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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Prolegomena to Ecumenism

The recent and continuing expressions of outrage by the Moscow Patriarchate over "Uniatism", Catholic "proselytization" in Slavic countries, over the Catholic Church's recognition of St. Josaphat of Polotsk and a few other saints, and quite often simply the existence of Eastern Catholics call for the recognition of some much-needed prolegomena to ecumenical discussion.

Ecumenical discussion must be grounded in mutual respect for each other. It will accomplish nothing and go nowhere if we cannot come to grips with the fact that each other exists, that each other has saints who have suffered at our hands, that we have mistreated each other in the past, and that each communion takes its own ministry seriously and cannot reasonably be expected to shut itself down to avoid offending the other party.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort so long as one group complains about the existence of a minority rite in the other communion.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort so long as one group takes offense at the existence of another jurisdiction and insists that they not be mentioned.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort so long as one patriarch demands that another patriarch suppress an entire jurisdiction (to go where, exactly?), or that any jurisdiction within either the Orthodox or Catholic communion is a "stumbling block" to reunion.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort if one group takes offense at the self-designation used by faithful of the other group.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort if one group demands that the other cease ministering to its faithful or preaching the Gospel, whether universally or in any particular region.

There will be no ecumenical progress of any sort if one group takes offense at discussion of the other group's saints and martyrs.

These are a bare minimum needed to talk to each other. If you do not respect the person or church you are talking to, whether you are a layman, priest, or patriarch, you should not be talking at all.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Peter Waldo, Preaching, and Prophecy

In the December 1960 issue of the journal Theological Studies, Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote a paper entitled "The Protestant Preacher and the Prophetic Mission" in which he described the Protestant communion as self-identifying as a "Church of the Word".  It seems hardly necessary to argue that such an identity, so far from being alien to Protestantism's Catholic roots, remains an integral and necessary part of the identity of the Church, one which by necessity must be integrated with the ecclesial framework rather than placed in a dichotomy against the "church of the sacraments".

To preach is, as Dulles notes, essentially a prophetic mission:  "The Christian tradition has recognized that the office of preacher is essentially prophetic."  A prophet can only be sent by God; therefore a preacher, to be truly a preacher, must be sent by the Church, that is ordained.  "The prophet, however, is one who speaks in obedience to a call, or mission received from God," and therefore requires summoning from God's vicar on earth, the bishop.  Preaching is inherent to the sacramental character of Holy Orders, since the prophet's words "are not empty speech, but events of the supernatural order.  They are, according to many theologians, always efficacious - either unto justification or unto judgment, depending on the response of the hearer."

What then, do we make of the extra-sacramental "charismatic" function of preaching exemplified in the Protestant ministry, finding its prototype in the preaching of the Gospel by Pierre Valdez, also known as Peter Waldo and inspiration of the sect of Waldensians?

The Waldensian question, so far from an abstruse historical matter pertaining to 13th-century ecclesial politics, by contrast remains one of the most pressing matters facing the Church in Her mission today.  For it was the alienation of the Waldensians from the Catholic communion into the first proto-Protestant concordat that led to the rise of the Wyclifites and Moravian Brethren, culminating the Protestant Reformation and the most disastrous rend within Christendom.

To answer the Waldensian question, it may be useful to take a unique approach by turning to the ecclesial experience of the Christian East, and the witness of St. Symeon the New Theologian.  The same dialectic seen in the life of Peter Waldo emerged in the life of St. Symeon, champion of a charismatic spiritual authority which finds its justification not in ordination by a bishop or external apostolic succession, but in the reality of theosis.  Yet St. Symeon did not rebel against or deny the hierarchical order, even if he criticized its laxity and failure to live out the reality of the Gospel it preached.  Rather, he asserted - in a profound affirmation of the sacramental order of the Church - that the sacramental order given by the hierarchy of bishops and ordination to the priesthood is nothing other than the sanctifying reality of theosis, and that consequently the same graces attributed to the priesthood - the ability to engender grace as spiritual fathers, efficaciously praying for the forgiveness of a penitent's sins after confession - are also to be found in those laymen who have achieved the heights of theosis.  The graces imparted by ordination are also conferred by sanctification; St. Symeon braved the disapproval of bishops by taking a unordained monk as his spiritual father and confessing his sins to him rather than to a priest.

