Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Like Jonah In The Whale

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”
Thomas Merton

I am reading Jim Forest’s biography of Thomas Merton: “Living With Wisdom.” I have never read any of Thomas Merton’s work. It seems my journey has led me through communities that were not Merton readers. I knew people who read Merton, but they always seemed to be people who were on a path quite different from mine. Consequently, I early on developed a distrust for Merton (having never read him myself). There is, for me, a stinging irony in this, for I developed this distrust for Merton during a period of my life in which I somewhat prided myself in not rejecting an idea before I understood it. During that period of my life I read a great deal of what is called “theology” from perspectives as far ranging as Evangelical to liberation and “God is Dead,” and from feminist and gay perspectives to the Institutes of Calvin. But Thomas Merton I didn’t bother reading. What a pity.

I am only halfway through the biography. Merton has now become a Cistercian monk and become successful in his writing (about 1949). Throughout the book, Jim Forest highlights interesting quotations in the margins that give a flavour of Merton’s reflections on or during the season of his life that is being discussed in the main text. One of the quotes sent me into a reverie, and I felt I had to write about it. This quote seems perfectly to capture how I and perhaps many of us experience our inner life. The quote is this: “I find myself traveling to my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

This metaphor of Jonah is quite fitting for my experience. I resist God thinking that I know better, thinking that things should be reasonable, make sense, should  line up. It is as if reason and a sense of “how things ought to be” is the ship on which I flee God’s ridiculous (in my eyes) calling. It is not so much that I know God wants me to do a certain thing like “go preach to Niniveh” and I don’t want to do it (although that can sometimes be the case). Rather, most often, it is that I cannot be at peace with where I am right now and with how things are right now. I can’t accept that God is present right now in this mess and that it is here that He has called me to trust Him. It doesn’t make sense to me. I want to be on the ship where everything makes sense, where everything fits into a plan that I understand. However, instead, I have been thrown into the sea and swallowed by Paradox as by a great fish.  

I am trapped amid many paradoxes, as in the belly of a sea monster. I am a priest and the father of a community, yet I am also married and have a wife and family of my own. I am looked to as a spiritual father, yet I am an infant when it comes to spiritual things. I am surrounded by great pain and great beauty at the same time. I say one word and it sets someone free, and to someone else my words are only annoying—and I seldom can tell the difference. I strive to live as an ascetic and friend of the poor, but I reside in a million dollar house. I love to rise early and pray, but I also like to stay up late to watch football. I am trapped in the belly of a monster called Paradox.

In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the sea monster plays a significant role. It is the theme of the sixth of the nine odes that are always sung at matins. And particularly, Jonah’s prayer (2:3-10), is read every Friday morning (in monastic contexts): “I cried aloud in mine affliction unto the Lord my God, and He hearkened unto me; out of the womb of Hades You heard my cry and my voice.” When we are swallowed by a sea monster (literally or figuratively), we find ourselves in the womb or the belly of Hades. I imagine that I am not the only person who can relate to this.

Another important liturgical aspect of Jonah’s experience in the sea monster is that it is a type of Christ’s descent into Hades and resurrection on the third day. On Holy Saturday, we read the entire book of Jonah along with other Old Testament passages during the vesperal Liturgy while the baptisms are taking place. We descend into the water of baptism and are swallowed by the deep—just as Jonah was swallowed by the sea monster. And then three times we rise again in the Resurrection of Christ—just as Jonah was spat forth from the sea monster “like a babe from the womb,” or so the Paschal canon puts it. We die and rise with Christ in Baptism, but our Baptism is not the end of the story. Like much in the Orthodox liturgical tradition, things repeated thrice signify a pattern of life. Baptism is an initiation into a life of dying and rising, a life of finding oneself enclosed in the depths of Hades, in the belly of Paradox, only to cry out to God there, from the midst of the monster, from the depths of Hades. We cry out to God in the midst of the pain and the paradoxes that make up our life.  

