Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why Not Me?

In the hour in which we are tempted we must be patient and pray.
Elder Amphilochios

When it comes right down to it, we don't like being patient because patience requires that we continue to suffer. We don't like suffering. We want the suffering to end as soon as possible. In fact, much of the power of temptation is in that it seems to promise an end to our suffering--at a cost. But we are not only assailed by temptation when we are suffering.

The insidious way of the evil one is to use our experience, whatever it is, to separate us from Christ. Even in the Garden of Paradise, the evil one suggests to Eve that greater delights were to be had. A seed, a word of doubt is planted in her mind concerning the love and care of God: "God's holding out on you. God has forbidden something because He doesn't want you to have some good things." These and similar thoughts the serpent whispers into Eve's ears. Even in Paradise, even in a world with nothing but good, the evil one uses even the good, the desire for good, to deceive and separate the creature from the loving Creator.

And so either from the left or from the right, either with the promise of greater pleasure or of less pain, temptation comes to us. It comes to us as a shortcut. It comes to us with a lie, a lie that God does not really love us, a lie that "it" won't hurt anyone, a lie that we'll finally get what we want--we'll get what God has been holding from us.  

But just as Eve got what she thought she wanted--the knowledge of good and evil--we too get in one way or another what we want only to find out that it wasn't really what we wanted at all, and that the hidden costs are excruciating. But not to worry. There is always another lie....

The way of the Cross is the remedy to temptation. The way of the Cross is the way of patience and humility: patience in suffering and humility in blessing. I heard Mother Victoria once say in response to a question that contained the phrase, why me: "Why not me?" If there is sickness in the world, why shouldn't I be sick too? If there is tragedy in the world, why shouldn't I be touched by tragedy too? If there is poverty in the world, why shouldn't I be poor too? If there is confusion and frustration in the world, why shouldn't I be confused and frustrated too? Am I better than everyone else? Does God love me more?   

Asking ourselves the question,"why not me?" helps us find patience in suffering. "Why not me?" defuses many of the lies and untangles many of the mental webs of the evil one. This attitude helps us endure--knowing that we are not alone in the suffering common to all mankind. The "why not me?" attitude helps us entrust ourselves to God who really does "work all things for good," even when it doesn't feel very good at the moment. And "why not me?" also diminishes the importance of our suffering in our own eyes. It keeps our suffering from becoming all-consuming. It helps us look past the pain and to see more than the sorrow. It removes us and our troubles from the centre of our universe.  

Asking "why not me?" also creates humility. When things are going our way, when the bills are paid and the kids are healthy; then, "why not me?" helps us hold everything loosely. It reminds us that nothing this side of grave is permanent. It gives us compassion. The suffering of my neighbor could have been mine, and indeed may yet be mine before the end. It makes us generous--giving to those who are in need knowing that we too may someday be in need. And this humility that comes from a "why not me?" attitude guards us from thinking we deserve more than we have, thus blunting the temptation of the Garden of Eden to deny God by reaching out to take what God has not given us.

Finally, and this can only be confirmed by experience, having embraced a "why not me?" attitude toward life, all of life--the good, the bad, the ups, the downs--becomes much more peaceful, meaningful and even enjoyable.  Peaceful because I am not fretting, meaningful because I am not alone, and enjoyable because I can now see beyond myself. The lows are not nearly so low. The highs are just a different kind of Cross, a cross with a pillow perhaps; but still just a particular context in which to give your life away.  

In the hour in which we are tempted we must be patient and pray.  Temptation is a clever craftsman.  He is able to make small things loom large.  Temptation disquiets, saddens, and creates external battles. He knows many arts.  He brings man to doubt.  For this reason we have many shipwrecks.  When we are beset by temptations, that's when the grace of God comes.  When one undergoes temptation, he recognizes his weakness, is humbled and attracts the grace of God.  Don't let the winds of temptation affect you.  They can't do you any harm.  [i.e. You can only harm yourself.]
Elder Amphilochios in Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece

Monday, November 26, 2012

Forgetting That I'm Mostly Blind

"[Death] took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen."
St. John Chrysostom Pascha Homily

One of my perennial battles with myself has its root in the fact that I am mostly blind. I'm not talking about physical blindness, but about the inability to see what is really going on in my life and in the lives of those around me. I do see some things, but the problem is that I forget that I don't see a great deal more. I see the tip and think I understand the whole iceberg.

