Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Lord, If You Had Been Here....

Lord, if you had been here…

When Lazarus dies, his sisters, Martha and Mary, are overwhelmed with sadness, confusion and probably not a little anger. A few days before Lazarus’ death, Martha and Mary sent messengers to Jesus telling Him, “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.” Martha and Mary reached out to Jesus because they believed in Him. They believed in His love for them and their brother. They believed that Jesus not only could, but would heal their brother; and so they reached out to Jesus. And Jesus heard their cry for help.  He received the message but then waited two days before beginning the two or three day journey to Bethany.

Jesus waited, and Lazarus died.  

For Martha and Mary, Jesus did not show up—not when they needed Him, not when they expected Him, not when they believed he would and should have shown up, not in time to keep their brother Lazarus from dying. For Martha and Mary, Jesus shows up four days too late. So when they do see Jesus the first words out of the mouths of Martha and Mary, the first words they say to him—and they meet him separately, yet say exactly the same thing—their first words to Jesus are a rebuke, their first words are telling Jesus what He did wrong: “Lord,” they say, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

The Gospels tell us that Lazarus was a friend of Christ.  Mary had poured out costly perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Martha had served meals for Jesus and his disciples. They had seen Jesus heal the sick.  They had seen him heal multitudes of strangers. All who came to Him, He healed. And yet it seemed to Martha and Mary that in their hour of greatest need, their friend Jesus, whom they loved and served, their friend Jesus wouldn’t come and heal their brother. He wouldn’t come on time.  He wouldn’t hurry up. He would just let their brother die.  “Lord, if you had been here,” they cried.

Many devout followers of Christ have had experiences similar to Martha and Mary’s. It seems always to be the devout followers of Christ who suffer the most. Of course death—in all of its forms: sudden loss of life; slow, lingering illness; dementia; moral failure; betrayal; misunderstanding; irrational hatred; sudden poverty—death in all of its forms brings suffering and sorrow to everyone and anyone it touches. However, for those who believe, for those who believe in the God who does wonders, those who believe in miracles, who know that God can do whatever He pleases, for these there is a unique kind of suffering associated with deaths. “Lord,” we cry, “where are you?”  “Lord, if you had been here….” For those who believe, deaths are often accompanied by a strong sense of the absence of God.

This is not always the experience of devout believers. That is, many devout believers have experienced a profound sense of the nearness of God in the face of deaths of various kinds. I, too, have experienced this inexplicable comfort in the face of tragedy. Yet I have also tasted of the deeply troubling sorrow of Martha and Mary. This is a sorrow compounded by sorrow. Not only is there the loss and pain of death with its myriad of manifestations, but there is the loss or failure of faith. God has not done what you believed, what you knew so confidently, He would do.  “I did my part—what more could I have done?” We wrack our brains: “What is it? What is it? Surely, I can’t have been so wrong. Have I offended God? Have I made a mistake?  God, what did I do wrong?! Lord, where are you?! Lord, if you had been here….”

When Martha confronts Jesus, she enters into dialog, into a kind of negotiation: “But even now,” she says, “I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” But Jesus redirects her attention toward the resurrection. Martha imagines only the future: “Yes, yes, someday, at the end of the world, my brother will rise again.” But Jesus corrects her, corrects both her tense and her understanding of what (or rather who) resurrection is: “I am the resurrection and the life….”

Mary, on the other hand, when she confronts Jesus, is different. After her initial words, “Lord, if you had been here…” Mary only weeps. She has no more words. Mary weeps and those who are with her weep and Jesus weeps.

We know from the Gospel that Jesus does raise Lazarus from the dead. The hymns of the Church teach us that this is to be understood as a confirmation of the universal resurrection. In Christ, everyone and everything is raised, even though in time this may yet be a future event. Christ is the resurrection and the life, even though we still must pass through time, through the confused words of Martha and the tears of Mary, through what the Psalmist calls the Valley of Tears.

I have a german shepherd who loves to go for walks.  She walks on leash very well—so long as she doesn’t think she knows where we are going. Once she thinks she knows, then she starts to pull on the lead. Then I have to change direction. I have to train her to pay attention to me, not to where she thinks we are going.

Jesus invites us to walk with Him. He amazes us with His signs and wonders, with His love and with the experience of His nearness. Yet instead of paying attention to Him, we strain our focus to where we think God is going. We have visions and dreams that we are sure are His, that we are sure are pointing us to where God is going. We deduce principles and guidelines. We teach others where we think God is going (and how to help God get there). We begin to interpret every drop of Grace as a sign confirming what we think we already know—rather than as a sign pointing back to the Giver, as a sign calling us to attend to our Master.

