The transcendent

Written by Fr. Lev Gillet, also known as “A Monk of the Eastern Church,” In Thy Presence is a book of short spiritual reflections on the presence of Christ. As in the case of the quotation below, these reflections are sometimes imagined as words spoken from our Lord to the believer.

“My child, I shall not leave thee in peace. I want to teach thee to transcend.

Take pleasure in all harmonious beauty. It is good. But thou must learn how to tear thyself away from it, so that what is sublime in it can be seen.

Do not blaspheme against intelligence, for I am both the origin and the summit of Thought. But I do not want thee chained forever to the tedious discipline of reasoning. I wish to give thee vision.

Hold to obedience and piety, qualities so many people make mock of these days. But I do not want thee to doze off into a comfortable morality or piety. I wish to inspire thee to sacrifice.

Thou dost realise the distance which lies between thy God and thyself. And it is right that thou shouldst. But be careful not to calculate that distance in order to keep to it strictly, adopting the stance that requires least effort.

My child, I wish to reveal to thee, day by day, God become man; thy Lord Love taking flesh, taking thy flesh.

It is in assuming human nature, without any confusion, it is in becoming one of us without ever ceasing to be Himself that limitless Love supremely shatters all limits.”

Excerpt from In Thy Presence by Lev Gillet, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977, p. 39, emphases added.

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His Grace John (Abdalah) (SVOTS ’78)

His Grace John (Abdalah)

His Grace John (Abdalah)

I am a relatively new bishop, having served happily as a pastor for 33 years before being elevated to the episcopacy. I still have the honor of glimpsing into the intimate dynamic between people and God, as they approach me with pastoral issues—perhaps even more deeply, in my new role—and I regard this as a blessed benefit of being a “chief pastor.” It is awesome to witness people responding to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

 

Other “perks” in my new ministry are the great respect and attention afforded me, but these are also the most difficult things to get used to! People open doors for me and carry my suitcase, and lead me from place to place. They do it all with such reverence that it is hard to complain, though it makes me feel a little too elevated; admittedly, though, perhaps it is necessary, since I have had nightmares about forgetting where I am supposed to be on any given Sunday!

 

All this is forgotten, however, when I encounter my flock, the sheep given to me. My first favorite moment with a parish community is when I have the opportunity to ordain a deacon or priest from among them. My second favorite moment occurs when I am recognized as a beloved father, and not just a hierarch. Such a moment happened recently while I was preaching in a parish: a 4-year old escaped his parents’ arms, ran up to me, and slapped me a high five. Now, that, to me, brothers and sisters, was heaven.

 

Bishop John is the current Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Worcester and New England, The Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. He is also the editor of WORD Magazine. His Grace was married to Khouriya Joanne (+2008) for 30 years, and has three grown children. 

Watch Bishop John on “The Arabic Hour,” discussing the effects of the current war in Syria on Orthodox Christians.

This profile first appeared in our FY2013 Annual Report, The SVS Vine.


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Translation as a Means of Grace

I taught medieval history at Wichita State University, KS, and I am a translator. When I get stuck in a stubborn paragraph, I say a short Latin prayer to the Holy Spirit: “Veni, Sancte Spiritus; et emitte coelitus lucis tuae radium. Veni, pater pauperum; veni, dator munerum; veni, lumen cordium.” “Come, Holy Spirit, and send a ray of your heavenly light. Come, Father of the poor. Come, Giver of gifts, Come, Light of the hearts.”

Dr. Gythiel (seated right) receiving his honorary doctorate from St. Vladimir's Seminary.

Dr. Gythiel (seated right) receiving his honorary doctorate from St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

In this article, I will first deal briefly with my own life, and then with one key aspect of patristic theology that continues to attract me. After discussing the practice of translation, I will answer questions that may arise. I was a tenured member of the faculty, but my life lacked a sense of direction. And then, mindful of the words of Socrates (c. 469-399 B.C.E.) in Plato’s Apology that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” I concluded that I had not really used the gift God had given me, that of languages. I had studied ten. Instead of going to church on Sundays, I listened to classical music, or read poetry by the German poets Rilke or Hölderlin. Then, unexpectedly, a former student invited me to Pascha at St George Orthodox Church. I converted to Orthodoxy in 1981.