Blindness, actually, is not really the problem either.  Jesus said to the Pharisees, when they asked if He thought they were blind, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now that you say, 'we see,' your sin remains."  I say I see, and that's my problem. I think I really do know what's going on, what the problem is and how to fix it. "Ah! If only they would just listen to me." And what makes this so tricky is the fact that I probably do see some of what the problem is and some of what might help to fix it. But like arrogant Death, I too so easily gobble up what I see only to crumble before what I had not seen. I can blow my horn and confidently affirm the tip that I see, all the while missing the great mass of the issue that I do not see.

This is one reason why gentleness is so important--gentleness with yourself (to a lesser degree) and gentleness with others (to a greater degree). In spite of our blindness we do have to speak, we have to act, make judgements and live in the world. We have to interact with and try to help and encourage those around us. Some people look to the sometimes harsh words and manner of Jesus when he speaks to the Pharisees as a model. I don't think that is a very good idea. Jesus sees everything. We don't. 

Still we should speak. When it is appropriate to do so, we must say what we see. But regardless of what we see, we should speak gently and compassionately, keeping in mind that there is much more that we do not see.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The light of the Light of Christ

Water is life. Too much water is death.  

Gregory of Nyssa likens the distractions of life to a rushing torrent uprooting trees and pushing boulders out of its way. A huge part of the struggle of those living in the world is to learn not to let the water--life with all of its "demandments": obligations, expectations and responsibilities--rush too violently into their souls. Otherwise, the Tree of Life and the Rock of our Salvation may seem to be swept away in the torrent.

This is one of the big draws of the monastic life according to St. Gregory. The flow of life is regulated (in a healthy monastic context) so that there is enough of a flow of the messiness of life for virtues to grow, but not so much that it threatens to wash away the inner garden.  

Those of us in the world, however, have very little protection from the deluges of life. And it seems that the more prosperous one is in the world, the more rushing and gushing the demandments of life are. This is probably one of the reasons why it is so hard for a rich person to be saved, why it is so hard for just about anyone who is doing OK in the world to be saved (for there are many ways in which a person can be rich--money is just one of them). The rich attend to the screams of the urgent and have no attention left for the whispers of the important. The rich are driven by the needs of the immediate and have no energy left to walk in the garden of the eternal.

And yet we are not without hope. I asked someone recently how she was doing and she said to me,"I'm sad, confused and a little hopeful." That sums things up pretty well, I think. Life in a fallen world is nothing less than sad and confusing. However, there is hope. There is light in the darkness. When His disciples asked Jesus, "Who then can be saved?" after Jesus had said how hard it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus answered, "With human beings this is impossible, but with God nothing is impossible."

God gives miracles to those who ask, to those who seek, to those who knock. God gives miracles. Occasionally, the miracle is outward: a sudden change of circumstances or health or relationships. But most often the miracle is inward, and always the miracle is for salvation: to change the heart and the mind. Our salvation is to become like Jesus. So even a wealthy person--through a miracle of the Holy Spirit--can learn to be generous, which is like Jesus who gave everything. And even a well educated person--through a miracle of the Holy Spirit--can learn to be humble, which is like Jesus who humbled Himself even to death. And even a gifted leader--through a miracle of the Holy Spirit--can learn to serve the least of all, which is like Jesus who came not to be served but to serve.

But miracles like these do not happen without our asking for them. And generally we do not ask, not really ask, until we are certain of our need, of our total inability to save ourselves (much less those we love). And nothing convinces us that there is no hope except in God so well as this sad and confusing fallen world. It teaches us to cry out, to cry out in desperation, to the God for whom nothing is impossible. And the God for whom nothing is impossible touches our hearts, changes our minds (i.e. grants repentance), gives us a step, an act, or a small obedience that in spite of the flood begins to change our souls. It is as though we are raised somehow a little above the flood. The terrible flood rages by--"a thousand may fall at my right hand"--but the Tree of Life and the Rock of Salvation remain firm in our hearts.

