29 August 2016

‘To love visible creatures is to allow the
received Divine energy to reveal itself’

The Knox-Shaw Room in Cloister Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge is the venue for the conference organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

The annual conference of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies opened in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this morning [29 August 2016] with Dr Christoph Schneider, the Academic Director of IOCS, introducing the subject of ‘Fatherhood and Sacramentality.’

This year’s conference, in the Knox-Shaw Room in Cloister Court, addresses the theme: ‘Contemporary Fathers and Mothers of the Church: Guides for Today’s World.’

Father Dragos Herescu, the acting principal of IOCS introduced the conference as a ‘pinnacle’ of one-day conferences at the institute during the past year. He described these ‘Contemporary Fathers and Mothers’ as witnesses to the continuing and continuous presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and as guides for education and theological inquiry and practice through their lives and writings.

We live in a world where the light of God is intensely present, although we do not always see it like that, he said. These diverse people are another testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit in the World.

Dr Christoph Schneider said the conference title suggests that we need guidance and that we need guides. But this need was lost at the enlightenment, and he quoted Immanuel Kant who said in 1784 that ‘enlightenment is man’s emergency from his self-imposed immaturity’ and the need for guidance.

The search for independent thinking, intellectual and moral autonomy and self-sufficiency was a reaction to authoritarianism in Church and State. Modern philosophers, such as Alasdair McIntyre and Charles Taylor, have recently developed the idea of Communitarianism, which seeks to oppose excessive individualism, the revival of tradition, and advocates virtue ethics. In this thinking, guides enact and embody the ‘good life’ and are indispensable to the community.

In the Eastern tradition, Sobornost, developed as an alternative to individualism and socialist collectivism.

But, he asked, why do we need guides that are like Fathers and Mothers. He looked at Father figures and Father-Child relationship, and drawing on the writings of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), he discussed how Fatherhood can be problematic, but so too the absence of the father, and looked at the concept of the sacramental presence of the father, experienced in love, beauty and holiness.

Lacan wrote that ‘Man’s desire is for the Other to desire him’ (le désir de l’homme, c’est le désir de l’Autre) or ‘Man wants to desire that which the Other desires.’

The problematic absence of the ‘Father’ leads to psychosis. The unsuccessful establishment of the ego-ideal creates a false certainty instead of doubt. Such a person is always certain of his own ideas because there is no authority figure, and may have hallucinations such ‘they are trying to get me’ or ‘God has chosen me as his messenger.’ He experiences shame, but not guilt, and has no critical self-reflection because the psychotic’s ‘father’ is demanding without limits.

In neurosis, the obsession is to completely adopt the Other’s ego-ideal, and wants a despotic father. But divine love is not love like this, and involves creative reception. Is there a way beyond the neurosis?

He looked at Nature and Grace in Orthodox theology, especially in the writings of Saint Maximus the Confessor. The desire for God is grounded in nature and creation. Fathers and mothers fulfil a mediating function from the beginning, facilitating the child realising the desire for God, and helping the child to redirect desire and love towards God.

For Christian love, misdirected love can be redirected, but cannot be imposed, yet it is unconditional. It aims at transforming the loved one and aims at reciprocity, even when there is no initial response.

He quoted the martyred Russian Orthodox theologian and Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), who explains that ‘to love visible creatures is to allow the received Divine energy to reveal itself – through the receiver, outside and around the receiver – in the same way that it acts in the Trihypostatic Divinity itself. It is to allow the energy to go over to another, to a brother. For merely human efforts, love for a brother is absolutely impossible’ (The Pillar and Ground of the Truth).

In Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

This afternoon, the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Professor Ciprian Streza of the Faculty of Theology in Sibiu, spoke on ‘Father Dumitru Staniloae – The Liturgy: The Kingdom of the Holy Trinity.’

Introducing Dr Streza, Dr Razvan Porumb, a Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in the IOCS, described him as one of the most prolific and prestigious Romanian scholars in this field.

