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Fundamental Insights from the Eastern Fathers for the Modern World

Patriarch Bartholomew

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His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Donohue Chair Lecture
Pontifical Oriental Institute
Rome, 6 March 2008

It is with great joy that we accepted the gracious invitation of the Pontifical Oriental Institute to deliver the prestigious Donohue Chair Lecture for the Academic Year 2007-2008, on the occasion of the jubilee celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of its foundation by Pope Benedict XV (15.10.1917). The Institute is of course well-known to us personally but also to the academic world for research by its renowned faculties in Eastern Church Studies and in Eastern Canon Law, as well as for publications in its seminal academic periodicals and monograph series. We were asked on this occasion to speak on the theology that the Orthodox Church would expect from the Pontifical Institute as a service to the contemporary world. In some ways, the historical journey of the Pontifical Oriental Institute itself reflects the gradual openness of this esteemed institution, which has -- especially since the mutual fraternal exchanges and ecumenical openings of Pope John XXIII and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras -- searched for ways of serving the unity of the Church as a whole. For this reason, therefore, we have chosen to explore the various principles of theology, as this was developed in the early Eastern, albeit undivided Church of the Fathers and as it might further shape the theological work of your esteemed institute today for the benefit of the entire Church. In this regard, our aim is to discuss the role of theology, the rule of prayer and the power of silence as these inform the ministry of the theologian in the contemporary world.

(i) The Breadth of Theology

"Speak a word to me, Abba, as to how I may be saved." With these words, people have approached saintly men and women through the ages, seeking a word of salvation. What, we might ask today, is the word of salvation that the theology of the Eastern Church, as the theology of the early undivided Church, can bring to the modern world? What is the unique theological word offered by the Eastern Church Fathers to a world that thirsts today for wholeness and healing? From the outset, it should be noted that Patristic theology cannot be reduced to a structured system of truths. Rather, it is the light and grace of the Holy Spirit which gives life to the whole Church and which in turn rejuvenates the entire world. Indeed, separated from the Church and the world, theology merely proves to be a sterile study of doctrinal formulations, rather than a deifying vision of conviction and commitment, capable of transforming the whole world.

This was certainly the case in Byzantium, where "religious" life encompassed every detail of "secular" life. Theological culture embraced every aspect, manifestation, activity, institution, intuition, and literary achievement in Byzantine society. This was because the Church Fathers were primarily pastors, not philosophers. They were concerned first with reforming the human heart and transforming society, not with refining concepts or resolving controversies. Let us, then, examine some of the fundamental aspects of Patristic thought, which should enlighten theology in the modem age, especially as this is developed by faculty and students in an institution of Eastern Studies like the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

Perhaps the most central theme of Patristic theology is the dynamic nature of its doctrine: the doctrine of the Trinity and its Christological doctrine, as well as its understanding of the human person and the whole world, all of which are never perceived as autonomous, static realities. This feature has constituted, from the earliest times to the present, both an innate experience and a continuous expectation. The all-embracing breadth of such writers as St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Gregory Palamas is part and parcel of this dynamic world-view, sometimes obscured by Byzantium's more dazzling manifestations, for example in culture and art. Yet the material monuments, manuscripts, and icons of Byzantium point in a most tangible manner to a more intangible spirit. Whether through an intricate analysis of doctrine and study of the historical life of the Church, or whether admiring art forms of perennial value and even repeating liturgical phrases in worship, we constantly discover the same unique vision of a humanity called to know and to become God, as well as of a world transfigured in and filled with the presence of God. It is in this context that the Church Fathers dared to expound the doctrine of theosis. To quote St. Gregory the Theologian, our fourth-century predecessor on the Ecumenical Throne:

Admit the origins of your existence. Admit the origins of what is most important of all, your knowledge of God, your hope of the kingdom of heaven, your contemplation of glory. Admit -- and now I speak boldly -- that you have been made divine.

This positive, open-ended view of humanity and the world implies a continual transcendence of limitations, a vocation to share in life made possible in Christ through the Holy Spirit. All theology must interpret and defend this potential communion between God and humanity, as experienced by the Apostles and expressed by St. John the Theologian regarding what the disciples "heard, and saw with their eyes, looked at and touched with their hands, concerning the word of life."(l Jn 1:1) Furthermore, it must be remembered that the Church Fathers never perceived theology as a monopoly of the professional academic or the official hierarchy. No other age has known as many discussions and controversies: homoousion or homoiousion, two natures in one person, two wills or monothelitism, icons or iconoclasm, essence and energies. All levels -- episcopal, monastic, and lay -- were directly and deeply involved in these theological decisions. There was never any external, juridically defined, criterion of truth; orthodoxy was the common responsibility and obligation of all. Naturally, in an un-theological world such as ours, it is difficult to imagine the degree to which religion pervaded society. It is sufficient to recall how Gregory of Nyssa, described the unending theological discussions during the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople:

The whole city is full of it: the squares and the market places; old clothesmen and food sellers -- they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten; if you inquire about the price of bread, you are told that the Father is greater than the Son.

