COME TO THE FATHER
an essay by the Father Superior
of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God
Come to the Father to Rediscover the Unity of All
In this article I want to re-visit the title of our Journal, ‘Come to the Father’, and to explain how this expresses in a few words what we are aiming to present to our readers. The greatest tragedy of our time is that the Churches appear to have lost their true sense of direction in relation to the revealed will of God, ‘who has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’ (Ephesians 1:9-10). This loss of a united sense of direction is due – I want to say - to their complacency about their separations from one another. This loss of a fundamental sense of direction was bound to follow those particular divisions of long ago between the Churches of East and West, when they failed to recognise themselves in one another as the one Church of Christ, and each Church after the division began to assert even more strongly its own unique truth and identity, as a means of justifying its existence in separation from the other.
I am not stopping here to consider the histories in separation of the Churches stemming from the Reformation in the West, because these separations can be seen as consequences of a certain loss of wholeness, or of internal unity, within the Western Church after her separation from the Churches of the East. Indeed, I am increasingly convinced that those who are being drawn to heal the many divisions within Western Christianity need to share first in seeking to understand, so as to move towards the healing of, that primary and tragic division which gradually appeared between the Eastern and Western Churches. I suggest that the Anglican Church could continue to make some significant contributions to the mutual rediscovery of the Eastern and Western Churches, since she has always been in the humble position of never being able to claim that she alone is the one true Church, and furthermore has never ceased to study the Church Fathers, the Liturgies, and the spiritual traditions of the undivided Church. Rather than seeking to identify herself as a separate ecclesial body, she needs to discover her charisma for facilitating the unity of the whole Church. This being the case, the present pressures tending to her own inner fragmentation cannot be removed apart from helping to secure a firm foundation for the unity of the whole Body of Christ, since these divisive tendencies derive from a weakness in Western Christianity itself.
Two Charismata for Unity within One Tradition of the Undivided Church
In retrospect what seems truly amazing to our present experience of a number of divided Churches is that, for a whole millennium, the Churches of East and West managed to hold together as well as they did. We must ascribe this continuing unity to the work of the Holy Spirit inspiring a sense of the underlying one Tradition of the Church, in spite of there being apparently two ways of entering into the one faith to which the One Tradition of the Church bore witness. Both the late Pope John Paul II and the present Pope Benedict XVI have used the image of the Church having two lungs, and the need for the Church to recover her unity by learning again to breathe with both of her lungs. This is an arresting image because of the identity between the words for breath and spirit in the biblical languages, meaning that the prayer of both Churches needs to become mutually supportive in love and humility.
Another powerful image that caught my attention recently was that of an early Orthodox icon, which depicts the Apostles Peter and Paul holding up together the building of the Church, as though they were two pillars. In the True Life In God Messages the Lord presented this image of two supporting pillars as St Peter representing the Western Church, and St Paul representing the Eastern Church. This image of the One Church needing two supports puzzled me, until I read of a comparison between the two very different ways in which Peter and Paul were drawn to faith in Christ in Pope Benedict XVI’s remarkable book entitled ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. My thought is that it continues to be necessary for both of these ways of receiving the grace of faith to remain operative in the Church, because they represent two complementary charismata, for maintaining the God-dependence of the one Body of Christ in this world.
A Comparison Between Peter and Paul in Receiving the Grace of Faith
Our concern for unity should therefore lead us to look more carefully into the two different ways in which St Peter and St Paul became convinced by the Holy Spirit of the Divinity of Jesus, and of how these two distinct charismata could still be recognised as operative in the Western and Eastern Churches. This could help us understand how certain obvious and long-standing differences emerged, such as the different ways of governing the Churches, or of celebrating the Liturgy, without our jumping to the conclusion that if one is right the other must be wrong. Rather, we might hope to see that particular charismata, being graces given by the Holy Spirit, are intended by God to be mutually complementary and supportive, rather than divisive as they have often come to appear.
In the Gospels we read how Peter and the other eleven Apostles gained their authority directly from their contact with Jesus ‘in the flesh’ during the course of His ministry from Galilee to Jerusalem. They became gradually convinced of His Divinity by hearing His Sermon on the Mount, by witnessing a bountiful catch of fish in obedience to Jesus’ word, by seeing Him walk upon the water, by witnessing His stilling of the storm, and His raising of the dead. Finally He put His disciples to the test by asking the direct question, “Who do you say that I am”, and Peter was inspired to say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus, knowing that Peter could not have worked this out for himself, made the telling comment, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:15-18). In spite of the evidence set before the eyes and ears of Peter and the Eleven, it required a special revelation from God, received first by Peter, to provide the conviction that this Man standing before them was also God, the true Son of the Father in Heaven.
