Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Some Christian Commandments

Twelve Commandments given by an angel to the Holy Apostle Hermas (commemorated May 31): 1. Believe in God; 2. Live in simplicity and innocence; do not speak evil: give alms to all who beg; 3. Love truth and avoid falsehood; 4. Preserve chastity in your thoughts; 5. Learn patience and generosity; 6. Know that a good and an evil spirit attend every man; 7. Fear God and fear not the devil; 8. Perform every good act, and refrain from every evil deed; 9. Pray to God from the depth of your soul with faith that your prayer will be fulfilled; 10. Guard against melancholy, the sister of doubt and anger; 11. Test true and false prophecies; 12. Guard against every evil desire.

This is a summary.  In "The Shepherd of Hermas" (chapter 5) a full paragraph of explanation follows each mandate.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What Is Abuse?

A friend has asked a couple of very important questions and I’d like to address them. The questions are as follows:
Fr Michael your disclaimer intrigues me. I have never really understood where the line is between enduring insults, injustice, persecutions, etc. and rejoicing... and something supposedly psychologically unhealthy like enduring abuse.
Secondly I find it very curious that "abuse" seems to be a modern category unaddressed in the scriptures (for example child abuse, spousal abuse, etc.). How valid is the distinction between abuse and just plain sin, and is there some sort of difference in the spiritual treatment for these?
Why do you suppose the scriptures do not address abuse directly as a category unto itself?
I will attempt to answer these two questions together (in my usual rambling way).
There is no line between abuse and enduring persecution. That is, there is no line outside ourselves. The exact same “abuse” that makes a saint out of one person can destroy another. It all depends on the Grace of God, and more specifically our ability to be open to the Grace of God.
The fathers make it pretty clear that ascetic endeavor must always be freely entered into. Even when the ascetic practice is unchosen or forced upon one, for the Grace of God to have its full work in us, we must accept the deprivation (make a virtue out of necessity). The same thing is true about persecution. We are commanded to avoid persecution: Jesus said, “When they persecute you in one city, flee to the next.” However, when captured, when one cannot flee (or cannot in good conscience flee), then one must entrust oneself to the Grace of God.
In a family situation, certainly there are holy men and woman who have endured with rejoicing and thanksgiving by the Grace of God relationships that are commonly called abusive. But please note, and this is very important, that it is only by the Grace of God that holiness is produced by such suffering. It is a grave mistake to assume that one “should be able to” endure or find grace in a situation that is just not Grace filled--especially if escape is possible. Not to flee when flight is possible is to disobey the words of Jesus, it is to throw your body on the Roman pikes to become a martyr--a practice condemned by the Church.
I find it interesting that the hymns of the Church seldom talk about someone becoming a martyr. Rather they talk about someone being revealed as a martyr. That is, someone is a martyr before their mode of death reveals them as a martyr. Certainly we are all called to martyrdom, to lay down our life for Christ; but the path for each is different. And more to the point, the calling and growth in that calling are different for each believer. It is nothing but pride to assume that you can become a martyr by enduring what God has not given you the Grace to endure.
Actually, I know some people who have become quite saintly by remaining in uncomfortable family settings, but in all of the cases, nothing like physical or severe emotional abuse was taking place. In every case, the holiness of the person was revealed in his or her loving care for aged parents or a disabled child, remaining faithful to a sexually promiscuous spouse or in a particular case, raising nine (or ten, I lost count) very healthy children in a culture that calls three too many. Notice I said “holiness was revealed.” Of course the process of growing in holiness and the revelation of that holiness are mystically the same. And yet the truth remains that there is no doing without being. Attempting to do what you are not always ends in disaster.
The word “abuse” is indeed merely a modern term often used to refer to behavior as trite as someone using crude language in your presence or someone who doesn’t fixate on your aches, pains, worries and fears as much as you do. I have heard abuse used to describe all sorts of behavior that I consider near normal, though often crudely presented. (Consider the source--some people might consider me abusive.) That is not what I mean by abuse. What I mean by abuse cannot really be defined by outward behavior, for each person’s limits, expectations and ability to endure are different. Also there are matters such as love (human and divine) and sense of duty and calling that also play into the matter.
Abuse, as I use the word, has to do with the inner experience of the abused. If he or she cannot find Grace to endure with thanksgiving (this is assuming the person has already searched diligently to find such Grace through prayer and counsel) and he or she can flee, then I think flight is not only appropriate but necessary. When flight is impossible, then matters are different. Then, like the Christians thrown into the gulag or someone with a debilitating handicap, there is no choice. When there is no choice the dynamic changes. And since I have never found myself in such a dire situation, I better not presume to speak about it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hell Is A Difficult Place To Go To.

