What do you see?

October 5, 2010 Leave a comment

If you see a tree on fire, then please read on, for in nature, it is fire that saves the community of trees (to use that metaphor again) from the choking, dead undergrowth. This to my mind, is what Fr. Stephen seems to suggest in his latest blogpost Even if I descend into Hell…. I daresay I can use this metaphor too, borrowed as it is from St. Silouan the Athonite.

I should also like to add, at this juncture, that not everyone is as enlightened as the Holy Fathers are, as to the proper use of metaphor in holy scripture . There have always been those who miss the message, or, worse, change its emaning — as Heinrich Heine suggests in his  famed (but fictional) account, Almansor. I’ve not read the book, but the account draws on history, as much as it is predictive:

We heard that Ximenes the Terrible
in Granada, in the middle of the market-place
— my tongue refuses to say it!—cast the Koran
into the flames of a burning pyre!


That was only a prelude; where they burn books
they will, in the end, burn human beings too.

(Almansor, 1821, p. 15)

To be sure, also in the Jewish faith world, Christ has taken his place as Pinchas Lapide recounts faith is as much a matter for the community as the individual:

When I say that for me Jesus the Nazarene is immortal, I mean that in a twofold sense of the word. He is immortal in his visible, perceptible, and far reaching influence – you Christians are the best evidence of this ongoing influence – through a community of salvation that spans five continents. He is however also immortal since according to rabbinical teaching all the just who die for the God of Israel (and without doubt Jesus did) live on with God.

(Jewish Monotheism and Christian Trinitarian Doctrine, 1979, p.60)

Nevertheless, Archimandrite Zacharias of St. John the Baptist monastery in Essex, England, gives an excellent account of the authentic Christian faith experience in his presentation on a book on St. Silouan (very commendable and places Eastern Orthodoxy in a particular position within the family of Christian Churches).

Of course, the essence of knowing God has remained unchanged throughout the ages God has always condescended to reveal Himself to mankind and remains utterly undiminished even by the holy laws that sanctify creation.

I would also point readers (by way of introduction to the subject of monotheism), to Jewish Monotheism and Christian Trinitarian Doctrine, a dialogue by Pinchas Lapide and Jürgen Moltmann, available on Amazon, here.

Categories: Religion

Closer to God

September 26, 2010 Leave a comment

“History, as a collection of past events, remains largely closed in a box”. So says Fr. Stephen in his classic blogpost titled Treasure in a Box:

“The further removed from us in time, the more mysterious the contents. Within this metaphor we cannot say that we bear witness to the contents of the box – only that we have faith in a written description of its contents. Little wonder that those who do not share that faith have less and less comfort in the authority of that witness or its reliability as a guide for modern life.

In such a scenario, Christianity becomes an argument (my italics) about a book within an argument about books.”

This explains why rational empiricism has been so successful in redefining the way modern man relates to ancient truths. In the metaphor of Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath: Its meaning for the Modern Man, it is the window looking in on the great cathedral that is contemporary Christianity –a “religion of space” as Heschel calls it, that sits within an eternity of Sabbaths.

Fr. Stephen’s ground breaking blogpost is also available as a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, here.

Categories: Religion

Three times amen

September 18, 2010 Leave a comment

This post is an edited version of a comment I posted on sacrilege in the Eastern Church — history it seems is replete with similar instances across all traditions and eras.

In the Jewish tradition, the celebrated 15th century commentator Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro recounts how Apostmos the wicked burnt the Hebrew Tanakh in the Second Temple grounds. The burnt scroll was believed to have been the work of Ezra, who along with Moses, Enoch and David holds the honorific title of “scribe” in the Jewish tradition. This sacrilegious act had serious implications — all other scrolls in the Temple were copied from the Ezra scroll — clearly this was an attempt to uproot Jewish faith and tradition.

Many high profile instances of spiritual wickedness are recorded in the Bible — King Manasseh rebuilt the high places of idol worship in the First Temple that his father Hezekiah had destroyed (cf. 2 Kings 21:3). Later, the king returned to the Lord but by the first century CE, Judaism had new enemies, as the Jewish historian Josephus writes:

“But on the fourth day of the feast (Passover), a certain soldier let down his breeches, and exposed his privy members to the multitude, which put those that saw him into a furious rage, and made them cry out that this impious action was not done to approach them, but God himself [….] So instead of a festival, they had at last a mournful day of it; and they all of them forgot their prayers and sacrifices, and betook themselves to lamentation and weeping; so great an affliction did the impudent obscenity of a single soldier bring upon them.

(Antiquities of the Jews, Book 10, Chapter 5).

Our relationship with God can be something of a dilemma, as Rabbi Friedman recounts in his cold soup narrative. The Lord is with His people  one moment, but seems very far away the next. The would be history makers and power brokers are always locked in some struggle waged against something or the other but the Lord — blessed be He — comes on a day entirely of His own choosing.

Categories: Religion

Contemporary miracles

September 14, 2010 2 comments

And God said...

John Sanidopoulos’s translation of Contemporary miracles (1953) really caught my eye, particularly after having read Fr. Stephen’s blognote on that ancient Syriac belief that the Shekinah glory now rests in the Cross (this of course being also a contemporary Jewish belief):

During an adjournment in a recent major court case, the District Attorney Mr. Liberis Papandreou, recounted the following story to me, when he noticed that I had a Cross around my neck. He showed me a Cross that he was wearing around his neck, and told me:

“This Cross saved my life. Without it I would have died in the winter of 1943. This was a period when anyone who fell into the hands of the Germans was hauled off to their torture chamber on Merlin Street and did not leave unless on his way to the graveyard. “At that time I, too, was arrested having been accused by a high ranking official of the Municipality of Piraeus—a lackey of the Germans— and mayor of one of the municipal districts of Piraeus as the General Prosecutor for the Communists. I had arrested both of these two men for misappropriating provisions that were set aside for the starving. My denial of guilt enraged my interrogators.

