20 February 2009

'The Confession of Faith is the Greatest of Virtues'

When I began to reread Fr Justin’s ‘Life of St Photios’ on Wednesday in order to write my post on that Saint, the very first paragraph I read struck me (Fr Justin [Popovich], ‘The Life of St Photios’, trans. Ronald Wertz, On the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, by St Photius the Great, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery [NY: Studion, 1983], p. 33):

Our God-bearing Fathers, who governed all things in the Church of God in a proper and God-pleasing manner, have left to us as a sacred heritage the God-given teaching, just as they themselves had received from the Holy Apostles, that the confession and defense of the True Orthodox Faith is the greatest of virtues. No other virtue, they tell us, is so great before God and so profitable for the Church. For the Truth is God, and love and confession of God’s Truth—that is to say, the True Faith of the Church—frees, enlightens and saves us men. This holy teaching is proclaimed especially by those holy Fathers who spent their entire lives struggling to preserve Christ’s true and saving Faith, by which alone men are saved and enter eternal life. This holy tradition of the Fathers, confirmed, as it is, and testified to by their entire lives, offers the greatest lesson for our own generation, a generation which, lacking zeal ‘for the love of the Truth’, has grown cold and hardened in its indifference toward the correct Faith.

Of course, Fr Justin says this extraordinarily well, and with great boldness, but it’s something I managed to put together rather clumsily some years ago when asked to write a paper on ‘Ethos and Dogma in the Philokalia’. It seemed to me that these two categories can be seen in terms of a number of different relationships: dogma as the context of ethos, ethos as a type of dogma, dogma as a type of ethos, and ethos as a path to dogma. Fr Justin seems to be stating something like the third of these relationships. For me, this one appeared in two aspects: one of these of lesser significance, in which the ethical character of the practice of dogma is more accidental to the nature of dogma itself, and the other of greater significance, in which this ethical character is more proper to dogma.

The first aspect of this idea is in regard to ‘the confession and defense of the True Orthodox Faith’ (in Fr Justin’s words) by the average believer who is still struggling to undergo purification of the passions. For such people, the confession of the Faith, just the simple act of reciting and believing the Creed, is an ethical act exercising the virtue of humility. According to St Peter of Damascus (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. III, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1995], p. 138):

The person who has received the grace of spiritual knowledge knows that all things are ‘wholly good and beautiful’ (Gen i, 31); but he who possesses only the first glimmerings of such knowledge should recognize in all humility that he is ignorant and, as St John Chrysostom advises, he should admit on every occasion, ‘I do not know’....It is on this account that with firm faith and by questioning those with experience we should accept the doctrines of the Church and the decisions of its teachers, both concerning the Holy Scriptures and concerning the sensible and spiritual worlds.

But this is not all. According to Fr Justin ‘the confession and defense of the Truth Orthodox Faith’ is itself a virtue, not merely an act performed as an exercise of another virtue. It seems to me that this is true primarily in the sense of the second kind of faith that St Peter describes in his ‘Treasury of Divine Knowledge’, ‘the faith of contemplation [θεωρία] or spiritual knowledge [γνώσις]’ (Philokalia III, p. 213). In her wonderful book, Conversations With Children: Communicating Our Faith (Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 2001), pp. 294-295, Sister Magdalen of Essex writes:

Why do ‘I believe’ in the Creed I recite? Initially, because the saints have told me; but this answer must eventually change, so that each of you will say ‘I believe’ because you have become pure in heart, and have seen God for yourself; you have become a bearer of the Holy Tradition ‘which has been entrusted to you’, able to enrich its expression.

It seems to me that when this is attained, as it is by the Saints, the vision and knowledge of God, which is the proper activity of the intelligent part of the soul, and the confession of Faith become one, as the second flows from the first. The confession of Faith becomes the virtue of Faith itself.

Please forgive me, all, for speaking of things beyond my ken. I was really struck by the passage I quoted from Fr Justin, and wanted to post it, but I felt like I had to offer some of my own thoughts about it too, drawn from other things I’ve read.


Anonymous said...

My sincerest thanks for sharing; it is striking and a challenge indeed.

The Ochlophobist said...

Great thoughts.

I would love to read the 'Ethos and Dogma in the Philokalia'.

aaronandbrighid said...

Ian> I'm glad you liked it!

Owen> Hmm, I don't know. I just reread it, and I'm thinking I might like to rewrite it before I show it to anyone again.