Divine Conversation (Part 1)

“The fruit of theology is perfect love.”
— St Gregory of Sinai

How far we have come from that understanding of the purpose of “theology” in the life of the Church! The term implies a divine word, one that derives from and speaks with awesome wonder of the God who is beyond all language because He is beyond all human comprehension. Yet God reveals Himself to us and makes possible our understanding and articulation of His presence and purpose within our own immediate experience. He calls us to formulate and to speak the language of theology, for our own edification and that of those around us, so the world might “hear and believe.” That language, however, is unique, because its referent is unique. Accordingly, the great theologians of Eastern Christian tradition will speak of the language of true theology as theoprepeis, “worthy of God.”

Theology in the first instance is less our words about God than God’s Word addressed to us. “In the beginning was the Word,” the evangelist John affirms, and that Word was the source of revelation, of all true theologia. By it, God made Himself known to us as Person, as One who seeks communion with us in love. That divine Word came to its most sublime expression in the Person of Jesus. It is He who reveals, makes known, and renders accessible the very Person of God the Father. He is the source of all true theology, since He is the eternal Son and Word of God, who dwells eternally in the “bosom of the Father,” yet who comes to us, to dwell among us, and to “interpret” the Father to us (exêgêsato, Jn 1:18).

It is only derivatively, therefore, that “theology” came to signify our response to God’s self-revelation. “Theologians” or “doctors of the Church” were acknowledged and venerated as spiritual guides, mentors in the faith, who received the Word of God in and through the person of Jesus, and elaborated that Word in human language. That language they offered to us for our edification, to provide us with a saving, life-giving “knowledge of God.” At the same time, they offered the fruit of their meditation and insight back to God as a “sacrifice of praise.” Theology for them was nothing other than divine conversation: communication and communion between God and those whom He created in His own image. Thus everyone, without exception, is called to engage in “theology,” even if the Church venerates only three great teachers—John the Evangelist, Gregory Nazianzen and the Byzantine mystic Symeon—as true Theologians.

During the patristic era, theology was understood to be by its very nature the fruit of prayer. The Western tradition spoke of stages or levels in the creation of authentic theology that correspond to ways or levels in the reading of Scripture: lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio. The first stage involves spiritual reading of biblical passages and their ecclesial interpretation; the second, rational reflection or meditation on the overall body of Tradition; and the third, internalization of the fruit of that meditation through intense and focused prayer. In rare instances, the Holy Spirit leads one finally to contemplatio, known in the East as kathara proseuchê, “pure prayer,” or “prayer of the heart,” by which the language of theology and the knowledge it conveys is transformed into a deep and intimate communion with its divine Object. At this stage, theology fulfills its true purpose by bearing the fruit of perfect love.

The true theologian, Evagrius tells us, is one who prays. The same may be said of those who have so internalized the Word of God that they become capable of that perfect love. They, too, are true theologians.