Treasure for a thorn

At morn I plucked a rose and gave it Thee,
     A rose of joy and happy love and peace,
          A rose with scarce a thorn :
          But in the chillness of a second morn
     My rose bush drooped, and all its gay increase
Was but one thorn that wounded me.

I plucked the thorn and offered it to Thee,
     And for my thorn Thou gavest love and peace,
          Not joy this mortal morn :
          If Thou hast given much treasure for a thorn,
     Wilt Thou not give me for my rose increase
Of gladness, and all sweets to me?

My thorny rose, my love and pain, to Thee
     I offer ; and I set my heart in peace,
          And rest upon my thorn :
          For verily I think to-morrow morn
     Shall bring me Paradise, my gift’s increase,
Yea, give Thy very Self to me.

Christina Georgina Rossetti
“A Rose Plant in Jericho”
Dated before 1876

Rejoice, O Virgin!

Rejoice, O Virgin Mother of God,
Mary full of grace,
the Lord is with thee!
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
for thou hast born the Savior of our souls.

Θεοτόκε Παρθένε,
χαίρε κεχαριτωμένη Μαρία,
ο Κύριος μετά σου.
Ευλογημένη συ εν γυναιξί,
και ευλογημένος ο καρπός της κοιλίας σου,
ότι Σωτήρα έτεκες των ψυχών ημών

This is a standard English translation and the original Greek of the Eastern Orthodox equivalent to the Roman Catholic Hail, Mary. Though it’s understood that the Greek χαίρε, like the Latin Ave, is a greeting, and so perhaps may not have been actually heard by an ancient Greek speaker as Rejoice is heard today in English, etymologically the meaning stands, and the translation is enhanced by it. The prayer is common, appearing in many different services, as well as in personal devotions, of course.

One of those personal devotions will be very familiar to Roman Catholics familiar with the rosary. St Seraphim of Sarov taught various of his disciples The Rule of the Mother of God, which is quite the equivalent of the rosary. He believed the practice to be an ancient one, orginating among the monks of Egypt, originally established to replace recitation of the 150 psalms. One hundred and fifty Rejoice, O Virgin prayers are arranged in fifteen decades, each of which includes a meditation theme expressed through a short prayer before and after the decade. The pre- and post-decade prayers are separated by an Our Father… and the following prayer, also common in Eastern Orthodoxy:

Open unto us the door of thy loving-kindness, O most blessed Mother of God. As we set our hope in thee, let us not be confounded, but through thee may we be delivered from all adversities. For thou art the salvation of the Christian race.

These prayers are preceded by the Trisagion prayers (a whole set of prayers that typically open various services and personal prayer) and the Symbol of the Faith (a.k.a. the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed). So, it’s alot of praying. From what I’ve read, Eastern Orthodox monks actually will pray 150 Rejoice, O Virgin prayers with a prostration after each, and then 150 Our Father prayers with the same, using a 300 knot komvoschini/prayer rope with one bead separating the two sets of 150. I don’t think they alternate the prayers with any others, though.

These are the meditations for the fifteen decades in St Seraphim’s rule, which are quite different from the mysteries associated with the rosary that I’m familiar with, most of which are represented by a feast day in both the Eastern and Western calendars:
First decade: the Birth of the Mother of God
Second decade: the Presentation of the Virgin
Third decade: the Annunciation
Fourth decade: the Meeting of the Virgin Mother of God and Holy Elizabeth
Fifth decade: the Nativity of our Lord and Savior
Sixth decade: the Presentation of our Lord
Seventh decade: the Flight into Egypt
Eighth decade: the Finding of our Lord in the Temple
Ninth decade: the miracle at the wedding in Cana
Tenth decade: the Crucifixion of our Lord
Eleventh decade: the Resurrection of our Lord
Twelfth decade: the Ascension of our Lord
Thirteenth decade: the Pentecost in the Upper Room
Fourteenth decade: the Dormition of the Mother of God
Fifteenth decade: the Glorification of the Mother of God

From several sources, I’ve put together a “cheat sheet” here for those who might like to read all those prayers, or perhaps give it a spin around the prayer rope, or rosary, or, like St Seraphim, on a lestovka or vervitsa (which is a folded/notched leather strip used for counting such prayers). If this is too intimidating, St Seraphim also recommended three Our Father prayers, three Rejoice, O Virgin prayers, and the Creed, saying that the Holy Spirit will lead the person praying into a deeper prayer life eventually. I think he knows what he was talking about….

