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Christ is risen! (Update: I had some technical issues, so a version of this post published earlier but some paragraphs and photos were out of sync).

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In June of last year I received an email asking if I would be interested in speaking at a pan-Orthodox women’s retreat in Saskatoon in April, 2018.  I was happy to accept such a gracious invitation and set to work on four one-hour long talks for the retreat.

By God’s grace, last weekend I had my first experience of the Canadian prairies and delivered my talks while in the company of wonderful Orthodox sisters-in-Christ.  I enjoyed my time so much that I can only hope the women felt as inspired and encouraged by my talks as I did from my experience of Orthodox Saskatoon.

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This was during the last talk, Saturday night. The ladies placed a chair next to me since it was about 1AM Nfld time by this point.

I chose “Keeping Our Spark Alight For Christ” as the retreat theme. The four talks I delivered were designed to build on each other. I drew from a lot of the material in my books The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery  and The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and VictoryAs I said in the talks, I don’t have any other stories to draw from since I put them all in my books :).

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Saskatoon’s St. Vincent of Lerins Orthodox church

Session 1: Preparing our Lamp

This talk had four sub-sections, each on a fundamental element of our Orthodox spiritual life. They were: a.) Church attendance, b.) Fasting, c.) Confession, and d.) Humble-mindedness

Session 2: Lighting a Spark

The sub-sections in this talk were: a.) Reverence, b.) Prayer rule, c.) Reading the Holy Scriptures, and d.) Cultivating a relationship with the saints.

Session 3: Fanning the Flame

Once again, this talk also had four sub-sections: a.) Good works, b.) Lending our talent to the Master, c.) Praying without ceasing, and d.) Pilgrimage to Orthodox monasteries

Session 4: Safeguarding the Light

This last talk had three sub-sections: a.) The Jesus Prayer (this focused more on noetic prayer, or prayer of the heart, in other words the perfect form of the Jesus Prayer), b.) Taking a spiritual inventory, c.) Spiritual endurance.

I was trying to structure these talks so as to show a gradual ascent; I was hoping each session would represent a rung of a ladder leading us ever upward.  So, I started with the basics and increasingly moved up to the weightier spiritual topics.

While it was around 12AM Newfoundland time when I delivered the first and last talks (one was given on Friday night, one on Saturday night), I managed to get through them.  Although, I found I stumbled over my words a little more than I did while delivering the other two talks during the day.

20180429_005534I really enjoyed giving the talks.  Anyone who has heard me speak in person can attest that I get very excited to have the chance to talk about what I love. And there is nothing on this earth I love more than Orthodoxy.  (My actions may not reflect this, but I do love our Orthodox faith and love talking about our faith.)

As you can see from the above side-by-side images, prayers were held in a makeshift chapel for the weekend. I was a touch sad to be in a city with multiple Orthodox churches and to have services in a non-Orthodox temple, since we only have a temporary chapel here in Newfoundland. But, it made sense because the whole retreat was held at a retreat center, so at least we had a place to pray.

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St. Vincent of Lerins

Sunday evening I had the great joy of visiting Saskatoon’s Antiochian parish of St. Vincent of Lerins where, after evening prayers, we went downstairs for a bite to eat and an informal talk, mostly questions and answers. I especially enjoyed this because I find when people ask questions you get a better insight into what is important to them and I was very impressed to learn how seriously they take their faith.

20180429_205146“There is no distance in the spiritual life,” Gerontissa told me on my last trip to her monastery in Greece. Truly, there is neither distance nor strangeness. By this I mean within Orthodoxy you can meet a person for a brief moment and immediately feel one with the person, united, bound through Christ.  Glory to God!

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Saskatchewan river (I don’t remember if it is the North or South river)

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A Homily on Doubt

Dubbing_Thomas

DOUBT

A Homily for the Second Sunday of Pascha:

Antipascha / St. Thomas Sunday

April 15 / 2, 2018

 IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.

CHRIST IS RISEN!

