Tsironi Niki

The sanctity of matter in the preaching of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh: an unlimited dynamic

Venerable Fathers, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

The place of matter in the preaching of Metropolitan Anthony is a topic around which he has developed Patristic teaching in a most interesting way relating it directly to modern questions and challenges; A theme central to the Incarnation but also to the foundational ritual expressions of Orthodoxy, such as the veneration of icons and the relics of saints. The place of matter in our everyday life, especially in the context of modern society, is a major issue that needs to be explored with reference to the tradition of the Church and its role in modern society, where the century long controversy between spirit and matter continues – this time against the backdrop of a society defiled by consumption and monetary values.

I would like to thank warmly and sincerely the organizers of this conference for kindly extending me the invitation, thus giving me the opportunity to ponder on issues pertaining to Metropolitan Anthony’s thought and teaching. At the same time, I deeply appreciate the occasion which gave me the opportunity to set a foot in the Holy Land of Russia and visit Moscow for the first time. Special thanks to Elena Sadovnikova for her efforts to organize in the best possible way this conference and for her unfailing support throughout all the stages of preparation.

I met Metropolitan Anthony at the Russian Cathedral, in London and remained in his church until 1998. Apart from the compelling ritual of the Russian tradition, which appealed directly to the depth of my heart I have been fortunate to experience Metropolitan Anthony in the services, the Liturgy but also in his talks and the church gatherings regularly organized and marking our life as members of Ennismore Gardens congreagation. His testimony to Orthodox faith has deeply influenced me, both in my research but more importantly in my life. To a Greek student of Byzantine culture nothing of what Metropolitan Anthony was bringing to the fore was evident; or to put it in another way, to me it was all new and at the same time his teaching renewed profoundly my understanding of past and present, of history and of modern life.


From the countless points of interest in MA’s thought, I decided to focus on the sanctity of matter, as I believe it represents one of the strong themes in Vladyka’s thought and practice, while at the same time it is a dominant issue of Orthodox theology and particularly relevant to modern concerns, where spirit and matter are wrestling against the backdrop of deep spiritual and material crisis. I remember clearly how impressed and perplexed I was when I heard Vladyka speaking of Christian materialism, thus employing the Marxist formula in a Christian context. I quote MA’s comparison of Marx with John Chrysostom: “Marx says that the proletariat has no need of a god because man has become his god. And St John Chrysostom: ‘If you want to measure the greatness of man, raise your eyes towards the throne of God and you will see the Word Incarnate, the bearer of our humanity, seated at the right hand of the glory.’ Here are the two clearest expressions of the modern situation. And yet in both cases it is man who is at the centre of everything.” (MA, The Essence of Prayer, 288).

What could Christian Materialism possibly be in the context of the past and present of Orthodoxy? Over more than a decade pondering on the question I came to realize that the Bishop, in a way that did not necessarily involve a scholastic theological approach, aimed at one of the cornerstones of our faith. One of the cornerstones amply endorsed by the 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, in 787, which determined to a great extent the profile and the essence of Orthodoxy in Byzantium, the Balkans, Russia and beyond.

First of all, let us look at what we mean when we refer to the sanctity of matter. The phrase does not refer to an inherent quality: that is, that we do not mean to say that matter is imbued with sanctity by its very nature. Neither we mean to suggest the contrary. Matter, like all things, energies, notions, feelings etc. exists, created by God and its use or abuse relies on its use; it relies on the role it is called to play in life and death. Matter, although created by God followed man in his Fall from the Kingdom of God. So, to be more accurate, we should refer to the potential sanctification of matter, especially after the Incarnation of the Word. As Gregory Nazianzus puts it, “what was assumed was saved” and this applies to matter as it also applies to man and his fallen nature.

How was the sanctification of matter reflected in the thought and practice of MA? Studying notes from the years near him, I encountered references to the depreciation of material goods. He was definitely a man who has gone through hard times and possessions meant little –if anything at all- to him. However, this did not prevent him from perceiving matter as part of the creation and like everything created, in need to be brought back to God through prayer. To my understanding, the key for the sanctification of matter, according to MA, was prayer. It is through prayer that man comes to his full being, reinstated to the purpose of the image and likeness according to which and for which he was created by God. Prayer is the bridge which links man with God in what Vladyka describes as the vibrant encounter of real beings. In his many articles and sermons and talks on prayer he recounts his own experience and gives advice on all aspects of prayer. Through prayer, MA sees the faculties of the human being (body, soul, intellect) being reunited and man reinstated in front of the living God. In his words: “A person who has become real and true can stand before God and offer prayer with absolute attention, unity of intellect, heart and will, in a body that responds completely to the promptings of the soul. But until we have attained such perfection we can still stand in the presence of God, aware that we are partly real and partly unreal, and bring to him all that we can, but in repentance, confessing that we are still so unreal and so incapable of unity. At no moment of our life, whether we are still completely divided or in process of unification, are we deprived of the possibility of standing before God”. (MA, The Essence of Prayer, 99).

