"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

Tuesday 29 April 2014


In this post, I shall first give you a passage from the great Catholic theologian Fr Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Cross as interpreted by the Resurrection.   I will then give you a passage from "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church" by the great Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky on the differences in spirituality between East and West as shown in the lives of St Seraphim of Sarov and of St Francis of Assisi or Padre Pio.   In the third part, I shall use von Balthasar's theology to demonstrate that the sanctity in these two saints is, in fact, basically identical, being two different but complementary versions of the same reality.   Moreover, just as the Cross needs the Resurrection and the Resurrection cannot be understood without the cross, so we can arrive at a deeper understanding of the sanctity of either saint by getting to know the other.   This is because the sanctity of both arises from a common source in the eucharistic community that is the Church.

The Cross–For Us
 by Hans Urs von Balthasar 

Without a doubt, at the center of the New Testament there stands the Cross, which receives its interpretation from the Resurrection. 

The Passion narratives are the first pieces of the Gospels that were composed as a unity. In his preaching at Corinth, Paul initially wants to know  nothing but the Cross, which "destroys the wisdom of the wise and wrecks the understanding of those who understand", which "is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles". But "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (I Cor 1:19, 23, 25). 

Whoever removes the Cross and its interpretation by the New Testament from the center, in order to replace it, for example, with the social commitment of Jesus to the oppressed as a new center, no longer stands in continuity with the apostolic faith. He does not see that God's commitment to the world is most absolute precisely at this point across a chasm.

It is certainly not surprising that the disciples were able to understand the meaning of the Cross only slowly, even after the Resurrection. The Lord himself gives a first catechetical instruction to the disciples at Emmaus by showing that this incomprehensible event is the fulfillment of what had been foretold and that the open question marks of the Old Testament find their solution only here (Lk 24:27). 

Which riddles? Those of the Covenant between God and men in which the latter must necessarily fail again and again: who can be a match for God as a partner? Those of the many cultic sacrifices that in the end are still external to man while he himself cannot offer himself as a sacrifice. Those of the inscrutable meaning of suffering which can fall even, and especially, on the innocent, so that every proof that God rewards the good becomes void. Only at the outer periphery, as something that so far is completely sealed, appear the outlines of a figure in which the riddles might be solved. 

This figure would be at once the completely kept and fulfilled Covenant, even far beyond Israel (Is 49:5-6), and the personified sacrifice in which at the same time the riddle of suffering, of being despised and rejected, becomes a light; for it happens as the vicarious suffering of the just for "the many" (Is 52:13-53:12). Nobody had understood the prophecy then, but in the light of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus it became the most important key to the meaning of the apparently meaningless.

Did not Jesus himself use this key at the Last Supper in anticipation? "For you", "for the many", his Body is given up and his Blood is poured out. He himself, without a doubt, foreknew that his will to help these" people toward God who are so distant from God would at some point be taken terribly seriously, that he would suffer in their place through this distance from God, indeed this utmost darkness of God, in order to take it from them and to give them an inner share in his closeness to God. "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!" (Lk 12:50). 

It stands as a dark cloud at the horizon of his active life; everything he does then-healing the sick, proclaiming the kingdom of God, driving out evil spirits by his good Spirit, forgiving sins-all of these partial engagements happen in the approach toward the one unconditional engagement.

As soon as the formula "for the many", "for you", "for us", is found, it resounds through all the writings of the New Testament; it is even present before anything is written down (cf. i Cor 15:3). Paul, Peter, John: everywhere the same light comes from the two little words.

What has happened? Light has for the first time penetrated into the closed dungeons of human and cosmic suffering and dying. Pain and death receive meaning. 

Not only that, they can receive more meaning and bear more fruit than the greatest and most successful activity, a meaning not only for the one who suffers but precisely also for others, for the world as a whole. No religion had even approached this thought. [1] The great religions had mostly been ingenious methods of escaping suffering or of making it ineffective. The highest that was reached was voluntary death for the sake of justice: Socrates and his spiritualized heroism. The detached farewell discourses of the wise man in prison could be compared from afar to the wondrous farewell discourses of Christ. 

