Friday, January 17, 2014

Personal Notes taken from: THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD - Theology as a Way of Life

Heythrop College, January 11th 2014

WORDS AND PRACTICES – The Rt. Rev. Prof. Rowan Williams

Theology as “The representing and exploring of the meaning of the word of God.”  Theology is narrative received in the lives of people.  It begins as people wish to know themselves.  As a way of life it becomes a way in which I understand my-self, my embodiment.  These are the areas were meanings are to be understood.  Meanings are experienced in that narrative; reflecting on the truth of who I am.  How do I educate my-self about who I am?  The theologian must have an ear on the wider culture – new meanings are being created – as they sit before God.  Theology is a way of patience that allows us to sit with the things that resist being said quickly; with my own and others inarticulacy.  It requires self-reflection; patience; questioning.  The Church needs to be a learning community.

The two basic moments in the Christian revelation are:
i)  Exodus;
ii) adoption
and both spring us from the controlled experience to freedom.  Adoption establishes us in a new identity.

So we look for a language that risks its own freedom.  But what might lead us back to un-freedom and what gestures us towards the contemplation of the Son-becoming?  For the self to become where the Son happens?  We need a language that gestures us towards that.  Theology must edge us towards that theme.  What does a Christian life look like when Christ is ordering it?  The theological way-of-life is about adoption becoming aware of itself. 

For a Christian there is no theology which is not Trinitarian.  Theology is a growth in the adoption process, an awareness of Christ being present.  A growth towards being a son of God.  Theology is not alien to either silence or joy; where chatter and anxiety are present, theology needs to re-assert itself.


Theology is a way of life rooted in the stillness of life for the well-being of others.  S. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzen) observed that theology needs a proper ground of formation.  In his Oration he says that heterodox theologians delight in inarticulate and elaborate verbiage, disordered desires and a desire to ‘know about’ God.  As a result they have become obsessed with conundrums, with “boring nonsense”.  They talk too much and fuel competition and violence.  Who, then, is the right person to be a theologian?  One who has undergone purification of body and mind; who has de-cluttered the faculty of the mind, of wandering images, and is still (Ps 46:10).  Who is the proper audience?  Those who have, or are, undergoing a similar experience and do not regard it as yet another “precious amusement”.  There is a certain way of living in the practice of theology involving hospitality, brotherly love, caritas and fasting.  Such bodily practices draw us deeper into the life of stillness.  “Inner chatter” fuels the disordered tongue leading us to compete with others.  Without this de-cluttering of the mind we cannot truly look at ourselves.

When is the right occasion to practice theology?  When we have a vast stillness – the stillness of the ocean – involving purification of the body; de-cluttering of the mind; the practice of contemplation.  Evagrius observes that practicos reveals how much we need to be free from practices that prevent us knowing who we are and knowing God.  Pathos hooks us into something else – those afflictive thoughts which do battle with us.  The ‘demons’ offer the ‘sticky side’ to attract those thoughts which rivet attachment to obsessive patterns thus keeping us ignorant of the inner life of Christ.  The antidote is to develop an internal practice of vigilance; the ability to interrupt as soon as possible our ‘inner videos’, the stories ‘about’ …  We need to get out of the story that we become hooked into and connect to the story of Love.

There are two sources of ‘knowing’.  Discursive/conceptual thinking and ‘nous’ – a non-conceptual, intuitive encounter with that beyond images – the “eye of the heart” (Augustine).  A proper theological perspective requires the liberation of the mind.  Discursive knowledge is necessary but exists beneath theology.  When you close my eyes I began to forget my-self … when I awoke … I saw … with the eye of the heart. (Augustine – paraphrase).  Theresa of Avila says this is like rain descending from the sky into a pool so it’s impossible to separate the sky from the pool.  This is not the collapse of created identity but its flowering; the illusion of separation is dropped.  The self is like a sea-sponge which looks within and without and sees nothing but ocean – that in which it exists.  ‘The Lord’s breast is the sponge of the heart’ (Gregory of Nyssa: Commentary on the Song of Songs). 

The practice of theology becomes a way of life when contemplation practices break through the illusions of the cluttered mind, integrating the mind in the ocean of the Father’s love, whose “margins are our margins”
But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence we call God...
It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins; that call us out over our
own fathoms. (R.S.Thomas)


Augustine insists that when people encounter beauty with a particular question – Tell me about God – that beauty reveals its answers and shows the ‘perfect safety of the Universe’.  A person functions differently when either fear or love determines that behaviour: we need to be aware of the weight of fear we carry.


Orthodox theology begins and returns with the Liturgy.  When we speak of the ‘practice of the presence of God’, what do we mean by God?  The Divine Liturgy begins with the censing of the iconostasis – this simple censing includes all things into that circular movement symbolising God’s love going out and embracing all things into itself.  The cycles of prayer are endless – this constant movement catches us up into itself.  The presence of God is not static but dynamic.  The static Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction are absent in Orthodoxy where the altar, icons and cross are venerated but not the Sacrament.  But the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts involves the veneration of the Gifts as they are brought to the altar in silence.  They are venerated as they move, not when they are still, as Christ comes to His people.  It is the One who is coming that we venerate.

