14 May 2024

The Greeks have a word for it:
40, Praxis, Πρᾶξις

A doctor’s sign in Hersonissos … the word Praxis is a perfectly good Greek word, Πρᾶξις, in use in Greece today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Walking up and down the hill between Piskopianó and Hersonissos in Crete in the sunshine last month, I was surprised how many places remained so familiar: the restaurants where I had enjoyed so many dinners, such as Lychnos and Metohi; the cafés and bars I had called into; the apartment blocks where other holidaymakers had stayed; and the shops where I had bought a daily newspaper 20-30 years ago.

There are few Irish tourists in Piskopianó or neighbouring Koutouloufári these days, although the signs still remain outside some of the once-popular Irish bars, such as Molly Malones. Today, the holidaymakers in Piskopianó seem to be mainly German and Dutch.

But there were other signs that were more important to notice when I was on holidays there so long away. I immediately recognised the bank where I once had to open an account hastily in the late 1990s. It was in the days when everyone used travellers’ cheques, there were few ATMs and most Greek shops and restaurants refused to accept ‘plastic cards.’

One year, I left my travellers cheques behind, and the bank in Dublin would only transfer funds to a bank account in my name in Greece. But without any money I could not open a new bank account in Greece. It was a condundrum that contributed to me labelling the Ulster Bank the Ulcer Bank. With quick thinking and help from Greek friends, I worked my away around this Catch-22 banking practice and managed to open an accountin Hersonissos within 24 hours, the funds were transferred, shops and restaurants could be paid with cash once again.

When I saw that bank on the street corner in Hersonissos a few weekends ago, I was grateful my children did not go hungry on that holiday due to my forgetfulness. It was all thanks to kindly bank staff in Crete and despite arcane banking practices back in Dublin. I was tempted even to go in and ask whether there was anything left in my old account – although all that was in the day of the Drachma, and if anything is left in the account it is probably not going to buy even a cup of coffee. On the other hand, I might have found I am still legally resident in Crete.

With young children on those holidays, it was also important to know where to find the nearest pharmacist’s shop and the nearest doctor’s practice. I smiled when I recognised that practice immediately that recent Saturday afternoon. But the change in tourism patterns is reflected in the sign outside the surgery: it says ‘Artz Praxis’ in German and ‘Doctor’s Office’ in English.

The word Praxis is a perfectly good Greek word, Πρᾶξις (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

But the word Praxis is a perfectly good Greek word, Πρᾶξις.

The word praxis describes the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, realised, applied, or put into practice. The word Praxis may also refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realising, or practising ideas.

The word praxis comes from the Ancient Greek πρᾶξις, praxis, which referred to activity engaged in by free people. Aristotle held that there were three basic human activities: θεωρία (theoria, thinking), ποίησις (poiesis, making) and πρᾶξις (praxis, doing). Corresponding to these activities were three types of knowledge: theoretical, the end goal being truth; poietical, the end goal being production; and practical, the end goal being action.

Aristotle further divided the knowledge derived from praxis into ethics, economics and politics, and he distinguished between εὐπραξία (eupraxia, good praxis) and δυσπραξία (dyspraxia, ‘bad praxis, misfortune’).

The Greek word πρᾶξις is derived from the verb πράσσειν (prassein, to do, to act). It means ‘practice, action, doing.’ More particularly, it means either: practice as distinguished from theory, of an art, science, etc.; or practical application or exercise of a branch of learning; or habitual or established practice, custom.

Eastern Christian writers, especially in the Byzantine tradition, use the term ‘praxis’ to refer to what others, using an English rather than a Greek word, call ‘practice of the faith’, especially with regard to ascetic and liturgical life.

Praxis is a key to understanding the Orthodox or Byzantine tradition, in which praxis is the basis of understanding faith and works as conjoint, without separating the two. The importance of praxis, in the sense of action, is indicated in the dictum of Saint Maximus the Confessor: ‘Theology without action is the theology of demons.’

In Orthodox thinking, theory and practice complement each other. Indeed, praxis is seen as ‘living Orthodoxy.’

