From Father Smith: Spending Time with Cyril
Since I joined the staff last summer many people have asked, “What exactly do you do when you are not here at Saint Mary’s?” As many of you know, I am working on my doctoral dissertation and once the dissertation is finished, read, and approved by a committee of readers, I will be able-- at last-- to attend the Yale graduation, wear a doctor’s hood, and write the letters “Ph.D.” after my name. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (not the Divinity School) will grant the degree upon the recommendation of the Department of Religious Studies. That is not just a bureaucratic detail. My field of study used to be called “patristics,” the study of the writings of the Church Fathers, who lived and wrote in the post-New Testament period up to about AD 600. We still call it that, but the field is also known as the History of Ancient Christianity. The different names point to concerns that have arisen in recent years. In the past 30 years those who study the church fathers (and mothers) have shown an interest not only in theological ideas, but also in matters that used to be the exclusive concern of the classicist and the social historian. The field has become interdisciplinary, has attracted men and women of diverse backgrounds, and has grown increasingly interested in the ways in which early Christians were both influenced by and, in turn, influenced the societies of the Mediterranean world in late antiquity. As a result, the patristics scholar is more at home these days in the presumably more neutral environs of the Religious Studies department than he or she would be in a theological school.
All of this has shaped my own work. I am writing about the “festal letters” of Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril was bishop of Alexandria, in Egypt, during the years AD 412-444. Alexandria was then the New York City of the Roman Empire. It was a crucially important port, but it was never the empire’s capital. It was strategically important. It was cosmopolitan, polyglot, prosperous, a magnet for people from every part of the empire, an intellectual and cultural center. In the fifth century, it was an anxious place. The frontiers of the Roman Empire were under attack by “barbarians” and one of those frontiers was in southern Egypt. Alexandria’s social and religious diversity often led to conflict. Alexandrians, whether Christian or not, were increasingly nervous about the growing prestige of the new, upstart capital, Constantinople.
Cyril was a bishop for his time and for his city. Grand, never shy, comfortable with the exercise of authority, Cyril was deeply committed to what he understood to be the Christian faith and defended and promoted that faith at every opportunity and against all comers. He involved himself in the politics of the day and knew members of the Imperial family. He used his connections to defend the see of Alexandria against Constantinopolitan pretensions. He was criticized by contemporaries and has been criticized since (often justly so) for his unseemly politicking and for his provocative rhetoric at a time when religious passions could grow heated and end in violence. Cyril is best known in the history of Christian thought for his (sometimes controversial) leadership in the theological controversies that culminated in the Chalcedonian Definition of AD 451 –Jesus Christ is One Person in Two Natures, “which are united unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.”
I am interested not in the Cyril of the Christological controversies, but Cyril the bishop and pastoral theologian, the author of 29 letters addressed to the churches of Egypt and beyond, letters that were read on or about the Feast of Epiphany, announcing the date for the beginning of Lent and the dates of Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost. (When the deacon of the Mass chants those dates at Saint Mary’s on Epiphany we are following in Cyril’s footsteps). In those letters Cyril addresses a number of pastoral concerns and in doing so gives us a sketch of what he saw as the Christian life. For Cyril, the world was a dangerous and anxious place. He saw his flock as exposed to temptations on every side: from demons, from the temptations of the body and the passions, from competing religions and erroneous “heresies.” The antidote he prescribes is multiform. First, there is asceticism – spiritual practices to be undertaken by all Christians, not just by monks, especially during Lent. Second, there is the confession of and adherence to the orthodox faith, as Cyril defines it. Third, there is the careful cultivation of the virtues of self-control, piety, justice, temperance, and courage. Here Cyril borrows from the Greek philosophical tradition but gives that tradition a new twist: the model of Christian courage is not the athlete or the soldier, it is the desert monk who fights demons, tames his body and is ever focused on those things that are meant to last, heavenly things.
