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Archive for the ‘Soteriology’ Category

September 16, 2009

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today we pause to reflect on the figure of the Eastern monk Symeon the New Theologian, whose writings exercised a noteworthy influence on the theology and spirituality of the East, in particular, regarding the experience of mystical union with God.

Symeon the New Theologian was born in 949 in Galatia, in Paphlagonia (Asia Minor), of a noble provincial family. While still young, he went to Constantinople to undertake studies and enter the emperor’s service. However, he felt little attracted to the civil career before him and, under the influence of the interior illuminations he was experiencing, he looked for a person who would direct him through his moment of doubts and perplexities, and who would help him progress on the way to union with God.

He found this spiritual guide in Symeon the Pious (Eulabes), a simple monk of the Studion monastery in Constantinople, who gave him to read the treatise “The Spiritual Law of Mark the Monk.” In this text, Symeon the New Theologian found a teaching that impressed him very much: “If you seek spiritual healing,” he read there, “be attentive to your conscience. Do all that it tells you and you will find what is useful to you.” From that moment — he himself says — he never again lay down without asking if his conscience had something for which to reproach him.

Symeon entered the Studion monastery, where, however, his mystical experiences and his extraordinary devotion toward the spiritual father caused him difficulty. He transferred to the small convent of St. Mammas, also in Constantinople, where, after three years, he became director –  the higumeno. There he pursued an intense search of spiritual union with Christ, which conferred on him great authority.

It is interesting to note that he was given there the name of “New Theologian,” notwithstanding the fact that tradition reserved the title of “Theologian” to two personalities: John the Evangelist and Gregory of Nazianzen. He suffered misunderstandings and exile, but was restored by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius II.

Symeon the New Theologian spent the last phase of his life in the monastery of St. Macrina, where he wrote the greater part of his works, becoming ever more famous for his teachings and miracles. He died on March 12, 1022.

His best known disciple, Nicetas Stathos, who compiled and re-copied Symeon’s writings, prepared a posthumous edition, followed by a biography. Symeon’s work includes nine volumes, which are divided in theological, gnostic and practical chapters, three volumes of catechesis addressed to monks, two volumes of theological and ethical treatises, and a volume of hymns. Nor should we forget his numerous letters. All these works have found an important place in the Eastern monastic tradition down to our day.

Symeon focuses his reflection on the presence of the Holy Spirit in those who are baptized and on the awareness they must have of this spiritual reality. Christian life — he stresses — is intimate and personal communion with God; divine grace illumines the believer’s heart and leads him to the mystical vision of the Lord. In this line, Symeon the New Theologian insists on the fact that true knowledge of God stems from a journey of interior purification, which begins with conversion of heart, thanks to the strength of faith and love; passes through profound repentance and sincere sorrow for one’s sins; and arrives at union with Christ, source of joy and peace, invaded by the light of his presence in us. For Symeon, such an experience of divine grace is not an exceptional gift for some mystics, but the fruit of baptism in the life of every seriously committed faithful — a point on which to reflect, dear brothers and sisters!

This holy Eastern monk calls us all to attention to the spiritual life, to the hidden presence of God in us, to honesty of conscience and purification, to conversion of heart, so that the Holy Spirit will be present in us and guide us. If in fact we are justly preoccupied about taking care of our physical growth, it is even more important not to neglect our interior growth, which consists in knowledge of God, in true knowledge, not only taken from books, but interior, and in communion with God, to experience his help at all times and in every circumstance.

Basically, this is what Symeon describes when he recounts his own mystical experience. Already as a youth, before entering the monastery, while prolonging his prayer at home one night, invoking God’s help to struggle against temptations, he saw the room filled with light. When he later entered the monastery, he was given spiritual books to instruct himself, but the readings did not give him the peace he was looking for. He felt — he recounts — like a poor little bird without wings. He accepted this situation with humility, did not rebel, and then the visions of light began to multiply again. Wishing to be certain of their authenticity, Symeon asked Christ directly: “Lord, are you yourself really here?” He felt resonate in his heart an affirmative answer and was greatly consoled. “That was, Lord,” he wrote later, “the first time you judged me, prodigal son, worthy to hear your voice.” However, this revelation did not leave him totally at peace either. He even wondered if that experience should not be considered an illusion.

Finally, one day an essential event occurred for his mystical experience. He began to feel like “a poor man who loves his brothers” (ptochos philadelphos). He saw around him many enemies that wanted to set snares for him and harm him but despite this he felt in himself an intense movement of love for them. How to explain this? Obviously, such love could not come from himself, but must spring from another source. Symeon understood that it came from Christ present in him and all was clarified for him: He had the sure proof that the source of love in him was the presence of Christ and that to have in oneself a love that goes beyond one’s personal intentions indicates that the source of love is within. Thus, on one hand, we can say that, without a certain openness to love, Christ does not enter in us, but, on the other, Christ becomes the source of love and transforms us.

