I’m stealing this from Reggie Nel who blogs at a piece of my mind because, well, I hope that others will appreciate it. It’s a fictional story told by John Mbiti (the grandfather of African theology – okay, modern African theology) in 1974. Fictional, but unfortunately oh-so-true.

He learned German, Greek, French, Latin, Hebrew, in addition to English, church history, systematics, homiletics, exegesis, and pastoralia, as one part of the requirements for his degree. The other part, the dissertation, he wrote on some obscure theologian of the Middle Ages. Finally, het got what he wanted: a Doctorate in Theology. It took him nine and a half years altogether, from the time he left his home untill he passed his orals and set off to return. He was anxious to reach home as soon as possible, so he flew, and he was glad to pay for his excess baggage, which after all, consisted only of the Bible in the various languages he had learned, plus Bultman, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Brunner, Buber, Cone, Küng, Moltman, Niebuhr, Tillich, Christianity Today, Time Magazine…

At home, relatives, neighbours, old friends, dancers, musicians, drums, dogs, cats, all gather to welcome him back. The fatted calf are killed; meat roasted; girls giggle as they survey him surrounded by his excess baggage; young children have their imagination rewarded-they had only heard about him but now they see him; he, of course, does not know them by name. He must tell about his experiences overseas, for everyone has come to eat, to rejoice, to listen to their hero who has studied so many northern languages, whyo has read so many theological books, who is the hope of their small, but fast growing church, the very incarnation of theological learning. People bear with him patiently as he struggles to speak his own language, as occasionally he seeks the help of an interpreter from English. They are used to sitting down and making time; nobody is in a hurry; speech is not a matter of life and death. Dancing, jubilation, eating, feasting-all these go on as if there were nothing else to do, because the man for whom everybody had waited has finally returned.

Suddenly there is a shriek. Someone has fallen to the ground. It is his older sister, now a married women with six children and still going strong. He rushes to her. People make room for him, and watch him. “Let’s take her to the hospital,” he calls urgently. They are stunned. He becomes quiet. They all look at him bending over her. Why doesn’t someone respond to his advice? Finally a schoolboy says, “Sir, the nearest hospital is 50 miles away, and there are few busses that go there.” Someone else says, “She is possessed. Hospitals will not cure her!” The chief says to him, “You have been studying theology overseas for 10 years. Now help your sister. She is troubled by the spirit of he great aunt.” Slowly he goes to get Bultman, looks at the index, finds what he wants, reads again about spirit posession in the New Testament. Of course he gets an answer: Bultman has demythologised it. He insists that his sister is not possessed. The people shout, “Help your sister; she is possessed!” He shouts back, “But Bultman has demythologised demon possession.”

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.

Father Gabriel (Bunge)’s points about spirituality in my second last post highlight a theme that I have been very conscious of in recent months, namely the widespread contemporary interest in “spirituality” but also the vagueness and ambiguity of this concept. I had been aware of a growing interest in “spirituality” and “mysticism” in the Netherlands and had had problems with it. And I had been aware that similar trends were at work elsewhere in the West, including in South Africa. But coming back here I have encountered this in a particularly marked way which has sometimes left me wondering how to respond. Whereas interest in “spirituality” tended to be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion twenty-five years ago as detracting people from the earthly struggle, it now seems to be all the rage. And whereas I had been eagerly looking for more resources in “spirituality” – albeit an engaged one – twenty-five years ago, I have now become decidedly hesitant, if not rather hostile, towards much that passes for this genre. And yet I do rather wonder how to respond to people engaged with it. I do not want to discourage people who are actively seeking a life of prayer, and a way of uniting faith and life. But the underlying assumptions of what is often presented as “spirituality” are often, well, decidedly problematic.

This was highlighted for me by a recent interview with Charles Villa-Vicencio. He is (or was) a leading South African theologian, a Methodist, who has worked in a liberationist mode and is now arguing for the importance of “spirituality.” He states:

For me, spirituality has to do with having an openness towards life and towards truth. It means wanting to move beyond any closed ideological, dogmatic system. It also means a willingness—and, in fact, a desire—to discover what lies beyond the material. I’ve often said to myself that the question of God and the question of the divine are more important than the answers. It’s a very, very arrogant thing to begin to describe who God is or what the divine is. Yet these questions range from the relationship between religion and the sciences to ethical inquiry, and certainly to political justice, reconciliation, and coexistence. In that sense I regard myself as a very spiritual person. But I find myself resisting institutional forms of religion that try to impose upon me and everyone else a definition of the divine. It’s openness that I think is really important.