St Paul, by contrast, did not participate in any of these events whereby Jesus revealed His incarnate Divinity to His first apostles and taught them with words from the Father. His conviction about Jesus as the long-awaited Christ, and of his apostolic calling and authority from Jesus, came from a personal appearance of the crucified and risen Lord, revealed unexpectedly in the divine Light of His glory on the road to Damascus, where he was going with authority from the High Priests to arrest believers in that city so as to take them bound to Jerusalem for punishment. Saul (for this was his name before his conversion) fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” So powerful was the divine Light poured out upon Paul that it temporarily blinded him; and the Lord commanded him to present himself to a disciple of Jesus, Ananius by name, for the latter to pray for the restoration of his sight and to baptize and confirm him in the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 9:1-30).
Thereafter the Apostle Paul’s growth in understanding and experience of the faith came to him directly from the Lord, rather than by communication from other believers. You could say that his was an ‘eschatological faith’, given by the Lord in a single infusion, which unfolded its form in his intellect according to the needs of his teaching and preaching, even including such practical matters as the celebration of the Eucharist. It is significant however in regard to this mode of direct revelation that Paul was led by the Holy Spirit to present himself several times in Jerusalem to Peter, John, and James the Lord’s brother, so as to receive confirmation from them that it was indeed the same Gospel and the same faith that he was preaching and teaching. St Paul continued as he had begun on this mystical path, receiving great graces, which enlightened him and empowered him to fulfil an arduous and fruitful ministry, and also to endure a living martyrdom of hardships and bitter persecutions at the hands of both Jews and pagans. We can get a sense of the high degree of the mystical knowledge of the Holy Trinity revealed to Paul from his Letters to the Churches he founded, as for example in these sentences from 2 Corinthians: ‘when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another’, and again, ‘God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 3:17-18 & 4:6). Moreover we find the same eschatological grace of faith constantly reappearing in the Eastern Churches, with the same direct experience of the Person of the Holy Spirit, as in say St Seraphim or St Silouan. The Liturgy and the whole monastic tradition of prayer assumes that you begin with the supreme Reality of union with God, who then burns out for the enlightenment of the Spirit all in the nature of the person that is not of God, so as to prepare for his transfiguration by the same Spirit.
With these considerations in mind, we can discern that these two approaches to faith, and the working out of the traditions that follow upon them, are already evident in the New Testament documents themselves. On the side of Peter and the Eleven are the four Gospels and the Letters deriving from the same source, and on the other side are the Letters of Paul and those traditionally ascribed to him.
Western Christianity in the Context of the Secular Mentality
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the approach to the faith and practice of the Roman Church, and of those Churches deriving from her, follows more typically that of the Gospels, with their emphasis upon approaching the divinity of Jesus through His humanity; and of teaching carefully defined doctrines of the faith through the authority given to a structured hierarchical ministry. Within this context we can see also the real need for the tradition of the petrine ministry, to keep the attention of the people of God alive to the Divinity of Christ, and of their need to retain a personal dependence upon the Holy Spirit. The study of the Scriptures, along with the practice of the virtues and methods of prayer, are necessary for laying the foundations of faith, but the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, can only be given directly by the Holy Spirit, within the communion of the Church.
The danger to be avoided here is that of remaining inside the prevailing worldwide humanistic rationalism when studying the Scriptures and other fundamental documents of the faith – their literary forms and historical development - with the result that the human mind comes to set itself up as judge over the Word of God. The same mentality can intrude also upon the Liturgy, so that what is readily comprehensible and comfortably experienced by the assembly, begins to exclude the direct participation of the assembly in the Sacrifice of the death and Resurrection of Christ and their feeding upon the Bread of Life at the Heavenly Table.
In former times, when the prevailing culture of life in the Christian nations of both East and West was formed around the faith of the Church, the whole context of life served to hold the people within their commonly held mentality of faith. However in our contemporary godless culture we all need to develop an on-going sense of responsibility for our faith, and to be looking up from the surrounding darkness of unbelief into the light of Christ, who comes to us from the Father to activate our repentance and to keep our faith and prayer alive. When we see the ‘tribulations’ as described in Matthew 24 already happening around us, the time has come to cast off our sleep, and to behold the glory of the Lord, so as to be changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another.
The Need for the Western Churches to Draw Wisdom from the Eastern Tradition
The time has come therefore for the Western Churches to draw upon the wisdom and tradition of those Eastern Churches, founded and enriched by the teaching and charisma of St Paul. Their places of origin were Syria, Asia Minor and Greece, though they are now to be found all around the world.
