Wednesday, June 29, 2011

St. Paul

Saint Paul
6th century Byzantine
ivory relief
(Musée de Cluny)
Today being the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul and I having recently finished a semester studying Paul, I thought I would share some of my reflections on this great and infuriating figure of Christian history. His power to unite and divide remains strong even after the passing of nearly two thousand years. Just last month, a friend shared with me that he wouldn’t mind at all if the Church tossed out all his epistles and he never had to listen to one again. Well. That’s not going to happen.

My image of Paul has shifted considerably over the years. Perhaps fittingly enough, my introduction to Paul’s writings was in the context of religious contention between a Protestant mother and a Roman Catholic father. Paul was my father's confirmation name and my mother's inspiration. Raised between these divergent perspectives, somehow I ended up initially with a mostly Protestant lens on his writings. Paul always sounded like a sola fide Protestant to me, and having embraced a rather polemical form of Roman Catholicism at the time, I consequently did not like him. I found him bristly and rankling to my doctrinal sensibilities. Mainly, I thought his statements about people being justified by faith and not by works (e.g. Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16) conflicted with certain opinions I held radically to the contrary, e.g. that people are justified by faith and works. I preferred the discussion of faith and works in James 2, and found it a comforting counterpoint to Paul, even interpreting it as anti-Pauline. Once, my anti-Pauline fervor rose to such a pitch that I found it necessary to confess the sin of sacrilege against Paul to a priest, who responded, “that’s one I’ve never heard before.” All this is to say, Paul and I have a history. We have had words. I usually directed all this bile against his ideas – as I poorly understood them – and not against his person, but there was never anything “warm and fuzzy” about the image I held of Paul. I remained mostly ignorant about the life of Paul, as opposed to some of his ideas, until comparatively recently.

Now having read – academically, devotionally, and liturgically – all of Paul’s epistles, my image of Paul has evolved considerably both doctrinally and personally. I have come to love him. What I love most among his writings is his emphasis on love in 1 Cor 13. I have discovered also that this passage serves as a good examination of conscience

I now see Paul as a broken and magnificent creature, turned from his own intentions and understandings and taken over by Christ Jesus (cf. Phil 3:12) to establish his kingdom. Rather like a mule in the hands of a skilled trainer, he was stubborn and powerful, but also lowly – “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:19) – and obedient to his master. Raymond Brown, in his Introduction to the New Testament, gives an image that particularly struck me: 
Here was a Jew with a knapsack on his back who hoped to challenge all [the grandeur and power of Greco-Roman culture] in the name of a crucified criminal before whom, he proclaimed, every knee in heaven, on earth, and under the earth had to bend.
Paul was a wise man, an educated man, an intelligent man, made to speak like a fool (cf. 2 Cor 11:21) for the Christ’s sake. Here is one trembling in awe before his crucified former enemy who comes before him as his God and trembling not at all before any other. He is fearless and resolute at times, but not immutable, ever. He is entirely, beautifully, infuriatingly human. He entirely, beautifully, wholly belongs to God and to God’s Son Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

         I am now overwhelmed with gratitude to Paul and his spreading of the gospel to us Gentiles. Paul gave us Jesus. Or else, Jesus gave us himself through Paul.  

         St. Paul, pray for me , a sinner.

Friday, June 10, 2011

There is One

St. Paul. From the Acts of the Apostles
printed in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1709
The Fathers of the Church consistently echo the Lord’s prayer for His people, the Church, “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). As surely as we know that the Father hears and answers the prayers of Jesus Christ His Son, we know that this petition describes a reality and not only a hope. The Church is one, as much now as in the patristic age. That unity manifests on several levels. St. Paul writes, “There is one body and one Spirit…, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all” (Eph 4:4-6). Reflecting the unity of God, there is unity of doctrine, unity of the Church, and unity of all in charity.  Much of what occasioned the Fathers’ writings and the biblical writings on the subject of unity were attacks on that unity by heresies, schisms, and personal squabbles between Christians. These faults betray the oneness of the Body of Christ and vainly seek to rend it asunder.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Monasticism and the Baptized

Blessed Pope John Paul II on Mount Sinai, where, on Feb. 26, 2000, he visited the Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine, which, he said, "stands indomitable as a witness to divine wisdom and love."
One significant work of the recently beatified Pope John Paul II for the Eastern Churches is his Apostolic Letter, Orientale Lumen. In this letter, Blessed Pope John Paul II identifies monasticism as “a reference point for all the baptized.” One could look at each Christian way of life and see in it a model for all Christians, without denying the distinctiveness of particular vocations. Another way of putting it is that there is not one spirituality for monks, another for priests, and another for the married. There is one Christian spirituality and theology, just as there is one Christianity, one Christ, and one Church. “There is… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all” (Eph 4:4-6). A monk is not living just a part of the Christian life, but the whole of Christian life. The same is true of a priest, a married person, and each Christian. Looking at Christianity as expressed and lived in each vocation instructs each Christian in their own living of Christ. Monasticism, however, is particularly suited to this type of examination.

