Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch (1921 – )
Transfiguration or Disfiguration
If nature is not transfigured, she becomes disfigured. Today we are threatened by barbarism and by the suicide of all mankind. By barbarism… [I mean] the transformation of technology into destiny…, into an inevitable, death-like fatality. The fatality of doing all that we can, without first questioning the consequences…. As for the suicide of mankind, we are beginning to realize that it is possible, what with Chernobyl and the determination of the great financial organizations to destroy the forests of the Amazon….
Only the highest of forces, that of the spirit, and then that of spirit united with the heart, to use the language of the Orthodox tradition, can face up to the challenge of technology.
Asceticism is necessary in order to fight against the instinct of possession, of blind power and a flight into hedonism….
Asceticism is therefore indispensable if we are to achieve that limitation of needs which will make it possible for us both to respect better the earth, its rhythms and the life which belongs to it, and to bring into operation the necessary sharing on a planetary scale.
~ “The Responsibility of Christians,” Lecture to the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 12, 1989, Lucerne, Switzerland, reprinted in Sourozh magazine, Issue Nr. 38, London, UK, November 1989, p. 11-12.
The Spirit of Fasting
We need to recover, with a view to the transfiguration of nature, the three traditional forms of asceticism: fasting, chastity and vigilance. …
Fasting, that is to say the voluntary limitation of one’s requirements, makes it possible for us, at least in part, to free desire, so that it can recover its original character as desire for God and love of neighbor. … The spirit of fasting, which today should be diffused throughout the whole of our civilization, involves a change from an exploitive relationship with nature to one which is modeled on the Eucharist.
Furthermore, tradition tells us that fasting is inseparable from mercy and sharing. The Fathers have underlined that material elements pass continuously from one body to another, and that the universe is therefore in fact but a single body…. That is why, for them, the earth belongs only to God; men are only its managers, and the products of man’s activity, in a prolongation of eucharistic sharing and in a spirit of fasting, should be the subject of a beneficent circulation, a just distribution. A cosmology of transfiguration is t thus inseparable from a sociology of communion, which has continuously to be invented anew in the concrete circumstances of history.
It is in a spirit of fasting and with a profound sympathy for nature and our brethren… that Christians have to face up to the absurdity of the present situation, in which publicity multiplies the false needs of some while others are dying of hunger, and where chemistry and biology overstimulate the earth in one place while elsewhere the desert expands….
~ “The Spirituality of the Creation,” Lecture to the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 11, 1989, Lausanne, Switzerland, reprinted in Sourozh magazine, Issue Nr. 38, London, UK, November 1989, p. 8-9.
Why Do We Have this Ecological Problem?
Christianity… has thrust man forward, for the final stage of cosmogenesis, with a mission to explore and assume the universe, from the atom to the galaxy….
Today the earth no longer encloses man in her stifling and fecund maternity. Quite near here, the forest is dying of acid rain, the forest, this primordial temple… Why and how have we come to this? Christianity stopped treating the world as a god, but this was in order to make it holy. Has Christianity betrayed its cosmic mission, has it given up, resigned, withdrawn?
The separation of Western and Eastern Christianity in the second half of the Middle Ages profoundly modified the spiritual context in which technology developed. The Age of Antioch, above all in its Syrian dimension, has elaborated a truly cosmic view of love, an immense compassion, for example, for the animal world. St. Isaac the Syrian asked, “What is a compassionate heart? It is a heart which burns for the whole of creation,… for the birds, for the beasts of the earth…, for every creature…. So strong, so violent is this compassion that his heart breaks when it sees the misfortune and the suffering of the least creature. This is why it prays even for the snakes, in the immense, immeasurable compassion which arises in the heart, which is in the image of God.”
~ “The Responsibility of Christians,” lecture to the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 12, 1989, Lucerne, Switzerland, reprinted in Sourozh magazine, Issue Nr. 38, London, UK, November 1989, p. 10-11.