Introduction

St. Isaac describes doubt as being caused by demons and therefore no amount of knowledge and swiftness of mind is enough to withstand these enemies of God and man who wish to drag each one of us into Hell, little by little.[1]

The Apostle Thomas and Christ

Today we are instructed about doubt through Thomas’ example in the Gospel passage that was just read. Thomas is one of the twelve Apostles who had heard, was taught, struggled, and endured all things with the other Apostles. With the other Apostles, he also had the power to heal sicknesses and cast out devils (Mk. 3:15). When Jesus left for Judea after being informed that his friend Lazarus was dead, it was Thomas who said to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16ff) for the people of Judea had previously attempted to stone Christ.

When Christ says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” it is in response to Thomas’ question, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

In this intimate environment of Christ’s Apostles is where Thomas lived and although they all had seen the dead raised, the leper’s cleansed, and the blind given sight, still he doubted the words of his friends when they told him that Christ had risen from the dead.

The Gospel tells us that Thomas was not with the other disciples on the day when Christ rose from the dead and appeared to them. Therefore, when the disciples saw Thomas, they announced to him that they had seen the Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. Thomas replies, saying, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

Now it is eight days after Christ’s resurrection, the disciples are gathered together in a room, and Christ appears to them all and then speaks directly to Thomas.

It is to Thomas that he says, “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.” And Thomas answered and said unto him, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus saith unto him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:27-29).

Thomas’s Doubt

What Christ addresses is Thomas’s doubt, which is quite apparent to us all, but how He does this is what is of concern for us today.

Why did Thomas not believe? Instead of light, the announcement by the Apostles only brought darkness to Thomas. He who was willing to go and die with Christ, expected that Christ would come and find him if He had risen, St. Romanos remarks, and yet Christ didn’t.[2]

Worthy of note, though, is that nowhere do we observe Christ rebuking or chastising Thomas because of his doubts. Instead, as it is said of our Saviour: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench” (Matt. 12:20). Christ comes to Thomas to alleviate him of this poison of doubt, this spiritual obstacle, this stifling of the fullness of joy which Pascha should impart to each one of us. Narrating this moment between Thomas and Christ, St. Romanos writes: “Have compassion on me, Master, as I boldly handle [You], and accept me, Lover of mankind…”[3]

If Christ has come to save sinners, would He not comfort the doubters?

If He did not come to call the righteous, would He not alleviate those beset by this darkness?

If He came to the lost sheep of Israel, would He not seek out those bewildered by disbelief?

If He came to set the prisoners free, would he not unfetter us from the shackles that enslave us with suspicion and distrust?

If He came to heal the brokenhearted, would he not mend the skepticism which rends the heart?

If He came to give sight to the blind, will He not apply a healing salve to give clarity to the vision of our nous?

If He came to give liberty, will He not free those imprisoned by mistrust?

If Christ left the ninety and nine to seek out the one who was lost, will He not come find you who is lost and wandering in the darkness of doubtfulness?

Behold, the condescension of God, the Lover of mankind. You, Thomas, made of clay and of the fallen race of men. You reach your finger here and touch my hands,  the hands of Him who made man. Reach your hand here and touch my side. Touch him who is clothed with majesty[4], who covers Himself with light as with a garment (Ps. 104.2).

It is because of Thomas’s doubt that we commemorate him today. For us who may be full of doubts, despite God’s providence which has lead us here, despite the work of His saints intervening in our lives and even healing some of us, despite the spiritual rest we might experience at times in this holy habitation. Like Thomas abiding with the Apostles of Christ, we still doubt. Eight days ago we celebrated the Bright Resurrection of Christ with the festal Bright Week services up until now when we consider the topic of doubt.