Dear friends, this experience is very important for us, today, to find the criteria that will indicate to us if we are really close to God, if God exists and lives in us. God’s love grows in us if we are really united to him in prayer and in listening to his word, with openness of heart. Only divine love makes us open our hearts to others and makes us sensitive to their needs, making us regard everyone as brothers and sisters and inviting us to respond with love to hatred, and with forgiveness to offense.

Reflecting on the figure of Symeon the New Theologian, we can still find a further element of his spirituality. In the path of ascetic life proposed and followed by him, the intense attention and concentration of the monk on the interior experience confers on the spiritual father of the monastery an essential importance. The young Symeon himself, as has been said, had found a spiritual director who greatly helped him and for whom he had very great esteem, so much so that, after his death, he also accorded him public veneration.

And I would like to say that this invitation continues to be valid for all — priests, consecrated persons and laypeople — and especially for young people — to take recourse to the counsels of a good spiritual father, capable of accompanying each one in profound knowledge of oneself, and leading one to union with the Lord, so that one’s life is increasingly conformed to the Gospel. We always need a guide, dialogue, to go to the Lord. We cannot do it with our reflections alone. And this is also the meaning of the ecclesiality of our faith, of finding this guide.

Thus, to conclude, we can summarize the teaching and mystical experience of Symeon the New Theologian: In his incessant search for God, even in the difficulties he met and the criticism made of him, he, in a word, allowed himself to be guided by love. He was able to live personally and to teach his monks that what is essential for every disciple of Jesus is to grow in love and so we grow in knowledge of Christ himself, to be able to say with St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

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Orrologion has posted the original text of the “Twelve Differences between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches” by Teófilo de Jesús along with excellent responses to each of the twelve points from Fr Alvin Kimel, of Pontifications* fame, who in his extended period of discernment after leaving the Episcopal Church studied the claims of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in great depth.

Some excerpts:

On Primacy. Is it true that the Orthodox Church rejects totally any understanding of ecclesial headship? What about the bishop of a diocese? Does he not wield and embody a divine authority given to him by Christ Jesus? Is he not the head of his community, which precisely is the Church? And when Catholics speak of the Pope as the earthly head of the Church, are they in any way denying that Christ alone is properly head of the Church? When Catholics speak of the primacy of the Pope, are they exalting the Pope above the Episcopate, as if their power and authority derived from him? And are Orthodox theologians incapable of entertaining an authentic primacy within the episcopal college for the bishop of Rome? …

On Conciliarity. The Catholic Church understands the Church precisely as a communion of particular Churches and local dioceses; moreover, the Church as the universal Church is not to be understood as simply the sum or collection of all particular Churches: each diocese is itself a truly catholic body … Catholic ecclesiology is so much more complex and diverse than is sometimes appreciated …

On Original Sin. I’m sure there are differences between Catholic construals of anthropology and Orthodox construals of anthropology (please note the plural); but I do not believe that this is because the Catholic Church authoritatively teaches a forensic imputation of original sin and the Orthodox Church does not. Why do I say this? Because it is not at all clear to me that the Catholic Church authoritatively teaches the *forensic* imputation of Adam’s guilt to humanity. I know that some (many?) Catholic theologians have sometimes taught something like this over the centuries, but the Catholic Church has strained over recent decades to clarify the meaning of Original Sin not as the forensic transfer of Adam’s guilt but as the inheritance of the Adamic condition of real alienation from God–i.e., the absence of sanctifying grace … Important differences on the nature of original exist between St Augustine and magisterial Catholic teaching …

On Liturgical Reform. I agree here that there are important differences between Catholic and Orthodox liturgical praxis at the present time. Sadly, many sectors of the Catholic Church appear to have uncritically embraced the thesis that the Church must adapt her liturgy to the spirit of the modern age. This has been disastrous for Catholic life and spirituality. One does see signs, however, that the insanity is passing.

On Grace and Deification. While perhaps it might have been true at some point in the past that Catholic theologians tended to reduce grace to a created power, this cannot be asserted today. Catholic theologians are quite clear that everything begins with and centers around Uncreated Grace. Catholic theologians do have a problem with some of the Palamite construals of grace and the popular Orthodox rejection of any notion of created grace–they do not see how the Palamite position does not lead to the annihilation of human nature–but this does not mean that Catholic theologians and poets cannot envision an eschatological life as full and vivid as the Orthodox. Surely Dante’s Paradiso may be invoked at this point. But I do acknowledge a difference of homiletical and ascetical emphasis between Catholics and Orthodox on theosis, sanctifying suffering, and the life of the resurrection.

