I have been listening to the Conferences of Saint John Cassian, which I found in audio form here (incomplete and the NPNF edition, but worthwhile to listen to while bookbinding). I was recently given the Ramsey translation of both the Conferences and the Institutes (a wonderful gift!) and have also been reading Simon Cashmore’s Master’s thesis on Saint John Cassian (yes, the spirituality language jars a bit, but I am grateful that a South African is taking him seriously!) and so have been thinking that I should really get back to paying some attention to him. But, time and energy being what they are, listening while I work is easier to manage than reading, and the Conferences tend to lend themselves to that.

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of  Julia Hayes

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of Julia Hayes

Anyway, as I listened to the first two conferences, my thoughts turned to Abba Moses, or Saint Moses the Ethiopian, who is quoted extensively. Although I know that this is Cassian’s later reworking and re-presenting of the teaching that he found among the Desert Fathers, it struck me that it is difficult to deny that Saint Moses plays a crucial role in them. His teaching in the first two conferences on the goal and end of the monk and on the importance of discretion would go on to shape centuries of monastic understanding and Christian practice in both East and West.

I have written before on the infuriating cluelessness that many contemporary South African Christians seem to have about the history of African Christianity. And this now strikes me even more. While there are some – rather challenging – sayings of Saint Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which I have quoted previously, they belong to a particular genre and are perhaps easy to overlook. But when I was suddenly struck by the central role that he plays in the Conferences, I couldn’t help wondering that he has not received more attention from those interested in African Christianity and “African theology.”

Of course, part of the explanation for this may be that Saint John Cassian was himself viewed as suspect in the West after his run-in with Saint Augustine, and his legacy was largely kept alive in Benedictine monasteries. (Actually, as this post shows, he was once considerably more influential than he later became). But what suddenly struck me while I was binding was that this process of ignoring of Saint John Cassian’s works has not only deprived Western Christians of one of the foremost early teachers on Christian life, but it has also deprived African Christians of access to the rather centrally important teaching that he conveys of one of the leading lights of the African Church, namely, Saint Moses the Ethiopian.

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I mentioned quite a while ago that I had been listening to Father Thomas Hopko’s series on the Divine Liturgy, Worship in Spirit and Truth. It’s been a somewhat disrupted listening, but then it is a rather long – albeit worthwhile – series and it took him thirty podcasts to get to the beginning of the Liturgy! Anyway, having just listened to his podcast on the opening words of the Divine Liturgy, I was struck by what he had to say about the words that we use in worship, and in our own personal prayer. I have touched on this before, having quoted Father Florovsky’s words about the point of the prayers of the Church being to teach us to pray. And I have also noted how I have been struck that it is those religious traditions that are most insistent on the use of the right words in prayer – and theology, for that matter – that are, seemingly paradoxically, also most aware of the limitation of words.

I can’t help being aware that this goes rather against the grain of what many people in our society consider prayer to be, and what I was brought up to see it as. Yet I am also aware that, growing up in an Evangelical Protestant home, I was often profoundly uncomfortable with the expectation that prayer was primarily speaking to God in one’s own words. Without wanting to offend anyone, it somehow sounded, well, trite, projecting, and somehow banal, although that sounds like a terribly judgmental thing to say. However, listening to Father Hopko this afternoon, I was able to understand some of my discomfort more. Prayer is a training, as Saint Benedict tells us, to put our mind where our mouth is. Words train us and form us. They form the heart and the mind. And it therefore matters what words we use in prayer. This is an extract from the transcript of Father Hopko’s podcast, and the rest is found here:

The animals and the plants worship God just by their very being. The animals worship God just by their very nature, whereas the human being, who is a free being, has to open their mouth and their lips and show forth God’s praise through their speech. We have speech, and Christian worship is logike latreia, the worship of those who speak; those whose words and sounds have a content to them.