Some Orthodox theologians think Western Christianity has often been reduced ‘to intellectual, ethical or social categories, whereas right praxis is fundamentally important in a person’s relationship with God, requiring a symbiosis of worship and work.

Praxis is a recurrent topic in the field of philosophy, discussed by philosophers and theologians from Plato and Aristotle to Saint Augustine, Bacon, Kant, Kierkegaard, Mark, Gramsci, Heidegger, Sartre and Freire. It has meaning in the political, educational, spiritual and medical realms.

In English, the word "praxis" is more commonly used in the sense not of practice but with the meaning given to it by Immanuel Kant, namely application of a theory to cases encountered in experience or reasoning about what there should be as opposed to what there is. Karl Marx made this meaning central to his philosophical ideal of transforming the world through revolutionary activity.

Writers in Latin American liberation theology have used the word praxis with specific reference to human activity directed towards transforming the conditions and causes of poverty. For them, liberation theology consists then in applying the Gospel to that praxis to guide and govern it.

August Cieszkowski in 1838 was one of the earliest philosophers to use the term praxis to mean ‘action oriented towards changing society’. Marx uses the term ‘praxis’ to refer to the free, universal, creative and self-creative activity through which humans create and change our historical world and ourselves. For many writers, Marxism is the ‘philosophy of praxis.’

Educators use the word praxis to describe a recurring passage through a cyclical process of experiential learning. Praxis may be described as a form of critical thinking and comprises the combination of reflection and action.

We could say praxis is doing something, and then finding out afterwards why we did it: I left my travellers’ cheques behind, I realised this could be a catastrophe over the following three weeks, I opened a new bank account and transferred funds immediately, and I learned my lesson – I made sure I had plastic and access to cash on all subsequent holidays.

There was a follow-up lesson too. When I arrived back in Dublin, the travellers’ cheques were still on the kitchen table. But because travellers’ cheques needed to be signed in the bank where they were purchased, and then counter-signed to cash in, I had real problems bringing them back to the bank and getting their value credited back to my account. I had learned a costly lesson and I had put that learning into practice.

Previous word: 39, Odyssey, Ὀδύσσεια

Next word: 41, Idiotic, Ιδιωτικός

I wonder whether a Drachma or two is still resting in my bank account in Hersonissos? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
45, 14 May 2024

Saint Matthias depicted in a stained-glass window in All Saints’ Church, Calverton, Buckinghamshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Easter is a 50-day season that continues until the Day of Pentecost next Sunday (19 May 2024). We are in an in-between time in the Season of Easter, between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost, and Sunday was the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Easter VII), or the Sunday after Ascension Day.

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Today, the Church Calendar celebrates Saint Matthias the Apostle. After the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, the apostles brought their number back to twelve by choosing Matthias to replace him. He was chosen by lot from amongst the disciples. The author of the Acts of the Apostles sees apostleship differently from Saint Paul’s interpretation of the rôle and seems to reflect the understanding found in Saint Luke’s Gospel. The number had to be restored so that they might ‘sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel’. It was conditional that they had to have been with Jesus during his earthly ministry and witnesses to the resurrection. The point of being chosen by lot, rather than by some democratic method, indicated the election or choosing by God, rather than by mortals.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The south-west bell tower of the Matthias Church beside the Fisherman’s Bastion at Buda Castle … the Church Calendar today celebrates Saint Matthias the Apostle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 15: 9-17 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 9 ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’

The Matthias Church stands in Holy Trinity Square, in front of the Fisherman’s Bastion at the heart of Buda’s Castle District (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 14 May 2024, Saint Matthias):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Triangle of Hope.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (14 May 2024) invites us to pray:

O Lord, we are all created in Your image, yet some treat others and You with contempt by considering themselves superior. Let us not rush to the language of healing before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound of racism. Help us not to value one life more than other lives.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who in the place of the traitor Judas
chose your faithful servant Matthias
to be of the number of the Twelve:
preserve your Church from false apostles
and, by the ministry of faithful pastors and teachers,
keep us steadfast in your truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
by the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Matthias Church is said to have been founded in 1015 by Saint Stephen and is one of the finest pieces of Gothic architecture in Hungary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org