American society is polarized to an extent that one can hardly recall. It is as if we have entered a cold civil war. There is another name for this war: culture war, which is a literal translation of the German Kulturkampf. Culture wars are not proper wars, and they are not about culture. They are ideological clashes.
Ideologies are secular constructs. They emerged from the European Enlightenment as substitutes for what its inventors considered to be a delusional religious perception of the world. Ironically, these ideologies have affected not only secularized societies but also the Christian churches with which they are supposed to be incompatible. Hierarchs, priests, and theologians all too often indulge in these culture wars, throwing themselves into ideological battle.
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Jesus may have prayed about several of the things that worry us today: the feeling that the world has been overrun by elements of evil can be overwhelming. So, it is good to remember that Jesus sustained himself by withdrawing to pray alone, often in the wilderness. And many were inspired to follow him there, particularly in the early centuries of Christianity.
While most of these Early Christian desert elders were men praying to God in the rough terrain of the hills outside of Palestinian villages and above the Nile, there were women as well who withdrew into the desert, seeking to truly live out the command of Christ. They, too, have left us a treasury of spiritual wisdom in their short sayings—apophthegmata—similar in form to the earliest remembered sayings of Jesus. Even within the Greek collection, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, (Apophthegmata Patrum), there are a trio of women elders remembered for their God-loving teaching.
The advice and exhortation of the Desert Mothers make them excellent spiritual guides in today’s troubling world. Their admirable inner stillness can be a helpful role model in conflicted times. In personal sessions between spiritual elder and disciple, they taught their followers to imitate Christ and to face off temptation, often leaving them with a Saying meant to personally guide their prayer throughout the day, uphold their courage, and inspire the spiritual warrior within each one of them to serve the highest good in the world.
Despite everyone’s desire to return to normalcy, this is currently impossible in most regions. For example, in Germany, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Augustinos has informed the faithful that, despite the reopening of churches for worship, government regulations make it impossible to give the faithful Communion from a common spoon. In neighboring Austria, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Arsenios has found a solution to this problem by removing the spoon from the equation and communing the faithful in the hand, guided by historical precedent and “the liturgical and canonical tradition of the first millennium and the time-honored and proven Communion practice of the Divine Liturgy of St. James the Brother of the Lord.”
Finding a solution to provide the Eucharist for the faithful is commendable; however, one might ask if such a justification is necessary, since it manipulates liturgical history to fit today’s difficult circumstances. In order to better understand why, I will provide a summary of what is known about the history of the Divine Liturgy of St. James and the use of Communion spoons.
In June of 594, Pope Gregory the Great received a letter from Constantina, the empress, asking him to send the head of St. Paul to Constantinople so that she and others might benefit from venerating the bodily remains of such a great saint. St. Gregory denied the request, noting that it was not the custom of the Roman Church to dismember the bones of the saints.
A great deal has happened between Rome and Constantinople since the sixth century, but Pope Francis’s decision last week to send the Ecumenical Patriarch an actual portion of the body of St. Peter should be understood as nothing short of remarkable. More than anything else, it is a clear indication of the pontiff’s desire to advance the cause of Christian unity.
A point of clarification might help to demonstrate why Francis’s gift is both so unprecedented and significant. Continue reading →