“Read Sophocles”: Poetry, Philosophy, Beauty

2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper’s House, Toronto

In the midst of a philosophical discussion online, a philosopher/theologian friend (who teaches the “great books” at university) stated, “Read Sophocles.” The point was that if one were to read Sophocles, the philosophical position being elucidated would become clearer.

This is a good use of the classics. I still remember my first encounter with Antigone in high school and the stichomythia between Haemon and his father Creon, preceded by Haemon’s speech, including these lines:

Whoever thinks that he alone possess intelligence,
the gift of eloquence, he and no one else,
and character too . . . such men, I tell you,
spread them open — you will find them empty.
No, it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn — they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.

Lines 707-718, trans. Robert Fagles (English lines 791-803), pp. 95-96

As the remaining events of the play bear out, Haemon is correct. Creon, King of Thebes, (in case you still need to read the play) has decreed that his nephew Polyneices (son of Oedipus), brother of the titular Antigone, is not to be buried, but Antigone seems to have done so, or attempted to do so. And so he is going to seal Antigone alive in a tomb. This ends up with Antigone, Haemon Creon’s son, and Eurydice his wife all dead and Creon repenting — too late.

There are lots of noteworthy points made and speeches and it’s well worth a read.

And, as with any good tragedy, whether by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, or Marlowe, you learn a lot through the human drama as it unfolds.

What I am trying to figure out is whether or not this is the chief end of tragedy. I’m not saying my friend thinks so. Maybe no one does, but sometimes, when you read the people promoting the “great books” or “classical education” or the Greek and Latin classics, when they turn on the tap of their rhetoric to convince you that this is a worthy endeavour, it often feels as though — for that moment, at least — the reason is because there are “lessons” to be gained from Sophocles, that we can learn about philosophy from reading ancient poetry, and not just the explicitly philosophical like Lucretius, and that this is the most important reason people should read the greats.

Maybe this is because they are trying to convince skeptical parents and donors that this is a worthwhile endeavour. And maybe I’m misreading everything. And hopefully what I’m about to say will resound with them all.

Whatever lessons and whatever philosophy, ethics, politics, can be gained from reading Sophocles or Homer (and it can, as I have just demonstrated), the basic philosophical utility of the classics is not necessarily the number one reason to read them.

To take up the classically Christian cause of this blog, the monks who copied the Latin classics would likely disagree. I have not read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, for over five years, but as I recall, the Benedictines and Cistercians of pre-scholastic, monastic theology, read pagan Latin verse primarily for its beauty — chiefly Virgil, but also Ovid, Horace, Statius. This latter poet, as C S Lewis discusses,* was imagined by some in the Middle Ages to have been a crypto-Christian because of his portrayal of the gods. Philosophy was the schoolbook for philosophy (and they had more and more Latin Aristotle to read as time went on, directly from Greek, alongside Plato, and Calcidius and Boethius and Cicero).

Given that, theologically, they were steeped in Sts Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, it is also worth noting that narrative fiction, such as Virgil or Sophocles or Terence (always a school text), was considered “lies”, so they would have read it (not Sophocles, given that he’s Greek) for the language, for its beauty and subtlety. The advice from St Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana to make your teaching beautiful as well as true (but, at the very least, true) was one they took to heart. And so they read the pagan classics.

As I say, I have no doubt that people in the great books and classical education camps are not reductionistic, and they certainly see the worth in reading something for its beauty. But it’s an important thought to keep in mind.

Let me close with an anecdote on this theme, then. Malcolm Guite visited Rome when he was still an atheist. And there, he encountered John Keats’ poetry and Keats House at Piazza Spagna. And through the sublimity of Keats’ poetry, God began to break through Father Malcolm’s unbelief and soften his heart, making him at least open to the possibility of God, although not yet a Christian.

And so we can find God in the beauty of the poets even without hunting for lessons in philosophy.

*C. S. Lewis, “Dante’s Statius,” Medium Aevum 25 (1956): 133–9.

Benedict, Sophrony, and Theosis

Every Sunday morning, I do a little bit of an introduction to the church season. In the vast sea from Trinity to Advent, that is usually a nearby saint’s feast. Last week, July 4, it was St Andrei Rublev (watch my video about his Trinity icon here), and today it was St Sophrony of Essex, who happens to share his feast (in the West, anyway) with St Benedict of Nursia.