I translate books out of a deep respect for Tradition. I know that various definitions may be given of that venerable word “Tradition,” but the one I like best is offered by the fifth-century French monk Vincent of Lérins in his renowned Commonitorium (c. 434). Using Latin, the language of his day, Vincent writes: “Id teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.” In translation, “We use the greatest care to hold what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” (Documents of the Christian Church, ed. by H. Bettenson [1963] 84).

A concept that is essential in understanding Orthodoxy is that of “the heart.” Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394) wrote: “God is promised to the vision of those whose heart has been purified. But No man hath seen God at any time, as says the great John…[God] is the slippery, steep rock that affords no basis for our thoughts” (Ancient Christian Writers 18 [1954] 143, translated by Hilda Graef). And thus, God cannot be “understood” by the mind, though He can be understood by the heart, and be loved. In the text, On the Soul and the Resurrection, Macrina, Gregory’s sister, states admirably, “hé de gnósis agapé ginetai,” “knowledge becomes love” (The Fathers of the Church [1967] 240, translated by Virginia W. Callahan). Another possible translation might be “Love itself becomes knowledge”— “Amor ipse fit cognitio,” as was said in the Latin Middle Ages. There is an intellectual knowledge, and there is also knowledge as an experience of God in the heart, by grace.

Eastern spirituality appeals to the heart. We learn about “guarding of the heart” (in Greek, phulaké kardias; in Latin, custodia cordis), vigilance or watchfulness of the heart (népsis), purity of the heart (in Latin, puritas cordis), and kardiognésis (Greek for knowledge of the heart). In Scripture, the heart (lev, in Hebrew) is the point of contact between God and the human being. It gives stability to the successive, fleeting moments of life. In Orthodox Spirituality (1994), Bishop Hierotheos succinctly states that “the heart is the place . . . wherein God is revealed” (35). And to repeat what Tomaš Špidlík says in volume two of The Spirituality of the Christian East (2005, Cistercian Studies Series 206), while commenting on Theophan the Recluse’s view of the degree of kinship between the human being and God (srodstvo, as Theophan says), “To be attentive to the voice of this ‘connaturality’ is to perceive the divine mysteries . . . as they enter our lives. The heart then becomes a wellspring of revelation” (258).

Moving away from the heart, let us now deal with “the head,” and the more technical aspects of translation. And thus, we ask, “exactly, what is translation?” It is not a mechanical act, like pouring wine from one bottle into another; nor is it a “reproduction” (in French, un calque). Rather, it is the process by which the original text, conventionally called “the Source Text,” is rewritten into its “dynamic equivalent” (the “Target Text”). This means that the crux of the translation process consists in writing a new version that shows fidelity (in German, Sinntreue) to the original. A good translator, then, does not render word for word (in Latin, verbum de verbo) but always meaning for meaning (sensus pro sensu), as St Jerome (c. 340­420), the patron saint of translators, stated. Finding the correct meaning is a major task performed by the human translator, not by a machine. The unit of translation is always the paragraph, not the individual line.

One may ask, “What, then, is a translator?” Someone who rewrites “a book-in-itself” as “a book-for-others. Translators provide an important service to the reader—that of removing barriers. Translators make bridges. Translators work in the spaces between languages, and in so doing, provide a new perspective, a new way of thinking across language barriers.

If someone were to say, “I recently read that ‘a translation is an interpretation’”—would you agree? I might add that before making the translation, the translator performs an interpretive reading of the original text. Like everything we do, including the gestures we make, reading, almost by definition, involves “interpretation.” The translator does a great deal of research into the significance of certain words at a given historical period and in a certain cultural or religious ambiance (the German word is Umwelt, “the surrounding world”). What we should remember, then, is that a theological translation must always be faithful to the original. As stated earlier, this is the requirement of fidelity, of Sinntreue (Zingetrouwheid, in Dutch). A translator interacts with words, but he must always follow the road traveled by the author, just as the latter should follow the direction indicated by Scripture, the Church Fathers, and by Christ. The direction is always to the East: “Ex Oriente lux. Light comes from the East.” To conclude, then, a translator is not free to “recreate the original,” or distort the basic text by his own interpretation. If he does, he deserves the reproach of the Italian play on words, Traddutore-Traditore (“Translator-Traitor”).

