Boris Bobrinskoy

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

The journey towards the heart, and to the transformation of our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit who renews the Image of God in us, is not something that we engage upon as isolated individuals. There is a saying that we fall alone, but that we are saved together. For Orthodox Christians, our understanding of Christian life is fundamentally ecclesial. We do not distinguish between what some call “the institutional Church” and some sort of disembodied religious experience. Rather, it is in and through the visible, historically mediated Body of Christ – with all her historical limitations and particularities – that we encounter Christ and work out our salvation. And this Church is most fully encountered in the Eucharistic celebration of the Divine Liturgy, presided over by our bishop – or someone delegated by him – who is the bond of unity connecting us to the rest of the Church, both throughout the world and throughout the centuries.

It is in the Divine Liturgy that we most fully encounter both the Mystery of the Church and the nature of our salvation in Christ. For here we find the recapitulation of the entire history of salvation, enabling us to enter into it and become truly present to the saving works of Christ. But the Liturgy is about more than just history, however, for it also leads us into the future, enabling us to glimpse a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. By offering our lives together with the Holy Gifts that are offered on the altar, and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, we become true participants in His Mysteries. In the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor:

Just as wine mingles in all the members of the one who drinks it and is transformed in him and he in wine, so does the one who drinks the Blood of Christ quench his thirst with the divine Spirit who commingles with his soul and the soul with Him. For through the Eucharist, those who commune with dignity reach the ability to partake of the Holy Spirit, and in this manner souls can live continually.

For Orthodox Christians, there is a correlation between the public Liturgy of the Church and the inner Liturgy of the heart. We cannot separate the “outer” and the “inward’ and the prayer, transformation and intercession that occurs on the inner altar of the heart both mirrors and is a mirror of, the Liturgy of the Church which is offered for the whole world. To quote Father Boris Bobrinskoy once more:

personal sanctification restores the human being to the liturgical function and vocation to encompass the entire world, the totality of humankind, in a pacified and loving heart. Sanctification restores the liturgical and royal mediation of the human person in a world shot through with waves of hatred and death, obscured by the powers of darkness, a world that groans and waits for the liberation of the children of God (Rom 8:21). Inner transformation of the human heart necessarily restores the sacramental function of the Church, which is to unite all human life to the mystery of the dead and risen Christ and to become transparent to the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit. *

The Compassion of the Father109.

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

We have seen that prayer and the life of faith involves our bodies and all of our senses. Yet it also involves words and the Orthodox Church is insistent on the use of the right words. Sometimes people who are interested in Orthodoxy because they see it as “mystical” can get rather disillusioned when they realise how many (often rather long) verbal prayers we have. Yet this is what teaches us to pray. Father Georges Florosky writes:

It has often been suggested, by many authorities and expert masters of spiritual life, that ‘prayer books’, the fixed formularies of worship, are only intended for the beginners. This is undoubtedly true if the statement is properly understood. Fixed formulae are, of course, no more than a means towards something much greater. Yet they are an appropriate means. It is spiritually dangerous to neglect the ‘books’, to dispense with them hastily, and to indulge arbitrarily in extempore improvisations of one’s own composition. It is more than merely a question of discipline. The settled formulae not only help to fix the attention, but also feed the heart and mind of the worshippers, offering topics for meditation and reminding them of the mighty deeds of God. There is no room for psychologism or subjectivism in Christian worship.” *

There is a fundamental relationship between words and silence in our prayer. It has sometimes struck me as interesting that it is precisely those religious traditions that are most insistent on the use of the right words (and the right ritual and gesture), and who resist the idea that we should make things up as we go along, that are most aware of the limitation of words. For it is the task of words to lead us to silence, to the place where words break down and we are face to face with the One who is beyond all words. The Orthodox life of prayer uses words extensively, both in its public liturgy and in private prayer. Their use is not arbitrary, there is a lot of repetition, and we certainly don’t make them up as we go along. And yet their purpose is to lead us beyond themselves, for, as Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Speech is the organ of this present age. Silence is the mystery of the world to come.”

This same relationship between words and silence is seen in the use of the Jesus prayer. This short prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” – is seen as one of the treasures of Orthodox life although its use also varies. It is often thought of as a mantra but, while it may have external similarities with mantras in other religious traditions, being a short phrase that is repeated, we would see it not as a mantra but as a prayer that sums up the fundamental Christian approach to God. It is addressed to Christ, acknowledges Him as the Son of God, and is a plea for mercy on the part of those who are aware of their own sinfulness. Yet these are no mere words, but, constantly repeated, become the expression of our whole relationship to God.