* I was inspired to begin blogging after reading Pontifications, though I am not nearly as erudite and well-spoken as Fr Kimel and some of his interlocutors, both Catholic and Orthodox.

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ms+224++anselm

From Fr Pat’s Pastoral Ponderings, June 28, 2009:

Saint Anselm, as we have seen, begins his reflections on soteriology—the theology of salvation—by addressing the question: What is sin? This he identifies as the affront to the honor of God. He then goes on to inquire: What is required to satisfy the offended honor of God. This move from apologetics to theology is known as St. Anselm’s “theory of satisfaction.”

In the history of the theology of salvation, few developments have been more significant than the introduction of “satisfaction” as a category of study. Few likewise, I believe, have proved more troubling.

I concede that some notion of satisfaction was always implicit when Christians thought about “being saved.” That is to say, the very concept of salvation carries with it, at least tacitly, the question, “What was required for us to be saved?”

In fact, that question was raised explicitly in the great Christological controversies of the early Church. For example, a major premise of the orthodox faith affirmed, “Whatever was not assumed was not healed.” This thesis declared that God’s Son, in the Incarnation, took on our full humanity, not selected parts of it. In other words, only the Word’s full assumption of our human nature could satisfy what was needed for human beings to be saved.

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I recently discovered the “Light of the East” online radio show / podcast, produced by Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Illinois. I highly recommend it.

In particular, I have been enjoying the four part series “Recovering a Sacramental World View” by Hieromonk Maximos of Holy Resurrection Monastery, Newberry Springs, CA (soon to be relocated to Belvidere, New Jersey):

  • Episode 200 – “Part I: Is a Sacrament a Thing or an Event?”
  • Episode 201 – “Part II: Sacrament as Prayer”
  • Episode 202 – “Part III: The Sacraments and the Holy Spirit”
  • Episode 203 – “Part IV: From a Scattering of Death to a Gathering of Life”

You’ll notice that Father Maximos does not shy away from some criticism of medieval Latin sacramental theology, from a Byzantine Christian perspective. But I am so grateful that he offers his criticism in such a gentle, irenic, constructive and – dare I say, catholic – spirit. Thank God for the Fathers of Holy Resurrection Monastery, and for their promotion of “spiritual ecumenism.”

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By Father Lev Gillet

From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 (Spring 1983), pp. 151-159.

(Continued from Part IPart II & Part III)

________________________

V. There are three principal causes which provide an explanation for the opposition with which the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has been met in the Orthodox Church.

First and foremost, there is the mistrust felt a priori by many Orthodox about any doctrine defined by Rome since the separation of East and West. That, of course, is primarily a psychological reason.

There is also the fear of formulating a doctrine which might not seem to have sufficient foundation in Holy Scripture and the patristic tradition. We have left the patristic age outside the bounds of our discussion, limiting ourselves to the Orthodox theology of Byzantium: but it seems that (from St Andrew of Crete to St Theodore the Studite) much evidence can be produced from Greek sources in favour of the Immaculate Conception.

Finally there is the fear of restricting the redemptive work of Christ. Once you have exempted Mary from original sin, have you not exempted her from the effects of her Son’s redemption? Is it not possible for a single exception to destroy the whole economy of salvation? The Orthodox theologians who think on these lines have not given careful enough consideration, or indeed any at all, to the fact that according to Pius IX’s definition, Mary was only exempt from original sin in view of the merits of Christ: “intuitu meritorum Christi Jesu Salvatoris humani generis“. Therefore, Christ’s redemptive action was operative in Mary’s case although in a quite different way from that of the rest of mankind.

We will add this, too. Orthodox theology has always insisted on the beauty of human nature in its integrity before the fall. Now it is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which alone can justify this ‘humanism’. It is only in Mary conceived without sin, that human nature has reached its fulfilment and actualized all its possibilities. Mary is the one and only success of the human race. It is through her and in her that humanity has escaped total failure and has offered to the divine a point of entry into the human. Mary, said Metropolitan George of Nicomedia (19th century) “was the magnificent firstfruit offered by human nature to the Creator.” (16) “She is”, said Nicholas Cabasilas (14th century), “truly the first man, the first and only being to have manifested in herself the fullness of human nature.” (17)

