Monophysites, Nestorians and Ecumenical Councils - Printable Version
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Monophysites, Nestorians and Ecumenical Councils - Paul Harrison - 14-04-2007
I am no theologian, yet theological issues interest me, and the more I study certain aspects of early church history the more confused I become. The reason, quite rightly, that Orthodox and Catholic Christianity rely so much on tradition, is that there is so much in Christianity which isn't found in Scripture. According to Clement of Alexandria, this was part of the "secret" teachings of Christ to His Apostles, and them to their closet followers. But the precise relationship of Christ, to the Father and the Comforter, had to be worked out from the spiritual experiences of the earliest Christians. So where there were major disagreements, with subsequent schisms, how are we to tell who got it right? Orthodox Christianity would claim that those matters settled at the Seven Ecumenical Councils are binding, wheras those churches such as the Oriental Orthodox and the Nestorian churches aren't signatories to all of those councils must use a different yardstick.
Its my understanding that many of these early disputes centre on the precise definition of Christ's nature. If the Oriental Orthodox churches believe that Christ has one nature, both human and divine, and "mainstream" Christianity believes that He has two natures, one human and one divine, is this much more than a question of words and semantics? Does it have any practical consequences in the devotional lives of believers? The Nestorian controversy may be a bit more serious, in that it impinges on the devotion due to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as to whether she was the mother only of Christ's humanity, or whether she was also the mother of His divinity and therefore Mother of God. But can any of us really put our hand on our heart and say that we understand the nature of God well enough to answer these small details? When I was in my 20's (I'm now 53) I would have agreed with Keith who was recently posting here, that there is no right or wrong religion and to commit oneself fully to a particular belief is far too limiting.
But in the last few years God has called me into a more orthodox (lower case intended) understanding of Christianity, and that it is, by far the most complete revelation of God to mankind. Yet the precision with which the early Christians felt it necessary to define the nature(s) of Christ leads me to doubt that anyone could know God so well as to be sure of these things. Is there any practical way in which a belief in one nature of Christ affects how He is worshipped and what kind of devotion is shown to Him? This brings to mind some words from the medieval English Christian classic, The Cloud of Unknowing:
"By love may He be gotten and holden, but by thought never."
- admin - 14-04-2007
This is an interesting topic for a thread, and I have written some articles on the Christology of the Oriental Orthodox. I will email you just one to see if you find it of interest.
One key thing to be aware of is that for the Oriental Orthodox the term nature in the phrase used by St Cyril - one incarnate nature of the Word - does not mean one ousia or essence, but it stands rather for hypostasis which is taken as meaning in this context , one individual.
So the Oriental Orthodox believe that Christ is one individual, the Word of God, who has become incarnate.
There is no sense at all in Oriental Orthodox Christology that the humanity of Christ is deficient in any way, indeed it is axiomatic for us that what Christ has not assumed is not healed or saved. So the Word must be perfectly and completely man, without sin, if we are to be saved.
One problem is that much of the Western commentary on the Oriental Orthodox has been provided by those who wish to portray the Oriental Orthodox as heretical, indeed your comments about the response of various convert Anglican priests bears witness to this. I am quite confident that they have not investigated our Christology at all, but they have already imbibed an historic animosity towards the Oriental Orthodox which allows them to describe us as heretics without actually seeking to speak to any Oriental Orthodox to see if this is so.
The most disturbing excerpts from your previous posts elsewhere are those from the Antiocheans in London, since in Syria the Antiochean and Syrian Orthodox Churches are functionally in communion and even priests and bishops may con-celebrate, and members of either Church may receive all the sacraments in the other. How then can the priests in London be so ignorant, and disobedient even, of the position of their own Patriarch and Synod?
The term 'in two natures' was rejected by the Oriental Orthodox because at the time of Chalcedon 'nature' was used in the sense of individual. Thus what was being promoted was a term used previously by Nestorians, who did teach 'two individuals', and which still allowed scope for a Nestorianising position to be held. Of course in Eastern Orthodoxy these 'loop-holes' have been eliminated by later councils, but they were there at Chalcedon and it was on this basis that Chalcedon was rejected, never because there was any doubt that Christ was completely and perfectly human.
