I realise we are a week off from each other this year, but I’ll still commemorate western Easter with Orthodox prayers! These are some favourites from the book of prayers called the Octoechos. Father Raphael says that the Octoechos contains all the theology of the Orthodox church. Here are three prayers from the Octoechos:
Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad! For the Lord hath shewed strength with his arm, and trampled down death by death. He is become the first-born from the dead. He hath delivered us from the pit of hell, and hath bestowed his great mercy upon the world. -Tone 3 for Sundays
O praise and worship, O ye faithful, the Word, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost together is everlasting, born of the Virgin for our salvation: for he was pleased in flesh to mount the Cross and suffer death, and in his glorious Resurrection to raise the dead. -Tone 5 for Sundays
Thou from on high didst come in tender mercy, and didst endure the three days’ burial to free us from our passions: O Lord, our Resurrection and our life, glory to Thee. -Tone 8 for Sundays
I sent an e-mail to my friend who’d given the talk spoken of in this post, outlining the same things I outlined here on the blog. His response included:
Thanks for this. … I am no Eastern Orthodox but Presbyterians need a good dose of EO and the EO could use a little Presbyterianism. I like to think of my theology as a Presby ressourcement. That sort of mystical theology is totally absent from the Free Church.
I, myself, am not a Presbyterian, but the call to mystical theology for low Protestants is important.
The image of people who are interested in evangelism and church-planting, who want to see their culture reached for Christ is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the mystics. Which is a shame.
A couple of my friends run a Greek theology reading group. A third friend joined them a few times (I went once for St Basil, ‘On the Holy Spirit’), but (I am given to understand) his general attitude towards the discussion was, ‘But what does all this have to do with the man on the street in Glasgow?’ (Why Glasgow?)
In my mind, ‘the man on the street in Glasgow’ — in this instance — is in need of social assistance. (This is not intended as a general statement on Glaswegians.) Why should we worry about St Gregory of Nazianzus and Trinitarian theology when there are starving people out there? In Glasgow?
The image of people who are interested in social action/activism, who want to see the poor clothed and the hungry fed is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the systematic theologians. Which is a shame.
Somewhere in his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton references St John of the Cross as teaching that one should spend more time in contemplation (used here in its mystical sense) than action — that actions ungirded in the contemplative life are prone to be willy-nilly and of less use. How do we know we are doing them for God’s glory? What is His will? That sort of thing.
That’s one approach to contemplation in a world of action (social/evangelistic).
The other is this: Good theologia and good theoria (contemplation), good thoughts about God and good thoughts in God, dogmatics and mysticism — these, in fact, lead to just behaviour and holy living and Gospel-telling.
Think on St Francis, who was a mystic if ever there was one. But his fervour for prayer, dispassion, contemplation was as tied to a fervour for preaching and for helping the poor.
Solid theology and ‘mystical’ practices give heart and soul to our activities in the world.
Perhaps it is our lack of deep thinking and deep praying that weaken our witness of love to a world eroded by hatred and false loves at every turning.
By looking upon God, whether through the intellectual truths of theology or through the noetic experience of mysticism, we can be suffused with His power, His light, and His love for a broken world.
Re-post from elsewhere in (I think) 2009. This year, Western and Orthodox Easter were only one week apart. Today, 12 April, is Orthodox Easter. Enjoy!
This year, Eastern and Western Easter were about a month apart (the farthest apart they can be, as well as ours being the earliest it will be for another 220 years). And so, as my Russian, Greek, Cypriot, Antiochene, Syrian, Alexandrian, Ukrainian brothers and sisters celebrate the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I’d just like to say:
Crist aras! (Crist sodhlice aras!) (Old English)
Crist is arisen! (Arisen he sothe!) (Middle English)
Which is to say: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! (For how to say this traditional Easter greeting in more languages, go here.)