The Orthodox Church, and by extension the Catholic Church of both Byzantine and Roman rites, has perhaps surprisingly given its stamp of approval to the writings of St. Symeon and upheld him as a father of the utmost orthodoxy, even bestowing on him the title "New Theologian", thereby ranking him with only two other saints in the history of the Church to bear the title "theologian" - St. Gregory Nazianzus and St. John the Evangelist.  Perhaps St. Symeon's recognition of a charismatic grace to forgive sins should have been extended by the West to a recognition of a charismatic mission to preach the Gospel.  When the clergy, through laxity and worldliness, fail to preach the Gospel of Christ, then Christ calls up his little ones from the laity and enkindles the zeal of the Spirit in their hearts, sending them to preach the Gospel to the world.

These little ones were, of course, historically monks.  The monastic institution, dating from the Egyptian desert at Scetis, was originally thoroughly lay in institution, and spiritual fathers and staretz both before and after St. Symeon were quite often lay monks.  The Franciscans likewise began as a lay brotherhood, and it is to the Franciscans that the consciousness of a layman's duty to preach the Gospel was first recognized in all its clarity in the West.  "Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary" were the words dubiously attributed to St. Francis to his disciples.  At times words were indeed necessary, and it was in such times that a figure like Peter Waldo took up the holy book to preach.

One can only imagine the course of Western history had the bishops recognized Waldo's divine mission rather than suppressing it.  The Protestant Revolt could quite possibly have averted, and the estranged Eastern and Western Churches could have come closer together in a recognition of the common spiritual roots of the Waldensians, Franciscans, and Symeon.

Today as Protestant theology comes into a true dialogue with the Catholic tradition for the first time as the whole theological community writes in the shadow of Barth, it seems fitting to turn back to the Waldensian question and re-evaluate the prophetic mission of preaching within the Church.  St. Symeon's grounding of charism in theosis restores the unity of prophecy and sacrament within a common theophanic and iconographical catena of theosis.  Theosis is the true proclamation of the Kingdom, and it is from theosis that one receives one's interior direction to prophecy, to speak, to act, and to admonish.  This does not justify in any way the idea that laymen should be preaching during the Liturgy.  Liturgical preaching is a role of the special priesthood and as such can only be conferred by a bishop.  What it does mean is that our idea of preaching should not be restricted to liturgical preaching; rather, our life itself should be a sermon, just as the cosmos - divinized through man by grace - in which we live our lives is itself a type of the Mass.  Edification given by laypeople outside of the Mass also partake of the "gratia sermonis", according to St. Thomas, and the Protestant preacher would bear this grace in a special way, one strong enough that Dulles is willing to grant it a status of being "quasi-sacramental".  This is not to say that Protestants maintain valid Holy Orders, but "invalidity does not mean total inefficacy - and hence we believe that also regarding ecclesiastical office one must speak of a vestigium ecclesiae among Protestants."

To conclude, what must be done to restore the Protestant spiritual development back along orthodox lines?

We must recognize, with St. Symeon, that theosis is the source and summit of the sacraments, and that the prayers and preaching of one deified are just as efficacious as the administration of the sacraments.

We must recognize that the Liturgy and the cosmos are types of each other, and that the prophetic and preaching function in both are types of each other - one restricted to the ministry of one ordained, the other being the lives we live.

We must emphasize the theophanic and iconographic nature of both the sacraments and of prophecy, thereby recognizing their inner unity.