Very few of us ever actually see the Uncreated Light of God, but everyone can see the effects of that Light. It is the light of the Light, the light that shines in the darkness. It is peace in the midst of the storm. It is gentleness in the face of rage. It is patience (suffering a long time) or generosity or kindness when others think we're crazy. It is the light of the Light of Christ shining in our hearts.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

On Virginity and Marriage

St. Gregory of Nyssa in his work, "On Virginity," in an early section of the work, describes the troubles of married life as a means of encouraging his readers not to idealize marriage, but to understand the evils that accompany the good.  He laments, "If only before experience comes, the results of experience could be learnt."

St. Gregory of Nyssa begins this section by conceding the joys of the best possible marriage: "...competent means, suitable ages, the flower and prime of life, deep affection, the very best that each can think of the other, that sweet rivalry of each wishing to surpass the other in loving...."  St. Gregory himself was a married man.  As he describes the highs and lows of the best possible marriage, you easily get the sense that this is his own experience.  He has known the best of what marriage offers...and he knows the distraction, anxiety, sorrow and sadness that must accompany even the best of marriages.

And then there is the reality that, by definition, few marriages are the very best.  "If you wish to know all of the trials of married life," St. Gregory advises those who are not yet married, "ask the women who actually know it."  Wise Gregory recognizes that, generally speaking, women, more than men, experience the most intense suffering in marriage.  I am not speaking here of merely the physical pain and constriction of freedoms that comes with bearing and raising children.  I am referring to the anxiety and tears associated with beloved children going their own ways and a spouse who fails to provide for, perhaps even to notice, her own emotional and perhaps even social and physical needs.  Men feel these things too; but I think women feel them more intensely.

Yet in spite of this reality, St. Gregory concedes, it is not ignorance of these sufferings that leads most people to choose the married life.  It is rather a kind of blindness, an unwillingness to believe that I will have to endure what my parents or relatives or acquaintances have endured.  An immaturity or unwillingness to believe that I am my parent's child, that my potential spouse is the offspring of his or her parents and that we all human beings alike suffer from similar passions and delusions.  And so we are surprised when the honeymoon ends, when our spouse is unresponsive, when we have to let go of our dreams for the sake of our family, for the sake of reality.

This reality, however, is also our salvation.  The seed of new life is in the fruit that we eat.  It is the very struggle to love, to love as Christ loved, to love unrequited--or at least not well requited--that makes us like Christ, that becomes the arena in which our martyrdom saves our souls and the souls of those we love: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."

Now to be clear, this is not an exhortation to remain in a dangerous relationship.  There is enough martyrdom in living as a single mother without also being beaten regularly by a drunken husband.  We are not talking about a legal obligation to enable another's wickedness.  No, abuse is not to be endured; but dissatisfaction is not the same as abuse. It is this continued love in the face of dissatisfaction that produces godliness.  It is a love that finds no other help except in God--God and His Mother and His Saints.  Here the Light of Christ shines brightly.

Some of you, those who are young, may be wondering why I present such a dismal view of married life. Is it because I have had a terrible marriage? Actually, no. After 33 years, I can say that Bonnie and I have (so far) beaten the odds. But this has not happened by accident. Love is work. All of life is work, the work of becoming like Jesus. And that's a good work. However, it is probably easier, more "glorious," as St. Gregory would say, to do this work as a virgin and in a monastery. That's the point of St. Gregory's work on virginity.  

Certainly, monastic life has its trials and tribulations too. And there can be failed monasteries just as there can be failed marriages. We are all broken human beings. And yet considering everything, if one can choose it, virginity is a higher path, a more sure (but not certain) path to Christlikeness. This is why St. Gregory recommends it. And yet married people need not despair. St. Gregory himself is married. Marriage is also a path to holiness. It is just a bumpier path.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Wisdom of Sirach: Praying With Our Hands

The Wisdom of Sirach is much like the book of Proverbs. It is a rambling book of wisdom that should probably be read carefully at least once every decade of one's life. The wisdom of the book becomes more profound as your experience in life increases. However, the world of Sirach was very different from our world.  

An example of this different world, and an actual source of spiritual trouble for many people today, is that very few of us nowadays make our living with our hands. Very few of us practice a craft. Wise Sirach tells us that builders, blacksmiths, and potters pray with their hands: "Their prayer is in the practice of their craft" (38:34). He particularly points out that a source of this prayer is the attention they pay to their craft, the builder who is "keeping watch to perfect his work" or the blacksmith who "inclines his ear to the sound of the hammer and [whose] eyes are focused on the...object...and keeps watch to perfect its detail" (38: 27, 28).

