UNITY, TRADITION, AND THE DAY OF THE LORD
an essay by the Father Superior
of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God
What has happened in human life to cause the majority of our contemporaries so easily to waive all thought of God as being irrelevant for them? It is not as though unbelievers generally show signs of being happier or more integrated in themselves than the relatively few who still derive their sense of purpose in life from their faith. Rather it seems that they have become burdened with a spiritual blindness, having lost intimate contact with the God of tender mercy, who gives 'light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.' (Luke 1:79). Whatever the cause may be, what is obvious is that it has produced a widespread apostasy from the Church, and has often weakened the faith of those who remain. As Fr William of Glasshampton put it: 'The mission of the Church is weak when its prayer is weak', meaning by weak prayer a weak faith relationship to God.
So puzzling is the present state of the Churches as compared with, say, the zeal in prayer and converting energy of the undivided Church when whole nations adopted Christianity, that it is difficult to know where to begin investigating what has gone wrong. At the risk of drowning then, I have jumped in at the deep end, with the likely assumption that these weaknesses must have their root cause in some profound level of disobedience to the will of God, as with the original sin of Adam and Eve; and what I have come up with is that this root sin should be identified with the continuing divisions between the Churches, and a general condition of complacency about this situation, since it is clearly contrary to His express will, as this has been revealed in the Scriptures. Not surprisingly this complacency has produced also doubts about the integrity of the Scriptures themselves.
Given then this clearly expressed will of the Lord for unity in His high-priestly prayer of St John's Gospel, Chapter 17, along with St Paul's vision of the plan of God for restoring all creation to unity under Christ as Head (cf. Ephesians 1:7-23), we must draw the perhaps unwelcome conclusion that we do indeed remain in a serious state of sin until our wills have been conformed again to Jesus' own will for unity, meaning in practice, until we have begun to do what we can to make ourselves and others more fully aware of the weakening effects of this situation and of how it should be rectified. Maybe this looks like an unfair judgement inasmuch as we were not around when most of these divisions between the Churches came about. Nevertheless, because from the very beginning of the Church Jesus provided all the necessary means for maintaining and restoring the unity of His one Body, the Church, we must now turn to Him and persevere in repentance until we have learnt from Him where we are failing to put these given means into full effect, and are actually doing what we can to remedy the situation.
The principal means of maintaining and restoring the unity of the Church is none other than our faith in and dependence upon the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the one Holy Spirit who abides in the one Body of Christ, the Church. It is He alone, the Spirit of truth, who can show us two main and fairly obvious motives for repentance and can bring about in us the necessary change of mind and heart for moving us to action. First, we need to let the Spirit convince us that all of the baptized, whether or not they are functioning adequately as living members of the Church, make up the one Body of Christ, and that this is the personal Body of our crucified and glorified Lord Jesus Christ. Those members of Christ who fail to unite themselves with His will to restore the unity of His Body are guilty, whether knowingly or ignorantly, of crucifying Him afresh and holding Him up to contempt (cf. Hebrews 6:6).
A second motive for repentance, following upon the first, is the weakness we have already observed in the mission of the divided Churches for securing the salvation of mankind as a new creation, the Kingdom of God, in which all things are to be re-united in Christ as Head and High-Priest. For the conversion of the world depends largely upon the united witness of the Christian people, whereupon the astonished children of this world will be moved to cry out, "See how these Christians love one another!" In order to bring about this God-willed change, we need to undertake what should be a very attractive, yet profoundly converting, time of training in humility and love in order to be able to listen and learn from the Lord through other Churches, and to embrace gladly all those means the Lord of the Churches provided from the beginning for restoring and maintaining the unity of His one Body, the Church.
Granted that it is likely we shall have to meet and overcome in ourselves and in others some reluctance to making the changes needed for unity, how then should we, members of divided Churches, begin to restore our union with the will of God for unity? First of all we can pray for unity and for our fellow Christians, preferably together, that we might all hear and respond to this call of God. Then through persevering prayer, the Spirit can move us to repentance, and deepening repentance can begin to bear fruit in co-operation for mutual action. By merely talking about unity while doing nothing we bring ourselves even further under the judgement of the declared will of God.