Now, it’s very interesting here to note that when we’re calling on God to open our lips and to put the words into our mouth, we have to really pay attention to the fact that we are praying in the words that are given to us by God. These are words given to us by God. Worship is not done in our own words, certainly not in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. We do not pray in our own words, so to speak. We pray in the words God gave us to say.

St. Benedict, a great monk of the Western Church; very much influenced by the Eastern Tradition, says that in liturgical prayer, in the Church’s worship, we do not put our mouth where our mind is. We put our mind where our mouth is. In other words, we don’t say what comes to our mind. The words are first put on our mouth, our lips. They are given to us by God, and then we put our mind on what we are saying, and we’re saying it because God has commanded us to say it. He has inspired us to say it.

As Saint Anthony the Great said, “In the worship of the Christian Church, God gives His own words for His own glorification.” He puts His words into our mouth. And that’s very important, because in traditional Biblical worship when the Kahal Israel, the People of God, the People of Israel, the Ekkli̱sía tou Theoú, the Church of God, the Church of the Lord gathers, the words of the Lord are provided by God. We don’t make them up. We don’t express what’s on our mind and heart when we go to Church.

Now, when we pray privately, we even then don’t begin in our own words, at least in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We begin private, personal prayers in our room; in our heart in the words God gave us. We say, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.” We say, “Holy God. Holy Immortal. Holy, Holy, Holy.” We say, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Those are words that God gives us.

We say the words of the Psalms, which are the words that are inspired in human beings by God. They are the words of God in human words. But they are ultimately God’s words. They are inspired words. They are the Holy Spirit praying within us. Now, we begin with those words that God gives, and then in our private devotion, we can move in several directions.

We can move where, taking those words that God gives, we somehow use them as a formation or a pattern for what we ourselves might personally wish to say. So sure, we can pray in our own words or fill our own content with these words, but we never do that publicly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We always use the words together. We use the same words, and these words are primarily those inspired by God; given to us by God.

But then also, the words of prayer, both in our heart, in our room, in our closet, and the corporate worship of the Church can lead human beings into the wordless prayer; into the silence from which God’s words emerge and into which God’s words lead us. So in the Orthodox Tradition, the hesychastic prayer, the prayer of silence, is deeply connected to the prayer of words.

But you begin with words. You don’t begin with silence. You are led into the silence through the words. And the words lead us deeper into a meaning, which even the words themselves cannot really contain, limit and totally express. So there is a communion with God in silence that is beyond and above words, the wordless prayer of the heart.

St. Isaac of Syria and St. Seraphim or Sarov even say that there’s a condition beyond worship. There’s a condition beyond petitionary prayer where you are just one with God. The Holy Spirit is in you totally, so to speak, and you are in communion with Christ; in communion with God; in a love relationship; a union of love that’s beyond words.

And we know that really love is always beyond words, even the best of words. All the best of words are limited and in some sense, if taken too literally, are misguiding. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “When it comes to words, even the words inspired by God, every man is a liar, because this reality so transcends words.” But they are words, to use the expression of St. Gregory the Theologian now, theoprepic. In other words, they are appropriate to God. They are true words, or to use the line of the Psalter, they are pure words.

Something I’m reading at the moment that seemed worth sharing:

Holy souls are led and guided by the Spirit of Christ, who directs them wherever he wishes them to go. Sometimes he leads them by his will through heavenly thoughts, sometimes through the body. Wherever he wishes, there they minister to him. Just as the feet of the birds are the wings, so the heavenly light of the Spirit takes up the wings and thoughts worthy of the soul and leads and directs the soul as he knows best.

Therefore, when you hear such things, look to yourself and see whether you really possess these things in your own soul. These are not mere and empty words, but we are dealing with a work that truly goes on in the soul. And if you do not possess these very important spiritual goods but you are lacking in them, be moved to sorrow, grieve and be continually in mourning as one who is still dead in regard to the Kingdom. And as one lies wounded, continually cry out to the Lord and ask with confidence that he may deign to give you this true life.

