"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

Wednesday 30 October 2013


In preparation for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, I am going to give my readers a number of posts from different sources on the Blessed Virgin Mary, not to hide where we differ, but to celebrate our common faith, and to try to put our differences in perspective. This is the first, and very beautiful it is too. - Fr David

The Holy Tradition and the Veneration of Mary and other Saints in the Orthodox Church
by Very Reverend John Morris

One of the first things that one notices when visiting an Orthodox Church or the home of an Orthodox Christian is the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Everywhere that one looks, one sees icons of the Blessed Virgin. Her icons are on the iconostasis, ceiling and walls of the Church and in the homes of the faithful. Orthodox Christians frequently mention her name in hymns and prayers and request her intercession at every important moment of their lives. The Orthodox devotion to the Theotokos is not merely a matter of popular piety. It is also an expression of the central teaching of the Orthodox Church, the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ.

Significantly, the Orthodox Church has transmitted its teaching concerning Mary through devotional and liturgical texts rather than through theological essays or dogmatic declarations. This shows how Eastern Orthodox Christians preserve and transmit their deepest-held beliefs. Fr. John Meyendorff wrote:

Through the liturgy, a Byzantine recognized and experienced his membership in the Body of Christ. While a Western Christian generally checked his faith against eternal authority (the magisterium or the Bible), the Byzantine Christian considered the liturgy both a source and an expression of his theology … The liturgy maintained the Church’s identity and continuity in the midst of a changing world.

Although Eastern Orthodox Christians hold the Holy Scriptures in very high regard and consider them divinely inspired, they look beyond the sacred texts to the totality of the life of the Church as expressed in the Holy Tradition of the Church. The words used during prayer and worship are a very important and also very personal manifestation of this Holy Tradition. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “In early times the Church knew full well that the lex credendi (rule of faith) and the lex orandi (rule of prayer) were inseparable and that they mutually substantiated each other — that, in the words of St. Irenaeus, ‘our teaching is in harmony with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our teaching.’” Orthodox theologians do not draw a sharp distinction between Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition or between written and unwritten Tradition. Instead, they consider the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and those expressed by the prayers of the Church, the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, and the consensus of ancient and modern theologians as manifestations of the same Holy Tradition. Orthodox Christians believe that, throughout the centuries, the Holy Spirit has led the Church to preserve the teachings of Christ and His Apostles through the life of the Church. St. Basil the Great wrote:

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching, others we have received delivered to us ‘in a mystery’ by the traditions of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.

The role of liturgy in transmitting teachings concerning Mary illustrates a very important aspect of the Orthodox understanding of the Church. Orthodox Christians believe that the Church is first and foremost a Eucharistic or worshipping assembly. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “The Eucharist, we repeat, is not ‘one of the sacraments’ or one of the services, but the very manifestation and fulfillment of the Church in all her power, sanctity and fullness.” Thus, from an Orthodox point of view, liturgy and worship are not just one expression of the life of the Church to Orthodox. They are the very essence of the Church. To Orthodox Christians, everything flows from the Eucharist and the worship of the Church. Even charitable and social works are a means to manifest to the world the presence of Christ that the faithful experience during the Divine Liturgy.

The place of liturgical texts in expressing the teachings of the Church concerning the Theotokos, illustrates the Eastern Orthodox approach to theology. Liturgical texts referring to the Theotokos are poetic manifestations of devotion to Mary, rather than rational treatises on the Blessed Virgin. They are an expression of the heart rather than the mind, because Orthodox Christians believe that human reason cannot comprehend or understand the mysteries of God. Indeed, Orthodox Christians believe that all true theology must come from the mystical experience of God through prayer and worship, rather than through the intellectual contemplation of God with the mind.

The first and fundamental meaning of Mary for the Church is the relationship between veneration of the Theotokos and Orthodox doctrine. For Orthodox Christians, there can be no Church without Orthodox doctrine. In 1672, the Synod of Jerusalem decreed, “We believe to be members of the Catholic Church all the Faithful, and only the Faithful, who, forsooth, having received the blameless Faith of the Saviour Christ from Christ Himself, and the Apostles, and the Holy Ecumenical Synods, adhere to the same without wavering …” The Church is not a society of thinkers and philosophers, but is the Body of Christ dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel to the world. The Church is not dedicated to finding new knowledge about God, but instead is dedicated to preserving and transmitting the knowledge of God given to us by Christ and the Apostles. St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote, “For where the Church is, there is the spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth.”

The veneration of Mary plays a major role in the preservation of Orthodox doctrine, because the honor paid to her is an expression of the Christology or doctrine concerning Christ of the Church. Mary’s most important title is “Theotokos,” which means “God Bearer,” or “Birthgiver of God.” This term, endorsed by the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus in 431, expresses the belief that the son of the Virgin was God from the very moment of his conception. This eliminates such false teachings as Adoptionism, which held that Christ was a good man adopted by God to be his son, and Nestorianism, which came close to teaching that Christ was only an inspired man. As St. John of Damascus wrote, “ … she is truly Mother of God who gave birth to the true God who took flesh from her … For the holy Virgin did not give birth to a mere man, but to true God and, not to God simply, but to God made flesh.”

Of all doctrines, the Incarnation is central for Orthodox Christians. As Vladimir Lossky has written, “Eastern theology never thinks of the Church apart from Christ and from the Holy Spirit.” As the Holy Scriptures teach, “Christ is the head of the Church.” The Church is the Body of Christ. Thus, in order to understand what the Church is, one must understand who Christ is. Related to the doctrine of the incarnation is the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, which is not merely belief in the power of God to work wonders. The Orthodox Church believes in the sovereignty of God over creation. Thus, God is not bound by human understandings of the workings of creation, but, “Whensoever God willeth, the order of nature is overcome …” However, the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ has a much deeper meaning as a proclamation that “ … the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” Jesus Christ is really the Son of God, not a divinely inspired man accepted by God because of his own righteousness. Through the virgin birth, God really became human, not just metaphorically or symbolically, but actually. In Christ, God became physical, as humans are physical. This is important because Orthodox believe, as St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote, “that which is not assumed is not healed.” From Mary, God assumed all that is human, to perfect that which is human and to unite humanity to Himself. On the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, September 8, Orthodox Christians proclaim that, through the incarnation, “ … the creation of us earthly beings was renewed, and we ourselves were renewed from corruption to life immortal.” In another hymn sung during Saturday evening Vespers in Tone Six, Orthodox Christians honor Mary with the words, “For the only Son rising timelessly from the Father, himself did come incarnate from thee in an inexplicable way. He, who while God by nature, became for our sakes Man by nature, not divided into two persons, but known by two natures without mixture or confusions.” Another hymn to Mary proclaims, “Thou art the preaching of the Prophets, O virgin Theotokos, the glory of the Apostles and pride of the Martyrs, the renewal of the whole race of earthly ones. For through thee we are reconciled to God.”