And both must be rooted in a deep monastic spirituality.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Abstract Thought, Islamophobia, and a Timely Essay by Hegel

A frequent topic of discussion arising in the Catholic internet sphere lately has been whether Muslims (and by extension Jews, Hindus, etc.) "worship the same God" as we do, a question exacerbated by the recent prayers for peace held at the Vatican by the Holy Father, his All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch, the president of Palestine and the president of Israel.  I have vehemently argued for a position in the affirmative, taking a handful of approaches to the topic, beginning with the patristic precedence (St. Gregory VII's letter to Al-Nasir, the writings of Blessed Ramon Llull and St. Gregory Palamas, the encounter of St. Francis of Assisi with Al-Kamel, etc.), continuing to theological considerations (God is sui generis and therefore we cannot meaningfully ask which member of the class of Gods the Muslims worship; God's transcendence and universal agency require that all creatures are in dialogical relation to God where the meaningful question is how they respond to His call, not whether that call exists; the position that Muslims "worship a different God" entails theistic personalism and by extension moral therapeutic deism involving a finite deity), and finishing with the authority of the Church which stated unambiguously that Muslims and Christians worship the same God in Nostra Aetate paragraph 3.

Ultimately those who hold the fundamentalist rejection of a common theism between Christianity and Islam are incapable of viewing Islam except through the lens of an epistemologically totalitarian Islamophobia, wrapped up in an overwhelming awareness of the hostility Islam has shown towards the Church, its rejection of the Christian revelation, and of the basic human evil it has brought to the world, precluding the consideration of any other facet of Islam.  This point should be completely unrelated to the question as to "which God" the Muslims worship - certainly plenty of vile, evil men have worshiped the one true God - but it is also disturbing in the way in which it polarizes approaches towards Islam into simple, monolithic black and white categories, categories which stand in the way of the complexity and diversity of the situation and serve as idols replacing reality rather than icons revealing it.  The historical reality of Islam seems much more diverse and mixed.  The demonic evil of radical Islam and the historical oppression of religious minorities is seen alongside great tolerance and scholarly cooperation between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  The barbaric savagery exhibited in legal judgments regarding rape and child abuse is seen alongside deep humanitarianism and the sublime spirituality of the Sufis.  Reactionary obscurantism towards modern science comes from the same religion that enabled the formation of modern mathematics and science to begin with.

Hegel has some words which are uncannily pertinent to the situation, a state I find occurring more often the more I read Hegel.  Hegel wrote an essay, possibly in 1807 or 1808, entitled "Who Thinks Abstractly?" in which he turned some common presuppositions about philosophy and his own philosophy in particular on their head.  Abstract thought, Hegel argued, is not a mark of sophistication.  It is rather a mark of sophomoric simplification.  "Who thinks abstractly?  The uneducated, not the educated.  Good society does not think abstractly because it is too easy, because it is too lowly (not referring to the external status) - not from an empty affectation of nobility that would place itself above that of which it is not capable, but on account of the inward inferiority of the matter."  (The essay is reproduced in Kaufmann, Hegel, on pp. 460-465)

Abstract thought, in Hegel's usage, is the process whereby we turn away from particulars and the real world and turn towards abstractions from them, simplifications of those particulars, narrow-minded ideas within those particulars.  The study of particulars, of real beings in their fullness and completeness, is in fact the purpose of real knowledge.  Hegel seems inconsistent on this; in the preface to the Phenomenology written at the same time, in 1807 (and reproduced in Kaufmann pp. 363-458, with the relevant discussion on p. 416) he denies that philosophy can predict historical events, which are purely contingent, "accidental, and arbitrary", and thus to be distinguished from philosophy, since "the nature of such so-called truths is different from the nature of philosophical truths".  Yet in the "Essay on Abstraction", Hegel says that his purpose is not at all to "reconcile society with these things [abstract questions], to expect it to deal with something difficult", but rather "to reconcile the beautiful world with itself", to expose reality in its particularity and uniqueness, to assist the self-disclosure of Being to itself, a theme Heidegger will later adopt more explicitly.

