Love/eros for God: We love because he first loved us

17 12 2014
Unexpected reminder of the story: A 1526 dish representing the Flight into Egypt in the Ashmolean Museum

Unexpected reminder of the story: A 1526 dish representing the Flight into Egypt in the Ashmolean Museum

At some level, the desire (eros) for God is built in at the base, the foundation, of human existence. As the famous Augustine quote puts it, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.’ (Confessions 1.1.1) Yet so often, our hearts are still restless, aren’t they?

I mean, it’s all well and good to read the hesychasts and hermits who engage in a lot of omphaloskepsis (navel-gazing) and find God in their cell, in birdsong, in the sound of silence, in a still, small voice. But some days, we aren’t all that interested in God, even at (sometimes especially at) festal seasons.

It’s hard to reach for the invisible God, much easier to rest in the visible and tangible — in house, hearth, home, family, spouse. In good food, good art, good music, and so forth. To enjoy these gifts with nary a thought for the Giver.

This past Sunday our church hosted its annual Carol Service. The opening song was something relatively new, probably from the last couple of years.* I don’t actually know which song it was or who it was by or, frankly, any details. But it spoke of the romance God has for us. That, unlike any of the gods, unlike the great men and women of this worldly existence, he gave up everything for us. For you.

For me.

Silly, sinful me. Who has so much trouble resting in the peace of God.

If you believe the Bible, and believe God is true, words such as these, whether in story or song, in Scripture or Sacrament, are part of how we join with God. We recall the verse, 1 John 4:19 — We love him because he first loved us.

Simply reminding ourselves of these eternal truths in the midst of this temporal life can help us burn with greater love for God. The good liturgies do that — the truth of God’s love and sacrifice for us is blazoned across the Book of Common Prayer. The Scriptures do that — they are primarily the story of God’s love and sacrifice for us, from Creation to the Cross to the Rider on the White Horse. The creeds do that, the great hymns do that, the worthy artwork does that.

Remind yourself of this love God has for us.

Today is one of the ancient Ember Days of Advent. Take this solemn fast to feast on God’s love for you. It is a delightful and certain means for quickening your own love for Him. And next week is Christmas — listen attentively to the Scriptures, to Luke 2, to Matthew 2, to John 1. Revel in their truths, remembering that angels and shepherds and Magi are not fairtytales (although fairytales can carry extraordinary truths within them) but Truth.

And then delight in the God Who first loved you. Rejoice that love came down at Christmas.

*Unlike a friend of mine, I don’t count Beethoven as ‘too modern’. New is new.





Some Cassiodorus for ‘Bible Sunday’

9 12 2014
St Augustine Gospels, fol. 125r

St Augustine Gospels (6th c), fol. 125r

Advent 2 in the BCP is Bible Sunday, on which I’ve blogged in other Advents, here and here. Here’s some Cassiodorus (6th c) to keep it real:

Note, excellent friends, how marvellously and how harmoniously the arrangement of words moves in Divine Scripture. There is an ever-increasing desire, a fullness without end, a glorious hunger of the blessed where excess is not reproved but constant desire is, instead, praised — and rightly so, since Scripture both teaches beneficial knowledge and offers eternal life to those who believe and act on their belief. They describe the past without fiction, and reveal more of the present than is seen, and tell of the future as if it had already taken place. Truth rules everywhere in them; everywhere divine excellence shines forth; everywhere benefits to the human race are revealed. While the present situation exists on earth, heavenly truth, in so far as we are able to grasp it, is revealed by parables and mysteries, as God himself bears witness in the seventy-seventh Psalm: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter mysteries from the beginning’ [Psalm 77:2]. For they pass on to us, in order that we may discharge all duties, a prayerful knowledge of the holy Trinity (which, over the great passage of time, humanity, blind, sad, and enslaved to idols, has not known). They tell us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, creator and director of all created things does ‘all that he wills in heaven and on earth’ [Psalm 134:6]. If you seek its faithfulness, listen to the brief statement: ‘A stronghold for the oppressed in times of distress’ [Psalm 9:10]; if you seek power, hear: ‘Who can withstand your power?’ [Psalm 75:8; Wisdom 11:22]; if justice, read: ‘He will judge the world with justice’ [Psalms 9:99 and 95:13]. For Scripture declares most obviously that God is everywhere; in the words of the writer of the Psalms: ‘Where can I go from your spirit? from your presence where can I flee? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there’ [Psalm 138:7-8], and likewise the other aspects of God’s majesty are embedded in the holy writings. -Cassiodorus, Inst. I.XVI.1, trans. J W Halporn, p. 146




