Language


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.

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.

Certainly, a theology not based on a living experience is empty, vain, and sclerotic, even if the words are true and sound, borrowed from the common experience of the Church. How can I reply? Of what value is my experience? I cannot judge this. But I can say that I want to base myself with my whole being, without dissolving myself, on the experience of the saints: in apprenticeship, in humble discovery, in partaking of this common faith that gradually becomes mine, to such an extent that I no longer know where to put the quotation marks around the words of the saints and my own words – quotation marks are a modern invention, unknown to the Fathers. There is a way of living the words of the Gospel and the words of the saints so deeply that they become my own words, spontaneously, naturally. Thus, I feel that the certainty of the saints is mine. With all my being, I desire that this be so. I live the painful alternation of the presence and the absence of God – who of us can say he or she is entirely in the presence of God? I live the oscillation between, on the one hand, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit and, on the other, dryness, inaneness, and spiritual sterility. I live in the faith, that is, in the hope of things to come, in the certainty that God has loved and saved us and that the grace of God superabounds and works through our weakness. The Lord tells St Paul that to speak of spiritual experience is not to look at oneself in a mirror or to hear oneself talk, pray, or preach. St Isaac of Syria writes, “True prayer is when one prays without even knowing one prays.” To know that one prays is already a return to self. True prayer, then, is to forget about oneself; praying is turning to God and others in the best possible way.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003) 147-148.

Father Boris concludes this chapter on theology and language by drawing on the incarnational and ascensional mystery of Christ which draws us into the Kingdom, enabling us to partake of the divine life.

…henceforth language and human art can be baptized in the Church; they can, in the fire of the Spirit, become able to translate for our human senses and our understanding the presence of the divine Trinity in itself and in its saints. (148)

This language is actualized in the “here and now” but is in continuity with the language of the Fathers. Recent biblical, theological, iconographic and spiritual renewals have enriched “the Orthodox eucharistic and liturgical life and, starting from there, all of theology” although there remains work to be done in recovering worship as the true source of theological knowledge. Some of this is due to ecumenical endeavour, and “We should discern and rejoice for every germ and desire for Orthodoxy with our separated brethren.” (149) Moreover, there is need for a balance between “unwavering fidelity to the tradition of the Fathers and theological research in which we are instructed directly by the Spirit.” (150)

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues to discuss the common experience of the Church in the eighth chapter of The Compassion of the Father on language. The Church is the divine-human body of Christ and temple of the Spirit. As Saint Irenaeus wrote, while languages differ, “the content of the tradition is one and the same” (140) and we can neither add to or subtract from it. However, “the Fathers greatly reserve investigation into the mysteries;” (141) instead, as Saint Hilary of Poitiers tells us, it is the heretics attempt to speak that which is unlawful and thereby force the Fathers to respond to them and this involved them in a necessary tension and even a suffering.

Father Boris then proceeds to discuss the pitfalls of theology. The first of these involves relativising words:

When there is a break between reason and the faith, words run the risk of acquiring a mere relative value. That struck me when Fr Yves Congar – a great Dominican cardinal and one of those most involved in finding a solution to the problem of the filioque declared in 1981 (at the sixteenth centenary of the Second Ecumenical Council) that we are united in praise, adoration, doxology, and silence, but that our “dogmatic formulations are nothing but pious approximations of human language that do not affect the divinity.” Given the divine-human quality of theological language and of the Church, such a view is unacceptable to Orthodox Christians. The fear of dogmatism runs the risk of causing a rejection of dogmas. (143)

The opposite danger is that of seeing dogmatic formulations as totally adequate to the mysteries and

This theological and scholastic rationalism parches the heart; the Fathers since the fourth century, have never ceased to fight against it and insist on the ineffable mystery of God. (143)

In contrast to both of these extremes,

Christian theology has an existential, even soteriological task: to defend the faith, to shape adequate concepts, to expand the natural mind through the waters of baptism, and to lift this natural mind in the ascending movement of the entire Church to the level of revelation, making it partake of the knowledge of God. (143)

Conciliar definitions are “at once something acquired forever” and also “markers and stages of reflection that must not be closed.” (143) In this, minute details can make a world of difference. We see something of this sensitivity in Saint Basil’s search for a middle ground between rejecting heresy and “prudence with respect to words hallowed at the Council of Nicaea.” (144) Likewise, the West’s (and in particular Saint Jerome’s) opposition to the use of the word “hypostasis” rests on an inability to understand a word that would acquire a new meaning.

