"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

Sunday 30 January 2011

[Irenikon] Peter Gilbert: J.-P. Houdret on Palamas and the Cappadocians

Translation of: Jean-Philippe Houdret, O.C.D., “Palamas et les Cappadociens,” Istina 19 (1974), pp. 260-271.
In the course of this brief article, our aim is to bring up the vast problem of the relations that exist between the thought of Gregory Palamas and that of the Cappadocian fathers. The celebrated Byzantine theologian sought to be a faithful follower of the teaching of the saints, and the great Cappadocians are among the godbearing fathers to whom he frequently refers in his writings. This is why we prefer to limit ourselves here to the examination of a precise but fundamental question: Do we already find, among the Cappadocian fathers, the beginnings of the distinction in God between essence and energies, such as Gregory Palamas later would understand and defend it?

That the doctrine of the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies was not an invention of the great hesychast theologian but had already been present among the Greek fathers — the Cappadocians, Dionysius, Maximus — was the opinion of Myrrha Lot-Borodine [1] and, especially, of Vladimir Lossky [2]. More than anyone else in the West before the works of Fr. John Meyendorff, Lossky, by his influence, helped to bring to light the person and doctrine of this Byzantine teacher, misunderstood by Catholics and practically forgotten by the Orthodox. Rejecting the accusations of innovation formulated by most Western critics who had encountered the Palamite doctrine (from the time of Petavius up to that of Frs. Jugie and Guichardan), he sought to underline the traditional character of the essence-energies distinction within Eastern theology. He thus had the task of showing how, from the Golden Age of the Greek fathers, there appeared the first formulations of the distinction which Palamas would later passionately defend, and which the councils of the fourteenth century would solemnly canonize. This view of things was afterwards adopted by the majority of Orthodox theologians up to our own day [3] as well as by certain Catholic theologians, more sympathetic towards Palamas’s thought than their predecessors [4].
Various texts of the fathers are invoked to support the thesis of the rootedness of this distinction within patristic tradition. Among them, two significant passages of the Cappadocians are cited very frequently in favor of Palamas’s teaching. One of them, by St. Basil, is taken from his Letter 234; the other, by St. Gregory of Nyssa, is excerpted from his sixth homily On the Beatitudes. In his course On the Vision of God, Lossky presents them in this way:
“God manifests Himself by His operations or energies. ‘While we affirm,’ says St. Basil, ‘that we know our God in his energies, we scarcely promise that he may be approached in his very essence. For although his energies descend to us, his essence remains inaccessible.’ This passage from the letter to Amphilochius together with other texts in Against Eunomius will have an importance of the very first order for the doctrine of the vision of God. Byzantine theologians will often quote this authority in formulating the distinction between the inaccessible οὐσία and its natural processions, the ἐνέργειαι or manifesting operations” (p. 65).
“Like St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa distinguishes between the negative and positive names applied to God. The negative names, without revealing the divine nature to us, set aside everything that is alien to it. Even names which seem positive to us have, in reality, a negative meaning. Thus, in saying that God is good, we are declaring only that there is no room in Him for evil…. Other names, having a truly positive meaning, refer to the divine operations or energies; they lead us to know God not in His inaccessible essence but in what surrounds Him. ‘Wherefore it is true both that the pure heart sees God and that no one has ever seen God. In fact he who is invisible by nature becomes visible by his ἐνέργειαι, appearing to us in the particular surroundings of his nature (ἐν τισι τοῖς περὶ αὐτὸν καθορωμένοις)’” (p. 71).
The two texts cited are particularly interesting with a view to our enquiry. Let us also begin by examining them, placing them, as is fitting, back into their original context and into the framework of their authors’ thought.
Let us take first of all the passage by St. Basil [5]. Letter 234, in which it is found, is part of a collection of letters, dogmatic in content, addressed by Basil to his friend Amphilochius, the bishop of Iconium. Like most of the others, it was written within a polemical situation, the fight against Eunomius of Cyzicus. This son of a small-time Galatian farmer, who became the leader of Anomoeanism, was an adversary all the more dangerous insofar as he placed at the service of his ideas all the quibbles of sophistic, transforming theology into “technology,” according to the saying of Theodoret of Cyrus (Haer. fab., IV, 3; PG 83, 420 B).
If we briefly call to mind some of his theses, this will help us to understand Basil’s argumentation.
Eunomius fully recognized that man cannot attain the essence of God by his own proper forces. On this point, he even goes so far as to refuse all value to the concepts which people form about God on the basis of worldly realities, something which leads him to a radical agnosticism.
On the other hand, he affirms that God has revealed to us his essence; it consists in agennesia, in the fact of being not generated. This concept properly expresses the divine essence in such a way that that essence no longer presents any obscurity to us, and we know God as God knows himself [6]. The fathers of the late fourth century oppose these errors by stalwartly defending God’s transcendence. They thus accentuate the radically incomprehensible character of the divine essence for our created intellects. Nevertheless, they do not fall into agnosticism. A positive knowledge of God is available to us — that of his existence and of his attributes, such as we are able to know them by the visible world.
We meet with this teaching in Basil’s letter (PG 32, 868 C – 872 A). From its outset, we hear an echo of the pitched battles which the orthodox fought against their adversaries [7]:
“‘Do you worship what you know, or what you don’t know?’ If we reply, ‘We worship what we know,’ then their response comes quickly: ‘What is the essence of what you worship?’ And if we acknowledge that we do not know its essence, they cast back at our teeth: ‘Therefore you worship what you don’t know.’ But we ought to say that ‘to know’ can have many senses. And, in fact, we affirm that we do know God’s greatness, his power, his wisdom, his goodness, the providence by which he takes care of us, the justice of his judgments — but not God’s essence itself. For this reason, their question is insolent. He who affirms that he does not know the divine essence does not thereby admit that he knows nothing about God, since a notion of God is formed in us on the basis of the numerous (attributes) which we have enumerated.” (868 E).
After having set aside an objection raised by Eunomius in the name of divine simplicity, Basil moves from there to assert the following:
“As for us, we maintain that we know our God on the basis of his operations, but we do not pretend to draw near to his essence itself. For his operations come down to us, but, as for his essence, it remains inaccessible.” (Αἱ μὲν γὰρ ἐνέργειαι αὐτοῦ πρὸς ἡμᾶς καταβαίνουσιν, ἡ δὲ οὐσία αὐτοῦ μένει ἀπρόσιτος) (869 A-B) [8].
Basil next recalls that “faith is contented with knowing that God is, not what he is,” and that “to know the divine essence is to perceive that it is incomprehensible” (869 B-C). In this passage, Basil’s thinking is clear: we cannot attain to the divine essence itself, but we know God from his operations [9]. This teaching is a commonplace with Basil and is based upon the testimony of Scripture. Let us briefly cite certain other texts marked by the same anti-Eunomian context.
“For faith in God, there first of all comes the idea that God exists. We conceive this idea from the things created (ἐκ τῶν δημιουργημάτων). For, from the creation of the world, we recognize his wisdom, his power, his goodness, and all his invisible (attributes) that our mind knows” (cf. Rom 1:20). (Letter 235; PG 32, 872 B).
“I think that comprehension (of the divine essence) surpasses not merely human beings but every rational nature. I mean, every created rational nature. For it is only by the Son and the Holy Spirit that the Father can be known…. It is natural that the divine essence itself should be incomprehensible to anyone with the exception of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that we, in elevating ourselves by God’s operations (ἐκ τῶν ἐνεργειῶν τοῦ Θεοῦ ἀναγομένους ἡμᾶς) and by means of his works representing to ourselves their author (διὰ τῶν ποιημάτων τὸν ποιητὴν ἐννοοῦντας), we acquire an understanding of his goodness and his wisdom (cf. Wisd 13:1). For, that which can be known of God, God has manifested to all men” (cf. Rom 1:19). (Adv. Eun. I; PG 29, 544 A-B.)
Let us summarize what these texts are saying [10]. For Basil, it is certain that we cannot know the essence of God; what it is in itself remains inaccessible to us. Does this mean that we do not know Him whom we worship, as the Anomoeans object? No, for God makes himself known to us by his operations. It is upon the grounds of these operations, which are grasped by us in their visible, accessible terminus, that we recognize God’s greatness, his wisdom, his power, his goodness and his other attributes manifested in the creation.
Let us move on now to the text by St. Gregory of Nyssa, taken from his magnificent commentary on the sixth Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (PG 44, 1264 B – 1277 A).
“The divine nature, with respect to what it is in itself, surpasses all comprehension by the intellect; it is inaccessible and unapproachable to our conjecturing thoughts. Never has there been found among men the power to comprehend the incomprehensible; never has anyone invented a way to conceive of the inconceivable. This is why the great Apostle calls his ways ‘past finding out’ (Rom 11:33), signifying thereby that this way that leads to the knowledge of the divine essence is inaccessible to our reasonings. Moreover, among none of those who have preceded us in this life do we find the least trace of them having comprehended a reality that goes beyond knowledge.
“Since the one who is beyond all nature is such, by his nature, it is according to a different principle that the invisible and infinite (God) is seen and known.
“Numerous are the manners of such an understanding. For, thanks to the wisdom that is manifested in the universe, it is possible to see by conjecture (στοχαστικῶς) him who with wisdom made all things.
“Let us take the objects fashioned by man; in a certain manner, one sees, by thought, the maker of the object in question, the one who put his art into the work. It is not the artisan’s nature that is seen, but solely the expertise which the artisan has put into the object. The same thing holds true when, observing the order in creation, we form for ourselves an idea, not of the essence, but of the wisdom of Him who in all things has worked wisely.
“And if we reflect upon the cause of our own life, namely, that God made the decision to create man, not out of necessity, but by a good forechoice, once again we say that, in this way, we have seen God, our mind having understood his goodness, not his essence.
“The same thing holds true for all the other (considerations) which raise thought towards that which is better and higher; we speak of them as an understanding of God, because each of these thoughts makes us to see God. For power, purity, self-identity, complete freedom from mixture with what is opposed to him, and all things of this kind imprint upon our minds the idea of a certain elevated conception of God.
“Our remarks therefore show that the Lord speaks truly when he promises that the pure hearts will see God, and Paul does not lie when he expressly declares that no one has ever seen God, nor can see him (1 Tim 6:16). For He who is invisible by his nature becomes visible by his operations, such that he is contemplated in certain of his attributes (Ὁ γὰρ τῇ φύσει ἀόρατος, ὁρατὸς ταῖς ἐνεργείαις γίνεται, ἔν τισι τοῖς περὶ αὐτὸν καθορώμενος) [11].
“But the meaning of this beatitude indicates not solely that we can know by analogy, on the grounds of an operation, that someone who operates has such and such a character (τὸ ἔκ τινος ἐνεργείας τὸν ἐνεργοῦντα δύνασθαι τοιοῦτον ἀναλογίσασθαι), since no doubt even the wise of this world are able, thanks to the harmony of the world, to arrive at an understanding of a superior wisdom and power. But it seems to me that something else must be understood by the surpassing greatness of the blessedness that awaits those who shall be able to attain a vision of the object of their desire…” (1268 B – 1269 B).

