Origins in Origen

By Margaret Antonio


A third century theologian influences the birth of contemplative prayer, a Mozart composition, and the work of an acclaimed American scholar? At first glance, it seems unlikely, like a loosely spun plot out of a Dan Brown movie. However, when over 70 Origen scholars from around the world present years of research at a weeklong conference in Aarhus, Denmark, it’s hard to dismiss. From August 26-30, hundreds of scholars, including Boston College Associate Professor of Theology Margaret Schatkin, gathered to explore “Origen and Origenism in the History of Western Thought.”

Origen was an Egyptian scholar and theologian of the third century and today is known as a Church Father, a designation given to the early teachers of the Christian faith. He wrote numerous biblical commentaries and philosophical expositions on the Christian faith. The city of Aarhus, with its deeply Catholic and Lutheran tradition, appropriately set the scene for a global conference on Origen and his impact on Western thought.


“Origen is an extremely important scholar,” said Schatkin. “When you go to these conferences, you learn so much. I went because I wanted to learn more.”


One of the most impressive presentations, according to Professor Schatkin, was Dr. Patricia Ciner’s paper on Origen and the exegesis of manuscripts of the Gospel of John. Dr. Ciner used citations from Origen’s works to refute each of Bart Erhman’s claims that the New Testament’s transmission was corrupted. Coincidentally, Erhman and Schatkin were both students of Bruce Metzger at the Princeton Theological Seminary.


“There is extensive evidence owing to the historicity and reliability of the New Testament,” said Schatkin, “furthermore, Origen’s proximity to the time in which it was written supports its credibility.”


Origen’s influence goes beyond the realm of theology and into the world of music. The 18th century musical prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, wrote an accompaniment to a prayer adapted by Origen. Dating back to the third century Egyptian Coptic Christians, Sub Tuum Praesidium (Beneath Thy Protection) is the oldest extant prayer to the Virgin Mary. At the conference, Schatkin’s sister, musicologist Dr. Jane Schatkin Hettrick, presented her research on how the Marian hymn finds its roots in Origen.


“The prayer comes from an ancient text worshipping the goddess Isis, who is traditionally depicted nursing the god Horus,” said Schatkin.


Origen adapted the text adding the Greek word, Theotokos, meaning Mother of God. By the ninth century, the Latin translation of Sub Tuum Praesidium made its way into the Western World as a hymn. In later years, many composers, including Mozart and Handel, wrote accompaniments to the Marian prayer. Mozart’s version of the prayer had a particular influence on the prominence of Mariology in the 18th century Austrian tradition.


Schatkin said, “It was necessary that God prepared the world for the veneration of Our Lady,” by inspiring Origen to adapt a prayer to the pagan goddess Isis into a prayer that centuries later would become a foundation for Marian devotion.


Another speaker at the conference, Dr. Monica Tobon, highlighted how Origen also laid the groundwork for contemplative prayer. Evagrius Ponticus, a student of Origenism in Alexandria in the fourth century, is known for being the first to expound upon the psychological dimension of prayer. Dr. Tobon, a lecturer at the Franciscan International Study Centre in Canterbury, England, drew parallels between “centering prayer,” which is particularly present amongst the English mystics of the 20th century, and Evagrian prayer. Centering prayer, like Evagrian prayer, emphasizes the act of simply being in the presence of God, as opposed to directed prayer. Tobon showed how Evagrian prayer, which was derived from Origen’s teachings on prayer, is at the heart of what we know today as “centering prayer.”


The papers by Cineros, Hettrick, and Tobon, are just a glimpse into the weeklong, international conference about Origen and Origenism in the history of Western thought. Origen was one of the earliest preservers of the faith and now, almost 2,000 years later, we can still see his influence in the origins of Christian devotion and Western thought. A Lutheran herself, Schatkin said the conference “truly gave witness to the continuity of the Church.”


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