A fruitless quest and a fruitful one

“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus declares to his disciples in the Upper Room. “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak…. He will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16.12-15).

The crucial matter, then, is not the historical question: Which words did Jesus actually speak prior to his crucifixion? The crucial matter is rather the canonical authority invested in the entire biblical witness by God himself. For even among the ipsissima verba Jesu, the words Jesus actually spoke during his earthly ministry, the biblical authors were selective, guided in their choice by both the needs of local communities and the living memory of the Church. And we take it as an article of faith that the process of selecting and recasting those teachings, to provide the basis for the apostolic writings, was an inspired process, one guided precisely by the risen Lord acting through the Spirit of Truth.

A quest for the ipsissima verba Jesu, as we should have learned with the original “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” is ultimately fruitless. It may be of interest from a strictly historical point of view, but it has no bearing on the matter of salvation. Whether spoken before his crucifixion or after his resurrection and exaltation, the words of Jesus are authoritative—they are words of eternal life—only because they are invested with saving power by God himself. In other words, neither their authority nor their saving power depends on their historicity—i.e., whether Jesus actually pronounced them prior to his crucifixion. They depend, rather, on their canonicity, their divinely established normative character.

Fr John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church, pp 20-21

Note further that “canonicity” is not connoting here the idea of list of books of the Bible, but rather divinely established rule of faith. This is the rule of faith, the divinely established body of belief and way of life that enables us to properly give glory to God: precisely orthodoxia or Orthodoxy. Within that system, those beliefs and practices which are known guarantors of purification, illumination, and deification are those which are recognized as canonical, as pertaining to the rule of faith. Scripture is only one of such things. This recognition is characteristic particularly for those who have experienced theoria, the ineffable “divine vision” which is a grace of God, for they have been purified of their passions (though they are still sinners), have been illumined (though still fighting the darkness), and are living in theosis (though still human). But even those along the way are able to glimpse at least some small portion of the great interlocking wonder, the holistic beauty of a system of ethical, physical, psychological therapies, but especially and primarily spiritual therapies for the true healing of the soul, the most precious part of any of us. The Church, it is often said, is a hospital for the healing of souls. It is true. Healthy roots raise up a healthy and mighty tree, even if a poaching woodsman comes along to lob off branches for firewood and mar the tree’s beauty. But the tree will grow stronger and taller, and eventually the woodsman will no longer find branches to hack off as they’ll have grown out of his reach. So it can be with us, with the proper Physician, the Lover of Mankind.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this book by Fr Breck. Nearly every page bears a thought-provoking passage.

Future Plans

I have been accepted for admission to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, where I intend, if I am deemed worthy, to enter the seminary program.

More from Fr Alexis Trader

I think everyone who is interested in the subject matter of my previous post, particularly those with any kind of responsibility for the salvation of souls other than their own, will find the very interesting conversation between Fr Alexis and Mark Downham to be enlightening, at just the right time of year.

Relatedly, it seems that Fr Alexis’s guest posts on various blogs have resulted in what was hoped for. New copies of Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds have been exhausted at most online retailers (and perhaps are available only directly from Peter Lang Publishing Group at this point), with the price of used copies rising. So, it seems realistic to hope for a paperback edition, and hopefully in the very near future. It was the dialogue between Fr Alexis and Mark Downham that decided me: I want to read the whole book.

But this post is really about some other work of Fr Alexis, two books in particular, one with which I knew he was the author, and the other of which I did not know he was the translator. Despite slackness in posting (and in updating my “Now Reading” link!), yet have I been prolifically and pleasantly plowing through publications, pre- and post-Pascha.

The first of these books by Fr Alexis is one that I mentioned in my last post: In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord: An Orthodox Interpretation of the Gifts of the Spirit, published by Frank Schaeffer’s Regina Orthodox Press, but seemingly out of print. This is unfortunate, because the book is a stunner. Prior to reading this volume, I didn’t know much about Pentecostalism and its various expressions, aside from some widely shared misconceptions and even stereotypes. Fr Alexis places the development of Pentecostalism within the history of the development of Western Christianity. But let us be clear. Pentecostalism is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. It is entirely alien to the Orthodox Christianity, which is also to say that it is alien to the early Church and the Patristic Church. Support for its peculiar doctrines arises from mistranslations and misreadings of those mistranslations. The Patristic understanding of “tongues” is that this gift is that of hesychastic, noetic prayer, of prayer of the heart, and not of vocal babbling or extemporaneous prayer or preaching. I have with my own eyes read some ridiculous Pentecostal interpretations of the phrase στεναγμοῖς ἀλαλήτοις (Rom 8.26), “with unspoken groans,” as referring not to wordless prayer of the heart, but to statements in incomprehensible languages, along with the additional claim (and this from someone well-respected as a scholar!) that there is no other interpretation of this phrase but his own in the history of Christianity. Such a person only shows himself completely divorced from and ignorant of the ascetic and hesychastic traditions exemplified in such writings as the Apophthegmata Patērōn, among others. Fr Alexis’s explication is, however, entirely in keeping with Orthodox Christian theology, drawing on numerous Fathers from early to later dates, and showing a consistency of interpretation and approach to such matters throughout the ages. Enthusiasm, ecstasy, and emotionalism are alien to Christianity properly lived, period. However, such are an almost guaranteed result of participation (philosophically and theologically) in any of the various groups with Western Christian roots. Hopefully the book will return to print sometime soon. I was lucky to have a copy.