As for this “something else,” Gregory the mystic speaks about it in a wonderful way. It has to do with the knowledge of God in the mirror of the purified soul. “He in fact who has purified his heart from all attachment to what is created sees, in his own beauty, the image of the divine nature” (1269 C) [12]. We decided to cite this rich, profound page at length; in it one finds, with Gregory’s own particular emphases, the common teaching of the great Cappadocians. The divine nature, in respect of what it is by essence, is absolutely inaccessible to man, incomprehensible to his mind. But a knowledge of God by analogy, taking creation as one’s starting point, is possible [13]. In the text, Gregory employs a comparison: the knowledge one has of an artisan’s technical ability, based on the object that has been made. He provides examples: one’s knowledge of God’s wisdom from the order of the universe, one’s knowledge of his goodness, based upon his freedom in the creative act. For Gregory, it is clear that God is invisible, unknowable in his very nature, but that he becomes visible, makes himself knowable, by his operations. God’s operations permit us to have, by analogy, a certain knowledge of his attributes [14].
It is now time to make a preliminary assessment from our reading of the texts. Up to this point, we have merely sought to bring their meaning into focus as a function of their context and the author’s thought. We have sought not to superimpose a later problematic, so as to avoid distortions in interpretation.
What is it from these passages, which agree with one another in content, that we should keep in mind? Essentially, a twofold affirmation: God is unknowable to us in his very essence; he is knowable to us by his operations which manifest his attributes. We are thus in effect presented with a fundamental distinction between that which we cannot know — the divine essence itself — and that which we can know — God’s attributes, known through his operations. In the first place, we should note that this distinction between what, to us, is knowable about God and what is unknowable became the common property of all Eastern tradition after the Cappadocians. One finds it again in Palamas, but it presents nothing specifically characteristic of his personal positions.
Having stated this, we need to consider the distinction itself. It was drawn up from the point of view of our knowledge, that is, from the side of man. Thus the question arises: is this distinction situated solely on the human side, or is there in fact a corresponding distinction in God which would provide its objective foundation? Here we arrive at the heart of our subject, and the problem of what is specific to the Palamite doctrine can be raised. The initial question may thus be rendered more precise: Do we find among the Cappadocians an assertion of a distinction in God between essence and attributes which would be the beginning of the real distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies professed by Palamas [15]?
In attempting to reply to this, we would like to begin by citing three texts which provide a way of approaching the problem. The first is by Gregory of Nazianzus, whom we have hitherto seemed to have overlooked. It is taken from his Fourth Theological Oration, which, like the one that immediately precedes it, is devoted to the person of the Son; it occurs in a digression on the divine names.
“The divinity cannot be named (τὸ θεῖον ἀκατονόμαστον)…. For, just as no one has ever breathed all the air, so also no mind has ever grasped, no word has ever expressed in its totality the essence of God. But from his attributes we make a sketch of that which he is in himself (ἐκ τῶν περὶ αὐτὸν σκιαγραφοῦντες τὰ κατ’ αὐτόν), and we compose a certain obscure, feeble image deriving from it (ἀμυδράν τινα καὶ ἀσθενῆ, καὶ ἄλλην ἀπ’ ἄλλου φαντασίαν).
“Consequently, the best theologian is not, in our view, he who has discovered the whole, since our shackle (i.e., the flesh, cf. PG 37, 378 A) cannot receive the whole, but he who, better than another, shall picture to himself and more perfectly draw up in himself truth’s image, or its shadow, or what one might yet speak of in some other way” (Or. 30.17; PG 36, 125 B-C).
The following passage is from Basil’s treatise Against Eunomius. In Book One, Basil refutes his adversary’s claim that the notion of agennesia perfectly expresses the divine essence.
“This is how things are. There is not one single name which, encompassing the nature of God in its entirety (πᾶσαν τὴν τοῦ Θεοῦ φύσιν περιλαβόν), is able to express it in a satisfactory manner (ἱκανῶς ἐξαγγεῖλαι). But a quite large number off varying names, each having its own meaning, together provide an understanding, an understanding altogether obscure and very meagre in comparison with the totality (ἀμυδρὰν παντελῶς καὶ μικροτάτην), but sufficient (ἐξαρκοῦσαν) for us. Thus, among the names spoken about God (τοῖς περὶ Θεοῦ λεγομένοις ὀνόμασι), some indicate what does pertain to God, while others, on the contrary, indicate what does not pertain to him. From these two kinds of names, from the negation of what is not suitable to him and from the affirmation of what does pertain to him, there comes about in us, as it were, an imprint of God (χαρακτὴρ τοῦ Θεοῦ).” (Adv. Eun. I.10; PG 29, 533 C).
We find these lines echoed in Gregory of Nyssa’s summary of his positions, given in his second treatise Against Eunomius.
“We have thus stated … that we have an obscure and very limited (ἀμυδρὰν καὶ βραχυτάτην) comprehension of the divine nature by means of our reason. Nevertheless, we form a knowledge, sufficient (ἀποχρῶσαν) for the littleness of our powers, by means of the names which we piously attribute to it (διὰ τῶν ὀνομάτων τῶν περὶ αὐτὴν εὐσεβῶς λεγομένων). Concerning these names, we affirm that they do not all signify in the same manner, but some of them express that which belongs to God, while the others indicate what is not to be found in him….
“It is impossible to find any name encompassing the divine nature (περιληπτικὸν τῆς θείας φύσεως) that is employed in a manner suitable (προσφυῶς) for designating the subject itself. For this reason, by making use of a variety of names in keeping with the diverse apprehensions each one of us has, we form a certain conception specifically of God (ἰδιάζουσαν … ἔννοιαν); we name the Godhead, placing us in pursuit of certain names so as to grasp Him whom we seek, on the basis of the multiple, varied significance they give to their subject” (ἐκ τῆς πολυειδοῦς καὶ ποικίλης κατ’ αὐτοῦ σημασίας) (C. Eun., II (vulgo XII B); PG 45, 953 B, 957 D).
If we compare these different reflections by the three Cappadocians, we find they show a deep agreement. No name is able to express what the divine nature is in itself. But thanks to the multitude of names, which express our various notions about God, we form in our minds a knowledge of the divine nature, a knowledge that is very limited, but nevertheless sufficient.
Let us move on now to a more precise statement, which we find in a text by Gregory of Nyssa. With his remarkable intellectual penetration, he extended and deepened the researches of his brother Basil, and, in him, we find the most developed expression of the doctrine of the Cappadocians upon our subject. To specify the context: Gregory is attacking Eunomius’s thesis which says that names and concepts rigorously define the essence of things. For a given reality, one can therefore have only one single notion. Either an idea corresponds to an essence, or it corresponds to nothing at all. Now the term ἀγέννητος is the sole true name of God, that which belongs to him exclusively and expresses perfectly his nature. The multiple names attributed to God can thus signify the divine essence only by being synonymous with ἀγέννητος; otherwise, based on conceptions of reason, they are nothing more than mere subjective or verbal designations, with no real significance. Let us hear Gregory’s response:
“And if Eunomius decrees (the synonymy of the divine names), why do the Scriptures uselessly denote the divine nature by a great number of names (πολυωνύμως τὴν θείαν φύσιν ἀνακαλοῦσιν), naming it: God, judge, just, powerful, longsuffering, true, merciful, and many other, similar things? For if none of these names is to be understood according to its own proper meaning (ἐπί τινος ἰδιαζούσης ἐννοίας), and if all of them are found to be assimilated to one another on account of the confusion of their significations, it will be useless to employ multiple names for the same (subject), since no difference in meaning distinguishes one name from all the rest.
“Who can have so far lost his reason as to be unaware that the divine nature, in respect of what it is by essence, is one, simple, uniform, incomposite, and in no way contemplated in some synthesis of diverse elements (κατ’ οὐδένα τρόπον, ἐν ποικίλῃ τινὶ συνθέσει θεωρουμένη). The human soul, prostrate upon the ground and glued to this earthly life by the fact that it cannot clearly (τηλαυγῶς) perceive what it seeks, endeavors by multiple notions, in numerous and various ways, to attain the ineffable nature (πολλαῖς ἐννοίαις τῆς ἀφράστου φύσεως πολυτρόπως καὶ πολυμερῶς ἐπορέγεται); so far is it from pursuing what is hidden with one single notion. For comprehension would be easy if one single way of access for us had been discovered that leads to the knowledge of God.”
(There follow various examples of these multiple notions: God is wise, powerful, not caused, separate from evil, immutable, immortal, incorruptible.)
“We do not divide (οὐ … συνδιασχίζοντες) the subject by these notions, but, believing that what he is by essence is one (ὅ τί ποτε κατ’ οὐσίαν ἐστίν, ἓν εἶναι πεπιστευκότες), we hold the view that the object of our thought has its own, close relationships (οἰκείως ἔχειν) with all these apprehensions.” (C. Eun. II [vulgo XII B]; PG 45, 1069 A-C.)
We should be clear about Gregory’s position in these great lines. The different divine names are not synonymous; even if they point to the same reality, they all have, severally, their own proper meanings [16]. The divine nature is perfectly one and simple. In it, there is no composition of elements (to which the different divine names would correspond). This nature, one and simple in itself, we neither can immediately attain to, nor can we conceive of it or express it by one single notion, but solely by a multiplicity of notions. This multiplicity arises from the infirmity of our mind (thus, it is not known in reality, but in our limited and imperfect mode of knowledge); it has its foundation in the eminence and the ineffability of the divine nature [17].
It follows from these investigations that, with Gregory of Nyssa as with the other Cappadocians, we have a doctrine that is already stable and precise, even if it still necessitates certain elucidations. The multiple names correspond to a unique and simple divine essence, of which they afford us a certain knowledge, very limited but real; no name, on the other hand, can express what the divine essence is — in itself, it remains absolutely unknowable to us. Consequently, there is, with the Cappadocians, no thought at all of making a real distinction in God, as Palamas will do, between what is unknowable (the inaccessible, incomprehensible, invisible, imparticipable essence) and what is knowable (the uncreated, visible, comprehensible, nameable, participable energy or energies, distinct from the essence)…. Upon this vital point, we ought to note the profound disagreement that exists between the thought of the Cappadocian fathers and that of Gregory Palamas. Consequently, it does not seem to us possible to speak of a beginning of the Palamite distinction among the fathers of the fourth century.
Having come to the end of our enquiry, we would like to recall the steps through which we have passed and to present certain remarks.
  1. Among the Cappadocians, we find expressions concerning the knowledge of God which, taken in isolation, admit of a properly Palamite interpretation (an enunciation of the essence-energies distinction in God). This is true of the two passages which we chose.
  2. When placed back in their context, these expressions do not show a specifically Palamite content. They affirm the distinction between that which is unknowable of God (his essence in itself) and that which is knowable (his attributes) thanks to his operations. This is what a study of the texts in question reveals.
  3. Far from constituting a precedent for it, the doctrine of the Cappadocians on the divine names appears rather to be opposed to the Palamite thesis of a real distinction in God, since it bases the distinction rather upon the order of our knowing.
Under these conditions, if the results of our inquiry are well-founded, we find it difficult to accept that the adherents of the Palamite distinction can legitimately invoke the authority of the Cappadocians and claim to represent their thought upon this precise point: the theological distinction as providing a basis for the gnoseological distinction.
To be sure, the doctrine of Gregory Palamas upon the divine energies receives its framework from the great doctors of the fourth century. But it integrates two more, decisive components, which arose subsequently to the Cappadocians. On the one hand, the hesychast theologian borrows from Pseudo-Dionysius, and from his very dynamic vision of a universe of participation, the distinction between the transcendent, absolutely unknowable and imparticipable Deity, and his processions (πρόοδοι), his powers (δυνάμεις), which are knowable and participable (goodness, being, life, wisdom…). On the other hand, he retains from christological dyoenergism the affirmation of the existence of a divine operation (θεῖα ἐνέργεια), according to the acknowledged principle, No nature without its natural operation (φυσικὴ ἐνέργεια) (cf. Maximus the Confessor, PG 91, 96 B; 200 C; 205 A-C; 340 D…).
Thus one gets Palamas’s celebrated distinction between the absolutely imparticipable ousia (or superessentiality, ὑπερουσιότης) and the participable ἐνέργεια or ἐνέργειαι.
The Palamite energies are laden with the content of the Dionysian processions or powers. They are distinct from the essence, but Palamas envisages them as having an uncreated character (something doubtful in Dionysius’s emanationist conception), referring them to the teaching of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. But the Council, in contrast to Dionysius who was a source of inspiration for the Monoenergists, did not see them as antinomically distinct from the divine essence.
One should now reread the two passages of the Cappadocians with these Dionysian notions in mind. If one does so, there will be no doubt that Basil does not teach the distinction between the inaccessible essence and the multiple, knowable energies, and that his brother Gregory does not take for granted this same distinction between the invisible nature and the visible energies which surround it. In short, the Byzantine theologian’s doctrine would have us view it as supported from the time of the great era of the fathers, and would make the Cappadocians appear as Palamites before the letter. In reality, as this inquiry has shown, the facts of the case are no doubt otherwise.