The Language of Unity
A major difficulty in dealing together about matters concerning unity is the need to recover the language of unity. In the undivided Church that language could be used and understood in common, because it was assumed in the condition of being a Christian, but in our own day the commonly held mode of language has shifted to that of scientific rationalism. This sort of language makes no mention of God and sees no need for Him, whereas the language that can discourse about matters of unity begins with the understanding that everything that exists shares the common ground of its existence in the Being of the all-ruling Creator-God. By contrast, the language of science assumes that everything has the ground of existence in itself.
Experimental science concerns itself with discovering how objects relate to one another and defining the forces that connect them, e.g., the law of gravity describes the attractive force between two separated objects, such as an acorn on a tree above the earth, and how the acorn will accelerate if it drops off its branch and falls to the ground; or again, the law of electric conductivity describes the energy transmitted along a wire when the two wire ends differ in voltage. Technology, in turn, can apply the various scientific theories to the practical needs of human life, so that engineers can build a bridge which will conduct traffic safely over a river, and chemists with their understanding of physical elements can build up molecules of substances for correcting the symptoms of diseases in plants and animals. All of this, and much more, is of immense usefulness in facilitating the concerns of our temporal existence; but it does not and cannot tell us anything about the purpose and goal of our creaturely existence, nor about how that goal is to be achieved in terms of the final unity of all in Christ.
The special character of the language of unity however is to be discovered first of all in the traditional discourse about God the Holy Trinity, the Source, Goal and Giver of purpose to all that exists, by virtue of His creative will alone; and this Holy Trinity of Persons is not subject to any laws that might be discovered and defined by His human creatures, nor to the rules of our rational discourse about our temporal affairs. We affirm through the understanding derived from revelation that God is One, a perfect unity in Himself; and we affirm moreover that He exists in Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Fathers of the Church called this apparent contradiction in language - affirming that God is both One and Three - an antinomy, meaning not that it is irrational, but rather 'super-rational', as compared with what we might regard as the more usual scientific laws of rational discourse. Likewise when we come to discourse about the Church as a new creation in Christ, the Kingdom of God in the Holy Spirit, we are frequently obliged to use such antinomic language, grounded as it is in the primary antinomy of discourse about God.
This is the language of contemplation, the language of the direct knowledge of God, rather than of a philosophically based discourse about God. Such language derives from the Church's Tradition of the ascetical life, whereby the intellect becomes united with the 'heart', using here the scriptural meaning of that word. By the purification of the heart, the heart can become for each one of us the organ of a total and unified perception, both of the Holy Trinity as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, and of creation made new in the Trinity. This is a partial sharing by the Holy Spirit of God's own perception of Reality, which He wills to communicate to those in whom faith is being perfected by His own love. It was from within this context of a commonly accepted training for the purification of the heart (Matthew 5:8) for the unity of mind and heart that the antinomic mode of language became that of the undivided Church; and Scripture itself bears ample witness to this Tradition. Its use in the theology of the Holy Trinity was soon extended to describing the divine-humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, His resurrection from the dead, and that unity of persons Jesus has restored in the Church through His saving Passion, Resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit; for as he tells us this renewed human unity is analogous to that of the Persons of the Holy Trinity (cf. John 17).
And it is at this point of intellectual training that we meet major problems today in our attempts to talk about unity; for the contemporary studies in the fields of human individuals and their social relationships, known as the human sciences - psychology, sociology, economics, political theory - must take as their subject matter the same disordered and divided state of humanity, as we all have inherited it. Yet whereas a Christian understanding sees these divisions and disorders as consequent upon man's original sin of separation from God through mistrust and disobedience, as revealed in the Book of Genesis, the human sciences recognise neither this root cause of these disorders, nor the Goal of unity in Christ that God has set for it. We must therefore regard these humanistic attempts to analyse, understand and propose therapies for the problems of humankind without any reference to the Creator as seriously flawed.
Tragically, we find ourselves today in a situation where the whole course of human life, from conception to death, is being described, explained and taught precisely in this humanistic, God-ignoring context. It seems attractive and convincing to the majority because it claims the same mode of rationalism as the physical sciences; but as we have seen, when we move on from the study of material relationships to the fields of personhood and interpersonal relationships, we need also to move our attention to revelation through the word of God concerning His purpose and goal for creation, and to meet the intellectual challenge of the higher rationality of traditional antinomic discourse. In this context sacrificial love becomes the key to understanding.