We have no clean life or straight path to offer God, nothing reasonable or neat. We have to pray here, where we are now. We cannot wait to pray. We cannot wait until things are better, until we better ourselves. We have tried and we know that we cannot fix ourselves, much less can we fix the craziness of the network of relationships and responsibilities we find ourselves in, the paradoxes that have swallowed us. Like Jonah, we can only cry out from the belly of the sea monster, the womb of Hades, and wait, wait for God to save us.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos said famously, “Keep your mind in Hell, and despair not.” I think one of the Hells (or perhaps a better way to put it is one aspect of Hell) that he is referring to is the monster of the life that has swallowed us, a life full of pain and paradox. The Hell of our life is real. We cannot pretend it is not a mess. But the Resurrection is real too. God is real. Prayer is real—even, perhaps especially, from the belly of a sea monster. “How long O Lord, how long?” This is the prayer of the Psalmist and the Prophets, and it is the prayer of the saints in the book of Revelation: How long O Lord?  

The scripture says that a day with the Lord is as a thousand years. We cannot put God on our time schedule. What does three days in Hades feel like? How long does it last? How long,O Lord?  Ours is to pray and wait: to pray and wait and hope. And hope is often nothing more than a stubborn refusal to give in to despair. And yet there is mercy.  There is beauty amid the ashes.  There are moments when hope even buds into something that looks strangely like faith.  God is good, even in tragedy.  Mercy is present, even in suffering.  Jesus descended into Hell so that we would know that there is no place where His presence is absent: not even in the belly of a sea monster, not even in a life full of pain, not even in a life full of paradox.  In fact, as with Jonah, it is this very sea monster that we find ourselves trapped in that is carrying us to the place God wants us to be.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Surviving The Valleys

Homily 70

One of the realities of created life in this fallen world is variableness, according to St. Isaac the Syrian.  Variableness is the reality of change, both good and bad. In a sense, you can say that this variableness of life is what mankind chose (and continues to choose) in the Garden of Eden by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Life as we know it is a varying experience of both good and evil, pleasure and pain, joy and sadness.  Even in our relationship with God, we experience mountain tops and valleys, or what some of the Fathers refer to as the abundance of Grace and the withdrawal of Grace.  

Of course, in a very important sense, abundance and withdrawal of Grace refer our experience. Our experience of abundance and withdrawal of Grace does not mean that God is any less present in our lives. God is present in the abundance of Grace and in the withdrawal. Nonetheless, the mountain tops and valleys of our spiritual life are often quite troubling. Each new valley brings us again to our knees as we wonder if we have made any progress whatsoever in our spiritual life, if we have taken even one step nearer to God. When we are on the mountain top we think we have finally made it, that we have finally acquired a bit of the Grace of God. When we are on the mountain top we rejoice in the ease of prayer, the nearness of peace, and we marvel at the sense of compassion for the whole creation (and even our enemies) that seems to flow through us. That’s the mountain top. 

On the mountain top we don’t want to remember that the valley is coming. We don’t want to remember that everything that seems so easy and the Grace that seems so near now will change. In a little while prayer will be difficult again and Grace will not seem so near. Variation: this is St. Isaac’s word for it. And St. Isaac tells us that variation will be with us until the grave. It is the way of salvation for us in this fallen world. When we don’t realize this, valleys can seem unbearably low—largely because we don’t think we should have to pass through them, because we think something is wrong, because we wrongly thought we had things pretty much figured out, back on the last mountain top (so many months or years ago).   

However, there is a way to level out our experience of the mountains and valleys, the good and the evil of this life.  For St. Isaac, it is called repentance. Repentance keeps us from assuming too much on the mountain tops and from losing prayer and the nearness of God in the valleys.  Repentance for St. Isaac does not refer to a change of behaviour, as we generally think of it. For St. Isaac repentance refers to prayer itself: “continual, intense…prayer filled with compunction.” We repent when we remain in (or return to) prayer.  

Prayer is a habit born of effort (you really do have to make yourself do it) and a continual awareness of the nearness of God (whether you feel it or not) coupled with a continual awareness of your own frailty, or changeability, or variability—what I often refer to as brokenness. Like a broken cup, I cannot hold the Grace God gives me. Like a broken wheel, I cannot continue straight in the path God has set for me. Like a broken record, I can’t stop repeating in my mind what I should have forgotten long ago. And like a spoiled child, I cannot stop thinking about myself: what I like and what will make me happy. My body is continually slipping out of my control, my eyes and ears and appetites wandering where they should not be. My brokenness is so obvious, yet I continually forget that I am broken. I forget that I am broken and so I forget to pray. And in my forgetfulness I think I have things pretty well under control, and my attention wanders everywhere: everything is important and interesting to me except the One Thing Needful. 