The second book, of which Fr Alexis is the translator and annotator of the English edition (and which fact I only noticed once I was quite some way into the book!) is Fr John Romanides’s Patristic Theology: The University Lectures of Fr. John Romanides (Uncut Mountain Press, 2008). This book and Fr Romanides’s The Ancestral Sin are the best books I’ve read in years. Reading them back-to-back left my head whirling a bit, in all honesty, and I am about to read both again. Both are so full of information, that while clearly and accurately presented, the reader must be attentive and savour the book rather than simply read it. There is a very nearly overwhelming abundance in the case of Patristic Theology, presented in rather obscure organization as the selections are excerpts from lectures. But throughout, Fr Alexis has provided clarifying and informative footnotes which extend the value of Fr John’s own writings. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and insist upon its being accompanied by The Ancestral Sin. At the core of both lies a similar proposition, one which is shared by Fr Alexis’s In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord: the West has a knockoff brand (a streetware counterfeit of sorts!) of Christianity that is based at root in the work of Augustine, who apparently never gained any understanding of purification, illumination, and glorification as understood by the Church Fathers, Greek and Latin, who went before him. I’ll say it again: Augustine should’ve learned Greek, and should’ve had better schooling; one of the sharper knives in the drawer would then have been truly keen. With his almost complete ignorance of Patristic Tradition, however (there was so very little available natively in Latin), Augustine had to rely upon his own rationalizations—a risky endeavour at the best of time. The result is that his errors were bad enough, but having his work taken up as the basis for all of subsequent Western Christianity is an unmitigated disaster. The evaluation of Augustine by various Western Christians as some kind of Patristic Pinnacle reveals nothing about Augustine, but rather the complete lack of proper understanding of Patristic (that is, Christian) theology in the West, shocking as that may seem. This is made clear throughout the two works of Fr John, though in a more organized presentation in The Ancestral Sin. Beginning with the title of that book, we already see the vast difference between East and West, between Patristic Christianity and something else: “the ancestral sin” was the very sin of Adam, one single sin, not “original sin” as some kind of nebulous miasma of guilt, of uncertain definition and even more uncertain nature in both existence and transmission, as introduced by Augustine. Fr John during his life and even now that he has fallen asleep in the Lord, has always taken flack for these positions, most especially from supporters of Augustine and his errors. But Fr John pulled no punches, and has done a service to those who are interested in the Truth, wherever it may lead them. Can you tell I’m a fan?

I can tell you I am also a new fan of Fr Alexis. I’ll be tracking down more of his writings. Thank you for your service, public and private, to the Church, Fr Alexis. Χριστός ἀνέστη!

Guest post by Fr Alexis Trader

The following is the fourth in a series of four guest posts from Fr. Alexis Trader, a priestmonk and spiritual father of Karakallou Monastery on the Holy Mountain, and author of In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord: An Orthodox Interpretation of the Gifts of the Spirit. Fr. Alexis has recently released a new book, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds, and it is about his new book that he now writes. (The first, second, and third posts have been posted elsewhere, for which see below.)

Practical Value? Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

When I select books that I am going to read, I am usually looking for more than novel discoveries and interesting facts. As a monk and as an American, I want something that works, something that I can apply to my own life, or that I can use to offer consolation for the lives of those around me. I am often searching for practical wisdom such as what you find at the end of Saint John Chrysostom’s homilies, in the correspondence of Saints Barsanuphius and John, or in talks by Elder Paisios. While the first half of Ancient Christian Wisdom deals with theory, the remainder has to do with practice. The choice is deliberate: an Orthodox approach to any issue should involve a unity of theoria and praxis. Interestingly enough, clinical handbooks on cognitive therapy deal with the subject of treatment in the same way.