St Sophrony (d. 1993) has a special place in my life because he was the founder of the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, and Archimandrite Zacharias, his successor there, is the spiritual father of my own mentor, Father Raphael of Edinburgh, Scotland. Besides drinking in wisdom and Greek coffee with Father Raphael, I have also read St Sophrony’s book His Life Is Mine, and I began St Silouan the Athonite a while back.

St Sophrony was a fashionable Russin emigre in early twentieth-century Paris who made fashionable modern art and was fashionably agnostic. He believed that somehow this art would be a source of transcendence — but in the end, he found true freedom in Christ and the Russian Orthodox faith of his homeland, and became and iconographer and monk, founding an oasis in the south of England (as they say, the only way is Essex).

His Life Is Mine is a book chiefly on prayer, about the human desire and encounter with God, Who Is. Who is Primordial Being. Who is Love. Who is Trinity. Who is the one, true hypostasis, persona. Whom we encounter because of the Incarnation and through contemplation, the beginning of which is repentance. In discussing theosis, St Sophrony writes:

The doctrine that man may become godlike … lies at the root of our Christian anthropology. As the image and likeness of the Absolute, man … transcends every other form of natural being. In prayer we glimpse in ourselves divine infinity not yet actualized but foreknown. Perfection of likeness … does not remove the ontological distance between God the Creator and man the created.

Perfection of likeness, of course, shall not be fully achieved here but in the hereafter — if at all. I wonder what St Sophrony would say to St Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of epektasis that our likeness to God will mean an infinite growth in perfection, since we are finite but God is infinite. It is important to observe that St Sophrony says that even if we do ever achieve a perfect likeness to God, the ontological gulf still exists.

This ontological gulf, that God is “holy, holy, holy”, that He is wholly Other, that he is being itself, is absolutely vital to keeping eastern Christian teaching on theosis in proper perspective. Some seem to think that theosis means we are perhaps swallowed up in God as in some versions of Hindu mysticism, or that we actually become part of God in a truly essential way, or something else. But the general description of our deification is done in the terms of St Gregory of Nyssa, who himself sparsely uses this terminology, who speaks largely of our union with God.

To whatever extent we become godlike, we never become God Himself, the Trinity Who Creates.

At the heart of this eastern Christian theosis as expressed in the life and teaching of St Sophrony, St Silouan, Archimandrite Zacharias, and Father Raphael is the Jesus Prayer (here’s my introductory post to this prayer). A main feature of the common prayer life of the Monastery of St John the Baptist is communal praying of the Jesus Prayer. I’ve done this at the Orthodox Church in Edinburgh, in fact. It is a different experience from the normal communal liturgical worship and from the solitary use of the Jesus Prayer. But it is good.

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

As I said above, today is also the feast of another famous monk, St Benedict of Nursia, whose little rule for beginners designed for establishing a school for the Lord’s service has been one of the most influential volumes in western spiritual history, as it became the norm for Latin monasticism — his spiritual sons and daughters (that is, those who follow his rule) include not only those that are part of the Order of Saint Benedict but also the Cistercians and Trappists and some independent Orthodox monasteries. I’ve written about the Rule of St Benedict and about Benedictines a lot.

At his moment in history, in the mid-500s, St Benedict did not found an order but a monastery. There was no wider organisation than that. This is in keeping with the general tenor of late antique monasticism, that monasteries would form under a charismatic abbot and follow his rule whether written or unwritten. It is the basic form of Orthodox monasticism that they have no monastic orders, and every house or associated federation has its own monastic rule.

But if we’re pondering similarities between St Benedict and St Sophrony, although I’m sure they can be found in a variety of exterior facts related to their common heritage as monks and ascetics, I think the single most importan thing is a radical commitment to prayer. Compared to many other late antique and early medieval monastic rules, the Rule of St Benedict is actually fairly light in its burdens. However, this has been done precisely so that the brothers (or sisters) who live under the rule are capable of pursuing prayer. St Benedict goes into great detail over several chapters of the Rule about how the monastery’s prayer life is to be ordered. He also discusses how their attitude at prayer.

And what is the goal of prayer, of the monastic life? Here again, it is the same for St Benedict as for St Sophrony. To quote a famous line from Chapter 72 of St Benedict’s Rule:

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.

Amen. Let us follow the example of these holy men on the path to everlasting life and theosis.

