"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Friday, 15 September 2017



Along with the majority of our readers, "I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church," as is proclaimed in the Creed, but I do not believe in the schisms that divide us, at least, not in the same way as I believe in what the Creed proclaims.  I know they exist and would not cross any line that is forbidden to cross by any of our sister churches: I respect them too much. However, I know these barriers were erected by us human beings because our opinions of each other had passed beyond the limits of our charity into the darkness of self-satisfied ignorance. As the Divine Liturgy implies, because we had ceased to love one another, we became unable to sing the Creed together with one mind; and we called this inability "orthodoxy".

If God had abandoned us, this would have been a terrible error, a victory for Satan, and a large part of the Christian world would have been swept clear of God's grace.   But Christ promised that where two or three are gathered together in His Name, He would be in our midst; that if anyone asked for the gift of the Holy Spirit, it would be granted; that He would be with us until the end of time and that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church.  Moreover, at the very centre of history is the Cross, with the Holy Spirit pulsating outwards to all human beings and human events everywhere; with the crucified Christ stretching out to all sinners, bringing about humility where once there was pride, a humility that allows us to share in his sacrifice.   Also, in spite of our unworthiness, Christ has allowed us to humbly  him by celebrating his Eucharist down the ages; and it is here where we become his body that we find our visible unity in Christ which none of us can destroy because it is not our work but His. 

Whoever celebrates the Eucharist celebrates with all others who celebrate, or have celebrated or will celebrate the Eucharist, because there is only one Eucharist.  The ecumenical problem is how to live out in our everyday ecclesial life what we celebrate in the Eucharist.  For us Catholics, at this moment, Pope Francis is leading the way.

After Pope Francis attended the Armenian Orthodox Mass during his visit to Armenia, he said,
“We have met, we have embraced as brothers, we have prayed together and shared the gifts, hopes and concerns of the Church of Christ,” Francis told Karekin on Sunday, after taking part in an Orthodox Divine Liturgy staged at the headquarters of the Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin.

“We have felt as one her beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one,” he said.

He said that, even though he could not communicate, he felt the beating heart of the Catholic Church in the Eucharist, and that, in that experience, Catholics and Armenians together, "We believe and experience that the Church is one."

It is as assertion of absolute unity in Christ through the Eucharist that is contradicted by the schism.  It is an urgent challenge to Catholics, Armenians and anyone else who finds themselves in this position, like Fr Peter Heers and the Greek Orthodox, to try to solve the problems that keep us apart.  This teaching doesn't justify the schism, but shares out both the blame and the responsibility to love one another that the Eucharist implies and, within the context of ecclesial love, to jointly seek the solution. It means that

 Schism contradicts the deepest self of every church that is involved.  

Schism must be tackled because it makes the Church invisible to the world. Only unity in love makes it visible to   ordinary people (Jn 17, 21)

In this post, the only papal visits that shall be mentioned are those to Armenia and Egypt.  This isn't because his meetings with the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow, or his meeting with the head of the Assyrian Church are any less importance.  In fact, his friendship with Patriarch Bartholomew is extremely important as is hisdesire for a friendship with Moscow.  But there is enough material to show us what Pope Francis' ecclesiology is, what doctrine underpins the ecumenical dimension of his pontificate.   He considers it the first task of the Petrine ministry to work for unity, both within and without the Roman Communion, whether people believe in the papacy or not.  There were different understandings of the papacy in the first thousand years, but that didn't stop the pope exercising his ministry.  That wasn't a problem, and it shouldn't be now.

There isn't anything here about his attitude towards Protestants whose separation from ecclesial structures were much more radical and involved the rejection of Tradition in favour of sola scriptura.  Pope Francis says that the absolute essential for being a Christian is a personal relation with Christ.   In this relationship, Christ always gives himself to the believer fully, motivated by divine mercy and - to quote Luther - in actu fidei Jesus Christus adest.  Hence, there is already an implicit connection with and benefit from the celebration of Mass from which history has excluded them, and this benefit is mediated to them through their own ecclesial structures, even through their communion services that are, from a Catholic point of view, are objectively invalid.   This is already implicit in Catholic practice that will give to a Protestant holy communion in cases of extreme need if he believes in the real presence, but not if his own objectively invalid sacrament is available.   We don't know how God benefits them through their communion service, but we do know that God is infinite in his Mercy and Christ is infinite in his divine ability to act, so we can hope for the best.   The basis for Pope Francis' whole theology about anything is the absolute generosity of God's Mercy in every concrete circumstance. This is the reason why he accepts the Orthodox distinction between acribia, strict observance of the Church's rules, and economia, an appeal to the overall purpose of the Christian Mystery - the salvation of each person.   Both are important - the Church cannot do without either - and, in the Church, it is up to the bishops in each region to decide, not the individual conscience. However, in cases outside the Church's control, God's Mercy has the last word.

my source in this blog

I don't know if Pope Francis has ever read Thomas Merton or whether Thomas Merton ever helped to mould Pope Francis's ideas; but I do know that understanding one will help us to understand the other.   The basic belief of both is in the incarnate God whose presence and salvific activity finds its fullness of expression in the Catholic Church.   The Church is uniquely Catholic and true because it is the body of him who is the universal Cause and Source of salvation.   However, they are both conscious that, when God became man , he was united to the whole human race by the power of the Spirit.

 A change took place at the very heart of each human being, at the point, deep down, where God's creative action across time and space results in each person's continued existence .   At the very point where Infinite Love loves us into existence, a link was made  by the Holy Spirit at the Incarnation between each person and Christ, a link that unites us all to Christ and to what he did to save us.  This link allowed Christ to take all our suffering and all our sin on himself, and gave his sacrifice the capacity to be our sacrifice too, his death and resurrection to be ours.   Thus, in Christ, the whole human race became one in a new way, an organism brought about by Grace.

The moment when Father Louis (Thomas Merton) realised this has become famous.   Here is his own account of his experience:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous.This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.
He wrote on another occasion:
Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true. ”
He also said that Christ is everywhere, absolutely everywhere, and we must dig to find him in every situation.

 As a Desert Father put it, just as a change in the weather affects both good and bad alike, so Christ's death and resurrection brought all human beings into a radically new situation.   However, it is a situation which we must poritively choose whenever the opportunity arises.
We were brought into the world without our consent; but, as far as possible, we will be saved by Christ only in so far as we consent to his action in us.

