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 six- seven-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 something of the “big picture” of what we believe Christian life is all about. Created in the Image of God, our whole life is a journey towards the restoration of that Image in us, in which, through cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit we may become Spirit bearers who radiate the Light of Christ. The question remains, however, how we are to do this, for we need to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit, actively struggling to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)

This process of transformation is what we understand as a life of repentance. Sin and repentance can be difficult topics to address in our contemporary society, for too often people associate them with a crippling guilt which would seem to deny our God-given dignity, making us feel like worthless sinners who cannot do anything good. Yes, sin is a reality in our world, and we need to acknowledge that. But, more fundamentally, sin is something that Christ comes to save us from and repentance is not about feeling guilty but about changing our lives so that they might become transparent to God.

In an Orthodox understanding, sin is not seen so much in legal terms as having broken laws and thus incurring God’s wrath, but rather as having missed the mark, of being aware that our lives are not what they were meant to be. There is a fundamental brokenness that runs through our lives which we are not able to put right on our own. Repentance means learning our need for God and our dependence on Him. It is recognising that we are sick and in need of healing. It is to pray, as Saint Macarius teaches us, “Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy!” or simply, “Lord help!” And we are able to do this because, no matter what our sins, God does not abandon us.

A soldier asked Abba Mius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, ‘Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?’ He replied, ‘No, I mend it and use it again.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about His creature?’

Repentance involves coming to acknowledge the truth about ourselves – a gradual process as we grow in self knowledge and are able to begin to recognise the ways in which we have become adept at deceiving ourselves. This is no purely intellectual exercise, but is rather about getting in touch with what Scripture and the Fathers call the heart, that centre of our being that is the core of our consciousness and desires. As Saint Macarius the Great wrote:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

Repentance involves mourning for our sins, but the Fathers speak of it, if it is genuine, as a joyful mourning, for it is a mourning that liberates and frees us, enabling us to move forward to greater knowledge of God and of ourselves. At the beginning of Lent we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and in the Lenten texts we identify ourselves with them, recognising that our human life is in many ways an experience of exile, for we have lost our true home and our true identity. And yet this very recognition is the beginning of a desire to return home, and our whole journey to Easter is a journey to that home, to the victory of Christ, the New Adam, who in his own flesh conquers death.

Metropolitan Hierotheos continues his discussion of Orthodoxy as a therapeutic science in Orthodox Psychotherapy by arguing that if Christianity is chiefly something that heals, then the same should be said for theology. Orthodox theology is both the fruit of therapy and also points the way to therapy.

Theologians, in an Orthodox understanding, are those who have been healed. His Eminence quotes Saint Gregory the Theologian who claimed that theology is “for those who have been examined and are passed masters in the vision of God and who have previously been purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified.” (31) Moreover, Saint Neilos the Ascetic (Evagrius of Pontus)* linked theology with prayer, especially noetic prayer, stating “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (more…)

I decided to start reading Orthodox Psychotherapy by Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos for Lent. I don’t know how much blogging I will do on this, but I am going to try. I had thought of reading this book quite a while ago but had been a bit put off for two reason – partly the negative reaction of someone else, whose judgements I have since learnt to take with a certain caution, and partly because I had assumed from the title that it is a book about Orthodoxy and psychology. I have nothing against such books but, not having much background in psychology, it is a genre that I have not yet got into.

However, on closer perusal it became clear that the title is misleading – it does not refer to the modern practice of psychotherapy, but rather to its literal meaning, namely the cure of the soul, or the healing of the person. Essential this is a book about the Orthodox understanding of spiritual life.

In his opening chapter Metropolitan Hierotheos outlines that Christianity, and especially the Orthodox understanding of it, is a therapeutic science. He begins by asking what Christianity is and argues that it is not a philosophy or a religion in the sense that these are normally understood today. It is not a abstract speculation, nor is it a way to placate God or ensure a place in the afterlife. Rather it is the revelation of God and the vision of the uncreated Light which enables us to participate in the Kingdom of God here and now.

It offers life, transforms biological life, sanctifies and transforms societies. Where Orthodoxy is lived in the right way and in the Holy Spirit, it is a communion of God and men, of heavenly and earthly, of the living and the dead. In this communion all the problems which present themselves in our life are truly resolved. (25) (more…)

Jesus took the girl’s hand, healed her, and ordered that she should be given something to eat. This is evidence of life, so that not an apparition but the truth may be believed. Blessed is he whose hand Wisdom holds. I wish that righteousness held my acts and my hands. I want the Word of God to hold me, bring me into his closet, turn away the spirit of error, replace it with that of salvation, and order that I be given something to eat! The Word of God is the Bread of heaven. The Wisdom that filled the holy altar with the divine body and blood says, “Come, eat of my bread, and drink wine that I have mixed for you.”

Saint Ambrose of Milan, Exposition on the Gospel of Luke 6.63-64, quoted in Arthur A. Just (ed). Luke (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture)  146.