And then the inevitable happens. Death surprises us.  Failure sneaks up on us. People disappoint us. Illness attacks us. A temptation overwhelms us. The dream fades, the vision crumbles. “Lord, if you had been here….” But the Lord is where He has always been—in our hearts. Our attention, however, has wandered. Like my energetic german shepherd, my attention has strained to where I thought we were going, and I have stopped paying attention to my Master, to my heart, to the place where my Master abides. Some of us, the wise (I suppose) weep. There are no words. Some of us, like Mary, have no words and only weep. Some of us, like me, will have to argue a little, will have to pull at the leash until in brokenness we too run out of words and collapse in tears at Jesus’ feet: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

The earliest Christians referred to our faith as “the Way.”  The Way refers not to a particular path we may walk or a particular place we are going, but to a particular way we walk whatever path we find ourselves on. We walk in this Valley of Tears with our attention not on the destination or even on the road, we walk with our attention on the One who abides in our hearts by faith. Yes, there are paths and there are destinations and there are things we do in life—but none of this is where our attention belongs. In fact, it has been said by many that it is the very unpredictability, the very disappointing and confusing nature of our walk through this world that forces us to attend to “the one thing that is needful.”  

Some of us, the more stiff necked (I suppose), may need more disappointment to turn our gaze away from what is outside us, to teach us to see within us what cannot be seen outside us. Jesus is the resurrection—even when death seems to be winning. Jesus is the resurrection—even when our loved ones don’t understand. Jesus is the resurrection—even when the Church seems deeply broken.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life. When we believe in Him, though we die (and die we will) yet we shall live. And as we live and believe in Him, we shall never die. A divine mystery: We believe and we die and we live and we believe and we never die. It is a mystery only known in the heart, where Christ lives, where both life and death teach us to focus our attention.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Dark Night Of The Soul

“The Dark Night of the Soul” is a term made famous by St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic. St. John wrote a long poem called “Dark Night” in which he reflects on the steps or stages of mystical experience through which one lets go of this world and enters fully into the Heavenly Reality.  

It’s been many years since I read The Dark Night, but the image of the dark night as a passageway from one level or way of knowing God to a deeper, more Heavenly way has stuck with me as a poignant way to describe a relatively common experience among Christians who are earnestly seeking to grow in God.  

When I was in elementary school, we were introduced to volleyball by playing the game with a low net and an interesting new rule: the ball was allowed one bounce after each touch. I believe I was in fourth grade when I learned to play volleyball this way. We learned all of the different ways we were supposed to hit the ball: dig, set, spike and block. We learned the rules about not touching the net and only hitting the ball three times per side and how the boundaries functioned. It was a lot of fun, once we got used to it. In fact, I got pretty good at it and liked to play "volleyball" at recess. I felt quite good about myself and my athletic ability.

Then came fifth grade, and the ball was not allowed to bounce, and the net was higher. I hated volleyball. The game that I had so quickly become good at, was now like a completely new game—and I was terrible at it. I was afraid of the ball hitting my arms and stinging. When I did hit the ball, it didn’t go where I wanted it to go. I was terrible at it. It was a dark night for my athletic soul.

I think many of us go through a similar experience in our spiritual life, and often several times in our lifetime. The various phenomena (feelings, impressions, thoughts, experiences) that we have come to associate with God’s love and nearness are somehow changed, taken away or otherwise revealed to be unreliable. We enter a dark night. God seems to have abandoned us. It seems as though God does not care. We find ourselves confused, angry at God, and frightened. Sometimes we are even tempted to sin, like peevish children who imagine that by hurting themselves they will be punishing their parents. It feels like a kind of death—it is, I think, a kind of death.

This is how I have experienced the dark night of the soul, or at least what I call the dark night of the soul. I am sure many have experienced nights of the soul far darker than what I am describing. How many, in times of war for example, experience the full reality of losing family and all material support along with the loss of the spiritual touchstones they had relied on? Yes, there are darker nights than what I have experienced. I am only a baby in the spiritual realm.

Why does God let this happen? Why must we go through dark nights? The thesis of St. John of the Cross was that we have to learn to let go of all that is earthly. This should not strike us as strange. At death, every human being must let go of all that is earthly. And while learning to trust God and let go does seem to be one important aspect of the dark night, in my experience, another aspect has seemed to be more important. For me, letting go has always led to a new or deeper holding on.  

What I mean is that when I had to let go, for example, of certain emotional feelings that I had associated with God, I came to be aware of a “knowing” that was deeper than emotion. Or when a certain theological system that I had put so much faith in proved to be inadequate, I came to know a more mystical theology—not nearly as neat and easily delineated as the old one, but much more—I don’t know what to say—more Real.

