Seeking the Light

I ended my last post by asking “Who can help us find a way out of the darkness that threatens to engulf us?” Looking back over history, we discover remarkable echoes of hope-in-darkness that often followed a similar path of recovery, a roadmap to re-illumination: re-grouping, remembering, re-igniting.  During times of danger and darkness believers faithful to Christ have repeatedly responded to descending darkness by coalescing into small groups in order to preserve and nurture the remaining spark of light, faint though it may have been. Across many places and times the surviving faithful have explored various forms of remnant-living—residual communities and individuals who withdrew without leaving, who lived apart but not in isolation, who were separated and yet remained integrated.

The desert ascetics gave the early believers hope by choosing the “death” of withdrawing from ordinary life as effective means of preserving spiritual life in the face of the darkness of an era plagued by political, financial, and military upheaval as well as the already atrophying institutional Church.[1] That very same spirit of renunciation was expressed differently in the extremely mobile monastic communities that leap-frogged their way across the vast landscape of Eastern Russia and on to the shores of Alaska, proclaiming the Gospel and defending those oppressed by the evils of unbridled greed and materialism.[2]

Groups and individuals like those mentioned above sought to express the fundamental principle of a strategic retreat and have, without a doubt, played a role in the historical development of Orthodoxy. In what I believe are potentially instructive ways, individuals in these streams of history have explored or experimented with their own expressions of this ideal and have developed insights and practices that have enabled them to recognize and preserve the spark of divine light even in the darkness of their own times. We ourselves are living in a time of darkness; a time of political, economic, social chaos; a time in which many in the Church have enabled, identified, or been coopted by that chaos; a time of pandemic ravages and the less than helpful reactions to it. So, one wonders, as did McIntyre,[3] Berman,[4] Dreher,[5] , Gushee[6] , Labberton[7] , and a host of others, if we can look to the past for insights that could help shape a response to our own crisis. Are there treasures buried in our Orthodox Tradition that, if unearthed now, could help illuminate a way out of the present darkness? What would it look like for us, relying on those examples, to implement an expression of those basic ascetic principles today, 1) to seek out and latch on to the spark of divine light still present in the darkness, 2) to regroup as remnants around that light, 3) to remember our biblical and traditional treasures, and 4) to initiate a new twilight, a new dawn?

  1. Seeking the Light.

To begin with, the history of the groups mentioned above teaches us that we should look for that flower of hope, that fruit of divinity within the context of the Church. The task of a remnant is not to start something entirely new but rather to preserve what has already been given. The continual presence of the light, Christ, is facilitated by the Holy Spirit and passed into the assembly of believers at Pentecost. That is where it is to be found. That is where we are to look for it. That is where the survivors mentioned above sought it, within the Church and the churches as they actually exist. But, if hope is to be rediscovered, it will mean penetrating the moral darkness generated at the interface of Christianity’s interaction with the secular world. To find light we will have to ignore the evil undergrowth of unethical alliances, see past the structures of alternate truth, overlook the presence of self-centered devotion to wealth, and draw courage, knowing that, as instantiated in this world, the Church is a combination of becoming and being, of potential and actual, constantly caught up in the process of change. So, understanding that the true properties of Church are generated by its own essence (the person of Christ) and in spite of the sinful limitations of those who interact with it, we may still be able to get a glimpse of, reach out, and touch the flower of the light, its primary properties generated at the interface between the transcendent holy personhood of Christ and our own created personhood.

Searching for hope in this place and in this way immediately draws our attention to the radiance of the Eucharist, that divinely actuated mediation of and communion with the person of Christ. Therein lies our hope––there is the living vine, the flower of hope (the Rose of Sharon, Song of Songs 2:1). However, it is not just the vision of this light, but rather our direct contact with the light that allows Christ, who is present in it, to illumine our individual experience of the darkness and heal our wounds. So, even if all other avenues of personal engagement in the Church may fail to generate hope and seem to simply re-enforce non-Church darkness, we still have this one possibility, and in aid of accessing that transcendent hope, we must focus our quest on the Holy mysteries as offered during Divine services. Disregarding the many darkness-generating characteristics of ecclesial communities, we intentionally seek unmediated participation in the primary transformative power of becoming as it is offered in the Eucharist and applied by Church.

