Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Moving From Guilt to Humility

Sometimes I confuse guilt and humility. When I become aware of a particular weakness or failing, when the sadness of my failure seems to overwhelm me, my first response can sometimes be to try harder. And while sustained effort is an important part of attaining anything valuable--from Christian virtue to proficiency in algebra--trying harder often makes matters worse rather than better.  

When I fail in Christian virtue, it is usually not because I don't care. That is, most of the time I am already trying to be disciplined or self controlled or consistent in the area that I find myself failing in. I feel guilt. I feel guilty not merely that I have broken a rule, law or guideline; but I feel guilty that I do not love God enough to change. I feel that my inability to do better is a kind of ingratitude towards God who has given everything for me and who has been so good to me. This guilt becomes a driver in me, a driver compelling me to try harder.

However, I have found that when I try harder, the results are terrible. I may force myself for a little while to do (or not do) what I think I should be doing (or not doing), but I usually end up developing tunnel vision, becoming exhausted and grumpy, and alienating those around me. My extra effort in a particular area ends up blinding me to other areas.  

For example, when I have forced myself to rise early to pray as much as I think I should, I sacrifice attention to others. Once, several years ago when I was pushing hard to be a kind-of monk in the world, I actually fell asleep before a class of 25 graduate students. I had asked a student a question, and before she could respond, I fell asleep in a chair and only awoke as I heard the students getting up to leave the room. Another time I was trying to read only spiritually edifying books--as I defined them at the time--and I became so obsessed that I couldn't have a normal conversation without referring to the Dark Night of the Soul or Cloud of Unknowing. My good friends (who functioned much like a spiritual father to me in those days) forbid me to read any more spiritual books until I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings just for fun.

Trying harder does not work. It does not bring life. And worse, trying harder and seeming to succeed only brings arrogance. When I was an athlete in college running twice a day, over a hundred miles a week, I used to think that it was nothing but sheer laziness that everyone didn't begin the day with a ten kilometre run. I was doing much more than that, I reasoned, why couldn't everyone do a mere 10K in the morning? Today, I'm lucky if I can get out for a three to five kilometre walk a few times a week. In fact, for all of lent this year, I think I have only gotten out for four walks total. Do you see what I mean. I get focusing too much on one thing and forget others.  

But I don't feel guilty. I feel weak. I feel like the earthen vessel St. Paul talks about--the pot of clay holding the treasure. And this feeling of weakness is often the content of my prayer to God. I offer God my weakness. Why, you may ask, would you offer weakness to God? Why would God accept it? The answer is that weakness is a perfect offering to God because it is what I am, what I really am. All I have to offer God is what and who I am. And standing before God as who and what I am (instead of as who or what I think I should be) is the only way I can really change, really grow, really participate in the deifying Grace of God. 

Guilt is not the way. Trying harder is not the way. Humbling ourselves before the mighty hand of God--that's the way.

On Taming The Donkey

In the hymns of Palm Sunday, we are told that Jesus' riding on a young donkey is prophetic. It speaks of the untamed and unclean gentiles whom Christ would tame.  

With the kidnapping of two bishops, and continued violence and (un)civil strife in Syria, we are reminded that Christ's taming of the gentiles was through the Cross. Simply riding the young donkey praised by the crowd--the same crowd that would five days later be crying out "crucify Him!"--this was only the prophecy. The realization was, and still is, worked out through the Cross.

During Holy Week, we walk with Jesus to and beyond the Cross. We experience the beauty of faith and love with the woman who "wastes" her riches bathing Jesus' feet. We experience the pain and deep disappointment of betrayal as Judas "stretches out his hand for the silver." We are present at the mocking, the beating, and the spitting. We wonder with the Mother of God why they are doing this to Her Son. Hadn't Jesus healed their sick and fed them miraculous bread? Hadn't He opened the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf and driven out the demons? Why are they doing this? And Jesus' only response is, "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own will."

There is always a paradox in martyrdom. Life is taken on the one hand and given on the other. Those who take life do not realize what they are doing for the one who gives his or her life is not afraid of death. Death is a door, a door to Resurrection.  

