Saturday, 19 November 2016

Love at the heart of Orthodox
spirituality today

Inside a Greek Orthodox Church in Rethymnon, Crete … in the Orthodox Liturgy the priest introduces the Creed with the words: ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Affirming Catholicism Ireland,

Annual General Meeting,

Saint Andrew’s Church, Malahide, Co Dublin

2 p.m., 19 November 2016.


In recent years I have not only dipped my toes in Orthodox spirituality, but at times it feels as though I have become fully immersed in Orthodox spirituality.

I have visited a number of Orthodox monasteries this year, in both Greece and England, in the past I have stayed on Mount Athos and Mount Sinai and visited monasteries and foundations in Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Romania, Palestine, and other parts of the Orthodox world, and for many years now I have been studying patristics at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge.

But I am always surprised that people how people respond to Orthodoxy. For most observers, their response is to comment on the phenomena rather than the spirituality of Orthodox.

Could I summarise these responses as falling into these categories:

1, The beauty, in sound and appearance, of the Liturgy. This response tends to from the observer’s perspective rather than one of a participant. Even priests I know comment on the beauty – or on the length – of the Liturgy, but they seldom comment to me about what they have seen in terms of how to affirms or challenges their own liturgical practices.

2, The beauty of Orthodoxy expressed in the interior beauty of churches with their frescoes and icons, or icons alone. I notice that few Western Christians appreciate or understand why church interiors are decorated in a particular style or fashion, what the theological and liturgical understandings are that underlies how an Orthodox church is decorated. And, while many people decorate their churches or homes with icons, they are often reduced to pretty trinkets and decorative items, rather than a full understanding of their meaning and significance.

3, Some people who seek a fuller and deeper understanding of Orthodoxy begin the practice of the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the Sinner. But quite often this goes no further than a spiritual exercise, seldom becoming a spiritual discipline, and never becoming an invitation to a deeper engagement with Orthodox spirituality.

If I were to ask you about Orthodox theology, some of you may be able to say there are some differences about the filioque, but beyond that, and beyond knowing that there is a beauty that we have yet to fathom in Orthodox spirituality, there is very little real engagement with Orthodox spirituality in the West today.

For me, and what I want to share this afternoon, there is one theme at the heart of Orthodox Spirituality, and it is one that I hope is increasingly feeding into my practice as a priest, in my self-understanding at the Liturgy, in my preaching, and in my pastoral practice.

And that one theme is simply: Love.

Perhaps for Anglicans in this part of the world, the best-known Orthodox theologian writing in English is Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Some years ago, at a lecture in Cambridge [7 July 2009], I heard him speak about ‘The Holy Trinity: model of mutual love.’

The Holy Trinity is the model of mutual love, and the fountain and source of love, Metropolitan Kallistos said. He recalled how Richard of St Victor (d. ca 1173), in De Trinitatia, quotes from I John 4: 8, ‘God is Love,’ and goes on to say that love expresses the perfection of divine nature. Self-love, love of one, turned inwards, is not the fullness of love. Love in its true form implies the presence of another. Love only exists in its fullness when it is mutual. The perfection of one person requires fellowship with another. Nothing is more glorious than to wish to have nothing that you do not share.

Love exists where there is a plurality of persons, said Metropolitan Kallistos. If God is love, God cannot be one person loving himself, and the circle of two persons can be closed and exclusive. Love should not only be mutual, it should be shared.

So let me begin by playing a piece of Orthodox music, recoded in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London in 1996. It is Liubov sviataya or ‘Sacred Love,’ from three choruses written by Georgy Sviridov as incidental music for Alexis Tolstoy’s Tsar Feodor Ioannovich.

The words, sung by soprano Sarah Blood with the Holst Singers, translate:

Sacred Love,
Thou, O sacred love, from the start art thou persecuted,
watered with blood, Thou, O sacred love!


The command to love, to love God and to love our neighbour, is at the heart of the Gospel. It is summarised in the two great commandments in Matthew 22: 36-40 and Luke 10: 27 (see Leviticus 19: 18). In Matthew alone, Christ says, ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

But in Saint John’s Gospel, Christ says there is only one commandment: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15: 12).

Saint Paul too, on more than one occasion, reduces it all down to one great commandment:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13: 8-10).

And again:

For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Galatians 5: 14).

