The Meaning of Words – Part 2

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I have taken this discussion of life in a “one-storey” universe to that of language, precisely because I think that much of our language (as we presently define it) presumes “two-storey” meanings. One of the places I will press language is our speaking of God’s Providence.

In the “Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina,” we have a version of a prayer that can be found in similar form by other names within Orthodoxy, but certainly a prayer that expresses a very common thought:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will. At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will. Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee. Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone. O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take plce during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

Though the prayer states that “all is sent down from Thee” I would not necessarily describe this as “two-storey” language, though it could easily be taken that way. More to my point is the assumption of the prayer that God is indeed, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Equally that, “in Him we live and move and have our being.” There has been something of an abandonment of the concept of providence in many theological corners in modern times – probably brought on from the crisis within theodicy (the technical word for the understanding of the relationship between God and evil – or the question, “How is God just?”) Events of the 20th century, particularly the horrors of modern war and the like, have tended to push the question of God’s providential involvement with the everyday world to the outer realm of theological discourse. When I attended a modern Protestant seminary back in the 70’s, not once was the subject of Providence even discussed. It simply had no place at the table.

Of course, if we are to speak in a one-storey manner, Providence, God’s involvement with everything that is, cannot be avoided. Interestingly, it is not only not avoided by contemporary Orthodox spiritual teaching, it remains very much in the fore. The late Russian elder, Fr. Ioan Krestiankin, speaks constantly of God’s providence in his recently published letters. This language, interestingly, comes from one who spent part of his Christian life in the Soviet Gulag. Such mindless suffering seems to have had no effect on his perception of God’s providence.

However, many are appropriately nervous when they read accounts such as those of the monks at St. Antony’s monastery in Egypt (in my first posting on this topic). The hucksterism and spiritual delusion that are rampant in some Christian circles can easily and appropriately make people shy – who wants to live in delusion?

Thus, I think that as Christians we approach the abandonment of a two-storey universe slowly. Above everything we begin to move our Christian life out of the realm of abstraction and into the realm of living. We pray rather than think about prayer. We trust God rather than discussing the concept of trusting God. We act on the basis of faith rather than spending time talking about the importance of faith. We make every effort to embrace God as good and at work in all things.

I suppose this is a return to my writing about the small things – the immediate things. But this is where we live – and it is where we are being saved. So much of the Orthodox faith has this very concrete character about it. I have come to some fairly simple practices in my life as a priest. When someone calls me at Church to ask for prayer – particularly for matters of great moment – I leave the office – go in the Church – and offer a Molieben (it’s a short service of prayer, designed particularly for just such occasions). It takes about 20 minutes – but it’s what I was asked to do – to pray.

By the same token we bring our faith into this blessed first storey (indeed probably the only storey of the universe) by doing here what we were commanded to do – pray, give, forgive, love, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc. It is in such straightforward activities rather than in the abstractions that would call us away that we will find Christ, the saints, the angels and the whole of our faith.

God is with us.

32 comments:

  1. Providence used to being a vital part of the Protestant daily vocabulary. Maybe it would be more accurate to say the Puritan vocabulary.

    I remember the story of Samuel and Saul. The desperate king had the witch of Endor conjure up the spirit of the prophet. I think those type of biblical referents tend to cause pause among Christians-at least protestant ones. So does account of Jesus about poor man-rich man story you referred to. Others include the ascension of Jesus and the saints observing from heaven account in the book of Hebrews, all of which help create a two-story worldview.

    I appreciate you point that we all live on the first floor. If I understand you, a single story universe is the orthodox position. Is it not possible that the first story reality is the realm of the Holy Spirit. In the book of Genesis, I have not read where the Holy Spirit left our earth or heaven. Jesus did say that he would send the Comforter after his ascension. We have the record that the Spirit of God did come on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts.
    I still wonder, though, about whether the Spirit actually left his living creation even for that short period. Because I see in Genesis, the Holy Spirit’s went away…went up…came down, but never is there any indication that he actually left the earth’s heaven.

    In everyday life, as you say, faith, life and relationship are what human do on the first floor. When it is with the Spirit of God, it is eternal life in the eternal present. A Bahaman pastor views life in the presence as one in a kingdom in which the Spirit of God is the divine governor on the first story, while the Father and Lord remain more-or-less in the second story.

