Friday, 18 July 2008

Holy Fools and Sober Drunkenness in the Cloisters

Master’s Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has been a popular speaker on Orthodoxy for decades, and introduced many people to Orthodoxy through his popular book, The Orthodox Church, which was first published in 1963, when he was only 29, and only five years after he joined the Orthodox Church.

Metropolitan Kallistos is a monk of the Monastery of Saint John on Patmos, titular Bishop of Diokleia and as assistant bishop in the Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, for 35 years he was Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford.

I first heard Metropolitan Kallistos as a visiting lecturer when I was a student at the Irish School of Ecumenics (1982-1984). It was wonderful to hear him again this week in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, at the summer school on “The Ascent to Holiness” organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

In his paper, Metropolitan Kallistos asked: “What is a Saint?” When the priest in the Orthodox liturgy says: “The holy things for the holy people,” he pointed out, this could also be translated as: “The sacraments for the saints,” or: “The holy things for the saints.”

There is one who is holy, Jesus Christ. Sanctity belongs to God, and we merely participate in God’s holiness. But sanctity is a universal vocation, to be a saint is the norm; a saint is a normal human being, as God intended humanity to be. All the baptised are called to be saints.

He related sainthood and sanctity to the descent of the Holy Spirit to Pentecost. In the Orthodox Calendar, the Sunday after Pentecost is All Saints’ Day. We are spirit bearers, and this is the fulfilment of Pentecost (Acts 2: 4), all are conferred with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As he offered three descriptions of what it is to be a saint, he said is always good to have three points to make. He had been told to always have three points in sermon – although when he heard some sermons it would be good if they even had one point, and “some have none.”

He recalled a visit to Mount Athos in the early 1970s with Philip Sherrard and Gerald Palmer while they were working on their translation of the Philokalia. As they sat on a balcony on Chilandar overlooking a lake, they listened to frogs singing below. “These frogs were quite liturgical. First they started on the right bank, then on the left bank. They sang antiphonally, and there were a few soloists too, as they glorified God.”

For Gerald Palmer, a saint is someone who is conscious of God all the time, someone who sees Christ everywhere, and that way fulfils Paul’s call to pray without ceasing. A saint is a person of continual prayer, someone who not only prays all the time but is prayer all the time.

He shared a story he heard in a sermon when he was a boy of 10. An old man was sitting and appeared to be doing nothing for a long time. A child asked him why he was sitting there and doing nothing for such a long time. I’m not doing nothing, he explained. I sit and look at God, and God sits and looks at me.

The saints are intensely alive, and living in and with the living Christ, he said. They share the mind of Christ and hear our prayers.

He listed the three qualities of a saint as sociability, specificity and secrecy.

Looking at sociability, he said koinonia teaches us that the communion of saints is a relationship with one another and of God with us. It is a mark of sanctity to share. God is love, but not self-love, turned inwards. God is shared love, mutual love. When we are made in the image of God we are made in the image of the Trinity and we are called to reproduce on earth the movement of mutual love that passes between the three divine persons, the perichoresis of the Trinity.

To be a true human being is to reproduce the love of the Trinity. This is the basis or the origin of the holiness that marks the saints. John McMurray defined personhood in terms of relationship: “I need you in order to be myself.” The saint is the one who realises this to the highest possible way.

The Lord’s Prayer uses the word us five times, our three times, and we once, but never uses the words I, me or my, we were reminded.

Metropolitan Kallistos told the story of Saint Macarius who came across the skull of a pagan priest who told him he was in hell. The saint asked him what hell was like, and was told that those who were there were bound one to another, back-to-back, unable to see each other’s faces. “There is the essence of hell – not to be able to see the face of the other, not to be able to relate, not to be able to love.”

Speaking of specificity, he spoke of the variety among the saints: “The saints are surprising. It is sin that is monotonous. Sanctity is surprising. There are no new sins, always new forms of sanctity … Saints express the uniqueness of our human vocation.”

