Friday, December 30, 2011

Super Max Visit

What do you talk about for six hours with a man in solitary confinement?Yesterday Bonnie and I visited Monk Anthony at the Super Maximum Security Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. Monk Anthony is 45 years old; he went into prison when he was 23 and has spent most of that time in solitary confinement. There is a good chance that he will spend most of the rest of his life in solitary confinement. Bonnie and I began corresponding with Rodney (before he became Monk Anthony) about fifteen years ago. At that time Rodney had begun painting Icons in his cell using his hair as a brush and pigments made from his meal tray: mustard for yellow, ketchup for red, coffee for brown , etc. Fr. Dwane, the head of the Antiochian Orthodox Prison Ministry asked Bonnie if she would begin corresponding with soon-to-become Monk Anthony to teach him the basics of Byzantine Iconography. Shortly after we began corresponding, Rodney was tonsured a monk while still in prison by His Eminence Isaiah, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Dallas. He was the first person ever to be tonsured in prison in the U.S. Over the years we have shared our lives with each other: the marriage of our children, the death of his mother, our struggles in a small Orthodox mission church, his struggle to love the men who want to kill him. That's right, kill him. For several years there has been a contract on his life by the Arian Brotherhood (a white prison gang) because Monk Anthony is kind and "talks to" blacks, Moslems and Jews. Of course there is very little talking in solitary as we on the outside know it, but there are ways: sign language, tapping code, talking through plumbing and venting, and shouting to other cages when out for 30 minutes of "exercise" three times a week (assuming good behavior--yours and others--and good weather). You have to shout in the cages because the concrete walls are ten feet high covered with chain link fencing: you can't see who is in the other cages.This was Monk Anthony's main concern when we spoke yesterday. Last week in the cages a prisoner in the next cage kept saying that he didn't know how and didn't know when, but one day he would kill him. Monk Anthony wasn't bothered by the fact that these men want to kill him; he was bothered that it was hard for him to find the same love in his heart for these men as he could find in his heart for others. He wanted me to help him. "How do you love everyone like Christ asks us to do?"Just to be with him (on the other side of poly glass and through a fuzzy speaker phone) I felt like a liar. I am a priest. It is my job to help others grow in Christ. I had to say something to encourage him. I struggle to love rude drivers and unhelpful clerks. What do I have to say about loving those who want to kill you because you are too kind to blacks, Moslems and Jews? I shared what came to my mind knowing that I was speaking pure conjecture, not from experience as the Fathers exhort, and hoping that somehow the Holy Spirit would use the fuzzy speak phone to morph it into what he needed to hear. We also talked about food. It's one of the only bits of variation in his life: the guards had given the prisoners "Christmas bags" of candy and crackers and fruit juice boxes. Monk Anthony's favorite was the Cheese Its. We talked about crocheting and the sweater he had made for our little rat terrier. We talked about the technique of making prayer ropes and put in our order for the upcoming year. He particularly likes making prayer ropes. He can pray and make knots and "the time flies by." Bonnie and he spoke for at least an hour on the finer points of iconography. And we stopped at intervals to pray first, third, sixth and ninth hours together.We had to pray ninth hour early, so that we would not be interrupted when the guards came. After nineth hour, Bonnie and Monk Anthony were having a lively conversation about the best possible pattern to crochet a tea cozy when the guards came to the steel door behind Monk Anthony. He stood and put his hands behind his back and out the slot in the door so that the guards could handcuff him before they opened the door. Monk Anthony winked at us. I blessed him with the sign of the cross. And he was gone. Bonnie started "leaking." I was lost in thought. Two guards came and escorted us back up the two or three flights of stairs and out of the maze of steel doors to the reception area. We could go home. No one wanted to kill us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Jesus Prayer and Desperation