Today, Christ comes to Thomas and comes to us baring his wounds to heal our unbelieving hearts. Blessed are you when doubts assail you and all is looking dark even though you have not seen Christ, but yet you believed (Cf. John 20:29). “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). As St. Leo the Great writes:

[Christ] offers to the doubters’ eyes the marks of the cross that remained in His hands and feet and invites them to handle him with careful scrutiny. He does this because the traces of the nails and spear had been retained to heal the wounds of unbelieving hearts, so that not with wavering faith but with the most certain conviction they might comprehend that the nature that had been lain in the sepulcher was to sit on God the Father’s throne.[5]

“Thomas’ unbelief,” says St. Gregory the Great, “was of more advantage to our faith than the faith of believing disciples, because when he was led back to faith by touching Jesus, our minds were relieved of all doubt and made firm in faith.”[6]

Questions

1.) Why did Christ wait eight days? From our own experience, do we not understand this? We are not quickly relieved of most burdens with such speed and instead are waiting for an indefinite period of time, waiting on the Lord to help us in His good time. It was the same for the Apostle Thomas who continued to dwell with the other disciples, hear stories of the risen Christ and thereby prepare himself to finally see Christ as we should also amidst these unsettling times. Therein is patience nurtured in us and therein we learn how God works in our own lives seeing how He responds to us. We are taught that this Christian path is that narrow path, that we will have a cross to bear, we should not be surprised by this despite being surprised by how difficult it is. And yet, as the Apostle Paul tells us,

For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:17-18)

As Christ came to Thomas while he was amidst the other Apostles keeping fellowship with them, so Christ will seek us out.

2.) What are we supposed to do amidst these times of doubt?

i) Confess these thoughts to our spiritual father. Why leave this snake in our bosom which will only harm us? There is no way that this can turn out for the best when we keep this to ourselves.

ii) Pray – because where else are we to go to be consoled and to find shelter amidst this storm?

iii) Love – for when we learn to love God, we shall not grieve at the present troubles but, as St. John Chrysostom said, we will not even appear to see them because of the strength of such a thing as this love. He further describes this saying,

Those, for instance, who are not at present with us, but being absent we imagine every day, are loved. For mighty is the sovereignty of love (αγάπης), it alienates the soul from all things, and chains to the desired object. If thus we love Christ, all things here will seem to be a shadow, an image, a dream. We too shall say, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress?” (Rom. 8:35)[7]

iv) And lastly, humility. Returning to the first mention of St. Isaac, we recall that he designates doubt as being the tool of the demons. In describing doubt in the hour in which it is the most paralyzing and darkest, St. Isaac writes: “All your knowledge will be in turmoil like that of a child. And your mind which was firmly established in God, the accuracy of your knowledge, and your sound thinking will be immersed in an ocean of doubts.”[8] The only thing to vanquish these doubts is humility, which, he says, as soon as you take hold of it, all the power of the demons vanish.[9]

Conclusion

We can never avoid doubts whether their cause is intellectual, physical, relational or through some other means. And yet, Christ has not abandoned us and even seeks us out to assuage our doubt and the sorrow it causes. May we bear this burden with humility like our Saviour who is meek and lowly of heart, (Matt. 11:29) for those who are humble are given grace by God and shall be exalted and lifted up and will find rest for their souls. [10]

If we are humble, Christ will seek us out, will come to us, and alleviate us of our doubts as he did for the Apostle Thomas, in that very particular way in which the Apostle needed and in the way that each of us need.

THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF THE APOSTLE THOMAS,

LORD JESUS CHRIST OUR GOD, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.

CHRIST IS RISEN!

[1] “Homily Fifty-Seven” in The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. (Brookline: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984), 284.

[2] “On the Apostle Thomas” in On the Life of Christ: Chanted Sermons by the Great Sixth-Century Poet and Singer. trans. Archim. Ephrem Lash. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995), 186.

[3] Ibid., 183.

[4] Saturday evening, Prokeimenon for Great Vespers, 6th Tone.

[5] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2007) IVb, 358ff.

[6] Forty Gospel Homilies trans. Dom David Hurst. (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1990), 207.

[7] “Homilies on St. John” in NPNF, 1st Series, ed. Philip Schaff. (Hendrickson: Peabody 1999, 14:329ff-330f.