In other places, he writes:

The only thing that counts is faith working through love (Galatians 5: 6).

Or:

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in harmony (Colossians 3: 14).

And:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, and compassion and sympathy. Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind (Philippians 2: 1-2).

It is an emphasis that is also found in the Johannine letters:

The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also (I John 4: 16, 20-21).

I said that for me this one theme of love is the heart of Orthodox Spirituality, and how I hope is increasingly feeding into my practice as a priest, in my self-understanding at the Liturgy, in my preaching, and in my pastoral practice.

So let me explain why as a priest I begin with the Liturgy, and explore how this link is being made by some contemporary Orthodox theologians.

Father Sergeii Nikolaevich Bulgakov (1871-1944) was one of the great Russian intellectuals forced into exile by Trotsky in the 1920s, and he became involved with the Russian émigré theologians in Paris. Professor Andrew Louth of Durham University has compared his work with the theological approaches found in the thinking of Hans Urs von Balthasar in Love Alone: the Way of Revelation (1968).

Bulgakov, in one place, dwells on the link between dogma and prayer, both personal and liturgical, and comments: ‘That is why the altar and the theologian’s cell – his workspace – must be conjoined. The deepest origins of the theologian’s inspiration must come from the altar.’

Bulgakov understands the person as shaped by love, and he asks:

‘And who is this God before whom we stand in prayer? Not the divine substance, not some indifferentiated divine monad or God, but God the Father, revealing himself and his love for us through the Son and the Holy Spirit, and drawing from us an answering love, that is the Spirit poured out in our hearts, leading us back to the Father through the Son.’

Professor Dumitru Stăniloae (1903-1993), the leading Romanian Orthodox theologian of the 20th century, 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.’

The Anaphora or Eucharistic prayer of Saint John Chrysostom makes clear that our engagement with the Father takes place through the Son and the Spirit – the Son, given as the love of God the Father for us, accomplishing the mystery of salvation through the Incarnation, of which the Eucharist is the representation, itself achieved through the invocation, the epiklesis, of the Holy Spirit. As Christ becomes present, heaven and earth are conjoined.

I am moved then, as a theologian and priest, when I hear in the Orthodox Liturgy how the priest introduces the Creed with the words: ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess.’ In other words, our statement of belief, in ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity consubstantial and undivided,’ is confirmed, realised and lived out in our love for one another.

To love our neighbour as ourselves means to love them as we are ourselves, as being of the same substance – created in the image and likeness of God. The Church Fathers teach that we find our true self in loving our neighbour, and that love is not a feeling but an action.

Bulgakov was a contemporary of the martyred Russian Orthodox theologian and philosopher Pavel Florensky (1882-1937). At the annual conference of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this summer [29 August 2016], Dr Christoph Schneider, the Academic Director of IOCS, explained how love is at the heart of Florenksy’s thinking.

Florensky 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).

With Father Nikolai Sakharov in the Monastery of Saint John, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex

Recently, I have been reading or re-reading two books that deal with love as an important theme in Orthodox theology and practice. Some years ago, I came across I love therefore I am, by Father Nicholas V Sakharov (Crestwood NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002); and more recently I am reading Father Andrew Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers (London: SPCK, 2015), which I am using at the moment for my end-of-day devotions and reflections.

In Father Andrew Louth’s book, love is an all-pervading theme in the writings of each of the 20th century theologians he portrays. If you are tempted to think of the Orthodox tradition being dominated by priests or by men only, then he provides surprising insights into the writings and work of many women as theologians and as spiritual guides.

Saint Maria of Paris, or Mother Maria Skobotska (1891-1945), died in a gas chamber in the concentration camp in Ravensbruck during the Holocaust, when she took the place of another prisoner. She has been glorified as a saint in the Orthodox Church (2004) and her name has been inscribed among the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Her death seems to have an inevitability about it for someone who once said, ‘There should be nothing so sacred or valuable that would not be ready to give it up in the name of Christ's love to those who have need of.’

She was deeply influenced by the lectures she attended by Father Sergeii Bulgakov and Father Georges Florensky in exile in Paris. Father Andrew summarises her as saying that it is all too easy to sidestep the demands of love, to seem to be loving, when really love itself has been set aside, or turned into a means to an end. This is avoided by realising the complementarity of the two commands to love.

