December 2008


Simeon and Anna, a man and a woman of advanced age, greeted the Lord with the devoted services of their professions of faith. As they saw him, he was small in body, but they understood him to be great in his divinity. Figuratively speaking, this denotes the synagogue, the Jewish people, who, wearied by the long waiting of the incarnation, were ready with both their arms (their pious actions) and their voices (their unfeigned faith) to exalt and magnify him as soon as he came. They were ready to acclaim him and say, “Direct me in your truth and teach me, for you are my saving God, and for you I have waited all the day.” What needs to be mentioned, too, is that deservedly both sexes hurried to meet him, offering congratulations, since he appeared as the Redeemer of both.

Bede, Homilies on the Gospels, quoted in Arthur A Just (ed), Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III, (Intervarsity Press, 2003) 48.

It’s the feast of the Holy Family today and there’s quite a lot that one could say about that, but I will desist! It’s a beautiful gospel in any case and so I’ll post this now instead of waiting for 2 February.

Speak to us first then of love towards God. For we have heard that one ought to love, but we seek to learn how this may successfully be done.

Love of God cannot be taught. For we have neither learnt from another person to rejoice in the light and to cling to life, nor did anyone else teach us to love our parents or those who brought us up. In the same way, or much more so, the learning of the divine loving desire (pothos) does not come from outside; but when the creature was made, I mean man, a certain seminal word (logos spermatikos) was implanted in us, having within itself the beginnings of the inclination to love. The pupils in the school of God’s commandments having received this word are by God’s grace enabled to exercise it with care, to nourish it with knowledge, and to bring it to perfection. Therefore we also, welcoming your zeal (spoudê) as necessary for attaining our end (skopos), by God’s gift and your assistance of us with your prayers will strive (spoudazô) to stir up the spark of divine loving desire (pothos) hidden within you according to the power given us by the Spirit. You must know that this virtue, though only one, yet as regards power accomplishes and comprehends every commandment. For, ‘the one loving me,’ the Lord says, ‘will keep my commandments’ and again, ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’.

Saint Basil, Longer Rule, 2 as quoted in Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000. 68 

Basil thus develops this philosophical term [logos spermatikos] in a specifically Christian direction, as do Justin and Origen in their different contexts. He establishes this new meaning solely in relation to human beings and their natural tendency to love God, which the Creator placed in them at their creation. Connected to this specific use of logos spermatikos, the theme of seeds is important in the Asceticon, for example in Longer Rules 3 and 8. Although Basil would have encountered these concepts in his general education, one can surmise that the main influence would have been his study of Origen during the years of seclusion in Pontus. Although Basil’s use is different from those of Origen mentioned above, it is closer to Origen’s teaching in his Homilies on the Song of Songs (II:9) where he says, ‘When the maker of the universe created you, he sowed in your hearts the seeds of love.’

Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000. 73.

I don’t intend writing detailed summaries or discussions of this book, but here are a few – by no means exhaustive – points that I’ve picked up so far:

  • Basil begins his Asceticon by stressing the primacy of love. Whereas Evagrius and Cassian, and also Saint Maximus, view love as something that is attained once one has transcended the passions, something that Saint Basil also does in the Moralia, in the Rules Basil stresses the primacy of the first and greatest commandment which illustrates the biblical orientation of his approach. Saint Benedict will draw on both these approaches in his Rule. He both begins with the command to love in chapter four and sees it as the summit of the Ladder of Humility in chapter seven.
  • Basil is clearly speaking to the “zealots” of the Church. He identifies himself with them and welcomes their zeal, but knows how to reconcile them to the Church.
  • Like the Rule of the Master, Basil speaks of a school of the Lord’s service, a theme taken up by Saint Benedict. However the phrase is unfortunately missing in Rufinus’ translation and so one cannot posit a direct influence of Saint Basil on Saint Benedict.
  • Basil has a very positive view of human nature and its potential which can sound semi-Pelagian to western ears. We should understand this as the working together in synergy of the human will and the Holy Spirit, although he does not use term explicitly.
  • Basil uses not only the characteristically New Testament term agape for love, but also the more philosophical and Platonic term pothos – translated by Holmes as ‘loving desire’ – which is orientated to the divine Beauty. Holmes suggests that it is in keeping with Basil’s high view of human nature that he should follow Origen and the Platonists in giving this natural desire a central place in the human response to God. However, he nevertheless speaks within the context of revelation and would appear to emphasise it more at some times than others.