At the Marriage (and Ordination) services there is a ‘dance’ around the Holy Table (the Dance of Isaiah -, a circular movement that indicates the beginning of an endless movement into the world (see also Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village (Romiosyni) by Juliet Du Boulay).  These circular movements reflect the circular movement in village dances which, in themselves, reflect something of the dance of life.

The practice of the presence of God is about movement and encounter – from liturgy to life.  Presence is to be understood as encounter inviting a response to Christ and His saints.  Icons are about encounter and invite a response.  The invocation of the Name of Jesus makes present the Divine Gift and anywhere we are we can be in His Presence through invoking of the Name – no longer only in the Temple, but anywhere.


Ephrem believed that the vast gulf between Creator and creature could only be bridged by the design of the Creator; otherwise the creature would know nothing of the Creator.

He did not believe one could define God; instead he uses paradoxes and rasa (symbolic mysteries) which give some aspect of Divine reality.  For him, symbols are everywhere present – in nature and in the Book.  They are latent in Creation but are beheld through the ‘luminous eye’ of the heart.  To start functioning, the eye begins to see with a minimum of faith that there is meaning in life.  As it is opened one begins to see the interconnectedness (synergy) of all things.  Our free-will allows the operation of this interior eye.  The eye must be unclouded by sin, have right-belief (orthodoxy) in the Trinity and love – reciprocal love between God and creature “Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated” (Ephrem).  Everything has the potential to become a sacrament: Ephrem has a love of the metaphor of ‘clothing’ and much of the language we/scripture employs to describe God’s attributes are reflections of what we see. ‘God gave what belonged to Him, and took what belonged to us’ – S. Ephrem on the Incarnation

Mary serves for the locus of every Christian and the Eucharist is the rasa par excellence for in both it is the descent of the Holy Spirit that is central. 

Ephrem teaches us how to find meaning in life: he shows the underlying interdependence of all things; the right and just use of free-will, and the necessity of approaching the biblical text with orthodox belief, love and an unclouded eye.


Above the Icon of the Trinity which hangs in the Monastery of S. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights (Maldon, Essex) is inscribed: Let us make Man in Our Image and Likeness.

S. Sergius of Radonezh (1314 – 1392) made an appeal to the Russian people to the unity "in image of a Holy Trinity".  S. Basil realised the Trinity as our social/ascetic project rooted in ‘amo ergo sum’ – I love, therefore I am.  The Trinity is the universal principle of unity. 

The image of God in man is not static but dynamic – a unity of Persons; the distance between the prototype – God – and the image – Man – is not so great.  The ‘I’ needs ‘Thou’ to become ‘I’, but ‘Thou’ needs He or She to become We.  Therefore Sobornost/Catholicity is within all persons – I/Thou/We.  The image of God does not belong to the individual human being but to all humankind.  The Trinity manifests itself everywhere – ‘consubstantial’ (same substance), rather than ‘synagogical’ (bringing together): we are in the image of God.  We are united to love God with
one heart and mind.  Fr. Sophrony (Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), also Elder Sophrony, a disciple and biographer of St Silouan the Athonite and compiler of St Silouan's works, was the founder of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Tolleshunt Knights 1896-1993) emphasised theology required gestalt (wholeness), the Church, dogma and ascetic practice.  The history of salvation is to restore this relationship of Unity through Covenant – from that with Noah (singular) to the whole of Creation.

Obedience, submission and authority.  Obedience is not a submission to external authority but to Love until Love becomes the Commandment by which we live.  Anything imposed on free persons has o spiritual value.  We do not submit to authority but to Love – ‘Thy will be done’.  In Christian obedience we exercise ‘submission’ to love.  In Orthodox monasticism one gives obedience not to a Rule but to a person: there are no ‘Orders’ in Orthodoxy, “only dis-order!”  “Wherever there is a disintegration of human community there is a place to practice the Trinity.”


‘“Is life worth living?” “What did you expect!”’ (Stoner: A Novel – John Williams)

Death(s) are the inevitable moments when we cannot avoid the questions that lie deep within us.  We must be observant/suspicious of those questions (cf. The Rule of S. Benedict: Prologue 1) rather than ignorant of them.  We must be open to the possibility of meaninglessness in life and to the non-evidence of God.  The threat of death is a test of the authenticity of our theology.  We must not overlook these questions if we are to live authentically. 

God’s Self-revelation only comes to us through a fallen world.  Even the humanity of Christ is not Self-revelatory as such; a Christian only seeks to follow the Word of God in darkness.  We are not set apart from the rest of humanity in finding meaning, but by grace we come to faith by hearing what God says.  The fides qua cokes from a natural, living relationship with God, yet we remain vulnerable to our doubts.  Authenticity is to be open to our vulnerability.  We must beware of that truth which simply appeals to what-I-like and what supports me.  The non-evidence of God and the tendency to idolatry condition our approach to Truth.  We have been born unto a culture of nihilism, yet even this can be the means of keeping us awake to God.  “Fulfilment does not belong to life … (we are called to) faithfulness to what it means to be human.”

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