What can we learn from the Fathers, seen this time as fellow participants in times of radical change? Norman Baines, the renowned Byzantinist from earlier on in the last century, once remarked that what struck him as a historian about the early Christian movement was a stark asceticism and a staggering confidence, a stark asceticism and a staggering confidence. It seems to me that these two go together and that together they explained how the Fathers lived through periods of dramatic change without being discouraged or dispirited, indeed rather the contrary, for the Fathers became spokesmen for what was being created and refined in the crucible of the times through which they lived.
The confidence was founded on God. But not just on a confidence in His guiding providence in general terms. The Fathers believed that God, who had created and governs the world through His Word, had made Himself part of that world by assuming humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the Incarnation, God had lived and died as a human being and by death had conquered death and in the Resurrection given life to humankind. This was the core of their faith as it is the core of our faith, as we sing constantly during the period of Easter, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death He has trampled on death and to those in the graves given life.”
And that gift of life, they, the Fathers, took very seriously. This gift of life was the gift of the life of the Triune Godhead, the life that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit share in their consubstantial communion with each other. So, as God had become human in Christ, so in Christ we humans are called to become God, to be deified. And that confidence demanded asceticism, a stark asceticism answering to a staggering confidence. For the life that we live in this fallen world is far from the divine life promised in Christ. It’s even far from the truly human life that Adam and Eve were to have lived in paradise. It is, as the women of Canterbury constantly bewail and lament in T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, “living and partly living.”
If we are to grasp and experience the divine life of the godhead, then we have to destroy death in our own lives, the death that makes our own living no more than partly living. And that demands a lifetime of ascesis, training, or perhaps better what the root of that Greek word suggests, to work in raw materials as an artist does, to create and fashion something beautiful out of the raw materials of human living and human loving, of hoping and fearing, of longing and experiencing. Asceticism is often understood in a negative way, as a matter of denial. But that denial is only demanded by the presence of the negative in our fallen human life, a negative that needs to be excised, cut out, so as to make evident the beauty of God’s original creation and beyond that the beauty of the divine life that is offered us through the Incarnation. To be able to distance ourselves from the negativity of the corruption and death that cast their shadow over human lives lived apart from God is to find freedom, that freedom that is the fruit of the Fathers’ stark asceticism and manifest in their staggering confidence, a freedom that enabled them to keep their eyes on the vision of God’s transfiguring glory while living in a society bewildered and often defeatist, with its ancient certainties eroded and crumbling. It is that freedom that we need to grasp and experience and the Fathers offer themselves as our guides to the confidence in God and this corresponding practice of asceticism that is its basis.
Father Andrew Louth, lecture on “The relevance of the Church Fathers Today”
As anyone who has been reading this blog for more than a couple of months knows, Father Louth is eminently worth reading. Now it turns out that he is also worth listening to!