But many of us today have no craft--not even as a hobby. I think the Wisdom of Sirach, which is the wisdom of the Church, would teach us to find a craft, to find something to do with our hands, something that requires attention and practice to acquire skill, something that produces a real thing.

The problem with sales, financial services, media, church work or scholarship, and just about anything that has to do with computing--where many of us make our living--is that although the work requires attention, it creates nothing real, or at least nothing very real and certainly nothing that is very lasting. We can spend our life's energy manipulating data and moving merchandise and never really touch or change what we are giving all of our attention to. And we who spend so much of our attention on moving and manipulating nothing very real, if we are going to experience the kind of prayer that Sirach speaks of, we need to plant a garden, or build a bathroom, or paint a picture or knit a sweater. We need to have a craft, even as a hobby. We need it as part of our salvation. We need it to learn how to pray.

There are many also who labour in serving others, in medicine, in teaching, in other various ways. These, it seems to me, also pray in their work in as much as they attend to their "masters" as to the Lord. That is, in as much as a doctor or teacher or a waitress serves others, the other is his or her master. The master of the teacher is the student. The master of the doctor is the patient. "He who is first shall be last."  "The greatest shall be servant of all." How can that be?  It can be because Jesus is both the Lord of all and the Servant of all. Laying aside His glory as God, Jesus came to all human beings as their Servant. Christians are empowered to imitate Christ. Nevertheless, it seems very few doctors look to their patients as masters or teachers to their students as masters--in this sense a waitress is in an easier position to find prayer in her work than a professor in that it is probably easier for a waitress to see her clients as Christ, the Master, than it is for a professor or doctor or politician to do the same.  

But serving others as master is a skill we can grow in. Like the blacksmith who must learn through attention and repeated encounters of hammer and steel how to form something useful; so we who serve others can grow in the ability to see Christ in our patients, in our students, in our customers. If we attend to this, if we look for Christ in the weak, sick, unruly and impatient faces of those we serve, we like the potter or the builder may too be praying in our work.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Young People and The Evolution Question

Often when I speak to young people, as I did last weekend, I am asked about evolution. The rhetoric of the culture wars has given many people the impression that one must either believe in creation or evolution. This is of course a false dilemma.  I am not, however, suggesting that the appropriate alternative to the either/or of this false dilemma (and of most false dilemmas) is both/and. Nor am I suggesting that a hybrid evolutionary-creationism is the answer either. [What I do suggest follows below, but I think I had to say that now so that some of my dear readers may more easily attend to what I actually do say.] And what unfortunately makes this struggle between evolution and creation even more problematic for young people is that the creationism that is most often presented to them as an alternative to evolution carries the same materialistic and causal assumptions of the evolutionary scientists, except with a God component.  

To my untrained eye (I am no scientist), this God-created-the-world-in-six-literal-days-about-ten-thousand-years-ago scenario offers little significantly different from the deist/atheist/agnostic evolutionary scenario. In both cases, God is not everywhere present and filling all things. Neither view, in my opinion, presents a Christian understanding, and certainly not an Orthodox Christian understanding of the state of things--how things came to be and why they are the way they are.  

Given this messy context and the heightened anxiety that often accompanies the question, what I have generally told young people when they ask the evolution question is that ancient spiritual texts (even fully inspired ones) are just as inappropriate as foundations for science as scientific theories are inappropriate foundations for theological speculation. We're talking about apples and oranges here. Apples and apes, really.

Fr. Aleis Trader in his book Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck's Cognitive Therapy makes a helpful observation as he tries to lay out the metaphysical assumptions underlying modern psychology. Commenting on attempts by Orthodox Christians to reconcile evolutionary theory with the account of Genesis, which he charitably says "have not been greeted by unanimous approval," Fr. Aleis gets to the root of the matter. He says that Genesis and evolutionary theory cannot be reconciled because "evolutionary theory is more than a description of a process and Orthodox theology of creation is more than a statement about causation." And it is this something more that cannot be ignored without making both what neither is.

Evolutionary theory is not merely the description of a process--a description that in some contexts may even be useful--it is also a set of metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality. Therefore, for Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, to oppose evolutionary theory as though its fundamental problem were that it doesn't get the primordial facts straight, is truly a travesty. It is the ultimate picking of gnats out of the camel stew. Similarly, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective, Genesis is about much, much more than causation. Even granting the most literalistic interpretation of Genesis, to separate that God created a certain way from what that creation tells us about the nature of God and of the creation itself and of God's intimate relationship with His creation is certainly a far greater travesty.  