[8] “Homily Fifty-Seven,” 284.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Cf. Matt. 23:12; James 4:6, 10; 1 Peter 5:5

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Agape’s Vespers, 2016 – when candles were still permitted at the College 😉

The Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom:

(Source) If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.

And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

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Pentecost

Written by Fr. John Palmer

According to the renowned Patrologist Fr Theodoros Zisis, Orthodox theology teaches that, “…[t]wo phases, two economies are readily distinguished within the mystery of man’s salvation and renewal: the economy of the Son, and the economy of the Holy Spirit.”[1]  Vladimir Lossky fills out this assertion for us, stating that, “The redeeming work of the Son is related to our nature.  The deifying work of the Holy Spirit concerns our persons.  But the two are inseparable.  One is unthinkable without the other.”[2]  In other words, Christ renews human nature through his Incarnation and the Holy Spirit then applies this renewed nature to individual persons by various appointed means in order that they might be united to God, becoming partakers of the divine nature, and saved.  From an Orthodox perspective, then, both economies – that of the Son and that of the Holy Spirit – are equally important and integral to the mystery of salvation, with Pentecost serving as the ‘Metropolis of Feasts’ wherein the salvific mystery is perfected.

In contrast, Frankish theology (the foundation of Roman Catholicism and Western theology in general) develops a one-sided understanding of the mystery of salvation as a result of its emphatic focus on redemption.  Here salvation is largely reduced to a legal drama, Lossky writes, “…played between God, who is infinitely offended, and man, who is unable to satisfy the impossible demands of vindictive justice.  This drama finds its resolution in the death of Christ, the Son of God who has become man in order to substitute himself for us and pay our debt to divine justice.”   Within the context of this drama, the Holy Spirit largely vanishes and consequently the feast of Pentecost fades into the background, at least soteriologically speaking.[3]

The groundwork for this aberration was laid by the adoption of the filioque heresy and the novel Trinitarian theology that arose from it.  The Holy Fathers derided the filioque not only because of its addition to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed when every addition to said Creed was prohibited by the Ecumenical Councils, but because it introduced an inequality among the Divine Persons wherein the Holy Spirit ranked last.  For example, in his Mystagogy, St Photios the Great writes that,

“…if, according to their babble, the Spirit proceeds also from the Son, then the Spirit is differentiated from the Father by more properties than the Son.  Both issue forth from the Father, and even if one issues forth by begetting and the other by procession, nonetheless, one of two modes equally separates them from the hypostasis of the Father; but here the Spirit is differentiated by a second distinction arising from the dual procession.  If more distinctions differentiate the Spirit from the Father than differentiate the Son from the Father, then the Son would be nearer to the Father’s essence, and the Spirit, equal in honour, will be blasphemed as being inferior to the Son…”.[4]

This leads Lossky to conclude rightly that if Frankish theology, “… could stop at the redeeming work of Christ…it was precisely because [by this] time the West had already lost the true idea of the Person of the Holy Spirit, relegating him to a secondary position by making him into a kind of lieutenant to the Son.”[5]  Similarly, Zisis writes, “First the filioque was introduced into the Symbol of Faith and made into a dogma, initially with serious protest coming from certain of the Popes, resulting in a diminution of the Holy Spirit…”[6]

As we have asserted in previous posts, Ælfric of Enysham (+1051) finds himself caught in the middle of the West’s transition from one point to the other, and his Sermones Catholici help us plot the particular path taken by England as it left behind the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and Orthodox Faith.

Though his life and activities pre-date the Norman Conquest of 1066 – the date typically assigned to England’s apostasy – England was already experiencing a cultural captivity during Ælfric’s time.  The heavy Norman influence characteristic of the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) caused England to gradually forfeit its Orthodox theological heritage in favour of those Frankish theological ideals embraced by the Normans.  Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the Sermones Catholici show Ælfric to be a firm devotee of the filioque (though he never expounds it in a polemic manner, suggesting that he simply received it from his teachers and was unaware of its controversial nature).  For example, in his homily On the Beginning of Creation he writes:

Ðeos þrynnys is án God; þæt is se Fæder and his wisdom of him sylfum æfre acenned; and heora begra willa, þæt is se Halga Gast: he nis na acenned, ac he gæð of þam Fæder and of þam Suna gelice. This Trinity is one God, that is, the Father, and his Wisdom, of himself ever produced; and the Will of them both, that is, the Holy Ghost: he is not born, but he goeth alike from the Father and from the Son.