Theological language is ultimately language that leads to communion with God,

of eternal concelebrating in which the human being by the divine humanity of Christ and the Pentecost of the Spirit, is invited to enter. We are invited to penetrate into this mysterious and inaccessible enclosure through the Ascension and the Resurrection, which are also a resurrection and an ascent of our intelligence, of our entire being. … The mystery of Christ, true God and true man, in whom are hidden the treasures of the divinity, is the key to the trinitarian mystery, of which He is the revelation, in the breath of the Holy Spirit. The Christian language is simultaneously and pre-eminently liturgical and theological, as it expresses and formulates the common spiritual experience of the Church – always an experience of holiness and of ineffable life – and it raises us towards the silence of communion. We are then in the image of the disciples of Emmaus who first heard the Lord speak but who understood only at the breaking of the bread, when the Lord disappeared from their eyes, and they found themselves in the silence of communion. This theological language, which has numerous verbal consonances, full of imagery and of great beauty, is the silence of vision, of the union. (146-147)

In his discussion of the relationship between language and theology in the eighth chapter of The Compassion of the Father, Father Boris Bobrinskoy proceeds to discuss the relationship between the Word and the Spirit, in which the “Spirit rests on the Son from all eternity” and makes the creative word of God to germinate, enabling the disciples to hear the appeal of the incarnate Word, and making “the Lord present in the Church until the end of time.” (138) It is the Spirit who transforms the eucharistic gifts and the eucharistic assembly into the Body of Christ.

Such is the incarnational and revelatory function of the Spirit, of the one who does not become incarnate, but who incarnates, penetrates, and vivifies the Divine Word that has become human word and image. When the Word of God, Jesus Christ, becomes ours, He merges in us and we in Him. St. Nicholas Cabasilas notes: “Unlike human nourishment we assimilate to ourselves, it is Christ – bread, word, image – who assimilates us and unites us to Him, and carries us along in anticipation of His kingdom.” When “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,” Christ quenches me with the gifts of His Holy Spirit: love, compassion, discernment, wisdom, and thus language. This is the mysterious reciprocity of “the two hands of God” that carry us to the Father. (139)

Father Boris then proceeds to discuss the tension between negative and positive theology, locating the truth of what can be said positively not in individual experience but in the common faith of the Church.

Spiritual experience does not necessitate subjectivism. By itself, my experience is not the foundation of the knowledge of God and of language. But when it is grounded in the common experience of the Church, without dissociating itself, it is valid, for the common experience of the Church always includes personal experience – that of the saints, of the Mother of God, and of the angels. Within the Church, we “drink” this experience – we receive it, we commune of it in the communion of the Word and in the communion of the consecrated bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ.

Thus, the incarnation of the eternal Word means that the eternal mystery of God can express itself forever in human words: simultaneously inadequate to this mystery and true. The redeeming Passion and Resurrection purify, purge, and free the human language from demonic pride and sinful self-sufficiency. The Ascension and seating of Christ at the right hand of the Father harmonize this word with the eternal mystery, of which we partake. Christ has recapitulated us in Himself, and he has restored human language to its first vocation. Finally, the permanent Pentecost of the Spirit in the Church makes us contemporaneous with Christ and gives the Church “the sure gift of truth”(charisma veritatis certum), as St Irenaeus of Lyons said with regard to the office of the bishop. The certainty of the truth given by God belongs to the entire Church through the episcopal magisterium. (140)

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues this eighth chapter of The Compassion of the Father on theology and language by showing the shift that occurs in the language used for God between the Old and the New Testaments. Whereas the Old Testament had used human attributes as a way of apprehending the mystery of God,

the coming of Christ overturns all these evaluations. The Old Testament spoke of God “wearing the light as a robe” (Ps 104:2), but the New Testament speaks about God who is light. Whereas the Old Testament spoke of the paternal tenderness of God in the image of human tenderness – “As tenderly as a father treats His children, so Yahweh treats those who fear Him.” (Ps 103:13) – the divine fatherhood of God in the New Covenant becomes primary, and human fatherhood derives from it. (136)

While this reversal does not belittle the biblical anthropomorphic language, it shows that the heart of the theology of language is the divine humanity of Christ. This divine humanity is continued in the Church as the Body of Christ, and especially in the sacramental understanding of the Church.

The concept of “sacraments” surpasses the framework of seven sacraments established wrongly in the Middle Ages. In the third century, Origen envisioned two sacraments: baptism and the Word of God. I would add the icon as well (both as a sacrament and having therefore a sacramental function). The Word of God, read, commented on, meditated and preached in the Church has a sacramental function and an important liturgical and doxological character. (136-137)

Father Boris then proceeds to distinguish between the Word of God, the word to God and the words about God that he had discussed in the previous chapter. However, there is a link between these words, and we see that

certain formularies of conciliar decrees concerning the Trinitarian or Christological mystery are found literally in the liturgical praise … If praise and liturgical prayer are pre-eminently theological, theology is doxological, meaning it derives from praise and communion. Fr Sergius Bulgakov maintained that he had taken his entire theological vision from the bottom of the eucharistic chalice. Fr Cyprian Kern said that singing in the choir was the best school of theology. (137)

The eighth chapter of The Compassion of the Father is an essay entitled “The Theology of Language and the Language of Theology.” In it Father Boris Bobrinskoy begins by noting that this is not simply a play on words, but rather a serious reflection on the theological nature of language which is rooted in the speech of God, but also in the relationship between word and silence.

the theology of the Word must be founded first on the mystery – simultaneously unfathomable and revealed – of the eternal generation of the Son, the Word of God, inseparable from the Spirit. For it is not possible to think of the Son engendered by the Father without thinking, at the same time, of the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the resting of the Spirit on the Son.

