Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Asad Rustom on the Era of Patriarch Cyril al-Za'im (I)

Translated from: Asad Rustum, Kanisat Madinat Allah Antakya al-'Uzma [The Church of the Great City of God Antioch], Jounieh: Editions St. Paul (1988), vol. 3, pp. 101-106

 Part II here.

Part III here.

Neophytus and Cyril (1672-1720): Macarius III died on June 12, 1672, as recorded on the engraved stone described by the priest Mikhail Burayk in the Church of Cyprian and Justina in Damascus. It is said that wicked people from the al-Midan neighborhood plotted and gave him poison to drink and he departed to his Lord.

After the death of this man of blessed memory, the Damascenes preferred his grandson Constantine over others out of respect for the esteem of his grandfather and in honor of the piety of his father, the priest Paul, also taking into account his excellent qualities. He was eloquent, intelligent, noble and virtuous. Constantius of Constantinople says about him: "But the Damascenes, from their attachment and love to the blessed man, remembering the good works he had done for the throne, with one voice elected a grandson of the ever-memorable man and a son of Paul, son of the Patriarch, the monk-deacon Constantine, who was in his twentieth year. On his ordination and advancement to the see, he changed his name to Cyril. Although young he was, he possessed the eloquence and intelligence of an old man."

It is recounted by the author of the History of the Archdiocese of Beirut that the Damascenes requested the berat for Cyril and when it arrived he was consecrated patriarch by Gregorius, metropolitan of Hawran; Romanus, metropolitan of al-Zabdani; Leontius, metropolitan of Saidnaya; and Germanus, metropolitan of Pamphilia on July 7, 1672. And if one were to say: "How could the bishops of the See and the people of Damascus choose this very young man, when at that time in the territory of the See of Antioch there were more than twenty bishops? Was there no one competent for the patriarchate apart from this young man?" We would respond: Indeed, he was elected and consecrated for three reasons. First, out of respect for the esteem of his grandfather the Patriarch Macarius, who made enormous efforts to pay off the many debts and during whose time the entire Patriarchate grew more than during the days of his predecessors. Second, out in honor of his father, the priest Paul. He and his father loved the Damascenes and were greatly loved by them. These two virtuous men attended to the patriarchal residence and all the income of the sees of the patriarchate were in the hands of his father the priest Paul, along with the bequests of his grandfather. Third, even if Cyril was young, he had a mature intellect and was adorned with virtue, well-educated, eloquent and intelligent. These three reasons restrained some of the bishops and the rest of the Christians and prevented them from saying anything inappropriate against him, even though they were put off by his young age.

Neophytus (1674-1684): Others-- and perhaps they were the majority-- were displeased at the departure from the canons and tradition, and so they criticized Cyril's young age, denounced his illicit election, vilified his uncanonical consecration and despised his being made patriarch through the intervention of secular authorities. It so happened that during this standoff the Patriarch of Jerusalem Dositheus II, the famous scholar and eminent religious authority, was passing through Damascus and came as a guest to the patriarchal residence, and so had the opportunity to get to know Cyril at the beginning of his tenure as patriarch and to take account himself of the effects of his youth. He said that he was "a little child" and that he "ascended to the see by the power of brute force and tyranny."

Dositheus met with Neophytus, the metropolitan of Hama, and Neophytus expressed to him his displeasure with the consecration and patriarchate of Cyril because it went against the canons. The metropolitans presented a petition in Arabic to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in which they complained about the issue of Cyril and his accession to the Patriarchal See of Antioch. In early November, 1672, the Ecumenical Patriarch Dionysius IV held a council under his presidency attended by the patriarch of Jerusalem. After the council reviewed the petition of the metropolitans of the See of Antioch and various other letters issued, on the basis of Apostolic Canon 30, Canon 3 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Canon 11 of the Council of Caesarea, and Canon 14 of the Council in Trullo a decision to depose Cyril and expel him from the See of Antioch. The Synod of Constantinople then nominated for the vacant Patriarchal See of Antioch Neophytus, metropolitan of Hama; Gregorius, metropolitan of Caesarea; and Eugenius, metropolitan of Christianopolis. In the end, Neophytus was elected unanimously. The notables of the See of Antioch asked Neophytus in a letter to head to Constatninople and to take over the Patriarchate, just as the synod itself invited him to the reigning city. Neophytus went to Constantinople and was installed as patriarch of Antioch. About a year after his installation, he came to Damascus and took the reins of the patriarchal see.

