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You Can Do Something About It

OK, so I’ve been a real Puddleglum lately whenever I post on the Christian minorities in the Middle East. Here’s some good news, and something good you can do to help those who suffer from persecution, marginalization, poverty, and the crossfire of wars. Check out the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). A papal agency for pastoral and humanitarian support, CNEWA has for eighty years served people in need in the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India, and Eastern Europe. Founded in 1926 by Pope Pius XI, CNEWA’s mandate is to support the mission and institutions of the Eastern Catholic churches; to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need, without regard to nationality or creed; to promote Christian unity and interreligious understanding and collaboration; and to educate people in the West about the history, cultures, peoples, and churches of the East. CNEWA works especially hard to promote unity of Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

Fans of the Fathers will be especially impressed with CNEWA’s magazine, One. You get it free if you give. But you can sample it online, as the editors post all content. The current issue includes a profile of the Armenian Apostolic Church, tracing its origins back to St. Gregory the Wonderworker, the student of Origen. Another great feature in this issue tells how 21st-Century Scribes Use State-of-the-Art Equipment to Preserve Ancient Manuscripts. Very cool.

The online archives go back to the magazine’s beginnings in 1974. Wayback highlights for me were:

St. Gregory Nazianzen (1979).

St. Anthony of Egypt (1974).

St. Ephrem the Syrian (1974).

St. Simeon Stylites (1976).

Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (1983).

And I didn’t even browse much of the archive!

Go! Read! And give! We don’t have to watch helplessly as our brothers and sisters suffer in lands far away. We can do a little bit to help, while we read about the Fathers.

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Twice the Archimandrite You’ll Ever Be

I received the following very helpful answer to the question of Father Robert Taft’s two pectoral crosses (see here and scroll down to comments). It comes from a friend and former student of Father Taft.

Archbishop Stephen Sulyk, Metropolitan Archbishop of Philadelphia of the Ukrainians (now retired), elevated to the dignity of Mitred Archimandrite Father Robert F. Taft, S.J. Sulyk celebrated the elevation during Vespers on May 5, 1998, in the Chapel of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Seminary, Washington, D.C….

Let the record show that Taft didn’t see the dignity as necessary. But it is safe to say that Father Taft was persuaded to accept this honor after consulting several respected and authoritative priests and religious superiors, including Jesuit General Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach who himself has received the equivalent dignity in the Armenian Catholic Church. Officials of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches were in favor of Father Taft acceding to this dignity. Father Taft also received a pectoral cross as a sign of esteem from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

As you know, the title “Archimandrite” (from the Greek, “head of the fold”) is a monastic title given to abbots of monasteries but most often given today as an honorific rank, conferred on celibate religious priests in the Byzantine Church…

What also ought to be remembered is that Bob Taft is a good model of integrating faith and reason. He lives the liturgy and is a scholar of it. He makes no changes in the liturgy but he writes about it from the historical perspective and advises the bishops on how to proceed since they are the only ones who are capable of making changes where needed.

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Virtual Edessa

Did you ever wonder how Eusebius felt when he first walked into the archives of Edessa?

I felt something similar when I surfed over to last week. I hadn’t been there in quite a while, and in the meantime its keepers (I imagine rows of monks in a high-tech scriptorium) had amassed volumes of wonderful patristic titles. Some of it’s in PDF images and some in PDF text.

Check out The First Age of Christianity and the Church by the controversial nineteenth-century theologian Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger. It takes some time to download, but it’s worth the wait. Dollinger weighed in on the losing side of the infallibility debate, but resisted the temptation to join the schismatics, as many of his friends had done. Perhaps he was saved by his profound knowledge of history.

One of the great, but forgotten achievements of the Oxford Movement was Thomas W. Allies’ multi-volume history of the Church, The Formation of Christendom, which has posted in its entirety. Allies, an Anglican clergyman, swam the Tiber (i.e., converted to Roman Catholicism) in 1850, at great personal and professional cost. It was after his conversion that he wrote his massive historical work.