How can the Godhead be in the flesh? In the same way as fire can be in iron: not by moving from place to place but by the one imparting to the other its own properties. Fire does not speed towards iron, but without itself undergoing any change it causes the iron to share in its own natural attributes. The fire is not diminished, and yet it completely fills whatever shares in its nature. So is it also with God the Word. He did not relinquish his own nature, and yet “he dwelt among us.” He did not undergo any change, and yet “the Word became flesh.” Earth received him from heaven, yet heaven was not deserted by him who holds the universe in being….

Let us strive to comprehend the mystery. The reason God is in the flesh is to kill the death that lurks there. As diseases are cured by medicines assimilated by the body, and as darkness in a house is dispelled by the coming of light, so death, which held sway over human nature, is done away with by the coming of God. And as ice formed on water covers its surface as long as night and darkness last but melts under the warmth of the sun, so death reigned until the coming of Christ; but when the grace of God our Savior appeared and the Sun of justice rose, death was swallowed up in victory, unable to bear the presence of true life. How great is God’s goodness, how deep his love for us!

Basil the Great, Homily on Christ’s Ancestry, 2.6, quoted in Joel C. Elowsky (ed), John 1-10, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVa (InterVarsity Press, 2006) 42.


The light shines in darkness, in this life and in the flesh, and is chased by the darkness but is not overtaken by it. By this I mean the adverse power leaping up in its shamelessness against the visible Adam but encountering God and being defeated – in order that we, putting away the darkness, may draw near to the Light and may then become perfect Light, the children of perfect Light.

Gregory of Nazianzus. On the Holy Lights, Oration 39.2, quoted in John 1-10, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVa (InterVarsity Press, 2006) 27.

A blessed Christmas to all you celebrate it tomorrow!

I’m going to take a bit of a break from blogging until next week. Well, I might post quotes if I read things that seem worth sharing, but the next chapter of Zizioulas and the various half-formed posts floating around in my head can wait awhile.

“The Word became flesh”: in this is the ultimate joy of the Christian faith. In this is the fullness of Revelation. The Same Incarnate Lord is both perfect God and perfect man. The full significance and the ultimate purpose of human existence is revealed and realized in and through the Incarnation. He came down from Heaven to redeem the earth, to unite man with God for ever. “And became man.” The new age has been initiated. We count now the “anni Domini.” As St. Irenaeus wrote: “the Son of God became the Son of Man, that man also might become the son God.” Not only is the original fullness of human nature restored or re-established in the Incarnation. Not only does human nature return to its once lost communion with God. The Incarnation is also the new Revelation, the new and further step. The first Adam was a living soul. But the last Adam is the Lord from Heaven (1 Cor. 15:47). And in the Incarnation of the Word human nature was not merely anointed with a superabundant over-flowing of Grace, but was assumed into an intimate and hypostatical unity with the Divinity itself. In that lifting up of human nature into an everlasting communion with the Divine Life, the Fathers of the early Church unanimously saw the essence of salvation, the basis of the whole redeeming work of Christ. “That is saved which is united with God,” says St. Gregory of Nazianzus. And what was not united could not be saved at all. This was his chief reason for insisting, against Appolinarius, on the fullness of human nature assumed by the Only Begotten in the Incarnation. This was the fundamental motive in the whole of early theology, in St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Maximus the Confessor. The whole history of Christological dogma was determined by this fundamental conception: the Incarnation of the Word as Redemption. In the Incarnation human history is completed. God’s eternal will is accomplished, “the mystery from eternity hidden and to angels unknown.” The days of expectation are over. The Promised and the Expected has come. And from henceforth, to use the phrase of St. Paul, the life of man “is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3)

Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption, Volume Three in the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, (Nordland, 1976). 95-96.

