Saturday, December 27, 2014

Paradise is Open Again

  1. Come, let us rejoice in the Lord, proclaiming the present mystery; for He has broken the middle wall of partition, and the flaming spear shall turn about, and the Cherubim shall admit all to the Tree of Life. As for me, I shall return to enjoy the bliss of paradise from which I was driven away before, by reason of iniquity; for the likeness of the Father, and the Person of His eternity, which it is impossible to change, has taken the likeness of a servant, coming from a Mother who has not known wedlock; free from transubstantiation, since He remained as He was, true God, and took what had not been, having become Man for His love of mankind. Wherefore, let us lift our voices unto Him crying: O You Who was born of the Virgin, O God, have mercy upon us. 
    Vespers of Nativity

    According to the hymns of the Orthodox Church, which proclaim the doctrine of the Church,  Christ's Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension have reopened Paradise: "The flaming spear shall turn about, and the Cherubim shall admit all to the Tree of Life."  Paradise is open and all who will may enter and eat of the Tree of Life, which is Christ Himself: the Bread of Life, the Mana that has come down from the Father.  Paradise is open for all, yet why do I not enter?

    In one sense, in a very important sense, I do enter.  I enter liturgically.  I enter Paradise and eat of the Tree of Life by regular participation in the liturgical life of the Church.  When I come to Church, when I strive to prepare myself through prayer, fasting and confession to receive the precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the holy Mysteries of the Divine Liturgy, then I do indeed enter Paradise and eat of the Tree of Life.  I eat of Christ, and yet, I am often distracted (by the crying children, by cares and responsibilities, and by base distractions of all sorts).  I prepare, or at least I mean to prepare, I always intend to prepare—but even if I say all of the pre-Communion prayers and fast and confess regularly, still I don't feel prepared.  I only perceive in the slightest ways that I am coming before the Judge of all, the Judge who knows everything and still loves completely, the Judge who rejects no one but rather desires that all come to Him in repentance.  

    But most Sundays, I am full of distractions and cares.  Sometimes I say only one pre-Communion prayer: "Lord Have Mercy!"  Sometimes I am so focused on what I have to do or say that it is not until after the Liturgy, sometimes after everyone has left the Church, sometimes not even until after I have gotten home and started to unwind, that I begin to sense in some small ways that I have been to Paradise, that I have eaten from the Tree of Life, but I hardly noticed it.

    Why is this?  How is it that I can return to the "Ancient Bliss," and yet still not know it, not appreciate it, not rejoice in the return to Paradise?  

    When Adam and Eve left Paradise, they were clothed in animal skins.  These animal skins, the Church Fathers tell us, refer to the animal passions, the animal-like ways of thinking, desiring and perceiving.  So long as we cling to these animal ways of thinking and experiencing, we will be trapped, trapped in a kind of prison, a kind of hell, a kind of straight jacket.  But there is a way out, a way to become free to enter Paradise and walk with God there.

    God has given us holy Fathers and Mothers who have found the way to free themselves from most of the spiritually debilitating effects of these animal skins.  This way is the way of asceticism and the continual remembrance of God.  The holy Fathers and Mothers tell us that through asceticism, by learning to say no to ourselves and yes to God and those God has brought into our lives, we begin to lessen the pull of, or the passions of, the animal skins.  But asceticism is a tricky thing.  It's not as easy as just limiting what you eat or where you go or what you do.  Asceticism involves external behaviours, but it is not about them.  Asceticism is about controlling the inner person, or what the Apostle Paul called "the old man."

    To enter more fully, or with more full awareness, into Paradise, we must learn to let die our old man (which is growing corrupt through deceitful lusts).  We must learn to put on Christ.  This involves, of course, outward actions and attitudes, but is mostly about inner attention and nurture.  It is not easy.  What is easy is to be distracted by deceitful desires, fears, and cares.  It is easy, like an animal to go with the conditioned response, the familiar fix, the fast relief.  And every time we do, we reinforce our addiction to the Pavlovian responses of our old man, the old person clothed in animal skins.  Putting on Christ is sometimes rather painful, it's inconvenient, it involves self control and suffering a long time (aka Patience).  Putting on Christ requires hope in the Resurrection, faith that death is not the end, and love for God and others that is greater than our love for ourself. 

    Paradise is opened for us as a gift from God.  The new person within us, the new man (which is created by God within us according to righteousness and holiness) is born in us also as a gift from God in Baptism.  However, what we will nurture and what we will attend to (either the new man or the old), that depends on us.  

    Paradise and hell are open to us.  And we in this life, or so it seems, may experience both.  The world and the world's ways of thinking and doing train us to think and act in hellish ways: ways of selfishness and fear, ways of lustful appetites and futile coping mechanisms.  We are so easily caught up in these hellish ways of thinking and doing that, like my dog who starts salivating and jumping in circles when she hears me shaking her food bowl, we too just jump and spin in our thoughts to places far away or to things urgent (but not necessarily important) or to matters too high for us (as the Prophet David puts it in the Psalms).  Our minds jump to stimuli that we have little control over because we have not trained ourselves to attend to "the one thing needful."

