In an age of equality and democracy, a word like ‘nobility’ has a bad taste about it. It can bring to mind selfish, wealthy aristocrats living off the blood, sweat, and tears of the poor, caring nothing for their welfare, so long as they get what they want from them.
But of course, that’s the wrong kind of nobility. In St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he lists “whatever things are noble” as one of the things we ought to train our minds and hearts to rest upon:
whatever things are true,
whatever things are noble,
whatever things are just,
whatever things are pure,
whatever things are lovely,
whatever things are of good report,
if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—
meditate on these things.
The Greek word we translate as “noble” here is σεμνός (semnós), from a root word σέβομαι (sébomai) meaning to revere or adore. So, something that is semnós is something that is worthy of reverence or adoration.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit, and our lives have changed dramatically; possibly in some ways, permanently. The dark side of the pandemic no doubt fills your screens and devices for large chunks of the day, so here, I want to highlight the brighter side. “Every cloud has a silver lining” is a hackneyed cliché, yet no less true for that. And of course, the Christian lives according to the foundational principle that good is always ultimately stronger than evil. We find this principle all over the Bible—here is a small sample:
Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy,
for though I have fallen, yet will I arise,
because even if I should sit in darkness,
the Lord will be a light to me (Micah 7:8).
And we know that all things work together
for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28).
Not that I speak in regard to need,
for I have learned in whatever state I am,
to be content:
I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound.
Everywhere and in all things I have learned
both to be full and to be hungry,
both to abound and to suffer need.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11–13).
You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
What matters in life is not that bad things happen to us. What really matters is what we make of the things that happen to us, good or bad. It was bad that Christ was crucified, but He turned it into the most stunning act of self-sacrificial love by humbly accepting it and even praying for the ones who put Him to death, and then defeating death by His resurrection. Merely complaining about our troubles diminishes us as human beings and makes us passive victims. Accepting the situation and using it to transform ourselves for the better makes us victors, just like Christ.
So, in that spirit, here are 19 blessings we might derive from the curse of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What is the relationship between the Christian and the world? Should a Christian isolate herself from the world in order to find holiness and goodness? Or does a Christian have a responsibility to participate in the world around her?
One of the things people notice about Orthodox Christianity is its strong focus on monasticism. Monks and nuns, and consecrated servants like deacons and deaconesses are valued very highly, and Orthodox faithful often speak as though their lives are clearly superior to those of the “common” faithful who live “in the world”, in secular society, getting married, having children, holding down jobs and paying mortgages. While there is certainly much to admire in those who take up the cross of consecrated life, there is also an important thread that runs through ancient Christian thinking that brings some balance to this view. For example, there are the many writings of the ancient Fathers of the Church that speak very highly indeed of the virtues of family life and see the family as an icon of divine love in diverse ways. There are stories of great ascetic saints like St Anthony and St Macarius being led by God to meet some “common” Christian individuals living the family life in the world, and being told that these “common” Christians excel even these heroes of monasticism in the eyes of God, simply by living a life of sincere divine love.
Most readers are not living the consecrated life (nor am I really qualified to write about it) so let us focus instead on what it means to be a “common” Christian, living “in the world”. Are we meant to be an active part of this world, or are we meant to be sojourners: strangers passing through a foreign land in which we never feel at home? There are passages in the Bible that suggest that we must be “the light of the world”, yet there are others that suggest we are but travellers who never put down roots. So which is it to be?
What does it mean to be human? This question has occupied humanity since time immemorial, and of all the different answers we have come up with, I find none so true, so useful or so satisfying as that given by Orthodox Christianity. In Eastern Christianity, there is a powerful push for integration rather than disintegration. It is very easy for the Christian to end up with a life divided into a lot of separate little boxes labelled ‘Work’, ‘Recreation’, ‘Family’, ‘Spirituality’, and so on. So, when I go to church on Sunday, I jump into my Spirituality box. When I finish and go home, I jump out of Spirituality and into, say, the Family box, since of course, these are two very different things. And on Monday, I jump out of Family and into the Work box, a different thing again. This may be our natural tendency, but that is only because we live in a broken and fallen world. Because our world is broken, our lives also tend to be broken. In this state, inconsistencies, internal tensions and hypocrisy are all too easy to fall into.
