What is this?

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11.28)

I’ve always thought that sounds like something else:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Different approaches: East vs West

In relation to my previous post on The Vision of Theophilus, I was doing a little reading and ran across some interestingly sensible comments from a Coptic Orthodox priest on the relationship between faith and scholarship. The source is Be Thou There: The Holy Family’s Journey in Egypt, edited by Gawdat Gabra (American University in Cairo Press, 2001), page 114.

These are the words of Father Philoxenos of the Monastery of the Holy Virgin, Dayr al-Muharraq, Upper Egypt:

Not every fact of history is recorded in historical documents. Let’s not speak about Theophilus, but consider instead the Prophet Isaiah, who wrote about the altar in the midst of Egypt. The proof of Isaiah is stronger than Theophilus. We first depend on the Bible, then we have the doctrines of the Apostles, and the third source is Tradition. These are the three sources of faith of the Coptic Orthodox Church. We do not base our belief on Theophilus only, but on Isaiah.

You see, Coptic people are a very religious people. We have a strong belief in the Bible, in the Church, the sayings of the Church, and the history of the Church. We can’t deny that there are many stories that are exaggerated. We don’t deny this. But we have faith in our Church Fathers and in what they say. This is a very strong source for the people of Egypt.

The first source we depend on is faith. If historical evidence adds something that confirms it, it is fine, it is acceptable. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter because I already have the faith in my heart.

I look at whether such a story is a benefit to the faith. If what people believe makes their faith stronger and vital, fine, that is acceptable. But if a certain story contradicts accepted belief and dogma, we must oppose it.

[On those in Egypt who believe their various churches were visited by the Holy Family:] It is some kind of spiritual pride and a kind of blessing. They want to be connected to the Holy Family, and that is not a problem, because it is not against the dogma and not against tradition. Here the people are not so focused on the history but on spiritual things. We are not talking about research of a PhD on the Holy Family. We are talking about faith, blessings, miracles, about something spiritual. What benefit do we have if we confirm it here and cancel it there? But this is not accepted in the Western world. They ask for documents, proof, and if you don’t have proof, it can’t be true. That is a different way of thinking.

St Gregory the Theologian on the Nativity

St Gregory the Theologian here describes some ways in which people should and shouldn’t celebrate the feast of the Nativity:

This is our festival, this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return—for to speak thus is more exact—that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that as in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with Him, buried with Him, and rising with Him. For it is necessary for me to undergo the good turnaround, and as painful things came from more pleasant things, so out of painful things more pleasant things must return. “For where sin abounded, grace superabounded,” and if the taste of forbidden fruit condemned, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify? Therefore we celebrate the feast not like a pagan festival but in a godly manner, not in a worldly way but in a manner above the world. We celebrate not our own concerns but the One who is ours, or rather what concerns our Master, things pertaining not to sickness but to healing, not to the first shaping, but to the reshaping.
And how will this be? Let us not put wreaths on our front doors, or assemble troupes of dancers, or decorate the streets. Let us not feast the eyes, or mesmerize the sense of hearing, or pamper the sense of smell, or prostitute the sense of taste, or gratify the sense of touch. These are ready paths to evil, and entrances of sin. Let us not be softened by delicate and extravagant clothing, whose beauty is its inutility, or by the transparency of stones, or the brilliance of gold, or the artificiality of colors that falsify natural beauty and are invented in opposition to the divine image; nor by “revelries and drunkenness,” to which I know “debauchery and licentiousness” are linked, since from bad teachers come bad teachings, or rather from evil seeds come evil harvests. Let us not build high beds of straw, making shelters for the debauchery of the stomach. Let us not assess the bouquet of wines, the concoctions of chefs, the great cost of perfumes. Let earth and sea not bring us as gifts the valued dung, for this is how I know to evaluate luxury. Let us not strive to conquer each other in dissoluteness. For to me all that is superfluous and beyond need is dissoluteness, particularly when others are hungry and in want, who are of the same clay and the same composition as ourselves.
But let us leave these things to the pagan Greeks and to Greek pomps and festivals. They name as gods those who enjoy the steam rising from the fat of sacrificial animals and correspondingly serve the divine with their stomachs, and they become evil fashioners and initiators and initiates of evil demons. But if we, for whom the Word is an object of worship, must somehow have luxury, let us have as our luxury the word and the divine law and narratives, especially those that form the basis of the present feast, that our luxury may be akin and not foreign to the One who has called us.