I like Orthodox Easter… [and] it was while abiding on the island of Cyprus I first encountered the Eastern celebration of Easter. Here in Toronto, I went to a Russian church which happens to be in my neighbourhood.
I showed up early, around 10:30 PM. I asked about the candles and whatnot from a young cantor and his wife. I bought two slender beeswax tapers for $2 each, then went into the sanctuary. There were people moving about at the different icons, as well as in what looked like a line for confession (?). I walked up and stood in the centre aisle for a bit, focussing on the focal point of the room and praying.
This church is very open; it’s an old Anglican building with pews relegated to the walls only, and a few rows of chairs at the back. The rest of the space is essentially empty, with icons along the walls and on the pillars. In the centre of the nave (what I would call the chancel is hidden behind the iconostasis, the icon screen) was a table covered in white flowers, daisies and lilies. And on the table, in the midst of the white flowers, was a red cloth, representing the shroud of Christ. Atop it were a book of the Gospel (I surmise) and a cross. The shroud itself, I believe, had Christ in the tomb on it.
After I had watched some others praying before this shroud, symbolising the fact that Christ died and went down to Hades, I approached it myself. Some had kneeled; all had crossed themselves; most had kissed at least the book of the Gospel, if not the shroud itself and the cross. I mounted the step in front of the shroud, crossed myself, and prayed to the Eternal Risen Christ, holding the candles in my hand. I crossed myself again, kissed the book of the Gospel, and crossed myself a third time.
Then I dismounted and and went to the candlestand on the right of the shroud. I lit one of my two candles and prayed to Christ, proclaiming Him the Light of World and smiled within since a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Then I stepped back, beside the lectern where a lector was reading the scriptures in Slavonic.
I occupied the next hour of my life in various ways. I stood before an icon of St. Nicholas for a while, noting that Russian icons are more three-dimensional than Byzantine ones. I sat for a while. I wandered past all the icons, praying to Christ for His glory. Before the icon of the Blessed Virgin, I sang the Magnificat quietly to myself. Throughout it all, I was often singing quietly to myself, especially this Taize chant:
Laudate Dominum! Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes! Alleluia! (repeat)
Eventually, it was 11:30, and the clergy came out in their fine robes. There was singing in Old Church Slavonic before the shroud, with the choir answering (also in Slavonic) from the balcony at the back. The singing was beautiful. A deacon appeared beside the priest and his deacon with a candle. Then they processed around the table with the shroud, the priest censing everything. Following was more singing, and the shroud was removed.
Next, they did things behind the Holy Doors of the iconostasis. I don’t know what. There was, undoubtedly, incense and Slavonic involved. The choir would occasionally sing. Then they got ready for the procession.
The procession was led by some servers carrying an icon of Christ surrounded by a great wreath. Following them were others with candles and the priests and deacons. Then regular laymen in street clothes carried six standards with icons on them, topped by crosses. Behind them went the choir. We lit our candles from the stands around us (they were equipped with Dixie cups to catch the wax).
We processed around the block. I wended my way through the procession so that I could spent the last bit close enough to hear the choir over the hubbub around me. Then, singing a hymn, we stopped at the church steps. The priest had a microphone and sang some antiphons, the choir responding with something to do with Christ every time. And then he declared:
To which everyone but me responded:
Fortunately, I could respond to, “Christ is Risen!” (Indeed, He is risen!) and “Christos Anesti!” (Alithos Anesti!) Next was French, and I didn’t know the response. None knew the German response. Then a smattering of other languages, to each of which a few knew the answer. He concluded with the Slavonic version seven times.
They sang a hymn and went in for the Divine Liturgy. I slipped away, since the Divine Liturgy takes three hours.
From the moment I stepped into that church, it felt right. You should all go next year!