Being a continuation of points made in the fourth and last subsection of the fourth chapter of Being as Communion.

Fourthly, the question arises as to how we are to reconcile such a view of catholicity with the fact that the eucharistic community is itself divided into orders, i.e. categories and classes of people. In this Zizioulas is addressing problems of clericalism and anti-clericalism which he sees as more of a problem in the West than in the East. The East has traditionally been spared such problems due to its eucharistic ecclesiology, but in some places it is now threatened by them due to the replacement of this vision by later ecclesiological ideas.

Metropolitan Zizioulas argues that it is of fundamental importance that ordination occurs within the eucharistic liturgy, thus identifying all ministry as identical with that of Christ and not simply as parallel to it.

It is not an accident that the early Church applied to Christ all forms of ministries that existed. He was the apostle, the prophet, the priest, the bishop, the deacon, etc. A Christologically understood ministry transcends all categories of priority and separation that may be created by the act of ordination and “setting apart.” (163)

In such a perspective, it is impossible to understand any ministry outside the community. This does not mean that the ordained represent the community for this could still place them outside it. Moreover, it overcomes the dilemma of whether to view ministry in functional or ontological terms, for its terms of reference are basically existential.

There is no charisma that can be possessed individually and yet there is no charisma which can be conceived or operated but by individuals. (164)

However, the distinction between the individual and the community finds its proper solution in the category of personal existence.

… the paradox of the incorporation of the “many” into the “one” on which the eucharistic community, as we have seen, and perhaps the entire mystery of the Church are based can only be understood and explained in the categories of personal existence. The individual represents a category that presupposes separation and division. “Individuality makes its appearance by its differentiation from other individualities.” [Buber] The person represents a category that presupposes unity with other persons. The eucharistic community, and the Church in general, as a communion (koinonia) can only be understood in the categories of personal existence. (164-165)

This means that the “seal of the Holy Spirit” given at ordination can only exist in the context of the receiver’s existential relationship with the community. It is a “bond of love” and outside of the community it is destined to die.

It is in this light, also, that we must see the exclusive right of the bishop to ordain:

His exclusive right to ordain, in fact his whole existence as a bishop, makes no sense apart from his role as the one through whom all divisions, including those of orders, are transcended. His primary function is always to make the catholicity of the Church reveal itself in a certain place. For this he must himself be existentially related to a community. There is no ministry in the catholic Church that can exist in absoluto. (165-166)

Fifthly, this has implications for our understanding of apostolic succession which must necessarily be seen as involving not only a succession of bishops but also of their communities. The early Church not only insisted episcopal ordination occur within the eucharistic context, but also that it should state the place to which the bishop would be attached.

Moreover, the development of lists of bishops, and exclusively of bishops, in order to trace apostolic succession, together with the emergence of councils as an episcopal phenomenon, suggests

… that the idea behind them was grounded on a reality broader than the concern for proving the survival of orthodoxy, or to put it in other terms, that the concern for the survival of orthodoxy was not isolated from the broader reality of the Church’s life as a community headed by the bishop. The bishops as successors of the apostles were not perpetuators of ideas like the heads of philosophical schools, nor teacher in the same sense that presbyters were, but heads of communities whose entire life and thought they were supposed by their office to express. Their apostolic succession, therefore, should be viewed neither as a chain of individual acts of ordination nor as a transmission of truths but as a sign and an expression of the continuity of the Church’s historical life in its entirety, as was realized in each community. (167-168)

Apostolic succession therefore represents a sign of the historical dimension of the Church’s catholicity in which the charismatic and the historical are combined to transcend the divisions caused by time.

Thus the Church is revealed to be in time what she is eschatologically, namely a catholic Church which stands in history as a transcendence of all divisions into the unity of all in Christ through the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. (169)

On examining these definitions one things is clear: none of them clearly defines those with whom Basil is dealing as against ‘ordinary Christians’, as the word ‘monk’ does today. Certain texts imply a boundary, but the main boundary, as in Longer Rule 32 on the parents of brothers, is between those who live ‘kata theon’, who are devout, and the worldly. In the Asceticon, composed over two or three decades, we can see various situations and a gradual development of institutions and hardening of boundaries, but Basil’s ascetic teaching, which was also given in all its rigour in Homilies addressed to wider audiences, was addressed to all Christians. It was only in the context of later developments that the Asceticon came to be seen as a purely monastic document.