Moreover, in his sermon Of the Catholic Faith, he offers the following exposition of the dogma of the Holy Trinity which concludes asserting the filioque:

Soðlice se Fæder, and se Sunu, and se Halga Gast, habbað áne Godcundnysse, and án gecynd, and án weorc. Ne worhte se Fæder nán ðing ne ne wyrcð, butan ðam Suna, oððe butan þam Halgan Gaste. Ne heora nán ne wyrcð nán ðing butan oðrum; ac him eallum is án weorc, and án rǽd, and án willa. Æfre wæs se Fæder, and æfre wæs se Sunu, and æfre wæs se Halga Gast án Ælmihtig God. Se is Fæder, seðe nis naðer ne geboren ne gesceapen fram nanum oðrum. Se is Fæder geháten, forðan ðe he hæfð Sunu, ðone ðe he of him sylfum gestrynde, butan ælcre meder. Se Fæder is God of nanum Gode. Se Sunu is God of ðam Fæder Gode. Se Halga Gast is God forðstæppende of ðam Fæder and of ðam Suna. Verily the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, have one Godhead, and one nature, and one work. The Father created nothing nor creates, without the Son, or without the Holy Ghost. Nor does one of them anything without the others; but they have all one work, and one counsel, and one will. The Father was ever, and the Son was ever, and the Holy Ghost was ever One Almighty God. He is the Father, who was neither born of nor created by any other. He is called Father, because he has a Son, whom he begot of himself, without any mother. The Father is God of no God. The Son is God of God the Father. The Holy Ghost is God proceeding from the Father and from the Son.

However, while the Abbot of Enysham receives and indeed clearly teaches the filioque, he yet manages to remain aloof from its implications.  In an impressively Orthodox manner he expresses the economy of the Holy Spirit as this pertains to salvation, and clearly presents salvation as deification, and what is more he does this in his sermon, On the Holy Day of Pentecost.  In a passage where he describes the importance of the feast (and ironically again affirms the filioque) he writes:

Þyses dæges wurðmynt is to mærsigenne, forðan ðe se Ælmihtiga God, þæt is se Halga Gast, gemedemode hine sylfne þæt he wolde manna bearn on ðisre tide geneosian. On Cristes acennednysse wearð se Ælmihtiga Godes Sunu to menniscum men gedon, and on ðisum dæge wurdon geleaffulle men godas, swa swa Crist cwæð, “Ic cwæð, Ge sind godas, and ge ealle sind bearn þæs Hehstan.” Þa gecorenan sind Godes bearn, and eac godas, na gecyndelice, ac ðurh gife þæs Halgan Gastes. An God is gecyndelice on ðrim hadum, Fæder, and his Sunu, þæt is his Wisdom, and se Halga Gast, seðe is heora begra Lufu and Willa. Heora gecynd is untodæledlic, æfre wunigende on anre Godcundnysse. Se ylca cwæð þeah-hwæðere be his gecorenum, “Ge sint godas.” Þurh Cristes menniscnysse wurdon menn alysede fram deofles ðeowte, and ðurh to-cyme þæs Halgan Gastes, mennisce men wurdon gedone to godum. Crist underfeng menniscnysse on his to-cyme, and men underfengon God þurh neosunge þæs Halgan Gastes. The dignity of this day is to be celebrated, because Almighty God, that is the Holy Ghost, himself vouchsafed to visit the children of men at this time. At the birth of Christ the Almighty Son of God became human man, and on this day believing men became gods, as Christ said; “I said, Ye are gods, and ye are all children of the Highest.” The chosen are children of God, and also gods, not naturally, but through grace of the Holy Ghost. One God is naturally in three persons, the Father, and his Son, that is, his Wisdom, and the Holy Ghost, who is the Love and Will of them both. Their nature is indivisible, ever existing in one Godhead. The same has, nevertheless, said of his chosen, “Ye are gods.” Through Christ’s humanity men were redeemed from the thraldom of the devil, and through the coming of the Holy Ghost human men were made gods. Christ received human nature at his advent, and men received God through visitation of the Holy Ghost.

