Monday, August 29, 2016

Fr Touma (Bitar) Evaluates the Crete Meeting: Conciliarity and Holiness

Arabic original here.

Conciliarity and Holiness

"Pursue.. holiness, without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14).

A question is posed: in what sense is conciliarity connected to holiness? Every council [or "synod," the word is the same in Arabic] of bishops, whether local or ecumenical, is known as "holy", as though the word "holy" were part of its name. If we become accustomed to hearing the name "holy council," then it is necessary to wonder in turn: what is the intent of connecting the words "council" and "holy"? It is likely that the automatic "holiness" of councils is nothing more than the usual Middle Eastern custom of wordiness, aggrandizement and exaggeration. The expression is, most likely, in its reality and context, metaphorical. But is seems as though the meaning of holiness is conceived as being the presence of the Holy Spirit in conciliarity by default. Otherwise, what meaning and what real value does it have? Dealing with holy things does not necessary make the council holy! This is rather an attribute of those who act and what they do, together in the Spirit and not of the ecclesiastical matters that they deal with merely as a subject of interest! To speak of "the holy council" as a permanent body implies that there is conciliarity that exists in itself, apart from those who gather and consult each other, no matter what their conditions and their results. This gives the impression that according to their thinking, divine grace is at work in the council without regard to the quality of those there or the value of its results. If this were really possible, then there would never have been any heretical councils in history! Then if we were to accept such a belief in the inevitability of the work of the Holy Spirit of the Lord in the council, faith in the incarnation would be ripped to shreds and we would be denying that God and man cooperate in every matter in the Church, that they are in a state of synergy. Therefore, the custom of regarding every council as holy in the strict sense of the word, even before it is held, is a forced, presumptuous claim, part of the accretions left by a mentality of decline and the effects of worldly environments and thus out of place, even if it is customary.

The council-- any council-- begins as a council of bishops. Is that not enough elevation and responsibility for it?! It is not fitting to confer upon it the status of holiness a priori, lest we take holiness lightly and not regard it as being categorically joined to the Holy Spirit, as if there were no need to pray to the Lord's Spirit for inspiration! It is not fitting to regard it as holy except after there has been confirmation in the Spirit that its work was in the Spirit. Give blood and receive spirit! This occurs when the Spirit of the Lord reveals in it something new and fundamental for the soundness of the true faith. This presumes that applying the attribute of holiness to a council comes as an expression of a theanthropic reality, not of human sentimentality. Verbally employing the attribute of holiness without a real reason empties the word of its basic content, which weakens our sense of holiness and causes the Church to act as if she can deal with it without the Spirit. At that point, emotions come to be the substitute!

The fathers of the ecumenical councils are saints for us. Everyone who participated in an ecumenical council, without regard to his life story, is a saint-- this is a cause for wonder! What is the standard for sanctity, in this case? For us, an ecumenical council speaks divinely. The bishops answer it with an "amen," put it into practice, and bear witness to it. What it says is theanthropic and the response is theanthropic. The Spirit speaks and the Spirit says "amen!" "By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God" (1 John 4:2). No one says Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. I am not only talking about those in whom God speaks, but also those who hear in Him. He who speaks and he who hears, in this case, both accept the Spirit of the Lord and bear witness to Him. This causes both of them to be sanctified by the Spirit of Holiness who is active in them. Thus they are considered saints. Is sanctity fixed in those who are sanctified in the council or is it not fixed? We do not know. However, the Holy Church presents us with the fathers of the ecumenical councils as good models for the life of holiness, in specific circumstances, because they encourage us to have faith in the Lord's Spirit, to be humble before the Lord's Spirit, just as they had faith and received God's word with humbleness of heart. Of course, there are actions that we take in order to keep the faith and abide in humility and there are actions that come from the indwelling of the Spirit of God within us, but there is nothing mechanical or automatic about this! We receive the Spirit of the Lord and with Him the commandment to "go and sin no more!"

