THE NEED FOR TRUE THEOLOGIANS
By Jason Barker
In his recent meeting with representatives from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Metropolitan PHILIP emphasized the need for Orthodox seminaries to train seminarians to deepen their prayer and grow in their ability to preach. These are laudable goals, and ones with which all Orthodox Christians would agree.
According to the Archdiocese’s summary of the meeting, the Metropolitan added an additional goal for seminarians: “He does not want the graduates to behave like ‘mini’ theologians.” This statement is interesting but, due to its ambiguity, there is little substantive that can be said about its intended meaning. What might be helpful, however, is to look at the Orthodox understanding of being a theologian, and how this affects our understanding of—and response to—current problems within the Archdiocese.
Evagrius of Pontus gives us an axiom that is widely quoted as the Orthodox understanding of being a theologian, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly; and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” In this sense, then, every Orthodox Christian is called to be a theologian, because every Orthodox Christian is called to “pray truly.”
Prayer is a tremendous blessing for us, as St. Seraphim of Sarov points out when he quotes St. John Chrysostom’s explanation of the benefits of prayer: “Prayer is a great weapon, a rich treasure, a wealth that is never exhausted, an undisturbed refuge, a cause of tranquility, the root of a multitude of blessings and their source and mother.”
Given that a devout Christian will want to pray and receive these blessings, in light of Evagrius’ axiom we must ask: what does it mean to “pray truly?” St. Theophan the Recluse answers:
For what is prayer? Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God—for praise and thanksgiving and beseeching Him for the good things necessary for soul and body. The essence of prayer, then, is the mental ascent to God from the heart. The mind stands in the heart consciously before the face of God and, filled with proper and necessary reverence, it begins to pour out its heart before Him. This is prayer of the heart!
True prayer, then, involves humbly opening ourselves to God. We can see this in St. Basil the Great’s four steps in personal prayer—I’ve summarized these steps in the following list:
1. Glorify God.
2. Give thanks to Him for the mercies He has shown you.
3. Confess your sins and trespasses.
4. Ask Him to grant what you need, particularly in relation to your salvation.
These elements are evident in a prayer composed by Lorenzo Scupoli to illustrate the process:
O Lord my God! I sing and praise Thy ineffable glory and Thy infinite greatness. I thank Thee that, by Thy goodness alone, Thou hast given me to exist and to share in the life-saving blessings of Thy dispensation by incarnation, that Thou hast often saved me, even without my knowledge, from calamities which threatened me, and delivered me from the hands of my unseen foes. I confess to Thee that countless times have I stifled my conscience and fearlessly transgressed Thy holy commandments, and so shown myself ungrateful for Thy many and varied bounties. O my most merciful Lord, let not my ingratitude be too great for Thy mercy, but overlook my sins and trespasses, look with kindness on the tears of my contrition, and, according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies, help me even now, grant me what is needful for my salvation, and guide my life towards pleasing Thee, so that, unworthy as I am, I too may glorify Thy holy name.
St. John of Kronstadt wonderfully expresses the way in which we should pray: “God is truth, and my prayer should be truth as well as life; God is light, and my prayer should be offered in the light of the mind and the heart; God is fire, and my prayer should be ardent; God is perfectly free, and my prayer should be the free outpouring of my heart.”
Few Orthodox Christians would disagree with any of this. But now we come to a more troubling issue: if this is what it means to “pray truly,” then what would it mean—for lack of a better phrase—to “pray untruly?”
St. Seraphim of Sarov answers this question bluntly:
A man calls on God that he many not be put to confusion. Is it so that the adultery he intends may come off? That someone he hopes to inherit from may die? That a piece of sharp practice may succeed? This is not to call on God, but on one's own evil desires. To call on God is to invite him into your heart: but will you dare to invite so great a Father when you have no dwelling fit for him? Your heart is full of evil desires, and yet you invite him in.
Pay attention to what St. Seraphim is saying: if we pray for divine support in committing sins, we are not calling on God—we are calling on our own evil desires. And St. Gregory of Nyssa goes even further, identifying the true father of those who pray with a disregard for sin:
If a man whose conscience accuses him of evil calls God his Father, he asserts precisely that God is the cause and origin of his own wickedness. But `there is no fellowship of light with darkness,' says the Apostle; but light associates with light and justice with what is just, beauty with what is beautiful and incorruption with the incorruptible. `A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit.' If then someone who is `dull of heart' and `seeks after lying,' as the Scripture says, yet dares to use the words of the prayer, he should know that he does not call the Heavenly One his Father, but the infernal one, who is himself a liar and father of every lie, who is sin and the father of sin.
In other words, to pray with a blatant disregard for a sinful life—or, even worse, to pray for divine support in pursuing a sinful life—is demoniacal. I want you to think about this as I list a few attitudes and behaviors that recent speeches, decisions and publications have made clear we are expected to tolerate, and in some cases even support:
If we tolerate or support sexual battery, can we “pray truly?”
If we tolerate or support verbally and physically attacking individuals, can we “pray truly?”
If we tolerate or support mistreating women and children, can we “pray truly?”
If we tolerate or support making death threats, can we “pray truly?”
If we tolerate or support criminal activity of any kind, be it white collar or other—and particularly when practiced by our Christian leaders—can we “pray truly?”
If we tolerate or support the demand that we tolerate or support any of the above as an act of unequivocal obedience, can we “pray truly?”
The saints are clear: we cannot “pray truly” when we tolerate or support such attitudes and behaviors. In fact, St. Gregory would point out, to believe we can “pray truly” while tolerating or supporting these things would be demoniacal.
I implore all of us to become theologians—I implore all of us to “pray truly,” with purity of words and purity of life. I pray that we can all follow the guidance of St. Isaac of Nineveh:
Do not be foolish in the requests you make to God, otherwise you will insult God through your ignorance. Act wisely in prayer, so that you may become worthy of glorious things. Ask for things that are honorable from Him Who will not hold back, so that you may receive honor from Him as a result of the wise choice your free will had made. Solomon asked for wisdom - and along with it he also received the earthly kingdom, for he knew how to ask wisely of the heavenly King, that is, for things that are important.
That, the Church makes clear, is what a theologian does; furthermore, it is what every Christian is called to do. Few of us may be called to become an “ivory tower” theologian, but each one of us is called to be a theologian in its fullest sense: a man or woman of God-honoring prayer that is rooted in righteousness.