Hell is a difficult place to go to. I made this comment a couple of blogs ago in the context of Pauline’s contest with temptation (in Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell). As someone commented on that blog entry, such a thought is counterintuitive.
Jesus’ words seem to say exactly the opposite: “Wide is the gate and broad is the way,” Jesus says, “that leads to destruction, and there be many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” According to Jesus, the way leading to life is difficult, not the way to to destruction. So what do I mean by saying that hell is a difficult place to go to?
One thing I mean by saying this is that God does not let us go to hell without warnings. One has to intentionally ignore and eventually “sear as with a hot iron” his or her own conscience, shut out the voices of those who love (even a little), and refuse to learn from the pain-filled lessons of life in order to eventually find oneself lost in hell. God does not desire that any perish, so God has done and continues to do all He can to guide us in the right way. God does all He can do as God, which means that he doesn’t lie to us. The red flags tell us the awkward, uncomfortable, painful truth. Temptation lies. This is where its power comes from. And here is the profound irony of our sinful ways: we choose the lie knowing it’s a lie and knowing that the temporary sedative temptation offers will be paid for with greater suffering later. We know it, yet we choose it. Surely hell is a difficult place to go to.
Another thing I mean by saying this is that no matter which way you go, it is difficult. Notice Jesus did not say that the path leading to destruction was easy. Since the curse in the Garden, no one gets through life without a lot of suffering. In fact there is a certain sense in which you can say that life in a fallen condition is already hell for beings created in the image of God. “In sins did my mother conceive me” ; death has been pressing in on me from my very conception. Certainly one can say that for those who are choosing darkness, life in this world is a hellish foretaste of things to come; while for those being saved, life in this fallen world is the shadow of the hell they are escaping. The road to hell is difficult, and so is the road to salvation: they are just different kinds of difficult. Or perhaps better, the same difficult with different sauces.
The narrow path is the difficult path with humility; the broad path is also the difficult path but with pride. The truth requires humility for it reveals that I am a creature, a fallen creature. The darkness lies. It says I can hide and pretend to be whoever I want to be. I can pretend that I am good, I can pretend that others exist to serve me, I can pretend that it’s not my fault (it’s “that woman you gave me,” as that first Adam put it).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Doctrine of Substituted Love

One of the most important ideas in Charles William’s Descent into Hell is called “The Doctrine of Substituted Love.”  This is William’s attempt to apply the Christian principle of bearing one another’s burdens (...and so fulfilling the Law of Christ) in a way that goes beyond the common interpretation of this Christian imperative.  Most people interpret “bearing one another’s burdens” to mean helping each other out in practical ways.  But he wants to see it as something deeper, a core principle of the universe, the principle by which Christ could bear the sins of the world.   So Williams invents the metaphysical possibility of actually bearing someone else’s fear (and one assumes other negative emotions) so that the other no longer experiences it.  
In the novel, the staretz-like old poet Stanhope bears on behalf of Pauline her fear of meeting her double.  (One might argue that this is an irrational fear, so Stanhope is merely playing a psychological trick on Pauline.  But my experience is that almost all crippling fear is irrational, and psychological tricks almost never work.  If they did, several pharmaceutical companies would go out of business.)  Stanhope imagines (or something like imagines) Pauline’s fearful experience and feels her fear for her.  And because Pauline accepts that Stanhope will bear her fear, she doesn’t experience any.
I like the fact that Williams is trying to find a deeper meaning and application for bearing one another’s burdens, but from an Orthodox Christian perspective, I think he is off the mark here.  Emotions such as fear are of course normal and healthy when indeed there is something that one should fear.  However, fear becomes unhealthy, becomes what the Church might call a passion, when it is debilitating or is based on unreality.  Deliverance from passions only comes through confession and repentance (and maybe some plain old counseling), a process generally requires the guidance and encouragement of someone wiser and more spiritually experienced than yourself.  While it is possible for one person to hold in his or her heart other people (even the whole world, I am told) and suffer with them (i.e. com-passion), I do not think it is possible to transfer the suffering away from one person onto oneself.
But I do agree with Williams that there is a deeper meaning and application for bearing one another’s burdens.  I would like to suggest that one Orthodox Christian way to understand the bearing of another’s burdens can be evoked by looking at some of Jesus’ sayings from the Sermon on the Mount.  Some of the well know and seldom practiced sayings include “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile.” Thinking about St. Paul’s exhortation to bear one another’s burdens while reflection on the Sermon on the Mount, I get the impression that bearing the burden of the other has a lot to do with bearing with, putting up with, and accepting the inconvenient, nettlesome, tiring, and sometimes rude, hurtful or maybe just boring behavior of your neighbor (the ones near you).
[Disclaimer: Whenever I say something along this line I must make clear that I am not talking about putting up with long-term violent and abusive behavior. Generally in such cases the most loving thing to do (under the guidance of a counselor or pastor) is to flee, and leave the abuser to learn from the consequences of his or her actions.]
Most of the time, however, bearing the burden of another not a matter of heroic might.  It is a matter of gentle endurance, kindness in response to thoughtlessness, mercy toward the shortcomings of others, patience when others don’t see how important something is to you, and stubborn refusal to fight fire with fire.  To bear the burdens of others is to prefer to suffer than to cause others to suffer.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Descent into Hell: Mrs. Sammile