I suppose that one might counter by saying that the celebration of the Liturgy is subject to all the same corrupting influences that have otherwise masked the Church’s holiness. Indeed, one might be tempted to think that the sacrament itself is exposed to a hope-limiting degree of vulnerability because it has to be overseen by priests who may or may not be worthy of the sacred task. But, as we know, the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the piety or words of the priest but rather on the descent and the operation of the Holy Spirit. True communion is possible even if the celebrant does not embody the essential properties of the Church because the sacrament is accomplished exclusively by God and its efficacy is guaranteed by Him. The act of receiving the holy mysteries may well create the only space in the Church, the only moment in life, in which the individual participating in the very life and presence of Christ is actually beyond the reach of evil; it cannot be corrupted. It is a truly safe haven. It is the best, if not the only, operative point of departure for the individual journey toward restoring hope.

This is, no doubt, one reason why the Eucharist has been the unbreakable link to the light even for those who, in the past, have withdrawn into the isolation of the “deserts.”[8] John the Hermit “took food only on Sunday. For on that day a priest came and offered the Holy Sacrifice for him, and the Sacrament was his only food.”[9] No matter how much he wandered in the desert, “…on Sundays he was always at the same place to receive Communion.”[10] Abba Helle came down out of the desert and crossed the Nile in order to receive communion at the village Church.[11] Abba Apollo taught that “he who receives communion frequently, receives the Savior frequently…[i]t is therefore useful for monks to keep the remembrance of the Savior’s passion in their minds constantly, and to be ready every day, and to prepare themselves in such a way as to be worthy to receive the heavenly Mysteries at any time….”[12] Another example is Saint Mary of Egypt who received communion from Zozimas.[13] So, even while many withdrew in the face of ecclesial decline, all insisted on maintaining their formal connection to the Church so that they could continue to receive communion.

This, I believe, is where we must begin. In the next post I will take up the next step in our recovery, gathering into a remnant.

 

[1] Derwas J. Chitty, The desert a city : an introduction to the study of Egyptian and Palestian monasticism under the Christian Empire(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995).

[2] Michael Oleksa, Alaskan missionary spirituality, 2nd ed. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2010).

[3] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press., 2007), Kindle (2016).

[4] Morris Berman, The twilight of American culture / Morris Berman, 1st ed. (New York: Norton,, 2000), Kindle.

[5] Rod Dreher, The Benedict option : a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation (New York, New York: Sentinel, 2017).

[6] David P. Gushee, After evangelicalism : the path to a new Christianity, First edition. ed. (Louisville, Kentucky: WJK, Westminster John Knox Press,, 2020).

[7] Mark Labberton, Still evangelical? : insiders reconsider political, social, and theological meaning (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press,, 2018), Kindle.

[8] H. Ashley Hall, “The Role of the Eucharist in the Lives of the Desert Fathers ” in Studia Patristica (Leuven: Peeters, 2006).

[9] Hall, “The Role of the Eucharist in the Lives of the Desert Fathers “.

[10] Andrew  Cain, The Greek Historia Monachorum in Aegypto: Monastic Hagiography in the Late Fourth Century, Oxford Early Christian Studies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), VIII.51.

[11] Cain, The Greek Historia Monachorum in Aegypto: Monastic Hagiography in the Late Fourth Century, XIII,59.

[12] Cain, The Greek Historia Monachorum in Aegypto: Monastic Hagiography in the Late Fourth Century, VIII,56.

[13] “The Life of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt,” in The Great Canon, the Work of Saint Andrew of Crete, (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2005).

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