And so God, who made your body, did not give it life from its very own nature nor from the body itself, nor from the food, drink, clothing and footwear that he gave the body, but he arranged it that your body, created naked, should be able to live my means of such extrinsic things as food, drink, and clothing. (If the body were to attempt to exist only by its own constituted nature without accepting these exterior helps, it would deteriorate and perish.) In a similar way, it is so with the human soul. It does not have by nature the divine light, even though it has been created according to the image of God. For, indeed, God ordered the soul in his economy of salvation according to his good pleasure that it would enjoy eternal life. It would not be because of the soul’s very own nature but because of his Divinity, of his very Spirit, of his light, that the soul would receive its spiritual meat and drink and heavenly clothing which are truly the life of the soul.

As, therefore, the body, as was said above, does not have life in itself, but receives it from outside, that is, from the earth, and without such material things of the earth it cannot live, so the soul, unless it be regenerated into that “land of the living” (Ps 27:13) and there be fed spiritually and progress by growing spiritually unto the Lord and be adorned by the ineffable garments of heavenly beauty flowing out of the Godhead, without that food in joy and tranquillity, the soul cannot clearly live.

Saint Macarius the Great, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 10-11 (pp. 42-43).

I really don’t intend to get into a discussion of Mariology, but after publishing the previous post I saw a reaction on Facebook that typifies the sort of views that are common in some circles. They see the early Church’s understanding of the Mother of God as rooted in a sort of pagan longing for a mother goddess. By making Jesus God, so the logic goes, the Church had made Him remote and inaccessible and so natural pagan longings re-emerged and made His Mother into a goddess.

Now I wouldn’t really bother engaging this, except that such views are actually quite widespread in certain circles, including in some academic circles that should know better. But this reaction did remind me of a letter I wrote a couple of years ago in response to a newspaper article that made similar claims. It was never published, but I thought it would be worth hauling it out and quoting it here:

… To suggest that Mary was declared Theotokos because of a sort of proto-feminist pressure for a mother goddess makes absolutely no sense to anyone familiar with the patristic texts and with the sort of theological debates that were raging in the century preceding the Council of Ephesus.

That Christian theology did not arise in a vacuum is clear and there is some evidence that at a popular level some people may have misunderstood the teaching to be simply replacing one goddess with another. But to suggest that popular longing for a displaced mother goddess gave rise to the Council’s decision can only be done by ignoring three things. Firstly, one would have to ignore the intense debate on Christological issues that had preceded it. Secondly, one would have to ignore the conciliar texts themselves. And, thirdly, one would have to ignore the liturgical hymnography that resulted from them and that is permeated by a profound awareness of the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ in one person who is both God and human.

Moreover, while the Christian Church was influenced by the social and religious context in which she developed, this did not happen in the straightforward manner that some people like to suggest. The Church also rejected and/or transformed elements of both Jewish and pagan religion, and indeed of Greek philosophy. Thus, while other religions had mother goddesses and female priests, Christianity rejected these, not because it was a patriarchal religion as feminists like to claim, thereby ignoring the evidence of female leadership in the early Church, but because the fertility symbolism associated with these undermined the very message that she was proclaiming, which is that in Christ the limitations of biological life have been overcome. In the Incarnation of Christ we find the meeting of the divine and the human, which enables the healing and the transformation of our humanity. And, by enabling that meeting, the Theotokos plays a far more important role than she would have played as any mother goddess.

To be honest, the more I encounter such voices but also the views of some Christians, the more I realize that the Incarnation has really made very little impression on some people’s understanding of Christianity. Granted, we cannot grasp the Incarnation, but it is precisely this overwhelming “ungraspability” that is witnessed to in the Church’s faith and worship – and which undergirds everything that she says about the Holy Theotokos.

I recently read Father Alexander Schmemann’s little book, The Virgin Mary, in the Celebration of Faith series. I’m not going to discuss the whole book, which is a combination of helpful reflections on the feasts of the Mother of God and various papers that he had presented on “Mariology,” usually in an ecumenical context. But what struck me, and got me thinking, was his discussion on the virgin birth near the beginning of the book.