  2. Providence indeed had a large place in the vocabulary of early Protestants, and also Deists as well. I by no means think that the ascension should lead us to a two-storey notion of the universe. That Christ ascended into heaven is a change – but heaven is not “up there” in any sense like, say, the “moon” is up there. The only language we have that we can use to describe his ascension is “a cloud received him out of their sight.”

    But, of course, he continued to appear (to Saul, for instance) and in many stories of the saints. His primary, tangible presence for us is His Body and Blood, and, of course, His presence made known to us in His icon. But I’ll say more about these.

    It is improper theology of the Trinity to say the Holy Spirit is present and the Son and the Father not present. Where He is, God is in His fullness.

  3. I think a key origin of the 2 story universe came with the denial of the real presence in the sacrament, whatever the modus is believed to be. I can think of at least 2 sources: Zwinglianism, and the anabaptists. Calvin tried hard to occupy the middle ground, but his children seemd to have gravitated to the Zwinglian position. I remember well at a Reformed Church I attended how some of the eldership were surpised at what Calvin actually taught – this was after a period of reevaluation on where the church stood wrt paedo-communion.

    Once you gravitate to ‘mere’ symbolism, the 2 storey universe becames the normative view.

  4. related to this is the concept of Grace perfects Nature, I think. I very much enjoy reading the works of Jaroslav Pelikan, and through reading his works, I’ve come to understand that the Orthodox position on this concept is that Grace is consonant with Nature. Is my understanding correct? Thanks.

  5. In a way, Psalm 73:25 puts it all together- “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”

  6. The Skylding,

    I think your point is well made and likely quite true in the history of the past centuries. I suspect that neither Luther nor Calvin were capable of abandoning a world-view that quickly. But once the sacramental shift is made God gets pushed out of the “ordinary” world. It’s peculiar that when we say everything is holy, eventually nothing is holy. When we say “priesthood of all believers” before long nobody has a clue what a priest is, let alone of all believers. Too many babies have gone out with too much bath water. The joy of Orthodoxy is that we have babies and bathwater (figuratively) up to our ears!

  7. Wrenching the mention of babies and water out of context so I can ask a question…

    Are Christians converting to the Orthodox Church ever permitted to leave aside the baptism of their children until those children are old enough to make the decision for themselves? What is the thought on this?

  8. AR asks a good question, but I’d rather ask a larger version. My inquiries into Orthodoxy leave me with a vacancy that I need filled. Maybe this isn’t the best place to ask it.

    Heresy. Are Orthodox bound to expunge all heretical beliefs upon converting? There are many more questions under this. Do you have pet heresies in secret? Do you know others, even most committed and pious who entertain personal convictions in opposition to the church?

    Ware’s book “The Orthodox Way” tries to set a hierarchy of sorts. While the church is whole somethings are more important than others. He’s not as clear as I would like.

    If only the Icons and the Theotokos stand between me and Orthodoxy (it’s not that simple) can I simply refrain from that which my conscience forbids?

    The Orthodox Church has closed communion, but I’ve read of economies for non-believers who are without their own church (and even Orthodox who are also similarly situated).

  9. Exactly. There are so many things about which I think, OK that’s not how I would be inclined to see it but I could submit my judgment to the Church on that. But then there are those few things about which I know – if I do that it will be idolatry to me, or if I do that it will be some other sin to me. (Incidentally Icons don’t bother me since reading the seventh ecumenical Council, though I’m not sure I could say “ever-Virgin” in the prayers to the God-bearer.) I don’t even think these things are wrong for others and I would never divide a church over them. I feel like the “weaker brother” whose conscience gets in the way.

  10. The two-storey universe. I didn’t even realize how much it pervades my thinking until now. Yet another thing my mind will have to be rid of and my paradigms transformed!
    Pray for me,
    Alyssa Sophia

  11. David and AR

    Very good questions. I give it my best shot. Generally, the service for the reception of converts to the Orthodox faith, requires fairly specific renunciations of various heresies (there are specific ones depending on what your background is) and it is also the case that one specifically takes an oath as part of the service (in a Chrismation) “This true faith of the Orthodox Church I do truly and humbly accept, etc. promising to keep it whole and unchanged until my last breath, also to submit to the authority of the bishops under whom you live, etc. In token of which “I kiss the gospel and cross of my savior.” Pretty strong stuff, and pretty clear what it means.