Then Cyril went to Constantinople and requested a berat from the sultan for the patriarchate and returned to Damascus. The flock was divided, evil increased and the harm multiplied. Neophytus returned to Constantinople and requested a new berat from the sultan, then returning to Damascus and taking hold of the see. The situation continued like this for nine years. Neophytus' debts mounted, so Cyril said to him, "I will pay these debts for you and grant you Lattakia and its dependencies to reside there and benefit from their income." Neophytus was pleased with this and so he went to Lattakia and rested there for a time. He was given the title "Former Patriarch of Antioch" and after four years he died and was buried in the Church of Saint Nicholas, in the chapel of Saint Moses the Ethiopian.

Neophytus left a confession of faith to refute the claims of Calvin. The Jesuit Father Michel Nau approached this patriarch in May 1673, complaining about the Calvinists and asking him to support the Catholics. Neophytus issued a confession of the Orthodox faith and signed it along with Gregorius, the metropolitan of Hawran; Antonius, the metropolitan of Baalbek; and Romanus, the bishop of al-Zabadani, along with fourteen priests, six deacons and a number of lay notables. The Fr Michel presented this confession to Jeramiah, the metropolitan of Tyre and Sidon, and Philip, the metropolitan of Beirut, and they also signed it.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Fr Touma (Bitar) on Academic Theology and True Theology

 Arabic original here.

 Theology and the Other Theology

"If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority. He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory..." (John 7:17-18)

A strange title, right? People think that theology is theology, and not something else!

This is because theology, in people's minds, means some things and it does not mean something else. In our tradition, the theologian is one who prays or one who loves or one who keeps the commandments... Such a one knows theology and is able to teach it.

As for theology, for most people it is an academic subject or set of subjects whose topic is God and divine things. It is taught like other academic subjects are taught in the humanities, sciences or other academic fields.

Theology is taught in institutes or in faculties for those who want to receive an education in it or who want to prepare for teaching or service in the Church, here, there or in some way.

In such a case, theology (or perhaps we should say, the study of theology) is covered with an academic veneer: lectures, studies, research, readings, publications, etc. If you say "theologian" your interlocutor will generally understand you to mean someone who is experienced in the study of theology and has received degrees in it, someone who has become a teacher of it or the author of theological studies.

But there are those who connect the study of theology to voluntary or mandatory prayer, pastoral activities and other such things as a way to prepare for service or specific services connected to the church or group that the students belong to.

In the ecumenical context, students seek to delve deeply into one of the fields of theology in prestigious centers of education or prominent universities without belonging to the ecclesiastical groups or sects behind those centers: biblical studies, church history, philosophy of religion, dogmatics, ecumenical theology, etc.

This and similar things is the predominant understanding of theology for most people. Within such a framework of treating theology academically and ecumenically, the students range from people who to different degrees practice lifestyles within the churches or sects to which they belong or where academic achievement is considered a prerequisite for assuming pastoral positions (the episcopacy, the priesthood, etc.)-- people who run the centers-- and people who have no relationship to prayer, pastoral activity or responsibilities in those institutions, and even no connection to faith in Christ the Lord! They have, perhaps, their convictions and their opinions, but they have no relationship, except academically, to the tradition of the community to which they are assumed to belong-- or perhaps do not belong-- inasmuch as their approach can be purely cultural.

For us in Orthodoxy, as I have known it, in its tradition, this approach to theology is dominated by a Western mindset derived from the scholastic movement that started to prevail in Catholicism and the Church in the West beginning in twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Naturally, some of this was perhaps useful, but it does not belong to the core of our tradition, nor do we belong to the rational approach it takes, which determines the framework within which theology is treated as theology. With regard to it, we are in a strange place, as though we are not on our own territory!