[1] In her well-known articles, “La doctrine de la ‘déification’ dans l’Église grecque jusqu’ au XIe siècle” ["The doctrine of 'deification' in the Greek Church until the 11th century"] and “La doctrine de la grâce et de la liberté dans l’orthodoxie gréco-orientale” ["The doctrine of grace and of liberty in Greek/Eastern Orthodoxy"], which date respectively from 1932-33 and from 1939, reproduced in La déification de l’homme [The Deification of Man] (Paris: Le Cerf, 1970), especially pp. 29-32, 38-40, and pp. 232-33. In the same collection, see also p. 244 (on beatitude in the Christian East).
[2] In his classic work, Essai sur la théologie mystique de l’Église d’Orient (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1944) [Eng. tr., The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London: James Clarke, 1957)], pp. 68-69; the article appeared in Dieu vivant 1 (1945), on “The theology of light in St. Gregory Palamas,” reprinted in A l’image et à la ressemblance de Dieu (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1967), pp. 46-48 [Eng. tr., In the Image and Likeness of God (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974), pp. 45-69]; the course given at the École des Hautes Études (1945-1946), published as La Vision de Dieu (Neuchâtel: Delachaux et Niestlé, 1962) [Eng. tr., The Vision of God (London: The Faith Press, 1963)], pp. 65, 71, 104, 131…
[3] We shall cite only two recent examples: the Greek theologian Christos Yannaras, in his study On the Absence and Not-knowing of God (Athens 1967) [De l'absence et de l'inconnaissance de Dieu (Paris: Le Cerf, 1971)], with regard to the distinction between God’s essence and his energies, does not hesitate to assert that “this distinction had been formulated throughout all of Eastern patristic literature (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, and Gregory Palamas)” (p. 99). Professor P. Scazzoso, in his book La teologia di Gregorio Palamas (Milan 1970), is much more nuanced and prefers to speak of “an antinomical, prepalamite sensibility” in the Cappadocians (p. 89; cf. p. 84).
[4] Numerous references will be found in the remarkable “Bulletin sur le Palamisme” written by Fr. D. Stiernon and published in the Revue des Études Byzantines, 1972, pp. 231-241. He presents all the works devoted to Gregory Palamas since John Meyendorff’s thesis, between 1959 and 1969.
[5] This text (PG 32, 869 A-B) was well known to Palamas, who refers to it frequently. For example, in his dialogue titled Theophanes (PG 150, 909-960), he cites it explicitly at least three times (925 B, 932 B, 944 C). Palamas and his adversary Gregoras opposed each other on the meaning of this text during their public debate in 1355 in the presence of the emperor and of the papal legate (see Gregoras’s version in his Roman History, Book 30, §§ 16 and 23; PG 149, 264 D and 282 C-D).
[6] The church historian Socrates reports in a literal manner (as he informs us) some of the theses held by Eunomius: “God does not know anything more about his own essence than we do; it is not better known by him, less well known by us. But everything that we know about it, he also knows totally, and everything that he knows, it will be found altogether likewise in us” (Hist. Eccl. IV, 7; PG 67, 474 B). One can understand the passionate opposition of the fathers of the fourth century to such pretensions. This reaction deeply and definitively marked the tradition of the Greek Church. One needs to keep this context in mind when one approaches the anti-Eunomian literature.
[7] St. John Chrysostom, in his 5th Homily On the Incomprehensible, replies to the same Anomoean objection: “But what is this clever argument? ‘You do not know what you worship,’ they say….” (PG 48, 742 D – 743 B; coll. Sources Chrétiennes 28, Paris, Le Cerf, 1950, pp. 284-285). The Eunomians replied to the Orthodox with Jesus’ word addressed to the Samaritans (Jn 4:22). See, again, Gregory of Nyssa’s refutation of this objection (C. Eun. III, PG 45, 601-604).
[8] We translate the term energeia as “operation.” As Fr. de Régnon already noted (Études sur la Sainte Trinité, III, 2, Paris, Victor Retaux, 1898, Étude XXVI, esp. pp. 425-235) — quite apart from all question about Palamism — the fathers of the fourth century understand the word ἐνέργεια in the most ordinary and widest sense of the term: that of operation, of efficient action. To be sure, this general sense grows more precise in its employments. When the term refers to the unique divine nature (μία φύσις), to the unique power (μία δύναμις), one speaks of the unique operation (μία ἐνέργεια), one argues, even, on the grounds of the unity of operation. When the term refers to the effects of the operation, to the realities that are operated (ἐνεργήματα, ἔργα), one speaks of the operations that are multiple and varied (ἐνέργειαι … πολλαί, ποικιλαί) and, according to the remark of John of Damascus, the term energeia can be equivalent to energêma (PG 94, 1048 A).
[9] An example, in the last part of the letter, further illustrates this knowledge on the grounds of the operations: the episode of the tempest calmed by Jesus. “When did the disciples worship (the Lord)? Was it not when they saw that the creation was subject to him? For from (the spectacle) of the sea and the winds obeying his voice, they recognized his divinity. Thus, from the operations, knowledge (was effected), and, from knowledge, adoration (Οὐκοῦν ἀπὸ μὲν τῶν ἐνεργειῶν ἡ γνῶσις, ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς γνώσεως ἡ προσκύνησις)” (PG 32, 869 B).
[10] Whether Letter 189 is by Basil or, as it would seem, is in fact by Gregory of Nyssa, it reflects the same teaching, common to the two brothers. “If it were possible to contemplate the divine nature in itself and to discover, thanks to its appearances, that which properly belongs to it and that which is foreign to it, we would have had absolutely no need for reasonings or for other inductions (λόγων ἢ τεκμηρίων) to attain what we are seeking. But, since it surpasses the scope of our investigations, we reason from inductions upon (realities) that escape our knowledge. It is therefore wholly necessary that we allow ourselves to be guided by the operations (διὰ τῶν ἐνεργειῶν ἡμᾶς χειραγωγεῖσθαι) when seeking to know the divine nature” (PG 32, 692 C-D).
[11] The term “attribute” is doubtless more precise than the expression employed here, ta peri auton, but it is certainly attributes which are being talked about in this passage, as also at PG 45, 1105 C: τὰ περὶ αὐτὴν (αὐτὴ = the divine nature) θεωρούμενα, as distinguished from the nature itself, αὐτὴ ἡ θεῖα φύσις. The expression is found in Gregory of Nyssa (cf. again PG 45, 121 A-C) as also in Basil (e.g., PG 29, 524 D). Gregory of Nazianzus (e.g., PG 36, 125 B, 317 B) distinguishes ta peri auton (the attributes) and ta kat’ auton (the essence). Similar expressions are found in Maximus (PG 90, 984 A, 1049 A-B: τὰ κατ’ αὐτὸν / τὰ περὶ αὐτὸν) or in John of Damascus (PG 94, 800 B-D, 840 A: [αὐτὴ] ἡ φύσις (οὐσία) / τὰ περὶ τὴν φύσιν (οὐσίαν) and in later Byzantine tradition.
