Saturday, 26 August 2006

Wars and Rumours of War

We are like the man in the Gospel who is in doubt on account of wars and rumours of war. We are somewhat concerned and worried about the international situation. One war has just finished, and people say that it is intended to be a prelude to the next. For the next war, serious men of serious power are said actively to be considering the use of nuclear weapons. From thinking the unthinkable, serious and powerful men have today come to consider actively, and perhaps even to plan for actively, the unthinkable.

Some years ago we visited the Elder. It was during a time of war (which war?). The Elder compared one of the belligerents to the Devil. He remarked that he was praying for the war to be contained. And, in fact, the war did stop at a fairly good juncture. The Elder didn't say anything about praying for the belligerent he compared to the Devil to be smashed.

Another Elder is quoted as remarking about that same war that it was inevitable. He also had harsh words for that same belligerent. But the ‘inevitable’ he seems to have meant in this way: nothing anyone could do would prevent that war. It didn’t seem to have the sense that the war was just or necessary.

During World War II, it is said, Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) every day prayed with tears flat on the ground in his cave for the 'least evil side' to prevail—leaving it to God to figure out which side that might be.

It is said that Elder Sophrony's own Elder, St Silouan, who died about a year before the outbreak of World War II, when he thought of or prayed for Europe saw a black cloud hanging over it.

Several Elders on Mt Athos received an ‘information (pleroforia)’ when World War II began, a spiritual ‘information’ which was confirmed some days later when word reached Mt Athos that the war had broken out.

The saintly Elder Joseph the Hesychast, if we remember correctly, experienced great spiritual pain the day of outbreak of World War II, a pain humanly explained only when word reached Mt Athos that the war had broken out.

(Remember, this was before the day of cell phones.)

What are we to make of all this?

It seems to us that we should pray in all seriousness. For what? For ‘our side’ to win? Not really. The days are past of the ‘just war’ that let us smash our enemy without batting an eyelash and with a clear conscience.

The Gospel advises us to pray for all men in authority that we might live our lives in peace, that we might attend to our religious duties in peace. We should pray earnestly for all men in positions of authority on both sides (or on every side) that they might have wisdom (not delusion, fanaticism and messianic ideas) and coolness (not cold-bloodedness, callousness and cynicism). That they might truly fear God and consider well their responsibilities before God for what they plan to do. They are common men, without great intellectual attainments. May they obtain the wisdom from God to plan correctly for their own futures and for the futures of all men, both in this world and in the next. In this world because we cannot always foresee the consequences of our fatemongering fateful decisions; in the next world because God is not mocked, he who said through his own Son that not all those who call out ‘Lord, Lord’ will be saved, but he who does the will of the Father in Heaven as it is taught in the Gospel. It is an act of love to help the blind man find his way. Let us help the blind find their way.

Some Epithets of Mary

There are a number of epithets used of Mary in the Orthodox Church. We would like to look at a number of them.

The first epithet is Panaghia. This epithet means All-Holy, All-Holy One, All-Holy Woman.

The next epithet is Theotokos. This is a difficult word to translate. It literally means she (or, her) who gave birth to God. Theotokos is a very important word theologically, playing a role as it does in the defense of Orthodoxy against the Nestorians, who denied the fullness of the incarnation. Hence, it would be useful to interpret the term correctly when we are translating the services of the Church. We do not think that merely leaving the word in the Greek does justice to what is involved: the untranslated word becomes a sort of proper name, devoid of meaning and content except for a professional theologian.

The sense of Theotokos as it was debated in the Nestorian controversy is that because the person that Mary bore was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word of God, he who had taken up human flesh from Mary in taking up a full human nature, Mary is justly to be called she who gave birth to God. It does not have the sense, as some New-Age types would like to think, that Mary is some sort of eternal matrix or ground of being that somehow brought forth the Godhead. The Nestorian position itself is that Mary gave birth to a mere man who was united to the Godhead. This would have made Jesus a man of vastly superior attainments to other men, but still a mere man. This position is actually quite popular in popular modern Western conceptions of Jesus

The next epithet is Mother of God. From the above, this should be clear.

The next epithet is Ever-Virgin. This should also be clear. In contrast with some Protestants, but in agreement with the Roman Catholic Church (or should we say that the Roman Catholic Church maintains the Orthodox tradition?), this means that the Virgin Mary never knew man, even after Jesus’ birth. The Fathers interpret the references in the Gospel to Jesus’ ‘brothers and sisters’ to refer to children that Joseph, a widower, had by a previous marriage.

The next epithet is Unwedded Bride. This is a difficult epithet to translate into English without creating unnecessary connotations. The sense of course is that Mary became the Bride of God—she gave birth to the Son of God—without for all that ever having known man.


Since August contains the Feast of the Dormition of Mary, the Mother of God, it is dedicated to Mary in the Orthodox liturgical cycle. It therefore behoves us to say something about Mary. We think that it is impossible for us to say anything worthy of the Mother of God, but let us try, we who are unworthy of her, to say something not unworthy of her.

When the Archangel Gabriel approached Mary in Nazareth, he greeted her thus: ‘Hail, you who have been shown grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.’

What can we say? An angel of God greets a mere woman with these words. And Mary ‘seeing [the angel] was agitated at his word and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.’ And the angel said to her: ‘Do not fear, Mariam, for you have found grace before God.’

And after the angel announced the birth of Jesus by Mary, Mary replied: ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.’

Mary then went quickly to see her kinswoman, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And whence comes this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’

And Mary replied: ‘My soul exalts the Lord and my spirit rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he looked upon the humbleness of his maidservant. For, behold, from now, all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One did great things for me and Holy is his Name. And his mercy is to generations of generations, to those who fear him. He made strength with his arm, he scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart; he deposed strong men from their thrones and humble men he raised up. He filled hungry men with good things and rich men he sent away empty. He defended Israel his servant to remember mercy, just as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed [singular] to the Age.’

We do not know what to add to these Gospel passages that is worthy of Mary. We are like the angel in this troparion:

Gabriel, astonished at the fineness of your virginity and at the exceeding brightness of your purity, cried out to you who bore God: ‘What encomium shall I bring forth to you that is worthy? What shall I name you? I am in wonder and beside myself. Therefore, I cry out to you as I was commanded: Hail, you who have been shown grace!’

May you pray for us, Mary, Mother of God, you who gave birth to God.

Friday, 4 August 2006

The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration (August 6), on Sunday for those of us who follow the new calendar, is similar to the Theophany (January 6) in that it is a revelation of the Holy Trinity. Of course, the Transfiguration has been a very important feast since the Hesychast controversy of the 14th Century, because of the connection between the light that shone around Jesus on Mt Tabor in the Transfiguration, and the Uncreated Light taught by St Gregory Palamas to come by Grace to the Hesychast. What is important in Orthodoxy is to encounter this Light, this Grace.