Since posting on my response to Evangelicals and the substitutionary atonement, I seem to have got involved in some discussions with some Evangelicals. I am still trying to work out whether this is a good thing or not, but it has prompted me to want to post something on Orthodox understandings of salvation. I recently listened to a lecture on “Salvation in Christ” by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia. This was part of The Way course, (which I have been meaning to post about, but that will have to wait). In any case, it seemed like a worthwhile introduction to the topic of how salvation should be understood in Christian tradition and so I decided to summarise it and make it available here. Part of my motivation in doing so is that many western Christians, perhaps particularly in South Africa, seem to automatically identify salvation with the substitutionary atonement theory. Or, when they come to reject that, they move into something totally subjective. And if I can help to make people aware that the Tradition is actually broader and deeper than these rather sterile alternatives, then that will probably be a good thing. In any case, I’m posting this here. It’s long, but is worth reading….

Metropolitan Kallistos begins recounting a rather typical story of being asked “Are you saved?” by a man on a train. How is one to answer such a question? And how are we to understand Christian salvation?

He then proceeds by pointing out that the New Testament does not provide a single way of understanding the saving work of Christ, but rather “a whole series of images and symbols set side by side. They are symbols of profound meaning and power, yet for the most part they are not explained but left to speak for themselves.” He suggests that we should not isolate any one image of Christ’s work but should rather view them together. In this talk he will highlight possible models of salvation, but these are not exhaustive.

Underlying all six models is one fundamental truth, namely that “Jesus Christ, as our Saviour, has done something for us that we could not do alone and by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves; we need help. … We could not come to God, so He has come to us.”


Now in the narrative of the paralytic a number of people are brought forward for healing. Jesus’ words of healing are worthy of reflection. The paralytic is not told, “Be healed.” He is not told, “Rise and walk.” But he is told, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven you.” The paralytic is a descendent of the original man, Adam. In one person, Christ, all the sins of Adam are forgiven. In this case the person to be healed is brought forward by ministering angels. In this case, too, he is called a son, because he is God’s first work. The sins of his soul are forgiven him, and pardon of the first transgression is granted. We do not believe the paralytic committed any sin [that resulted in his illness], especially since the Lord said elsewhere that blindness from birth had not been contracted from someone’s sin or that of his parents. …

Furthermore, so it could be understood that he was in a body and that he could forgive sins and restore health to bodies, Jesus said, “That you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” then he said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your pallet and go home.” First he granted remission of sins; next he showed his ability to restore health. Then, with the taking up of the pallet, he made it clear that bodies would be free from infirmity and suffering; lastly, with the paralytic’s return to his home he showed that believers are being given back the way to paradise from which Adam, the parent of all, who became profligate from the stain of sin, had preceded.

 Hilary of Poitiers in Manlio Simonetti (ed), Matthew 1-13 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), (InterVarsity Press, 2001) 174, 175.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion of Christ’s confronting the reality of human sin and suffering in the first chapter of The Compassion of the Father by showing that, for the Fathers and particularly John of Damascus, Jesus took on the blameless or natural passions, banishing sin from them

through the very brazier of divine love, the fire of the Holy Spirit burning in Jesus. This fire stigmatizes and consumes all temptations, every evil power, and any external evil suggestion. These can never become embedded in the citadel of the human heart of Jesus, the preeminent trinitarian dwelling. (58)

However, this passable condition was not a source of sin for Jesus, for he suffered freely and remained open.

The Incarnation of the Son of God recalls the glorious, even paschal, aspect of His entire life. The light and joy of the Resurrection rebound on His earthly life from the time of the Nativity, even when His divine glory is hidden. He is filled with the power of the Spirit: healings and signs follow one another, compassion is poured out, and demons are chased away. “I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Jn 10:18). The Orthodox Liturgy exalts all the moments of Jesus earthly life from His birth, the advent of salvation itself. Even there, the cross and kenōsis are not forgotten or bracketed, but the kenōsis of Jesus, from stage to stage, is never a victory of darkness over light. (59)

When he reaches adulthood, Jesus is sent forth by the Spirit to accomplish the will of the Father, taking the sins of humanity onto Himself.

“He made Him to be sin”: this terse Semitic formulary unhampered by scholastic theological distinctions expresses the mystery of the descent of the Just One into sin, into suffering – the one whom no one could convict of sin (Jn 18:23).

