“To call God ‘Father’ is more exact than to call him ‘God'”

When the Savior declares that he has made known the name of God the Father, it is the same as saying that he has shown the whole world his glory. How did he do this? By making himself known through his wonderful works. The Father is glorified in the Son as in an image and type of his own form, for the beauty of the archetype is seen in its image. The only Son then has made himself known, and he is in his essence wisdom and life, the artificer and creator of the universe. He is immortal and incorruptible, pure, blameless, merciful, holy, good. His Father is known to be like him, since he could not be different in nature from his offspring. The Father’s glory is seen, as in an image and type of his own form, in the glory of the Son.

The Son made known the name of God the Father to teach us and make us fully comprehend not that he is the only God — for inspired Scripture had proclaimed that even before the coming of the Son — but that besides being truly God he is also rightly called “Father.” This is so because in himself and proceeding from himself he has a Son possessed of the same eternal nature as his own: it was not in time that he became the Father of the Creator of the ages!

To call God “Father” is more exact than to call him “God.” The word God signifies his dignity, but the word Father points to the distinctive attribute of his person. If we say “God,” we declare him to be Lord of the universe. If we call him “Father,” we show the way in which he is distinct as a person, for we make known the fact that he has a Son. The Son himself gave God the name of Father, as being in some sense the more appropriate and truer appellation, when he said not “I and God” but “I and the Father are one,” and also, with reference to himself, “On him has God the Father set his seal.” And when he commanded his disciples to baptize all nations, he did not tell them to do this in the name of God but expressly ordained that they were to do it in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

St Cyril of Alexandria

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Meditating Four Quartets: Little Gidding (III)

Third Movement

There are three conditions which often look alike / Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow: / Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment / From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference / Which resembles the others as death resembles life, / Being between two lives—unflowering, between / The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory: / For liberation—not less of love but expanding / Of love beyond desire, and so liberation / From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country / Begins as attachment to our own field of action / And comes to find that action of little importance / Though never indifferent. History may be servitude, / History may be freedom. See, now they vanish, / The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them, / To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

In the earlier poems of the Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot affirmed our need to practice ascetical detachment. In “Burnt Norton” he spoke of the descent into “perpetual solitude” and the “destitution of all property.” In “East Coker” of the way of ignorance and dispossession, by which we may arrive at the state in which not knowing is the only thing we know, what we own is what we do not own, where we are is where we are not. Here in “Little Gidding” he now speaks of freedom from “self and from things and from persons.” It sounds all very Buddhist but even more so like St John of the Cross and innumerable Christian ascetical masters: only by detachment and the purification of egoistic desire may the self be “renewed, transfigured in another pattern.” That pattern is love. Recall the words of the Apostle: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

There is no escaping the way of detachment—this Orthodoxy has inculcated in me over the past eight years. Decades ago Protestant theologians like Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth taught me the eschatological completeness of Christ’s atoning work: in the inhomination, death and resurrection of the divine Son, all of humanity has died and been raised into the life of the kingdom. We cannot add to the cross by our meritorious acts, not even by our faith. In his poem “The Cross,” John Donne asks,

It bore all other sinnes, but is it fit
that it should beare the sinne of scorning it?

“It is indeed,” answers Torrance, “for that is precisely what the Cross was about. There the Lamb of God was bearing and bearing away the sin of the world, including the very sin of scorning it” (The Mediation of Christ, p. 44). We must not think of the Son’s redeeming work as partial or conditional. It occurs in the ontological depths of the human being, recreating human nature and bringing forth a transformed existence. For this reason we must think of Pascha as, in some way, embracing every human being, past, present, and future. The incarnate Word is the eternal Creator in whom all of humanity has been healed and sanctified. No one is untouched by the Incarnation. And yet … and what a disappointing “yet” … Christ’s regenerative work has not been perfectly accomplished in my personal life. Some days it doesn’t even feel partially accomplished. Despite all of my conversions, repentances, and prayers, I remain a disobedient sinner and unfaithful disciple. Lord, have mercy.

