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Book Reviews

The Gestures of God , edited Geoffrey Rowell and Christine Hall (Continuum, 2004); ISBN 0-8264-7782-8. 194 pp.

The papers that comprise this volume are from a 2003 consultation on Sacrament and Sacramentality arising out of concerns that traditional “sacramental theology…seems to feature less and less in academic programmes”, that “the sacramental reality of the Church seems more rarely taken as read” and that “Churches with an overtly sacramental approach are losing adherents, except perhaps in places where Christian communities are under severe pressure and where non-sacramental forms of Christian worship are less readily available as an alternative.” Given the proselytising targeted at members of Orthodox Churches not only in Western countries such as the USA and UK but also, since the fall of communism, at the Byzantine Orthodox Churches of eastern Europe and indeed our Mother Church in Egypt, a series of papers inspired in part by the loss of Christians to non-sacramental alternatives should be of interest and relevance to Orthodox.

Though concerned “to lose nothing of the valued insights and practices of the past” the contributors feel free and indeed evidently consider it needful to question or challenge what they consider inadequate ecclesiology and sacramental theology. In their exploration of the continued relevance of this sacramental inheritance they throw up “conceptual ambiguities” that might be “disturbing to some viewpoints, though in fact” they consider these “more creative than destructive”. Don’t let this phraseology set off your alarm bells too much though! For sure the contributors (with one exception) are not Orthodox Church members and must therefore be read and appreciated from their own perspective – but remember that what they offer here are basically apologetics for sacramentality, they are writing in support of something which is both at the heart of and permeates throughout our Oriental Orthodox Faith.

There is a wide variety of worthwhile material in this collection. David Brown’s ‘Re-conceiving the sacramental’ challenges a too inward looking theology that doesn’t give enough attention to the physical world around us. Anyone who appreciates Kallistos Ware on environmental issues and the physical creation with his references to the universe being a burning bush that manifests God, should find Brown worth a read. Anyone who gets fed up with the Protestant objections that all this sacramentalism isn’t Biblical should certainly appreciate Crispin Fletcher-Louis’ ‘The image of God and the biblical roots of Christian sacramentality.’

Perhaps it is, in part, because I am an Oriental Orthodox but I believe this collection would be the better for a stronger Oriental Orthodox content. I do not say that analyses offered are necessarily wrong nor conclusions erroneous but there sometimes seems something lacking to me, maybe it is just in the way a subject is presented, the way it is ‘nuanced’. I would, for example have appreciated greater reference in Jyoti Sahi’s paper when he considers the, admittedly difficult, area of ‘inculturation’, to the experience and practice of the more ancient Indian Churches. This is not to argue that, for example, the Malankara Church has some final, definitive position as regards ‘inculturaton’ or indeed an on-going position that is vastly different to that of, say, the Roman Catholic Church but it seems to me that the consideration could nonetheless at least have been enriched through contributions from that quarter. Coptic Orthodox history under Islam could offer much worthwhile material here too, from the complexities of the inter-relationships between Jews, Christians and Moslems through the Fatimid era to the early Mamluk period, to the Moslem-Christian nineteenth and twentieth century relationships. To see so much Christian experience missed always leaves me with a sense of ‘re-inventing the wheel’. I would certainly hope that the ancient pre-European Churches could have contributed to “the search for the Oriental Christ… an effort to imagine Jesus from an Indian point of view, not as a European figure…” To be fair, Jyoti Sahi is aware of earlier Indian Christianity and touches on it here – but I do feel this is an area where the non-European Indian Christian tradition could be better heard.

Whilst not necessarily requiring an Oriental Orthodox contribution in the form of a paper I do wonder whether wider references from Oriental Orthodox theology would enrich or perhaps balance some areas. Not that I would want to suggest the book totally devoid of Oriental Orthodoxy. The excellent Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, with his considerable experience of Oriental Orthodoxy, includes various facets of Ethiopian Orthodoxy as engagingly and instructively as one has come to expect from him in his paper ‘The Significance of Sacramentality.’

The Byzantine Orthodox theologian Peter Bouteneff does mention our theology in passing and this is an area where I consider a balance most definitely needed. Anyone unfamiliar with the Agreed Statements between the two families of Orthodoxy reading his words might well conclude that the Byzantine position had been the correct one all along to which the Orientals had now agreed. An Oriental Orthodox contribution is most certainly needed at this point to achieve a better balance in terms of Christology and ecclesiology as well as sacramental theology. The Oriental Orthodox emphasis on the unity or oneness, on the One nature of God the Word Incarnate, is relevant to allsacramental theology whether meaning what are more specifically thought of as the sacraments or whether meaning the whole sacramental nature of the universe, of creation – or indeed the relationship or interaction between them both.

Given the history for many decades now of strong and wide-ranging ecumenical involvement by our Oriental Orthodox Churches I would hope that a future conference or collection of papers on this subject might include a contribution from our family of Churches. For, (to end this review as I began it) whether we like it or not, the Oriental Orthodox Churches do not exist in splendid isolation from either the modern secular world or from other Christian Churches . If sacramentality is under attack or is being eroded, if non-sacramental alternatives are on the increase, then these issues should surely be of interest to us. It may well be that we shall offer different interpretations and different answers to some of the contributors in this book but we may well have to at least consider similar questions.

FATHER SIMON SMYTH

Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann, Prayer of Jesus – Prayer of the Heart, translated Theodore and Rebecca Nottingham (Inner life Publications) ISBN 0-9638181-2-0. 180 pp..

The opening chapter offers a wonderful tour through Old and New Testaments on the power of the Name of God flowering into fullness in the holy Name, Jesus. What a testimony of love for the divine Name by patriarchs, prophets, apostles is here. The next chapter moves on through the New Testament and the early Christian centuries: Hermas, Origen, Ephrem the Syrian… But as the authors point out their “goal here is not to exhaust this immense outpouring which clearly shows that it is the same faith found in the Acts of the Apostles which continues to make its way down through the centuries. What is important is not so much the scholarship as the need to quench our thirst for prayer today at the source of the masters of yesterday. For them, the power of God is truly present in the name of Jesus. The invocation acts in the manner of a sacrament with divinizing power.”

That quote basically sums up the book. It is not unscholarly – it just doesn’t flaunt its scholarship for that is not its aim. Its aim is to inspire, to fan into flame the spark of prayer – in the authors’ own words: “We have dared to write a book on the Prayer of Jesus because we are certain that it will become one of the most important keys to the rediscovery of the first spark of early Christianity.” This is a book written out of love, humility and “fiery poetry”

At times that love and fiery poetry brings forth delightful and memorable verbal imagery: “we must begin, according to the invitation of Christ Himself, by descending into the crypt of our heart where the divine spark is found which, in solitude, can turn into fire.”

At other times it is demanding and powerfully challenging: “The justificiation of “lack of time” does not work here: the prayer is much more nourishing than sleep . Recent research tells us that a half hour of meditation is equal to three hours of sleep… we can discover with surprise, if we take up the Prayer of Jesus in all our empty moments – travel, dinner, pauses in the day… to what extent these times add up and of what extraordinary fecundity they are!”

The authors offer helpful instruction on a variety of physical postures yet do not over-insist on any particular one but allow freedom. They offer helpful practical insight into the practice of the prayer.

To sum up, this is quite simply a wonderful book on the Jesus Prayer. To any and all who love the Name of Jesus I thoroughly recommend this volume. When I say it is inspiring, I know whereof I speak, for it inspired me enough to pray the Jesus Prayer (however feebly) at the dentist while having a tooth extracted!

FATHER SIMON SMYTH




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