Tuesday, 20 July 2010

‘Divine love is a very passionate love’

Dr Sebastian Brock, who introduced some generally unknown Syriac texts this afternoon at the IOCS summer school in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

John the Solitary is a Syriac Father who has only come to the attention of Western scholars in the past few decades, with the publication of his Dialogue on the Soul and the Passions in 1936. A translation by Mary Hansbury is forthcoming, and other works have been translated by Dr Sebastian Brock. Not everything has been published, though, and his identity is unclear, and there is a great deal of confusion about his lifestory.

We were introduced to his writing and thinking this afternoon by Dr Brock, who spoke at the IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on “The Passions according to John the Solitary.” At one time, Dr Brock worked with the director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Professor David Frost on the translation of the Psalms that was used in the Alternative Prayer Book of the Church of Ireland.

Solitary probably means that he was “single-minded,” we were told, but little is known about his background, life or biographical detail, although he lived in the first half of the fifth century, in a time before the Chalcedonian divisions.

John the Solitary, who says that divine love is a very passionate love and that the love of Christ is like a fire than consumes the soul, is the first Syriac writer to write about sufferings in terms of the passions. He clearly knew Greek writings and is a very Hellenised writer, and while his own system of the passions is different from other Greek writings, he bears an interesting comparison with Evagrius.

Although John the Solitary was long unknown to western scholars, he was strongly influential in the Syriac tradition. He sets out a three-fold pattern of the spiritual life: pagrana (of the body), napshana (of the soul) and ruhana (of the spirit). Dr Brock compared these with the Apostle Paul’s three levels or stages in I Corinthians 2-3: σαρκικός (sarkikos), Ψυχικός (psychikos), and πνευματικός pneumatikos).

John the Solitary emphasises on the hope for the post-Resurrection New World, and the fully-lived life there, with Christ dwelling fully in people who are there, and we were introduced too to the theme of the interior or hidden person, which is also dominant in his writings.

John identifies six passions he says are common to human beings and animals: anger, wickedness, love, desire, discrimination, and pride. But people are different from animals in three ways: the nature of the soul, the ability to acquire (spiritual) knowledge, and the possibility of acquiring divine love or the love of God.

John the Solitary distinguishes between those passions that are of the body and those that are of the soul, and writes about the nature of passions at different levels.

Surprisingly, he includes tears or weeping as one of the passions. People who weep in prayer may be recalling past troubles or the departed, or worries over their children, property or oppression. But, at another level, this may reflect a recollection of sins and God’s graces, or worries about death and judgment. But weeping at the level of the spirit can be brought on by wonder at God’s majesty, astonishment at the depths of God’s wisdom and the glory of his coming, or at those who go astray in the world.

In some places, John the Solitary poses a number of puzzles, including ones on the passion of zeal and the passion of anger. Talking about the passion of love, which is naturally present in human beings, he writes about divine love as a very passionate love.

“You are masters of your passions,” he tells his readers. “You can control them, you can direct them.” You cannot begin talking about the love of God unless you love your fellow human beings, he says. The Love of Christ is like a fire than consumes the soul.

Earlier today, Dr Brock spoke to us in the morning on “The ‘Anger’ of God: some thoughts from the Syriac Fathers.” He drew on the writings of Saint Ephrem (right), the poet-theologian of the fourth century, to consider “The ‘Anger’ of God: some thoughts from the Syriac Fathers.”

The idea of a deity that is angry is widespread in all religions, and disasters are often explained by blaming them on the wrath of the deity. In the Hebrew Bible, the wrath and anger of God is often presented as being provoked or as a response to human wrongdoing or sin, but is dealt with in different ways. God’s anger is often seen as being expressed towards his people because of their iniquities or wrongdoings. In the New Testament, it is the Apostle Paul who principally speaks about the wrath of God (see Romans 1: 18).

In the fourth century, Saint Ephrem spoke of a chasm between the Creator and all that is created. This chasm can only be crossed in one direction – by God towards us. If God had not taken that initiative, we would not be able to say anything that is truthful about him.

Saint Ephrem uses images of clothing to describe this revelation of God. So God puts on names, yet they are inadequate and defective, and should not be taken literally. To illustrate this, Dr Brock quoted from one of Saint Ephrem’s poems:

If someone concentrates his attention solely
on the metaphors used of God’s majesty,
that person abuses and misrepresents His majesty
and thus goes astray by means of those metaphors
with which God has clothed Himself for that person’s benefit,
and he is ungrateful to that Grace which stooped low
to the level of his childishness.
Although She has nothing in common with him
yet Grace has clothed Herself in his likeness
in order to bring him to likeness of Herself.
– (Ephrem, Hymns on Paradise 11: 6.)

Although the Syriac Fathers have little to say about the wrath or anger of God, this approach to revelation and scripture allows Saint Ephrem to deal with the question, saying: “There is in His Being neither anger nor repenting. He put on the names of them for the sake of our weakness.” – (Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 31: 1.)

In this, Dr Brock found a useful corrective to Biblical fundamentalism.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

‘To be or not be ... to do or not to do?’

The Revd Professor Andrew Louth speaking at the IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

I once saw a T-shirt on sale in the Plaka in Athens that said: “To do is to be, Socrates. To be is to do, Plato. Do-be-do-be-do, Sinatra.” This morning, at the IOCS summer school in Cambridge, the Revd Professor Andrew Louth said the great moral question for Christians is indeed: “To be or not to be?” and not: “To do or not to do?”

Father Andrew was delivering a paper on the topic: ‘May the One who suffered for us and freed us from the passions, Almighty Saviour, have mercy on us!’ Reflections on the Passion and the passions.

