Incarnation and Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Andrew Louth is an Orthodox priest as well as a theology professor at Durham University in England. In his article "The Place of Theosis in Orthodox Theology" (appearing in Partakers of the Divine Nature, Christensen and Wittung, eds, Baker Academic 2007), he outlines the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation of the Son of God, which is seen as not exclusively a remedy for human sinfulness, but primarily as God's way of uniting in love with his creation. The quote appears on pp 34-35.

Deification, then, has to do with human destiny, a destiny that finds its fulfillment in a face-to-face encounter with God, an encounter in which God takes the initiative by meeting us in the Incarnation, where we behold "the glory as of the Only-Begotten from the Father" (Jn 1:14), "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor 4:6). It is important for a full grasp of what this means to realize that deification is not to be equated with redemption. Christ certainly came to save us, and in our response to his saving action and word we are redeemed; but deification belongs to a broader conception of the divine oikonomia: deification is the fulfillment of creation, not just the rectification of the Fall. One way of putting this is to think in terms of an arch stretching from creation to deification, representing what is and remains God's intention: the creation of the cosmos that, through humankind, is destined to share in the divine life, to be deified. Progress along this arch has been frustrated by humankind, in Adam, failing to work with God's purposes, leading to the Fall, which needs to be put right by redemption. There is, then, what one might think of as a lesser arch, leading from Fall to redemption, the purpose of which is to restore the function of the greater arch, from creation to deification. The loss of the notion of deification leads to lack of awareness of the greater arch from creation to deification, and thereby to concentration on the lower arch, from Fall to redemption; it is, I think, not unfair to suggest that such a concentration on the lesser arch at the expense of the greater arch has been characteristic of much Western theology. The consequences are evident: a loss of the sense of the cosmic dimension of theology, a tendency to see the created order as little more than a background for the great drama of redemption, with the result that the Incarnation is seen simply as a means of redemption, the putting right of the Fall of Adam: O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, quod Christi morte deletum est! O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!--as the [Exultet of the Easter Vigil] has it: "O certainly necessary sin of Adam, which Christ has destroyed by death! O happy fault, which deserved to have such and so great a Redeemer!"

Orthodox theology has never lost sight of the greater arch, leading from creation to deification.

Benedict and the East  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

The French Benedictine Jean Leclercq was one of the leading scholar-monks of the 20th century. In The Love of Learning and the Desire for God ( New York, Fordham University Press 1982) he discusses some of the ways in which the monastic West was influenced by the monastic East. The quote following is found on pp 89-90; I have omitted Leclercq's footnotes.

...Benedictine monasticism is attracted, not only to patristic sources in general, but to Eastern sources in particular....

This is a fact which must be strongly emphasized, for St Benedict had no wish to break with ancient monastic tradition, which is largely Eastern. Quite the contrary, in the life of St Benedict by St Gregory, in the spirit of his Rule, in the readings he recommends and the observances he prescribes, everything betrays his concern for continuity and for fidelity to ancient monasticism. Not that Benedict is "an Easterner who has strayed into the West." He is a Latin; but he respects the Eastern tradition "which is to monasticism what the apostolic tradition is to the faith of the Church." Even more, as can be gathered from allusions found in his Rule, he feels a certain nostalgia for the monasticism of ancient times.

Consequently, it is not at all surprising that, during all the great periods of Western monasticism, the desire has been felt to renew relations with this authentic tradition. In the Carolingian period, Benedict of Aniane accords great importance to the Eastern rules in his Codex regularum. In later periods, the monks were always clearly aware of what they owed to ancient monasticism, and an Italian manuscript of the eleventh century furnishes a revealing example of this. Immediately after the text of St Benedict's Rule, there is appended a list of those who "founded" monastic life. Out of the twenty-six Fathers of monasticism enumerated, there are only four Latins. And even among these we find St Jerome, who was often considered an Easterner. In fact, monastic observances and the texts which inspire them owe a great deal to the East and to the writings through which it was known: the Apophthegms and Lives of the Fathers, the Conferences of Cassian, the Rules of St Basil. Everything in Benedictine life is ordered according to the ideas, practices, sometimes even the words, which have come down from the monks of antiquity and which link each generation to the origins of monasticism. Furthermore, each renewal of Benedictine life is effected with reference to these same origins. For example, at the beginning of what was to become the Cistercian Order, Ordericus Vitalis, not implausibly, attributes to Robert of Molesme this characteristic speech: "Read the acts of Sts Anthony, Macarius, Pachomius. ...We are no longer following in the footsteps of our Fathers, the Egyptian monks, of those who lived in the Holy Land or in the Thebaid." Thus at every period, the monks feel the attraction of the "light which comes from the East," from which they know they have recieved there ideas and the practices on which their way of life is founded. And William of St Thierry is speaking for all when he expresses the wish in his Letter to the Brothers of Mont-Dieu that they "may implant in the darkness of the West and in the cold of Gaul the light of the East and the ancient fervor of Egyptian religious life."

