Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Saving Europe

The English-language web page of the Serbian Orthodox Church features an article on European unity by Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German Protestant theologian and ecumenist.  

In a manner typical of Protestant theology--that is, rationally, logically--Pannenberg argues that Christianity is perhaps the best possible unifying force in creating a common European consciousness.  He points out, however, that " the contribution of the Christian churches to the history of our nations has been largely divisive, in former centuries anyway, and that explains to a great extent the alienation of modern culture from its Christian roots."  Nevertheless, "the modern ideas of toleration, of human rights and of a liberal society... [all] have Christian roots, but they were not brought forth by the church authorities, who on all sides clung to more or less conservative conceptions. Rather, they were occasioned by painful experiences and conceived as remedies for religious and political diseases. The transition to modernity was not a smooth process of unfolding Christian principles. Though today the fruits of that process have been appropriated by the theological consciousness of all churches, most of them were opposed in earlier days to the ideas of human rights and civil liberties….The common reception of those ideas in the present situation of the Christian churches and the recognition of their authentically Christian content, should not provide an occasion for ecclesiastical triumphalism, but should motivate some self-critical examination of the reasons and structures that in earlier centuries prevented the churches from producing such ideas as an element of their teaching."  

Isn't that a mouthful?  Let's unpack.  

What Wolfhart is saying is that the reason why modern people generally ignore Christianity is that much of the violence in European history after the Reformation was by nation states who identified religious particularity as the prime motivation or justification for violence.  And throughout these Wars of Religion, leaders of the various churches were vociferous in the proclamation of the divine justification of their nation's war making. Secularization, therefore, was seen as a kind of saviour, reducing religious particularity to a matter of mere personal preference and thus general irrelevance.

Nevertheless, the ideals that have emerged from the secular modernization process are clearly rooted in Christian ideals, ideals that had been championed by the mendicant monks of the West and the god-bearing Fathers of the East.  Secular ideals such as tolerance, basic human rights and civil liberty, which are now accepted as self-evident goods by virtually all Christians and have their roots in Christianity, were nonetheless developed largely outside the churches.  Why was that?  And what should the churches do to heal what has been broken?

Wolfhart suggests that the churches begin with a self-critical examination--good, old-fashioned repentance I think it is called.  That is, the churches need to own their profound failures, and only this will lead to a deep rejection of triumphalism. Finally, he suggests that any possible reuniting of Christianity will both require and evidence its "having learnt the lessons of history concerning toleration and the provisional nature of human knowledge even about the truth of revelation." 

This article caught my attention mostly because I have been thinking about the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov which I posted yesterday.  It seems to me that Wolfhart's suggestions, while certainly reasonable on one level, merely promote a more fundamental problem in Europe's churches.  So long as our knowledge of God is expressed primarily in rational propositions and appeals for repentance are formulated largely in terms of reason, I don't think Christians will be able to escape from the habit of coercion.  For, it seems to me, that the very thought process of rationalization involves a kind of oppression of a way (or perhaps ways) of knowing that is fundamental to humanity and certainly more conducive to the knowledge of transcendent realities.  I am referring here to an intuitive knowing, or a knowing of the heart, what I think contemporary Orthodox writers like Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos refer to as noetic perception.

St. Seraphim's call to gentleness and his appeal for the acquisition of inner peace while not judging or condemning others seems to me to be a much more effective means by which the churches can begin to find a way toward repentance and perhaps a way toward unity--and, perhaps, a way toward the salvation of Europe and the world.

Monday, May 28, 2012

You Cannot Be Too Gentle

Fr. David Rucker, Associate Director of the Orthodox Christian Missions Centre, spent the weekend with Bonnie and me. He was here for the wedding of James and Daphne who are long-term Orthodox missionaries in Tanzania.  Fr. David and I got along swell.  I think Orthodox missionaries around the world are in good hands under his care.

Fr. David gave me a quote from St. Seraphim of Sarov, a quote that his bishop gave him when he was ordained.

You cannot be too gentle,
too kind.
Shun even to appear harsh
in your treatment
of each other.

Joy, radiant joy,
streams from the face
of him who gives
and kindles joy in the heart 
of him who receives.

All condemnation
is from the devil.
Never condemn each other.

Instead of condemning others,
strive to reach inner peace.

Keep silent,
refrain from judgement.
This will raise you 
above the deadly arrows
of slander, insult, and outrage
and will shield your glowing hearts
against all evil.

That about sums up the Orthodox Christian spiritual quest.  No matter how heretical, corrupt, sinful, messy, stinky, unfair, uncomfortable or un-Orthodox my friends and neighbours are, if I can just acquire genuine peace and joy in my heart, that will do more to help, save and draw my neighbor to Christ than anything else I could possibly say or do.  I cannot love my neighbor if my very presence afflicts him or her.  But if I allow myself to be transfigured, then whatever I say or do will be irradiated with the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit.  

Saturday, May 26, 2012

What's A Sacrament?

What is a sacrament?

In the western tradition (Roman Catholicism), sacrament means a holy action (from the Latin, Sanctus, which means holy).  And the R.C. Church identified seven of them, while the early Protestants had only two, and most contemporary Protestant Evangelicals don't have any.  However, the eastern church never used the word sacrament or it's Greek equivalent.  In fact, when Latin and other western languages translate mysterion as sacrament, they are really changing the meaning of the word.  From an eastern Christian perspective, all things and actions (good actions) are potentially holy. 

The church actions that in the west are called sacraments (communion, baptism, marriage, etc.) are called mysteries in the Orthodox Church.  They are called mysteries, not because we do not know what is going on, but because they manifest in time and space the reality of heaven, which is not easily knowable without years of spiritual growth.  But through the mysteries (sacraments) we can participate in spiritual realities in a way that is accessible to the senses and the rational mind to the end that we are trained to be sensitive on a deeper, spiritual level to the spiritual realities that are always present.  Well, that's not the only end, but that is one of the ends.  God does not force us first to learn how to hear and behave spiritually before he comes to us.  God has given us the mysteries in the church so that anyone at any stage of spiritual development (or sinful degradation for that matter) can begin to know and access a genuine relationship with God through the mysteries in the Church.