Every year we prepare for our own martyrdoms. We all die: some suddenly, and some slowly over seven or eight decades. Holy Week helps us prepare for this death. Walking with Jesus through his humiliation, death and rising, we are prepared to walk through our own humiliation, death and rising. His becomes ours and ours becomes His. This is the Christian life: a paradox, our life is taken yet we give our life. Suddenly or slowly, dying daily to die in a moment--to rise with Christ never to die again!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Behold The Bridegroom Comes...Late

Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching, and again unworthy is that servant whom He shall find heedless.  Beware therefore O my soul, lest you be weighed down with sleep and lest you be given up to death and the door of the kingdom be shut against you; but rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy are you O our God, through the intercessions of the Theotokos have mercy on us.
Troparion for Bridegroom Matins

Several of the parables of Jesus deal with the topic of a Master or a Bridegroom delayed in His coming. Those who are waiting, these parables teach us, must stay alert while they wait. The worthy servants are the ones who are awake to receive the Master when He comes. The Psalmist expresses very well the attitude of alert ones: "My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen wait for the morning."

This attitude of alert waiting is liturgically expressed in the prayers of Matins, said traditionally very early in the morning. Matins, in its fuller form, is a one-and-a-half to two-hour (sometimes longer) prayer service that ideally ends just as the sun is rising. Like the watchmen waiting for the morning, the prayer of the monastics and others who rise early to pray liturgically manifests the inner attention and longing for the coming of the Master--even though those who are waiting are sometimes more than a little groggy. They are rousing themselves and crying to God, "Holy, Holy, Holy." And they are begging the Theotokos and all of the Holy Ones to intercede for them.

Most of us in the world, however, do not keep watch in a liturgical way. The responsibilities of our life and the weakness of our faith is such that we struggle to rise two hours after dawn and only with great effort manage to pray the Our Father or some other small prayer rule. We are weak, but we are not abandoned. We can still keep vigil in our hearts.  

How is this? How can we pray with attention when we don't actually say many prayers? What is our prayer if it is not our prayers? Are we the ones weighed down with sleep because we struggle to pray, because we are not satisfied with the level of our prayer life and there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it--much that actually makes a lasting change? Is the Door of the Kingdom still open for us?


Actually, it is a terrible thing to be satisfied with your prayer life. Only those in delusion think they pray as much as they should. Jesus saves the sinners, not the satisfied. When we suffer pain because we are acutely aware of our failure in prayer, then that pain itself becomes our prayer. That pain is our longing. That pain is our vigil. That pain is our attention as we await the coming of our Master who will save us from ourselves.

With longing we wait for the Lord. Prayers help us express this longing, but it is the longing itself that the Lord is looking for. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Official Statement on Kidnapping of Metropolitans Paul and John

An Official Statement
April 25, 2013
His Beatitude JOHN X (Yazigi), Greek Orthodox Patriarch, paid a fraternal visit today, April 25, 2013, to His Holiness Mor IGNATIUS ZAKKA I (Iwas), Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, at the Syriac Patriarchal Residence in the village of Atchaneh, Lebanon. Their Beatitudes discussed the latest information concerning the abduction of bishops Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim. They again denounced the continuous kidnapping of both hierarchs till today, despite all efforts that have been made. On this occasion, Their Beatitudes renewed their call to release both Bishops, and appeal to the International Community to exert all efforts in support of their release, and for the cessation of all kinds of violence in Syria, so that peace prevails through dialogue and a political solution. They both stressed the values of peaceful co-existence, tolerance, and national unity. Finally, Their Beatitudes agreed on taking appropriate steps, in case both hierarchs are not released in the next few hours, hoping that both bishops will be in their respective archdioceses in the coming Palm Sunday, so that we may rejoice with our people in celebrating the feast with them.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Rich Man and the Lazaruses

The sixth week of Lent is a week of anticipation.  The hymns of this week anticipate Lazarus' death and rising.  Yesterday we read, "Today Lazarus lies sick..." and today we read, "Lazarus has died and is laid in a tomb."  Several of the hymns end with the prayer, "Make us worthy to offer you palms of virtue."  The focus of the prayers is shifting from our sin and repentance to Jesus and the events leading to His saving passion.

Another interesting aspect of the hymnology this week is that Luke's parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is elided with John's historical account of the death and rising of Lazarus of Bethany.  Elements from both are referred to as though they were referring to the same Lazarus, or at least pointing to the same spiritual meaning or lesson.