The reader may wonder, “Are you working on something currently?” At present, in view of a translation, I am rereading a key work by the French Jesuit Jean Cardinal Daniélou (1905-1974), who defended his doctoral dissertation on Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-394) at the Sorbonne, Paris, in 1943. Together with Völker, the German scholar, Daniélou launched a Gregory of Nyssa renaissance in Europe in the 1950s, with the publication of a series of articles in scholarly Journals. He views Gregory as the real founder of mystical theology, defined as “a sensing of God in the soul.” The title of Daniélou’s study is Platonisme et théologie mystique. La doctrine spirituelle de saint Grégoire de Nysse (Aubier [1944] 326 pages). In translation, Platonism and Mystical Theology. The Spiritual Doctrine of Saint Gregory of Nyssa. This is an important work. In Ancient Christian Writers number 18 (New York [l954]), Hilda C. Graef, the translator, states that “It is only in recent times that Gregory of Nyssa has been rediscovered as an ascetical and mystical writer of the highest importance, witness the brilliant study which Père Daniélou devoted to this side of his work” (6). My translation will hopefully be the only truly comprehensive work available in English on all aspects of Gregory’s mystical theology. Is this arrogance? No, because of the warning given by Bernardus Silvestris (eleventh century) that the translator is only “a dwarf sitting on the shoulder of the giant.”

Someone may ask, “Is there a certain author’s work that you particularly enjoyed translating?” I would reply by mentioning, if I may, not one but two authors, the first being Tomaš Špidlik (1919-2010), a Jesuit Cardinal of the Roman Church, and professor of Eastern Patristics in Rome. I never met him, though I briefly corresponded with him. He knew Eastern theology superbly well; he was the star student of his professor, Irénée Hausherr, from Brussels, Belgium, a pioneer in the teaching of Eastern spirituality at the Pontifical Institute of Oriental studies in Rome. I translated two of Špidlik’s works: The Spirituality of the Christian East, Volume One (1986) and Volume Two (2005). We remember that an excerpt from Špidlik’s book, The Art of Purifying the Heart is found on pages 26-27 of the Spring 2011 issue of Jacob’s Well. Špidlik viewed the Church, not in terms of a historically false Roman triumphalism (“We are the true church”), but as part of the tradition of the universal, undivided Church, the mystical body, an extension of the body of Christ. He liked the word tserkovnost’, a word that is hard to translate, “a sense of Church, the desire and the will to live with and in her” (The Spirituality, vol. one, 157). Every author has his favorite vocabulary. Špidlik was very fond of using the term mysticism. There is, he stated, “the mysticism of the Church,” “the mysticism of light,” “the mysticism of events,” and the “mysticism of the heart.” (Index, The Spirituality, vol. two, 500).

The second author I enjoyed translating is Paul Evdokimov (1901-1970), a Russian lay theologian, who may be viewed as the real bridge between East and West. Born in 1901, in St Petersburg, Evdokimov first went to military school, and in 1918, attended the Academy of theology in Kiev. After the Revolution, his family settled in Paris in 1923, where he studied at the Sorbonne. In 1942, he completed his doctorate at the University of Aix­en-Provence with a dissertation on Dostoevsky. He obtained a second Doctorate in theology from the St Sergius Institute, in Paris, in 1965. Together with figures such as Nicholas Afanasiev, Sergius Bulgakov, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, and others, Evdokimov belongs to the group of émigré scholars in Paris who created what is often called “the Russian theological Renaissance.” Today, this important movement is being studied more and more, as is evidenced by the Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology (2008). I translated three of Evdokimov’s books: Le sacrament de l’amour. The Sacrament of Love (SVS Press, 1985), La femme et le salut du monde. Woman and the Salvation of the World. A Christian Anthropology of the Charisms of Women  (SVS Press, 1994), and his almost monumental Orthodoxie. Orthodoxy: the Transformed Cosmos, which is in press by Eighth Day Books in Wichita, KS.