[12] “God has imprinted the image of the goods of his own nature upon the creation. But sin, when it spread over the divine likeness, made this good to disappear in covering it with shameful garments. But if, by a careful life, you wash the mud that is upon your heart, the deiform beauty will shine anew in you. In fact, that which is like to the good is good. Thus, when he observes himself, he sees in himself the one whom he seeks. And it is in this way that the one who is pure in heart deserves to be called blessed, since, in regarding his own beauty, he sees in it its model. Just as, in fact, someone who sees the sun in a mirror, even if he does not fix his eyes upon the heaven itself, sees nevertheless the sun in the clarity of the mirror, so you too, even if your eyes do not allow you to perceive the light, possess in yourselves that which you desire, if you return to the grace of the image which was placed in your from the beginning” (PG 44, 1272 A-C). Fr. Daniélou gives a commentary on this text in his Platonisme et Théologie mystique (Paris: Aubier, 1944), part 3, ch. II, 1, “The Mirror of the Soul,” pp. 223-235.
[13] This theme of the analogical knowledge of God is frequent in Gregory. We may cite the following text which refers specifically to the Book of Wisdom (13:4-5): “It is our view that nothing among beings, whether sensible or intelligible, has a spontaneous and fortuitous existence, but that all that which is known among beings depends upon the nature that is superior to all beings, and that it therefore has a cause for its existence. Again, when we consider the beauty and the greatness of the wonders of creation, from all this and things similar, we conceive of other thoughts about the Godhead and, by appropriate names, we interpret each of the thoughts born in us, following the counsel of Wisdom. It states, in fact, that from the greatness and the beauty of the creatures one must contemplate, by analogy, the Author of all things” (ἐκ μεγέθους καὶ καλλονῆς κτισμάτων ἀναλογῶς δεῖν τὸν πάντων γενεσιουργὸν θεωρεῖσθαι)” (PG 45, 1105 C-D).
[14] In spite of the relationship that unites them, we see no reason to identify the operations and the attributes in the Cappadocians as Vladimir Lossky tends to do by bending the meaning of the “attributes-energies” (according to his expression) of the Palamite doctrine. We see the texts rather as affirming that the divine attributes are known thanks to the operations and that “the human mind gives names to the extent that it understands, being taught by the operations” (PG 45, 961 B). “Those who call upon God do not name him that very thing that he is (οὐκ αὐτὸ ὁ ἔστιν), since the nature of He Who Is is ineffable. But from those things which, as we believe, he operates in our life (ἐξ ὧν ἐνεργεῖν … πεπίστευται), so he receives denominations…. We conceive in our mind by means of those things which we learn from his operations (νοοῦμεν δὲ δι’ ὧν ἐκ τῶν ἐνεργειῶν διδασκόμεθα)” (PG 45, 960 C). In identifying energeiai and attributes, Fr. Daniélou’s notes in Platonisme et Théologie mystique, op. cit. (pp. 147 and esp. 148) are marked by the influence of the articles on Pseudo-Dionysius that were written by Lot-Borodine and Lossky before the war.
[15] The question is important. According to Lossky, it establishes a veritable dividing line: “Two kinds of theology exist. One, wanting to see in God an eminently simple object, narrows all possible knowledge about the attributes of God to this primordial simplicity, by reason of which the nature of God can be known only by means of analogies, which refer to an essence surpassing our understanding — our understanding naturally being dedicated to the knowledge of things complex and multiple. But there is another theological attitude for which the unknowable character of God has a more radical value. This unknowability cannot be founded upon the eminent simplicity of the divine Being; in effect this would suppose an essence, if not knowable, then at least capable of being seen imperfectly with the aid of analogical concepts: a simple essence, identical to its attributes” (In the Image and Likeness of God, p. 51). This second theological attitude is notably that of Gregory Palamas who distinguishes in God the totally inaccessible, unknowable essence and the communicable and participable energies. This is what Fr. John Meyendorff calls an “existential theology” (using here a terminology for which some Orthodox have reproached him). He underlines “the irreconcilable character of an essentialist metaphysic, deriving from Greek philosophy, with the personalist and existentialist metaphysic which Palamas inherited from the Bible and the Fathers” (Introduction à l’étude de Grégoire Palamas, Paris, Le Seuil, 1959, Part 2, ch. 5, “An existential theology: Essence and Energy,” p. 310).
[16] In a very beautiful passage, which Gregory would later expand, Basil develops this same idea concerning Christ. Using multiple names, Christ termed himself the Door, the Way, Bread, the Vine, the Shepherd, the Light…, each of these names having a different signification, being applied to the same subject, without dividing it, and corresponding to differing, beneficent operations (PG 29, 524 C – 525 B).
[17] As Fr. Daniélou has in fact noted, following Basil, “Gregory poses with an admirable firmness the doctrine of the divine attributes and of their value. The essence of God is perfect, simple and implies no multiplicity. But this unity of divine essence is inaccessible to the human mind. Our mind can only conceive of it through multiple concepts. Such concepts do not express the divine essence. But, nevertheless, they have a value. They are the knowledge of God which is proportionate to an intellect given to what is multiple. They designate no other reality than the divine essence. In this sense, their distinction does not have correspond to something in that essence. But, as concepts, they are really distinct and designate one single reality under diverse aspects. Thus the divine simplicity is compatible with the diversity of the attributes by which we name it” (Course of the Institut Catholique de Paris, Le quatrième siècle: Grégoire de Nysse et son milieu, p. 39. What follows this text (pp. 39-40) rapidly surveys, by contrast, the conception of Palamas). Already, on this point, Hans Urs von Balthasar had underlined, in a very penetrating manner, the radical distance separating Gregory’s position from that of Plotinus: “While, with Plotinus, the Nous, as the totality of intelligibles, remains the primary object of knowledge, behind which stands freely the unsearchable depth of the Hen (One), adequately distinguished from the intelligible world and thus absolutely transcendent, super-intelligible, super-existent, these two realms constitute, for Gregory, but a single one. We grasp here the profound difference between Plotinian theology and Christian theology. For Plotinus, the Ideas are of objects, of ‘things,’ above which, by ‘a separation’ or supreme χωρισμός, is raised the One, the Hen. For Gregory, ideal knowledge has no other object than the Supreme Being himself. The multiplicity of ideas correspond, in the knowing soul, to its powerlessness to grasp this unique object, the divine object with its richness of infinite life” (Présence et Pensée, Essai sur la philosophie religieuse de Grégoire de Nysse, Paris, Beauchesne, 1942, “Introduction,” p. xix).

