Pope Benedict XVI met with 30,000 pilgrims in a rain-swept St. Peter’s Square during his general audience on May 2. Once again, he devoted his catechesis to Origen (185-232), the famous third-century historian, focusing on Origen’s teaching on prayer and on the Church.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Last Wednesday’s catechesis was devoted to Origen, a prominent figure from the second to the third century who was a Doctor of the Church from Alexandria. During that catechesis, we examined the life and literary works of this important teacher from Alexandria, focusing on his “three-pronged approach” to reading the Bible, which is the inspiration for all his work. I left out two aspects of Origen’s teaching, his teachings on prayer and on the Church, which I consider among the most important and timely, so that I could speak about them today.
Relationship With Christ
Actually, Origen, who is the author of an important treatise on prayer, constantly intertwines his exegetical and theological works with his experiences and suggestions regarding prayer. Despite the theological wealth found in his thought, his treatment of the subject is never purely academic; it is always based on his experience of prayer and on having contact with God.
Indeed, from his point of view, understanding Scripture requires more than mere study; it requires an intimacy with Christ and with prayer. He is convinced that love is the primary path for knowing God and that one cannot truly impart a scientia Christi without being enamored with him. In his Letter to Gregory, he wrote the following: “Be dedicated to a lectio (reading) of God’s Scripture. Apply yourself to this with perseverance. Practice this lectio with the intention of believing and being pleasing to God. If you find yourself before a closed door during this lectio, knock and the gatekeeper will open it for you, the gatekeeper of whom Jesus said, ‘The gatekeeper opens it for him.’
Apply yourself in this way to the lectio divina (reading of Scripture) and search faithfully and with unshakable trust in God for the meaning of God’s Scripture, which is amply concealed therein. However, you must not be satisfied with only knocking and seeking: To understand the things of God, oratio is absolutely necessary. To encourage us to do this, our Savior not only said ‘Seek and you shall find’ and ‘Knock and it shall be opened unto you,’ but he also added, ‘Ask and you shall receive’” (Letter to Gregory 4).
The “primordial role” that Origen played in the history of lectio divina immediately strikes us. Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who would learn to read Scripture based on Origen’s works, introduced the West to this method, passing it on to Augustine and the monastic tradition that ensued.
As we said earlier, the highest level of knowing God, according to Origen, flows from a love of him. This is true with human relationships: One only really knows another in depth when there is love and when they open their hearts to each other. In order to demonstrate this, he bases his argument on the significance given at times to the word in Hebrew for the verb “to know” when it is used to express the act of human love —“Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1) — which suggests that unity in love is the most authentic source for knowledge. Just as man and woman are “two in one flesh,” God and the believer become “two in the same spirit.” In this way, the prayer of Origen of Alexandria attains the highest level of mysticism, to which his Homilies on the Song of Songs attest.
In one passage from his first homily, Origen makes the following confession: “Often —and God is a witness to this — I felt that the Bridegroom was drawing as close to me as possible. Then he would suddenly leave and I could not find that for which I was searching. Again and again, I am seized with a desire for his presence and, at times, he returns. When he appears, when I hold him in my hands, he suddenly leaves again and, once he is gone, I begin to search for him again…” (Homilies on the Song of Songs 1:7).
I recall what my venerable predecessor wrote, from his own experience, in Novo Millennio Ineunte (The Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000) where he showed the faithful “how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart … becoming,” as John Paul II went on to say, “a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications. But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as ‘spousal union’” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 33).
Finally, we come to Origen’s teaching on the Church, and more precisely, to his teaching on the priesthood of the laity at its core. In his ninth Homily on Leviticus, Origen states that “this discussion is important for all of us” (Homily on Leviticus 9:1). In that same homily, Origen, referring to the fact that Aaron was prohibited from entering the Holy of Holies “whenever he pleases” after the death of his two children (Homily on Leviticus 16:2), admonishes the faithful with these words:
“From this we can see that if one enters the sanctuary whenever he pleases without the proper preparation — not dressed in priestly dress and without having prepared the prescribed offerings and having offered them to God — he will die. … These words pertain to all of us. Indeed, they ensure that we know how to approach God’s altar.
“Did you not know that the priesthood was given also to you, that is, to all of God’s Church and to all believers? Listen to how Peter speaks about the faithful: ‘A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own,’ he says. Therefore, you have the priesthood because you are a ‘priestly people’ and, for this reason, you must offer sacrifice to God. … But to offer it worthily, you need pure vestments that distinguish you from the common vestments of other men, and you need the divine fire” (Homily on Leviticus 16:2).
On one hand, the “girded waist” and the “priestly vestments,” which represent purity and honesty of life, and, on the other hand, the “perpetually lit lamp,” which represents faith and knowledge of the Scriptures, join together as the indispensable conditions for exercising the universal priesthood, which demands purity and honesty of life and faith and knowledge of the Scriptures. Even more so, then, are they obviously indispensable for exercising the priestly ministry.
These conditions — integrity of life and, above all, welcoming and studying the Word — create a true “hierarchy of holiness” in that priesthood which all Christians share.
Path to Perfection
Origen places martyrdom at the peak of this journey to perfection.
Once again, in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, he alludes to the “fire for the sacrifice,” that is, faith and knowledge of the Scriptures, which must never be extinguished on the altar of those who exercise the priesthood.
“Each one of us has within us,’ he then adds, not only fire, but “also the sacrifice, and, with his sacrifice, we light the altar, so that it will burn forever. If I renounce everything I possess and take up the cross and follow Christ, I offer my sacrifice on God’s altar; and if I give my body over to be burned, having charity and meriting the glory of martyrdom, I offer my sacrifice on God’s altar” (Homily on Leviticus 9:9).
This unending journey to perfection “pertains to all of us” so that “the eyes of our hearts” will contemplate the wisdom and truth that is Jesus Christ. Preaching on the words of Jesus of Nazareth when “the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him” (Luke 4:16-30), Origen seems to be speaking directly to us: “Even today in this gathering, if you want, your eyes can gaze upon the Savior.
“Indeed, when you turn the deepest gaze of your heart to contemplate wisdom and truth and the only Son of God, your eyes will see God. How fortunate was that gathering of people that Scripture speaks of as having its eyes fixed on him!
“How I desire that this gathering may give a similar witness, that the eyes of all — those who are not baptized as well as those of the faithful, of men, women and children, not the eyes of the body but those of the soul — may look at Jesus! …The light of your face shines upon us, O Lord, to whom belongs glory and power forever and ever. Amen!” (Homily on Luke 32:6).