Four Hundred Texts on Love 22

Posted: May 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

79.  Almsgiving heals the soul’s incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings. For the Lord has given us commandments which correspond to the powers of the soul.

This text is interesting to me on several levels. For those who don’t often engage with any aspect of the Christian ascetic disciplines, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer lie at their foundation. These are the disciplines discussed (and assumed considering his Jewish audience) by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. These are the disciplines encountered again and again in the rest of the New Testament and in the writings of the Church. The earliest document of Christian liturgical practice that we have, the Didache, discusses these three disciplines.

In this text, St. Maximos is linking the disciplines to the effect they have, if practiced properly, on our soul. Almsgiving soothes and heals our soul’s inflammatory nature. It is true that wealth and the accumulation of material goods tends to excite and provoke us. We then tend to defend what we have and the means we employ to acquire more. Jesus spoke a great deal about the chains with which material wealth can bind us. It does follow then, that almsgiving, the practice of giving our money away, would begin to heal us. I had never really considered it in that light.

The goal of fasting is to give us mastery over our stomachs, and through that mastery, free us from domination by all the desires of our senses. Fasting has always made more sense to me in its Christian form than many of the other practices and disciplines.

I’m not sure I understand his statement about prayer. I grasp that prayer is our mystical connection with God and thus is the only true route for studying anything about God. So it makes sense, I guess, that as we turn our minds toward communion with God in constant prayer, that our intellect would be purified. Prayer to God cannot inhabit a mind that is turned from God. As we turn toward sin in our minds, we stop praying. As we start praying, we turn from sin.

I’m not sure what he means about preparing us for contemplation of created beings. Perhaps he means that a mind of prayer is prepared to see the created order as it actually is. A very interesting text, indeed.


For the Life of the World 37

Posted: February 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 37

This post focuses on sections 1-3 of Sacrament and Symbol, the second appendix of For the Life of the World.

Fr. Schmemann notes at the start of this essay that much of Orthodox theology in recent centuries has been deeply swayed and influenced by the Western perspective that focused on the form and practice of sacraments and tried to fully define them in ways that Christianity had not traditionally done. Not only were the answers wrong, but often the questions were the wrong questions, or they were asked in the wrong way.

What is a “sacrament”? In answering this question the post-patristic Western and “westernizing” theology places itself within a mental context deeply, if not radically, different from that of the early Church. I say mental and not intellectual because the difference belongs here to a level much deeper than that of intellectual presuppositions or theological terminology.

That’s the first question. What is it about which we are speaking? Everyone seems to assume they know, but there are actually a lot of presuppositions and statements about the nature of reality behind every such answer.

In the early Church, in the writings of the Fathers, sacraments, inasmuch as they are given any systematic interpretation, are always explained in the context of their actual liturgical celebration, the explanation being, in fact, an exegesis of the liturgy itself in all its ritual complexity and concreteness.

You see this as far back as the Didache, where baptism cannot be explained apart from its actual liturgical practice, and it continues everywhere that baptism, the eucharist, and other sacraments are discussed. They are concrete things. It’s only much later that sacraments came to be discussed and analyzed independent of their actual practice. Fr. Schmemann notes that you could read about the sacraments in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, for example, and walk away with no knowledge or understanding of the liturgical act itself, how to “do” the sacrament.

In order to begin to explore the shift in perception and understanding, Fr. Schmemann begins by focusing on a Western “debate” with which most are familiar — the debate of the real presence.

Within the context of that debate the term “real” clearly implies the possibility of another type of presence which therefore is not real. The term for that other presence in the Western intellectual and theological idiom is, we know, symbolical. [It is clear in Western thought that] the “incompatibility between symbol and reality,” between “figura et veritas” is consistently affirmed and accepted.

Even before I began to read ancient Christian writers, I knew that was wrong. I knew that as a rule people int he ancient world did not make “symbol” the opposite of “real.” Rather, symbols always shared in the power of that which they expressed. And the truer the symbol, the greater the power. Once I began to read ancient Christians, I found a similar sort of perception of reality in their writings.