A story about Elder St Porphyrios

7 12 2014

I decided to hold off sharing this story yesterday. It is another of my favourites from Elder Porphyrios (saint of the week here) in his memoirs, Wounded by Love. It is a reminder to meet people where they are when we encounter them and bring them softly to the light of the Gospel:

One Sunday afternoon I was passing the Archaeological Museum [in Athens] and since I had some free time I decided to go in. I walked through the rooms looking at the statues. In one of the rooms there was a group of people with a guide who was explaining things to them. There was complete silence. I went towards them. When the guide saw me, however, she whispered to them:

‘A priest’s just come in. I can’t stand priests, but this one doesn’t seem to be like the others.’

I came up closer and said:

‘Good afternoon.’

‘Good afternoon,’ replied the guide.

‘May I listen to what you are saying?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she said.

We went from one statue to another. At one point we stood before a statue of Zeus. Zeus was on his throne and was in the act of hurling a thunderbolt at mankind. Once the guide had finished telling them what she knew, she turned to me and said:

‘What do you have to say about this, Pappouli? How do you see the statue?’

Not the Zeus you're looking for (my pic; National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

Not the Zeus you’re looking for (my pic; National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

‘I don’t know about these things,’ I said. ‘But as I see it, I marvel at the work of the artist and also at the human form, such a perfect divine creation. And I see that the artist who made it had a great sense of the divine. Look at Zeus. Although he his hurling his thunderbolt at mankind, yet his face is serene. He is not angry. He’s impassionate.’

The guide, and indeed the whole group, was very pleased with my explanation. What does that tell us? It tells us that God is without passion, even when he punished. -Wounded by Love, p. 59

Now is not the time for a discussion on divine dispassion, but I like the way Elder Porphyrios used the art and the situation he was in to say something meaningful about the divine.





Saint of the Week: Elder St Porphyrios

6 12 2014

This past Tuesday, December 2, was the second time Elder Porphyrios’ (1906-1991) feast was celebrated. It’s rare to have someone so recently canonised appear here, but I felt he was worth commemoration partly because of that fact — and because of his wisdom and holiness of life.

Elder Porphyrios was born Evangelos Bairaktaris in the village of Aghios Ioannis in the province of Karystia on the Greek island of Euboea (mod. Evia). The youngest of four, he left school after the first grade and worked in the town of Chalkida at a shop to make money for the family. He was a hard and obedient worker, and stayed there for a few years before moving to Piraeus on the mainland (it is Athens’ port) and working in a general store run by a relative.

Although he hardly knew how to read at the time, Elder Porphyrios had a copy of the Life of St John the Hut-Dweller which he read as a boy. St John inspired him. St John the Hut-Dweller was late fifth-century Constantinopolitan saint who secretly took up the monastic life at the famed monastery of the Acoimetae (Unsleeping Ones). After living for some years according to a very strict rule, St John was granted permission by his abbot to go life near his parents so as to cleanse his heart of earthly love for them. He then dwelled in a hut beside his family, identity unknown, for three years. He revealed himself to his mother on his deathbed.

Young Evangelos was inspired by St John the Hut-Dweller’s story and wanted nothing more than to become a monk. He tried to run away to Mt Athos, the Holy Mountain, to become a monk on a few occasions. When he was 12, he succeeded at his goal and entered the life of obedience to two very strict and severe elders. At the age of 14, he became a monk under the name Niketas, and at 16 he took his full vows.

