A new 2018-19 series of articles shared on the roots and the prospects that unite Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions to the realm of Jewishness and Hassidism, Compared semantics and exegetical “paysages” by Archpriest Alexander A.Winogradsky Frenkel (Patriarchate of Jerusalem). Below the twentieth article: “Light And Silence”.

Archpriest Alexander A.Winogradsky Frenkel: “Light And Silence”
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Also sprach Zarathustra? (Thus spoke Zarathushtra)… Basically, it consists in diving into the very heart of our exclusive layers of the Near- and Middle-Eastern cradle of civilization.

The Mazdean faith is foreign to the Sumerian or Semitic civilization. Zarathushtra is rooted in the Persian plateau, it sounds Avestan. It is linked to the Aryan and Persian world. Nonetheless, it irrigated a transcontinental humus and melted into philosophy, faith, intelligence of the historical epics shared among the Semites in the West. In the East, there is a touch of Hindu and ancient Tibetan Bön piety that expanded to the North, toward Mongolia and the Pacific beaches. Bones remain bones – they are used as prayer beads or, as the Mazdean tradition requires, the vultures leave them on the top of the death towers (Mumbai) as packs of skeletons after they swallowed the bodies of the newly-departed.

Zarant-ushtra!  From Pashto to Avestan, South Ossetian via Persian and Indian Vedics, the name refers to the “aging camels, or yellowed or impetuous persons”. There is a saying: “Throughout the region of Media, the camel advances as in a dance because everything is possible and wide is this world” (Yevamot 116a, 45a, Sanhedrin 7b).

Nice words! Zarathustra traces back to the 18th down to the 10th century BC. “One day is like a thousand years, yesterday’s day” (Psalm 90,4) and we are not ready to understand what it really implies in daily life. Does it make sense? It’s all about how to thrush with violence into the profound aplomb and spirit of domination that seizes human consciousness in search of divine realities, swinging along between good and evil.

It took time to distinguish the personality of a sage from the region of the Medes, Persians and Parthians who used to live in the neighborhood of the Ditya River, West of Airyanem Vaejah. Was he residing in Ragha, a sort of a “hill” in the country of the Medes? The Avesta, the long moral epic account, does not show any evidence of the Zarathushtra’s original location. We are driven into the diachronic blur of mythic history that the scribes loved to dress up with breathtaking expressions. He might have lived some 258 years before Alexander the Great. The Seleucids would have thought that he could be a disguised character, maybe a Greek… which could allow to match with the Hellenistic and Roman cultures and styles. They “transgendered” the Sage into Zoroastrians, changing him into an “indissoluble star”. The Kingdom of Alexander disappeared from our living memory. Yet, his empire expanded the Hellenistic and Roman world beyond the Indus where Zarathustra has survived.

In itself, the “Roman” empire of that time, including Persia, gave an exact measure of the spiritual rooting of our civilization. We can understand that the Magi saw a star that led them to the One who “can not to be dissolved / dissolved “. The Magi were these beings educated by the old Jewish diaspora of Iraq and Persia and had learned about the value of salvation. It would not be easy to describe Zarathustra’s own thoughts. Let’s just say that he sought to clarify two driving forces of our societies and human behavior: “asha = truth” opposed to “druzh = a lie” (modern Persian: “dorûgh”). We have reduced it to some gnostic notion, a sort of clash with Manicheism, which came out of this radical principle of constant opposition: “Asha – druzh = light against falsehood”, maybe the prelude to a substantial discernment between good and evil. Honestly, everything turns and sways again and again, revolves around this question.

The Zarathustrians have always a holy Fire in their temples. In each Mazdean temple, there is a big fire, that is a sign of the first appearances of the phenomenon as mastered by the humans. The fire is the glowing light that allows to separate “good” and “evil” and worship to the monotheistic deity Ahura Mazda, Master of justice and righteous deeds who also can exercise a cruel judgment.

Judaism solved it in a radical way, taking things to the root. All Hebrew words offer a subtle game that plays on many paradoxes and diversified, often opposite or contradictory meanings. Praises (hallel/הלל) match with insults/curses (h’illul/חילול) because of a consonant that is full of historic ambiguity. On the other hand, one thing is clear in Hebrew: “Tov/טוב = good” and definitely opposed to “Ra’/רע= evil”. It developed into an extraordinary discernment of human consciousness.

Semitic linguistics and Hebrew as the language of the monotheistic transmission suggest that every word induces forms of positive or negative paradoxes that cannot nullify each other. 

It took so many centuries to only approach such a critical reality. No one can ever impose any moral or cultural tendency: Good can overcome evil when the adolescent (12/13 years old, including girls) become “adults” and full members of the acting religious system among the Jews. God Alone helps discern between what is leading to life or, on the contrary, to the torment of evil. Is there any room for some sort of extempore, be it live-online or stiff?  

The 613 Commandments lead to discernment between “good and evil, righteousness and iniquity, killing, slaughter”. Yes, we ought to focus on the only commandment of the love of God and neighbor that can save (Mark 12,31). Still, what about “good” and “evil”? What “love”? 