I have had dark nights last for months and for years. Some are darker than others. Some have ended with a kind of discovery—like my discovery of the the Orthodox Church, which promised so much light. And I have encountered light as an Orthodox Christian.  There have been times when I have felt overwhelmed by the insight, beauty and Presence I have encountered in the Orthodox Church. And I have had some very dark nights as an Orthodox Christian. People fail, systems don’t work as they should (or as I think they should), and lots of hard work and spiritual striving is seen by no one but God: in more than one way Orthodoxy teaches us that our reward is not in this life.

However, sometimes, in fact most of the time, dark nights have ended for me gradually. Like the slow sunrise of a summer day. I just keep on keeping on, and slowly I know more deeply than before. Slowly, slowly my wound heals.  Slowly, slowly I feel again my Saviour’s embrace—but not like before. There is now something a bit more severe about it, a lot less fleeting, and much more calm. My confidence is gone, or at least what I used to call confidence or what I placed my confidence in (calling it “God” but now knowing it wasn’t). My confidence is gone, but my peace is increased, and increased is my trust in God, the God whose ways are past finding out.

The dark night is a passage way, a birth canal, perhaps.  The dark night requires that we leave behind what was once so useful, so meaningful and so dear to come to know what is more real, more solid, more beautiful, and more true.

Everyone dies. Everyone passes through the final Dark Night. However, for some of us, for some of us who long for the life of Heaven even while on this earth, for these God gives a foretaste. A foretaste of death and a foretaste of the Life of the Age to Come. After all, isn’t that what we signed up for through our baptism?  

“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Parsing Out Charismatic Signs And Wonders As An Orthodox Christian

From This

To This
My Christian experience before Orthodoxy was among the Charismatic and Pentecostal Protestants.  Recently several people from this same Charismatic Protestant background have begun coming to me in order to inquire into the Holy Orthodox Church. Consequently,  I have been given cause to think about what exactly was wrong, or potentially wrong (or perhaps “dangerous” is a better word) with the apparent miracles, or manifestations I experienced in those days.    

Perhaps those who have never been among Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians will not understand the importance signs and miracles play among these groups, and perhaps they will think that such claims to experiencing signs or miracles are always false, delusional or that they are strictly from the devil. However, from my own experience, I can testify that this is not the case. Yes, there are among the Charismatics and Pentecostals many charlatans and I often encountered people who claimed experiences that seemed to me to be exaggerations, imaginations or even manifestations of mental illness, and certainly, the devil has his share in much of this craziness.  

However, I personally experienced or saw many real physical healings, clairvoyant insights, and even prophetic words—including the predicting of an earthquake (which, I admit, in Southern California, is statistically about as impressive as predicting a tornado in Kansas). Nevertheless, all of this did happen. Now how much of this was of God or of the devil or manifesting group think or derived from psychological power or personal insightfulness or even will power, I do not know. But I do know that in my Charismatic worldview, such signs were what lead me to the door of the Orthodox Church. Such signs led me to the Orthodox Church knowing beyond a doubt that it is the True Church and that in submission to the Church I would find salvation in Christ. Based on my own experience, I must say that whatever mix of demons, angels, and human psychology was going on, God in His great love was definitely in the middle of it all guiding us, in as much as we would let Him, from darkness into Light.

God used signs and wonders to lead us, but for the most part, I have not tried to parse it all out. I have not tried to figure out what exactly was of God or of the devil or of some merely human origin. But recently into my life have come some wonderful Protestant (mostly of Mennonite background) men and woman who are very zealous for Charismatic manifestations and at the same time hungry for Orthodox spirituality. They are saying the Jesus Prayer and experiencing the Grace of God like they have never before experienced it, and they are searching for someone to tell them what all this means. (By the way, I did not teach them the Jesus Prayer. They encountered the Philokalia on their own and began saying the Jesus prayer. Now they are knocking at the door of the Church looking for help.) What am I to say to them about all of their experiences of dreams and clairvoyant impressions and miracle healings? Should I tell them that none of that is real or all of it is “of the devil”? I can’t do that. I can’t do that mainly because I do not believe that. At the same time, I know that much of what they believe and experience is mixed with serious error and is deceptive and misleading.