Now from a scholarly perspective, the two are not related in any way except the name of the central character in both the parable and the historical account is the same: Lazarus.  In the parable, Lazarus is a beggar who longs to be fed from the crumbs that fall from the table of an unnamed rich man.  Both die.  Lazarus finds himself being comforted in the Bosom of Abraham, while the Rich Man finds himself in flames of torment longing for a drop of water.  Abraham, in the parable, tells the Rich Man that during his life he had his good things, but Lazarus suffered; now Lazarus is being comforted while he suffers.  However, in the historical account, Lazarus is not a beggar.  He has a house and is able to support his two sisters, Mary and Martha.  On the surface, the parable and the historical account are not related.

They are certainly not related if you read the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as a mere morality tale.  If the purpose of this parable is merely to teach us to care for beggars, then it is impossible to see any connection to the historical Lazarus.  But what if the parable is about more than morality?  What if, in addition to material poverty, the parable can be read as referring to spiritual poverty?  If read this way, then connections with the historical Lazarus become possible.  And this is how the Church reads the parable: spiritually, as a lesson in attending to our own spiritual poverty.

In the hymns leading up to the rising of the historical Lazarus, the Church spiritually interprets the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in two ways.  One way the Church interprets the parable is that I am the rich man, and my mind (nous, soul, or spirit) is Lazarus.  The spiritual aspect of me is starving and laying at the gates of my life begging that I give it a little attention.  I, however, am consumed with food and clothing and riches (intellectual pursuits of all sorts).  I don't care that my mind (nous, soul, or spirit) is starving.  Eventually, I will die and to the extent that I have ignored the spiritual aspect of my being, I will be in torment; but if have cared for my spiritual life (at least in some small ways), I will be comforted.

The other way the Church interprets this parable is that the Rich Man refers to Israel, or the religious leaders of Israel.  Clothed in the Law and the Prophets, Israel feasted sumptuously on the revelation and religious tradition that it had been given.  Jesus is Lazarus, the One who emptied Himself and in humility was crucified "out side the gate."  Having rejected Christ's life and teaching, Israel now is in torment, thirsting for a drop of Truth.

These spiritual readings of the parable, I think, help us see how both Lazaruses can be elided. The historical Lazarus was a Son of Abraham, and Israelite, who believed in Jesus; thus he is identified with Jesus in the spiritualized reading of the parable.  By embracing Jesus in friendship (Lazarus is called Christ's friend), Lazarus is identified with the rejected Christ.  Historical Lazarus becomes the spiritual Lazarus.  

So what's the point?  Aside from the spiritualized exegesis, what is the Church trying to teach us?

I think one thing we need to learn from this last week of Lent is that attending to our soul is worth it.  We will all die.  Even if we do not invest as much care as we should in attending to our soul, at least we must not let it starve.  Crumbs from the table.  A few minutes to say prayers.  A little spiritual reading each day.  A couple hours on Sunday.  It's not much--but it can keep from starving our hungry souls begging at the gate of our lives.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Metropolitan Paul Apparently Released!

Al Jazeera is reporting that Metropolitan Paul has been released.  See the article here.

Thank God.  Please pray for peace in Syria!

Pray for Metropolitan Paul

His Eminence, Metropolitan PAUL (Yazigi) Kidnapped Outside Aleppo
Your fervent prayers are requested for His Eminence, Metropolitan PAUL (Yazigi) of the Antiochian Archdiocese of Aleppo, Syria, who was kidnapped by armed men. Metropolitan PAUL is the brother of our Father in Christ, His Beatitude, Patriarch JOHN X.
According to information we received, Metropolitan PAUL was on the Turkish side of his archdiocese, which extends from Aleppo to Antioch (in Turkey). Along the road on their return to Aleppo, an armed group stopped them before they could arrive to the city, kidnapping the metropolitan. Metropolitan PAUL's office relates that he was not injured.
The photo shown above is His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH with His Eminence, Metropolitan PAUL on November 13, 2010 in Aleppo, Syria, when the Diocesan Delegation to Syria, Lebanon and Antioch visited the Archdiocese of Aleppo.
His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH has asked all the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West to pray fervently for the safe release of His Eminence, Metropolitan PAUL.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Busy Saints

