"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Orthodox Church -- Christian Mysticism, Compromise, Knowing the Unknowable God, and the Fate of "the most glorious church in Christendom"

The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware

"I would rather see the Muslim turban in the midst of the city than the Latin mitre." 

Thus the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras echoed the words attributed to the sister of Emperor Michael VIII some 150 years prior when she said, "Better that my brother's Empire should perish, than the purity of Orthodox faith." 

Why the strong statements? 

In both instances reunion councils - at Lyons in 1274 and at Florence in 1438 - were to blame. 

To blame?  Is not working for unity a good thing?

Indeed it is great, however, not at the expense of the principles you believe are from God.  We can negotiate on whether we want pink or blue carpet within the church, but for many of these people, the things of the Church - the Creeds and authority of one church (i.e.,Rome) over all the others were not up for compromise.

Yet compromise on the issues of the Filioque and Papal authority is what the leaders tried to do.  The Byzantines gave into Rome's demands and at least on paper agreed that the addition of the Filioque was fine and Rome's thoughts on Papal authority were too. Why this bowing down to Rome's wishes? 

The author notes that the two sides truly did want reconciliation between fellow Christians, however, he also recognized politics played a role.  The Byzantines were being threatened in the first case by the sovereign of Sicily,Charles of Anjou, and later by the Turks.  Help from Rome was needed and this could best be secured by attempting reconciliation.

And what better way to reconcile - at least on paper - than to agree to Rome's wishes.

Yet most of the Byzantine leaders and people did not agree to these compromises.

The author mentions that eastern and western thought continued to drift apart with westerners being influenced by Scholasticism, "new categories of thought, a new theological method, and a new terminology which the east did not understand." In the east, theology was influenced by the Hesychast Controversy where the church leaders had to make sense of God being unknowable (i.e., we cannot define Him) yet able to be known (i.e., He reveals Himself to His creation.)

How is this explained?

The Hesychasts were mystical and thought we could know God through inner stillness, through prayer.  Yet another common Greek thought, as mentioned, said God was unable to be known. "'God is infinite and incomprehensible,' wrote John of Damascus, 'and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility.'"

The controversy between the Hesychasts and Barlaam was taken up by St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica,who explained that we needed to distinguish between God's essence (unknowable) and His energies (knowable).  St. Basil once had said, "We know our God from His energies..., but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence.  For His energies come down to us, but His essence remains unapproachable."   (pg.68)

What are these energies?  I was asking this question too and then read this:

"These energies are not something that exists apart from God, not a gift which God confers upon humans; they are God Himself in action and revelation to the world...[All] creation is a gigantic Burning Bush, permeated but not consumed by the ineffable and wondrous fire of God's energies.  It is through these energies that God enters into a direct and immediate relationship with humankind. In relation to us humans, the divine energy is in fact nothing else than the grace of God; grace is not just a 'gift' of God, not just an object which God bestows on humans, but a direct manifestation of the living God Himself, a personal encounter between creature and Creator."

Hmmm, any wonder St. Gregory began his defense by reaffirming the Biblical doctrine of Incarnation?

"Palamas, therefore, preserved God's transcendence and avoided the pantheism to which an unguarded mysticism easily leads; yet he allowed for God's immanence, for His continual presence in the world.  God remains 'the Wholly Other', and yet through His energies (which are God Himself) He enters into an immediate relationship with the world." (pg. 69)

A contemporary of Palamas, lay theologian St. Nicolas Cabasilas authored a book which dealt with mysticism not becoming speculative and individualistic, but remaining "Christocentric, sacramental, ecclesial."

"Palamas and his circle did not regard mystical prayer as a means of bypassing the normal institutional life of the Church." 

Chapter three ends with the east and west unable to come together despite the reconciliation attempt at the council meeting in Florence.  In the end the Turks came and one last service - with both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox united - was held at the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia).  After receiving communion, the Emperor went out and died while fighting on the walls.

"Later the same day the city fell to the Turks, and the most glorious church in Christendom became a mosque."

I suppose for the Christians living at that time it would be like what Muslims would think if the Masjid al-Haram at Mecca were converted into a church.



Suroor said...

What was done to the hagia Sophia makes me sick with anger. And it is not the first time. The kaaba of Sanaa was converted into a mosque. All kabaat in Arabia were demolished. Babri mosque was erected after demolishing the temple where Lord Ram was born. Dome of the Rock was erected where Jews used to worship and offer sacrifices at the crop of the mountain. Indeed some critics point out that the Kaaba itself is a converted mosque (but certainly there is the argument that it was created by Adam and then Noah and then Abraham for Allah).

But coming back to Sophia - it broke my heart to see that the Crosses on the walls where literally carved out. The angels on the walls have their faces covered with gold paint and the pictures of Jesus and Jesus have had their faces painted over as well. Precious marble and gems are carved out and stolen or sold and now walls have verses from the Quran written all over them. Yes, it is a beautiful mosque because it was an awesome church. Sorry, but that is so, so wrong.

