Tomorrow (June 27) is the memorial of St. Cyril of Alexandria. Here’s what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said about St. Cyril in his General Audience in 2007:
Cyril’s writings – truly numerous and already widely disseminated in various Latin and Eastern translations in his own lifetime, attested to by their instant success – are of the utmost importance for the history of Christianity. His commentaries on many of the New and Old Testament Books are important, including those on the entire Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Psalms and the Gospels of John and Luke. Also important are his many doctrinal works, in which the defence of the Trinitarian faith against the Arian and Nestorian theses recurs. The basis of Cyril’s teaching is the ecclesiastical tradition and in particular, as I mentioned, the writings of Athanasius, his great Predecessor in the See of Alexandria. Among Cyril’s other writings, the books Against Julian deserve mention. They were the last great response to the anti-Christian controversies, probably dictated by the Bishop of Alexandria in the last years of his life to respond to the work Against the Galileans, composed many years earlier in 363 by the Emperor known as the “Apostate” for having abandoned the Christianity in which he was raised.
The Christian faith is first and foremost the encounter with Jesus, “a Person, which gives life a new horizon” (Deus Caritas Est, n. 1). St Cyril of Alexandria was an unflagging, staunch witness of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, emphasizing above all his unity, as he repeats in 433 in his first letter (PG 77, 228-237) to Bishop Succensus: “Only one is the Son, only one the Lord Jesus Christ, both before the Incarnation and after the Incarnation. Indeed, the Logos born of God the Father was not one Son and the one born of the Blessed Virgin another; but we believe that the very One who was born before the ages was also born according to the flesh and of a woman”. Over and above its doctrinal meaning, this assertion shows that faith in Jesus the Logos born of the Father is firmly rooted in history because, as St Cyril affirms, this same Jesus came in time with his birth from Mary, the Theotò-kos, and in accordance with his promise will always be with us. And this is important: God is eternal, he is born of a woman, and he stays with us every day. In this trust we live, in this trust we find the way for our life.
Cyril was, of course, a theologian, engaged in discourse concerned with theological precision.
We are often told these days that such concerns are nothing but casuistry. Theology, it is sometimes said or at least implied, is an obstacle to faith.
And it can be.
This is of course, not a new discussion, and is indeed reflective of an authentic dynamic and tension within Christian discourse since….the beginning.
But as anyone with an understanding of what it means to be Catholic in its breadth and depth understands the danger of sweeping generalizations that sweep out one side of the either/or.
Catholicism is the expression of the loving Presence of Jesus Christ in the world. But the human beings Jesus encounters are intelligent, reasonable, and seek to understand.
Precision matters. As time goes on, the precision might harden, become brittle and lifeless, and finally crack, but that doesn’t mean that the search for the closest words and ideas – even in negation – should be scoffed at or cast aside. The process is important, and more than that, inevitable. You can dismiss theological discourse, you can go on and on, talking in a “pastoral” way but do you know what?
Stubbornly, the questions will be raised.
How do you know this?
Where do your words come from?
Who is God?
Why is this a sin, but this not?
Who are you to tell me all about this, anyway?
Son of God? Mother of God? What?
Questions that deserve answers with language as precise as possible, humble and so aware of the limitations of that language.
But yes, that deserve answers. Which is what Catholic theology is all about, and what it’s for.
We keep talking, thinking, searching, in faith, aware of our limitations but also aware of who we are as rational beings created in the image of God.
Logos and agape.
Not either, not or.
Some interesting reading and listening this week. The listening first.
As I said this past week on Twitter – spend less time on Facebook this week and listen to some good podcasts instead. As long time readers know, my favorites are those from BBC Radio 4, particularly In Our Time. There is simply nothing like it on American radio. A brisk jaunt through some topic led by Melvyn Bragg and three academics. It’s very tightly structured, and not a free-for all, but it’s always interesting and disagreements are certainly aired.
It’s also very non-American in that it’s absolutely free from PC cant or snideness when addressing issues of religion. Historical figures’ religious faith is taken seriously and respectfully. So refreshing.
This week I listened to an episode on Jane Eyre, which I confess….I’VE NEVER READ. I have no idea how that happened, since as a teen, I read most of Austen, Hardy and even Middlemarch.
That said, I think I’ll read it now….probably over this weekend.
The program examined Bronte’s life, particularly as it might have inspired various aspects of the book, her process of writing it, the plot and major themes, its reception and, at the end, its religious themes….as was pointed out, the last word in the novel is “Jesus.”
Next was an episode on the Curies. I read a children’s biography of Marie Curie as a child and was quite inspired by it (obviously not to be a scientist, but there was a time around 5th grade when I thought I would be a doctor…so, sort of inspired, I guess).
Religion entered the discussion as the differences between Curie’s mother (observant Catholic) and father (atheist scientist) were touched on and brought back into play in the later French context. Good discussion of the family dynamics, especially after Pierre’s death, and a clarifying section on Marie’s scientific achievements and the distinction between her chemistry and physics Nobel prizes.
Speaking of 19th century women, over the past couple of days, I read a very good book called Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back by Janice Nimura. It’s a very well-told history of five young Japanese women (really girls – ranging in age from 7 to young teens) who were sent from Japan to the United States to live and study in 1871. Two returned fairly soon, but the three who remained ended up studying at Vassar and Bryn Mawr, and each, in her own way, eventually made tremendous contributions to the cause of the education of Japanese women.
The author was blessed with fantastic resources – the women were faithful correspondents, some of which has been published, the American and eventually Japanese press covered various aspects of their lives, and they made speeches and wrote articles.
Through the prism of these women’s lives, we learn quite a bit about late 19th century Japanese history and the sense that women in both countries had of themselves.
And once again….religion. And again, religion treated respectfully and honestly, since Christian faith motivated many of the women’s American benefactors, and one of the Japanese women converted to Christianity herself. What is clear is something that anyone who has studied the history of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity both in the context of Europe and in its encounters with other non-European cultures:
Christianity elevates the status of women. And it was understood to do so.
This is one of the rarely-discussed reasons that Christianity was resisted in some traditional patriarchal cultures. It was a profound motivator, especially for female Protestant missionaries. Everything happens within a particular context, of course. The Japanese women of Nimura’s tale had, in our view, a “limited” understanding of what education should accomplish, and expressed
dissatisfaction with later more “radical” (in the 1910’s!) visions being expressed by younger women. But in their own time, their work on behalf of women’s education was certainly radical in and of itself.
A really enjoyable, rich read.
As I was pouring over this book last night, I was thinking about why historical fiction doesn’t interest me. I mean…the minute I pick up a novel and see that it has a real historical figure at its center, I lose interest. (Not necessarily events, of course, just a novel built around a particular real person.) I think part of that is because historians today have access to such rich sources, they can put their hand to it and pull out a narrative that’s as intriguing as any novel – more so.
(That said, I also resisted history that embroiders in any way – that sets up scenes not derived directly from sources or enters an historical figure’s mind. Hate that. I thought there might be a bit of that at the beginning of this book, but turning to the notes, I saw that she pulled the scenes I was questioning directly from correspondence. )
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