In modern times the Eastern Orthodox speak of 'in two natures' and mean that Christ is both human and Divine. The Oriental Orthodox speak of 'one incarnate nature' and mean that the Word is one individual who has become man. Neither diminishes the reality of the humanity of Christ, and this is why several Joint Statements of agreement on Christology have been signed.
But it would seem that for a variety of reasons there are those in the Eastern Orthodox, especially among converts, who do not wish to accept these statements or accept that the easy polemics of the last 1000 years might be at fault.
I have to say, when pressed, that I prefer the Oriental Orthodox terminology because it begins with the Word and preserves the true unity of Christ while also fully embracing the complete and perfect humanity which He took for Himself from the Virgin Mary. I have never met an Oriental Orthodox who failed to insist that Christ was properly human.
But when we begin with the idea of two things which are united then it is harder to preserve the unity - not impossible of course. And in my time online I have met several Eastern Orthodox clergy who have described Christ as two individuals and verged very close to classical Nestorianism through their desire to insist that Christ was almost seperately man and God.
If you read through the statements at <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href="http://www.orthodoxunity.org">http://www.orthodoxunity.org</a><!-- m --> you will see that there is a great deal of agreement on all the Christological issues, but there is a great hesitancy on the Eastern Orthodox side to actually press on to bring about the unity that Christ calls for.
As far as I am concerned the Oriental Orthodox accept the teaching of all of the Byzantine councils, even though they have not suffered from the heresies which arose in the empire. So we have always taught that Christ is fully human and fully Divine, we have always rejected the Three Chapters and their authors (indeed for 100 years while the Eastern Orthodox still accepted the Three Chapters the Oriental Orthodox had already rejected them), we have always understood that the humanity of Christ is complete with mind and intelligence and will, and we have always accepted the use of icons.
We have not needed to accept these councils because the teachings have always been part of our own faith. Since we had actually condemned the authors of the Three Chapters in 449, how could we then be condemned for not accepting the Byzantine Council in 553 which belatedly condemned their writings?
Anyhow, I am just trying to suggest that the Oriental Orthodox have rather suffered in the West from being described by those who rather wish we did not exist. That is not something for us to be bitter about, it is in fact something we need to get on and do something positive about.
I will send you an article about Christ's humanity from the Oriental Orthodox perspective and will be interested in your thoughts after you have been able to read it.
Eastern and Oriental - John Charmley - 14-04-2007
Peter's expertise on this is considerable - although modest as he is he will protest at that description. What I like about his approach is that it is founded in studying not just the historical record, but what other denominations actually say about themselves; he never just accepts the easy headline polemics which have been passed down for a millennium and a half. His explanations are clearer than any others I have read.
When you write
Quote:The reason, quite rightly, that Orthodox and Catholic Christianity rely so much on tradition, is that there is so much in Christianity which isn't found in Scripture. According to Clement of Alexandria, this was part of the "secret" teachings of Christ to His Apostles, and them to their closet followers.I wonder if this is quite so? This is quite a western understanding of the nature of the relationship between scripture and tradition; for Orthodoxy the two are part of the same phenomena; indeed, the scriptures came out of the tradition of the early Church, so there is nothing in tradition which is not implicit in the scriptures - if I am making sense?
I am not sure, either, that St. Clement's words should be taken as meaning that there is gnosis which is not in scripture - a separate oral tradition; that was certainly what many so-called Gnostic sects taught; but my understanding is that the Church teaches that this was not so.
What the Councils tried to do was to sort out specific problems when there seemed no consensus. We all accept the first three councils. Chalcedon foundered on earthly matters, however much those in the driving seat tried later to allege that it was over matters Christological; St, Dioscorus was not censured for his theology. Constantinople and Rome were determined to curb the power of Alexandria, and Dioscorus, who lacked the diplomatic skill and intellectual authority of St. Cyril fell into the trap which had been set.
No where do I find him, or his successors, confessing other than two natures, wholly human and wholly divine, in the one person of Jesus Christ. If the EO wish to make a great fuss over the difference between 'in two natures' and 'out of two natures', they really do need to be able to engage with the realities of our Christological scholarship - not resort to playground name-calling. We are not Monophysites and never have been. Although, as Peter says, we can both think of at least one EO priest who write about the two natures of Christ as though they were two separate persons who operated independently one of the other - which is close to Nestorianism.