Theology [NB: in Arabic the word 'lahut' means both 'theology' and 'divinity'], as I have seen it in the Church, in my church, is the Holy Trinity. It is the Heavenly Father as the Son has revealed Him in the Holy Spirit, as he says, "All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him" (Matthew 11:27).

Theology, then, is declared (or, shall we say, is revealed) by the Son. "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9)! "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30)! "I am in the Father and the Father in Me" (cf. John 10:38)! Jesus' words in general to Peter, the disciples and everyone were, in practice: "What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this" (John 13:7). This is what the Lord said to Peter when He was washing the disciples' feet. When, afterwords? This is what the Lord Jesus revealed in Chapter 4 of the Gospel of John: "The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you" (John 14:26).

So long as knowledge of theology depends on knowledge of the Son and what the Son reveals to us, then theology is not known through the mind but "in the Spirit"! I do not say "through the Spirit", but "in the Spirit". The Spirit, the Lord's Holy Spirit, is not an instrument of knowledge, but knowledge itself. We are in Him and He is in us! We and Him are one! The Apostle Paul's expression "in Christ" is the fruit of the apostle's knowledge of the Lord's Christ. If the knowledge is "in Christ",  then it is also "in the Spirit" and "in the Father". According to John, "Just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us" (John 17:21). Knowledge of God is for you to be in Him, because He is in you!

This knowledge, then, is not of something or of an idea, but a profound existential encounter! We know Him-- God. We do not know about Him or of Him. This is eternal life: "that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3)! After that, if we speak of it, what we say is a witness. If you speak of the Lord's Christ with your tongue and are not in Him, you have transformed into a parrot or a bodily organ, even if you sing various tunes! Action (praxis), according to St Joseph the Hesychast, is a condition for teaching or to speak of God or to speak of theology! Satan doesn't know God, but rather knows about Him. From this angle, he is the greatest theologian!

In authentic theology, there is no separation between the way, the truth and the life. Everything apart from it is vain. And your Lord is the one who brings you to Himself. That is, to the truth. So He Himself is the way. And since you know the way-- that is, since you know Him-- you are freed from everything that can separate you from Him-- that is, sin. At that point, you find that the truth brings you to Jesus, the life. That is, to eternal life. The Apostle Paul did not say that life comes from Jesus or through Jesus, but "life for me is Christ." Therefore, the Lord Jesus-- to Him be glory-- has given us Himself to eat. His body-- that is, in effect, Himself in the body-- is true food and thus He is true knowledge.

Even if you've piled up degrees in theology, so long as you do not know God and His Christ in the Spirit and flesh-- this practical, personal, existential knowledge-- you are ignorant of Him! You might transmit, in a literal manner, what the Church says and what one or another of the holy fathers says. This might perhaps make you a transmitter. But the way in which you read what is in your hands, the way you translate and explain its contents, which stops at the limits of your own understanding, which perhaps for you is on the level of conviction and certainty, but it is no more than a set of speculations coming from your personal ignorance of the Lord's Christ and of what the Lord's Holy Spirit inspires, on account of your pride and the effects of your passions! This scope, in the state you are in, is the demonic, psychological, frivolous scope, which perhaps you consider to be valuable, scientific positions and opinions with a wide sphere of influence, while the driving factor behind them is nothing other than the passions at work in your heart! This is what makes theological discourse that is limited to what reason can see, analyzing and synthesizing, in theological topics, to be a liberal scope for contradictory opinions at the expense of living faith active in love. This spreads confusion among believers in the Church and estranges the reader from the living, spiritual, apostolic tradition, which alone embraces that which the Lord's Spirit is pleased to reveal with regard to theology.

There is, then, a cerebral, intellectual, academic theology and there is a spiritual, existential theology that has an intellectual, revelatory expression. The first comes from data and passion in the soul, while the second is from personal, existential knowledge of the Lord's Christ and of the exalted divinity.