Hegel wishes to turn us away from the superficial process of abstracting individual traits in things and blinding ourselves to the thing in its totality.  This seems to be what happens when Islam is approached - it is viewed as evil, therefore one becomes incapable of viewing it as anything but evil, and any suggestion of any positive trait is dismissed as sympathy for terrorism.  Hegel himself uses the example of a murderer being executed.  "I have only to adduce examples for my proposition:  everybody will grant that they confirm it.  A murderer is led to the place of execution.  For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer.  Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man.  The populace finds this remark terrible:  What?  A murderer handsome?  How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better!

This is abstract thinking:  To see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality."

We would do well to heed Hegel's call to reconcile the beautiful world to itself, to see reality in its fullness and complexity, to reject the polarizing nullification of thought that comes with abstraction, and to see the whole picture of singular beings, not mental idols.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Sacrificial Body

As many who have been involved with ecumenical and theological discussions between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches know, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception presents an apparent divergence between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, where the sinlessness and utter purity of the Panagia is affirmed but such a dogma is absent.  Much work has been done to uncover the underlying terminological divergence concerning original sin that has led to an apparent contradiction over whether the death of the Theotokos (considered dogmatic in the East, and certainly at least a sententia commune in the West, one affirmed five times in the papal document defining the Assumption) entails a fallen state for the Theotokos to live in.  Much less has been said over the equally important criticism made by the East, that the Theotokos was not separated from the mass of humanity by this "singular grace", that in order for us to be redeemed she had to pass on the same human nature shared by the rest of us.  A remarkable conclusion of this argument is that the human nature Christ bore and redeemed was, in fact, fallen.  Christ adopted a *fallen* human nature.

Certainly this must not be taken in a blasphemous manner to imply that Christ was, as Martin Luther claimed, a sinner, or even the worst of sinners, one who must have experienced and committed murder, adultery, sacrilege, and all the depths of depravity that mankind has cast ourselves into.  There may be a certain psychological cogency to such an argument, but Christ nonetheless is not Baudelaire, and the spiritual illumination sought by Rimbaud on the left-hand path of the "systematic derangement of the senses" did not bear a redemptive nature, much less a nature that could redeem the sins of the world.  Christ was absolutely sinless, as was the All-Holy One, the Panagia, His mother.  In an effort to ground her (and Him) fully in the human experience, many Orthodox will turn to the homily of St. Gregory Palamas on the Forefathers, and see in that homily a witness to the "progressive gracing" of the ancestors of Our Lord, of the Incarnation as the pinnacle and culmination of human history.

Nonetheless, the question remains, "how could Our Lord have become incarnate in a fallen human nature?  What does this mean?"

It does not mean that Jesus Christ ever committed sin.

It does not mean that Jesus Christ was ever tempted by sin.  Certainly He was tempted by sin, not only in the prototypal Lenten fast in the desert but also in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Yet Adam and Eve were also tempted by sin, and they were not fallen.  Therefore, temptation is not what is entailed by fallenness, but rather something incidental to it.

It does not mean that the bodies of either Our Lord or the Panagia suffered corruption in the grave.  The Byzantine liturgical texts on both feasts witness abundantly that they did not.

It does not mean inordinate derangement of the spiritual faculties or subjection to the passions.  Both the Theotokos and her Son were tempted, and the Theotokos, as a creature not yet fully divinized in what the Latin West will call the "Beatific Vision", possessed gnomic will (the faculty of choosing among apparent goods with the concomitant ability to sin, discussed by St. Maximos the Confessor).  Yet both also possessed supreme tranquility of soul and the peace which surpasses all understanding.

It does mean death.  The death of the Theotokos was necessary, as was the death of Christ.  The necessity of their deaths in no way impinges upon their free choice to die (as argued from St. Dimitri of Rostov, here:  The death of the all-holy Theotokos was peaceful, painless and sinless.  And yet, the death of Christ was not.