In the west, the idea developed that through the sacraments special grace is given. The Orthodox Church would not necessarily disagree, but would generally not focus on that. In fact, the Orthodox perspective is more along the lines that God gives Grace--special and otherwise--through all sorts of actions if one would only be aware of it. The mysteries, on the other hand, are ways in the Church to participate in (and of course receive Grace from) heavenly realities. In baptism, we are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection--we participate in Christ's baptism. In the Divine Liturgy, we ascend with Christ into heaven and mystically eat His body and drink His blood. In marriage, we manifest the union of the heavenly bridegroom with His Church.  

These are mysterious realities because they cannot be directly known by the senses or the rational mind.  But through the liturgical life of the Church, these spiritual realities can be known and experienced and participated in. We participate in a way that even the spiritually weakest can appreciate. The youngest child or the mentally challenged person or the morally weak person, or the holiest monk all eat the same bread and wine that has mystically become the Body and Blood of Christ. Each participates, each receives all of Christ, yet what each knows and experiences and how each is spiritually nourished depends on where each is in his or her journey towards the Likeness of Christ.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Work Not Leading To Joy: Not Good

Some brothers asked Abba Macarius the Great, "Are feelings of pity more important than works?"
     He said to them, "Yes."

In the first part of his explanation of this "yes," Abba Macarius likens works to customers to whom God, the Merchant, gives good deals.  The Merchant even adds, out of His compassion, His own works to our works so that our works, likened to customers getting a good deal, may "leave with joy and rejoicing and gladness."

Then Abba Macarius said to the brothers "with joy: A small quantity of oil gladdens a person's face in the presence of [a] king of this world; in the same way, may a little virtue gladden the soul in the presence of the King of those who dwell in heaven and those who dwell on earth, our Lord Jesus Christ, who possesses numerous treasuries of mercy, for it is written, 'From the days of John the Baptist up to now, the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force and some who are violent seize it' [Mt. 11:12].  So then, let us too use a little force in exchange for the Kingdom of Heaven; we will seize for ourselves Him who is King forever, our Lord Jesus Christ."

There are times, seasons even, in the Christian life when the warfare, the intense struggle to do right, seems to overwhelm us with its difficulty. However, this should not be our on-going, regular, daily experience. I would like to suggest that if it is, then we may be struggling to attain an imagined ideal, we may be struggling to please, not our Lord Jesus Christ, but some imagined task master. I say this because this has been my experience. I have gone without joy for long periods of struggle, imagining that the drudgery of my striving was somehow pleasing God--only to realize that a joyless offering is not really an offering at all, at least not one that pleases God. I say this also because it is the testimony of the saints like Abba Macarius.

Unfortunately, many contemporary lives of saints are not very helpful in this regard. The saints are helpful, but the biographers, sometimes, are not. I mentioned to someone yesterday that I noticed this in a certain biography I am reading (not the biography of Abba Macarius). I noticed that when what the saint did or said is described, one is aware of an overwhelming joy; but when the biographer comments on it, the biographer stresses the fierceness of the struggle or the extremity of the asceticism. My friend commented back that he had noticed that same tendency in another biography he was reading. It is as if the biographer's agenda is to push the saint into some preconceived mold of sanctity. It's as if, in the mind of the biographer, too much joy, too much gentleness, too much simple reveling in the mercy of God cannot be let go without adding how many prostrations the saint "must have" done or how severe he was in his fasting. 

I do know some monks who fast severely and keep a pretty strict prayer rule, but they are also the most joyful, compassionate and peaceful people I know. Furthermore, when I read the words of the saints themselves, I read the words of a person who is overwhelmed with the mercy and love of God. I read the words of a person full of joy and compassion. Like St. Macarius quoted above, I read that feelings of pity are more important than works. I read that God adds His works to my works. I read that by using "a little" force we can seize for ourselves our Lord Jesus Christ.

My brothers and sisters, God is ready to add His works to our works. Let's just push a little; let's offer to God some small prayer or act of kindness; and let's experience the joy of customers who have gotten a really good deal, of servants who have a very kind and generous master, and of children who know they are loved.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Dmitry Karamozov

