“Christ foretells that he will suffer death on a cross before the human race is inflamed by the fire of this love”

“I have come to cast fire upon the earth.” In other words, I have come down from the highest heaven and appeared to men and women through the mystery of the incarnation in order to light the fire of divine love in human hearts.

“And how I wish it were already ablaze!” How I wish it were already kindled, fanned into flame by the Holy Spirit, and leaping forth in good works. Christ foretells that he will suffer death on a cross before the human race is inflamed by the fire of this love; for it was by his most holy passion that he won so great a gift for humankind, and it is chiefly the recollection of his passion that kindles the flame of love in Christian hearts.

“There is a baptism which I must undergo.” By divine decree there remains for me the duty of receiving a baptism of blood, that is, of being bathed, soaked upon the cross not in water but in my own blood poured out to redeem the whole world.

“And what constraint I am under until that has been achieved”—until my passion is love and I say: It is accomplished. For Christ was impelled incessantly by the love within him. The way to attain the perfection of divine love is then stated. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth?” In other words: Do not imagine that I have come to offer people a sensual, worldly, and unruly peace that will enable them to be united in their vices and achieve earthly prosperity.

“No, I tell you, I have not come to offer that kind of peace, but rather division”—a good, healthy kind of division, physical as well as spiritual. Love for God and desire for inner peace will set those who believe in me at odds with wicked men and women, and make them part company with those who would turn them from their course of spiritual progress and from the purity of divine love, or who attempt to hinder them.

Good, interior, spiritual peace consists in the repose of the mind in God, and in a rightly ordered harmony. To bestow this peace was the chief reason for Christ’s coming. This inner peace flows from love.

It is an unassailable joy of the mind in God, and it is called peace of heart. It is the beginning and a kind of foretaste of the peace of the saints in heaven—the peace of eternity.

Denys the Carthusian

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Rolling into the Kingdom!

The Tenth Anathema of the famous anti-Origenist Fifteen reads:

If anyone shall say that after the resurrection the body of the Lord was ethereal, having the form of a sphere, and that such shall be the bodies of all after the resurrection, let him be anathema.

Spherical resurrection bodies? Did those crazy 6th century Origenists really entertain speculations like these? It appears that they did, and even more surprisingly, they may have been on to something. Archaeologists have recovered this ancient video that reveals a glimpse into the Eschaton. Prepare to be amazed.

And now a second video has been discovered. Apparently, the spherically resurrected are able to visit hell (fondly called “the Village” by inhabitants) and gaily torture the prisoners.

A spokesman at the Vatican has identified the eschatological sphere as St Rover, a minor saint and inquisitor from the 12th century who lived on the outskirts of Paris. Very little is known about him, though scholars believe that he is descended from the great Viking chieftain Rollo. “Clearly he enjoys his punitory work,” the spokesman chuckled. “All to the glory of God.”

In light of the videos, a papal commission has been set up to reassess the anti-Origenist anathemas. As Cardinal Parolin explained: “The Church must not remain stuck in the past. We need to keep up with these new revelations.” When asked whether the Church would finally reconsider the conciliar condemnation of Origen, he replied: “Absolutely not. There is no evidence that Origen ever taught the spherical shape of resurrection bodies. Once a heretic, always a heretic.”

Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Archpriest Igor Yakimchuk was asked about the spherical revelations. “Is outrage!” he brusquely replied, slamming his fist on his desk. “Yet another Latin hoax. Don’t forget The Donation of Constantine. Real saints are not balloons!” 

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“After our Savior’s death, the Virgin was the first to conform herself to the Son who resembled her, and hence she shared in his resurrection before all others”

It was fitting that the Virgin should share in every aspect of her Son’s providential care for us. Just as she had bestowed her flesh and blood on him and had received a share of his graces in return, so in like manner she also participated in all his pains and sufferings.

When his side was wounded by the lance as he hung on the cross a sword pierced his Mother’s heart, as saintly Simeon had foretold. And so, after our Savior’s death, she was the first to conform herself to the Son who resembled her, and hence she shared in his resurrection before all others.

O blessed one, what words can adequately praise your virtue, or the graces you received from our Savior. When her Son had broken the tyranny of death by rising from the grave, the Virgin saw him and heard his salutation; and when the time came for him to depart for heaven, she escorted him on his way, as far as she could. Finally, when he had gone away, she took his place among the apostles, uniting herself with the other companions of our Savior by means of her good works, through which she benefitted the whole human race. She more truly than anyone else made up what was lacking in Christ; for who could more fittingly do so than his Mother?