Father Schmemann notes that, while miracles are an indisputable part of the New Testament witness and of the faith of the Church, we would nevertheless do well to ask about their meaning. Jesus Christ did not “use” miracles in order to prove anything, much less to force our belief, for that would be to override our human freedom.

Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to “prove” His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: “He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…” (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: “…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). (17)

Instead of trying to “prove” anything, the miracles presented in the gospels are motivated by Christ’s compassion and rooted in His love, for “He cannot endure the suffering of a human being hopelessly imprisoned by evil.” (18)

However, this does not appear to explain the miracle of Christ’s birth and the need for the virgin birth. Father Schmemann argues that this unique miracle that is also rooted in God’s love that, out of love for us, “took upon Himself our humanity in order to save it.” (19)

But to save it from what? From its total and inescapable slavery precisely to nature and those merciless laws which reduce us to just another human species, just matter, just “flesh and blood.” Man, however, is not merely of nature. Above all, he is of God, of God’s freely given love, of the Spirit. And therefore what our faith affirms is this: Christ is from God and of God, that His Father is God Himself. In Christ, in His birth, in His coming into the world a new humanity is born that comes not from the flesh nor from our self-imposed slavery to passions, but from God. God Himself is betrothed to humanity in the person of the most sublime fruit of His Creation: the all-pure Virgin Mary. The New Adam enters the world to be united with us and to lift up the first Adam who was created not “by nature” but by God. (19)

Leaving aside a terminological quibble about the word “nature,” which I think Father Schmemann is using to mean “fallen nature,” his words reminded me of Metropolitan John (Zizioiulas) of Pergamon’s discussion on the biological and ecclesial hypostasis in Being and Communion. For Metropolitan John, it is precisely the necessity of the biological that is overcome in the person of Christ, who thereby also opens up the way for us to become truly free persons. In such a perspective, it is necessity that keeps us enslaved and a radical freedom that is the mark of human persons who reflect God’s Image. In this context, the virginity of the Mother of God, in overcoming biological necessity, becomes the herald of a new way of being, a truly ecclesial hypostasis.

Of course, this may all be totally obvious – and from an Orthodox perspective it should be obvious – and I may just be slow in coming to grasp it. But I also think that it touches on themes that are not easily understood in our contemporary western context. I sometimes have the impression that some of those who defend the virgin birth do so more out of commitment to God being able to work whatever miracles He likes than any particular meaning that it conveys. And then it becomes no big deal for more liberal Christians to sit rather lightly to the dogma, especially given the way it is often presented as tied up with negative views about sexuality – and the layers of misconception in those assumptions still need to be seriously unmasked. But the reality is that the virginity of the Mother of God is a fundamentally eschatological reality, for in her we recognise the “Bright Dawn of the Mystical Day.”

There has been much discussion, in the latter part of the last century, of our ‘denial of death’. But it would seem to me that the problem is deeper and more difficult. If it is true that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as a human being, then, quite simply, if we no longer ‘see’ death, we no longer see the face of God.

John Behr, “The Christian Art of Dying” in Sobornost, 35:1-2, 2013. 137.

The last issue of Sobornost contains a compelling essay by Father John Behr on the importance of taking back the Christian art of dying. Our culture’s denial of death is something that has been widely commented on, and something that I have become more aware of in recent years. This is not only related to becoming Orthodox (or, perhaps more broadly, engaging more seriously with the Christian tradition), but it does have something to do with it. There is nothing like going to a family funeral when you really need to grieve and pray for the departed, and realising that something crucial is desperately missing. And, linked to this, I have also become aware of the contrast between how aging is viewed in the Christian tradition and how it is viewed by our contemporary western society – as well as the related and potentially huge question of cultural (and religious) shifts in how the body is viewed. So it was against this backdrop that I thought this essay well worth noting and sharing with others.