But Socrates dies noble and transfigured; Christ must go out into the hellish darkness of godforsakenness, where he calls for the lost Father "with prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears" (Heb 5:7). Why are such stories handed down? Why has the image of the hero, the martyr, thus been destroyed? It was "for us", "in our place".

One can ask endlessly how it is possible to take someone's place in this way. The only thing that helps us who are perplexed is the certainty of the original Church that this man belongs to God, that "he truly was God's Son", as the centurion acknowledges under the Cross, so that finally one has to render him homage in adoration as "my Lord and my God" Jn 20:28). 

Every theology that begins to blink and stutter at this point and does not want to come out with the words of the Apostle Thomas or tinkers with them will not hold to the "for us". There is no intermediary between a man who is God and an ordinary mortal, and nobody will seriously hold the opinion that a man like us, be he ever so courageous and generous in giving himself, would be able to take upon himself the sin of another, let alone the sin of all. He can suffer death in the place of someone who is condemned to death. This would be generous, and it would spare the other person death at least for a time. 

But what Christ did on the Cross was in no way intended to spare us death but rather to revalue death completely. In place of the "going down into the pit" of the Old Testament, it became "being in paradise tomorrow". Instead of fearing death as the final evil and begging God for a few more years of life, as the weeping king Hezekiah does, Paul would like most of all to die immediately in order "to be with the Lord" (Phil 1:23). Together with death, life is also revalued: "If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord" (Rom 14:8).

But the issue is not only life and death but our existence before God and our being judged by him. All of us were sinners before him and worthy of condemnation. But God "made the One who knew no sin to be sin, so that we might be justified through him in God's eyes" (2 Cor 5:21). 

Only God in his absolute freedom can take hold of our finite freedom from within in such a way as to give it a direction toward him, an exit to him, when it was closed in on itself. This happened in virtue of the "wonderful exchange" between Christ and us: he experiences instead of us what distance from God is, so that we may become beloved and loving children of God instead of being his "enemies" (Rom 5:10).

Certainly God has the initiative in this reconciliation: he is the one who reconciles the world to himself in Christ. But one must not play this down (as famous theologians do) by saying that God is always the reconciled God anyway and merely manifests this state in a final way through the death of Christ. It is not clear how this could be the fitting and humanly intelligible form of such a manifestation. 

No, the "wonderful exchange" on the Cross is the way by which God brings about reconciliation. It can only be a mutual reconciliation because God has long since been in a covenant with us. The mere forgiveness of God would not affect us in our alienation from God. Man must be represented in the making of the new treaty of peace, the "new and eternal covenant". He is represented because we have been taken over by the man Jesus Christ. When he "signs" this treaty in advance in the name of all of us, it suffices if we add our name under his now or, at the latest, when we die.

Of course, it would be meaningless to speak of the Cross without considering the other side, the Resurrection of the Crucified. "If Christ has not risen, then our preaching is nothing and also your faith is nothing; you are still in your sins and also those who have fallen asleep . . . are lost. If we are merely people who have put their whole hope in Christ in this life, then we are the most pitiful of all men" (I Cor 15:14, 17-19). 

If one does away with the fact of the Resurrection, one also does away with the Cross, for both stand and fall together, and one would then have to find a new center for the whole message of the gospel. What would come to occupy this center is at best a mild father-god who is not affected by the terrible injustice in the world, or man in his morality and hope who must take care of his own redemption: "atheism in Christianity".


[1] For what is meant here is something qualitatively completely different from the voluntary or involuntary scapegoats who offered themselves or were offered (e.g., in Hellas or Rome) for the city or for the fatherland to avert some catastrophe that threatened everyone.

 Vladimir Lossky and others.

