Know yourself to know the Bible

Mosaic from San Gregorio, Rome, now in Baths of Diocletian. 1st c AD. ‘Know thyself’

I am slowly working my way through the collection of essays, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality, ed. Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif. Right now, I am reading the chapter about Scripture in The Philokalia by Douglas Burton-Christie (who wrote a good book about Scripture and the Desert Fathers called The Word in the Desert). Of the many important and interesting things he is bringing to light from the teachings of the fathers in the The Philokalia is this:

You must know yourself to understand Scripture.

Gnothi seauton — Know thyself, said the old oracle at Delphi.

How does knowledge of myself contribute to knowledge of Scripture?

One of the important things we need to keep in mind when we consider the entire monastic, ascetic, and mystical tradition of Christianity, is that the Bible is not simply a repository of stories and facts that we can come to a full apprehension of by our application of better philological and historical methodologies. For them, it was the word of God, and understanding it was part of being transformed, part of acquiring wisdom, part of knowing God.

This tradition, that draws from Origen but, in this Philokalia, includes St Maximus the Confessor and Evagrius, is more concerned with the spiritual sense of Scripture (which includes but is not limited to allegory).

We have here two different ways of knowing Scripture, ways that Henri de Lubac, in Medieval Exegesis, sees as both important, although one had (and has) the ascendancy. The way most of moderns read Scripture is the pursuit of facts, details, surface realities. This, at a certain level, anyone can do. It does not necessarily require knowledge of myself to have an intellectual grasp of the Pauline articulation of justification, or to argue that the Philistines were so good at beating the Israelites because they entered the Iron Age first. It requires philology, history, maybe philosophy.

The other way is the pathway of wisdom. This is the pathway where the question of justification is driven into my own beating heart and cannot keep itself to my intellect. Here, in this pathway, factoids like, ‘Philistines had iron’, are interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the drive towards understanding myself, the divine, the world, and how best to live in the midst of them all.

This latter method reads the prophets and asks, ‘How shall I live?’ The former reads the prophets and asks, ‘What did this mean to the original audience?’

But to be able to use Scripture to draw oneself up to God, to be able to be deified by reading Scripture, to figure out how to live with Scripture as a light — this requires self-knowledge. And self-knowledge is not something any age, our own included, has been particularly comfortable; explaining why the ancient wisdom keeps harping on it.

This theme, ‘Know thyself’, is a favourite amongst many poets, among them Sir John Davies (1569-1626), as explicated by Malcolm Guite in Faith, Hope and Poetry (my review here). So let me break off and give you instead a selection from Sir John Davies, Nosce Teipsum:

For this the wisest of all mortal men
Said, He knew nought but that he nought did know;
And the great mocking master mocked not then,
When he said, Truth was buried deep below.
For how may we to others’ things attain,
When none of us his own soul understands?
For which the devil mocks our curious brain,
When, Know thyself, his oracle commands.
For why should we the busy soul believe,
When boldly she concludes of that and this;
When of herself she can no judgment give,
Nor how, nor whence, nor where, nor what she is?
All things without, which round about we see,
We seek to know, and how therewith to do;
But that whereby we reason, live, and be,
Within ourselves we strangers are thereto.
We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ebbs and floods of Nile;
But of that clock within our breasts we bear,
The subtle motions we forget the while.
We that acquaint ourselves with every zone,
And pass both tropics and behold the poles,
When we come home, are to ourselves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.
We study speech, but others we persuade;
We leech-craft learn, but others cure with it;
We interpret laws, which other men have made,
But read not those which in our hearts are writ.
Is it because the mind is like the eye,
Through which it gathers knowledge by degrees–
Whose rays reflect not, but spread outwardly–
Not seeing itself when other things it sees?
No, doubtless, for the mind can backward cast
Upon herself her understanding light;
But she is so corrupt and so defaced,
As her own image doth herself affright.
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“They were thirsty for God”

I imagine that in relation to my last post, those of you who may not have spent a lot of time amongst super-high church folks or the Orthodox may be thinking:

WHOA. The Divine Liturgy of St James takes 3 HOURS?

Dude.