At the monastery I visit, the brothers have a rule that includes one hour of saying the Jesus Prayer while doing nothing else.  Of course they strive to pray at all times, but for at least one hour each day each monk stands before the icons in his cell and says the Jesus Prayer.
When I visit the monastery, I also try to practice this rule.  (Gentle snickers are appropriate at this point.) I admit that I have experienced very brief moments of something that smells like a cousin to transcendence, but mostly it is a battle of self discipline that I lose several times within the hour until I finally give up and sit on the edge of my bench-like bed telling God I'm sorry for the last ten or fifteen minutes. There doesn't seem to be any energy to pray that I have learned to tap into. 
However, when I am on vacation or at a conference, I experience something very different.  I take long walks when I am away from home; and when I do, I say the Jesus Prayer.  Although I still do not experience consistency in my prayer, I do experience something else.  I experience a kind of desperation that becomes a fervent energy to pray.  
When I'm at home (and certainly at the monastery), the temptations I experience are usually of a subtle nature.  I don't recognize a train of thought as dangerous right away.  However walking the shopping district of Boulder, Colorado, or downtown Chicago, or any city center, I am immediately bombarded with multiple easily-recognizable deadly tempting thoughts. Fear caused by  such thoughts so easily gaining traction in my mind and producing almost immediate passionate responses in me creates a desperation that in turn energizes prayer.  I find myself internally shouting the Jesus Prayer as I walk as fast as I can.
In my experience, desperation is a key.  I think that if I more carefully paid attention to my inner life, I would probably recognize the danger of subtle thoughts sooner.  And in turn, I would probably find energy to cry out to God for help in contexts that are actually conducive to Communion--like my own office at home or in my cell at the monastery.  Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps.  Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
May God grant us all something like desperate prayer, that even in the quietness of our own prayer corners, our hearts would shout out fervently for mercy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Weakness

King Uzziah of Judah is, I think, most famous for his death, or the year of his death.  The Prophet Isaiah in the year of King Uzziah’s death had his famous vision of the Lord, highly exalted and sitting on a throne surrounded by cherubim with six wings (“with two they cover their feet, and with two they cover their face, and with two they fly”), who cried out ceaselessly, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” 
King Uzziah was a good king of Judah, one who “did what was right in the sight of the Lord.”  A particularly intriguing verse in the story of his early life says that “he loved the soil.”  King Uzziah devoted many public works to improving the land: digging wells in the desert and planting vineyards in the mountains.  
I think when my wife dies, she will be remembered as one who loved the soil.  I’ll be remembered as one who loved his wife and so helped with the soil.
It says of King Uzziah that he was “marvelously” helped by the Lord, until he became strong.  When he became strong, it says that “his heart became proud to his own destruction.”  In his pride, King Uzziah entered the temple of God to offer incense, which only a priest should do; and when he resisted the remonstrance of the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead.  He spent the rest of his long life living in a separate house, apart from his family and his people.
Isn’t that the way it is?  Isn’t that the fruit of pride: separation from those you love and those who love you?
When we are weak, God’s help in our life is “marvelous.”  The most dangerous position is one of strength, in war, in argument, in religion, in business, in anything.  The strong are preparing for a fall.  The weak are hoping in God.  Perhaps that’s why the psalmist continually reminds God and himself (which, in prayer, is the same thing) that he is poor and needy.  
And really, any illusion of strength or of being right or of having it under control is really just that: an illusion.  But illusions are so appealing, all gain and no pain.  
Nevertheless, pain is necessary.  It’s the reality check.  It reminds us that we are dependent, that we are weak, that we have nothing to feel triumphant about over against our brother or sister--no matter how right we seem and how wrong they seem to be.
Oh the happiness of weakness, of loving the soil (or loving someone who loves the soil) and of watching God act marvelously in our lives.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Slipping Out Of The Grace Of God

Pippi posted a comment on my entry entitled Righteousness, and asked if "it is possible for one to slip out of the grace of God."  To answer this question, we have to carefully look at what we mean when we say "grace of God."  For many western Christians, the expression "grace of God" is used as a kind of synonym for salvation--salvation defined as going to heaven when you die.  Within this paradigm, Roman Catholics and Protestants have many theories as to how one is saved by the grace of God, and most pivot on the question of will: divine or human.  That is, is one saved by God's will (so that the human will has no role) or is one saved by one's choosing to be saved?  Of course the arguments become quite convoluted because if one is saved by God's will, then the fact that a particular person wants to be saved is because God willed it that way.  And if one is saved by choosing to follow Christ, then (to get back to Pippi's question) one can lose salvation by ceasing to follow Christ: can one "slip out of" the grace of God. 

