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[Published in The Greek Australian Vema, February 2009, 8-9]

THE ECCLESIAL SYNAXIS


EPITOME OF A LEARNING SOCIETY
(Part 2)
Revd Dr Doru Costache

In my previous article I endeavoured to answer the question of whether the Church is


a learning society. And indeed it is, given its focus on teaching, initiation and
guidance, also its constitution as a complex hermeneutical framework. However, by
contrast with the secular understanding of a learning society (concentrated primarily,
if not exclusively, on gathering the necessary know how in order to survive the
avalanche of discoveries and inventions) the Church is concerned with appropriating
discernment and wisdom. Yet, discernment and wisdom are taken as tools (rather
than goals) that serve our immediate purposes: to make sense of the world we live in
and our place/role within it, and to lead us towards attaining the fullness of life.

These features represent the actual motivations lying behind any ecclesial enterprise
and are particularly obvious in the structural elements of the ecclesial liturgy, even
though these may be somehow hidden beneath the multitude of texts, hymns,
gestures and actions. Given this complexity, it is perhaps better to present the main
outlines of the Divine Liturgy as performed in earlier times, for instance during the
mid 7th century. And indeed, in the interpretive description of the synaxis he gives in
the Mystagogy, St Maximus the Confessor makes plain how much our liturgy is
focused on teaching/learning. The entire liturgical space, from architecture to
iconography, from readings to movements and from chanting to gestures, functions
like a context meant for delivering, receiving and processing information in ways that
are relevant to God’s people. Beyond its worshipping and sacramental aspects, the
structure of the Divine Liturgy is essentially catechetical.

Below, I will present in summary St Maximus’ approach to the Divine Liturgy, as


depicted in the second part of his treatise, Mystagogy, leaving the first part (intensely
mystical) for some other time.

A traditional thinker and experienced in the monastic way of life, where spiritual
guidance plays a crucial role, St Maximus attempts to approach the structure of the
Divine Liturgy only guided by God (Θεοῦ χειραγωγοῦντος), the mystagogue par
excellence (see Mystagogy 22). Moreover, at practically every stage of the process,
he builds upon the information provided by an anonymous elder – perhaps a symbol
of tradition –, whose wisdom and insight establish the benchmark for any further
exploration. Thus equipped by tradition with the necessary tools and enlightened by
God, St Maximus is able to grasp the meaning and purpose of the ecclesial initiation
and experience. To him, everything has spiritual significance in the Church: ‘the
divine norms of the holy Church (οἱ θεῖοι τῆς ἁγίας Ἐκκλησίας θεσμοὶ) lead the soul,
by way of a true and effective knowledge (δι᾽ ἀληθοῦς καὶ ἐνεργοῦς γνώσεως), to its
own perfection (τελειότητα)’ (Mystagogy 22). To a discerning person no ecclesial
rule, norm or regulation represents a goal in itself, conveying instead a superior
reason, or logos, and purpose, or telos, to which our attention is drawn and which
ultimately is existential in nature. In this light, observing the rules might be seen as a
virtue yet only comprehending the rationale behind them brings us to attain their
actual, transformative, purpose. This is the perennial challenge addressed to all
believers, who are successively introduced – by teaching and learning – to the
innermost depths of ecclesial mindset and life.
Although these notes may very well refer to the entire ecclesial framework, St
Maximus finds that these aspects pertain mainly to the liturgical rhythms, whose
finality is par excellence transformative and deifying. Symptomatically, after
exploring the various ways in which teaching and learning unfold in the Church, St
Maximus insists on the vocabulary of transformation (μεταποιοῦσάν τε καὶ
μετασκευάζουσαν, καὶ ἀληθὲς μεταπλάττουσαν; see Mystagogy 24) when pointing
out the action of the Holy Spirit exerted upon those taking part in the holy synaxis.

For the purpose of our enquiry it is important to note that the stages of ecclesial
initiation correspond to the actual stages of the Divine Liturgy, St Maximus retaining
mainly the significance of a series of steps. To these moments I will briefly turn.

By contrast with the contemporary individualist approach to the Divine Liturgy, St


Maximus emphasises the ecclesial character of the holy synaxis and the communal
dimension of the teaching delivered within it. Both aspects were in his time more
obvious than today, from the very first liturgical moment of the gathering of God’s
people (both clergy and laity) outside the doors of the church and their simultaneous
entrance into the nave. Reminding us of the salvific ministry of Christ (see Mystagogy
8) the entrance likewise proclaims the Christian people’s voluntary separation from
the ways of the world and all earthly care. In St Maximus’ own words, this moment
suggests ‘the turning of the unbelievers (ἐπιστροφὴν τῶν ἀπίστων) from
faithlessness and error to the knowledge of God (εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν Θεοῦ), as well as the
passage of the believers (μετάθεσιν τῶν πιστῶν) from evil and ignorance to virtue
and knowledge (εἰς ἀρετὴν καὶ γνῶσιν)’ (Mystagogy 9; cf. chapter 24). Stepping into
the church represents a sign of adherence to Christian wisdom, as delivered and
assimilated within the holy synaxis; the whole liturgical process of instruction aims at
bringing to completion the intention expressed through this initial sign of
commitment to the Gospel. Within the liturgical journey (see the end of chapter 13),
the faithful come to learn the true principles (λόγοι) of things and how to make wise
use of them, to finally approach the Holy One, our God who transcends all things and
knowledge.

