16 July 2008

The Ascent to Holiness and the Search for the Holy Man

A view across Cambridge from my room in Sidney Sussex College (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)

Patrick Comerford

The participants in the Cambridge summer school organised by the Institute for Christian Orthodox Studies – lecturers and students – come from a variety of backgrounds, although we are mainly Orthodox and Anglican, with a large number of priests from both traditions. And so it is very that we began today with Orthodox Matins in the Anglican Chapel of Sidney Sussex College.

The summer school topic is “The Ascent to Holiness,” drawing on The Ladder of Ascent by Saint John Climakos. Dr George Bebabwi was back with us this morning and looked at “Holiness in the Eastern and Western Churches.” And once again, there were real nuggets of wisdom as he strayed from his prepared text.

Holiness is not a virtue, he told us, but is “a participation in the holiness of God, period.” Humility, silence and ascetism are virtues in the practice of holiness. But holiness is not; rather, it is a participation in God’s holiness.

To be holy is to receive or to participate in the holiness of God. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive and participate in the holiness of Christ. But we cannot acquire holiness. We can protect holiness by ascetism, but we cannot acquire holiness.

To stay in the realm of grace requires practice. But grace is received, not achieved.

For the Fathers of the Church, to be holy is to receive the spirit of holiness. God is holy, but holiness in the New Testament and for the Early Fathers is to partake in the divine nature.

Christ is the head of the body, which is the Church, and every member of the body participates in the holiness of Christ. Holiness, in its definition, is deification; it is not a virtue, but is the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

Every human being is made in the image of God. And so, if holiness means being dedicated to God, then in every person there is a glimpse of God.

He told the story of a rabbi who once suggested to God, “let’s play.”

“Play what?” asked God.

“Let’s play hide and seek,” suggested the rabbi.

“But I’ve been doing it all along in Old Testament,” said God.

“Then hide in the human heart,” the rabbi prompted.


“Because that’s the last place humans will look into and search.”

Saint Macarius had written that the outer form of life is fading away, but in the inner life we can sense the bones and tissues of Christ.

Cardinal John Henry Newman once explained that he preferred beauty to food, because once you eat a meal the food gone, but when you see something beautiful, the memory of it lasts for a long time, and offers a glimpse of immortal life.

Later in the morning, Professor Sebastian Brock spoke on “Holiness in Song: St Ephrem the Syrian.” Dr Brock was introduced by Professor David Frost, who described him as the world’s foremost Syriac scholar. The two worked together on the translations of the Psalms used in the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England (1980) and the Alternative Prayer Book of the Church of Ireland (1984). Dr Brock was a reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute in the university of Oxford, is now a professorial Fellow at Wolfson College, oxford, and is a Fellow of the British Academy.

Saint Ephrem wrote most of his theology, at the height of the Arian controversy, as poetry. For Saint Ephrem, right being means responsible living, on a horizontal plane with the rest of humanity and the rest of creation, and on a vertical plane with God. It is only our with realisation of the inter-connectedness and interdependence of every human being that right action becomes an imperative that is directed towards all other human beings, and towards the whole environment and whole creation.

He spoke of the interior liturgy of the heart which is required as a response to the outward liturgy of the Church, and spoke of the three churches that need each other and need to function together: the heavenly church with the heavenly liturgy; the church of the altar and the liturgy on earth; and the church of the human heart with its interior liturgy.

In the afternoon, Professor Frost read a paper by his wife, Dr Christine Mangala, on “Holiness in Eastern Religion: an Orthodox Perspective.” She comes from an ancient family of Brahmin poets, sages and priests in the Shivite religious tradition in India, and was the first woman to win Nehru Memorial Scholarship. Today, like her husband, she is an Orthodox Christian. It would have been fascinating to meet her, but she cannot be in Cambridge this week because she is teaching on behalf of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Aleppo.

She tells the story of an ashram near Madras that is visited regularly by a well-dressed Westerner. Once he arrives, he takes off all his clothes, covers himself in white ashes and renounces the world. The local people respect and venerate this naked sadhu, flocking in their hundreds to be in his presence. But what they do not know is that back in Europe he is high-flying, French fashion designer, who needs to cast off his life as a fashion guru in order to liberate himself from the world of fashion and to explore seek out his inner self.

She described bizarre bazaar in India, especially on the banks of the Ganges, of so-called holy men with their ascetic practices, many of them extreme cases with fakirs, swamis, and gurus engaging self-torture, growing lengthy nails and beards, standing on one leg, or lying on beds of nails.

But this raises questions for Orthodox Christians, she said. Can there be saints in non-Christian religions? Can there be manifestation of the Holy Spirit in other religions? And how should Christians respond to them?

She spoke about Eastern teachers who encouraged their followers to make a clean sweep of suffering and evil as delusional. But she found they were often shallow and slick, offensive and patronising, with inadequate answers about evil and suffering, which they dismissed as delusional. With their futile philosophical quests for self-realisation, they did not inspire a sense of holiness; they were not purifying the ego, but destroying it.

Holiness is inconceivable within an impersonalist world view, she said. Holiness is the luminous, active mystery of God, present in all his transcendent actions.

But then the question had to be asked: is there anything in Hindu traditions that we can acknowledge as genuine? She had also found true holiness in the everyday life of ordinary Hindus, expressed in their everyday lives, their music, their poetry and even in their dance. The search for the love and grace of a personal God are deeply rooted in the Hindu psyche, and in their poetry especially we can find a longing for the divine, the holy, the pure.

She compared some of the bakthi poets with those who are called blessed in the beatitudes because they are hungering for God. Some of them had experienced God in a vision that was a vision of light; they celebrate life and exude joy, but also sorrow over a suffering world. Their pleas to God are deeply poignant, but they rejoice at the same time. And joy in sorrow and sorrow in joy must be recognised as trait of saintliness.

The holy women and men we remembered this evening during Orthodox Vespers in the college chapel included Saint Marina the Martyr of Antioch and Saint Andrei Rublev, the great Russian icon writer. Then it was off to dinner with a former student at the Church of Ireland Theological College, the Revd Christopher Woods, who has been the chaplain at Christ’s College, Cambridge, for the past year.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College

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