May 22, 2014

Psalm 105: Despoiling the Egyptians

Then he led forth Israel with silver and gold,
and there was none among his tribes who stumbled.
Egypt was glad when they departed,
for dread of them had fallen upon it.
(Psalm 105:37-38)

Psalm 105 (like Psalm 78) is a hymn recalling God’s deeds and saving miracles among the people of Israel. The center of all this is the Exodus from Egypt, and the psalm hits all the main events of this story, including the “despoiling of the Egyptians,” as recounted in Exodus.

The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked of the Egyptians jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing; 36 and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they despoiled the Egyptians. (Exodus 12:35-36)

Jewish and Patristic teachers spiritually interpreted the despoiling of the Egyptians as a blessing to mine Greek and Roman thought for whatever might be used for better understanding of the scriptures. Since then this notion has been broadly applied to all forms of knowledge—whatever their source— that might contribute to a better understanding of the Scriptures and truth.

St Gregory
St Gregory Thaumaturgus (“The Wonderworker”)

Most famously, Origen wrote about this to his gifted student Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus (the Wonderworker) around 235. Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea included this letter in the Philokalia. Here is an excerpt from this intriguing and influential letter.

All hail to you in God, most excellent and reverend Sir, son Gregory, from Origen. … Your natural aptitude is sufficient to make you a consummate Roman lawyer and a Greek philosopher too of the most famous schools. But my desire for you has been that you should direct the whole force of your intelligence to Christianity as your end…. And I would wish that you should take with you on the one hand those parts of the philosophy of the Greeks which are fit, as it were, to serve as general or preparatory studies for Christianity, and on the other hand so much of Geometry and Astronomy as may be helpful for the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. The children of the philosophers speak of geometry and music and grammar and rhetoric and astronomy as being ancillary to philosophy; and in the same way we might speak of philosophy itself as being ancillary to Christianity.

It is something of this sort perhaps that is enigmatically indicated in the directions God is represented in the Book of Exodus as giving to the children of Israel. They are directed to beg from their neighbors and from those dwelling in their tents vessels of silver and of gold, and raiment; thus they are to spoil the Egyptians, and to obtain materials for making the things they are told to provide in connection with the worship of God. For out of the things of which the children of Israel spoiled the Egyptians the furniture of the Holy of Holies was made, the ark with its cover, and the cherubim and the mercy-seat and the gold jar in which the manna, that bread of angels, was stored…

Do you then, sir, my son, study first of all the divine Scriptures. Study them I say. For we require to study the divine writings deeply, lest we should speak of them faster than we think; and while you study these divine works with a believing and God-pleasing intention, knock at that which is closed in them, and it shall be opened to thee by the doorkeeper, of whom Jesus says, “To him the doorkeeper opens.”

While you attend to this divine reading seek aright and with unwavering faith in God the hidden sense which is present in most passages of the divine Scriptures. And do not be content with knocking and seeking, for what is most necessary for understanding divine things is prayer, and in urging us to this the Saviour says not only, “Knock, and it shall be opened to you,” and “Seek, and you shall find,” but also “Ask, and it shall be given you.”

So much I have ventured on account of my fatherly love to you. Whether I have ventured well or not, God knows, and His Christ, and he who has part of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. May you partake in these; may you have an always increasing share of them, so that you may be able to say not only, “We are partakers of Christ,” but also “We are partakers of God.”

Toronto Conference on the Church in Ukraine

St Vladimir Monument
St Vladimir monument, overlooking Kyiv

Last week I reported that Father Leonid Kishkovsky, Protodeacon Nazari Polataiko, and professors Nicholas Denysenko and Paul Gavrilyuk (both OCA deacons) participated in a major conference on the state of the Church in Ukraine. Deacon Nicholas’ report on the event can be found here I especially appreciated his notes on Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun’s assessment.

Much discussion was devoted to the question of ideology and identity in the Churches, particularly in the post-Maidan environment.  Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun underscored the Maidan as a phenomenon where the public square becomes the Church. His reports on the interdenominational Christian unity which became reality on the Maidan—with Orthodox, Catholics, Baptists, and other Reformed Christians casting aside ecclesial borders to share fervent prayer—illuminated the capacity of the Church to serve society and promote unity in Christ as the preferred alternative to fusing ethnic identity with denominational affiliation.

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Today His Beatitude and I will meet with two ordination candidates from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. This evening Metropolitan Tikhon flies to Ottawa to participate in the meeting of the Archdiocese of Canada council. He is the locum tenens of the Archdiocese; Bishop Irénée is the Administrator. Very early tomorrow morning I will be driving to South Canaan, PA for the Saint Tikhon’s Seminary Board meeting followed by events surrounding commencement and the annual Memorial Day Pilgrimage.