What, then, does this dynamic nature of doctrine imply for the role of theology in the modern world? First of all, it demands an open -- indeed, we might add, ecumenical -- worldview, whereby we are called to perceive the profound mystery in all people and in all things. There is always much more than meets the eye when we consider human life and the natural environment. We must at all times be prepared to create new openings and to build bridges, ever deepening our relationship with God, with other people and with creation itself. We must never rest complacent in the ivory towers of either our academic or ecclesiastical institutions.

(ii) The Liturgy of the Church

Now, if theology is a communal experience, seeking -- as St. Paul tells us -- "to make everyone see the plan of the mystery hidden in God" (Eph 3:9), the Church guarantees the normative continuity from the apostolic era, in the Patristic age, and through our times. The Church is most authentically itself, however, when it prays as a worshipping community. The unity and identity of Patristic theology is maintained precisely through the worship of the Church, which expresses its theology in liturgy. This liturgical dimension was the major means whereby the Patristic culture and worldview was transmitted to other peoples during the missionary expansion of the Byzantine Church; it also accounted for the survival of the Eastern Church in times of turmoil. It was the aspect of worship, for example, that encouraged -- and even served as a means to educate -- Eastern Christians during the four hundred years of Ottoman rule as well as, more recently, during persecutions in post-revolutionary Russia. The Church Fathers continue to realize this dynamic symbol of unity and life as they are invoked at each Divine Liturgy.

So liturgy is an essential aspect of Patristic theology. Perhaps more than anything else, liturgy forms the very heart of the Christian Church. In the Eucharist, heaven is reflected on earth and earth is raised to heaven, as Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople writes in the eighth century:

The Church is an earthly heaven in which the supra-heavenly God dwells and walks. ... It is prefigured in the patriarchs, foretold by the prophets, founded in the apostles, adorned by the hierarchs, and fulfilled in the martyrs.

As we know, following the Edict of Milan (313), the Church acquired -- among other things -- the freedom to develop its public and external aspects.

The effects of this were almost immediately obvious in Church organization, architecture, but above all in liturgy. What was formerly the secret matter of a persecuted minority, Christian worship now became an integral and flourishing part of daily public life. Indeed, particularly from the establishment of Christianity in the early fourth century, New Rome became the centre of liturgical synthesis, while the Great Church of Constantinople was respected as a normative standard of theology and worship. This is especially evident in the many canons -- for example, in the Council of Trullo (692) -- regulating liturgical customs. As a direct result of this creativity, the organic development of liturgy never stagnated.

The liturgy even served as an authority invoked by the Fathers themselves. The powerful liturgical tradition, the numerous liturgical texts, and the unceasing liturgical expressions (for instance, of the Akoimetoi, who "sleeplessly" performed the practice of prayer) all bear witness to the experience of liturgical prayer as a fundamental criterion of spiritual authority. This approach always distinguished the Eastern Fathers from their Western counterparts. The difference was never formally articulated or widely perceived. However, whereas the gradual development in the West of a juridical source of authority led to an understanding of liturgical rites more as external signs, Eastern Christianity visualized liturgy as an authoritative criterion of faith and ethics.

The Church, therefore, sees in the liturgical tradition an inviolable element of its life. The "rule of prayer" is an essential part of the "rule of faith." Without an appreciation of worship, any understanding of Patristic faith and doctrine is inevitably incomplete. Liturgy is "the melody of theology": the readings, hymns, prayers and services of Byzantium reflect the theological, ecclesiastical, political and social issues of that era. For it was the common cup of communion that nourished popular spiritual life, while also nurturing sociological thought and political action. This is why St. Nicholas Cabasilas describes the liturgy as "the ultimate mystery, beyond which it is impossible to go." Thus, doctrine is inextricably linked with doxology; theology and worship share the same language. As Metropolitan John of Pergamon writes, the doctrinal insights of the early Fathers are directly attributed to their experience as Eucharistic presidents of local communities:

The bishops of this period, pastoral theologians such as St. Ignatius of Antioch and above all St. Irenaeus and later St. Athanasius, approached the being of God through the experience of the ecclesial community, of ecclesial being ... [The] Eucharistic experience of the Church guided the Fathers in working out their doctrine of the being of God.

