Skip to comments.Origen: The Privileged Path to Knowing God Is Love
Posted on 05/02/2007 4:37:40 PM PDT by ELS
Origen's Teachings on Prayer and Church
"The Privileged Path to Knowing God Is Love"
VATICAN CITY, MAY 2, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered today at the general audience in St. Peter's Square. The reflection, like that of last week, focused on Origen of Alexandria.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last Wednesday's catechesis was dedicated to the important figure of Origen, the Alexandrian doctor of the second and third century. In that catechesis we looked at the life and literary works of the Alexandrian master, focusing on his "three-pronged reading" of the Bible, which is the animating center of all of his work.
I left out two aspects of Origen's doctrine, which I consider among the most important and timely, so that I could speak about them today. I am referring to his teachings on prayer and the Church.
In truth, Origen -- author of an important and ever relevant treatment "On Prayer" -- constantly mixes his exegetic and theological works with experiences and suggestions relating to prayer. Despite the theological wealth found in his thought, his is never a purely academic treatment; it is always founded on the experience of prayer, on contact with God.
In his view, understanding Scripture requires more than mere study. It requires an intimacy with Christ and prayer. He is convinced that the privileged path to knowing God is love and that one cannot give an authentic "scientia Christi" without falling in love with him.
In his "Letter to Gregory" he writes: "Dedicate yourself to the 'lectio' of the divine Scriptures; apply yourself to this with perseverance. Practice 'lectio' with the intention of believing and being pleasing to God.
"If during the 'lectio' you find yourself in front of a closed door, knock and the guardian will open it for you, the guardian of whom Jesus said: 'The advocate will teach you everything.' Apply yourself in this way to 'lectio divina' -- search, with unshakable faith in God, the sense of the divine Scriptures, which is amply revealed.
"You must not be satisfied with only knocking and searching: To understand the things of God, 'oratio' is absolutely necessary. To encourage us to do this, the Savior did not only say: 'Seek and you shall find,' and 'Knock and it shall be opened unto you,' but he also added: 'Ask and you shall receive'" (Ep. Gr. 4).
One can see clearly the "primordial role" that Origen played in the history of "lectio divina." Bishop Ambrose of Milan -- who would learn to read the Scritpures from Origen's works -- introduced it in the West, to hand it on to Augustine and the successive monastic tradition.
As we mentioned earlier, the highest level of knowing God, according to Origen, comes from loving him. It is the same with human relationships: One only really knows the other if there is love, if they open their hearts. To show this he illustrates the significance given at that time to the verb in Hebrew "to know," used to show the act of human love: "Adam knew Eve, his wife and she conceived" (Genesis 4:1).
This suggests that union in love procures the most authentic knowledge. As man and woman are "two that become one flesh," in the same way, God and the believer become "two that become one in the spirit."
In this way, the prayer of the Alexandrian reaches the highest mystical levels, as is shown by his "Homilies on the Song of Songs."
In one passage of the first homily, Origen confesses: "Often -- God is a witness to this -- I felt that the Bridegroom drew very near to me; afterward he would leave suddenly, and I could not find that which I searched for. Again I have the desire for his presence, and he returns, and when he appears, when I hold him in my hands, he leaves again and once he is gone I begin again to search for him" (Hom. Cant. 1:7).
I recall what my venerable predecessor wrote, as a true witness, in "Novo Millennio Ineunte," where he showed the faithful "how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit's touch, resting filially within the Father's heart becoming," John Paul II continued, "a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications. But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as 'nuptial union'" (No. 33).
We come to Origen's teaching on the Church, and precisely -- within it -- on the priesthood of the laity. As the Alexandrian affirms in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, "this discourse is important for all of us" (Hom. Lev. 9:1).
In the same homily Origen -- referring to Aaron's prohibition, after the death of his two children, to enter the Holy of Holies "at any time" (Leviticus 16:2) -- he admonishes the faithful: "From this we can see that if one enters the sanctuary, without the proper preparation, not dressed in priestly dress, without having prepared the prescribed offerings and having offered them to God, he will die. This discourse is meant for everyone. It guarantees that we know how to approach God's altar.
"Or do you not know that the priesthood was given to God's Church and to all believers? Listen to how Peter speaks to the faithful: 'Elect race,' he says, 'royal priesthood, holy nation, a people bought by God.' You have priesthood because you are a 'priestly people,' and therefore you must offer sacrifice to God. But so that you may offer it worthily, you need pure vestments, distinct from the common vestments of other men, and you need the divine fire" (ibid.).