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

Others of you may wonder if that includes time for prayer ministry at the front while the band plays on endlessly. It doesn’t. 😉

Indeed, when we say that a traditional liturgy takes three hours, that means that just following the actions listed on the page, and praying the prayers written there, will take three hours, and this without a sermon. St Augustine once preached for two hours, and we have a few lengthy sermons from St John Chrysostom.

On the other hand, we all know that a good modern priest like Father Ted can do Mass in, what, five minutes? The church you go to probably has a church service that lasts between one hour and one hour and a half. And I bet that if your minister preaches two minutes longer than usual, people ‘joke’ with him about preaching ‘so long’.

I imagine some clergy take those jokes in good humour; I’m not a clergyman, but I feel offended for all of them at such jokes. (Self-righteousness is easy to come by. You wanna be humble? Look at me.) What is it that we are all rushing away from the assembly of the faithful and the worship of the Holy God that is so important that we can’t stand to hear a person unfolding the Scriptures to us for a few more minutes? Or that we can’t sing those two last verses of ‘Crown Him with Many Crowns’?

Coffee in the hall? Football? Brunch? Our son’s nap? (I’ll give you the last one.)

When my minister was talking about how long the Divine Liturgy of St James would take if done in full, he said something that stuck with me, ‘They were thirsty for God.’

— I guess before I start exhorting us all to be similarly thirsty, I should throw out my historian’s caveats. Indeed, not all Christians were that into liturgy. Indeed, some people were probably late, others may have left early. Indeed, there were worldly Christians in the late third century (well before Constantine ‘corrupted’ things). Indeed, there has never been a golden age. —

But whatever problems ancient Christians may have had, and whatever virtues we may possess:

They were thirsty for God.

Ante-Nicene Christians faced, at various times and in various places, imprisonment, unemployment, torture, death, confiscation of church property, etc., simply for being Christians, whether at the official hands of government or those of an angry mob. Many succumbed (many still do), many others live in glory with Christ as confessors and martyrs.

They were thirsty for God.

After Constantine, when it was safe, even prudent at times and eventually pretty much required to be a Christian, many Christians would still gather on Sundays for hours to hear their beloved bishops preach. While others went to the chariot races or watched the pagan spectacle next door, some Christians (who knows how many?) would still faithfully attend their churches for prayer, preaching, and sacrament, more than willing to stand for three hours in clouds of incense to worship the God who saved them.

They were thirsty for God.

Others at the same time felt the faith in the city was being too watered down, so off they went to the desert places and wrestled with demons and prayed day and night and memorised the Bible.

They were thirsty for God.

What are we thirsty for in the age of social media, in our hyper-real, technologised age? Netflix? Likes on our blog posts? The perfect selfie? A nicely curated library of spiritual books (who knows [cares] if we’ve read even one)? The perfect cup of coffee? A nice, cold beer?

Are we thirsty for God?

The Divine Liturgy of St James, this Tuesday!

This coming Tuesday is the feast of St James, the brother of our Lord, and first bishop of Jerusalem. To celebrate this feast, my church has decided to worship using the Liturgy of St James! How cool is that? This is precisely the sort of way I would like to celebrate a saint as well — worship God in a way (descended from how) he did!

For example, reading St Anselm’s Meditations on the feast of St Anselm. Using a 1552 BCP to commemorate Cranmer? Using the Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes on his commemoration. Praying the Jesus Prayer to commemorate St Gregory Palamas. Or maybe reading The Triads. I like reading their works — read Ambrose on his feast, Augustine on his own, likewise Basil, the Gregories, Chrysostom. Read about Augustine of Canterbury for his. That sort of thing.

And what is the Divine Liturgy of St James?

It is one of the oldest liturgies of the church, especially when we reduce the body of liturgies examined to those in continual use. Some suspect it is the oldest, but that’s a difficult thing to prove definitively. It is a traditional eucharistic liturgy from the church in Jerusalem, hence its association with St James. The traditional liturgy of a city is often associated with its first bishop, or, at least, a famous one — so, St Mark in Alexandria, but St Ambrose in Milan and St Gregory the Great in Rome.