The Orthodox Church celebrates the two natures of Christ, the human nature received from the Blessed Virgin and the divine nature begotten by the Father, as expressed by the Church in the Council of Chalcedon through many of its hymns to the Blessed Virgin. For example, a hymn from Saturday evening Vespers in Tone Eight contains a very articulate expression of the teaching of Chalcedon and the fathers on the incarnation and the two natures of Christ:

Verily, the King of heaven, for his love to mankind did appear on earth; and with men did he deal; for he took unto himself a body from the pure Virgin. And from her did he issue in the adopted body, he being one Son, dual in Nature, not dual in Person. Wherefore, do we confess, preaching the truth that Christ our God is perfect God and perfect Man. Therefore, O Mother who hast no groom, beseech thou him to have mercy upon our souls.”

The doctrine of the two natures of Christ is relative to a discussion of the Church because, like Christ, the Church has two natures, the human and the divine. Thus, the Church, which is a divine institution, is also made up of sinful men and women. For this reason, Orthodox Christians believe that the Church itself is perfect and without sin, although some of its members are still in the process of being healed of sin. Thus, although the Church cannot sin, the people in the Church, including its leaders, can fall into sin.

The doctrine of the Incarnation, which is expressed in Orthodox devotion to the Theotokos, is also relevant to Sacramental theology. The Church teaches that God became flesh to save those who are flesh and to sanctify the material universe. Thus God uses physical things such as water, bread and wine, and oil to convey His divine grace through the Mysteries of the Church. At the same time, by becoming physical, Christ has sanctified the physical world. Thus, at the Feast of Epiphany, Orthodox proclaim, “Today the whole creation is lighted from on high.” This means that a true Christian must care for God’s creation and seek to protect it from being destroyed by human pollution.

When the Archangel Gabriel spoke to her, the Blessed Virgin could have refused God’s request to bear His Son. Her positive response to the Archangel Gabriel plays an important part in salvation. As St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote, Mary is the second Eve, whose obedience liberates humanity from the consequences of the disobedience of the first Eve. For this reason, on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, Orthodox Christians sing, “ … the Mother of Life, who is the renewal of the creation of Adam and the recall of Eve, the fountain of incorruption, the liberation from corruption, through whom we have been deified and delivered from death, is born of the seed of David, dispersing darkness.” Mary could have refused to bear Christ, but she chose to obey God.

Mary’s obedience is an example of synergy, or cooperation, with God. For that reason Orthodox Christians sin, “For through her hath salvation come to the whole human race.” The concept of synergy is essential to the Orthodox understanding of salvation. As understood by Orthodox Christians, synergy is the exercise of our free will to accept God’s gift of grace. It is not the idea that human merit is required or applicable for salvation. The Orthodox doctrine of synergy is also a manifestation of the two natures of Christ, human and divine. God has accomplished salvation through Christ, reflecting the divine aspect of salvation, but the individual believer must respond positively to God’s offer of the gift of salvation, showing the human aspect of salvation. Orthodox believe that St. Paul expressed this concept of human and divine cooperation for salvation with the words, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Thus, Orthodox believe that, despite the curse of sin, humans still possess a free will and can respond positively to God’s invitation to receive His divine grace. Orthodox believe as St. John Cassian wrote:

These two things — that is, the grace of God and free will — certainly seem mutually opposed to one another, but both are in accord, and we understand that we must accept both in like manner by reason of our religion, lest by removing one of them from the human being we seem to contravene the rule of the Church’s faith. For when God sees us turning in order to will what is good, he comes to us, directs us, and strengthens us, for as soon as he hears the voice of our cry, he will respond to you.

The Orthodox Church calls Mary “immaculate,” and “all pure,” as a manifestation of the Orthodox understanding of salvation as deification. Orthodox Christians believe that through the grace of God Mary has been deified or made by grace what God is by nature or, as St. Paul wrote, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another …” Vladimir Lossky wrote, “ … the very heart of the Church, one of her most secret mysteries, her mystical center, her perfection already realized in a human person fully united to God, finding herself beyond the resurrection and the judgment. This person is Mary, the Mother of God.” Thus salvation for Orthodox theology is more than the forgiveness of sins or justification, but is also the transformation of the believer by the grace of God to become a partaker of the Divine Nature. Orthodox Christians see the realization of salvation in the deification of Mary.

However, Orthodox Christians do not accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. On the contrary, Orthodox believe that the Blessed Virgin was born in ancestral sin just like any other person. This is important because if Mary had not been born in ancestral sin, God could not have assumed sinful human nature from her. As St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed.” If God had not assumed sinful human nature from the Blessed Virgin, He could not have saved sinful human nature through the Incarnation of Christ. Indeed, a prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary from the service of Compline contains the beautiful words, “thy glorious birth-giving has united God the Word to man and joined the fallen nature of our race to heavenly things.”

Although Orthodox theologians do not dogmatize the Assumption of the Virgin, the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of her falling asleep and translation to Heaven on August 15. Once again, this is a reflection of the Gospel by telling the faithful that they, like Mary, may share in the victory of Christ over death. Thus, through Christ, the Blessed Virgin has become “more honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,” for she has been deified and has inherited a place in the Kingdom of God.

Finally, the devotion of Mary is an expression of meaning of the word “Church.” In the original Greek, the word “Church,” or “ecclesia,” literally means a gathering or assembly. Alexander Schmemann wrote that properly an Orthodox Church building (temple) “is experienced perceived as sobor, as the gathering together of heaven and earth and all creation in Christ — which constitutes the essence and purpose of the Church itself.” To Orthodox Christians, the Church is not just an assembly of humans, but is a participation in the worship of the Saints and angels before the throne of God. That is why there are so many references to the angelic hosts during the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Again, Alexander Schmemann wrote, “The Eucharist is always a going out from ‘this world’ and an ascent to heaven …” Thus, Orthodox Christians believe that through the Liturgy, the faithful mystically ascend to heaven and join the company of the faithful departed before God. This assembly of the entire company of heaven before the throne of God through the Eucharist creates a relationship between the living and the departed in Christ. This is manifested by the prayers of the living for intercession of Mary and the Saints, who are mystically present in the lives of the faithful through the mystery of the Church. This mystery transcends the boundaries between heaven and earth and unites those on earth with those in heaven.

Therefore, Orthodox devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is not merely an expression of popular piety. It is much more. Orthodox veneration of Mary is a manifestation of the most essential doctrines of the Orthodox Faith. The prominent place played by Mary in Orthodoxy also shows the importance of worship as the essence of the Church and the chief means whereby the Church transmits and preserves the Gospel for future generations. The deification of Mary shows that the promises of Christ are real, for, through Christ, those who follow Him will share the experience of God’s deifying grace that is manifested by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Finally, the familiar way in which Orthodox Christians ask Mary and the other Saints for their intercessions, illustrates the very meaning of “Church,” which is an assembly of the faithful, those on earth and those in heaven, with the angels before the throne of God.

Courtesy of the
June 2007 issue of The Word magazine.

Tuesday 29 October 2013


He was the one who imported from Germany to Argentina the devotion to the Blessed Mother
” To his studies he preferred the care of souls. And today he is doing the same: he is leaving to others the exposition of doctrine. As in the case of communion for the divorced and remarried.

   by Sandro Magister

ROME, October 29, 2013 – Since he was elected pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio  has been constantly under the gaze of the world, which is scrutinizing his every action and word.

But his previous biography is yet to be as well known.

The book by Nello Scavo "La lista di Bergoglio" has lifted the veil on the role of the young Jesuit during the Dirty War of the military dictatorship:

> The Jesuit Who Humiliated the Generals

But still little is known about the six years during which Bergoglio was superior of the Argentine province of the Society of Jesus, between 1973 and 1979, and about the real motivations that led to his subsequent marginalization, until his exile in the peripheral Jesuit residence of Córdoba,  as a simple spiritual director.

It was in one of those difficult years that Bergoglio went to Germany "to finish his doctoral thesis,” as his official biography on the Vatican website succinctly puts it.

It was March of 1986. Bergoglio would be turning 50 in December.  For the subject of his doctoral thesis he had chosen Romano Guardini,  the great German theologian who was a master for two future popes, Paul VI and Benedict XVI, two of whose books Bergoglio had read and admired above all: "The Lord," on the person of Jesus, and "Der Gegensatz," published in Spanish with the title "Contrasteidad," highly critical of the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic.

But from how his transfer to Germany took place and how it was interrupted after only a few months, with the abandonment of the doctoral thesis, it can be deduced that Bergoglio undertook that voyage more at the orders of his Jesuit superiors than out of his own spontaneous will.

In his autobiographical interview "El Jesuita," Bergoglio would later recount that in Germany, every time he saw an airplane take off, he dreamed that he was on board, going to Argentina. Such was his desire to return to his country.

The archives of Romano Guardini were in Munich, while the theological faculty at which Bergoglio would defend his doctoral thesis was the Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt.

But he did not limit himself to shuttling between these two cities. From Munich one also can go quickly by train to Augsburg.

And it was there that his German transfer radically changed in character.


In Augsburg, in the church of the Jesuits, dedicated to Saint Peter, there is a venerated Marian image: the Blessed Mother "untier of knots."

In it Mary is depicted untying the knots of a ribbon held out to her by an angel, which another angel is receiving from her with no more knots. The meaning is clear. The knots are all that complicates life, difficulties, sins. And Mary is the one who helps to untie them.

Bergoglio was deeply struck by this Marian image. When he returned to Argentina a few months later, he brought with him a good number of prayer cards with the Blessed Mother "untier of knots."

His doctoral thesis was abandoned at its birth, and even the thought of Romano Guardini did not leave a lasting imprint upon Bergoglio. In the interview with Pope Francis in "La Civiltà Cattolica," in which he dedicates ample space to his authors of reference, Guardini is not there. Nor is he cited in his other writings and discourses.

But in exchange, thanks to his stay in Germany in 1986, Bergoglio unknowingly brought a new Marian devotion to birth in Argentina.

An artist to whom he had given one of the prayer cards acquired in Augsburg reproduced the image and offered it to a parish of the working-class Barrio de Agronomía, in the center of Buenos Aires.

On display in the church, the image of Mary "desatanudos" attracted a growing number of devotees, converted sinners, and marked an unexpected growth of religious practice. To such an extent that after a few years there was a well-established tradition of a pilgrimage to the image, from all over Buenos Aires and from even farther away, on the 8th day of every month.

"I never felt myself so much an instrument in the hands of God," Bergoglio confided to a Jesuit confrere who was his disciple, Fr. Fernando Albistur, now a professor of biblical studies at the Colegio Máximo di San Miguel in Buenos Aires.

Fr. Albistur recounts this in a newly released book edited by Alejandro Bermúdez, with interviews with ten Jesuits and ten Argentine laymen who are longtime friends of Bergoglio.

And he is not the only one. In the same book, Fr. Juan Carlo Scannone, the most authoritative of the Argentine theologians and a former professor of the young Jesuit Bergoglio, also relates the same episode.

In Scannone's judgment, the instance of the Blessed Mother "untier of knots" helps us to understand more deeply the "pastoral" profile of Pope Francis and his accentuated attention to the "people."


Bergoglio has never been a theologian, much less an academic. Among the theologians he says that he likes Henri De Lubac and Michel de Certeau. But not because he has assimilated the overall positions of the two, which moreover are very different. He almost always cites only one of De Lubac's books, "Meditations on the Church," and almost always only one passage from this: that against the "worldliness" of the Church.

Also as pope he is above all a man of action, of pastoral action. Those who have known him up close and have been friends with him for years - like the twenty interviewed for the book by Alejandro Bermúdez - see in him exceptional qualities of command and noteworthy strategical abilities. None of his actions, none of his words, is ever left to chance. And his priority is the pastoral care of the "people" entrusted to him, who since he has become pope have been extended to the whole world.

His preaching is intentionally suited to this profile. It is primarily addressed to the common people, to the weak in faith, to the sinners, to the faraway. Not as a whole, but as if the pope would like to speak one-on-one with each of them.

Just as in the Gospel Jesus is very demanding in the commandments but turns to individual sinners with mercy, so also Pope Francis wants to be.

On disputed questions, on birth, on death, on procreation, he is of undisputed doctrinal orthodoxy: "The view of the Church is known and I am a son of the Church," he bluntly stated in the interview with "La Civiltà Cattolica."

But he leaves the exposition of doctrine to others, and reserves for himself the merciful style of the care of souls.

The most striking example of this joint action came a few days ago, when on the disputed question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics Pope Francis set to work the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, Gerhard Ludwig Müller. Who in an extensive article in "L'Osservatore Romano" reiterated from top to tail the reasons for the 'no' to communion:

> Divorced and Remarried. Müller Writes, Francis Dictates

Archbishop Müller is one of the few heads of the curia whom Francis has confirmed in his role. A man, therefore, who has his complete trust. To whom he has not hesitated to entrust also the task - in the same article - of dispelling the interpretive ambiguities born from some of the formulations concerning "mercy" and "conscience" used by the pope himself in his public conversation.

The inauguration of this twofold communicative register - in this case, of the pope and of his guardian of doctrine - almost entirely escaped the notice of the media, still dazzled by the presumed "openness" of the former. But it is likely to be repeated with other issues.

And perhaps it will permit the untying of an interpretive knot of the current pontificate: that of the apparent distancing of pope Bergoglio from his predecessors in confronting the "anthropological challenge."