“My dear, it’s so simple.  If you will come with me, I can fill you, fill your body with any sense you choose.  I can make you feel whatever you’d choose to be.  I can give you certainty of joy for every moment of life.  Secretly, secretly; no other soul--no other living soul.”
These are the words of Mrs. Sammile to Pauline.  Mrs. Sammile is the sweet little old lady who is the voice of temptation in Descent into Hell.  One does not normally associate sweet little old ladies with temptation, but I guess that’s William’s point.  The temptation that Mrs. Sammile offers is happiness, happiness through fantasy, through shutting out others, through thinking of yourself, through escaping into your own version of reality and refusing to accept as real that very real reality that hurts so much: that very real reality which another (angelic) character calls “terribly good.”
Isn’t this the temptation we all face.  When I am in pain, pain caused by my desire or self pity or anger in any of their various forms, then Mrs. Sammile comes to me.  “Come with me,” she says.  A thought, a specific action or course of action comes to my mind promising “to make you feel whatever you’d choose.”  
“I deserve it,” I say to my self.  “I’ll only go toward it, I won’t touch it, hold it, embrace it.  There is nothing wrong with looking,” I lie to myself.  The first step is to deny reality, to lie to myself, to shut out others.  Once I accept my own reality, the one that promises pleasure (or at least cessation of pain), then I enter the daze, the fog.  In the warm fog of my very own unreality I am happy, or at least I anticipate happiness.
Until a red flag appears.  Maybe it’s my guardian angel, or maybe it is just the strong nature of reality to intrude into fantasy.  “What is this happiness?  Is it happiness?  Is it the happiness I want?  Where is this tending?”  For Pauline, the red flag came at Mrs. Sammile’s promise, “You’ll never have to do anything for others any more.”
“Perjury,” she thought, “shall I lay perjury on my soul?”  Pauline had just promised herself to help bear someone else’s burden.  Now was she going to add to her selfish indulgence perjury?
It’s funny how the red flags come, how reality slips in, in unexpected ways.  Red flags get our attention.  They call us to snap out of our indulgent reverie.  And for Pauline, the thought of perjuring herself was enough to break the spell--mostly because she was willing to have the spell broken.  
We can always ignore red flags.  If we want to.  We can always petulantly hold on to our lollipop of sweet unreality, ignoring the red flags, ignoring all others, insisting on our own way, no matter how much it hurts, hurts ourselves and hurts others.
Hell is a difficult place to go to.  You’ve got to fight to go to hell.  You’ve got to really want it.  And Pauline didn’t really want it.

The Scent of Green Papaya

I saw The Scent of Green Papaya on Netfix the other day.  It is a beautiful film ("gentle" is the word that I have often used).  In the film there is a lot a washing, and it got me to thinking.  What follows has nothing to do with the film.  It has to do with the routine of washing, spiritual washing.

In a very dirty environment, you may be tempted to despair because no matter how much you wash yourself, the environment is not directly affected, and it only makes you dirty again.  And what's worse is that no matter how hard you try to clean yourself, you never really are completely clean, even for a moment.  There is always some remnant of uncleanness, some spot you just can't reach, some stain that may get a little lighter, but never seems to go away.

Sin is the dirt of the spiritual life.  And just as we do not give up bathing just because we will get dirty again, so we do not give up Repentance, Confession and Holy Communion just because we seem to fall into the same sins again and again.  Just as we do not stop washing because we cannot wash ourselves as clean as we would like to be, so we also do not stop worshiping just because we battle wicked thoughts even at the moment we want most to be attentive to God.  

God sees our intention evidenced not through our thoughts, but through our actions: we wash, we worship, we confess, we commune.  God sees our intentions and accepts them.

Monday, May 09, 2011

There's Probably No God...

Many of you know that there is a controversial bus ad that reads "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Many Christians and other theists are upset by these ads. However, the ads don't bother me at all. I, too, don't believe in the atheists' god. In fact, I have good news for atheists the world over: You are not alone. Most Christians don't believe your god exists.

The god that the atheists do not believe in is also a god that most Christians don't believe in (I say most because there are many misinformed, ignorant and just plain superstitious Christians who believe in all sorts of things that are not necessarily Christian). The atheists' god is a god that induces worry, such worry that those who believe in him/her/it do not enjoy their lives. All one has to do is look at the empirical evidence--as atheists are wont to do--to confirm that the atheists' god is not the God of most Christians. According to a 2007 Gallup poll those who attend church weekly are more likely to be "very satisfied" with their lives than those who don't. Of course there are other factors, but committed participation in worship is one common aspect of the lives of those who are not worried but are enjoying their lives.

