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.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

   ...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.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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. 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

...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.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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).

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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.