 To this end, Christ founded the Church which proclaims the Truth and celebrates the Christian Mystery, becoming one body with Christ, Christ's visible presence on earth.   It is the place where the Christian life can be consciously chosen and lived.   It is also the place for absolute values arising from our relationship with the absolute authority of God. We can assent to them because membership of the Church offers us the possibility of sharing in Christ's mind, mainly through our sharing in the Liturgy and in Catholic Tradition.   Hence the Church is a place for clear, authoritative teaching.  

In contrast, we live in a world in which each person has to decide what is good and pursue it, find out what is bad and reject it.   No one is exempt from this; no one can stop thinking and simply passively accept other peoples' judgements.   In the words of Thomas Merton, we must all stand on our own feet.   Even when we come to realise the necessity for a teaching Church with clear moral principles, we arrive at that position, swimming against the current, by our own individual choice, by following what we believe to be good and rejecting what we believe to be evil.   Cardinal John Henry Newman came to accept the authority of the Catholic Church,  but only after a long pilgrimage and a chain of highly personal decisions.

In Pope Francis's interview with Scafari,  the following dialogue took place:
He [the Pope] is still smiling and replies: "Proselytism is a solemn foolishness, it makes no sense. We must get to know each other, listen to each other, and increase the understanding of the world that surrounds us. It happens to me that after one encounter I have the desire for another, because new ideas emerge and new needs are discovered. This is important: to get to know one another, listen to one another, broaden the circle of thought. The world is covered with roads that come together and draw apart, but the important thing is that they lead toward the good."
Your Holiness, is there a single vision of the good? And who establishes it?
"Each one of us has his own vision of good and also of evil. We must incite him to proceed toward that which he thinks is the good."
Your Holiness, you have already written about this in the letter you addressed to me. Conscience is autonomous, you said, and each must obey his own conscience. I think that this is one of the most courageous passages spoken by a pope.
"And I repeat it here. Each one of us has his own idea of good and of evil, and he must choose to follow the good and fight the evil as he understands them. This would be enough to improve the world."
Pope Francis is only following the teaching of John Henry Newman who wrote: "It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing."   He also said,"I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards."
Thomas Merton also put emphasis on the individual's personal quest.  He wrote:

In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for 'finding himself.' If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence.
Both Pope Francis and Thomas Merton choose dialogue as the main means for communicating with the world around them.   Teaching Catholic Truth about faith and morals is only apt for those who have attained enough communion in Christ and the Church for the teachings to make sense.   When this is not so, and it is not so for most people in the modern world, what Pope Benedict called the "Tyranny of Relativism" is often the only option.   Hammering away at them with our absolute prohibition of abortion, for example, will not convince them.  Neither will hiding our conviction that abortion is wrong.   However, there are other, more basic subjects that have to be agreed between us for our conviction against abortion to make sense to them

What drives both Pope Francis and Thomas Merton to dialogue is the conviction that Christ is already present anonymously in the people who are struggling to discover what is good and reject what is evil, even when they are in disagreement.   We look for Christ in them, look for common ground; knowing that, if we discover this common ground and the work of grace in them, we will also learn more about what it is to be a disciple of Christ.   Humble obedience to Christ, wherever he is, and however he presents himself, is the secret of growth.   The dialogue partner of Pope Francis is "modern man"; while the dialogue partner of Thomas Merton was, so often, Buddhist and Hindu holy men.   Dialogue can only take place if we believe that, in Christ, God united himself to the whole human race, and that God's activity in the heart of each human being complements the Church's task of proclaiming the Gospel.  What is offered by God to all is a reality above and beyond words: in the heart, God acts at  deeper level than the place where words are formed; and, in the proclamation by the Church, it is not the arguments so much as the witness of those who proclaim the Gospel that tells people that there is a Reality beyond the message that reveals itself through the message, nothing less than a share in the divine Life.
We are used to Popes who teach faith and morals as though all those who listen are sufficiently "Catholic" to simply accept what they say because they share the same faith as the Pope.   For some time, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have urged the necessity for a New Evangelisation.   Perhaps they did not realise that it would be necessary to speak to the "de-evangelised" in a different way from the way they were accustomed to speak to the faithful.   That is what Pope Francis is doing.

by Yelena Ambartsumian
my source: Public Orthodoxy

Ahead of Pope Francis’s recent visit to Armenia (June 24-26), there was much speculation as to whether he would again use the word “genocide” in reference to the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. The prepared remarks, released by the Vatican, appeared to omit that politically charged designation—instead opting for words such as “tragedy,” “slaughter,” and “immense suffering.” Nevertheless, once in Armenia, Pope Francis departed from the prepared text and said, “Sadly, that tragedy, that genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.”

Turkey responded by suggesting that Pope Francis and his Papacy possess “all the reflections and traces of [a] crusader mentality.” Last year, after Pope Francis had referred to the massacres as what is “widely considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century’” at a centennial commemoration in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Turkish President Recep Erdogan swiftly condemned the Pope and recalled Turkey’s ambassador to the Holy See for ten months.

Given this context, Pope Francis’s visit to Armenia came at a critical time.  Armenia is a landlocked country of about 3 million people. It is bordered by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Georgia. Two of its borders—those with Turkey and Azerbaijan—have been closed to Armenia since the majority-Armenian populated region of Nagorno Karabakh sought independence from Azerbaijan and reunification with Armenia in the early 1990’s. That conflict remains unresolved: in April of this year, Azerbaijan tried, unsuccessfully, to take back Nagorno Karabakh by force.

In many ways, Armenia’s isolation transcends its current physical boundaries. Even though the Armenians were the first people to accept Christianity as their official religion (301 AD), their church has been sacramentally independent of Roman and Eastern Christianity since its rejection of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Despite the pressures from its geographic and economic isolation, however, Armenia has demonstrated to the rest of the Christian world that it takes its moral responsibilities seriously. Indeed, Armenia has welcomed 20,000 refugees from Syria over the past few years.

The sites chosen during Pope Francis’s visit have both religious and political significance to the Armenian people. Most evident of this was Pope Francis’s trip to Khor Virap with Karekin II (Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians). Khor Virap (meaning “Deep Pit”) is the site of Armenia’s conversion to Christianity: it is where Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for thirteen years before miraculously healing King Tiridates of a mysterious illness and then baptizing the King. Khor Virap is also the vantage point of Armenia’s great territorial losses.  If one looks toward the west, one can see Mount Ararat—a symbol of Armenia—which is now located within the closed borders of modern-day Turkey. At Khor Virap, Pope Francis and Karekin II released white doves toward Turkey, as a gesture of peace. In fact, throughout his visit, Pope Francis repeatedly called on Armenia and Turkey to reconcile.