Martin Buber had once written about an Hasidic rabbi who was afraid that at the last judgment he would be asked not why he was not Abraham, not why he was not Moses, but why he had not been the unique person God had created him to be.

His third description of sainthood was hidenness. He said the saints were often ignored and attacked in their own lifetimes, and it was only after death that they had been glorified. He gave examples from the lives of Saint John Maximovitch of Shanghai and Saint Seraphim of Sarov.

“They did not have an easy time. Often they were secret, hidden, not recognised in their own lifetimes. That’s why we have the Feast of All Saints … The world is being supported by hidden persons of prayer ... the saints are hidden from the outside world, and from themselves, often not aware of their position.”

The Macarian Homilies

When we were having lunch in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights on Tuesday, one of the monks was reading from the Homilies of Saint Macarius during our lunch. And so it was interesting to hear Dr Marcus Plested explore the Homilies of Saint Macarius on Thursday when he spoke on “Experiencing Holiness: Saint Macarius.”

Dr Plested is Vice-Principal and Academic Director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and author of The Macarian Legacy (Oxford University Press, 2004).

As he distinguished Saint Macarius of the Homilies from other saints with the same name, he too told the story of Saint Macarius of Egypt coming across the skull of a soul now languishing in hell. He also told the story Saint Macarius of Alexandria who healed a hyena’s blind whelp, and was thanked by the hyena later with a sheepskin.

Saint Macarius of the Homilies wrote simply under the title of “the Blessed One.” His homilies are extraordinarily worked, with rich imagery and a vibrant symbolism in Syriac poetry that combines the spiritual traditions of the Syriac and Greek theological, ascetic and spiritual traditions.

For Saint Macarius, when the soul becomes the dwelling place of God, man’s purpose becomes fulfilled. The movement is double one. The throne of the Godhead is our intellect, and the throne of our intellect is the Godhead and the Spirit. God serves the person in the city of the soul, and the souls serves God in the heavenly city. God’s love bridges the gap between the Creator and the creature. Sainthood is not to be attained only in the afterlife, but is to be achieved here within the soul, although it is only at the resurrection that this sainthood becomes evident on the outside.

Macarius is a deeply practical theologian when it comes to sin and evil. By the experience of sin and grace, the soul is educated and becomes more perceptive and vigilant. He says: “The soul has got to undergo its own Passover” – we have to taste both the sweetness of the lamb and the bitterness of the herbs.

Holy Fools and King Lear

The Principal of the IOCS, Professor David Frost, is a distinguished translator of liturgical texts and the Psalms, and with a particular expertise in Shakespeare. It was a culturally uplifting experience to hear him talk on “Shakespeare and Nous: Holy Fools in King Lear.”

Great artists are the prophets and seers of their age, with enduring relevance and the power to influence beliefs and change lives, he told us. For many, King Lear is the most agnostic and despairing of Shakespeare’s works, but he said in essence it is both compatible with Christian belief and it is fundamentally Christian in its message, which is matched only by great Russian writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, he said.

The play constantly raises questions about morals and the origins of evil, offers ambiguous or agnostic answers, and defies any efforts to resolve.

The naïve faith in the powers above of some of the “rational” characters is called into question by the defeat of Lear and Cordelia’s defeat, the murder of Cordelia and the death of Lear. Albany tries to tidy up afterwards and set things to right. Yet Shakespeare remains deliberately ambiguous, providing an altered ending from an older story to reflect on how things turn out in the world.

Dr Frost then took the unnamed character of the Servant, who is moved by pity and who suffers death, as an example of nous, which is seen by both Plato and Plotinus, and in Eastern Orthodoxy, as “the eye of the soul.” This Servant is ordinary, unredeemed humanity, capable of acts of common decency.

