Archive for September, 2009

Safer Than Texting

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

“Weird, floating feelings” are not the summum bonum, as you obviously know. Indeed the Fathers stress that feelings as such, of whatever kind or modality, are at best irrelevant, and sometimes dangerous. It’s a mistake in any case to put too much stock in them or to become concerned about seeking an encore when we have had a particularly pleasant few moments of prayer.

Self-mastery, and then self-transcendence, is the goal, and the use of a prayer of the heart like the Jesus Prayer can help us draw closer to this goal, or these goals, by providing a sacred or sacramental “center of gravity”, and thus a place to return to—often several times within the space of five seconds—when we catch ourselves wandering away in pursuit of some trivial thought or impure emotion. For this effort to bear lasting fruits, however, something other than a car ride is needed. Not that you can’t pray when you’re driving—it’s certainly safer than “texting”!—but all the other subliminal operations needed to keep from having a wreck can’t help but get in the way of the “cardiac concentration” which a prayer of this kind at once presupposes and fosters.

I’m reminded of the story about the two monks who were smokers and who went to the abbot to talk about their problem. “Can I pray while I’m smoking?” the first monk asked, and was told yes. “Can I smoke while I’m praying?” asked the second, but he was told no! Subtle creatures, these abbots.

Praying for the Dead

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Do I think there might be some value in praying for the soul of your mother even though she was an agnostic and died without having followed a religious path? Yes, of course, and her appearance to you in a dream may well be an indication she needs your help.

According to my own Orthodox tradition, only those who have died in visible communion with the Church can be prayed for by name in public services, but this by no means prevents a person from naming non-Christians in his own personal prayers. Moreover, on the Monday after Pentecost, the last portion of the third kneeling prayer at Vespers contains intercessions not just for the faithful departed, and not just for those whose destinies are in doubt, but even for those whom we have reason to think may be damned:

Hear our prayer, and grant rest to the souls of Thy departed servants, our brothers and sisters in the faith, as well as to all our departed relatives and friends and others we wish to remember, for the authority over all things rests with Thee … The dead cannot praise Thee, O Lord, nor do those in Hell attempt to confess Thee, but we the living bless Thee and pray to Thee, offering supplications and sacrifices for the repose of their souls. For Thou art the repose of all souls and bodies, and we give glory to Thee, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

You speak of Schuon’s chapter on “Universal Eschatology”, where he outlines five postmortem destinies: Paradise, Hell, Purgatory, the Limbo-Lotus, and Transmigration, and then you wonder out loud as to where your mother might be, though you add—and I would like to accentuate this point!—that it’s not up to you to judge. No indeed. And in any case do remember that Hell itself is not a finality, or not at least necessarily so. As Schuon points out, there is no symmetry between Heaven, which is “eternalized” as it were by its proximity to the Only Eternal One, and Hell, which the Bible describes as ai?nion, that is, perpetual and thus lasting only until the end of the ages.

You may be interested to know that it was the practice of Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain to pray specifically, and with deliberate intention, for the souls of those in Hell. His disciple, the Elder Sophrony, recalls the following conversation between his master and another Athonite hermit. The hermit had said, “God will punish all the atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.” Saint Silouan replied, “Tell me, supposing you went to Paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire, would you feel happy?” “It can’t be helped,” said the hermit. “It would be their fault.” The saint replied, with a sorrowful countenance, “Love could not bear that. We must pray for all.”

This conversation is mentioned in an essay you might like to read by His Grace Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. It’s called “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?”, and you can find it in a collection called The Inner Kingdom (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000).

The Name of God as Such

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

“As we Orthodox see it, prayerful fidelity to the witness of Scripture, the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, and the language of liturgical worship requires that the word “God” be reserved … for God the Father alone, the first Person of the Holy Trinity, who is said to be the Fount (p?g?) of all divinity and the uncaused Cause (aitia) of the other two Persons, the Son and the Spirit.”

Having taking note of this line in my recent paper “Disagreeing to Agree“, you asked where one would go to find Patristic support for the claim that the Father alone is the First Cause of All Things, hence “God” in the strictest sense of the term. If you’re reading Meyendorff and Lossky, you’re in good hands. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on one’s perspective!—there is no Thomas Aquinas or Summa Theologica in the Christian East, which means there is no formal or systematic reflection in Orthodoxy as to “whether the Name ‘Father’ is to be taken as the Name of God as such” (as Saint Thomas might put it). The quotation you noticed in Lossky’s Mystical Theology (pp. 59-60) from John of Damascus is about as focused as you will find:

“The Father derives from Himself His Being, nor does He derive a single quality from another. Rather He is Himself the beginning and cause of the existence of all things both as to their nature and mode of being. All then that the Son and the Spirit have is from the Father, even their very being…. Through the Father, that is, because of the Father’s existence, the Son and the Spirit exist” (On the Orthodox Faith, 1.8).

The Father’s “monarchy” (as it is called) is addressed primarily in the letters and sermons of the Cappadocians, but then only briefly and rather rhetorically. One must keep in mind that these saints—Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus), Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil the Great—were homilists and pastors, not dialecticians or systematic theologians. I’m afraid you’d expend much precious time in your research if you attempted to read through entire sermons, for the pertinent passages are relatively few and far between.

Here’s a very small sampling of suggestive lines not cited by either Meyendorff or Lossky, or not at least that I’ve noticed, which may prove useful to you:

“God who is over all alone has one special mark of His own person (hypostasis), His being Father and His deriving His person from no cause; and through this mark He is peculiarly known” (Basil the Great, Letters 38.4).

In the same letter (section 44), Basil addresses the question of why Jesus says that “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28), and his answer is that the Father is the “sole cause of the Godhead” and the “cause of the cause of all things” (that is, the Son or Logos).

“For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things” (Gregory the Theologian, Orations 39.12, quoting 1 Corinthians 8:6).

“Unity having from all eternity arrived by motion at Duality found its rest in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father and Son and Holy Spirit” (Gregory the Theologian, Orations 29.2).

Of course, as you’ve seen from your brief study of this issue—and as I admitted in “Disagreeing”—the Eastern Fathers are themselves by no means entirely consistent on this point, sometimes using the word “God” in a broader sense to refer to the whole Trinity. This is because they were troubled at the prospect of becoming “subordinationists”, that is, subordinating Christ (in particular, but also the Spirit) to the Father in a way that might end up calling into question the true divinity of the Second and Third Persons.

Needless to say, they needn’t have worried. The “relative Absolute” is relative only at a metaphysical level, where the legitimate demands of bhakti do not obtain.