Archive for September, 2009

I’ve been thinking a bit about this topic lately, and since it came up recently in the comments to this post, I thought I’d focus the discussion on this article of the late Melkite Catholic Archbishop Elias Zoghby. It’s come up before here at Eirenikon. The text of the article comes from the blog Torn Notebook (part 1 and part 2) and, by the way, the comments there are well worth reading through.

Archbishop Elias Zoghby, A Voice from the Byzantine East, R. Bernard trans., (Newton, MA: Eparchy of Newton, 1992), pp. 163-169.

The Indissolubility of Marriage

The problem which probably causes more anguish to young married people than birth control is that of the innocent spouse in the prime of life (usually the young lady, so we shall use the feminine form throughout this chapter to denote the wronged spouse) who is deserted by her partner and contracts a new union. The innocent party goes to her parish priest or bishop for a solution but hears: “I can do nothing for you. Pray and resign yourself to living alone for the rest of your life because you cannot marry again and expect to remain in the good graces of the Church.”

Such an unrealistic response is an insult to the young person’s inherent dignity! Furthermore, it presupposes an heroic virtue, a rare faith and an exceptional temperament. This almost abnormal way of life is not for everyone. After all, the young person was married in the first place because she didn’t feel called to perpetual continence. Now she is being cornered into contracting a new and illegitimate union outside the Church so as to avoid physical and emotional pressure. This good and normal Catholic now “officially” becomes a renegade and is even tortured by her own conscience. Only one course of action is left open: either become an exceptional soul overnight or perish!

Nothing but common sense tells us that perpetual continence is not the answer for the majority of Christians in such a predicament. In other words, we Church officials know that we are leaving these young and innocent victims without an answer. We ask them to depend upon that faith which works miracles, but we forget such faith is not given to everyone. Many of us, even we who are priests and bishops, still have a long struggle and a great amount of prayer ahead of us before we will even be able to approach it, let alone attain it!

The question presented us today by these disturbed people is, therefore, the following: “Does the Church have the right to tell an innocent member of the laity, whatever the nature of the problem disturbing him: ‘Solve it yourself! I have no solution for your case,’ or indeed can the Church provide in this case an exceptional solution which she knows to be suited only for a tiny minority?”

The Church has certainly received sufficient authority from Christ, its founder, to offer all its children the means of salvation proportionate to their strength. Heroism, the state of perfection—these have never been imposed by Christ under pain of eternal perdition. “If you wish to be perfect,” Christ says, but only “if you wish…”.

The Church, therefore, has sufficient authority to protect the innocent party against the consequences of the other partner’s wrongdoing. It does not seem normal that perpetual continence, which belongs to the state of perfection alone, can be imposed upon the innocent spouse as an obloigation or a punishment simply because the other spouse has proven to be false! The Eastern Churches have always known that they possessed the authority to help the innocent victim and, what is more, they have always made use of it.

The marriage bond has certainly been rendered indissoluble by the positive law of Christ. Yet, as the Gospel of St. Matthew points out: “except in circumstances of adultery” (cf. Matthew 5.32, 9.6). It is the duty of the Church to make sense of this parenthetical clause. If the Church of Rome has interpreted it in a restrictive sense, this is not true in the Christian East where the Church has interpreted it, from the very first centuries of its existence, in favor of possible remarriage for the innocent spouse.


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From the new promising new blog, Toward Transfiguration, by Nathan, a seminarian of St Vladimir’s in Crestwood, NY

Last night my wife and I drove north of New York city and across the Tapan Zee bridge to see an icon visiting from Moscow. It was a more powerful experience than we reckoned for. Indeed, the evening was pregnant with prophecy.

The church, a small Russian Orthodox church in a picturesque and rocky New York village right on the west side of the Hudson, was filled with Russians in its narrow bosom. It was a beautiful church, with icons and paintings from floor to ceiling, an elaborate icon screen with brass overlays everywhere, and the many-layered architecture you find only in such places.

In the middle of the church, underneath brass candle holders filled with beeswax candles dancing with flame, stood a very small icon in a glass case. It is the icon of the Theotokos, or Birth-Giver of God, the “Softener of Evil Hearts.” It’s also called “Symeon’s Prophecy,” since it shows seven swords pointed towards the center of the Virgin’s torso, an allusion to Luke 2:34-25. It’s a miraculous icon, associated with physical healing and miracles, but especially for softening hearts towards God and one another of those who pray before it… and softening the hearts of their enemies, too.