“Why do you call me good ?”, Jesus said to the rich young man. “God alone is good “(Matthew 19,17) Take the Persian fairy tale of the Scroll of Esther and Purim, the Feast of the Lots. Does God play backgammon? The game was conceived between Ur and Persia, in the region of the renown town of Shahr-e Sukhteh.  The area is full of tribes that have strong insights on life gambling, life or death, how to make one’s mind on and make a clear distinction between the defuncts and the survivors. There is something definitely bizarre: the Most High – and He alone – is able to set and to dismiss, beyond human favors to give and sustain life or to wipe out souls and limbs. 

Purim is over for the Jewish communities: is it merely a theater masterpiece that took place in the Persian context intrinsically subject to the Zoroastrian influence? Much later, Mani penetrated the Syro-Aramaic languages and took off to other spaces. Mani’s ideas had seized Saint Augustine. Since Judaism, Christian and Muslim creeds appeared in the tiny piece of Land, is it possible to dare say that evil incontrovertibly trapped, conquered, overcame “goodness” in the course of history? As if deity and salvation were out of reach. There is a constant struggle between a possible hope and frightening social or historical whereabouts. They constitute our daily life occurring through numerous lies, wounds, attacks against dignity, incredible murders, recurrent violation of rights barely determined.

The Scroll of Esther (Hadassah in Hebrew) is marked by the absence of the Divine Name in the Hebrew text. Is it an eclipse or a choice left to free will? Curious: the Jews of Susa assassinated all those who had planned their death (Esther ch.9). In return, who can judge? There were “Lots – Puru” in Akkadian? No Esther – nor Mordechai – showed up during the Holocaust/Shoah. Indeed, many have noted this Lot of uncertainty .  We are still drifting around in this sort of period of ambivalence and unpredictability, a series of convulsive momenta toddling between “good and evil.” The Jewish Sage Rava asked to drink wine during the feast of Purim till conscious discernment be difficult though still possible. The challenge is to be able to make a real distinction between “Arur Haman/ארור המן = Cursed be Haman” and “Barukh Mordechai/ברוך מרדכי = blessed be Mordechai” (Megillah 7b).

We are drenched in a world of Lots.

The Christian Orthodox Church commemorated Saint Gregorios Palamas, theologian and archbishop of Thessalonika (14th c.) who defended the Hesychastic practice, a famous spiritual movement of sobriety and equanimity. It consists in trying to get to the closest to God, deep closest to the heart), knowing that, according to the Oriental tradition, nobody can reach His Essence. Constant praying and steadily getting to the profoundity of silence constitute mental attitudes that,, with regards to the Christian tradition, firstly appeared in Cappadocia, also developed by the Palestinian monks as Saint Sava the Sanctified, Saint Evthymios: Hesychasm is a Greek word from “hesychia/ησυχία”: « peace and silence, quietness » (in Modern Greek, the word means a « siesta, break »).

The mental and physical posture of the hesychast is to reach full confidence in God through an authentic and profound prayer that irrigates the whole of the soul. It is impossible to speak of a “technique”, a spiritual teaching or method only. This could really harm.

Let’s turn, for example, to the English word “fruit” linked to the Indo-European radical bhrug- which is both an “agricultural produce” and the true feeling of satisfaction: “to enjoy”. Man had initially been shaped from the soil of the Earth in the Image and the Likeness of the Master of the universe. Thus, the soul and the limbs of the human beings is irremediably attracted by the energetics of life and existence. This is clearly expressed on a daily basis in the Jewish prayer as proven from the most ancient times: “I thank You, living and existing (eternal) King, for giving back my soul in mercy. Great is Your faithfulness (modeh ani, El Chay veqayam). Indeed, the believer shows his gratitude. There is more: he perceives that humans are involved in interpersonal relationships and significant conversations, dialogues.

The Hebrew expression means that “life” is submitted to limitation, final absence of changes while “existence” refers to permanent, everlasting dimension. The modern Jewish thinkers (e. g. Rav Jonathan Sacks) define this process as a “coincidentia oppositorum – a coincidence of opposites” based on the commentaries of the Rav Abraham I. Kook. The real goal of spiritual life consists in justifying the shaping of the human beings with the light of their faces that reflect the initial light from High, from the Creator and His messianic, prophetic repairing dynamics.

Thus, Rav Eleazar first used to give alms to a poor and then pray as in this order, he acted as prescribed: “Through righteousness (tzedeq/צדק) I shall see Your face” (Psalm 17:15, cf. Bava Batra 10a). This corresponds to the coincidence of the opposites in which temporary acts, activities reach out to the shining flame of the Burning Bush revelation. The invariants of human existence are proposed to those who can affront the realm of goodness in quietness, equanimity and justice, silence in constant human and divine exchanges.

It is also a question of holy Fire, a fire that Moses approaches with awe and confidence.

Once the new-born baby crossed the gates of maternal womb, his or her primal cry discharges how it is possible to recognize how all souls and bodies, from the beginning till the end of times, are submerged by the divine Light of the Lord. It is driven with much force in order to merge with the divine vitality (Chiyut/חיות) that inhabits a soul illuminated by this original Light.