Interesting, isn’t it? It sounds as though Constantinopolitans were right up there in Christmas decoration, excess, and luxuriating with any large city today in the Americas and Europe. I know they had credit available, too. I wonder if they ran it up for the latest toys for the kids? The latest chariot for dads? Some cabochon encrusted baubles for moms?
It sounds as though not much has changed since December 25, 380 AD, when the above words were spoken. They are excerpted from Festal Oration 38, as found in the nice little editon in the St Vladimir’s Seminary Press Popular Patristics Series, Festal Orations of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, translated by Nonna Harrison (SVS Press, 2008).

The Trisagion

Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός
Ἅγιος Ἰσχυρός
Ἅγιος Ἀθάνατος
ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς

Holy God
Holy mighty
Holy immortal
Have mercy on us

The above little prayer is one of the great treasures of the ancient Church. It’s called the Trisagion, and appears in the fourth century, after which to the present day it is used in the anaphora of Byzantine Divine Liturgies, and apparently in some Western liturgies as well. The thrice-holy hymn is generally understood to have emerged from the vision granted to the Holy Prophet Isaiah of the heavenly Seraphim, chanting, “Holy, holy, holy” at the throne of God (Isaiah 6), through the mediation of the vision granted to St John the Theologian in the Apocalypse (ch. 4). But real certainty, and much of its history, is not what interests me here. It’s rather an interesting thing that I noticed differs between the way this prayer is understood in the Greek and the English.

I think most people who read the English Trisagion think of this as a prayer addressing God as “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal.” Yet, while this is a possible reading in the English, it is not the case in the Greek. There, instead of a vocative address, we have a series of declarative statements, which are through ellipsis lacking verbs and connective particles: “Holy [is] God, Holy [and] Mighty, Holy [and] Immortal.”

In addition, I think the first phrase bears an implied personalization in the first person plural, following from the final phrase. So, the full prayer should be thus understood:

“Holy is our God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal. Have mercy on us!”

Only in the final phrase are we addressing God with this prayer. Before that, it is a prayer of confession, that our God is holy, mighty, and immortal. Could it be that this prayer emerged out of the martyrdoms? Was it a confession of faith on the part of some being tortured to death for their faith? It’s entirely possible, but we just don’t know. Regardless, it’s beautiful.

(These are some ideas that I had upon waking one day, while clearing my head of the fuzziness of the dream world. Usually my first waking moments are not so productive!)

Reading about instead of reading

You know what bugs me about my reading habits? I’ve gotten into kind of a rut in which I’m reading good books about great books.

The latest example is the Burton-Christie book The Word in the Desert which I mentioned in my previous post, which is a book about the Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. None of what Burton-Christie writes about the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is revolutionary or innovative. It’s simply stuff that’s there in the text and available to the sympathetic and attentive reader. In this sense it reminds me of Derwas Chitty’s masterpiece (much more impressive for the amount of work it evidences, which I don’t think Burton-Christie would quibble with at all) The Desert a City. But, again, these are good books, even excellent books about great books, books and writings which stand in a completely different category.

So why am I not more often reading the great books?

I see that one reason is that I don’t want to take such a book as the Philokalia into my local pub and perhaps spill something on it. And although I’ve always found the noise of a café or pub to be conducive to reading (those are what I habitually did my studying in, in university), I just don’t feel right bringing the Evergetinos or the sermons of St Gregory Palamas into a bar, to be blunt. (And I used to, and my friends found it interesting, but I seldom would get reading done, anyway.) So, don’t go to the bar, right? Read at home, right? Where I’ve got all this other stuff I should be doing, too (three books in preparation, three handritten pages of a To Do list for the summer, and a laundry pile larger than I am), right? Okay, so out on the street corner under the streetlamp reading? (Another favorite spot!) Some of these books are heavy. My hands can’t hold them up for too long before wearing out. Also, I don’t want to get any of these books, some quite expensive, dirty by spilling coffee/beer on them, or dropping them, or possibly having them swiped from my table (it’s happened), or dropped and banged up by my clutzy tired hands (that’s happened too).