Pentecost and the Allegory of the Holy Grail

Enjoy my latest offering on YouTube wherein I talk about the allegorical meaning of the Quest for the Holy Grail, referencing Malcolm Guite, Pauline Matarasso’s translation of The Quest for the Holy Grail and its introduction (and thereby Etienne Gilson and Myrrha Lot-Boroodine), St Bernard, and William of St-Thierry. And the Canon of the Mass in the Use According to Sarum. It’s a good time, I promise!

God is not a thing — but is he a res?

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

A few weeks ago I had the delightful opportunity of teaching my excellent group of students at Davenant Hall De Doctrina Christiana by St Augustine, or On Christian Teaching. In De Doctrina, St Augustine deals with the important question of language (for how can we read and interpret Scripture without thinking about what it actually is?). His basic approach to language is that it is part of the wider universe of signs, or signa, all of which point to things, or res. Some signa are natural, like smoke being the signum for the res that is a fire. Others are human conventions, such as language. All signa are res, but not all res are signa. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Language is made up of oral signa that disappear as soon as they come into existence. To represent these oral signa, we have invented writing, itself a further system of signa that represent the res that are the signa of spoken words.

Augustine then goes into a discussion of how all res can either be enjoyed (frui) or used (uti). Ultimately, in Augustine’s view, God is the only res that we are to enjoy. All other res exist for the purpose of being used to help us enjoy God more. At a certain level, all res may even be seen as signa that point us to God, depending on how you look at it.

And the ultimate signum that shows us the way to God is the incarnate God Himself, the perfect signum for the res that God is.

But wait —

Is God a thing?

One of my students expressed his surprise at Augustine having included God amongst the res. This student even has a copy of a book called God Is No Thing, after all. As people who think that Thomas Aquinas is the height of theological awesomeness like to point out, God is not even a being. God is being itself (FYI: St Augustine agrees, see De Trin 5) — ipsum esse.

Not being deep into scholasticism, I won’t judge the accuracy of that.

God is not a thing inasmuch as God is not a being among beings. God is not an object among objects. God, then, is not a thing among things.

However, for St Augustine’s argument about signa and how they work, God is a res — he is the signified of a signifier. Or is the signified of a signifier actually our own false mental image of God, and Godinhimself is something more distant?

Augustine feels this, and we’ll leave this post here confronting the vast mystery of the divine:

Have I spoken of God, or uttered His praise, in any worthy way?  Nay, I feel that I have done nothing more than desire to speak; and if I have said anything, it is not what I desired to say.  How do I know this, except from the fact that God is unspeakable?  But what I have said, if it had been unspeakable, could not have been spoken.  And so God is not even to be called “unspeakable,” because to say even this is to speak of Him.  Thus there arises a curious contradiction of words, because if the unspeakable is what cannot be spoken of, it is not unspeakable if it can be called unspeakable.  And this opposition of words is rather to be avoided by silence than to be explained away by speech.  And yet God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept the worship of men’s mouths, and has desired us through the medium of our own words to rejoice in His praise.  For on this principle it is that He is called Deus (God).  For the sound of those two syllables in itself conveys no true knowledge of His nature; but yet all who know the Latin tongue are led, when that sound reaches their ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence.

De Doctrina 1.6, NPNF2, vol. 2, p. 524

“the Catholic faith is not what I thought”

In Book V of his Confessions, St Augustine describes a period when his trust in the Manichaean religion was ebbing, and his skepticism was growing. He was not yet willing, however, to return to the catholic faith his mother had entrusted him to, the faith he had left at university. He writes,

When my mind attempted to return to the Catholic faith, it was rebuffed because the Catholic faith is not what I thought.

Confessions V.x (20)

Eventually, he would go to Milan and encounter Ambrose. Through Ambrose’s preaching, he slowly learned better what the Catholic faith really was, and then leave Manichaeism, and then, after some time amongst the Platonists, eventually fully convert to catholic, orthodox Christianity and get baptised.

How many people — even those entrusted to the church by their parents, raised in our Sunday schools and youth groups — leave in high school and university, and sometimes might feel a tug to return to the faith of their youth? But they don’t return to the faith. And sometimes, when you look at deconversion and deconstruction stories of their faith, you realise that the Christian faith they rejected is not actually true, sound orthodoxy, but a misconception and false projection.