Jesus takes upon Himself the transgressions of the multitude and thereby diverts the anger of God. The Adamic temptations are redone, and Satan unloads them with all his power onto Jesus, who is permeated by the Spirit and the bearer of a divine identity that remains an impenetrable mystery to the spirit of darkness. The temptations in the desert are spectacular, visible moments of the unceasing and permanent combat Jesus wages in our name against the darkness that ebbs and flows, sometimes with forceful outbursts that seem to defy life.” (60-61)

Death is both the consequence and the antidote of sin but we should not isolate any of the images that Scripture uses about redemption. Christ has consumed the infernal roots of sin “and extracted its sting. The seed of justice sprouts in our humanity, which Christ bears…” (61)

Let us not be afraid to speak of the death of Jesus – and of His resurrection – as a sacrifice because the sacrifice is an essential aspect of the love of the Father and the Son. The Father required no sacrifice to appease His wrath – this image of the Father’s wrath is secondary in the Bible. Rather, this is a sacrifice of offering, of descent and then of ascent, in search of the lost sheep. It is a sacrifice of consecration, of the exorcising of human nature corrupted by sin, of the healing of humanity sick through sin, and of the consolation of humanity bewildered in loneliness, far from the sources of living water. Jesus reaches and heals the intimate depths of humanity. This is a sacrifice of reintegration by which all of creation is brought back to the Father. (62)

This work of mercy, healing, compassion and forgiveness is continued in the Church. The Church perpetuates the kenōsis of the Risen One. In the Eucharist we become contemporary to the events of salvation. Our sins tear the garments of the Saviour, but our sufferings always ascend to the throne of God. Sin and suffering retain a residue of “non-sense” and of scandal that we are invited to enter into:

The saints have imitated the unblemished, defenceless Lamb and, like Him, have become vulnerable to love, violent in love, stronger than death. The countless suffering of the living and deceased members of the Church witness to the Lamb. It is in Jesus alone that our suffering also becomes a sacrament; it becomes this to the extent that our hearts and bodies are slowly and painfully purified of the germs of passions – sins that dwell in us and render us resistant to love. (64)

We should, however, be wary of speaking of beneficial suffering or of objectifying the sufferings of others. The challenge is rather to learn to look with compassion which we learn through the apprenticeship of prayer and the apprenticeship of love.

When we follow the path of Jesus, we learn how to offer our own hearts to God. It is then that the heart opens and fortifies itself in the spirit of compassion. The human being is able to be filled with the misery of the world, to carry it on his or her shoulders, and to lay it down before the throne of God. But our hearts are weak and inconstant. Given up to ourselves, we tend to close up, to protect ourselves from suffering – which is always too great – to ignore or forget it. Nonetheless, this same heart is called to love, to compassion, to mercy. It can only respond to this call by merging into the heart of Jesus. That requires, as a precondition, a purification, an exorcising of the evil that is in us, in all forms. The evil in the world can be exorcised and burned only to the extent that the roots of evil which lie in our own hearts are exorcised, banished, and burned, consumed in the face-to-face with Jesus, with His Name, His Cross, and His Spirit. “This type of spirit can be driven out only by praying and by fasting” (Mt 17:22). (66)

So too he placed mud upon you, that is, modesty, prudence, and consideration of your frailty. … You went, you washed, you came to the altar, you began to see what you had not seen before. This means: Through the font of the Lord and the preaching of the Lord’s passion, your eyes were then opened. You who seem to have been blind in heart began to see the light of the sacraments.

Ambrose. The Sacraments. 3.15 quoted in Thomas C. Oden & Christopher A. Hall (ed), Mark, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 2005) 103.

Today’s Gospel according to the Roman Lectionary is Saint Mark’s account of the healing of the blind man (Mk 8: 22-26).

No seas were ever so troubled by the ebb and flow of the tide, as the mind of this woman, pulled to and fro by the sway of her thoughts. After all the hopeless strivings of physicians, after all her outlay on useless remedies, after all the usual but useless treatment, when skill and experience had so long failed, all her substance was gone. This was not by chance, but divinely ordered, that she might be healed solely through faith and humility, whom human knowledge had failed through so many years. At a little distance apart from him stood this woman, whom nature had filled with modesty, whom the law had declared unclean, saying of her: She shall be unclean and shall touch no holy thing. She fears to touch, lest she incur the anger of the religious leaders, or the condemnation of the law. For fear of being talked about, she dares not to speak, lest she embarrass those about her, lest she offend their ears. Through many years her body has been an arena of suffering. Every day, unceasing pain she can endure no more. The Lord is passing by so quickly. The time is short to think what she must do, aware that healing is not given to the silent, nor to the one who hides her pain. In the midst of her conflicting thoughts, she sees a way, her sole way of salvation. She would secure her healing by stealth, take in silence what she dares not ask for, guarding her respect and modesty. She who feels unworthy in body, draws near in heart to the physician. In faith she touches God. With her hand she touches his garment, knowing that both healing and forgiveness may be bestowed on this stratagem, undertaken due to the demands of modesty, and not as she otherwise would have preferred. She knew the gain she sought by stealth would cause no loss to him from whom she took it. … In an instant, faith cures where human skill had failed through twelve years.

Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 33.4 [on Mark 5: 25-34] quoted in Thomas C. Oden & Christopher A. Hall (ed), Mark, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 2005) 70.

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