    I would say that when there are major reservations remaining, that the period of inquiry has not come to an end. But I think people should be patient about this (as should priests). If this is the truth, then it will become clear.

    I have known people who entered the faith less clear about some things, but willing to accept them who later came to see why it was important.

    Normally, if someone came into the Church and had young children (too young to decided for themselves) they would be expected to be Baptized. Why would an Orthodox Christian not Baptize their children? But these are things to discuss with a local priest.

    On the Mother of God. Interestingly, both Luther and Calvin held to and believed in the Ever-virginity of Mary. The 3rd Ecumenical Council makes mention of this doctrine and her title of Theotokos.

    There are theological reasons, and Scriptural support for her ever-virginity. More than I can write about tonight.

    But it’s good to ask these questions, and with patient prayer, study, etc., (like the Bereans of old) to look at them more closely.

    The Orthodox have indeed preserved the faith, whole and unchanged. That is our witness. If we haven’t then it hasn’t been done anywhere, and Christ’s promise regarding the Church has not been true.

    I know I’m arguing here with Roman Catholics – but I’m just being as honest as an Orthodox priest as the Pope is honest as a Catholic. Fair is fair.

    Alyssasophia,

    It’s ultimately a lot easier with just one-storey. It’ll shift your paradigm but it’s a good shift.

    Now, if you go to your parish priest and ask him about the two-storey versus the one-storey he’ll likely have no idea what you’re talking about unless he’s been reading my blog. I’m using some “preacher’s license” to use language to say something that is often discussed in another manner. And, I haven’t finished the series yet. Everyone stay tuned.

  12. I believe that the OCA has moved to a more general renunciation of heresy, because the usual suspects are often silly. For instance, asking all Anglican converts to renounce Calvinism or Justification by Faith Alone (in the Confessional Lutheran sense) is indeed a bit odd, when most Anglicans never held to either.

  13. In my parish, which is Antiochian, I have never seen any converts make a specific renunciation of heresy upon chrismation. I assume this is a jurisdictional difference. Neither do we make any particular confession of faith apart from reciting the Creed.

  14. mrh,

    I do not know about Antiochian practice. I frequently do this part of the service privately, at the time I am hearing their confessions (which is also a part that the general congregation does not see). But I would need to ask my son-in-law the Antiochian priest. If Fr. Philip is reading, perhaps he could enlighten us?

  15. I was chrismated last night in my Antiochian church (St. Elizabeth in Murfreesboro, TN) and I renounced heresies in general, but not in particular. Two years as a a catecumin helped me greatly in embracing parts of Orthodoxy that had initially confounded me– icons, prayers to Theotokos.

  16. Some of what I’m hearing seems difficult to parse. I’m not asking if you are opposed to the inclusion of James in the Canon or the title Theotokos as from the 3rd Ecumenical Council.

    But there remains despite the unity, a great diversity. In my continued study of The Orthodox Way, the discussion of the Filique was most perplexing. Ware points out that there are two very different views about the Filique, one more firm (insisting that it borders on semi-sebellianism) and one more moderate (since Augustine said that the Spirit proceeds from the Son by grace of the Father, or some such, preserving the source-nature of the Father).

    I know the schism was over more than the Filique, but clearly some Bishops might allow for the Filique (I read somewhere that attempts at reunification have had delegates from the Orthodox church agree to use the Filique, but then have the church at large reject it) other Bishops might call it heresy.

    There appears some room to breathe here. I need to understand how much. Interestingly enough, I side with the harder line on this one. While I want to be flexible in my terminology, words do have meaning and these words have meant something profoundly important to those who have fought 2000 years to preserve the faith of the Apostles. I don’t think all of Rome’s unfortunate inventions have come from it, but it is part of the soil their mistakes grew in.