So, in the last half of the book, I look first at the spiritual father and the cognitive therapist and then turn to behavioral and cognitive techniques used by therapists and the Church Fathers to bring about a positive change in a person’s psychological or spiritual state. I should add that it’s necessary to talk about the people who apply particular techniques or methods, in order to bring the discussion back down to the level of day-to-day life. So, in Chapter Six I take the reader down a rather unlikely portrait gallery containing representations of spiritual fathers and cognitive therapists. On one hand, I look at the spiritual father in his liturgical office as a priest, in his charismatic role as a prophet, and in his pastoral capacity as a person trying to help another human being. Simultaneously, I consider the cognitive therapist in the context of a therapy session as a diagnostician, consultant, and educator with certain therapeutic skills. Then to fill out the picture, I contrast the people seeking help: the sinner in need of confession and the client in need of help with psychological difficulties. The many differences and occasional similarities are important for determining when it is appropriate for a therapist or a pastor to use material from the other field and which material can be of service.

In Chapter Seven, I consider the behavioral techniques used in cognitive therapy and ascetic practice associated with the spiritual life. I first situate these issues within the general context of solving problems, setting goals, and running experiments. Although ascetic practices such as vigil and behavioral techniques such as activity monitoring do occupy quite different universes, the general context of problems, goals, and the value of experience is really framed in strikingly similar ways by Church Fathers and cognitive therapists. The interesting question is whether techniques or practices from one universe are transplantable in another. Chapter Seven grapples with that problem and offers some patristic suggestions.

In Chapter Eight, I look at the ways in which the Fathers advise the faithful to deal with thoughts that are bad and how cognitive therapists counsel their clients to cope with thoughts that are maladaptive. Again, the contexts are very different. The Fathers speak of the inter-relationship among watchfulness, praxis, and divine vision. Cognitive therapists talk about the value of charts, scales, and diagrams. Nevertheless, leaving aside the use of prayer to overcome bad thoughts, many specifics line up. That is, both Church Fathers and cognitive therapists speak about the value of exposing, rebutting, disdaining, and analyzing the thoughts. The meaning of these similar practices, however, is vastly different.

In Chapter Nine, I turn to how the Church Fathers and cognitive therapists handle those deeper tendencies and habits of the mind that so strongly influence how people react to situations and difficulties. Here, we get closer to the core of the human person. The parallels are fewer and the care required, lest damage be done, is greater. Nevertheless, there are similarities such as the reading of appropriate books (bibliotherapy), the cultivation of the right kind of thoughts, and a healthy review of one’s life (a life confession or autobiographical journaling).

Was this exploration of the Fathers and cognitive therapy useful? In the concluding chapter, I note, “While both patristic and cognitive approaches have great value in their own right and their own domain, knowledge about ‘the other side’ is always helpful, and in the case of patristic thought, salvific. In other words, knowledge of cognitive therapy can help the spiritual father communicate with those who approach human problems with the psychological mindset that is prevalent in contemporary culture. Knowledge of patristic teachings can infuse the work of the cognitive therapists with spiritual meaning, purpose, and moral direction, especially when treating Orthodox Christian patients.” It has been a worthwhile journey and I am grateful to those who have encouraged me to make it.

The book is available through Amazon.

(For those unfamiliar with academic presses that produce a limited number of monographs for university libraries, the book will unfortunately seem rather expensive. I would encourage those who wish to read the book, but find it outside their budget, to approach their local college or public library about the possibility of purchasing it. Perhaps, groups of five could purchase it as a donation for their parish library or the pastor’s library. If the hard copies sell well, a less expensive paperback may be on the way).

If you would like to read more, please read the the first three sections of this series of blog posts:
Post #1 – March 22nd: John Sanidopoulos’s Mystagogy
Post #2 – March 25th: Fr Jonathan’s Second Terrace
Post #3 – March 28th: Esteban Vázquez’s The Voice of Stefan

Two sample chapters of the book are available online:
Read the book’s Introduction here.

Read Chapter 9 here.

You are an unfinished book

Life in the world is like a manuscript of writings that is still in rough draft. When a man wishes or desires to do so, he can add something or subtract from it, and make changes in the writings. But the life in the world to come is like documents written on clean scrolls and sealed with the royal seal, where no addition or deletion is possible. Therefore, so long as we are found in the midst of change, let us pay heed to ourselves; and while we have power over the manuscript of our life, which we have written by our own hand, let us strive earnestly to add to it by leading a good manner of life, and let us erase from it the failings of our former life. We have power to erase our debts from it as long as we are here. And God will take into account every change we make in it, so that we may be deemed worthy of eternal life before we go before the King and He sets His seal upon it. For so long as we are in this world, God does not affix His seal either to what is good or to what is evil, even up to the moment of our departure when the service of our fatherland is completed and we set out upon our journey. And as Saint Ephraim says, we should make our soul like a ready ship that does not know when a wind will come upon it, or like an army that does not know when the trumpet of battle will sound. And if, he says, merchants are so well prepared for the sake of a little gain, though they will perhaps soon return from their voyage, how much more should we make ourselves ready, and in advance prepare ourselves before the coming of that decisive day, that bridge and door into the new age? May Christ, the mediator of our life, grant us to arrive at that decisive judgment in full preparation, He that has glory, worship, and thanksgiving unto the ages. Amen.