I recently remarked to a couple of Master’s students groaning about reading Homer that if they’re interested in Late Antiquity, Homer’s not totally irrelevant, given that Gregory of Nazianzus wrote poetry in Homeric verse. A (very pleasant and overall thoughtful) young convert to Eastern Orthodoxy remarked that he really liked Gregory’s theological poetry. I said that I liked his poems, too. Then this fellow said that you don’t find theological poetry in western theology, and that a reading group of which he is a member had been reading the Second Theological Oration and he loved some of the poetry in it.
I asked if the ‘poetry’ was written in verse.
No, it was just very beautiful.
I said that that’s actually rhetoric, and that that’s the Fathers for you. They have rhetorical training, and such beauty comes through in their theology, that people like Gregory, Augustine and Ambrose didn’t study rhetoric for it to have no effect on their style of writing.
Our conversation moved on, because I’m bad at confronting people face to face when they say stuff like that.
In the above exchange, there was one category error and (at least) one misrepresentation of western theology. Now, I’m not going to say that Gregory of Nazianzus at his high-flying, rhetorical, ‘poetic’ best isn’t magnificent and stunning. He is. And his theology is good, too. And other eastern Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa or Basil of Caesarea or Athanasius or, in Syriac, Ephraim the Syrian (literal poetry, in his case), have all displayed to me the stylistic beauty of their writings over the years.
But to say that anything beautiful is poetry is not to know what poetry is. And to say that western theology has no poetry is not to know the western heritage.
Sometimes I think a lot of people leave the western churches for Eastern Orthodoxy because we’ve been holding back our own riches of a variety that Eastern Orthodoxy spreads out lavishly. I do not imagine that my acquaintance has read beautiful, ‘poetic’, rhetorical western theology and failed to recognise what it is. I imagine that he has not read it.
So, first: Western theology has poetry. Literally. This should go without saying on this blog, given the series of holy week poems I posted this year, including ones by Theodulph of Orléans (9th c), Ambrose of Milan (4th c), Venantius Fortunatus (6th-7th c), Thomas Aquinas (13th c), and a couple of anonymous ones. I have also discussed Ambrose of Milan’s hymnography. It is worth observing that two of the greatest theological minds of the western tradition, Sts Ambrose of Milan and Thomas Aquinas, were both, literally speaking, poets. So were Peter Abelard and Bonaventure, one a controversial theologian, the other a mystical theologian. Others who are famous as poets also wrote theologically, such as Prudentius and Sedulius. Also, Dante has more than a little theology in his poetry, and of the moderns, we need look no further than the Holy Sonnets of Donne, or the theological work of Spenser, or the world of Francis Thompson or Gerard Manley Hopkins to find westerners (Anglican & Roman Catholic) writing theological poetry.
And, second: Western theology can be poetic. In prose. So, figuratively? Today, when a lot of people say ‘western theology’, they actually mean either something that looks like mediaeval scholasticism (which is both a way of thinking as well as a style/genre of approach) or something that looks like the Enlightenment. That all western theology is about precision and order and sets itself out in Aristotelian syllogisms and spends its time being obsessed with the rational and forgets the mystical and so on and so forth.
This is largely a caricature, and it is entirely inappropriate for western, Latin theology before some time in the Middle Ages, and not always inappropriate thereafter. Not only do western theologians produce a good supply of poetic, beautiful, rhetorical work, eastern theologians use their fair share of logic and reason (so John of Damascus, most of Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit, much of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations, Cyril of Alexandria, and so forth). The style of theology we are caricatured as doing exclusively is not our exclusive domain. And the style we are imagined as not engaging in is part of our territory, too.