However, this article takes these generally acknowledged issues a step further, for in it Father Behr argues that the fact that contemporary western culture no longer lives with death and dying as an ever-present reality undermines our ability to see something that is at the heart of our Christian faith, for it is in death that Christ shows us what it is to be God. Indeed, “the way that he dies as a human being sums up the theological heart of the creeds and definitions of the early Councils.” (137)

Facing death is an unavoidable human reality, but it is an even more crucial task for Christians. And it is in fact, Father Behr argues, the coming of Christ that has made our facing of death so crucial. Prior to the coming of Christ, death was simply a natural reality, but with Christ’s victory over death, death itself has been revealed as “the last enemy.” (1 Cor. 15:26) For, in the light of Christ, we see that people die not simply from biological necessity, but as a result of having turned away from the Source of life. And this is not simply a once-off occurrence that happened with Adam, but is a constant temptation for us – the temptation to live our lives on our own terms and turned in on ourselves.

It is precisely in death that Christ has shown Himself to be God and in His conquering of death, He has, in the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor, “changed the use of death.”

Through his Passion, destroying death by death, Christ has enable us to use our death, the fact of our mortality, actively. Rather than being passive and frustrated victims of the givenness of our mortality, complaining that it is not fair, or doing all we can to secure ourselves, we now have a path open to us, through a voluntary death in baptism, to enter into the body and life of Christ. Whereas we were thrown into the mortal existence, without any choice on our part, we can now, freely, use our mortality, to be born into life, by dying with Christ in baptism, taking up our cross, and no longer living for ourselves, but for Christ and our neighbours. In doing this, our new existence is grounded in the free, self-sacrificial love that Christ has shown to be the life and very being of God himself, for as we have seen Christ has shown us what it means to be God in the way he dies as a human being. (141)

Christian life is about learning to die so that we may be born to new life – and it is our physical death that will reveal the extent to which we have done this, for it will reveal where our hearts truly lie.

One way or another, each and every one of us will die, we will become clay. The only real question is whether, through this life, we have learnt to become soft and pliable clay in the hands of God, breaking down our hearts of stone so that we may receive a heart of flesh, merciful and loving. Or whether, instead, we will have hardened ourselves, so that we are nothing but brittle and dried out clay that is good for nothing. (143)

Father Behr uses two examples of martyrdom – of Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Blandina – to illustrate this understanding of death as revealing the deepest reality of being born into the new life of Christ. Such accounts have nourished the Church throughout the ages; they have changed our perception of “the use of death.” However, as the essay concludes:

If it is true, as I suggested earlier, that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as a human being, then, if we don’t see death (as I claimed that modern society doesn’t), then we will not see the face of God either. If we don’t know that life comes through death, then our horizons will become totally imminent, our life will be for ourselves, for our body, for our pleasure (even if we think we are being ‘religious’, growing in our ‘spiritual life’). And so, I would argue, we need to regain the martyric reality of what it means to bear Christian witness. Our task today is not just to proclaim our faith in an increasingly secular world; it is, rather, to take back death, by allowing death to be ‘seen’, by honouring those dying with the full liturgy of death, and by ourselves bearing witness to a life that comes through death, a life that can no longer be touched by death, a life that comes by taking up the cross. (147)

In the last few weeks, I have been thinking a fair bit about religion in the public sphere in South Africa and have – not for the first time – been rather dismayed by the level of discussion. This is a topic that could fill several books, but I wanted to record a few points here, even if they only serve as a springboard for further reflection.

I couldn’t help being struck by the juxtaposition of two clusters of discourse around this topic in the course of the same week. The first was the reaction (here, among other places) to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s speech suggesting – in rather measured tones – that religious traditions could make a positive contribution to the social good by influencing our legal framework. The second was a conference at which a group of Christians got together because they were concerned that freedom of religion is under threat in South Africa.

The problem, as I see it, is that the shrillness of the reaction to the Chief Justice’s speech only serves to underline the concerns of those who feel that freedom of religion is under threat, while the issues around which certain Christians seem intent on lobbying – such as the right to spank children – only confirms the prejudices of the secularists who see religious groups as inherently oppressive and basing their arguments on an arbitrary appeal to (often conflicting) religious texts.

