Sunday, May 13, 2012

Georges Florovsky: "Personal prayer .. is possible only in the context of the community"

Father Georges Florovsky was a Russian Orthodox priest, theologian, author, and educator. Born in Odessa in 1893, he studied philosophy at various Russian universities. In 1919, he began to teach at the University of Odessa, but his family was forced to flee the Soviet Union the following year, eventually settling in Paris. 

In 1925, he was appointed professor of patristics at Paris’ St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute. The study of the Fathers became for him the benchmark all theology and exegesis, as well as a source for many of his contributions to and criticisms of the ecumenical movement. 

In 1932, he was ordained to the priesthood. During the 1930s, he wrote his most important works in the area of patristics as well as his greatest work, Ways of Russian Theology, in which he questioned the western influences of scholasticism, pietism, and idealism on Russian Orthodox theology and called for a re-evaluation of Orthodox theology in the light of patristic writings. 

In 1949, Father Georges moved to New York City, where he became dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. His oversight of the development of the theological curriculum led to the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York granting the seminary an absolute charter in 1953. He retired as dean in 1955, after which he taught patristics and Russian religious thought at Harvard Divinity School until 1964 and Slavic languages and literature at Princeton University until his retirement in 1972. He died in 1979, having left a monumental corpus of writings on virtually every aspect of Orthodox Christian theology, life, and thought. The following is a well-known passage on the Christian experience of prayer from The Orthodox Church magazine: 

Christianity stands by personal faith and commitment, and yet Christian existence is essentially corporate: to be Christian means to be in the community, in the Church. 

On the other hand, personality should never be simply submerged in any, even Christian, collective. The Body of Christ consists of responsible persons. The first followers of Jesus, in the “days of His flesh,” were not isolated individuals en- gaged in their private quest for truth. They were Israelites – regular members of an established and instituted community, of the “Chosen People” of God. They were “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Indeed, a “Church” already existed when Jesus began His ministry. It was Israel, the People of the Covenant. The preaching of Jesus was first addressed precisely to the members of this “Church,” to “the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” Jesus never addressed individuals as individuals. The existing Covenant was the constant back- ground of His preaching. The Sermon on the Mount was addressed not to an occasional crowd of accidental listeners, but rather to an “inner circle” of those who were already following Jesus with anticipation that He was the “One Who should come.” It was the pattern of the Kingdom. “The Little Flock,” that community which Jesus had gathered around Himself, was, in fact, the faithful “Remnant” of Israel, a reconstituted People of God. It was reconstituted by the call of God, by the “Good News” of salvation. 

But to this call each person had to respond individually, by an act of personal faith. This personal commitment of faith, however, incorporated the believer into the community. And this remained forever the pattern of Christian existence: one should believe and confess, and then he is baptized into the Body. The “faith of the Church” must be personally appropriated. Moreover, only through this baptismal incorporation is the personal act of faith completed and fulfilled. Those baptized are born again. Accordingly, Christian worship is intrinsically a personal act and engagement, and yet it finds its fullness only within the community, in the context of common and corporate life. Personal devotion and community worship belong intimately together, and each of them is genuine and authentic, and truly Christian, only through the other. 

There are, in the Gospel, two passages concerning prayer, and they seem to guide us in opposite directions. On the one hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ was teaching the multitudes to pray “in secret.” It had to be a solitary prayer – “when thou hast shut thy door” – man alone with his Heavenly Father. Yet, on the other hand, on another occasion, Christ was stressing the strength of a joint and corporate prayer: “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask.”

Now, is there any contradiction or conflict between these two different praying attitudes? Or, rather, do they belong together and are possible only together? Paradoxically, they simply presuppose each other. Indeed, one has to learn to pray “in secret,” alone, bringing all his infirmities and adoration before his Father, in an intimate and personal intercourse. And only those who are trained in the practice of this “solitary” prayer can meet each other spiritually and join together in what they are going to ask corporately from their common Father in heaven. Common prayer presupposes and requires personal training. Yet personal prayer itself is possible only in the context of the community, since no person is Christian except as a member of the Body. Even in the solitude, “in the chamber,” a Christian prays as a member of the redeemed community, of the Church.


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