Dr Streza introduced us to some of the key texts by Professor Dumitru Stăniloae (1903-1993), who became rector of the Theological Academy in Sibiu in 1936, but was forced to move to Bucharest in 1947. He was the leading Romanian Orthodox theologian of the 20th century. For over 45 years, he worked on a Romanian translation and commentaries of the Philokalia, a collection of writings on prayer by the Church Fathers. He worked alongside the monk, Father Arsenie Boca, who brought manuscripts to Romania from Mount Athos.

His three principal subjects were ascetics and patristics in the 1940s, dogmatics in the decades that followed and the liturgy in the 1980s. His book The Dogmatic Orthodox Theology (1978) made him one of the most influential theologians of the last century. He also wrote commentaries on many Patristic writers, including Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Maximus the Confessor, and Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.

This introduction was important for, as he said, Father Stăniloae is ‘mostly quoted but not read.’ He brought together dogmatic theology and liturgical theology in a unique way for Orthodox theologians. He discussed the life and the love of the Trinity as the Liturgy of the Trinity, and he defined the Eucharistic Syntax as ‘the Kingdom of the Holy Trinity, the intimate godly home that comprises all.’

He sought a synthesis of the understandings in Antioch and Alexandria of the Liturgy, and he wrote of the Holy Liturgy in the contexts of mystery, person and Communion. Everybody has an internal liturgy alongside the external liturgy, and when we bring them together we have a foretaste of the Kingdom.

In the discussion that followed, Dr Streza spoke of how when we receive the mystery of the Trinity we have to give it to the world. You cannot take without giving. The Liturgy is taking part in the life of Christ and putting it into action.

Later this afternoon, the Revd Professor Andrew Louth discussed ‘Father Sergii Bulgakov’ as a spiritual father. Father Andrew, who is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church and Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University, is one of the leading Patristic scholars in the English-speaking world.

Father Andrew, who was introduced by Dr Christoph Schneider, spoke about Father Sergeii Nikolaevich Bulgakov (1871-1944), the Russian Orthodox theologian, philosopher and economist who died in exile in Paris.

He was once a Marxist professor of economics in Russia, But he realised he could not make sense of the beauty of the world without relating it to God, and he moved back to the Orthodox faith at the beginning of the 20th century.

Little of his correspondence has been published, and his theological writings are rooted in German idealism that makes him difficult to read. But many found him a real spiritual father, and his spiritual children included Sister Maria of Paris and Sister Joanna.

He was 47 when he was ordained on the Day of the Holy Spirit (‘Whit Monday’) in 1918, and he remained in post-revolutionary Russia until several thousand members of the Russian intelligentsia were expelled at the end of 1922. From Constantinople, he made his way through Prague to Paris, where he helped found Saint Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute.

His ideas about the Wisdom of God, his sophiology, were unpopular, but were hugely respected. He is best known short trilogy published in the 1920s, and his three-volume work in the 1930s.

He celebrated his last Liturgy on the Day of the Holy Spirit (‘Whit Monday’) in 1944, and he died 40 days later.

Father Andrew presented Bulgakov as spiritual father rather than as a theologian, as a Christian sage and a teacher of the Church.

In his life experiences, Bulgakov lived out the idea Aeschylus expresses in a play on words about learning through suffering. After a near-death experience, he found God was bringing him back to life, and he celebrated every Liturgy as if it might be his last.

The great man was at heart a simple priest. For Father Sergeii, the Spiritual Father was first and foremost the celebrant of the Divine Liturgy with his Spiritual Children. His advice includes to prepare carefully for the celebration of Liturgy, which may involve the whole day beforehand. He advised his spiritual children never to close their door on anyone.

The liturgy constantly seeps into his theology and into his practice. For Father Sergeii, liturgy and eschatology come together with the breaking in of future hopes into the present. At times, it seemed he was celebrating the Liturgy for the first time, bringing together the whole Creation, and his suffering leant depth to his celebrating.

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