Dmitry Karamazov is the oldest of the three Karamazov brothers in Dostoevsky's novel by the same name.  In the preface, we are told that the youngest brother, Alyosha, is the hero in the series of novels of which The Karamazov Brothers was meant to be the first.  Unfortunately, it was the only novel in the intended series, Dostoevsky dying in 1881 at age 60, one year after it's completion.  In this first novel, Alyosha and his spiritual quest dominates the first half of the novel, but the second half deals almost completely with Dmitry and the consequences of the crime he is accused of committing.
Dmitry is a mess.  He is madly in love with a woman whom his father is trying to seduce.  He blows on riotous living any money he receives.  He doesn't keep promises.  He has a violent temper.  And yet, when Dmitry thinks about himself and when he must describe himself to others, Dmitry thinks he is an honourable man.  He loves God and he knows that God loves him--and will forgive him.  Dmitry conceives himself as a good and honourable man even though he admits that he does things that are neither  good nor honourable.
This is my fourth time through The Karamazov Brothers.  I have read it every decade since my twenties.  The first time I read it, it made almost no sense to me.  I don't think I even finished it.  But the second and third times, the novel began to make sense.  During my earlier reads, I interpreted Dmitry as the perfect example of a self-deceived man.  Here is a man who can see clearly the evil things he does and yet still considers himself a good man.  
However, I am reading Dmitry differently this time through.  Yes, there are plenty of self-deceived people in the world who "call evil good and good evil" (c.f. Isaiah 5:20),  but I don't think that is what is happening with Dmitry.  Dmitry calls evil, evil; but he insists that within him there is also good, a good that he wants to manifest, but somehow is unable to manifest very often or very well.
Over the past several years, I have been able to develop a relationship with someone who has bi-polar disorder.  As I was reading the Karamazov Brothers this time, I began to realize that Dmitri is bi-polar.  I won't bore you with the details, but I double checked the symptoms of bi-polar disorder at the National Centre for Biotechnology Information website and every last one of the symptoms listed for severe bi-polar disorder fits Dmitri exactly.  
Now my point is not that Dostoevsky's insight into psychology is amazing--although it is amazing.  My point is that I am generally very quick to apply to others criteria that I imagine I apply to myself.  I am very hard on others for their inconsistencies, but almost completely blind to my own.  Dmitri is not self-decieved.  Dmitri is the only one, except perhaps for Starets Zosima, Aloysha, and eventually his girl friend Grushenka, who sees himself somewhat clearly.  This is his torment: he is a good, honourable man who is unable to be good or honourable much of the time.  That is, like the epileptic, his assumed half-brother Smerdyakov, Dmitry also has a mental disorder that he cannot control.  However, unlike his half brother, Dmitry does not seek to use his disorder as a cover for evil.  Rather Dmitri genuinely regrets and repents of evil he has done.  
And I think repentance, not necessarily performance, is the key.  
It is impossible to know the depths of another's suffering.  We cannot know all of the past wounds, diseases, chemical imbalances, or demonic torment that may influence the behaviour of others.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that very few people really know the depths of their own soul and why they do what they don't really want to do and can't seem to consistently do what they want to do.  
Sure, repentance means changing your mind, turning around, taking a new path.  And repentance, to be repentance at all, must be sincere, from the heart, and with a good intention.  Nevertheless, just as good intention cannot stop an epileptic seizure, sometimes in all of us and perhaps almost all of the time in some of us, genuine, sincere repentance does not keep us from falling into the same sinful behaviour again.  
In the Ladder of Divine Ascent and in other early Christian desert literature, sin is occasionally likened to epilepsy.  One monk, it is recorded in the Ladder, finds his salvation by bowing before everyone who enters the monastery and saying, "Forgive me.  I am an epileptic."  When it comes to the battle against sin, both in ourselves and in those around us, I think it is helpful to say quietly to ourselves (not out loud!), "I forgive you because I know you are a spiritual epileptic.  And please forgive me too, for I am an epileptic.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Those Pesky Priests: A Lesson From The Life of Sister Gavrilia

There is an excellent interview of Sister Gavrilia, the biographer of Mother Gavrilia. The biography itself is called The Ascetic of Love and I highly recommend it.  Some of my understanding of my own obedience to Christ came from reading this book and the desire that welled up in me to follow Mother Gavrilia's example.  Whether or not this is a good point of recommendation, however, remains to be seen.

In telling the story of her own coming to repentance, Sister Gabrilia tells of an early encounter with a priest that so puts her off that in spite of a profound spiritual encounter with Christ, she slips back into the world for a few years.

Ah, those pesky priests.  

It really is a difficult conundrum.  Any time someone is set aside or recognized as a religious person (priest, nun, bishop, whatever), he or she is bound to do or say something that offends someone.  I admit from the start that there are outwardly religious people--perhaps especially among the clergy--who are really wolves in sheep's clothing.  Jesus himself and the Apostle Paul told us that this would be the case and to be on our guard against such.  That there are wicked priests or bishops or nuns shouldn't surprise us.  And actually, I don't think there is much that one can do about it.  We pray, and we avoid as much as possible the offending ones.  Certainly we speak the truth in appropriate contexts, but we don't make a stink.  That is, God has called none (I repeat, none!) of us to be wolf hunters in the Church.  God Himself must defend the Church for she is His Bride.  There is no spiritual gift of inquisitor. 

Nevertheless, it is not the blatant wolves, in my experience, who are the greatest problem for most believers.  The greatest stumbling block for many is the local priest or nun or bishop who is just not good enough.  God calls fallen and weak men and women to follow Him, often in positions of leadership in the Church.  Weak men are often lured into talking about things they know nothing about (such as peace in Buddhism); or respond with annoyance in their voice to someone who needs compassion; or forget important names, dates, or appointments; or let slip in public that they have some secret indulgence such as football or scotch--indulgences no truly holy person would countenance.  There are a thousand ways to give offence and another ten thousand ways to take offence.

This is why we have to do our best to love one another and strive not to put expectations on one another.  God must be our only Saviour.  God will use people, but people will disappoint.  Someone recently told me that she had said to someone else who wanted to speak to her about spiritual things (based on some articles she had written), that she would only agree to speak to her if she promised to have very low expectations.  And do you know what this other woman said?  She said, "Only God can help me."  So my friend said, "I'd love to talk to you."

Wouldn't our life together be so much easier if we all truly believed that only God could help us?  Wouldn't we experience much less disappointment if we kept our expectations low toward one another and high toward God?  Mother Gavrilia provides a wonderful example of a woman who had no expectations except that God would help her.  And God did help her--and this is important--through people!  God speaks to us, encourages us, helps us, and cares for us most often through the people He has put in our life.  When we are looking to God for help, it is easy to see God's help in the people in our lives, rather than seeing how the people themselves do or don't live up to our expectations.

When Sister Gavrilia had her disappointing experience with a priest, she was very young in her spiritual journey.  Certainly we all must be as careful as possible not to offend "the least of these."  The Gospels make it clear that God's judgement on those who offend the little ones is severe.  However, even when we try hard not to offend, offences inevitably come.  When they do, please don't run back into the world.  Run instead to God your Father; run to the Theotokos your Mother; and keep on looking for a slightly holy man or woman who can help you along the way.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Buddhist and Christian Peace

Below is part of my answer to the question, "What is the difference between the peace Buddhists talk about and the peace that Christ gives?"