Saturday 29 January 2011

Saint Isaak of Syria and the Responsibility of Each for All

Scott Cairns
August 21, 2010
The Huffington Post

While it may not seem a purely spiritual practice, I've made a habit of re-reading Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov every summer for the past 15 years.

Early on, I wasn't sure why this novel held so much power for me; I only knew that it did. It wasn't until I got some four years into my habit that I finally noticed how powerfully Saint Isaak of Syria (seventh century) figures in Dostoevsky's work. The author kept a copy of Saint Isaak's Ascetical Homilies readily at hand, poring over its pages throughout his life. As it happens, many years ago, as I was making my own slow way toward the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Isaak's Homilies helped tug my heart home.

One passage from the recently discovered "second part" of Saint Isaak's text proved especially helpful:

"[Both] the Kingdom and Gehenna are matters belonging to mercy. ... That we should say or think that the matter [of Gehenna] is not full of love and mingled with compassion would be an opinion full of blasphemy and insult to our Lord God. ... Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love, and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us."

All of the God's actions, the saint insists, have to do with our recovery, our healing, our becoming whole. None is unrelated to the overarching mercy, love, and compassion He bears for us.

The psalmist says, "The Lord has chastened me sorely, but he has not given me over to death."

The Psalmist says, "He will not maintain His anger, nor will He forever keep His wrath."

Such figures as "His anger" and "His wrath" finally come to be seen as provisional metaphors, garments He will one day discard.

"He did not deal with us according to our sins,
Nor reward us according to our transgressions;
For according to the height of heaven from earth,
So the Lord reigns in mercy over those who fear Him;
As far as the East is from the West,
So He removes our transgressions from us."

For Isaak, then -- and now also for me -- all suffering is understood to be remedial; it is understood as a means to our recovery -- and no end in itself.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Saint Isaak is mentioned by name several times, and his Ascetical Homilies acknowledged twice. While both old Grigory and odd Smerdyakov are shown to have held these homilies in hand, it is the Elder Zosimas who carries Saint Isaak's words written upon his heart; Elder Zosimas is the one who receives the saint's words, incorporates them into his own speech, and -- more to our point of the moment -- he is the one who has found a way to embody them, to perform them.

During his one and only meeting with Dmitri Karamazov, the elder surprises all present with evidence of this:

"[Zosimas] stepped towards Dmitri Fyodorovich and, having come close to him, knelt before him. Alyosha thought for a moment that he had fallen from weakness, but it was something else. Kneeling in front of Dmitri Fyodorovich, the elder bowed down at his feet with a full, distinct, conscious bow, and even touched the floor with his forehead. Alyosha was so amazed that he failed to support him as he got to his feet. A weak smile barely glimmered on his lips.

'Forgive me! Forgive me, all of you!' he said, bowing on all sides to his guests."

Thereafter, preparing to die, the elder counsels his brothers. "Love animals, love plants, love each thing," he says. "If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love."

Elsewhere -- paraphrasing Saint Isaak -- he avers:

"Every day and whenever you can, repeat within yourself: "Lord, have mercy upon all who come before you today." For every hour and every moment thousands of people leave their life on this earth, and their souls come before the Lord -- and so many of them part this earth in isolation, unknown to anyone, in sadness and sorrow that no one will mourn for them, or even know whether they had lived or not. And so, perhaps from the other end of the earth, your prayer for his repose will rise up to the Lord, though you did not know him at all, nor he you. How moving it is for his soul, coming in fear before the Lord, to feel at that moment that someone is praying for him, too, that there is still a human being on earth who loves him."

Radical as it appears to us in the habitual isolations of the twenty-first century, this is not as uncommon a disposition as we might suppose. Even today, the monks of Mount Athos -- and holy men and women throughout the world -- are intentional in living this mystery of our unity and of our mutual responsibility, keen on living into it. With wholehearted struggle, they bear one another's afflictions; they carry one another in prayer; they ask forgiveness for their personal sins, for those of their brothers, and -- puzzling as this may seem to us -- they ask God to forgive them and us for our sins as well.

One of the continuing misconceptions about monastics past and present is that these people have rejected the world altogether, and that by withdrawing from it they are primarily concerned with their own spiritual well-being. That may be how their choice appears to us outside their enclaves. From the inside, however, one can witness something else. Imitating Christ, they are -- in daily and deliberate acts -- performing the greatest love of all, that of giving their lives for their friends.

Granted, these men and women are apprehending their own salvation, but -- as their ascetic lives develop -- their labors and their most earnest prayers are for the salvation of the entire world, for all of creation, for each and every one of us; that is to say, their salvation and our salvation are in their hearts bound together.

Virtually every monk of Mount Athos struggles to acquire this understanding, as do increasing numbers of Christians worldwide who have worked to recover what has been for the most part a lost -- one might even say a squandered -- tradition. These men and women act upon the knowledge that, as members of the Body of Christ, each of us is utterly responsible for every other member, and, as human persons, each is responsible for all.

For all of their apparent separation from "the world" and its madding crowd, these monastics are more attentive to its troubles than many of us who remain distractedly within it. While many of us live in heart-numbing isolation even in the midst of a teeming city, certain of these ascetics, in distant enclaves or in solitary caves, live in deliberate communion with each other, and with all of humankind. Unlike the great majority of us, they are actively laboring toward our common recovery from our long illness.

About the fruits of this compassion, Saint Isaak of Syria has written a great deal, including this:

"And what is a merciful heart? It is the heart's burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear of or to see any injury or the slight suffering of anything in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of truth, for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the lowest as a result of the great compassion which -- after the likeness of God -- is poured out beyond measure within his heart."

The consensus of scriptural witness and of the broader tradition agrees that by the fact of our humanity, we are all of us already dwelling in "the image of God"; the trick lies in our proceeding into His likeness, wedding our hearts to His all-compassionate heart.