It is unlikely to have been the actual divine liturgy used by St James, just as the entirety of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is not John Chrysostom’s (the anaphora is, though, as demonstrated by Robert Taft some years ago). From what I gather over at the OrthodoxWiki, the liturgy as we have it is probably a fourth-century version of the traditional Jerusalem liturgy, maybe from the time of St Cyril.

That said, there is definitely a pre-Cyril, indeed Ante-Nicene, substratum to this text. Some claim that you can see elements of Aramaic idiom in some parts of the liturgy. This I cannot say, but I can say that to this day it is the divine liturgy of many Syriac-speaking churches. It includes the ‘lift up your hearts’ (sursum corda) section at the beginning of the anaphora, in common, then, with the third-century Apostolic Tradition (attributed by scholars to Hippolytus), the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Roman Mass, and the Book of Common Prayer.

It is a beautiful liturgy, full of deep theology — read it here.

What do we gain if, this Tuesday, we celebrate Holy Communion with this liturgy, like the Eastern Orthodox churches (and my church)?

Well, regardless of which liturgy one uses, the mystic union of the sacrament of Holy Communion is always a moment of grace. In less important ways, using this liturgy is a way to connect through time and space with other Christians and honour one of the leading apostles. Praying these prayers joins with many centuries of Christian worship. It joins us with Jerusalem, the Holy City. It cuts through time and space.

That’s pretty cool. It thus serves as a reminder of the ongoing reality of our holy, wholly powerful, God.

Read the Church Fathers because you disagree with them

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne. You probably disagree with him.

Several months ago, we were visiting with a friend who had recently started reading through a book of daily readings from the Early Church Fathers with her husband. (I assume it was Nick Needham’s.) She talked about how each month was taken from a different Church Father, and how she and her husband were enjoying it — not that they always agreed with the readings.

I hadn’t thought about it, but it soon came into my mind that here is a reason to read the Fathers — my reason for this reason will come soon.

This idea came to me again yesterday when I finished reading said friend’s draft of a novelisation of the life of St John Chrysostom (he does have one of the more exciting patristic biographies). At the end there was an Author’s Note talking about how some of the practices and beliefs of Christians in John’s day are at variance with evangelicals, but we can learn so much from him and his commitment to Jesus.

So this is the reason, and it’s fairly straightforward. In a few points:

First, the Fathers, and not merely ‘ancient Christians’, are the Fathers (and Mothers, let’s toss in Egeria and Perpetua!) for a reason. Their arguments about many of the core doctrines of all Christians — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Protestant — are the foundation of everything that follows after. Their modes of exegesis were the norm for hundreds and hundreds of years, in many ways until the 1800s. They were good at what they did, so they are worth reading.

Second, because of the above, we could also say that they come ‘approved’ — that is, they are not off their rockers, they are not meandering through the forest. We are talking about holy men who have committed themselves to Christ and His Gospel, often, like Chrysostom, suffering for it. Even if we disagree with them, we aren’t having to slog through some of the less savoury corners of theology out there.

Third, because of the first two, disagreeing with them can help us in a few ways. It should hopefully humble us as a reminder that faithful Christians need not have the same mind about some things. And then, thus humbled, I hope any of us would think deeply about how important the issue at stake is. And then, thus further humbled, if we think it is not necessarily very important, perhaps we could use this introspection to wonder if we should change our mind.

But if we don’t change our mind, I do hope that charitable reading of Church Fathers with whom we disagree will make us understand why we believe what and how we believe as well as help increase humility in our hearts.

The Throne of God (What’s going on in Isaiah 6?)

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

One of the most famous parts of Isaiah, one of the few parts of the Bible useful for angelology, and a source for part of the liturgy, Isaiah 6 can be a perplexing place to find oneself, in any language. I was recently reading Ambrose of Milan, On the Holy Spirit, and I noticed that the translator did not provide Isaiah 6:2 as I expected. What I expected was what I grew up with, NIV:

Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

Instead, where the NIV has ‘their faces … their feet’, I read ‘His face … His feet’. Being smug, I assumed the translator got his Latin wrong and confused the two different Latin words for ‘his’, one which can be rendered ‘his own’, the other which means someone else’s. But I checked Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit 3.160, and found:

et Seraphim stabant in circuitu ejus; sex alae uni, et sex alae alteri, et duabus velabant faciem ejus, et duabus velabant pedes ejus, et duabus volabant

