Schmemann on Sacraments  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Father Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was one of the most prominent Eastern Orthodox theologians of the 20th century.  Born in Tallinn, Estonia, his family soon relocated to Paris, the home of a thriving community of White Russian exiles.  He was educated at the Institut Saint-Serge, an Orthodox seminary, and also earned a doctorate from the University of Paris.  In the late 1940's he was offered a position at St Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary, just north of New York City.  He remained there for the rest of his life.  He produced a number of significant books and was an adjunct professor at several New York area seminaries, including General Theological Seminary.

In The Eucharist:  Sacrament of the Kingdom (St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1987) Schmemann exemplifies the Orthodox stress on the sacraments as the means by which not only individual Christians, but the entire created universe, is sanctified and enabled to participate in divine life.  The quote below is found on pp 33-34.  A hat-tip to the Eclectic Orthodoxy site.

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...in the Orthodox ecclesial experience and tradition, a sacrament is understood primarily as a revelation of the genuine nature of creation, of the world, which, however much it has fallen as "this world", will remain God's world, awaiting salvation, redemption, healing and transfiguration in a new earth and a new heaven.  In other words, in the Orthodox experience a sacrament is primarily a revelation of the sacramentality of creation itself, for the world was created and given to man for conversion of creaturely life into participation in divine life.  If in baptism water can become a "laver of regeneration", if our earthly food--bread and wine--can be transformed into partaking of of the body and blood of Christ, if, to put it briefly, everything in the world can be identified, manifested, and understood as a gift of God and participation in the new life, it is because all of creation was originally summoned and destined for the fulfillment of the divine economy--"then God will be all in all."

Andrew of Crete on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Andrew, a native of Damascus, was a monk in Jerusalem, an archdeacon at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and ended his life as archbishop of Crete.  He is known mainly as a writer of liturgical texts.  The discourse excerpted below can be found at Oratio 10 in Exaltatione sanctae crucis:  PG 97, 1018-1019.
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Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified.  Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree.  And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ's side, blood and water for the world's cleansing.  The legal bond of our sin would not be canceled, we should not have obtained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of paradise would not stand open.  Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.

Therefore, the cross is something wonderfully great and honorable.  It is great because through the cross the many noble acts of Christ found their consummation--very many indeed, for both his miracles and his sufferings were fully rewarded with victory.  The cross is honorable because it is both the sign of God's suffering and the trophy of his victory.  It stands for his suffering because on it he freely suffered unto death.  But it is also his trophy because it was the means by which the devil was wounded and death conquered; the barred gates of hell were smashed, and the cross became the one common salvation of the whole world.


Being Present to the Real Presence  

Posted by Joe Rawls

One of the pious customs of my pre-Vatican II Catholic boyhood was "making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament".  The priests and nuns would encourage us to enter the church when Mass was not being said, kneel at the communion rail in front of the high altar, and pray while focusing our attention on the tabernacle (only Anglicans called it an "aumbry") where the reserved consecrated bread--no wine in those days--was kept.  Since Christ was "truly present" in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we could feel that we were in the presence of God Himself. 

This devotion also exists among high-church Anglicans, as seen in the excerpt below of a brief essay by Fr William, a member of St Gregory's Abbey in Three Rivers, MI.  Note his emphasis on the notion that silence and stillness "work" just as well as verbal prayer in this situation.

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...I don't know why I find it easy to recreate and extend that liturgical silence when I make a visit to the reserved Sacrament.  But I do.  For me it's one of those times when the best response to God's self-manifestation is an awe-filled and deep quiet...

Certainlty words are important...For love to have meaning and to survive, the lovers have to talk to each other, and listen to each other.

But in addition to the exchange of words and the mutual understanding they build, love crys out for mutual presence, for intimacy, for time spent together.  In the Holy Eucharist, Jesus himself is present:  mysteriously, silently, sacramentally.  That means the Eucharist is where heaven and earth, eternity and time, grace and nature, touch. 

...But simply being quiet in the presence of the Lord is a form of prayer, too.  And it can be a powerful and spirit-filled kind of prayer.  In prayerful silence, we aren't like the couple talking about what's happened during the day, and how we are concerned about our kith and kin and the world around us...The prayer of quiet is like the couple sitting on the porch side by side in the evening who are sharing the time by being together at that time and place, not needing words at all just then.  That quiet time together, when we share it with our Lord, is a great blessing and time when God can work powerfully on our souls.

God In The Burning Bush  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Today's Eucharistic reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (Ex 3:1-21) recounts Moses' encounter with God as manifested in a burning bush at the foot of Mt Sinai.  According to Orthodox tradition, the bush was not burning with literal fire, but was showing forth uncreated light, which is the Divine Presence made visible.  This is the same uncreated light that Jesus manifested at the Transfiguration.    A succinct description of this can be found in Orthodoxwiki.