“After these enormous torturers, the interrogator himself took over. At one point, he lost control of himself and grabbed me by the throat with both of his hands, and began to strangle me. I realized that I would die of suffocation. I mustered whatever reserves I had and freed myself from his hands. I immediately tore open my shirt, exposing my chest. I wanted to breathe. I had no idea what I had done.“At that very moment, however, I perceived that my tormentor had grown pale. Later he turned white—whiter than the wall of the room, which was as white as snow. He was trying to lift up his hands, but could not succeed in doing so. “He then started to weep…. Yes, he wept in terror, and like a small child! He then came up to me, bowed to my chest and…kissed this very Cross! I confess that I could not believe what I saw with my own eyes.

“Shortly after this, he called out and he was brought a glass of water. With it he washed my wounds himself, with his hands, which he could now move. He then sat me on a chair, so that I could recover, and left, only to return with several of his colleagues in whose presence he related the following: ‘As soon as this man exposed his chest, this tiny Cross shined in my eyes like lightning. The lightning white formed a flaming Nein (“no” in German). I then realized that my hands were paralyzed. I was terrified, as you can understand. Now that I have come to, gentlemen, I can say that God is close to the Faithful.’

“He then addressed me, saying: ‘I would ask you to present me with this Cross, so that it might protect me from unjust judgment. Not from death, since I am not afraid of it. But I am not worthy — I do not believe in God as you do, for if I did…’  — and at that point he stopped speaking.”

From N. Kapitsoglou, Contemporary miracles. Arc, No. 21 / September 1953, p. 347

Who said miracles don’t happen today?

Glory to God and amen.

Categories: Religion

Justice and Migration

August 22, 2010 9 comments

Refugee camp and African dusk

It is too easy to sensationalize the terrible human tragedy of irregular immigration which, according to international convention is still, sadly, illegal.

To sensationalize also, is to put at risk the slow but steady rapprochement between the European and African Unions – the secular media seems to be very aware of this but still presents an overly pessimistic view of the forces that drive such dramatic population shifts.

Human lives do not readily convert into economic values.

Nevertheless, back in 2008 the Daily Telegraph reported the following:

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi has apologised to Libya for 30 years of colonial rule and agreed to pay £2.5 billion in reparations.

As part of the deal Italy will also help build a 1,500 mile pan Libyan motorway across the north of the country linking it with neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia.

In return Libyan leader colonel Muammar Gaddafi has promised to crack down on thousands of illegal immigrants who leave his country every year and cross the Mediterranean to Italy.

The compensation deal, which was signed by both leaders in the Libyan city of Benghazi, is to be spread over 25 years and also involves train, technology and other infrastructure projects.

Berlusconi said: ‘”This payment goes towards the tragic and dramatic moments of Italian occupation and for the deep wounds that have affected many Libyan families.

“It is a complete and moral compensation for the damage inflicted on Libya by Italian during the colonial occupation and we can now look forward to working together.”

1st September 2008

This may be the end of Italian reparations in post-colonial Libya, but it is not the end of the European legacy in Africa.

Of course, not all immigrants who flee villages and towns do so out of fear of persecution. Some are simply seeking better lives, but often after having witnessed or experienced at first hand, the sporadic violence, ethnic or religious that breaks out so easily across the African continent. I have befriended a good number of these, all of whom I count as a kind of extended family and some of their stories are almost beyond belief.

The Royal African Society points to the deep roots of prejudice that permeate European psyches. African heads have long figured in European heraldry, but not always for the right reasons.

Interestingly, the coat of arms of the present Pope, Benedict XVI, displays a prominent African king on its right side. Catholic World News sees a symbol that somehow got past the censors of the Renaissance:

Even after that time [… of the “secularization” of the Church’s estates in 1802-1803] all the archbishops of Munich and Freising [… included] the Caput Aethiopum, the head of an Ethiopian, in their episcopal coat of arms.

Cardinal Ratzinger logo

Sadly, notwithstanding this noble gesture, the divisions of race have still not been consigned to the dustbin of history.

In his paper titles Violence in Contemporary Africa Reassessed (2005) the anthropologist Dr. Mark Leopold points to a familiar patchwork of near invisible interests, each intermeshed in a violent struggle for hegemony:

In my own work in Uganda in the later 1990s, by the borders with Sudan and what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was obvious that each of the three countries was using “rebel groups” in the others as surrogates for national forces.

And later, quoting Abbink and Van Kessel, he cites another familiar problem:

Being young in Africa is widely and consistently perceived as problematic in essence. Social analysts, policy makers NGOs, governments and international organizations all reiterate that African youth is in deep trouble and enmeshed in violence. While understandable, this view is overburdening and prejudges the issues before understanding them…Both theoretically and empirically one needs to avoid positing youth and generational tension in Africa as an inherently destructive or exceptional factor in the social order. This reveals a kind of Hobbesian worldview applied to Africa.

The idea then, according to Leopold is not to submit to the “counsels of despair” which collectively see African problems as being rooted in some “inexplicable” and therefore “intractable” evil but rather as the inevitable product of “the sharp end of a long political process”.

Katherine Marshall, who co-chairs the Social Science Research Council’s Advisory Committee on Religion and International Affairs speaks of the celebration of best practice in working with “faith inspired organizations” such as World Vision, Catholic Relief Service, and Islamic Relief, as well as other less visible but still important groups.

Who could argue with that?