Austin Farrer, the great Anglican theologian, drew a line in the sand for Christians living in our post/modern era. We can’t erase, hide, or ignore history. Our #cancelled and #metoo and #woke friends won’t let us get away with it. In the good old days, we could hide the disciplina arcani—the Orthodox truths handed over to new converts when they were first baptized—from outsiders. Not anymore. Fr Tom Hopko used to remark with his customary aplomb, “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” Anybody with a laptop and a Google Chrome browser can discover nearly anything about anyone at any time. Some of the search results will be wrong. But some of them will be correct. We cannot hide behind ignorance.
If we’re going to canonize heroes as genuine heroes, we must see them as they really are. The famously ugly Oliver Cromwell once sat for a portrait. The artist, Samuel Cooper, wanted to airbrush some of his many blemishes. Cromwell, good honest Calvinist that he was, protesteth vigorously. Paint me as I really am. Warts and all. The #cancelled generation doesn’t want pious un-truths that impart moral lessons, even if they are earnestly taught. Just tell us the unblemished truth and let us sort it out. Warts and all.
On his recent visit to Mt. Athos in October, 2019, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew announced the imminent inclusion of five Athonite elders among the saints: Ieronymos of Simonopetra, Daniel of Katounakia, Joseph the Hesychast, Ephraim of Katounakia, and Sophrony of Essex.
There is a phrase in the Sayings of Abba Macarius with which I can identify. When asked to address a word of salvation, Macarius replied: “I have not yet become a monk myself, but I have seen monks.” While I feel singularly unsuited to write about saints, I can say that I have been privileged to meet saints who shaped my mind and ministry: Fr. Sophrony of Essex, Fr. Paisios of Athos, Fr. Porphyrios of Athens, as well as Fr. Iakovos of Euboea and Fr. Ephraim of Katounakia. My most treasured gift is a small cross containing the relics of contemporary saints: Nektarios of Pentapolis, Arsenios of Cappadocia, Silouan the Athonite, Joseph the Hesychast, and Amphilochios of Patmos.
There is no doubt that the acclamation and proclamation of a new saint is a refreshing gesture of consolation for the church, an affectionate expression of solidarity in people’s daily affliction. But can a gift—whether an act of grace by God or an act of generosity by the church—ever be manipulated or misused? Continue reading →
In May 2018, I graduated with my Master of Divinity, and immediately following the graduation ceremony, I boarded a plane to Rome, where I intended to undergo the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Although I had attended a renowned Jesuit university with one of the largest Jesuit communities in the United States, I chose to go to Rome to do the Exercises because the retreat director was an “orthodox” Jesuit, one who was not afraid to speak “the truth” and one who despised the way “liberals” had destroyed the Society of Jesus. As a reasonably conservative Roman Catholic with an overabundance of zeal and vocational angst, I seized the opportunity to make a retreat under this particular Jesuit, leaving the local Jesuits— who helped me grow as a person and a scholar—far behind.
What kind of authority does the experience of the saints have? Can those who are close to God be wrong in assessing the world or in their understanding of other people’s lives? Looking at the lives of the saints, do we find a notion of infallibility at work? In today’s Orthodoxy, St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), a monk at Mount Athos and later Archbishop of Thessaloniki, belongs among the most frequently cited saints, so let us have a look at what he says on the subject.
St. Gregory Palamas is best known for his defense of the hesychast monks who were given the gift of unceasing prayer and a direct vision of God. He shared monasteries and even hermitages with them, learned ascetic practices from them, grew under their spiritual direction. In other words, Palamas had a long-term experience of a daily contact with those of whom he would say that the gift of grace transformed them into the likeness of God. But he also experienced that these people had their convictions which remained even after the transforming spiritual experience had arrived.
To use an example, St. Theoliptos of Philadelphia was a firm opponent of the Council of Lyons and of reunion with the Roman Catholic Church. Palamas did not see such a conviction as a consequence of the closeness to God. Rather, it belonged to the realm in which human faculties such as reason, emotions, or will operated. While this has not been a view unanimously agreed upon by the Fathers, for Palamas there was no direct continuity between the human faculties and divine illumination, not even when the human faculties were used in contemplation. Continue Reading…