Thomas Allies’ daughter (and biographer), Mary H. Allies, appears on for her 1898 translation of St. John Damascene on Holy Images. The volume also includes St. John’s three sermons on the dormition. (You can read her encyclopedia entry on her dad here.)

There’s more in the Archive, but I’ve spent too much time in Edessa. Time to get back to the inkwell.

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Hold On, Loosley

It’s not every day that an archeologist goes digging in the desert — and discovers a new method of evangelization. But that’s what happened to Dr. Emma Loosley of the University of Manchester in England, when she began her doctoral research in Syria in 1997. She was there to study the architecture of Christian churches of the fourth through seventh centuries. (As I reported in an earlier post, there are more than 700 “ghost towns” — abandoned Byzantine villages — dotting the barren hills between Antioch and Aleppo.)

Dr. Loosley discovered that the local Christians knew nothing about the history of the nearby ruins. Christians are a minority in Muslim-dominated Syria, and they have grown disenchanted with the land and with their religion. In school they learn almost nothing about the role of Christianity in ancient Syria — or the importance of Syria in the ancient Church. Thus, as Syrians, they feel alienated from Christianity; yet, as Christians, they feel alienated from their own country. Dr. Loosley observed that, in Aleppo, many old men opted to play backgammon outdoors on Sunday morning rather than attend the liturgy. Many young Christians simply left the country.

She suspected that their disenchantment had something to do with their historical disconnect. She wrote: “these men were alienated from the Church through ignorance and needed to be educated about their past.” She decided to do something about it:

In 1997 I began taking groups of Christians from Aleppo to the Limestone Massif, to the west of the city, in order to explain the abandoned late antique villages that dominate the landscape to them. These groups ranged in age from late teens and early twenties through to pensioners and we discussed how this kind of cultural awareness tied them more closely to the land than they had previously thought. In turn this caused them to question their self-imposed perception of themselves as ‘outsiders’ and to think in terms of a wider ‘Syrian’ identity.

She brought a deacon along, and the group prayed together in the ancient ruins.

Guess what: it worked. The old guys were fascinated and went back to church. The parishes’ women’s Bible-study groups now go on their own pilgrimages to the Christian ghost towns. And the young people who have taken the tours end up as the “least likely to emigrate.”

Her conclusions should be valuable, of course, for Christian minorities all over the Middle East — those who live in the lands of the ancient Fathers. Christians who know the monuments and their meaning are more likely to stay with the community. Those who know the tenets of the ancient faith, who know the local saints, and who have walked in their footsteps, are the Christians least likely to buy a one-way ticket to Australia or America.

I suspect, moreover, that the same principles apply, by extension, to westerners who take up the study of the Fathers and early Christian history. American Christians, after all, learn little of their religious history in the public schools; and we can, at times, feel somewhat alien in this land of abortion license. But Christians who know the monuments, so to speak — those who know the antiquity of the doctrines and rites — are less likely to leave the Church community, less likely to take interest in another religion, and less likely to choose backgammon over liturgy on a Sunday morning.

I encourage you to read Dr. Loosley’s paper, which appeared in the journal World Archaeology late last year. You have to register to view the article, but registration is free; and the article, titled “Archaeology and cultural belonging in contemporary Syria: the value of archaeology to religious minorities,” is included with the website’s free content.

If you’re in the market for a good introduction to Christianity in the region, read William Dalrymple’s travelogue, From the Holy Mountain. It’s a moving, though imperfect, account of the author’s travels among the vanishing Christian peoples of the Middle East.

Dr. Loosley’s work is discussed briefly in this book: Archaeology and World Religion.

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Footsteps of Francis

Those of you who are celebrating St. Francis’s feast day, take note: Our May 2007 pilgrimage proceeds from a week in Rome to an overnight in Assisi. While in Rome, of course, we’ll peek in on the dream of Pope Innocent III, in which he saw the tilting Lateran Basilica upheld by St. Francis. It’s memorialized in a statue outside the Lateran. Consider joining us for the trip!