Since I first read "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church", I was puzzled by Vladimir Lossky's seeming ignorance of ordinary, common-or-garden Catholic teaching, as it is shown in the part of the following passage that has been underlined:
He (Christ) can be known by the Church under no other aspect than that of the Person of the Holy Trinity, seated at the right hand of the Father, having overthrown death.   The 'historical Christ', 'Jesus of Nazareth', as he appears in the eyes of alien witnesses; this image of Christ, external to the Church, is always surpassed in the fullness of the revelation given to the true witnesses, to the sons of the Church, enlightened by the Holy Spirit.   The cult of the humanity of Christ, is foreign to Eastern tradition; or, rather, this deified humanity always assumes for the Orthodox Christian that same glorious form under which it appeared to the disciples on Mount Tabor: the humanity of the Son, manifesting forth that deity which is common to the Father and the Spirit.  (my italics) The way of the imitation of Christ is never practised in the spiritual life of the Eastern Church.   Indeed, for the Orthodox Christian this way seems to have a certain lack of fullness: it would seem to imply an attitude somewhat external in regard to Christ.    For Eastern spirituality the only way to make us conformable to Christ is that of the acquisition of the grace which the Holy Spirit confers.   No saint of the Eastern Church has ever borne the stigmata, those outward marks which have made certain Western saints and mystics as it were living patterns of the suffering Christ.   But, by contrast, Eastern saints have very frequently been transfigured by the inward light of uncreated grace, and have become resplendent, like Christ on the mount of Transfiguration.

 "For Eastern spirituality the only way to make us  conformable to Christ is that of the acquisition of the grace which the Holy Spirit confers."   That is a truth of faith accepted by both East and West.   To imply that Catholicism has some more external criterion for judging sanctity is either being dishonest - and I am sure Vladimir Lossky is not - or ignorant, but I cannot accept that either: hence my puzzlement.   Even a well-informed Catholic schoolboy will know that holiness is the fruit of grace, and grace is the effect of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul.

Also, saints resplendent with divine light is also known in the West, not least in St Francis whom Lossky contrasts with St Seraphim.    There is a tale of a meeting between St Francis and some friars with St Clare and some nuns.   While they were conversing, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they were taken up in contemplation.   This engendered so much light that neighbours thought the house was on fire and rushed to the scene with buckets of water.   Here is a passage from a Catholic essay on the web:

However, as we read the biographies of Western saints, we can find many shining examples too in which these holy persons emerged from prayer beaming with the divine light or Energy.   It was reported that St Clare usually came out of prayer with her face so shining that she dazzled those around her.   Another vivid example came from the adventure of a young Franciscan friar who saw St Francis speaking to Christ and the Heavenly Saints in marvellous light.
"...Going nearer in order to see and hear more clearly what they were saying, he saw a marvellous light completely surrounding St Francis, and in the light he saw Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist and a great throng of angels, who were talking to St Francis.   On seeing and hearing all this, the boy began to tremble, and he fainted and fell like a corpse onto the path that led to the monastery.

Why did V. Lossky show such ignorance about Catholicism?  I took my problem to a Russian Orthodox archimandrite friend - he was actually Welsh.   I asked him, "How is it that such a sublime theologian as Vladimir Lossky could be so silly when speaks about Catholicism.   He keeps on making false contrasts that do not bear even the most casual examination. Yet he counted Catholic theologians like Danielou and Chenu as his friends, and he made a life-long study of Meister Eckhart: it doesn't add up."
The archimandrite replied that, at that time, Lossky could not afford to be ecumenical, that he, together with all the Orthodox theologians centred on Paris, were regarded with great suspicion by theologians in Orthodox countries.   They were suspected of being contaminated by Rome.  If they wanted their books to be read by the people that really mattered to them, their own Orthodox colleagues, then they need to remind them at various times during their work that they were not going soft on Rome.   

It must be remembered that the Catholic theologians with whom they were in contact were also under a cloud in the Vatican - several were not allowed to publish and were living in enforced obscurity - it was Saint John XXIII who released them, like dogs with a mission, into Vatican II as periti.

