Sunday, April 27, 2008

Origen, On Prayer- Part Two

Here we are again with the second entry in the Origen, On Prayer series. We are starting in the second chapter in the St. Vladimir's Press edition. In the on-line edition, it is the same link as last week starting at in the fourth paragraph here: But I think, right pious and industrious Ambrosius, and right discreet and manful Tatiana, from whom I avow that womanly weakness has disappeared as truly as it had from Sarah of old, you are wondering to what purpose all this has been said in preface about things impossible for man becoming possible by the grace of God, when the subject prescribed for our discourse is Prayer.

In the previous discussion, we talked about Origen's recognition of how far God surpasses our understanding and how we only learn about God trough God's grace. In this next passage, we see Origen explicitly making the connection that prayer is also one of the topics which we cannot understand on our own power, but, with God's grace, we may be led to understand. Given my own experiences with prayer, I think Origen is right here.

I remember very clearly how, when I first became Christian, I had a lot of problems trying to figure out how to pray. My first prayer was an oldie, I grant - the Lord's Prayer - as a result of excellent advice from a friend. Still, I felt that I had to figure out how to pray (which is completely an oxymoron). My mistake was a common one. I was trying to figure out how to pray with my head, not by seeking God and learning in relationship with him. I'm still learning how to do that, but I think that is what we all need to do.

Of course, this common difficulty in learning to prayer has spawned a whole industry in Christian publishing- the majority of which are vapour and abstraction. We all, I think, have read that kind of book which leaves us more baffled and confused than when we started. The problem, I think Origen would say, with these books is that they do not pray with the Spirit. Of course, that is as baffling a comment, I'm sure, as anything in these kinds of books on prayer that I've just criticized. Yet what I think he's driving at is that prayer isn't about knowing how to pray, but rather learning the practice of relating to God.

In this section, Origen sets out his plan that he would speak about for what we ought to pray and how we ought to pray. This is not necessarily that unusual in writing about prayer; these are the concerns of almost all books on prayer. What is different is that Origen continues his emphasis that we only know God relationally. That is what I think he means by saying that we cannot pray unless the Spirit prays first. We, all too often, think of prayer as merely petitions and requests to an all-powerful, but faintly remote God. Rather, it is relationship with a God who wants to interact with us, who seeks to interact with us. Perhaps this is, after all, what we mean by inspiration because God knows that, if we relied on ourselves along, our human frailty would distract us from that conversation.

So, in the next section, we start into the body of the argument. As a warning, it seems the passages which follow keep an introductory paragraph dealing with Origen's biography. Just read past that and you'll get to the part that I propose to move onto in my next installment.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Patrisics Carnival XI- Call for Submissions

Well, it's time for Patristic Carnival XI!

This month's Carnival will be back here at hyperekperissou.

The guidelines remains the same as Modest Proposal entry back in November, 2006 and my additions in August, 2007.

The last day of submission will be April 30th and the postings will be up later by the week of May 5th. .

Remember you can offer submissions on the carnival site or the dedicated e-mail (


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Origen Prayer Series- Part 1

Welcome to the opening of the Origen Prayer series. This week's text is here. Follow along with Origen, if you like, but, whatever you do, I hope that my readers will find today's installment helpful.

I had originally intended to focus on the first four chapters of On Prayer, but, as I was reviewing the first chapter or two, I decided that there was really enough here to spend time with. As I noted in my introduction, I'm not interested in merely summarizing or focusing only on the theological aspects of Origen's treatise, I want to consider carefully what is going on spiritually.

Origen's opening is what primarily interests me today. In fact, the first lines are useful to quote:
Things in themselves so supremely great, so far above man, so utterly above our perishable nature, as to be impossible for the race of rational mortals to grasp, as the will of God became possible in the immeasurable abundance of the Divine grace which streams forth from God upon men, through Jesus Christ the minister of His unsurpassable grace toward us, and through the cooperation of the Spirit. Thus, though it is a standing impossibility for human nature to acquire Wisdom, by which all things have been established—for all things, according to David, God made in wisdom—from being impossible it becomes possible through our Lord Jesus Christ, who was made for us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

Sit and reflect on this comment for a bit. Part of what Origen is saying here is that we are incapable of understanding the things of God on our own abilities. This is an essential starting point from a mystical point of view. We do have to realize that God is so much greater than us that we really can't fathom what He is or even what He does.