Having never experienced Buddhist peace, I can only speculate based on what I have learned about Buddhism from reading. The goal of Buddhist meditation, again speaking as a fool who does not really know, is to realize that everything is nothing, and to be absorbed into the One, which is everything, and be released from the cycle of pleasure and pain. Some Buddhist meditation techniques seem similar to Hesychast techniques. Some of the language describing the experience seems similar (e.g. peace and light or enlightenment). 

I think this is because, whether Christian or Buddhist, the human psyche is the same. So on one level, the peace would be the same. However, Buddhist peace, again, as far as I understand it, is a peace in nothingness. The peace of Christ is a peace with content, personal content. Buddhist peace comes from realizing that nothing is real and so nothing matters except merging into cosmic oneness. Christ's peace is Christ's personal presence in a very real world, a world that matters.  

Of course this is what makes things difficult for zealous folks like me. If the world really matters, I figure I need to get out there and do something. However, I fail miserably because I am working from my own strength, not in union with Christ. But this is not a loss, for in accepting my weakness, I learn to know and depend on Christ.  I gain humility. Then, amazingly, somehow comforted by the peace of Christ's presence, my few words and weak actions in the world are sometimes filled with the Holy Spirit and power to accomplish good, or at least some good, in the world.  

For Christians, suffering is real. In fact, fundamental to the Christian reality is the Cross. We join Christ on the Cross, or on the cross of our personal encounter with sin and the results of sin. We are crucified by the suffering we are unable to relieve, and especially by the suffering that we actively, though perhaps unintentionally, inflict on others. Yet somehow it is in this very suffering because of suffering that we encounter the Suffering One, passing through suffering to death (a kind of peace--perhaps like the Buddhist peace in nothingness, I don't know).  

But it doesn't stop there. There is also a kind of resurrection, a kind of participation on earth of the Life of the age to come. There is a Life in the Spirit that is full of peace, joy, love, etc. and this Life does good in the world. Regretfully, it seems few Christians actually experience this--and perhaps I have only experienced brief moments of this Life, or perhaps I have only caught brief glimpses of it, but not yet really experienced it. I, too often, run away from the suffering and death before the resurrection arrives. But to be completely honest I have to say that in some small ways I have experienced this resurrected Life, and I have seen this Life in others too.

Christian peace and resurrected Life are real--they are not just in someone's head. It is existential, if you like. But it is not something that is easily or automatically attained. It is freely given, but learning how to receive it takes a lifetime. I think this is exactly what St. Seraphim of Sarov meant when he admonished people to acquire the Holy Spirit.  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Peace and Sword?

I recently got an e-mail from a friend who is struggling with (what he calls) the spiritualization of Christ's peace.  That is, he does not like the fact that many will so spiritualize the peace of Christ that it seems to have no influence on their violent behaviour.  Of course, "to spiritualize" as my friend is using the word, merely means to create a feeling that has no bearing on the whole rest of one's life.  That is not how the Orthodox Church understands something that is spiritual.*  Nevertheless, my friend gives an example of this from St. Augustine of Hippo whom he reports has written that a soldier can experience Christ's peace in his heart even while he is running his enemy through with a spear.  

Below is part of what I wrote in response, trying to unpack as best as I could what some of issues are as I see it:

I don't know about Augustine's peace while running someone through with a spear, but I have experienced peace while spanking my child.  Maybe it was mere personal tranquility and not really Christ's peace.  I think it was Christ's peace.  I experience Christ's peace--or at least what I think is Christ's peace--even when I have to do things that I know are not ideal, but are the least bad--or the least bad given my level of spiritual, emotional, intellectual development and the options I am able to conceive at the time.  I experience a profound peace that in spite of my weakness, God is able to be strong.  That is, in spite of my inability to do the ideal that I conceive, or more often, my inability even to conceive in the moment of what the ideal is, in spite of this huge flaw in my life, God still receives what I offer (befouled and stinky as it is) and somehow is able to save, to bring life, to heal even that which I have wounded.

There is a huge irony here: I wound in the name of the God who heals.  This of course assumes that I am trying to imitate Christ and heal--even if that healing seems to me to require some wounding to accomplish (like cauterizing an infected wound); it assumes I am striving to be like Him.  But I am not yet like Him--in fact, I am so much not like Him that I am often blind to what the loving, God-like path in any given situation is.  Often I am merely hoping that what I am doing is the Christ-like, loving thing to do.  

As I grow in my life in Christ, I look back and cringe at all of the very stupid and often hurtful things I have done thinking at the time (and with all my heart) that I was doing the loving, Christ-like thing.  I have begged God for forgiveness and prayed that He would somehow fix what I have broken.  In His mercy, God helps me most of the time to forget about these terrible mistakes; otherwise, I would be completely frozen with despondency.

And that is the point.  We grow.  In fact, I think I can say that it has been Christ's peace that has taught me to use less force, less coercion.  But we live in a very messy world.  To me, the helpful question is not, "Why do Christians use violence?"  The helpful, even profound, question for me is "Why do a few Christians actually succeed in becoming a Christ-like presence in the midst of chaos?" 

Why should we be surprised that Christians kill, steal and fornicate?  We are, after all, sinners being saved (stress the being).  God's not finished with us yet.  This is not an excuse, it is an observation.  I'm talking about the murdering, coveting and lustful Christians who want to be changed, saved and healed--not the ones who don't give a damn.  I'm talking about the ones who try hard, who care.   I have spoken to Christians who are experiencing the Grace of God in some small, but overwhelming ways even while they are regularly fornicating, or coveting and stealing (in various ways), and hating, fighting and who might even kill if given the opportunity.  How else would they change if Christ didn't first come to them?

Just a few days ago, someone asked me about how I became a Christian.  I said that I had become a Christian by the time I was sixteen, but that I had started to become a Christian at least two years before that; it just took two years before what was happening inside me began to effect in any noticeable way what I did or said outwardly.  I was encountering God, experiencing God's peace--even while I had to fight to survive in the violent world of teenage boys growing up in foster homes.  