For, at the centre of any life of prayer is not what we do, but rather what happens to us and what we become. It is how we encounter the reality of the world, including the reality of suffering in the world. For the early Fathers, prayer was about entering into the depths of our hearts, allowing our hearts to be broken open so that the presence of God may purify and heal us and so that we may in turn become a source of healing for others. Father Boris Bobrinskoy writes:

Living the life of Christ, letting oneself be penetrated by His Spirit, by His breath of mercy, constitutes Christianity. According to the Bible, that means acquiring the bowels of compassion and tenderness of the Father. According to the second chapter of Philippians, it presupposes having the same feelings as Jesus Christ, not in the sense of mimicry or external imitation, but a true “transfer” on a plane more important and fundamental than the psychological level. A transfer of presence, of life center, of grace and love must operate in us so that we might live in Christ, and Christ might live in us. Certainly, this transfer operates in a global, constant, and progressive manner, through the sacramental life, love, prayer, and faith. For us Christians, the Church is the place of apprenticeship of this transfer: its entire pedagogy, its sacramental and liturgical transmission, its spiritual methodology, and its ascetic experience of the inner life, what the Fathers call the unseen warfare against the passions. **

To be continued…

* “The Worshipping Church” in The Festal Menaion, 32.

** The Compassion of the Father, 87.

This is another essay that I wrote a few years ago, shortly before I became Orthodox, and never got to publishing. I thought that it may be worth publishing it here as it relates to things that I also keep coming across here and so have expanded and updated it slightly in the hope that it may be helpful.  Of course, there is more that can be said on related matters if I ever get to it…

A few years ago, while I was still in the Netherlands, I became aware of a certain media interest in monasticism. Despite their declining numbers and the secularization of society, monasteries continued to fascinate people and had even become rather fashionable destinations for those in search of some sort of inner peace.

What struck me then about this phenomenon was that it was fundamentally redefining monasticism. I read an article that managed to explain the meaning of monasticism for a broad public without once mentioning God or Christ. Instead, it told us that monastics withdraw from society in order to search for silence, for the heart of their life is concerned with what happens in this silence.

That silence is important for the monastic life is indisputable. But for a concept such as “silence” to come to define monasticism, even to the point of replacing any reference to God, is at the very least rather problematic. For Saint Benedict, the necessary condition for becoming a monk was that one truly sought God. Silence can be an important means by which we seek God, but we also need to ask ourselves what silence means. Is silence something neutral? How and with what is silence filled? What is the relationship between word and silence? Is the silence of a Christian monastery different to that of a Buddhist monastery? And what is it that actually happens in the silence?

Since coming back to South Africa, I have become aware that there is a similar dynamic at work among many people who are seeking after “spirituality” – something that I keep hoping to write more about. All too often I have seen references to retreats, courses, groups, and “inspirational” quotes (I could name names but I won’t) that originate in a Christian context but would seem to replace any specifically Christian content with a reference to silence, or solitude, or the absolute. An experience of this silence is what we are told that we need to seek, often by contrasting it to dogma which is invariably viewed in negative terms. But, once more, what is this silence? What is its relationship to Christian tradition and to dogma? (more…)

When St Basil was attempting to define the hypostatic qualities of the Holy Spirit, he could find no other words than hagiasmos or hagiosyne, meaning “sanctification” or “holiness.” It is difficult, therefore, to speak of the Spirit without taking into account his work of sanctification, but it is no less difficult to speak of the Church’s holiness without evoking the Holy Spirit, the source and power of sanctification. It sheds light on the whole final section of the Creed: the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the body and eternal life. Sanctification is not only moral sanctification, it is the sharing of divine life, of eternal life, of the resurrection. It is the very mark of the Spirit on the flesh itself, on all of human nature, the gift of incorruptibility, of deification.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Church: A Course in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, 133.

I haven’t started reading this book properly yet, but was looking through it today, came across this, and thought it worth sharing!