Now it was necessary for her most holy soul to be separated from her hallowed body; and it was indeed released and united with the soul of her Son, the second light with the first. For a short time her body remained upon earth and then it too departed. It had to go everywhere the Savior had gone, and to shed its light on both the living and the dead. It had to sanctify nature in every respect; then, at last, it could take its appointed place. And so the grave received it for a short time, but heaven soon took from the grave that new earth, that spiritual body, that treasury of our life, more revered than the angels, holier than the archangels.

His throne was restored to the King, paradise to the tree of life, the sun’s orb to the light, the tree to its fruit, the Mother to her Son; for in every respect she was in accord with her Child.

O blessed one, what words can adequately praise your virtue, or the graces you received from our Savior for the benefit of the whole human race? It would be impossible to do so even if one could speak in the tongues of humans and of angels, to use the words of Paul. It seems to me that part of the eternal happiness in store for the righteous will be really to know and proclaim your graces in a fitting way. For these no eye has seen nor ear heard. To use the noble John’s words: “The world cannot contain them.”

The only theater in which your marvelous gifts can fittingly be displayed is the new heaven and the new earth where the sun is the sun of Righteousness whom darkness neither precedes nor follows. The Savior himself will proclaim your worth, and the angels will applaud.

St Nicholas Cabasilas

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Not Returning Evil for Evil: Simone Weil’s Advice in Troubled Times

by John Stamps

I’ve been thinking…

In a world convulsed with horrific suffering, what can we do that won’t contribute to the sum total of misery and evil? We hunger and thirst for justice. But we also don’t want to get caught up in a vicious cycle of violence and revenge. We don’t want to return evil for evil.

Simone Weil—the French philosopher, disillusioned Marxist, Christian mystic, political activist, social misfit, and world-class klutz—can perhaps provide us serious spiritual help in these troubled times. If you don’t know who she is, let me introduce you. Simone was a brilliant French intellectual and a serious disciple of Jesus Christ.

Like many intellectuals, Simone’s aspirations as a political activist vastly exceeded her abil­ities. She was a classic schlemiel at every physical occupation she ever tried. She desperately wanted solidarity with the common working man, but she was an utterly inept worker at the Renault factory. Despite her physical ineptitude, she was a great intellectual in the classic French tradition. In her graduating class at the École Normale Supérieure, she placed first while the lesser lumière Simone Beauvoir placed second. I’m not at all surprised that the French government honored her with her very own postage stamp. However, I am very surprised, indeed stunned, by her quote they put on it: “L’attention est la seule faculté de l’âme qui donne accès à Dieu.” That is: “Attention is the only faculty of the soul that gives access to God.”

She wrote this in April 1942 from Marseilles, soon on her way to New York City. Her family and she have fled Paris, just out of Hitler’s reach. The Soviet armies had recently beaten back the Nazi invasion at Stalingrad, but it was still a godawful time in a godawful war. And yes, she’s also Jewish. She successfully kept baptism from the Roman Catholic Church at arm’s length and hectored otherwise sympathetic priests with her own idiosyncratic Christian theology.

Here is what I think her famous quote means. We have no direct access to God. God is a secret, indeed a mystery. We cannot pry open the doors to heaven. But we can wait for God. (Waiting for God is the title of her most famous and accessible book.) And we can pay attention. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.”

Lest we think for a moment that Simone Weil doesn’t know whereof she speaks, she most certainly does. Even though her family was Jewish, she grew up in a thoroughly secular French household. Neither parent were practicing Jews. More to the point, they were completely agnostic. But from an early age, she was deeply attracted to the Christian faith. To her complete surprise, she had three extraordinary encounters with God. As you might expect with someone who enjoyed such a … ahem… rich inner life (my apologies to Ignatius J. Reilly), she suffered from violent migraine headaches. Her own peculiar way of dealing with migraines was reciting poetry, especially George Herbert’s extraordinarily beautiful “Love.” (The poem starts out, “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back…” and ends “So I did sit and eat.” If you haven’t read it, you should.) As she recounts the experience:

Often at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.

Just to be clear, Weil the philosopher was a bit at odds with Weil the Christian believer. She believed in God; she didn’t believe that you could prove the existence of God. She couldn’t conceive of any possible way to break the logjam of her agnosticism. God the problem was insoluble, unless the answer came from God Himself. Later in life, Simone Weil reflected on her experiences with the living God: “In all my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God, I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.”