   Hence the most fruitful meeting between East and West in the history of the Church since the Schism remained largely unnoticed because both sides were under a cloud, but for different reasons.   However, I am not sure that the archimandrite's explanation is completely true.   Perhaps there were things about which he never spoke with his Catholic friends; and hence his prejudices remain: but that isn't convincing either.   The truth is that any cause of sanctity other than grace, the gift of the Holy Spirit of the divine life itself, would have made the West Pelagian.

Some Orthodox, following on Lossky's heels, go even further.   Here is an example from the Orthodox Information Center:
Studying the biographical data of Francis of Assisi, a fact of the utmost interest concerning the mysticism of this Roman Catholic ascetic is the appearance of stigmata on his person. Roman Catholics regard such a striking manifestation as the seal of the Holy Spirit. In Francis' case, these stigmata took on the form of the marks of Christ's passion on his body.
 The stigmatisation of Francis is not an exceptional phenomenon among ascetics of the Roman Catholic world. Stigmatisation appears to be characteristic of Roman Catholic mysticism in general, both before it happened to Francis, as well as after. Peter Damian, as an example, tells of a monk who bore the representation of the Cross on his body. Caesar of Geisterbach mentions a novice whose forehead bore the impress of a Cross. [1] Also, a great deal of data exists, testifying to the fact that after Francis' death a series of stigmatisations occurred which, subsequently, have been thoroughly studied by various investigators, particularly in recent times. These phenomena, as V. Guerier says, illuminate their primary source. Many of them were subjected to careful observation and recorded in detail, e.g.,, the case of Veronica Giuliani (1660-1727) who was under doctor's observation; Luisa Lato (1850-1883) described by Dr Varleman, [2] and Madelaine N. (1910) described by Janat. [3]
In Francis of Assisi's case, it should be noted that the Roman Catholic Church reacted to his stigmatisation with the greatest reverence. It accepted the phenomenon as a great miracle. Two years after his death, the Pope canonized Francis as a saint. The chief motive for his canonization was the fact of the miraculous stigmata on his person, which were accepted as indications of sanctity. This fact is of singular interest to Orthodox Christians, since nothing similar is encountered in the lives of the Orthodox Church's Saints—an outstanding exponent of which is the Russian Saint, Seraphim of Sarov. 

 "The stigmatisation of Francis is not an exceptional phenomenon among ascetics of the Roman Catholic world. Stigmatisation appears to be characteristic of Roman Catholic mysticism in general..."

Utter nonsense!!   The article speaks of many examples of stigmata among Catholic ascetics; yet, apart from St Francis and Padre Pio, none of them have been canonised as saints!! If St Francis was canonised because of the stigmata, why then were not the rest?  Nevertheless, during the same centuries, there have been many canonisations of saints without the stigmata.    

Stigmatisation appears to be characteristic of Roman Catholic mysticism in general.   If this is true, why is it that the very first priest with stigmata ever to be made a saint by the Church was Padre Pio in the 20th Century?   Two thousand years without a stigmatised priest saint, one out of many thousand priest saints, even though, according to some Orthodox, "stigmatisation appears to be characteristic of Roman Catholic mysticism in general!!" 

I am a Benedictine monk of the Latin rite; and no Benedictine monk has ever had the stigmata; and, if ever a monk were to receive the marks of Christ on his hands and feet, he would have great difficulty being received in the community; as was Padre Pio among ther Capuchins.  If you wish to attack the Catholic Church on the grounds that it mistakes para-psychological phenomena for holiness, then first read the life of Padre Pio.   He was kept for years in isolation, forbidden to preach, celebrate Mass in public, or have contact with the faithful, because the Church was mortally afraid of a false enthusiasm. It is not an advantage in the Catholic Church to have the stigmata, especially if you are a priest, for all the reasons that Orthodox like to give. Their lives are scrutinised for any sign of false humility or false anything else; and it is only when the obvious causes of stigmata are ruled out by actual evidence instead of wild generalisations, that the stigmata are accepted as a sign of sanctity. As a young Orthodox student of theology in Belarus, a deacon, asked me, "why the  Orthodox in Russia are so intent on attacking the Catholic Church, about which they know nothing!!"   I ask the same question.  

