Friday, December 31, 2010

To those who still think the battle is between objective and subjective truth

...nothing else than the personal mystical experience of the individual Christian constitutes the cornerstone of Tradition: Tradition cannot be truly Orthodox if it is not founded upon a personal encounter with God; those who try to oppose a formal and rationalized “tradition” (held by the majority in the church) to an inspired “mysticism” (of individual enthusiasts) fall into error without understanding the very essence of Tradition. The true mystic is not the one who considers his own personal experience superior to the Tradition of the church, but he whose experience is in agreement with the experience of the church.
~Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, "The Patristic Heritage and Modernity"

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A runny thought on theological speculation

There's a lurid wanderlust in the spiritual speech of many Western Christians, roots of which go way back. Imagination, speculation, and sentimentality are the basic hallmarks of this non-ascetical approach to theological reflection. Some find grand allegorical meaning in the mysteries of astronomy and calendrical science; others in musicology, paleoanthropology, linguistics, mathematics or any intricate body of knowledge. What unifies them all is a spirit or mind that finds some solace or satisfaction in special, secret knowledge that is not accessible to the common man. Without a prior fragmentation of Catholic truth, such speculation would be close to impossible. But the Catholica has been shattered and become a buffet. We're now at liberty to pick our favorite pieces of the Truth and fetishize them, always licensed and sometimes emboldened by the enforcement structure of the institutional Church to rebut any criticism with an indignant "Well, it's true." It's not the same spirit as the allegorical style of the Fathers.

From Opuscula Theologica
Yesterday was mid-winter, the shortest day of the year. From now on the days will become brighter and longer, reminding us of the Light of the world, born in Bethlehem, and of the never ending day of His Second Coming.

“Again the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar (cf. Ex. 14:20). The people that sat in the darkness of ignorance, let it see the Great Light of full knowledge (cf. Isa. 9:6). Old things are passed away, behold all things are become new (cf. I Cor. 5:17). The letter gives way; the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away; the Truth comes in upon them. Melchisedec is concluded (cf. Heb. 7:3). He that was without Mother becomes without Father (without Mother of His former state, without Father of His second). The laws of nature are upset; the world above must be filled. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people (cf. Ps. 47:1), because to us a Child is born, and a Son given to us, Whose Government is upon His shoulder (for with it the Cross is raised up), and His Name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father (cf. Isa. 9:6).”

- St. Gregory the Theologian
No carelessly inflected slogans/truisms here. All pure theologia, not academic, pedantic, or esoteric knowledge. St. Gregory's speculative imagery and allegory (eg, solstice) is grounded directly in the spirit and mind of Christ, not just in "objective facts" about his existence or coming. May we attain to this spirit/mind of our Doctor Fathers. We effectively deny and spit on the (personal) Spirit of Truth when we speak with emotions, attitudes, or poses that diverge from Christ's very own. The eyes of the Sacred Victim turned on Peter (us), at his denial should convict us more and purge from us the filthy bile that spews from our bowels whenever we engage in theological banter. It's not what we profess that matters as much as how we profess it. It's not even what we believe so much as how we believe. Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life is directed at the HOW, not just the what.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Would you like that soul with honey or vinegar?

I was looking up what Googleland has to offer on involuntary sin because of a discussion I had with a good friend and stumbled on this wonderful, very Patristic-minded passage from Pope Benedict's Spe Salvi.
33. Saint Augustine, in a homily on the First Letter of John, describes very beautifully the intimate relationship between prayer and hope. He defines prayer as an exercise of desire. Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched. “By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]”. Augustine refers to Saint Paul, who speaks of himself as straining forward to the things that are to come (cf. Phil 3:13). He then uses a very beautiful image to describe this process of enlargement and preparation of the human heart. “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God's tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined[26]. Even if Augustine speaks directly only of our capacity for God, it is nevertheless clear that through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar, not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others. It is only by becoming children of God, that we can be with our common Father. To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God—what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meagre, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them. “But who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults” prays the Psalmist (Ps 19:12 [18:13]). Failure to recognize my guilt, the illusion of my innocence, does not justify me and does not save me, because I am culpable for the numbness of my conscience and my incapacity to recognize the evil in me for what it is. If God does not exist, perhaps I have to seek refuge in these lies, because there is no one who can forgive me; no one who is the true criterion. Yet my encounter with God awakens my conscience in such a way that it no longer aims at self-justification, and is no longer a mere reflection of me and those of my contemporaries who shape my thinking, but it becomes a capacity for listening to the Good itself.

Advent wrath [sic]

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
~Matthew 3:7-10, from the Gospel reading for 2nd Sunday of Advent
Who are we to "flee from the wrath to come"? The Forerunner speaks of God's wrath not as something we're saved from, but as the very thing that will save those who repent. The Eastern church is right about this. The West views God's wrath mostly as vindictive, retributive punishment which we are saved FROM by some forensic transaction in which Christ's blood is merely the payment. This is why Catholics have so few concrete teachings or examples of a LIFE of repentance since we think of repentance as a transaction for the confession booth. Repentance as transaction renders John's call into little more than a pro forma hat tip or a weapon to be used on the Other (Jews, Muslims, non-believers, non-Catholics, everyone but ourselves). As Protestant and Catholic, I always felt repentance seemed superfluous to those who are already saved or absolved; if we're saved from divine wrath, what do we need to repent for?

But to the Eastern church, God's wrath is simply the hard edge of God's light, but it is not modeled after human, pagan wrath. God's wrath exposes, chastens, purifies, cleanses, cauterizes, heals, emancipates, even deifies. Like all of God's energies and operations, God's wrath is Good because it is of God who loves mankind, as the Eastern church prays over and over again. No epistemological voluntarism here: God's wrath is not good just because God says so, as if divine cruelty and bloodthirst are good by arbitrary definition. It's good because it's not cruel or bloodthirsty because God is not cruel or bloodthirsty. The only thing that makes divine wrath so hard and terrifying to us is sin in us. The West has made God's wrath into the problem we must solve or be saved from, when in actuality His wrath is the solution. Sin as that which alienates us from the divine life in us experiences God as wrath. So wrath is the enemy of sin. So if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then divine wrath is my friend.

Divine wrath calls us to repentance because that's the natural human response to it. Flight from divine wrath is flight from God right back into the arms of sin. A life of repentance unites us with the good wrath of God, separates us from the life of sin, liberates us from slavery to our passions, not to remove a juridical sentence hanging over us, but to prepare us for deification, to restore the image and likeness of God in us, to make us men in full again. To be Christian is to incline one's heart to the wrath of God like leaves incline towards the sun. How much more are we to anticipate the coming of the Sun of Righteousness? This is why ascesis is necessary in Advent. The West has lost all sense of ascetic preparation and anticipation for the Nativity because the modern Church has watered down John's call to repentance into a nice story befitting pastel-colored candle wreaths, sentimental dioramas, and cute kids dressing up as Joseph and Mary like it's Halloween.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Peepees

Fr. Tom Hopko has often spoken of the Peepees as a neat summary of the temptations of Christ in the wilderness that we must renounce if we are to follow Him: power, prestige, position, possession, and pleasure.

I see another set of adjectival Peepees lately infecting me and a lot of today's uber-Catholics: priggish, peevish, petulant, polemical, pedantic, pretentious, and pompous. These are not cute peccadilloes or personality flourishes that can be laughed off as the marks of a Chesterbellockian curmudgeon-saint. They just make us pathetic. Hey, there goes another peepee.