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The Point of Origen (Part 2)

Here’s the full text (Zenit translation) of the pope’s second address on Origen:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Last Wednesday’s catechesis was dedicated to the important figure of Origen, the Alexandrian doctor of the second and third century. In that catechesis we looked at the life and literary works of the Alexandrian master, focusing on his “three-pronged reading” of the Bible, which is the animating center of all of his work.

I left out two aspects of Origen’s doctrine, which I consider among the most important and timely, so that I could speak about them today. I am referring to his teachings on prayer and the Church.

In truth, Origen — author of an important and ever relevant treatment “On Prayer” — constantly mixes his exegetic and theological works with experiences and suggestions relating to prayer. Despite the theological wealth found in his thought, his is never a purely academic treatment; it is always founded on the experience of prayer, on contact with God.

In his view, understanding Scripture requires more than mere study. It requires an intimacy with Christ and prayer. He is convinced that the privileged path to knowing God is love and that one cannot give an authentic “scientia Christi” without falling in love with him.

In his “Letter to Gregory” he writes: “Dedicate yourself to the ‘lectio’ of the divine Scriptures; apply yourself to this with perseverance. Practice ‘lectio’ with the intention of believing and being pleasing to God.

“If during the ‘lectio’ you find yourself in front of a closed door, knock and the guardian will open it for you, the guardian of whom Jesus said: ‘The advocate will teach you everything.’ Apply yourself in this way to ‘lectio divina’ — search, with unshakable faith in God, the sense of the divine Scriptures, which is amply revealed.

“You must not be satisfied with only knocking and searching: To understand the things of God, ‘oratio’ is absolutely necessary. To encourage us to do this, the Savior did not only say: ‘Seek and you shall find,’ and ‘Knock and it shall be opened unto you,’ but he also added: ‘Ask and you shall receive'” (Ep. Gr. 4).

One can see clearly the “primordial role” that Origen played in the history of “lectio divina.” Bishop Ambrose of Milan — who would learn to read the Scritpures from Origen’s works — introduced it in the West, to hand it on to Augustine and the successive monastic tradition.

As we mentioned earlier, the highest level of knowing God, according to Origen, comes from loving him. It is the same with human relationships: One only really knows the other if there is love, if they open their hearts. To show this he illustrates the significance given at that time to the verb in Hebrew “to know,” used to show the act of human love: “Adam knew Eve, his wife and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1).

This suggests that union in love procures the most authentic knowledge. As man and woman are “two that become one flesh,” in the same way, God and the believer become “two that become one in the spirit.”

In this way, the prayer of the Alexandrian reaches the highest mystical levels, as is shown by his “Homilies on the Song of Songs.”

In one passage of the first homily, Origen confesses: “Often — God is a witness to this — I felt that the Bridegroom drew very near to me; afterward he would leave suddenly, and I could not find that which I searched for. Again I have the desire for his presence, and he returns, and when he appears, when I hold him in my hands, he leaves again and once he is gone I begin again to search for him” (Hom. Cant. 1:7).

I recall what my venerable predecessor wrote, as a true witness, in “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” where he showed the faithful “how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart … becoming,” John Paul II continued, “a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications. But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as ‘nuptial union'” (No. 33).

We come to Origen’s teaching on the Church, and precisely — within it — on the priesthood of the laity. As the Alexandrian affirms in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, “this discourse is important for all of us” (Hom. Lev. 9:1).

In the same homily Origen — referring to Aaron’s prohibition, after the death of his two children, to enter the Holy of Holies “at any time” (Leviticus 16:2) — he admonishes the faithful: “From this we can see that if one enters the sanctuary, without the proper preparation, not dressed in priestly dress, without having prepared the prescribed offerings and having offered them to God, he will die. …This discourse is meant for everyone. It guarantees that we know how to approach God’s altar.

“Or do you not know that the priesthood was given to God’s Church and to all believers? Listen to how Peter speaks to the faithful: ‘Elect race,’ he says, ‘royal priesthood, holy nation, a people bought by God.’ You have priesthood because you are a ‘priestly people,’ and therefore you must offer sacrifice to God. … But so that you may offer it worthily, you need pure vestments, distinct from the common vestments of other men, and you need the divine fire” (ibid.).

On one hand the “girded loins” and the “priestly vestments,” which represent purity and honest living, and on the other the “perpetually lit lamp,” which represents the faith and science of the Scriptures — these become the necessary conditions for the exercise of the priestly ministry. These conditions — right conduct, but above all, the welcoming and study of the Word — establish a genuine “hierarchy of holiness” in the common priesthood of all Christians.

Origen places martyrdom at the top of this path of perfection. In the ninth Homily on Leviticus he alludes to the “fire for the sacrifice,” that is, the faith and knowledge of Scripture, which must never be extinguished on the altar of he who exercises the priesthood.

He then adds: “Each one of us has within us” not only fire, but “also the sacrifice, and from his sacrifice he lights the altar, so that it will burn forever. If I renounce everything I possess and take up the cross and follow Christ, I offer my sacrifice on God’s altar; and if I give my body over to be burned, having charity, and meriting the glory of martyrdom, I offer my sacrifice on God’s altar” (Hom. Lev. 9:9).

This path of perfection “is for everyone,” so that “the eyes of our heart” will contemplate wisdom and truth, which is Jesus Christ. Preaching on the discourse of Jesus of Nazareth — when “the eyes of all in the synagogue were upon him” (Luke 4:16-30) — Origen seems to be speaking to us: “Even today, if you want, in this gathering, your eyes can gaze upon the Savior.

“When you turn your heart’s gaze to contemplate wisdom and truth and the only Son of God, your eyes will see God. O happy gathering, that of whom Scripture speaks as having their eyes fixed on him! How I would like that this gathering receive a similar witness, that the eyes of all, of the unbaptized and of the faithful, of women and men and young children, not the eyes of the body, but those of the soul, look at Jesus! … Impressed upon us is the light of your face, O Lord, to whom belongs glory and power forever and ever. Amen!” (Hom. Lc. 32:6).

As if on cue, Ignatius Press has re-released Henri de Lubac’s History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen.