Monthly Archives: May 2008

Prayer and the Heart

To brood on evil makes the heart brazen; but to destroy evil through self-restraint and hope breaks the heart

There is a breaking of the heart which is gentle and makes it deeply penitent, and there is a breaking which is violent and harmful, shattering it completely.

Vigils, prayer, and patient acceptance of what comes constitute a breaking that does not harm but benefits the heart, provided we do not destroy the balance between them through excess. He who perseveres in them will be helped in other ways as well; but he wo is slack and negligent will suffer intolerably on leaving this life.

A self-indulgent heart becomes a prison and chain for the soul when it leaves this life; whereas an assiduous heart is an open door.

‘The iron gate that leads into the city’ is a hard heart [Acts 12.10]; but to one who suffers hardship and affliction the gate will open of its own accord, as it did to Peter.

There are many differing methods of prayer. No method is harmful; if it were, it would be not prayer but the activity of Satan.

A man wanted to do evil, but first prayed as usual; and finding himself prevented by God, he was then extremely thankful.

When David wanted to kill Nabal the Carmelite, but was reminded of the divine retribution and abandoned his intention, he was extremely thankful. Again, we know what he did when he forgot God, and how he did not stop until Nathan the Prophet reminded him [cf. 1 Sam 25; 2 Sam 12].

At the times when you remember God, increase your prayers, so that when you forget Him, the Lord may remind you.

St Mark the Ascetic. On the Spiritual Law, 17-25. Philokalia volume 1, pp 111-112

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Baldness came upon Gaza

Baldness shall come upon Gaza. It shall be forsaken. [Jer 47.5 MT / 29.5 LXX; Zeph 2.4] The writer, after having unconsciously rested a night on the site of ancient Gaza, as the smoothest place that could be chosen whereon to pitch a tent, was for the first time aware of the literal interpretation of the prophecy, when he saw it on the spot. Detained for a day till camels could be procured, (the plague being then prevalent in Gaza,) the author spent it in traversing the sand hills on which the manifold but minute remains of an ancient city are yet in many places to be seen. Though previously holding to the interpretation given above, and not imagining that any clearer illustration could be given, and ignorant or forgetful, at the time, of any historical testimony that the site of modern differed from that of ancient Gaza, it was impossible for him to doubt that a city had once stood where innumerable vestiges of it are to be seen. The debris of ruins recognised at first sight by every traveller in the East as clearly indicating the site of an ancient city, are abundant, but most minute. Innumerable fragments of broken pottery, pieces of glass, (some of which were beautifully stained,) and of polished marble, lie thickly spread in every level and hollow place, at a considerable elevation and various distances, on a space of several square miles. These obvious indications of the site of an ancient city, recurring over a wide extent, are so abundant, that the number of different places in which they profusely lie cannot be reckoned under fifty,—which not unfrequently are surmounted by sand on every side. They generally occupy a level space, far firmer than the surrounding sand, and vary in size from small patches to more open spaces of twelve or twenty thousand square yards. The successive sand hills, or rather the same oblong sand hill, greatly varied in its elevation, and of an undulated surface, thorughout which they recur, extends to the west and west-south-west from the sea nearly to the environs of modern Gaza.

Before approaching Gaza, unconscious where the ancient city stood, it might well be asked what is meant by baldness coming upon it. But having traversed the place on which it stood, and beholding it as it rises naked and bare above the plain, the writer could not fail to see that its perfect baldness shows how truly that word of the Lord rests upon it. On his first visit, he looked in vain for any fragment of ruin one cubic foot in size, for any shrub, or plant, or blade of grass, to relieve or interrupt the perfect baldness that has come upon Gaza. He saw nothing but a jackal freely coursing over its bare surface. The sand of the desert is nowhere more smooth and bare; and the dark spots, where nothing but the vestiges of ruins lie, are so flat and level, that they form no exception to its baldness.

