is the faithful community that acknowledges the Word spoken and testifies to its truth.” (18) The book is inextricably bound up with the community.

The book and the Church cannot be separated. The book and the Covenant belong together, and Covenant implies people. It was the People of the Covenant to whom the Word of God had been entrusted under the old dispensation (Rom. 3.2), and it is the Church of the Word Incarnate that keeps the message of the Kingdom. The Bible is the Word of God indeed, but the book stands by the testimony of the Church. (18)

However, the “Apostolic Preaching” found in the New Testament also has a missionary purpose – it is not simply a “community-book” in the sense that the Old Testament was, but is intended to convert the world as well as edify the faithful. Yet it remains “fenced off” to outsiders, for, as Tertullian argued, heretics had no right on foreign property.

An unbeliever has no access to the message, simply because he does not “receive” it. For him there is no “message” in the Bible. (19)

It is this message of the Bible that Father Florovsky proceeds to discuss, for the authority of the text lies not in the words but in the message. While comprised of different writings,

There is one main theme and one main message through the whole story. For there is a story. Or, even more, the Bible itself is this story, the story of God’s dealings with his chosen people. The Bible records first of all God’s acts and mighty deeds, Magnolia Dei. The process has been initiated by God. There is a beginning and an end, which is also a goal… There is one composite and single story – from Genesis to Revelation. And this story is history. (19)

While there have been stages in God’s revelation, it was always the same God revealing Himself, with the same message – and it is the identity of this message that gives unity to the various writings. The Bible is about God, but a God who reveals Himself in human life. Moreover, the Bible is not simply a record of divine intervention, but “a kind of divine intervention itself.” (20) We do not need to escape from time or history to meet God, for God meets us in history and in the midst of daily existence.

History belongs to God, and God enters human history. The Bible is intrinsically historical: it is a record of the divine acts, not so much a presentation of God’s eternal mysteries, and these mysteries themselves are available only by historical mediation. (20)

The historical framework of revelation is therefore not something to do away with – and I assume that Florovsky is reacting to Bultmann here.

There is no need to abstract revealed truth from the frame in which revelations took place. On the contrary, such abstraction would have abolished the truth as well. For the truth is not an idea, but a person, even the Incarnate Lord. (20)

* This post forms 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.