So often, we want to put God in a box and assume that He is or is not what we say he is. In a sense, this is a way that we can assert control over God, if we can define Him and contain Him in our own intellectual system where He'll act in the way that we expect Him to act, but not in ways that we don't want Him to. It really doesn't matter which intellectual system we're talking about here - both conservatives and liberals do the same thing. The impulse is the same. We want to know about God, so we can have power over him.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), we don't have that luxury. God is much more complicated, mysterious and mystifying than we really want to admit. How could He not be? He created the universe, the world and us, after all. How can we compete with that? How can we expect to contain all that God is about, when we are the created, not the Creator? Like Job, what can we answer when God answers our complaints with
"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid the cornerstone-while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted with joy" Job, 38, 2-7. NIV
And on and on, as God asks Job (and us) the mysteries of the universe, knowing we can't answer. And we still can't answer most of these questions.

God's questions to Job lead us admitting our place in the universe and help us learn humility. We are not the masters of this or any universe. We don't really understand God, who is the source of our being, so how can we say that we control him or that we can speak for him. We can't - on our own resources and powers. We can, as Origen points out, barely understand or forecast what is happening here on Earth. How can we do it in heaven?

This is where the second half of Origen's comment comes in: that, despite our incapacity to know the truth about God, we can know about God only by God's own grace. That is, God's own free gift of grace includes within it the gift of wisdom, of discerning the things of God. What is impossible for us as men, God can and does give by grace.

Now, let's be very careful here. The possibility of self-delusion is so incredibly likely from so many different directions that we need God's grace to escape it. What Origen is driving at is that, while we are incapable of reasoning our way to understanding God, God will, by his grace, help us to understand Him. I think we have to understand this comment in a couple ways.

First, Origen does not separate the spiritual and the theological in the way that we do in the West or in modernity. We want to see theology as a merely intellectual endeavor. If we are clever enough, we will figure out what God is like and the various other theological/doctrinal conundra which plague us after twenty centuries of trying to figure God out. Origen would disagree with this because he believed firmly that we could not do theology - God-talk, if you like - without both actively praying to God and actually acting as his disciple in a holy life (that is, a life consistent with our Christian calling). Theology, prayer and service are not separate things in Origen, or in any of the Fathers. They are merely what we do as Christians. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, in a sense, what Origen is saying is that we cannot talk about prayer in a theological way without engaging in it and without seeking God's grace to help us understand it. If we do not pray, we have to ask how we think we can tell other people how to pray. If we do not pray to God, if we do not develop a relationship with a personal God, how can we talk about Him as we know all about Him? If God didn't relate back to us as a personal God, how can we understand him at all? We can't. He has already made that clear.

This brings me to my second point: Origen believes we can relate to God and that this relationship is and should be a major concern of a Christian. He dismisses the argument that God is so beyond us that we cannot relate to Him, not by denying that God is greater than us, but by emphasizing that God wants to relate to us. His grace is given to enable us to pray and to learn about Him. Our understanding of God, therefore, is not objective or scientific, but rather personal and relational. It is personal and relational because God gives us the grace to learn about Him through our minds and our hearts and our spirits.

I have been reflecting on this a bit over the last few days and I've realized that the reason why I'm a Christian is that God is a Person to whom I can and do relate. I really can't try to have a relationship with an abstract concept, with an Idea of God. I'm really not Platonic enough to do it and I can't deal with the abstraction. I need a personal God because I can only relate to a God to whom I can go to in prayer and in learning, so that I can learn more about the universe and more about how to turn my own capacity for self-delusion and 'kingdom' building' (all kingdoms of petty varieties like 'office politics' or wherever we feel the pull of dominating others) into serving others. I can't do it, but God can. A friend once commented that, at one point in his life, he spent all his time trying to be people's savior, until he finally realized Someone else had the job. And that is okay - and better than okay: it is perfect.

So, let's end in prayer:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Prayer and Patristics- Origen and How to Pray.

One of the themes that my readers of this blog may have recognized in my writing recently is that growing sense among evangelicals that going back to the Fathers is important. That, I think, is a good development and something that all of us who are interested in patristics and trust in tradition to some degree-Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox- should encourage. The Fathers bring important resources to understanding the Bible, our faith and our tradition, so I firmly believe that Christians of all persuasions should be interested in what they say (even if most will not specialize in the same way as, say, I do).