In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, human beings are always understood as free creatures.  But freedom does not mean independence.  All created things are dependent on the grace of God at all times.  There is no existence apart from the grace of God, so it is indeed impossible to slip out of the grace of God, in one sense.  In another sense, human freedom is such that God has given us the power to say "no" to Him.  Still dependent on the grace of God on one level, human beings have the ability to reject the grace of God on another level.  

Further, there is an experience often called the "withdrawal" of the grace of God testified to by many saints.  This refers to an experience in which the manifest grace of God (the grace of God that one can experience and know) is (or seems to be) removed.  This experience of the withdrawal of the grace of God is sometimes (but indeed not always) associated with a particular sin that seems to be the "cause" of the withdrawal of grace.  However, the remedy for this condition is not merely repentance of a particular sin (if a particular sin is known, which is often not the case).  The manifest grace of God returns only as one seeks God Himself, by faith, even when nothing at all is felt.

Salvation, as usually conceived in the Eastern Orthodox Church, is the restoration of the fallen image of God in the human being.  From an Orthodox perspective this restoration requires the will of both God and man.  It requires the work of both wills, the effort (or energy) of both.  In the Orthodox Church we will often say that salvation is a matter of synergy (working together).  Therefore, one cannot "slip" out of the grace of God, but one can nonetheless resist the grace of God--and God will allow you to do it.  Salvation is a work of cooperation, a work of transfiguration that requires human desire, will, and participation.  However, it is also a free gift, a miraculous work of God in our lives.  It is a work of God that you have to accept, have to want, and have to cooperate with.

Salvation, for the Orthodox, is a process.  It is not a decision by either God or a human being that settles the matter in a moment.  It is a decision by both God and a human being that the human being must continue to make.  God does not change.  God wills, according to scripture and the teaching of the Orthodox Church, that all be saved.  God's decision never changes.  We are the fickle ones.  Like children, we want to work with Dad in the shop--until we learn that Dad's work requires discipline, patience and self control.  We want to be saved, we want to be like God (restored to the image of God that was undistorted in creation) until we realize that salvation means that we have to change.  We have to become ourselves, we have to grow up, we have to shed childish ways to grow up into Christ.

And so our journey of salvation is seasonal.  We draw near, we draw back.  We are excited by the touch of God's manifest grace, we draw back because we fear change.  We want to be mature in Christ, yet we don't want to control our minds and bodies.  And God is merciful.  God is patient.  God as the loving Father lets us back into the shop to learn a little more, to try again, and does not hold on to us when we begin to resist.  But His word is in our heart.  Even when we are (or seem to be) far away, we feel a tug, we hear a gentle calling back, we have an unsatisfied longing.  Prodigals are we all.  The journey home is always longer and harder than we expect, but not nearly so long and hard as we deserve.  And even before we reach home, our Father is running out to meet us.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