So ..., to try and specifically answer your question: yes, there is such a thing as people intentionally using religious concepts as excuses to do what they want--even to kill.  It is both common and despicable.  However, there is also the reality that people are often trapped by circumstances, training, ignorance, and weakness to do sinful things--perhaps even kill--yet God is at the same time drawing them, giving them His Grace and helping them to grow and repent.  And what makes all of this really difficult is that we never know which is the case with someone else.  Heck, I often don't know which is the case for myself.  This is why it is so unproductive to judge others' motives.  The only person I can change is myself, and I'm not very good at that at all.  Why am I so worried about what others are doing and why they are doing it and how they do or do not justify it to themselves?  If I can acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit, others will be saved too.  That's my Goal.  That's how, I  think, anyone can best bring peace to the world.

*See the Glory to God For All Things blog for excellent essays on the topic of rightly understanding spiritual things.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Of Blood and Onions

I'm giving blood today.  It's my spring onion.

In the Karamozov Brothers, Grushenka, the trollop whose miraculous turnabout is the hidden miracle confirming the sanctity of the Elder Zosimas, tells a story.  While she was toying with Aloysha, half-heartedly trying to seduce him, she says, "I have given a spring onion."  Grushenka then goes on to tell a story that her grandmother had told her.  The story goes something like this:

A very mean and selfish woman once gave a spring onion to a beggar.  When she died, she found herself in torment, and her guardian angel begged God to take pity on her.  The Lord said to the angel, "Once she gave a spring onion to a beggar.  You  may take that onion and offer it to her in her torment.  If she holds on to it, she may be pulled out of torment by it."  The angel took that onion and offered it to her in her torment and the woman held on to it.  Slowly, the angel began to pull the woman out of her torment with that onion.  However--being a Russian story it cannot have a happy ending--others in torment saw her being lifted from hell and grabbed on to her saying, "lift us out of our torment with you!"  But the woman began to kick and scream, "This is my onion!"  And with that, the onion snapped and the woman fell back into the flames.

Giving blood is my onion.  It is a small offering.  Hardly anything really.  I don't miss it.  The hassle of making and keeping the appointment is more of a bother than the actual blood giving.  It is only a spring onion.  But small offerings can have big consequences, especially if they are given for the salvation of others.  It is not my blood--I didn't buy it.  It is human blood, blood that can save the life of any other human being.  If I think of it that way it helps me realize that giving blood is not so much an act of generosity as an expression of common humanity.  It might even be a kind of love, a love strong enough to pull several out of their personal torments, and perhaps, if God has pity, me too.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Meek Shall Inherit...

Jesus said that the meek would inherit the earth. Today is St. Theodore day--St. Theodore the disciple of St. Pachomius. Because of his humility and obedience, St. Theodore was given leadership responsibilities  in the Pacomian monasteries--there were several of them with over a thousand monks in each. Some of the monks complained because Theodore was so young. I wonder how St. Theodore felt about it? Being very humble, it must have been difficult for him to carry out the "obedience" [that is, the task in the monastery] of overseeing his brothers, especially his elder brothers. I wonder if he ever thought "real" sanctity would be found in scrubbing pots in the kitchen rather than in sitting at the head and giving obediences to others? I wonder if it is common, even in saints, to imagine--perhaps just for a moment--that really holy people do something other than what I am doing?

I keep returning to the Gospels. I keep going back to the Epistles. As I have mentioned before, I am easily led into depression by those who inspire me. I am inspired by great ascetics, and then at some point my twisted mind accuses me that I am not very ascetic at all--I struggle to drink my tea without cream on Wednesdays and Fridays. I read about great workers for Christ, like St. Innocent Enlightener of North America and I say to myself, "Yes, here is a man of God who worked tirelessly for Christ"; and I can't seem to get through most days without a nap. Truly, I am the servant given only one talent. Yet having very little to offer Christ, I strive at least not to bury it.  

The Epistles tell us that the evidence of the Presence of Christ in our hearts is the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faith, meekness, goodness, self control. And though I am not a great anything, there are plenty of people in my life that I can be kind to. There are plenty of opportunities for self control and patience. Peace, though fleeting, can be sought and acquired and sought again when I lose it. Joy is never far away, though I sometimes turn my back on it. This is the real battleground of my salvation--and I don't have to be in a cave or on a mission field or anywhere other than where I am right now to enter the battle with my whole heart.

Isn't it interesting how we tend to think that our life, our particular circumstances, are such that the Grace of God probably can't do much with us right here, right now. I think this is a common delusion. At least it is a delusion that I sometimes have.

It seems to me that as long as there are small ways you can say no to yourself, and as long as there are difficult people to be gentle with, and as long as there are opportunities here and there--small opportunities--to do good; then we can be confident that we are exactly where God's Grace can fill our lives. Even if we have to spend a good deal of our spiritual energy fighting crazy thoughts and controlling disjointed passions, even then if we are crying out to Jesus for help, even then we might be becoming holy. It sure doesn't feel like it. It feels like I keep running to Christ empty and wounded by my own foolish thoughts, words and actions.  

But then I remember the Gospel: "He who comes to Me, I will in no way cast out."  There is my hope. Not that I can bring anything to Christ, but that in coming again and again empty and wounded to Christ, He will in no way cast me out.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Overwhelmed by Elder Paisios

I'm reading the Life of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Heiromonk Issak.  I must confess that my reaction is mixed. I do find some of story of his life very inspiring and enlightening--although it must be scaled down quite a bit before I can apply it to my life.  Nonetheless, it is particularly inspiring to see the joy of his ascetic endeavour and his humility, obedience and service to others. Joy is key for me. I am always wary of asceticism that produces the same effect on a personality as a ten-year prison sentence. I am also inspired by the Elder's love and care for everyone--even Muslims--manifest during his building of the Stomio Monastery and in his love for the Bedouin children near Mt. Sinai.

