Being Orthodox 13: Asceticism

St Mary of Egypt lived a life of extreme asceticism after she repented of her life of extreme dissolution.
St Mary of Egypt lived a life of extreme asceticism after she repented of her life of extreme dissolution.

 

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.

 

Prayer comes in many different varieties in Orthodox Christianity. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 13: Asceticism”

Being Orthodox 12: Courage.

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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.”

Being Orthodox 11: Mystical

 

Albert Einstein explains his General Theory of Relativity to Cuthbert the cockroach (see text to make sense of this).
Albert Einstein explains his General Theory of Relativity to Cuthbert the cockroach (see text to make sense of this).

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.

 

Orthodox Christianity is more humble in its approach. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 11: Mystical”

Being Orthodox 10: Hierarchy May Not Mean What You Think It Means…

The 1927 Coptic Papal Election saw the bishop of a diocese elected Pope for the first time, rather than a monk or layman. This began a short phase of Coptic history where some actually campaigned to be elected pope. After a bitter and painful experience, the habit of choosing those who are unwilling to be Pope returned with the election of Pope Kyrollos VI in 1959.
The 1927 Coptic Papal Election saw the bishop of a diocese elected Pope for the first time, rather than a monk or layman. This began a short phase of Coptic history where some actually campaigned to be elected pope. After a bitter and painful experience, the habit of choosing those who are unwilling to be Pope returned with the election of Pope Kyrollos VI in 1959.

 

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.

 

This point becomes even more apparent when we consider the origins of the names we give our clergy. The episkopos (bishop), the economos (hegumen or archpriest) and the daikon (deacon) were all the titles not of rulers or kings or lords, but of slaves. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 10: Hierarchy May Not Mean What You Think It Means…”

Being Orthodox 9: A Mysterious Faith

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A “Mystery” in the Orthodox Church is what is called a sacrament in the West. This work of the Holy Spirit is the very life of the Church.

 

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”.

 

The historical evidence suggests that although the Mysteries were well known from the earliest Christian times, they were not limited to the seven Mysteries we now teach in the Coptic Church Continue reading “Being Orthodox 9: A Mysterious Faith”

Being Orthodox 8: Connecting Past, Present and Future

Orthodox Christianity is timeless.

To be a Christian today is not to invent something new. It is rather to be a part of something that you share with many billions of others who have lived in times and places as diverse as the Late Classical Roman Empire, medieval China and modern Gabon. They have been short and tall, fat and skinny, rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, slaves and free, old and young, male and female. Yet all of this huge mass of humanity is united by one transcendent belief: that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, saved us from our sins.

It has not always been easy to hold this faith. Often, to be a Christian has meant to suffer taunts and jibes at the least, a painful death at worst. The courage and utter dedication to the truth of the Christian Gospel of those who came before is profoundly inspiring, and gives today’s Christian a background or heritage against which to measure her own practice of the Christian way. The Coptic Church, like many others, has preserved the stories of those heroes of the past in books like the Synaxarium (read during the liturgy) and the Antiphonarium (read during the Midnight Praise). She has preserved their stories in beautiful icons, which are said not be painted, but ‘written’, since they are created chiefly to tell a story and communicate important theological truths about the meaning and purpose of human life in the light of the Christian message of divine love. We sing praises to these saints, celebrate special days to remember and honour their lives and sacrifices, and name our children after them in the hope that they will emulate some of their virtues. These are heroes worthy of the title, for their victories and achievements were not just in some passing arena of human endeavour, but in the arena of eternal life. Their crown is not a fading wreath of leaves, but a state of heavenly existence in the light of their loving Creator.

Christianity is first and foremost about love, about losing the ego, the self, by offering it up as a sacrifice of love for God and for others. “No one is saved alone” goes the old desert adage, but “Our life or death rests with our brother”. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 8: Connecting Past, Present and Future”

Being Orthodox 7: Apostolic and Patristic

 

St Ignatius of Antioch who lived and wrote in the first century AD and was a disciple of St John the Beloved.

