Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos
I'VE SAID it before and I’ll say it again: “The inaugural Florovsky Week was glorious!” It was a great success, far exceededing my hopes and expectations. But it wasn’t perfect.
As for its success, it was remarkable to see how much in common Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants actually have…if they return to the Fathers. And this is precisely what the plenary speakers did (Hans Boersma – Protestant; Kenneth Howell – Catholic; and Bradley Nassif – Orthodox) as they explored the key question posed for the event: “Justification by Faith Alone?” And they all found the same emphasis of participation in Christ, or deification, as the Orthodox put it. Heeding Florovsky’s call to return to the Fathers as a way to overcome division thus proved to be an effective proposal. And it was amazing to experience it. If you missed it, you don’t want to repeat that mistake next year. You can go ahead and put it down on your calendar: June 4-8, 2019 on “The Patristic View of Church Authority: Bible, Pope or Conciliarity?”
As for its imperfections, the key question that was posed was never actually addressed. So while it was remarkable to see the united understanding of salvation as participation in Christ, that emphasis distracted us from the question of justification. I think there are two ways to look at this failure. On the one hand, it’s really not such a failure. The speakers heeded the admonition to return to the Fathers. And they just didn’t find much on the issue of justification. Instead, they found participation, union, and deification. And I mostly agree with all three speakers who indicated that this pre-Reformation emphasis on participation might be the way to get past the dividing issue of justification. But on the other hand, the question of justification was a real question during the period of reformations. And it is still a live issue for Protestants and Catholics. So, while the patristic emphasis on participation is an excellent way to begin finding common ground, I don’t think that means we should avoid the question of justification. What is justification? What is faith? These are terms we should have defined. And I should have pressed each speaker to answer the key question. I guess I can still do that through email. I will do that. And I’ll provide you with their responses in my next note.
Since the Fathers are at the heart of our work, let me end this note by turning to a Church Father. At the Hall of Men, just a few weeks after the inaugural Florovsky Week, I presented the great fourth-century desert father St. Macarius of Egypt. Whenever I prepare a lecture for the Hall of Men I immerse myself in the writings of the hero I’m presenting. And so, in this case, I worked my way through all of St. Macarius’s writings: two versions of his life, his sayings, his virtues, his Great Letter, and his spiritual homilies. I’ve never before read any of the Church Fathers with the (post-Florovsky Week) lens of justification and participation, but I couldn’t help doing so this time. Consequently, I was struck by how frequently St. Macarius uses the language of participation and deification and, more significantly, how rarely he uses the language of justification. I can see why Boersma, Howell, and Nassif all focused in on participation.
The real reason I wanted to turn to St. Macarius, however, is to offer the main point I presented at Hall of Men. In addition to noticing a remarkable repetition of references to the Holy Spirit, one phrase especially stood out in my reading: “work manfully.” I’ll provide some excerpts at the end for you to get a taste of St. Macarius, but only after a couple of closing comments on this phrase. And they are not easy comments. In fact, they are extremely counter-cultural comments.
Jesus makes it clear that the way of Christianity is the way of the cross. In Christ’s words, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Lk. 9.23). In contrast to Christianity as a way of the cross and self-denial, Americanity is the way of comfort and convenience, greed and individualism. It says, “Stop working so hard. Take a break. You need to refresh. Earn and save as much money as you can. Retire as early as possible. Take it easy and enjoy the good life.” But how do such expressions stack up with St. Paul who said that he beats – or chastises, or buffets, or disciplines – his body to bring it under control so that he won’t be disqualified from the race of faith (cf. 1 Cor. 9.27). Paul wasn’t the only one to do this. The saints of the Old Testament did the same thing. Recall the chapter of faith in Hebrews 11:
Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36 Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, [k]were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
And the early Christian desert fathers, like St Macarius and St Anthony, did likewise; as have all the great saints throughout the Church's history!
We are quick to complain about our culture. We see the decline and we bemoan it. We are not wrong in our diagnosis. It really is in decline; it truly is decadent. But we need a prescription, not just a diagnosis. The real question, then, is what are we to do about it. What are we doing about it? Are we doing anything about it? Or, in St Macarius’s words, are we working manfully with sweat and tears to make a difference?
As you hopefully know, since I never tire of preaching it, the Eighth Day prescription is a return to the common Tradition of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. If this is the correct diagnosis, as I sincerely believe it is, then the real question is: Are we manfully enduring the labor of retrieving that Tradition, of acquiring scriptural and patristic minds. Our forefathers did. They worked manfully to assemble and translate the scriptures and the Fathers. We have more access to the scriptures than any other generation before us. We can access the majority of the extant writings of the early Christian Fathers – in English, at that – something unimaginable a hundred years ago. Our forefathers beat their bodies so we could have access to the Bible and the Fathers. If we believe a return to the Scriptures with the Fathers as our guides is a key to cultural renewal, then it’s our turn to beat our bodies by immersing themselves in them.