“In the East, monasticism was… presented as a symbolic synthesis of Christianity,” writes John Paul. This is for good reason. The life of the monk or nun is one of total absorption in Christ, shown by their commitment to prayer, their apostolically communal way of life, and their radical observance of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This is not to suggest that these elements are unique to monasticism, but that they are expressed by monasticism with rare clarity. As John Paul writes, “The monastery… is where the human being seeks God without limitation or impediment, becoming a reference point for all people.”

Monasticism, like martyrdom before it, stands as a radical sign of the coming kingdom, in which all people are called by God to participate, and which monastics, in a sense, already experience. The martyrs and the monastics count their sacrifices nothing, even a joy, as they know they are imitating the Lord and going to Him. “The Church invokes [the] return [of the cosmos to the Father], and the monk and the religious are its privileged witnesses,” according to John Paul. They witness and experience this recapitulation of the universe primarily in their lives of prayer, both liturgical and individual. John Paul continues, “As a living sign of this [eschatological] expectation, the monk continues and brings to fulfillment in the liturgy the invocation of the Church… a maranatha constantly repeated… with the whole of his life.”

The very breath of a true monastic is prayer. In the East, the witness of the hesychasts’ silent prayer of the heart particularly exemplifies this. “Silence (hesychia),” John Paul notes, “is an essential component of Eastern monastic spirituality,” and each Christian ought to incorporate, to that degree they are able, this prayer into their life.

Friday, June 3, 2011

On Prayer to Our Father

Mosaic of St. Gregory of Nyssa in Constantinople
All Christians repeat the Lord’s Prayer, taught to do so by Jesus Himself (Matt 6:5-15). Fittingly, then, Gregory of Nyssa devoted five sermons to a reflection on this fundamental prayer of Christianity. Often, regrettably, we repeat the Lord’s Prayer by thoughtless rote, but our repetition need not be meaningless. The prayer teaches us much about prayer itself, especially upon repeated reflection, and Gregory’s text is a useful guide to such reflection. One theme that Gregory particularly focuses on in such is the necessity of virtue and holiness on the part of those who make bold to call God by the familiar name of Father.

In his first sermon, Gregory provides an enlightening exegesis of the Lord’s neologism βατταλογέω in the Gospel according to Matthew (6:7). Gregory claims that Jesus “invented this… word.” Some – for example, the King James Version and the American Standard Version – have problematically translated this word as “use vain repetitions,” which for some might call into question our practice of frequently repeating the very prayer which our Lord then teaches us to pray (Matt 6:9-13). This “strange novelty of a word,” as Gregory calls it, occurs only once in Scripture and consequently those who seek to understand its true meaning require some explanation. Gregory’s ideas about this word are helpful in the contemporary context because so many have encountered its use by Protestant critics of the Catholic and Orthodox custom of prayerful repetition. Repetition, in fact, does have a certain value. “Through frequent repetition,” Gregory writes, “we may be given to understand some of [the prayer’s] hidden meaning.” Repetition, if prayerful, is not vain but an aid to the human spirit seeking to focus on God in the midst of a temporal world filled with distractions, especially the incessant desire for pleasures. Gregory tells us that the Lord is not advising us to avoid repetition, but to avoid indulging “vain desires” by praying for “empty pleasures.”

This is what He means by βατταλογέω, or babbling. One example Gregory gives of this is the prayer of some to God “for the crown in the games.” This, certainly, is an example many can relate to in our own time and place. Our football culture has even named a certain type of play – one particularly unlikely to succeed – the “Hail Mary pass.” Those who pray for such things “babble nonsense,” as Gregory says, and it is this type of babbling, not repetition, that our Lord commands us to avoid in prayer.

