Bulgakov on the Sanctification of the Cosmos  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944) was a Russian Orthodox priest and theologian.  The son of a priest, he went through an atheist phase during his university days--his degree was in economics--but was later reconciled to the Church.  Shortly after his ordination he was expelled from Russia by the Bolshevik regime.  He eventually made his way to Paris, where there was a thriving White Russian exile community, and helped establish the Institute St Serge, an Orthodox theological school.  His theological writings are often complex and sometimes controversial.  He survived an accusation of heresy over his concept of "sophiology".  Bulgakov's intriguing ideas on eschatology are more accessible and can be found in his book The Bride of the Lamb.  They are discussed in some detail on the excellent Eclectic Orthodoxy site.  Bulgakov is quite clear that at the end of the age not only will people be resurrected and deified, but that the physical universe will in some sense be divinized as well (though this should not be taken to imply pantheism).  The quote below comes from pp 404-405 of the book. 

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...prior to the parousia this sanctification and deification remain incomplete and preliminary, for the action of the Holy spirit ends with the parousia; the whole power of the Pentecost is revealed to the world.  The world is sanctified, deified, and glorified by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the parousia arrives by virtue of this action of the Pentecost.  It is impossible to say what comes before and what after, for this is a single act that occurs both in heaven and on earth, signifying the end of God's kenosis and the beginning of the world's deification.  The Father sends the Son into the world and, secondarily as it were, He sends with Him the Holy Spirit for the joint accomplishment of the parousia and the transfiguration of the world.  The Son wills again to carry out the will of the Father, this time by a conclusive and universal act, in order to accomplish the salvation of the world and to "unite the things of earth with those of heaven", as the liturgical hymn says.

The Abbot as Spiritual Father in Benedict's Rule  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The abbot looms very large in Benedict's monastic Rule.  Rather than a mere ecclesiastical administrator, he is expected to act as a spiritual father to all of his monks.  This is acknowledged to be a very heavy burden, for which the abbot will be held to account after his death.  Chapters 2 and 64 of the Rule deal specifically with the abbot's authority and responsibilities, but his functions are referred to throughout the document.  His role as spiritual father has deep roots in the New Testament and in earlier monastic writers.  This is discussed in some detail in Appendix 2 of RB 1980:  The Rule of St Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, Timothy Fry, OSB, ed., Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1981.  The excerpt is found on pp 355-356.

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Clearly, the RB and the [Rule of the Master] are in the tradition of spiritual fatherhood.  We have seen that this, and the use of the title abba to designate the bearer of it, originated in Egypt, so far as our documentation permits us to judge, and first flourished among the semi-anchoritic elders.  It is probably the full-blown development of the charisms of prophecy and teaching that had been exercised by holy men in Christian communities from the beginning.  When cenobitism developed, the spiritual fatherhood of the abba was extended to a greater number of disciples.  In the Pachomian institute, new elements were added, notably the emphasis upon the importance of the koinonia, and adjustments such as the introduction of subordinates had to be made when the number of disciples increased.  But, while these differences may have altered the manner in which the abba's fatherhood was actually exercised, they did not change the essential relationship between abbot and monk-disciple.  The coenobium was an extension of the elder-disciple relationship on a scale that inevitably produced alterations, but this relationship remained the very essence of the cenobitic life.

The first thing that defines an abbot, then, is not his position at the head of a community or an institution but his relationship to persons.  He is a mediator between Christ and each of his monk-disciples.  It is through him that Christ reaches into the life of the monk:  his word and command come to the monk through the abbot's voice.  In him the monk must--by faith--see Christ personified and, as it were, newly made incarnate in quasi-sacramental fashion.  The entire purpose of this relationship is educative, in the sense of total spiritual formation.  The monastic tradition knew by experience how difficult it is for a Christian, despite good will, to follow God's law and come to salvation unaided.  The normal way of working out one's salvation is to learn from another human being who has himself made the journey and is able to guide another along the right path.  The abbot is primarily the spiritual father who provides such direction--this is his chief reason for being.  He is seen in terms of the biblical tradition of wisdom teacher, prophet and apostle, and of the concept of spiritual fatherhood that grew out of it in the early Church.