    I can agree with (submit to) so much of Orthodoxy. But there’s two layers of disagreement. I can now see myself buying and cherishing an Icon (I think the easiest would be one of the Transfiguration which I finally understand in the Orthodox way), but I could never kiss an Icon. And while my mouth might say “pray to the saints”, my heart would always say “pray with the saints.”

  17. Sorry for obsessing again on your blog. I just ran across another instance. St Innocent of Alaska. He has been granted the honor Isapostolos. I could use that theological term to honor the scope of his missionary efforts, but I could never utter the words “Equal-to-Apostles”.

    I must say, I am sitting at my desk LAUGHING at myself. I would think myself a candidate for liberal Orthodoxy, yet my heart demands a fantastic precision when using theological terms.

  18. David,

    There is a breathing room of sorts, and you come to learn where that is (sort of as you learn the family). I don’t think in modern times the filioque would be accepted, though many would agree that there is a way in which the phrase can have a perfectly Orthodox interpretation.

    I would not agree that Orthodoxy is the soil in which Rome’s mistakes grew. The soil had changed (the Orthodox would say). But from an Orthodox perspective, many of the errors and omissions of Protestantism, in some forms, are probably more serious than Rome (depending on who you ask).

    Equal to the Apostles, for instance, is a title given many times in the Church to describe someone whose labors were Apostolic in nature (St. Innocent is a good example). We know more about his labors than say those of St. Nathaniel… equal to Nathaniel? Why not? By the way, the title is equal to the apostles, not equal to the twelve. Different matter. We commemorate the 70 as well.

    Some things are part of learning the language and habits of the Christian family, as it was known for a thousand years alone, and for the next 1000 years in more difficult situations. But this is the language and practice of the Christian family – the only one there was for ever so long. Some things seem different, or uncomfortable, but they fit within Orthodoxy. Kissing objects seems strange to modern Americans, but is a common Jewish practice (the commandments on the doorpost, for instance). I could expand.

  19. So much difficulty seems to relate to language barriers, and not only of spoken languages. It’s frightening. Yet why are we here at all? Isn’t it because we sense something more real than what we have yet encountered? “You will recognize them by their fruit.”

    Thank you for your time and care.

  20. David,

    I was worshiping at my Orthodox parish for the better part of a year, and well into my formal catechumenate, before I ever kissed an icon. Now that early period seems as remote to me as the thought of when I was ten years old and sure that I would never want to kiss a girl. Don’t sweat it.

  21. Fr Stephen, just a point. I meant the Filique is part of the soil the Roman church problems grew out of.

    Not Orthodoxy.

    After reading the history portion of Ware’s book, I think Rome grew separately from very early on. Not that the five weren’t “one” church for the first thousand years, but that Rome seems to have been (either for good or ill and sometimes it was good) different theologically in emphasis for linguistic and cultural reasons.

    Sometimes Rome was clearly orthodox when many in the east were struggling over heresies. But as soon as that leadership became lordship it crippled their ability to play such a vital role. This is, of course, the opinion of a non-scholastic, but trying to be well-read Protestant.

  22. David,

    That’s pretty much the same read as Orthodoxy has of early Church history. If you go back and read some of my early articles (I had a series on ecclesiology and the Cross) you can see where I suggest that the messiness of Orthodox history (and it’s messy) is part of its giftedness – not that argument and schism are good things – but that the ecclesiology of Orthodox ultimately resides in communion and the love required between Orthodox Christians to maintain unity. It’s not an institutional given, but a struggle maintained in love. There is unity of the faith, but always through the suffering of the Cross. Institutional unity is easy – most denominations have it – but do not have unity of the faith. Rome has a unity of the faith, but it tends to reside in Rome and can take on an institutional character.

    It’s why what an individual Orthodox believer actually believes is important. We are all charged with keeping the faith – we can’t just pass it off to an institution. So we say in the Liturgy: “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit! The Trinity, one in essence, and undivided!”

    We can’t say the creed, much less believe it correctly, unless we love one another. It is why the creed, spoken in many churches that no longer even require its assent of its members or clergy, is hollow and becomes an instrument of judgment. Better not to say it, than to say it when you don’t mean it.

    I agree with MRH, I’ve had any number of catechumens who began with hesitancies about kissing icons or certain other matters. We just have a little longer catechumenate in some cases.