[1] Επόμενοι τος Θείοις Πατράσι· ρχές καί κρίτήρια τς Πατερικς Θεολογίας (Thessaloniki: 1997), 173.

[2] ‘Redemption and Deification’ in In the Image and Likeness of God (Oxford: 1974), 109.

[3] ‘Redemption and Deification’ in In the Image and Likeness of God (Oxford: 1974), 99.

[4] On the Mystagogy of  the Holy Spirit (New York: 1983), 84.

[5] ‘Redemption and Deification’ in In the Image and Likeness of God (Oxford: 1974), 103.

[6] Επόμενοι τος Θείοις Πατράσι· ρχές καί κρίτήρια τς Πατερικς Θεολογίας (Thessaloniki: 1997), 180.

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Never even think of pleasing men. To be dishonoured by men – this is good. And what if people say that you have sins? Don’t you? We must endure insults, my dear, because the Savior Christ praised us for this: Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake (Matt. 5:11). We must endure everything with humility, my dear, endure with humility for the love of Christ, in order to win not all of Paradise but only a little corner, however small.

–Elder Paisius of Sihla from A Little Corner of Paradise, p. 77.

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(Written by Fr. John Palmer)

Continuing my reading of Ælfric of Eynsham’s Sermones Catholici, perhaps the most prominent collection of vernacular homilies belonging to the Anglo-Saxon period, I have stumbled across an interesting, spiritually-beneficial observation in his interpretation of the Parable of the Good Shepherd (Homily XVII, On the Second Sunday after Easter, pp. 239-245).  Admittedly, I have not undertaken much source analysis of this text.  It is thus quite possible (even probable) that Ælfric has lifted the position in question directly from the works of someone like St Gergory the Dialogos or Blessed Augustine, since he makes frequent use of these.  He only cites his sources, however, when the work of a particular ecclesiastical writer or Father forms the base of the largest part of his sermon or homily.  A cursory scan of the Fontes Anglo-Saxonici database would seem to suggest its provenance in Blessed Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John.

As he often does, Ælfric begins this particular homily by translating into Old English the gospel passage just previously read in Latin within the context of the Liturgy:

Dixit Iesus discipulis suis, Ego sum pastor bonus: et reliqua.  Þis godspel, þe nú geræd wæs, cwyð, þæt se Hælend cwæde be him sylfum, “Ic eom gód hyrde…” Dixit Jesus discipulis suis, Ego sum pastor bonus: et reliqua.  This gospel, which has now been read, says, that Jesus said of himself, “I am the good shepherd…”

 

The Good Shepherd, then, is Christ himself.  However, the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul are also good shepherds, he says, only:

 

“…ac heora gódnys wæs of ðam heafde, þæt is Crist, ðe is heora heafod, and hí sind his lima.” “… their goodness was of the head, which is Christ, who is their head, and they are his limbs.

 

Consequently, the successors of the apostles, the bishops and priest of the Church, are called to be good shepherds of the spiritual flock in the same manner.  And in what way is their ‘goodness’ manifested?  Particularly in their shielding the flock from the attacks of wolves.  The first wolf is the devil and his machinations, which are fended off by two means:  sound doctrine and prayer.

