Living Icons: St. Ignatius the God-Bearer

The practice of venerating saints makes many modern Christians uncomfortable. “Why can’t we just focus on Christ?” is the typical objection, “Aren’t you making idols out of ordinary people?” And icons depicting the Saints towering over a landscape with a glowing halo only make these concerns seem more poignant. But what this objection misses is that for traditional Christians, the veneration of Saints is a simple consequence of the Incarnation. We believe that God became man so that men might become like God, and the Saints are proof that this has actually happened. They show through their lives that the Incarnation was not mere sophistry or legend, but an actual, concrete union between God and man, which made ordinary men and women glow with the light and love of Divinity. The light streaming out of their haloes in the Icons is none other than the light which streamed forth from Christ’s body at the Transfiguration. Christ wasn’t asserting a contradiction when He said both, “I am the light of the world” and “You are the light of the world.”

St. Ignatius the God-bearer

This notion goes right back to the dawn of Christianity, and we see it reflected perfectly in the life and writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose martyrdom was commemorated in the Coptic Church last Sunday. Ignatius’ story takes place at the very dawn of Christian history, in living memory of the Apostles; he is said to have been a disciple of John the Beloved himself. Despite this incredibly early date, Ignatius’ writings powerfully express the belief that lies at the heart of traditional Christian sainthood: that because of the Incarnation, mortal men bear God’s love and power. You see, St. Ignatius is also called “The God-bearer” (θεοφόρος, theophoros), a word taken from his own writings. He used it to describe all Christians:

“Ye, therefore, as well as all your fellow-travellers, are God-bearers, temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holiness, adorned in all respects with the commandments of Jesus Christ …” (Ignatius to the Ephesians, Ch. 9)

Because of the Incarnation, where God dwelt in human flesh, humans can be God-bearers: living, fleshly analogues of the ancient Jewish Temple, of which God said “this is the place of My throne and the place of the soles of My feet …” (Ez. 43:7) And thus, there’s no tension between the veneration of Saints and the worship of Christ; the Saints are “God’s field” and “God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9); He built them like He built the Temple, and adorned them with His own beauty, that the world might admire God through them. Continue reading

The Secret of Happiness?

I recently saw a TED Talk by Harvard Professor of Psychology David Gilbert. What he says is extremely interesting. According to Gilbert, there are two kinds of happiness: ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’.

“Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted; and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.”

Let’s take a simple example as an illustration. Bill is an average guy who is up for promotion. He wants this promotion; he believes that the extra money and job security will make him happy. There are two possible outcomes: he will either get the promotion or he won’t; he will either get what he wanted, or he won’t. If Bill gets the promotion, he’ll get what Gilbert calls ‘natural happiness’: he’ll be happy because he got what he believed would make him happy. If Bill doesn’t get the promotion, he might still find ways to be happy with the situation. As people often do when they miss out on something, he might say and think things like, “It was for the best, this way I get to spend more time with my family,” or “Well, it was just money anyway.” This is what Gilbert calls ‘synthetic happiness’, because in a sense, Bill has had to synthesise or manufacture it. He’s had to make himself happy in spite of his circumstances.

What makes us happy?

What makes us happy?

As Gilbert points out, “In our society, we have strong belief that synthetic happiness is an inferior kind.” We tend to think that people who make themselves happy despite not getting what they wanted are really just masking their dissatisfaction or being disingenuous. But Gilbert’s big argument is that “… synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.” In other words, happiness is something that we make, not something that we find. It’s an act of our own will, and not a circumstance which comes to us from without.

In his talk, Gilbert points to several interesting experiments which show that people can be powerfully happy even in terribly reduced circumstances. These findings are quite surprising; they’re not intuitive at all. For example, we would assume that typically, lottery winners are much happier than paraplegics. But an experiment cited by Gilbert showed that three months after winning the lottery or being confined to a wheelchair, paraplegics are just as happy as lottery winners. What happens to them has no lasting effect on the state of their happiness. What does affect their happiness is their own choice of how to deal with what has happened to them; happiness is a way of life, not a circumstance.

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Seeing Christ in Pop Culture Part 1 – What do the Church Fathers say?