I find the EO position odd. Many in their hierarchy know that there are no real differences - but for all the EO emphasis on obedience, when one of their hierarchs shows something of this eirenic spirit - as HE Pope Bartholomew did recently - they cast anathemata at him; they seem to want it both ways: to preach others to obey their interpretations; and then to excoriate one of their own when he seems not to concur with their narrow views. All odd to me - and a bit like Anglicanism in fact.
But I make no adverse comments beyond these ones of genuine puzzlement; there are many good and sincere Christians there; I just wish there was a little bit of reciprocity.
Have a look at some of Peter's writings - I have compared them with much that has been written on this - most notably Professor McGuckin's brilliant book on St. Cyril - and Peter is clearer!
I do so sympathise with your frustrations - having so recently shared them.
Do forgive any infelicities.
In the Risen Christ,
monophysites, nestorians and ecumenical councils - kirk yacoub - 16-04-2007
One of the greatest theologians of the 13th century, Bar 'Ebroyo (Bar Hebraeus) whose width of interest , width of learning, and spiritual
understanding has classed him as one of the greatest of Syriac Orthodox saints, wrote that, after all the studies he had made of all the disputants in the various Christological quarrels, he had to conclude that, in reality, everyone was actually saying the same thing, though in confusingly different terminology. Isn't it time that a mini-lexicon was devised, and that all primary Christological statements were redrafted to say what the
original authors were actually trying to say?
I have difficulty understanding what the Nestorians actually believe, because whatever I read, whether ancient or modern, seems either to be self-contradictory, or couched in language that is less than precise. They even object to being called Nestorians, despite their obvious veneration of him!
By the way, Bar 'Ebroyo also stated that although St Cyril's statement on the nature of Christ might not be perfect, it is the best we have.
Eastern and Oriental - John Charmley - 16-04-2007
What a very good post - and how right Bar Hebraeus was; as the twentieth century talks about unity have tended to reveal.
There are some excellent pieces on what the Church of the East believes at <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href="http://www.cired.org/east.html">http://www.cired.org/east.html</a><!-- m -->, a site which Peter put me onto, and which I have found gives me a real insight.
What is distressing, and we have had examples mentioned on this site, is when some of our brethren resort to old labels to condemn others, rather than trying to understand what it is those others actually believe.
I have never come across an Oriental Orthodox theologian who held that Christ was not fully man and fully God; I have, on the other hand, come across at least one Russian Orthodox priest who regularly talks about Christ's two natures as though they operated separately.
I shall have to look out for Bar Hebraeus; is there anything in particular you would recommend one start with?
Monophysites, Nestorians and Ecumenical Councils - kirk yacoub - 17-04-2007
Despite the greatness of Bar 'Ebroyo, it is difficult to find a lot of his work on the internet. One thing to try is his writings about prayer which father Dale Johnson, a Syriac Orthodox priest from the USA has translated into
English. Best try googleale Johnson Bar Hebraeus, because some websites have a habit of diasappearing. There are also works about him on Hugoye, and Syriac Orthodox Resources, despite a blunder (read the entry and guess what it is!) the site also links with Wallis Budge's biography.
Now, picking up the question of Tradition and so-called "secret teachings".
There are three aspects to Tradition in Christianity: Scriptural, Apostolic and Patriarchal.
Scriptural Tradition is the Truth contained in the New Testament, and the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, being prophecy and typological foreshadowings of the Messiah, as well as the Mosaic Law, the Psalms and Wisdom literature.
Apostolic Tradition is the acts and teachings of Christ not contained in the Gospels but which have been transmitted down to us from the Apostles. The Gospel of St John concludes with the explanation that not everything that Jesus said and did has been written down. What Christ taught His disciples in the 40-day period between the Resurrection and the Ascension
has not been presented to us specifically as such, and it is true that Jesus often taught the Twelve in private, but this does not mean a "secret tradition of teaching." In fact, if we examine the differences between the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the Gospel of John, we will see expressed in the latter much of what Christ taught privately before His Crucifixion, as well as the post-Resurrection teaching. Also, we can read in the Acts of the Apostles and,most forcefully, in the Epistles of St Paul, Christian teaching which, although not explicitly stated in the Gospels, is indelibly marked by and and in full accord with the Spirit of the Gospels.