St Isaac the Syrian, from Homily Sixty-Two

The Vision of Theophilus

Following is a translation by Alphonse Mingana of the Third Book of an apocryphal history of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. This book is typically referred to (somewhat imprecisely) as The Vision of Theophilus, for the discourse of the Virgin to Theophilus comprises the majority of this book. The translation and original Syriac text are found in Mingana’s Woodbrooke Studies, volume 3, a pdf of which is available here, for those interested in further introductory materials, annotations, and the Syriac text. (The same volume, as a bonus, includes the text and translation of the Syriac Apocalypse of Peter.) Of chief interest in the Vision is the description of the troubled journey of the Holy Family into Egypt, escaping King Herod.

This book is obviously in its origins closely connected with the most important shrine associated with the travels of the Holy Family in Egypt, the Monastery of the Holy Virgin at al-Muharraq, near the mountains of Qusqam, near the town of al-Qusiya in Upper Egypt, 48 km north of Assyut. The church there is (so the narrative and Coptic tradition uphold) the first church in the world, consecrated by the risen Lord, where the first Divine Liturgy in the world was celebrated by the miraculously transported Peter and the Apostles, with the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome (Mary’s cousin who accompanied the Holy Family into Egypt) also present. The Vision is actually something of a foundation story for the church and monastery there, rather than strictly an account of the Holy Family’s travels throughout Egypt. The church is built upon the ruins of an ancient house that the Holy Family is said to have stayed in for six months, the longest duration of any of their traditional stops, and traditionally the southernmost (although there is also the Monastery of the Holy Virgin further south at Durunka, the position of which is harmonized through its being the place where the Holy Family waited in a cave to embark on a boat sailing down the Nile on their way back to the Holy Land.).

The narrative is complicated. The Theophilus of the title is Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria (+412). The account is a first-person account of some event of Theophilus’ tenure, including a visit to the monastery during which he is granted a vision of the Virgin Mary, who then relates (in first person) her and her Son’s connection with the monastery. The entire narrative is then said to have been actually written down by Cyril of Alexandria (+ 444) himself! But there is no doubt that while the narrative demonstrates traditions of definite antiquity it does not date so far back as St Cyril! Mingana would attribute the work to Kyriakos, Bishop of Bahnasa (Oxyrrhynchus), who wrote in the early fifteenth century.

While there are many aspects of the Vision of Theophilus which do not align with Eastern Orthodox tradition regarding the Holy Family (and which will certainly be all the more entirely bizarre to western Christians) the work itself is still a rather beautiful expression of piety. For more information on the traditions related to the Holy Family in Egypt, see this post in which I give short descriptions of a number of excellent books on the subject. Enjoy a seasonally apropos reading originating from a land closer to the sunrise!

Again the third Book (containing) the flight (according to) the vision shown to Theophilus, Patriarch of the great city of Alexandria, concerning the arrival of our Lady Mary, Mother of God, in the land of Egypt, and concerning the house which she and her beloved Son Jesus Christ inhabited in the holy mountain of Ḳusḳam, on account of their great fear of King Herod.

Continue reading “The Vision of Theophilus”

To the Holy Innocents

To the tune of Ton Nymphona Sou

Herod the thorough wicked king
Killer of his own kin
His insane will would even dare
To slaughter children in his care
Yet their souls fly, a flock of doves
To escort incarnate Divine Love

O land of Pharaoh, lush and sere
Your true Lord and God now draws near
Your gods in homage all fall down
Offering to Him all their crowns
Life-giving God, a babe in swaddling
Raises for thirsty man living springs

Protector of the Holiest
Noble Joseph has no rest
Wending up the calm ancient Nile
Sought by Herod’s men mile after mile
Fleeing from danger by an angel told
Guarding that most precious Divine Gold

Holy Virgin, Mother of God
Nurses her newborn, overawed
O pure wonder, O gift of Light
This tiny Infant, the God of might
Perfect Mother, holy and pure
Pray our salvation will be sure

Wholly innocent slaughtered ones
Stripped of earthly life before grown
Rachel’s weeping for hers is heard
For your pure lives cut short by sword
First martyrs for Christ, and purest
Pray our souls might join you in Rest