This morning I read about King Rehoboam, the son of Solomon.  I feel sorry for Rehoboam.  He had a very tough act to follow.  Imagine being the son of King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived and the richest man of his age.  Imagine inheriting an empire that took a genius to build.  Imagine the pressure.  
Imagine also growing up knowing nothing but extravagant wealth and privilege:  The household utensils, we are told, were all of gold--silver being common.
Rehoboam didn’t have a chance.  
At the beginning of his reign we hear about his fatal decision to ignore the counsel of his father’s advisors and to follow the advice of his peers.  Really, what else do you expect him to do?  He had probably spent all of his time growing up with peers--his teachers would have been from a class far below him--probably slaves.  His father and his father’s counselors had a kingdom to build.  They didn’t have time to build a relationship with the up-and-coming generation.  Rehoboam knew his peers, so of course he trusted them.
However, at the end of Rehoboam’s reign we learn something about him that, I think, helps us understand his failure a little more deeply.  After all, Solomon was raised with wealth and privilege and he began his reign by calling on the Lord for wisdom.  Just about everyone knows of people who have had all of the spiritual “advantages” as a child, and yet have made a wreck of their lives; and we also know of others who from the gutter have come to have relatively healthy lives rooted firmly in Christ.  Human life is far too complicated to apply determinism to any aspect of it.  Nevertheless, some knots are easier to untie than others--assuming you want to untie the knot.
And this is the issue for Rehoboam.  We read the following commentary made at the end of his life, “And he did evil because he did not direct his heart to seek the Lord” (2 Chron. 12:14).
I find it interesting that it does not say that he did evil because he sought evil or did not seek good.  It says that he did evil because he did not set his heart to seek the Lord.  What it looks like when one sets one’s heart to seek the Lord, how such a set heart would be manifest in words and actions, I think, varies by culture, generation and person.  There is no way to judge another in this matter.  We can only reflect: Do I set my heart to seek the Lord?
The story of Rehoboam is, however, not all bad news.  After losing almost all of his father’s wealth (having been plundered by the Egyptians), Rehoboam repents and “the Lord does not destroy him completely” (12:12).  The theme of the Prodigal Son here is too obvious to ignore.  God always receives the repentant, even at the eleventh hour.  Really, all that is lost is prestige, power and wealth--nothing of any value in the age to come.  However, and this brings me back to why I feel sorry for Rehoboam, repentance at the eleventh hour is brought about by the hell of the first ten hours.  
Those of us who live in relative wealth and privilege, and that probably includes everyone who reads this, might learn a lesson from the life of Rehoboam.  It doesn’t take intention to do evil, to do evil.  All it takes is a heart that is not directed to seek the Lord.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Love Wins by Rob Bell

I don’t normally read popular Protestant books. However, several of my Protestant friends have read and been disturbed/intrigued by Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Some have said that it reminds them of some of what they have heard about Orthodox Christian understandings of heaven and hell.
To set the record straight from the beginning, I have to say that there is not a well-defined Orthodox Christian understanding of heaven and hell: except that there is heaven and hell. Various Fathers of the Church have talked about heaven and hell in different ways, in different contexts and for different purposes. The reason why a firm dogma on heaven and hell is impossible is that heaven and hell are realities of another age, an age that has already begun and is also not yet. In his book, Rob Bell does a good job of discussing this problem of ages.
In the Bible, the word aion (age) is often translated “eternal.” This leads to a common misunderstanding that “eternal life” and “eternal judgement” are references to life or judgment that does not end--in the sense that there is no change, day after day after day, forever. Here “eternal” is misunderstood as an adjective describing duration. However, aion refers rather to another age. Eternal life and eternal judgement are the life and judgement of the age to come, the age of the Kingdom of God. You might even say that “eternal” is a quality word, not a quantity word. Eternal life refers to a quality of life, a kind of life--the life of the age to come--not to an unending continuance of life as it is commonly known.
Rob also does an excellent job of pointing out that this life of the age to come is not something that begins after one dies; rather, it began at the Cross (I would say at the Incarnation). All human beings are called to enter eternal life now. Similarly, the torment of hell is not something postponed until the afterlife. Torment and the judgement of the age to come begins now. Every person who continues to despise and abuse his or her neighbor is already building a “great gulf” (c.f. Luke 16:26) and is already beginning to experience a burning torment, although drugs from adrenaline to alcohol and from endorphins to heroin, along with unending distraction, keep us from noticing it too much--until the drugs and distractions are taken away.
Another excellent point Rob makes is that not everyone who is saved by Jesus Christ, knows that it is Jesus Christ. The image and name of Jesus have been so terribly distorted by those who wish to justify their own perversions that some people may be honored by Jesus Christ for rejecting the Jesus Christ their culture or experience presented to them. Wars are fought in Jesus’ name. Witches have been burned, Africans (and others) have been enslaved, girls have been raped (c.f. Mormon fundamentalism), and children have been mercilessly beaten all in Jesus name. Truly some Jesuses must be adamantly rejected as false.
In Love Wins, Rob takes his readers on a tour through some of the biblical passages that demonstrate that God’s ability to save is not limited to one specific way of “accepting Christ." And he points out that Christ is able to call everyone to salvation, even those who have never heard of Him, and even those who have heard of only a perverted version of Him.
What Rob doesn’t do well, in my opinion, is present the more challenging aspects of Christian life: what Orthodox Christians call asceticism. Using the parable of the Prodigal Son as a template, Rob spends the last couple of chapters of the book arguing that all that is necessary to “join the party” is to trust God’s version of the story of your life. It’s as if he skips the repentance part of the story of the prodigal and jumps right to the “let’s party” part. In Love Wins there seems to be no place for transformation, for disciplining our body to bring it into subjection (c.f.1 Cor. 9:27) or for obedience (e.g. Heb. 13:17).
To be fair, no book can cover everything. My criticism is merely what I think needs to be emphasized along with the rest. After all, a party at God’s house wouldn’t be much fun if you didn’t want to be with Him. Asceticism is teaching ourselves to enjoy being with God.
Nevertheless what I think Rob wanted to say, he says very well: salvation and heaven and hell are much broader concepts than many Protestants (and Roman Catholics and Orthodox, for that matter) imagined.