    And this brings me back to Liturgy.  One of the purposes of liturgical services is to provide us with time and space to attend to the one thing needful.  It is a less important matter that I perceive very poorly (or perhaps even not at all) the spiritual Paradise I enter in the Divine Liturgy.  My perceptions matter much less than my intentions.  When I go to Church to pray, when I go to Church to teach my children to pray (even though I know I will pray very little), I am choosing Paradise.  I am saying yes to God and no to myself.  When I eat and drink the precious Body and Blood of Christ, I am nourishing the new man within me—even if I have not trained myself to perceive it very well, or even at all.  I am forcing myself, animal skins, old man and all, to submit to the Kingdom of God, to humble itself before the dread Mysteries of God.

    The day will come when we will all shed our animal skins.  "This body of death" is one of the names St. Paul gives to the old man at work in us.  When we die, we will be free.  There is no sin after death.  After death everything will change and nothing will change.  Nothing will change in that we will still be ourselves.  What we have longed for—even if we could never actually attain it in this corrupt and corrupting age—everything we have longed for we will still long for: whether it is the corrupting passions of this age or the Paradise of God's Presence.  And in the Age to Come everything will change in that this body of death that has distracted and deceived us will be separated from us.  Everything will change in that we will have nothing distracting us from the intense Presence of God.  And what we have longed for in this life will make all of the difference for us in the next.  And even in this life, although imperfectly, often almost imperceptibly, even in this life we have a foretaste of what is to come, what St. Paul calls a fragrance of life or a fragrance of death.

    Paradise is open for all.  Those of us like Lazarus' sister Mary, those of us who have learnt to attend to the one thing needful, these perceive Paradise most clearly now and often sit in peace at the feet of Jesus.  However, we Marthas, those of us distracted by much serving, distracted by the cares and deceitful desires of this world, we Marthas still come to Jesus.  We come like Martha with questions and objections, very seldom at peace. We come in a flurry of mind and activity, distracted and inattentive.  But we come.  And our Master receives us and feeds us His heavenly Food—even if we as infants do not realize what we are eating.  We come to Jesus distracted and sinful and often oblivious; we come to Jesus and He receives us.  We come to open Paradise, even though we barely perceive it.  And yet we have hope that in the Age to come we will all perceive Paradise fully, even as the Marys among us perceive partially it now.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Whose Got Talent?

What is a talent?  Generally speaking a talent refers to a special ability someone has.  This meaning of talent developed from the ancient meaning of the word which had to do with weighing, scales and money.  In biblical times, a tenant did not refer to someone’s ability, it referred to a certain weight of gold or silver (the exact weight varied over time and by culture, but it was a large amount, 50 -75 pounds).  It is easy to see how, as a natural extension of the meaning of talent as a large quantity of gold or silver, talent came also to refer to the deposit of one’s natural abilities.  Just as wealth is something people have in varying degrees and in varying commodities (cash, land, livestock, investments, minerals, etc.) all of which must be managed and wisely invested to be beneficial, so also each person has abilities, strengths and desirable qualities that need to be developed and used in order for those ‘talents’ to bring about the greatest benefit.  

According to some etymological dictionaries, one of the reasons why the word ‘talent’ came to take on the meaning of personal ability has to do with the fact that the word ‘talent’ is used in the parable of the talents recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  The popular interpretation of the parable of the talents has largely focused on the natural “God-given” gifts and abilities that each person has and for which each person will give an account to God on the Day of Judgement.  While I wouldn’t say that this is a wrong interpretation of this parable, I will say it is an interpretation that has, in my experience, created more guilt and excused more pride than it has actually helped people to enter into and experience the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  This parable is, after all, a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, not a parable of capitalist economics.  Christ is certainly not teaching us that we please God by getting the most out of life, the most out of our investments, and the most out of your natural abilities.  And yet this is how many of us have come to understand this parable because this is how the parable is generally taught—if not explicitly, certainly implicitly.  

And thus, natural abilities have more and more come to be associated with this word, ‘talent,’ to the extent that one cannot read this parable without thinking that the talents mentioned by Jesus refer to natural abilities, not units of money.  And even if we have bothered to read the notes in our bible telling us that the word ‘talent’ refers to a unit of money, still we do not stop to consider that this large amount of money referred to in the parable might refer to anything other than one’s “God-given,” that is, natural abilities.   

