Andrei Rublev, Iconographer  

Posted by Joe Rawls

"There exists the icon of the Trinity by St Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists."  These words by Pavel Florensky, 20th century Russian Orthodox priest, theologian, and victim of Stalin's gulags, sum up well what many people feel instinctively when they gaze upon the world's most popular icon.  Its  popularity stems from the mystery of its subject matter as well as the skill of the monk who wrote it (icons are "written", not painted).  Sadly, we know very little about the life of Andrei Rublev, though that's probably how he would want it.  He was born sometime around 1360, spent much of his boyhood in the great Holy Trinity monastery, became a monk at Moscow's Andronikov monastery, but returned temporarily to Holy Trinity where he created his masterpiece.  He reposed on this day in 1430.  He was declared a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988 and several years ago was included in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church. 

Below is an Orthodox liturgical prayer, a collect from the Book of Common Prayer, and an excerpt from Fr Gabriel Bunge's The Rublev Trinity:  The Icon of the Trinity by the Monk-Painter Andrei Rublev (2007, St Vladimir's Seminary Press), p 88.


Troparion Tone 3
Shining with the rays of divine light,
O venerable Andrei,
You knew Christ the wisdom and power of God.
By means of the image of the Holy Trinity
You preached to all the world the Holy Trinity in unity.
And we with amazement and joy, cry out to you:
As you have boldness before the Most Holy Trinity
Pray that the Uncreated Light
May illumine our souls!

Book of Common Prayer
Holy God, we bless you for the gift of your monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, provided a window into heaven for generations to come, revealing the majesty and mystery of the holy and blessed Trinity; who lives and reigns through ages of ages.  Amen.

Despite his modifications, Rublev was not at all original.  Rather, his genius consisted in advancing the ancient iconographic tradition of his Church to a depth and transparent clarity that had never been attained before or even later, even in the most exact copies.  This is the place where the personality of the painter enters permanently into his work.  The ancient sources about the monk Andrei draw attention to his great humility, which more than his artistic genius led not only to the canonization of his Troitsa [Trinity icon] at the synod of 1551, but also to his official glorification as a saint in 1988 as part of the celebrations of the millenium of Russian Christianity.

For without a deeply rooted humility, a complete renunciation of all worldly ambition before the sublimity of the mystery that he served as a painter, Rublev would never have been able to paint his Trinity.  Not once did he set his name as icon painter to his work.

Mystical Paul  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's feast of the Conversion of St Paul, I was invited by the monks of Mount Calvary at St Mary's to give a brief homily, followed by comments from the congregants, at the regular Friday morning liturgy of Lauds/Eucharist, which is attended by 20-25 people from the local community. 


The Gospel:  Matt 10:  16-22
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.  Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
Be on your guard against people; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues.  On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.  But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it.  At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.  Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.  All people will hate you because of me, but whoever stands firm to the end will be saved.

Last week, when Brother Nicholas asked me to speak, he admonished, "Say something positive about Paul".  So, in monastic obedience, I will not make snarky remarks about Paul the misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, opinionated windbag.  Instead, I will talk about Paul the mystic.

"Mystic", of course, is not the first word that pops into most people's minds when they hear the name Paul.  There definitely is, however, a mystic side to Paul, which we have to recover if we are to rehabilitate him from his image as a kind of first-century male version of the Church Lady.  But to do this, I must beg your indulgence and skip momentarily to a different scripture passage.

2 Corinthians chapter 12 describes an episode in Paul's life in which he momentarily left our familiar space-time continuum and experienced God directly:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.  Whether it was in the body or out of the body, i do not know--God knows.  And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows--was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

In first-century Mediterranean cosmology, "the third heaven" is the place where God dwells.  "The first heaven" would correspond to what we think of as the earth's atmosphere, while "the second heaven" would be outer space.  So Paul had an ecstatic experience in which he encountered God directly and acquired esoteric knowledge.

Of course, there was also Paul's conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  And, less dramatically, he constantly refers to being "in Christ" in his letters.

Scholars have connected Paul's "third heaven" experience to earlier visionaries such as Isaiah, Elijah, Ezekiel, and Enoch, and to later things like the Jewish Merkabah tradition, a predecessor of Kabbalah.  So his experience was not eccentric but deeply rooted in his original Jewish faith.

So how do we tie all this in with the Gospel reading?  Christian-Jewish dialog has progressed to a point where we no longer have to fear getting beat up in synagogues.  But what if we interpret this passage as a metaphor for confrontation with the leadership of the church?  It's no secret that all churches, particularly the mainline denominations, are under serious financial and organizational stress.  The temptation to preserve the institution at all costs, to double down on what has always worked in the past, is very strong.  We may not be mystics as was Paul, but most of us are strong contemplatives.  We have something to offer the larger church--a reason to exist that goes beyond stewardship campaigns.  If we witness to the truth of our experience to the church powers, we will often be politely ignored or even ridiculed.  But if we allow the Spirit of our Father to speak through us, we will indeed stand firm to the end, and perhaps bring new life to our beloved, crazy-making church.