This is why good Christian education is a component of discipleship to Jesus — simply so that we can understand our Lord and His world better, and thus more easily submit ourselves to His Lordship, His teaching, and His worship.

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

Prayer-Book Augustinianism

I had the blessed opportunity to attend a lecture by Sarah Coakley at the Vancouver School of Theology back in 2018 about Trinitarian theology and mysticism. During the Q & A, somehow liturgy comes up (amongst Anglicans, not very surprising), and Coakley said something that has lurked within me ever since — setting aside the BCP would be a great loss, in part because of the rich Augustinian theology of the collects.

This struck me this week in particular because the Prayer Book collect is this:

ALMIGHTY God, who through thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Canadian BCP 1959/62

The opening to this prayer is taken from the Use of Sarum, with origins at least as early as the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th-c):

O God, by Your only-begotten Son you have overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; grant us, we ask you, that we who celebrate the solemnities of our Lord’s resurrection, may by the renewing of Your Spirit arise from the death of the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My modernised version for congregational use.

I have to confess that I prefer the medieval version, but perhaps I am too cautious of moralism.

I did not ask Professor Coakley to elaborate with examples, of course, but I wonder if this collect, or collects of this sort, are what she means by “Augustinian”. According to Barbee and Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, the very opening of this prayer is anti-Pelagian, for the -ism associated with the name of Pelagius argues that we can by our own merit live good enough lives to reach heaven, thus rendering null and void the mystery of the cross.*

Cranmer then writes his own petition for the collect. In his version, we actually have an interesting little phrase that was excised in 1959/62, “as by thy special grace, preventing us, thou dost…” Preventing us in contemporary English sounds like God’s grace is stopping us from doing something. In fact, though, it is a thoroughly Augustinian concept that has been hijacked in modern theology — prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace in the context of 1549 when Thomas Cranmer wrote the prayer (thus eleven years before Arminius was even born) is the idea that the grace of God goes before us (pre-vent, go before, praevenio) and thereby empowers us to choose the good. The term has been adopted by Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, it would seem, but here in Cranmer’s collect, it rides closer to Augustine and Luther than Jacobus Arminius.

How does it do so? Well, Cranmer is using the phrase “preventing us” to describe God’s “special grace” in its activity in our lives. And, by that preventing grace, God does “put in our minds good desires”. The question if the resistability or otherwise of God’s grace does not arise, but what we do see is that our good desires are a direct result of the action of God’s grace in our minds.

The petition proper is also itself of the school of Augustine — “so by thy continual help we may bring the same [ie. good desires] to good effect”.

I think that the phrase “preventing us” renders this prayer solidly with Augustine — but does it exclude other perspectives? No, it does not. The nineteenth-century Russian St Theophan the Recluse continually haunts my thoughts on grace and prayer:

It is most important to realize that prayer is always God-given: otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own.

In The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky and Palmer, p. 98

This is not the only time he says something like this. He repeats it in similar words throughout the book. The fifth-century Greek writer, St Mark the Monk (who made it into the Philokalia) says similar things about grace. I think this is worth considering because when we think about “grace” and how we need God’s help to think and do good, we think we are being particularly Augustinian and/or Reformed. And this collect, I would argue, is certainly part of that tradition, expressing these ideas in an Augustinian fashion, so Professor Coakley is assuredly correct in this characterisation.

Yet the wider tradition also sees a necessity for grace in our lives. And I think Prof. Coakley would emphatically agree, particularly that we have a tendency to drive a wedge between “East” and “West” that does not really exist when we look at the deeper agreements of our theological traditions.

*I have not read Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum myself, so I set aside judgement as to whether this is a fair statement of what they believe, simply noting that it is what the -ism associated with Pelagius is understood to be.

A rubric worth following

This morning, to save battery on my phone and for a bit of variety, I prayed the morning prayers from A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers instead of the Prayer Book Society’s Daily Prayer App. Some of these prayers are worth praying over and over and over again as well as meditating on. What I want to blog about, however, is the final rubric (which really ought to have come first):

If the time at disposal is short, and the need to begin work is pressing, it is preferable to say only a few of the suggested prayers, with attention and zeal, rather than to recite them all in haste and without due concentration.

A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, p. 11

I think this is a very important instruction. In fact, in Living Prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom goes so far as to say that it is better to pray just one line of the Lord’s Prayer carefully, attentively, and truly mean it than it is to pray the whole thing without much thought.