Yet, one of my worries about this evangelical/Protestant ressourcement is that it is still far too centred in the academic/intellectual sphere. That is, many of the early proponents of this ressourcement have been professors of church history and their students. This is fair enough, but what I worry about is that the application of this ressourcement has tended to be in challenging modernist biblical hermeneutics or Protestant historical amnesia or other such theological abstractions. Now, I'm not saying these theological issues are unimportant for being somewhat abstract, but rather that they aren't the only thing that is important. Nor am I saying that patristic writers are only interested in or interesting because of their theological abstractions. In fact, I'm saying rather the opposite: the patristic writers are interesting because of their theology transcends the merely abstract propositionalism which, all too often, passes for theology these days.

So, what I'm proposing to do over the next few weeks is to consider the spiritual aspects of the Fathers through that consummate intellectual and noted mystic, Origen. Origen, of course, has something of an ambiguous position in the history of the Fathers. He is one of the few patristic writers who isn't a saint because of his occasional lapses into heresy. The problem, of course, with Origen was that he was brilliant. Most of the time he is brilliantly right, but when he goes wrong, he goes brilliantly wrong. Yet, it is hard not to take him seriously as a committed Christian, so his comments about the spiritual life are worth reading; even if one has to scan his comments with a heresiometer.

My proposal is that, after this introduction, I will work my way through Origen's tract, On Prayer. In this essay, Origen discusses what prayer is and how to do it in rather a systematic way. Normally, I should say, I fall asleep with this kind of approach, but Origen is so relentlessly biblical and so concerned with the spiritual reality that he is worth reading. I do want to note that I'm indebted to Jim (a frequent commenter on this blog) for this idea because, on the Orthodox Episcopal bulletin board, he proposed a discussion on this tract as a way to uncover what prayer should be (in the context of a rather arcane discussion). Unfortunately, busyness made it impossible for me to contribute as many comments as I'd like, so, in a sense, this post is an effort to make good my promises.

Well, the first part of these unfulfilled promises is to give an introduction to Origen, so here we go.

Origen was born to a Christian family, likely, in the 180s in Alexandria. He received a good education- the necessary elements of the mainstream, pagan learning, but also considerable Christian learning. His father, Leonidas, was martyred during a persecution and Origen was only just prevented from following his father in martyrdom because his mother hid the teenaged boy's clothes. Once peace was restored, it was necessary for Origen to earn a living to help his family, so he became the head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria; a post which he was to hold for the next 28 years. He was the perfect man for the post because he was immensely talented in philosophy, philology and had an exceptional understanding of Christian theology. He wrote an immense amount on these subjects-most of which has been lost. At first, Origen's relationship with his bishop(s) was good, but he increasingly found himself at odds with Bishop Demetrias. The fact that he preached as a lay person in Caesarea (Palestine) and, later, was ordained there (against the canon against eunuchs- a youthful ascetic excess which Origen later regretted) created a firestorm, so he left Alexandria with his library in 230 to set up a school in Caesarea. He continued his literary and preaching activities there, but was caught up in the Decian persecutions in 250. He died in prison from ill

Origen was revered by the next few generations of theologians as an intellectual pioneer, especially in his synthesis of Middle Platonism and the Bible. Christian leaders such as Athanasius and the Cappadocians and heretics like Arius were influenced by Origen. However, beginning in the fourth century, a reaction began against the dodgier bits of Origen's legacy. Much of this reaction was justified, considering Origen's views on the pre-existence on souls were not supported by Biblical evidence. The result of this re-assessment is that much of Origen's writings were destroyed. Yet, he was so influential and so important to the theological development of many orthodox writers that he could not be totally discounted.

Origen's On Prayer is an theological treatise dealing with the confusions about prayer in the Christian community and Origen's answers. I'm really not sure about the dating of this work, but I suspect it is Alexandrian. What I like about the treatise is that it isn't a dry theological reflection, but shows an interest in developing an active prayer life. That is what appeals to me in discussing it.

Well, that is our introduction to the series. Next week, I will deal with the introductory part of Origen's treatise.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Patristics Carnival X

Well, it's time for Patristics Carnival X and it has been a busy month, what with Easter and all that. Here are the offerings! Enjoy!