St Ignatius of Antioch, in the second century, wrote, “The Word proceeded from the silence of the Father.” Likewise, his contemporary, St Irenaeus of Lyons, wrote, “The Father is the invisible of the Son and the Son is the visible of the Father.” Here we have two basic functions of human nature – and therefore divine – which are the word and the image, hearing and seeing. There is a reciprocal relationship between the visible and the invisible, between the image and the prototype, between the word and silence. This fundamental relationship penetrates into the mystery of the word. Not only does the word arise from silence, but it also contains silence and sends us back to the abyss of the mystery of God, beyond all understanding and all words. Silence constitutes the necessary transcendence of the word and its essential reference. The word is not word if it does not refer to a reality beyond itself. That is as true for the symbol as it is for the icon.

In the Prologue to his Gospel, St John writes, “No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son who is close to the Father, who has made Him known” (Jn 1:18). Here we have the silence of the Father, who carries the Son in His eternal bosom and who “speaks” Him in the eternal generation, as Psalm 2 suggests, “You are my son, today have I fathered you” (Ps 2:7). He speaks an eternal word, a word of love, and a word that engenders endlessly. Beyond the word that the Father is, there is the interiority of fatherly silence in the Son Himself: “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30). The creative word of the Word wells up, too, from the silence of the Father and carries out the Trinitarian plan of creation in the Holy Spirit. Through the revealing words of the Word, God enters into a dialogue with the creature. The dialogue that is established introduces into the ineffable mystery of vision and communion, beyond all language. Thus the word of God must germinate in the silence of our hearts, in the deepest recesses of our inwardness. There is a link here between the initial and ultimate silence of the trinitarian mystery and the tomb of Christ, that is, death and resurrection. According to the words of Christ: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed, but if it dies, it produces many seeds” (Jn 12:24). (133-135)

This creative activity is not something that He does from without, but rather from within.

The creative Word keeps the creature in stable well being, not through the outside force of a dues ex machine, but from the inside. At the foundation, the indivisible core of created things, are the logoi, the reasons for beings, which are contained altogether in the Logos. Philaret of Moscow said: “All creatures are balanced upon the creative word of God, as if upon a diamond bridge: above them is the abyss of divine infinitude, below them that of their own primordial nothingness.” The word of God is active to the highest degree in a human being created in the image of God. Isaac of Syria said, “God created man through the Word; the angels He created in silence.” The word creates a bond of friendship and establishes a capacity for a common language between the human being and God, a language well beyond our awareness and our intellectual perception. Created in the image of God, the human being’s ultimate vocation is to the resemblance inscribed in the first dynamism of human life. (135)

Father Alexander Schmemann continues this seventh chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdomby noting, in the words I quoted previously, that the loftier the word, the more ambiguous it is and the more discernment is needed. Words are in need not simply of definition, but of salvation, and this salvation can only come from God. Theology involves referring words to the reality of God, so that they become manifestation and gift.

The flaw of contemporary theology (including, alas, Orthodox theology) and its obvious impotence lies in the fact that it so often ceases to refer words to reality. It becomes “words about words,” definitions of a definition. Either it endeavours, as in the contemporary West, to translate Christianity into the “language of today,” in which case – because this is not only a “fallen” language but truly a language of renunciation of Christianity – theology is left with nothing to say and itself becomes apostasy; or, as we often see among the Orthodox, it attempts to thrust on “contemporary man” its own abstract and in many respects “archaic” language, which, to the degree that it refers neither to any reality nor to any experience for this “contemporary” man, remains alien and incomprehensible, and on which learned theologians, with the aid of all these definitions and interpretations, conduct experiments in artificial resuscitation.

But in Christianity, faith, as experience of an encounter and a gift received in this encounter, precedes words, for only from this experience do they find not simply their meaning but their power. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34). And thus words that are not referred to this experience or that are turned away from it inevitably become only words – ambiguous, easily changed and evil. (149)

(more…)

The discernment of spirits, to which the apostle John the Theologian calls us, is above all a differentiation of words, for not only did the word, with the world and all creation, fall, but the fall of the world began precisely with the perversion of the word. Through the word entered that lie whose father is the devil. The poison of this lie consists in the fact that the word itself remained the same, so that when man speaks of “God,” “unity,” “faith,” “piety,” “love,” he is convinced that he knows of what he is speaking, whereas the fall of the word lies precisely in that it inwardly became “other,” became a lie about its own proper meaning and content. The whole falsehood and the whole power of this falsehood lie in the fact that he made the same words into words about something else, he usurped them and converted them into an instrument of evil and that, consequently, he and his servants in “this world” always speak in a language literally stolen from God.

Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988) 148.

I will hopefully get to summarising this chapter soon, although I really don’t know how I’ll manage to doing that reasonably concisely, for it is just so dense, deep, penetrating, challenging and, well, really just amazing. There are no doubt people who will write me off as heretical for being a Schmemann fan, and there are other people who I wish would read him and probably never will. And I realise that had I read this book five years ago, it would have made things if not easier, then at least have a lot clearer.