Which is to say that the translator got it right. This is the same text that Vulgate has — the Seraphim are covering the Lord Sabaoth’s face and feet, not their own. My guess is that, since the Geneva Bible, the KJV, the NIV, and the ESV have the Seraphim covering their own feet, the Hebrew has the same. The Greek is vague — each Seraph covers the face and the feet, using the definite article and no possessive. (Unless this is a use of the article someone could detail for me…)

Hence the Old Latin used by Ambrose and the later Vulgate version of this verse.

Therefore, we cannot give priority to the Vulgate/Ambrose text, since the Septuagint (and presumably the Hebrew) needn’t lead that direction.

Nevertheless, the Seraphim covering the Lord of Sabaoth’s face and feet pointed to an important point that I (we?) rarely acknowledge, barely grasp:

Isaiah has had a vision of the throne-room of God, and he presumably saw some sort of anthropomorphic figure seated on a throne and surrounded by six-winged Seraphim.

We probably subconsciously shy away from this due to the fact that the LORD has already told Moses that no one may look on his face and live and that 1 John says that no one has ever seen God. And yet in the Gospel of John Jesus does say that if we have seen him, we have seen the Father.

I think we should confront two possibilities here. I suspect that modern readers who are willing to take Isaiah’s vision as literal (as opposed to those who think it a theological-literary fiction) will go for option number one: God has created an image to project into Isaiah’s feeble, earth-bound, image-driven mind as a means of communicating with the prophet.

The second, and one I do hope has Church Fathers to back it up, is that this is Christ in glory. This one is less popular today either because we don’t like reading the New Covenant into the Hebrew Bible on literary-historical grounds (Isaiah can’t see Jesus because he doesn’t know about Jesus, even if Jesus is the Messiah) or we don’t like the implied supersessionism and appropriation of Jewish Scripture.

But if we actually believe historic Christian orthodoxy, we’ve already appropriated the entirety of Jewish Scripture simply by stating that Jesus is the Christ — Messiah, or that Jesus is Lord. Moreover, we go much further when we affirm Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy and say that Jesus is of one substance with the Father.

Throw eternity into the mix, and we are also affirming that the man Jesus who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate has also always existed in that body in the throne room of God. Because He is God and exists outside of time.

I find, therefore, a tantalising idea in the throne room vision of Isaiah, and that idea is that Isaiah has seen the risen, glorified Jesus of Nazareth, the Second Person if the Trinity, the pre-incarnate (yet incarnate!) Christ, who is the leader of heaven’s armies and will return on a white horse to bring justice to the earth (cf. Revelation).

Several decades after Ambrose, the goal of the monastic life was the vision of Christ-God, the beatific vision, found through cultivating purity of heart, according to John Cassian. And so ascetic-mystical theology, dogmatic theology, and biblical interpretation embrace.

Perichoresis: That word does not mean what you think it means

I am reading Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love right now, part of an attempt to make me a better reader, since I study and teach texts. What follows is perhaps not the hermeneutics of love, but I hope it is at least helpful? To soften it, I do think Jacobs has written an interesting, if at times challenging (I am more a philologist than literary critic) book. Sometimes I wonder why we need to work our way through Bakhtin to reach the end of the journey, but I imagine it is all worth it.

Anyway, in his discussion of Bakhtin, Jacobs mentions the Russian critic’s Orthodox background (even if Bakhtin was not himself particularly orthodox), and after a brief nod to theosis writes:

Moreover — and this is a still more important point for our purposes here — the God in whose image we were made and are being remade is a Trinity, that is, an intrinsically relational being. Here again we must invoke a doctrine that, although not unique to Orthodoxy, is characteristic of it: perichoresis, the eternal loving dance in which the persons of the Trinity are intertwined. To become deified … is to learn to practice with our neighbors the perichoretic movements that are so awkward for fallen human beings. (63)

There are two weaknesses here, one which this section shares with the preceding paragraph about theosis, and which is entirely forgivable, since no one can read everything. I shall quickly dispense with the first weakness, which is a lack of deep engagement with Orthodox thought on these points. Jacobs is neither a professional theologian nor, indeed, Orthodox. His métier is English literature and literary criticism. And he knows that body of literature very well. To complain that he does not reference Zizioulas on the Trinity or any of the Russian spiritual masters or contemporaries of Bakhtin discussed in Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers would verge on the petty. It would have been nice to see such engagement, nonetheless.