Even so, so-called “mystical” experience is no substitute for the cold, hard analytical search for truth. We cannot shirk the difficult work of seeking truth with our whole minds. In short, we need to learn to pay attention.

Ever the pedantic school teacher, she thought young people could start their search for God by paying attention to their school work, geometry of all things. (Weil was something of a Platonist.) The rest of us uninterested in mathematics could start by paying attention to our neighbors, that is, not their flaws but their needs.

But how do we deal with the evils we encounter? Weil argued that only contact with divine purity can deliver us from evil. Otherwise, evil does not get absorbed, but it bounces back to us. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth leaves the world blind and toothless. “If through attention and desire we put a part of our evil onto something perfectly pure, it cannot soil it; it remains pure; it does not return the evil; thus we are delivered from it.”

n-849-n.jpgIf we pay attention—really pay attention—to those places where God secretly dwells—the order and beauty of the universe, our neighbor, praying the Lord’s Prayer, or the Holy Eucharist—we most certainly can be delivered from the heavy burden of evil.

Simone Weil states with surprising boldness:

It is the part played by joy in our studies that makes of them a preparation for spiritual life, for desire directed towards God is the only power capable of raising the soul. Or rather, it is God alone who comes down and possesses the soul, but desire alone draws God down. He only comes to those who ask him to come; and He cannot refuse to come to those who implore Him long, often and ardently.

Dionysius the Areopagite, St Gregory of Nyssa, or St Maximus Confessor couldn’t have expressed it better. Of course we must purify our wandering desires. But we must desire Him as any ardent lover would their beloved; otherwise, our search for God is a total charade.

Atrocities smack us in the solar plexus daily. Paris, Orlando, Dallas, back to France in Nice, Baton Rouge … And these are just the evils our media happens to find interesting at the time. I can’t begin to fathom the untold horrors. At very least we can pay attention to the sources of goodness and purity that lie around close at hand and not return evil for evil. If you’re not a card-carrying Christian, Simone would still say, find a source of genuine purity and goodness and pay attention to it. We all need to do our bit to rebuild and repair this shattered world.

Finally, let’s be clear, or as clear as we can be when we speak about impenetrable mysteries. Simone Weil does not offer us a theodicy. In no way does she attempt to justify the ways of God to man, to quote Milton. In this world, we are exposed to grievous evils and afflictions, without any say so on our part. And we must not misunderstand the nature of the good that God offers us. Allegiance to the crucified and risen Jesus offers us a true good quite different than any of the limited, earthly goods we can acquire from wealth, power, or the intellect. “The supernatural greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.”

(I cheerfully confess here that everything I know about Simone Weil or pretend I know about Simone Weil, I learned from Diogenes Allen, my philosophy professor at Princeton Theolog­ical Seminary, of blessed memory. Out of sheer principle, everybody should read Dr Allen’s Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, as well as his essay “George Herbert and Simone Weil.” But you could certainly do worse than read his 2001 article “The Divine Encounter” in Touchstone magazine. May his memory be eternal.)

(24 July 2016)

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John Stamps is currently Staff Information Developer at BMC Software in Santa Clara, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Houston Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.

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The Meaning of Protestant Theology

by Phillip Cary, Ph.D.

When Rodney Clapp, the editor to whom I pitched the idea of my new book, originally suggested the title The Meaning of Protestant Theology, I was a bit nonplussed. I knew the central concept of the book was going to be the sacramental concept of the Gospel that I found in Luther, which comes in at the end of the book’s subtitle: “Luther, Augus­tine, and the Gospel that Gives us Christ.” I love the very concept of the Gospel, as Luther preaches it, and I had a complicated story to tell about what Luther changed in the legacy of Augustine in order to come up with that concept. And of course the changes Luther made had a lot to do with the origin of Protes­tantism. But was I really writing about some­thing as broad and encompassing as the meaning of Protestant theology?

Well, yes, I was. Give credit to a good editor. If you want to know what the book has to offer, you’ll need to hear how Luther’s sacramental concept of the Gospel is essential to the mean­ing of Protestant theology, even for Protestants who don’t think of the Gospel in quite the sacramental way that Luther does. In fact, the problems that result when Protes­tants get too far from ancient, Catholic notions of the sacraments tell us a lot about the anxieties that beset Protestants to this day. That’s why, as Rodney evidently saw, there’s a deep connection between the new book and the rather Lutheran encouragement I was trying to give my Evangelical friends in my earlier book, Good News for Anxious Christians.

