On the Mount of Transfiguration

Today for Morning Prayer (Wednesday after Septuagesima), the Canadian 1959/62 BCP had as the Second Lesson the Transfiguration from Matthew 17. First this:

Manuscript image from the Theological Works of John VI Kantakouzenos. Byzantine, Constantinople, 1370-1375

Since I’m in the midst of teaching a course on the Nicene Controversy, I look at the Transfiguration and all the things I’ve been reading in St Athanasius, St Ephrem, St Basil, and their modern interpreters comes flooding into my heart. Indeed, this icon even reflects the Nicene Creed:

God from God, light from light, very God from very God.

As Edith M. Humphrey puts it,

It is in the shining face of Jesus, and in the glory seen most profoundly on the cross, that we catch a vision of the likeness of God.

Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 91

And St Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian):

He was bright as the lightning on the mountain and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future.

Oration 3.19, “On the Son”, quoted in Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 98

As at all times, the appropriate response to Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration is to worship.

Thoughts on Climacus’ Ladder, Step 4

I am partway through Step 4 of John Climacus’ (Saint of the Week here) Ladder. Not being a monk, I find a lot of his wisdom wasted on me. Still …

A lot of people these days are really stoked about “narrative” and “narrative theology” and suchlike things. I remember once at a party a guy who worked for the Canadian Bible Society remarking that the Gospel could never be put into propositional statements because Jesus taught in parables. Given that that was a propositional statement, I was amused. Given also that the content of the Gospel is not Jesus’ parables but his life, I was a bit irked.

A lot of people try to pit narrative against proposition, though. This is wrongheaded, as Edith M. Humphrey (once Anglican, now Orthodox [yes, I’ll mention that every time I mention her]) notes in her book Ecstasy and Intimacy. We need both. We need balance. In Step 4, about obedience, St. John Climacus, Father of the Church, demonstrates the usefulness of both ways of presenting truth.

Approximately half of this Step on the ladder to paradise is occupied with stories about a monastery John once visited in Alexandria. He was filled with wonder at what he saw there. The monks lived in obedience to their abbot to a very high degree. To test them, he would make them lie on the ground for undetermined lengths of time just to see if they would do it. Once, to see if a postulant was worthy of admission, he made this man, a former fornicator (with both humans and animals), thief, and liar confess in detail his deeds before all the brothers at Divine Liturgy. Brothers who were disobedient enough were cast out or sent into the Prison where they only got bread and raw vegetables for food.

The monks were also obedient to one another and sought to outdo each other in virtue and in bearing one another’s burdens, claiming the sins of others for themselves to help brothers avoid punishment.

The result of this radical obedience was great virtue. John writes, “If they had to speak, what they talked about all the time was the remembrance of death and the thought of everlasting judgment.” (95, Classics of Western Spirituality translation) The advanced brothers were so humble that, when asked about hesychia by John, they claimed to be merely corporeal men with no knowledge of such things.

These men were calm of heart, humble, meek, pure. The longer they lived in the monastery, they less they were involved in backbiting and prideful actions.

Now, I’m not sure if I can handle such radical obedience. But imagine if we tried to do things for people without grumbling or complaining (cf. Philippians!). Imagine if we tried to be the servant of all (cf. Mark!). Imagine if, when asked to do something that is largely indifferent, we did it, seeing it as a way of learning humility. Imagine if we saw everyone around us as Kings and Queens. Or, to take another image, imagine if we saw them as Christs (cf. Matthew! Also, John of Ephesus, Lives of Eastern Saints, Chapter 5 about Simeon & Sergius, Patrologia Orientalis 17, pp. 84-89) rather than as nuisances.

Anyway, Climacus pairs this narrative teaching technique with propositional statements such as this:

Obedience is a total renunciation of our own life, and it shows up clearly in the way we act. Or, again, obedience is the mortification of the members while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, and unprepared defense before God, fearlessness before death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s journey. Obedience is the burial place of the will and the resurrection of lowliness. (91-92)

I like this technique, this balance between narrative and proposition. Western preaching has swung too far to the propositional, but I do not think it should be lost. We should find, however, a place for deep and meaningful storytelling in our teaching, as we see St. John Climacus doing in Step 4.