Pope Francis’s visit was also ecumenically important.  Reflecting on his time praying with Karekin II, Pope Francis said, “We have felt as one [the Church’s] beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one.”  Karekin II, addressing the faithful in Gyumri, Armenia, noted that “Gyumri and the church of the Holy Mother of God (Yotverk) became a tangible provider and preacher for ecumenism, years before the modern definition of ecumenism was established.”  Indeed, throughout the Soviet period, the parish was a refuge for Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians alike.

Cementing the ecumenical purpose of the trip, at a final Mass on June 26th, Pope Francis said, “May an ardent desire for unity rise up in our hearts, a unity that must not be the submission of one to the other, or assimilation, but rather the acceptance of all the gifts that God has given to each,” and then asked Karekin II to, “Bless me, bless me and the Catholic Church, and bless this path toward full unity.”

Pope Francis’s respect for and handling of the Armenian Church demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the Armenian people. After centuries of constant external pressure, the Armenian self-identity has developed in a way that looks largely inward.  Indeed, due to Armenia’s vacillating status as a regional  power, buffer state, and finally a subjugated and persecuted people, the Armenians have learned to rely on themselves and to distrust others.

The Armenian identity thus conceives of its people’s inherent uniqueness, based on a common ethnicity, language, religion, and historical experience. Armenia’s adoption of Christianity coupled with its independence from Byzantium—its powerful neighbor—helps to explain this paradoxical self-identity. As historian Nina Garsoian writes, “The conversion of Armenia to Christianity was probably the most crucial step in its history.  It turned Armenia sharply away from its Iranian past and stamped it for centuries with an intrinsic character as clear to the native population as to those outside its borders, who identified Armenia almost at once as the first state to adopt Christianity.” Moreover, the creation of the Armenian alphabet in the early 5th century helped to further homogenize and differentiate Armenian culture from its Christian neighbors, allowing its churches to conduct their Liturgies in Armenian, rather than in Greek or Syriac. Centuries later, the persecution and massacres of the Armenian people during the Ottoman Empire’s decline, undoubtedly, pushed the Armenian identity further inward. The vast territorial losses that accompanied these massacres left the surviving Armenian population clinging to the highlands of modern-day Armenia and, failed by the great powers, to each other.

Pope Francis appeared fully cognizant of this history and underscored these themes when he addressed the Armenian people, stating, “Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious. Your voices echo those of past sages and saints; your words evoke those who created your alphabet in order to proclaim God’s word; your songs blend the afflictions and the joys of your history. As you ponder these things, you can clearly recognize God’s presence.  He has not abandoned you.” Pope Francis also challenged the Armenian faithful to strive for unity, so that—with the assistance of God’s mercy—we might all overcome divisions.

Thus far, Pope Francis has shown the Armenians that he stands with them and is willing, despite political pressure, to challenge Turkey’s denialist narrative. While Armenia has been understandably reluctant to look outside of itself or beyond its diaspora, the country would be well served to continue to strengthen its ties with Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church. This visit was a promising start.

Yelena Ambartsumian is a graduate of the Fordham College at Lincoln Center Honors Program (2010) and Fordham Law School (2013).

by Massimo Faggioli                                my source: Public Orthodoxy

Pope Francis’ trip to Egypt (April 28-29, 2017) has been one of the most important and difficult for this pontificate, given the international political situation and the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt and of all Christians between Africa and the Middle East. It is not easy to look at this trip through one single interpretive lens, and therefore it requires the attempt to read it in the context of the pontificate.

A first level was the trip of Francis as expression of the modern magisterium of the pope of the Catholic Church on the relationship between religion as defensor of human rights and political rights in an age of evident crisis of faith not only in God, but also in our fellow human beings – the crisis of democracy. Interestingly, in his speech to the strongman of Egypt, general Al Sisi, and to the political authorities, Francis quoted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 but also from the Egyptian Constitution of 2014, delivering a blunt reminder to Egyptian political authorities: “It is our duty to proclaim together that history does not forgive those who preach justice, but then practice injustice.” Francis walked a very fine line between the need to avoid the impression of a papal blessing of the post-Islamist regime of Al Sisi in Egypt, more friendly to Christians than the brief period of Morsi on one side, and on the other side the need not to be silent before the disturbing record of the present regime in terms of the respect of democratic rights and of freedom.

The second level was the inter-religious relations. Pope Francis had to deal with the difficult legacy of the Regensburg address of Benedict XVI in 2006, which was a typical example of the divided and mutually opposed and deeply misguided, ideological receptions of Ratzinger’s most important public pronouncements (similarly to what happened to the famous speech on the “two hermeneutics of Vatican II” of December 2005). For hardliner, “occidentalist” Catholics the Regensburg speech was the gold standard of the Catholic response to Islam, while for some Muslims it was the manifestation of the crusading mentality of the Vatican. Despite the attempts to frame Bergoglio’s response to the invitation to the peace conference organized by Al Azhar as “Francis’ Regensburg speech”, the tone and the content were significantly different. In his speech to the international peace conference at Al Azhar, Francis quoted from the Second Vatican Council (the declaration Nostra Aetate on non-Christian religions and the constitution Gaudium et Spes on the Church in the modern world) and from John Paul II’s visits to Egypt in 2000 and from the first interreligious meeting of prayer in Assisi in 1986).

There is then the third level of the ecumenical and ecclesial relations, where the intra-Catholic and the inter-Christian relations are more interconnected than before. There are technical aspects of his visit and agreement with Pope Tawadros II that will have to be evaluated in time, especially about re-baptism: “Today we, Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II, in order to please the heart of the Lord Jesus, as well as that of our sons and daughters in the faith, mutually declare that we, with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other.” In this respect, also pope Tawadros has to deal with the “dubia” raised through the media by his opponents.

