Thinking aloud

These are some thoughts that I’ve had going through my head for some years, and I was finally motivated to write them down a couple of months ago in the context of certain discussions I heard concerning the Great and Holy Council. I shared them on Facebook then, but am posting them here now in order to have them more readily accessible.

When I was a Cistercian novice many years ago, I learnt an important lesson about order in the Church that I have been reminded of recently and that I suspect may have broader relevance.

As some may recall, the Rule of Saint Benedict states that the rank of the monks in the monastery is dependent on their date of entrance, irrespective of their age or social standing. Therefore, “someone who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day must recognize that he is junior to someone who came at the first hour.” Likewise, when a priest enters the monastery, his rank is based on “the date of his entry into the community, and not that granted him out of respect for his priesthood.” This rank orders the daily life, so that “when the monks come for the kiss of peace and for Communion, when they lead psalms or stand in choir” they do so in order of their entry into the monastery. While the abbot may make changes to this rank based on the virtue of their lives, he cannot allow this to be based on worldly considerations.

All this talk of rank may sound alien to our supposedly egalitarian world, but there is something crucially important going on here. Saint Benedict acknowledges and insists that a healthy community needs order. But, by basing that order on something relatively arbitrary, such as the hour of entry into the community, he is also explicitly ruling out an ordering of the community based on age, social distinction, wealth, or other worldly means of exercising power.

I didn’t pay too much attention to any of this initially when I was a novice. Like anyone else who enters a community, I was last in rank for a while, with those ahead of me being both younger and less educated than I was, but I never really bothered about it. But then somebody entered after me who had previously been in another community and who had great difficulty in having to be last in rank. That, and the way she had to work through it, made me realize that there was actually something very significant going on. I realized that it is precisely the arbitrariness of the rank that is a great gift, for it asks us to lay aside all our other identities and power games and accept the truth of who we are in real humility. What matters is not our rank, but our willingness to obey and accept the place given to us – and it is precisely this willingness to obey that indicates spiritual maturity.

I have been reminded of this as I witness some of the rather distressing power play going on in the Orthodox world at present. Like the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Church also has an order that she has inherited from her formative years, in which the ancient patriarchates have a certain rank and are expected to follow a certain order. And yet we now hear voices arguing that certain patriarchates should no longer be accorded primacy because they no longer have worldly might, while others that boast great wealth and power should be accorded a greater rank.

There is no doubt a certain logic to this, but I suspect that it is the logic of my fellow-novice (who was perhaps only articulating what all of us feel in some way) and not the logic of the Gospel, or of the Rule, or of the Church’s order. For this logic is based, not on our achievements or worldly power, but on our willingness to lay aside our own agendas and accept the place that is given to us in real humility. And it is precisely the arbitrariness of that place that is the greatest gift. For it allows all to submit to an order that is already given, rather than one that expresses our own will to power that constantly seeks to reassert itself.

This is another one of those thinking aloud posts and one which I have put off writing because it feels like such a complex subject that could go in all sorts of directions. I have mentioned my frustrations with the language of “mysticism” before and have been wanting to probe, unpack and explain my discomfort with that discourse for some time. I did actually write something a couple of months ago, but then decided that it was too much of a rant and didn’t sufficiently explain the background against which I was reacting – and I have since lost what I wrote when my computer died last week. (Yes, I know about backups in theory, but…)

Those concerns were primarily with a general contemporary Christian discovery of or emphasis on “mysticism” or “mystical experience.” My reactions tended to be sparked by things like the much-quoted statement by Karl Rahner that the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or will not exist, or, in the case of my last rant, someone tweeting a quote from Pope Francis that “a religion without mystics is a philosophy.” While such interest is understandable for people coming out of heavily cerebral religious traditions and seeking a healthier integration of faith and experience, and a theology rooted in a life of prayer, and while I should, I suppose, have a certain sympathy with them, having been there myself, I have found myself getting more and more concerned with the uncritical glibness of such assertions. Much of this relates to the way in which mysticism and experience are contrasted to dogma, which is invariably viewed in negative terms. This erosion of dogma – which is a consequence of the failure to understand the true nature of dogma – undermines the richness of the Christian revelation and becomes something fundamentally anti-ecclesial. It also opens the door to monism, which is another topic that I have been intending to address for ages.