And so we hold that theology, in terms of speech about God, is divine revelation in human expression. There can be no approach to divine things through humanity, but "in humanity", since the Lord's Holy Spirit abides in us and is active with us. Purely academic theology is foreign to the mind of Christ in the Orthodox Church! Therefore, rationalistic theology is indeed something alien to Christ's Church. We treat theology just as we treat holy things and giving witness. The true theologian is someone who reads, writes or speaks God, not about God! He bears witness. Otherwise, it's better for him to keep silent.

Talking about God is dangerous!

Archimandrite Touma (Biter)

Abbot of the Monastery of St Silouan the Athonite

Douma, Lebanon

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Thursday, June 15, 2023

al-Karma: The Church's Challenges between Extremism and Wisdom

Arabic original, which was published unsigned in the bulletin of the Archdiocese of Tripoli, al-Karma, here.

The Church's Challenges between Extremism and Wisdom

There are many challenges that the Church faces today throughout the world, and there is a great responsibility placed upon her priests to confront these challenges, especially with regard to preserving both the faith and the faithful from the blemishes that can filter into the life of the faithful and the Church.

There is no doubt that the spirit of the world, which is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, is the greatest danger to members of the Church and to the Church's existence, since it is like water that enters into a boat through a little hole, sinking it.

In this way, the spirit of the world and the logic of the world unfortunately seep into the minds of the faithful and the thinking of the Church, which gradually leads to a transformation of the Church into a worldly church and turns her into a worldly social, humanitarian institution, depriving her of her fundamental purpose and mission in this world, for which she was founded: sanctifying and saving souls.

For this reason, the Orthodox Church is concerned with preserving her members from strange teachings about her upright, patristic faith, which she has passed down from generation to generation.

The way the Church confronts this situation must be decisive and indisputable. But at the same time, in order for this confrontation to succeed, it must be conducted with discernment and wisdom, placing before us on the one hand the goal of protecting the flock, and on the other hand attracting others to the truth.

In order to do this, we must acquire a language for speaking with the children of this age. We must know how to approach them, in a world that uses every means to deceive them and draw them to itself.

In this regard, we can say that the excessive zeal shown by certain pastors and members of the faithful leads to the opposite effect. Instead of defending the flock, we scatter it, and instead of drawing others to the truth that we are defending, we cause them to flee from it.

Therefore, if we want to defend the truth in the faith, we must be "as wise as serpents" (Matthew 10:16) and acquire the wisdom that the Lord Jesus Christ had. So let us take as our model his encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42). This woman was an adulteress, as well as being a heretic according to the Jews' understanding. But the Lord did not use any hurtful word with her, neither with regard to her sin or with regard to the error of her faith. Instead, He roused her conscience with gentleness and tenderness. He told her the truth with gentle words far-removed from any hurtfulness when He explained to her that salvation is from the Jews and not from the Samaritans. But at the same time, by His love and His wisdom, He saved her from her previous life and her erroneous faith and brought her to faith in Him.

Likewise, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) the Lord showed that the Samaritan, whose dogma was in error, surpassed in his goodness the priest and the Levite, who belonged to the Jewish faith, since he behaved correctly when he acted with mercy toward his brother in humanity!

When He healed the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), the Lord praised the Samaritan leper who alone returned to give thanks!

What's more, the Lord praised the faith of the pagan Canaanite woman:"O woman, great is your faith!" (Matthew 15:28). He likewise praised the faith of the pagan centurion: "

The Apostle Paul acted with this wisdom when he addressed the pagans of Athens, since he did not hurt them by calling them pagans, infidels or unbelievers, even though this was the case, but rather, seeking to catch them for the Lord and draw them to the truth, with skill and wisdom he told them:

"As I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:23). Was Paul lying or compromising the truth?!

Always, like a skillful fisher of souls, he wanted to attract them to true faith in the Son of God.

And so our duty is to hold fast to the truth that is with us. Our responsibility is to proclaim it to the whole world, but with discernment, wisdom and respect for others' freedom, this freedom that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself respected when he said: "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!" (Matthew 8:10).

"If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Matthew 16: 24), so anyone who does not so desire is free!