However, I am also overwhelmed by Elder Paisios' extreme asceticism--overwhelmed almost to the point of depression. Actually, I had to put the book down at the part where he returns to Mt. Athos after his time at St. Catherine's on Mt. Sinai. I was starting to feel depressed, wondering, "Am I a Christian at all?"

Thank God, a little yard work with the Jesus Prayer brought peace to my heart and some clarity to my thoughts. 

The first thing I have to accept is that I am not Elder Paisios. Nowhere close. I did not receive the same gifts nor the same calling. I must strive to be faithful with what I have been given and with the struggles that have been given to me. Of course I cannot imagine living as Elder Paisios did. God has not given me that calling.  

One of the stories from the Elder's time building the monastery of Stomio helped me on this point. The Elder had been rather harsh with a woman "who had taken a bad direction in life," and although she was visiting the monastery regularly, she had been misbehaving in town. Shortly after he "gave her a bad scolding, and she left crying," Elder Paisios felt his "whole body burning with a strong carnal sensation." This warfare was so strong that even physical pain could not distract him from it, and it got worse by the hour. Finally it was so strong that he left the monastery and went into the forest hoping to be eaten by bears rather than give in to this carnal temptation that was overwhelming him. Collapsing on the path from exhaustion, crying out to God for help and trying desperately to find the cause for the trial or come up with some explanation, the Elder remembered the woman he had rebuked harshly.

"'My God,'" the Elder thought,"'if she [has] felt carnal warfare like this, how could the poor woman take it?' That was it! I [the Elder] repented for my strict attitude toward her and asked forgiveness from God, and right away I felt like I had just gotten out of a cold bath."

While a monk may experience severe trials in his or her monastic asceticism, people in the world also have ascetic trials of their own. A semantron may wake the monk early every morning for prayer, but at least it is at the same time every morning. A crying baby does the same thing with much less regularity.  

That is not to say that the trials are the same, nor to deny that the monastic life is indeed a higher--but not necessarily a better--life than marriage and family. Each has its own trials; each has its own rewards. I imagine that a successful monk probably hears and sees and knows God in ways more intense and clear than a pious layperson or married priest. But that doesn't mean that God loves those in the world less. Not at all. Rather the differences in life and calling are manifestations of the various functions of the One Body of Christ.  All of Christ is saved, the whole body: the toes and the nose, the brain, the heart and the back of the knees.

So I think now I can go back and finish the Life of St. Paisios. He is truly close to the heart in the Body of Christ, while I am part of a toenail on the left foot. That's OK. With joy I can be inspired by Elder Paisios' joy and love for God. I can look for little ways I too can love God more where I am, doing what God has called me to do, where I am right now. And there is peace in that. And joy too. I like being a toenail.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


How do we cultivate a sensitivity to the spiritual reality that pervades everything?  Mother Victoria, the Abbess of St. Barbara Monastery, said once that it is important to remain in the Church after the Divine Liturgy paying attention to the Angels' presence--I think she actually said, "listening to the Angels' wings," but I can't remember the exact phrase.  This is important, she said, because in learning to pay attention to the present spiritual reality in the Divine Liturgy, we learn how to notice and attend to the divine presence in the rest of our lives.

Another important way to develop spiritual sensitivity is to cultivate reverence.  To be reverent is to respond to holy things as if they really are holy.  I often don't do this.  I often, for example, come into church in a hurry.  I often walk into a room with an icon and do not even in the slightest way reverence the icon.  Sometimes I am quite irreverent in the presence of things that have been liturgically set apart as holy.  If I can be irreverent even before what is obviously holy, how do I expect ever to become sensitive enough to reverence God's holy presence in my brother and sister and even yet in all creation?

Elder Paisios said that "reverence is the greatest virtue because it attracts the Grace of God."  Reverence is  piety from the heart.  It involves both an inner attention to what is venerable and appropriate outward actions (piety).  Obviously, outward actions completely void of any inner attention--or the desire for inner attention--are empty, although not necessary completely meaningless.  This is true because even the empty, almost robotic performance of a pious actions still contains the seeds, or preserves the form into which life and attention can be poured. Nevertheless, empty piety is not good for our souls.  Reverence, however, piety from the heart, is very good for our souls--"it attracts the Grace of God."

It is not difficult to cultivate reverence, just as it is not difficult to cultivate a garden.  If you try to cultivate the whole garden at once, you will wear yourself out and perhaps give up all together, discouraged by the enormity of the task.  However, if you cultivate a small corner of the garden, then slowly, slowly, your garden will come alive.  This is the way it is with the cultivation of virtue generally, and especially with the cultivation of reverence.  Begin small.  Begin by paying attention to the obvious.  Come into the Church slowly, prayerfully, making the sign of the cross properly.  Notice the icons that are in a room.  Greet them if you can; or if that is not practical, at least acknowledge their presence in your heart.

And perhaps most importantly, when you are preparing to receive the Divine Mysteries, cultivate faith and longing.  And if your faith is weak and your heart scattered, then sincerely want to cultivate faith and longing.  Especially parents of young children find their attention almost completely consumed by their children when they are in Church.  This is their prayer, their offering; and this too draws the Grace of the Holy Spirit--not only to them, but more importantly to their children.  As their children grow, the parents teaching them piety by their example, that piety grows into reverence as the children see and sense in their hearts their parents' true reverence.

But again, it starts with the small things: reverently respecting the icons in your house, attending Church with a sense of awe, with a sense that you are coming near to something holy.  When we cultivate even in little ways a reverent attitude to what is holy, we slowly come to know and experience the holiness of other places, people and objects.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Slavery to Needs

In Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamozov, Alyosha remembers the final speech of the Starets Zosima.  One small part of that remembrance is a reflection on freedom. What does it mean to be free--or what has our culture taught us it means?