Lift up your eyes to the light itself, and fix them upon it if you can. For so you will see how the birth of the Word of God differs from the procession of the Gift of God, on account of which the only-begotten Son did not say that the Holy Spirit is begotten of the Father, otherwise He would be His brother, but that He proceeds from Him. Whence, since the Spirit of both is a kind of consubstantial communion of Father and Son, He is not called, far be it from us to say so, the Son of both. But you can not fix your sight there, so as to discern this lucidly and clearly; I know you can not. I say the truth, I say to myself, I know what I cannot do; yet that light itself shows to you these three things in yourself, wherein you may recognize an image of the highest Trinity itself, which you can not yet contemplate with steady eye. Itself shows to you that there is in you a true word, when it is born of your knowledge, i.e. when we say what we know: although we neither utter nor think of any articulate word that is significant in any tongue of any nation, but our thought is formed by that which we know; and there is in the mind’s eye of the thinker an image resembling that thought which the memory contained, will or love as a third combining these two as parent and offspring. (De Trin. 15.50)
Not necessarily theology at its most poetic/rhetorical/beautiful. But not lacking in what a Romantic eschewing verse might call ‘poetry’. If you’ve spent your time with Latin Christianity through the medium of text books or of dry dogmatics, refresh your understanding of it. Grab One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas by P G Walsh and Christopher Husch, or St Bernard of Clairvaux, or Lady Julian of Norwich, or any of a multitude of western theologians and poets, and reacquaint yourself with the tradition we all seem to have forgotten and then scorned.
In this case, it is not familiarity that has bred contempt.
As I’ve mentioned here before, sometimes I get angry. Usually it’s a fairly tame frustration or annoyance. Sometimes it’s more powerful. I get angry at stupid things people post on Facebook. I get angry at dumb stuff I see in the news. I’ve been known to get angry at people who board airplanes too slowly, those who take forever in the checkout queue, road construction, slow walkers — you know, the usual.
Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) has some good stuff to say about anger. Of interest is the idea of redirecting this passion towards sin and the Devil:
You say that you cannot help being resentful and hostile? Very well then, be hostile — but towards the devil, not towards your brother. God gave us wrath as a sword to pierce the devil — not to drive into our own bodies. Stab him with it, then, right up to the hilt; press the hilt in as well if you like, and never pull it out, but drive another sword in as well. This we shall achieve by becoming gentle and kind towards each other. ‘Let me lose my money, let me destroy my honour and glory — my fellow-member is more precious to me than myself.’ Let us speak thus to each other, and let us not injure our own nature in order to gain money or fame. (The Art of Prayer, p. 212)
This idea of redirecting anger towards the Devil or towards the passions is found elsewhere, as in Evagrius Ponticus, whose ascetic works had a deep impact on Byzantine spirituality.* The idea is to talk back, to rebuke the passions and sins that tempt and beset you, to be angry with yourself and grieve for your sins. Thus we will use the passions, which are a natural part of the human person, to grow in virtue, rather than to sin.
Sometimes we see Christians in prominent positions who are filled with righteous indignation over various pieces of news and the troubles in society and politics. I know of one fellow who gets really angry with the Canadian government regardless of who is in power. I ask — is this anger, directed at the humans who make things happen, of use?
We should be angry at injustice, but love the unjust. This is what Theophan calls us to do, for anger towards another human being can lead to revilement and hatred, and these are a poison to the human soul. Be angry with sin and the Devil, not your brother!
*His theology, on the other hand, was deemed heretical.
Several months ago when I was in Leipzig, I made a careless remark on this blog about ‘Jesus Is My Boyfriend‘ worship music. I now give two examples. First is the chorus of the Vineyard song ‘Pour out My Heart’, which was very popular when I was a teenager:
Pour out my heart
To say that I love You
Pour out my heart
To say that I need You
Pour out my heart
To say that i’m thankful
Pour out my heart
To say that You’re wonderful
Second comes from Donnie Mcclurkin, and is far less salvageable from ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ concerns than ‘Pour out My Heart.’ It is ‘Draw Me Close to You’:
Draw me close to You
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear You say that I’m Your friend
You are my desire
And no one else will do
‘Cause nothing else can take Your place
To feel the warmth of Your embrace
Help me find a way
Bring me back to You
Bring me back, oh Jesus
You’re all I want
You’re all I’ve ever needed
You’re all I want
Help me know You are near
Vineyard put out a whole CD of such songs called Intimacy in 1998. Sometimes these songs or at least their titles make you feel absurd — and an old article from The Lark (like The Onion only evangelical) makes the point well, ‘Wal-Mart rejects “racy” worship CD‘, including this piece of comedic gold:
The ground-breaking — some say risqué — album includes edgy worship songs such as “My Lover, My God,” “Touch Me All Over,” “Naked Before You,” “I’ll Do Anything You Want,” “Deeper” and “You Make Me Hot with Desire.”