Patriarchal Tradition is based firmly on Scriptural and Apostolic Tradition.
"Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or by our epistle." (2Thess.v15).The Church Fathers were always very careful to explain themselves on the basis of Scripture and early Church practice, and it cannot be overemphasised that the Church is not governed by the dead letter of law, but by the active role of the Holy Spirit.
In the Syriac Orthodox Church, during the Liturgy, immediately after the Trisagion, we invoke the words of St Paul to the effect that cursed be the name of he "whether man or angel bright" who tries to bring us alien doctrine.
The Church, therefore, has striven, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to erect around itself the protecting walls of the spiritual Jerusalem. Nothing has been added, nothing taken away, and I would challenge anyone to find in Orthodox belief and practice anything that cannot be traced back to Scriptural or Apostolic Tradition.
Christianity contains nothing which is deliberately hidden. Christ became Incarnate not to hide coyly in corners, but to actively seek us out. He did not hide His light under a bushel. If we do not perceive what is in front of us, then it is because, for one reason or another, we have eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear. That is why we pray for our own enlightment, and for the enlightenment of others.
Monophysites etc. - John Charmley - 07-05-2007
Many thanks for this; I always learn something I need from your posts.
I am very struck by your 'three aspects' of tradition. I was reading Irenaeus' Against Heresies the other day and was struck by the way in which he describes Apostolic tradition, and thought I'd share it with you; it is in section 4 of Book 3 chapter 3
Quote:Of course you are right when you say
Quote:I would challenge anyone to find in Orthodox belief and practice anything that cannot be traced back to Scriptural or Apostolic TraditionOn another site Peter and I are having the usual problem with the usual EO folk who simply will not believe that what you have written is the case. They quote Orthodox ecclesiology as though they were the Church and the Fathers as though they owned them.
I have suggested, to a stunned silence, that they need to remember that the 'Ecumene' which convened the 'ecumenical councils, was actually the Roman Empire, and that the Church of the East, of example, was never invited to any of the Councils. They seem to define the boundaries of the Church not by the criteria you cite - Apostolicity and Orthodox belief - but by the boundaries of the Roman and Russian Empires - which seems a little on the imperialist side and not too much on the religious criteria to me. But I guess the old imperial mindset is hard to shake.
- Solly - 08-05-2007
Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies has some interesting items, including Lane on Bar Hebraeus
monophysites, nestorians and ecumenical councils - kirk yacoub - 08-05-2007
Dear John and Solly,
Because Bar 'Ebroyo is such a glorious saint, and because it is difficult to gather together much of his voluminous writings from the net, I will try to post a few of his things for consumption and digestion(!)
The Hugoye site is very good in many ways, though often too academic for many of the faithful. Also, you will notice that many academics commit basic errors - still using the term monophysite, referring to the Church of the East as 'Assyrians' in the sense of a long-term ethnic truth, and so on.
As has been said in another section of this forum, the fact that the Eastern Orthodox were for centuries the approved religion of powerful imperial states has distorted their thinking. (It didn't do the Church of England much good, either!) The much maligned Byzantine Empress, Theodora, far from being the lust-crazed beast of Procopius' "Secret Histories", had the courage to stand up against her husband and the Byzantine Church in order to give vital help to the Non-Chalcedonian Churches. If not for her Jacob Baradaeus would not have been able to fulfill his mission of keeping the Church alive in Mesopotamia and other parts of the middle east. The Syriac Orthodox Church calls Theodora "The Believing Queen". Perhaps this is why the scurrilous slurs of Procopius still have currency, to feed EO prejudices!
Finally, I will soon post two fragments for comparison, one by St Ephrem, and the other by the famous "Nestorian" cleric Mar Babai the Great. I think it will be good to think about the differences in expression in the way the two writers depict the relationship between Christ's humanity and divinity.
- Solly - 08-05-2007
Grrr...now I've got half a dozen Syriac Orthodox sites to browse through...
Monophysites etc. - John Charmley - 08-05-2007
Dear Kirk, Dear Solly,
I am very grateful to you both.