However, in addition to these general concerns about “mysticism” there is also a related assertion that one sometimes hears, namely, that it is Orthodoxy – or “the East” – that is mystical. I have had people expressing interest in Orthodoxy because they believed it to be mystical and yet at the same time insisting that they were not interested in “ritual and dogma.” And I have also come across Orthodox Christians contrasting East and West and claiming that the East is mystical, experiential and apophatic, while the West is philosophical and rational. When I came across such assertions twice in one week recently, I decided that the time probably had come to probe this further.

The reality is that such assertions do contain a grain of truth, but it is often a rather messy truth in which blanket statements are made about two traditions that – at least in their earlier years – were by no means unrelated. While the West did develop in ways that, from an Orthodox perspective, are indeed problematic – and the rise of scholasticism is a fundamental part of this – pushing this back to the fourth century and laying the blame at the feet of Saint Augustine as is often done, strikes me as simplistic and problematic.

I have hesitated to write on this as I’m aware that I’m not nearly as thoroughly immersed in the early Fathers as I would like to be. But as I have reflected on such arguments, it has struck me that there is considerable confusion about the terms that are used in making such claims about East and West. More specifically, what exactly do we mean by the words mystical, experiential, apophatic, philosophical and rational. Unpacking these could, I suspect, help to provide a much more nuanced understanding both of the differences between East and West, and of the differences between how the early Fathers viewed the life of faith and how it is viewed in some contexts today. And it is this later divide that I would argue is far more fundamental – and which the current enthusiasm for “mysticism” only serves to entrench.

I had originally intended to explore this in one blog post, but it has become clear that that is unrealistic. So instead, I am going to devote a post to each of these terms, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. If it achieves nothing else, it may at least get me writing…

 I’m sort of thinking aloud here and may not be expressing myself well.

This is more than a day late for the feast of Saint Nicholas, and the things I had been considering saying on the punching of heretics will have to wait. But as I drove around Cape Town yesterday, seeing flags flying at half mast and feeling shaken by the news of Nelson Mandela’s death, I couldn’t help being moved by the appropriateness of him dying on the eve of the feast of the great saint of Myra. (Sister Catherine Wybourne has some thoughts on this connection here and Deacon Stephen Hayes has written on what it means to speak of Madiba as an icon here).

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this seems appropriate – they were, after all, two very different figures and comparisons are probably dangerous. There is also a danger in viewing Madiba in ecclesial terms which are inappropriate for him – to speak of a secular saint is a contradiction in terms.  Plus there is the real danger of trivializing his legacy as those who once did everything in their power to work against him now seek to co-opt the once-banned image.

But as I drove around thinking about this, I kept being reminded of Father Thomas Hopko’s words about Saint Nicholas. In The Winter Pascha, he writes that Saint Nicholas is not known for anything extraordinary, but that what stands out about him was that he was a genuinely good man. Father Hopko continues: (more…)

It is possible to sing praises to the Lord without ceasing. ‘The soul is a consummate musician, an instrumentalist. The instrument is the body, which serves as lute, harp and lyre… Desiring to teach you that you should sing praise to Him and glorify Him always. God joined together instrument and player [that is, the body and the soul] in a permanent union.’ (1)

In the Orthodox Church, we do not use musical instruments in worship. Every believer is a musical instrument made by God, and at the same time a musician. If the musician (the soul) keeps the instrument (the body) pure and uses it properly, the two together raise to the Creator a hymn of praise that is pleasing to God. For the hymn that is sacred ‘is born of the soul’s piety, nourished by a good conscience, and accepted in heaven by God.’ (2)

(1) St John Chrysostom, Homily on Holy Week and on Psalm 145, 3, PG 55.522.
(2) St John Chrysostom, Homily on being ordained Priest, 1, PG 48.694.

Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, (Cell of St John the Theologian, Koutloumousiou Monastery), 139-140.