In the midst of the heat-without-light reaction to Mogoeng’s speech, Ryan Peter published a helpfully sane article entitled “Are today’s secularists really secular?” In it, he argued that, instead of wanting to keep a neutral secular space, today’s secularists are rather seeking to impose their own views on others. While Christians should not be able to impose their ethical standards on others – and, predictably, much of heat generated had to do with sexuality – neither should secular society be able to impose its norms onto Christians, and, presumably, the followers of other religions.

Now this is fine as far as it goes, but the problem is that it does not go that far, and I fear that the idea of a neutral public sphere is something of a modern illusion. Acknowledging this does not mean retreating into theocracy, but it does mean that the sort of conversation the Chief Justice was initiating is a conversation that needs to be had. And it forces us to reflect on where our social values and norms come from, the different weight that we give different “rights,” as well as their sometimes mutually incompatible nature.

The fact is, there are areas in which the law will inevitably curtail freedom of religion in one form or another. Should the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses be allowed to die because their parents’ religion does not allow blood transfusions? Should Quakers be exempted from paying taxes that fund the military because their religion requires them to be pacifists? Should Christians who appeal to certain biblical verses be exempted from laws prohibiting corporal punishment? And, if they are going to base their argument on such verses, what is to stop another group arguing that stoning adulterers is a religious duty? The list could continue and it is small wonder that secularists accuse religious believers of cherry picking from often conflicting religious texts.

Yet there are also weighty matters at stake at stake here. Not so long ago, a Methodist minister who had been disciplined by her church for supposedly marrying her female partner, took her church to court on the grounds that they had discriminated against her unconstitutionally. While she didn’t win, it was not inconceivable that she could have done so (and she is continuing to appeal the judgement) and some of her most vocal supporters are precisely those people attacking Mogoeng’s speech. Moreover, while the forthcoming Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill has been amended to exclude religious bodies, there are nevertheless voices that would like to see religious groups forced to comply with what is seen as gender equality.

These are real issues and they will not ultimately be solved simply by appealing to a supposedly neutral public sphere, for it is precisely the values of that public sphere that are being contested. This is not to suggest a retreat into theocracy, but rather that we should critically examine where the values of the public sphere are coming from and what they are informed and nourished by. Neither secular nor biblical fundamentalism is particularly helpful here – and the former can be just as fundamentalist as the latter. But what is notably absent – at least as far as I can hear – is a robust articulation of the Christian vision of the human person in the South African public discourse.

Of course it’s understandable, given our history, that South Africans should be wary of the role of religion in the public sphere. Too often, Christianity has come to be identified with a fundamentally pessimistic view of humanity in which human potential is stunted out of deference to an arbitrary and vengeful God. And yet, ousting and controlling God does not so much mean freeing human beings as redefining and reducing them. For what is at stake is not so much God as humanity – what it means to be human. For ultimately, for Orthodox Christians, to quote the words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive. And the life of a human being is the vision of God.”

*****

Some brief and probably disjointed appendices:

1. I’m not the only one who has noted the lack of any local forum for discussing issues of religious or theological concern in a serious way, and now Ryan Peter has come with a new initiative which looks promising. Do go and look at The Christian Blogger, which he is in the process of setting up.

2. Very close to the surface of any discussion on religion and public life are questions of sexuality. I’d better not start on this now as it probably requires a separate post – if not several books – and I sort of wish someone else would write it. But there are important questions that need to be probed, especially on the contrast between how such discussions play out in our context with how they played out in the early Church. (Of course, there are other issues too – individual autonomy, economics, etc. – but they too will have to wait).

3. I’ve recently started listening to the podcast series Paradise and Utopia by Father John Strickland on the rise and fall of Christendom – and on how the faith of the early Church influenced the society around it. It raises issues that are not unrelated to this post and which I may say more on again.