Orthodox Christians also experience miracles, dreams and clairvoyant impressions, but the Church has taught us not to put very much stock, or invest much meaning into such experiences when or if they happen. And especially, the church teaches us not to become passionate about such experiences. Here, I mean passionate in both the popular meaning of “to be enthusiastic and motivated about something” and the technical Orthodox spiritual meaning of “to allow disordered thoughts and feelings to be stirred up because of or concerning something.” The excitement and passion that are aroused by the experience of supernatural phenomenon, these, it seems to me, are the most dangerous aspects of the matter. St. Paul warns us that the devil often appears as an angel of light, and it would be very foolish (and manifest a great deal of pride), were I to assume that I have the spiritual insight and maturity to discern the difference. Therefore, no matter what kind of clairvoyant insight or miraculous experience I encounter, it is best that I not get too excited about it. If it edifies, good; but even then, the fruit of some trees takes years to mature. The genuine fruit of any word or action may not be known for a generation or even until the Age To Come.

Excitement derived from the experience of supernatural phenomenon (genuine or not, divine or demonic) is dangerous because it is so easy for us to interpret it as evidence or confirmation that what we think, believe, have done or have experienced.  We may wrongly conclude that what we think or have done is vouchsafed by God Himself. Or as one of my inquiring Charismatic friends said, “to mistake excitement for the Presence of God.”

And then there is the matter of pride. It is very difficult, almost impossible, to experience (or believe you are experiencing) clairvoyant impressions, dreams and other miraculous manifestations that seem to be “of God,” and seem to help and encourage people and to create a lot of excitement for God, and not to interpret the fact that such things are happening to and through you as a sign that you yourself, what you believe, what you think and how you perceive things is correct, that somehow God is confirming you.  

This is why in the Orthodox tradition, neophytes or beginners (and I consider myself a beginner), are taught not to read significance into a thought or experience that seems to be clairvoyant or otherwise miraculous. In fact, we are taught to dismiss it. We are taught that if God really has something to say or do, He will do or say it without drawing attention to me, He will do it through the channels of the Church that are already established. And if I happen to say something that turns out to be clairvoyant or say a prayer and God heals someone, then I should perceive that as a matter of someone else’s faith, as almost an accident, as having nothing to do with me. When you read the lives of holy elders who have manifested multiple and profound miracles, it is clear that they themselves do not read much significance into the miracles—except as a call to deeper repentance.

Then there is also the matter of what my Charismatic Protestant friends call covering, or what we in the Church would simple refer to as humility. In the Church there are two streams of authority that we are called to submit to and that both vouchsafe and create humility. The first is the hierarchy  and liturgical structure of the Church. One does not speak in the Church without the blessing of the bishop. One enters into and humbly receives the Tradition and teaching of the Church. If one is called and gifted to speak to or in the Church, one must wait until the bishop recognizes such a calling and blesses what you have to say.  In this formal structure of the Church, everyone may have and express their opinion, but only the bishop (or those he blesses or delegates) may speak with authority. In such a structure, one must trust in God. One must trust that both the context and the authority to speak (or act) will be granted from outside. Just as St. Paul submitted to the bishops/elders both at Jerusalem and Antioch, being sent out with the laying on of hands, so we too in the Orthodox Church must do nothing without the blessing of the bishop.

However, there is also another stream of authority in the Church, that functions within the visible structure of bishops and liturgics. This is what we in the Orthodox Church often refer to as the Charismatic giftedness of spiritual fatherhood (but not “charismatic” in the contemporary Protestant and Roman Catholic sense).  Typically, and again I must stress that this takes place within the structure of the bishops and liturgical life of the Church, a spiritual father or mother is an older, more experienced Orthodox Christian to whom one submits for spiritual guidance. In its classic form, spiritual fatherhood takes place in a monastic context. A monastic novice is assigned an elder in the community to whom he or she must confess all of his or her thoughts on a daily basis. The elder then helps the novice discern the thoughts, assigns penances (or spiritual exercises to heal the soul and produce virtue—the fruit of the Spirit), and gives obediences, or assignments for work around the monastery.  This exercise of submitting every thought to one’s elder frees you to humbly just be. You simply trust God to guide you through your elder and (learn to) assume that you know nothing on your own.

This ideal form of spiritual fatherhood, however, is seldom realized these days. There are just not that many true spiritual fathers. And, I hasten to add, there are not that many men and women who would truly submit to them if they did exist. (Warning! The thought that may have just occurred to you that you would submit to a true spiritual father if you had one, that thought is almost certainly from the evil one.) If we cannot even submit to the wisdom of our stumbling, bumbling parish priest, then we are deluding ourselves if we think we could submit to a God-bearing Elder. As Jesus said, he who is faithful in little will be found faithful in much.

But even though the ideal form of spiritual fatherhood seldom fully manifests itself these days, nonetheless, every Orthodox Christian should have a spiritual father or mother. This is essential because we cannot see most of our own sin and none of our delusion. We need someone outside us, someone whose authority we respect, someone whom we have given permission to speak truth, even painful truth, into our lives. As the ancient saying goes, “he who discerns his own way, has a fool as a guide.” We need a spiritual guide who is not necessarily excited by what excites us nor disturbed by what disturbs us. We need someone outside us who can say, “Yes, that one thing is important—forget the rest.” or “Have you considered this possibility?”  or sometimes, “I think you’re missing the point.”  