In the post on Tradition, I mentioned that the Orthodox (and Roman Catholics) derive their particular Christian tradition from the most ancient sources, and therefore from those sources closest to Christ. They strive to preserve a Tradition that has been faithfully passed down from generation to generation for nearly two thousand years. We know that this transmission has been relatively free of major change because we can go back to the writings of those who lived in the first centuries and compare. Where we find significant differences, we are dedicated to reviving the ancient tradition and eradicating the changes, wherever that is possible and necessary (we would not for example, insist that everyone learn to speak Greek because that is the language of the New Testament!)

Of course, Protestants aim to practice pure, ancient Christianity too, but they go about it in a very different way. For the Protestant, the catchcry is sola scriptura, ‘scripture alone!’ And of course, they are quite right in thinking that the Bible is the closest of sources to Christ Himself that we have available – historically speaking at least, although we would say we get even closer to Christ in the Eucharist, for example. But sola scriptura has problems as a basis for Christianity. For one, like the core Christian Creed we saw in the last post, the Bible must be interpreted. Apostolic and non-Apostolic Christians do not disagree about the authority of the Bible. What they disagree about is how interpret the Bible.

For example, when Jesus said “My flesh is food indeed and My blood is drink indeed” (John 6:55) did He mean us to take that literally? How are we to interpret His words? Continue reading “Being Orthodox 7: Apostolic and Patristic”

Being Orthodox 6: Salvation

Eastern and Western Christians agree that sin separates humanity from God and that Christ reversed that separation. But what is sin, and what did Christ do to reverse it? That is where they disagree. This blog looks at the Differences in the understanding of sin, salvation, punishment, heaven and hell between East and West and between the ancient and modern.

 

How does the Eastern understanding of Christian salvation differ from that of the West? Before we begin to examine this question, there are two important things to note. The first is that in such a short piece of writing I am going to have to over simplify things horribly. Please do not take what I have written as the whole story or anything near it. If you are interested in getting a fuller picture, I will provide some further reading at the end. The other thing to note is that all Christians adhere and accept the basic statement of the Christian faith, as summarised in a Creed. In fact, the way we decide whether a church is truly Christian or not is whether they adhere to this kind of creed. The version of the ancient Christian creed the Orthodox Churches prefer is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the one we recite in every liturgy and many other formal prayers. Other Churches have creeds with slight variations on this one, but the variations are not really relevant to the discussion at hand.

But if we all hold to much the same creed, we do not all interpret it in the same way. Apparently, there is no official statement made by an ecumenical council on how the section about salvation in the basic Christian creed is to be interpreted, which is one reason why there are so many interpretations around. Starting with St Augustine, and moving through St Anselm and St Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church moved towards a view of salvation that cast God as something like a feudal lord dealing with his peasants or serfs. The ignorant and disobedient serfs withdrew their rightful service from their Lord, thus dishonouring or offending Him, and deserving punishment for this crime. “The honour taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow” (St Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, book 1, chapter 8). Christ came to offer the service that we failed to offer, thus restoring the honour of the Father and averting the need for us to be punished for our crime. The Protestant Reformation sought to interpret the Christian creed afresh, using only the Bible as a guide. But of course, the Bible too needs to be interpreted, and again, there can be many differing interpretations. Martin Luther and particularly John Calvin took St Anselm’s satisfaction model to the more extreme penal substitution model where Christ did not satisfy the wounded honour of the Father and offer the service humanity owed on their behalf, but actually took the punishment of their sin on their behalf. They also introduced a full legal vocabulary and explicitly legal precepts to describe what happens in salvation.

The Orthodox solution is to go back to the sources. How did the first Christians understand salvation? Continue reading “Being Orthodox 6: Salvation”

Being Orthodox 5: Faith or Works? Or…

 

Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, considered the Epistle of James to be an ‘epistle of straw’ because of its insistence on works together with faith.