What is most important is that Francis’ visit to Egypt has confirmed the complex nature of the ecumenical dimension of this pontificate, where we can see three kinds of ecumenism. The first ecumenism is that of bilateral relations between Churches: commissions of theologians and prelates who discuss documents that the Churches will have to approve or reject, or approve and put in a drawer. Francis sees a role for this ecumenism of bilateral commissions and official joint declarations, but without being driven or bound by this kind of relationship that is typical of the ecumenism of the post-Vatican II period and which has brought significant fruits, especially on the basis of relations of the Catholic Church with Lutherans, Anglicans, and Orthodox, but also with non-Chalcedonian Churches (the 1973 Common Declaration of Pope Paul VI and the Pope of Alexandria Shenouda III). Francis is aware of the different roles of the official ecumenical dialogues and of the ecumenical dialogue that is related to his “ecclesiology of the people”: an ecclesiology of the people endowed with an infallibilitas in credendo (exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of November 24, 2013, par. 119) – the people’s infallibility in the foundations of its faith. The ecumenical relations between different Churches need solemn acts and official texts, but without the reception of them by the people they would be meaningless. Francis knows that post-Vatican II ecumenism has been made and received by the lay Christian faithful and that there is no hermeneutical re-discussion of Vatican II that can stop this progress.

Then there is a second type of ecumenism, of which Francis has often spoken: “the ecumenism of blood” (from the beginning of his pontificate: see his interview with Andrea Tornielli of the Italian newspaper La Stampa, 14 December 2013), the brotherhood and sisterhood of Christians of every church and theological tradition in the face of persecutions, especially in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. On this score, it is significant that the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, joined Francis in Egypt in a show of solidarity with Coptic Christians.  Martyrdom as a theological source is redefining ecumenism more than the theological and ecclesiastical systems in the West can comprehend. The issue of refugees escaping persecution is a humanitarian and political issue, but also an interfaith and ecumenical one. From discussions about “Eucharistic hospitality” (giving communion to Christians who are members of another Church, not Catholic-Roman) we have moved on to the problem of hospitality tout court of those who (including many Christians, Catholics and not) flee from death and destruction: it is not a theologically less relevant question than that of Eucharistic communion. Christianity is now put to the test more by its response to the humanitarian crisis of today than by the dogmatic obstacles in the full communion between Churches.

Finally, there is the third type of ecumenism, the one it is most difficult to speak in the Catholic Church, for it is the most difficult and delicate: intra-Catholic ecumenism, among Catholics of devotions and different “obediences” and idiosyncratic identities. Francis insistently called to dialogue and rejection of sectarianism between Churches, but also within the Catholic Church. Francis has repeatedly appealed to the various Catholic movements to coexist in local churches without temptation to occupy spaces or claim primogeniture rights. His trip to Egypt was a powerful reminder against the Catholic temptation to see Christianity through a West vs. East lens: it has been a subtle message against the Catholic “Orientalization” of the Eastern Churches – the temptation to see in them something like a museum of exotic, pre-modern and anti-modern Christianity – as well as against the Catholic “Occidentalization” of itself – Catholicism as an essentially Western religion. In this sense, Francis’ ecumenism is challenging different kinds of Catholics certainly not less than non-Catholic Christians.

Massimo Faggioli is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017



 Joy of All Who Sorrow -- San Francisco

Read at a conference on “Philosophy and Mysticism,” Institute of Philosophy, Moscow, Russia, May 2014, and the first annual meeting of the Society of Orthodox Philosophers in Europe, Fulda, Germany, June 2014.

Worship as the Repository of the Faith

Eastern Orthodoxy holds what may appear to the non-Orthodox to be a remarkably exalted view of the status and significance of its liturgical services. Possessing no Pope, magisterium, or universally agreed catechism, and for many years being unable (owing to various forms of persecution) openly to teach their faith, the Orthodox have long looked to the divine services as the surest and most profound repository of Orthodox theology. St. Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth-century Russian monk and bishop, well expressed this attitude of reverence:

All of our liturgical hymns are instructive, profound, and sublime. They contain the whole of our theology and moral teaching, give us Christian consolation, and instill in us a fear of the Judgment. He who listens to them attentively has no need of other books on the Faith.1

Little boy lighting candle

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, in a lecture entitled “Orthodox Worship as a School of Theology,” has discussed at length the theological content of the divine services. He adds, however, that the value of the services does not lie exclusively or even primarily in their teaching function, but in their power of placing man in the presence of God. Everything about the services—including not only the words, but the architecture and ornamentation of the church, the icons, the chanting, the candles, the incense, the liturgical vestments, the making of the cross, the kneeling and prostrating, and the processions of the clergy—constitutes a single harmonious whole, a kind of perpetually enacted drama in which all have a role. Crucially, the drama is not limited to its earthly participants but incorporates God himself as auditor and (through the reading of Scripture) as speaker. Metropolitan Hilarion quotes in this regard another Russian of the nineteenth century, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, whose description of traditional Russian chant captures something of this sense of a continual ongoing interchange with God:

The tones of this chant are majestic and protracted…they depict the groans of the repentant soul, sighing and longing in the land of its exile for the blessed, desired country of eternal rejoicing and pure, holy delights…These tones now drag on lugubriously, melancholically, drearily, like a wind through the wilderness, now gradually disappear like an echo among cliffs and gorges, now thunder suddenly…The majestic “Lord, have mercy” is like a wind through a desolate place, so sorrowful, moving, and drawn out. The troparion “We hymn thee” ends with a protracted, shimmering, overflowing sound, gradually abating and imperceptibly fading under the vaults of the church, just as an echo dies out under a church’s arches. And when the brethren sing at vespers, “Lord, I have cried unto Thee, hearken unto me,” the sounds emanate as if from a deep abyss, are quickly and thunderously wrested therefrom and rise to heaven like lightning, taking with them the thoughts and wishes of those at prayer. Everything here is full of significance and majesty, and anything merry, light-hearted, or playful would simply seem strange and ugly.2

Above all it is in the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic service celebrated on Sundays and feast days, that God is felt to be palpably present. Metropolitan Hilarion writes of it as follows:

If we can call the services of the Orthodox Church a school of theology, then the Divine Liturgy is this school par excellence. It teaches us about the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom because it itself is an icon of this Kingdom, the most complete, perfect reflection of the heavenly reality in our earthly conditions, a revelation of the transcendent through the immanent…If [in the Heavenly Kingdom] the manner of our communion with God will change, its essence will remain the same – always a personal encounter with God, not of isolated people, but of people in communion with each other. In this sense it is correctly said that the Liturgy served on earth is but a part of the incessant Liturgy celebrated by people and angels in the Heavenly Kingdom.3

As I will explain more fully later, such a view of the Liturgy is in fact contained within the prayers and hymns of the Liturgy itself. If all the divine services are a means of engaging God and entering into His presence, in the Divine Liturgy this is preeminently so, for it is in the Eucharist above all that God becomes tangibly present and offers His life to be shared by the faithful.