VI. Let us draw our conclusions:

  1. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is not a defined dogma in the Orthodox Church.
  2. One can say that since the first part of the nineteenth century the majority of Orthodox believers and theologians have taken their stand against this doctrine.
  3. Nevertheless. it is impossible to say that from the Orthodox point of view the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception constitutes a heresy; for canonically it has never been defined as such by an oecumenical council and in fact it has never met with the disapproval of a universal and unchanging consensus of opinion.
  4. There does exist a continuous line of eminent Orthodox authorities who have taught the Immaculate Conception.
  5. Therefore the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has every right to its existence in the Orthodox Church as an opinion of a school or as a personal theologoumenon based on a tradition worthy of respect.
  6. It follows therefore that the Roman definition of 1854 does not constitute an obstacle to the reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches.
  7. It is my own view that not only does the Immaculate Conception not contradict any Orthodox dogma but that it is a necessary and logical development of the whole of Orthodox belief. (18)

Regina sine labe concepta, ora pro nobis.

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By Father Lev Gillet

From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 (Spring 1983), pp. 151-159.

(Continued from Part I and Part II)

________________________

IV. Let us now consider more closely the attitude of the Russian Church towards the question of the Immaculate Conception.

Every Russian theological student knows that St Dmitri, metropolitan of Rostov (17th century), supported the Latin “theory of the epiklesis” (10)but young Russians are inclined to consider the case of Dmitri as a regrettable exception, an anomoly. If they knew the history of Russian theology a little better they would know that from the middle ages to the seventeenth century the Russian Church has, as a whole, accepted belief in the Immaculate Conception (11).

The Academy of Kiev, with Peter Moghila, Stephen Gavorsky and many others, taught the Immaculate Conception in terms of Latin theology. A confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was established at Polotsk in 1651. The Orthodox members of the confraternity promised to honour the Immaculate Conception of Mary all the days of their life. The Council of Moscow of 1666 approved Simeon Polotsky’s book called The Rod of Direction, in which he said: “Mary was exempt from original sin from the moment of her conception”. (12)

All this cannot be explained as the work of Polish Latinising influence. We have seen that much was written on the same lines in the Greek East. When as a result of other Greek influences, attacks were launched in Moscow against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a protest was made by the Old Believers – a sect separated from the official Church by reason of its faithfulness to certain ancient rites. Again in 1841, the Old Believers said in an official declaration that “Mary has had no share in original sin”. (13) To all those who know how deeply the Old Believers are attached to the most ancient beliefs and traditions, their testimony has a very special significance. In 1848, the “Dogmatic Theology” of the Archimandrite Antony Amphitheatroff, approved by the Holy Synod as a manual for seminaries, reproduced Palamas’ curious theory of the progressive purification of the Virgin’s ancestors, a theory which has already been mentioned and which proclaims Mary’s exemption from original sin. Finally, we should notice that the Roman definition of 1854 was not attacked by the most representative theologians of the time, Metropolitan Philaretes of Moscow and Macarius Boulgakov.

It was in 1881 that the first important writing appeared in Russian literature in opposition to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It was written by Professor A. Lebedev of Moscow who held the view that the Virgin was completely purified from original sin at Golgotha. (14) In 1884, the Holy Synod included the question of the Immaculate Conception in the programme of “polemical”, that is to say, anti-Latin theology. Ever since then, official Russian theology has been unanimously opposed to the Immaculate Conception.

This attitude of the Russians has been strengthened by a frequent confusion of Mary’s immaculate conception with the virgin birth of Christ. This confusion is to be found not only among ignorant people, but also among many theologians and bishops. In 1898, Bishop Augustine, author of a “Fundamental Theology”, translated “immaculate conception” by “conception sine semine“. More recently still, Metropolitan Anthony then Archbishop of Volkynia, wrote against the “impious heresy of the immaculate and virginal conception of the Most Holy Mother of God by Joachim and Anne.” It was a theologian of the Old Believers, A. Morozov, who had to point out to the archbishop that he did not know what he was talking about. (15)

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By Father Lev Gillet

From Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 (Spring 1983), pp. 151-159.

________________________

(Continued from Part 1)

III. I shall begin by quoting several phrases which cannot be said with absolute certainty to imply a belief in the Immaculate Conception but in which it is quite possible to find traces of such a belief.