It was revealed to Abba Anthony in the desert: "In the city there is one like you, a doctor by profession, who gives to those in need whatever he can spare; and throughout the whole day he sings the Thrice-Holy hymn of the angels."
Sayings of the Desert Fathers

One of the difficulties I constantly run across when I read the Holy Fathers of the Church is that I have no idea what they are talking about. There are at least two senses in which I don't understand what they are talking about. In the first sense, it seems that I don't understand because I lack the background or experience in the ideas or way of life that the Holy Father assumes the reader has. I have never lived in near abject poverty in a Middle Eastern desert, nor have I studied the Greek secular philosophers, neither have I been a slave (much less in the fifth century), nor do I know anything about the practice of the Byzantine royal court. Depending on the Father and depending on his intended audience, intimate knowledge of such things was assumed.

On a deeper level, however, I am often left wondering at what I read because it seems to me that the Holy Father is speaking of a spiritual condition or experience that I have not experienced--and often cannot even imagine experiencing. Most of the Holy Fathers of the Church were monastics--sometimes solitary, hermit monastics. And their writings that have survived to today have done so primarily because their writings have been found helpful in the spiritual life of other monastics--men and women who have renounced the cares of this world to devote themselves to prayer. And though as a busy (married) priest in a parish I do my best to take my personal spiritual life seriously, my devotion to God is expressed primarily in study and care for others, not in stillness, quietness and prayer--not at least as it is described by many of the Holy Fathers.

I think the same could be said for most people who read this blog. Whether priest or baker or Mom or teacher or police officer or accountant or farmer: we all have busy lives caring for those God has given us and just doing the business (and busyness) that is necessary to pay the bills and to love practically those in our care. And while none of us in the busy world can do what Abba Anthony the Great did--and what today a handful of holy men and women "in the deserts and on the mountains and in the caverns and pits of the earth" strive to do--yet we can all be like Abba Anthony. We can all be like the doctor in the city whom God reveals is like Abba Anthony.

This doctor in the city is like Abba Anthony not because he does what Abba Anthony does. Abba Anthony does what Abba Anthony does. Think about it. Abba Anthony does what Abba Anthony does; the doctor in the city does what the doctor in the city does. And yet the doctor in the city is like Abba Anthony. What makes this doctor in the city like Abba Anthony? We are told only two things about this doctor. First, we are told that he gives what he can spare to those in deed. Second, we are told that he sings all day long: Holy, Holy, Holy....

I've got a long way to go before I am someone who sees the needs of others and gives all I can spare, and truly a longer way to go before I have a continual song of praise and worship in my heart. Nevertheless, it is something I can imagine for myself. It is a possibility that I can conceive and work toward--even if I may spend my whole life just beginning.  

May God help all of us in the world to see and care and give what we can spare. And may God help us to pray or sing always as we are about our various busynesses. And may this unnamed doctor in the city who was like Abba Anthony and all of the unnamed saints who struggled to be like Jesus where they were in the world, may all of these busy unnamed saints who are now at rest pray for us who are not yet. Amen.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Praying the Parables

In my wretchedness, I have fallen among the thieves of my own thoughts. My mind has been despoiled, and cruelly I have been beaten; all my soul is wounded, and stripped of the virtues I lie naked upon the highway of life. Seeing me in bitter pain and thinking that my wounds could not be healed, the priest neglected me and would not look at me. Unable to endure my soul- destroying agony, the Levite when he saw me passed me by on the other side. But Thou, O Christ my God, wast pleased to come, not from Samaria but incarnate from Mary; in Thy love for mankind, grant me healing and pour upon me Thy Great Mercy.
First verse of the "Lord I have Called" for Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday of the Fifth week of Lent.

In the Orthodox Church we often pray the Parables of Christ.  Here's another example from the 24 verses of repentance written by St. Symeon the Translator and read also at the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday of the Fifth week of Lent:

Like the foolish servant, I have hidden the talent that was given to me and buried it in the ground. I have been condemned as useless, and I no longer dare to ask Thee for forgiveness. But in Thy forbearance take pity on me that I too may cry unto Thee: before I perish utterly, save me, O Lord.

