Monday, September 29, 2014

Growing Up In God

One of the difficult transitions or junctures of the spiritual life is the movement between what St. Isaac the Syrian calls the second and third degrees of knowledge.  Keep in mind that the language of degrees is metaphorical.  It describes spiritual experience and ways of encountering and knowing God.  

Many of us have gone through seasons of our life in which we have striven with great intention and zeal to do and be what we thought and/or were taught was obedient to God.  We attended church regularly—maybe whenever the door was open.  We said our prayers.  We were scrupulous about activities: what we ate and didn’t eat, who we spent our time with, how we dressed, where we went, what we did or didn’t do, etc.  However, with this fervour of righteous activity and focus came a certain expectation.  Some have gone through such a season with an expectation that they would see a miracle.  Others have expected that they would become more spiritual (in a way that they would perceive and recognize).  Others have expected that they would experience Grace in a form that would erase doubt from their minds or make some difficult aspect of their life easier to bear.  Others have expected that such effort would save them from calamity or failure in school, business or relationships.  

However, what often happens is that our expectations go unfulfilled.  There is no miracle—at least not the miracle we wanted.  We do not seem to be more spiritual—we struggle more than ever with temptations and weaknesses.  Doubt increases; calamity strikes; businesses and relationships fail.  What is going on?  Why does God seem to abandon us when we have tried so hard to follow Him?

I would like to suggest that the problem lies not with God but with us, with our expectation of what spiritual growth and Grace active in our life will look like.  Early in our spiritual life, or at a foundational stage of our spiritual life (what St. Isaac would refer to as the movement from the first to the second degree of knowledge), we begin to become aware of the reality of God through our careful observation or contemplation of the world around us (including the religious world we find ourselves in).  This awareness leads us to action motivated by what is often called the fear of God, or the awareness that God is real and that it behooves me to do what God says—in whatever ways I may understand it means in my particular circumstance or place in life.  This conformity to what I think or am taught that God says or wants of me is called striving for virtue.  

However, it is in the striving for virtue that an important but subtle shift has to take place if we are going to move from the second to the third degree of knowledge.  In the second degree of knowledge, our conceptions of what God expects of us and what we expect of God are based on our reflection on created things and result in an almost legalistic paradigm.  That is, we can come to expect that if we fulfill certain obligations (things we do or do not do), then God will bless the material aspect of our lives in certain desirable ways.  However, this is a very business-like relationship with God, a relationship like that of the older brother with his Father in the parable of the prodigal son.  Nevertheless, it does seem to be a necessary stage or degree of one's growing relationship with God, and it is certainly a step up from the complete selfishness and spiritual ignorance of living only according to one's calculating mind and animal passions.

This business-like relationship with God seems to lead to at least four possible outcomes (that I can think of).  One is pride.  If one has the wealth and the religious or societal standing to maintain an image of him or her self as successful, then one develops pride in having done the right things to please God and thus receiving His blessing.  For example, there was a time in my Christian journey when I was part of a community that taught explicitly that the reason why America was so wealthy was because God was blessing America for all of the missionaries supported by Christians in the U.S.  This may seem like an extreme example (especially to those who are not Americans), but this same arrogance and semi-intentional blindness can and does take place on family and personal levels too.  Many self-help books are saturated in this arrogance: 'just apply these seven principles to a happy family (or successful career, or well-managed wealth, or even a more fulfilling spiritual life), apply these principles and you will succeed.'  And if you do succeed, if your expectations are met, then you can become so proud as to think that you have brought this success on yourself and that you know why others are not so successful: it’s their own fault: they are too lazy or stupid or sinful to do what needs to be done.

The next three possible outcomes of the business-like relationship with God are either guilt, anger or humility.  Many of us do not have the wealth or luck or societal standing to maintain an illusion of success.  Or some of us are just plain honest.  We reject the illusions we might hide behind to accept the cold reality that despite our sincere efforts at pleasing God, the specific outcomes we had expected did not materialize.  And here we tend to have one of the three responses—or maybe all three at once as we are confused and struggle within ourselves, not knowing what to do or how to respond.  On the one hand we feel broken, on the other hand we feel betrayed.  We don’t want to blame God, so we blame ourselves or, like Job, we cannot deny that we did indeed try with all of our might—or at least most of our might—to do the right thing, to pray and fast and behave as we should.  This experience is like a crucible, a pressure cooker that renders us to the core of our being, stripping away all of the layers of falsehood and imaginations to lay bare what is really there.  It is the experience of Job.