Theirs is essentially a contemplative tradition, secured in God and coming down to us in our need for salvation. The origin of this tradition, though growing out of the early experience of St Paul, was given also for the needs of all believers in this secular age, for energising them with the light and power of Christ’s Resurrection. It was the wisdom of this tradition to make time in the Liturgy for drawing its participants into the full Paschal Mystery of Christ, and further through the invocation of the Holy Spirit, so as to empower them with new divine life, as in a second Pentecost. In this tradition the faith is taught largely through the poetic texts of the Divine Office, which serve as a basis for meditation on the main mysteries of the faith in daily, weekly and annual cycles, along with the great Feasts of the Church. The one tradition of prayer is fostered in the monastic communities on behalf of the whole Church; and it is amazing in our own day to witness so many young people filling old and new monasteries to overflowing, especially in those countries, which suffered so terribly under former communist domination.
For this sharing to happen, there is a need of course for love and compassion on the part of Eastern Christians to respond to the urgent situation of their brethren, and of humility on the part of Western Christians to recognise their need for help from those whose faith has passed through the testings of violent persecution.
The Promise of the Holy Spirit to Maintain Unity
We cannot immediately restore unity and such zeal for God and His commandments by our own individual efforts, but we can go a long way towards changing our attitude to the differences that have occurred during the last millennium, so that they cease to be causes of division. We can begin to pray with sincere repentance, so as to overcome our former blindness and our complacency towards the existing divisions in the Body of Christ, and aim to consecrate ourselves anew in the truth and service of unity, just as Christ has consecrated Himself on behalf of us all (cf. John 17:19). Furthermore we can pray for a fresh vision of how that Tradition, always essentially one, which sustained unity in the undivided Church, was formed and sustained by the Holy Spirit, at the cost of much travail, and of the endurance of much opposition and suffering, on the part of the saints of God. The Holy Spirit would show us again how it was that the Tradition of faith, worship, sacraments, ministry, and the interpretation of Scripture remained one in the undivided Church for approximately a thousand years, even when as time went on, for the sake of confessing the one faith within the context of threatening errors, the Tradition required development in its outward forms. Nevertheless the Creeds and the Liturgy remained essentially the same, because it was always the same Holy Trinity and the same Incarnate Christ that was being confessed and worshipped.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and it is He who not only created the one faith and one Tradition of the undivided Church, albeit in two complimentary forms, Eastern and Western, but also led the way for the development and authentication of the Tradition, according to the promises the Lord made to His Church through the Apostles: “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26); and later Jesus made this astounding promise even more explicit as follows, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-15).
The Lord is reminding us here of a promise made not only to His apostles, but also to the whole Church unto the end of the age. It is a promise on which He wants us all to draw in simple confidence, so as to enable us to discern the unity of the Faith as first disclosed in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. Christ is Himself the living Word of God, and it is in Him that the Holy Spirit intends to reveal to us the inner unity of Scripture; but the closed Canon of Scripture is not the end of the story for those of us who come to it in later times. Both during the times when it was being written and edited, and subsequently, when it is being read for building up the Church in unity, the Scriptures came to us all within the community of the Church, originally in that of the first Israel, and now within the second Israel, the Church of Christ. The promises of Christ that we have quoted above have always been operative, and are now ever more relevant, because of the diverse, and sometimes erroneous, understandings of Scripture that have arisen within the separated Churches and also between parties within the particular Churches.
The Holy Spirit is the Creator and Preserver of the One Tradition
Like our forefathers in the faith we need to equip ourselves with the Holy Spirit so as to understand what Christ the living Word means by particular words and passages of Scripture, and also to get the best meaning from what our brother says, when he expresses his interpretation in a different way from ourselves. With humility and love we could lead one another into a more unified understanding.
St Paul warns each one of us ‘to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:14-15). He who would be found ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ needs first of all ‘to present himself to God as one approved’, for the word of God has its origin in God, the Living Word of the Father. Both the study of theology, then, and also its presentation for others in speech and writing, needs to proceed in parallel with learning to ‘present’, or to ‘sacrifice’ oneself to God as a servant of His Word through the increase of prayer. The fundamental issue to be realised here is that theology cannot be learnt merely as a pattern of words to be remembered, for the Word of God is a Person, who transcends all forms of words, and can only be truly known by entering into relationship with Him through repentance and faith, in accordance with the Lord’s own teaching in the Gospel.
By this means one can be convinced by the Holy Spirit that there is indeed a ‘pattern of sound words’, laid down in the Creeds and the teaching of the orthodox Fathers of the Church, which along with Holy Scripture then serves as a sort of ‘Sacrament of the Word’, by means of which God’s workman can rightly divide the word of truth. The whole developed Tradition of the Church – theological, liturgical, and spiritual - then appears as a new creation in the Holy Spirit, intended to lead us all into a realisation of ourselves as created beings, dependent upon God in the mode of co-operation, to receive the unfolding of our lives and all the basic needs of life from Him, and thence through the death and resurrection of Christ, into the very Heart of our Heavenly Father. It is from this very altar and throne of the Holy Trinity, this place of praise and thanksgiving, this place of assured peace in union with God, that the Holy Spirit is being constantly given afresh to lead us into the way of unity.