And what about me? Why do I study Cyril and his letters? The social historian in me is interested in this particular form of Christianity (my internal historian is ever allergic to the grand generalization). The Christian and the priest that I am reads Cyril because he so inspiringly keeps Christ at the center of things, the essential midpoint in the great drama of salvation. I read this utterly politically incorrect bishop because he challenges me. He makes me ask what is dangerous for Christians today and makes me wonder about ways to respond to those dangers; he forces me to ask exactly what is Christian courage, what is struggle, what is zeal. He makes me determined not to repeat his mistakes: surely there are ways to be a committed Christian without being an intolerant one.
I have lived with Cyril for a long time now, and no doubt, it shows. Those of you who have heard me preach must surely hear echoes of Cyril from time to time. Perhaps you will understand if it sometimes seems like you are overhearing a conversation with that irascible, difficult, and inspiring saint. —James Ross Smith
PRAYER LIST . . . Your prayers are asked for Jolene and Carl, priest, who are hospitalized, and for Kathy, Sarah, Grover, Robert, Angel, Peter, Michael, Elenita, George, Eileen, Gloria, David, Jerri, Myra, Tessie, Margaret, Marion, Olga, Rick and Charles, priest. Pray for the members of our Armed Forces on active duty, especially Patrick, Edward, Christopher, Andrew, Robert, Joseph, Mark, Ned, David and John . . . GRANT THEM PEACE . . . September 3: 1965 Carol Jean Kearins; September 5: 1964 Joseph Henry Schuman; September 6: 1989 Martha McElveen Jones.
LITURGICAL NOTES . . . The Sunday Proper: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:21-27 . . . Confessions will be heard on Saturday, August 31, by Father Weiler and on Saturday, September 7, by Father Gerth.
AROUND THE PARISH . . . On Thursday, September 5, the National Football League will present “NFL Kickoff Live from Times Square.” The event begins at 4:30 PM and will continue through 8:00 PM. Bon Jovi, Enrique Iglesias and others are expected to perform to a crowd of 100,000 . . . The installation of the new handrails for the sanctuary has begun. We especially appreciate the care the workmen are taking with this project . . . The Rector is on vacation through Friday, September 6 . . . Attendance on last Sunday 185.
NOTES ON MUSIC . . . On Sunday at the Solemn Mass, the prelude will be Adagio from Sonata no. 1, Op. 65 and the postlude will be Fugue in D Minor, Op. 37, no. 3, both by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). The soloist is Mellissa Hughes, soprano. The anthem at Communion is Zerfließe, mein Herze from Johannes-Passion, BWV 245 by J. S. Bach (1685-1750). The music of J. S. Bach was largely forgotten for many years after his death, and Felix Mendelssohn played a major role in the revival of Bach’s works by conducting a performance of his Saint Matthew Passion in 1839.
SEPTEMBER WOMEN’S MEETING . . . The Women and Spirituality Group continues through the summer, meeting on the second Tuesday of each month. The next meeting is Tuesday, September 10 and will include a study of the story of Lot’s daughters and wife in Genesis. One question that will be asked is, “What can we learn from these stories?” Those who attended the August meeting may also want to bring something they have written based upon last month’s meeting. The group meets in Saint Benedict’s Study at 7:00 PM and all female members and friends of Saint Mary’s are warmly invited to attend.
SOLEMN REQUIEM MASS ON SEPTEMBER 11 . . . Ushers are needed for this Noon Mass since we anticipate a very large crowd . . . Postcards listing the time and location of the Requiem have been mailed. If anyone would like additional postcards for friends or coworkers, please contact the parish office . . . In the midst of the many different ways of remembering the victims of 9/11, a very good article by Erich Eichmann appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, August 23, 2002: “Sound Judgment: A Requiem for the Masses.” The Internet link for the article is WSJ.com - Sound Judgment: A Requiem for the Masses
The Calendar of the Week
Sunday The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Monday Martyrs of New Guinea
Labor Day (Federal Holiday Schedule, One Mass only, at 12:15 PM)
Friday Weekday Abstinence
Saturday Of Our Lady
The Parish Clergy
The Reverend Stephen Gerth, rector,
The Reverend Matthew Weiler, curate, The Reverend James Ross Smith, assistant,
The Reverend Amilcar Figueroa, The Reverend Rosemari Sullivan, assisting priests,
The Reverend Canon Edgar F. Wells, rector emeritus.