Insights from Fr. Stephen

It’s time for another set of selections from Father Stephen Freeman’s “Glory to God for All Things” blog.

1

It is said that the best math and physics are done before age 30. The best theology is done after age 60. The nature of the questions in theology are often not the burden of the young. Of course, some of the questions of the young no longer matter after age 60.

Orthodox Christianity is not a topic to be mastered. If it is rightly understood, the Orthodox faith is an account of “everything.” It is not a subset of religious knowledge or a compendium of doctrines. It is the whole of existence, created and uncreated. Most of the faith cannot be spoken. The less of the unspoken that surrounds any given statement, the more likely that statement is to be wrong or distorted.

St. Ignatius of Antioch observed: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” He also noted: “The more any one sees the bishop keeping silence, the more ought he to revere him.”

All this, of course, comes as a stern rebuke to someone who has written over 2,000 articles. I will say, however, that my greatest accomplishment is in what I have not written. It is perhaps only there that I shall find salvation.

(August 30)

2

I recently sat in on a meeting between my bishop and a young man looking to attend seminary. After getting the bishop’s approval, he asked a wise question: “What should I be reading to prepare?” I was as interested in the answer as he was. “Read good literature,” was the answer. This advice came from a bishop who is both a scholar and a monk (Archbishop Alexander Golitsyn). Read good literature. This is not so much advice for the demands of seminary – it’s advice for the soul.

Our culture tends to have a focus on the mastery of information, the management of the facts. I recall a famous television evangelist who touted himself as having memorized the entire Bible. It made him a television evangelist, not a great soul or a deeply wise man. It can indeed be little more than a carnival trick.

I was once told that this same advice was given to inquirers and catechumens by Fr. Seraphim Rose. It’s one of the best things I’ve heard about him – it shows a preference for the soul over an indoctrination of the mind. So many who inquire into the faith would do well to heed such sage advice.

As the traditional “canon” of literature continues to come under withering attack in the American academy, more and more people are simply “ignorant” souls. It is not so much that they lack the information gained from such literature (though they do), but that they lack a depth and the ability to reflect that is only made possible through engaging with the greatest ideas, the greatest music, the deepest beauty. Only a great soul can teach another soul to become great.

(September 5) This is advice I should heed. I try from time to time.

3

We have a habit of abstracting things (particularly in our modern era). We constantly read texts about things and immediately want to leap to the ideas that they raise. Somehow, we never seem to understand that the ideas are actually embodied in the things. Notions of the two covenants are good examples. We imagine a covenant as an abstraction, an agreement, and assume that an agreement is somehow greater than that which makes it so. Oddly, Christ says, “This is my blood of the New Covenant,” and adds, “Drink you all of this.” The Covenant is to be eaten and drunk.

Something of the same understanding is present in the Protoevangelium[ of James]’s instincts. The first Temple was not an abstraction – its entire point was the very opposite: “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them.” There is a false notion, one that I hear frequently expressed in certain circles, that the concreteness (rituals, sacrifices, etc.) of the Old Testament has been replaced by the abstraction of the New (no rituals, only spiritual sacrifices, etc.). It is an error that assumes that God once did something quite specific that He might finally do something completely general. At its root is a notion that material things are contrary to, even exclusive of, spiritual things. “If it’s physical – it must be inferior and carnal.” It’s a modern form of Gnosticism.

The movement of God has been towards ever greater particularity. He calls Abraham and allies Himself with a particular man and his generations to come. He makes His name known to Moses in a yet more definitive manner. Under Abraham, He is the God of this place or that, this action or that. God not only makes His name known to Moses but He directs a temple to be built that He might dwell among His people. In “these last days,” He chooses a woman within whose womb He becomes a man. He not only dwells among His people, He becomes one of them. He becomes a man with a particular mother (Mary is not some sort of generic woman whose womb is merely borrowed). It is for this reason that the Church uses particular language when speaking of her.

(September 12)

4

In the Feast of the Holy Cross, the hymnography at one point makes the statement, “The Tree heals the Tree.” It is one of the marvelous commentaries on the life of grace and its relationship to the human predicament. It refers to the relationship between the Cross of Christ and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The latter was the source of the fruit that Adam and Eve consumed that was the source of their fall from grace. The “Tree that heals” is none other than the Cross of Christ.

I am struck particularly by this treatment of Biblical imagery. The meditation does not say that the Cross destroys the tree whose fruit, along with our disobedience, brought the human tragedy. The Tree heals the Tree. In the same manner, the Kingdom of God does not destroy creation – it makes it whole.

… In God, nothing is wasted.

(September 14)

5

It would seem that the most fundamental spiritual lessons are not ones he gained from an Elder, but from the simple peasant that was his father – but a simple peasant with the faith of a saint. A small example:

Let us not be distressed over the loss of worldly goods, such losses are a small matter. My own father taught me this early in life. When some misfortune happened at home, he would remain serene. When our house caught fire and the neighbors said, ‘Ivan Petrovich, your house is burnt down!’ he replied, ‘With God’s help I’ll build it up again.’ Once we were walking along the side of our field, and I said, ‘Look, they’re stealing our sheaves!’ ‘Aye, son,’ he answered me, ‘the Lord has given us corn and to spare, so if anyone steals it, it means he’s in want.’ Another day I said to him, ‘You give a lot away to charity, while some who are better off than we are give far less.’ To which he replied, ‘Aye, son, the Lord will provide.’ And the Lord did not confound his hope.

From St. Silouan of Mount Athos

There is no better way to teach a child Christianity than to actually live it – truly and from the heart. You cannot teach what you do not live.

(September 18)

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

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