I am highlighting this not to attack Villa-Vicencio or to engage in polemics about liberal Protestantism or liberation theology – and conservative Catholics and Orthodox finding common ground in demonizing such people is another one of the things that I find quite distasteful about some online interactions. I have never met Villa-Vicencio, but I do know several people with a similar background to his who would espouse similar sentiments. These are well meaning, good people who sincerely believe in what they are doing and who often display real Christian concerns, often at great personal cost. In fact, his comments in this interview struck me precisely because they made concrete the sort of attitudes that I often encounter and which I nevertheless find it difficult to pin down so that I sometimes wonder if I’m imagining things.

There are of course a cluster of ideas associated with such developments which I suspect have deeper roots in the development of western theology. Thus we find a reaction to “institutional religion” which points to a total loss of consciousness of the Mystery of the Church which is reduced to simply being an institution. (In fairness to Protestants, I have also found this attitude among Catholics and suspect that it is rooted in the transformation of western understandings of the Church in the second millennium). And, allied to this, we find a rejection of dogma in favour of “openness” and a refusal to draw boundaries (something that I hope to return to again). At which point I suppose that one does have to start asking whether this whole phenomenon can really be considered Christian.

However, what has sometimes struck me in such discussions is the appeal that some make to apophatic theology that is reflected in Villa-Vicencio’s comment about theological arrogance. I remember being in a WCC meeting where Protestant theologians responded to Orthodox concerns about their use of gender-inclusive language for God on the basis that “we cannot know what God is.” At a superficial level apophaticism can simply lead to a speculative nihilism or to an “anything goes” approach, and Villa-Vicencio is certainly not the first whom I have heard invoking it in such a way as to lead to outright relativism. But such an appeal to “the apophatic tradition” is all-too-often unaware of the dogmatic rootedness of this “tradition.”

I was struck by this while reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s introduction to the Selected Writings of Saint Maximus the Confessor. For Maximus, as I dare say for other Fathers, our supreme ignorance of God is combined with a comprehensive knowledge of Him which is made possible through the Incarnation of Christ.

“Who knows,” Maximus asked, “how God is made flesh and yet remains God?” And he answered his own question: “This only faith understands, adoring the Logos in silence.” It was, then, a genuine understanding, but one that appropriately expressed itself “in silence” rather than in words. Not even the words of the orthodox dogma, for which Maximus contended and suffered all his life, could adequately encompass the mystery of faith. “Theological mystagogy” transcended the dogmas formulated by the councils of the Church. A spirituality shaped by Orthodox apophaticism, therefore, was one that gratefully acknowledged those dogmas and was ready to defend them to the death against those who sought to distort them, but that, at the same time, willingly – in fact, worshipfully – acknowledged the limitations that had been placed on all knowledge and all affirmation, be it human or angelic. (9)

In Orthodox theology, apophaticism cannot be separated either from dogma or from worship which are so closely intertwined as to form one whole. I once commented on the irony that it is those traditions, whether liturgical, iconographic or theological, that pay most attention to correct detail, that are best  able to lead us beyond the limitations of human expression.

Indeed, it is the uniting of the polarity between knowing and unknowing that is the heart of faith, and those who insist on the limitation of human language to speak of God, are the first to lay down their lives to defend its expressions. For faith has a name, and a concrete history. It is the revelation of God in Christ and His continued presence in His Body the Church.

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.

I’ve been re-reading Sergei Hackel’s biography of Mother (now Saint) Maria Skobtsova, Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891-1945. I may write again on some of her perspectives on monasticism (which evoke somewhat conflicting responses in me). But for now I note something that has also struck me in other books I have read in the last year or two, notably in Gillian Crow’s biography of Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony, namely the really desperate situation of the Russian émigrés in France in the period between the first and second world wars. It is easy to wax lyrical about the theological fruitfulness of the theological renewal associated with the emigration – and it certainly was fruitful – and yet, certainly for me as a westerner reading books in translation, it is all-too-easy to forget both that it was Russian and that occurred against the backdrop of appalling social dislocation and need.

This connects with something I was sometimes conscious of in the Netherlands, namely, the strange combination of proximity and distance between the past and the present. I lived for years in a building that had been occupied by the Hitler’s troops during the Second World War, and in a community that had lost two of its sisters to the Nazi camps. On many days I walked past a memorial to them. And yet that past somehow seemed very remote and I was sometimes struck between the contrast between it, and the affluence and apparent security of the present. Not only did the past seem remote, but I had to consciously remind myself that there are also people today in similarly desperate situations. We can somehow domesticate both the past and those aspects of the present that would otherwise be threatening to us, keeping it at a distance, whether by interpretive strategies, border controls and the way society is organised, or simply by self-centredness.

Being back in South Africa it is in some ways more difficult to escape this as one cannot go very far without being aware of desperate social need. But we too – or let me speak only for myself, and say I too – can too-easily forget the horrors of the past and find ways of trying to escape the challenge of the present. And in that context it may be reassuring, if challenging, to realise that the theological fruitfulness of the Russian emigration also occurred against a similarly challenging background.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues the ninth chapter of The Compassion of the Fatherby pointing to the subtle dialectic between the direct action of the Holy Spirit and listening to our fathers in the faith. We see this in the experience of Saint Paul.