During these early years of the monastic life, Elder Porphyrios was given no praise but many tasks. He spent much time alone on the mountain with no one but the birds. He learned the Psalms and the prayers by heart. And at age 19, he received a gift from the Holy Spirit of clear sight. When this gift came, he saw his elders approaching his position even though they were far away and around a corner. He knew what they were doing. Later in his life, Elder Porphyrios was able to use this gift of sight to counsel and care for the souls of the many people who came to him seeking God’s grace.

The simplicity of Elder Porphyrios’ heart is visible in his recognition of the songs of praise sung by the birds to Almighty God, a realisation he had while living on the Holy Mountain:

One morning I was walking alone in the virgin forest. Everything, freshened by the morning dew, was shining in the sunlight. I found myself in a gorge. I walked through it and sat on a rock. Cold water was running peacefully beside me and I was saying the [Jesus] prayer. Complete peace. Nothing could be heard. After a while the silence was broken by a sweet, intoxicating voice singing and praising the Creator. I looked. I couldn’t discern anything. Eventually, on a branch opposite me I saw a tiny bird. It was a nightingale. I listened as the nightingale trilled unstintingly, its throat puffed out to bursting in sustained song. The microscopic little bird was stretching back its wings in order to find power to emit those sweetest of tones, and puffing out its throat to produce that exquisite voice. If only I had a cup of water to give it to drink and quench its thirst!

Tears came to my eyes … (Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 31)

Elder Porphyrios’ love of the animal world, and of birds in particular, is illustrated by his taming of two wild parrots later in life. He wished also to tame an eagle, but I don’t know if that happened. One of his parrots would say the Jesus Prayer with him.

Ill health forced Elder Porphyrios to leave Mount Athos, and he returned to Evia where we lived at the Monastery of St Charalambos, Levka. In 1926 he was ordained priest and was given the name Porphyrios. He lived at the Monastery of St Charalambos for twelve years as a spiritual guide and confessor, and then three years at the deserted Monastery of St Nicholas in Ano Vatheia.

1940 saw the Second World War and Elder Porphyrios’ move to Athens. He became the chaplain and confessor at the Polyclinic Hospital where he served for many years, leading the liturgy and hearing confessions and ministering to the staff and patients of the hospital, many of whose previous contact with Christianity had been minimal or merely formal.

From 1955 to 1979, he lived at the Monastery of St Nicholas in Kallisia. He was still chaplain at the Polyclinic, but he was now able to also live out his lifelong dream of being a monastic at the same time. In 1979, he moved to Milesi, a village that overlooks Evia, where he lived at first in a caravan and later in a single-cell built of cinder blocks. However, the goal of founding a monastery was realised, and in 1984 he was able to move into one of the rooms of the complex under construction, and in 1990 the foundation stone of the monastic church was laid.

He returned to the Holy Mountain and died at his hermitage in Kavsokalyvia, where he had become a monk so long ago, December 2 1991.

Stories about Elder St Porphyrios abound. One time, a young man on the verge of suicide received a phone call out of the blue, and it was the saint (neither knew each other) who counselled him not to kill himself. This young man was converted, and later met Elder Porphyrios before becoming a priest himself. One young woman had a vision of Elder Porphyrios while she, too, was contemplating suicide. At both these times, Elder Porphyrios had been at prayer when the Lord made the miracle happen.

Elder Porphyrios was a man who could be deeply moved by the words of Scripture:

One Good Friday we were doing the service. The church was packed with people. I was reading the Gospel, and when I came to the phrase, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, that is, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? I was unable to finish it. I didn’t read the words ‘why have you forsaken me?‘ I was overcome with emotion. My voice broke. In front of me I saw the whole tragic scene. I saw that face. I heard that voice. I saw Christ so vividly. The people in the church waited. I said nothing. I was unable to continue. I left the Gospel on the reading stand and turned back into the sanctuary. I made the sign of the cross and kissed the Holy Table. I brought to my mind another image, a better one. No, not a better one. There was no more beautiful image than that one, but the image of the Resurrection came to my mind. At once I calmed down. Then I returned to the Holy Doors and said:

‘Excuse me, my children, I got carried away.’ -Wounded by Love

Imagine if more ministers were so drawn into Scripture that their hearts were pierced in the formality of Sunday services!