Living in the Present Moment  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The longer I stick with this whole contemplative spirituality thing, the more I realize that it boils down to living fully in the present moment. Which is, of course, easier said than done. A good perspective on this issue is provided by Archimandrite Meletios Webber in Bread & Water, Wine & Oil (Conciliar Press). A double tip of the eastern monastic veil to In Communion and to JN1034.

We can only meet God in the present moment. This is an area where God chooses to place limits on His own power. We choose whether or not to live in the present moment. Because we can encounter God only in the present moment, whenever we live in the past or in the future, we place ourselves beyond His reach.

We can only make decisions in the present moment. We can only enjoy sights and sounds in the present moment. We can only love and hate in the present moment. The present moment is the interface between ourselves and the rest of the universe, and, more importantly, it is the only point of contact between the individual and God. Of all the possible points of time, only the present moment is available for repentance. The past cannot be taken back and remade. The future remains forever out of our reach.

The present moment may appear to be tiny in duration--so much so that the human mind thinks it hardly exists at all--but in depth it is infinite. Actually, it has no shape or form. There is nothing to measure here, and that really infuriates the mind, since measurement is what the mind is good at. It is remarkable that this quality, so essential to our existence, has no shape. It just is. And it just is in a way which the past and future cannot be. The past is a done deal, the future is all guesswork. The formless present moment may be experienced as large or small. In some senses it is almost of no duration. In other ways, it is eternal life. Whichever we choose, it is, nevertheless, the only space within which we can operate. Indeed, this is the unique means through which we can confront the reality God gives us second by second.

It is odd that we do not consciously spend more time in the present moment than we do. Unfortunately, the mind blocks the availability of the present moment whenever it has the chance to do so. The mind cannot trust the present moment, since it cannot control it, and is thus almost always at enmity with it. I think this may be part of what Jesus means when He contrasts "this world" with the Kingdom.

The mind cannot control the present moment, the time during which things can arise, so it pretends that it does not exist. This causes a person to behave in a completely unconscious way, forcing the individual to wait for the mind to absorb an event (which by then has become an event in the past) before she or he is allowed to experience it.

Sinai Pantocrator  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Christ Pantocrator (Christ the Ruler of All) is one of the most popular genres in Byzantine iconography. The oldest known example, believed to date from the sixth or seventh century, is found at the monastery of St Catherine located in the Sinai peninsula. Ironically, the icon arguably owes its existence to Islam, since the Sinai had come under Muslim control by the time iconoclasm erupted within the Byzantine Empire. The Muslim authorities were content to let the monks live in peace, and to this day the monastery maintains cordial relations with the nomadic Bedouin who are its immediate neighbors.

Luiz Coelho, a Brazilian Anglican seminarian and artist, has an interesting two-part article (available here and here) on Episcopal Cafe. I include an excerpt below.

Symbolism emerges in the use of light. In the Sinai Pantocrator, the light moves from left to right creating a sense of mystery on the right side of the image. In fact, although the figure is pretty much centered in the picture frame, there is a very noticeable asymmetry between the left and right sides of Jesus' face. The left side, bright and shiny, shows relaxed eyebrows and lips. On the right side, Jesus' face is contracted and shadows make it even more mysterious. This duality of a serene and compassionate Jesus, and a dark and severe one are very appropriate at a time when the concept of the dual nature of Jesus Christ was being discussed by the Church. The use of light, and also of different facial expressions, reinforce the human and divine natures orthodox Christians believe exist in Jesus Christ. He is simultaneously Mercy and Judge.