Creative Exorcism through Asceticism
To asceticism there needs to be joined what I shall call “creative exorcism”: i.e., we need to exorcize the undeclared but invasive totalitarianism of a limitless technology. But this in no way means trying to discredit or limit scientific research. On the contrary, it means fighting at the heart of this research to make it more open and attentive to reality. It means to fight, in the name of the truth of all beings and things, against the Promethean temptation to construct the world as a closed totality of which man would be the little god.
What should animate science is both a desire to reduce by rational means the unknown and a respect for the mystery of things when contemplated vertically… Ilya Prigogine writes: “Scientific knowledge can reveal itself today as a poetic listening to nature.” Reason as instrument has “disenchanted” the world, … and reason as contemplation has now to teach us to admire and to respect it.
In this way exorcism becomes creative. It opens up another way of looking at reality through even the most careful research: the look which re-enchants! And at the same time, in relation to technology, it turns us into adults by making us able to distinguish between the possible and the desirable. “All is permitted,” said St. Paul, “but all is not expedient.” If not all, at least very much is technically possible, we might paraphrase, but not everything is expedient.
~ “The Responsibility of Christians,” Lecture to the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 12, 1989, Lucerne, Switzerland.
The Great Task Before Us
Let us summon humanity to a common task, drawn by our love of man as the image of God and of the universe, and as the creation of God.
It will be a common task if all Christians take part in it and share their experience and their hope, those of the West and those of the East, those of the North and those of the South. [This is] an immense and concrete task of a renewed ecumenism, in which… I hope the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church will collaborate.
Christians will act by giving a cosmic dimension to their prayer, to their hearing of the Word, to their sacramental life, and to their asceticism. Christians will act by example, by showing the cultural, social and ecological richness of traditional ascetic values when they open out onto history: here I am thinking above all, I repeat, of the voluntary limitation of our needs and of a profound sympathy for all life. …
This work of common vivification will provoke a spiritual revolution, the repercussions of which will gradually be inscribed in social and economic life.
~ “The Responsibility of Christians,” lecture to the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 12, 1989, Lucerne, Switzerland.
His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV was born Ignatios Hazem on April 17, 1921, in the town of Mhardey, Syria. After university studies in Beirut, Lebanon and a decade of service to the Church, he was ordained a deacon after which he obtained a doctorate in theology from St. Sergius Theological Academy in Paris. In 1961 he was elected bishop and appointed to a monastery near Tripoli, Lebanon. In 1979, he was elected Patriarch of Antioch, and enthroned as the 170th successor to the Apostle Peter, the first bishop of Antioch. As leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Church he helped establish the Middle East Council of Churches. A theme of his patriarchate has been the preservation of the historical faith while discovering in it answers to the problems of modern life. This has given rise to his wide-ranging and incisive commentary on ecological issues which he places in the historic Arab Christian understanding of responsibility to “transfigure creation,” to raise it to its full cosmological potential. As a key to this understanding, he has emphasized the need to contemplate creation to realize its spiritual meaning.
Recovering Christianity’s Cosmic Dimensions
“Man is an animal called to become God,” said one of the Fathers of the Church. And that is why the Word became flesh: to open to us, through the holy flesh of the earth transformed into the Eucharist, the path to deification. … But man has wanted to make himself divine by means of his own powers; he wants to build a tower of Babel and not to welcome the New Jerusalem. …. He has wanted to make of the world his prey, to be its tyrant and not its king and priest. He has made for himself, out of the potential transparency of all things when restored in Christ, the mirror of Narcissus.
Today that mirror is breaking up; the maternal sea is polluted, the heavens are rent, the forests are being destroyed and the desert areas are increasing. We must protect creation. Better yet, we must embellish it, render it spiritual, transfigure it. But nothing will be done unless there is a general conversion of men’s minds and hearts. Nothing will happen unless our personal and liturgical prayer, our sacramental life, our asceticism regain their cosmic dimension.
~ “A Theology of Creation,” Lecture to the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 10, 1989, Zurich, Switzerland, Sourozh magazine, November, 1989, p. 1, reprinted by the RCFC publications, Santa Rosa, CA, 1997.