I have run on long enough. There is much to say. I encourage you to learn the life and teachings of this saint — they are even available in the English book Wounded by Love: The Life and Teachings of Elder Porphyrios. ;)





Pope of the Month: St Victor I (also episcopal monarchy & dating Easter)

29 11 2014

Two years ago, I decided to include a montly pope in with the Saints of the Week, but only managed three, St Peter, St Clement, and then alleged Anti-pope St Hippolytus, who I later learned wasn’t an anti-pope at all! Since the Saint of the Week returned the first week of November, enjoy the Pope of the Month on the last!

This month, we go back to the days before St Hippolytus to St Victor (Bp of Rome c. 189-198) — a contender for being the first ‘Bishop’ of Rome. One of the most important developments in church organization was that of the monarchical episcopacy, which emerged in the years following the deaths of the Apostles or leaders of the apostolic age in different places at different rates. The letters of St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) reveal that Antioch at the time had an episcopacy that seems to have presided over a board of presbyters. Ignatius as bishop had a liturgical function, a role in protecting orthodoxy, and a prophetic role in leading the church. His letters also show us that many churches in Asia Minor had men called bishops at their heads as well.

The story of the church at Rome is not uncomplicated in this regard. Was Clement the bishop the way we think of them, or one bishop among several? The Roman church was a large body of believers from early days and also relatively wealthy — wealth that was used by the church functionaries to feed the poor and support the ministers. They seem by the time of Clement to see themselves as a united church, not a varied selection of different communities.

1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas reveal a church structure that had a group of officials at its head whose titles were, in the last first and early second centuries, still fluid; is there much difference between a presbyter who presides and the episkopoi? By the middle of the second century, the various churches of the cities of the Mediterranean world were in increasing contact, and this necessitated mutual recognition of leadership. This was the time of proto-orthodoxy seeing various risks to its integrity and the doctrinal soundness of the church in the various groups labelled ‘Gnostic’ as well as the divergent Roman teacher Marcion.

Shortly before Victor’s episcopate in Rome, St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, gives his famous Apostolic Succession (about which I’ve blogged here) of the city of Rome in Against the Heresies 3.3. Irenaeus finishes with Eleutherius, Victor’s predecessor. This strongly suggests that some form of episcopal monarchy was already established in Rome by the time of Eleutherus’ episcopate. The shape of the episcopacy was yet to be fully determined, however — was he a president over his fellow presbyters or what?

Yes, that Commodus

Victor comes onto the scene around 189 upon Eleutherus’ death. Victor exercised episcopal authority in a variety of ways. According to the Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter VII, Victor used influence at the court of the Emperor Commodus to secure the release of Christian prisoners who were working in the mines of Sardinia. We learn from Eusebius (5.28.6) that he also excommunicated one Theodotus the Tanner for denying Christ’s divinity. Victor is using the office of bishop, that much is clear.

He is most famous, however, for his involvement in the Quartodeciman Controversy — a debate on the date of Easter. In this controversy, we see the international role that bishops play in each other’s churches, as well as the fact that the ancient, ‘primitive’ church was an international community that sought unity in all things.

Quartodecimans were Christians who celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan, at the same time as Jewish Passover. The primarily lived in Asia Minor. It seems to me that their tradition is probably as old as the accepted celebration of Easter on a Sunday. They included in their ranks the celebrated Bishop of Smyrna, St Polycarp. In the days of Anicetus, one of Victor’s predecessors, Polycarp visited Rome, and Anicetus received him warmly, despite their difference over the date of Easter.

In the mid- to late 100s, however, the debate heated up. The date of Easter is a big deal throughout Church history, cropping up here, then again around the time of the Council of Nicaea, then again in the 400s, and then famously at the Synod of Whitby in the 600s (my thoughts on that here). Many of today’s Christians probably wonder what the big deal is — who cares which day people celebrate Easter?