What is essential to remember, here [in the thought of St Irenaeus], is, on the one hand, the double movement of the Father who sends the Spirit on creation through the Son, but also of the Spirit who returns and brings the creature back to the Father, also through the Son. The Son will always be the mediator in all things; man’s entire life, his most incarnate, most fleshly human existence, will be summoned and made capable of being transparent to the action of the Spirit. Consequently, the Holy Spirit knows no boundaries in His work of permeating, of penetrating, precisely, this flesh or this human being He must soften, which He must constitute into one bread, one body, the Body of Christ. … It is the same action of the Holy Spirit on the Son and on the Church; it is the same action of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments and in man himself. Man too, to the degree that he becomes conformed to Christ, in the Church, through the Holy Spirit, becomes, in turn, “sacrament”: he becomes a sacrament of the new life, which means that his body rediscovers why it was created. The totality of the human psycho-physical composite, our entire created reality is capable of being penetrated, of being filled with the divine life. If the sacraments are symbols, if they are signs, they are this because the human body, man’s natural being, is this in the first place. I would call this the anthropological finality, and the continuity of the sacraments in the life and in the building up of the new man.

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 205-206.

The Spirit is the Great Forerunner of Jesus whose coming into our heart He prepares; He hides behind His own gifts: the new state of grace, of sweetness and joy, of the good fragrance of Christ whose aroma the Spirit is. Lastly, the Spirit constitutes the mystery of the human person, in the image of the One Hypostasis of the Incarnate Word. In this human person, the Spirit blends, fades out and asserts Himself; He prays in us (Gal 4:6) and Rom 8:26) and we in Him (Rom 8:15); he hollows out in our being a growing space where the Kingdom of Jesus is renewed, where “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:2).

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 194

Orthodox as well as Catholic and Protestant scholastic theologies have been greatly distorted when they present eschatology as being concerned exclusively with the end of man and the world, in a perspective that is strictly linear and futuristic – either individual, or cosmic, or universal, but always “far away” and unreal. The gap between this futuristic eschatology of our textbooks, and frequently of our teaching, and the inaugurated or realized eschatology of the New Testament and of the ecclesial and liturgical life is enormous and dramatic. In our day, Fr. Alexander Schmemann has been able to reevaluate the eschatological dimension of worship and of the Eucharist. After him, John Zizioulas has endeavored, in turn, to emphasize the eschatological aspect of the eucharistic gathering of the Lord present in His Church.

To summarize in a few words the meaning of the New Testament and ecclesial eschaton (end), in order to apply it to the liturgical reality, I would translate it at the same time by the term “ultimate,” but also “end” (telos) and lastly, “fullness” (plêrôma). The conjunction, or convergence of these various meanings allows us to give the biblical eschaton its qualitative as well as its linear content. This qualitative sense of fullness and end characterizes the coming of the Savior, His entire work of redemption, and His life-giving presence in the Church. It is to this last aspect, the ecclesial and permanent mode of eschatology, that is, to the presence of the One who comes, that I would like to devote this chapter.

The Ascension of the Savior and the historical Pentecost (Acts 2) are two events that mark a boundary between the evangelical mode of the presence of Christ (manifested in the flesh, 1 Tim 3:16), and the ecclesial mode of this presence. If during the time of His life on earth, the Savior was the favourite, plenary locus of the presence of the Spirit, from then on the Spirit, who animates the ecclesial body of Christ, is, in turn, the locus, the proper space of the presence of Christ, of “the One who is, who was, and who is to come.” John Zizioulas recalled forcefully the “constituent” role of the Holy Spirit in the human life of Christ, on the one hand, and, on the other, in His sacramental and ecclesial presence.

…believers find themselves imprisoned in a space, a hermetically closed temporality, according to which the multiple existence of Christ concerns us, certainly, but as if from the outside, because Christ anticipates us, precedes us in history, overarches us in His heavenly glory and lets us wait for Him, without too much impatience, in a second coming that is ultimately very distant, even unreal. Such are the contours not only of our religious psychology, individual or collective, of our ecclesial societies – but such is also the hallmark of our cold, conceptual, scholastic theologies.

All this is, alas, in the “natural” order of things. It is difficult to speak abstractly of the ecclesial presence of Christ, to profess it apart from the fire of the Spirit, just as it is only in the blazing of the eucharistic Pentecost that “boldly and without condemnation we may dare to call upon God the Father, and to say, ‘Our Father.’”