Many of us have gone through such experiences of disappointment with God and come out of it bitter and angry.  This anger generally does not express itself as rage.  No, rather, it is like a calm determination in those who are strong, in those who have the means (intelligence, wealth or societal connections) to make their own choices, to bring about their own blessings, leaving God pretty much out of the picture all together.  In others, in those who are dependent, who do not have (or do not perceive that they have) much power to make their own choices or their own way in the world, for these, anger at God often takes the form of depression and self-destructive behaviour.  Anger, whether of the cold, determined kind or of the depressive, self-destructive kind, maintains its hold on us through a stream of endless inner chatter.  Self-talk, justifying and arguing, blaming and accusing, becomes the endless soundtrack of our mind.  Our self-talk convinces us and reassures us that we are right, that we are justified, that we are victims and that it is not our fault.  And this chorus can at times chant so loudly in our mind that we cannot listen to anyone who might suggest a different version of the story.

Some of us struggle with guilt. When life does not turn out the way we expect, we often experience an overwhelming burden of guilt.  Sometimes we can think of specific failures or areas of our life where we could have / should have / might have done better.  But guilt doesn't need any specific cause.  Just the fact that life isn't working out the way we expected causes us to assume, not only that it is our fault, but more importantly, that if we had worked harder, paid closer attention or prayed more fervently, things would have turned out better.  In a sense, guilt is a species of pride.  It comes from having a business-like relationship with God that assumes that we could have (if we had tried harder, etc.) fulfilled our end of the bargain with God. The fact that things are not turning out as we expected becomes evidence for us that we obviously failed God in some significant way.  In my experience, guilt can only be healed by humility and leaving behind a business-like relationship with God.

But, thank God, neither anger nor depression nor guilt are necessarily permanent.  They can be transformed.  They can be transformed into humility.  Sometimes, it seems, we have to rage, or pout or feel guilty for a while, before we come to our senses, before we figure out that we are only hurting ourselves and that God is silently waiting for us to return to the silence.  In silence, everything gives way to humility, the humility of a broken and contrite heart, the humility of a child who has had a good cry after not getting what she wanted, a cry in the arms of her Father.  And it is this humility that brings us into the third degree of knowledge, the love of God that swallows the fear of God.  It brings us to the knowledge of God beyond consideration of created things, the knowledge of God that can say with Job: “even if he slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15).

The Apostle Paul said that he had learned in all things to be content, whether he abounds or is abased (Phil. 4:12).  This is the movement from the second to the third degree of the knowledge of God.  In the third degree we enter the silence, the silence of abasement, the silence of not knowing, the silence of not understanding.  Here we come to know God in a different way, a way not tied to the created reality, in a way not dependent on whether or not things go my way, not dependent on whether or not my priest or bishop is as holy as he should be, not dependent on whether or not God meets my expectations of what a relationship with Him should be like.  Learning to know God in the silence is deification, it is a transfiguration that makes us shine with a light from another world, a light that makes the huts of this world seem irrelevant (c.f. Matt. 17:4).  But it is a difficult and on-going transition.  That is, throughout our lives we are continually encountering disappointment, abasement abounds, you might say.  Like Cain, sin is always crouching at the door and we must overcome it again and again (c.f. Gen. 4: 7).  

And while moving from anger or depression or guilt to humility is never easy, with practice it does, nonetheless, become more predictable.  With practice, you begin to notice the signs in yourself, the unhealthy self-talk, the cooling of your love, the intentional ignoring of God.  You recognize the signs and you take a deep breath.  OK.  I know what’s happening.  Lord have mercy.  And then you struggle to enter the rest, to return to the silence, to the place where can you let go of disappointment and let go of expectation.  There are generally tears along the way, which are sometimes preceded by a Job-like argument with God.  But in the end, we know the drill.  We have been to Gethsemane before, although each time is unique, each struggle breaks a different part of our hard, stubborn hearts.  But if we return and wait, wait until all false hopes wither, there is peace.  There is the knowledge of the love and nearness of God.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Lukewarm Christians

In my last blog post, I spoke about the middle way, the way of spiritual discipline that does not err to the left (too lax) or to the right (too strict).  Barbara, one of my regular commenters, asked me to speak a little about this in the light of the warning in the book of Revelation not to be “lukewarm” lest God spit us out (3:15-17).  I can see how one can easily be confused by this warning in the light of the teaching of the Holy Fathers and Mothers that we pursue Christ by avoiding extremes to the left and to the right.

