Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Light From the East - Abbot Nicholas - Holy Resurrection Monastery - Wisconsin.

Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Nicholas (Zachariadis).
Abbot of Holy Resurrection Monastery
A Roman Catholic Eastern Rite Monastery
in in the village of Saint Nazianz, Wisconsin (the town is named after one of the greatest Eastern saints, St. Gregory the Theologian, known in the West as St. Gregory Nazianzen).

This is a transcription of a homily given during a Divine Liturgy, transcribed from a Youtube Video ( http://youtu.be/jWQoNZswHZ0 ).

This pastor exposes what to my mind is the underlying error that pervades most of Roman Catholic systematic theology, and has led to the absurdity of the statement of the Synod on the Family Autumn 2014. I stated the error more than twenty years ago in the following words -
“To release the restraints of the human spirit, to allow reason, or soul to predominate and distort the image - and have theology degenerate along the reductionist, rationalist, deconstructionist path - or along the romantic, dreamy and passionate one, the path of the soul unchecked and un-transfigured, "psychic" and not "pneumatic".

“These two, the rational and the romantic, represent two sides of the same coin of Western Captivity - Rational Theology and Romantic Spirituality. Rational Theology has lead to the various absurdities like the Jesus Seminar, (the dogmatic apostasy on the majority of Protestant churches and the insanity of the Roman Catholic “Synod on the Family in 2014) the total demythologization of the Scriptures and Tradition; and Romantic Spirituality ultimately leading to Sophianism, (or some such rational or passionate spirituality) - one's own unconquered passions being in control of the soul's searching and expression.

Abbot Nicholas: (I will not use quote marks as from here to the end is Abbot Nicholas' excellent homily -anything inside parentheses are my occasional notes - Archpriest Symeon Elias)

Among the many challenges that the New Evangelization faces, is a relatively new charge against faith by our opponents. How often one hears from atheists the allegation that at the heart of the religious world view is violence. At least from Atheists from our time. This is not just the old criticism that religious people are hypocrites for carrying out violence while preaching peace and love. Many contemporary atheists like to say that cruelty is actually integral to the concept of the supernatural. To believe in divinity is to believe in a force that twists the natural world as observed and described by “science” Which bends the natural world to its will, which breaks, beats and bewilders the whole universe.

A superficial reading of the (Epistle and Gospel) we just heard might well be sited by atheists as a support for this position. In the reading from Saint John's Gospel Jesus certainly acts with violence. Is he aggression not entirely directed at the heart of the natural world. Aren't the money changers in the Temple simply operating according to the principles of natural competition, furthering their own cultural sphere, what may reasonably be an evolutionary imperative. Perhaps the really horrible violence of the man in this event lies not in the fighting with the whip but in an insistence on a super-natural ethic in permanent opposition to a natural one. A fear of this critique has entered into certain kinds of scriptural exegesis.

One of the less happy results of the Enlightenment has been a deep suspicion of miracles. For enlightened deists this was because they were perfectly content with one miracle and only one miracle, the natural world, with it intricate and perfect laws. And this has lead in a few short intellectual steps from deism to atheism. But perhaps there are some Christians who find themselves somewhere along this trajectory. Not quite ready to dispense with God altogether but embarrassed to think of him as in any kind of opposition to nature. The outcome of all of this among liberal exegetes has been to refuse to accept as literal truth the appearance of miracles of the kind we read about in the reading from Acts, the healing of a lame man by the apostles. Haven't the apostles taken a kind of whip to nature. Surely we need a less literal, a less fundamentalist reading of these miracle stories in which God is not so forceful in his breaking apart the laws of science, His violation of nature by acts of Grace.

This is far from a academic question. If you think about the great moral questions in our culture today, they have almost all of them to do with the question of nature and Grace. Does God impose on the human embryo a spiritual dignity? What about the human at the end of life? How are we to handle biological impulse to sex, food, status? How often do we hear and such and such Catholic practice is not natural, be it opposition to extra-marital or homosexual sex, clerical celibacy . . or you name it. My Brothers and Sisters, I want to propose to you today that beneath this problem, or series of problems, really, lies a fundamental assumption about the relationship between nature and Grace. I want to further propose that this assumption, so often called religious or even Christian is in fact far better called “Western” or “Western Christian.” You can guess then in what direction I'm going to point to get us somewhere better. And the afternoon's Liturgy is the best pointing to that direction that I'm about to elaborate.