Let us look at another part of our quote from Lossky:
He (Christ) can be known by the Church under no other aspect than that of the Person of the Holy Trinity, seated at the right hand of the Father, having overthrown death.   The 'historical Christ', 'Jesus of Nazareth', as he appears in the eyes of alien witnesses; this image of Christ, external to the Church, is always surpassed in the fullness of the revelation given to the true witnesses, to the sons of the Church, enlightened by the Holy Spirit.   The cult of the humanity of Christ, is foreign to Eastern tradition; or, rather, this deified humanity always assumes for the Orthodox Christian that same glorious form under which it appeared to the disciples on Mount Tabor: the humanity of the Son, manifesting forth that deity which is common to the Father and the Spirit.
We now come almost to the moment in this article where Hans Urs von Balthasar can help us because, certainly, our tradition differs very markedly from that of the Orthodox Church; but I make no apologies or excuses.   I simply believe that we look at the same truth as the Orthodox, but from a different perspective.   This is due to the tragedy of schism, from a thousand years of not sharing.   Let us first concentrate on what we have in common: 

The feast of the Transfiguration is on August 6th because it is forty days before the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.   Traditionally, the Transfiguration has always been linked to the Crucifixion, providing us with the deepest insight into the meaning of the Cross.  The Transfiguration was not a separate event in the life of Christ, but it was in the lives of Peter, James and John.   For a moment, their eyes were opened and they saw the real meaning of the Incarnation.   They saw Christ transfigured by the Divine Presence.   He was always that way, from his first human existence in his mother's womb, all his life, and - wait for it! - never more than when he was on the Cross, being obedient unto death.   The Orthodox are quite right to see the Crucifixion in the light of the Transfiguration.   That is what the synoptic gospels want us to see: first goal for the Orthodox.  Hurrah!!

There is no Transfiguration in St John's Gospel.   Instead, the glorification of Father and Son is the very Crucifixion itself: it shows us, in the starkest possible terms, what it means when St John says later, "God is Love."  God is "Gift of himself" without counting the cost, "absolute Gift".   Within the Holy Trinity, the Father gives himself as absolute Gift to the Son, and his Act of giving is none other than the Holy Spirit by which the Son, in his turn, reflects the self-gift of the Father in his death for our salvation.   The light of the Transfiguration is nothing less than the Light of God's self-giving. The glory of God is manifested in the kenotic love of God that is revealed as light in the Transfiguration and as suffering obedience in the Passion.   It follows that we need the Transfiguration to understand the Cross, and we need the Crucifixion to understand the Transfiguration.   

Any attempt by Orthodox, in some expression of anti-Catholicism, to deny Catholics the legitimacy as members of the Body of Christ to concentrate their devotion towards the human experience of the Passion in the name of the divine truth revealed in the Transfiguration is falling into the heresy of Monophysitism by implying that his human experience on the Cross, and that of Our Lady and the apostles, has been wholly absorbed by his relationship with the Father, to such an extent that any portrayal of the human experience of the Passion is illegitimate and unOrthodox.   I am not saying that the Orthodox are monophysite: only that they fall into that heresy when they attack us for our concentration on the human suffering of Christ.   To understand the Cross we need the Transfiguration, and to understand the experience of Transfiguration we need the human experience of the Crucifixion: it is only in the Resurrection that the two experiences of Peter, James and John, that of the Transfiguration and of the Garden of Gethsemane can be experienced as two aspects of the same Christian Mystery.  Meantime, we will allow East and West to complement each other, exalting in the divine truth of the Incarnation in the Cross as portrayed in the Transfiguration while keeping our feet on the ground in this world as we concentrate on the human experience of the Passion of Christ.   It allows us to recognise the saving presence of God on occasions and in places where he appears most absent.

A good exercise is to compare the lives of St Seraphim and Padre Pio.  They loved the same Lord, enjoyed the company since childhood of the same heavenly friends, had very similar charismatic gifts, and had an odour of flowers; but their life in Christ was manifested in different ways on their bodies.  So what?

A lecture by the Orthodox Fr John McGuckin

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