He who reposes crowning his life with holiness dies a saint  and he is in no more danger. But he who lives in holiness or, more precisely, he who pleases God at one time or another, what happens to him after that? Is he no longer subject to falling? There is not necessarily any guarantee! Your Lord knows the path of every soul. In any case, the Church is not a registry of holiness. Only, we make saints of those whom the Church has deemed worthy to announce their sanctity on account of a reason that is usually specific, whom she meant as living images worthy of imitation, living gospels! The declaration of their sainthood is with regard to us, for the purpose of education, in what they did in this situation or that, not with regard to God, which will be revealed at the judgment. The assurance in honoring the saints is not in history-- the history of these people or the details of their biography-- but in faith, our faith which calls upon the work of the Lord's Spirit in our life. In other words, in faith our souls rise to those portions of the lives of the saints that we reverently approach for edification and spiritual benefit. The Spirit of the Lord is the one who gives us that to which we aspire. The link to the saints is not human, but in the Spirit! When one seeks the Spirit of the Lord in a saint, the saint sends what he is seeking in the Spirit or, more precisely, the Spirit sends what he is seeking in the saint. I say this because even as the saint maintains his individuality, he becomes one with the Spirit. The relationship in the Spirit negates fear and doubt with regard to the historical data about the saints. We walk according to the word of the Spirit in the Church, not according to the word of history and geography, even if we do everything in our ability to put the fruits of the intellect and scholarship into the service of the Lord's Spirit. We are at ease in our relationship to the saints not if our intellect is at ease, but because we walk in faith!

We must admit and confess that, in history, there are saints whose holiness is in doubt or perhaps who never existed, but rather are the result of mythological legends. Does this affect their honor, or rather, our honoring them, if we are not clear about them, such that we do not benefit from mentioning them, but rather deal with legends? Of course not! Rather, that which we receive in simplicity of heart and faith bears fruit in the blessing of the Spirit. Even if there is doubt about the existence of a given saint, the Spirit brings us close to him as though he exists, perhaps through an angel who takes his name, if we accept him with sound intent, so that our faith will not be established on people's doubts, but on God's certainty! As for exaggerations, in any case, let us avoid them, lest we cause scandal.

Holiness is an outpouring of the work of the Spirit of the Lord within us, individually or collectively. This does not come about without us. "Come and abide in us." If conciliarity does not embody the truth, for the Spirit of God, then it is worthless and, indeed, harmful! One of the pains of Orthodoxy today is the accumulation of a certain amount of empty speech--inflated titles, honorifics and formalities-- with regard to holiness, to the point that holiness has become difficult to discern from the dense and exaggerated pagan elegies for some of those who have passed. We facilely and recklessly bestow qualities of holiness upon those whom we are inclined to praise, not to speak of the fixed characterizations of holiness that fill our books according to principles that have become protocol, expressions such as "Holy Master", "Holy Father", "His Beatitude", and even "His All-Holiness"... Is this not a state of sickness and schizophrenia that we say what we do not mean, or that we mean something but say something else, or that holy things become a talking-point for us?! I have never found the Apostle Paul asking anyone, even i passing, to apply to him a title of holiness. Even if he said of himself that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, it is in the sense of being His servant. He meant precisely what he said without embellishment. His boasting was in his weakness and in his Lord. His slogan, as he was wont to repeat, was that Christ came to save sinners, of whom he was first.

This is our Holy One and we know none other. Him alone do we imitate and from Him alone do we receive the Spirit of holiness. He who sprouted, as Isaiah said, from dry ground, with no form or comeliness, no beauty that we should desire Him, but He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows and the pleasure of the Lord prospers in His hand.

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite-- Douma, Lebanon
July 31, 2016


Dimitrios Kiminas said...

Dear Sir,

I am a scholar of Orthodox History and I would very much like to discuss with you about the History of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

Your comment in another site that "Germanos Shehadi was consecrated bishop of Zahle on September 12, 1904" helped my research enormously.

Please contact me at constantinople[at] so I can talk to you.

Dimitrios Kiminas said...

Dear Sir,

In continuation of my above comment, I was wondering if your Arab history book says why the See of Zahle remained 4 years without Metropolitan, since the previous Metropolitan (Gerasimos Yale) reposed in August 1899.

Also does it say when Germanos Shehadi was deposed from the See of Zahle and Nifon Saba was consecrated Metropolitan of Zahle in his place? I know this happened sometime between the years 1922 and 1925 but I don't know the exact time.

Please contact me in my above e-mail so we can discuss about the Hierarchy of the Patriarchate of Antioch without having to use this inconvenient comment system.

Many thanks in advance,
Dimitrios Kiminas

Andrew said...

Thank you very much for these translations! I have been helped tremendously by learning of Fr Touma through your website. I deeply desire to know more about this man and his wisdom, and I look forward to every taste of his writings and spirit we get to experience due to your work! Thank you!