To begin with, I think one’s spiritual temperature has less to do with the specific disciplines and activities or virtues one practices than it has to do with one’s attitude when one practices them.  In the text from Revelation, Christ tells the Laodicean Christians (the lukewarm ones) the reason why he says they are lukewarm.  Let’s look at the passage:

And to the angel [or pastor/bishop] of the church of the Laodiceans write, “These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: ‘I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I could wish that your were [either] cold or hot.  So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked”’.

The lukewarmness of the Laodiceans does not have to do with any specific “work” that the Laodiceans are or are not doing—“I know your works,” the Amen says to them.  The problem isn’t the works, it’s the attitude:  They think that they or their works are sufficient.  They think they have more than enough of all they need.  And they do not realize how poor, sick, blind and wretched they really are.  This is what it means to be lukewarm: to think that you have enough, that your are all right, or that you have things pretty much under control spiritually speaking.  

Someone suffering from this malady of lukewarmness might be very diligent in certain pious practices and spiritual disciplines, or she might not be disciplined at all.  The sickness is not necessarily manifest in any specific outwardly identifiable behaviour.  It is the sickness that many of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church call “self-esteem.”  

We live in a culture in which self-esteem is considered a good thing and to have low self esteem is to be in need of psychological help.  While low self-esteem is not an issue addressed by the Fathers or Mothers of the Church (at least not that I know of), I do concede that it is nonetheless a genuine malady suffered by some—especially by those who have been psychologically damaged by severe physical and emotional abuse.  However, genuine low self-esteem is very uncommon in my experience (and I have been around a lot of abused people—I myself was raised in foster homes and institutions).  In my experience, anger expressed in passive-aggressive behaviour is a much more common malady among those who have been abused than is genuine low self-esteem.

But even then, even defining self-esteem is difficult.  The problem with defining self-esteem is that we live in a culture that considers self promotion, self praise, and fighting to get ahead to be normal, healthy expressions of personhood.  Any man, woman or child who does not push to be first or rush to assert her opinion, or fight to defend his turf is judged by the social and psychological gurus of our age to suffer from low self-esteem.  However, from the perspective of the Church Fathers and Mothers, these are manifestations  of a spiritual disease, a disease that they often refer to as “self-esteem.”  

This, I think, was the problem of the Laodiceans, this is what I think made them lukewarm: they had (too much) self-esteem.  They were full (of themselves).  They were rich (on their own—the same problem St. Paul points to in his letter to the Corinthians [4:8] “You have reigned as kings without us”).  In fact, this is the same problem revealed in the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve wanted to become gods apart from God. 

 Most people suffer from way too much self-esteem.  We generally think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (c.f. Rom. 12:3).  Generally, we don’t think we have much or anything at all to repent of.  Most people, even believes, and especially this believer, sometimes, live as though God did not exist, as though God were irrelevant, as though whatever may happen next in my life will or will not happen because of what I do or do not do.  Again, generally speaking, we don’t see ourselves as dependent creatures.  We don’t see ourselves in constant need of God’s ever-present protection.  We don’t weigh every thought, word and deed as though we will give an account at the fearsome Judgement Seat of God.  And what’s more, we generally don’t care.  This is what it means to be lukewarm.

I wish it were easy to discern whether or not, or to what degree I am lukewarm.  It is not easy at all to discern.  However, I think one principle may help us:  In as much as I am sure that I am lukewarm, I am probably not; and in as much as I am sure that I am not lukewarm, I probably am.  When we know we are sick, we seek the Physician;  when we think we are well, we do not.  And this brings us back to my last post: how do we seek the Physician, how do we find healing in a way that is effective?  The Fathers and Mothers of the Church encourage us to seek spiritual health through the practice of virtue and spiritual disciplines in a way that is neither too strict nor too lax.