There is no time in what I still hope will be a short homily to really do justice to this argument, but let's start from what I will admit will be a shockingly abrupt treatment of the Latin Tradition. Have I gotten you attention? There are various ways I could caricature this tradition. We Easterners generally like to go back to Saint Agustin as the fountain and origin of the fundamental disconnect between nature and Grace. But let's pass over the history and focus on one aspect of contemporary Catholic spirituality that I think illustrates the point I want to make. For Western Catholics it is common to speak of “offering up” “offering abstinence up” . . how many times have you been told to “offer it up.” Offer it up suffering, including the kinds of disciplines people choose for Lent, which you have recently of course completed.

This sacrificial language is absolutely NOT an error. I want to make that very clear. Do NOT get me wrong on this, please. It is perfectly in keeping with the sacred scriptures and in a tradition that can be traced back further even than Saint Augustin, to Saint Cyprian of Carthage and others. And it is by no means absent from Eastern Christianity. No, offering up fasts, abstinence, daily modifications and unpleasantness generally, sister assures us is a lovely idea. But, it depends for it power, on a sense that suffering comes from precisely from trying to reconcile the demands of nature with those of Grace. The logic of sacrifice says, but what I'm giving up is intrinsically good, though in competition with the higher good, towards which my surrender is directed. For this reason the concept of offering up sacrifice reinforces a version of God that can lead, if not properly balanced, by alternative views to seeing God as a tyrant. As a demanding, even monstrous totalitarian who wants us to give up what is natural to us, in favor of a different kind of good, altogether.

The problem the West faces and Western Christians, if I may be so bold, is that it tries to do this balancing from entirely within its own tradition. God can't be a monster, we know that. So, let's make him less demanding, more tolerant, kinder, more human. We can't NOT teach the idea of sacrifice altogether, but let us make it more tolerable, more like liberal politics. Sacrifice is acceptable if it helps the poor, if it has some earthly, some natural utility. Since our fundamental assumption is that Grace and nature are likely to be in conflict, let us avoid this conflict by turning Grace into something more like nature and God into someone more like US. In any conflict there has to be a winner and a loser. Traditionally the winner is Grace and the loser is nature. The more liberal project, seems to me to be simply the other side of that same rather debased coin, rather the apotheosis (deification) of nature at God's expense. (Transcribers note: the raising of nature to the status of God, and God reduced to OUR limited understanding of the laws of nature.) The problem is that the trick never quiet works. There is still all that stuff in the Bible like the readings of today, Jesus wielding a whip, the apostles turning nature on its head, resurrection from the dead, Christ is Risen! (indeed he is risen – from the congregation). People do notice when we ignore these things. Hence the ultimate failure of the Western Liberal Project. Though this does not remove from the conservative project, the basic problem the liberals have striven vainly to solve.

So how can the East help? How can us Eastern Christians, small, vulnerable, maybe even backward, help? Well for a start there is absolutely nothing in the liturgical tradition of the Greek Byzantine Church, which is all I'm qualified to speak about, that uses the language of “offering up.” It is completely foreign to our Liturgical texts in the East. Sacrifices like fasting, prayer, alms-giving, no, the language given is not that of sacrifice but that of ascetics, of medicinal healing, and athletic training. Perhaps that is because the intellectual powerhouse in the Greek Tradition is not Augustin of Hippo but Origen of Alexandria. Origen got his metaphysics terribly wrong. But the basic insight of his notion of pre-existing souls was that the fundamental relationship between natural and supernatural orders is not one of conflict, but of companionship and solidarity.

It was this insight that lead to Orthodox Fathers purged of its unbiblical elements, to development into the characteristic Byzantine sense that creation and redemption are not separate events but merely two stages on the same movement that leads to theosis (deification/sanctification) the divinization of the human. This notion of theosis depends also on an understanding that Grace is not some “thing” God imposes on a recalcitrant nature. This notion of created Grace is far less significant to Greek theology than that of Grace as the direct experience of God Himself. More or less the emphasis of theology in the West is that Grace is a creation, a gift of God. In the East the emphasis is much more that Grace is un-created Grace. It is God acting Himself, his Divine Energy. Grace for us is the un-created gift of God Himself, sweeping us up into his Trinitarian Life.