Pope Francis explicitly referred to the Blessed Mother "untier of knots" in the first part of the meditation he gave on October 12 in Saint Peter's Square, on the Marian day of the year of faith, in the presence of an even more famous Marian image, that of Fatima:



Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This event of the Year of Faith is devoted to Mary, the Mother of Christ and the Mother of the Church, our Mother. The statue of Our Lady which has come from Fatima helps us to feel her presence in our midst. It is a fact: Mary always brings us to Jesus. She is a woman of faith, a true believer. But we can ask: What was Mary’s faith like?

1. The first aspect of her faith is this: Mary’s faith unties the knot of sin (cf. Lumen Gentium, 56). What does that mean? The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council took up a phrase of Saint Irenaeus, who states that “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by the obedience of Mary; what the virgin Eve bound by her unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith” (Adversus Haereses, III, 22, 4).

The “knot” of disobedience, the “knot” of unbelief. When children disobey their parents, we can say that a little “knot” is created. This happens if the child acts with an awareness of what he or she is doing, especially if there is a lie involved. At that moment, they break trust with their parents. You know how frequently this happens! Then the relationship with their parents needs to be purified of this fault; the child has to ask forgiveness so that harmony and trust can be restored. Something of the same sort happens in our relationship with God. When we do not listen to him, when we do not follow his will, we do concrete things that demonstrate our lack of trust in him – for that is what sin is – and a kind of knot is created deep within us. These knots take away our peace and serenity. They are dangerous, since many knots can form a tangle which gets more and more painful and difficult to undo.

But we know one thing: nothing is impossible for God’s mercy! Even the most tangled knots are loosened by his grace. And Mary, whose “yes” opened the door for God to undo the knot of the ancient disobedience, is the Mother who patiently and lovingly brings us to God, so that he can untangle the knots of our soul by his fatherly mercy. We all have some of these knots and we can ask in our heart of hearts: What are the knots in my life? “Father, my knots cannot be undone!” It is a mistake to say anything of the sort! All the knots of our heart, every knot of our conscience, can be undone. Do I ask Mary to help me trust in God’s mercy, to undo those knots, to change? She, as a woman of faith, will surely tell you: “Get up, go to the Lord: he understands you”. And she leads us by the hand as a Mother, our Mother, to the embrace of our Father, the Father of mercies.

2. A second aspect is that Mary’s faith gave human flesh to Jesus. As the Council says: “Through her faith and obedience, she gave birth on earth to the very Son of the Father, without knowing man but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit” (Lumen Gentium, 63). This was a point on which the Fathers of the Church greatly insisted: Mary first conceived Jesus in faith and then in the flesh, when she said “yes” to the message God gave her through the angel. What does this mean? It means that God did not want to become man by bypassing our freedom; he wanted to pass through Mary’s free assent, through her “yes”. He asked her: “Are you prepared to do this?” And she replied: “Yes”.

But what took place most singularly in the Virgin Mary also takes place within us, spiritually, when we receive the word of God with a good and sincere heart and put it into practice. It is as if God takes flesh within us; he comes to dwell in us, for he dwells in all who love him and keep his word. It is not easy to understand this, but really, it is easy to feel it in our heart.

Do we think that Jesus’ incarnation is simply a past event which has nothing to do with us personally? Believing in Jesus means giving him our flesh with the humility and courage of Mary, so that he can continue to dwell in our midst. It means giving him our hands, to caress the little ones and the poor; our feet, to go forth and meet our brothers and sisters; our arms, to hold up the weak and to work in the Lord’s vineyard, our minds, to think and act in the light of the Gospel; and especially to offer our hearts to love and to make choices in accordance with God’s will. All this happens thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit. And in this way we become instruments in God’s hands, so that Jesus can act in the world through us.

3. The third aspect is Mary’s faith as a journey. The Council says that Mary “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith” (ibid., 58). In this way she precedes us on this pilgrimage, she accompanies and sustains us.

How was Mary’s faith a journey? In the sense that her entire life was to follow her Son: he – Jesus – is the way, he is the path! To press forward in faith, to advance in the spiritual pilgrimage which is faith, is nothing other than to follow Jesus; to listen to him and be guided by his words; to see how he acts and to follow in his footsteps; to have his same sentiments. And what are these sentiments of Jesus? Humility, mercy, closeness to others, but also a firm rejection of hypocrisy, duplicity and idolatry. The way of Jesus is the way of a love which is faithful to the end, even unto sacrificing one’s life; it is the way of the cross. The journey of faith thus passes through the cross. Mary understood this from the beginning, when Herod sought to kill the newborn Jesus. But then this experience of the cross became deeper when Jesus was rejected. Mary was always with Jesus, she followed Jesus in the midst of the crowds and she heard all the gossip and the nastiness of those who opposed the Lord. And she carried this cross! Mary’s faith encountered misunderstanding and contempt. When Jesus’ “hour” came, the hour of his passion, when Mary’s faith was a little flame burning in the night, a little light flickering in the darkness. Through the night of Holy Saturday, Mary kept watch. Her flame, small but bright, remained burning until the dawn of the resurrection. And when she received word that the tomb was empty, her heart was filled with the joy of faith: Christian faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Faith always brings us to joy, and Mary is the Mother of joy! May she teach us to take the path of joy, to experience this joy! That was the high point – this joy, this meeting of Jesus and Mary, and we can imagine what it was like. Their meeting was the high point of Mary’s journey of faith, and that of the whole Church. What is our faith like? Like Mary, do we keep it burning even at times of difficulty, in moments of darkness? Do I feel the joy of faith?

This evening, Mother, we thank you for our faith, the faith of a strong and humble woman; we renew our entrustment to you, Mother of our faith. Amen.

Sunday 27 October 2013



Friday 25 October 2013


February 18, 2009

C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton: Poetic Affinities -- by Ron Dart
It is a rare day, indeed, when C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Thomas Merton (1915-1968) are breathed in the same breath. There are many who bow low to Lewis, and many others genuflect to Merton. Both men, for different reasons, have an ample following. Is it even possible to think of these men as having anything in common?

We do know that Lewis was quite fond of Merton. John Brown did a thesis at Union Seminary on race relations in the 1960s, and in a letter to Merton, he had this to say. “I am rather ashamed to admit that you are the first Roman Catholic writer that I have read seriously, and then only on the recommendation of C. S. Lewis, who in a letter not long before he died, stated that he had discovered your writing, and found it quite the best spiritual writing he had come across in a long time”. Merton replied to Brown (August 7 1968). “Thanks for your kind letter. I am certainly happy to think that so sound a judge as C.S. Lewis found something to like in my writing” (The Road to Joy: p. 369) . Merton’s interest in Lewis, though, can be traced back to a book review he did of The Personal Heresy in 1939.

