Saturday, July 19, 2014

Getting to Know Our (Church) Fathers in the Faith

Dear Parish Faithful,

Last Sunday, we commemorated "The Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils."  If that already sounds a bit esoteric, it  may mean that you will need to do some research into the Church's history and theological teaching.  Just who are these "Fathers;" or perhaps we can ask more generally, just who are the Fathers of the Church? 

Since we are probably aware of some of the basic biographical facts of our country's Founding Fathers - say, Washington, Jefferson and Adams (and I am sure that everyone can supply their first names) - I would submit that we need to know those Church Fathers that so profoundly teach us about God and the entire mystery of our salvation.  (I will avoid mentioning our familiarity for the moment with the lives of movie stars and athletes). If the Church Fathers are admittedly not "household names" in America, as are the Founding Fathers; then I would further submit that they need to be household names in homes inhabited by Orthodox Christians (with perhaps their icons adorning our walls)!  If we know the basics about Washington, Jefferson and Adams; then we should also know the basics about the Three Hierarchs, for example - Sts. John Chrysostom, Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian.  Just who are they?  When did they live?  What are their major contributions to the life of the Church? While the founding fathers were deists - believers in a rather remote "Deity" - the Church Fathers taught us about the Holy Trinity, Whom we worship every time we step into the Church for a service, beginning with the Liturgy.

In the homily last Sunday, I attempted to place the commemoration of the Fathers in the context of the pastoral admonitions found in I TIM. concerning the teaching of sound doctrine.  As an example, the Apostle Paul encouraged Timothy in the following manner: "If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed" (I TIM. 4:6). 

The fact is that false teaching has plagued the Church from the beginning, and the Apostle Paul realized how pernicious, confusing and discouraging this can be for the internal life of the believing community.  This is why St. Paul further taught:  "Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith"  (I TIM. 6:20-21).

This work of "guarding the deposit" (of the Faith) against false teaching became one of the great legacies of the Church Fathers in subsequent centuries.  The Fathers poured all of their intellectual and spiritual powers into "rightly defining the word of Truth" when confronted with false teaching.  Our Nicene Creed was formulated in response to the Arian heresy that refused to recognize the full divinity of the Son of God. In a more peaceful manner, they would offer brilliant and illuminating commentaries on the Holy Scriptures. And we study their interpretation of the Scriptures to this day. Therefore, it is through the centuries that the Church has developed what we call today a "Patristic legacy."

With this term in  mind, I closed the homily last Sunday by posing a hypothetical scenario. Imagine a friend, neighbor or acquaintance asking you the following questions:  "Knowing you as an Orthodox Christian, and reading a bit about your Church, I came across the claim that the Orthodox Church is very committed to what is called the "patristic legacy."  Could you explain the meaning of that term to me?  I came to the conclusion that is has something to do with the so-called Church Fathers.  Just who are these Church Fathers?  Could you possibly tell me something about the more prominent ones?"  Here is your great opportunity to shine! To witness to the riches of Orthodoxy! Would you be able to enlighten your interlocutor?  (Please remember what I said last Sunday:  you are not allowed to refer this person to me by giving him/her my phone number or email address). Or, would you limp away knowing that this was a missed opportunity?  (For the moment let's not explore the plausibility of such a conversation).  We should never underestimate the potential impact of being capable of something meaningful about our Faith when asked to do so.
The reason why I specifically chose the term "patristic legacy" for my homily last Sunday is because I had just started a new and fascinating book by a great patristic scholar, Augustine Casiday (who is an Orthodox Christian), entitled, Remembering the Days of Old - Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage (SVS Press).   So far, so good! This book  promises to be an excellent study from start to finish.  At the very outset of the book, Augustine Casiday begins with some basic definitions of his over-riding theme:

This book is an essay about the patristic heritage and its importance for contemporary Orthodox theology. ,,, Before we can consider the patristic heritage in a sustained way, we need to define both "patristic" and "heritage." ... "Patristic" indicates that any given thing comes from or belongs to the "fathers" of the Church.  (The English word patristic comes indirectly from the Latin word pater which, like the Greek pater, means "father.")   "Heritage" refers to that which is passed from one generation to the next, often within a family.  From these two definitions, two important questions arise. The first is, what do we mean when we describe certain people as "fathers"?  And the second:  what is it that we are "inheriting" from them?

 (Remembering the Days of Old, p. 25)

The remainder of the body of his book is Augustine Casiday's own answers to those two fundamental questions.  However, the small excerpt above is at least a start.  So, if you haven't yet had that dialogue with a friend, neighbor or acquaintance, perhaps these brief definitions will help you offer an intelligent and accurate response once you get past the initial shock of being asked such a series of questions in the first place.  However, I will leave it to your initiative, interest level and commitment - however modest - to the Church's patristic legacy, (to begin?) that exciting and stimulating discovery of the lives and works of the more prominent of the Church Fathers.   Perhaps you may want to begin with the Three Hierarchs mentioned above.  Here is a good way to spend some summer leisure time!  Explore their lives.  When did they live?  Where are they from?  What were their roles in advancing our knowledge of the Faith?  This kind of use of your time and energy will reward you thirty, sixty and hundred-fold, I am certain.  St. John Chrysostom's life alone will blow you away!

To turn to Augustine Casiday one more time, here is what I believe is a very helpful perspective on what it means for us to "follow the Fathers" and to establish a relationship with them:

When we talk about people from the past as "fathers" (or sometimes, albeit rarely, as "mothers"), we are claiming a special kind of relationship to them.  We are claiming  them as parents and, at the same time, we are claiming to be their children.  We can even say that we are affiliating ourselves to them, in the strongest, etymological sense of the word:  we are making ourselves their children.  This use of family language is not casual.
Our dependence as children upon the Fathers of the Church is both a positive and persistent factor. It is not something that we outgrow as we mature.  Instead, it is, if you like, a structural component of relating to them as their children.  Even when an infant matures into childhood, adolescence, and then adulthood, the relationship remains.  It doesn't remain the same; it matures, but the fact that children relate to their parents is constant, even as the character of the relationship flourishes and ripens.  For this reason, we can talk about continuing to be sons and daughters of our Fathers, even into adulthood, growing into maturity without losing our relationship to them

 (Remembering the Days of Old, p. 26, 30)

Knowing about the Fathers (and Mothers!) of the Church should not be left to the "experts." It should not be an issue of intellectual curiosity.  I think that it is our responsibility to study their lives and teaching at some level of commitment.  Recall this exhortation:  "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their faith" (HEB. 13:7).

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