William James and the Orthodox Experience

The question I wish to ask in this paper is whether the Divine Liturgy ought to be considered a form of mystical experience. Admittedly, from the standpoint of most contemporary discussions of mysticism such a question may appear strange, for as a corporate and ritual act the Liturgy does not seem to fit the typical understanding of mysticism. This becomes clear when we turn to some prominent attempts to characterize “mystical experience.” William James in his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, offers one such attempt. He holds that mystical experience is characterized by four features:
ineffability, i.e., “no adequate report of its content can be given in words”;noetic quality, i.e., mystical states are “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect”;transiency, i.e., they last a relatively short time;passivity, i.e., “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”4
One might argue that, in a very loose sense, the experience of the Liturgy fits these characteristics. Its noetic quality, for example, is evident in the statement of Metropolitan Hilarion that the Liturgy “teaches us about the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom.” Likewise it is arguably ineffable, for the prayers said by the priest refer to the Eucharistic gifts as “mysteries” that are received upon God’s “holy, celestial, and spiritual altar.”5

Prayer in the Church
Yet it plain from the entire tenor of James’s discussion that such an argument would misunderstand his meaning. The examples he offers are of ecstatic or otherwise extraordinary states undergone by individuals, not of a condition achieved ritually and repeatedly in communion with others. In fact, in speaking of “the experience of the Liturgy” one does not pick out a specific state of consciousness at all, but only whatever is shared by the many worshippers in virtue of their common action. Their states of consciousness will inevitably vary widely during the course of the Liturgy, and even from one person to another at a given moment; one may be focused rapturously on the service, while another is attending to executing some required act, and another is daydreaming. For this reason, one can speak of “the experience of the Liturgy” only in the rather loose and generic way that one speaks of, say, “the experience of a football game” or “the experience of going to high school.”

This objection would be fatal were James’s understanding of mysticism the only one available. However, James’s definition has been widely criticized on various counts, including its individualistic and subjectivist character. Is there a different result when we turn to more recent definitions? As an example we may take the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Mysticism” by Jerome Gellman.6 Gellman defines ‘mystical experience’ as follows:

A (purportedly) super sense-perceptual or sub sense-perceptual experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.7

It will be noted that this definition uses the broad term ‘experience.’ It thus does not focus as resolutely upon exotic states of consciousness as does that of James; the focus is rather upon the contrast between mystical experience and that which is available through sense perception or other normal means. Gellman does caution, however, that he does not mean that the senses and other normal faculties play no role in mystical experience. In some cases they may provide a sort of substratum upon which the mystical element is “overlaid,” and when this happens the mystical experience is called “extroverted.” Examples include “one’s mystical consciousness of the unity of nature overlaid onto one’s sense perception of the world,” as well as the sense of “experiencing God’s presence when gazing at a snowflake.”8

Distinguishing Between Direct and Mediated Experiences of God

In its contrast between mystical and sensory experience Gellman’s discussion is similar to another influential recent account, that of William Alston. Alston distinguishes between direct experience of God, “where there is no other object of experience in and through which God is experienced,” and mediated experience, where “one takes oneself to be aware of God through the beauties of nature, the words of the Bible or of a sermon, or other natural phenomena.”9 The direct experience of God may take two forms: sensory, where God appears in a sensible form, and non-sensory. Alston recognizes that both forms of direct experience (and perhaps some cases of indirect experience) may qualify as mystical experience in the ordinary sense of the term, but he chooses to focus solely on non-sensory cases of direct experience, explicitly limiting the term ‘mystical experience’ as he will use it to this category. He explains: “The main reason for this choice is that since God is purely spiritual, a nonsensory experience has a greater chance of presenting Him as He is than any sensory experience. If God appears to us as bearing a certain shape or as speaking in a certain tone of voice, that is a long way from representing Him as He is in Himself.”10

One may well be brought up short by these last words, for the question of what it could mean to represent or to see God “as He is in Himself” is one with a long and complex history.11 Alston, at any rate, takes it as obvious that the truest experience of God must be non-sensory. Much the same view would seem to be held by Gellman, for while Gellman recognizes the possibility of “extroverted” mystical experience, in such experience the awareness of God merely accompanies or “overlays” the sensory experience, rather than being integral to it.

Let us examine the extent to which such a view conforms with Jewish and Christian revelation. Consider the following episodes:

God walking in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:8-19).
Abraham entertaining three mysterious visitors, called “men” although Abraham addresses them as “Lord” and the story is introduced with the statement, “the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre” (Gen. 18:1-16).
Jacob wrestling with a man through the night and concluding, “I have seen God face to face” (Gen. 32:24-32).
Moses encountering God in the burning bush, the darkness upon Mount Sinai, and while hidden in “a clift of the rock,” where he sees God’s “backside” (Ex. 3:1-4:17, 19:3-20:21, 33:1-23).
Elijah hearing a “still small voice” and emerging from his cave to speak with the Lord (I Kings 19:11-19).
The Holy Spirit descending “in a bodily shape like a dove” upon Christ, accompanied by the voice of the Father (Lk.3:21-22).
The Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles in “cloven tongues like as of fire” (Acts 2:1-4).
These certainly seem to be cases where God appears directly and sensibly to man—indeed, does not only appear to him, but walks, speaks, dines, and even wrestles. There is no suggestion that, because God is “purely spiritual,” such appearances are not of God “as He is in Himself.” On the contrary, many of these events occupy a central place within the Biblical narrative, serving to underscore the reality of God’s ongoing, active presence within human affairs.

Taking Mystical Experiences Seriously

Some may be inclined to dismiss these events as simply too strange to carry much weight. I would urge the opposite view, that precisely because they ill consort with our preconceptions they should be taken all the more seriously. In any case, they do not stand alone, but must be seen in the context of another prominent Biblical theme: that of the divine glory. The divine glory appears repeatedly throughout the Old Testament—in the cloud that follows the Israelites in the wilderness, the darkness atop Mount Sinai, the Tabernacle, the Temple in Jerusalem, the visions of Ezekiel, and in frequent prophecies of a time when the whole earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord.12 The exact status of the divine glory is enigmatic, but it does not seem to be simply a creature, for it constitutes in some way the direct and unmediated presence of God. For example, we are told not only that the divine glory appeared in the Tabernacle, but that God himself appeared there (Lev. 16:2), and what Moses sees from the clift of the rock is described in virtually the same breath as God’s “glory” and His “backside” (Ex. 33:22-23).13

