Archive for August 20th, 2008

St. Silouan on Humility

August 20, 2008

From St. Silouan the Athonite.

Enlightened by baptism, people believe in God. But there are some who even know Him. To believe in God is good but it is more blessed to know God. Nevertheless, those who believe are bless, too, as the Lord said to Thomas, one of the twelve: ‘Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’

If we were humble the Lord in His love would show us all things, would reveal to us all mysteries, but our trouble is that we are not humble. We puff ourselves up and boast over trifles, and so make both ourselves and others unhappy.

The Lord, though He is merciful, oppresses the soul with hunger on account of her pride, and withholds grace from her until she has learned humility. I was perishing from my sins, and would long ago have been in hell, had not the Lord and His most holy and blessed Mother taken pity on me. O, her quiet, gentle voice! A voice from heaven the like of which we shall never hear on earth! And so now in tears I write of the Lord of Mercy, as He were my own Father. It is sweet for the soul to be with the Lord: Adam tasted the sweetness of this bliss in paradise when he saw the Lord with open eyes, and we feel in our souls that He is with us according to His promise: ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’

The Lord is with us. What more cou8ld we desire? The Lord created man that we might live and bask in Him for ever – that we might be with Him and in Him. And the Lord desires to be with us Himself, and in us. The Lord is our joy and gladness, and when pride causes us to withdraw from Him, it means that of our own accord we deliver ourselves up to suffering. Anguish of heart, dejection and evil thoughts lacerate us….

The proud man fears obloquy, while the humble man cares nothing. He who has acquired Christ-like humility will ever upbraid himself, and it rejoices him to be abused, and grieves him to be acclaimed. but this humility is still only elementary – when the soul comes to know the Lord in the Holy Spirit, how humble and meek He is, she sees herself as the worst of all sinners, and is happy to sit in shabby raiment in the ashes like Job, while she beholds other men in the Holy Spirit shining in the likeness of Christ.

May the Merciful Lord give all men to savor Christ’s humility which passes description. The soul will then know no further desire but will live for ever in humility, love and lowliness.

Some added thoughts of my own…

I am constantly aware of the many dangers that assault us. Dangers from within (for the Orthodox) and dangers from without (for us all). And yet I know of no danger that is not defeated in the humility of Christ. There is something about danger that speaks to us and calls us to battle – and yet, such battle does not yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness. That which speaks to us in such cases is fear – the same that would call us to run away. Humility alone knows no fear and never runs away. It does not fear the battle for in the humility of Christ the battle is already won, the victory complete. Humility does not run away but embraces the Cross with joy, for it knows that humility is indeed the very similitude of God. If we run away or fight the battle on the brave terms of man, we lose, for we do not fight in the humility of Christ. Christ alone is victorious and humility alone can save us in the manner of God’s gracious salvation.

How hard and yet how simple!

The Fathers and Scripture

August 20, 2008

This is a reprint – and earlier follow-up on the Orthodox reading of Scripture. I pray it is timely as well.

It is easy from the outside to form an incorrect picture of the Orthodox interpretation of Scripture. There is actually quite a bit of variety among the Fathers when it comes to reading the Word of God. Even in the earliest centuries there were noted differences in the approach that obtained among those trained in Antioch and those trained in Alexandria, the two great centers of Christian exegesis. To a large extent, Antioch won (at least on certain points). Antioch was far more literal in its approach, while Alexandria was more enamoured of allegory. Alexandria was doubtless weakened by the excess of Origen’s allegories but mostly by the monophysite controversy.

But on the whole, Biblical exegesis became largely settled by the great doctrinal controversies during the period of the Ecumenical Councils. The deluge of exegesis endured from the proponents of Arianism made the Church as wary of by-the-seat-of-your-pants Bible interpretation as St. Irenaeus had been a century earlier in dealing with Gnostic Bible handling.

The continued appeal to Tradition, that is, the way the Scriptures had been handled in the past by those who were trusted names within the Church made for a fairly conservative approach to Biblical interpretation. Also, it was noted that in the struggle to give proper voice to Christian doctrine, Scripture alone was sometimes insufficient, at least when it came to writing summarizing statements. Thus much of the battle of St. Athanasius’ use of the word homoousios (“of one being”) in the Creed of Nicaea was the charge that he was introducing a word that was not found in the Scriptures. True, he had. But after nearly a century’s debate, it was clear that no single word within Scripture could say what the single word of St. Athanasius had said. Without this word, the truth of the Trinitarian dogma (known in silence) could not have been well-spoken in public and confessed in the Church.

By the same token, later dogmatic questions, such as that of the Personhood of Christ, though informed by Scripture, could not be settled by the citation of verses alone. Clear theological statements such as those of St. Gregory Nazianzus, “That which is not assumed is not saved,” offered a continuing expression of the matrix of belief required in the Church for the same doctrine of salvation to be preached. Unless Christ is fully man, we cannot be saved. Unless Christ is fully God, we cannot be saved, for only God can give to man what man must have in order to be healed from the wound of sin.

Apart from the conciliar debates, another world of Scriptural exegesis became extremely popular, and that was the work of the great hymnographers. Perhaps the one figure who best combined both Scriptural scholarship and hymn writing into one was that of St. John of Damascus. But there were others, both male and female. To this day the richest commentary on Scripture in the Orthodox Church is to be found in the hymnody in the daily round of services that cycle through the Christian year. The language of the Councils was made to sing. St. Gregory Nazianzus, previously mentioned, delighted in writing poetry far more than prose. Theology is not only true – that which is true should also be beautiful.

The comments on the beauty of Orthodox worship frequently neglect to state that though the actions of the services have their beauty, it is the hymnography soaring above everything that transports the service to heaven, or rather imports heaven to earth. And the content of that hymnography is primarily doctrinal. Never was theology made to sing in such beauty – either before or since.

Today, I believe there is a renewed need for Orthodox attention to Scripture – not because there is something lacking in our worship – but because the study of Scripture has been left in shambles in the West after the past 200 years. Liberal scholarship has collapsed into ludicrous games of dropping colored marbles to “vote” on whether a passage of the gospel is authentic and actually attributable to Christ. Thus far, the Jesus Seminar (the voting group) has only attributed a single statement to Christ.

Fundamentalism lost its way before every it got started following the red herring of Darwinian debate.

There is a need for Orthodoxy to draw from its rich history of exegesis and bring it to the table of Scriptural scholarship – a need for the lex orandi (the rule of praying) to become the lex legenda (the rule of reading) In the course of such we should not be ashamed to say that the Scriptures are the book that is uniquely the Church’s book and that the manner of its reading is uniquely the manner of the Church. It is more than history, more than myth, more than any of the current theories floating about. When held in the hands of the believing Church and rightly read, it is the true Word of God unto salvation. Far too few Christians have heard it sung in such a manner. When placed within the matrix of the Apostolic rule of faith, the Scriptures reveal their treasures like a no earthly thing. It is this exegesis that must be taught to the generations of Orthodox clergy being trained and this exegesis that must be preached in our Churches and shouted from the rooftops.