How should Orthodox Christians relate to popular culture in their life and service? Should we be staying away entirely from every book, film or song that isn’t produced by the Church, or is there a way to incorporate these things into our life with Christ? This is the first in a three part series on how and why we Orthodox ought to use secular culture in our service. This first part is a survey of what some famous Church Fathers thought about how Christians can learn from non-Christian texts. If you’re not particularly interested in the Church Fathers’ thoughts on secular culture, then you might want to skip to the second and third parts, which are focused on the practical need for ‘Christ-ifying’ popular films, books and TV shows:

Part 2 – Why should servants bother with pop culture at all?

Part 3 – The One whom you worship without knowing

PART I – The Church Fathers: how should Christians read secular works?

Cinemaaustralia

Can we harmonise our popular films, TV shows and books with Christ?

For as long as there have been Christians who could read, there has been a question about how Christians ought to relate to ‘secular’ literature. ‘Secular’ means ‘of the world’, and is opposed to the ‘sacred’ or ‘religious’: for our purposes, it denotes everything which is produced in cultures outside the Church. The Church Fathers had an especial interest in this question, because as educated men, they were required to be familiar with the works and styles of pagan philosophers, historians, rhetoricians, tragedians and comedians. These works were thoroughly pagan which meant they explicitly promoted idolatry (the worship of pagan gods with bloody sacrifices) and often included gratuitous sexual immorality and vice. So what advice did the fathers give their spiritual children on dealing with these works?

It might surprise many modern Christians to learn that some of the most celebrated Church Fathers didn’t encourage their spiritual children to stay away from secular writings entirely; in fact, they sometimes encouraged them to read them as ‘training’ for apprehending the truths of Scripture, provided they approached them with the appropriate wisdom. Even more surprisingly, they often quoted secular writings in their own works.

For the fathers, the Scriptures were the only source of full and complete knowledge about God’s salvation (as far as that knowledge is expressible in human language). But they also believed that God’s grace and truth flowed out upon the whole world, and that righteous pagans had apprehended the truth of Christ partially and incompletely. St. Clement of Alexandria says that “the Greek preparatory culture […] with philosophy itself, is shown to have come down from God to men, not with a definite direction but in the way in which showers fall down on the good land, and on the dunghill, and on the houses.” For St. Clement, God’s truths are very much present in secular culture, albeit not as clearly as in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Church. He argues that God, “in each age rained down the Lord, the Word. But the times and places which received [such gifts], created the differences which exist.” That is, the truth of Christ is rained down upon all men at all times, but the clarity and accuracy of its reception depended on what people did with it. The Church and the Scriptures were certainly the best sources for learning about God because they were the places where the universal rain of God had caused the strongest and most beautiful trees to grow. But they were not the only place that truth could be found. Continue reading

Living Icons – St. Basil and St. Gregory

St. Gregory of Nazianzus was a long-time friend of St. Basil of Caesarea, (and interestingly, they are the traditional authors of the two most commonly used Coptic liturgies). They met as students in Athens as young men, and so began a friendship which would see them banding together in opposition of Church corruption, Arianism and Roman emperors, as all of these threatened to tear the Church apart. A rather unfortunate dispute arose between the two towards the end of Basil’s life, but they seem to have made up with one before Basil died in 379 AD. Gregory subsequently wrote a glowing eulogy for Basil, which (to my mind at least) is one of the most powerful pieces of Christian literature ever written. Why? I’ll let Gregory’s flowing prose and uncompromising style speak for itself – the following passage is the source of a story for which Basil has become especially famous. Some context first though: Basil’s refusal to accept Emperor Valens’ Arianism (understandably) attracted the emperor’s ire. In this passage, Basil has been summoned to appear before the Emperor’s prefect, called Modestus, and give an account for his opposition of the Emperor. But Basil, being Basil, is not easily intimidated …

(Look out especially for Basil’s now famous riposte, “Perhaps you have never before met a bishop”, rendered rather weakly in this translation. He seems to have been a rather witty fellow.)