Atheists deserve our pity. Like those inoculated against small pox, atheists have conceived in themselves a dead god, and thus have been inoculated against "catching" the Real One. Of course, it is probably the fault of the Christians that so much dead-god serum is out there. Certainly one thing Christians can do to help our atheist neighbours is not to be so affronted by their attacks on a god that Christians also don't believe exists. If I didn't know God and only conceived of god as someone/something that makes people worry and not enjoy their lives, then I would want to denounce this god too.

Therefore let me encourage my readers, the next time you meet an atheist, don't worry but enjoy the conversation. You probably don't believe in the same god the atheist doesn't believe in.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Sin of Ananias

When Ananias sold his property and gave a portion of it to the Church, he sinned--not in holding back, but in appearing to give all when he didn't. Barnabas had just sold all of his property and given it to the Church. However, Barnabas had apostolic grace and calling. Barnabas could sell all his property and give it to the Church (without fear and without pride) because he had the grace and calling of an apostle. Ananias did not.

Perhaps Ananias thought that he could do what Barnabas did. Perhaps Ananias thought, "If Barnabas can do it, I can do it." Perhaps he saw the godliness and grace of Barnabas and thought, "if only I do what Barnabas does, then I too will find the grace that Barnabas has found." Perhaps Ananias got the cart before the horse, thinking he could do what a holy man does to become holy too. But then there is the glory part. Barnabas was publicly honoured--or at least widely known--for his act of dispossession. Barnabas could handle it because of who he was, the grace in his heart, and the calling of his life. Ananias couldn't. In fact, I think it was the very expectation of honour (even before the act), that was at work in Ananias impelling him to attempt an ascetic labour too great for him.

Orthodox Christians, in my experience, are often tempted the way Ananias was. Those who are devout, who attend services, read the lives of the saints, and who strive for holiness are sometimes tempted to think that they too can fast or pray or accomplish the great ascetical labours of the saints whom they admire--just because they will to do it. This is a great delusion.

The starting point is poverty of spirit, not will to do.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Descent Into Hell: The Focus of Love

In my last blog, I wrote about how the character Wentworth chose hell by choosing unreality.  In chapter five, "Return to Eden," Williams provides a detailed description of Wentworth's confused and confusing experience.  Wentworth creates an imaginary lover--like Adel only better.  The imaginary lover plays on Wentworth's self pity ("You don't think about yourself enough") to draw him deeper into the imaginary relationship.  

Williams plays out Wentworth's complete acceptance of his imagined lover through a vision of Eden in which Wentworth is Adam, an Adam who rejects Eve, the other, and thus all others, and embraces only himself and his fantasy--the her who is himself.  On his way to the imaginary "bottom of Eden," Wentworth tangentially encounters another soul, a suicide who had committed the deed in the very room in which Wentworth is indulging his fantasy, long ago when the building was under construction.  This soul is wandering the other way, toward the light, even as Wentworth is plunging deeper into the mist, into the forrest of his own delusion.  Wentworth is offended: "He would not have it: no canvassers, no hawkers, no tramps...no circulars, no beggars.  No; no; no.  No people but his, no loves but his.... [T]he other, the thing seen, the thing known in every fibre to be not the self, [whether it is the] woman [i.e. Eve or Adel or any real woman] or [a] beggar, the thing in the streets of the City [i.e. the world of reality].  Wentworth ran away from any other into the mist to the "she that was he, and all he in the she."

William's use of self pity as the blasting cap to drive Wentworth into his delusion is consistent with my experience.  The faculty of love [in its various species: compassion, pity, care] are designed to point outward toward the other, not toward the self.  Here they can only be destructive.  They are not designed to work on the self.  It is like trying to see your feet with binoculars.  It will only distort the view because binoculars are not designed to see close up.  Similarly love is not designed to be focused on the self.  When we do turn pity on our selves, it is not our selves that we really see, but an imagined self.  We see none of our blessings, our real choices, our opportunities, or our strengths; we see only afflictions magnified to the exclusion to all else, to all others, to all others except those who will enter our fantasy with us.  Self love leads to nothing but delusion and self destruction: over eating, over drinking, sexual indulgence, cutting, hating, death.  The very love that produces life when focused outward on others produces death when it is focused inward.

Human beings need to love and be loved.  They are not designed to love themselves.  Learning to be loved is as difficult as it is to learn to love.  Accepting the love of another and especially of the Other is the only path to psychological (i.e. of the soul) health. 

Wentworth chose the path of self love, and it leads him only into delusion and self destruction.