Augustine Holmes OSB. A Life Pleasing to God. The Spirituality of the Rules of St Basil. London, DLT, 2000.54

In this fourth and last subsection of chapter four of Being as Communion Metropolitan Zizioulas makes the following points that he suggests may be relevant to ecumenical discussions on catholicity.


The primary content of “catholicity” is not a moral but a Christological one. The Church is catholic, not because she is obedient to Christ, i.e. because she does certain things or behaves in a certain way. She is catholic first of all because she is the Body of Christ. Her catholicity depends not on herself but on Him. She is catholic because she is where Christ is. We cannot understand catholicity as an ecclesiological notion unless we understand it as a Christological reality. (158)

Such an understanding overcomes the problem of whether to view catholicity as a given reality or as a demand. Instead a eucharistic vision sees catholicity as a presence here and now, “so fully incarnate in history that the ontological and the ethical cease to claim priority over each other.” (159)

The Christological character of catholicity lies in the fact that the Church is catholic not as a community which aims at a certain ethical achievement (being open, serving the world, etc.) but as a community which experiences and reveals the unity of all creation insofar as this unity constitutes a reality in the person of Christ. To be sure, this experience and this revelation involve a certain catholic ethos. But there is no autonomous catholicity, no catholic ethos that can be understood in itself. It is Christ’s unity and it is His catholicity that the Church reveals in her being catholic. (159)

Secondly, revealing Christ’s whole Body in history involves encountering the demonic powers of division operative in history. Catholicity is not static but dynamic in its engagement with the anti-catholic powers of the world and requires a pneumatological dimension.

In the celebration of the eucharist, the Church very early realized that in order for the eucharistic community to become or reveal in itself the wholeness of the Body of Christ (a wholeness that would include not only humanity but the entire creation), the descent of the Holy Spirit upon this creation would be necessary. The offering up of the gifts and the whole community to the throne of God, the realization of the unity of the Body of Christ, was therefore preceded by the invocation of the Holy Spirit. (160)

The appearance of the Body of Christ in both the incarnational and ecclesiological senses is dependent on the action of the Holy Spirit. The eucharistic anamnesis that re-presents the Body of Christ depends constantly on the Holy Spirit.

This means not only that human attempts at “togetherness,” “openness,” etc., cannot constitute the catholicity of the Church, but that no plan for a progressive movement towards catholicity can be achieved on a purely historical and sociological level. The eucharistic community constitutes a sign of the fact that the eschaton can only break through history but never be identified with it. Its call to catholicity is a call not to a progressive conquest of the world but to a “kenotic” experience of the fight with the anticatholic demonic powers and a continuous dependence upon the Lord and His Spirit. A catholic Church in the world, cognizant as she may be of Christ’s victory over Satan, lives in humility and service and above all in constant prayer and worship. (161-162)

Thirdly, the ultimate essence of catholicity lies in transcending all divisions in Christ, including the dichotomies that have become part of Christian tradition but which are a betrayal of a catholic outlook, such as dichotomies between secular and sacred, and body and soul.

In such a catholic outlook the entire problem of the relationship of the Church to the world receives a different perspective. The separation and juxtaposition of the two can have no essential meaning because there is no point where the limits of the Church can be objectively and finally drawn. There is a constant interrelation between the Church and the world, the world being God’s creation and never ceasing to belong to Him and the Church being the community which through the descent of the Holy Spirit transcends in herself the world and offers it to God in the eucharist. (162)