But these practical matters are, I think, just excuses I’m making to avoid diving in and paying attention, getting to work, knuckling down spiritually, you might say. Is that so surprising? Don’t we tend to avoid what’s best for us sometimes just when we need it? There’s that at root, partly.

This is especially the case with the Bible. I don’t know how many books I’ve read about the Bible, using up time that would have been much, much (millions of times!) better spent in simply reading the Bible itself. Not only do we have a cacophonous pandemonium (let the reader understand!) in the commentaries and journals and just about anything Bible-related, so little of it even remotely edifying or even interesting, we have very little incentive to weed through it all. The ideal of scholarship is to be widely read and to be able to discuss all aspects of an issue from an informed perspective. That sounds noble and correct. Only the Bible is not an academic treatise, a product of Reason. It is the work of the Prophets, a product of Faith. And regarding the books under consideration, this is the dichotomy: the “good books about” are products of reason, whereas the “great books” are products of Faith. These latter, to the discerning, truly belong in a different category. This is not only because they hold a “classic” status in a religious community and are therefore honored by proxy. It is because they are ontologically different. Their words work differently than those same words work when used by others. The reasons are: Inspiration and Revelation. Is it no wonder that those who are best qualified to write about such things typically ending up simply contributing to the body of them rather than the commentary on them? Only the inspired succeed, but then as they are inspired and their own words are a sort of revelation, their works become honored as more than just “a good book about a great book” and become “a great book” on their own. In any case, to subject a work of one realm to the ministrations of the other realm always ends badly. The realms are entirely separate. The Spiritual is not accessible to the Rational, contra Scholasticism and all its legitimate and illegitimate children. The Rational is thoroughly accessible to the Spiritual, yet it is irrelevant to the Spiritual, which is a much more interesting dynamic. The quixotic (or psychotic) thing is that the Rational thrills to examining the results of the Spiritual, all the while denying the validity and authenticity of the latter. I don’t see how anyone is supposed to take that kind of behavior seriously. In any other such pairing, such as Oceanographers and French Literature, that’d be considered irrational behavior, or at the very least extremely rude. But, that’s the world we live in.

And where was I going with this? Ah, yes! I have some assigned reading that I need to get to: three small books written by the Abbot George of the Monastery of St Gregorios on Mount Athos. I am going to finish The Word in the Desert tonight (an excellent “book about”), and then start on Abbot George’s little books tomorrow. So there we go!

Eastern Orthodox Rules of Biblical Interpretation

Following are the fascinating Nine Rules of Orthodox Biblical Interpretation promulgated in 1786 by Platon, Metropolitan of Moscow, rector of the Moscow Ecclesiastic Academy. Note that the same rules are reflective of the practice of biblical interpretation amongst other groups elsewhere, both before and after the time of Platon. That is, there is nothing peculiarly Eastern Orthodox about the rules themselves.

1.) Open the literal meaning, and where it is dark because of translation or an ambiguity in the language, explain it in such a way that no passage is left which students cannot understand, apart from the very rare texts which are too complex to comprehend.

2.) Interpret spiritual and mysterious meanings, especially in the Old Testament, in those passages where such meanings are transparently concealed. In doing this, one has to be cautious so as not to do this with force. Thus, one ought not to seek out a secret meaning where there is none (or where one is forced, as is noticeable with many interpreters), but where links and the parallel passages follow directly from the words. Interpret spiritual and mysterious readings in agreement with the best interpreters.

3.) For a better understanding of dark passages, find and link the parallel passages, for this will make comprehension easier, since what is said in one place is often said ambiguously and briefly in another place, and despite the similarity between the two texts, the one differs in terms of a more detailed and clearer account.

4.) In interpreting Scripture, do not forget to conclude with the moral teachings flowing from the text. Formulate it with great regard.

5.) In interpreting the books of the Old Testament Prophets, indicate clearly when and in which circumstances their prophecies were fulfilled in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

6.) Where passages of Holy Scripture seem to contradict each other, explain these texts in agreement with published sources that contain general agreement.

7.) Wherever passages are found from which some false conclusions were drawn and which subsequently led to schisms or heresies, one is obliged to clearly indicate the right and true meaning of these passages, and to invalidate the opinions and arguments of heretics and schismatics.