Finally, one may wonder, “Why write translations at all?” Here is the answer: we translate because translations help raise the level of historical literacy among the readers. Also, we translate because of our love of words and of rhetoric or structure. As the heirs of Plato and Homer, most Church Fathers, educated in the classical tradition, wrote well. That is, they said simple things simply and complex things clearly.

God’s grace was revealed to me in the form of two presses for which I would translate books: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press in Crestwood, NY, and Cistercian Publications, then at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, MI. I am deeply aware that God’s grace has been at work in my life as a professor and translator, and for this I bow my head in gratitude. I also know that my life does not yet form a complete unity, and that this will be an ongoing struggle until my death.

The thirteen books I have translated were written in French or German by great scholars: Irénée Hausherr and his Czech student, Tomaš Špidlík, both of whom taught Eastern spirituality in Rome; the Russians Boris Bobrinskoy, Paul Evdokimov, Bishop Krivochéine, and Leonid Ouspensky; Placide Deseille, a French Cistercian monk first at Bellefontaine and later at Aubazine in south-central France. In l977, he and his community joined the Orthodox Church on Mount Athos; and Gabriel Bunge, the Benedictine specialist on Evagrius of Pontus (343-399), who has recently been received into the Orthodox Church, in Russia. I worked with Fr John Meyendorff, the renowned Orthodox Church historian, in the sense that I translated several books which Fr Meyendorff had recommended to the Board of Publications at St Vladimir’s Seminary. Also, together with Professor and now Fr John Erickson, I edited Meyendorff’s book, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church 450-680 A.D. (SVS Press [1989]), a work which Jaroslav Pelikan, then at Yale University, described as “a remarkable achievement.”

Why, then, are the books written by these giants of learning and holiness so important? Because they clarify the Tradition of the Fathers, and in this context, we can never emphasize too strongly that Western or Latin-speaking Christendom originated from the Greek Tradition, as a branch grows from a tree. The tree came first. Also, translators are very conscious of the fact that what they do is part of the always needed “return to the sources” (in French, ressourcement). We know what these sources of grace are: Scripture and the Patristic Testimony. The main virtue a translator should cultivate is that of obedience: to Christ (2 Cor 10:5), to the mind (in Greek, nous) is illumined by the Holy Tradition, and especially the mind of the Fathers. Spirit. Hence the crucial importance of the words of It cannot be denied that translators help to make prayer from the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: patristic theology relevant to our modern world.

As second author (in Latin, auctor secundus),the translator is an earthly channel of God’s grace, ­linking one culture, religious or social, to another. The discipline required by translation, and the grace linked to the transmission of texts have created a certain unity in my life. And I know that some of my translations have helped certain readers find the grace of God in the center of the soul, their heart, where God meets the human being. It is well worth repeating that, while reading a text, one may become conscious of the grace of God.

Translators open new worlds of ideas, and yet,in the end, both the believer and the translator must, like Timothy (1 Tim 6:20), “guard the deposit.” This too is a work of grace, to be performed not only by the hierarchy—bishops, priests, deacons, monks and nuns—but by believers the world over.

The words the French author, Georges Bernanos (1888-1948), wrote in one of his novels, “Tout est grâce. Everything is grace,” apply in particular to the slow, painstaking work of translation. But we can perform this labor of love because our sluggish mind (in Greek, nous) is illumined by the Holy Spirit. Hence the crucial importance of the words of prayer from the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: “Enlighten the eyes of our hearts with your truth.”