To be continued…

I have recently read the account of Archimandrite Placide Deseille’s conversion to Orthodoxy. Well, “read” might not be the best word as it is in French and my French leaves much to be desired. But, although I didn’t have time to sit with a dictionary and read it all carefully, I understood enough to find it interesting. Father Placide was a Cistercian monk (of Bellefontaine in France) and one of the leading scholars of the Order and so I have always been rather curious about his story. While there are aspects to it with which I am less than entirely comfortable, notably his rebaptism on Mount Athos, I must admit that his tone is more irenic than I had been led to believe. It is also fascinating for the light that it sheds on Cistercian life in the middle decades of the twentieth centuries. He speaks with fondness and appreciation for his superiors and formators and the grounding that he received in the Fathers of the Church and the monastic tradition. But this appreciation for the Fathers was not shared by everyone: he tells of one superior who, while admitting that there were good things in the Fathers, argued that there was no true theology in the Church before Saint Thomas Aquinas and no mysticism before Saint Bernard, and even that had to wait until Saint John of the Cross before reaching maturity! Perhaps the less said about that the better.

What I find interesting though is his discussion of what happened to the preconciliar biblical, liturgical and patristic renewal. He writes:

I expected much of these efforts but two things disturbed me. On the one hand, they clearly had a limited audience and did not reach the majority of French diocesan clergy. On the other hand, a powerful and vital party in the Roman Church was engaged in the Catholic Action movement and in pastoral research emerging from the worker priest movement. I was moved by a real sympathy for the multitude of initiatives and the undeniable apostolic fervour that they expressed. But at the same time I was aware that, despite the partial convergence, the climate there was different to that of the biblical and patristic renewal. The praxis of Catholic Action implied an ecclesiology that was without doubt that of the Counter Reformation and which did not sit easily with that of the ancient Church. One also saw in this movement a tendency to the types of celebrations that were foreign to the spirit of the traditional liturgies. I encountered in all this a new incarnation of modern Catholicism rather than living return to the sources which would have demanded a radical renewal.

I did not sufficiently appreciate that it was the second current, rather than the first, that represented the real logic of modern Catholicism and which would in all likelihood neutralise and supplant the other tendencies. I was hoping that the dry bones would revive, that all that the traditional elements that the Roman Church had conserved in its institutions and liturgy would be rediscovered as a tonic to nourish modern humanity. I was hoping that everything of the Catholicism of the Counter Reformation that was alien to the great tradition of the Church would give way to a resurrection of the “Western Orthodoxy” of the first centuries as a result of the meeting of the ancient heritage and the living forces of the present.

While he welcomed the Council “with great joy,” he gradually realised the ambiguity of the various currents of ideas and his hopes for a return to the sources began to fade. The Council did not so much cause this as reveal what was going on. Much of the traditional institutions, and to a certain extent the liturgy, was able to survive because of strong central power. But people, especially the clergy, had to a large extent lost the deeper meaning and this would lead to a rebuilding on a new basis.

While the rapid disintegration of twentieth century Catholicism was troubling, Father Placide came to realise that it had deeper roots and was part of a certain logic of Catholicism itself.

This led me to reflect on the religious history of the West, and especially on the profound changes that one can identify in all areas between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. In this period one sees changes in the institutions of the Church (notably the understanding of the papacy in the Gregorian reform), the sacramental rites (abandoning baptism by emersion, communion under two species, the deprecative formula for absolution etc.), doctrine (introduction of the Filioque in the Symbol, development of the scholastic method in theology). At the same time one saw the appearance of a new religious art that was naturalistic and broke with the canons of traditional Christian art that were elaborated during the course of the patristic period.

(If anyone is interested, Aaron Taylor of Logismoi recently posted on an essay of Fr Placide Deseille on Orthodoxy and Catholicism).

And through the invocation the overshadowing power of the Holy Ghost becomes a rainfall for this new cultivation. For just as all things whatsoever God made he made by the operation of the Holy Ghost, so also it is by the operation of the Spirit that these things are done which surpass nature and cannot be discerned except by faith alone. “How shall this be done to me,” asked the blessed Virgin, “because I know not a man?” The archangel Gabriel answered, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you.” And now you ask how the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine and water the blood of Christ. And I tell you that the Holy Ghost comes down and works these things which are beyond description and understanding.

John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith 4.13, quoted in Arthur A Just (ed), Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III, (Intervarsity Press, 2003) 19.

Next Page »