Translated by John Sanidopou

The Theology of St Isaac the Syrian (by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev)

St Isaac of Nineveh (thanks to Fr Ambrose Young)

Posted: 28 Jan 2011 10:13 AM PST
St. Isaac the Syrian (Feast Day - January 28 and September 28)
In the Greek Orthodox calendar there is no official feast day of St. Isaac the Syrian. Traditionally, however, he has been celebrated on January 28th together with the other great Syriac father of the Church, St. Ephraim the Syrian. The Slavic Churches celebrate St. Isaac officially on January 28th.

Not too many years ago Elder Paisios (+1993) sought to change this fact due to his great veneration for St. Isaac. He commissioned a Service to be written in his honor and chose to celebrate his feast on September 28th. The Service was written by the eminent hymnographer Fr. Gerasimos Mikragiannanites (+ 2002). Today the feast of St. Isaac is celebrated on Mount Athos on September 28th.

Furthermore, the first church dedicated to St. Isaac was built on Mount Athos, in the cell of a monk of the brotherhood of Elder Paisios in Kapsala.

Elder Paisios, who would read the Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac beneath the icon of the Saint, would say of St. Isaac: "If anyone went to a psychiatric hospital and read to the patients Abba Isaac, all those who believed in God would get well, because they would recognize the deeper meaning of life."

He also said:

"First you must read the Gerontikon, Philotheos History, and Evergetinos. All these books are practical not theoretical. Their simple patristic spirit and holiness will help you remove secular logic from your mind. Next, you should read Abba Isaac, and this way you will not see him as a philosopher, but as a man illumined by God."

It should also be noted that before the establishment of September 28th as the feast of St. Isaac by Elder Paisios, when he heard rumors that scholars accused St. Isaac of being a Nestorian, he prayed about this situation. Through divine revelation it was revealed to him that in fact St. Isaac was Orthodox and he wrote in his Menaion for January 28th the following words after the description of the feast of St. Ephraim the Syrian: "...and Isaac the Great Hesychast and much unjustly accused."

Below is the text of the Service in honor of St. Isaac commissioned by Elder Paisios. It is distributed by the Kalyva of the Resurrection of Christ in Kapsala on Mount Athos, where lived Fr. Isaac of Lebanon, a spiritual child of Elder Paisios. His ascetical tradition is maintained by Fr. Euthymios and his brotherhood.

Thursday 27 January 2011

On the Psalmody of the Divine Office ( by Father Mark Daniel Kirby)

This post is published with permission from "Vultus Christi" Fr Mark Daniel Kirby is Prior of the diocesan monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA.

Father Mark

Last October I was invited to speak at the National Assembly of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious in Belleville, Illinois. My subject was: The Psalmody of the Divine Office, A Path to Holiness for the Apostolic Religious. Although I was addressing women religious, nearly all of what I said can also be applied to the faithful in other states of life. I'm happy to share my conference with the readers of Vultus Christi.

The Primary Service of Religious

Addressing a large assembly of men and women religious on 9 September 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said:

From the monastic tradition the Church has derived the obligation for all religious, and also for priests and deacons, to recite the Breviary. Here too, it is appropriate for men and women religious, priests and deacons - and naturally Bishops as well - to come before God in their daily "official" prayer with hymns and psalms, with thanksgiving and pure petition.
Dear brother priests and deacons, dear Brothers and Sisters in the consecrated life! I realize that discipline is needed, and sometimes great effort as well, in order to recite the Breviary faithfully; but through this Officium we also receive many riches: how many times, in doing so, have we seen our weariness and despondency melt away! When God is faithfully praised and worshipped, his blessings are unfailing. . . .
Your primary service to this world must therefore be your prayer and the celebration of the Divine Office. The interior disposition of each priest, and of each consecrated person, must be that of "putting nothing before the Divine Office." The beauty of this inner attitude will find expression in the beauty of the liturgy, so that wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth.

The Heiligenkreuz address to religious was the first time Pope Benedict XVI spoke so clearly of the place of the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, in the life and mission of all religious. In affirming that the primary service of religious to this world is their "prayer and the celebration of the Divine Office," the Holy Father placed the other essential elements of the consecrated life in a compelling and challenging perspective.

Citing a key phrase from the Rule of Saint Benedict, Pope Benedict XVI invited all religious to the interior disposition of "putting nothing before the Divine Office." The application of this principle to the reality of daily life in apostolic communities will, necessarily, oblige religious to review their daily round of prayer and work critically and effectively, so as to give priority to what the Holy Father calls the primary service of religious to the world.

Wherever religious rise to meet this challenge by embracing the Holy Father's vision of a consecrated life characterized, first of all, by the worthy celebration of the Hours, "weariness and despondency will melt away," and "a little bit of heaven will become present on earth."


In order to respond effectively to the liturgical vision of religious life articulated by Pope Benedict XVI, I will focus on the single most important element of the Divine Office in its various forms: the recitation of the Psalter. The Roman Liturgy of the Hours, reformed after the Second Vatican Council in view of the many demands made on the time and energy of the diocesan clergy and apostolic religious, distributes the entire Psalter over four weeks. Each Hour contains, nonetheless, an element of psalmody. The psalms belong, then, to the very substance of the Liturgy of the Hours.

The psalms, inspired by the Holy Spirit and entrusted to the Children of Israel in view of the day when Christ Himself and, after Him, His Bride, the Church, would pray them, are lyrical poems expressing every sentiment of the human heart, and directing those sentiments Godwards. The psalms are, at once, universal and personal. Rowland E. Prothero, writing over a hundred years ago, says:

The Psalms are a mirror in which each man sees the motions of his own soul. They express in exquisite words the kinship which every thoughtful heart craves to find with a supreme, unchanging, loving God, who will be to him a protector, guardian, and friend. They utter the ordinary experiences, the familiar thoughts of men; but they give to these a width of range, an intensity, a depth, and an elevation, which transcend the capacity of the most gifted.
An outsider, attending an Hour of the Divine Office in any one of your communities, will notice the preponderant place given to the recitation or chant of the psalms and the manner in which the psalmody is carried out. The traditional way of reciting or chanting the psalms, based on the fundamental principle of Hebrew poetry called parallelism, alternates verses of two or exceptionally three lines with an interval of silence at the heart of each verse. The Church has practiced this form of choral psalmody since the time of Pope Saint Gregory the Great (c. 540-604). Consider the following examples:

Blessed is the man who does not guide his steps by ill counsel, +
or linger where sinners walk, *
or, where scornful souls gather, sit down to rest;

the man whose heart is set on the law of the Lord, *
on that law, day and night, his thoughts still dwell.

He stands firm as a tree planted by running water, *
ready to yield its fruit when the season comes,

and never shedding its leaf; *
all that he does will prosper.

Reciting or Chanting the Psalms

The traditional Gregorian Psalm Tones, and the various simplified adaptations to the English text inspired by them, are faithful to the essential characteristics of the Hebrew parallelism reproduced in the Latin Psalters of the West. What are these characteristics? Each verse is formed of two clauses; an interval of silence follows the cadence at the end of the first clause and leads into the second clause, closing the verse with a final cadence.

The American editions of the Liturgy of the Hours, marketed by Catholic Book Publishing Corporation, and other editions derived from them, break with the Church's age-old liturgical tradition by not presenting the psalms and canticles in verses. This indefensible editorial decision reveals an egregious ignorance of what choral prayer requires, and has led to confusion in religious communities attempting to use these editions for their common prayer.
The midway interval of silence (normally indicated by an *) fosters contemplative prayer. It makes the rhythm of the psalmody restful and allows the meaning of the words to descend from the mind into the heart. Almost imperceptibly, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with ineffable groanings (Romans 8:26), one begins to experience while reciting the psalms, a quiet union with the Heart of Jesus, only-begotten Son of the Father and Eternal High Priest.

The most effective way of reciting or chanting the psalms requires that the text be apportioned verse by verse to two choirs, or to one united choir alternating with two or more cantors. One choir responds to the other with a gentle, rhythmic regularity, taking care to observe midway a notable silence, always of the same length. This silence is an integral part of choral psalmody. Great care must be taken lest it become abbreviated, irregular, or in any way treated as being somehow less important than the verbal element of choral prayer.

Singing on One Note: Recto Tono

In the Teresian Reform of Carmel, in various other reforms, among Institutes founded in the wake of the Council of Trent, and among apostolic Institutes founded in the 19th century, one finds the tradition of chanting the Divine Office on a single sustained note. This is often referred to as recto tono, meaning on a straight or unadorned tone. This practice must not be judged as somehow inexpressive, unnatural, or artificial because it is without melodic modulation. It is, rather, the most unadorned form of chant: chant reduced to its simplest expression. As such, it is eminently suited to the ordinary daily choral prayer of a community engaged in apostolic works. Executed well, the recto tono recitation of the Hours is restful, and pacifying. It can, in effect, foster a contemplative union with the Heart of Jesus that will bear fruit in every apostolic endeavor.