    But why would anyone not want to kiss a picture of their mother? sister? brother? or Christ? I wouldn’t tell my wife that I refused to kiss a picture of her – but that’s another story… 🙂

    Though there are some who touch the hand of blessing in the icon with their forehead – though I’m not sure of the origins or reason for this practice (it’s very common among Ethiopian Orthodox – perhaps even the norm).

  23. Just a personal thank you Father. Your perception here and the way you articulate it allowed me begin to realize that some decisions in my life that seemed to be quite dangerous were only dangerous because I was approaching the decision from a two storey attitude. I had to say to myself, If Jesus Christ REALLY Incarnated, then what is there to fear?

    It seems to me His Providence is in His presence.

    That does not mean there will not be struggles. After all the way of Christ is the way of the Cross. I really love the Russian word, podvig (struggle). For me the way the word feels in my mouth is so filled with not only the reality of struggle, but the determination and the hope in Christ as well.

    What other hope do we have but to struggle in Christ.

  24. I don’t kiss pictures, even of my wife, though I am an untypical affectionate person for the California culture I live in. Most of my friends shake hands in greeting, but they all get and receive hugs from me. My mother called me “touchy-feely”. But that’s for the people, not their pictures.

    If kissing an Icon is an expression of love for the person the Icon depicts then I might find some other acceptable expression. If it’s liturgy then I doubt I could ever participate at all.

    This isn’t about the theological implications at this point. Who knows though, if I feel like a completely offensive presence because I don’t participate it might force me to mimic. But then I’d be doing it for show.

  25. PS – what does “ever-Virgin” actually mean? Does it literally mean that she didn’t have sex with Joseph, or that her soul remained pure?

    If the former, does it imply that all of us are called to celibacy? (Staretz Silouan said that only those whom God loves the most are called to celibacy, but the rest are permitted to marry. Does that mean He doesn’t love everyone equally?)

  26. Yvonne, I would not recommend Rowan Williams. His “orthodoxy” has pretty much nothing to do with Orthodoxy. He’s an Anglican who is playing with ideas. I think David should take time and approach icons as it seems proper to him. We never try to force ourselves into these things. It’s damaging to the spirit.

    Ever-birgin means that she remained pure, and never had relations with Joseph. This is the Tradition of the Church, and is alluded to in a large number of Scriptural types.

    Not everyone is called to celibacy. God loves everyone in a way that less and more are probably not appropriate. But there is a grace and gift required of celibacy, of completely giving yourself to God, and though giving yourself to others not doing so in a sexual manner, etc. Such sacrifice requires great grace, which St. Silouan can poetically describe as those whom God loves most, but should not be confused with God having favorites, per se.

  27. Is the difficulty with accepting the phrase “equal to the Apostles” a form of dispensationalism, by which I mean the idea that during the period of the early Church, miracles were commonplace because a different dispensation was in force, whereas now we live so close to the “end-times” (euw, horrid phrase) that the Age of Miracles is no longer with us, and therefore that more recent saints cannot be equal to the ones of the first centuries?

    “End-times” is a horrid phrase because it implies that all that we know and love in the Creation will come to an end, whereas, as CS Lewis rightly said, nothing good will perish in the Kingdom.

  28. I doubt that this is his reason, Yvonne. I think it’s just that coming from a Protestant background it’s hard to hear anyone compared to the Apostles, though it is an ancient title. It’s just a “learning curve.”

    I agree with Lewis, but why do you say that, “as he rightly said?” What authority makes that correct? St. Peter says “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). Lewis himself would not have disagreed with Scripture. That everything good will remain in a new creation is possible to maintain, but there is a cataclysm that marks the end of the present age. Scripture is fairly clear on this. Though I do not hold with dispensationalism nor the mostly nonsense associated with the end-times industry. But a change will occur or nothing would remain.

  29. My answer to that is “because it feels right” (which perhaps won’t do in your view). But Lewis was talking about the real, heavenly England behind the England-in-time, and said that in that real and heavenly England, nothing good is destroyed. So the England-in-time will pass away in the fire and tumult, but the eternal England will not. (It’s in The Last Battle.)

    I wasn’t aware of that text – it sounds like a description of the Big Bang in reverse.

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