For the Orthodox Christian who prays with the services of the Church, the parables are not merely lessons in moral theology.  They are also, and in many ways more importantly, windows into the experience of the soul before God.  Through the prayers of the Church the parables become beacons enlightening our inner experience.  The parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, is much more than a mere moral exhortation (though it is that too).  The parable is a paradigm by which I understand my relationship with God and my inner struggles to repent.

When I see myself as someone who has been beaten up by "thieves of my own thoughts," someone who isn't helped by the religious leaders or cliches in my community, someone whose "soul is wounded and stripped of virtues...naked upon the highway of life," when I see myself this way, then I can see Jesus as the One who comes and binds up my wounds.  I can see Jesus coming, "not from Samaria but incarnate from Mary."  I can allow myself to be carried on His beast (which some Fathers have interpreted as the suffering humanity of Jesus) and be taken to and cared for at the Inn (interpreted at the Church with the spiritual fathers and mothers as the innkeepers).

Prayer is an offering, an offering most often of one's self to God.  But this is not nearly as easy as it sounds.  There is no dotted line to sign and thus seal the deal.  Every day we see a bit more of ourselves.  Every day we see a bit more of the wretchedness that yesterday we didn't see.  This is why the Saints, the holy men and women who are closest to God can write such profound prayers of repentance.  Where the light is brightest, the mess is most clear.  You don't see the dirt or disheveled condition of a dark room with only a small night-light in the corner, but as you open the curtains and let in the light, you see the mess.  So too in our spiritual life, as we pray and learn to pray with the Church, the light gets a little brighter.  Then we see a little more.  

Often we see what we don't want to see; We see what we don't want to be true about our selves.  We don't want to be stripped of virtue, and wounded and naked on the highway of life.  We don't want to be wounded by our thoughts and actually unhelped by the very people and systems and cliches we thought would help us.  We don't want to come to Jesus with nothing, and worse than nothing: with the very dirty and messy rooms of our lives.  

Sometimes we would rather not see.  Sometimes we would rather continue wallowing in a dark mess--sometimes because we secretly like it, and sometimes because we think we can clean it up a bit so that we have something nice to offer Jesus, as though God would not love us, would not come to us unless we had something nicer, better, more virtuous to offer Him.  

However, that is the point: Jesus came to save sinners of whom I am chief.  It's the sick who need the physician.  The Good Samaritan comes to the wounded, naked, helpless man--not to the priest or levite.  If we could only see ourselves as the saints see themselves, as the worst of sinners.  If we could only accept the reality of our utter dependence, that we are the servant who wasted his talent, the publican who is not worthy to lift up his eyes in the Temple but beats his chest: "have mercy on me O God!"  Then our offering will be accepted, our plea for mercy.  Then the Good One incarnate of Mary will come and pour oil and wine onto our wounds.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

From Sunny, Cold Saskatoon

Ah, springtime!
Bonnie and I spent the last week in Saskatoon enjoying springtime on the Canadian prairies. The two feet of snow on the ground, they tell me, is unusual for mid-April.

We spent a warm week indoors with our grandchildren appreciating the sunshine through the large windows.

On the weekend I kept busy conducting a Lenten retreat at St Vincent of Lerins Orthodox Church. Our theme has been "acquiring the Grace of God". Of course the Grace of God is always present, for Grace is just another name for God Himself as He comes to us. The "acquiring" part has to do with preparing ourselves to notice, or attend to the Grace of God.

Our flight leaves soon. More later.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Just One of the Crowd

And as He sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many who followed Him.
Mark 2:25--from the Gospel reading for the third Saturday in Lent.

This is the mid-weekend in Great Lent.  By now the routine of Lent is in full swing, and it's taking its toll.  It is not uncommon at this point in Lent to feel tired, to feel as though it is not worth it, to wonder if your are really accomplishing anything.  It is also common at this point to be acutely aware of our sin, of our out-of-control thoughts, of our inability to keep our heart and mind focused.  This is what it feels like to be crucified with Christ...

...Nevertheless we live.  To encourage the faithful, the Church exalts the Cross on Sunday.  Yes, this feeling of powerlessness is indeed our participation in the Cross of Christ--the Cross that is the doorway  to the Resurrection.  And on Saturday, before we look to the Cross, we are reminded that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners..."for there were many who followed Him."  If today we feel the weight of our sin, if today we see more than ever our sin, then we are in good company.  We are some of the many tax collectors and sinners who followed Christ.