This is neither to say that simple pleasures are wrong nor that they do not come from God as blessings but that our prayer, especially as we spiritually mature, should be ever more devoted to the higher purpose of union with God. We would do well to realize, as Gregory points out, that if we have “by Divine Providence… obtained these childish toys” it is only so that they might learn to “offer the Father petitions for the greater and more perfect things… that profit the soul.” We must learn to focus our prayer less on fulfilling our own desires for wealth or high status or other such things and more on becoming true children of God the Father.

Before we can truthfully call God our Father, we must establish similarity to and familiarity with God by virtue and impassibility. This is a central theme of Gregory’s sermons. God is not our Father simply because He has created us, but also because and to the extent that we are like Him. The earth, from which God made us, though created, does not call God its Father. Our Lord’s command to so address God is also an exhortation to be His children – to live as children of so great a Father. “It is physically impossible,” writes Gregory, that “the Holy One [should be the Father] of him whose life is impure.” Kind begets kind. If God is our Father, then we must be like God. On this theme, Gregory even strongly states, “Those who approach God should themselves become gods.”

We cannot approach this paragon of holiness and virtue by our own unaided efforts. We all have need for God’s help. We cannot even pray without Him first assisting us. “We can obtain nothing of the things for which we are anxious,” writes Gregory, referring to the things, including prayer itself, by which our lives give glory to God’s name, “unless the good be accomplished in us by Divine aid.” Therefore, we must pray to become virtuous so that we can become worthy to unite ourselves to God in prayer. Gregory writes, “A man can glorify God in no other way save by his virtue which bears witness that the Divine power is the cause of his goodness.” Only in weakness may a person give glory to God, and we are all weak. Not by our own power do we overcome the sinful passions and our adversary the devil, but only by our free cooperation with the grace of God. “Strong, indeed, is the adversary, formidable, yea, invincible to those bereft of Thy help,” Gregory prays. Yet, those who seek God’s help shall find it.

God is with us and He will purify us if we do not resist His grace. While discussing that part of the Lord’s prayer asking for forgiveness of our debts, Gregory writes, “It seems to me that the Word teaches us through the prayer never to speak too boldly to God as if we had a pure conscience, however far from human sins a man may be.” So, even though we must be holy before we can rightly call God our Father, we learn from the Our Father itself that none are so holy as to be free from the need for forgiveness. Mercifully, Gregory reminds us, “the Father forgives sins, the Son takes away the sins of the world, and the Holy Spirit cleanses from the stains of sin those in whom He dwells.”

Gregory’s thoughts here echo the usual beginning prayers of the Divine Praises. We ask the “Spirit of Truth” to “come and dwell within us” and “cleanse us of all stain.” Paralleling Gregory’s pattern, we invoke the “Most Holy Trinity,” praying, “Lord, cleanse us of our sins; Master, forgive our transgressions; Holy One, come to us and heal our infirmities for your name’s sake.” Importantly, we offer these prayers before we pray the Our Father. Before we can rightly call God our Father, His Son must take away our sins and the Holy Spirit must cleanse us and make us holy. Only the holy are rightly called the children of the Holy One. Only the power of God can make us holy. Therefore, before we pray, we pray. That is, before we call God our Father, we pray Him, through His Son and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to make us His children.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Heavenly Marriage

11th century Georgian miniature of St. John Chrysostom
          In his earlier letters to Theodore, John Chrysostom mourns for the soul of one who has decided to marry. In his later letter to a young widow, he counsels an end to mourning for the body of a good husband who has died. These situations are opposite in many respects. He addresses his former letter to a young man planning marriage – his latter to a widowed young woman. Each reflects considerably and distinctly on the theme of marriage. He writes the former letters as an ascetic monastic with limited experience – the latter as a cleric with more experience. A comparison of these letters does much to show both the evolution and the consistencies of Chrysostom’s thought and ministerial approach.
Chrysostom’s earlier letter to his friend Theodore is more accusatory and harsher in tone than his more temperate and gentle letter to the young widow. For example, he accuses Theodore of opening his mind, which “the devil has now set on fire… to all manner of soul-destroying and shameful thoughts.” However, he does not write to condemn. In an effort to strengthen Theodore against despair, he gives many examples from scripture of figures that have fallen and repented, returning to their former glory. He then threatens Theodore with a long description of the fires of hell and the torments of the damned, tempered somewhat by an attempt to inspire him with a description of the blessedness of heaven.
Only after thirteen long pages of such bulwarks and admonishments, does Chrysostom get to the point

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