What was the icon doing here? On February 2, 2009, the day that the current Patriarch of Moscow Kyrill was enthroned, it miraculously and profusely began gushing pure myrrh. Since then, it’s been on tour.

The service was an Akathist hymn, a long string of poetic verses recounting step by step the crucible of discipleship for Mary from the scriptures, and the sufferings that both she and her Son experienced. Afterwards, the priest anointed all of us with the myrrh from the icon mixed with olive oil. Unexpectedly to us, we saw the anointing of the icon at work in the gift of tears.

The atmosphere of the church was different: my wife remarked on the way home that people were transfixed in meekness. It was spontaneous. Even the priest briefly lost composure and choked up at certain points while reading the prayers of the Akathist, something I’ve rarely seen a priest do. When we got back into our car afterwards, we spontaneously began praying for a family member, and found ourselves weeping, as well. Tears are only tears most of the time. But sometimes they are qualitatively different.

Now what is the meaning of spontaneous tears in a church, and why did an icon associated strongly with miracles of reconciliation and the softening of hearts, and inspired by a Latin devotion, suddenly begin to stream myrrh at the election of the new patriarch of Moscow?

Could it signify that Patriarch Kyrill has been ordained in God’s economy for an extraordinary mission in the midst of a movement of repentance in suffering?

Let me get bolder: not to proclaim a prophecy, but a possibility.

The icon is well known for miracles of softening hearts hardened towards one another in animosity, but it represents reconciliation in another way. The icon is a bridge between East and West, drawing from western piety about the Seven Sorrows and plopping them down squarely in a thoroughly Eastern and Byzantine cultural frame.

Could it therefore be that events that have yet to unfold shall thrust Patriarch Kyrill into the place where he shall enact God’s will for the reconciliation of his divided people, Catholic and Orthodox? Church unity, from a human perspective, will take generations… even at the extremest stretch of optimistic imagination. Yet I believe that there is reason to believe that it can happen suddenly and soon. Stay posted further posts to explain that bold statement later.

But any sign of the Kingdom that God gives us,he gives us to drive us towards prayer and repentance, and not speculation. So let us take the wonder of this icon as a sign that God has given us a very special opportunity in this present time since the election of Patriarch Kyrill: an opportunity to have our prayers born powerfully heavenward on the wings of the Holy Spirit who rushes to answer when we pray that God will soften the animosity of hearts towards one another and heal his divided Church.

Let’s seize this opening in the Heavens and pray as fervently as we can for unity, and for His Holiness Kyrill.

Let us also take the occasion to meditate on how the Mother of God suffered for Christ during her earthly life through the slander, animosity, and shaming of others, and allow those swords that Symeon prophesied would lay bear the thoughts and intents of many hearts to pierce our own souls also. Then the Holy Spirit will soften our evil hearts and lead us to true repentance.

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Recent Meeting Could Mark Turning Point

By Robert Moynihan

WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 21, 2009 (Zenit.org)- Sometimes there are no fireworks. Turning points can pass in silence, almost unobserved.

It may be that way with the “Great Schism,” the most serious division in the history of the Church. The end of the schism may come more quickly and more unexpectedly than most imagine.

On Sept. 18, inside Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer palace about 30 miles outside Rome, a Russian Orthodox Archbishop named Hilarion Alfeyev, 43 (a scholar, theologian, expert on the liturgy, composer and lover of music), met with Benedict XVI, 82 (also a scholar, theologian, expert on the liturgy and lover of music), for almost two hours, according to informed sources. (There are as yet no “official” sources about this meeting — the Holy See has still not released an official communiqué about the meeting.)

The silence suggests that what transpired was important — perhaps so important that the Holy See thinks it isn’t yet prudent to reveal publicly what was discussed.

But there are numerous “signs” that the meeting was remarkably harmonious.

If so, this Sept. 18 meeting may have marked a turning point in relations between the “Third Rome” (Moscow) and the “First Rome” (Rome) — divided since 1054.