Thomas Merton had finished his MA in English Literature at Columbia University in 1939. The thesis was on William Blake. ‘Nature and Art in William Blake: An Essay in Interpretation’ was a rather interesting read of Blake that few would approve or accept today. Northrop Frye’s magisterial book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), had not yet been published. But, Merton was very much in the thick of literary criticism at the time, and he was ahead of his time with his interest in Blake. Merton was primed and pumped to do his PH.D., and G.M. Hopkins held his attention. It seemed, from a certain perspective, that Merton was well on his way to becoming an academic and professor. A few more years of solid work on Hopkins, and a thesis behind him, and Merton would be well set on a solid vocational path.

C.S. Lewis, in the 1920s- 1930s, had serious concerns about both the poetry and literary theories of T.S. Eliot. Eliot was editor at the time of one of the most influential literary magazines: Criterion. Lewis sent Eliot an essay to be published in Criterion that reflected his worries. Lewis’ essay, ‘The Personal Heresy in Criticism’ took both Eliot and Tillyard to task in the way they interpreted Dante and Milton. Lewis thought that it was inappropriate to use an author’s writing to learn more about the author. A poem should be studied in and for itself not as a door into the soul of the creator. Lewis sent the article to Eliot in 1931. Eliot refused to publish the essay. The issue, though, would not go away. In fact, the personal heresy took on a fuller and more animated life. The essay was, finally, published in Essays and Studies in 1934. More articles rolled off the pens of Tillyard and Lewis, and they were published in Essays and Studies in 1935 and 1936. Is poetry merely a form of veiled autobiography? Lewis would have none of it. Tillyard thought there was some truth in the suggestion. The essays were finally published as The Personal Heresy: A Controversy (1939). Merton realized this was a book that had to be reviewed.

Merton studied at Clare College, Cambridge from the autumn of 1933 to the spring of 1934. Merton might have heard of Lewis at the time, although Lewis was at Oxford. Merton did a full course on Dante when at Cambridge, and Lewis was immersed in the Medieval-Renaissance era and Dante. Lewis was, obviously, a few decades ahead of Merton on the journey. Lewis was to have a profound impact on the renewal of the Classical catholic tradition to which Merton would turn as he followed the lead of prominent Roman Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. There is no doubt that there were important affinities between Lewis and Merton. Merton’s turn to the Cistercians in 1941 as his monastic family very much reflected a turn to a Medieval and Classical notion of the Roman Catholic tradition.

The fact that Merton decided to review The Personal Heresy (1939) in The New York Times (July 9 1939) does need to be heeded, and the fact that Merton, for the most part, sided with Lewis against Tillyard needs to be noted, also. The main points of Merton’s review do need to be briefly summarized. The review has been republished in The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton (1960).

Merton had completed his MA on Blake, but he was also a poet, novelist and interested in literary criticism. This meant that he was reading and pondering some of the more pertinent theories and ideas of the time in the 1930s. There is no doubt, given Merton’s area of interest, that Tillyard and Lewis articulated different and at odds views in the area of literary criticism. Merton was the novice, and Lewis-Tillyard the opposing Abbas.

‘E.M.W. Tillyard and C.S. Lewis—A Spirited Debate on Poetry’ can be read at a variety of levels. Merton had done his MA on Blake, and Blake had certainly engaged Milton, and Merton walked the extra mile to situate Blake within aspects of the Medieval heritage. This meant that Merton could not but read Tillyard and Lewis. Tillyard had published two significant articles on Milton and literary theory, and Lewis had more than won his academic stripes with the publication of The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936). Merton flags this reality at the beginning of the review of The Personal Heresy.

Merton notes that ‘it is Mr. Lewis who dominates the whole subject’, and ‘Mr. Tillyard seems only to be presenting a mere foil for Mr. Lewis’ ideas’.

What, though, is the core of the issue? Merton summed it up succinctly.
‘Reconstructing verses into personalities and using the images of poetry for the experiments of psychoanalyis constitute heresy….its value as poetry cannot be judged in terms of Freud or the history of language’. Tillyard, for example, in his work on Milton, had suggested that Milton’s description of Satan ‘was really describing himself’.
Merton did lean, therefore, towards Lewis and his position, but he was also willing to recognize that Lewis might have gone too far with his notion, and Tillyard had spoken some truth. ‘Some poems, however, cannot fail to communicate a vague idea of their author’s personality’. This is Merton at his nimble and supple best, weighing and evaluating, unwilling to be an uncritical ideologue. Merton makes it clear that the poetry of Milton, Donne, Blake, Swinburne and Marvell are the products of different personalities and dispositions, and the poetry does say something about the authors.
Merton recognizes, in the controversy, that Tillyard does ease off from his position ‘under pressure of Mr. Lewis’ arguments, but he does arrive at an interesting definition of his position’. Tillyard does argue that there are ‘mental patterns’ that do say something about that poet’s personality, and these patterns are embodied in the poems. This means that Tillyard is more interested in something deeper in the poet’s soul than the mere details of biography. Merton has certainly, in the review, heard both Lewis and Tillyard well. He has refused to take uncritical sides in the debate. Both men, as literary critics, were onto something, and Merton wanted to know just what these literary directors had to say.

The core of the book seems to hinge on the meaning of “personality”, and the relationship of the ‘mental patterns’ of a poet, the poems of the poet and the deeper significance of personality. Lewis in his logic chopping way might have missed some of the more oblique yet insightful aspects of Tillyard’s thought just as Tillyard needed to deepen his definitions of poet, personality and poem. Merton’s review, in a thoughtful manner, attempted to synthesize Lewis and Tillyard rather than doff to the one and dismiss the other. This approach speaks much about Merton’s more dialogical and dialectical way of knowing. There is much more to Lewis-Merton affinities than a delving into the details of literary criticism.

Merton completed his controversial Peace in the Post-Christian Era in April 1962, but the Abbot General of the Cistercian order, Dom Gabriel Sortais, banned the book from being published. Peace in the Post-Christian Era probes the historic peace and war traditions within Christianity and leans in the dovish direction. Most Merton scholars are convinced the title for the book was drawn from Lewis’ “De Descriptione Temporum”. When Lewis took the position of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge University in 1954, his inaugural lecture was called ‘De Descriptione Temporum” (A Description of the Times’). Lewis suggested in the lecture that Western Culture was moving into a ‘Post-Christian era, Christians and Classical pagans might have more in common with one another than both would have in common with non-religious secularists in such a Post-Christian world. Lewis had, of course, argues the same point in Abolition of Man and The Last Battle.

It has been suggested and cogently argued that Lewis’ coining of the term, Post-Christian, was at the heart and centre of Merton’s use of the neologism in Peace and the Post-Christian Era. Patricia Burton’s compact and convincing essays on the topic, ‘Editorial Note Concerning Thomas Merton’s Peace in the Post-Christian Era’ and ‘Forbidden Book: Thomas Merton’s Peace in the Post-Christian Era’ (The Merton Annual: Volume 17, 2004) makes the case of Merton borrowing from Lewis. George Kilcourse argued further in ‘Thomas Merton on the Challenge of the Post-Christian World’ (The Merton Journal: Volume 15, Number 1: Easter 2008), that Merton dipped his bucket deeply in the well of Lewis’ thought in his use of Post-Christian.