Keeping in mind that this novel was written in 1880 Russia, the comments about the human condition still ring true. For example, the Starets says that freedom according to the "world" is the right to satisfy one's needs, and the right to multiply those needs. That is, our culture teaches us that every person has the right to do what she wants--so long as it doesn't too severely limit someone else's right to do what he wants. (Of course, not even this is quite right; for, like in George Orwell's Animal Farm, some animals are more equal than others. If you have the resources to sue your neighbour or you are politically connected in a way your neighbour isn't, then you are more equal. But this is a different matter altogether). The world teaches us that we are basically free and encourages us everywhere to satisfy our needs.

But there is a funny thing about needs. They continue to multiply.  People engender in themselves, according to the Starets, "a multitude of pointless and foolish desires, habits, and incongruous stratagems. Their lives are motivated only by mutual envy, sensuality and ostentation." Even the effort invested in serving the causes of "brotherly love and human harmony," or save trees or bunny rabbits or the polar icecap are very often (but not always) just an attempt to satisfy another need. Needs multiply as you satisfy them. A hungry man needs only his next meal. A satisfied man needs a cigarette. 

We become accustomed to satisfying the needs that we say we have. Satisfying them becomes habit, and habit looks a great deal like slavery. Is a slave free? Just because I can stop a behaviour "if I wanted to," does not make me free because I am a slave to my desire--I don't want to stop.

Christian asceticism is about freedom. It is training in saying no. It is the beginning of freedom. Someone who has developed the habit of saying no to himself can easily say yes to his neighbor. The ascetic is free to love; the needy, at best, merely negotiates.

Honestly, I am very uncomfortable writing these words. I am no ascetic. I have only played around the edges of self-denial. These words function as a mirror to me, revealing my self-induced neediness. I don't think there is much I can do about it, except confess it. I can't transform myself--I know, I've tried.

I can, however, look into the Face of my Father, like a child caught with her hand in the jelly jar, with jelly smeared all over her face and hair. I can say I'm sorry. I can ask for help. I can at least do a little; I can say no to myself in some small ways, knowing profoundly how little I really deny myself.  

One thing is certain. I do not want to run and hide. I do not want to deny my selfishness--the bit of it that I am aware of. I want--I really, really need--to entrust myself to my loving Father who will pick me up from my messy jelly puddle, scrub me clean (even though it sometimes hurts a little getting the jelly out of my hair), and patiently teach me how to eat only a little jelly with my toast.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Words and Arguments and The Heart

Recently I had a conversation with a catechumen who told me that a relative of hers was offended that the Orthodox Church taught that he and other devout Christians outside the Orthodox Church were not saved.  She explained to her relative that, on the contrary, that was not what the Orthodox Church teaches.  However, the relative said that if the Orthodox Church claims to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and all who are saved are in the Church, then those who are not in the Orthodox Church are not saved.  No words to the contrary could dislodge the relative's firm faith in his syllogism.

My catechumen didn't know what to do with this.  After reflecting on the matter, I suggested that the next time she has a similar conversation with her relative, she might suggest that he consider the possibility that what he would mean if he (or his church group) were to say these words may not be what the Orthodox Church means when it says them.  

Words, especially theological words, have different meanings in different contexts.  This is why argument is futile.  

The Desert Fathers very seldom argued.  True, some great hierarchs and apologists did argue.  It seems that whenever words will be used, a certain amount of argument is unavoidable.  However, very few of us are great hierarchs or real Christian philosophers (the category of "apologist" is not generally used in the Orthodox Church--the second century apologist Justin is known in the Orthodox Church as Justin the Philosopher and Martyr).  Most of us argue not because we must, but because we are disturbed.

It is a disturbed heart and mind that compels us to argue.  When we are not at peace, when the other speaks words that disturb our peace, we feel compelled to defend our position, our faith, our barely-held-together construct that lets us feel as though we finally have things pretty much figured out.  And herein lies our problem.

Our Christian peace cannot lie in a construct or idea or rational understanding.  If anything that can be said can disturb our peace, it is because our peace is not rooted in the knowledge of Christ in our hearts.  Attending to our hearts is no easy task in the world.  We have been trained to encounter everything with a rational mind, to form mental constructs of reality, to dissect, to analyze and to categorize.  Learning to encounter the world with the heart is a life-long discipleship.  Learning to attend to the peace "that passes all understanding" is the very Christian labor of our lives.

I must confess that I only experience brief moments of attention in my heart.  Most of the time, like most of you, my mind is scattered and my heart is left to be the dwelling place of whatever happens to be passing through my mind--thoughts, feelings, emotions.  However, I have come to know that attention in the heart is both a skill that one acquires and a gift of Grace (mostly a gift of Grace).  

When I am at peace in my heart, my mind attending to the Jesus Prayer or some beautiful reflection or just feeling the piercing pain of love, then words do not bother me.  I am aware of the weakness of words, my own and those used by the other.  When I am at peace, there is no need to argue; for my confidence is in the God of peace whose presence dissolves all intellectual knots, personal problems and apparent contradictions.

"In peace, let us pray to the Lord."  This is the continual advice, command really, of the Church.  It is good to spend our life learning how to do it.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Judgement As A Mirror and The Tears of Repentance

"Abba Macarius said..."  The Judgement on the last day will be like looking into a mirror. Just as mirrors on earth do not lie--unless they are bent and made to lie--the mirror that we will look into on the day of Judgement will tell us who we really are, what we have really done, and how it really effected those around us. This will be the judgement: the truth, reality.

Even now, however, God has not left us without mirrors. There is the mirror of our own conscience. There is the mirror of the word of a friend, or an enemy, or anyone who might tell us the truth about ourselves--truths we would rather not hear. The Bible is a mirror, so is the Liturgy of the Church, and many of the writings of holy men and women. God has not left us without some testimony, some ways to see ourselves as we really are.

St. Macarius says that when you see yourself in a mirror, words cannot help you. But you can weep. St. Macaruis wept a lot. I don't weep very much. I can't even weep over my lack of tears.

Jesus wept over Lazarus, the sin and result of sin of all mankind.  The least I could do is weep a little over my inability to escape sinful habits and cycles and reactions that are common for me.