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The Other Side of Ancient Liturgy

If you’ve read anything by Jesuit Father Robert Taft — or, better, if you’ve ever heard him speak — you know it can be a wild ride. He’s brilliant. He seems to have read all the ancient sources and committed them to memory, in the original languages. A longtime professor of liturgy and patristics at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, he served the early years of his priesthood in Baghdad. During civil unrest in the late 1950s, he traveled the Iraqi countryside observing the liturgies of the Syriac-speaking villages and monasteries. And there he got hooked on liturgics. Since then, he’s written about three dozen books and several hundred articles on the ancient liturgies and the Fathers. He is a Catholic priest of both the Latin and Byzantine rites.

It would be an understatement to say that Father Taft is outspoken. He has a first-rate mind, and he speaks it with force and wit. If you don’t believe me, read his 2004 interview with John Allen. It is the very image of the loose cannon rolling down the tilting deck of the barque of Peter. I’m sure it sent several dozen ecumenists into damage-control mode for weeks afterward.

His academic work has been a little more restrained in expression, but no less certain in its conclusions.

But his most recent book — Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It — now that’s another story.

This is a book that combines the academic rigor of the published Father Taft with the frankness of his live lectures. Indeed, the book is made up of edited transcripts of his 2005 Paul G. Manolis Distinguished Lectures at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, California.

It’s a book by turns moving and entertaining. Father Taft sets out to give us a “bottom-up” view of the Byzantine liturgy, as it was experienced by the congregations of late antiquity, rather than explicated by the mystagogues. The situation was, as he points out, “not all incense and icons.”

Citing the Great Fathers, he evokes free-ranging congregations where young men and women trolled the crowd for romance. Chrysostom complained that the women at church were no different from courtesans, and the men like “frantic stallions.” Chrysostom also noted that people were talking throughout the liturgy, and “their talk is filthier than excrement.” Old Golden Mouth went on to report that the rush for Communion proceeded by way of “kicking, striking, filled with anger, shoving our neighbors, full of disorder.”

It almost makes today’s American parishes look reverent.

Taft walks us through the liturgy, from introit to dismissal, in a kind of reverse mystagogy. Traditional mystagogy begins with the outward signs and proceeds to their hidden meaning. Taft, however, begins with the assumption that the liturgy is heavenly, and then shows us the very incarnational, very earthly (and earthy) details of the scene where heaven touches down. At each stage of the rites, he quotes from contemporary accounts of what was going on in the assembly. We learn about the vigorous singing, the popularity of the Psalms, and the entertainment value of a sonorous homily, even if it’s in an archaic language that no one understands.

Liturgy was central to life in the big city. Entire populations turned out for icon processions and for the translation of relics. Sometimes, these mass liturgical rallies turned into mob scenes as the herd stampeded toward the center of grace. He brings up the fourth-century pilgrim Egeria’s story about the man who bit off a piece of the true cross to take home as a souvenir.

And yet, for all that, “the Church’s earthly song of praise is but an icon, the reflection — in the Pauline sense of mysterion, a visible appearance that is bearer of the reality it represents — of the heavenly liturgy of the Risen Lord before the throne of God. As such, it is an ever-present, vibrant participation in the heavenly worship of God’s Son.”

“Byzantine art and ritual,” he says as he brings his final lecture to its conclusion, “far from being all ethereal and spiritual and transcendent and symbolic, was in fact a very concrete attempt at portrayal, at opening a window onto the sacred, of bridging the gap.”

And that’s what we must never forget. Even the best dressed and best behaved folks among us are oafs and waifs pressing dirty noses against the window. If we spend our hour of worship worrying about the comportment of the Joneses in the next pew, we’re probably missing the point of liturgical worship.

Taft’s book is probably a good counter-balance for those of us who spend hours feeding off the liturgical works of Ambrose, Cyril, and Theodore (though we do get a hint of the underside in Augustine, too). Father Taft confesses that he himself has written books romanticizing the ancient liturgies. Maybe Through Their Own Eyes is his act of reparation. In any event, it’s our gain.