In the fake news article, the Vineyard spokesman says that the point of the album was to help Christians get more intimate with God. And this is the point of all the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ worship and popular songs — to express or help facilitate an intimacy with the living, Triune, eternal, immutable, just, holy God.
And we need a bit of help with that, because the idea of entering into close communion with a consubstantially united triad of persons Whose Being is Communion can, quite frankly, seem a bit daunting at times.
Intimacy with God is possible. I believe in it. And the idea of a close love relationship with the Most Holy Trinity is not an invention of evangelicals, charismatics, or Pentecostals. All Christians are called to prayer, after all. According to Bishop Nikon of Volodsk,
in prayer man converses with God, he enters, through grace, into communion with Him, and lives in God. (in The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton, 51)
Or hear St Dimitri of Rostov:
First of all it must be understood that it is the duty of all Christians … to strive always and in every way to be united with God, their creator, lover, benefactor, and their supreme good, by whom and for whom they were created. …
No unity with God is possible except by an exceedingly great love. (Art of Prayer, 46-7)
Or, to go places other than 19th-century Russia, St John of the Cross’ ‘Spiritual Canticle‘:
Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone.
Shepherds, you who go
up through the sheepfolds to the hill,
if by chance you see
him I love most,
tell him I am sick, I suffer, and I die.
Since God is not less than a person, we want to enter into a relationship with Him. We want it to be ‘deep’ or ‘intimate’, and we want to be able to express this relationship of love we have for God as John Donne does in the masterful sonnet ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’:
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
So perhaps we should be slower to mock ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ worship songs. However, I think we still have a problem here, and it is made evident in the last two poems:
Why are we corporately expressing personal intimacy that not all of us can hope to share?
That is to say, the sentiments of a John Donne or a John of the Cross or a Lady Julian of Norwich or a Teresa of Ávila are valid expressions of Christian piety, and often sound to our ears like ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’. But none of these is the liturgical, corporate aspect of Christian devotion.
These intense emotions, these expressions and outpourings of love to the Almighty are the personal devotions of these particular individuals. They were written down as aids for us, to be sure. And some of them we can even use individually as we gather corporately. But what if I’m not feeling today like Jesus’ touch is all I need? What if Jesus isn’t all I’ve ever needed? Like, some of us eat, after all. What if Jesus isn’t all I want? Sometimes I want Star Trek. Sometimes I want pizza.
These songs make liars out of us.
They also keep our corporate worship life at an emotional fever-pitch that is unmaintainable, and when people start wanting Star Trek or pizza or their spouse or a dog or anything other or, as happens, more than Jesus, and this recurs time and again, they feel themselves unspiritual and throw in the towel.
Now, Jesus should be what we want most. And he is what we need most.
But expressing what should be but is not through emotionally manipulative, fast-paced music is not the way to help us find true intimacy with God. And to help us realise the latter truth of what is but which we often forget to be the case, we need robust theology as well as catchy tunes.
In Matthew 6:6, Jesus tells us to go into our secret place and the shut the door when we pray. This prayer cupboard (or icon corner, if you’re into that kind of thing) is where we must engage in the hard, long task of moving into the deep, loving intimacy of the Triune God. This is a task of the inner person, and it is a daily task of labour and love, not a weekly task of easy emotions and cheap thrills.