Animated Nativity Greeting

Bonnie's drawings were used by (a company that specializes in ancient and liturgical music) to make an animated Nativity greeting card.  I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Romanian Hermits

I have pasted a video of hermit monks in Romania. It ends with an interview with a hermit. Would to God that we all had his zeal for prayer, love and humility.
It is in Romanian with subtitles. It is a little easier to follow with the sound off (unless you speak Romanian). The video is 10 minutes long.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


TeresaAngelina asked the following question:

Is there a danger, do you think, of our looking for confirmation in those whom we know will agree with us? And should this be a danger, how does one keep watch for it? From the examples given, it is not only from the clergy that we seek confirmation of our experiences (if we did, you'd all be a little exhausted) but from our trusted friends as well. Perhaps even a chance encounter with a stranger who loves God.

Dear TeresaAngelina,
Yes there is a danger that we might say that we are seeking confirmation when what we are really looking for is affirmation.  A reliable spiritual father or mother is someone who is willing to tell us the truth even if it will disappoint us.  And, of course, it is only experience that teaches us whether or not someone is reliable in this way.  

Yes, God can speak to us through anyone and anything--"The heavens declare the Glory of God."  But one must be very careful that he or she does not go "confirmation shopping."  The reason we need confirmation in the first place is that our own internal guidance system is broken.  If I have to rely on my own discernment to determine the reliability of a stranger's or friend's confirmation, then I have short-circuited the process.  It is still me doing all of the discerning.

Certainly clergy and monastics are not the only sources of reliable spiritual discernment--in fact, it is a mistake to trust the discernment of someone merely because he or she is clergy or monastic.  It is only in the context of a relationship over time that one can come to trust the reliability of someone's discernment.  

Having said that, I must also point out that sometimes the faith of the one seeking advice works in such a way that even an undiscerning priest or monastic or an apparently wise older person nonetheless speaks with great insight and truth.  However, a prerequisite to any confirmation of an inner experience or revelation at any time or from any one is that we hold it loosely and be ready to let it go.  

Unfortunately, we quickly become attached to our experiences; sometimes we even build an identity around them: "I have the gift of _________." or "God has told me _________." or "God is going to use me to ___________."  These are very dangerous thoughts.  Our salvation is in humility, not in building an identity.  Our only identity is to be hidden in Christ.  Our salvation is found in following the example of the Mother of God who, although she was Most Pure and had been ministered to by angels before, nevertheless went to her cousin for confirmation--who was much older than her and the wife of a high priest.