I know that last year you had the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite. People sometimes compare the Byzantine Rite to what we now call the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Both are characterized they say, by a sense of mystery. Perhaps. Admittedly I can't speak much about the Latin Liturgy, but about the Byzantine Tradition I can say this. Mystery for us is not about just what we do in church, it is how we see everything, how we see reality. Every Christian is part of the hidden life of the Sacred Trinity. Every Christian is a mystic. Being a mystic means being a liturgical being, nothing more. Everything we do is, or ought to be, at least wrapped in the mystery of the direct experience of God. I can't say this enough . . this sense of mystery is not just a feature of how we do church or how we do mass or how we do liturgy. It colors even how we see sin . . . not so much as a moral crime, but as a failure to worship, not the exercise of a defiant human will in opposition to God, not an exercise of freedom, but a failure to be who we deep down in our hearts want to be.

Sin isn't simply an act of rebellious freedom, it is the failure to be free at all. How many people reject the Church because they hate its teaching on sin? Perhaps they only know a partial version of that teaching, because they have only a partial knowledge of what the Church is, or for that matter what the Christian Faith is. Surely this challenge must be addressed in this year designated as the year of faith. Our vocation as mystics, challenges us to be ascetics, to purge away everything in our nature that doesn't support our deepest desire to be united with God. It is this ascetical dimension to our mysticism that makes the Byzantine sense of mystery so intensely practical. It explains the central importance of monasticism in this way of being Christian. Not just as a special vocation for a few, but as Pope John Paul the Second put it in his apostolic letter (Orientale Lumen - "The Light of the East" ) the reference point for all the baptized. Incidentally, if you want to experience the Byzantine Tradition, don't be content with the brief experience of a Divine Liturgy, visit the monastery and be immersed within it. Holy Resurrection Monastery is two hours from here. That will do just fine.

There at Holy Resurrection Monastery we try to make the whole package ascetics, liturgy, mystery, make sense in the real world for ourselves and those who make retreats with us. But lets think specifically about the Byzantine Liturgy we are celebrating this afternoon. This liturgy is long, but not because we think God begrudges us our time but because in time we already begin to experience the first inkling of eternity. It is rich in ceremony, not because God wants to dictate our movements, but because our natural human yearning for beauty whether in color, movement, the scent of incense, or whatever, finds fulfillment in our experience of God in the Divine Services. This Liturgy is entirely sung, without instruments, not to test our endurance, but to teach us how to be the best versions of ourselves. In short everything about our Liturgy is intended to show us just how close God is to us. That we are made for Him, and that he has made room for us, in his inner Trinitarian Life. There is no competition here, or there shouldn't be anyway, between ceremony and charity, between social justice and moral living on the one hand and sacramental ritual on the other. These are all stages on the same road, all movements on the same dance. Our temple must be cleansed so that we can worship, our legs must be healed so that we can walk into heaven on our own two feet.

The saints have power to work miracles, but not because there is anything wrong with nature. Miracles show us what nature is already in process of becoming in the continuous and never ending process of Creation, leading ultimately to the New Heaven and the New Earth of (inaudible). Brothers and Sisters, I believe the only way the Western Christian Tradition can avoid the criticism that its God is either a tyrant or wimp, is to step outside itself and to understand there are other ways of thinking about Nature and Grace than it being locked in necessary conflict.

We Easterners are not here to provide you with an esoteric experience, an exotic amusement. If that's all we are, then lock us up in a museum or put us in the circus tent. But that is hardly what the Second Vatican Council called us to contribute to the Universal Church, a mere sideshow. Nor why recent Popes have insisted that Western Catholics become familiar with the eastern Traditions. No. We have something to offer, if we are true to ourselves and thus true to you. What is it that we offer? A reminder perhaps that mystery, transcendence and the experience of God are not for a few Christians but for all of us. We certainly cannot answer all the challenges to the new evangelization, from within the Byzantine Tradition, no single tradition is enough for that. But perhaps some of our failures have happened because each tradition is fighting with the other, hands as it were, tied behind their backs. Let us unloose the bonds that hold us back. Let us get to know one another's strengths and just see what the Spirit can do. Christ is Risen!

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