The Fathers and the whole early tradition, however — and we reach here the crux of the matter — not only do not know this distinction and opposition, but to them symbolism is the essential dimension of the sacrament, the proper key to its understanding. … “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation. Historians of theology, in their ardent desire to maintain the myth of theological continuity and orderly “evolution,” here again find their explanation in the “imprecision” of patristic terminology. They do not seem to realize that the Fathers’ use of “symbolon” (and related terms) is not “vague” or “imprecise” but simply different from that of the later theologians, and that the subsequent transformation of these terms constitutes indeed the source of one of the greatest theological tragedies.

The use of many terms changed within Christianity, but most Christians don’t want to admit it, or if they do, they want to believe that they have somehow “recovered” an older meaning or understanding that was “lost.” Few people are content to simply let different be different and read and explore with that lens in place.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 7 – Ignatius to the Philadelphians

Posted: July 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Next, let’s look at the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Philadelphians. This is a very short letter and I recommend reading the entire letter. For the purpose of this post, though, we’re going to focus on chapter 4.

Be diligent, therefore, to use one eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup, for union with his blood; one altar, even as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, who are my fellow-servants, to the end that whatever ye do, ye may do it according unto God.

One eucharist or thanksgiving because there is one flesh of Jesus. One cup in union with his blood. And the one eucharist and one altar are associated with the one bishop of a particular place.

Here in a single sentence forming a single section of his letter, we find the ideas of oneness with each other associated with the eucharist united to the body and blood of Jesus tied to the single bishop of a particular physical place. We find here the tangible physicality of our faith. It is not something invisible or ethereal. It is not something abstract. Rather, each aspect is tied to our physical reality and ultimately to the physical reality of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This sentence describes an experiential reality that is very different from what Zwingli described. Moreover, it’s extremely early and is consistent with what we find in the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament and the other writings of the first century such as the Didache. As we move forward, we’ll see that continuity maintained. Certainly there are refinements to the liturgical practice of the church. And it is influenced by and adapted to the cultures it meets as Christianity spreads. Nevertheless the differences are minor and the understanding of the church and of the eucharist remains largely uniform and consistent. There is no significant point of discontinuity where the belief or practice of the church changed in the ancient world. There are battles already with gnostics, judaizers, and schismatics. Nevertheless, the thread of the church is easy to find and follow through them. It continues. The other groups fade away and vanish.

The reason I wanted to start here at the beginning and move forward is in part because of the arguments of the restorationists. They generally claim that either after the Apostles died or after the first century or after Constantine (or pick your date or event) the whole church basically apostasized. The restorationists then claim they are restoring “true” Christianity. The problem is that there is no such point of historical discontinuity in the ancient church. We’ll see that as we continue. The more we learn about the ancient world and our ancient faith, the more that fact is confirmed. So basically, for the claims of the restorationists to be true, we have to say that the Apostles failed to either understand the teaching of Jesus or to communicate those teachings to those churches they established and those people whom they personally taught. However, if the faith could not even be communicated to those directly in contact with Jesus or with the apostles, how on earth are we supposed to rediscover it two thousand years later? If it was lost that early, it’s gone. We have no idea what the correct interpretation of our texts might be. And we have no hope as far as I can see of recovering it. It strikes me that the perspective of the restorationists is ultimately one of hopelessness.

I’ve noticed that Protestants don’t generally like Ignatius. You’ll find all sorts of attempts to dismiss him if you look for them. And I understand why. Ignatius is writing perhaps 60 to 75 years after the Church in Antioch, a Church that was home to Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, was established. There were likely people still around who had known one or more of them at least in their childhood. Does what Ignatius describes sound anything like the Protestant reality today? We have more of his letters still to read. Judge for yourself.

I want to close today’s reflections on this letter with another sentence from it. It’s one that sticks in my mind. Think on it.

For where there is division and anger, God dwelleth not.