Faith and Reason

Though opposing faith against reason seems to be a modern issue resulting from a scientific mindset opposing faith, the difference between faith and reason has been long understood in the Church, centuries before the modern scientific age.   St. Isaac the Syrian for example sees faith as greater than reason/knowledge because knowledge really deals only with the things of this world while faith deals with things beyond this world.  Knowledge is thus limited to the study of nature, but then there exists the world beyond nature – divinity, spiritual beings, heaven, the soul.  The natural world has its edges and limits, and thus knowledge is bound and limited.  The life beyond nature is an existence which might be boundless, and thus is greater than nature itself.

“For knowledge is opposed to faith; but faith, in all that pertains to it, demolishes laws of knowledge—we do not, however, speak here of spiritual knowledge. For this is the  definition of knowledge: that without investigation and examination it has no authority to do anything, but must investigate whether that which it considers and desires is possible… but faith requires a mode of thinking that is single, limpidly pure, and simple, far removed from any deviousness. See how faith and knowledge are opposed to one another! The home of faith is a childlike thought and a simple heart… But knowledge conspires against and opposes both these qualities. Knowledge in all its paths keeps within the boundaries of nature. But faith makes its journey above nature.”  (The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, page 257)

Theosis: Creation and Creator Have Become One

Today, the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent, in the Church we honor the memory of St. Gregory Palamas.  As a theologian, St. Gregory is famous for defending the Orthodox faith and explaining how we participate in the Divine Life.  He is noted for having helped explicate the theology of salvation as deification/theosis.  Many Orthodox saints helped to explain theosis, or reveal it through their own lives.  St. Isaac of Ninevah writes:

We give thanks to You, O God, for Your gift to the world, (a gift) whose richness created beings are not capable of describing; seeing that I too am part of that (world), may I not begrudge my portion of thanksgiving which I owe to You. For this reason I will praise You and confess Your name. You have given Your entire treasure to the world: if You gave the Only-Begotten from Your bosom and from the throne of Your Being for the benefit of all, what further do you have which You have not given to Your creation? The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!

Praise to You for Your inscrutable purpose: truly this mystery is vast. Glory to You for Your mysteries which are hidden from us. Make me worthy, Lord to taste of this great mystery which is hidden and concealed, (a mystery) of which the world is not yet worthy of perceiving. Maybe You indicated something of it to Your saints who live in the body above the world and who are at all times above the impulses of the flesh.

O Christ who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which You caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May Your divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with You.

(Isaac of Nineveh: The Second Part, pp. 13-15)

Love is Action, Not Reaction

St. Isaac of Ninevah (6th Century) makes a very astute theological observation about God.  St. Isaac’s basic premise is that God is love, and everything God does is an extension of the Divine love.  God’s actions toward human beings and God’s activities in creation cannot be inconsistent with God’s very nature.

God by definition of God’s nature is not altered by time or change, so God is forever acting toward creation, not reacting to it.  Human behavior, including sin or rebellion against the will of God, does not change God.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit continue to love their creation because that is their very nature.  The mystery of course is that we exist in time and God does interact with us.  God is not an impersonal force, but in a manner beyond our comprehension, takes into account what we do with the free will God has bestowed on us.  God has created the universe with quantum uncertainty.  These are factors God deals with in God’s eternal being – they all are part of creation as God intended it and as God loves it.  And the mystery deepens for God in Christ enters into creation in the incarnation, subjecting Himself to time and space.  None of this changes God’s nature or the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

St. Isaac ponders:

“But we know that everyone is agreed on this, that there is no change, or any earlier and later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser (place) in His love, no before or after in His knowledge. For if it is believed by everyone that the creation came into existence as a result of the Creator’s goodness and love, (then) we know that this (original) cause does not ever diminish or change in the Creator’s nature as a result of the disordered course of creation.”

(Isaac of Ninevah, The Second Part: Chapters IV-XLI, p 161)

Adam naming the animals

Because we exist in space and time and are temporal, mortal beings we experience God’s love within our human experience and interpret it as love or justice or anger or grace or judgment.   Our experience of the Divine is real, yet tempered by our created, mortal natures.  We may gain glimpses into the Divine Life, but our understanding of it is shaped and limited by our own limits, and by the limits language imposes on our ability to conceive and explain.

God’s love is not diminished by God’s interaction with us nor by God’s ability to condescend to our limited understanding.  We experience God within our capabilities of understanding and articulation.  This does not change the love of God or the God who is love.

God’s Love and Judgment

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev shares a theological truth, which he learned from St. Isaac the Syrian. He encountered the teaching while reading the works of Vladimir Lossky.  It was an idea that stood out in Metropolitan Hilarion’s heart and mind.

“I was particularly struck by some words of Isaac, quoted by Lossky, about the suffering of those in hell. According to Isaac those who endure torment in gehenna are chastised, not by divine anger, not by any desire on God’s part to exact retribution – for there is no cruelty or vindictiveness in God – but ‘with the scourge of love’. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart that has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God…But love acts in a double way, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed. Lossky comments:

‘The love of God will be intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.’

Once more, as with Isaac’s description of the compassionate heart, it was as if someone had suddenly opened a window in my mind and flooded my whole interior world with light. Here, I felt, is the only interpretation of judgment and hell that makes any sense. God is love, and his love is inexhaustible; and this inexhaustible love is present everywhere, even in hell. But ‘love acts in a double way.’” (The Spiritual Word of Isaac the Syrian, pp 9-10)

The Divine Liturgy is the Kingdom of God

“The Divine Liturgy is the Kingdom of God, and the food at the Supper of the Kingdom is love. Through repentance and fear of God, we traverse the sea of this life and arrive at love.