I think I  spend a lot of mental energy, mental words, justifying myself. I tell myself that something or another is my right. I tell myself that what I want to do isn't that bad. I explain the pain of others by saying that it is their own fault. I put a lot of mental energy into justifying myself. I should just weep. But even tears are a gift from God.

It is a gift to see yourself as you are. It is a gift to know the truth about yourself, and to weep gentle tears at your impotency. Yet, Abba Macarius also tells us that this same Jesus who weeps for Lazarus, bound and dead, helpless in the tomb, this same Jesus calls our name. This same Jesus exposes the stench, heals its source, and leads us out of our tombs--slowly, awkwardly, pealing off one strip at a time the binding clothes of death.

"....Let us draw near to Him through prayer and holy tears so He will have pity on us and raise our souls from the death of sin that we may live by His mercy."

Thursday, May 03, 2012

More From St. Macarius The Spiritbearer

"It was said about Abba Macarius..."  This is how most of the sayings about Abba Macarius begin. One saying is about a time when God spoke to him and said that he had not yet reached the level of spiritual maturity that two laywomen in a nearby town had reached.

Early the next morning, Abba Macarius left his cell to walk to the town. Led by an angel, Abba Macarius  found the house and knocked on the door. The two women opened the door; and when they figured out who was standing there, they made a prostration and asked for his blessing. The old man explained to them why he had come and asked them to reveal to him their way of life so that he might benefit from it.  

Really, we have to stop here and make a few comments. Abba Macarius was a very famous ascetic and holy man. This is why the two women bowed before him and asked his blessing.  He was the sort of man whose name weaker brothers would drop to make themselves seem important: "The last time I saw Abba Mararius I heard him say...."  Here was the man of God standing on the door step of these two women's home asking to know how they lived their lives. No wonder they respond, "Why do you inquire about the way of life of those who are defiled?"  Abba Macarius asks their forgiveness, but insists that they tell him how they live, "for it is God who has sent me."

Now the women are really shaken.  The text says, "They became fearful and revealed everything to him."

These two women were unrelated, but together had decided to leave their husbands and begin a life of virginity and prayer (in a monastery, apparently).  However, their husbands would not allow it.  So the two women agreed that for the rest of their lives they would never speak of anything worldly, but would direct their thoughts to God and the saints at all times devoting themselves unceasingly to "prayers and fastings and acts of charity." The story doesn't tell us what happened to their husbands.  We don't know if they are sharing the house as two married couples, or if the husbands live in different houses or if the husbands have died or left them. We don't know.

What we know, what the women tell us, is that for fifteen years "we do not recall that we have ever quarrelled with one another or that one of us has ever said an idle word to her companion. On the contrary, we are always at peace and of one mind."

Hearing this, Abba Macarius says, "Truly, it is not the name 'monk' or 'layperson' or 'wife and husband' but an upright disposition that God seeks, and he give his Holy Spirit to all of these people."  

"And after the old man had profited from meeting the two women, he returned to his cell... saying, 'I have not been at peace with my brothers like these lay women have with one another.'" And here the saying ends.

According to the teaching of the Church and this particular saying from Abba Macarius, holiness is not the result of a particular calling or mode of life. Monks can be saints, and monks can be wicked.  Married people can be holy, and they can be selfish and manipulative. Each of us in whatever condition we find ourselves in may begin RIGHT NOW to devote ourselves completely to God.  We can direct our thoughts to God at all times and just not speak about worldly things. We can not quarrel. We can say prayers as we are able, fast as we are able, and do acts of charity as we are able. We don't have to be something else somewhere else to begin to be holy.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Peace In Seeing The Other's Face

One of the jokes in my house is that I am always half way through a dozen books at a time. By the Grace of God, sometimes I actually finish a book. Somehow the books in the pile slowly change.

One of the books I am half way through is St. Macarius The Spiritbearer: Coptic Texts Relating to Saint Macarius the Great. One of the stories that is told of St. Macarius is about a conversation he has with a departed person while speaking to the departed person's skull. St. Mararius and the skull talk about the experience of the departed person in the afterlife. Here's part of the conversation:

   The old man [St. Macarius] said to him,  "Are you at peace, or do you suffer?"
   The skull said to him, "I am being punished."
   The old man said to him, "What sort of punishment is it?"
   The skull said to him, "Just as the sky is high over the earth, so too is there a river of fire boiling over our heads and underneath us, lapping over our feet.  We stand in the middle, unable to look at one another because our backs are joined to each other.  But at the moment when someone offers a great supplication for us, we gain a little peace."
   The old man said to him, "What is this peace?"
   The skull said to him, "For a blink of an eye we see each other's faces."

And this is peace: to see each other's faces.  

When we hear this story, our culturally conditioned concepts of hell lead us to focus almost exclusively on the river of fire boiling overhead and lapping at their feet.  We imagine that this is the torment, for to have fire over our head and lapping our feet would be very painful--or so we imagine. But remember, this is a dead person. The fire lapping their feet does not burn them--they have no body. St. Macarius is holding the fellow's skull and it is not burning.  

I don't think the fire is the punishment. I think the fire above and below refer to a situation of being trapped and unable to escape their condition. The punishment is not the fire, but it is that they cannot look at one another. Notice that when someone prays for them, they experience a little peace. What is this peace. Does the fire go away or become cooler?  No. The peace is to see, for the blink of an eye, the face of others.

Peace is to see another's face. Peace is to know and relate to others as persons, not as parts or as functionaries. Perhaps the punishment that the skull describes is a punishment many of us spend our lifetime choosing. It is a punishment we choose every time we do not let the humanity of the people around us touch us. It is a punishment we choose every time we turn our face away, when we don't want to see or be seen, when we don't want to encounter the other--except as tool, or part, or functionary. We choose not to look at the other's face, and so we enter eternity back to back, tormented, unable to touch or be touched by the humanity of our neighbor.  I think this is the punishment that the skull describes to St. Macarius, the torment of hell.