I came across this paper on Theology, Liturgy and Silence by the Ecumenical Patriarch quite by chance. It was presented on 6 March at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. I found it particularly worthwhile not only because he roots theology in the doxological experience of the Church, but also because he emphasises the apophatic underpinning of theology and liturgy, an “ascetic silence of apophaticism” that should lead to humility.
Of course, classical philosophy and most religions adopt a fundamentally negative approach, inasmuch as they are aware of the awesome transcendence of God. Nevertheless, in Patristic thought, apophaticism is not merely an intellectual method of approaching the mystery of God. It is not simply a more effective way of knowing God through scholastic research. The Fathers continually confess the inadequacy of the human intellect and human language to express the fullness of truth. In the words of St. Basil the Great:
We know our God through His energies, whereas we do not presume to approach His essence. The energies of God come down to us, while His essence always remains inaccessible.
This distinction between divine essence and divine energies – so eloquently articulated by St. Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century – communicates the conviction that divine truth is not discovered through the intellect alone; instead, it is disclosed in the human heart, through the Eucharistic community, to the entire world. Ultimately, the awareness of God’s transcendence leads to personal encounter with the One who is Unknown. It is the knowledge beyond all knowledge, experienced as divine “ignorance”. Thus, theology transcends all formulations and definitions, being identified rather with a persona! and loving relationship with God in the communion of prayer. As Evagrius of Pontus affirms: “If you are a theologian, you pray truly; and if you pray truly, then you are a theologian.”
In the final analysis, the Church Fathers are not philosophers of abstract concepts, but heralds of a mystical theology. For them, the silence of apophatic theology signifies knowledge as communion at its deepest, its most intimate, and its most intense. In the seventh century, St. John Climacus experienced the same truth through asceticism:
Stillness of body is the understanding of habits and emotions. And silence of the soul is the knowledge of one’s thoughts and an inviolable mind … A wise hesychast has no need of words, being enlightened by deeds rather than by words. Such stillness is unceasing worship and waiting upon God.
His Holiness ends up by exhorting his listeners:
to serve the theological word by breathing the air of theology and kneeling humbly before the living Creator. Implore God for the renewal of your hearts and minds; invoke His grace for the salvation of every human person, even – and especially – the least of our brothers and sisters (Mt 25:45); and pray fervently for the transfiguration of the whole world, to the last speck of dust.