This book will inflame passions all around. But, in the illustrious career of Robert Taft, what else is new? The lectures include the transcripts of the question-and-answer periods afterward. And there the erudite father does not mince words as he asserts the appropriateness of the vernacular, the “stupidity” of the mania for liturgical variety, and so on.

Google points me to a Taft work available free online, and it’s my pleasure to pass it on to you: Eastern-Rite Catholicism: Its Heritage and Vocation. I know he’s published another, more controversial (and entertaining) treatment of the same theme somewhere; but I can’t seem to track it down at the moment. Meantime, enjoy the Taft you have at hand. And buy the new book. It’s a time-machine trip — and a joy ride.

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The Fathers for Pennies

Liturgical Press has drastically reduced the prices of some good patristic titles.

Enrico Mazza’s Mystagogy: A Theology of Liturgy in the Patristic Age is now $3.63 (down from $14.50).

Joseph T. Lienhard’s anthology on holy orders in the patristic era, Ministry, is now $2.99 (down from $11.95).

Thomas Halton’s anthology of patristic texts on The Church is now $3.74 (don’t know the original price).

Kilian McDonnell’s Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation is now $6.24 (down from $24.95).

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Guardians Dear

Today’s the feast of the guardian angels. Everybody has one. The Scriptures say so (see Ps 34:7, Mt 18:10, Ac 12:15). The Fathers say so:

HERMAS (150 A.D.): “There are two angels with a man — one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity … The angel of righteousness is gentle and modest, meek and peaceful. When he ascends into your heart, he speaks to you of righteousness, purity, chastity, contentment, and every other righteous deed and glorious virtue. When all of these things come into your heart, know that the angel of righteousness is with you.”

CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (195 A.D.): “The Scripture says, ‘The angels of the little ones, and of the rest, see God.’ So he does not shrink from writing about the oversight … exercised by the guardian angels.”

ORIGEN (225 A.D.): “Every believer — although the humblest in the Church — is said to be attended by an angel, who the Savior declares always beholds the face of God the Father. Now, this angel has the purpose of being his guardian.”

ST. GREGORY THE WONDERWORKER (255 A.D.): “I mean that holy angel of God who fed me from my youth.”

ST. METHODIUS (290 A.D.): “We have learned from the inspired writings that all who are born … are committed to guardian angels.”

So there you go. The doctrine was around centuries — well, several weeks anyway — before anybody thought of printing a syrupy holy card. I culled the quotes from David W. Bercot’s Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, whose 704 pages are a real bargain at $19.95 new. The book is quite good, in spite of an intermittent Protestant bias (e.g., in his selection on the intercession of the saints). But in his abundant quotations on guardian angels, Bercot gives us ten from Origen alone!

Get to know your guardian angel. They’re there with us to light and guard, rule and guide. We, however, can choose to be more or less open to their influence. What a waste if we choose less of a pure and heavenly intelligence.

UPDATE: Danny Garland gives us Jerome’s take on Guardian Angels, plus assorted prayers.

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Nestorius Back in Print

Roger Pearse has posted an English translation of the Bazaar of the heresiarch Nestorius (writing under a pseudonym). Nestorius is a tough read, as even his ancient critics liked to point out. But the manuscript history of the Bazaar is a fast-paced international thriller that takes us through rough patches of geopolitics of the last century. Some of the few copies vanished in massacres in Kurdistan. Another was destroyed in World War I.

A man of the Antiochene school, Nestorius tried to articulate a christology that would oppose two other heresies, Arianism and Apollinarianism. In doing so, he over-corrected, and his rationalism drove him to conclude that Christ existed as two distinct persons, the man Jesus and the divine Son of God. A further consequence was his denial of the title “Mother of God” to the Virgin Mary. He claimed she was mother only to Christ’s human nature.

St. Cyril of Alexandria argued forcefully for the hypostatic union — a single “I” in Jesus Christ. Cyril also pointed out that a mother gives birth to a person, not a nature. The Council of Ephesus rejected Nestorius’s doctrine in 431. (More on the controversy here.)