Nevertheless, and this seems to be the point of chapters one and two of Fr. Alesis' book, it is still possible for scientists and Orthodox Christians committed to a patristic understanding of God, man and the cosmos to have a conversation--even to learn from each other. However, before genuine dialog can take place, the nature of each worldview must be made explicit--and the rhetoric must be toned way down.

I am afraid, however, that for most Orthodox Christian young people caught up in a world of half answers to ill-formed questions, of emotionally charged rhetoric, and of hidden assumptions and intentional ignorance (on all sides), meaningful engagement with science without wounding their Orthodox Christian conscience is a very tricky matter. Many great Orthodox Christians have also been great scientists (Pavel Florensky comes immediately to mind). It is certainly possible for a devout Orthodox Christian to become an excellent scientist: I personally know a few. However, it requires at least the following things: that the metaphysical assumptions of science be made explicit, and that Christian truth not be reduced to mere measurable facts. It also requires that young people studying science know their faith and nurture their relationship with God with as much zeal as they pursue their scientific study. But is this not also the case for everyone in any field?  

**NOTE**  Some of you may have noticed that I accidentally deleted some comments.  I was cleaning out spam and somehow deleted several legitimate comments.  I tried to get them back, but I couldn't figure out how.  Sorry.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Know Thyself

Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness....
St. Isaac the Syrian

The ancient Greek saying, "know thyself," has been attributed to at least twelve ancient authors. In its original sense, learning to know oneself was a spiritual odyssey leading to the knowledge of God. Unfortunately, nowadays "know thyself" is often reduced, perhaps for the sake of building self esteem, to "know what thou art good at," or "know thy gift," or in a religious context, "know thy ministry." It seems that the most important thing nowadays is that everyone feel that they are important, that they are good at something; and that this feeling of confidence and importance is what makes human beings healthy.

The Orthodox Church fathers and mothers, however, see things very differently. They see self esteem as the problem, not the solution. They consider that so long as one has high self esteem, one can not really begin to experience humility, which is the chief attribute of God--at least it is the chief attribute of God demonstrated in Christ's condescension to become human--and it is the beginning or foundation of the ladder of virtues leading to Christlikeness.

According to St. Isaac the Syrian, "so long as the heart is not humbled, it cannot cease from wandering." And this wandering of the heart is, in my experience, the most common cause of wandering away from God--in my thoughts and in my actions. My heart wanders, so my mind wanders; and because my mind wanders I find myself doing and saying things that offend my neighbors and loved ones and put a kind of wall between my conscience and God. God seems far away, not because God has moved, but because I in my mind and heart and actions have wandered away.

Knowing one's weakness, according to St. Isaac, leads one to pay attention, to be watchful. Because I know I am weak in a certain area (in that I quickly judge other people, for example), I become watchful. I know that I easily judge others, often before I realize that I am doing it, so I watch myself closely. And this careful watching of the self lest I fall into the same trap that I always fall into, St. Isaac says, "treasures up watchfulness" which delivers a person "from the laxity that dims knowledge [of self and of God]." In this patristic pattern, it is not the overcoming of weaknesses that helps us grow in our relationship with God and love of neighbor (although that is a gradual byproduct of growth in godliness). It is rather our increasing watchfulness as we become more and more aware of our weaknesses that makes us aware of the Grace of God in our life, increasing our experiential knowledge of God and love of neighbor.  

As a priest, I often find that some people are ashamed to come to confession because they have nothing to confess except what they always confess: "I'm still struggling to control my anger" or "I still battle with lustful thoughts" or "I still judge others quickly and harshly" and there are many other possible regular, besetting sins (BTW, I am not referring to anyone in particular; these are general categories and examples). It seems that we have been bitten by our culture's self-esteem bug. We think that the goal of life Christian life is to get to the place where we no longer know of any weaknesses. We wrongly think that the goal is to become strong, to come to the place where we know our strengths, our gifts, our ministries, and what we have to offer. We think the goal is to no longer be aware of any weaknesses. Such a state is death, not life. It is delusion, satanic delusion. Satan was the one who saw only his gifts, and becoming puffed up in pride thought they were his own. Seeing our weakness is our salvation.