Of course one must be careful. All men and women, even spiritual fathers, are broken in various ways. There is no magic relationship; there is no perfect fit. You have to work within the limits of what (and who) you have, what you feel safe disclosing, and above all use common sense. But if God can speak through a donkey, God can speak to us through weak spiritual fathers and mothers. You see, it is very easy to see the weaknesses and failings of others, so even a spiritually blind priest like me can most of the time see where others need to repent and grow. Finding someone who can accurately point out your errors and wanderings astray is not nearly as difficult as humbling yourself to listen to them with an attitude of obedience. That’s the real work.

Perhaps it seems that I have wandered away from my topic of parsing out Protestant Charismatic experiences of clairvoyance and miracle healings, but I have not. OK, maybe I have a little, but all of what I have said about the hierarchical and liturgical structure of the Church and the practice of spiritual fatherhood really does apply to my topic. It applies because outside of the Church, outside of the context that God created for such manifestations to take place, it really is impossible to parse out these things.  Even within the Church, discerning such things often requires more than a lifetime. So outside the Church, I don’t think we can know at all how much of a miracle healing or an apparently prophetic word is or is not from God. And unfortunately, outside the Church, there is very little to stop the collateral damage done through pride, false confirmation, and misinterpreted excitement that often accompanies such experiences.

In the troparion (hymn) for Christ’s Nativity, we sing “Through a star, God taught those who worshiped the stars to adore You, the Sun of righteousness.” Certainly in my life, God used signs and wonders to teach me to adore the Significant One, the Wonderful One. And just as the Magi from the East never looked at the stars in the same way again, I too don’t look at signs and wonders the same. They still happen. Miraculous words, events and healings happen all of the time in the Orthodox Church—just as the stars continued to shine in the sky for the Magi—but their significance is not the same.  

Miraculous signs are more than miraculous, they are first and foremost signs. A sign points to something. And that something to which the sign points, that is the important thing. To be excited about the miracle and to miss the sign is, perhaps, the greatest demonic delusion of all. Perhaps that is what St. Paul was referring to when he spoke of “lying wonders.” Millions of people saw the sign of the Star, but very few saw the significance, only three saw the significance and got up and went to where the Star led.  May God help us all, Orthodox, or otherwise, to have the wisdom, courage, and steady-mindedness not to be caught up in the miraculous, but to see and follow the sign to the Cave, the Stable, the Manger, the place of humility, where we too will find Jesus.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

More Greener Grass

The Green Shift Phenomenon
In my last post, I spoke of two options for Christian living.  These options, marriage or monasticism, are the dominant options throughout most of Christian history—but not the only options.  In the past twenty years in North America (and a little longer in Western Europe), there has been a dramatic rise in the average age for first marriage, a divorce rate that has hovered around 50% and, outside the Orthodox world, a noticeable increase in the number of monasteries that are closing down.  Although Orthodox monasticism has seen somewhat of a revival over the past fifty years, still the relative number of Orthodox monasteries outside traditionally Orthodox countries is very small compared to the growing number of Orthodox Christians outside these lands.

This confluence of trends has lead to a large number of single Christian adults who do not live in marriage relationships or in monasteries.  I think we might group these single Christians in the following way: 
Those who are living a profligate lifestyle.
Those who are striving to live a holy life.
I know these are rough categorizations, but I choose them because looking at things this way will help me say what I want to say.  

First off, there are many Christians who are living a profligate lifestyle.  The religious sensibilities of our contemporary North American culture teach us that religion is merely a matter of feeling, of the “heart,” or of “faith.”  Particularly, this culture teaches that one’s sexual practices are irrelevant to spiritual or religious life.  If one is a good person (by the culture’s standards) and believes sincerely in and practices some religion or spirituality, that is good enough. In many ways, today’s culture is like the pagan world into which Christianity first entered.  At that time, like today, sexuality was largely irrelevant to spirituality, and in some cases, extra-marital sexuality was encouraged as an expression of religious devotion.  

However in at least one significant way, the religious climate today is much different from the religious climate of the Mediterranean world of 2000 years ago into which Christianity first entered.  Our world is a “post-Christian” world.  Culturally speaking, Christ and His message is well known, but disguised under layer after layer of badly remembered and selectively retold western history.  Everyone knows the name “Christ,” but very few associate it with anything life-giving.  Even those who believe in Christ, who look to Him for salvation, who are baptized and who have some devotion to the Church, even these no longer take the hierarchy of the Church seriously and have largely accepted a culturally reimagined version of Christ: a nice-guy deity, interested mostly in how I as an individual feel about things.  