Following his “enlightenment” on the road to Damascus, and after spending three years in Arabia – a stay of which we know nothing – St Paul wanted to return to Jerusalem to meet James and Kephas (Peter), the pillars of the Church at that time. This intervention is very interesting because it reveals that, from the beginning of the Church, two basic moments co-existed: on the one hand, the direct illumination of the road to Damascus where St Paul met the living Christ and was taught by the Spirit; on the other hand, the concern to verify his teaching, his knowledge, his preaching, and his language with the apostles, with the Church.

In this way, the Church lives in the permanent breath and the permanent fire of the Pentecost of the Holy Spirit. If this fire does not set us aglow, then all the truths of the Tradition would forever remain as dead, alien externals to us.

In the Christian faith, we should never omit any dimension of the spiritual begetting, whatever the relays of transmission may be: the “father,” the “charismatics,” those who are “filled with the Holy Spirit.” For we have only one Lord: Jesus Christ; one Master: the Holy Spirit; and one Father: our heavenly Father. The more we mature in the faith, the more the apostolic and ecclesial Tradition becomes our own. Then the gospel is accomplished, when Jesus tells His disciples: “I no longer call you servants; … Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). (162-3)

Thus the Tradition is not simply the transmission of the living faith, but is also the content of faith. It has an objectivity that parallels our own subjective faith.

Objective faith is basically the mystery of Christ, the revelation of this mystery in Jesus, transmitted by the apostles and evangelists: the announcement of the good news. This is what St Irenaeus calls “the deposit of the transmitted faith,” which has remained unchanged over the centuries. This deposit crystallizes in ecclesial doctrine, a doctrine which we have a tendency to call “orthodoxy” and which cannot be separated from worship, prayer, and adoration. Two dimensions are included in the word “orthodoxy”: doxa not only means thought, prayer, and opinion, but also glory and praise. Consequently, only to the extent that our praise is true does doctrine emerge from inside the language of Christian worship.

We can go even further: doxa is not only the glory given to God, but also the glory of God. Thus “orthodoxy” is above all the glory of God who communicates Himself to us in the life of the Church, that is, the living experience of God, crystallized at the same time in the language of worship and in theological thought.

Theology acquires a genuine objectivity in the dogmas, the definitions of the councils, the teaching of the magisterium, and the authority of the Church. That is very important, for it is there that we touch upon the basic mystery of the Church where the Body resembles the Head, Christ being the Head. The entire Church is divine-human or “theanthropical.” In other words, everything in the life of the Church is divine-human: worship, the sacraments, the icon, and theological language, taking into account our approximations. From this point of view, the doctrine of the faith acquires a genuine objectivity; the human word becomes capax Dei (“capable of God”), that is, capable of transmitting, carrying, and singing (rather than reciting) the truth of God, His mystery. (163-4)

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)

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion on the relationship between theology and spirituality in the seventh chapter of The Compassion of the Fatherby proposing four basic requirements for a living theology renewed in the Spirit.

The first requirement is that of repentance and profound renewal of the self.

The entire being must turn away from a dark existence, renounce the “old Adam” and Satan, and sin – all forms, direct or insidious, of illusion and diabolical seduction. The entire being must tend toward a purification of the heart, since the heart is the center of the human mystery – but also purification of the senses by an asceticism of the body and purification of the intellect by an asceticism of the thoughts. When the intellect is severed from grace, it hardens and proudly asserts itself. With all one’s effort, the mind must pass through the mystery of baptism, not the precise moment of child’s or adult’s baptism, but everything that baptism presupposes: preliminary and lasting renunciation of an old life and a desire for a new life, the sacrament of the death and the life of Jesus Christ. …

Thus, the proud mind that counts itself as the criterion of things and of the world must be baptized. This mind must discover silence by entering into the depths of the heart and gradually must be taught by the Holy Spirit… When the intellect purifies itself by this descent and attentiveness to God, life springs up from the transfigured heart, and the mind find new words. (127-128)

The second requirement is that of being in communion with the Body of Christ, the Church. The Holy Spirit incorporates us into the totality of the Body of Christ which is inseparable from its Head and this has consequences for our theology.

This “Body” contains not only the eucharistic assembly “here and now,” but the Church of all times, of all places – the communion of saints. This point is crucial to our understanding of theology. My theology is not my theology, not even that of the group to which I belong. Rather, my theology has been formulated through living experience: the life and suffering of the saints since Pentecost – and even before Pentecost by the patriarchs and prophets – in communion. This communion of the saints implies a communion of faith. This explains why the Orthodox Church does not accept intercommunion, which would make light of this profound unity, what Fr Florovsky calls “ecumenism in time.” Communion of faith entails not only attempts to create unity with the dispersed members of churches in our world today, but also constancy in maintaining unity with our church fathers. (129)

This concept of fatherhood runs very deep in Orthodoxy and “constitutes the very framework of Tradition” which is always transmitted from heart to heart in a living and personal way, whether through books or through actual encounters.