How do we know the difference?  St. Isaac suggests some guideposts.  On the one hand, if you find yourself falling into lustful temptations, it may be because your discipline is too lax.  On the other hand, if you find yourself falling into despondency, then it may be that your rule is too strict.  But who can diagnose herself?  We need spiritual fathers and mothers, wise physicians of the soul to help us discern these things.  And for those of us who don’t think we need a spiritual guide, perhaps our Lord’s words to the Laodiceans apply.  We are all sick, blind, naked and wretched.  It is only the lukewarm who don’t think they are.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Error To The Right

The Spiritual Life is Not a Race

The Fathers and Mothers of the Church often speak of two ways we err in our pursuit of godliness: to the left and to the right.  Error to the left is the error of casting off restraint, of giving in to temptation, of letting go of all discipline.  It is what St. Isaac calls in one place, “the freedom that precedes slavery.”  We can easily err in our pursuit of the Christian life by being too easy on ourselves, by not disciplining and controlling our thoughts, words and actions.  However, this way of err is pretty well known.  Many of us have been warned repeatedly of the dangers of relaxing our discipline—we have been warned so much that we may have even developed a fear of letting up, a fear that we might loose everything if we relax in one area or another.

But this overemphasis on discipline and the fear of erring to the left has pushed many (Yours Truly included) to err to the right.  Erring to the right refers to becoming too righteous.  Consider the words of Ecclesiastes 7:16: “Do not be overly righteous, Nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself?”  This warning from the Bible is echoed throughout the spiritual writings of the Church fathers and Mothers.  

St. Isaac the Syrian also warns against “immoderate activity.”  One of the themes in St. Isaac’s homilies, a theme that he picks up from St. Macarious the Great (whom St. Isaac often quotes), is that so long as we are in the body, we are subject to change.  This change St. Isaac blames on the “humours,” following the medical understanding of his time.  Today we might speak of hormonal changes, changes in stages or circumstances of life, or changes in body chemistry (e.g. diabetes, diet induced changes, or stress induced changes).  St. Macarious likens the changes we endure to the atmosphere: just as we have no control over the weather, we have very little control (and often no direct control) over changes in mood, attitude and feelings within us.  Until our death (that is, so long as we are joined to what St. Paul calls “this body of death”) we will have to endure changes.  For this reason, we must be both disciplined and moderate in our spiritual pursuits.

St. Isaac puts it this way (and here I am summarizing):  If we err to the left by being too relaxed with ourselves, by not guarding attentively what we think, say and do, or by not keeping disciplined in our life of prayer and virtue; if we err in this way, we will find ourselves falling into confusion leading to temptation by lusts.  If, on the other hand, we err to the right by being too hard on ourselves, by being immoderate in our righteous works (including both external works and private prayer life), then we will also fall into confusion leading to despondency and despair: “Righteous works with moderation and…perseverance are beyond price; slackening in them increases lust, but excess, on the other hand, increases confusion.”

Moderation with perseverance are the key.  

Let me tell you a story.  A certain friend of mine has found a great deal of peace in praying the Jesus Prayer.  He has developed a friendship with a monk at a nearby monastery, and over the years, this monk has become his confessor.  My friend was afraid to ask his monk confessor for a prayer rule because he knows the monk prays (it seems to him) unceasingly.  Particularly, he was afraid to ask for a specific rule regarding the Jesus Prayer.  The monks in this monastery pray the Jesus Prayer exclusively for an hour each day and then continually throughout the day.  He was afraid that if he asked for a rule, the monk would give him something too big for him to do regularly.  After several years of relationship, my friend finally got up the courage to ask his confessor for a rule.  And you know the rule the monk gave him?  Not 100, not 300, not 500, but 50.  Fifty Jesus Prayers anytime during the day that he could fit it in—even while driving to work!

“Fifty Jesus prayers”, my friend told the monk, “that’s easy.  It takes less than ten minutes.”  And then the monk told him the same advice St. Isaac is telling us today:  “The secret to developing a prayer life is to begin very small and to stay consistent: you can always pray more if you want, but you don’t have to.”  

Prayer rules are funny things, in my experience.  (Not “ha ha” funny, but ironic funny.)  A small, easy to keep, regular prayer rule—even if it is only the Our Father muttered sincerely from your heart before you get out of bed in the morning—even such a small prayer rule, does more real, long-term good in our lives with God than do longer, more strenuous rules that we either continually fail to complete or (worse case scenario) we complete with frustration in our hearts.  Prayer requires discipline, but it is a life-giving discipline.  Disciplines that leave us depressed and confused are almost always manifestations of error: error to the right.