This, of course, is a far cry from Christ, the God who became human to transfigure human nature into the divine image from which it fell of old in Paradise.  Yet very many Christians today, many Orthodox Christians, do not know this Christ.  They know only the culturally acceptable christ of their imagination. And so they are lost in their own confusion and passions thinking that they follow Christ. And for these, we must pray.  They are like those who have received an inoculation.  They have taken just enough dead virus to put them on the defence against the real.  The false Christ that they have come to know, blinds their eyes and deadens their ears to the real.  

And yet, there is hope for these.  As God brought the Prodigal Son to his senses and as Jesus caught the attention of the Samaritan Woman at the well, so it is not too late for these profligate Christians to repent.  However, more words are not what they need.  They need to be touched by God in some way that God knows will get their attention.  For this we pray.  And for this we love and suffer.  Cornelius, the centurion at the Cross, came to his senses watching Christ die.  How many may come to their senses watching you and I die daily and loving, as Christ did, to the end?  May God help us.

And what is the case for single Christians living a profligate life in the world, is the case also for married people or monastics living a profligate life.  (It may seem strange to those who don’t know many or any monks, but have mostly just read about them, for me to say “profligate monastics.”  But I know from first and second hand experience that there are such monks.  And why should that surprise us?  Nothing magic happens at tonsure.  The flesh and the devil must be resisted in the monastery as in the world.  Even Elder Prophyrios, raised from boyhood on the Holy Mountain of Athos, says in his biography that his elder warned him not to speak to monks whom he happened to meet on his way somewhere, for there are many wicked men even on the Holy Mountain.)

OK, let's now take a look at the other category: those single people striving to live a holy life in the world. For those who are striving to live a holy life but are not in a monastery or in marriage, there are also many precedents.  Consider that before there was any monasticism, there were holy men and women who were not married but were striving to live a holy life.  In fact, this is the beginning of monasticism.  These single Christians striving to be holy often grouped together in houses to encourage and strengthen one another (and pool expenses too, probably).  Sometimes a particularly holy and gifted old man or woman would find younger people gathering around him or her.  And very occasionally, St. Pacomius comes to mind as an example, an angel or a departed saint would instruct someone to build a larger place to accommodate those who were seeking salvation in the single life ( by the way, that’s what the “mono” of monasticism means, single).  

I used to think North America needed more monasteries right away.  Now I do not.  I think North America needs more holy men and women.  Monasteries are institutions.  Having more institutions is not the answer.  However, as single men and women strive to become more like Christ, then houses and perhaps institutions will form to encourage that holy striving.  

I am not against Greek or Russian or Serbian or Arabic monasteries transplanting to North America.  Perhaps in a few generations, these will indeed become indigenous centres of holy living.  What I am against, however, is the assumption I find in so many that in order for a single person to strive for holiness, he or she has to be a tonsured monk.  From what I have seen in North American monasteries and in single life in the world, if one is willing, a person can keep a very strict life of prayer and asceticism in the world—a life perhaps more prayerful and ascetic than is lived in many monasteries.  It really is a matter of what one wants.  

I want to hasten to add that we are not all called to be like St. Pacomius or St. Anthony, or any other saint for that matter.  We are each called with our own strengths and weaknesses, talents and foibles to become as holy as possible where we are right now.  There are, as the Scripture says, five talent, two talent and one talent Christians.  We do not all have the same measure of Grace, the same calling, the same gifts.  However, what we can all do is to take that little measure of Grace we do have and use it where we are now.  Any single person, if he or she goes to bed at a reasonable hour, can get up early and say prayers.  She or he can make attendance at Church services a priority, can throw away the TV and shut off the internet, can read books on the spiritual life, and can seek advice from people who seem to have the Grace to help.  Again, it really is a matter of what one wants.  Starting where we are, we take our one talent of Grace, our small offering, our little faith, and use it.  And as we use it, humbly and with whatever guidance our spiritual mothers and fathers can provide, God will see to it that it grows.  

Whether or not you or any particular single person ever becomes a monk, whether a house or institution of men or women ever comes out of our strivingthat is a matter of God's calling and Grace.  It is a matter of many things over which you or I have no control.  However, what we do have some control over is whether or not I will pray today, whether or not I will go to bed on time tonight, and whether or not holiness is a priority that I am striving for.


Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Grass Is Always Greener

In With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man, Elder Paisios says, “You must know that a hard-working man will prosper no matter what he does.  A hard-working family man would also make a good monk, and a hard-working monk would also make a good family man.”  The Elder says this in the context of a conversation he is having with his nuns toward the end of his life.  He is speaking about men and women who want to join a monastery because they “are too lazy to get married.”  