I am looking forward to Kirk's postings.
What I think I find most disturbing about the position taken up by some EOS is that it seems as though they think they can confine the Infinite love of God to their small corner of the field.
I find it a genuine puzzle that God commands us to be one and we resist so stoutly. I understand the reasons why we have so many 'Churches' and I truly believe that there can only be one True Church, even as I believe it is the Orthodox Church, and that the Coptic Church is that Church. But I find it hard to think that other Orthodox are not also inheritors of the True Faith. Even the ecclesiology which still divides us is one we have in common! As far as I can see our Christology is one, as is our soteriology. I can understand that until our hierarchs have dealt with various matters, we remain formally divided, but is it just the old Anglican in me that is sad at the attitude some people take up towards other Orthodox? After all, it is a pretty serious business calling someone an heretic and a schismatic - the consequences are severe.
Perhaps I have just been very fortunate, but I have not seen this spirit of narrowness in the BOC. Indeed, that was one of the very things that helped me understand that the BOC was the place I was meant to be.
monophysites, nestorians and ecumenical councils - kirk yacoub - 09-05-2007
First of all, apolgies for the fact that lines by St Ephrem on the Nativity will not be compared with lines by the renowned Nestorian theologian Mar Babai the Great (c550-c628), but words of Mar Narsai (c399-c502), himself a prolific writer and, for 50 years, head of the School at Nisibis.
St Ephrem: "He who measures the heavens with the span of His hand
Lies in a manger a span's breadth;
He whose cupped hand contains the sea
Is born in a cave;
His glory fills the heavens,
And the manger is filled with His splendour."
Mar Narsai: "He was laid in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes,
and the watchers extolled Him with their praises, as God.
He offered sacrifices according to the Law, as man;
and He received worship from the Persians, as God.
Simeon bore Him in his arms, as man;
and named Him "that mercy which showeth mercy to all,"
He kept the Law completely, as man;
and he gave His own new Law, as God."
What is most striking is that whereas St Ephrem depicts the Incarnate God
in terms of simultaneity and interpenetration, being at one and the same time both God and new-born infant in a living dynamic, Mar Narsai presents Christ as being mechanistically divided into two distinct parts: on
the one hand man, on the other hand, God.
It could be argued that Mar Narsai is trying to underline that there was no interingling, confusion or blurring of the two distinct natures of Christ, the human and the divine. However, what is actually presented to us is that there is no real collaborative union between the two natures, rather Mar Narsai has compartmentalised them. St Ephrem, however, masterfully manages to maintain the great distinction between Christ's divinity and His humanity, yet also highlights the dynamic of the two natures working in co-operative accord.
Perhaps the difference lies simply in the fact that St Ephrem, a great poet, was more skilled with words. But Mar Narsai is described as being one of the greatest of Nestorian writers. So, is the difference between the two due to some flaw in the Nestorian conception of who Christ is?
On the famous 8th century Nestorian stone tablet found in China there is written in the main text, referring to the Incarnation: "Thereupon, our Trinity being divided, the illustrious and honourable Messiah, veiling His true dignity, appeared in the world as a man"; and in the concluding Ode:
"Divided in nature, He entered the world."
The key error of the Nestorians is that they cannot conceive of a true union of the divine with the human in Christ which, in Orthodox understanding, is something dynamic, interpenetrative, in complete accord, and yet without any confusion of the two natures. The Nestorian concept of the union of two natures in Christ is that it is the same as the union afforded to the door and the door-frame, by means of a hinge, whereas Orthodoxy likens the union as being that of light through glass.
It can be argued that many Nestorian writings state things differently, in a way that seems in accord with Orthodoxy. Yet my experience of reading Nestorian Christological texts from the very distant past as well as those of contemporary Nestorian theologians is that, sadly, it is impossible to pin down exactly what Nestorians really believe. Worse still, it is possible, by selective quotation and by turning a blind eye to glaring inconsistencies, for anyone to construct a Nestorian Church of their own choosing.
As for Nestorian attitudes to Nestorius himself, it seems to be: Christologically we are Nestorians, except that we're not, and we object to being called Nestorians because we revere Nestorius!