On one hand the "girded loins" and the "priestly vestments," which represent purity and honest living, and on the other the "perpetually lit lamp," which represents the faith and science of the Scriptures -- these become the necessary conditions for the exercise of the priestly ministry. These conditions -- right conduct, but above all, the welcoming and study of the Word -- establish a genuine "hierarchy of holiness" in the common priesthood of all Christians.
Origen places martyrdom at the top of this path of perfection. In the ninth Homily on Leviticus he alludes to the "fire for the sacrifice," that is, the faith and knowledge of Scripture, which must never be extinguished on the altar of he who exercises the priesthood.
He then adds: "Each one of us has within us" not only fire, but "also the sacrifice, and from his sacrifice he lights the altar, so that it will burn forever. If I renounce everything I possess and take up the cross and follow Christ, I offer my sacrifice on God's altar; and if I give my body over to be burned, having charity, and meriting the glory of martyrdom, I offer my sacrifice on God's altar" (Hom. Lev. 9:9).
This path of perfection "is for everyone," so that "the eyes of our heart" will contemplate wisdom and truth, which is Jesus Christ. Preaching on the discourse of Jesus of Nazareth -- when "the eyes of all in the synagogue were upon him" (Luke 4:16-30) -- Origen seems to be speaking to us: "Even today, if you want, in this gathering, your eyes can gaze upon the Savior.
"When you turn your heart's gaze to contemplate wisdom and truth and the only Son of God, your eyes will see God. O happy gathering, that of whom Scripture speaks as having their eyes fixed on him! How I would like that this gathering receive a similar witness, that the eyes of all, of the unbaptized and of the faithful, of women and men and young children, not the eyes of the body, but those of the soul, look at Jesus! Impressed upon us is the light of your face, O Lord, to whom belongs glory and power forever and ever. Amen!" (Hom. Lc. 32:6).
[Translation by ZENIT]
[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father greeted the people in various languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last week we looked at the life and writings of Origen of Alexandria. Today, I would like to consider two significant themes in his work. Origen's teaching on scripture greatly influenced the Church's rich tradition of lectio divina. Through the prayerful and faith-filled reading of the scriptures, we are drawn in love to mystical union with God. Just as a man and a woman become "one flesh" in marriage, so -- in prayer -- the Church and each of her members become one in the Spirit with the divine Bridegroom. Regarding the Church, Origen teaches us the importance of the priesthood of all the faithful. As a member of this common priesthood, every believer is called to put on "priestly attire" by living a pure and virtuous life. Loving intimacy with God through prayer and the offering of an upright and moral life -- these are two of Origen's most important lessons for us; these are the ways we keep the "gaze of our hearts" fixed on the "Wisdom and Truth who is Jesus Christ." God bless you all!
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I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present at today's audience, especially the Delegates to the Nineteenth General Assembly of the Society of African Missions, and also the girls and staff from Hekima Place, Karen, Kenya. May your pilgrimage renew your love for Christ and his Church, and fill your hearts with joy in the Lord. God bless you all!
© Copyright 2007 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana
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Great as usual. I was at an audience in February, and you could have head not a pin but a feather drop during his address. People come to learn things from him. And they always do.
Fascinating that +BXVI has spoken so much of late about a man who was anathemized as a Universalist heretic. He was also a major league Platonist. Of course, much of what he wrote he clearly labeled as speculation and it is clear that he was himself unsure of some of his positions. All in all, though, I think he is a theologian to stay away from.
Well, in his defense, Origen was a great favorite with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzus, as the “Philokalia” attests.
Origen was a very early philosopher, prior even to the major Creeds, and dealt with things that hadn’t been handled before, working with only minimal guidelines. He got some of them right, and some of them he either got wrong or expressed in a very ambiguous manner. He was definitely a Platonist, but at the same time he seems to have been very dedicated to Orthodoxy (even having re-converted some of the heretics that abounded in the area), and he was certainly dedicated to Scripture. But he was, as I said, working in completely new territory. Furthermore, the things that were later condemned are actually not his doctrine, but those of an extreme group who claimed to be his followers.
One of the problems with all of the early philosophical fathers of teh Church is that they were creating a new language and new concepts. Furthermore, they lived in a world where philosophy was as important as “American Idol” nowadays to most Americans (not me!), and people actually used to riot and kill each other over rival philosophies. This led to extreme overreactions and overcorrections, which then became heresies themselves.