I think for many people, and this has been the case in my life, it often comes down to humilityor lack thereof.  I have wanted to think of myself as someone who is sincere and fairly mature in my Life in Christ, and whenever I have let this thought abide in my mind, it has resulted in my biting off more than I can chew.  I commit myself to habits of prayer that I cannot keep over the long haul, I commit myself to good works that I just don’t have the energy to do (not without sacrificing my family or some other responsibility that I already have), I commit myself to behaviour (righteous habits) that have more to do with what I think I ought to be like than they have to do with any genuine desire to love God and neighbour.  And when I fail in these commitments, as I always do, I return to humility (humiliation is often a doorway to humility).  

The advice of St. Isaac and St. Macarius can save us, can lead us to humility another way.  If we can observe and accept the reality in ourselves of our changeability, of our feebleness and our brokenness, then we can make a beginning with something small.  Since I know, for example, that cold rains are common here where I live, I’d be a fool to begin a long walk without rain gear—even if the sun is shining right now.  Similarly, since I know that I am spiritually weak and my inner world is subject to storms and snows and blustery days, it is foolish of me to begin any righteous endeavour without taking precautions for these realities, this changeableness that I know exist in myself—even if today I feel like I can climb Mt. Tabor to be transfigured with Christ.  The reality is that tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day, I won’t.  I stand a much better chance of actually climbing the mountain of holiness if I just get used to camping about the base for a long while.  The air is very thin on top of the mountain, and I get winded just walking about its base.  

It’s a good thing that our spiritual life is not a competition.  I think St. Paul’s metaphor of spiritual life as a competition may have made much more sense before the era of capitalism.  Nowadays, we have a terrible fear of losing.  We have a fear that if we don’t try hard enough, God will abandon us.  We fear that we will miss out, be left in the dust, or just somehow fail to make the grade if we don’t burn ourselves out climbing mountains too steep for us, doing righteous deeds that are too hard for us.  We don’t really trust in God.  We don’t really believe that God loves us, that we already have everything in Christ, and that any work we do is just so that we can better appreciate and perceive all that God has already given us.  We don’t realize that we misunderstand God and His calling in our lives just as easily by trying too hard as by not trying at all.

The Christian way is the middle way, the way of humility and life-giving discipline.  It is the way of trusting in God—it is not about trusting in my ability to please God.  

Friday, September 05, 2014

Advice On Distracting Thoughts In Prayer

I just received the newsletter from St. Barbara’s Monastery, in Santa Paula, CA.  I consider the Abbess there, Abbess Victoria, my first spiritual father.  Or as I sometimes say, “my first spiritual father was a mother.”  In this newsletter, Abbess Victoria gives excellent advice on what to do with worries and other distracting thoughts in prayer.  I can think of nothing more edifying than to share with you than what she has written.  She writes:

The advice of our Holy Fathers and Mothers is simple and direct, but probably too difficult for us to use all at once without practice.  They remind us that worries are temptations and that, when beset by worries and troubles of all kinds, we should as Christians give them over to the Lord and do this as quickly as possible.  How?  Not by some extraordinary feat of concentration whereby we might herd our thoughts into a box and seal them away!  Not at all!  Rather, when we cannot simply turn away from them, we do this by making our worries the very subject of our prayers.  The only sure way to put our worries to rest is to ask the Lord—not neglecting to employ the intercession of His saints—to resolve whatever is troubling us in whatever way He deems best, thus surrendering the outcome into His hands.  Our Holy Fathers and Mothers lived their daily lives on this exalted and most simple plane.  Not only do such prayers resolve the difficulties themselves causing our worry.  They bring peace of heart, purify, correct and illumine our thoughts, and lead us to repentance and pure prayer—the prayer that is beyond words.

However, to repeat what was said above, to live and pray this way takes practice.  As with anything else, at first one must remind oneself that there is a way to be rid of the burden of worry, and the way is Christ.  Then, one must make the effort to turn to Him, to pour out one’s worries and troubles to Him, and to give the burden of them to Him.  Over time, one finds oneself referring to this pattern more and more readily in the face of whatever comes until it is simply second nature.