This knowledge of my own brokenness is the source of compunction. Compunction literally means “with piercing.”  Compunction is a pain, sometimes literal, or nearly literal, in our heart or mind caused by our awareness of our brokenness—both our own personal brokenness and the brokenness we share with all humanity and that is manifest in the pain and suffering of the world. Compunction with the awareness of the nearness of God (felt or not) leads to intensity of prayer, or what St. Isaac simply calls repentance.  

Repentance, or this way of continual, intense and compunction-filled prayer, is something we need “throughout the twenty-four hours of the night and day” according to St. Isaac. It is prayer that can be expressed in all sorts of prayers. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can be expressed in the Jesus Prayer or some similar prayer as we call out to Christ in our hearts even while we must also be doing other things with our minds and bodies. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can be expressed through akathist hymns or daily prayers. It can be expressed through prayerful attention in matins or vespers and especially in the Divine Liturgy. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can even (and perhaps sometimes best) be expressed through the silent cry of the heart for help and the silent longing of the heart for wholeness, salvation, and deliverance for ourselves and for those we love and for the whole world.  

When we pray with compunction, with the knowledge of our brokenness and the awareness of our changeability, when we pray this way all of the time, then it is easier to stay a little longer on the mountain top without our mind constructing false structures of permanence (like St. Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration trying to make permanent that which was meant to be only a taste, a glimpse into the Age to Come). And when we pray with compunction the valleys are never quite so low, because the comfort promised to those who mourn is near at hand. And the suffering is somehow lessened because the valleys become more familiar to us because we know we have walked this way before and will walk this way again, because the tears of repentance and the pain of compunction no longer surprise us, but are our old friends, our companions on the journey through this transient age and into the Age to Come, into the Age in which all sickness, sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Signs of Forward Motion

In homily 67, St. Isaac gives some signs or markers to help the monk discern whether or not he or she is actually progressing in their spiritual life.  It seems to me that these markers apply as well to those struggling in the world as to those struggling in a hermitage.

Progress in developing the habit of attention, or what St. Isaac calls “moving forward intelligently,” is discerned by certain markers, just as “heedlessness” in this matter is also discerned by certain other markers.  Heedlessness means that you are not paying attention to divine Grace (the "leaven" planted in our hearts), but rather are attending to scattered thoughts.  The six markers of heedlessness are the following.  Please note: one can experience aspects of both sets of signs in one’s life.  This only means that although we are on the way, we still have far to go.  These signs are not in any particular order.

Signs of Heedlessness
  1. “You secretly feel in yourself that you are weak in your faith”  St. Isaac clarifies that by “faith,” he is not referring to credal faith, but rather to “the noetic strength that steadies the heart by the light of [noetic] understanding...so that...she casts her cares on God.” So a sign of spiritual heedlessness is the inability to cast one's cares on the Lord.
  2. “You covet visible things.”  (Position, Power, Possessions, Property, Privilege, Prestige)
  3. “Your confidence wanes.”  He means here confidence in God.  If your confidence has been based on things that pass away (your own strength, intelligence, the correctness of your rational understanding of things, or any of the six P's listed above), then you will experience a loss of confidence on the way to learning to place all of your confidence in God.  
  4. “You are being harmed by your neighbour.”  St. John Chrysostom says that no one can harm you unless you let him.  When I feel harmed by what my neighbour does or says against me, it is because I have become heedless of spiritual things.  The Martyrs of Christ are able to love those who persecute them precisely because their enemies cannot harm them--cannot harm them so long as their eyes, the eyes of their heart, are fixed on Jesus.
  5. “Your whole soul is taken up with fault-finding in mouth and heart against every [person] and [in] every matter...even agains the Most High Himself.”  For me, this is the sign that is easiest for me to recognize in myself.  As soon as I notice that my mind is focused on picking out what is wrong with others, what they are doing or saying, then I know: my heart has wandered from Grace.
  6. “From time to time, your soul is shaken by fear so that you are terrorized.”  

These are the signs, according to St. Isaac, by which we can discern that we have been heedless in our inner life.

The signs by which we can discern that we are “moving forward” in our spiritual life are the following. 