Professor Anthony Gythiel was born in Belgium, and lost part of his family (mother, grandmother) to Nazi bombardment as the War broke out. He lived in Flanders, almost on the French border, on the way to Dunkirk, in Northern France and then lost everything in the revolution of June 1960, in Zaire, Africa, the former Belgian Congo, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he worked as a Catholic missionary. Coming to the United States he obtained the MA and then the PhD in 1971 in medieval comparative studies from the University of Detroit. He married, became an American citizen in 1968, and was tenured in the English department at Wichita State University, in KS; received various Teaching Awards (four altogether), and in 1993 became of Full Professor in the Department of History. He converted to Orthodoxy in 1981. On May 21, 2008, he received an Honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from St Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, NY, for his translation work.   

Reprinted from Jacob’s Well, Winter 2012, with permission by the Editor.

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A wonder is Your Mother

Virgin of Vladimir (Vladimirskaya), detail.  Russian, early 19th c.

Virgin of Vladimir (Vladimirskaya), detail.
Russian, early 19th c.

 A wonder is Your Mother. The Lord entered her, and became a servant: the Word entered her, and became silent within her; thunder entered her, and His voice was still: the Shepherd of all entered her; He became a Lamb in her, and came forth bleating.

The Belly of Your Mother changed the order of things, O You that orders all! The rich went in, He came out poor: the High One went in, He came out lowly. Brightness went into her and clothed Himself, and came forth a despised form.

The Mighty went in, and clad Himself with fear from the Belly. He that gives food to all went in, and gat hunger. He that gives all to drink went in, and gat thirst. Naked and bare came forth from her the Clother of all…

Eve lifted up her eyes from Sheol and rejoiced in that day, because the Son of her daughter as a medicine of life came down to raise up the mother of His mother. Blessed Babe, that bruised the head of the Serpent that smote her!

St Ephrem the Syrian, Eighth Hymn on the NativityEmphases added.

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And if he descends into Hades, go down with him.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus. 12th-13th c, Studenica monastery, Kraljevo, Serbia.

…Let us sacrifice ourselves to God, or rather offer sacrifice every day and in every movement. Let us accept all things for the Word. By sufferings let us imitate his suffering, by blood let us exalt his blood, let us willingly climb up on the cross. Sweet are the nails, even if very painful. For to suffer with Christ and for Christ is preferable to feasting with others.

If you are Simon of Cyrene, take up the cross and follow. If you are crucified with him as a thief, come to know God as kindhearted; if he was counted among the lawless because of you and your sin, become law abiding because of him. Worship the one hanged for you even if you are hanging; gain something even from the evil, purchase salvation by death. Come into paradise with Jesus so as to learn from what you have fallen. Contemplate the beauties there; leave the murmurer to die outside with his blasphemies. And if you are Joseph from Arimathea, ask for the body from the crucifier; let that which cleanses the world become yours. And if you are Nicodemus, the nocturnal worshipper of God, bury him with scented ointments. And if you are a certain Mary or another Mary or Salome or Joanna, weep at daybreak. Be first to see the stone removed, and perhaps the angels and Jesus himself. Say something, hear his voice. If you hear “Do not touch me,” stand far off, have reverence for the Word,  but do not be sorrowful. For he knows those by whom he was seen first. Keep the feast of the resurrection; help Eve, the first who fell, and her who first greeted Christ and made him known to the disciples. Become Peter or John; hasten to the tomb, running against each other, running together, competing in the good competition. And if you are beaten in speed, win in zeal, not just peeping into the tomb but going inside. And if like Thomas you are left behind when the disciples have assembled to whom Christ manifests himself, when you see do not disbelieve; and if you disbelieve, believe those who tell you. If you cannot believe then either, believe the prints of the nails. And if he descends into Hades, go down with him.

 

Excerpt from Oration 45: “On Holy Pascha” [23-24], Festal Orations by St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Emphases added.

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No longer is death fearsome!

St. Athanasius. 12th-13th c, Studenica monastery, Kraljevo, Serbia.

St. Athanasius. 12th-13th c, Studenica monastery, Kraljevo, Serbia.