This doesn’t mean Catholics have no anxieties of their own. Luther was responding to some of those, after all. But it does mean, I think, that Protestants need something like a Catholic notion of sacrament in order to learn what Luther has to teach them about the saving power of the Gospel. We are justified by faith alone, Luther insists, because the the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an external word that does what a sacrament does: it gives what it signifies to all who properly receive it. And what the Gospel of Jesus Christ signifies is in fact nothing less than Jesus Christ, God in person, together with all the gifts he has to give those who believe him. It is not hard to show (I wasn’t the first to show it) that Luther developed his distinctive notion of the Gospel when he was first writing about the sacra­ments. And it turns out (here I’ll take credit for a little originality) that if you want to understand the characteristic things Luther has to say about the saving power of the Gospel, you have to look to sacraments as the clearest example.

This suggests that the Protestant insistence on justification by faith alone does not come out of the blue, as some radical innovation in the Christian tradition. It’s what has always hap­pened when Christians put their trust in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus what Luther was saying to anxious Catholics (i.e., all of Europe) in the sixteenth century was, in effect: notice what God has already promised you in your baptism and in the Eucharist, and cling to it in faith, rather than turning to your own good works—even the works of love that you are to achieve with the help of faith and grace. If you are anxious about whether you love God enough—whether you are in a state of grace rather than mortal sin—then there is good news for you: all your good works are damnable mortal sins (Luther actually says this), so there’s no point in being anxious about whether they’re good enough. You have no hope of salvation unless you have been baptized into Christ, who shed his blood and gave his body for you, and promised himself to you in your baptism. So unless you call Christ a liar, you have no choice but to believe he is your savior.

I call this a must in service to a may. As one of the baptized, I must believe Christ is mine, which means I may believe Christ is mine–despite all my sins and failures and even the weakness of my faith, which I experience all the time. For in clinging to my baptism by faith alone, I am not putting my trust in my own faith—God forbid!—but in the promise of Christ alone, who both established baptism in Scripture and speaks through the mouth of the minister, saying: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” When Christ says “you” in this sacramental way, he means me—each one of us to whom this has been said. To believe this is to live in Christ and be united with him as a bride is united with her bridegroom. It is like believing his wedding vow, in which he gives you first himself and then all his goods in a kind of wondrous exchange (Luther calls it) in which you receive his righteousness, holiness, blessedness and salvation, and in exchange your sin, guilt and death become his, to be defeated and destroyed on the cross, in a mighty duel in which his mercy and life triumphs over sin and death.

At the basis of this whole progression from union with Christ to wondrous exchange to mighty duel (and on to further matters like the non-imputation of sins) is the Gospel as external word. The Gospel is external precisely as it is sacramental: spoken at a particular time and place to particular people, so that it can say “you” and mean me (in my baptism) or a whole congregation of the baptized (when Christ says, through the mouth of a minis­ter, “This is my body, given for you“). The truth of this external word is dependent on external circumstances, which determine who is meant by the word “you.” Particular utterances of the word may therefore not be true, as for example when I repeat the baptis­mal formula (“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) as an illustra­tion in a theology lecture or write it down in this article, where I am not in fact baptizing anyone.

Things are different if you forget the sacramental form of Christ’s promise and look for a word that is not so external, whose truth is not dependent on particular circumstances of utterance. Looking at Mark 16:16, for example, you could formulate a universal principle such as “Whoever believes in Christ is saved.” Any Protestant, including Luther, would agree that this principle is true always and everywhere. But it applies to me differently than the sacramental word, because it is conditional, i.e., logically equivalent to the condi­tional statement “If you believe in Christ, you are saved.” The principle applies to me not by saying “you” and meaning me, as a sacrament does, but by requiring me to meet the condition stated in the “if” clause. So if I take this kind of principle as Gospel, then in order to trust that Christ is my savior, I must believe in more than just the word alone; I must also be able to say, with confidence and sincerity, that I believe in Christ. I must, to that extent, believe in my own belief.

The anxieties of a non-sacramental Protestantism are the anxieties that stem from such a reflective faith, with its requirement of believing that I believe, in contrast to Luther’s requirement, which is that I believe in nothing other than the truth of God’s word. The result is a subtle but deep difference in pastoral care, as many later Protestants try to find assur­ance that they have true saving faith—for example by trusting that they have made a decision for Christ, as if this is something that could save them—whereas Luther expects all Chris­tians to confess their unbelief on a regular basis. Thus, whereas in most forms of Protes­tantism, saying I am an unbeliever would mean I can’t believe I’m saved, for Luther saying I’m an unbeliever is a way of strengthening my faith, because it is a confession that leads me to put renewed faith in the truth of God’s alone. I believe I am saved because I believe the promise of God given to me in baptism, not because I believe in my own belief.

