18 August 2008

Merits: Part II

In his comment on my previous post about the word merits, my friend Fr Gregory Hogg suggests that "any introduction of the concept will inevitably bring distortions in theology," and then states that, "We may recognize that at one time, the word could be used in a profitable way; but later developments have rendered the use of the word misleading at best."

In the first place, I think that if any introduction will bring distortions, then there was never a time when the word merit could be used profitably; OR, if there was a time when it could be used profitably, then it is not inevitable that any (or every) introduction of the concept or term will bring distortions in theology.

In the second place, Fr Gregory helpfully leads us to ask the following question:
  • When does a word become so helplessly distorted that the rehabilitation of its proper use must be abandoned?
Other questions, also, may be raised:
  • Is it intellectually or theologically honest to avoid a disputed or "distorting" theological term or concept either by ignoring it or by translating it in such a way that it is no longer recognizable (e.g., instead of "merits" employ "godliness" or "sanctity")?
  • What is the difference between omitting a term or concept that is dicey or requires careful catechesis and the Protestant principle (begun by Luther) of eviscerating that canon (because, in this particular instance, as the argument goes, the word "sacrifice" could not be properly rehabilitated)?
The big question for me, however, is this one:
  • If St Peter Chrysologus (and other church fathers) can speak profitably about the merits of the saints, wouldn't the argument that such language is now distorting, confusing or problematic effectively indicate a little less than the "fullness of the faith"?
I pretend to have no helpful or earth-shattering answers to these questions, and do not wish to belittle the important and significant points that are raised by Fr Gregory or others who rightly indicate that "merits" does not always (or often) mean "merits." However, I think these questions ought to be considered carefully before writing off patristic terms in favor of "simple faith."

17 August 2008

Commemorating the Dormition & Assumption of the BVM

On Friday, the Feast of the Dormition (falling asleep) and Assumption (ascension) of the Blessed Virgin Mary was celebrated in Orthodox and Catholic churches. Among the Orthodox, this feast was preceded by a fast (2 weeks of abstention in the Eastern Rite; one strict-fast day in the Western Rite). This fast will continue to be commemorated throughout the week until the commemoration climaxes with the Octave (Western) or Leave-Taking (Eastern).

An apt and comprehensive description of the importance and meaning of this feast is provided in the The Prologue from Ohrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, which I reproduce below. A hymn of praise and other devotional material can be located here.

The Lord Who, on Mt. Sinai, commanded by His Fifth Commandment: "Honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12), showed by His own example how one should respect one's parent. Hanging on the Cross in agony, He remembered His mother and indicating to the Apostle John, said to her: "Woman behold your son" (St. John 19:26). After that, He said to John: "Behold your mother" (St. John 19:27). And so providing for His mother, He breathed His last. John had a home on Zion in Jerusalem in which the Theotokos settled and remained there to live out the end of her days on earth. By her prayers, gentle counsels, meekness and patience, she greatly assisted the apostles of her Son.

Primarily, she spent her entire time in Jerusalem often visiting those places which reminded her of the great events and of the great works of her Son. She especially visited Golgotha, Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives. Of her distant journeys, her visit to St. Ignatius the Theophorus [God-bearer] in Antioch is mentioned, as well as her visit to Lazarus (whom our Lord resurrected on the fourth day), the Bishop of Cyprus, her visit to the Holy Mountain [Athos] which she blessed and her stay in Ephesus with St. John the Evangelist [The Theologian] during the time of the great persecution of Christians in Jerusalem.

In her old age, she often prayed to the Lord and her God on the Mount of Olives, the site of His Ascension, that He take her from this world as soon as possible. On one occasion, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her and revealed to her that within three days she will find repose. The angel gave her a palm-branch to be carried at the time of her funeral procession. She returned to her home with great joy, desiring in her heart once more to see in this life, all of the apostles of Christ. The Lord fulfilled her wish and all of the apostles, borne by angels in the clouds, gathered at the same time at the home of John on Zion. With great rejoicing, she saw the holy apostles, encouraged them, counseled them and comforted them. Following that, she peacefully gave up her soul to God without any pain or physical illness.

The apostles took the coffin with her body from which an aromatic fragrance emitted and, in the company of many Christians, bore it to the Garden of Gethsemane to the sepulchre of [her parents], Saints Joachim and Anna. By God's Providence, they were concealed from the evil Jews by a cloud. Anthony, a Jewish priest, grabbed the coffin with his hands with the intention of overturning it but, at that moment, an angel of God severed both his hands. He then cried out to the apostles for help and was healed since [he] declar[ed] his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle Thomas was absent, again according to God's Providence, in order that a new and all-glorious mystery of the Holy Theotokos would again be revealed. On the third day, Thomas arrived and desired to venerate [kiss] the body of the Holy All-pure one. But when the apostles opened the sepulchre, they found only the winding sheet and the body was not in the tomb. That evening, the Theotokos appeared to the apostles surrounded by a myriad of angels and said to them: "Rejoice, I will be with you always". It is not exactly known how old the Theotokos was at the time of her Falling Asleep but the overwhelming opinion is that she was over sixty years of age.

10 August 2008

Merits of the Saints?!

St Peter Chrysologus concludes his sermon on the life of St Lawrence with this reference to the merits of the saints:

Therefore let us honor and esteem the merits of the martyrs as being the gifts of God. Let us beg for them, and add the inclination of our own will.

Most often, traditional Roman Catholics defend, and Orthodox and Protestants polemicists decry, the term "merits" within the medieval matrix of "supererogatory works" and "treasury of the saints." St Peter Chrysologus, however, is certainly not medieval, and does not, to my mind, evidence "pre-medieval" tendencies (whatever these may be). Hence, his use of the term "merits" suggests that, perhaps, there is a proper use of the term that neither reactively requires its deletion nor unthinkingly compels it to be understood in a scholastic context.

This suggestion is strengthened by hearing St Peter's use within the larger context:

My brethren, let no one arrogate to his own ability that which no one save God gives. When the Apostle was addressing the martyrs, rightly did he say what you heard when his Epistle was read today: 'You have been given the favor on Christ's behalf--not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him.' Therefore let us honor and esteem the merits of the martyrs as being the gifts of God. Let us beg for them, and add the inclination of our own will. For, our will follows; it does not take the lead. Nevertheless, charity is not lacking if our will is not lacking, for the eager will itself is called charity. Who is there who willingly fears? Who is there who unwillingly loves? May prayer be fervent, and let the feast of this martyr be celebrated. But let everyone who celebrates also imitate him, that the celebrating may not be idle. (Source)

Caveat: I don't have access to the Latin, only Ganss' translation. Perhaps the translation is misleading.