When we read the lives of the saints we notice that the most holy are also the ones who know most deeply their sin, their weaknesses. St. Paul said, "When I am weak, then I am strong." It is in the deep knowledge of our weakness, of our utter dependence of God, that we really come to know God. It is the beginning of humility, which is the beginning of godly virtues. It is the narrow path, the door, of our salvation.  Truly blessed are the poor in spirit, those who know their weakness.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Spiritual Nearsightedness

The troparia to the Holy Trinity said in the Morning Prayers begins the third verse with these words: "Suddenly the Judge will come, and the deeds of each will be revealed."

The mirror in which we see God reflected and reflecting our deeds is only seen darkly before the Judge comes. (Please note that this same mirror is showing us God and showing us ourselves.) But in this life, we can only see darkly, then we will see face to face. This is the reason why, on the one hand, like St. Paul we cannot judge even ourselves (at least not very well) before the End when the Judge comes.  And, on the other hand, we are taught by the Church to have a constant cry of "Lord Have Mercy" on our lips and in our heart, because of all that we don't see and all that we choose not to see will be revealed.  

Because now we make judgements in such darkness, in a mirror twisted and dull, pot marked and cracked, we can easily see as just what we want to see as just and call distortion what we don't want to see as just. Or as has been often said, we find what we look for. Consequently too much introspection, especially without spiritual guidance, leads to delusion and depression or delusion and overweening arrogance. In our pride we think we should be able to fix ourselves up. But we are like a nearly blind person trying to paint a room: there is just too much we don't see.  

However, it is not as though we are completely blind. We see many of the big things. We see enough to repent, to have an idea of what is probably good and right, and we are pretty certain that some things in our lives are selfish and hurtful. We see enough to repent; yet we also see not enough to live in willful delusion. Reality is not forced on us. Even death can be a time when we refuse reality. Our culture has found a way of denying death by no longer having funerals, only "the celebration of a life."  But death is nevertheless the doorway into the heavenly reality. At death there is no denying reality: then we will see face to face. Then the deeds of each will be revealed.

And so we pray continually: Lord have mercy. Accepting that all thoughts and intentions and words and deeds will be revealed produces humility.  And this makes us more like Christ.  Knowing how poorly we see now, we show mercy to our nearsighted neighbours, knowing ourselves what it is to be nearsighted.  And this too makes us more like Christ.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Judging Ourselves

We will not be punished or condemned in the age to be because we have sinned, since we were given a mutable and unstable nature.  But we will be punished if, after sinning, we did not repent and turn from our evil ways to the Lord; for we have been given the power to repent, as well as the time in which to do so.  Only through repentance shall we receive God's mercy, and not its opposite, his passionate anger.  Not that God is angry with us; he is angry with evil.  Indeed, the Divine is beyond passion and vengefulness, though we speak of it as reflecting, like a mirror, our actions and dispositions, giving to each of us whatever we deserve.
St. Theogonostos, "On the Practice of the Virtues" sec. 47, Philokalia vol. 2

This little passage from the sayings of St. Theogonostos points out some of the tensions in an Orthodox Christian understanding of judgement in the age to come.  

Of importance is the fact that there is punishment or judgement, but it is not because we have sinned; rather it is because we have not repented.  And it should be noted that we may indeed speak of God's "passionate anger" with evil, never with any creature, but only with the perversion, which is what evil is: the twisting of what is good.  But even then, God is beyond passion.  When we speak of God's anger or of God's vengefulness, we are only reflecting ourselves.  Thus, one Orthodox way of thinking about the judgement of the age to come is to face ourselves as judge, or rather to see God as reflecting in a mirror our actions and dispositions, thus each of us receiving what we have given.

Such a view of the judgement of the age to come certainly rings true in the light of many of the sayings of Jesus: the parable of the rich man and Lazarus comes immediately to mind.  Sayings such as, "give and it will be given unto you" and "with the same measure you give it will be rendered unto you" and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" all these and similar words lend a certain ring of truth to St. Theogonostos' words.  