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): The Saints and Holiness

 Arabic original here.

The Saints and Holiness

The Saint is an Example and an Intercessor for Us

The true, uncreated holiness in which man participates is a bush that burns but is unconsumed, a divine, uncreated fire. "I came to send fire on the world, and how I wish it were already kindled!" This is God's love, which sometimes leads to bearing witness or to martyrdom, and which is usually accompanied by humility.
The question, in the end, is of participating in God's life and in His uncreated grace.
Indeed, the saints reflect the divine life, the presence of a power that is not of this world.
What do you think is the fate of a person who is deprived the intercession of the saints?
There is a great consolation that the believer acquires in his prayer to the saints and in requesting their help, as well as when he venerates their relics.
Do we read the stories of their lives?
Do we imitate their virtues?

Love, humility, devotion and sacrifice... for the sake of God and for the sake of others?!

Saint John Climacus says on the topic of holiness:

"Holiness does not belong to specific people, but to all people." There is no favoritism with God (cf. Romans 2:11).

Climacus adds:

"One who abandons wealth for God's sake is great, but one who abandons his own will is holy. The first receives his wealth back one hundredfold, while the latter shall receive eternal life" (Chapter 17:9 of the Ladder). 

The saints are the people of God. "Be holy, just as I am holy."

Holiness gives a foretaste of the kingdom.

Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Fr Elias (Morcos): Come and Abide in Us

 Arabic original here.

Come and Abide in Us

The purpose of Pentecost is in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, as is known. It is the desired end, perfection, the purpose of everything... It is the importance of God's "presence" for us in every sense of the word, in that personal, existential bond between Him and us, in Him and in us, in love and unity, we strive for Him and we await Him as a gift... without which, our life truly has no final, eternal meaning.

"Eternal life is for them to know You, who alone are the true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent."

The knowledge that is meant here is complete, perfect knowledge in the scriptural sense. That is, intimate knowledge, union and marriage. It is a mystery whose occurrence we await and which, at the same time, we venerate. Consequently, it is something extremely simple: it is the presence of the Beloved and knowledge of him, knowledge that moves from the dry, outward, social level to the personal level, to the level of being and the heart... the openness of perfect love...

"Come and abide in us"

The beginning of everything is prayer... but it is the neglected aspect in our life. Our religion is a religion of the inner heart, a religion of the Spirit, a religion of life in God: "You are in Me and I in you."

"Come and abide in us"

"It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me."

"If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me."

"If anyone keeps my words, We will come to him and make Our abode with him."

Hence the Jesus Prayer, which is like breathing, which is like partaking, partaking in the name of Jesus. If not, do we live with God? With whom do we live?

 Our God, love, is the Trinity... That is, He is completely mutually-exchanged love. Each of the three hypostases exists completely in the others as existential love and therefore God the Trinity is one God.

We say at the Divine Liturgy: "Let us love one another that with one mind and one heart we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity consubstantial and undivided." That is, the only way to confess the one God, the Trinity, is for us to love one another. We confess Him so that we may be in harmony with Him and love each other, and so that we may be in the image according to which He created us. When we truly love with all our being, we experience the life of the Holy Trinity, if one can say so. When a young man loves a young woman with all his being, he loves God, all humankind and the entire universe.

The commandments all flow, in their result, into the channel of love. The purpose of "judge not" is for you not to be negative, not to distance yourselves from each other, thus distancing yourselves from love. So too with "Thou shalt not steal," "Thou shalt not lie" and "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

Sins are sins and passions are passions because they annihilate love and so distance us from God. Keeping the commandments without love is dull, insipid, meaningless. It is in vain. Therefore existential love is connected to purity and limpidity: "He who loves his brother abides in the light" (1 John 2:10). Turbid love is not true love.

The whole of the Christian life takes place, or should take place, under the banner of renewal: for you are "those who have followed me, at the renewal of all things." The new man is one who is constantly renewed in his striving in the Lord and toward the Lord, whose life has no end. Let everything have a new face, for the Lord is in it.

Love is unceasing motion... love must be renewed at every moment.