So I think that all of the early writers have to be read with great care, simply because the body of tradition didn’t exist at the time they were writing. Now we can rely on a church which has defined orthodoxy through its centuries of thought and accumulated tradition to keep us from seizing one bit of somebody’s work and running amok with it. So I think that if Origen - or similar early thinkers - are viewed through the lens of the Church, it’s possible to detect what is good and screen out what is bad. And Origen definitely had some good points, which I think the Pope is pointing out.
I agree with everything you have written. I simply observe that Origen, like a few other early theologians, can be a dangerous read. The key is, as you write:
“Now we can rely on a church which has defined orthodoxy through its centuries of thought and accumulated tradition to keep us from seizing one bit of somebodys work and running amok with it. So I think that if Origen - or similar early thinkers - are viewed through the lens of the Church, its possible to detect what is good and screen out what is bad.”
So many people, especially educated ones and even more especially educated converts, jump into the Fathers with both feet. Unless they read the Fathers under the guidance of a spiritual father, all sorts of bad things can happen, from excessive legalism arising from an untutored reading of The Rudder to, frankly, heresy from reading the likes of Origen or Tertullian. The Church indeed has separated the wheat from the chaff, but individuals acting on their own, and I don’t mean simply lay people, lacking a knowledge of the consensus patrum and the spiritual virtue of discernment can easily fall into error. Imagine what spiritual havoc some of us could do if we proceeded, without the guidance of a spiritual father early in the days of our patristic studies, to proof text Origen or Tertullian!
That is true. A lot of people also jump into medieval mystics in that same way and come up with some very peculiar ideas! (Remember the old joke that "mysticism" begins in mist and ends in schism?) So it's very important to cling to orthodoxy and have a guide in these matters.
“So it’s very important to cling to orthodoxy and have a guide in these matters.”
From your lips to God’s ears! Let’s pray that God sends good spiritual fathers to all Christians.
Benedict XVI is the spiritual father of the Catholic Church. I am reasonably certain that he takes that responsibility very seriously. He is also a well-read scholar of the Early Church Fathers. If anyone can separate the wheat from the chaff of some of the Early Church Fathers, Benedict XVI can. Given that you have raised this issue, can you cite anything that Benedict XVI has said in this audience or last week's audience (a link to it is above) regarding Origen that is heretical?
” Benedict XVI is the spiritual father of the Catholic Church.”
Indeed he is. As I have remarked many times, you Latins should listen to him very closely as we may be seeing a true modern Father in this pope. Why do you suppose we Orthodox are so taken with him?
But the Pope, ELS, is in Rome and people read online and in their homes and libraries, often alone and without guidance. In my opinion, at least for the first few years it is extremely important to have an on the spot spiritual father to direct our studies. This isn’t some innovative idea. The Fathers themselves are quite adamant about this. One of the reasons we see such a confusion of belief on very basic dogmatic matters among Protestants is in some measure because of the lack such guidance. Much of the theology of the Fathers is at first confusing and obscure. In some instances we find basic fundamental error. Without direction, a Christian can end up going down the wrong path. Did you know, for example, that in the early Church catechumens were not allowed to read the Gospel of +John? It was considered too complex for them. Even after baptism and chrismation study of +John was allowed only under direction for some period of time.
“Given that you have raised this issue, can you cite anything that Benedict XVI has said in this audience or last week’s audience (a link to it is above) regarding Origen that is heretical?”
No, of course not, nor did I expect I would. The sermons are wonderful, as they almost always are. I would have no concerns at all were the pope sitting at the side of each student as he or she started to read Origen. But he is not and while no warning about reading the Fathers with the consensus patrum in mind or that Origen was, with reason, condemned as a heretic is necessary for some of us, for others it absolutely is. With all due respect, I think this is particularly necessary among Western Christians whose traditions, or better said, theological mindset, for the past 1000 years have been something less than patristic. +BXVI is clearly changing that but as with all important change, like with the synodal system he recently proposed, there are some dangers which you folks ought to be aware of.
I couldn't agree more, not only for our studies, but for our spiritual direction or guidance as well. These days, a good spiritual father is hard to find. I know. I have been looking. Your words of caution are taken.
Thank you, ELS, for posting this weekly thread of the Holy Father’s catechesis. Apologies for not pinging sooner.
the Pope rocks. The Church rocks.