I would like to stay in these words and see what is it exactly that MA means when he speaks of unity as opposed to partial existence and how does this notion fit in the discourse about the sanctity of matter. MA says that at the time of the Old Testament it was possible for man to be righteous. On the contrary, “The commandments of the New Testament never make a man righteous”. However, it is precisely at the moment of grace, the moment of the Incarnation that man is given the possibility of his salvation. Incarnational theology forms the absolute base for the sanctification of matter and this is attested in all aspects involved in the Iconoclastic controversy and subsequently endorsed in the doctrinal formulations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

Within the limited space of this paper I wish to draw attention first, to the basic precepts pertaining to Patristic views related to the sanctification of matter, especially in the middle Byzantine period and second, to explore the ways in which, to my understanding, Metropolitan Anthony made through his teaching these principles relevant to his own time, a time when the nature of matter with all its important implications was of special importance for the life of people. Some more explanations are needed at this point regarding the dominant issues of the Iconoclastic controversy, which marked the middle-Byzantine period. Iconoclasm, admittedly, has been a unique instance where a fierce debate broke out over a purely philosophical topic, such as artistic representation and subsequently, the question over the worthiness of matter. The relationship between prototype and representation has been analyzed in the various works of John of Damascus, including his homilies on the Dormition of the Virgin. Therein, John draws the distinction between original and representation in a way that sheds light to the function of depiction as a pointer towards the divine. The image brings to my mind the Virgin Hodegetria, the iconographic type showing the Mother of God holding and pointing towards Christ, as the only true way. It is a type of image loaded with Christological connotations that developed in the middle Byzantine period as a variation to the more hieratic earlier representations of Mary.

It is worth noting that all the writers and theologians who defended the Iconophile cause did so on the basis of Incarnational theology. That is to say, that matter by itself is neither good nor bad; but because of its assumption by the Word of God in the Incarnation it was given the possibility to be sanctified. While the representation of the divine occupied the front stage, the importance of matter in the debate is further asserted in the cult of the relics of the saints, which was the other bone of contention between the two sides. Last but certainly not least, comes the Mother of God who, although not directly involved in the Iconoclastic controversy played the most important role as it was through her that the Word of God was made flesh, assuming matter and giving it the possibility of sanctification.

MA’s understanding of the Mother of God is revealed in his commentary on the Cana wedding, where Vladyka finds the opportunity to emphasize the greatness and the significance of Mary’s role in the divine plan, relating her attitude in the two instances: the Cana wedding and the Annunciation. “By her attitude”, he says, “she made a total, integral unlimited act of faith, the faith on which the Annunciation was founded; the faith that she bore witness to in being the mother of the Child-God now comes to light in all its fullness… The holy Virgin, by this act of faith, established the conditions of the Kingdom and opened to God the doors…” (MA 303). Here we see the three subjects to which I referred above, i.e. the nature of matter and artistic representation, the cult of relics and the place of the Mother of God intermingling in MA’s theology addressing the question of boundaries between visible and invisible, between the present world and the kingdom of God. The way MA understood prayer, was definitely as a medium connecting present and eternal life. His definition of the Kingdom of God is “that in which we offer to God with a pure heart without blemish.” He evokes the old saying of Israel, which says that “God is everywhere man permits Him to enter” in order to demonstrate the potential sanctification of nature and matter through prayer, through faith and encounter. An image we often find in his sermons and talks is that of the blessed waters. The story finds its way in various contexts, whether in the Commentary of the Canna Wedding or his sermon on the Baptism of the Lord. MA refers to the exhausted, useless, soiled waters of the earth and their restoration into part of God’s creation, a source of life eternal. Elsewhere the waters “become the wine of the Kingdom, a revelation of something greater, which makes the wedding [of Cana] that had begun as a human event unfold to the measure of the Kingdom of God.” (MA 303)

The exchange of idioms between man and God, first propounded by Cyril of Alexandria in the 5th century and with reference to the Incarnation in the context of the Nestorian controversy, in MA finds its way as the story of iron and fire. The story says that after the iron stays in the fire it acquires its properties and the same goes for the human and divine natures’ encounter after the Incarnation of the Word.

Human and divine, visible and invisible become one, or acquire the possibility of being one thanks to the sacrifice of the Word who opened the way of salvation. MA had the grace of making the invisible realm of God accessible to his congregation, to his audiences, to his interlocutors at any circumstance. Speaking about prayer in prayer, he fulfilled the role of the preacher and the priest, becoming a bridge connecting the present with the after life. If the hardest challenge of man in prayer is the distraction of his attention, the constant motion of soul and mind that is so hard to be controlled, MA had the gift of gathering his flock and bringing it in love at the feet of God.

MA made people feel as present in the events narrated in the Bible but also in the Patristic writings. He thus made the message of the Gospel relevant to everyday life reality of the 20th century, a time of accelerating consumerism where the spirit almost lost its right to exist. He made history and narratives come true, thus transforming them into a vehicle for man to identify himself with personages that have also suffered, faced temptation but also were rewarded with the peaceful contact with God. Through his sermons and talks, many understood the way in which history and Biblical narratives may become relative to the present day, how one may hear the voice of God in the garden just before the Fall, feel the burning sand of the desert, the despair of a people in captivity, the hope and challenge of Israel in view of the promised land, the sanctification of nature and matter through the birth of the infant Christ thanks to the unlimited faith of an Israelite Virgin. And how all these things through the broken boundaries between history and present, visible and invisible may well direct securely man to the safe port of God, as Byzantine homilists and poets described the divine kingdom.