Late summer cleaning

I’ve been pruning the blogroll bush to reflect my current reading habits more accurately. A number of blogs that I once was accustomed to checking daily have so dropped in frequency of posting as to be on extended hiatus, while others have simply closed up shop, so to speak, including a number of blogs written by fellow Eastern Orthodox Christians that I very much enjoyed, while others are threatening to do so. This, I must say, I feel to be a positive reflection on the spiritual state of those authors who’ve chosen to move away from blogging. Real life is, after all, not a collection of bits and photons, but of bodies and souls, the latter hopefully infinitely more luminous than their physical counterparts in the former pair.

I want also to welcome my new readers, of whom I’ve noticed there has been an increasing number lately. I’m happy to welcome you all, and will attempt to make it more worth your while with more frequent postings soon. Some rather pressing offline (i.e., real life) obligations make this difficult at the moment. I crave your patience, indulgence, and even your prayers, if one is permitted to be so blatantly greedy, particularly for a certain intention which I am far too nervous about to explicitly mention. I’m sure such will help. I am ever ready to reciprocate, of course, if you ask. I am far from a prayer warrior, more like a prayer sub-clerk to the third assistant quartermaster, but every little bit helps, as I know from the direct and surprising experience of immediately answered prayer, which is another story, for another time . . . .

The General and the Saint

General Placidus had been hunting the great-antlered, magnificent stag, the finest he’d ever seen, for three days now. He and several of his servants had followed it through a wooded valley to the side of a mountain late in the day, just a great storm blew in. The proud general gained the distinct impression that he was being taunted by this haughty stag, which seemed to be leading them onward, waiting, and then bounding out of range of their javelins as soon as he or his men would close in. Now the rain began pouring down, and day seemed to turn to night. Lightning began to flash all around, and the thunder was deafening. Still, the general could catch glimpses of the stag further up, higher up, waiting, but then always moving toward the top of this rocky mountain. He looked for his men, but couldn’t see them, shouted, but they could not have heard him through the downpour and the thunder. For all he knew, they may have been felled by the lightning already or fallen down the steep slopes. In the prime of his life after many conquests in the far-flung empire of his lord the Emperor, Placidus continued uphill, pulling himself up the rocky face hand over hand, feet finding slight purchase on the slick rock, the rain running off his cloak. With a flash of lightning just above, he sees the mighty stag standing on a jutting rock just above him, very close, looking down at him. A little more climbing, and he finds himself exactly where the stag was, on a roughly level area, next to a craggy peak. More flashes of lightning illuminate the scene, and he sees the stag looking back at him and bounding up the peak itself. Placidus roars and bounds forward himself, javelin at the ready, knowing the stag will have little chance of escape. Lightning strikes dangerously close all around the general, and yet he scrambles onward and upward. He can no longer see the stag. There, near the peak, he sees what seems to be a cleft in the rock, and a glow coming from within it. He supposes his men to have found a cave and set up a fire within, the lazy slaves. Still, a warm fire in a dry cave without lightning flashing all about would be welcome. Yet he wondered where the stag went, if not into this very cleft. He heads toward the cleft in the rock, and then notices the strange quality of the light, how it is steady and bright, like sunlight, not flickering like a fire. He proceeds out of the rain, entering the cave cautiously, but then stops in his tracks, dropping his javelin. There, inside, stands the stag, magnificent, mighty, bigger than any stag should be, with the finest antlers imaginable. Placidus, the fearless general, commander of Rome’s legions, is suddenly frightened, for between the mighty antlers of the great stag shines the image of a man on a cross. The great stag stands, noble, impassive, staring directly down at Placidus, who falls face-down in worship, striking his fists on the floor of the cave, weeping. He knows the Crucified One. He hears a mighty voice, loud as the thunder, and is paralyzed, nearly fainting in fear. It says, “You have hunted Me long enough, Placidus. Now you have found Me.”

~+~+~+~+~+~+~+~

After his visionary conversion experience, the general Placidus and his family were soon all baptized as Christians, with him taking the baptismal name Eustachios, either late in the reign of Trajan or early in the reign of Hadrian. He gave most of his wealth away to help the poor. He and his family died as martyrs for the faith, after refusing to worship the gods of Rome. The feast of St Eustachios, also known as St Eustathios and St Eustace, and his family, is 20 September. The place of his conversion, where he saw the vision of the stag, is called Mentorella, and is a place of pilgrimage.