We might comment that Satan has used something fundamentally good - man's attempts to think and plan effectively for the improvement of his material standard of life - as a means of separating him from the very Source of rationality. An unforeseen consequence has been to imprison him in a state of widespread ignorance of his need to relate first of all to God, and to receive from Him the wisdom and understanding to perceive that the era of animal evolution, with its primal drive of competition for the survival of the fittest, has been brought to an end by the death and resurrection of Christ. He has opened up the way for us all to relate fruitfully to Himself and to our fellow members of the universal human family.
Perhaps the most serious aspect of this intellectual reversion into a false rationalism and liberalism, through a loss of the earlier sense of Tradition as was shared in the undivided Church, is the way in which these have penetrated deeply into the Churches of the West, bringing confusion into the language of theology and the interpretation of Holy Scripture, and provoking abandonment of the traditional boundaries to error, in the language of faith, in moral discipline, and in the integrity of liturgical celebrations, of the Sacraments, and of Holy Orders. It could well be that in coming to understand together the spiritual nature of these powerfully intrusive and confusing pressures of rationalism and liberalism, we shall also discover together the grace of contemplation and the delight of surrender to God, who would give again the love needed to recover and maintain the unity of the Body of Christ. Meanwhile it is encouraging to note that the present Pope Benedict XVI has always been consistent in putting these necessary boundaries to error before the Churches. Though the rebellion against these boundaries has been widespread from the 1960's onwards, happily we seem now to hear increasingly more voices of authority re-affirming the need to return to the Tradition of the Church.
The Eastern Churches, by comparison, have not been subject to the same pressures. To begin with, they have not been immersed in the same decay of Christian culture as has smitten Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Nor have the Eastern Churches experienced such radical upheavals in their development as those accompanying the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and more recently those arising from the Second Vatican Council, inevitable and even fruitful in their historical context as these events may have been. I am thinking gratefully here of the immense though necessary transition from Latin into English for the language of Scripture, theology and liturgy; and did it not open up the way again for the study of the Greek as well as the Latin Fathers? But ever since the early centuries of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, when the basic doctrines and practices of Christian Orthodoxy were laid down, the Eastern Churches have experienced a continuity and a gradual development of Tradition, in such a way that they can aptly be described as the Churches of Tradition.
Anyone who sees the need for catholic stability in the West can recognise thankfully that this stability now resides chiefly in the office of the Pope, recognised as the bishop who continues to bear the grace first given to Peter to confess the divinity of Christ; for it lies with the Pope to lead us in the overcoming of that initial division between East and West that has left us so vulnerable to further divisions. In this context it is especially significant that it was Pope John Paul II, now followed by his successor Benedict XVI, who first discerned the urgent need for unity between the Orthodox East and Catholic West, in order to prepare the ground for the unity and stability in well being of all the Churches of God. As John Paul put it simply, "The Church needs to learn to breathe again with both of her lungs, Eastern and Western". The rest of us in the West, including Anglicans, who are also mindful of the need for uniting the divided Churches in order that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church might serve God effectively for completing His great plan for a new creation, should also consider how we can best participate in this great work for unity. To this end we need also to recover with help of the Holy Spirit of truth a sense of urgency for this work, in that our own personal salvation consists in uniting our personal wills with the declared will of Jesus Himself for the unity of all in His one Body, the Church.
Learning from the East about the Unity of Tradition
It seems to this writer that a first step in responding to the Lord's will for unity is for the Churches of the West to recover confidence in God the Holy Spirit as the Creator and Guardian of the Tradition of the undivided Church. This confidence is fully in accord with what the Lord Jesus had to say about the purpose of the Father's sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, after Jesus had taken away the sin of the world through His redemptive passion and death, and resurrection and return to the Father. Following upon all that Jesus Himself had said and done, the Holy Spirit was sent to serve in the Church as her enlightener and remembrancer: 'The Helper, 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 14:26); and furthermore, for the meeting of future needs, say, for the defining of doctrine so as to protect the faithful from heresy, or for the development of the Church's structures of government and liturgy, Jesus again promised the guiding presence of the Spirit: 'I still 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 16:12-15).