This may be one of the reasons why Orthodox Church fathers and mothers stress so often the importance of not judging others (after all, it was Jesus who said, "Judge not, lest you be judged," etc.).  Instead of judging others, which generally leads to some sort of condemnation of those we judge, it is better to seek and offer mercy.  We should look at everyone as we would want God to look at us on the Last Day.  It may indeed be that how we look at others today will be the mirror in which we will see God's judgement reflecting on us on the Last Day.

Monday, November 05, 2012

It's Good Not To Know Why

I tried more than once in my life to practice the Prayer of Jesus Christ.  I did not succeed.
Fr. George Calciu

I am working my way slowly through Father George Calciu: Interviews, Homilies and Talks. I was surprised when I ran across the statement above.  My surprise came from the fact that some of the things Fr. George does say about the Jesus Prayer earlier in the book proved to be very helpful and encouraging for me. He spoke of the meaning of breathing a certain way when saying the Prayer: Breathe in while mentally saying, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God"; and breathe out while saying "have mercy on me the sinner." This practice, he says, fills us with Christ with every breath and offers to God both our sin and our petition for mercy with every breath. I found this very encouraging (but I have not been able to practice it for more than a minute or two at a time).  

Fr. George also talks about how the Jesus Prayer saved him from insanity during interrogations and torture. He speaks of the Prayer being a shield for him that kept his mind in order during terrible ordeals. However, God did not give him Light (the uncreated Light of Mt. Tabor) through the Jesus prayer--neither did he ask for this Light. Fr. George says that in his attempts to practice the Jesus Prayer he would progress to a point of darkness--a darkness full of God--but a Darkness he did not have the courage to enter. And when he did "jump" to enter the Darkness, he found himself "at the beginning of the Prayer."  And so, Fr. George concludes, Christ had "censored" him from progressing any further in the Prayer.

It is not that Fr. George did not see with his physical eyes the Uncreated Light of Mt. Tabor. Twice while he was in prison he experiences this Light. The first time is during his first imprisonment when on Pascha morning he is filled with such joy that he says to his brutal guard, "Christ is risen!" And to his surprise his guard responds, "He is risen indeed." At that moment, Fr. George, "little by little" ,saw himself full of Light: "The board against the wall in my cell was shining like the sun; everything in my cell was full of Light. I cannot explain in words the happiness that invaded me then.... In a short time this Light disappeared, but the happiness lasted for many hours." And from that point on, his guard was a changed person and no longer beat prisoners.  

The second time Fr. George experiences the Uncreated Light in prison is after having survived for several weeks in a cell with two murderers who were instructed to kill him, but for for some unknown reason didn't. Fr. George gets up the courage one day to ask them to let him celebrate a Divine Liturgy in the cell; and they consent. "This is what happened: When I turned to them after receiving Communion, I saw them on their knees and surrounded by the Light.... God just opened my eyes to see this Light, and they were surrounded by it. I noticed that the whole cell was full of Light....This Light transformed their souls! Not my prayers or my serving at the Holy Liturgy.  God transformed their souls by pouring this Uncreated Light upon them. By this Light we were able to love one another, to pray and to feel that we had something in common.... I don't know if they realized the presence of the Light that I saw in the cell, but this Light operated in their souls and transformed them into my brothers. The Energy of Jesus Christ changed them from criminals into, perhaps, saints."

And so with all of the suffering and Grace manifest in his life, why doesn't Fr. George "succeed" in saying the Prayer? Fr. George doesn't know. I certainly don't know. God knows.

Not knowing is a good thing. It is good not to know why, and to be at peace not knowing. It is good not to know why our lives are one way and not another, and to be at peace not knowing. It is good not to know why God seems to be near us at some times and not at others, and to be at peace not knowing.

I am not Fr. George Calciu or Elder Porphyrios or Mother Gavrila or Fr. Arseny or Archimandrite Sophrony. I can read their lives and their words and be inspired, but I cannot be them. Their experiences will not save me: I must struggle with my experience--whatever it is or isn't. Their experiences may illumine mine somewhat, and their words may enlighten me somewhat, but I must encounter God and my sin and my place in the world myself. Not by myself. All of the Saints and Angels and my beloved Fathers and Mothers and Brothers and Sisters are with me. Nevertheless, they cannot live my life for me, nor can I live theirs. Only Christ has lived my life, and now I must live His--as me.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Unequal Distribution

[God] has, though, apportioned to His free and rational creatures unequally in order [1] that their understanding and their freedom [free choices] might be clearly seen; [2] that men might realize their dependence on one another; [3] and that they might, by their wise use of what God has lent them, work toward their own salvation and that of their brethren.
St. Nicholai Velimirovic, Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost.