Lewis did describe the post WWII times as Post-Christian. Both Lewis and Merton keenly realized that the times were out of joint, and Christians could no more appeal to either the premises or worldview of either Christianity or Christendom. If Christians were ever going to meaningfully address the reality of the Post-Christian West at a serious and substantive level as public intellectuals, a serious rethinking had to be done on how such a dialogue would take place. Both Lewis and Merton, to their credit, were at the centre of this rethinking process, and this is why they still act as mentors and models of how to think and live the Christian journey in the post-Christian world.

Lewis had a great admiration for Merton. He thought Merton was the best writer in the area of spirituality he had come across in a long time. Merton had a great admiration for Lewis. He thought Lewis was a ‘sound judge’ on the important issues. Merton reviewed Lewis’ The Personal Heresy, and he was both convinced by Lewis’ use of ‘Post-Christian’ and committed to articulate the Christian faith in a way that could meaningfully speak to those the lived in such times.

Ron Dart 
February 2009

The Conservative and the Progressive

C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton both have their followers, though they tend to be of different ideological stripes. Reading them together can give Christians a fuller picture of the faith.

William Van Ornum

Although they both lived in the same era and wrote about what was important in Christianity, the lives of C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton ran on parallel paths that never crossed. Each produced their main literary works in the period between 1945 and 1963, and there are many similarities and contrasts in their lives and thinking.  Last week we looked at Merton’s work; now it is time to look at Lewis and Merton together.

C. S. Lewis was born in Ireland in 1898. Like Merton, he experienced the death of his mother early in his life, was sent away to boarding school, and had to figure out as a young man how he would deal with a World War. Similar to Merton, he was drawn to an academic career, but was more successful in finding one than was Merton. C. S. Lewis became a don at Oxford and then at Cambridge. He died on November 22, 1963. We are approaching the 50th anniversary of his death, the remembrance of which will no doubt be eclipsed by thoughts on President John F. Kennedy, who died earlier on this same day.

Lewis and Merton were both atheists in their early life. Each had a strong conversion experience where they felt God had sought them out, drawing them into his loving arms. Lewis wrote about this in an early book called Surprised by Joy.

Unlike Merton, Lewis was drawn toward writing fiction and fantasy. He was nurtured by regular meetings with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, besides being one of the translators of the original Jerusalem Bible. Lewis wrote the charming set of stories about Narnia. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy, which began with the book, Out of the Silent Planet.

Merton was a pacifist. Lewis went into the British army and defended his country in the trenches of France. He captured 60 German soldiers and marched them back to the British camp.

There are many exceptions, but Christians of a progressive bent have been drawn toward Thomas Merton because of his emphasis on social justice and confronting evil in the world.  His books have also drawn many people to become interested in Cistercian monasticism. The book of his which is similar to Lewis’s Surprised by Joy is The Seven Story Mountain.

Persons tending toward what the press likes to call conservative Christianity, traditionalism, and even evangelical Christianity are frequently drawn to C. S. Lewis. Whereas Merton pushed his version of Catholicism outward into the world and even into Eastern religions, Lewis looked within and believed that the most important elements of the faith were those which guided each person’s belief and daily actions.

Lewis’s Mere Christianity encapsulates the main doctrine of all the different Christian branches. In some ways, it is a “common cause” of traditional Christian doctrines. For Lewis, it was important to emphasize the Incarnation, Ministry, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, as well as all aspects of the Apostle’s Creed. He asserted that these were all real events that occurred in historical time and were not merely metaphors or helpful guidelines for living (as many liberal Christians in Europe were implying at the time, and as many do today).

Merton confronted social evils – especially nuclear war and racism. During World War II, when the Nazi Germany threatened his homeland, Lewis introduced his own thinking, which said that the way people treat each other each day in their own home and in their own neighborhood might be the most important actions of all. These ideas came out in the form of a letter from one devil to another in his masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters. He was criticized for not putting criticism of the Nazis at the top of his hierarchy.  Nevertheless, during World War II he was a strong voice on the BBC, presenting succinct apologetics for the basic doctrines of Christianity. It would be interesting to speculate on his views concerning abortion.

Lewis saw physical and mental pain as sometimes being humanly insurmountable but spiritually efficacious. He believed that the way one deals with these could bring about changes of character and grace and prepare the Christian for union with God in the next life. He would be classified by theologians as a supernaturalist, as he focused a great deal on the meaning of the true reality of heaven and hell. In the book The Great Divorce, he imagined what the spiritual universe of heaven, hell, and purgatory would look like – with a bit of British humor thrown in besides.

Lewis wrote in a humble and down-to-earth style that reached the reading public in Europe and the United States. In 1948, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Both Lewis and Merton struggled with the meaning and issues of physical and emotional intimacy and a relationship with a particular other. Merton’s struggles led him directly back into monastic life. Lewis became married in the middle 1950s; by 1960, his new wife succumbed to cancer.

This led Lewis to write about his unimaginable grief. He poured out his heart in a book published under a pen name. A Grief Observed continues to be read today by persons whose lives have been disrupted by the deaths of those whom they love.

After his wife died, Lewis’s health and vitality diminished. He died at the age of 65, in the presence of his lifelong best friend and brother, “Warnie” Lewis. Like St. Paul, he ran the race to the finish. Merton died at the age of 53 in Asia before he could say everything he wanted to. We can only speculate how Merton’s theological thinking would develop – many have written and currently write about this.

C. S. Lewis has been a favorite author of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict, in one of his books on the life of Christ, cites Lewis on one of the early pages and gives Lewis a footnote of credit. I have no doubt that Merton’s work influenced the 1983 pastoral letter of the American bishops on nuclear war.

I have found that alternatively reading C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton brings together some of the often perceived disparities between what we call traditional versus progressive Catholicism.  (And Lewis himself was a Protestant!) These authors bring out paradoxes in bas relief and offer intriguing thoughts and meditations.

Both authors continue to inspire study by others. There is an international Merton Society as well as a section of Bellarmine College in Kentucky where Martin’s papers now reside. Lewis’s papers are conserved at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago. Both in the United States and in Britain there are C. S. Lewis societies. The one that meets in New York City has monthly talks in a parish hall where tea and dessert is always served. Spiritual pilgrims visit the monastery in Kentucky where Merton lived, as well as the 8-acre estate called “The Kilns” outside of London were C. S. Lewis lived.

These are great spiritual writers whose books and letters illuminate the issues that were percolating before Vatican II and in the years directly afterward. They may be especially insightful because they were written before 1970 and the divisive hot button issues which have captivated many Christians since then.

William Van Ornum is Professor at Marist College and Director of Research for the American Mental Health Foundation in New York City.