I was given this book when I became Orthodox, but have only recently got to reading through it seriously, as part of my preparation for a (very basic) series that I am doing on the Liturgy in Evangelion. But I was struck by these words, which are largely quotations from Saint John Chrysostom. In recent months, I have come across some discussions on Christian worship which have left me wondering about the criteria that people use for determining what is and is not appropriate in worship, or even whether there can be any criteria for what constitutes Christian worship. For many Christians worship seems to have simply become about entertainment or about “what works for me.”

I am raising this not to criticise others or to condemn all use of musical instruments – although I am very pleased that the tradition of the Church is as it is! – but rather to point out that, in the tradition of the Church, worship is not something subjective but is, among other things, a pedagogical activity that leads us to God and therefore has a real and objective content. Moreover, while this content has a clear textual and intellectual content – “The Church choir is the school of theology” in the words of Archimandrite Cyprian Kern – it also has a less immediately identifiable but no less real spiritual content which does its work on us through the bodily acts of singing and hearing, together with a host of other physical and sensory “texts”.

Being more or less musically illiterate, I dare not say anything much about music! But it has become increasingly apparent to me that, in large part, the point of Christian worship is to lead us into silence. Prayer consists of quietening the mind and the heart so that they can be purified in order to see, encounter and receive God. And the sacred music of the Church (and possibly also of other traditions) has been developed over centuries and in an era when people had a far better understanding of the relationship between the body and soul that we would appear to have today.


nat Theotokos 2
Today the barren gates are opened and the virgin Door of God comes forth. Today grace begins to bear its first fruits, making manifest to the world the Mother of God, through whom things on earth are joined with heaven, for the salvation of our souls.

from Vespers of the Nativity of the Mother of God

In recent months I have sometimes thought of writing on the differences between a Roman Catholic approach to the Mother of God and an Orthodox one. This is not that post, which may or may not get written, and I am a little hesitant about writing it, both because it is not a clear cut topic and would need to be written with a fair bit of nuance, and because I am unsure to what extent I am simply reflecting my own experience, and my own earlier blindness. While that certainly does play a role, I’m pretty sure that there is more to it than that, but that is another topic for another day.

But what I have been struck by in recent years – and certainly becoming Orthodox has played a large role in this – is how deeply biblical our understanding of the Mother of God is. I remember years ago having discussions with Protestants on the supposed paucity of biblical references to Mary, and the discussion then focused on the historical references in the Gospels and (fleetingly) in the Apostle Paul. But what I have realised more recently is that Scripture, rightly understood, is full of references to her, precisely because it is – again, rightly understood – entirely focused on the bringing forth of Christ to the world so that He may conquer death by death.

And today’s feast is a striking example of this. From one perspective, we do not have scriptural evidence for it – i.e. the biblical writers do not speak directly about the birth of the Virgin Mary. But from the perspective of the believing Christian, all of Scripture, or at least all of the Old Testament, speaks of it. For what is the birth of the Mother of God about if not the culmination of God’s long work of preparation in the history of Israel? In the words of Vladimir Lossky:

Like the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the birth of the Mother of God, promised by an angel after the parents had long been sterile, finds Old Testament antecedents which are habitually considered as prefigurations of the Resurrection. But the Nativity of the Mother of God is more than a figure; for in the person of St. Anna – a woman freed from her sterility to bring into the world a Virgin who would give birth to God incarnate – it is our nature which ceases to be sterile in order to start bearing the fruits of grace. The miraculous birth of the Holy Virgin is not due to an arbitrary action of God, entering in to break historical continuity: it is a stage of the Providence which watches over the safety of the world, arduously preparing the Incarnation of the Word, a stage which precedes the last decisive act – the Annunciation, when the chosen Virgin will assent to be “the King’s Palace, in which is accomplished the perfect mystery of the two natures reunited in Christ” [Vespers hymnography].

Vladimir Lossky, “The Birth of the Holy Virgin” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 146.

Last night, as I was reading today’s Gospel (Matthew 7:1-8) which includes Jesus’ hugely challenging words on not judging, and dealing with the log in our own eye rather than the speck in our brother’s eye, something suddenly struck me. This may be stating the obvious, but it may be worth stating. As someone who is all-too-easily prone to judge and who, in some situations, is rather good at it, I have realised that where I find it most difficult to not judge is in a situation where I am being judged – and judged unfairly according to my own perceptions. And my judgement is, then, a sort of self-defence, a weapon that I use to defend myself, even if only in my own mind.