Sometimes we have to rely on writings because we seem to have no living person to turn to.  And it has been my experience that (1) God can indeed grant great consolation through the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of our faith, and (2) a word from a living, breathing father or mother is even more powerful.  But in every case, humility is called for.

Once I was speaking to my first spiritual "father" in the Orthodox Church--who was a spiritual mother, an abbess.  At one point she told me something that, on one level, I knew was true, but that on another level, I struggled with.  As soon as I brought up an objection, she said to me, "Well, I am probably wrong then."  She was not being facetious.  Her humility was such that she easily assumed that she was wrong. Immediately I had to tell her, "No, you are right.  I am just struggling."  

Humility is key.  

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Not Trusting Our Own Experience

Quoted below is a long paragraph from Elder Sophrony's book, His Life is Mine.  Because it is a little difficult to understand, I want to unpack it for you.

Elder Sophrony seems to be saying that in our longing for God, we may experience many kinds of consolation that cause us to feel the love and nearness of God; however, we must be careful not to trust in these experiences--our trust must be in God alone.  Even the Mother of God, Elder Sophrony points out, went to Elizabeth to have confirmed for her the message of the Archangel Gabriel and St. Paul, to whom Christ appeared, submitted his Gospel to the Church hierarchy in Jerusalem--twice. Self-confidence is the enemy of humility, and humility is the first rung on the ladder of divine ascent.

The soul knows but cannot contain Him, and therein lies her pain. Our days are filled with longing to penetrate into the Divine sphere with every fibre of our being. Our prayer must be ardent, and many-sided is the experience that may be given. In our hearts, subjectively, it would seem—to judge by the love whose touch we feel—that the experience cannot be open to doubt. But despite the all-embracing surge of this love, despite the light in which it appears, it would not only be wrong but dangerous to rely exclusively on it. From Sacred Writ we know that the most pure Virgin Mary hurried off to her cousin Elisabeth to hear from her lips whether the revelation was true that she had received—of a son to be born to her who should be great and should be called the Son of God the Highest; and whose kingdom should have no end (cf. Luke 1.32-33). St Paul, who ‘was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words’ (cf. 2 Cor. 12.4), affords another example. ‘It pleased God ... to reveal His Son in me’(Gal. 1.16); nevertheless, he went twice to Jerusalem to submit to Peter and others ‘which were of reputation’ (Gal. 2.1-2) the gospel he was preaching ‘lest by any means [he] should run, or had run in vain’ (Gal. 2.1-2). The history of the Church provides innumerable such instances, and thus we learn to ask those with more experience to judge whether our case is not merely imagination but grace proceeding from on High. We look for reliable witnesses who are to be found only in the Church whose age-old experience is immeasurably richer and more profound than our individual one. Such in the distant past were the apostles who bequeathed to us in gospel and epistle the knowledge which they had received direct from God. They were followed by a succession of fathers (doctors and ascetics) who handed down the centuries, above all, the spirit of life itself, often endorsing their testimony in writing. We believe that at any given historical moment it is possible to find living witnesses; to the end of time mankind will never be bereft of genuine gnosis concerning God. Only after authoritative confirmation may we trust our personal experience, and even then not to excess. Our spirit ought not to slacken in its impulse towards God. And at every step it is essential to remember that self-confident isolation is fraught with the possibility of transgressing against Truth. So we shall not cease to pray diligently to the Holy Spirit that He preserve our foot from the paths of untruth.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


Just as a mother sees a child reaching for a toy or a bottle and brings it into the child's reach, so God sees us striving for righteousness (which is out of our reach) and brings it near so that we can attain it.  This is Grace. But Grace does not come to those who do not want it. We tell God that we want Him and His righteousness by striving for it. And in striving we come to know experientially, not as a matter of theology, that righteousness is beyond our reach, and that righteousness is by Grace alone. Righteousness is not a juridical standing, it is the manifestation of God in our life.