Of the theological virtues Faith, Hope, and Love, St. Paul writes that the greatest of these is Love. Our Lord also said so when He was being questioned by the scholar of the law and gave us the Two Greatest Commandments, both of which are based on love; the love of God and the love of neighbor.
It sounds pretty easy, and in theory it is. But in practice? Well of the two, loving God is relatively easy, but loving our neighbors can be downright challenging. That is, for me anyway. Wouldn’t it be neat to attend a lecture by Thomas Merton on this virtue? Thanks to YouTube, you can!
I came across this video last year around Thanksgiving. What jostled my memory of it is the chapter on charity that I just read in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis for the YIMC Book Club. Merton was in charge of teaching theology to the novices at the Cistercian Abbey in Gethsemani for a time, and these lectures were recorded from talks in the early 1960s. The subject matter? St. Bernard of Clairvaux and man’s ultimate vocation: to love.
I was intrigued to hear Merton’s voice. And he sounds like one of my favorite professors from college. Listening to him, I have the impression that he was a pretty tough grader. A professor who doesn’t put up with any nonsense and assumes you will come to class prepared. But then, at the beginning of the lecture that follows, he puts everyone at ease by saying,
In a monastery, you don’t have to get anyplace!
I hope you enjoy this clip as much as I did. You can go direct to YouTube and see part two of this lecture as well. If you have about 20 minutes to listen to them both, you’ll come away with a deeper impression of Thomas Merton. And you will gain more insight on our true vocation. These lectures led me also to learn more about Bernard of Clairvaux: Abbot, Confessor, Doctor of the Church.
The School of Love? Take it away Father Louis!!


Wednesday 23 October 2013


MOUNT ATHOS – When you see the summit of Athos emerge through the mist of the Aegean, stop the clocks. Because things are on another schedule there. The calendar is the Julian one, 13 days behind the Latin calendar that spread throughout the rest of the world. The hours are counted not from midnight, but from sunset. And it is not under the noon-day sun but in the dark of night that Athos is most alive and pulsating. In songs, lights, and mysteries. 

Mount Athos is a truly holy land that inspires fear of God. It's not for everyone. At least it isn't for women, and that's already a good half of the human race. The last authorized female pilgrim set foot there sixteen centuries ago. Her name was Galla Placidia, depicted in the blue and gold mosaics of a church in Ravenna that is named after her. And being the daughter of the great Theodosius, the Christian emperor of Rome and Constantinople, was of no use to her. As soon as she entered one of Athos's monasteries, an icon of the Virgin ordered her: "Halt!" and enjoined her to leave the mountain. From then on, it was to remain untouched by woman. Since the 11th century, they say, not even female animals – cows, goats, rabbits – have dared to climb the holy mountain with impunity. 


Uranúpolis, heavenly city, the last Greek village before the sacred border, is a frontier land of the most particular nature. Enameled iron signs inform you up to the last minute that you will not pass easily if you are a woman dressed as a man or if they discover you without the proper permits. The holy epistassía, the monks' government, will hand you over to a Greek tribunal, which is always severe in safeguarding the extraterritoriality of Athos and its laws as an autonomous theocracy, sanctioned in the Hellenic constitution and internationally recognized. 

Perspiring monks in tunics and round hats hold back the crush of travelers looking to gain access. Many are called but few are chosen, the Gospel says. And very few entrance visas are stamped each morning, with the seal of the Virgin. Those who finally receive the parchment that authorizes a visit race to the boarding dock, for Athos is reached only by sea, on vessels that are named after saints. 

The landing is a small harbor halfway up the peninsula called Daphne, like Apollo's nymph. But forget about far-off Olympus, which one catches a glimpse of on windy days. A bulbous old bus, earth-colored, even in its windows, hobbles along the road that climbs toward Karyès, the administrative center of Athos and the seat of the holy epistassìa. 


At Karyès there is a police station, a pair of alleys with shops that sell spelt seeds, icons, incense grains and monks' habits; there is the end of the bus line and a trattoria. There's even a public telephone that has every appearance of being the first and the last. 

Karyès is a strange hamlet with no inhabitants. The few that turn up are all transitory: itinerant monks, policemen, day workers, lost travelers. From there one proceeds on foot – hours of walking on dirt roads without shade, in clouds of dust as fine as cocoa powder. Or in jeeps rented from another of the odd Greek transients. Or by hopping onto passing jeeps owned by the more modernized monasteries. 

But it's always with great physical punishment. Athos is for strong, ascetic tempers. From the outset it puts you through the mill. Every day of your stay will have its "via crucis" of dust, stones and cliffs: Because on your precious permit, it is written that you cannot stop for more than one night in any one monastery, and between one and the other there are hours of walking. Pilgrimage is obligatory. 


But when you do arrive exhausted in one of the twenty great monasteries – what a paradise. Megisti Lavra, the first in the hierarchy of the twenty, welcomes you within its walls that are suspended between heaven and earth toward the point of the peninsula just beneath the holy mountain. A young monk appears and takes your permit and passport. He reappears like the angel in Revelation after about a half hour's silence in heaven, restoring you with a glass of cool water, a little glass of anise liquor, a square of fruit jelly, and spiced Turkish coffee. It's the sign that you have been admitted among the guests. You are entitled to a bed in a room for six within the centuries-old walls, with freshly laundered sheets and a towel. From now on you will live the life of a monk. 

Or rather you will do as you please. The monasteries of Athos are not like those in the West – walled citadels where every move, every word is under communal rule. On Athos there is something for everyone. There is the solitary hermit on the rock precipice, whose food they send up little by little with a basket. There are the anchorites in their huts hidden among the brooms and strawberry trees on the coast of the mountain. There are those without a permanent dwelling, always on the move and ever restless. There are the solemn colonies of communal life ruled by an abbot, here called the "igoumenos." There are the village monasteries where each monk keeps his own pace. 

Megisti Lavra is one of the latter types. Within its walls there are squares, alleys, churches, arbors, fountains, mills. The cells are in blocks like in an Eastern Kasbah. The blue plaster stands out, while red is the sacred color of the churches. When the call for prayer is made, with seven-tone bells and the beating of the wooden talanton, the monks set off for the "catholikon," the main church. But if someone wants to pray or to eat alone, nothing keeps him from remaining in his cell. It's this way even for the visitor, except that he has very few alternatives. He rushes impatient to vespers. He tries night prayer, immediately induced to collapse from sleepiness. Dimly groggy, he tries again at the morning liturgy. 

Or is he inebriated? There is the scent of the East, of Byzantium, at Megisti Lavra. There is the aroma of cypress and incense, the fragrance of beeswax, of relics, of ancient things mysteriously near. Because the monks of Athos don't suffer the passage of time. They tell you of their saints, of that Saint Athanasius who planted two cypresses at the center of the Megisti Lavra; who with Herculean strength built the catholikon; who shaped the monasticism of Athos; as if he had not died in the year 1000 but just yesterday, as if they had met him personally and not long ago. 