  1. “You are strengthened in your hope, and you are enriched by prayer.”  When we experience hope (not necessarily in a given situation, but in God’s providence and love regardless of the situation) and we experience blessing, Grace, or encouragement in prayer, then we know that we are moving forward on the right path.
  2. “The material of profit is never absent from your mind in everything you meet.”  When we are moving forward in God, then we can find Grace and spiritual encouragement in anything we encounter.  Trees can speak to us.  What we see, what we notice, what we encounter, anything can become spiritually profitable to us when our minds are attending to the Grace in our hearts.
  3. “You have an awareness of the frailty of human nature; and on the one hand, by [this knowledge] you are kept from pride, and on the other, your neighbor’s faults are set at naught in your eyes.”  When you are growing in your relationship with God, you acquire a growing knowledge of human brokenness and sin, and specifically of your own brokenness and sin.  This is a gift of the Holy Spirit enabling you to become humble and to forgive the sins and offenses of others.
  4. “You long for departure from the body by reason of your aspiration for the [state] in which we shall live in the age to come.”
  5. “All of the afflictions that befall you openly and in secret you find to be rightly yours, all having descended on you precisely so as to keep you from conceit.”
  6. “For all of these things (afflictions) you render confession and thanks to God.”

These are the signs or markers by which we can discern that we are moving forward in our relationship with God.

In English, we talk about knowing something about ourselves, but St. Isaac uses the word “discernment.”  This is an important distinction.  Our inner life is full of bent mirrors, old tapes and perverted images.  We cannot know it easily or well.  However, we can discern certain things.  We can discern that we are tending too far to the left (indulging the flesh) or too far to the right (unfruitful rigorism).  We can discern signs that suggest that we have been heedless to our inner life, and we can discern signs that encourage us to persevere in our spiritual disciplines, in acquiring the “habits” of inner attention that allow us to attend to the “leaven” of Grace that has been placed in our hearts.  

Those earnest for the spiritual life are often distressed because it seems to them that they are making no progress, but are actually getting worse.  And in a certain sense, this is how it should be--not that they should be distressed, but that they grow in the perception of their own sin and brokenness.  Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, when He comes, convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgement.  Consequently, one of the evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit in your life is that you are convinced more and more of your sin, lack of righteousness and of the just judgement of God.

St. Issac says (in homily 66) that we do not understand that we have “been accounted worthy of divine Grace and dispassion of soul” from a cessation of unseemly thoughts of various kinds nor from easy victory over such thoughts, nor from states of “lofty” thought that is entirely unsoiled and unshaken.  This is not how we understand (or know) that divine Grace has been granted to us.  How then do we know or understand the experience of divine Grace and dispassion?  St. Isaac says that rather than by an absence of such unseemly thoughts, one knows he or she is experiencing dispassion and divine Grace by the fact that when such thoughts occur, one does not engage them, one does not “wage war with unseemly thoughts and crush them.”  Rather than waring against such thoughts, the mind of one experiencing divine Grace and dispassion is “caught away” by the habit of mental prayer.  The “leaven” of Grace that abides in the heart and that is by “habit” the focus of the mind’s attention, this leaven does not let the mind attend to the unseemly thoughts that bombard the mind,  According to St. Isaac, such unseemly thought will continue to assail us so long as the mind is in a body of fallen flesh.  

The victory over unseemly thoughts and the evidence of divine Grace and dispassion is that we ignore such thoughts and that our attention and focus remain on the “leaven” of Grace which through habit we have trained ourselves to attend to.  Or, as in my case, I am just beginning to learn how to attend to.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What Does God Expect From Us?

What does God expect from us?  God expects everything.  However, God’s everything and ours are not usually the same.  When we think of giving God everything, we often think God only wants the worthy stuff, the aspects of our life that are not so broken, not so messed up.  When we think of giving God everything, we think God is not interested in the bad stuff, the dark areas of our life.  As someone recently asked me (with both sarcasm and despair), “why would God want my life?”  

God wants our lives because it is all that we have to give Him.  Whatever we imagine our lives should be, we don’t have to give Him.  Whatever we imagine God would want from a life, we don’t have either.  All we have is what we are: awkward and messy, sinful and unworthy.  What we are is what we have, and that’s what God wants us to give him. That’s the everything God wants from us.

Why does God want it?  God wants it because He’s the only one who can fix us, if only we would let Him.  Like children tinkering with a broken toy that we cannot fix, we tinker with our lives: trying one thing then another, improving a little in one area and failing miserably in others.  God waits, patiently and with longing, for us to give up and let Him have our mess.  The Father knows how to fix the broken mess of our lives.  

How do we give God everything?  That is something known and learnt in the doing of it.