The Beauty of God’s Presence in the Fathers of the Church
Patristic Symposium held in Saint Patricks, Maynooth
By William A. Thomas
DUBLIN, DEC. 19, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Described as spectacular and the most international and ecumenical Patristic conference ever held in Ireland, the ‘Eighth International Patristic Conference’ recently concluded at Saint Patricks College in Maynooth. Delegates came from Greece, Russia, Finland, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Poland, Italy, and Spain. Many of the them were Greek or Russian Orthodox, while others were Anglican and Catholic, but all have one thing in common, their love for the Fathers of the Church, both the Latin and Greek Fathers. The Fathers can be after all a fruitful meeting place for dialogue and encounter among the different ecclesial communities of the world.
The theme of this conference was the ‘Beauty of God’s Presence in the Fathers’ and its significance in creation, in Christ, in sacred scripture, in the sacraments, in prayer and in sacred liturgy. The first speaker of the conference was Professor Finbarr Clancy S.J who presented the allegorical imagery of ‘the pearl of great price’ in the Fathers. In Patristic literature, the pearl of great beauty and the mysteries of faith were associated with the mystery of Christ himself, the Scriptures, the Creed and the doctrinal patrimony of the Church. The piercing of a pearl by a jeweller, for example, was associated by the Fathers with the piercing of Christ on the Cross.
Dr. Peter Brooke presented the theological basis of Orthodox iconography, which was upheld by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in 787 A.D. in Nicaea which was also known as the Second Council of Nicaea and endorsed by Pope Adrian I. The Council proclaimed that “Icons are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the ‘precious and life-giving Cross’ and the Book of the Gospels. The ‘doctrine of icons’ is tied to the Orthodox teaching that all of God’s creation is to be redeemed and glorified, both spiritual and material However, later on he pointed out the Council of Florence in 1431 denied the theological importance of iconography. Brooke argues that this was an effort on the part of the Franks to assert their authority against that of Rome, as represented not only by the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, but also by the Pope himself.
Three presentations focused on the Beauty of God as found in the soul according to Gregory of Nyssa. (335-395) Dr. Miguel Brugarolas, adjunct professor of Patristics at the University of Navarra in Spain spoke on Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs 5:2; Father Miguel explained that for Gregory the Song of Songs also known as the Canticle of Canticles was “a journey par excellence fraught with hazards which are more perilous since they affect the very constitution of our souls. Here the likeness of a ship voyage which passes over the ‘horizontal’ ocean is transformed into a ‘vertical’ one where we ascend in our journey towards God aided by the Holy Spirit who “puts into motion the wave of our thoughts.” Theoria or contemplation is that vehicle or ship enabling us to accomplish our voyage.”
Dr. Ilaria Ramelli’s (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milano) paper was on Beauty and Goodness in Gregory, understood in relation to Harmony and Unity; “Considering this, it seems possible that Gregory was familiar with Plotinus and perhaps other figures in Neo-Platonism. However, some significant differences between Neo-Platonism and Gregory’s thought exist, such as Gregory’s statement that beauty and goodness are equivalent, which contrasts with Plotinus’ view that they are two.”
The Russian Hieromonk Kirill Zinkovskiy’s paper took as its theme the importance of the terminology that Gregory used to express the transformation of the Eucharistic Gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ. “He offered Himself for us, Victim and Sacrifice, and Priest as well, and ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’ When did He do this? When He made His own Body food and His own Blood drink for His disciples; for this much is clear enough to anyone, that a sheep cannot be eaten by a man unless it’s being eaten be preceded by its being slaughtered. This giving of His Body to His disciples for eating clearly indicates that the sacrifice of the Lamb has now been completed.” (Quotation from Saint Gregory)
Another exciting paper was presented by doctoral student Karoliina Maria Schauman of the Abo Akademi University in Turku in Finland. In this paper she presents the ‘Beauty of the Light of God in Saint Symeon,’ the so called “New Theologian.” Having difficulty describing in human language his encounter with God, Saint Symeon “spoke and wrote tirelessly about the Divine Light, especially that the Light he often experienced intimately, is personal, i.e., not some form of created luminous radiance, but the divine Person of God Himself. At some point he actually received clear confirmation of this as an answer to his question concerning the Divine Light’s character and identity: “It is me, God, Who became man for you; and behold that I have made you, as you see, and shall make you god.” He sometimes called the Light the Father, the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Trinity. He also wrote that the Divine Light embodies God’s Energies and His Divine Grace. However, most of the time Symeon felt that the Light is the Son, as Christ Himself had stated. It makes sense to conclude that, in his very frequent ecstatic experiences of the Divine, Symeon came face to face with different aspects of God, all manifesting within the Divine Light. Yet he insisted that the Divine Light could not be described because of its transcendent character: “It [the Light] suddenly shows itself completely within me, a spherical light, gentle and divine, with form, with shape, in a formless form”
The renowned scholar, Dr. Janet Rutherford spoke about the special understanding of the nature of allegory as used by the Alexandrian fathers in their writings on Scripture, prayer, and also liturgy. Since the Alexandrian Eucharistic Prayer was the basis of both Eastern and Western Eucharistic prayers, knowing the significance of their understanding of Eucharistic Real Presence is important not only for individual Christian traditions, but also for ecumenical discussion. Professor Andrew Smith of UCD’s Classics Department gave an extraordinary presentation on the ‘Beauty of Intellect’ in the writings of Plotinus “eternity,” he said “is certainly akin to beauty and the eternal nature is the first to be beautiful and all that proceeds from it is beautiful.”
Other presentations that indicate the wealth of the conference were given by Dr. Eirini Artemi, of the University of Athens, who spoke on the Presence of God in the interpretation of the Psalms by Cyril of Alexandria; Rev. Dr. Marcin Wysocki of Lublin University in Poland on the Presence of God in the Martyrs in Tertullian and Cyprian; Dr Catherine Kavanagh, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick on Eriugena and Maximus Confessor. The conference was fittingly concluded by Dr Susan Cremin’s presentation on St John and the Bosom of the Lord in Patristic and Insular Tradition
Given that so much of Pope Benedict XVI’s own thought, and his vision of the New Evangelization is based on the writings of the Fathers (and particularly their understanding of liturgical and artistic beauty), it is particularly welcome that the Symposium’s Eighth triennial conference took as its theme such an important subject.
The Conference was further enhanced by including the launch of a special Symposium volume, The Mystery of Christ in the Fathers of the Church: Essays in Honour of D. Vincent Twomey SVD (Janet E. Rutherford and David Woods eds.). Father Vincent Twomey was the founder of the Patristic Symposium and is currently its Honorary President. The editors and executive committee were very grateful to have the volume presented to Father Vincent by the Rt. Reverend Richard Clarke, Anglican Bishop of Meath and Kildare. The Bishop was congratulated by the Conference on his appointment as Church of Ireland, Archbishop designate of Armagh, where he will soon be enthroned as Anglican Primate of All Ireland. The Mystery of Christ in the Fathers of the Church is an important volume in its own right, and ought also to find a place in all Seminaries, Theological Colleges, and Universities.
The Maynooth Patristic Symposium has thus become in itself a ‘pearl of great price’, and worthy of the support of all who take the living Patristic tradition seriously. It would be ideal for serious study of Patristics and worthy of note for all students and establishments.