Since the father-analogy rests upon the transmission of teaching as primary analogue, the abbot's relationship to Christ, on the one hand, and to each monk, on the other, can also be described as doctor, 'teacher', but one who teaches a doctrine that he has himself received from Christ, the real Teacher.  The abbot is only a mediator.  The same may be said of the images of shepherd and steward:  these biblical metaphors also underscore the abbot's position as mediator.  His authority is delegated; he is functioning on another's behalf.  The coenobium exists in order to lead men to salvation by showing them Christ, his teaching and his will.  Any other goal it sets for itself is secondary and must remain subordinate to this supreme end.  It is a school, a place where people come together for their own formation at the hands of a master, a teacher qualified to guide them.  Its purpose is achieved to the extent that the ideal is realized in practice.  On the one hand, the abbot must be another Christ, a man of authentic and profound Christian conviction and experience, so thoroughly molded by the Word of God that his very being as well as his speech proclaims it unceasingly; a man with a clear understanding that his essential task is the formation of his disciples.  The monk, on the other hand, must not only come with this purpose in view but maintain it throughout his life, and, through all the dura et aspera, keep firm his faith that the abbot represents and functions as Christ for him.

Athanasius on the Trinity  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The doctrine of the Trinity coalesced intellectually during the course of the 4th century, but its roots go back to the theological musings of the earliest Christians, as preserved in the New Testament.  This is reflected in the first letter to Serapion by Athanasius, the great bishop of Alexandria.  It can be found in PG 26, 594-595, 599 (Ep 1 ad Serapionem, 28-30).

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We acknowledge the Trinity, holy and perfect, to consist of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  In this Trinity there is no intrusion of any alien element or of anything from outside, nor is the Trinity a blend of creative and created being.  It is a wholly creative and energizing reality, self-consistent and undivided in its active power, for the Father makes all things through the Word and in the Holy Spirit, and in this way the unity of the holy Trinity is preserved.  Accordingly, in the Church, one God is preached, one God who is above all things and through all things and in all things.  God is above all things as Father, for he is principle and source; he is through all things through the Word; and he is in all things in the Holy Spirit. 

Writing to the Corinthians about spiritual matters, Paul traces all reality back to one God, the Father, saying:  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in everyone.

Even the gifts that the Spirit dispenses to individuals are given by the Father through the Word.  For all that belongs to the Father belongs also to the Son, and so the graces given by the Son in the Spirit are true gifts of the Father. Similarly, when the Spirit dwells in us, the Word who bestows the Spirit is in us too, and the Father is present in the Word.  This is the meaning of the text:  My Father and I will come to him and make our home with him.  For where the light is, there also is the radiance; and where the radiance is, there too are its power and its resplendent grace.

This is also Paul's teaching in his second letter to the Corinthians:  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  For grace and the gift of the Trinity are given by the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.  Just as grace is given from the Father through the Son, so there could be no communication of the gift to us except in the Holy Spirit.  But when we share in the Spirit, we possess the love of the Father, the grace of the Son and the fellowship of the Spirit himself. 


Isaac the Syrian on the Non-Permanence of Hell  

Posted by Joe Rawls

St Isaac the Syrian, also known as Isaac of Nineveh, lived during the seventh century.  He was born in the Persian Gulf in the vicinity of Qatar.  At an early age he and his brother entered a monastery affiliated with the Assyrian Church of the East, more commonly (and inaccurately) known as the Nestorian Church.  His monastic piety drew the attention of his ecclesiastical superiors, and he was consecrated bishop of Nineveh.  After only five months he resigned his see and devoted himself to a rigorous anchoritic life in the wilderness.  It was there that he produced the bulk of his ascetical writings.  Towards the end of his life, worn out and nearly blind, he returned to cenobitic life.

Although Isaac belonged to the non-Chalcedonian Church of the East, his writings--originally in Syriac--deal almost exclusively with prayer and other ascetical matters and avoid divisive Christological issues.  He has  therefore been highly regarded--and honored as a saint--by the Orthodox, Monophysite, and Roman Catholic churches.  A distinctive feature of his writings are his notions of hell and eternal punishment.  Basically, for him hell exists but is not forever; it is God's version of "tough love", a necessary stage of purification on the way to resurrection and eternal life.  God's love for all creatures is so great that even demons can be saved eventually.  A good discussion of Isaac's view of salvation contains lengthy quotes from his writings which are excerpted below.

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For it would be most odious and utterly blasphemous to think that hate or resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings...Rather, He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief...

...with Him it is not a matter of retribution, but He is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from His dealing with humanity.  And one such thing is this matter of Gehenna.

It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them--and whom nonetheless He created.

I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love.  For what is so bitter and vehement as the punishment of love?  I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment...Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna:  bitter regret.