Marriage and the married life is a lot of work.  Monasticism and the monastic life is also a lot of work.  Whether in marriage or monasticism, the Christian life is work.  Certainly the specific work in marriage and in monasticism is somewhat different, but not nearly as different as most people think.  Monks have to wash dishes and clothes, vacuum rugs and do something to earn their daily bread.  Married people have to go to church services, say their prayers, fast and strive for holiness.  In both marriage and monasticism you have to get along with the people you live with, even as they change and grow in ways you did not expect.  You have to obey, you have to compromise, and you have to change and grow in ways you did not expect.  You never get everything you want (and sometimes none of what you want), and you can’t just be left alone.

Both marriage and monasticism are a life-long commitment to a relationship, or set of relationships, that is designed by God Himself to change you.  Both marriage and monasticism will make you like Jesus, if you are a “hard-working” person.  Yes, each has it’s advantages and disadvantages.  Yes, it is easier to focus on different kinds of work in one calling versus another.  A monk has more time to pray.  A layman has more opportunity to give alms. Etc. etc.  But to find salvation in either, one must give him or herself completely.  It is just as possible to be a selfish, ego-driven, addicted monk as it is to suffer such maladies as a married person.  Laziness leads to decay no matter where one finds oneself.  Similarly, there are many married people who are becoming saints (even if their names seldom make it into the synaxarion).  Many saintly monastics credit their spiritual life to the foundation laid by their saintly parents.

The grass is always greener somewhere else.  

I find encouragement in Elder Paisios’ words.  As a married person, I sometimes imagine how I might be different if I were a monk.  Probably those differences would be minor and mostly external.  The effort I put into my relationships (with God and others) as a married person is probably about the same as it would be if I were a monastic.  The willingness with which I repent and acknowledge my mistakes, and the peace and trust in God I manifest when I don’t get my way: these too would be the same whether I were a monk or a married person.  It seems to me that God is not limited by our circumstances.  We are the ones who limit what God can do in our lives.  

Whether married or single, in the world or in the cloister, God’s arm is not too short to save (as it says in Isaiah), but it is our sins that have made a separation.  The answer is usually not a change of venue, it is a change of heart, but that takes a lot of work.  

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Avoiding and Getting Out of Pits


When many of the Fathers of the Church warn us to keep active and aware, they are not speaking of physical actions and good works—although good works are always good to do.  By staying active, they are referring to the action of the nous or of the mind/heart: active in the inner man.  We stay active in our nous through constant prayer, often by learning to constantly recite a short prayer, most commonly, the Jesus Prayer.

When the Fathers talk about being lazy, again, they are generally not talking about lounging about not doing physical work—although such lounging about is often rebuked with the word, "He who does not work, neither shall he eat."   The laziness the Fathers are speaking of is the tendency to let go of active prayer and to let our minds wander, to daydream, to entertain whatever thoughts just happen to occur to me at a given moment.  These thoughts, sometimes from the evil one, sometimes from my own memory or generated by my ego, are often referred to as logismoi, or 'words.'  

Whether these logismoi are originally generated out of my own mind or come from the evil one, almost always, they draw my nous away from prayer and soon begin to generate passion.  The 'words' (or thoughts) lead quickly to a feeling, which confirms to me the thoughts, which in turn strengthens the feeling, which in turn, often, produces a physical response in my body: my blood pressure rises, adrenaline begins flowing in my blood, my stomach growls, I begin to be aroused, my heart rate increases.  Sometimes there are even visions and dreams or serendipitous external confirmations.  All of these confirm the logismoi/thoughts and draw me into excitement of some sort and away from prayer and rest in the Holy Spirit.

There are holy men and women who are able to dismiss the logismoi before they produce passion.  I have read of such holy people.  However, I very, very seldom even notice stray thoughts until after they have produced strong feelings within me.  For me the trick is catching the 'feeling-thought' early, before I am too caught up in it.  If I catch it soon enough, the Jesus Prayer functions as a kind of spiritual triage for me: I apply The Prayer as a bandage to staunch the bleeding of my wounds; but; alas, before I know it I am bleeding again elsewhere (with a new thought gotten out of control) and must rush in my prayer to the Physician to again staunch the flow of passion newly erupted in me.