Instead, we ought to strive to make all these aspects of human life just different faces of the one unified and integrated whole, so that there is no contradiction between any of them, so that I am the same person whichever of them I happen to be engaged in, and so that the presence of God permeates and characterises them all. Instead of having lots of little discreet boxes and jump from one to another, we ought to have just one single box in which we live all our lives, and into which we pour every aspect of that life; the box, labelled ‘Christ’.
This principle of unification applies at every level of our lives. In the Church, lots of different individuals come together. As a Church, we aim to unify all the disparate and unique personalities that we bring into one unified Body of Christ, united in the liturgy by partaking in one voice, one heart and one prayer and in the sharing together and partaking of His one Body and one Blood. No matter how many people there at a Coptic liturgy, there can only be one loaf of bread to be consecrated as Christ’s Body – even if it must be the size of a truck’s wheel – and one cup of wine to be consecrated as Christ’s Blood – even if it must be the size of a large bucket.
As Christians living in this world, we aim to bring harmony and unity to everything in it. We pray for and strive for harmony between families, neighbours, races, religions, genders and even nations. We strive to bring harmony between humanity and its world. Christians understand humanity to be the pinnacle of the creation. That does not mean a selfish rapacious authority whereby the world exists only to fulfil our needs, but Christ-like stewardship and service. We are the servants of this world, of the animals and the birds and fish, and even of the global environment. We have power over the world, but like Christ, we exercise that power to care for the world to do all we can to help it to flourish and grow in beauty. We rejoice in its beauty and its health, and weep over its destruction.
One of my all time favourite people passed away yesterday. Fr Thomas Hopko was a priest of the Orthodox Church in America whose distinctions are too many to list here. What I liked most about him though, was listening to him speak and reading things he wrote. He displayed a rare gift for insight and understanding, the kind that leads to a profound wisdom. His knack for synthesising new ways to express the ancient Orthodox Christian faith and Tradition to modern life in ways not only relevant, but even inspiring, was remarkable. He combined this with an indomitable humility and sincere compassionate love for all. The motto of one of his podcast series, “Speaking the Truth in Love”, nicely captures his courageous contribution to desperately needed Church reform in many areas.
He will be sorely missed by many in the Christian community. One of them is Samuel Kaldas, who provides a much more fitting eulogy for Fr Tom than my brief words in the following guest post…
Fr. Thomas Hopko fell asleep in the Lord today. As a theologian, he had a remarkable gift for delivering important and complex ideas to a non-academic audience. Through his constant (and ridiculously high) output of podcasts, sermons, books and articles, he became a bridge between the “ivory tower,” academic world of the Seminary and the “real-world” of the Orthodox faithful. In many ways, his work as an educator achieved precisely what his father-in-law Fr. Alexander Schmemann identified as the chief task of the theologian: to supply “that essential link between the Tradition of the Church and the real life, to assure the acceptance of the faith by the faithful.”
This was only possible because of his great humility: he did not spend his time on original research that would only be read by professional theologians, though he certainly had the intellect, and encouraged many other brilliant students to do such research during his time as Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He did not trumpet himself as a new and exciting voice in academic theology. Instead, he was always concerned with the Church outside the Seminary. As he himself put it:
In the last post, we spoke of the courage of the Christian, and how that can lead to various kinds of martyrdom. Few of us today will be called upon to display the courage of a martyr, although the world seems to be changing for the worse such that martyrdom is making a comeback in certain regions. In times of persecution, there was another category of people who were deeply respected and venerated: the confessors; those who suffered arrest and torture for their faith but survived their harsh treatment. A confessor is a martyr who lived instead of dying, albeit at the price of great sacrifice.