Luther has his own anxieties, of course, which are summed up in the famous word Anfechtung, meaning the assault of the devil who tries to get us to doubt that God is true to his word. But even the nature of the doubt here is less reflective than in later Protestant­ism: what we must believe (and therefore the doubt we struggle with) is that God is true to his word, as opposed to the later Protestant doubt about whether I truly believe. What Luther’s unreflective faith cannot do, on the other hand, is assure you of eternal salva­tion, for that would require having assurance in advance that you will perse­vere in faith to the end. The only way you could know that is if you knew you were one of the elect, predes­tined for salvation. The radical innovation of John Calvin is that he thinks it is possi­ble to know this—precisely by virtue of reflective faith: i.e., by knowing, through the experience of the inner call of the Holy Spirit, that you have been given the gift of true saving faith, which is sure to persevere to the end.

A lot depends, pastorally, on which anxieties people are willing to live with. I think this explains why so many Protestants, when they rediscover the Great Tradition and especially its sacramental liturgies, end up joining some high-church tradition: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican or Lutheran. Protestants want to hear precisely the kind of word that Luther calls the Gospel, which has always been the means by which God gives himself to his people. In contrast to the law of God, which tells us what to do, including how to get saved, the Gospel tells us what God has done, including how he has given his own Son to save us. Thus the preaching of the Gospel, which happens throughout the ancient liturgies far more reliably than in most modern preaching, builds up our faith not by telling us we must believe but by giving us a kind and gracious word to believe in. For once you begin to think of the Gospel as a sacramental word that gives you Christ, as Luther discovered, the whole Biblical narrative starts looking like God’s way of giving you nothing less than himself, and sacramental worship is so full of this good news that it’s enough to make you weep for joy.

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Dr Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of several books, including Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self, Inner Grace, Outward SignsGood News for Anxious Christians, and the Brazos commentary on Jonah.

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Scotism, Palamism, and Thomism

I commend this illuminating interview with Dr Jared Isaac Goff on the differences and commonalities of Scotism, Palamism, and Thomism. Dr Goff is a Byzantine Catholic who teaches theology at the SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Seminary. He clearly knows his stuff but is also humble enough to acknowledge the limits of his knowledge on specific topics. His specialties are St Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus. He takes us into the depths of medieval metaphysics, particularly on the questions of divine simplicity, analogy of being, and the divine energies. I confess that much of his analysis is well above my puny mind, but I’m sure glad there are people out there like Dr Goff who are well-versed in the difficult and complex topics he addresses.

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“He took us to himself as his virgin bride, our nature once prostituted to idols being restored by sacramental rebirth to virginal incorruptibility”

When the Lord says: “Let your loins be girded and your lamps lit,” he is warning us to stay awake; for a light shining in one’s eyes drives away sleep, and a tightly-fastened belt also makes sleep difficult, as the discomfort prevents relaxation. But the real meaning of the parable is perfectly clear: a person girded with temperance lives in the light of a clear conscience before God. And so, with the light of truth shining, the soul stays awake and is not deceived. It does not dally with illusive dreams.

If following the guidance of the Word we attain this goal, our lives will in a way be like those of the angels, for we are compared with them in the divine command: “You must be like people waiting for their master to return from a wedding, ready to open the door immedi­ately when he comes and knocks.” It was the angels who were awaiting the Master’s return from the wedding. They sat with unsleeping eyes at the heavenly gates, so that when he returned the King of glory might pass through them once more into the heavenly bliss from which, as the psalm says, he had come forth like a bridegroom from his tent.

He took us to himself as his virgin bride, our nature once prostituted to idols being restored by sacramental rebirth to virginal incorruptibility. After the marriage, when the Church had been wedded to the Word—as John says, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom”—and admitted to the bridal chamber of the sacred mysteries, the angels awaited the King of glory’s return to the blessedness which is his by nature.

And so the Lord said our lives should be like theirs. Just as they, living lives far removed from sin and error, are ready to receive the Lord at his coming, so we also should keep watch at the entrance of our houses, and prepare ourselves to obey him when he comes to our door and knocks.”Blessed,” he says, “are those servants whom the master finds so doing when he comes.”

St Gregory of Nyssa

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