09/20/2013 03:44 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

An Orthodox Pope?

Back in what now seems a more illumined past, the diverse and mystical body that we are pleased to call the Church -- the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church -- found unity in embracing a common faith that had been articulated over the course of seven Ecumenical Councils, leading to an expression of that common faith by the end of the 8th Century. Even so, within about two and a half centuries, one of the five Patriarchates that then comprised Christendom parted company with the other four.

In the subsequently splintered -- and, one might say, still splintering -- West, it is generally and mistakenly assumed that the Eastern Church (Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople) split from the West (Rome) in the tragedy we call the Great Schism of 1054. That strikes me as a puzzling take on the actual history. When you have five fingers on a hand, for instance, and proceed to cut one finger off, it seems specious to argue that the one severed finger is being left by the wounded hand; moreover, it is difficult to imagine that severed finger faring well thereafter. As I say, the Western taste for splintering did not end with that first parting.

In the East, the apophatic understanding that the terms employed in theology -- in God-talk -- are understood as necessarily provisional, yielding a profound humility in the face of mystery; in the West, the cataphatic error of taking ones terms too literally has led to all manner of continued, selective parsing -- which is to say heresy -- and has led, when taken to the Protestant, Fundamentalist extreme, to an idolatrous relationship to the selected terms.

Until the man we know as Pope Francis came more prominently into view, the West -- which necessarily includes both Roman Catholics and their now countless estranged cousins of various Protestant parsings -- could have been characterized (unfairly, it turns out) as hobbled by a taste for certainty, an unduly literal apprehension of the expressions of faith, and a profoundly proscriptive -- if concurrently incredible -- moralism.

In any case, Pope Francis has come into view. And in his several apologia he has made no apologies for a generous -- and essentially apophatic -- vision that we are all of us included in the love of God, that our own varying apprehensions of that state have little effect on the fact of it, and that the necessarily provisional terms of our expressions of faith are not to be mistaken for the incomprehensible and inexhaustible enormity that is truth. He reminds me of a good many Orthodox saints whose words Pope Francis's words seem to echo.

This startling affinity suggests to me a genuine hope for our potential recovery -- by our all having recourse to our common inheritance -- from the body's long dissolution. May this hope be blessed.

In particular, Pope Francis brings to mind the words of our beloved Saint Isaak of Syria, who has written:

Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute.
Be crucified, but do not crucify.
Be slandered, but do not slander.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity.
Suffer with the sick.
Be afflicted with sinners.
Exult with those who repent.
Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone.
Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body chaste.
Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.
Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.
And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place,
do not destroy their character.

God is not One who requites evil, but who sets evil right.

Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness.

The person who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God -- while yet in this world -- even now breathes the air of the resurrection.

In love did God bring the world into existence; in love is God going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of the One who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.

God's recompense to sinners is that, instead of a just recompense, God rewards them with resurrection.

Adapted from Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Cistercian Studies 175), Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2000.