Suroor said...

Here -


sanil said...

Hmmm, any wonder St. Gregory began his defense by reaffirming the Biblical doctrine of Incarnation?

I don't know, because I didn't get this far in my church history studies and am not very familiar with this incident or time period. But I was thinking while reading that those statement sounded similar to what was being said in my Christology course, especially the sections on early Orthodox Christianity. So I would guess that he probably did at least include that somehow. :)

Such an interesting topic! I've loved reading your posts on the Orthodox church. In this one, I really like that the last service at Hagia Sophia was a united one. I don't know if they liked it, since you noted that people weren't thrilled about the union. But although I think it is good to stick to what each understands as the truth and the right way to worship and live, it is also important to recognize the ultimate unity of the Church that transcends those differences. I like that they came together for that last time there, and then were still able to go their own way and live by their principles.

Amber said...

I like seeing what you find worth mentioning out of this book. The discussion of God's essence vs. His energies is one of those things that just sort of clicked for me when I read it. Like something just suddenly made sense when before there was always a niggling problem of disconnect.

*sigh* The loss of the Hagia Sophia is always so sad to read about. I find it so moving that the last thing so many of both the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox did was receive communion together before they went out to fight and die.

sanil said...

Heh, I just realized I misunderstood your statement i quoted. I misread "any" as "I". Never mind! But yeah, it makes sense and is cool. :)

Suroor - I didn't realize all that was done. Thanks for the info and link. It is upsetting that people have sometimes found it necessary to destroy the previous cultures to spread their own beliefs, rather than respecting the devotion held there and coming at it from a more peaceful stance. At the same time, I understand wanting to get rid of things thought to be blasphemous, but a compromise would be good.

Susanne said...

Suroor, I was really surprised at the emotion I felt when I read that sentence in the book especially seeing how I have no ties to Eastern Orthodox or Constantinople's importance. I couldn't help but make the comparison to the mosque at Mecca and wonder if Muslims wouldn't be upset if their most holy mosque in all of Islamdom were treated in the same way. I guess I do understand how the Jews feel about Jerusalem.

But I think this is par for the course in history. If Christians won, the places of worship became churches.

Maybe God wants us to learn that churches are not THE Church and that is in His protection unlike these earthly buildings which we look at with great affection.

Thanks for what you added. That truly IS sad. :(

Susanne said...

Suroor, thanks for that link! How cute to see the angels emerging from the plaster! :)

Sanil, nice to see you again and read your replies! The author said they came together during this difficult time - differences forgotten - so I got the impression they were fine with it and wanted to be united against the inevitable fall to the Turks.

Susanne said...

Amber, I found the essence and energies thing explained things well only I wasn't sure what was meant by energies until I kept reading. So it clicked with me too ... just maybe not as easily. Yesterday I was able to remember from writing these notes many things as I was giving a lesson to my dad on why the schism.So one reason I make note of certain things is because they DO make sense and I want to remember them better!

Ah yes I find that part touching too. I really was surprised at how touched I was by the last of chapter 3.

Susanne said...

Sanil, no problem! I was just glad to see your comment as you always have interesting tidbits to add! :)

observant observer said...

Wowww, great lesson of history, I really appreciate what you've read and shared it with us, you've presented the summary well, I learned a lot.

On the part of discussion that God is a mistery yet reveals Himself through the creation as quoted : "Basil once had said, "We know our God from His energies..., but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence. For His energies come down to us, but His essence remains unapproachable." (pg.68), this reminds me of a verse from Romans 1: 20 "For since the creation of the world, God's invinsible qualities-His eternal power and divine nature -have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse".

I wish that all Christian, despite all the differences, are still united in the teaching of Christ to love one another.

Susanne said...

OO, I'm glad you enjoyed the lesson and was able to learn from it! The verse from Romans fit quite well! I appreciate you adding it. :)

Daniel said...

Yes, this was a very good chapter! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. It is better for any earthly kingdom to fall than to infect Christianity. What I found interesting is how the Muslims (strict, yes) treated the Christians. Nothing like they do today in those parts of the world.

Susanne said...

Daniel, I see some chapters on Islam coming up, but this one didn't deal mainly with Muslims except for the converting of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque. I'm eager to read the chapters on Orthodoxy under Islam and I think it's next!

Lat said...

This is really interesting! And also about mysticism.I like the read on energies of God but there's not much mysticism here!lol :)

And I've read about the conversion of churches before so I'm not surprised.I then wondered why they did this.couldn't they find another place to worship.It's a political move to show sovereignty or the winner of the invader.

Thanks for sharing!

Susanne said...

Lat, yes maybe since the Church and State were so tied together, by converting a church to a mosque or vice versa it was more of a political statement. Good point!