This spirit of self-sacrificial love lies also at the heart of the way of life that is called ascetism. The word ‘ascetism’ has roots in the Greek for athletic training or preparation for an athletic event. It commonly takes the form of three main practices, fasting, praying and charity. These three practices are grouped together and described in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:6-18. Orthodox Churches vary in the number and timing of the days they fast each year, but the ancient fasts of Lent and Wednesdays and Fridays are common to most Churches. These are communal fasts, fasted by everyone who is a member of the Church as one body and with one heart, although of course concessions are made for the sick, the elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers and children. The benefit of organised communal fasting, as opposed to the voluntary ‘personal’ fasting preferred by many other Christians, is that it brings the community together in a shared experience. The individual loses herself, sacrificing her own selfish will in order to become a part of something much bigger than herself.
When we fast communally, we can encourage and support each other to achieve the goals of fasting: self-control; gratitude for the food we take for granted; empathy with the poor and hungry of the world and a mindset that rises above the merely material and instead focuses on the transcendent. So long as it is practiced sincerely and with these goals in mind, fasting can be a powerful tool for regenerating both the individual and the community. Of course, like anything else in life, fasting can also be misused and even abused. Christ Himself in the Sermon on the Mount pointed out how it is possible for a person to use the deprivations of fasting to extort sympathy and pity from others or to make oneself a vain ‘spiritual hero’. Thus He advised us to go about our lives when fasting in exactly the same way we go about them when we are not fasting, so that no one might notice the difference and lead us down these undesirable paths. Then there is excessive fasting that leads to a deterioration in health, or ornamental and merely routine fasting; the fasting of the body but not of the spirit, mind or heart. But the misuses of fasting should not make us reject the benefits it brings when it is properly used. It is always regrettable to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
As Christians in general, and as Coptic Orthodox Christians in particular, an important part of our heritage is the ancient Christian School of Alexandria, which flourished from the second to the fourth centuries and produced such giants of ancient Christian thought as Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, Origen, Didymus the Blind and of course the great theologian-patriarchs, Pope Peter the Seal of Martyrs and philosopher-priest, Pope Athanasius the Apostolic and Pope Cyril the Pillar of Faith. Most historians regard this School as the cradle of Christian theology and philosophy, not just for the Copts, but for the whole Christian Church, East and West. That is no small legacy to inherit! But inheritance is not about boasting of past glories, it is about continuing the traditions that made that past glorious. And how can we continue that tradition if we are unacquainted with it? So to begin, I will offer some contemplations on the School of Alexandria, as it was in ancient times.
What made the School of Alexandria so influential? My view is that truth has an inevitable power to it. Things that are true tend to eventually win out, while things that are false sooner or later collapse. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Greek philosophers of two and half thousand years ago, are still studied carefully in universities today because they touched deep and timeless truths that remain forever relevant. The genius of the School of Alexandria lay in its courageous pursuit of truth, wherever that pursuit might lead, and using any and all tools that might help in that pursuit. Thus the Christian Alexandrian scholars studied not only theology and sacred texts, but all the natural sciences (as they were then), mathematics, geometry, rhetoric (the ancient art of arguing) and philosophy. They used every available tool in their world to conduct a pursuit of truth that was as all-encompassing as possible. This is reflected in their writings that often go far beyond the merely religious and present a worldview that covers every aspect of the world and human life.
They were not afraid to engage with their non-Christian critics, pagan, gnostic or any other variety. They met them on their own turf, using the tools of philosophy to engage with the philosophers, history and literature to engage with the historian, and the natural world to engage with the ‘scientists’ of the day. They seem to have believed that all true knowledge must inevitably lead to the God of Truth, and found the fingerprints of that God even in the writings of the pagans themselves. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 12: Courage.”
The question of how the Mysteries (sacraments) ‘work’ is necessarily and closely related to the question of the nature of God. If we want to know something about the work of the Holy Spirit, then we need first to know something about the Holy Spirit Himself. But can we ever really understand God? In the West, the Enlightenment was a time when the human mind seemed unstoppable. So many ancient questions were finally resolved, so many dark corners that seemed for centuries to be impenetrable had the light of human intellect flood into them, that it seemed that there was nothing we could not understand. Including perhaps, even God. It is a characteristic of modern Western theology that it sometimes seeks to explain what we of the East accept as inexplicable. Not just unexplained, mind you – in the sense that we just don’t know enough, but one day we might – but genuinely and forever beyond the reach of our human understanding.