As any longish-time reader of this blog knows, I am a big advocate of the Book of Common Prayer for both personal and corporate prayer and worship. But sometimes, in the midst of two kids under five, managing a cafe, and the various other pressures of life, I find myself swiftly rushing to reach the end. I often skip the Scripture lessons, to be honest. Sometimes, then, it is a blessing to have something shorter, such as the Canadian 1959/62 BCP’s prayers for use by families, or the book Celebrating Common Prayer, or, when truly pressed, to be Franciscan and pause simply to pray the Lord’s Prayer before life consumes you.

The main thing with praying fixed-hour prayer is to pray the prayers attentively and seek the Lord’s face. If you have the time to do this with the BCP or the Roman Breviary or some other long-ish book of hours — glory to God! If not, do not think yourself a failure in your hour of prayer. Make the most of the time available through attention and devotion.

Of course, there’s another facet to prayer life that’s a topic for another post, and that’s the fact that we have more time available than we think…

Athonites at prayer

Reflections on John 12

This is my reflection on John 12:20-33, written for my church community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey:

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

In the narrative of the Gospel of John, today’s reading takes place during the final Passover feast during which Jesus will be betrayed, beaten, crucified. Everything has been moving to this point, from the preaching of John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) In a few days, the Lord of glory will be slain. Yet this is not how Jesus frames it in this instance. When these pagan Greek-speakers appear, he does not say, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be humiliated.” No, in foretelling his death, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23) St Cyril of Alexandria in Egypt, a fifth-century preacher, writes:

He now desires to pass onward to the very crowning point of His hope, namely to the destruction of death: and this could not otherwise be brought to pass, unless the Life underwent death for the sake of all human beings, that so in Him we all may live. For on this account also He speaks of Himself as glorified in His Death, and in suffering terrible things at the hands of the sinners who dishonour Him. Even though by the angels in heaven He had been glorified from everlasting, yet nevertheless His Cross was the beginning of His being glorified upon earth.

Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book 8

Jesus goes on to make this reference to his death more explicit in the next verse, saying that a grain of wheat must die and fall to the ground in order to bear fruit. We are the fruit of Christ’s death. His precious death and glorious resurrection have reaped a harvest of souls for 2000 years, raising us up with him to the heavenly realm. Yet here, bound up with the promise, our Lord also gives us a hard saying—hard to live, if not to understand: “Whoever loves his or her life loses it, and whoever hates his or her life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) Thankfully, the wisdom of the ancients comes to us here as well. St John Chrysostom, an ancient preacher from Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey) says:

Sweet is the present life, and full of much pleasure, yet not to all, but to those who are riveted to it. Since, if any one looks to heaven and sees the beauteous things there, that person will soon despise this life, and make no account of it. Just as the beauty of an object is admired while none more beautiful is seen, but when a better appears, the former is despised. If then we would choose to look to that beauty, and observe the splendour of the kingdom there, we should soon free ourselves from our present chains; for a kind of chain it is, this sympathy with present things. 

Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily LXVII

But this still seems too hard, too harsh, too difficult. Another ancient preacher who was alive at the time of Chrysostom and Cyril was St Augustine of Hippo. St Augustine makes a distinction between using the things of this world, even enjoying them, as gateways to God and loving them for their own sake. His teaching means that with a rightly ordered heart one sees the sun rise over the Sleeping Giant, enjoys the sight, and then praises God for His handiwork. The whole of human existence thus becomes a gateway to God—my life in this world that I am called to hate for the sake of Jesus becomes transfigured into the heavenly life with Christ. Transformed in this way, I would more readily lose this worldly life for a life filled with the grandeur of the glory of God.

Our Lord Christ repeats this idea of death to self in a new manner straightaway, but couples it to great promises: “If anyone serves me, he or she must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him or her.” (John 12:26) We must follow Christ, we are told. And where does Christ go from here in the Gospel of John? To the upper room, to the garden, to betrayal, to arrest, to being slandered, to being beaten, to being stripped naked, to being humiliated, to being nailed to a cross and lifted up from the earth.

To death.

But from death to glory.