Alexander Keith. Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion. 39th edition. (London: Longman, Greens and Co, 1872), pp 378-379

The Reverend Doctor Keith offers an intriguing interpretation. Those familiar with life in seaside communities would be well-aware of the ability of the encroaching sands to choke the life out of arable soils and garden plots, rendering an area “bald” of vegetation, particularly when there is no human intervention to prevent such sandy encroachment. The processes are as active today as they were in the times of Rev Dr Keith and the Prophets Jeremiah and Zephaniah. As Gaza, like various other cities in the area, had been destroyed at various times in the past, it will likely have suffered its ruins to be covered by windblown sands more than once. In the word of the Lord given to the Prophets, then, we see merely a description of typical or even guranteed results, such that they would hardly require prognostication or a vivid imagination to invent: Gaza rebels, is emptied of people, and the beach sand covers all, just as before, just as will happen again. This perspective of seeing the Lord’s hand in stereotyped processes with repeated historical exempla is something to be developed. There does appear to be quite a number of these tropes in the prophetic literature especially, some of which are mirrored in literature external to the Bible (like the Mari prophecies, which I described here). Collecting and comparing those themes or tropes would be enlightening.

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The impossible dream

Iyov has tagged me, and we await the same time, too, though in keeping with our different religious traditions. For me, the “impossible” dream whose fulfillment I await, the fulfillment of which men never will accomplish, is the remaking of all, and the death of death itself:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Make it soon. Make it new.

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Night and Day

As a certain strong wind blows in a dark and gloomy night and strikes all the plants and seeds, moving them this way and that in shaking agitation, so also man, who has fallen under the power of the night of the devil of darkness, also lies in night and darkness, and is moved, buffeted, and shaken by the stiff blowing wind of sin, and through all his nature (namely, in his soul, thoughts and mind) is thoroughly affected. All the members of the body are shaken; not one part of the soul or the body is immune from the passions of sin dwelling in us. In a similar way there is a day of light and the divine wind of the Holy Spirit, breathing through and refreshing souls who live in the day of the divine light. It passes through the whole nature of the soul, the thoughts and the entire substance of the soul and all the members of the body, as it recreates and refreshes them with a divine and ineffable tranquility.

This is what the Apostle said: “We are not sons of the night nor of the darkness, for you all are sons of light and sons of the day.” And just as in that other state of error the old man put on the whole, complete man and wears the garment of the kingdom of darkness, the cloak of blasphemy, unbelief, audacity, vaingloary, pride, avarice, concupiscence, and all the other similar adornments of the kingdom of darkness, ragged, impure and contaminated, so here, on the contrary, all who have put off the old and earthly man and from whom Jesus has removed the clothing of the kingdom of darkness have put on the new and heavenly man, Jesus Christ, so that once again the eyes are joined to new eyes, ears to ears, head to head, to be completely pure and bearing the heavenly image.

And the Lord has clothed them with the garments of the kingdom of unspeakable light, the garment of faith, hope, love, joy, peace, goodnedd, human warmth, and all the other divine and living garments of light, life, and ineffable tranquillity. The result is that, as God is love and joy and peace and kindness and goodness, so too the new man may become by grace.

And just as the kingdom of darkness and sin are hidden in the soul until the day of resurrection when the very body of sinners will be covered over with the darkness that is now hidden in the soul, so also the kingdom of light and the heavenly Image, Jesus Christ, now mystically illumines the soul and holds dominion in the souls of the saints. Indeed, Christ is hidden from the eyes of men. Only with the eyes of the soul is he truly seen, until the day of resurrection, when even the body itself will reign with the soul, which now, having attained the Kingdom of Christ, rests and is illumined by the divine life.

Glory to his compassion and mercy because he shows pity on his servants, illumines and frees them from the kingdom of darkness. And he bestows on them light and his kingdom. To him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

Macarius, Homily 2, end.

Χριστος ανεστη

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A Bishop on a Saint on Scripture

When reading, one must “look at oneself and reflect on one’s soul as in a mirror”. Here Symeon follows the teaching of Mark the Monk about “attributing everything written in Scripture to oneself”. The Bible is a message addressed to the reader personally; it is not just a book which someone reads to demonstrate his erudition to others.

This is why Symeon would reject what we now call the historical critical handling of Scripture. He regards the Bible not as an object of critical analysis but as prophetic inspiration leading to ever more profound faith:

Let us now lay aside all vain and useless research . . . Let us obey the Master who says: “Search the Scriptures”. Search them but do not discuss them too much. Search the Scriptures but to not organize arguments concerning their external meaning. Search the Scriptures in order to learn about faith and hope and love.