That death has been dissolved, and the cross has become victory over it, and it is no longer strong but is itself truly dead, no mean proof but an evident surety is that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and everyone tramples on it, and no longer fears it, but with the sign of the cross and faith in Christ tread it under foot as something dead. Of old, before the divine sojourn of the Savior, all used to weep for those dying as if they were perishing. But since the Savior’s raising the body, no longer is death fearsome, but all believers in Christ tread on it as nothing, and would rather choose to die than deny their faith in Christ. For they really know that when they die they are not destroyed, but both live and become incorruptible through the resurrection. And that devil, who formerly exulted wickedly in death, “it’s pangs having been loosed” (Acts 2.24), only he remains truly dead. And the proof of this is that human begins, before believing in Christ, view death as fearsome and are terrified at it. But when they come to faith in him and to his teaching, they so despise death that they eagerly rush to it and become witnesses to the resurrection over it effected by the Savior. For even while they are still young in stature they hasted to die, and not only men but also women practice for it with exercises…. For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a legitimate king and bound hand and foot, all those that then pass by mock him, hitting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity because of the victorious king; in this way death also having been conquered and placarded by the Savior on the cross, and bound hand and foot, all those in Christ who pass by trample on him [death], and witnessing to Christ they mock death, jeering at him, and saying what was written above, O death, where is your victory? O hell, where is your sting? (1 Cor 15.55).

 

Excerpt from On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius (p. 108-109). Emphases added.

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Behold: Dying, we live!

Pascha approaches: we should reflect once again on this crux of our faith, orient ourselves anew by the perspective that it offers, and enter afresh into its mystery.

Man of Sorrows. Double sided icon; Byzantine Museum, Kastoria, Greece; Byzantine, second half of the 12th century.

Man of Sorrows. Double sided
icon; Byzantine Museum, Kastoria,
Greece; Byzantine, second half of the 12th century.

By his death, his voluntary self-offering in love for us, Christ has destroyed death and granted us life. We say such words so often, that we frequently become immune to the stumbling-block and scandal that they present, and so overlook their implications for us. By dying, as a human being, Christ has shown us what it is to be truly divine: Lordship manifest in service, strength in weakness, wisdom in folly. If he had shown us what it is to be divine in any other way (acting, for instance, as a superhuman god), we could have had no share in him and his work. The fact is that we are all going to die, whether we like it or not. The only question is how we are going to die? Clinging to all that we think is ours, our own life and possessions, our own status or merit? Or following him on his path to Golgotha, laying down our life in love for him and our neighbors? Living, yet still dying, or dying to live.

The Witnessing Body

By his action, by his shed blood and broken body, Christ has called us to be his Church. We like to use the language of the Church triumphant, the glorious body with a mission to bring the whole world within its fold and so manifest the Kingdom of God upon this earth. And indeed this is our mission: Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit . But we must never forget that the glory of this body is one that is only seen by those whose sight has been trained to look upon the cross and see the Lord of glory. As St Athanasius put it, the more that the Lord is persecuted and humiliated, the more his glory and divinity is manifest … to those that have eyes to see.

St. Blandina.

St. Blandina.

And this continues, he affirms, in those who now constitute his body, those who take up the faith of the cross and willingly submit themselves to death, that he might live in them. Such a one was Blandina, the slave girl, the epitome of weakness in the ancient world, who was hung on a stake to be eaten by wild beasts. Spectators in the stands only saw another seemingly misguided fool dying for their entertainment, but those who struggled alongside her in the arena “saw in the form of their sister the one who was crucified for them.” Dying, Christ lives in her, so that she now lives eternally.

The Scandalous Body

Let us never forget that this is the glory of the body of Christ, the Church, in this world, this is the life we profess to live, this is the inauguration of a kingdom not of this world. As we endeavor to extend this kingdom, we must of course strive to ensure that our behavior does not provide a scandal or stumbling block to others. At a minimum, we must hold ourselves to the highest standards of the society in which we live. But we must equally not fall into the error of supposing so doing is enough for the body of Christ to be in “good order”: as the body of Christ, we will be a laughing stock, held in scorn and derision –  let us never forget this, and let it always be for the right reason!