For us, Jesus says that the Father will honour the one who serves and follows him. He promises that his ignominious death is the place of his glory. And he promises to raise us up too, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) An important point in all of this is grace. It is Jesus himself who is the grain of wheat that bears much fruit. It is Jesus himself who draws us to himself. It is God the Father who honours those who follow and serve Jesus.

The path of discipleship is a narrow path of self-denial. The path of discipleship is the pathway of death, death to self and to the world. Yet it is also the path to glory, and it is made easy by Jesus who draws us to himself. It is made easy by the Father who honours us. Let us not forget the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:30, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

The life of the ancient monk Antony, one of the first to take up the monastic life, was a living parable of dying to this world to follow Christ, being drawn by him. He abandoned all of his worldly possessions because in church one day he heard the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:21 where the Lord says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” St Antony did so. At one stage in his retreat from worldly life, he lived in a tomb in the Egyptian countryside where he did nothing but pray and do battle with demons. When he left this tomb, a physical symbol of his death to the world, it was as a participant in the divine life of Jesus. As St Athanasius of Alexandria, his biographer writes:

Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; others he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace in speech. Thus he consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone to prefer nothing in the world above the love of Christ.

Life of Antony 14

Among the sayings left by Antony, two are particularly important for us today:

“Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God.”

“I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.” (John 4:18)

Let us die to ourselves in order to be alive to God and love him to the fullest, being caught up into Christ’s life by the abundant grace of the Father.

The Power of the Cross

This is a meditation on 1 Corinthians 1:18-19 I put together for my church this past Sunday, following the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary.

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

In today’s readings, St Paul says that “Christ crucified,” is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18-19) Think on that—Christ crucified, suffering, sighing, bleeding, dying, is the power of God and the wisdom of God. If we imagine one of those early Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion (see left!), there we see blood pouring out of Christ, running down his limbs and his cross, his own self hanging limp and weak and powerless. This, the power of God? Indeed, a stumbling block and foolishness!

Christians throughout the ages, however, have found that Christ on the cross with the blood he shed is powerful. Some of the great women of faith show us this (it is Women’s History Month, after all!). Around 1100, St Hildegard of Bingen wrote:

he shed his beautiful blood and tasted in his body the darkness of death. By this means he overcame the devil, led forth his elect from hell in which they had been thrown down and confined, and brought them back, through his mercy and the touch of his redemption

Scivias Part 2, Vision 1.13

In the fourteenth century Julian of Norwich, as she lay sick almost to the point of death, had a vision of Christ on the Cross:

There were times when I wanted to look away from the cross, but I dared not. For I knew that while I gazed on the cross I was safe and sound, and I was not going to imperil my soul. Apart from the cross there was no assurance against the horror of fiends.

Revelations of Divine Love 19

The fourteenth-century Italian mystic St Catherine of Siena wrote, in the voice God the Father in her Dialogue:

But such is the freedom of your humanity, and so strong have you been made by the power of this glorious blood, that neither the devil nor any other creature can force you to the least sin unless you want it. You were freed from slavery so that you might be in control of your own powers and reach the end you were created for.

Dialogue 14

The great proclamation of the Apostles is the lived experience of Christians in the ages: Christ’s death is our gain, and here he shows us God’s power, to save us from sin, the flesh, the devil. When the ancient Christians beheld this mystery, that the immortal dies, that God himself loved us so much that he became one of us in order to die—here is where they saw the true glory of Christ as the eternal God, begotten of the Father before all ages. It is the Cross that is the seal and proof of the divinity of Jesus the Messiah, and it is here that all Christian theology finds its beginning.

The God we worship is not an aloof, distant, unreachable deity. He took on our flesh. He died because he loves us. And he comes to us daily, whether mystically at prayer or in our brothers and sisters. This is the message of the Cross. God loves us; he does not want us be slaves to our sins, our own selves, our own deaths. So he died to save us, taking upon himself all the sin of the world, and then, because he was both the immortal God and a sinless, perfect human, trampling down death by death and rising again. The Cross is the anchor in the storms of life this Lent. Grab it. Hold on. The God who loved us enough to die will get us through.

A thought from St Teresa of Avila in the 1500s to close:

it is good to reflect for a while and think of the pains He suffered, and of why He suffered them, and of who it was that suffered them, and of the love with which He suffered them.

The Life of St Teresa, ch. 13

Let’s do that now for a moment.