One of the things that divides Christianity in the West into Roman Catholic and Protestant branches is the disagreement about what it takes to make it into heaven. The Catholics insist that both faith and works are necessary. It is not enough just to believe in God, but you have to also do good deeds to prove the sincerity of that faith. Here they often cite the Letter of St James in the Bible, a letter that Protestant pioneer Martin Luther disparaged as being nothing more than a “letter of straw”. What is more, say the Catholics, sacraments are necessary. We must be baptised and confirmed, absolved of our sins in Confession and united with Christ in the Eucharist. Again, there is no shortage of Biblical references for this.

 

In reply, the Protestants accuse the Catholics of being too narrow, of substituting the inventions of men for the commands of God, and of course they too have plenty of Bible verses to back up their position. “Believe and you will be saved”, they say, and that is all there is to the matter. If you only believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord, and proclaim it with your lips, you have won your place in heaven already, and, many of them add, can never again lose it, no matter what. Sola fidei (faith alone!) is the Protestant catchcry. It is an approach that has simplicity to recommend it, and makes the path to heaven seem so much easier than all that stuff Catholics insist you have to do all your life.

 

So where do the Orthodox stand in this debate? Continue reading “Being Orthodox 5: Faith or Works? Or…”

Being Orthodox 4: The Centrality of Christ

Every Coptic Church has an icon of Christ the Pantocrator, Christ victorious on the Throne of Heaven, at the very centre of the front of the Church building. This is an architectural expression of the spiritual principle of the centrality of Christ in our lives as individuals and as a community.

 

Protestant Christians often emphasise very strongly the importance of a personal relationship with God, so strongly in fact that in some Coptic circles you can be labelled a closet Protestant if you speak too much about a personal relationship with God. I believe such criticism sadly misreads the Apostolic Tradition. If we examine that Tradition we will find quite to the contrary, everything depends on this personal relationship with Christ. However, if the Orthodox see it as equally important if not more so compared to the Protestants, there are also differences in the nature of that personal relationship, differences that stem from our understanding of God.

 

But first let us illustrate the central role that personal relationship with Christ plays in the Orthodox Christian life. For the Orthodox Christian, the whole life of Christ is crucial. It is not just that Christ died for us on the Cross, but that He took our human nature in the first place. By doing so, by being one of us, He sanctified and blessed all humanity. He shared our sorrows and our joys, struggled as we do against evil and sin and weakness, became in fact, like us “in everything, save sin alone” (Liturgy of St Gregory). St Athanasius put it thus: “He took what is ours, and gave us what is His”. This exchange forms the basis of our personal relationship with Christ. The closest relationships are those in which there is complete sharing. All that we have, we give to Christ: our joys and victories; our sorrows and failures; our strengths and weaknesses; the little and the large; the important and the trivial; in fact, all that we have, all that are and all that we say and do, we offer constantly, repeatedly to Christ, keeping nothing back from Him, keeping nothing for ourselves alone. There is no nook or cranny of our existence we hold back. And He Himself gave all of Himself that is possible. His love, peace and joy, His truth and wisdom, His power and majesty, His forgiveness and mercy, His hope and faith and much more besides – all this He gave to humanity and to each one of us individually through His incarnation as one of us, and His life, death and resurrection.

 

The only thing He could not give us is the essence of divinity. The world was made through the Logos, Christ, but He could not grant us to be creators of the world. Instead, He gave us a small reflection of creatorship in that we can make new human beings through the Mystery of marriage, or participate in the creation of a new person through the Mystery of baptism. In Christ, we share with God al that we are and he shares with us all that we can bear of all that He is. Orthodoxy falls down in amazed gratitude before this astonishing act of love and incomprehensible generosity. We do not just appreciate it with our minds, for relationships are more than merely intellectual. We live it with our hearts, souls and bodies.

 

And so we spend hours and hours developing this personal and intimate relationship with Christ. Continue reading “Being Orthodox 4: The Centrality of Christ”