May God forgive me for any rancour or bitter sarcasm in this post, and may He help us to find common, unshifting ground on which we can finally build an understanding with the Church of the East.
monophysites, nestorians and ecumenical councils - kirk yacoub - 10-05-2007
Mor Yuhanon Gregorios Abu'l Faraj Bar 'Ebroyo (1226-1286), known in the West as Bar Hebraeus, is one of the greatest of Syriac Orthodox saints. Possessing immense spiritual and intellectual gifts, he is known as the Thomas Aquinas of the East. His work of collecting and codifying canon law makes him the ultimate authority, particularly on matters of fasting and prayer.
A monk and a priest, Bar 'Ebroyo was also a physician whose skills won him the trust of Muslim princes. The width and depth of his intellect has led many to call him the greatest mind of his age, along with Avicenna, whose work he translated. Bar 'Ebroyo's writings, in Syriac and Arabic, cover not only all aspects of the Christian faith, but also medicine, geography, law, history ("when he writes about the events of his own lifetime he provides a large amount of valuable information not to be found elsewhere," writes Steven Runciman in his History of the Crusades),
physics, mathematics, philosophy, language, and, as if all this were not enough, he even found time to compile an anthology of humorous stories, some of which would "grace" the Decameron (!)
He is revered as "the Ocean of Wisdom", "the Light of East and West",
"the Prince of Learned Men", "the Greatest Sage", "the Most Learned Man
possessing Divine Knowledge". However, Bar 'Ebroyo himself warns in his 'Ethicon' (1279): "If anyone writes the mysteries of the Spirit without the Spirit dictating them to him, the Spirit will not mix sweetness into his words, and therefore they will not be loved by those who read them, nor give delight to those who hear them." (Faithless academics beware!)
The true sweetness of what Bar 'Ebroyo wrote is revealed not in lengthy explanatory bibliographies, but by the spiritual response of those who read him. The fruit of his life-long devotion to the love and mercy of Christ
was made manifest at his funeral, attended not only by the Syriac Orthodox faithful, not only by Greeks, Armenians and Nestorians, a thing unheard of in those days, but also by Muslims and Jews. He was universally loved. Bar 'Ebroyo had never locked himself away in a study like some intellectual diletante, nor did he imprison himself in the negative self-righteousness of "my Church is right, yours is wrong". Whenever the Syriac Church speaks of Ecumenism it always quotes the words of Bar 'Ebroyo:
"When I had given much thought and pondered on the matter I became convinced that these quarrels among the different Christian Churches are not a matter of factual substance, but of words and terminology, for they all confess Christ our Lord to be perfect God and perfect man, without any conmingling, mixing or confusion of the natures. The bilateral likeness is called by some nature, by others person, and by others hypostasis. So I saw all Christian people, not withstanding these differences, as possessing
a single common ground that is without any common difference between them. And I wholly eradicated the root of hatred from the depths of my heart, and I wholly forsook disputation with anyone concerning confession."
Extraordinary words, not least because they come not from an isolated cleric, but from the Maphriono of the East, the second highest office in the Syriac Orthodox Church. Although written in the 13th century they are far
in advance of what many contemporary Christians would dare to say. No disputation?! But what would we do with ourselves, pray all day?
Loved by all Christians, revered and respected by Muslims and Jews, Bar 'Ebroyo reposes in a chapel in the Mor Mattai monastery, near Mosul in northern Iraq, a monastery that was, until recently, a place of pilgrimage not only for Christians, but Muslims as well. If only the sweet spirit of Bar 'Ebroyo's love for all mankind, itself a reflection of God's love for all mankind, could find its way into the hearts of everyone in Iraq. That is something really worth praying for.
My next post will be extracts from Bar 'Ebroyo's writings on prayer.
- Solly - 10-05-2007
Thanks for these Kirk. A whole ocean of Christianity is opening up to me, where once I was on a small secluded island, in a small bay, surrounded by mountains. The vista now is wonderful.
monophysites, nestorians and ecumenical councils - kirk yacoub - 11-05-2007
In 1279 Bar 'Ebroyo wrote his "Ethicon", which is basically a treatise on how to live a Christian life. It contains a discourse on prayer, seven concise chapters which include illuminating quotations from Church fathers. The reader will find that there is much in common with the Philokalia, an interesting point, because many of the writings in the Philokalia would not have been available to Bar 'Ebroyo.