The Transfiguration of Christ
In the New Testament, the divine glory appears most prominently at the Transfiguration. There Jesus’s “face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light” (Matt. 17:2), an event described explicitly as a manifestation of his glory (Lk. 9:32, II Peter 1:17). Although the Gospels speak of Jesus being transfigured, patristic interpreters noted that Jesus as God already possessed glory intrinsically, so that one might equally say that it was the disciples who were altered in coming to see him as he truly was. St. John of Damascus, for example, writes: “He was transfigured, then: not taking on what he was not, nor being changed to what he was not, but making what he was visible to his own disciples, opening their eyes and enabling them, who had been blind, to see.”14 The same understanding is expressed in Orthodox hymnography, as in the apolytikion of the Feast of the Transfiguration: “Thou wast transfigured upon the mountain, O Christ our God, showing Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they were able to bear it. At the intercessions of the Theotokos, make thine everlasting light shine forth also upon us sinners. O Giver of light, glory to Thee.”15

It is also important to note that the divine glory is not simply a way of announcing and underscoring the divine majesty, like the fanfare of trumpets accompanying a king. From a Christian standpoint, at least, it exists precisely in the communion of the divine Persons, and its function is (at least in part) that of ushering creatures into this communion. This is evident in the High Priestly prayer of John 17. The prayer begins with Jesus beseeching the Father that they may be mutually glorified: “Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee” (v. 1), continuing a few verses later, “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (v. 5). Clearly Jesus here speaks of the glory that is an intrinsic attribute of divinity. As the prayer continues, we see that he seeks to share this glory with his disciples, ushering them into the eternal communion between him and the Father: “And the glory which thou hast given me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one…Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory which thou hast given me, for thou lovest me before the foundation of the world” (v. 22-24). The divine glory, then, is not simply an extraneous show, but the means—indeed, the very substance—of communion. In revealing his glory to his disciples, Christ enables them to enter into his own communion with the Father.

I hope this brief exposition of the Biblical theophanies, and the Transfiguration in particular, will show how questionable is the assumption that only an experience of God as “purely spiritual” can be veridical. The disciples in beholding Christ transfigured saw him with their eyes, albeit eyes transformed so as to be capable of seeing him as he truly is. Likewise it was the ordinary human senses that were at work when the Israelites beheld the divine glory in the cloud, the Tabernacle, and the Temple, and when Jacob wrestled with the stranger, Moses encountered the burning bush, and Elijah heard the “still, small voice.” All of these events took place not in some private mystical state, but in ordinary public space. They thus fit neither the strictures that Alston (and presumably Gellman) would place on a veridical encounter with God, nor the restriction of the mystical to private experience assumed by James.

James and the others might well reply, of course, that that is all well and good, but that such encounters are not “mystical” as they are using the term. One can certainly stipulate that the mystical is to be restricted to extraordinary private states of consciousness. The question is whether, in doing so, one will be “carving nature at the joints”—that is, whether such a definition appropriately identifies a philosophically significant subject matter, or whether it in fact renders invisible that which ought to be of primary interest. To resolve this question we must pay some attention to the long history and varied connotations of the “mystical.” When one turns to this history, an important fact emerges: the mystical (that is, the μυστικός) originally had nothing to do with extraordinary states of consciousness! It instead pertained precisely to the sort of event or relationship epitomized by the Transfiguration: the use by God of the sensible, not only to reveal a higher reality, but to place the participants in communion with that reality. Precisely because it is a form of communion, the mystical in this sense is not typically private, but occurs within public space through the ordinary human senses. In a word, it is an initiation into divine reality, and like all initiation it is intrinsically communal, even when (as may sometimes be the case) the participant enters into it apart from others.

Thoughts on Louis Bouyer’s Understanding of Mysticism

The relevant history has been brought to light by Louis Bouyer in an important essay entitled (rather too modestly), “Mysticism: The History of a Word.”16 Bouyer notes that the adjective μυστικός derives from μυεῖν, meaning “to shut”—particularly the eyes but also, in later usage, the lips and other openings. In its earliest meaning μυστικός referred to the rites of the mystery cults, which one approached with closed eyes and regarding which one was to keep one’s lips sealed. By a natural extension it soon came to be applied, by Plato and others, to any form of knowledge reserved for the initiated. In this meaning it was taken up by the Church Fathers, beginning with Clement of Alexandria. Because the true meaning of the Old Testament has been revealed in Christ, Clement referred to the Christian understanding of the Old Testament as the “mystical interpretation,” a usage that was soon popularized and extended by Origen.17 Although the term here no longer means secret, it still retains the core sense of that which is revealed to the initiated. From this beginning it came to be applied to all knowledge of divine things made available by Christ, as well as to the vehicles of initiation by which this knowledge is imparted. The Eucharist, in particular, was by the fourth century widely referred to by terms such as the “mystical food,” “mystical banquet,” and “mystical sacrifice.” Likewise chrism was referred to as “mystical,” and baptism was termed the “mystical regeneration.”18

Although the term μυστικός itself is of Hellenic origin, I hope it will be plain from our discussion of the theophanies that the fundamental concept of an initiation into divine mysteries is Biblical. Of course whether the Eucharist and baptism in particular ought to be understood in this way is a further question. Without entering into the theology of the sacraments, it may be helpful to quote on this point the words of Bouyer. Alluding to the Pauline doctrine of the Church as the body of Christ, he writes:

Patristic spirituality and theology are dominated by the idea of the permanent and active presence of the Head himself [i.e., Christ] in the body, at one and the same time gathering its members into one, and giving them the power perpetually to re-enact what had taken place in him once and for all: his glorifying Cross, his passing from the life of the old Adam to the life of the new Adam, his passing from this world to the world to come, from this world to the Father…Therefore, through all the uses which we have so far seen, we may say that it is always the same reality, at the same time so various and so profoundly one, which is expressed by the word mystical. Whether this reality is described as the final revelation of God’s plan, discernible through all the Scriptures, and elaborated throughout all human history, or whether it is represented under the guise of the sacramental symbol which itself contains the object of this revelation, and is the means of realizing it in us, it is always this central Christian truth which is described by the word ‘mystical.’19

It is, then, the belief in the Church as the body of Christ—a notion that St. Paul himself described as a “great mystery” (Eph. 5:32)—that underlies the belief in the Eucharist and baptism as forms of mystical initiation, and, by extension, that in the Liturgy itself as a mystical rite.