If I catch it early enough, the bandage of prayer works well enough, by Grace, to allow me to stay in a little peace.  But sometimes, due to laziness and inattention in my heart (nous), I spiritually ignore a wound and infection sets in.  When the the feeling-thought is allowed to grow, when I dally in the self-exalting daydream or in the self-righteous grudge or in the delectable fantasy (already having birthed sin, according to St. James, which is now growing into death), then my whole mind is infected.  My words and actions are influenced.  The sin born in my mind begins to produce death in my members (in my body, in what I do and what I say).  Sometimes I catch it at this point.  Now repentance is more difficult.  It sometimes takes days of struggle to return to peace.  Often I must confess to my spiritual father to get my bearing back.  Often there are specific sins I must confess and apologies I must make.

Although repentance is difficult at this point, it usually comes with a kind of Grace, a renewed energy to pay attention, to discipline myself: first externally, but then more importantly, internally.  Here I commonly experience a kind of fear, a fear similar to the fear I experience when I get too near the ledge on the roof of a tall building or of a cliff.  "That was too close," I say to myself.  And it is this fear that helps me move away from the ledge, away from whatever thoughts and feelings that enticed me in the first place.  This fear-like feeling that drives me back away from the ledge I call 'the fear of God.'  Now whether or not it is indeed what the Bible and the Holy Fathers mean when they use that term, I don't know.  Certainly my understanding of such things needs to grow.  In the mean time, however, I have found it useful to think of the fear of God in this way.

Sometimes, however, even the fear of God is not enough.  Sometimes we don't repent.  Sometimes we dance on the ledge, we play with spiritual knives, we run with spiritual scissors.  The world is real, physically and spiritually; and in this real world people who play dangerously near the ledge—good, well intentioned people, people who don't intend to fall—do sometimes fall off the ledge.  By 'fall off the ledge,' I don't mean commit some specific act, some namable, identifiable sin.  It is possible to fall into pride, for example, and never commit any outwardly identifiable sin.  Similarly, it is possible to commit an identifiable sin (even, as with King David, 'big' ones like adultery and murder) and suddenly come to your senses and repent.  

By falling of the ledge I mean not only that I commit serious sin (inwardly or outwardly) but that I also begin to justify or defend it.  I begin to think that my violence is justified; my illicit desire is "natural"; my exalted image of myself is "God's calling."  Light becomes darkness and darkness becomes light.  This is the warning Jesus gave to the Pharisees, perhaps even the "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit."  Once we call good, bad and what is twisted, straight, then how can we be healed?  When a person with an infected wound creating blood poisoning says that the bloated, puss-filled wound in his side is the way it is supposed to be, then how can he be persuaded to call the Doctor?  From here repentance is most difficult—impossible really apart from a miracle of Grace, the same miracle that happened to the Prodigal Son in the pig stye.   

From here repentance is most difficult, but not impossible.  Jesus came into the world to save sinners—even those who don't think they are sinning.  I know.  Many times, I have come to my senses in a pig stye.  While most my pig styes have not been of the more famous outer kind (criminal offences or substance, sexual or gambling addictions), still I know several pig styes: the pig stye of self-righteous anger, the pig stye of intellectual arrogance and they pig stye of self-important judgement of others.  These are the worst pig styes, the same pig styes frequented by the Pharisees and teachers of the Law with whom Jesus spoke so long ago.  But even here, Jesus comes—for if Christ descended all of the way into hell itself, then a stinky white-washed tomb like my life sometimes becomes, this small mess is not hard for Him to enter.  It is not hard for Him if only I will let Him, if only I will invite Him.

When I am in the pig stye, fallen off the ledge in one way or another, arguments and condemnations do little to reach me.  I have found this to be the case with myself and when I am trying to help others.  Condemnations, accusations and arguments do nothing—except annoy, anger and frustrate everyone.  Grace, however, the Presence of the Holy Spirit, the beginning of prayer: these create the possibility of awakening, of coming to one's senses.  The suffering one experiences in the self-created hell of our pig styes, our self-justified worlds of sin and light-as-darkness and darkness-as-light, this suffering is often the very thing that leads us to look beyond our system, beyond our neat definitions and our justifications, our rights, and our strongly-held convictions: beyond all that has kept us clinging to food of the pig stye.  Pain—once we get past the anger—often leads to prayer, not elegant prayer, not churchy prayer, but to prayer nonetheless: "God, if you are there, help me."  And God does help.  God does come into our hell and slowly, gently brings us to our senses, and—if we will let Him—leads us out, leads us back to Himself.

Spiritual warfare is a gritty business.  It is the real work of our inner lives.  Even great saints fall into muddy pits. That we fall is not what determines our End.  It is what we do when we fall that determines our End.  Saints are those who cry out to God for help when they fall.  Saints are those who become expert in getting back up again, of not justifying themselves, of relying on Grace every moment of the day—whether on the mountain top or in the deep valley.

May God teach us all to become such saints.