Encountering God

St Gregory Palamas

This Monday I lectured about St Basil the Great (330-379), and the discussion portion of the evening was reserved for his treatise On the Holy Spirit. One of the facts that I brought up in St Basil’s response to Eunomius of Cyzicus was the fact that, contrary to Eunomius’ thought, Basil teaches that we cannot actually know anyone perfectly according to their essence. Our knowledge of other persons is derived from their activities — what they say, what they do, how they react to what we say, etc., etc. We can learn about the essence of another person from his or her activities, but the activities are what we experience directly.

Eunomius, on the other, was understood by his opponents to say that we can know God according to His essence — and a proper understanding of accurate doctrine, the sound use of words, was part of this. God, according to essence, for the Eunomian, is unoriginated, for example. Knowing this helps bring us closer to the actual essence of God.

The word used by St Basil for “activities” is energeiai. As I drafted my notes, my mind was drawn inevitably to St Gregory Palamas (1296-1357/59), almost a millennium later. I’ve blogged about the essence/energies distinction in Palamite theology before. Twice, in fact. Being a lumper rather than a splitter, I thought it was worth bringing this Byzantine moment into the lecture itself, to show my students the ongoing trajectories of these things, but also bringing up the difference between Palamas and St Thomas Aquinas on this point — and noting that we Protestants have no official position here.

In mentioning Palamas and his use of this distinction, I mentioned the hescyhastic controversy and the encounter monks of Mount Athos had had with what they deemed the uncreated light, the energy of God.

I’d like to note here that St Gregory Palamas, in fact, uses St Basil, On the Holy Spirit as a source:

The divine supraessentiality is never named in the plural. But the divine and uncreated grace and energy of God is indivisibly divided, like the sun’s rays that warm, illumine, quicken and bring increase as they cast their radiance upon what they enlighten, and shine on the eyes of whoever beholds them. In the manner, then, of this faint likeness, the divine energy of God is called not only one but also multiple by the theologians. Thus St Basil the Great declares: ‘What are the energies of the Spirit? Their greatness cannot be told and they are numberless. How can we comprehend what precedes the ages? What were God’s energies before the creation of noetic reality?’

St Gregory Palamas, Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts, ch. 68, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, The Philokalia, Vol. 4, p. 377, citing St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, ch. 19.49

The point being made at this particular moment in Palamas is that the energy, the activity, of God is single and fully united yet still able to achieve multiple effects. This particular Palamite treatise, apologetics for the hesychasts, is, in fact, replete with references to the Cappadocians and Chrysostom.

The central argument of Topics of Natural and Theological Science is that the light the hesychasts have encountered is the uncreated light of God, the energy of God, the activity of God, existing with God before creation, and not a created grace sent from God as a blessing (which is what the more Thomist-Aristotelian Barlaam would argue, it seems).

How do we encounter God in that uncreated light? The approach comes up in the name for these monks — hesychasts, those who pursue hesychia, defined by the translators of the Philokalia thus:

a state of inner tranquillity or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of heart and intellect. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him.

The Philokalia, vol. 4, p. 435.

What one of my students wanted to know was the relation of hesychia and meeting God in that place of stillness to the wider Christian life. The short version of my answer was that meeting God in stillness, in your prayer closet (cf. Mt 6:6) always results in greater love for other humans, but that the life with other humans is part of the life with God. (As my answers tend to do, it ranged widely: The Cloud of Unknowing, Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, St Basil the Great, St Silouan the Athonite, St John of the Cross.)

This is the tension of the Christian spiritual life. To make our eastern hesychastic vision almost up-to-date, St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) spent time as an almost-hermit in his monastery where he could pray as much as and whenever he wanted. He later spent time as steward of the monastery, where he had to adapt his prayer life to meet the schedule and demands of this role, a large part of which was organising and overseeing the lay brothers who worked for the monastery. He found greater satisfaction in the latter role, despite the reduced times for prayer. As St Basil says, how can we fulfil the command to love our neighbour if we spend all our time alone?

God is encountered in silence alone. God is encountered in community.

In closing, one of the driving forces behind the theologians covered in my Nicaea course is the true encounter with God that the Christian has, whether as a member of the mystical body of the Incarnate Christ as St Athansius’ shows in On the Incarnation and the Life of St Antony, or as a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit as St Basil shows in On the Holy Spirit. The Christian life, then, is an encounter with the Triune God, and this is what they were trying to put into words.