Secular scholars who dare to interpret Scripture without having received the grace of God are very often an object of Symeon’s sharp criticism:

When without having received grace from the Spirit consciously and knowingly, I run to interpret Scripture without any shame and give myself the rank of teacher with no other claim to it than this falsely-called knowledge [ψευδωνυμω γνωσει], will God leave such conduct unjudged and demand no account of me? Certainly not.

. . . How can one achieve a true understanding of Scripture? Symeon compares Scripture with a house built “in the midst of secular and Hellenistic knowledge”, and a true understanding of Scripture with a closed chest, which is impossible to open using only human sagacity. There are two keys to open it: the fulfilment of God’s commandments and the grace of God. The first depends on man, the second on God: there is a συνεργεια (co-operation) of man and God in opening the hidden meaning of Scripture. When the chest is unlocked, one gains access to true “knowledge” (γνωσις), and “the revelation of mysteries that are hidden and veiled in the letter” of Scripture.

Therefore the mystery of Scripture is opened only to those who try to embody what is read by practicing it and who receive a revelation from God. In fact, Symeon incorporates here the notion of the true gnostic who possesses knowledge hidden from the majority. He quotes a maxim, in which God is the speaker: “My mystery [belongs] to Me and to My own.” There are God’s “own” people, to whom the meaning of Scriptures is opened, and “others”, from whom it is concealed:

For the divine things . . . are recorded in writing and are read by everybody, but they are disclosed only to those who have warmly repented, and who through sincere repentance have been well purified . . . For them the depths of the Spirit are revealed, and from them flows forth the word of God’s wisdom and knowledge . . . But for others it is unknown and concealed, and in no way is unlocked by Him Who opens the mind of the faithful to understand the Scriptures.

. . . Thus the reading of Scripture becomes a source of mystical inspiration. We can distinguish several steps by which, according to Symeon, one can ascend to such a level of understanding of Scripture. On the first step a man reads the Bible, paying attention to the “words and their combinations”, that is, trying to understand the literal meaning of the book. On the next step he starts to attribute scriptural texts to himself and to fulfil the commandments as if they were given to him personally. The more carefully he follows the Gospel in his life, the deeper his knowledge of the “hidden” meaning of Scripture becomes. Then God Himself appears to the man, and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and through communion with the divine light the man becomes γνωστικος, that is, acquires perfect knowledge of the mystical meaning of Scripture.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. St Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition. Oxford Early Christian Studies, 2000. Selections from pages 49-50, 51, 52.

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Many years!

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing:
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness

Rejoice! His Eminence Archbishop Hilarion of Sydney, Australia and New Zealand has been elected Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which election has been confirmed by His Holiness Patriarch Alexy of Moscow and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, along with his elevation to the rank of Metropolitan. His Eminence the Most Reverend Hilarion, Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York, will be enthroned this coming Sunday 18 May 2008.

Είς πολλά έτη Δέσποτα!

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The Pearl

I know the ways of learning; both the head
And pipes that feed the press, and make it run;
What reason hath from nature borrowed,
Or of it self, like a good housewife, spun
In laws and policy; what the stars conspire,
What willing nature speaks, what forc’d by fire;
Both th’ old discoveries, and the new-found seas,
The stock and surplus, cause and history:
All these stand open, or I have the keys:
        Yet I love thee.

I know the ways of honour, what maintains
The quick returns of courtesy and wit:
In vies of favours whether party gains,
When glory swells the heart, and mouldeth it
To all expressions both of hand and eye,
Which on the world a true-love-knot may tie,
And bear the bundle, wheresoe’re it goes:
How many drams of spirit there must be
To sell my life unto my friends or foes:
        Yet I love thee.

I know the ways of pleasure, the sweet strains,
The lullings and the relishes of it;
The propositions of hot blood and brains;
What mirth and music mean; what love and wit
Have done these twenty hundred years, and more:
I know the projects of unbridled store:
My stuff is flesh, not brass; my senses live,
And grumble oft, that they have more in me
Than he that curbs them, being but one to five:
        Yet I love thee.

I know all these, and have them in my hand:
Therefore not seeled, but with open eyes
I fly to thee, and fully understand
Both the main sale, and the commodities;
And at what rate and price I have thy love;
With all the circumstances that may move:
Yet through the labyrinths, not my grovelling wit,
But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me,
Did both conduct and teach me, how by it
        To climb to thee.

George Herbert. The Pearl. Matt. 13. 1633

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