This profound sense of community must, therefore, also characterize our theological perception of the world today. This means that no individual can ever exhaust the fullness of truth in isolation from others, outside the communion of saints. With regard to fraternal relations among our Sister Churches, the two lungs of the Eastern and Western Churches -- to adopt the terminology in the exchanges between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras -- must breathe in harmony. Neither should assume provocative initiatives -- whether unilaterally or universally -- in its ministry to God's people. Moreover, the same sense of community implies a responsibility for interfaith openness and dialogue within the wider global reality. Finally, in recent years, we have also learned the painful lesson that we are -- all of us -- together responsible "for the life of the world" (Jn 6:51), for the welfare of the poor, and for the well-being of the natural environment.

(iii) The Silence of Apophaticism

Finally, Patristic theology cannot be properly understood without an appreciation of its apophatic dimension. Apophaticism is normally associated with the fifth-century writings of Dionysius the Areopagite. Yet, already in Scripture there are allusions to this dimension, both in the Exodus account of Moses' vision of God and in references to divine light in the Gospel of St. John. Through apophatic theology, the Eastern Fathers affirm the absolute transcendence of God, while at the same time underlining His divine immanence. This ascent of the human intellect towards God may be described as a positive negativity; it is a process of elimination resembling the ascetic katharsis of the soul and rejecting all forms of intellectual idolatry.

Of course, classical philosophy and most religions adopt a fundamentally negative approach, inasmuch as they are aware of the awesome transcendence of God. Nevertheless, in Patristic thought, apophaticism is not merely an intellectual method of approaching the mystery of God. It is not simply a more effective way of knowing God through scholastic research. The Fathers continually confess the inadequacy of the human intellect and human language to express the fullness of truth. In the words of St. Basil the Great:

We know our God through His energies, whereas we do not presume to approach His essence. The energies of God come down to us, while His essence always remains inaccessible.

This distinction between divine essence and divine energies -- so eloquently articulated by St. Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century -- communicates the conviction that divine truth is not discovered through the intellect alone; instead, it is disclosed in the human heart, through the Eucharistic community, to the entire world. Ultimately, the awareness of God's transcendence leads to personal encounter with the One who is Unknown. It is the knowledge beyond all knowledge, experienced as divine "ignorance." Thus, theology transcends all formulations and definitions, being identified rather with a persona! and loving relationship with God in the communion of prayer. As Evagrius of Pontus affirms: "If you are a theologian, you pray truly; and if you pray truly, then you are a theologian."

In the final analysis, the Church Fathers are not philosophers of abstract concepts, but heralds of a mystical theology. For them, the silence of apophatic theology signifies knowledge as communion at its deepest, its most intimate, and its most intense. In the seventh century, St. John Climacus experienced the same truth through asceticism:

Stillness of body is the understanding of habits and emotions. And silence of the soul is the knowledge of one's thoughts and an inviolable mind ... A wise hesychast has no need of words, being enlightened by deeds rather than by words. Such stillness is unceasing worship and waiting upon God.

The ascetic silence of apophaticism imposes on all of us -- educational and ecclesiastical institutions alike -- a sense of humility before the awesome mystery of God, before the sacred personhood of human beings, and before the beauty of creation. It reminds us that -- above and beyond anything that we may strive to appreciate and articulate -- the final word always belongs not to us but to God. This is more than simply a reflection of our limited and broken nature. It is, primarily, a calling to gratitude before Him who "so loved the world" (Jn 3:16) and who promised never to abandon us without the comfort of the Paraclete that alone "guides us to the fullness of truth." (Jn 16:13) How can we ever be thankful enough for this generous divine gift?

Venerable authorities, esteemed faculties, and beloved students of the Pontifical Oriental Institute: We urge you to serve the theological word by breathing the air of theology and kneeling humbly before the living Creator. Implore God for the renewal of your hearts and minds; invoke His grace for the salvation of every human person, even -- and especially -- the least of our brothers and sisters (Mt 25:45); and pray fervently for the transfiguration of the whole world, to the last speck of dust. This institution has contributed enormously to the study and promotion of Orthodox theology in the West. In the present time of ecumenical dialogue this Institute is called to play a decisive role in the rapprochement between the East and the West. The official theological dialogue which is going on between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches will be greatly assisted by the teaching and research which takes place in the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

May God bless you all on this historical ninetieth anniversary!

Read the entire article on the Pontifical Oriental Institute website (new window will open).

Posted: 14-Mar-08



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