First of all – the patriarch Photius. In his first homily on the Annunciation, he says that Mary was sanctified ek Brephous. This is not an easy term to translate; the primary meaning of Brephos is that of a child in the embryonic state. Ek means origin or starting point. The phrase seems to me to mean not that Mary was sanctified in the embryonic state, that is to say, during her existence in her mother’s womb, but that she was sanctified from the moment of her existence as an embryo, from the very first moment of her formation – therefore – from the moment of her conception. (1)

A contemporary and opponent of Photius, the monk Theognostes, wrote in a homily for the feast of the Dormition, that Mary was conceived by “a sanctifying action”, ex arches - from the beginning. It seems to me that this ex arches exactly corresponds to the “in primo instanti” of Roman theology. (2)

St Euthymes, patriarch of Constantinople (+917), in the course of a homily on the conception of St Anne (that is to say, on Mary’s conception by Anne and Joachim) said that it was on this very day (touto semerou) that the Father fashioned a tabernacle (Mary) for his Son, and that this tabernacle was “fully sanctified” (kathagiazei). There again we find the idea of Mary’s sanctification in primo instanti conceptionis. (3)

Let us now turn to more explicit evidence.

(St) Gregory Palamas, archbishop of Thessalonica and doctor of the hesychasm (+1360) in his 65 published Mariological homilies, developed an entirely original theory about her sanctification. On the one hand, Palamas does not use the formula “immaculate conception” because he believes that Mary was sanctified long before the “primus instans conceptionis“, and on the other, he states quite as categorically as any Roman theologian that Mary was never at any moment sullied by the stain of original sin. Palamas’ solution to the problem, of which as far as we know, he has been the sole supporter, is that God progressively purified all Mary’s ancestors, one after the other and each to a greater degree than his predecessor so that at the end, eis telos, Mary was able to grow, from a completely purified root, like a spotless stem “on the limits between created and uncreated”. (4)

The Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (+1425) also pronounced a homily on the Dormition. In it, he affirms in precise terms Mary’s sanctification in primo instanti. He says that Mary was full of grace “from the moment of her conception” and that as soon as she began to exist … there was no time when Jesus was not united to her”. We must note that Manuel was no mere amateur in theology. He had written at great length on the procession of the Holy Spirit and had taken part in doctrinal debates during his journeys in the West. One can, therefore, consider him as a qualified representative of the Byzantine theology of his time. (5)

George Scholarios (+1456), the last Patriarch of the Byzantine Empire, has also left us a homily on the Dormition and an explicit affirmation of the Immaculate Conception. He says that Mary was “all pure from the first moment of her existence” (gegne theion euthus). (6)

It is rather strange that the most precise Greek affirmation of the Immaculate Conception should come from the most anti-Latin, the most “Protestantizing” of the patriarchs of Constantinople, Cyril Lukaris (+1638). He too gave a sermon on the Dormition of Our Lady. He said that Mary “was wholly sanctified from the very first moment of her conception (ole egiasmene en aute te sullepsei) when her body was formed and when her soul was united to her body”; and further on he writes: “As for the Panaghia, who is there who does not know that she is pure and immaculate, that she was a spotless instrument, sanctified in her conception and her birth, as befits one who is to contain the One whom nothing can contain?” (7)

Gerasimo. patriarch of Alexandria (+1636) taught at the same time. according to the Chronicle of the Greek, Hypsilantis, that the Theotokos “was not subject to the sin of our first father” (ouk npekeito to propatopiko hamarte mati); and a manual of dogmatic theology of the same century, written by Nicholas Coursoulas (+1652) declared that “the soul of the Holy Virgin was made exempt from the stain of original sin from the first moment of its creation by God and union with the body.” (8)

I am not unaware that other voices were raised against the Immaculate Conception. Damascene the Studite, in the sixteenth century, Mitrophanes Cristopoulos, patriarch of Alexandria and Dosithes, patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventeenth century, all taught that Mary was sanctified only in her mother’s womb. Nicephorus Gallistus in the fourteenth century and the Hagiorite in the eighteenth century taught that Mary was purified from original sin on the day of the Annunciation. But the opinions that we have heard in favour of the Immaculate Conception are not less eminent or less well qualified.

It was after the Bull of Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, of 8 December, 1854, that the greater part of the Greek Church seems to have turned against belief in the Immaculate Conception. Yet, in 1855, the Athenian professor, Christopher Damalas, was able to declare:

“We have always held and always taught this doctrine. This point is too sacred to give rise to quarrels and it has no need of a deputation from Rome”. (9)

But it was not until 1896 that we find an official text classing the Immaculate Conception among the differences between Rome and the Orthodox East. This text is the synodal letter written by the Oecumenical Patriarch, Anthimes VII, in reply to the encyclical Piaeclara Gratulationis addressed by Leo XIII to the people of the Eastern Churches. Moreover, from the Orthodox point of view, the Constantinopolitan document has only a very limited doctrinal importance. Although it should be read with respect and attention, yet it possesses none of the marks of infallibility, nor does ecclesiastical discipline impose belief in its teachings as a matter of conscience. and it leaves the ground quite clear for theological and historical discussions on this point.

To be continued …

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