If death is what fundamentally the fallenness of their human natures entailed, then the fallenness of the human nature of Christ is something essentially marked by the Passion and Redemption.  The fallenness of the human nature of Christ, therefore, is something by nature sacrificial.

Blessed Columba Marmion says the following words in Christ the Ideal of the Priest, page 22 (Glasgow:  Sands & Co., 1952):

So, coming into the world, the Son of God assumed a "sacrificial body" suited for enduring suffering and death.  He was truly a member of the human race, like us, and it is in the name of His brethren that He is to offer Himself as victim to reconcile them with their Father in heaven.

Monday, June 9, 2014

St. Francis de Sales and a Newly Ordained Priest: An Anecdote

On one ordination day St. Francis de Sales noticed a young priest.  When the ceremony was over, he remarked that at the door of the church the newly ordained stopped as though he were disputing with some invisible person as to who to pass first.  "What is it?", the Saint asked.  The young levite confessed that he had the privilege of seeing his guardian angel.  "Before I was a priest," he said, "he always went in front of me, but now he will no longer pass before me."  The angels are not priests, but they reverence in us that dignity which they adore in Christ.

-Blessed Columba Marmion, Christ the Ideal of the Priest, page 53 (Glasgow, Sands & Co., 1952), citing Trochu, Saint Francis de Sales, i, 25.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Pseudo-Clementine Writings and the Brahmans

One of the more interesting pieces of early Christian literature coming down from the apostolic period is the Clementine Romance or Kerygmata Petrou (Preaching of Peter), a long romance purportedly written by St. Clement of Rome, the fourth Pope and disciple of St. Peter (whom Tertullian tells us was first ordained by St. Peter as his immediate successor as bishop of Rome, although abdicated for unknown reasons on behalf of first Linus and then Anacletus before becoming the fourth Pope, from 92-99 A.D.)

In the story Clement, speaking in the first person, tells of the preaching and exploits of St. Peter, his dispute with Simon Magus, and his reunification of Clement's family which had been separated due to misfortune and woes.  Although probably written no later than the 2nd century, the story reads like fiction and bears similarity to other romances written in many times and places - it might as well have been a Shakespearean comedy, of the ilk of Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

The story is liberally dosed with homiletic exhortations and catechetical teaching put in the mouths of Peter, Clement, and the rest of Clement's family, and one of the long monologues contained an interesting look at the Patristic view of Hinduism, of especial interest to theologians today trying to engage the Christian faith with the intellectual and spiritual inheritance of the Far East.

The Clementine Recognitions, book 9 section 20, in toto:

"There are likewise amongst the Bactrians, in the Indian countries, immense multitudes of Brahmans, who also themselves, from the tradition of their ancestors, and peaceful customs and laws, neither commit murder nor adultery, nor worship idols, nor have the practice of eating animal food, are never drunk, never do anything maliciously, but always fear God. And these things indeed they do, though the rest of the Indians commit both murders and adulteries, and worship idols, and are drunken, and practise other wickednesses of this sort. 
"Yea, in the western parts of India itself there is a certain country, where strangers, when they enter it, are taken and slaughtered and eaten; and neither have good stars prevented these men from such wickednesses and from accursed food, nor have malign stars compelled the Brahmans to do any evil. Again, there is a custom among the Persians to marry mothers, and sisters, and daughters. In all that district the Persians contract incestuous marriages."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

St. Muirghein the Meer, with some historically dubious hagiography

One of the chief points of tension between historical critical scholarship and popular piety involves the historicity of saints.  The period of upheaval after Vatican II saw the jettisoning of a number of popular saints from the Roman Catholic calendar, including such well-beloved pillars of people's devotion as St. Christopher, on the grounds that not only their hagiography but even their very existence lacks any historical evidence or certitude.  The Eastern Orthodox world, less amenable to dialogue with secular scholarship, has seen less upheaval of this variety, although individual scholars have strongly questioned the legends of various saints (a chief example being the martyrdom of St. Peter the Aleut by "Jesuits" at a time when the Jesuits did not exist and when the secular authorities involved enjoyed cordial relationships with other Orthodox saints).