I believe the work of returning to the Fathers for cultural renewal is the single most important thing we can be doing for our culture. But it’s hard work. And it’s counter-cultural. Nobody wants to hear they need to beat their bodies. Most folks in a culture of comfort and convenience do not want to hear the message of self-denial. And a culture that can barely give 10-15 minutes attention to a lecture or 5-10 minutes to reading, if that, does not want to hear they should manfully endure the sweat of toiling over the Bible and the Fathers. But that’s the message of Eighth Day Institute. I recently had a conversation with Tom Rhein, the president of Eighth Day Institute and my good friend, in which I think he put it best: “Eighth Day Institute is a monastic endeavor.”
Mr. Rhein is spot on. It is a monastic endeavor, one that calls for self-denial and manful work. This is not a popular message. And I’ve finally come to grips with this. I also presume it’s why it’s so difficult to raise the money needed to fund good works like Paradosis and Books and Culture, two endeavors I admired so much that are no longer in existence. I can only hope and pray that fate will not be Eighth Day Institute’s. As long as we are able to continue our work of renewing culture through faith and learning, I will thank God every single day for all of you who so generously and sacrificially give of your time and money. You keep our doors open. You enable events like the Florovsky Week to take place. And I am eternally grateful. (If you have not ever supported this work financially, please consider sustaining it through a donation to our summer campaign where your donation will be doubled with a matching gift.)
Now, as promised, here’s a taste of St Macarius of Egypt’s counter-cultural message on working manfully. If nothing else, please read the first paragraph. If you read the whole thing and like what you read, purchase a copy of St Macarius’s Spiritual Homilies from Eighth Day Books.
Such as these are able to endure conflict to the end who have completely and with their whole heart loved God alone and who have freed themselves from all other loves for the world. Few, however, are found who enjoy such a love, turning away from all pleasures and desires of the world and who manfully endure the assaults and temptations of the evil one. Most want to possess the kingdom without labors and struggles and sweat, but this is impossible. Likewise when we read in Scripture how such and such a just man pleased God, how he was made a friend and companion of God and how all the fathers were considered friends and participators of God, we forget one thing: What great afflictions they had to suffer, how much they had to endure on behalf of God, with what great courage they struggled and fought battles! We congratulate them and we wish to enjoy rewards and honors equal to theirs. We desire ardently to receive their outstanding gifts, but we fail to notice their labors, struggles, afflictions, and crucifixions. We eagerly want honors and dignities such as they received from God, but we are not ready to accept their labors and struggles. Truly, I tell you this. Every person, even prostitutes, publicans, and the wicked, desires and wants all this, namely, to possess the kingdom easily without labors and struggles. But because of this there lie along the path temptations and many trials and afflictions and struggles and sweat in order to sift out those who have truly loved the Lord alone with might and main right up to death itself and have desired nothing else along with their love for him.
Christians possess a glory and beauty and an indescribable heavenly richness that come to them with hard work and sweat, acquired in times of temptations and in many trials. All of this must be ascribed to divine grace.
Those who really wish to reach the goal by good living must not willingly allow and mix any other love or affection with that heavenly love lest they be hindered in their spiritual pursuits and fall back and finally lose their very own life. Just as God has made great, ineffable, and indescribable promises, so, too, they demand on our part great faith, hope, and effort and great struggles. The goods that a person seeks in striving for the Kingdom of Heaven are not of little importance. To reign with Christ forever, if this is what you desire, will you not be ready to bear manfully struggles and labors and temptations for the brief space of this life up until death? The Lord says, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily with joy and let him follow me’ (Mt 16.24). And again he says, ‘If anyone does not hate father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sister, yes, even his own life also, he cannot be my disciple’ (Lk 14.26). Most wish to obtain the kingdom and desire to have eternal life, but, following their own wills, they refuse to control them. They are rather more like the sower who sows vain desires. They refuse to deny themselves and still wish to receive eternal life, which is a thing impossible.
For whatever passion a person does not manfully fight against, that is an object of his love. Such an attachment dominates and holds him down. It becomes for him an impediment and a chain that prevents him from directing his mind to God and from pleasing him. In no way can he serve God alone and obtain the kingdom and reach eternal life. The soul that truly tends toward the Lord completely forces itself to a total love of him. It is held fast in a willed dedication, as far as is possible, to God alone. From him it obtains the help of grace.