Only in the liturgical action of the Eucharist does the One whose existence seemed far away and abstract, come near, in the liturgical action of the liturgy and in its inner and caritative correlations, that is, in the liturgy of the heart, and in the liturgy of mercy. Only then are the tight, spatial-temporal boundaries of the past, of the celestial and of the future, abolished in the presence of “the One who is, who was, and who is to come.”

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 169, 170-171.

The theological undertaking is always conditioned by the human problems – political, cultural, philosophic, religious – in which theology moves, and in which are as many question marks, existential, not theoretical, about the faith and the Gospel. Through such questioning, the Church is contested in her ultimate hope and in the expression of her faith. This contestation occurs at the precise point where the Church and the world meet – a world to which the Church is simultaneously consubstantial and heterogenous, leading to a necessary ambiguity, an unavoidable tension.

This whole situation of the Church and of theology at the frontier between God and the world will be reflected particularly in the language of theology, where the Church gives an account of her faith, of her hope, of her knowledge of the trinitarian God. This language is “capable of God” (capax Dei), but, at the same time, always inadequate, having to undergo itself the baptism of fire, of dying to human wisdom, to be reborn to “God’s folly” (1 Cor 1:25), even to the point of martyrdom and the profession of blood.

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 197.

I am told: “Father Boris, you specialize in the Holy Spirit!” What horror! I specialize in the Holy Spirit. . .How is this to be !!! You feel that you want to laugh and cry! Here one must be very careful and at the same time to know that a genuine theologian, coming towards his personal experience and that of the whole Church which he absorbs within himself and at the same time does not have an aversion for scholarly research. One thing helps the other to make certain that erudition does not overshadow spiritual experience and humility.

The whole problem of our theological development results in that the individual becomes a complete being through the union of reason, will, love and faith. The Lord waits for us to open our hearts to him When we open our hearts to the Lord, he gradually enters into it and it is from the heart that the fecundation and enlivening of every cell of the brain, nerves and feelings comes from. A gradual enlightenment and tranquility of our being is engendered. A genuine spiritual experience is from the heart which does not at alll mean something sentimental or something felt. The heart is the root of spiritual being. Thou shalt love your Lord and God with your whole heart and your whole soul and your whole mind! When we speak of the heart, we speak about that place which embraces and unites our whole being. When we come under God’s will, God is revealed through the Word which penetrates to the depth of the heart, and God’s Word needs to grow within us, and be united with us as one. When the Word of God dwells within us then every word of ours becomes a reflection of God’s Word.

We are responsible for the world, for people, for those who have not as yet encountered Christ or who rejected him, who struggle with him or renounce him. In this respect the Church must generate in us a sense of compassion, a feeling of profound responsibility for the world which God so loved that he sent his only-begotten Son, that everyone who believes in him would not perish but have eternal life. Thus you see, if we are in Christ then, being in Christ we love and experience the fate of the whole world. In this sense we should reflect on the words of the Elder Siluan or some parts in Isaac Syrene. These saints burned with love for the whole of humanity and the whole creation.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy, in an interview with Alexander Nikiforov in which he discusses theology, Christian life, the Church, developments in Russian theology, and participation in the Eucharist. Translated by Fr. Alvian Smirensky, and kindly posted by Bishop Seraphim here.

The last post was the final post in my reading of Father Boris Bobrinskoy’s The Compassion of the Father. I have added it to my “Completed Series” page and include the links to all the posts here for those who are interested. 

(Please note that my posting on Father Alexander Schmemann’s The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdomis temporarily suspended as I was reading a borrowed copy which I had to leave in the Netherlands. But I fully intend getting my own copy once I can afford it and I hope that posting will continue before too long!)

The Compassion of the Father

Posts from my reading of Boris Bobrinskoy’s The Compassion of the Father. (Crestwood, N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003). (June-October 2009)

Towards a Transparency to the Holy Trinity: The Life and Work of Father Boris Bobrinskoy, by Maxime Egger

Facing Evil and Suffering

1. The Lamb of God Takes upon Himself Human Suffering

2. Love for Enemies in the Gospel

3. The Mystery of Forgiveness

The Liturgy of the Heart

4. The Prayer of the Heart and Suffering

5. The Art of the Invocation of the Name

6. The Inner Eucharist

Towards the Knowledge of God

7. Theology and Spirituality

8. The Theology of Language and the Language of Theology

9. Sacred Tradition and Human Traditions


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