Saints, centuries, empires, earthly and heavenly cities – everything seems to oscillate and flow, no longer distant. The monastery's treasures – golden and silver boxes with sapphires and rubies that are set in the Virgin's belt, the skull of Saint Basil the Great, Saint John Chrysostom's right hand – are offered to visitors for veneration. The light of the sunset sets them aglow, makes them pulsate. And the frescoes of Theophanes – master of the Cretan school in the first part of the 16th century – are also lit up, as are the blue majolica tiles on the walls, the mother-of-pearl on the iconostasis, on the lectern, on the episcopal throne. 

After vespers one leaves the catholikon in procession and, facing the square, enters the refectory, which is also built like a church and frescoed by the great Theophanes. The same liturgy continues. The igoumenos takes his place at the center of the apse. A monk reads stories of saints from the pulpit, almost singing. One eats blessed food: soups and vegetables from old iron dishes – and on feast days even amber-colored wine – on thick, roughly hewn marble tables, themselves resting on marble supports. They are a thousand years old, yet evoke prehistoric dolmens. The exit is also made in procession. A monk gives everyone a piece of blessed bread. Another incenses it so artfully that the perfume remains a long time in your mouth. 


After Megisti Lavra, in the hierarchy of the twenty monasteries, comes Vatopédion. It stands on the sea amid rolling hills reminiscent of Tuscany. There, they say, Arcadius, Theodosius' son, took shelter after a shipwreck. And it was from here that his sister Galla Placidia, the first woman barred from Athos, would have put out again to sea. 

Vatopédion is as refined as Megisti Lavra is rustic. And in certain phases of its history it was too much so: opulent and decadent. Not many years ago it was home to sodomite monks, the dishonor of Athos. But then came the purifying lash from a bunch of rigorist monks from Cyprus, who banished the reprobates and imposed the cenobite rule. Today Vatopédion has become one of the most flourishing of the monasteries. It takes in young novices from places as far away as America, the sons of Orthodox emigrants. 

Vatopédion is the aristocracy of Athos. The igoumenos, Ephraim, with a copper-colored beard, blue eyes and a melodious voice, says: "Athos is unique. It's the only monastic state in the world." But if it's a heavenly city on earth, then everything there has to be sublime. Like the liturgies, which at Vatopédion truly are sublime. Especially on the important feast days: Easter, Epiphany, Pentecost. The pilgrim must triumph over sleep and not miss – for anything in the world – its marvelous nighttime offices. 

The church itself is highly evocative: It's in the form of a Greek cross, like all of the other churches on Athos, admirably frescoed by Macedonian masters of the 14th century, and with an iconostasis brilliantly radiant with gold and icons. But it's the chant that gives life to everything: harmonic chant, masculine, without instruments, that flows uninterruptedly even for seven, ten hours at a time. The greater the feast, the longer it lasts into the night, chant now robust, now whispered, like the tide that ebbs and flows. 

There are two lead choirs: bunches of monks gathered in columns around the lectern of each transept, with the choirmaster who intones the strophe and the choir that catches the tune and makes it blossom in melodies and chords. And when the choirmaster moves from the first to the second choir and crosses the nave with quick steps, his minutely pleated lightweight cloak billows in the form of two majestic wings. He seems to fly, like the notes. 

And then there are the lights. There is electricity in the monastery, but not in the church. Here the only lights are fire: myriads of little flames whose lighting and extinguishing and motion is also a part of the rite. In every catholikon on Athos an immense chandelier in the form of a royal crown hangs from the central cupola, and has a circumference equal to that of the cupola itself. The crown is of copper, of bronze, of shining brass; it alternates candles and icons; it carries giant suspended eggs, which are a symbol of the Resurrection. It hangs very low, almost skimming the floor, directly in front of the iconostasis that marks off the holy of holies. Other magnificent golden chandeliers hang from the transepts' vaults. 

And there's the moment in solemn liturgies when all the candles are lit: those in the chandeliers and in the central corona; and then the first are made to swing widely, while the great corona is spun on its axis. The dance of lights lasts at least an hour, until little by little it dies down. The glow of the thousand little flames, the shining of the gold, the clinking of the metals, the changing of colors of the icons, the resonant wave of the choir that accompanies these rotating galaxies of stars like celestial spheres: It all makes the true essence of Athos – its glimpse into the superhuman mysteries – sparkle. 

What Western, Catholic liturgies today are able to initiate simple hearts into similar mysteries and to inflame them with heavenly thoughts? Joseph Ratzinger, previously as cardinal and now as pope, hits the mark when he points to the vulgarization of the liturgy as the critical point for today's Catholicism. On Athos the diagnosis is even more radical: the Western churches, in trying to humanize God, make him disappear. "Our God is not the God of Western scholasticism," the igoumenos of the Gregoríos monastery on Athos moralizes. "A God who doesn't deify man can't have any appeal, whether he exists or not. A large part of the reasons behind the wave of atheism in the West are found in this functional, incidental Christianity." 

Vassilios, igoumenos of Ivíron, another of the monasteries, echoes the sentiment: "In the West, action rules; they ask us how we can stay here for so many hours in church without doing anything. I reply: What does the embryo in the maternal womb do? Nothing, but since it is in its mother's womb it develops and grows. So it is with the monk. He preserves the holy space in which he finds himself and he is preserved, molded by this same space. The miracle is here: We are entering into paradise, here and now. We are in the heart of the communion of saints." 


Simonos Petra is another of the monasteries that are spearheading the Athonite renaissance. It juts out on a spur of rock between the peak of Athos and the sea, with vertiginous terraces on the precipice. Eliseos, the igoumenos, has just returned from a tour of monasteries in France. He prizes Solesmes, bastion of Gregorian chant. But he judges the Western Church as too much "the prisoner of a system," too "institutional." 

Athos, instead – he says – is the place of free spirits, of great charismatics. On Athos "logos is wed to praxis," word to deeds. "The monk has to show that the truths are reality. He has to live the Gospel in a perfect way. This is why his presence in the world is essential. Saint John Climakos wrote: "Angels are light for monks, monks are light for men." 

Simonos Petra spreads its teachings even beyond the confines of Athos. It gave life to a monastery for nuns – about 80 of them – in the heart of the Chalkidiki peninsula. It established another near the border between Greece and Bulgaria. And even in France, it has opened three more of its monastic nuclei. It is a cultured monastery, equipped with a splendid library. In the dead of the night, its 80 monks keep vigil in their cells from three to five hours before the predawn liturgy, reading and meditating on the books by the Church Fathers. 

Sleepless Athos. Without time, unless it is that of the angelic spheres. Leaving it is a hard shock even for the most disenchanted visitor. One boards the ferry again at Daphne. The rhythmic rumbling of the motors puts you back in synch with the world. The Greek girl, the first one, who serves you coffee in Uranúpolis, meets you like an apparition. With the dazzling beauty of a Nike of Samothrace.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.


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