Until fifty years ago, it was not uncommon for Institutes of religious women to chant on a single note The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary or of one of the excellent pre-Conciliar vernacular adaptations of the Roman Breviary that were widespread before the Second Vatican Council. Where this was practiced with care, respecting the intervals of silence and embracing a moderate and serene rhythm of recitation, the choral Office became a daily immersion in the Word of God and an oasis of contemplation in the midst of activity.

Chanting the Evangelical Counsels

Choral psalmody resembles, at more than one level, the virtues corresponding to the three vows of religion: poverty, chastity, and obedience. It gives corporate expression to the evangelical counsels and, at the same time, impresses them, day after day, more vividly in the heart.

Poverty: the melodic formula draws upon very limited musical resources. Recto tono has but a single note. Modal psalm tones are limited to a certain number of closely related notes and combinations. By resolutely choosing to pray within the limitations of a certain tonal poverty, one enters sacramentally into "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who being rich, became poor, for our sakes; that through his poverty we might become rich" (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9).

Chastity: the psalmody of the Divine Office is chaste when it abstains from drawing attention to itself. In liturgical psalmody there is nothing that seeks to entertain, to charm, or to possess. One who surrenders to this form of prayer day after day assimilates its attributes. Choral psalmody fosters chastity; it is a school of purity of heart. Rightly does the psalmist pray: Eloquia Domini, eloquia casta, "The words of the Lord are chaste words" (Psalm 11:7).

Obedience: liturgical psalmody is obedient to the sacred text. It obeys the natural accents and verbal harmonics of the inspired Word of God, embracing it, espousing it, and remaining within the limits that it defines. The musical treatment of the psalmody is an ecclesial expression of Our Lady's response to the Archangel Gabriel in the mystery of the Annunciation: "Be it done unto me according to Thy Word" (Luke 1:38).

The psalmody of the Hours, executed in organic continuity with the Church's tradition of choral prayer, fosters the evangelical virtues in an almost imperceptible but entirely effective way. Just as one becomes what one contemplates, so too does one become what one sings. The psalmody of the Divine Office, held in honor by the Church for centuries, is a humble but strong support of the vowed life.

Simplicity and Abnegation

The musical profile of the traditional psalmody is disarmingly simple. One abstains from any subjective interpretation of the melodic formula or of the sentiments contained in the sacred text. One abstains likewise from giving expression to one's personal sentiments of piety, even when these are in harmony with those of the inspired psalmist. This requires detachment and self-abnegation.

The ascetical element involved in choral prayer makes it a school of life and of virtue. The abnegation demanded by the very nature of choral prayer fosters growth in charity, in humility, in courtesy, and in all the other virtues necessary to community life.

The restraint full of respect for the Word of God that marks choral psalmody, and the unadorned and austere beauty that carries it along, fosters within a religious community an atmosphere that draws the heart into a state of vigilant quietude and receptive silence.

Books for Choral Celebration of the Divine Office

In 1942, The Liturgical Press at Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota published The Short Breviary. A second edition appeared in 1954, and a third in 1962 . The Short Breviary was a treasury of authentic liturgical prayer, allowing active religious and layfolk to pray with the Church. Explanatory notes by Dom Pius Parsch (1884-1954), an Augustinian Canon of Klosterneuberg, presented each of the Hours in the context of the Mystery of Salvation, and cast the psalms in a Christological light. The typography and layout of The Short Breviary was conceived in view of choral celebration. The Short Breviary facilitated the choral chant of the Hours by presenting the psalmody in verses of two or exceptionally three lines, marked by a dagger to indicate the flex, and by an asterisk to indicate the mediant. Although the success of The Short Breviary was eclipsed after the Second Vatican Council by the first editions of the reformed Divine Office, it set a standard in Catholic liturgical publishing in the United States that post-Conciliar editions never attained.

In 1974, when Catholic Book Publishing began marketing the first American edition of The Liturgy of the Hours, prepared by ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy), it was evident that no attempt had been made to prepare volumes suitable for choral celebration by religious communities. The complete edition, as well as Christian Prayer, an abbreviated edition of the reformed Office, were obviously designed and produced to meet the needs of the diocesan clergy and of isolated individuals devoted to reading the Breviary. In contrast, The Divine Office, produced by the Episcopal Conferences of Australia, England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland, and first published by HarperCollins in 1974, was designed with an eye to its use in choral recitation by religious communities.

In 2007, rendering an invaluable service to the English-speaking Church, and to religious communities in particular, The Liturgical Institute at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, produced The Mundelein Psalter, with chant melodies by Father Samuel Weber, O.S.B. Father Weber's psalm tones are entirely faithful to the tonal color of each of the traditional Gregorian modes. Moreover, they espouse the natural accents of the English text in such a way as to render the psalmody intelligent, regular, and peaceful.

Apart from presenting the psalms and canticles in verses suitable for choral recitation, The Mundelein Psalter also offers, in English translation with suitable melodies, the treasury of the official hymns of the Liturgia Horarum. The hymns of the Liturgia Horarum, rich in biblically-inspired poetry, in sacramental imagery, and in patristic theology are a goldmine of authentic Catholic piety.

For those communities eager to enter more fully into the Church's tradition of choral prayer in Gregorian Chant and in Latin, it is now possible (thirty years after the publication of the Liturgia Horarum) to sing Vespers on Sundays and feasts from a single volume containing in full all the elements necessary to do so. With the publication of the Antiphonale Romanum II, the Abbey of Solesmes has made it possible for religious communities (as well as cathedral and parish churches) to sing the Church's evening sacrifice of praise, according to the Liturgy of the Hours, from a book designed to facilitate "plainsong for plain folk."

A Space for Choral Celebration of the Divine Office

The Divine Office is best celebrated in a sacred spaced designed for that purpose. If one considers Pope Benedict XVI's injunction that the primary service of religious to this world must be their prayer and the celebration of the Divine Office, it is reasonable to expect that convent chapels and oratories be arranged in function of this primary service. The traditional arrangement of ranks of choir stalls (or similar seating) facing inward across a central aisle facilitates choral prayer with the corresponding liturgical postures and gestures, while allowing for prayer ad orientem, or facing the altar, at Holy Mass and in times of personal devotion.

Until the Second Vatican Council, many apostolic Institutes bound to the choral recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary benefited from having choir chapels constructed in view of this particular form of prayer. The Venerable Mother Mary Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in 1831, gave an outstanding example of attention to the architecture and dispositions of space that choral prayer requires. Engaging professional ecclesiastical architects, such as A.W. and E. W. Pugin, Mother McAuley and the women formed by her took a lively interest in providing one Convent of Mercy after another in Ireland and England with chapels of remarkable architectural quality, each one having a choir constructed at a right angle to the sanctuary, precisely in order to facilitate a dignified and worthy recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Mother McAuley appears to have been keenly sensitive to the aesthetic requirements of community prayer. In addition to building chapels of significant architectural merit, she provided her Sisters with a festive white cloak (patterned after that of the Carmelite Fathers in Dublin) to be worn over their workaday black habits on occasions of greater solemnity. Sacred architecture and sacred vesture are two expressions of the sacramental participation in the Divine Beauty that, in harmony with the liturgy of the Church, should characterize the corporate prayer of apostolic religious.
It would be opportune then, today, before undertaking the construction, renovation, or restoration of convent chapels, to consider that their design ought to facilitate the choral celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours as a primary, indispensable, and constitutive element of Catholic liturgical piety and of the consecrated life.

Through Psalmody to the Trinity

Having briefly considered the material supports of choral prayer--the necessary liturgical books and a suitable sacred space or choir--I should like to return to the core of my thesis: that the psalmody of the Divine Office is a path to holiness for the apostolic religious. The Fathers of the Church have reflected on why and how psalmody engenders interior dispositions favorable to contemplative prayer.

A community engaged in choral prayer is an image of the Mystical Body as defined by Saint Augustine: "one Christ loving Himself." One-half of the choir offers its verse, not only to God through Christ, but also offers the bread of the Word to those of Christ's members who form the other half of the choir. In choral psalmody, the daily bread of the Word is continuously offered and received as it passes from choir to choir, providing believers with a compelling image of one Christ feeding Himself and, by means of that food, uniting His members among themselves, and to Himself, the Head of His Mystical Body. This Eucharistic dimension of the Divine Office is, in its own way, a means of communion with the ceaseless prayer that Christ, Eternal High Priest, offers to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

Saint Ambrose

Saint Ambrose of Milan, rather unexpectedly, in his meditation on the six days of creation, refers to alternation of two choirs when, in a poetic vein, he compares the beauty and the beneficial effect of psalmody to the creation of the sea:

How beautiful and mighty is the sea when the tempest raises her waves. Even more beautiful is she when nothing apart from a light breeze moves over the surface of the waters and her waves break upon the shore with a sound that is gentle, regular, and harmonious, a sound that does not trouble the silence but is happy, rather, to give it rhythm and to render it audible.
Saint Ambrose, in effect, describes the ideal of liturgical psalmody: a sound that does not trouble the silence but rather gives it rhythm and renders it audible. He goes on to say:

What else is that melodic sound of the waves if not the melody of the people . . . as the whole people unite in prayer, there is a whisper of receding waves; the echo of the psalms when sung in responsive harmony by men and women, maidens and children is like the sound of breaking waves. Wherefore, what need I say of this water other than it washes away sin and that the salutary breath of the Holy Spirit is found in it?
By comparing liturgical psalmody to a peaceful breaking of waves upon the shore, Saint Ambrose suggests that each wave receives movement from the other and renders movement in return, sustaining all the while a continual rising and receding that remains ineffably tranquil.