Of course, in saying this I use the word ‘mystical’ in its ancient Christian sense. How, from this meaning, did it come to bear the modern sense analyzed by authors such as James and Gellman? A partial step in this direction—but only a partial one—was taken in the patristic era. Origen refers to the Christian meditation upon Scripture as “mystical and ineffable contemplation,” describing it as consisting in “ineffable and mystical visions” that “give joy and impart enthusiasm.”20 In such phrases the term seems to indicate, not only the newly revealed Christian understanding of Scripture, but also, as Bouyer puts it, “a certain way of knowing God, directly and as it were experimentally.”21 From this usage the word naturally came to be used more broadly of particularly intense and elevated experiences (or states or conditions) in which God is encountered. Dionysius the Areopagite refers in this way to the Biblical theophanies as “mystical visions,” and to the ecstasy that was experienced by the apostles at the Dormition of the Theotokos as “the mystical things that occurred there” (τὰ ἐκεῖ μυστικά).22 He also refers to the darkness into which Moses ascended on Mount Sinai—an event he regards as a prototype of the ascent beyond merely conceptual knowledge to an actual encounter with God—as a penetration into “the truly mystical cloud of unknowing” (τὸν γνόφον τῆς ἀγνωσίας τὸν ὄντως μυστικόν).23 Finally, and perhaps most importantly from the standpoint of the history of the meaning of the word, he or an editor entitled the short work containing this discussion of Moses The Mystical Theology.

This work was read intensely throughout the Middle Ages, often in isolation from the rest of the Dionysian corpus. Thanks to its prominence, mysticus (which had been borrowed from Greek into Latin in the classical era) came to be the general term for any immediate encounter with or experience of God. Jean Gerson (1363-1429) offered what became a standard definition of mystical theology as cognitio Dei experimentalis, the experiential knowledge of God.24 He sharply distinguishes such knowledge from that available through academic theology:

Mystical theology begins in the doctrine gathered from the internalized experiences lived in the hearts of devout souls, just as the other half of theology [i.e., academic theology, termed by Gerson theologia propria] proceeds from those matters that operate extrinsically.25

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this bipartite division was further elaborated into the three-fold distinction of mystical theology, scholastic theology, and “positive” (i.e., Biblical) theology.26 It was from this three-fold division that the contemporary understanding of mysticism as dealing primarily with private esoteric experiences arose.

The Eucharist as the Mystical Supper

The Mystical Supper

This brief excursus into philology should make it clear that to refer to the Eucharist as a “mystical supper,” and to the Liturgy in which the Eucharist is consecrated and served as a “mystical rite,” is not an abuse of language, but belongs to the term’s earliest Christian usage. It can, in fact, be found within the Liturgy itself. The prayers recited by the congregation immediately before partaking of communion refer to the Eucharist in precisely this way:

Of thy mystical supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of thy mystery to thine enemies, neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, when thou comest into thy Kingdom.

The traditional icon of the Last Supper also uses the same term. It portrays Christ seated at a table surrounded by the twelve apostles, with the Passover meal before them and the words above, “The Mystical Supper” (ὁ μυστικός δεῖπνος).27

Even so, it remains a further question what is meant by speaking of the Divine Liturgy as a mystical experience. Here we face the problem that, as I mentioned earlier, there is no single mental state that can be attributed to all participants in the Liturgy even at a single moment, much less over its entire course. Its cumulative effect as well no doubt differs greatly from one person to another, depending on factors such as individual piety, attention, and the ability to understand the language and the actions taken.

Indeed, when we turn to the Liturgy itself, we find that the predominant focus is less upon the thoughts or feelings of the participants than upon the objective reality of the action taking place. More specifically, it is upon the reality of the participation established between the worshipping community and the eternal heavenly Liturgy of the angels. In the words of Metropolitan Hilarion cited earlier, “the Liturgy served on earth is but a part of the incessant Liturgy celebrated by people and angels in the Heavenly Kingdom.” That the angels are present and share in the actions performed is particularly evident at the two Entrances. At the outset of the Little Entrance the priest prays:

O Master, Lord our God, who hast appointed in heaven legions and hosts of angels and archangels for the service of thy glory, grant that with our entrance there may be an entrance of holy angels, serving with us and glorifying thy goodness . . .

The entrance of the angels is indicated symbolically by the fans carried by the acolytes, which depict the six-winged Seraphim, and the point is further underscored by the hymn sung at the conclusion of the Entrance, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us,” adapted from the hymn of the Seraphim in Isaiah 6.
At the Great Entrance the choir goes yet further, affirming not only that the angels are present but that the worshipping congregation is their image or “icon.” That is the meaning of the Cherubic Hymn, sung as the priest enters bearing the chalice:

We who mystically represent the Cherubim, and who sing the Thrice-holy Hymn to the Life-giving Trinity, let us lay aside all worldly care, that we may receive the King of All, who is coming invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts. Alleluia.

The word here translated “represent” is εἰκονίζοντες, which might be rendered literally, “who are icons of.” The implication is that the worship offered by the congregation embodies, within space and time, the eternal worship of the angels around the throne of God. The same point emerges again later (just prior to the consecration) in the interchange of priest and choir. The priest prays in a subdued voice,

We thank thee also for this Liturgy which thou dost deign to receive from our hands, even though thou art surrounded by thousands of archangels and myriads of angels, by the Cherubim and Seraphim, which are six-winged, many-eyed, and soar aloft on their wings.

He then raises his voice and chants, “Singing, exclaiming, proclaiming the triumphal hymn and saying,” at which point the choir responds, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” This is again the hymn—this time repeated verbatim—of the Seraphim in Isaiah 6. Here again, then, we find the congregation taking on the role of the angels.

Much more could be said about the iconic nature of the Liturgy, as evident both in the text of the Liturgy itself and in patristic commentary.28 A fuller discussion would also have to take into account the architecture and ornamentation of the church, which have been designed—or rather, have developed organically through the centuries—so as to represent “heaven on earth.”29 But I hope that this brief review will suffice to introduce the idea and to indicate its centrality within the Liturgy itself.

The Experience of Divine Liturgy of the ‘Individual’ Worshipper

What does the iconicity of the Liturgy imply about the experience of the individual worshipper? The first thing to bear in mind is that one never worships in the Liturgy simply as an individual, but only as a member of the worshipping congregation. In other words, the Liturgy is not so much an act one performs as a corporate act in which one shares. In this respect it resembles the performance of a symphony or dance, or even the playing of a team sport. One is always aware that the real action is not solely one’s own, but that of the corporate whole in which one attempts, more or less adequately, to play one’s part.