It requires training of us; sin has marred us, so intimacy with God who once walked in the cool of the evening with Adam in the Garden is no longer ‘natural’. St Dimitri again:
Training … must … be twofold, outer and inner: outer in reading books, inner in thoughts of God; outer in love of wisdom, inner of love of God; outer in words, inner in prayer; outer in keenness of intellect, inner in warmth of spirit; outer in technique, inner in vision. (The Art of Prayer, 44)
The inner has been placed in the outer in modern worship. The new song writers must help us retreat back into our hearts as they give us the outer expressions of true theological hymnody that sings the glory and praises of the Triune God in all his majesty. And when we come away from these heady experiences, we can sit quietly in our room and hope with our inner expressions to meet with the living God, who powerfully comes quietly.
NB: I would also put dubious hymns based on Lady Julian of Norwich’s feminine imagery for God in the same category of ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ — useful for the theologically-informed in their prayer closet, but not for Sunday morning.
It’s not cheeky if it’s pre-schism, right? 😉 The following hymn, ‘Now Christ had mounted to the stars’ (Iam Christus astra ascenderat) comes from ‘New Hymnal’, which is a Carolingian replacement of the ‘Old Hymnal’. These hymnals originated from the incorporation of hymns at the canonical hours being incorporated into the Benedictine office.
The New Hymnal took the Old Hymnal’s place everywhere during the course of the 800s and 900s, save in Milan. Walsh & Husch argue that it originated in France. Its first appearance in England is in Durham in the mid-900s. The Pentecost hymn I have chosen was divided into three sections for Terce, Sext, and Nones. The translation is that of Walsh & Husch, 100 Latin Hymns from Ambrose to Aquinas, number 56 (pp. 185-187).
Now Christ had mounted to the stars,
returning to his former home,
the Holy Spirit to bestow
as promised by the Father’s gift.
That solemn day was dawning now
to which the globe had circled round
seven times its mystic number seven,
denoting now the blessed time.
On all, when that third hour had come,
the world in sudden thunder broke,
according to the apostles’ prayers
announcing God’s arrival here.
So downward from the Father’s light
the beauteous, fostering fire descends,
to fill the hearts that trust in Christ
with the burning impact of the word.
Men’s hearts are full, and feel the joy
as holy light is breathed on them;
their diverse voices harmonize
and tell of God’s glorious deeds.
From every race is gathered there
the Greek, Latin, barbarian,
and to the astonishment of all
they speak in universal tongues.
The unbelieving crowd of Jews
being then possessed by lunacy
together shout: “Christ’s fosterlings
are belching, reeling with new wine!”
But Peter, wielding signs and powers,
confronts them, teaching them the truth,
that they are faithfless, telling lies,
with Joel his witness giving proof.
I enjoy this poetic retelling of Pentecost, especially with its emphasis on the missional empowerment of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s Apostles. Growing up in the charismatic segment of Anglicanism, the emphasis I have often heard has been that of the spiritual gifts bestowed on them. This hymn certainly acknowledges the supernatural power of the Spirit upon the Apostles — ‘Peter, wielding signs and powers’ — but also, and importantly, upon the missional aspect of these gifts.
The Apostles were not given charismata of the Holy Spirit solely that they could walk closer with the Most Holy Trinity (although I do not doubt that such was the effect; Christ calls Him the Comforter in John, after all) but also so that they could bring many, of every tribe, tongue, and nation, into the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church.
I am also struck by the Carolingian love of … puzzles, of significances hidden in what we would consider insignificant details. Pentecost is fifty days after Easter. That, to the modern mind, is a matter of simple, straightforward mathematical fact. But to the Carolingians, mathematics was part of the mind of the God who ordered and sustained the universe. Pentecost is very nearly 7 times 7 days away from Easter — the perfect number squared. The mystical significance is that God does all things in his kairos, at the fullness of time.
I hope that you, too, enjoy this hymn! And a Happy Pentecost to my Eastern Orthodox friends!