The second liturgical moment of relevance to our topic is that of the New Testament
readings. The function of the sacred readings is complex. The readings introduce
God’s people into the spirit of the wisdom from above, as an expression of ‘the divine
and blessed intentions and wills of God most holy’ (τὰς θείας καὶ μακαρίας τοῦ
παναγίου Θεοῦ βουλήσεις τε καὶ βουλὰς; Mystagogy 10). But by teaching God’s will,
they also show us the task lying ahead: through the sacred readings ‘we learn the
laws of the divine and blessed contests (τῶν θείων καὶ μακαρίων ἀγώνων νόμους
μανθάνομεν) in which by lawful struggle we will be judged worthy of the victorious
crowns of Christ’s kingdom’ (Mystagogy 10). In other words, the readings do not just
convey information from above; through informing us, they actually instruct God’s
people in the ways of spiritual life; last but not least, they make us aware of our
responsibility for the choices we make and the actions we take, within an
eschatological perspective (see also Mystagogy 14, which introduces the nuance of
reward and punishment).

Closely related to the above and logically following the sacred readings, in
Mystagogy 13 St Maximus mentions the moment of the homily (sermon) as ‘the word
of mystical contemplation’ (γνωστικῆ θεωρία). Through the homily, the divine
wisdom is highlighted and the faithful are exhorted to walk the path of virtue. Like a
celestial high priest (ὥσπερ ἀρχιερεὺς οὐρανόθεν), the word cuts sharply through the
core of confusion, pointing out the incompatibility between the passionate/fleshly
mindset (τῆς σαρκὸς τὸ φρόνημα) or the materialist thoughts (τοὺς πρὸς γῆν
κατανεύοντας λογισμοὺς), on the one hand, and the path that leads to the spiritual
vision (τὴν τῶν νοητῶν ἐποψίαν) and insight into the mysteries (τὰ ἀπόρρητα), on
the other hand.

Perhaps this challenging approach frightens contemporary people, so reluctant to


take the heroic path of Christian life; however, even though St Maximus speaks of
getting ‘outside of the flesh and the world’ (ἔξω σαρκὸς καὶ κόσμου) there is nothing
preposterous in his words; in fact, he praises the spiritual way of life without vouching
for an escape from the immediate. Given the scarce information he provides here, it
is indeed difficult to tell with certainty what he has in mind. Yet, by bringing the whole
discussion within the broader context of the Mystagogy this difficulty can be easily
overcome: St Maximus takes the Divine Liturgy as a school where the believers are
called to learn how to live spiritually in the world (not how to abandon the world). In
other words, his interpretation invites the readers – mostly living incompletely, under
the narrow horizon of material life – to contemplate the other side of reality, to
recover all their dimensions (visible and invisible, bodily and spiritual) and reach the
fullness of life.

Another liturgical moment of great relevance to our topic is definitely the recital of
the Creed, or in the author’s words ‘the divine symbol of faith’ (τὸ θεῖον τῆς πίστεως
σύμβολον; see Mystagogy 13). To St Maximus, the Creed constitutes a summary of
the entire salvific economy and an expression of our gratitude for God’s mercy, or
‘the grateful acknowledgment’ (τὴν εὐχαριστήριον) of our salvation (cf. Mystagogy
13). The juxtaposition of these aspects is quite unique. The Creed is more than a
recapitulation of ecclesial faith and more than a memorial of God’s mighty deeds; it is
fundamentally a eucharistic-like act, given that it is an act of humble recognition of
how much we depend on God’s mercy; remembering is to acknowledge. These
aspects are essential to the on-going teaching/learning process unfolding through the
Divine Liturgy. One way or the other, this educational pattern intimates the necessity
of a humble approach to knowledge, whose manifestation is the acknowledgment of
God.

In chapter 18, the Creed is presented under a slightly different lens, as the solid
nourishment offered to the mature in faith. The idea remains basically the same: the
Creed features as a ‘mystical thanksgiving’ (μυστικὴν εὐχαριστίαν) whose value is
perennial, since there is no other way to respond to God for ‘the infinite divine
blessings’ (τῶν ἀπείρων θείων ἀγαθῶν) bestowed upon the worthy ones (οἱ ἄξιοι),
that is those who learnt to express their gratitude. Nevertheless, this reiteration of
the theme brings another nuance, referring to the paradoxical reasons and ways in
which the wise providence of God (παραδόξοις λόγοις τε καὶ τρόποις τῆς πανσόφου
περὶ ἡμᾶς τοῦ Θεοῦ προνοίας) operates our salvation. Speaking of reasons and ways
(λόγοις καὶ τρόποις) the Confessor points definitely to the experience of the
contemplatives in the Church. According to the saint, only they have access to the
divine reasons, intentions or principles that lay behind the various teaching methods
applied throughout the Divine Liturgy and elsewhere in the Church. And with this, we
enter a very different universe, of the levels of perception, which I will address – God
willing – some other time.

For the time being, it is important to note that, far from representing a burden to
Christian experience, the educational aspect is indissolubly linked to all other
dimensions pertaining to the Divine Liturgy. Even under the form of
‘anamnetic/memorial symbols’, teaching and learning have not been added later to
the body of the holy synaxis (as suggested by some modern scholars), having been
from the outset at the core of our liturgical experience. In fact, for St Maximus, there
is no perfect liturgical participation without a proper comprehension of the entire
ritual – with its texts, gestures and rhythms. To some of these elements I will turn, if
possible, next time.