Orthodox women in prayer
More than that, because the Liturgy itself is an icon of the heavenly Liturgy, the act is not even solely that of one’s own congregation; it is that of all of creation joined in worship around the throne of the Creator. It is, in other words, not something that any earthly body creates by its own performance, but an eternally existing reality into which one enters, as a member of the body which is the Church, into communion. As we saw earlier, the Eucharist was from patristic times understood as “mystical” in that it is the means of entering into communion with Christ. In the same way, the Liturgy as a whole is mystical in that it is the means of entering into communion with all of creation joined in worship of the Creator. Here ‘mystical’ has the meaning identified above in connection with Origen and Dionysius, that of indicating (to again quote Bouyer) “a certain way of knowing God, directly and as it were experimentally.”

As for precisely what this experiential knowledge consists in, the best answer is that of the Psalmist: “taste and see.”30 Even a lengthy description could not do justice to the many dimensions of the Liturgy, embracing as they do not only all of the senses—through the icons, candles, incense, vestments, making of the Cross, bowing and prostrations, liturgical processions, chanting, hymnody, and the worship space itself—but also the mind and the heart. One enters into heavenly worship as a whole person, and it is the whole person that is engaged and transformed in the process. To explicate all the dimensions of this engagement is beyond my purposes here, and would in any case be beyond my ability. My purpose has been the more limited one of arguing that, if we are to do justice to “mystical experience” in all its forms, we must pay attention not only to the extraordinary private experiences that have traditionally been singled out for attention, but also to the communal experience of the worshipping Church.

1 Quoted in Bishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion Alfeyev, “Orthodox Worship as a School of Theology,” Kiev Theological Academy, September 20, 2002, http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/12/1.aspx (accessed February 28, 2014).
2 Quoted in Alfeyev, “Orthodox Worship.”
3 Ibid.
4 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 299-300.
5 References to the Divine Liturgy will be to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as printed in F.E. Brightman, ed., Liturgies Eastern and Western (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896 [repr. 1965]), vol. 1, 353-99. Most of the passages cited can also be found in the Liturgies of St. James and St. Basil.
6 See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mysticism (accessed February 28, 2014).
7 Actually this is what Gellman calls mystical experience in the broad sense. That in the narrow sense is similar but limited to what Gellman calls “unitive” experiences, that is, those that involve “a phenomenological de-emphasis, blurring, or eradication of multiplicity.” Although Gellman focuses primarily on mystical experience in the narrow sense, for our purposes the broad sense is most relevant.
8 Gellman, “Mysticism.”
9 William Alston, “Religious Experience as Perception of God” in Steven M. Cahn, ed., Ten Essential Texts in the Philosophy of Religion (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 440-49, at 441. See also William Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), 20-28.
10 Alston, “Religious Experience,” 442. See also the similar statement in Perceiving God: “If God appears to one, non-sensorily, as loving, powerful, or good, the appearance, so far as it goes, could correspond fairly closely with the way God is Himself. While if we experience God as looking or sounding a certain way, that can’t be the way He is, not even approximately” (20).
11 For a helpful introduction to the topic see Vladimir Lossky, The Vision of God (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973). I have addressed some of its complexities in “The Vision of God in Philo of Alexandria.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 72 (1998), 483-500.
12 See Ex. 16:7, 10, 24:16-17, 40:34-35, Lev. 9:23, Num. 14:10, 21, 16:18, 42, 20:6, II Chron. 5:14, 7:1-3, Is. 6:3, 40:5, 60:1-3, Ezek. 1:28, 3:23, 8:4, 9:3, 10: 4, 18-19, 11:22-23, 39:21, 43:2, Hab. 2:14, 3:3.
13 See further David Bradshaw, “The Divine Glory and the Divine Energies,” Faith and Philosophy 23(2006), 279-98.
14 John of Damascus, Homily on the Transfiguration, sect. 12; trans. Brian Daley, Light on the Mountain: Greek Patristic and Byzantine Homilies on the Transfiguration (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013), 221.
15 Mother Mary and Archimandrite (now Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware, The Festal Menaion (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1990), 477-78. Interestingly, the Scripture readings for Vespers of this feast recount the two encounters of Moses with God upon Mount Sinai and the episodeof Elijah in the cave.
16 Louis Bouyer, “Mysticism: An Essay on the History of a Word” in Albert Plé, ed., Mystery and Mysticism: A Symposium (London: Blackfriars, 1956), 119-37; reprinted in Richard Woods, ed., Understanding Mysticism (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981).
17 Ibid., 125-26; cf, G.W.H. Lampe, Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), s.v. μυστικός.
18 Ibid., 129-31.
19 Ibid., 131-32 (ellipsis dots in the original).
20 Ibid., 133.
21 Ibid., 132.
22 Dionysius the Areopagite, Divine Names 1.6 596A, 3.3 684B; cf. 10.2 937B. See also Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 171-72. As McGinn notes, the use of μυστικός in reference to the direct experience of God can also be found in the Macarian Homilies (144).
23 Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.3 1001A.
24 More fully, Gerson’s definition is “experiential knowledge of God gained through the embrace of unitive love.” Jean Gerson, Speculative Mystical Theology, Consid. 28; trans. Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, vol. 5 (New York: Crossroad, 2012), 91.
25 Ibid., Consid. 2; trans. Brian Patrick McGuire, Jean Gerson: Early Works (New York: Paulist Press,1998), 266.
26 See Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, Volume One: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 94-112, as well as the entries for ‘mystic,’ ‘mystical,’ and ‘mysticism’ in the Oxford English Dictionary.
27 Examples can be found readily on the internet by searching the terms, “icon mystikos deipnos.”
28 For helpful discussions see Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “The Meaning of the Divine Liturgy for the Byzantine Worshipper” in Rosemary Morris, ed., Church and People in Byzantium (Birmingham: Center for Byzantine, Ottoman, and Modern Greek Studies, 1986), 7-28, and “‘It Is Time for the Lord to Act’: The Divine Liturgy as Heaven on Earth,” Sobornost 23.1 (2001), 7-22; also (now Bishop) Alexander Golitzin, “Liturgy and Mysticism: The Experience of God in Eastern Orthodox Christianity,” Pro Ecclesia 8 (1999), 159-86.
29 See Andrew Gould, “On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Form and Meaning in Orthodox Architecture,” http://www.newworldbyzantine.com/articles/pdf/12571623810822660.pdf (accessed March 13, 2014).
30 “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), often sung repetitively as a Communion hymn.

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