Salvation is more than forensic justification. The cancer patient may rejoice that he has been accepted into a special treatment program at John Hopkins Hospital, but that is only the first step. The goal is the cure of his cancer. The justifying word establishes me within the gracious life of the Holy Trinity, but will only become truly convincing, both to myself and to others, when I have been liberated from sin and egoism and begin to live in the Holy Spirit. Hence I appreciate Eliot’s sober summons to the ascetical path. Baptism indeed saves, but it saves by launching us into grace-enabled repentance (1 Peter 3:21). This is hard work that I have spent most of my life avoiding. I need repentance, detachment, and “frigid purgatorial fires” (EC IV). My favorite story from the desert fathers:

When St Sisoës lay upon his deathbed, the disciples surrounding the Elder saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoës replied that he saw St. Anthony, the Prophets, and the Apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked, “With whom are you speaking, Father?” He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, “You have no need for repentance, Father.” St. Sisoës said with great humility, “I do not think that I have even begun to repent.”

Each morning now I spend approximately an hour in contemplative prayer—at least I hope it counts as contemplative prayer, given the abundance of distracting thoughts (those darn logismoi). Through the Jesus Prayer I seek that “still point of the turning world” which is the eternal dance of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing promises that by contemplative prayer I will “find and experience all virtues in God, in whom everything exists, for he creates all and is in all.” This I desire. My desire grows every day. The author continues:

Contemplatives understand that if they have God, they have everything good and need nothing else, so they desire nothing particularly, only the good God. Be wholly intent on God, and only God, so nothing ever goes through your mind and heart but God alone. (chap. 40)

This is not yet true for me, not even by a long shot. I am not a monk; I live in the world. I desire many things, regret many things. How does one redemptively detach oneself from the persons one loves? Yet I know that my love is itself corrupted by my pathological needs and passions. I thirst—no creaturely drink can quench it. After a lifetime of bondage, I yearn for that liberation of which the poet speaks, “From the future as well as the past.” I pray to become “love beyond desire.” One day it will become true. But today I can only confess, I have not even begun to repent.


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“Who is this King of glory?”

The Gospel describes the Lord’s life upon earth and his return to heaven. But the sublime prophet David, as though unencumbered by the weight of his body, rose above himself to mingle with the heavenly powers and record for us their words as they accompanied the Master when he came down from heaven. Ordering the angels on earth entrusted with the care of human life to raise the gates, they cried: “Lift up your gates, you princes; be lifted up you everlasting doors. Let the King of glory enter.”

But because wherever he is he who contains all things in himself makes himself like those who receive him, not only becoming a man among human beings, but also when among angels conforming his nature to theirs, the gatekeepers asked: “Who is this King of glory?”

He is the strong one, they were told, mighty in battle, the one who is to grapple with and overthrow the captor of the human race who has the power of death. When this last enemy has been destroyed, he will restore us to freedom and peace. Now the mystery of Christ’s death is fulfilled, victory is won, and the cross, the sign of triumph, is raised on high. He who gives us the noble gifts of life and a kingdom has ascended into heaven, “leading captivity captive.” Therefore the same command is repeated.

Once more the gates of heaven must open for him. Our guardian angels, who have now become his escorts, order them to be flung wide so that he may enter and regain his former glory.

But he is not recognized in the soiled garments of our life, in clothes reddened by the winepress of human sin.

Again the escorting angels are asked: “Who is this King of glory?”

The answer is no longer, “The strong one, mighty in battle” but, “The lord of hosts,” he who has gained power over the whole universe, who has recapitulated all things in himself, who is above all things, who has restored all creation to its former state: “He is the King of glory.”

You see how much David has added to our joy in this feast and contributed to the gladness of the Church. Therefore as far as we can let us imitate the prophet by our love for God, by gentleness and by patience with those who hate us. Let the prophet’s teaching help us to live in a way pleasing to God in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

St Gregory of Nyssa

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“Christ is both the way and the door, the staircase and the vehicle, like the throne of mercy over the Ark of the Covenant”

Christ is both the way and the door. Christ is the staircase and the vehicle, like the throne of mercy over the Ark of the Covenant, and the mystery hidden from the ages. A man should turn his full attention to this throne of mercy, and should gaze at him hanging on the cross, full of faith, hope and charity, devoted, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude, and open to praise and jubilation. Then such a man will make with Christ a pasch, that is, a passing-over. Through the branches of the cross he will pass over the Red Sea, leaving Egypt and entering the desert. There he will taste the hidden manna, and rest with Christ in the sepulchre, as if he were dead to things outside. He will experience, as much as is possible for one who is still living, what was promised to the thief who hung beside Christ: Today you will be with me in paradise.