The third requirement is that it feed on the Scriptures, and especially the Psalms “which are the basic prayers and which nourished the prayer of Christ Himself.” (130)

In growing accustomed to reading them regularly and daily, they become an extraordinary source of knowledge, wisdom, and spiritual sensitivity. Little by little, something awakens in us; we become more attentive and more sensitive. (130)

An understanding of the Old Testament is important and leads us to the Gospels which are a “genuine sacrament” and puts us “in the real presence of Christ, just as an icon does.” (130)

The fourth requirement is that of love which is related to knowledge. Father Boris writes:

When I was young, I read St Augustine, the great church father that has marked the West until now. He said that, in order to love, we should first know. That has always shocked me because I would like to say that in order to know, we first should love. Certainly the two go together. St Paul says: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith … but I have not love, I am nothing… And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:1-2,13). He completes this picture by saying: “God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Rom 5:5). The Holy Spirit pours the love of God into us like an ointment of great price, like a perfumed oil, and this love makes our hearts expand to the extent that God desires. (131)

Father Boris concludes this chapter by speaking of our obligation to witness and of the need to connect what we say to what we have seen, for

The human being cannot be satisfied with parcelled truth. We search for a vision of the world carried by God, a unified spiritual vision, with all our being, and at the same time, the words we utter – our proclamation to others – always fall short. Fortunately, we have the church fathers and great theologians, and we may repeat things that were expressed and lived better…

This love of Christ in us compels us, pushes us, and forces us not only to do theology, but also to simply be in Christ. Then our silence, as well as our words, will testify to a true theology, prayed and lived. (131-132)

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion on theology and spirituality in the seventh chapter of The Compassion of the Fatherby considering the implications of Evagrius of Pontus’ famous saying: “The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays.” This means that the one who prays is a theologian in the deepest and most fundamental sense of the word. Prayer, even the desire for prayer, is always a movement, drawing us to God; it is the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit in the human heart.

If “the one who prays is a theologian,” it is because – we can say this very humbly – each one of us knows prayer in the Spirit. In moments of true prayer, the grace of the Holy Spirit in the heart of our being causes a longing, a desire, a cry for help, emotion before the beauty of the cosmos, or compassion for the suffering that surrounds us. The Holy Spirit introduces us to communion with the Son, Jesus Christ, in the mystery of the Incarnation – the debasement, humiliation, suffering, and death. He educates us to compassion, by making us suffer with the Lord. Through the way of the Cross and death, He leads us to new life and Resurrection. He opens in us a new space, in which Christ appears with His face, the face of a Man of Sorrows and the face of the Risen One. The two go together because in the body of the Risen One the stigmata of the crucifixion remain as shafts of light. The Lord, to the degree we penetrate into His mystery, raises us toward the Father in an infinite, never-ending ascent.

The saying “The one who prays is a theologian” introduces a genuine theology beyond words and concepts, theological theories, and even dogmatic formulations. These latter act as necessary barriers against danger, on the right and the left, but they themselves are based on this living experiences of the trinitarian mystery. (125-126)

However, the other half of this saying “…the one who is a theologian prays” represents a challenge, a “judgmental query” to those who consider themselves theologians.

It challenges those who feel they are vested with the charisms of theological expression, of teaching and of knowledge – for they are charisms, that is, gifts of the Holy Spirit. Every reflection on the mysteries of God and of his works represents a judgment, the outcome of which is staked on whether congruity exists between the word and deed, the speech and action, of the “theologian.” Speaking of God in the third person carries the inherent danger of cutting speech off from life, of forgetting about God in the second person and the necessary relationship between dialogue and prayer. Theology then becomes a profession, a dangerous intellectual and conceptual exercise that desiccates the inner life. (126)

Father Boris proceeds to recount the words of Patriarch Athenagoras that he used to used to utter around 1960 as he pursued his ecumenical goals: “We will gather all the theologians and put them on an island, with everything they need. And while they discuss, we will love one another.” He comments that:

This anecdotal jest borders on the tragic and reveals the real danger within certain Orthodox circles of divorcing theology and life. The theologian who does not enter the royal priesthood of the Church and priests who neglect theological formation run the same risk. This painful divorce has led to a hardening and friction between the theological world and ecclesial circles. “The one who is a theologian, prays” therefore asserts a question, a vocation, an appeal, and a judgment of the Spirit and of Christ in our lives. (127)

To be continued…

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