8.) Where passages of Scripture are found to which human wisdom might make objections, such objections must not be hidden. Instead, allow them to be seen in a clear and satisfactory form.

9.) On the part of the teacher, it is critical to consult the Church Fathers, to read scrupulously the best Church teachers and interpretors, to know Church history well, and, above all, to beseech often and diligently the Father of Light to open the eyes toward understanding the wonders in His Law.

Adapted from Alexander Negrov, Biblical Interpretation in the Russian Orthodox Church (Mohr Siebeck, 2008), pp 61-62.

I see . . .

Τὸν νυμφῶνά σου βλέπω,
Σωτήρ μου κεκοσμημένον,
καὶ ἔνδυμα οὐκ ἔχω,
ἵνα εἰσέλθω ἐν αὐτῷ,
λάμπρυνόν μου τὴν στολὴν τῆς ψυχῆς,
Φωτοδότα, καὶ σῶσόν με.

I see your Bridal Chamber adorned, O my Saviour,
and I have no wedding garment
that I may enter therein;
make radiant the vesture of my soul,
O Giver of Light,
and save me.

Τὸν νυμφῶνά σου βλέπω,
Σωτήρ μου κεκοσμημένον,
καὶ ἔνδυμα οὐκ ἔχω,
ἵνα εἰσέλθω ἐν αὐτῷ,
λάμπρυνόν μου τὴν στολὴν τῆς ψυχῆς,
Φωτοδότα, καὶ σῶσόν με.


Is everything sad going to come untrue?  *
Certainly, Tolkien’s reply would be, ‘Yes.  Someday.’
*  A fine question asked by Sam Gamgee, near the end of The Lord of the Rings (page 951 in the 50th Anniversary hardcover edition).

The things one finds on my desk

On a piece of scrap paper:

More on Semler’s particularity:

Removing the tie to Israel, little, hated, poor, removes the necessary asceticism from Christianity. It also removes the distinction between oppressor and oppressed, so that, presumably, there is no judgment, a standard in the “Christianity” of “thinking people”, exemplified by an attitude of “I’m okay, you’re okay (unless you disagree with that).”

That’s not Christianity, but a quasi-religious social construct of the bourgeoisie.

I make these kinds of notes for myself, and then they are often lost. I’m glad this one was not.

As I posted briefly on Semler earlier, and this note is related to that, providing an additional critique of Semler. I will expand upon this note.

More on Semler’s particularity. Semler accuses the Jews of “particularity”, of adamantly sticking to their own ways in the face of liberal German blandishments to convert to some kind of flippy-floppy ethical universalism which Semler calls Christianity, but which is far from any known species of the Christian faith. Yet, importantly, Semler is blind to his own particularity. Semler’s own requirements are quite exclusive, and the attitude he exudes and which is maintained by later modernists following him generally, is one of complete particularity: only liberal German theology is valid. Even more conservative German theology is rejected. So, Semler’s ideal is not only enthnocentric (German), but further restricted by being his own particular liberal stream of theology and scholarship. Only those who would accept his ideal would be acceptable. That’s quite a rigid particularism! That explains my “More on Semler’s particularity.”

Removing the tie to Israel, little, hated, poor, removes the necessary asceticism from Christianity. The “tie to Israel” refers to the continuity between the Church of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament. Semler, of course, posited a complete break between the two, because he (and so many other “enlightened” Germans) couldn’t stomach the idea that Christianity owed anything to Jews. But the continuity between Israel and the Church is there, as all modern scholarship recognizes. One would have to be insane to posit otherwise. And, as part of that continuity, we find the Church assimilating, as Israel, the asceticism involved in being lesser than those around. The humble national status of Israel in the ancient world, hated for its peculiar customs, is something embraced by the Church in its asceticism. There is, too, the wholly iconic reflection of this relationship, which inheres in this scrawled note, of Israel and Church. There is both continuity and image between the two, Israel and Church, Church and Israel, forward and backward. The iconic worldview does not move in only one direction, after all. One becomes the image of the other at various times. Semler, in denying the continuity between Israel and the Church, removes the heritage of asceticism from his “Christianity.” Like some iconoclast of old, he plasters over the image of both Israel and the Church, so neither can be seen for what they are: reflections one of the other.