We need not then feel threatened by the fact that the one faith and worship, embodied in the Creeds and the Eucharistic Liturgy, are understood and expressed somewhat differently in the Latin West, the Greek East, and in the ancient and mysterious languages of the Syrians, Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians, as well as in the many languages that the Churches have subsequently used, because the Holy Spirit of unity can give us access to the one and only God, the Holy Trinity, who transcends them all. This would of course be much more obvious to everyone if we were already able to celebrate Easter on the same day, and to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist together, and to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ from the one Altar, for indeed there is only one Heavenly Table, with which the Lord Jesus has united all of our Altars on earth. Meanwhile, we can prepare the way for this blessed recovery of unity by remembering our fellow Christians at our own Eucharists, and by sharing the Heavenly Feast with them in mutual love even though we are communicating at different places on earth.
The Ecumenical Councils as a Foundation for Unity
Nevertheless, underlying the more obvious differences in the ‘local traditions’ of East and West, which I would suggest are acceptable when the primary truths of the unity of the one the Body of Christ are being recognised, valued and guarded by all, are signs of what I have ventured to call a difference in the charismata of the Churches of East and West. As I have tried to explain above, this is a difference arising from the foundation of the Churches of East and West, which has produced a difference of emphasis in regard to the unity of the two natures, human and divine, of the one Person of Christ. This difference, in that it relates to special gifts of the Holy Spirit, could be mutually accepted for bearing complementary fruit, leading to a more perfect unity rather than to division. This differences in emphasis, rather than in principle, began to emerge at the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, and became more pronounced over the period of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, leading up to the Seventh in 787. It was Pope St Leo who made the major contribution to the Council of Chalcedon through the reading by his legates of his ‘tome’, in which he emphasised strongly in his Western way the integrity and unchanging character of the two natures, human and divine, in the one Person of Christ, and this contribution was accepted wholeheartedly by the majority of the Eastern bishops present at the Council as being fully in accord with the Confession of Christ in the Nicene Creed. The Tome of Leo is where the Western Church firmly and rightly stands, for such is her charisma, which strongly emphasises the full humanity of Christ, and consequently the historical character of Christianity, and the temporal concerns of the Church for the salvation and good order of humankind as a whole.
As we have seen however, and this is increasingly evident in our own day, a recurring problem within Western Christianity has been to lose sight of the Divinity of Christ, and of His plan to perfect His creation through the deification of the whole of human nature, beginning with His own human nature by His Resurrection from the dead. In our own day the prevailing mind of the Church has become a prey to the rationalistic mentality of scientific humanism, and the Church herself then appears stripped of her proper holiness, and is ranked in the world as just another religious institution.
The Eastern Church however, by following the light of her own particular charisma, wanted after Chalcedon, to secure the earlier emphasis of St Cyril of Alexandria upon the transfiguration of the human nature of Christ after the Resurrection, and thereby to give a theological expression to the already widespread monastic experience of the contemplation of Christ in the glory of the Holy Spirit. This was finally achieved by the doctrine of the enhypostasis, whereby the full meaning of the Incarnation was seen as implying that the human nature of Christ was fully interpenetrated by His divine nature, or rather, deified by the Holy Spirit, through having become the humanity of God, the Son of God. The complementary Christological doctrine, as defined by the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, was that of the two wills and energies of Christ, human and divine, distinct, yet fully united in the one divine Person, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is important to notice here that these were ‘ascetical’ doctrines, as clarified at great personal cost by St Maximus the Confessor in the 7th Century, and of typical concern to the monks of the East for laying down their own spiritual journey to union with Christ. In this event however it was Eastern theologians who, in their anxiety to affirm the leading role of the divine will in Christ, were in danger of denying altogether a human will in Christ, because they could not reconcile the evidence of Jesus’ human struggle in Gethsemane as being consistent with a perfectly surrendered human will. It was St Maximus again who clarified this matter and opened the way for agreement by the Ecumenical Councils on the doctrine of the two united wills.
On this question St Maximus had the full support of Pope St Martin, at the cost of the martyrdom of both of them. Nevertheless, recent renewed studies of the writings of St Maximus and of the definitions of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, have been of immense theological and spiritual profit to the Churches of both East and West and has reminded us all of how much we have in common, and of how our thinking, speaking and actions must always begin and end in and through Christ. The Spirit forever murmurs in the heart of each one of us, “Come to the Father’, and it is in order that His voice might become audible to all mankind that we must work and pray for the unity of the Churches, and come to understand in particular how differences in the one faith and Tradition of the Church can be received as complementary to one another, rather than as signifying causes for division. It is our glorifying of the Holy Trinity that is the goal of our concern for unity.
read also Fr Gregory's article on 'Unity & the Day of the Lord'
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