 

“Mid lare he sceal him tæcan, þæt hi cunnon hwæt deofol tæchð mannum to forwyrde, and hwæt God bebýt to gehealdenne, for begeate þæs ecan lifes. He sceal him fore-gebiddan, þæt God gehealde þa strángan, and gehæle ða untruman. Se bið to strángum geteald, seþe wiðstent deofles lare; se bið untrum, seðe on leahtrum fylð.” “With doctrine he shall teach them, that they may know what the devil teaches for men’s perdition, and what God commands to be observed for the attainment of everlasting life. He shall pray for them, that God may preserve the strong and heal the weak. He is to be accounted strong who withstands the precepts of the devil; he is weak who falls into sins.”

 

The second wolf who stalks the spiritual life are unrighteous secular powers:

 

“Wulf bið eac se unrihtwisa rica, ðe bereafað þa cristenan, and ða eadmodan mid his riccetere ofsitt” “The unrighteous powerful man also is a wolf, who robs christians, and oppresses the humble with his power.”

 

Here the Abbot of Eynsham is most certainly speaking of early medieval lords who mistreat their subjects, unfairly punishing them and exacting crippling taxes.  His words also apply to our own times, though, where unrighteous authorities in many liberal democracies are enacting policies which aim at the persecution of simple, faithful Christians, and are using their position of power to ‘oppress the humble’ under the weight of a constant barrage of worldly, impious ideals.

 

Faced with these two wolves, the unworthy shepherd – the hireling – will flee, but,

 

” Ne flyhð he na mid lichaman, ac mid mode. He flyhð, forðan þe hé geseh unrihtwisnysse and suwade.” “He flees not with body, but with mind. He flees because he saw iniquity and held silence.”

 

And what particular characteristic corrupts a shepherd and leaves him a hireling who flees at the moment he is most needed?  Worldliness.  He flees, Ælfric says, “…because he considers worldly advantages.” It is worldliness which will cause the shepherd to see adultery, covetousness, pride, anger, division, and remain silent, being blind to the spiritual damage they cause.  Moreover, it is worldliness which will cause him to be concerned for his own station, to worry about how the powerful of this world view him, leading him to abandon his flock when worldly authorities mistreat or mislead them.

 

It is one of Ælfric’s concluding thoughts which I found particularly insightful and equally important to both clergy and laity:

 

Ge sceolon beon geornfulle to eower agenre ðearfe, þeah hit swa getimige þæt se láreow gimeleas beo, and doð swa swa Crist tæhte, “Gif se láreow wel tǽce and yfele bysnige, doð swa swa he tæcð, and na be ðam þe hé bysnað.” Se Hælend cwæð be him, “Ic eom gód hyrde, and ic oncnawe mine scép, and hí oncnawað me.” Þæt is, ic lufige hí, and hí lufiað me. Ye should be zealous for your own need, though it so happen that the teacher be heedless, and do as Christ taught, “If the teacher teach well, and give evil example, do as he teacheth, and not according to his example.” Jesus says of himself, “I am a good shepherd, and I know my sheep, and they know me.” That is, I love them, and they love me.

 

“I know my sheep,” the Good Shepherd says, “and they know me.”  Ælfric interprets this line as highlighting the direct relationship between the individual Christian and ‘the Good Shepherd’, Christ himself.  It is the goal of the individual Christian to know, to be united to Christ, and it is the central task of the clergy to facilitate the establishment of this relationship.  Should a bishop or priest prove a hireling, however, this no excuse for the individual to turn away from Christ.  He is bound directly to Christ by ties of love and thus duty-bound to persevere and labour in faith within the Church: “Ye should be zealous for your own need, though it so happen that the teacher be heedless.”

 

Moreover, this passage also serves as a reminder for those clergy struggling to fulfill their vocation conscientiously that the faithful bear final responsibility for pursuing a relationship with Christ.  “I know my sheep,” the Good Shepherd says, “and they know me.”  The bishop or priest can teach the flock about temptation, sin, confession, fasting, the prayer rule, but he cannot live the spiritual life for those committed to his charge.  Such a realization should help him to fend off despondency and resist the temptation to ‘micromanage’ lives, attempting without discretion to force a relationship with the Eternal Bridegroom.

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