It also removes the distinction between oppressor and oppressed…. When there is no more image of the one wronged, then there is no way to recognize the one doing wrong. Semler restricts one’s analogical view to a Christianity that is sui generis, one that is the “ultimate emanation of the world spirit” or some such. Stripped of its very historicity, the Church no longer exists as an historical entity at all, but rather as an emotion, a longing, a purely Romantic ideal. (This Romanticism is found most strongly in Semler, but it is also present in de Wette and others of the period.) There is no longer any sin, nor any sinner, for these are legalistic, Jewish categories of thought, passé, and, I daresay, verboten in Semler’s new construct. With no sin, then, there can be no fault and no guilt in oppressing others. How convenient! The primary point here is, again, iconic: without the icon of Israel, wronged and hated by the world, the Church cannot recognize itself. To continue:

It also removes the distinction between oppressor and oppressed, so that, presumably, there is no judgment, a standard in the “Christianity” of “thinking people”, exemplified by an attitude of “I’m okay, you’re okay (unless you disagree with that).” When a concept of penalty is absent, there can be no judgment. Only a simple mind would depict this as “mercy.” This is instead anomianism: there can be no Judge and no Judgment, for there are no laws. This mentality denies God His sovereignty to do otherwise than His subjects determine should be done. For Semler, God is dead, executed by nice. And this perspective lives on in many liberal quasi-religious-themed social groups (a.k.a. “churches”). The historic Christian perspective is that not only will there be sheep and goats, at right hand and left, Abraham’s bosom and Gehenna, the Banquet or Wedding Chamber and outer darkness, but there are also those fearsome words: “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.”

That’s not Christianity, but a quasi-religious social construct of the bourgeoisie. In Semler’s day and afterward it was precisely the burgeoning middle class, or bourgeoisie, newly prosperous and wishing to continue to increase in prosperity, that were the greatest source of support for such liberal ideas as Semler’s. The royalty, nobility, and the lower classes were almost universally conservative in religious, social, and political outlook. But the middle classes saw greater opportunity in loosened restrictions socially and economically, and they desired to advance such agendas for the firmer establishment of their own selves, primarily through their wallets. The ethics, such as they are, of such desires, come to be debated not in relation to traditional mores (Church or custom), but in relation to the newly constructed and very, very conveniently permissive ideas promulgated by supporters of their movement. And while the situation is nowadays different, some still parrot the liberal anomianism of two hundred years ago (or forty), as though this were some refreshing new breeze of the intellect. It’s not. SSDD: same stuff, different day. In any number of “mainline churches”, in any number of “megachurches”, in any number of “emergent churches”, whether any of these would call themselves by these or any other names that might remotely imply ownership by His Lordship (for to be Κυριακου is Not A Good Thing), we see and hear of a comfortably bourgeois existence extolled as Christian, the Gospel of Mammon instead of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Woe. Woe. Woe.

Something clicked at last

I forget where I read it today, but someone quoted Hebrews 2.14-15:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.

Suddenly, I understood that italic section above, verse 15. I don’t know why I didn’t grasp it before, as it seems so obvious (and probably is to everyone else!). It really was something of a revelation to me. Here’s what came to mind.

We often live our lives doing all kinds of strange things, sinful things most of them, because we are afraid of death, trying to get in as much “life” as possible. These sinful practices are a kind of bondage in themselves, which is something repeatedly emphasized throughout the writings of the Church Fathers. Ironically, this grasping at life so-called is really only grasping at death, which is the wages of sin, as we’re told elsewhere. Not only does the poor person, inspired in these things by the evil one, think he’s avoiding a kind of death through non-indulgence of some compulsion or other while actually piling on more and more death, but also all this, without the intervention of repentance, keeps that person from the necessary preparation for an eternity of life in joy in the presence of God.

The author of Hebrews, whoever that was, had a deep understanding of what we now call psychology. The therapy anonymously prescribed is redemption and sanctification, resulting in the transfer of the prisoner from the dank, reeking dungeons of the evil one to the wards, peaceful and sunlit, of the hospital where all patients are healed: the Church, the Body of Christ.