For this passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul. Hence the Apostle says that this mystical wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit.

If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervour and glowing love. The fire is God, and the furnace is in Jerusalem, fired by Christ in the ardour of his loving passion. Only he understood this who said: My soul chose hanging and my bones death. Anyone who cherishes this kind of death can see God, for it is certainly true that: No man can look upon me and live.

Let us die, then, and enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination. Let us pass over with the crucified Christ from this world to the Father, so that, when the Father has shown himself to us, we can say with Philip: It is enough. We may hear with Paul: My grace is sufficient for you; and we can rejoice with David, saying: My flesh and my heart fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my heritage for ever.

Blessed be the Lord for ever, and let all the people say: Amen. Amen!

St Bonaventure

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The Doom of Man

Using the ancient palantir, Saruman, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and Donald Trump together pledge their allegiance to Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. After a long moment of silence, they hear the chilling words of their doom and ours:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

Blue flame erupts from the tower of Minas Morgul. Its black gates open and from its cavernous opening flows the dread army of orcs and Haradrim.

Thus begins the final assault on Minas Tirith.

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“The glory in Christ becoming glory in us, his glory changing us to glory”

When we take into our understanding, our heart, our conscience, our being, the glory of God, namely Jesus Christ as he shows himself to our eyes, our hearts, our consciences, he works upon us, and will keep working, till we are changed to the very likeness we have thus mirrored in us; for with his likeness he comes himself, and dwells in us. He will work until the same likeness is wrought out and perfected in us, the image, namely, of the humanity of God, in which image we were made at first, but which could never be developed in us except by the indwelling of the perfect likeness. By the power of Christ thus received and at home in us, we are changed–the glory in him becoming glory in us, his glory changing us to glory.

But we must beware of receiving this or any symbol after the flesh, beware of interpreting it in any fashion that partakes of the character of the mere physical, psychical, or spirituo-mechanical. The symbol deals with things far beyond the deepest region whence symbols can be drawn. The indwelling of Jesus in the soul of man, who shall declare! But let us note this, that the dwelling of Jesus in us is the power of the spirit of God upon us; for ‘the Lord is that spirit,’ and that Lord dwelling in us, we are changed ‘even as from the Lord the spirit.’ When we think Christ, Christ comes; when we receive his image into our spiritual mirror, he enters with it. Our thought is not cut off from his. Our open receiving thought is his door to come in. When our hearts turn to him, that is opening the door to him, that is holding up our mirror to him; then he comes in, not by our thought only, not in our idea only, but he comes himself, and of his own will–comes in as we could not take him, but as he can come and we receive him–enabled to receive by his very coming the one welcome guest of the whole universe. Thus the Lord, the spirit, becomes the soul of our souls, becomes spiritually what he always was creatively; and as our spirit informs, gives shape to our bodies, in like manner his soul informs, gives shape to our souls. In this there is nothing unnatural, nothing at conflict with our being. It is but that the deeper soul that willed and wills our souls, rises up, the infinite Life, into the Self we call I and me, but which lives immediately from him, and is his very own property and nature–unspeakably more his than ours: this deeper creative soul, working on and with his creation upon higher levels, makes the I and me more and more his, and himself more and more ours; until at length the glory of our existence flashes upon us, we face full to the sun that enlightens what it sent forth, and know ourselves alive with an infinite life, even the life of the Father; know that our existence is not the moonlight of a mere consciousness of being, but the sun-glory of a life justified by having become one with its origin, thinking and feeling with the primal Sun of life, from whom it was dropped away that it might know and bethink itself, and return to circle for ever in exultant harmony around him. Then indeed we are; then indeed we have life; the life of Jesus has, through light, become life in us; the glory of God in the face of Jesus, mirrored in our hearts, has made us alive; we are one with God for ever and ever.

George MacDonald

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Searching for St Dionysios the Areopagite

Bishop Alexander shares how he came to an understanding of the theology of St Dionysios, over against established academic opinion, through immersion in the liturgical life of Mt Athos. This lecture highlights that which I have long believed: the necessity of the liturgical and eucharistic tradition for the right understanding of Holy Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. This is not to dismiss what we might call historical-critical readings of biblical and patristic texts, but it does challenge the import of such readings.

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