Share   Print
Related Content

How to Study and Communicate the Words of the Fathers

by Archimandrite Vasileios

The Kingdom of God is not a Talmud, nor is it a mechanical collection of scriptural or patristic quotations outside our being and our lives. The Kingdom of God is within us, like a dynamic leaven which fundamentally changes man's whole life, his spirit and his body. What is required in patristic study, in order to remain faithful to the Fathers' spirit of freedom and worthy of their spiritual nobility and freshness, is to approach their holy texts with the fear in which we approach and venerate their holy relics and holy icons. This liturgical reverence will soon reveal to us that here is another inexpressible grace. The whole atmosphere is different. There are certain vital passages in the patristic texts which, we feel, demand of us, and work within us, an unaccustomed change. These we must make part of our being and our lives, as truths and as standpoints, to leaven the whole. And at the same time we must put our whole self into studying the Fathers, waiting and marking time. This marriage, this baptism into patristic study brings what we need, which is not an additional load of patristic references and the memorizing of other People's opinions, but the acquisition of a new clear-sighted sense which enables man to see things differently and rightly. If we limit ourselves to learning passages by heart and classifying them mechanically-and teach men likewise-then we fall into a basic error which simply makes us fail to teach and make known the patristic way of life and philosophy. For what is altogether distinctive about the patristic creation is that it is conceived and held together, it is formed and grows, as a result of the grace and power of the freedom of the Spirit.

What the Fathers require and give is the change which comes from the Spirit. If we want to approach them outside this reality, they will remain for us incomprehensible as writers and scorned as persons.

Communication of the patristic word, the word of the Holy Fathers, is not a matter of applying their sayings to this or that topic with the help of a concordance. It is a process whereby nourishment is taken up by living organisms, assimilated by them and turned into blood, life and strength. And, subsequently, it means passing on the joy and proclaiming this miracle through the very fact of being brought to life, an experience we apprehend in a way that defies doubt or discussion. Thus the living patristic word is not conveyed mechanically, nor preserved archaeologically, nor approached through excursions into history. It is conveyed whole, full of life, as it passes from generation to generation through living organisms, altering them, creating "fathers" who make it their personal word, a new possession, a miracle, a wealth which increases as it is given away. This is the unchanging change wrought by the power that changes corruption into incorruption. It is the motionless perpetual motion of the word of God, and its ever-living immutability. Every day the word seems different and new, and is the same. This is the mystery of life which has entered deep into our dead nature and raises it up from within, breaking the bars of Hell.

Offering the words of the Fathers to others means that I myself live; that I am changed by them. And so my metabolism has the power to change them, so that they can be eaten and drunk by the person to whom I am offering them. This change of the word within man, and the change in himself resulting from it, preserve unchanged the mystery of personal and unrepeatable life which is "patristically" taught and given. It is like the food a mother eats: it nourishes her and keeps her alive, and at the same time becomes within her mother's milk, the drink of life for the stomach of her baby.

How beautiful it is for a man to become theology. Then whatever he does, and above all what he does spontaneously, since only what is spontaneous is true, bears witness and speaks of the fact that the Son and Word of God was incarnate, that He was made man through the Holy Spirit and the ever-virgin Mary. It speaks silently about the ineffable mysteries which have been revealed in the last times.

This theological life and witness is a blessing which sweetens man's life. It is a food which is cut up and given to others; a drink poured out and offered in abundance for man to consume and quench his thirst. In this state one does not talk about life, one gives it. One feeds the hungry and gives drink to the thirsty. By contrast, scholastic theology and intellectual constructions do not resemble the Body of the Lord, the true food, nor His Blood, the true drink; rather they are like a stone one finds in one's food. This is how indigestible and inhumanly hard the mass of scholasticism seems to the taste and the mouth of one accustomed to the liturgy of the Church, and it is rejected as something foreign and unacceptable.

Our words are often flabby and weak. For the word to he passed on and to give life, it has to be made flesh. When, along with your word, you give your flesh and blood to others, only then do your words mean something. Words without flesh, which do not spring from life and do not share out our flesh which is broken and our blood which is shed, mean nothing. This is why, at the Last Supper, the Lord summarized the mystery of His preaching by saying: "Take, eat My Body," "Drink My Blood."

Fortunate is the man who is broken in pieces and offered to others, who is poured out and given to others to drink. When his time of trial comes, he will not be afraid. He will have nothing to fear. He will already have understood that, in the celebration of love, 'by grace man is broken and not divided, eaten and never consumed. By grace he has become Christ, and so his life gives food and drink to his brother. That is to say, he nourishes the other's very existence and makes it grow.

From Hymn of Entry, by Archimandrite Vasileios (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984), pp. 34-36.