Byzantine icon of St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Gregory of Nazianzus

Though [Modestus] raged against the Church, and assumed a lion-like aspect, and roared like a lion till most men dared not approach him, yet our noble prelate [Basil] was brought into or rather entered his court, as if bidden to a feast, instead of to a trial. How can I fully describe, either the arrogance of the prefect or the prudence with which it was met by the Saint. What is the meaning, Sir Basil, he said, addressing him by name, and not as yet deigning to term him Bishop, of your daring, as no other dares, to resist and oppose so great a potentate?In what respect? said our noble champion, and in what does my rashness consist? For this I have yet to learn.In refusing to respect the religion of your Sovereign, when all others have yielded and submitted themselves?Because, said he, this is not the will of my real Sovereign; nor can I, who am the creature of God, and bidden myself to be God, submit to worship any creature.And what do we, said the prefect, seem to you to be? Are we, who give you this injunction, nothing at all? What do you say to this? Is it not a great thing to be ranged with us as your associates?You are, I will not deny it, said he, a prefect, and an illustrious one, yet not of more honour than God. And to be associated with you is a great thing, certainly; for you are yourself the creature of God; but so it is to be associated with any other of my subjects. For faith, and not personal importance, is the distinctive mark of Christianity. Continue reading

Educator of the Generations

"Hushed is a tongue whose words flooded our ears like a mighty stream: a depth of heart, never fathomed before, has fled, humanly speaking, like an unsubstantial dream. Whose glance so keen as his to look into the future?"
~ St. Basil of Caesarea, (comforting a local church on the loss of their bishop)

Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Pope of the Coptic Church passed away this morning. He was a man of vision, compassion and gentleness – and none of those traits ever faded in him, even when his Church was rocked by violence and tragedy. He achieved an awful lot for one man over his 40 year reign. One of his greatest legacies was his dedication to making the Church a place for the youth. A phrase of his that went ‘viral’ among Copts long before there was an internet was, “A Church without youth is a Church without a future.” He realised the importance of educating and engaging young people, and it may well be that the current, vibrant Coptic youth culture owes His Holiness immeasurably for its vitality, and perhaps even its existence. Some Copts have even begun to use the appellation, ‘Educator of the Generations’, when the Pope’s name is mentioned in the liturgy – a trend which I hope will continue.

Beyond that, he had an incredible personality – scenes like this bespeak not only an incredible humility, but an amazing, Christ-like love which made him able to treat children who barely knew who he was with the same amount of attention, honour and respect as the hundreds of important adults constantly clamouring around him, hanging on his every word. My mother recalls for instance, that when she and a friend were staying in his monastery, the Pope stumbled upon them during a late night stroll (they had drawn him by making too much noise). He took them both by the hand, giving them a guided tour of the grounds, and led them finally to the balcony of his cell where he personally made them milk tea (after which he asked them kindly to return to their rooms and stop making so much noise). There were no crowds present for whom he could have been showing off, no cameras or reporters. He simply saw two women who really should have been asleep, and wanted to make them feel welcome.  There was no-one not worth his time, no-one whom he was too important to bother with – not even children. That sort of love, I am convinced, comes straight from the living Christ (Mark 10:14, Matt 19:14) – it’s the sort of love which makes a person so immune to self-absorption that no-one around them could possibly feel insignificant. He saw every single human being glowing with the glory of God’s image – and it showed in everything he did.

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CS Lewis on ‘Good Infection’

I went back to ‘Mere Christianity’ after writing the last post about ‘Religion’, Christ and the Church, to remind myself of exactly what he had said about God’s invasion of reality, His ‘good infection’ of the world. This excerpt, which closes off the chapter entitled ‘Good Infection’ pretty much sums it up. (And by the way, this is a perfect example of why CS Lewis is one most enduring and poetic Christian voices to have ever graced the English language):

‎Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm, you must stand near the fire: if you want to get wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prizes which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, it will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?”

But how is he to be united to God? How is it possible for us to be taken into the three-Personal life? (Lewis is referring to the life of the Trinity).

….

Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life, we shall also be sons of God. We shall love the Father as he does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has –  by what I call ‘good infection’. Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.

(Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter IV)

It goes without saying that ‘Mere Christianity’ is a highly recommended read.