Baptism and Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Today we commemorate the Baptism of Jesus.  WHY Jesus sought baptism at the hands of his kinsman John is intriguing, but the subject of another post.  Rather, I want to touch on the relationship between the sacrament of baptism and the process of theosis.  For this I turn to an excellent book by Norman Russell, Fellow Workers with God:  Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (Crestwood, St Vladimir's  Seminary Press 2009).  His point of departure is Psalm 82:  1; 6-7.  "God stands in the assembly of gods; in the midst of them he will judge gods...I said you are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High.  But you die like men, and fall as one of the princes."  This is one of the key scriptural texts referring to theosis.  On pp 61-63, he explores how the early fathers Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria interpreted this psalm.


In his great work Against the Heresies, Irenaeus connects the gods of Psalm 82 for the first time with St Paul's teaching on adoption.  Psalm 82.1, he says...refers to the Father and the Son and those who have received the grace of adoption through which we cry "Abba, Father!"...Irenaeus says that Christians had become "gods" through baptism (Against the Heresies 3.6.1.)

A little later he moves on to consider verse 7 of the psalm.  This, he says, "was addressed to those who have not received the gift of adoption."  And by failing to honor the Incarnation through the acceptance of baptism, they have deprived themselves of their ascent to God (3.19.1).

When he returns to the psalm a third time, he develops an entirely new aspect.  Here he is looking for an argument against those who felt that having been baptized they had nothing more to do:  they had attained divinity in one go.  No, he said:  you have got to become fully human (ie, conquer the passions) before you can become like God.  You are not able to receive God's gift of eternal existence without first growing to maturity.  When the psalm says, "you shall die like men", that is to tell us that we cannot carry the full charge of divinity unless we first grow into the image and likeness that had been forfeited by Adam.  Baptism gives us a potential immortality, but we have to work at it before we can call ourselves "gods and sons of the Most High."  Irenaeus thus not only makes the psalm's connection with baptism explicit, but associates it with the recovery of the image and likeness of God (4.38.3).  In other words, to the psalm's connection with the mystery of baptism he adds a moral dimension...

...Clement [of Alexandria] ran a school, or study-circle...and published several books on the Christian life.  One of these was the Paedagogus, or Tutor, intended to help the recently baptized deepen their understanding of the Christian faith.  Here Clement follows Irenaeus in connecting Psalm 82.6 with baptism.  Christ, he says, at his own baptism in the Jordan was sanctified by the descent of the Holy Spirit:  "The same also takes place in our case, whose exemplar Christ became.  Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we become perfect; being made perfect we become immortal.  'I said,' says Scripture, 'you are gods and all of you sons of the Most High.' (Paed 1.26.1).

To become "gods and sons of the Most High" means to attain immortal life.  In his Protrepticus, however, or Exhortation to the Greeks, which is addressed to educated Christians and others interested in Christianity, Clement goes further.  Here he concludes by saying that the "gods and sons of the Most High" are not simply those whom the Father has adopted through baptism.  They are also those who have attained the likeness of God.  Irenaeus had already made this connection, but where Clement goes beyond him is  to link it with the Platonic axiom (drawn from Plato's dialogue, Thaeatetus 176b) that the philosopher's chief task is to become like God as far as possible.  Thus only the Christian is the true philosopher, because it is only through baptism in combination with the pursuit of the moral life that likeness to God can be attained.

Seraphim of Sarov Quotes  

Posted by Joe Rawls

On January 2 the Orthodox Church remembers Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833), a monk and one of Eastern Christianity's greatest spiritual fathers.  He was born into a Russian peasant family and entered the monastery of Sarov at an early age.  Following ordination to the priesthood he lived as a hermit for many years.  His only companions were wild animals, including bears, whom  he fed on a regular basis.  Following his return to the monastery, he quickly became known as a starets or spiritual teacher.  He would be visited in his cell every day by dozens, even hundreds, of pilgrims.  He tirelessly shared with them the spiritual insights gained during the years of solitude. 

He is probably best known for an incident in which he manifested the uncreated divine light to his disciple Motovilov.  Of more direct relevance to us are his wise words, some of which are quoted below.  A hat-tip to The Orthodox Pathway


Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian practices, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve the indispensible means of reaching this end.  The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.  As for fasts and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ's sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy spirit of God.

Without sorrows there is no salvation.  On the other hand, the kingdom of God awaits those who have patiently endured.  And all the glory of the world is nothing in comparison.

Maintain a spirit of peace and you will save a thousand souls.

Those who have truly decided to serve the Lord God should practice the remembrance of God and uninterrupted prayer to Jesus Christ, mentally saying:  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. .