Note that God has lent human beings all that they seem to possess.  Even the air we breathe.  Naked we come into the world, naked we leave; it is a gift from God always to remember this.

Jesus Driving Out The Money Managers

The cover of the October issue of Common Ground caught my attention as I was waiting for Bonnie at the airport last night.  It intrigues me, the thought of Jesus driving out the money changers applied to Wall Street or Bay Street or any financial district for that matter.  On the one hand, the Church teaches us that those with wealth are called to be stewards responsible to God, managing resources for the good of all.  After all, the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof.  And in as much as the earth is full of the Glory of God, we might even say that those who selfishly use resources that are for the good of all and who ignore the Glory of God, especially the Glory of God manifest in the creatures created in His image; we might even say that the image of Jesus driving out the money changers from the temple could also be applied to Jesus driving out the selfish money managers from...well from wherever they are.

As much as this image intrigues me and is, I think, worthy of serious reflection, I must confess that I also understand that the application is also seriously flawed at some levels.  That is, selfish, secular, people accumulating wealth for selfish purposes in a system that claims to be based on nothing less than the personal accumulation of wealth is one thing.  And selfish, religious people accumulating wealth for selfish purposes in a system that claims to represent God and proclaims God's love for all human beings, that's another thing.  The contexts are very different, and yet one cannot help seeing connections.  One cannot help seeing applications.

Those with minds much greater than mine have struggled to find a satisfactory way to understand the Christian dilemma of being in the world but not of it.  How does a Christian manage stock portfolios?  How does a Christian fire a lazy employee?  How does a Christian enforce the laws of the land?  There are no easy answers, and lots of complicated and convoluted ones (that don't work very well either).  It is a painful tension.  It is like living in the mud and trying to keep clean: even the cleanest of us is very dirty.  

What should we do?  I think the advice of John the Baptist is probably the most useful: To the tax collectors he said, do not collect more than is appointed; and to the soldiers/police he said, do not falsely accuse and be content with your wages.  Once we think we can do this, then we can begin to work on something else John the Baptist said: "He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise."

Friday, November 02, 2012

How To Love Your Neighbour

Love your neighbour in the following way: Do not get angry with him and do not bear resentment or a grudge against him.  Do not allow yourself to say to your neighbour any reproachful, abusive, sarcastic or caustic words.  Maintain peace with him as far as possible.  Humble yourself in his presence.  Do not try to have your revenge on him either directly or indirectly.  Whenever possible, yield to him.  Get out of the habit of arguing and quarrelling, and reject it as a sign of pride and self-love.  Speak well of those who speak evil of you.  Pay good for evil.  Pray for those who cause you various offences, wrongs, temptations, persecutions.  Whatever you do, on no account condemn anyone; do not even try to judge whether a person is good or bad, but keep your eyes on that one evil person for whom you must give an account before God--yourself.
Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Flexibility in Finding a Prayer Rule

The works of those who live according to God are the following: one man strikes his head all day long [I don't know what this is referring to], and does this instead of the hours of his services.  Another joins together the set number of his prayers by preserving in continual prostrations.  Another replaces the services by copious tears, and this suffices him, because it seems better to him than anything else.  Another is zealous in the meditation of his understanding and limits his appointed rule to this.  Another torments his soul with hunger to the extent that he cannot perform the services.  Another makes his service unceasing by continuing in ardent study of the Psalms.  Another passes his time in reading, and so kindles his heart.  Another is taken captive as he comprehends the divine meaning of the divine Scripture.  Another is restrained from his customary study and is held by silence in his astonishment at the wonders of the verses.
St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 6

St. Isaac points out to us that it is normal for each person to find a warm heart and grace-giving prayer in different activities.  People often confide in me that they find their prayer rule to be little more than an exercise they force themselves to do.  There is no life in it for them.  When people tell me this, assuming that they have persisted in the rule for a while, I suggest that they find a different rule.  One's prayer rule should be life-giving, not life-draining.  

Certainly, we must all force ourselves to pray to a certain extent--especially at the beginning.  But if prayers do not blossom forth into prayer, into communion with God; then probably it is time to change your prayer rule.