It implies to be ready to accept all forms of God’s light. Throughout the centuries, it evolved in the short and fervent « prayer of Jesus », a certain limitation of Liturgical participation, a combat against sloth and apathy, bordering true depressive feelings (« akadia/ακαδια »). The existence of the Divine Light, uncreated energies, breathing methods and body postures were adopted by the Byzantine Church, along with a very profound theological teaching in order to reach out to true faith and communion.

The Syriac Liturgy has it at the very beginning of the Service: “By Thy Light, we see the Light, Jesus full of light. You, True Light, do give the light to Your creatures all. Lighten us with Your bright light, You, the Father’s Divine Light. You Who dwell in the mansions of light, Holy, Pure: keep us from all hateful thoughts, passions, vile acts. Clean our hearts and give us to do deeds of true righteousness” (Introit of the Syriac-Orthodox Divine Liturgy).

Indeed, through the long experience of the Prophets of Israel, the uncreated, essential and pure Light, has been continuously transmitted as the in-depth evident practice and understanding as defended by Saint Gregorios of Palamas. The “icon” witnesses to the human identity with the Creator and Father of all the creatures.

God alone. Jesus Christ alone. The Holy Spirit alone. This is the call to give our bones and souls to the journey to the Light alone. It sounds a bit freak, abnormal, extreme. Because it matches both “life in its limited durations” and “existence into the realm of eternity”. The Light flickers; it is strong and persistent. It works without ceasing and appears like in flashes, short sparkling visions. The Transfiguration at Mount Tabor became the authentic reference of this immutable spiritual and human ingathering of history.

God alone… this means full confidence in divine Providence. Quite a challenge in all generations! We experience this nowadays. What! God gives? Food, money, clothes, cultural and professional skills, respect, dignity, protection? Does he really give what is necessary to live, not only to survive? To such an extent that it would appear as a multiplication of good deeds and trustworthy acts of loving-kindness.

Such is the fruit of “in God alone we only trust” as Saint Gregorios Palamas followed the example of the Church Fathers. It renews the way we can understand the word “monastic”. “Oti monos o Theos/οτι μονος ο Θεος = Because one, unique is God” is the motto of this vital communion in the One Life-giving and the Resurrected.

Is it though attainable… by climbing the scale and keep equanimous, patient? By keeping silent because we are done with all possible gossips, fake news or obsolete re-echoed stuff of old. We live in a word of lampoons, whilst we need to be caught into the Light. “Silence is the mystery of the world-to-come” (St. Isaac the Syrian). Similarly, “The friend of silence approaches God; and conversing with him in secret, he receives light” (St John Climacus).

Just your attention, please! Quietness, absence of arrogance and sloth, patience, silence does not mean that a soul takes her flesh and bones to some new-wave wilderness made of cement and adorned with a gorgeous free-duty. The real challenge is to remain “fed and protected” by the Presence of the Lord, His tenderness and affection. Hesychasm has nothing to do with quitting a group. It is just the opposite of isolating these or those whom we cannot stand for any odd reasons… or, quite en vogue nowadays, for some very theological and disregarding considerations as we have it.

As the French Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément wrote: “The swollen self of nothing destroys or enslaves the others, makes them revolve around its own emptiness. It is the self-deification of nada” (in “Corps de mort et de gloire, p. 59). The author quoted the insightful spiritual statement made by Vladimir Soloviev on “the fasting of intelligence” which consists in abstaining of void speculations, ideas. “These are of no use for the neighbor and the works of the Lord”. Silence is not a closemouthed slaughtering system that swirls around, haunting sophisticated criminal psyches.

It took a long time before the Roman Latin Church and the West accepted such a vital tradition based on a real spirit of poverty, expecting all things from God’s grace. Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the famous Russian monk who lived in the forest, had adopted this spirituality that was initiated, so far away from his home, in the first Judaean monasteries. It developed in areas where it met with the Slavic and Romanian world of the Jewishness and does show a lot of similarities with the Chassidic movements.

Indeed, it is interesting that, on the way to the Feasts of Freedom (Passover/Easter, Pascha), both Judaism and Christianity suggest to consider our personal, social and general situation with much modesty and total confidence in the Most High.

The ancient Light, the archaic holy Fire precedes and sustains the magnificence, the warmth of true joy and resurrection, beyond “good” and “evil”.

This is at the very heart of the Saint Ephrem the Syrian’s prayer that we say during Great Lent:

“O Lord and Master of my life, grant me not a spirit of sloth, meddling, love of power, and idle talk. / But give to me, your servant, a spirit of sober-mindedness, humility, patience, and love. / Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.” In the end, the Light and the Name, the Presence are taken into our breathing silent care for unity and communion: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  (“τον αμαρτωλόν” is translated “a sinner” but in Greek the article “τον” is a definite article and could be translated “the sinner”).

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About the Author

Jivko Panev

Jivko Panev

Jivko Panev, maître de conférence en Droit canon et Histoire des Églises locales à l’Institut de théologie orthodoxe Saint Serge à Paris, recteur de la paroisse Notre Dame Souveraine, à Chaville en banlieue parisienne.

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