‘Repentance is the ship,

fear is its helmsman and

love is the divine harbor.

So fear places us in the ship of repentance, conveys us across the sullied sea of life and brings us to the divine harbor which is love, to which all those who are weary and heavy laden attain through repentance [cf. Matt. 11:28]. Once we arrive at love, we have arrived at God.’”

(St. Isaac the Syrian in The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers  by Hieromonk Gregorios, p 294)

God’s Eternal Mercy, Love and Compassion

“Just as an abundantly flowing fountain is not blocked by a handful of dust, so the Maker’s mercy is not overcome by the wickedness of those whom He has created.[…]

In love did God bring the world into existence;

in love does He guide it during its temporal existence;

in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and

in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things.

In love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally compromised.

Just because the terms ‘wrath’, ‘anger’, ‘hatred’ and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature. Among all God’s actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealings with us.” (St. Isaac in The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh  by Sebastian Brock, pp 18 & 38)

A Discipline of Prayer and Psalm Reading

There is a lot of talk among modern Orthodox, especially among converts, about the need for and importance of a discipline of prayer.  No doubt in a culture which promotes unique individualism, a discipline of prayer is needed to counter this emphases on extreme individualism.   If Christ is both Lord and Master, then we are to His servants and obey Him.  We learn obedience through discipline.  In the Fathers of the Church we also find encouragement for having a discipline of prayer.  However, we also find among the Fathers warnings that a discipline is not the goal but a tool to help us reach our goal – purity of heart, the Kingdom of Heaven, etc.  A discipline of prayer is not the master of our lives, but rather is to be of service to us to help us attain our spiritual goal.   The Fathers do at times warn against becoming a slave to a discipline.   St. Isaac the Syrian (7th Century) writes:

“There is a rule involving liberty and there is a rule for slaves: a rule that enslaves says ‘I will recite such and such psalms during each Office, and every time I will pray I will say the same fixed number’. Such a person is inalterably bound by obligation, without the possibility of change, to these same psalms all his days – all because he is tied to the obligation, in prayer and in the Office, to follow the details of the number, length, and fixed character of their quantity which he has decreed and fixed for himself. All this is utterly alien to the path of true knowledge, for such a person does not bear in mind either (divine) activity or the feebleness of nature, or the hazard of frequent battles: in the first case grace may be given so that he tarries beyond what his will has decreed; in the second case (human) nature may prove too weak to fulfill the rule, under the constraint of (the demons) by whom it is attacked – (demons) who are specifically provided for the subduing of pride. The rule of liberty consists in one’s unfailing observance of the seven Offices, ordained for our chaste mode of life by the holy Church at the hands of the Fathers who were assembled by the Holy Spirit for the ecumenical synod (of Nicaea). Far be it from us solitaries that we should not be subject to the Church or her leaders or laws. This is precisely the reason why we observe the ordinance of the seven Hours of the Office, in conformity with what the Church has laid down for us, as her children.

This does not mean, however, that for each Office I should perform the same particular fixed number of psalms; nor does one fix each day a particular number of prayers to be said between these Offices, during both night and day. And one does not set a time limit for each of these prayers, nor does one decide upon specific words to use. Rather, one spends as long on each prayer as grace provides the strength, asking whatever the pressing need of the moment may require, using whatever prayer one is stirred to use. And while such a person prays he is all the more recollected and undistracted in view of the delight of this kind of prayer. During such prayers a person measures his request in conformity with the strength of (human) nature and the wisdom the Lord accords to him.” (The Second Part, pp 77-78)

The Merciful Heart

St. Isaac of Nineveh teaches us:

“And what is a merciful heart?

He replied, ‘The heart’s burning for all creation, for human beings, for birds and animals, and for demons, and everything there is. At the recollection of them and at the sight of them his eyes gush forth with tears owing to the force of the compassion which constrains his heart, so that, as a result of its abundant sense of mercy, the heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or examine any harm or small suffering of anything in creation. For this reason he offers up prayer with tears at all times, even for irrational animals, and for the enemies of truth, and for those who harm him, for their preservation and being forgiven. As a result of the immense compassion infused in his heart without measure – like God’s – he even does this for reptiles.” (The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, p 251)

We are God’s Temple

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 :

We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.

St. Isaac of Ninevah (7th Century) comments:

“I give praise to Your holy Nature, Lord, for You have made my nature a sanctuary for Your hiddenness and a tabernacle for Your Mysteries, a place where You can dwell, and a holy temple for Your divinity, (namely for) Him who holds the scepter of Your Kingdom, who governs all You have brought into being, the glorious Tabernacle of Your eternal Being, the source of renewal for the ranks of fire which minister to You, the Way to knowledge of You, the Door to vision of You, the summation of Your power and great wisdom – Jesus Christ the Only-Begotten from Your bosom and remnant gathered in from Your creation, both visible and spiritual.” (The Second Part: Chapters IV-XLI, p 8)

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me… (Galatians 2:20)

The Conscience and Humility

“The continual reprimands of the conscience are a sign of humility. The lack of these in any undertaking is (a sign) of hardness of heart: it is an indication that a person is in the habit of justifying himself, blaming his neighbor instead – or, even worse, (blaming) the wise provision of God. (Conversely), a person cannot leave the boundaries of humility unless he first see himself as being without blame, blaming instead the events and occasions which have been provided for him by God.” (Isaac of Nineveh, The Second Part: Chapters IV-XLI, p 158)