But not all the great minds of the Enlightenment were so confident. Seventeenth century French philosopher Rene Descartes famously applied the ‘method of doubt’ to everything in his world and concluded that we cannot be certain that anything truly exists except ourselves (thus was born his famous phrase, cogito ergo sum, roughly translated, “I think, therefore, I am”). While most people rightly consider Descartes’ scepticism impractical, it is important for anyone who really cares about truth to be cautious about what they accept as truth.
In modern times, belief in God has been questioned for many reasons. One of these reasons is that theologians can sometimes overstep the mark and say things about God with far too much certainty. The pattern oft repeated in the West goes something like this: “God is X, Y and Z” becomes doctrine. But when thoughtful people apply careful sincere thought to the doctrine, they find serious holes in it. So they reject the doctrine of God being X, Y and Z, and the concept of a God along with it, since those who should know God best, the theologians, seem to have an indefensible concept of God. For a thoughtful Christian who has come to this point, the result is one of three things: either she will insist on holding on to a doctrine of God that she knows is indefensible; or she will lose interest in theology altogether; or she will lose her faith in the existence of God altogether.
One of the criticisms of the Orthodox Churches that is often raised is that it has a rigid hierarchical and even patriarchal structure, a hierarchy of patriarchs, bishops, priests and deacons who run everything in the church, while Protestant structures are more democratic, more ‘congregation-friendly’. As you will have no doubt guessed by now, I am going to disagree with this assessment.
To understand the Orthodox Church hierarchy we need to go right back to its origins, the years of ‘training’ that the Apostles of Christ underwent under His wise supervision. Over and over Jesus taught the Apostles that they were not rulers or masters in the worldly sense employed by any other organisation. An example will serve to illustrate this point:
The hierarchy of the Orthodox Church is not a hierarchy of authority and power, but of humble, self-sacrificial service. If we listen to our clergy it is not because we fear their wrath, but because we respect the gift of the Holy Spirit to which they have humbly submitted themselves. If we treat them with respect it is because they prostrate themselves daily to wash our feet, heal our wounds and straighten our path. I do not know how I can say this any more clearly: leadership in the Orthodox Church is not about power or authority or popularity or wealth. It is a kind of death for the leader. He must put himself willingly and joyfully to death each day out of love for his Master Christ and for his Master’s children. That is one reason why our priesthood wears black, to remind them and us of that daily death.
We saw in the post on the importance of the Apostolic Tradition and its reflection in the writings of the ancient Fathers that the very first Christians truly believed that a miracle happened in the Eucharist, and that in a mystery, Christ became truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, so that they became His true flesh and blood. This is one illustration of the fact that the idea of the Holy Spirit working mysteriously in our lives goes all the way back to Apostolic times. When Christ ascended to heaven, He promised not to leave His followers orphaned. He sent to them His own Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Paraclete (or ‘Advocate’), the Comforter. In this way, God dwells constantly and powerfully amongst His people.
The Apostolic Churches (and a small minority of Protestant Churches) have maintained this faith in the continuous presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the Church through what is generally called in the west, the sacraments. However, the Orthodox prefer the word ‘Mystery’ (Greek / Coptic ‘mysterion’; Arabic ‘serr’) to the word ‘Sacrament’. The word ‘sacrament’ comes from the Latin ‘sacramentum’ which means an oath. It was apparently first applied to baptism, signifying that being baptised involved promising to be a true follower of Christ (until today in the Coptic Baptism rite, the baptised or their parents still make a public oath to reject the devil and all that is evil, and to follow Christ and all that is good). But in the East, the word ‘mystery’ was used, perhaps to indicate that the nature of what happened was hidden from non-Christians. But Eastern theology also emphasises the fact that what happens when the Holy Spirit works in us is something far, far beyond the comprehension of the human mind, something in the liturgical words of St Gregory the Theologian that is “more than we ask or understand”.