Thou Who art Fire

Thou Who givest me willingly as nourishment Thy Flesh,
Thou Who art fire, and dost consume the unworthy,
Scorch me not, O my Maker,
But rather pass through me for the right ordering of my members,
Into all my joints, my reins, and my heart.
Burn up the thorns of all mine offences.
Purify my soul; sanctify my mind;
Make firm my knees and bones;
Enlighten the simple unity of my five senses.
Nail down the whole of me with Thy fear.
Ever shelter, guard and keep me
From every soul-corrupting deed and word.
Purify, and cleanse, and order me aright;
Make me comely, give me understanding, and enlighten me.
Show me forth as the habitation of the Spirit only,
And no longer as a habitation of sin,
That as Thine abode from the entrance in of Thy Communion
Every evil-doer and passion may flee from me like fire.
As intercessors I bring to Thee all the sanctified:
The ranks of the incorporeal Powers,
Thy Forerunner, the wise Apostles,
And further, Thy pure and spotless Mother.
The prayers of these receive, O my compassionate Christ,
And make of me who worship Thee a child of light.
For Thou alone art our sanctification, O Good One,
And the illumination of our souls;
And to Thee, as to our God and Master, we, each day,
As is fitting, all send up glory.

Post-communion prayer of St Symeon Metaphrastes

Regula fidei scriptorumque

The challenges of the second century, including local persecution of Christians and the growth of heresy (Gnosticism, Marcion, and the Montanists), were not responded to by the establishment of a biblical canon in the second century, but rather by setting forth a “canon of faith” (regula fidei), namely, a creed that stated what was generally believed to be the true teaching of the church at that time. There was no firmly fixed biblical canon at the end of the second century, but rather several books of the NT—primarily the Gospels and several of Paul’s Letters—were beginning to be called “Scripture.”

Lee Martin McDonald. The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission and Authority, p. xix.

McDonald raises an interesting point, one which bears elaboration and extension into the first century. Rather than characterizing the regula fidei as a “creed” particularly, which calls to mind a classic verbal summary formulation of beliefs, like the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, among others, it’s better to understand the regula fidei as a shared worldview, which includes not only particularized
statements of beliefs, but is truly an entire complicated mindset involving behavior, action, belief, vocabulary, and writings, just as it still is today. The regula fidei that I know as an Eastern Christian is more than the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed we recite in the Divine Liturgy, much, much more. But I digress.

McDonald mentions a series of instances in which the Church was forced to clarify its beliefs in the face of disbelief or wrong belief. Eventually, these clarifications would take the form of Ecumenical Councils, which would respond to various heresies and administrative issues. But earlier, before such a universally organized and effective response was possible, what was the practice? McDonald mentions here the formation of the regula fidei in the second century in response to such stimuli. I would say that we quite literally need to date the establishment of this back into the first century itself, finding the writings of the apostles and their successors reflecting an earlier establishment of the regula fidei that was operative at that time, the original apostolic deposit of faith, not so well-articulated as in later years, once it had gained interest, so to speak, yet obviously present. In this sense, the actual writing of the Gospels and Epistles and other books fits also into that framework of stabilization later represented by the Ecumenical (and other) Councils, following as the writings do on the verbal, personal establishment of the faith communities, the local churches, by the apostles. Notice that in every one of the New Testament writings we find clarification on various topics in the form of correction or even polemic which is sometimes so mild as to be missable and other times sharply, almost viciously, explicit. In this sense, the writings themselves are an expression of clarification of that regula fidei established by the apostles in their missionary work, and preserved among the communities thus founded. This is particularly clear in the letters of Paul, where in several letters we find him misunderstood (I think primarily of the two letters to the Thessalonians) and so clarifying issues, or explicitly reacting against improper beliefs imposed by others (seemingly every other letter of his!). The Gospels too, contain more subtle evidence of such, as well, if only by their existence and acceptance among the apostolically founded groups that they were believed to represent Christ more truly, indeed, to reflect more clearly the regula fidei than other gospels did.

So, I would like to suggest that the writing of the individual New Testament books, their preservation, and subsequent canonization as part of the New Testament was all a part of the growth of the deposit of faith, part of the safeguarding of the original apostolic regula fidei. During the second and third centuries, the work of safeguarding the faith continued differently, by producing other, different writings, and also thereby extending defense of the faith more fully. Eventually, the first expressions of defense and establishment of the faith, those books we know as the 27 books of the New Testament, being related to the apostles themselves and the first generation of Christians, were recognized as authentic and particularly more foundational and special than subsequent orthodox writings, and were established as a canon. The recognition of these books in particular was also somewhat circular. As there was an original deposit of faith at the establishment of the various churches of the Great Church, as it was then known, and these works were shared among those apostolically founded communities, the worldview or the regula fidei in the communities and the writings meshed, and each reinforced the other. The esoteric expansive writings of the New Testament apocrypha didn’t stand a chance outside their own communities, as they literally made no sense in the context of a different regula fidei. On the other hand, various other writings, like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, etc, and popular expansive writings like the Acts of Paul, written also from within the same apostolically founded regula fidei, were very popular, but recognized as sub-apostolic, and not as valuable as those earliest documents.