At the risk of over-simplifying and causing offence, I would like to suggest some further ways in which the Eastern Churches have maintained the one Tradition of the Church for the benefit of us all at this present time. It seems never to have occurred to them that holding to Tradition would lock the Church into a no longer relevant past, which is a fear often expressed in the West. Due to their maintaining the antinomic, essentially contemplative, approach to theology, they can receive their Tradition as ever new, directly from God. Such theology therefore remains prophetic in the truly teleological sense of the word. You might say it proves its own truthfulness because the hearing and application of it brings us to the proper Goal of our true life in God the Holy Trinity. To find the riches of Tradition we look then not to the past, but rather to the End of all things in the glorified Christ, for it is into Him that, say, the doctrine and liturgy of the Fathers have been harvested for their perfecting. Particular traditions are therefore apt for development in the Church by receiving them again made new from their source in Christ. Only the Holy Spirit, through the grace of contemplation, can maintain the integrity of Tradition.
In the Eastern Churches this traditional approach to theology encompasses the whole culture of ecclesial life, and maintains the inner cohesion and unity of the latter even where external circumstances, such as the language needed for worship, change. It includes, for example, the whole tradition of monastic life, seen always as one, serving as the guardian of the one spiritual Tradition of the Church at large. The Eastern Churches cannot conceive of distinct religious orders, because for them there is no possibility of different spiritualities, as we have allowed in the West.
In the progress of his spiritual life, each individual person is seen to be standing in the place of the whole human race, and the whole of creation in its journey back to God. Through the Paschal Mystery of Christ he is accepted to stand before the Father on behalf of all as the priest of creation, and to invoke the Holy Spirit of the Kingdom directly from the Father upon the sacrifice of the world so as to make it new. It is this receiving of the Holy Spirit directly from Father, constantly renewed in the Liturgy by the invocation of the Spirit over the Eucharistic Sacrifice, that maintains the Christian as a free son or daughter of the Father, as a person who can take their place in the necessary recreation and re-reception of the one Tradition of the Church, as she makes her way through the history of the disorders of this world. The Bishops have their part to play in confirming the Tradition, in general councils when necessary; but this is not the same as the more legalistic Western understanding of the Magisterium, which does not include the laity. These two approaches to hierarchy and Tradition need to be brought together for unity; and the appeal of the late Pope John Paul II for help to see how his ministry of unity could be applied for the benefit of all the Churches would seem to make this possible.
This realisation that there can be only one spiritual Tradition of the Church is strengthened by the way in which the Eastern Churches recall weekly the foundation of the spiritual life in the Mystery of Christ. Every week in the Divine Office the unity of that Mystery is unfolded from Thursday to Sunday, not forgetting on Saturday Christ's descent into Hades to awaken Adam and Eve and all the departed, so as to raise them with Himself in His Resurrection. The icons depicting these mysteries are all part of this liturgical Tradition, in such an intimate way that liturgy and spirituality cannot be separated. This preparation, a sort of prolonged vigil, brings added life to the Sunday Eucharist, which then quite naturally includes a powerful renewal of Pentecost, and comprehends within its present memory the final Coming of the Lord in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Perhaps it is worth pointing out that Western Christians, who have often become used to picking and choosing what they prefer from amongst the traditions of their own Churches, need to approach the Eastern understanding of the unity of Tradition with reverence and care; for not all Eastern Christians have ready made answers to objections that might be put to them, and Western scholars in particular have gained a reputation for entering clumsily in where angels would fear to tread. If contemplation embraces and verifies Tradition, so does it also bear fruit in the love 'without which I am nothing', and without which no movement towards unity can prosper.
How much all Christians need at this time to submit themselves to that all-revealing judgement of God, not waiting until the great and awesome Day, but rather surrendering themselves here and now, at this acceptable time, when the Lord is insisting as never before on the humility and obedience required from us for the uniting of all the Churches, so that the world might be prepared to believe when He appears to all of humankind! In these days when so much of the riches of the Eastern Churches is available to us in books or on-line we cannot make the excuse that the spiritual Tradition of, say, St Maximus the Confessor, followed by St Symeon the New Theologian and St Gregory Palamas is inaccessible to us; and there are good contemporary commentaries too to help us enter into their spiritual mind.
Not everyone however is called to serve God as a student of theology. What is most important is to undertake the discipline of prayer as needed to acquire dependence upon the Holy Spirit for purity of heart. The same Holy Spirit as inspired the Fathers and Mothers of both East and West is waiting eagerly to help each one of us also with the spiritual gifts of wisdom and understanding, supposing our will is surrendered to be one with that of Christ for the unity of all in Himself. The love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will sustain us on the way. Maranatha; Come Lord Jesus!
read also Fr Gregory's article on 'Come to the Father'
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