Father Andrew has been at Durham University since 1996, for most of that time as Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies. He teaches courses on the history and theology of the Church, and his research interests lie mostly in the history of theology in the Greek tradition and in mysticism. He is the author most recently of Greek East and Latin West: the Church AD 681-1071 (2007). He is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, editor of the journal Sobornost, and co-editor of the series Oxford Early Christian Studies.

He spoke of how the verb from which the word passion comes means to suffer, and not merely to be in pain. For example, when Christ says ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me,’ the word ‘suffer’ means not to be in pain but to let, to allow, to be passive.

In his passion, Christ lets something happen to him. He accepts being arrested, betrayed, scourged, and being put to death. Though he lets these things happen to him, he never loses control. He allows something to happen. I

The Greek word for Easter, Pascha, is derived from the Hebrew for Passover (Pesach), which means transition, passing over, or passing beyond. But to the Greek ear, the word Pascha is close to the word used for the Passion, which is not only his death but his transition to the Resurrection.

He outlined the four basic qualities, excellences or virtues as temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice or righteousness.

Moral philosophy in the past debated how to acquire these virtues, so that we can be most truly ourselves through being active rather than being through reactive.

We live in a world that is mostly beyond our control. But we have to ask how we can live in it so that whatever happens we can rise above it because we are clear about what values to pursue. What we do must flow from what we are rather than from being reactive.

The great moral question for Christians is indeed: “To be or not to be?” and not: “To do or not to do?” We rise above the passion, and how we act flows from who we are and what we believe.

The great moral question for Christians is indeed: “To be or not to be?” and not: “To do or not to do?” (Photograph © Patrick Comerford )

Our second lecturer today is Dr Sebastian Brock, who speaks on “The ‘Anger’ of God: some thoughts from the Syriac Fathers,” and on “The Passions according to John the Solitary.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Visiting the churches of Cambridge

Saint Bene’t’s Church is the oldest building in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

During this summer school, we are using the chapel of Sidney Sussex College twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. But one of the delights of staying in Cambridge is visiting the churches and college chapels that are close to hand.

On Sunday morning, I was in Little Saint Mary’s for the Eucharist or High Mass, celebrated by the vicar, Father Andrew Greany, assisted by Father Mark Bishop, a self-supporting priest who is a Crown Court judge and Chancellor of the Diocese of Lincoln. The visiting preacher was the Revd David Neaum, Assistant Curate at Saint Gregory, Marnhull.

Little Saint Mary’s is a mediæval parish church on the corner of Trumpington Street and Little Saint Mary's Lane is in the heart of Cambridge.

The church once served as both a parish church and the college chapel of next-door Peterhouse. Richard Crashaw, the metaphysical poet, was associated with Little Saint Mary’s while he was a Fellow of Peterhouse (1638-1643). Less than ten years later, the church's decoration and ornaments were badly damaged by the Puritan extremist William Dowsing.

The church was refitted in 1741 with wooden panelling, box-pews, choir gallery and central pulpit (the present pulpit). It was restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1856-1857, when the 18th-century woodwork was removed and again in 1876. Further restoration work was carried out in 1876 and 1891, but by 1880 the church’s appearance was much as it is now.

Since the late 19th century, Little Saint Mary’s has offered both the City and University of Cambridge a distinctive liturgical and sacramental witness in the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism. The south chapel was added in 1931, designed by Thomas Lyon, the architect of the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, where I am staying this week.

During the week, I’ve also dropped in occasionally to Saint Bene’t’s Church¬¬, where the vicar is the theologian, writer and broadcaster, the Revd Angela Tilby.

The tower of Saint Bene’t’s – an abbreviation for Saint Benedict’s – is the oldest building in Cambridge. The church, which now looks as though it has been built into a corner of Corpus Christi College, but is much older than the college it once served as a chapel.

Saint Bene’t’s is an Anglo-Saxon foundation, dating back to about 1020, when Canute was the King of England. The round holes in the Saxon tower are said to have been made to encourage owls to nest and catch mice.

Blind recesses on the south side of the transept in Saint Bene’t’s once opened into a room that is now part of Corpus Christi College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

On the south side of the transept, there are blind recesses that once opened into a chapel room above the vestry. This room is now part of Corpus Christi College. Below these blind recesses are two curved ogee arched recesses from the 14th century. One arch houses the sedilia or seats for the officiating clergy – the priest, deacon and subdeacon; the other once held the piscina or shallow basin used for washing the Communion vessels and the disposal of water used sacramentally, with a drain direct to the earth.

Some of the items of historical interest in the church include a 13th century coffin lid, a late mediæval iron-bound chest, a 17th century refectory table and bench, and an 18th century fire hook for pulling burning thatch from the roof. But there is also a modern icon of Saint Benedict and Saint Francis – the church was staffed by Franciscans for 60 years from 1945 to 2005 – a crucifix carved by a sister of the Community of Saint Clare, and ‘The Passion,’ a modern sculpture by Enzo Plazzotta.

The Pelican, the symbol of Corpus Christi College, on a hassock in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I even noticed a hassock in the West Tower with the symbol of the Pelican – a quiet testimony to the church’s continuing links with Corpus Christi College.

Former vicars of Saint Bene’t’s include Michael Ramsey, who was here in 1938 and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He is still remembered fondly here, and the Ramsey Rooms, created at the west end of the south aisle in 2002, beside the tower, are used for Sunday School and other meetings.

In all, there are six priests on the staff of Saint Bene’t’s: the vicar, an honorary assistant priest (the Revd Dr Rachel Nicholls), and four assistant priests, including the chaplain of Corpus Christi College, the Revd James Buxton. The church continues a tradition of marking the rhythms of daily prayer, with a celebration of the Eucharist at 8 a.m. each morning and and Evening Prayer at 6 p.m.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.