The Birth of the Cosmos
The universe is not simply a manifestation of the Godhead…. The universe springs from the hands of the living God, who sees that it is tov, that is, “good and beautiful.” Thus it is willed by God, it is the joy of his wisdom, and exults in that reverential joyfulness which is described in the Psalms and in the cosmic passages of the Book of Job….
The biblical and patristic conception of creation breaks down the cyclical obsession of the ancient religions. Creation, the perpetual passage from nothing into being through the magnetic attraction of the infinite, is a movement in which we are given simultaneously time, space and matter
~ “A Theology of Creation,” Lecture to the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 10, 1989, Zurich, Switzerland, in Sourozh magazine, November, 1989, London, p. 2-3.
The Contemplation of Nature
The mystical way in Orthodoxy requires as a necessary stage the contemplation of nature, a vision of “the secrets of the glory of God which is hidden in beings and things,” to quote a great mystic who was both an Arab and a Christian, St. Isaac the Syrian. …
For us monks, as for the Fathers of the Church, as for St. Bonaventure in the West…, as for the great Orthodox religious philosophers of our century, the world, and I quote St. Ephrem the Syrian, is “an ocean of symbols.” St. Bonaventure said: “The splendor of things reveals God to us, if we are not blind; it cries out to God and will awaken us, if we are not deaf.”
~ “The Spirituality of the Creation,” Lecture before the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 11, 1989, Lausanne, Switzerland, reprinted in Sourozh magazine, Issue 38, London, UK, November 1989, p. 6.
An Effect of the Contemplation of Nature
Someone who sanctifies himself by practicing the contemplation of nature ceases to make an object of the universe through greed and blindness. His presence lightens and brings peace. … Contemplation of nature transforms nature, not in the direction of Babel, but in the direction of the New Jerusalem. When an Orthodox hermit, well into the twentieth century, gives vipers little cups of milk to drink, he knows them in a different way from that of the scientist….
~ “The Spirituality of the Creation,” lecture to the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 11, 1989, Lausanne, Switzerland, reprinted in Sourozh magazine, Issue Nr. 38, London, UK, November 1989, p. 7.
Deciphering the “Book of the World”
It falls to man to decipher in a creative way the “book of the world,” this immense logos alogos, or “speechless word,” as Origen defined the world. In Genesis God asks Adam to “name the animals,” a naming which includes all modes of knowledge and expression, from contemplation to art and science.
~ “A Theology of Creation,” Lecture to the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 10, 1989, Zurich, Switzerland, in Sourozh magazine, November, 1989, p. 3.
The World as Theophany
By withdrawing the intellect from the world of violence and mechanical, objectivised sexuality, asceticism transforms it, by uniting it with the heart, into an “eye of fire” or the “dwelling place of light.” This light is linked to the secret light in things, “that ineffable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things as in the burning bush,” said St. Maximus.
The Fathers use here an analogy: our physical eyes cannot see the light unless they open and purify themselves, and then only because they harbor in themselves, as the ancient Greek physiology believed, a spark of that same light. In the same way, the eye of the heart sees the secret hiddenness of things, this writing in light, only to the extent that it has purified itself and filled itself with this spiritual light. …
This experience, alas, rare in Western Christianity, has nevertheless found sublime expression in the “Song of the Creatures,” by St. Francis of Assisi, which begins with the praise of the sun:
Praise be to thee, my Lord, with all thy creatures,
especially my brother sun,
who is the day, and by whom thou dost enlighten us.
He is beautiful and shines with great splendor,
bearing thy sign, Most High.
This experience ought to enable us to include w with Christianity the Hindu and Far Eastern understanding of the world as theophany, not with a view to some impersonal fusion, as is too often the case in the ecological movement, but with a view to personal communion. …
~ “The Spirituality of the Creation,” Lecture to the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, March 11, 1989, Lausanne, Switzerland, reprinted in Sourozh magazine, Issue Nr. 38, London, UK, November 1989, p. 7.