In summary, the writing of the New Testament documents occurred for the reason of defense of the faith, as the further clarification of the very rule of faith (regula fidei) established by the apostles when the local church communities were founded in the first century.

(As a side note, I use two terms in the above: “esoteric expansive writings” and “popular expansive writings.” I am putting these terms through a trial run, to test them for applicability as replacements for “apocrypha” and “pseudepigrapha” in relation to both the Old and New Testaments. That is, all such materials tend to be expansive literature based on some element or other of the core canon of the OT or NT. The “esoteric expansive writings” show clear sectarian markers that indicate their use in only a particular group. The “popular expansive writings” were those works which were, of course, popular, more well-known, and thereby better preserved. Using “esoteric” and “popular” seemed good choices to avoid the arguments which would ensue by using “heretical” or “gnostic” versus “orthodox,” which would be anachronistic or incorrect. The popular works are occasionally of questionable orthodoxy, and “gnostic” wasn’t the only kind of non-orthodoxy around. In any case, new terminology to replace “apocrypha” and “pseudepigrapha” is necessary, and these are my suggestions.)

The Litany of Humility

O Jesus meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,
   Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I,
   Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase, and I may decrease,
   Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
   Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
   Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
   Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should,
   Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Written by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val.

Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val

Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930) was apparently accustomed to recite this prayer daily after his celebration of Mass. He was also a composer, and is even mentioned in Henry Morton Robinson’s famous (or, at least it used to be, among Roman Catholics) fictional book The Cardinal. I found this extraordinary litany in the beautifully produced little Latin-English Roman Catholic Daily Missal produced by Angelus Press, based upon the 1962 Missale Romanum. These missals have become quite popular again, with Pope Benedict XVI having derestricted celebration of the Tridentine Latin Mass. The above litany is a fine example of the kind of apatheia (dispassion, or better, the mastery of one’s passions) that is often found so strikingly in the Desert Fathers, and among many others of the ancient Church Fathers and the lives of Saints, and which is still emphasized in Eastern Orthodox asceticism. In the modern world, it seems foolish, or at the very least counterproductive, to pray for such things. But such is the grand ship of the Church, whose mooring is in another world, that of the eternal Kingdom of God.

On the Historical-Critical Method

My dear Wormwood,
. . . Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question’. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important that to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to Our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignoble mechanic who holds that ‘history is bunk’,

Your affectionate uncle,
SCREWTAPE

From Letter № 27 of The Screwtape Letters so mysteriously obtained by C. S. Lewis.
Tip of the non-biretta to Fr Z, who quoted this in a “PODCAzT” I only just listened to.

Though Lewis’ Screwtape Letters are fictional and rather humorous, there is nothing funny about the bodiless powers’ antagonism to anything good, particularly in relation to humanity, and about their panoply of ways to turn men from God and their only redemption. Rather than depicting such creatures in our imaginations as bumbling and malicious relatives, we must rather understand them as cold, hard, intelligences, unaffected by emotion and bodily drives, but animated by sheer hatred for us. They don’t just want our suffering, they want a dehumanizing humiliation that ends solely in putrefaction, a complete removal of every one us from anything remotely reminiscent of the Image of God. Some of our own kind have been only too willing to cooperate throughout the ages, but it gains them nothing.

Know your enemy.

Things past understanding

Come, let us rejoice, mounting up from the earth to the highest contemplation of the virtues: let us be transformed this day into a better state and direct our minds to heavenly things, being shaped anew in piety according to the form of Christ. For in His mercy the Saviour of our souls has transfigured disfigured man and made him shine with light upon Mount Tabor.

O let us who love to see and hear things past understanding, mystically behold Christ shine as lightning with the rays of splendour; and let us make the Father’s voice resound, who proclaimed Him as His well-beloved Son. On Mount Tabor He makes bright the weakness of man and bestows enlightenment upon our souls.

Let the assembly of all on earth and in the world above be moved to praise Christ our God, Lord both of the living and the dead. For when He was divinely transfigured on Tabor, the Saviour of our souls was pleased to have at His side the leaders and preachers of both the Law and Grace.

Tone Four. From Small Vespers for Transfiguration. The Festal Menaion.