The cross is never what we expect it to be.  It always feels worse than we thought it would.  And yet, on the cross, we can let go.  We can let go of the facades.  We can let go of any illusion of control.  On the cross we can let go of any hope that our own righteousness, our own skill, or our own ability to figure things out will save us.  On the cross we wait patiently on the Lord until he answers us.

On my own cross this lent, I am encourage to find myself in the company of the many tax collectors and sinners who followed Jesus.  Let's sinners follow Jesus together.  Encouraging one another we will make it together to the glorious Resurrection.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Stepping Back From Hell

We are constantly tempted to focus on the disharmony between us and those with whom we live and work. Focusing on our fellows' mistakes is a recipe for judgment and anger; focusing on our own, a recipe for despair. If only we took a step or two back, we would hear the greater harmony that eludes our ears most of the time. 
Mother Melania

Mother Melania's words about harmony and disharmony remind me of the advice of Elder Sophrony who said that when we find ourselves gazing over the precipice into hell, we should take a couple of steps back and have tea.

There is much in life that leads to hellish experiences. There can be the hell of judgementalism, tormented by what's wrong with others. There can be the hell of despair, tormented by what is wrong with yourself. There is also the hell of impotence, the seeming inability to do anything to help others, especially those we love. There is the hell of confusion, not knowing what is right, who to turn to, what to trust. There are lots of ways hell is a part of our life in this fallen world.

However, whatever form of hell one encounters, I think the words of Elder Sophrony and Mother Melania provide the only practical and (in my experience) effective strategy to find hope. We find hope by taking a couple of steps back. We step back from the edge; we step back from the intense focus on the problem. We step back and we have tea: we chill out, we trust God--if for no other reason than that we know we are powerless to change anything ourselves.

The hell does not go away, but we change. Both thieves crucified with Jesus experienced the hell of crucifixion, but only one also experienced Paradise. Christ descends into our hell transforming us so that even in and through the midst of hellish experience we enter Paradise: the peace that passes understanding, the knowledge of God that surpasses knowledge, the comfort that sustains us through and despite the deepest pain.

And here's the hope: if I, even I the most miserable and uncooperative, can be touched by the Saviour and experience a teeny bit of Paradise in my hell, then certainly God is able to reach and touch and help those I am worried about, those whose meaningless pain or foolishness or recalcitrance concerns me most. If God can touch one thief, he knows how to touch another--even if it may take a bit longer, a bit more suffering, a bit more hell.  

Now, how all of this plays out in eternity, I don't know. But that's not what I'm talking about now. What I am saying now is that the only way we can help others escape hell (now and later) is to escape it ourselves now (and later). How do we escape hell? We escape hell by walking away a little bit and (in our mind) sitting down, trusting God, having tea. Martin Luther put it this way, he said that faith in God is like learning to float in the middle of the deepest ocean: you just roll over on your back and trust God. And breathe. Don't forget to breathe. And with each breath say a little prayer: Lord have mercy.

I admit that I am not yet ready for the deepest ocean, but at least I can start working on floating in the little tub of my life.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

What is Purity? Compassion.

What is purity?  I had generally thought that purity was based on what one didn’t do and didn’t think about.  But Monks Callistus and Ignatius quote St. Isaac the Syrian who says that purity is to have “a heart filled with compassion for every creature.” Purity is not a negative--it’s not what we don’t do or don’t think--purity is a positive. Purity is to have compassion in our hearts. What we do or don’t think, does not necessarily have any direct influence on purity, for we cannot always control our thoughts.

The thoughts that occur to us can be controlled only to a certain extent. Of course what we choose to think about effects a great deal what comes to our mind involuntarily (when we don’t want to think about it). So controlling what we choose to think about does help control what occurs to us involuntarily. But even saints, according to St. Macarius the Great, experience unclean and bestial thoughts. St. Mararius says that it is like the weather: “downfalls constantly occur to those who have attained purity, just as air at times becomes cooler.”

