Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Where do we start?

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the first session of this year's Fall Adult Education class, we discussed the first chapter of Fr. Andrew Louth's book Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. This chapter had an interesting title: "Thinking and doing; being and praying: where do we start?" Fr. Andrew makes the claim that "these are fundamental human activities. It is the case, I would suggest, that we do not exactly learn to do these things - we engage in these simply by being human - what happens is that we learn what is involved in doing these things." (p. 3) He adds to this a bit more, by saying: 

 " ... we already know the world in some sense, simply by living in it, and what philosophy does is help us to reflect on what is involved in that knowledge of the world. So it is with theology: thinking and doing, being and praying, are activities we all engage in at some level or another." (p. 3) 

 In his excellent book, Fr. Andrew is trying to link theology directly with experience, or what he would call "engagement" with God. This, of course, involves worship and prayer. Here is passage in which he sums this up quite nicely: 

 "This sense of theology as rooted in experience, and yet the idea that this experience is beyond us, so that we are constantly pushed back to repent, to turn again to God: this seems to me absolutely central to the Orthodox experience of theology, of coming to know God." (p. 7) 

 Theology leads us to repentance, because "true" theology - a direction experience of God - is an overwhelming experience of the mystery which is God; a mystery before which we are aware of our sinfulness. 

At the close of this opening chapter, Fr. Andrew includes an extraordinary text that comes from Fr. Pavel Florensky, a brilliant Russian Orthodox theologian from the early 20th c. Fr. Florensky - a living refutation of all that Bolshevism and the Russian revolution stood for - ultimately perished in a Soviet prison camp around 1937. In this short excerpt from his monumental book, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, Fr. Florensky captures the essence of what it means to live and move within the reality of the Church. There is real depth and beauty in this passage, I believe. A text perhaps to reflect on as we, in turn, live and move within the Church to this day: 

 the life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life - not in the abstract, not is a rational way. If one must nevertheless apply concepts to the life of the Church, the most appropriate concepts would be not juridical and archaeological ones but biological and aesthetic ones. What is ecclesiality? It is a new life, life in the Spirit. What is the criterion of the rightness of this life? Beauty. Yes, there is a special beauty of the spirit, and, ungraspable by logical formulas, it is at the same time the only true path to the definition of what is orthodox and what is not orthodox. 

The connoisseurs of this beauty are the spiritual elders, the startsy, the masters of the "art of arts," as the holy fathers call asceticism. The startsy were adept at assessing the quality of the spiritual life. The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but it is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved. That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct orthodox experience ... to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very elements of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way. (p. 14-15)

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