Troubles such as those that currently beset the Church have done so from the beginning, and they can easily become an occasion for loss of faith, especially if we set our stock solely on the “good order” of this world. Indeed, one of the desert fathers of old warned that in days to come one will scarcely find faith left on this earth, and that the struggle to keep the faith in such times will be greater than any ascetic feat performed of old. If such troubles can be an occasion for despair, they can also be a powerful impetus to make sure that our focus is properly oriented, that our faith is in Christ alone.

We live straining towards the future, the coming Christ, nourished by the hope that he offers. Let us not then be weighed down by the cares of today, for they too will pass; let us instead prepare ourselves for the still greater struggles ahead. But we can only do this if our sights are truly set on the Kingdom inaugurated by the Passion and manifest in those, in us, who by dying live.

Let us Forgive all in the Resurrection

Forgiveness is at the heart of the mystery of the Resurrection: “let us forgive one another so that we may cry aloud, ‘Christ is Risen!’” We cannot claim to be Christians, to dare to greet one another with this  paschal greeting, unless we do so with a forgiving heart. But the depths of this forgiveness is not plumbed if we think that this means the repentance of others and our forgiveness of them, resulting in a peace, or rather a truce, that suffices us. Christ came to call the sinners, so that if we would be amongst the called, this is how we must regard ourselves, the chief, indeed, amongst the sinners.

The Embrace of Sts. Peter and Paul, Vatopedi Monastery, Mt. Athos, 12th century

The Embrace of Sts. Peter and Paul. Vatopedi Monastery, Mt. Athos, Greece, 12th century.

We must be like the apostles: as Saul, confronted by Christ asking “Why are you persecuting me?” so becoming the great apostle Paul; as Peter, who before resuming his calling as a disciple, had to confess his love for Christ three times, standing by the burning coals, as he had denied Christ three times, warming himself by the burning coals, which harkens back to the vision of Isaiah who, seeing the Lord sitting upon the throne hymned by the seraphim, lamented “Woe is me, for I am lost; I am a man of unclean lips,” and so received the burning coal taken from the altar, hearing the words “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin forgiven.”

Approaching Christ in this way, as ourselves repentant and seeking forgiveness, our hearts will be broken so that the love and forgiveness of Christ can flow through us to others. Then we will be able to receive, from the same altar and with the same words of forgiveness, the medicine of immortality, so that dying we also may live.

Unless a Seed Falls in the Ground and Dies

We are called to take up the Cross, to die with Christ, to become the one body of Christ. Our divisions are truly a scandal of our own making. Whether they are between persons, within an ecclesial body, or between ecclesial bodies, each and every one of us is responsible for our failure to make Christ present through our witness, our martyria, to a world that is increasingly alienated from God and increasingly thirsting for Christ. Clinging on to that which we value, whether our own dignity confronting that of others, a strife-creating indignation within our ecclesial bodies, or our pride in the distinctiveness of our own ecclesial body and the hierarchies of a long-gone era, we are like the seed that remains alone, rather than dying to bear fruit. If we are to be Christ’s one true Body, we must follow him by dying to everything that separates us from him, all that belongs to this world rather than to the Kingdom, and hold ourselves open to wherever he may lead us. Dying, then, we might begin make Christ manifest by how we live as his one body.

We are on the threshold of the Pascha of the Lord. This is not simply an annual event, that we might forget once we stop singing that “Christ is Risen!” It is rather the eternal mystery, present at every moment – every moment, that is, that we do indeed take to heart its proclamation and by dying, live.

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is Dean and Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. His early work was on issues of asceticism and anthropology, focusing on St. Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. After spending almost a decade in the second century, Fr. John began the publication of a series on the Formation of Christian Theology, and has now reached the fifth and sixth centuries. He has recently completed an edition and translation of, and introduction to, the remaining texts of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He has also published a synthetic presentation of the theology of the early centuries, focused on the mystery of Christ. He is also a passionate cyclist, often rescheduling family events around the Tour de France. Fr. John’s wife, a Tour de France enthusiast and armchair cyclist, teaches English at a nearby college, and their two sons and daughter are being taught to appreciate the finer points of French culture: the great “constructeurs” of the last century, Le Grande Boucle, and … cheese.

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