In the third chapter we are told that there are external and internal reasons for thoughts to wander during prayer. Externally "...sounds beat against the ears and fantasies trouble the eyes... stealing thoughts which, in turn, become the thieves of new thoughts and therefore cause wandering." To safeguard his thoughts against external distraction the novice "must close his senses, especially when he prays with a congregation or in a place full of icons. In other words it is much better that he prays in a dark house or against a wall." Bar 'Ebroyo adds: "The learned ones prayed in a dark cell until, with instruction and practice, they excelled. For by degrees they were able to pray in a crowd, not knowing who was on their right or who was on their left. And many achieved further, controlling their senses not only in prayer, but in all their behaviour."
This part of the text is illustrated by an anecdote about Zachariah, a monk from Mt Sinai who, when ordered to irrigate the monastery garden, did so with his head buried deep inside his cowl, his eyes staring only at the ground. When asked by a fellow monk why he did this Zachariah replied: "So that my eyes may not see the trees, for then my mind would become lost among them and forget its work of prayer."
The internal causes for the wandering of thoughts during prayer are much stronger than the external causes, because they belong to attachment to the world. Here "nothing is gained by closing off the senses." Great inner struggle is required. "Such a man must force his thoughts by necessity and compulsion. He shall press his reasoning and focus his thoughts on the meaning of the words of his prayer." Bar 'Ebroyo explains that "We have two wills which resemble one another:one of the body and one of the soul...It is not possible to mix them with one another..." Therefore it is vital that whoever wishes to pray properly "empties his heart in advance... from every worldly thought. If he is not able, he is not redeemed, unless the purgative medicine is very strong." Bar 'Ebroyo explains that thoughts are attracted to worldly desires in the same way that flies are attracted to filth, and "genuine poverty purges the heart... This is a healing medicine for every disease, and it is bitter and very much loathed." Yet despite poverty being bitter medicine, it is the only sure remedy.
The chapter is summed up with: "Even with all our diseases we should not stop from praying. If we wander, and if we have an infirmity, a disease, all this we must entrust to God. He, by His grace, will gather us into his harbour of salvation."
Chapter Four concerns "the six spiritual practices in which pure prayer is perfected."
The first and most important is purity of thoughts;
The second is to understand the meaning of the words of each prayer;
The third is awe, by which "he who stands in prayer thinks about the grandeur of the One before him, and thinks of the humility of his own nature";
The fourth is fear, "which comes from the knowledge of the strength and power of the Almighty";
The fifth is shame, which comes when we remember our sins;
The sixth is hope, which comes from "the knowledge of the mercy of God, [creating] in the soul an unspeakable happiness".
If anyone is under the delusion that prayer is the work of monks and clergy only, Bar 'Ebroyo devotes the sixth chapter to "The Practice of Ordinary Prayer", explaining that this simple office can be said not only in church, but also "at home, on the road, on a mountain top, or on board a ship at sea," warning that "there is not a single excuse for a lazy man to neither complete nor pursue it."
Bar 'Ebroyo outlines an office of prayer which is the backbone of public and private prayer to this very day.
The worshipper must stand facing the East, arms folded across his chest, thoughts gathered away from worldly cares, to evoke the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the One True God's glory,
asking for His eternal mercy and compassion. Bar 'Ebroyo enumerates the number of bows and prostrations, the number of times the Cross is signed as the worshipper proceeds from proclaiming "Heaven and earth are filled by Your glory - Hosanna in the highest!", through the thrice-said
Trisagion which, in the Syriac Orthodox Church, always includes each time the phrase "Crucified for us, have mercy on us," to the Lord's Prayer, which is followed by personal supplications to God, the office being concluded by the recitation of the Creed. Bar 'Ebroyo adds the warning:
"Unless he does this, he will be with the unbelievers on the day of judgement."
Finally, with thanks to Solly and all the others who have read through this brief presentation about the great saint, Mor Bar 'Ebroyo, I would like to conclude with some of his most stirring words:
"When people think of death they put into their minds catastrophe and the end. This is not how things are. Death is a stage and a starting point. It is
neither the end, nor a catastrophe. It is a change of circumstance. It is a birth."