I have to say that this is about the best, simply-presented advice on overcoming distracting thoughts in prayer that I have ever come across.  Yes, it’s not easy—it takes practice.  But it is very simple advice.  We have to give what is causing us worry to God in prayer trusting Him with the outcome.  In this way, any distracting thought can become prayer.  Even shameful or sinful thoughts.

How can this be?  When a shameful thought comes to my mind in prayer, if I can’t immediately turn away from it, I then “show” it to God or His Mother in my mind as further evidence of my poverty and need for help and mercy.  Of course, I am not really showing God anything He doesn’t already know about, but the intentional act of mentally pointing out to God the filth or frivolity that happens to be tormenting my mind at that moment shifts my focus from the distracting thought to a certain shame and humiliation I feel knowing that God and even His Holy Mother take pity on me and still come to me despite the pig muck that sometimes tenaciously sticks to me.  Those feelings of shame and humiliation reduce my prayer to nothing but a heartfelt “You see what a mess I am, please save me.”  This is a prayer that, in my experience, God always answers.  

I have found that feeling ashamed and humiliated before God and the Saints is very beneficial, salvific even.  Of course, one has to have correct theology or else shame can be destructive.  If one wrongly assumes that God’s love is based on our performance or our righteousness, then shame only produces guilt and a sense of hopelessness.  If one wrongly thinks that one has to clean him or her self up before they come to God in prayer, then they will quickly give up on prayer.  However, if we liken prayer to the Prodigal Son’s coming to his senses and beginning his walk home (with big clods of pig muck hanging from his clothes, mashed in his hair and clinging to his bare feet), then we too—regardless of what ugly swinish thoughts may be bombarding our mind—we too can come to God in prayer.  Like the Prodigal, we come stinky and covered with muck (our filthy thoughts), but like the Father in the parable, God runs out to meet us.  And it is this encounter with God (when He clothes us) that cleans us up.

Prayer, when I struggle with unclean thoughts, is sort of like a filthy child coming to Mum and saying, “I need a bath.”  Yes, it is embarrassing.  Yes, it is humbling.  And yes, Mum loves me and will not reject me; she will clean me up.

We had a young family over for dinner last week who have a two year old boy (Samuel) they are potty training.  I was amazed by the love and trust this little boy had in his parent’s love.  With his wet pants he came to his mum and dad, not really ashamed at all, almost wondering where these wet trousers came from.  Dad rushed him to the toilet. Mum ran out to the car to find the bag with the extra clothes.  Baby sang songs on the toilet.  Mum set a timer to set him on the toilet again later.  Baby played happily in his new clean pants until the timer went off about an hour later, and led to the toilet he peed, accompanied by parental shouts of joy.

I want to be like little Samuel in my relationship with God.  I am a spiritual two year old and God and His Mother and my guardian angel and all of the saints (its a big family) are training my little two year old spiritual mind to stay out of the gutter of empty or unclean thoughts.  Like little Samuel, I sometimes get it, but I often don’t.  But even when I fail miserably, I do not doubt my family’s love.  I do not doubt that mum will change my pants.  I do not doubt that God will come to my aid.

Of course, I would rather think of myself as a more spiritually sophisticated person than that.  But maybe that’s my big problem in the first place.   I am not always calling out to God for help.  I am not always keeping disciplines, like timers set to help me remember when to pray and how to avoid spiritual “accidents.”  I think I am beyond such things.  I think I am ready for school when I’m still not quite ready to be out of diapers.  But regardless of my maturity or lack thereof, God’s love is a constant.  And assured of God’s love no matter what, I can bring any “mess” I find in my mind to God in prayer—which I often do.  

St. Paul asks us, “Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?”  Nothing.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God—not even my mental ugliness, confusion and distraction.  All of this can become prayer because none of it changes God’s love for us.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Church Camp, Blackberries and Thorns

Berries in my back yard

“Until we find love, our labour is in the land of thorns.”

Last week I drove from Langley, British Columbia to Gull Lake, Alberta, which is about a 750 mile drive over the Canadian Rockies, each way.  St. Philip Church in Edmonton was sponsoring the first ever Antiochian Orthodox youth camp in Western Canada.  The camp was, it seemed to me, quite successful.  We had 23 children ages 7 to 17.  The camp facilities were excellent and the program went smoothly.  The daily services were prayerful and the kids stayed mostly awake during the teaching times, and there was continual running and laughing and jumping and screaming and hugging during the activity times.  By the end of the camp, all of the campers and staff were like old friends, each already looking forward to next year’s camp.