Archbishop Hilarion was in Rome for five days last week as the representative of the new Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

One key person Archbishop Hilarion met with was Cardinal Walter Kasper. On Sept. 17, the cardinal told Vatican Radio that he and Archbishop Hilarion had a “very calm conversation.”

Cardinal Kasper also revealed something astonishing: that he had suggested to the archbishop that the Orthodox Churches form some kind of “bishops’ conference at the European level” that would constitute a “direct partner of cooperation” in future meetings.

This would be a revolutionary step in the organization of the Orthodox Churches.


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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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Say what?

I’m not one to speak of “insurmountable” obstacles between East and West, and I’ve never been able to subscribe fully to the notion (oft-repeated throughout the Orthodox blogosphere) that, in order for reunion to take place, one side would have to annihilate itself by becoming part and parcel of the other (actually, my view is that both sides would have to undergo fairly significant changes, repent of many things, and be converted one to another).

But this kind of bizarre, Pollyanna-esque commentary from the Roman Rite Archbishop of Moscow (well meaning as he most certainly is) does nothing to help the cause of Orthodox-Catholic rapprochement.

I would really like to think that there’s some mistranslation or misquotation going on here (remember that weird story, over a year ago, about the Ecumenical Patriarch and “dual communion”?), but the Archbishop is Italian and he made his comments to an Italian newspaper.

Any ideas as to what the good Archbishop was thinking?

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Pope Encourages Orthodox Conference
Annual Event Takes Up Theme of Spiritual Struggle

VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 4, 2009 (Zenit.org). – Benedict XVI is encouraging an “opportune initiative” being organized to consider the “spiritual struggle” as understood in the Orthodox tradition.

The Pope, through his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, sent a message to the 17th annual International Ecumenical Conference on Orthodox Spirituality.

He expressed his hopes that the “fraternal gathering” would bring about a renewed awareness of the value of the spiritual struggle as a consequence of the love of Christ, and generous efforts in the ascetic formation of young generations.

The papal message is addressed to Prior Enzo Bianchi of the Monastery of Bose in Italy, which is where the Wednesday through Saturday conference will be held.

“Organized in collaboration with the Orthodox Churches, the conference is an important occasion of discussion on fundamental themes of the spiritual life,” organizers explain.

This year’s theme “touches the very center of a problem that is extremely relevant today. […] This is the art of the struggle against ‘evil thoughts,’ as tradition defines those negative images, impulses, inclinations that disturb the ‘mind’ by distracting it from the memory of God and pushing it into sin,” they added.

This issue will be at the center of dialogue among theologians, scholars, and representatives of the Orthodox Churches, the Catholic Church, and the Churches of the Reform.

The Catholic Church will be represented by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, vice dean of the College of Cardinals; Archbishop Antonio Mennini, apostolic nuncio in Russia; Monsignor Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; and Jesuit Father Milan Zust, of that same dicastery.

Pontiff Praises Ecumenical Study of St. Augustine
Urges Symposium to Find Points of Convergence

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 3, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI has urged a symposium bringing together Orthodox and Catholic theologians to study St. Augustine to discover points of convergence between the two traditions.

The Pope said this in a letter he sent today to Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, on the occasion of the 11th Inter-Christian Symposium, which began today in Rome.

The three-day meeting was organized by the Franciscan Institute of Spirituality of the Pontifical University Antonianum and the Aristotle Orthodox Theological Faculty of Thessalonica.

The Catholic-Orthodox symposiums, aimed at promoting unity, have taken place alternatively in locations with Catholic or Orthodox majorities since 1992.

The symposium chose for its current theme of study: “St. Augustine in the Western and Eastern Tradition.”

Benedict XVI noted the topic to be apt for mutual reflection. He explained: “The saint of Hippo, a great Father of the Latin Church, is, in fact, of fundamental importance for theology and for the West’s very culture, whereas the reception of his thought in Orthodox theology has revealed itself to be rather problematic.”

“Hence, to know with historical objectivity and fraternal cordiality the doctrinal and spiritual riches that make up the patrimony of the Christian East and West,” he continued, “it is indispensable not only to appreciate them, but also to promote better reciprocal appreciation among all Christians.”

The Holy Father said he hoped the symposium would be a success, and that “it discovers doctrinal and spiritual convergences that are useful to build together the City of God, where his children can live in peace and in fraternal charity, based on the truth of the common faith.”

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