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In Orthodox Christian tradition...the flame Moses saw was in fact God's Uncreated Energies/Glory, manifested as light, thus explaining why the bush was not consumed..  It is not interpreted as a miracle in the sense of an event, which only temporarily exists, but is instead viewed as Moses being permitted to see these Uncreated Energies/Glory, which are considered to be eternal things.  The Orthodox definition of salvation is this vision of the Uncreated Energies/Glory, and it is a recurring theme in the works of Greek Orthodox theologians such as John S Romanides.

Dormition and Divinization  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (the Assumption in Roman Catholicism; simply the feast of St Mary the Virgin in Anglicanism), we turn once more to Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov, who provides insights into how Mary's post-earthly existence--variously understood as passing directly into heaven without dying, or experiencing a post-mortem resurrection similar to that of Jesus--is an instance of the divinization or theosis which is God's intention for all of us.  The excerpt below is found on pp 76-77 of The Burning Bush:  on the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God, Thomas Allan Smith, translator, Eerdmans, 2009.

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   ...in her glorification the Mother of God receives through the Son from the Father the glory and power which are not inherently hers according to human nature.  This is divinization in the precise sense, a canopy of divine graced life unfurling over that being in which it is not inherent and which it transcends.  Because of this the whole difference between the Son and the Mother, between His and her power and glory, remains.  The first is boundless and unlimited, absolute, as the power of God in creation.  The second is derivative, a graced giveness, and in virtue of this derivativeness it is not unlimited, not absolute.  In other words, the Lord is God by nature, the Mother of God is not God by nature, but only by grace, no matter how full and complete her divinization is.  In her person is fulfilled only what is foreordained for all humans:  "I said, you are gods" (Ps 82.6; cf Jn 10.34-35). 

...She is the petitioner on behalf of the human race and the mediator between God and human beings as a glorified and divinized human.  If the Lord is the petitioner and high priest in His capacity as the one offering Himself in sacrifice, she is the petitioner before Him...He joins in Himself two natures, but she raises up in herself, elevates to God humanity and all creatures.  As a creature, she does not participate in the divine life of the Most Holy Trinity according to nature, as does her Son; she only partakes of it by the grace of divinization.  But this grace is given to her already in a maximum and definitive degree, so that by its power she is the Heavenly Queen.  Between her and all the saints, no matter how exalted, angels or men, there remains an impenetrable border, for to none of them does the Church cry out save us, but only pray to God for us.  With respect to the whole human race she is already found on the other side of resurrection and last judgement; neither the one nor the other has any force for her...She is the already glorified creation before its general resurrection and glorification; she is the already accomplished Kingdom of Glory, while the world still remains "in the kingdom of grace."

Kallistos Ware on Hesychia and the Jesus Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is one of the world's preeminent Eastern Orthodox spiritual writers.  He often deals with the place of the Jesus Prayer in spiritual practice.  In his essay "Silence in Prayer:  the Meaning of Hesychia" he addresses the cultivation of interior stillness--that's basically what hesychia means--and how frequent recitation of the Jesus Prayer can contribute to achieving this stillness.  The essay is included in The Inner Kingdom:  Volume I of the Collected Works (2000, St Vladimir's Seminary Press), pp 99-102.

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Prayer, it was said, is a "laying aside of thoughts," a return from multiplicity to unity.  Now when we first make a serious effort to pray inwardly, standing before God with the mind in the heart, immediately we become conscious of our inward disintegration--of our powerlessness to concentrate ourselves in the present moment, in the kairos.  Thoughts move restlessly through our head, like the buzzing of flies (St Theophan)or the capricious leaping of monkeys from branch to branch (Ramakrishna).  This lack of concentration, this inability to be here and now with the whole of our being, is one of the most tragic consequences of the Fall.

What is to be done?  The Orthodox ascetic tradition distinguishes two main methods of overcoming "thoughts".  The first is direct, to "contradict" our logismoi [errant thoughts], to meet them face to face, attempting to expel them by an effort of will...It is safer to employ the second method...we can seek to direct our attention away from them and to look elsewhere...our immediate objective is not to empty our mind of what is evil but rather to fill it with what is good.

...Although we cannot make the never-idle mind desist altogether from its restlessness, what we can do is to simplify and unify its activity by continually repeating a short formula of prayer.  The flow of images and thoughts will persist, but we shall be enabled gradually to detach ourselves from it...

...This, then, is the ascetic strategy presupposed in the use of the Jesus Prayer.  It assists us in applying the second or oblique method of combating  thoughts:  instead of trying to obliterate our corrupt or trivial imaginings by a direct confrontation, we turn aside and look at the Lord Jesus; instead of relying on our own power, we take refuge in the power and grace that act through the Divine Name.  The repeated invocation helps us to detach ourselves from the ceaseless chattering of our logismoi.

...First, to achieve its purpose the invocation should be rhythmical and regular...

In the second place, during the recitation of the Jesus Prayer the mind should be so far as possible empty of mental pictures.

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.