Front Gate: Introductions to the Fathers

Nothing new this month.

The Midway: Articles on the Fathers

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers blog discusses Andrew Louth's The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, reports on Pope Benedict's discussion of Pope Leo I, Pope Benedict's discussion of Cassiodorus and Boethius, announces six newly-found Augustinian sermons, offers ideas for a patristics book club,

Steve on the Triablogue blog discusses the use of the Vincentian canon (“What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”) by Orthodox apologists against evangelicals.

Randall Cartar Grey on The Africans Whom Jesus Loved blog introduces the Early Church to the advent of the Apostles Creed and asks if the apostle John Mark was the apostle Jesus loved and the basis of the Prester John story.

Veith on the Cranach blog opens up a discussion on an Washington Post article on the Ancient-Future movement, inspired by the late Robert Wilkin.

David Neff on the Ancient Evangelical Future blog also discusses the above article from the Washington Post.

Jeff Reimer on the Mode of Expression blog discusses the importance of the patristic use of allegory as opposed to critical methods.

Haldon on the Inhabitatio Dei blog sets out his favourite Patristic theologians. I wonder, do you agree or do you have another list?

Zadok the Roman on The Commonplace of Zadok the Roman blog discusses applause in the Alexandrian church.

Marvin on the Avdat blog discusses how enthusiasm for Stanely Hauerwas' theology can lead to 'patristic fundamentalism' (an interesting new theological coined term). Since I like Hauerwas, I was interested in seeing his reasoning.

Aida on the Forgetting the Former Things blog offers her preliminary thoughts on the Viola/Barna book, Pagan Christianity. The Rodeo: Patristic catenae

James H on the Opinionated Catholic blog features St. Thomas Aquinas' Golden Catena on Peter's chopping off the ear of the high priest's slave.

Michael F. Bird on the Euangelion blog features a modest Augustinian/Origenian (I think?) catena on the Harmony of the Gospels.

Peter Leithart on offers a pithy discussion of the alleged Hellenization implicit in the Trinity really isn't.

Felix Culpa on the Ora et Labora blog features a discussion of how 20th century Orthodox theologians have used Dionysius the Areopagite, part two, part three.

Eric Sowell on the Archaic Christianity blog introduces a new feature on authority in the Apostolic Fathers, starting with the Letter to Diognatus.

Rick Brannan on ricoblog discusses the use of alla in the Shepherd of Hermas. examines incidents of me genoito in Romans and the Epistle of Barnabas, muses over the authorship of Second Clement.

Tim Troutman (amicus noster) on the God Fearin' Forum has been busy this month. He discusses Minucius Felix' sidekick, Octavius on Intelligent Design, Octavius on Pro-Life issues, Octavius on blood in our food, Octavius on building temples and altars and discusses transubstantiation in the Early Church.

Exhibition Place: Biographies of the Fathers

Nothing new this month.

The Marketplace: Book Reviews

Albert McIlhenny on Christian Book Reviews features a discussion of Father Luigi Gambero's book, Mary and the Church Fathers- a recent contribution to the debate on the place of the Virgin Mary.

frival on the Utter Muttering blog features a very favourable review of Mike Aquilina's The Mass of the Early Christians.

Chris Tilling on the Chrisendom blog favourably reviews the Ancient Chrisitan Devotional from Inter-Varsity Press

aboulet on the finitum non capax infiniti blog reviews Ronald Heine's Reading the Old Testament through the Church Fathers.

Tim Troutman (amicus noster) on the God Fearin' Forum reviews Chesterton's Heretics.

The Foreign Exchange Tent: Translations

Mike on the en epheso blog compares Chrysostom translation versions, translates Chrysostom on Ephesians, 5,21, .

The Apocryphal Aisle: Christian Apocrypha

Eric Sowell on the Archaic Christianity blog discusses the Protoevangelion of John and again.

Tony Chartrand-Burke on the Apocryphicity blog continues his series on teaching Gnosticism with parts four and five, muses on the contribution of Christian Apocrypha to the Quest for the Historical Jesus, discusses Christian Apocrypha on film,

April De-Conick on The Forbidden Gospels blog reports on the Codex Judas conference in two reports (one and two) and discusses trinitarianism and modalism.

I think that is it for this month. If you are interested in taking on the hosting for May, I would be deeply grateful.