Judging, in this context, is a hitting back, a lashing out, and it is, I suppose, what we humans do. Indeed we see it in all sorts of communications. As I witnessed some rather unpleasant words on Twitter yesterday, I was reminded of how easily people, including Christians, make assumptions about other people based on ignorance and fear, and how easily these spiral into an us-versus-them situation in which the other person being wrong somehow feeds something in myself.  We all have the capacity for this because we are all vulnerable and capable of being hurt.

The radicality of Jesus’ words is precisely that it breaks this spiral. To not judge is to break the spiral of aggression, to refuse to lash out, even internally, and even when we may think we have just cause to do so. But it is – at least in my experience – one of the most difficult things in the world. In the words of Saint Isaac the Syrian: “The man who endures accusations against himself with humility has arrived at perfection, and he is marveled at by the holy angels, for there is no other virtue so great and so hard to achieve.”

Of course, we do need to judge – although many judgements are best left to those whose task they properly are. But true judgement, and the only judgement that may be capable of winning people over, is that which comes from a pure heart – Saint Augustine speaks of a “singleness of eye.” Among other things this is why the bishops of the Church – those who are called to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) – are chosen from among monastics: precisely because it is hoped that their monastic training will have enabled them to acknowledge and conquer their own passions which is the condition for all who are called to exercise judgement in the Church.

The call to attend to the log in our own eye, which is far more difficult than it may appear, is ultimately the call to repentance, to self-knowledge, to acknowledging and struggling against our own passions, rather than focusing on someone else. And it is also – and this is what struck me last night – the refusal to respond to violence with violence, to want to get our own back. It is a letting go of the myriad of ways in which we seek to justify ourselves, and instead a throwing of ourselves on the mercy of God.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Pietermaritzburg to see my mother, travelling by bus instead of flying as I had done on recent trips. And, while driving through the Karoo, I realised that, while I had travelled through it by bus shortly after coming back to South Africa, that had been at night. I realised with something of a shock that it must have been at least fifteen years since I had travelled through it by day.


I have always loved the Karoo, that vast expanse of emptiness and semi-desert at the heart of South Africa. I remember driving through it as a child and, long before I had heard of the Desert Fathers or learnt the language of monasticism, longing to wander off into it, plunging myself into its arid emptiness. This was not an obviously religious longing, at least not in terms of the religious vocabulary that I knew at the time. And yet I somehow think that it may account for quite a lot. Later on I used to fantasize about a monastery in the Karoo, although I have learnt in the meantime that fantasies are not a good basis for monasteries.

Driving through the Karoo I became aware of how air travel has distorted our sense of time and space, although I suppose that our ancestors could have said similar things about any automated travel. It is so easy to hop between cities without realizing what is between them, and to rarely experience the endlessness of a road that stretches on and on. And it is so easy to assume that the concerns of the “city” – and of instant communication that now encroaches even into the “desert” – are indeed the real and only ones.

I have been reflecting a bit in recent months on the need for a thorough consideration on how the patristic teaching on the passions relates to the various “issues” that are thrown at me through the daily news. From rape and violence, to greed and corruption, to the way we are programmed to become consumers, to the various discussions around sexuality, to what often seems like a mindless cultivation of anger and aggression … the list could continue and I suspect that many of them are intertwined. And yet all too often the response of religious leaders is mere platitudes and moralism, whether of the “right” or of the “left.”

Driving through the Karoo and thinking about these thoughts that had been going through my mind, I was reminded that the systematization of Christian thinking around the passions and the virtues originated in the desert. It was in the starkness of the Egyptian desert that the early monks came to insight into what it means to be human, the forces that shape and control us, and how we can engage them at their roots and be transformed by actively cooperating with God.

The proper locus of theology, in an Orthodox understanding, is in the desert. This is not just the emptiness or the endless permutations of postmodern thought. The desert has a history and a clearly dogmatic content. But it is a content that leads to transformation. And somehow, if we are to speak of transforming society, we surely need to pay attention to this content.

Next Page »