One generally has to be sympathetic to the complaints of the faithful when well-beloved saints are thrown out of the window.  Assuredly the benefit of the doubt should rest upon the cultus that has arisen around such personalities, and it may seem unreasonable to methodologically reject the possibility of supernatural inspiration or intervention when it comes to the saints being glorified by the Church; secular scholarship may have no access to the history of St. Philomena, but as a spiritual practice it would seem strange to reject out of hand the revelations of her life and the involvement of the Cure of Ars in the promulgation of her cultus.

Nonetheless, not all saints did in fact exist, and as a cautionary tale it may be helpful to read the life of a saint whom modern sensibilities might baulk at.  For this saint, St. Muirghein the Meer (pronounced Morien), was in fact according to the legend a mermaid.  Even a mind reinforced by a hearty dose of naive traditionalism might find this story just a tad incredulous.

This story comes from the Lebor na h-Uidre (The Book of the Dun Cow), an Irish manuscript dating from the late 11th century, and whose compiler is said to have died in 1106.  The legends and traditions recorded are undoubtedly of much older provenance; this one comes from the Aided Echach mheic Mhaireda (Destruction of Eiochaid mac Mairidh).  It was translated into modern English in Silva Gadelica, II, 265-269, and again by Crowe, Proceedings of R. H. and A. A. of Ireland, 1870, 94-112, and also Joyce, Old Celtic Romances, London, 1879, 97-105.  I copied it from Lucy Allen Paton, Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance, New York, 1960, pp. 9-10.

A certain well in Ulster overflowed its banks.  Liban, the daughter of Ecca, king of Ulster, was the only member of her race who escaped death in the flood.  She was transformed into a salmon below the waist, and with her pet dog, which had been changed into an otter, she passed three centuries in the waters of the lake (Lough Neagh) which had been formed by the overflowing of the well.  At the end of this time, St. Comgall of Bennachar, or Bangor, sent Bevan mac Imle on a mission to Gregory.  As Bevan sailed over the sea he heard a chanting as of angels in the waters beneath him, and when he asked whence the song came, Liban replied that she made it, and forthwith told him her story, adding that her purpose in coming had been to bid him keep tryst with her a year from that day at innbher Ollorba.  At the appointed day and place the nets were made ready, and the mermaid was taken in the net of a certain Fergus.  "She was brought to land, her form and her whole description being wonderful.  Numbers came to view her and she in a vessel with water all about her."  Soon a contest for her possession arose among Comgall, Fergus and Bevan.  By fasting they won a revelation from heaven which bade them yoke to the chariot in which Liban was placed two stags, and allow them to go with her wheresoever they would.  The stags bore Liban away to tech Dabheoc.  Then the clergy gave her her choice of being baptized and going to heaven in the fulness of time, or of living on earth for three hundred years.  "The election she made was to depart then.  Comgall baptized her, and the name that he conferred on her was Muirghein or 'sea-birth' as before; or perhaps Muirgheilt, i.e. 'sea prodigy,' that is to say geilt in mhara, or 'the prodigy of the sea'."  Liban Muirghein was afterwards worshipped as a saint at the town of Tec-da-Beoc.

Lucy Allen Paton, in the study from which that except was copied, ties the legend of St. Liban Muirghein in with a broader tradition that gave arise to the Arthurian figure of Morgain la Fee.  The Arthurian figure's connection with the sea does not appear until the romance of Floriant et Floirete in the 13th century, in which she lives in Sicily, a fact verified by other local traditions pointing to a Sicilian origin to the story of Morgain's aquatic origins.  Instead of seeing a direct genealogy from the mermaid saint to Morgain la Fee, Paton suggests that Morgain is a conflation of St. Muirghein with the Irish battle-goddess Morrigan.