The Power of the Name  

Posted by Joe Rawls

January 1 is the feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  It used to be called the feast of the Circumcision.  The two are closely connected, since in Jewish tradition male infants are both circumcised and given names on the eighth day after birth.

The significance of honoring the name of Jesus in this way is not arbitrary.  In many cultures and spiritual traditions, a person's name is more than merely a convenient label.  As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware observes, "there is a close connection between someone's soul and his name."  He elaborates on this insight in The Power of the Name:  The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality.  This popular essay is found in a number of places, including Merton and Hesychasm, Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montaldo, eds, Fons Vitae 2003.  The excerpt below is found on pp 50-52.


"The Name of the Son of God is great and boundless, and upholds the entire universe."  So it is affirmed in the Shepherd of Hermas, nor shall we appreciate the role of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodox spirituality unless we feel some sense of the power and virtue of the divine name.  if the Jesus Prayer is more creative than other invocations, this is because it contains the Name of God.

In the Old Testament, as in other ancient cultures, there is a close connection between someone's soul and his name.  One's personality, with its peculiarities and its energy, is in some sense present in one's name.  To know a person's name is to gain an insight into his nature, and thereby to acquire a relationship with him--even, perhaps, a certain control over him.  That is why the mysterious messenger who wrestles with Jacob at the ford Jabbok refuses to disclose his name (Gen 32:  29).  The same attitude is reflected in the reply of the angel to Manoah, "Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?"  (Judges 13:  18).  A change of name indicates a decisive change in a person's life, as when Abram becomes Abraham (Gen 17: 5), or Jacob becomes Israel (Gen 32:  28).  In the same way, Saul after his conversion becomes Paul (Acts 13:  9); and a monk at his profession is given a new name, usually not of his own choosing, to indicate the radical renewal which he undergoes.

In the Hebrew tradition, to do a thing in the name of another, or to invoke and call upon another's name, are acts of weight and potency.  To invoke a person's name is to make that person effectively present.  "One makes a name alive by mentioning it.  The name immediately calls forth the soul it designates; therefore there is such deep significance in the very mention of a name."

Everything that is true of human names is true to an incomparably higher degree of the divine Name.  The power and glory of God are present and active in His Name.  The Name of God is numen praesens, God with us, Emmanuel.  Attentively and deliberately to invoke God's Name is to place oneself in His presence, to open oneself to His energy, to offer oneself as an instrument and a living sacrifice in His hands.  So keen was the sense of the majesty of the divine Name in later Judaism that the that the tetragrammaton was not pronounced aloud in the worship of the synagogue:  the Name of the Most High was considered too devastating to be spoken.

The Hebraic understanding of the Name passes from the Old Testament into the New.  Devils are cast out and men are healed through the Name of Jesus, for the Name is power.  Once this potency of the Name is properly appreciated, many familiar passages acquire a fuller understanding and force:  the clause in the Lord's Prayer, 'Hallowed be thy Name", Christ's promise at the Last Supper, "Whatever you shall ask the Father in my Name, he will give it you" (Jn 16:  23); his final command to the apostles, "Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:  19); St Peter's proclamation that there is salvation only in "the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth" (Acts 4:  10-12); the words of St Paul, "At the Name of Jesus every knee should bow" (Phil 2:  10); the new and secret name written on the white stone which is given to us in the Age to Come (Rev 2:  17).

It is this biblical reverence for the Name that forms the basis and foundation of the Jesus Prayer.  God's Name is intimately linked with His Person, and so the Invocation of the divine Name possesses a sacramental character, serving as an efficacious sign of His invisible presence and action.  For the believing Christian today, as in apostolic times, the Name of Jesus is power.  In the words of the two Elders of Gaza, St Barsanuphius and St John (sixth century), "The remembrance of the Name of God utterly destroys all that is evil."  "Flog your enemies with the Name of Jesus", urges St John Climacus, "for there is no weapon more powerful in heaven or on earth...Let the remembrance of Jesus be united to your every breath, and then you will know the value of stillness."

The Name is power, but a purely mechanical repetition will by itself achieve nothing.  The Jesus Prayer is not a magic talisman.  As in all sacramental operations, the human person is required to cooperate with God through active faith and ascetic effort.  We are called to invoke the Name with recollection and inward vigilance, confining our minds within the words of the Prayer, conscious who it is that we are addressing and that responds to us in our heart.  Such strenuous prayer is never easy in the initial stages, and is rightly described by the Fathers as a hidden martyrdom.  St Gregory of Sinai speaks repeatedly of the "constraint and labor" undertaken by those who follow the Way of the Name; a "continual effort" is needed; they will be tempted to give up "because of the insistent pain that comes from the inward invocation of the intellect."  "Your shoulders will ache and you will often feel pain in your head", he warns, "but persevere persistently and with ardent longing, seeking the Lord in your heart".  Only through such patient faithfulness shall we discover the true power of the Name.