To Cordelia is reserved role of redeeming the play from black despair. When she replies to her father, “No cause, no cause,” she refuses to accept that anything done to her allows her to seek vengeance or to hate. Love is feely given to those who don’t deserve it. The acceptance of undeserved love allows re-establishment of relationship. Reconciliation is made possible by the power of nous. Cordelia forgives as we would wish to be forgiven. The power of nous breaks in when it is least expected. Whatever the practical fate of those who forgive, the Christian ethic of forgiveness is vindicated in the play. The alternative is that the world will tear itself apart. We know what we must choose, even if the world around us may not survive.

‘Sober Drunkenness’

Later, Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, who has been a regular lecturer at the institute in Cambridge, spoke about the Liturgy in his paper, “Sober Drunkenness: Holiness in the Liturgy.” Father Ephrem comes from an interesting family: his uncle, a Downside monk, was Bishop of Bombay, his brother is the Roman Catholic theologian, Professor Nicholas Lash of Cambridge, he is an uncle of the actor Ralph Fiennes, while he is a monk of Mount Athos and an archimandrite attached to the Ecumenical Throne in Constantinople, and is now working in a mainly Greek-Cypriot parish in London.

He said the Liturgy is a communal act, not private devotions. “We do not go to church to pray as individuals, we go to make a joyful noise unto God.” Everything about the Liturgy is holy, and the object of the liturgy is to make us partakers of God’s holiness, to have communion. The gifts are made holy by the work of the Trinity, where the Holy Spirit is the agent of the Holy Trinity. The Epiklesis or invocation of the Holy Spirit is not a magic moment, but about hallowing or making holy.

He said again that the purpose of the Liturgy is not to produce the “real presence,” but is communion, with the holy gifts transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ so that we may eat and drink them. And he was so right when he said: “There is no magic moment.” The whole Liturgy is one complete holy action, and it cannot be broken up into parts.

The Mitre and the Cloisters

At the end of the day, we held our celebration dinner in the Old Library in Sidney Sussex. And then a few of us – Anglicans, Lutherans and Orthodox, from Ireland, England, Iceland, Canada, the Church of Ireland, the Church of England, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, the Antiochan Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church – adjourned to the Mitre, between Sidney and Magdalene.

Later as we sipped port in the Cloisters back at Sidney Sussex, we agreed the Mitre was an appropriately named pub. Were we indulging in sober drunkenness or was it drunken sobriety? We may not have been holy fools, but we certainly had what came close to “magic moments” or even communion with one another this past week.

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

A Living Word (V): Learning from others: the Bahá’is

The shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel, outside Haifa, which I first visited in 1987

Patrick Comerford

The Bahá’i Faith, founded by Bahá’u’lláh, is one of the world’s newest monotheistic faiths. Its origins can be traced to Iran in 1844, and there are now five to six million Bahá’is around the world. In many countries they are persecuted, ostracised and mistrusted.

Like the members of the other great monotheistic faiths, the Bahá’is have their own sacred scriptures, laws, calendar and holy days.

There are more than five million believers in Bahá’i Faith around the world. The first connection between Ireland and the Bahá’i Faith was formed in 1848, when an Irish doctor treated the Báb – the predecessor of Bahá’u’lláh – in his prison cell.

In the first years of the 20th century, several people became Bahá’is in Ireland, and the American consul in Cork and his family were well-known Bahais at the time.

The Bahai community in Ireland was formally constituted sixty years ago at a meeting in Dundrum in Dublin on April 20 1948. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Bahá’i community in Ireland expanded with a steady and increasing flow of new Irish Bahá’i, joined by a number of new arrivals from overseas.

What can we learn from this small, peaceful, monotheistic faith community?

The most important principle for a Bahá’i is the oneness of humanity. Bahá’is believe that the creation of harmony and unity between all peoples is the fundamental purpose of all religion. They say that the one-ness of humanity is the foundation for the other principles of social justice to which Bahá’i s are committed.

Despite persecution, marginalisation and mistrust, this small monotheistic faith community remains committed to universal peace and religious tolerance.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 18 July 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

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