...The wicked, who all their life have turned aside to evil deeds, after they have been set in order in their minds by punishments and the fear of them, choose the good, having come to learn how much they have sinned...and so eventually they are held worthy of the felicity of divine munificence.  For Christ would never have said "Until you pay the last farthing" unless it had been possible for us to be freed from our sins once we had recompensed for them through punishments.


Julian of Norwich as Anchoress  

Posted by Joe Rawls

  Julian (ca 1342-1416) is of course best known as a spiritual writer, but the actual lifestyle of an anchoress is seldom discussed.  A good source of information is this article.  It's important to note that an anchoress was not the same as a hermit, and that Julian's living space or "anchorage", despite its rather severe physical limitations, in reality allowed her a good deal of direct interaction with other people, many of whom received spiritual direction from her.  Some of the procedures involved in becoming an anchoress are excerpted below.

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The "Rule of Life" [of an anchoress] was known as the "Ancrene Wisse".  [It] stated that an anchoress was enclosed under a church like an anchor under the side of a ship...The Rule decreed that: 
*  The cell, or anchorhold, of an anchoress should have three windows...
*  One window was to open into the church so that the anchoress could receive communion and follow the church services.  This window was called a "Squint".
*  The second window was to allow the anchoress to be in contact with her assistant.  Food would be passed through this window and refuse taken out.
*  The third window allowed people to come and seek her wisdom, advice, and prayers.
An anchorage also contained a private altar, a bed, and a crucifix.

[Role of the bishop]
*  The personal credentials of the would-be anchoress were checked...
*  The bishop then determined if there was adequate financial support...
*  He then determined a suitable location for the anchorage.
*  He then performed (or ordered performed) the ceremony or rite of enclosure.
*  He then agreed to oversee the well-being and support of the anchoress.

[Rite of enclosure]
*  The...anchoress should fast and make confession.
*  Keeping vigil throughout the preceding night.
*  Attend Mass...
*...a procession of the congregation would include chanting and the anchoress would carry a lighted taper.
*  Sometimes her grave would be made ready...and kept open in the cell as a "momento mori"...
*  Prayers would be said and the door to the...anchorage would be locked.  In some instances there was no door to the anchorage--the anchoress would be walled up.

Updike on the Resurrection  

Posted by Joe Rawls

John Updike (1932-2009) is best known as a prolific novelist but was also an accomplished poet.  His personal spiritual journey led him from Lutheranism through Congregationalism to the Episcopal Church.  His earthy, often clinical depictions of human sexuality co-existed readily with a lifelong commitment to traditional Christian faith.  This is exemplified in his 1960 poem Seven Stanzas on Easter.

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Make no mistake:  if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh:  ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that--pierced--died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache',
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.


Bonhoeffer and the Liberals  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born in 1906, was executed by the Nazis in the Flossenburg concentration camp on this date in 1945.I did not read much by him when I was younger, but I got the impression that he was a major figure in "liberal" theology, however one wishes to define that.  However, a reading of Eric Metaxas' biography Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010) revealed that his theology was in fact quite orthodox and traditional.  This comes  out in chapter 7, which deals with his time at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a postdoctoral year following the receipt of his doctorate in theology from Berlin University.  It seems that Bonhoeffer got more spiritual nourishment at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he taught Sunday school, than in the rarefied atmosphere of Union.  He writes of his experiences in a number of letters which are quoted below.

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There is no theology here [at Union Theological Seminary]...They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.  The students--on the average twenty-five to thirty years old--are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions.  They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level...

...the lack of seriousness with which the students here speak of God and the world is, to say the least, extremely surprising...Over here one can hardly imagine the innocence with which people on the brink of their ministry, or some of them already in it, ask questions in the seminar for practical theology--for example, whether one should really preach of Christ.  In the end, with some idealism and a bit of cunning, we will be finished even with this--that is their sort of mood.

The theological atmosphere of the Union Theological Seminary is accelerating the process of the secularization of Christianity in America.  Its criticism is directed essentially against the fundamentalists and to a certain extent also against the radical humanists in Chicago; it is healthy and necessary.  But there is no sound basis on which one can rebuild after demolition.  It is carried away with the general collapse.  A seminary in which it can come about that a large number of students laugh out loud in a public lecture at the quoting of a passage from Luther's De servo arbitrio on sin and forgiveness because it seems to them comic has evidently completely forgotten what Christian theology by its very nature stands for...

...Things are not much different in the church.  The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.  As long as I've been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a Negro (indeed, in general I'm increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes).  One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity....There's no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached.  But then what becomes of Christianity per se?