In the words of my friend Fr. Ioannis, “How clever the ancients were!”

Theology: Who Cares?

I was talking to a friend the other night who commented that it was really good to take calculus and physics at the same time — to get both the theoretical and the practical.  I commented that I wasn’t so good at Physics (and little enjoyed it) but was good at calculus (and enjoyed it).  I noted that I have generally preferred the abstract for the hard, practical, physical — I am, after all, contemplating studying the intricacies of Christology.*  She said that she’s not really one for the abstract.

And theology, as we understand it usually, is the work of armchair scholars, of people spending enormous amounts of time poring over Scriptures and scholars, and then thinking really hard about it.  According to Greta Vosper, a Torontonian United Church minister, how we live is more important than what we believe.  So does theology really matter?  To take up last post’s thoughts, does Chalcedonian Orthodoxy really matter?

I mean, Christians are followers of the Way, aren’t we?  People who live by the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, right?  This means we should have a particular lifestyle, to follow, in the words of the first-century Didache, the Way of Life, rather than the Way of Death.  How does Jesus having two natures really affect our ability to live by the following?

Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there, if you love those who love you? Do not also the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone gives you a blow upon your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes away your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one that asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts). (Didache I)

I’m not entirely sure, to tell you the truth.  However, according to a Tozer quote that I recorded somewhere, what we think of when we think of God is the most important thing about us.  This is to say that “Who is God?” is a question of vital importance.  For example, when we see that God is Trinity, we discover that

personhood is tied up intimately with community, and with complementarity of Persons: the Trinity, a community of irreducible Persons in complementarity and love, is our bedrock in understanding what it is to be alive.  This leads us back to our understanding of Christian spirituality: authentic spirituality is the characteristic of a person in Christ who has enough wisdom and insight regarding self and other, and enough love and strength through the Spirit, that he or she can dare to be “ek-static” and so to enter into true intimacy with “the other”, an intimacy that will include both word and silence. (Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy, 64)

A belief in the Trinity drives us to community, intimacy, and communion.  It frees us up to enter into vulnerable communion and commingling with one another, knowing that, as persons made in the image of the triune God, we were made for this.

Furthermore, it is only by the grace of God we can live the truly sacrificial life of love and joy that is laid out for us by the various injunctions of Christ found in the Gospels.  If we do not trust in the true, living God, we are wilfully cutting ourselves off from His grace.  As Miroslav Volf points out in Free of Charge, God showers his grace and forgiveness on us, it is our job to receive it with willing hands.  If we do not take the gift given, we cannot benefit from it.

Our theology should fuel our prayer and our worship.  What we think of God influences how we worship, how often we worship, how we pray, how often we pray.  The Arian worships a Christ who is not even God.  Thus, in his heart, he is an idolater, even though the One he worships is perfect God.  On the other hand, if we look at Christ and fall into the purported error of Eutyches, we see someone who did not taste fully of humanity, someone who had only a heavenly body.  Thus, we are praying to a distant being, a God who only humbled himself so far.

Prayer and worship are how God fuels us for his mission on Earth.  True theology brings us to a place of true worship.  May we all ponder the greatness and beauty of our God.

And so Chalcedonian orthodoxy does matter.  By the statement of faith made by the bishops in 451, we declare ourselves committed to a God who is so mighty that he was able to become one of us without diminishing his glory yet without compromising his humanity.  This is the mighty, awesome God whom we worship.  This belief should fuel us to humble ourselves, to go into the deepest, darkest, saddest corners of humanity to raise up the fallen and brokenhearted, to set captives free, and live out the Way of Life as citizens of the Kingdom of the Heavens here on earth.

Theology.  Who cares?

You, hopefully.

*Although good at musical and dancing theory, those are two of the areas where I greatly prefer the practical.  Also in worship and the Eucharist, although I enjoy the theories and theologies surrounding them, for they help deepen my mind’s engagement with the actions.