Tranquility of Order

The discipline of liturgical psalmody participates in the wise ordering of things that produces the peace. Saint Thomas Aquinas calls this peace tranquillitas ordinis, "a tranquility of order." Tranquillitas ordinis, psalmody's most necessary quality, fosters profound recollection, and so disposes the soul to an unimpeded operation of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in contemplative prayer.

When the psalmody of the Divine Office is executed with a gentle discipline and a joyful élan, it generates a healing experience of the tranquility of order. A guest listening to the psalmody of the Divine Office in my own monastery related to me later that he had the impression of being seated on the seashore, watching the waves cast themselves one after the other on the sand of the beach to carry far away all it's impurities and waste. In the end, he said, nothing more remained apart from the sand made clean.

Psalmody, acting upon the soul in a way not unlike the humble prayer of Our Lady's Psalter, the Rosary, cleanses the soul of the accumulated residue of impurity and decay that impedes the free circulation of grace and prevents it from becoming "a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting" (John 4:14). It is not uncommon that after an otherwise ordinary celebration of the Office, one finds oneself more peaceful, inwardly more joyous, and more disposed to return with a generous heart to the works of the apostolate. The supernatural value of such choral prayer for religious engaged in demanding professional and apostolic works is, I think, evident. It pertains to the very soul of the apostolate.

Saint Basil

In his Exegetic Homilies, Saint Basil the Great profits from his exposition of Psalm 1 to set forth the benefit of all psalmody. Describing the Sacred Scriptures as a general hospital for souls, he demonstrates the outstanding curative and therapeutic effects that are proper to the Psalter.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful, composed by the Spirit for this reason, namely, that we men, each and all of us, as if in a general hospital for souls, may select the remedy for his own condition. For, it says, "care will make the greatest sin to cease." Now, the prophets teach one thing, historians another, the law something else, and the form of advice found in the proverbs something different still. But, the Book of Psalms has taken over what is profitable from all. It foretells coming events; it recalls history; it frames laws for life; it suggests what must be done; and, in general, it is the common treasury of good doctrine, carefully finding what is suitable for each one.
The old wounds of souls it cures completely, and to the recently wounded it brings speedy improvement; the diseased it treats, and the unharmed it preserves. On the whole, it effaces, as far as is possible, the passions, which subtly exercise dominion over souls during the lifetime of man, and it does this with a certain orderly persuasion and sweetness which produces sound thoughts.
Saint Basil emphasizes the medicinal and formative properties of psalmody. It is clear from the following passage that the psalmody of the Divine Office is an integral and indispensable element in the initial formation to the vowed life and at every subsequent stage of it.

When, indeed, the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey. Therefore, He devised for us these harmonious melodies of the psalms, that they who are children in age or, even those who are youthful in disposition might to all appearances chant but, in reality, become trained in soul.
The psalmody of the Divine Office prepares the soul for union with God by purifying the emotions, by ordering the passions rightly, and by fostering charity, apart from which there is no authentic contemplation. Psalmody accompanies the soul through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive phases of the interior life. At no moment in one's spiritual journey does it become superfluous or redundant.

A psalm implies serenity of soul; it is the author of peace, which calms bewildering and seething thoughts. For, it softens the wrath of the soul, and what is unbridled it chastens. A psalm forms friendships, unites those separated, conciliates those at enmity. Who, indeed, can still consider as an enemy him with whom he has uttered the same prayer to God? So that psalmody, bringing about choral singing, a bond, as it were, toward unity, and joining the people into a harmonious union of one choir, produces also the greatest of blessings, charity.
Here, Saint Basil adopts a lyrical style worthy of the psalms themselves. His teaching makes clear the value of choral psalmody not only in the context of an enclosed monastic life, but also in the context of apostolic religious life in all its expressions.

A psalm is a city of refuge from the demons; a means of inducing help from the angels, a weapon in fears by night, a rest from toils by day, a safeguard for infants, an adornment for those at the height of their vigor, a consolation for the elders, a most fitting ornament for women. It peoples the solitudes; it rids the market place of excesses; it is the elementary exposition of beginners, the improvement of those advancing, the solid support of the perfect, the voice of the Church. It brightens the feast days; it creates a godly sorrow. For, a psalm calls forth a tear even from a heart of stone.
Finally, Saint Basil presents psalmody as a school of the moral virtues: courage, justice, self-control, prudence, penance, and patience. The Psalter is, for the great legislator of the common life a perfect, that is to say, a complete theology.

A psalm is the work of angels, a heavenly institution, the spiritual incense. . . . What, in fact, can you not learn from the psalms? Can you not learn the grandeur of courage? The exactness of justice? The nobility of self-control? The perfection of prudence? A manner of penance? The measure of patience? And whatever other good things you might mention? Therein is perfect theology, a prediction of the coming of Christ in the flesh, a threat of judgment, a hope of resurrection, a fear of punishment, promises of glory, an unveiling of mysteries; all things, as if in some great public treasury, are stored up in the Book of Psalms.
Choral Psalmody: A Test and a School of Charity

The discipline of choral prayer in religious communities is not merely to produce an aesthetically pleasing sound. It is a means to contemplative prayer, a means tested and tried by tradition, towards attaining unity with oneself, unity with others in community, and unity with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Before the grace of unity becomes audible in a community's choral prayer, there must necessarily be an individual and corporate assent to the silence that makes listening possible. A community in which there is no silence is a community in which there is no listening to God, to one another, or to oneself.

Choral psalmody reveals what is going on below the surface in a community. One hears the sound of struggles, rivalries, lack of reconciliation, and want of recollection. When a single voice expresses hostility--either by singing or by not singing--one experiences a kind of acoustical pollution in the choir. Dissonance in choral prayer sounds a call to repentance.

Choral Psalmody and the Apostolic Mission

Psalmody has more to do with listening than with producing sound. If one inclines the ear of the heart to the Word of God, even while it is on one's lips, one begins to experience what Saint Bernard, in a sermon on the Song of Songs, called "visitations of the Word." The presence of the Divine Bridegroom becomes almost perceptible in the manner of chanting and in a certain presence of the voice, the condition for which is a presence of the whole body, for the voice is the clearest sign of the body made present to the presence of God, especially the body of the woman consecrated to Christ in and by the Church.

The voice must articulate the sacred words with care and with reverence. The mission of the voice is to prepare, in a kind of renewal of the mystery of the incarnation, an acoustical body for the Divine Word. The Word thus chanted and heard is the springboard of every ecclesial mission, and the guarantee of any Institute's apostolic fecundity.

An apostolic community resolutely engaged in choral prayer will begin to experience its effect in their apostolic works and professional services. Teaching Sisters, for example, effectively prepare a path for souls into the presence of God by their fidelity to choral prayer. The seeds of more than one religious vocation were planted when a student happened by chance to hear the Sisters who were her teachers in the classroom, spending themselves for her, in another way, in the celebration of the Divine Office.

Similarly , the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Carmelites of the Divine Heart of Jesus, the Hawthorne Dominicans, and so many other religious dedicated to the care of the elderly and the sick will find that the celebration of the Divine Office, surrounding the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and echoing it throughout the day, has a profound effect on residents and patients, even if they do not participate actively in the Hours. I was privileged, some years ago, to visit a nursing community in France where any patient in their hospital can listen to the chant of the Divine Office from his bed. The number of conversions to Christ brought about simply because a patient lying in bed "tuned in" to the Divine Office being chanted in the chapel is impressive.


In conclusion, addressing those of you who are already committed to the choral celebration of the Divine Office, and those of you who are moving towards the renewal of your community prayer by a fresh commitment to the Divine Office, I would reaffirm three principles:

1. The choral celebration of the Divine Office is for all apostolic religious a path to contemplative prayer .

2. The choral celebration of the Divine Office is, according to the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, your primary service to the world.

3. The choral celebration of the Divine Office assures the supernatural fruitfulness of your apostolic works.


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