Living tradition

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

I am reading Gabriel Bunge’s book Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, and he is discussing what tradition is and how it works in the first chapter. Tradition is much-contested ground ever since the days of the Reformation when everyone, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic (for want of better words), was trying to sift through the mass of the deposit as it stood in the midst of Renaissance decadence, late mediaeval scholasticism, corruption amongst clerics and princes alike, and true devotion.

Which parts were true devotion? And which true devotion was rightly placed? Which parts of this deposit are either apostolic by antiquity or at least Spirit-driven consequences of apostolic tradition, which are man-made things to be abandoned, and which are adiaphora?

These debates are often framed in terms of pitting Scripture and tradition against each other. In Browne’s very capable Victorian book about the 39 Articles, he makes a good case against there being an oral tradition of things not in Scripture that must, nevertheless, be believed. In good Anglican form, he is careful to state that the tradition of exegesis and liturgy, especially of the Fathers, is important for devotion and the right interpretation of Scripture, but nothing independent of Scripture is to enjoined upon Christian souls as essential for salvation.

In these terms, tradition seems fairly dead, doesn’t it?

But, as the Eastern Orthodox apologists like to point out, we are all part of traditions, even Baptists at Bible study.

Bunge’s idea of tradition is something different:

The meaning and purpose of preserving the “tradition” is, then, for the Fathers, just as it was for the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, not an unthinking adherence to what has been handed down, but the preservation of a living fellowship. (p. 24, emphasis original)

Two years ago, the book I read on the bus to visit my wife and son at hospital after he was born was Archimandrite Zacharias’ book Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony. I was given this book by Father Raphael, from whom I have received much spiritual insight. The main source for Archimandrite Zacharias’ teaching is actually sacred Scripture, but the second-most popular citation in the notes is Elder Sophrony, followed by St Silouan the Athonite. Elder Sophrony was Archimandrite Zacharias’ spiritual father, and St Silouan was Sophrony’s.

As I read the book, I felt like I was encountering a living tradition, not simply a bunch of facts handed down, but an entire way of life, from Athos to Essex. In fact (now that I write it), Archimandrite Zacharias is Father Raphael’s spiritual father (after the falling asleep of Father John [memory eternal!]), and if I were Orthodox, I would hope Father Raphael would be humble enough to accept the challenge of being my spiritual father.

Tradition is the encounter and fellowship with those who have gone before, seeking to live and apply their encounter with Jesus to our circumstances now.

One of the richest loci for the tradition is, of course, the liturgy. As Father Andrew Louth points out in Discerning the Mystery, when St Basil the Great discusses the unwritten tradition of the church in On the Holy Spirit, the things he talks about are all liturgical.

Given that I am now reading Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, this point takes on a new kind of resonance. The Prayer Book was a way in which Christians of Cranmer’s world were able to accept that fellowship with what has gone before, but also sift through it, seeking what had gone awry (a task Rome was also doing; let’s not fight that fight today). I have written on the catholicity of the Prayer Book before, but it is worth repeating. When we pray with the Book of Common Prayer in spirit and in truth, we truly join in fellowship with the Christians of the centuries who have also used so many of those forms, from (at the latest) the Apostolic Tradition (modern attribution: Hippolytus of Rome, mid-200s), whether in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Old Church Slavonic, Elizabethan English.

We also, with greater specificity, join with the Anglicans around the world and through the centuries (until the liturgical movement of the later 20th century), whether in Australia or Kenya or Canada or Canterbury. We enter into that fellowship of faith, a Reformational liturgy rooted in the catholic tradition (note the lower-case c).

Arguably (and here perhaps I  become controversial), inasmuch as the Prayer Book’s theology is an attempt to restore to prominence certain apostolic and Augustinian themes obscured in England at the time of the Reformation, we could also argue that in using it we find ourselves in the august company of St Paul and St Augustine.

At prayer, we seek God. And God comes to us. We find ourselves in communion, in fellowship with Him, and through Him, with the Christians through the centuries who have also sought Him. And if we choose to submit ourselves to them in our own seeking of God, to fellowship with them — then that is living tradition.

Classic and Charismatic 3: Monomaniacs for God

The subtitle of this piece borrowed from Mark Galli.

Returning to the theme of my current theological-devotional position in relation to my charismatic Anglican upbringing, one thing that often characterises — or caricatures, depending on source — charismatics is utter devotion to Almighty God. Charismatics want to be at church whenever there is a service. Some of them go to one church because they like the music, then a service at a different church because they like the preaching. They go to mid-week prayer meetings and Bible studies. They give up time to go out on the streets and not merely do ‘street evangelism’ but what the Durham Vineyard Church calls ‘treasure-hunting’ — going out and speaking the truth of God directly into the hurting hearts of strangers on the street. They give of their time and money to serve the church.

They are fervent.

They annoy their unbelieving friends and family by talking about Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit.

They also unnerve some of their believing friends by actually talking as though God has a habit of doing things in their lives.

In many ways, this was me at 17. I talked about Christianity at school with my friends. I went to special services at church as well as to youth group and ISCF meetings at school — on which I served as a member of the executive committee — and helped run Alpha at my church. I have memories of myself and some friends sitting in the living room singing worship songs as my brother played the piano — just because we wanted to.

Lately, there have been some thorns trying to choke this. I pray the Holy Spirit will weed the garden of my heart!

And one of his tools, as I investigate the history of his life in the world of men (aka ‘ecclesiastical history’), is the fervent devotion of generations past. To take one example: as a father of only two whom I love but find draining on time and energy, I find the image of Susanna Wesley, mother of nine living children (a further ten died in infancy), hiding beneath the table to do her devotions.

Or, considering my current direction of research, the works of Evagrius Ponticus are always challenging but hopeful. His works are ascetic, and I feel like I will never really progress from praktike to theoria, let alone theologia. But I find the study of Evagrius does not leave me feeling barren. I find, rather, his whole-heart recommendations of utter devotion to God light a fire under my rear. Rather than cause me to succumb to acedia, they help me become more diligent.

I have recently started reading Alan Jacobs’ The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. Obviously, I am sympathetic towards the Prayer-Book party, whether they are facing down Puritans or Papists. But their conviction that doing so was a means of securing true ‘evangelical’ worship for the Church of England inspires me to take up a Prayer Book and a Bible more often. Monomaniacs for God who went into exile because they believed that the right worship of God was being trodden upon by Cromwellian religion — whether you agree with Prayer-Book worship, their devotion to Christ is part of their support of the book. So worthy of emulation.

We, today, are lazy and flaccid Christians in the West. We are practical atheists. We need to be reminded of what true religion looks like, whether Perpetua being slain in the arena, St Teresa in ecstasy, the Franciscans calling out the wealthy to repent, or the charismatics bringing the comfort of Christ to a hurting world.

Like so many believers of history, I want to become a monomaniac for God again. I think their theology and devotional practices will help…

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.