But camps are a lot of work—a lot of work, especially if there isn’t already a tradition to follow and every activity and exigency must be anticipated and provided for in advance.  And once camp begins there is a lot of work and very little sleep—especially for the cabin counsellors and the camp directors.  For clergy, it is pretty easy.  All I was responsible for was to teach once a day and lead prayers and liturgical services.  I could catch a nap in the afternoon and slip off to bed early if I wanted to.  But I seldom went to bed early because often the most fruitful conversations I have with older campers and with the staff is late at night.  Worn out by the day, teens and young adults often open up late at night in ways they wouldn’t normally open up in the day time.  They ask questions late at night that they might never ask in the busyness of the day.  And even if they don’t ask any questions, just hanging out with the young people earns credibility with them.  They begin to see that I actually like being with them.  Later, when they are ready to talk, they feel that they can approach me.

I think it is a good idea for kids to go to Church camp.  I still remember a YMCA church camp I went to after sixth grade (and I remember very little else from that period of my life).  A good church camp experience lasts a lifetime, it helps the kids know that they are not the only Orthodox Christian young people in the world.  It give them opportunity to make friendships that can last a lifetime.  It gives them an opportunity to experience an Orthodox lifestyle that includes daily morning and evening prayer and to experience teachers and other authority figures who are gentle and kind.  It gives them a chance to experience their faith in a new environment and to begin to make it their own.  When my children were young, I was hesitant to send them to camp (I was not a very trusting parent when it came to my children), so I volunteered to work at the camp.  That’s how I initially got started in Orthodox camp ministry.  This week too, we had a few parents volunteering.  It think that’s a good way for parents (like me) to let their kids have a good camp experience but still be close enough to keep an eye on things.  Plus, there is always work to be done and more hands make the work a little easier.  Also, the parents may just get as addicted to camp as the kids do and turn out to be great supporters of the camping ministry in the future.

Just after I got back from the camp, I was speaking to a recent convert to Holy Orthodoxy about the camp, and he wanted to know what exactly I thought made the camp “successful.”  In his previous church camp experience, success was measured in how many children made “decisions for Christ,” and the whole camp experience was seen as auxiliary to that one main goal.  I explained to this person that Orthodox youth camping experiences are very different from that.  At an Orthodox youth camp, the total experience is what is important.  It is important that the campers have a fun, prayerful, educational and love-filled experience.  The goal is that the children experience God’s love in the community of the Church.  Everything is about experiencing God’s love, not just the services or the explicitly religious parts.  And while it is certainly our hope that this experience of God’s love in the community of the Church stays with the Children all year long (and all life long), we do not look for any specific response from them except whatever comes naturally from them—most generally in the form of smiles, giggles and expressions of friendship.  

The words of St. Isaac speak to me when I think of all that went into camp and the joy that seemed to flow from all of those who worked so hard: “Until we find love, our labour is in the land of thorns.”  When we love God and love others, the thorns of hard work seem to melt away.  Even my long drive to and from camp seemed blessed.  I got to listen to a recording of a new book on the Septuagint (“When God Spoke Greek” by Timothy Law), which was interesting enough to keep my attention during the boring parts of the drive, but boring enough to be ignored during the stunning parts of the drive through the Rockies.  I got to pray and chant psalms along with the chanters of St. Andrew Church (in Riverside, CA) which I had recorded on my phone.  The whole experience was a blessing—a lot of work, yes; but a blessing more.  Love makes the difference.

Now that I am back home (in the rain) and getting back to my normal routine, I find myself thinking about the campers and staff, praying for them, and feeling joy in my heart concerning the whole experience.  Life goes on, and I work to do at home too.  There are thorns enough here.  But to tell you the truth, I don’t generally notice them.  It’s kind of like picking blackberries.  The thorns are huge and sharp and plentiful (and you do have to be careful), but the berries are fat and juicy and delicious, and when you see them, you hardly notice the thorns at all.  It is not until the end of the day, when your bucket is full and your mouth and fingers are dark purple, that you notice the scratches on your arms and rips in your clothes and little trickle of blood from that one that got you as your reached for some particularly plump berries.  Yes, the thorns were there, but you hardly noticed them.  May God help us to love the berries in our life and hardly notice the thorns.