Mother Maria says there are two ways of loving to be avoided: one which subordinates love of our fellow humans to love of God, so that humans become means whereby we ascend to God, and the other of which forgets love of God, and so loves our fellow humans in a merely human way, not discerning in them the image of God, or the ways in which it has been damaged or distorted.

Father Nicholas Sakharov is a monk in Tolleshunt Knights, the monastery founded by his great uncle, the saintly Father Sophrony.

Father Sophrony was born Sergei Symeonovich Sakharov (1896-1993) in Moscow and lived in Paris and was a monk on Mount Athos before founding the monastery of Saint John the Baptist in the former rectory at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex in 1959.

Father Sophrony talks in La Félicité (p 21) about ‘the absolute perfection of love in the bosom of the Trinity’ and he says: ‘Embracing the whole world in prayerful love, the persona achieves ad intra all that exists.’

During a visit to the monastery some years ago, I was privileged to hear one of the nuns there, Sister Magdalen, speak of a universal love that is all-embracing, including God and all his creation. That is what it means to be a human person … to love as the love that is in the Holy Trinity.

She said the ascetic effort is not selfish or about purifying myself, but is directed towards love. Salvation involves accepting the divine gift of love in its fullness. Prayer is a mirror of the monk’s love of God.

Sister Magdalen spoke of Father Sophrony’s understanding of four types of love, which bears comparison with CS Lewis’s thinking in this area: eros (ἔρως), which he said should be exclusively confined to a man and woman in marriage; affection (storge, στοργή), which cannot be universal; friendship (philia, φιλία), which cannot be shared with everyone; and agape (ἀγάπη), which is unlimited. He believed the other three forms of love needed a ‘good dose’ of agape in order not to become destructively exclusive.

Relating love and prayer in the monastic life, she quoted Saint John Klimakos who said: ‘Love is greater than prayer, because prayer is a particular virtue, but love embraces all the virtues.’

The tomb of Father Sophrony in the crypt in Saint John’s Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The link between this emphasis on Love that I find at the heart of Orthodox spirituality and that I find at the heart of the writings of the Caroline Divines is provided, perhaps, by Mother Thekla (1918-2011), who was born Marina Sharf into a family of Jewish descent in Kislovodsk, the same town Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born. She graduated at Cambridge in 1940, and later worked with RAF Intelligence and the Ministry of Education before becoming Head of English at Kettering High School.

She became a nun after visiting the Anglican Benedictine Abbey of West Malling. As a nun she wrote extensively on George Herbert and other English poets, and became the inspiration for many works by the composer Sir John Tavener, but while she spent much of her later years in Anglican convents she remained an Orthodox nun. Father Andrew Louth described her life as ‘Orthodoxy in English dress.’

Writing on the poetry of George Herbert, she says: ‘The positive recognition of the love of God, of Christ’s redeeming action as that of Incarnate Love, inevitably leads out of any dark apprehension of passive redemption into the light of received and free reciprocal activity. Incomprehensible passivity to an arbitrary dispensation of Grace can now be interpreted as participation in love.’

And she says:

‘The Mystery of Love is inalienable and inexorable in its powerful demand of its activity. The Mystery of Love claims our practical life of spirituality not on a foundation of fear, nor of mute hope, nor of dependence on the Church, but on the explicit promise of the Mystery of human love going forward, in total trust, into the Mystery of the Divine Love. Disciplinary fear is replaced by the far more potent, inescapable experience of facing Love. Sin becomes, already in this world, the agony of hell, for it can not bear the confrontation with Love. Repentance takes on another meaning, and, so too, daily morality is drawn into its transcendent rather than social dimension. Death too is seen with different eyes. And, as long as we live, life is re-oriented. In fact, theology faced with the Love of the Person of Christ, becomes a practical spirituality.’

As Father Andrew Louth says, ‘her discussion of Herbert shows how it may be possible to go deeper, to go beyond the limitations of Western Christian controversy, and recover the reality of facing the Love of the Incarnate Christ, which is truly Orthodox, truly Christian.’

Which is why it has been a pleasure to introduce this concept this afternoon.

Further reading:

Mary B Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Father Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers (London: SPCK, 2015).

Father Nicholas V Sakharov, I love therefore I am (Crestwood NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).
(Metropolitan) John D Zizioulas, Being as Communion (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985).

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is a lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.