Well, two immediate thoughts. One is an official reason: Traditionally, people fast before Easter. To have some feasting while others are still fasting is just in appropriate. Second, Easter is the chief feast of the Christian year. It is the reason we are Christians. Jesus rose from the dead. To fail to celebrate Easter at the same time is to compromise Christian unity that is visible in the feasts.

When the issue of the divergent Asian celebration of Easter heated up, Eusebius says:

synods and conferences of bishops were convened, and without a dissentient voice, drew up a decree of the Church, in the form of letters addressed to Christians everywhere, that never on any day other than the Lord’s Day should the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead be celebrated, and that on that day alone we should observe the end of the Paschal fast. (Ecclesiastical History, 5.23, trans. Williamson)

The Asian bishops protested, and wrote in their defence that long custom and luminaries such as the Apostles Philip and John and the martyr Polycarp were on their side. Victor responded harshly and, to quote Eusebius, ‘pilloried them in letters in which he announced the total excommunication of all his fellow-Christians there.’ (5.24; this is no doubt why some consider him Rome’s first true bishop)

Other bishops felt that Victor had gone too far by breaking communion with every single Asian Christian, especially since they seemed to be pretty much orthodox. Amongst the more easygoing bishops were Irenaeus who pointed out that cutting churches off because they follow tradition is a bad idea. As Eusebius says, Irenaeus lived up to his name, peacemaker, and corresponded with Victor and other bishops to find a peaceful resolution to the issue.

I guess it seemed to work, since Eusebius does not return to the issue — however, pockets of Quartodecimans continued to exist in Asia Minor for centuries, tradition being on their side.

There is not much more to say about Victor. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes by J. N. D. Kelly simply closes:

According to St Jerome, he was the author of Latin works of moderate quality. Reports that he was a martyr and was buried near St Peter are routine and should be rejected. Feast 28 July.





Western-facing Churches of Rome in Late Antiquity

28 11 2014
Santa Maria Maggiore, facing West

Santa Maria Maggiore, facing West

The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop reading Trevor Jalland, The Life and Times of Pope St. Leo the Great (as you do), and he mentioned the fact that Rome’s most ancient churches are all western oriented. That is, when you walk in and look towards the altar and apse, you are facing West, not East. At first, I didn’t believe Jalland. I had been told that all traditional churches face East — and, taking stock of a few I know (St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, the Duomos of Milan and Florence, Westminster Abbey, Jedburgh Abbey, Ayia Sophia in Nicosia), this is broadly true.

Then I thought about it and realised that Jalland was right — St Peter’s, St John’s (Lateran), Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere — these churches, two in place of fourth-century foundations, one fifth-century foundations respectively, all face west. This isn’t the sort of thing one says and is wrong, of course. Still, I was a bit taken aback.

You see, there is a bit of controversy about ‘facing East’ and ‘facing West’, liturgically speaking. Regardless of the compass points at your church, if your priest faces liturgical East during the celebration and consecration of the Eucharist, then you and the cleric are facing the same direction (sometimes called ‘facing away from the congregation’). If your priest faces you, that is facing liturgical West. Until Vatican II, most churches faced East — all in the same direction — and now, outside of the Eastern communions, only a few scattered congregations maintain previous practice in this regard.

Those who uphold facing East tend to quote St Basil of Caesarea (330-379) in their defence:

For this reason we all look towards the East in our prayers, though there are few who know that it is because we are in search of our ancient fatherland, Paradise, which God planted towards the East. (On the Holy Spirit 66, quoted [& presumably trans] by Andrew Louth, ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, p. 83)

Elsewhere, I have heard the reference to facing East because the rising sun symbolises the resurrection and Christ’s return in glory. Another argument in favour of the practice is the idea that priest and people are praying together, so they face the altar together.

What does the western orientation of ancient roman churches mean, then?

According to Jalland, the priests would still have faced East. Thus, they would have faced the congregation, facing, in contemporary terms, liturgical West.

This changed, he says, when the Via Ostiense and local topography forced them to build San Paolo fuori le Mura facing East. This is the first eastern-orientated church in Rome. The priest continued to face East, but now, so did the people, so they all faced the same direction, the priest with his back to the congregation.

Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, facing East

Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, facing East

I don’t know how true or accurate this is — Jalland gave no references for how we know which way people faced, and his book is from 1941. I do imagine, based upon what I’ve read in J Richards, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages, that facing East, if it is as common in the East as we imagine, would likely have become more and more common after Justinian’s mid-sixth-century Reconquest, when the Roman liturgy took on a variety of Greek influences, often because of a growing Greek population in Rome and Greek clerics (sometimes refugees from eastern problems) in the city.

It is certainly the case that San Teodoro and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, both sixth-century foundations, face East, as does Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, a seventh-century construction.

Anyway, it is interesting to think about how architecture, theology, and liturgical practice can all influence one another.





Saint of the Week: St Alexander Nevsky

22 11 2014

IMG_3254I have chosen St Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263) for this week because I was looking for an Eastern saint this time around, I’ve visited the exterior of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris (pictured left) that’s name after him, and his feast is tomorrow (23 November).

Moving from a queen last week (St Margaret of Scotland) to a king is an interesting transition, because saintly queens tend to be remembered for their piety and acts of mercy. While saintly kings may be remembered for this also, they also have a tendency to be remembered either for Christianising their kingdom or for keeping its borders safe from either heathens or the wrong kind of Christian. Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, protected the borders of the Rus from both the wrong kind of Christian and heathens.

Alexander succeeded his father in 1236 at the age of 16. The Tatars had been engaged in some quite successful invasions of Rus territory, and — fortunately for Prince Alexander — they decided to turn southwards. His next engagement would be with Catholic Europe in 1240, when he did battle with the Swedes. The Swedish were, at this period of the Middle Ages, at the forefront of power in north-central and northeastern Europe. Their star was in the ascendancy.

And at the River Neva — hence Nevsky — Alexander defeated the Swedish army, protecting Rus for its Orthodox, Slavic rulers. Interestingly enough, of course, the people to whom the term rus originally applied were, in fact, Swedish Vikings resident in Eastern Europe at such places as Novgorod and Kiev. The Slavic ruling lines of the Central Middle Ages traced the lineage back to the Swedish Vikings who were ultimately assimilated into the local Slavic culture.*

Poster of 1938 film

Anyway, in 1242 Alexander Nevsky went head to head against the Tuetonic Knights, the other western force impinging on the Slavic Rus’ control of ‘Russia’** The Tuetonic Knights had been a major contributor to the successful spread of western, Catholic Christianity in parts of northeastern Europe — hence why Russia’s Baltic neighbours are not Eastern Orthodox. Some of their work had been the conversion on non-Christian populations to the Catholic faith. But now they were taking on the Rus, an ostensibly Christian people — just the wrong kind (from their point of view).

Not to worry — Russian Orthodoxy and Slavic ascendancy were saved when Alexander defeated the Teutonic Knights at Lake Peipous.

Interestingly enough, although Catholic Christians are definitely the enemy, after these famous battles (or during them? my source is The Oxford Dictionary of Saints), Nevsky was involved in working with the Tatars. Either they had converted without me knowing it, or its better to ally yourself with non-Christian nomads than to be conquered by Latin Catholics. At least from the Rus point of view.

Alexander is said to have taken monastic vows shortly before he died. He died on 14 November 1263 at Gorodec, and proceeded to wait 119 years to be canonised when it was politically convenient following Dmitri Donskoy’s defeat of the Tatars.

I, personally, am a bit skeptical about the sanctity of saints who read more like nationalistic warriors than anything else, but I’m some sort of dirty, western Protestant, so I could be biased. I’ll redress my somewhat cynical reading of Nevsky in future with a Russian saint I can get behind — I promise.

*An early example of their assimilation to local cultures is the adaptation by the Volga Vikings of certain Turkic practices in the 10th-century travelogue of Ibn Fadlan (inspiration for Eaters of the Dead and its film adaptation The 13th Warrior).

**Sincerely unsure of how these terms should be applied at this time.








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