Callistus and Ignatius expound on this word: “What do you mean, blessed Macarius? You say that as the weather changes, now cold, now hot, now hail, now fine again; so it happens in our life of striving [for God]: now we are attacked, now grace protects us; at one moment the soul is beset by cruel waves [of unwanted thoughts]; at another it changes again with the coming of grace and the heart is once more filled with joy and God’s peace, with chaste and serene thoughts.” The vicissitudes of our mind are not the measure of the purity of our hearts.

What is the measure of purity? Compassion. A pure heart feels the pain of others. A pure heart suffers with others.  And a pure heart, Jesus said, sees God.

Monday, April 01, 2013

What The Fear Of God Is And Isn't

I was intending to leave the topic of fear and the fear of God, but today in my reading I ran across some references that deal directly with my last couple of blog posts.  

I've been working my way through "Directions to Hesychasts, in a Hundred Chapters" by The Monks Callistrus and Ignatius, of Xanthopoulos (14th century) found in Writings From The Philokalia On Prayer of The Heart. To tell the truth, I have not read very much of the Philokalia, except for Maximus the Confessor's "Four Hundred Texts On Love" found in Volume II of The Philokalia:The Complete Text. I have not read much of the Philokalia because what little I have read, except perhaps for some of St. Maximus, has been way over my spiritual head. Much has not made sense to me, nor has it seemed applicable or helpful to my actual spiritual life.  Nevertheless, I heard an interview with Metropolitan Kalistos Ware, the only surviving translator of the Philokalia, and in that interview he recommended "Directions to Hesychasts" as an introduction to the whole work for those who want to have a sense for what the whole Philokalia is saying. I must admit, so far, "Directions to Hesychasts" has been somewhat accessible and helpful.

A good example of this accessibility is the following insight into two kinds of fear and how the good fear, the fear of God, is experienced differently throughout our life.

Two passages in "Directions to Hesychasts" speak of different kinds of fear. One passage is in the context of talking about the benefits of gathering oneself to singleness (in the heart) together with "wise and sensible fasting" (much could be said on this, but I'll save it for another post). One of the benefits is that one gains "that fear...which cuts off laziness and carelessness; and that flame of zeal which disregards all danger and overcomes all fear." Two fears: the first is a good fear that "cuts off laziness and carelessness." The second fear is a fear that keeps us from doing what is good and right, a freezing fear that keeps us from turning to God or doing what we know we ought.

The first fear, the good kind of fear, is treated further in another section. Chapter 17 is entitled, "Of the fear of God, which is twofold: in beginners, and in the mature." In beginners, the fear of God expresses itself in a hatred of sin. Beginners need to focus on turning away from what they know is sinful or displeasing to God in their lives. However, in the mature, the fear of God expresses itself in the "love of virtue and in fear of changeability." On the one hand, the difference between beginners and the mature is that beginners seek to avoid sin, whereas the mature are seeking to pursue the good, to pursue virtue (Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness...). On the other hand, the mature have another care that the beginners do not have. The mature should fear lest they change from the good that they have attained: they should fear lest they backslide: "for no man is safe from changing (i.e. backsliding)." No one should become so confident in his or her spiritual state as to think they couldn't fall.

So that no one reading this thinks he or she is past the beginner stage, I want to point out that Callistrus and Ignatius say specifically that the reader should persevere in the first fear, as a beginner.  

As beginners, we nonetheless notice that there is often a change in our motivation in doing good or abstaining from sin. I have noticed in myself that there are some behaviours that I began to eschew because I was convinced that they were sinful; but over time, I find myself eschewing the same sins because I don't want to injure or offend others. There are things I began to do because I felt I had to do them--I basically made myself do them because not to do them would be sin. However now I do some of them because I love the results, the fruit of the good activity. I've noticed a change in a few areas, but mostly I'm still a beginner. Mostly I have to hate sin and make myself do or not do what I should.

So what does this tell us about what the fear of God is and isn't? The fear of God is something that motivates us to avoid sin and do good. The fear of God is not a fear of being punished or smacked by God because we sinned, failed or made a mistake. The fear of God is not a terror that freezes us or makes God seem unapproachable or far away. The fear of God is not dread of the torments of hell nor is it a stick that we beat children, unbelievers or sinners into submission with. What is the fear of God? The fear of God is that in us which motivates us to avoid sin, and with time and practice, motivates us to pursue good and virtue.