Then again, perhaps such engagement may have saved him from the other weakness, which is an error of fact.

Perichoresis is not about dancing, despite many westerners thinking so (most recently Richard Rohr).

The first place I learned that this word is not about dancing was Edith M. Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy, her last book as an Anglican (she is now Orthodox). She phrased it very well, and if my notes were with me instead in a shipping container in the port of Vancouver, I’d share her thoughts with you. Alas.

Anyway, the O in perichoresis is long, not short (an omega, not an omicron). If this were about the ‘divine dance’ (into which we are allegedly invited in the minds of some), the O would be short. Instead, it is related to the verb choreo, translated by the big, fat Greek dictionary (affectionately known as LSJ) variously, depending on context. The most relevant of the brief definitions:

make room for another, give way, withdraw

after Homer, go forward, advance

to be in motion or flux

have room for a thing, hold, contain

The related verb perichoreo:

A.go round, “σὺ περιχώρει λαβὼν τὴν χέρνιβα”  Ar.Av.958π. τὴν Ἑλλάδα Thalesap. D.L.1.44.
II. rotateAnaxag.912.
2. to be transferred to, come to in succession, “ἡ βασιληΐη π. ἐς Δαρεῖον” Hdt. 1.210 ; “ἡ ὀργὴ π. ἐς τό τινων μίασμα” D.C.40.49.

The noun derived therefrom in Classical Greek is given by LSJ simply to mean ‘rotation’. This is obviously not exactly what Greek theology means while talking about the inner life of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. From what I can tell, when the word was used by St Gregory of Nazianzus (possibly the first to apply perichoresis to the Holy Trinity), it referred to mutual coinhering or mutual indwelling.

Thus, the choreo has to do with making room, and peri, literally ‘around’ as a prefix, has to do with the mutuality of the three. The point is not that the three divine Persons are dancing and making room in the divine dance for each, as cute and happy that image is. That is actually a very poor analogy, especially given the apophaticism of St Gregory in other places, that is, given his insistence on divine incomprehensibility and the utter unlikeness of God to us.

Rather, it has to do with the divine ousia, the essence of God Almighty, whereby that which the Father is, so also is the Son, and so also is the Holy Spirit. Whatever one does or is, so are the others. They have a single nature, substance, essence, and thus, although three persons, they mutually coinhere in perfect love. They do not ‘dance’ and let the other have room to dance. It is more intimate than that.

Some quotes from Vincent of Lerins

Just because.

On the polyvalence of Scripture:

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason — because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. (ch. 5)

Don’t preach heresy!

To preach any doctrine therefore to Catholic Christians other than what they have received never was lawful, never is lawful, never will be lawful: and to anathematize those who preach anything other than what has once been received, always was a duty, always is a duty, always will be a duty. (ch. 25)

Heresy is poison:

They have, in fact swallowed a quantity of poison — not enough to kill, yet more than can be got rid of; it neither causes death, nor suffers to live. O wretched condition! With what surging tempestuous cares are they tossed about! One while, the error being set in motion, they are hurried wherever the wind drives them; another, returning upon themselves like refluent waves, they are dashed back: one while, with rash presumption, they give their approval to what seems uncertain; another, with irrational fear, they are frightened out of their wits at what is certain, in doubt whither to go, whither to return, what to seek, what to shun, what to keep, what to throw away. (ch. 49)

They do, in fact, what nurses do when they would prepare some bitter draught for children; they smear the edge of the cup all round with honey, that the unsuspecting child, having first tasted the sweet, may have no fear of the bitter. So too do these act, who disguise poisonous herbs and noxious juices under the names of medicines, so that no one almost, when he reads the label, suspects the poison. (ch. 65)

The goal of church councils:

Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practised negligently should thenceforward be practised with double solicitude? (ch. 59)