But how does the Church teach us to interpret this parable?  One of the themes of the services of Holy Tuesday is this very parable.  The following is a verse from the Presanctified Liturgy of that day:

Come, O Faithful,Let us work zealously for the Master,For He distributes wealth to His servants.Let each of us according to his ability Increase his talent of Grace:Let one be adorned in wisdom through good works;Let another celebrate a service in splendour;The one distributes his wealth to the poor;The other communicates the Word to those untaught.Thus we shall increase what has been entrusted to us,And, as faithful stewards of Grace,We shall be accounted worthy of the Master’s Joy.Make us worthy of this, O Christ our God,In Your love for mankind.
From the Holy Myrrh  Bearers translation of the Lenten Triodion 

Note that in these verses, and elsewhere not only in this particular service but in other hymns of the Church, the Church interprets the talents in this parable to be referring to Grace.  The wealth of the Kingdom of Heaven is Grace.  God distributes to His servants Grace according to their ability, or to quote 1Corinthians 12:11, the Holy Spirit “distributes to each one individually as He wills.”  Grace is God’s, it is not our own.  It is given to us.  Grace is, indeed, God Himself, God the Holy Spirit, as He comes to us, as He gives Himself to us and abides in us: to quote the parable in Matthew, “to each according to his own ability.”  

I like to use the image of three glasses of water to illustrate this idea of “to each according to his own ability.”  Imagine a shot glass, an orange juice glass, and a one-pint beer glass.  If all the glasses are full of water, we can say that each is full, even though the capacity of each is different.  In the same way, we can say that each Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit, or even full of Grace, although the capacity of each person differs.  

But unlike glasses of water, the human capacity to be filled with the Holy Spirit is not static.  As in the parable, the ones who received two and five talents and “traded” with them (literally, in Greek, ergzomai: “worked” with them), they increased their talents; so we also, if we work with or cooperate with the Grace of God given to us, we too increase our capacity for Grace.  God gives Himself to us freely.  We cannot earn the Grace of God.  We can, however, increase our capacity for the Grace of God.  We can also, if we are not attentive, lose the Grace of God—perhaps not completely, but certainly practically.  

Our spiritual life, our life with God, is given to us freely; but it is not static.  This is why the word ‘gift’ is so troublesome when we are talking about God’s Grace.  The problem with the word ‘gift’ used to translate the word charima in the New Testament (especially in 1 Corinthians 12) is that it just doesn’t mean in English what it means in Greek.  There are two word groups in the Greek New Testament that are translated into English as ‘gift’ and these two Greek word groups have very different emphases.  

The Greek words doron or dorea translate very nicely as our English word ‘gift.’  A gift (in English) as doron or dorea (in Greek), refers to a fixed thing that is given or received.  Charisma, on the other hand, refers to Grace, ‘a bit of Grace’ or ‘some Grace.’  It can be manifest in concrete actions, things or experiences, but charisma is not about the action, thing or experience—as it would be if it were a doran  (gift proper) or even a dorea  (a free gift)but rather the word charisma draws attention to the Grace that causes or manifests the action, thing or experience.  The very word itself is just a form of the word Grace (charis = Grace; charisma = some Grace, an endowment of Grace, or perhaps even a “graciation”).

When God gives us His Grace, God gives us Himself.  This is the teaching of Orthodox Church.  [If this is a new idea to you, I suggest you take a look at a transcript of Fr. Peter Alban Heers podcast, Post Cards From Greece, entitled “The uncreated Grace that is God.”]  Grace is nothing less than God Himself coming to us by his divine energies or workings.  

The sun makes an excellent metaphor of this reality.  We actually experience the sun itself when we experience it’s warmth and light—for the heat and light of the sun is nothing else but the sun itself as it radiates outward.  However, although we do truly experience the sun itself, we do not experience the sun in its essence, in its inner reality.  All we know about the inner reality of the sun is based on scientific speculation, not actual experience.  We both experience and don’t experience the sun.  Similarly, we both know and do not know God.

We know God, in that intimate, biblical sense of the word ‘know,’ in as much as God comes to us, as God reveals Himself to us, as God the Holy Spirit fills us.  We do (or at least can) certainly know God.  However, God is also unknowable.  God in His essence, in His “Godness,” in Himself, as God knows Himself—this is completely unknowable to us.  We are creatures.  God is Creator.  That’s it.  

And yet, God has created human beings “in His image and after His likeness.”  God has created human beings to walk with God—as did Adam and Eve in the Garden before the fall.  God has created human beings to participate in His divine Light, and even to some extent in His divine Nature, so St. Peter tells us (2 Peter 1:4).  God has created us to know Him, love Him and have Him even abide (or dwell) in us (see John chapters 6 and 15 and 1 John 2:14). This is Grace, this is God coming to us, walking with us, transforming us, abiding in us and loving us and the world through us.

And so, to return to the parable of the talents, when we read this parable, we must realize that the Master is none other than God and the talents that he gives are nothing less than God’s wealth: God Himself, God’s Grace, God in His energies or workings, God as He comes to us.  This parable is not really at all about external things, our natural abilities or what we normally call talents in English. And when we interpret this parable in this merely external way, I believe it causes more harm than good.

I actually know people who have been burdened with guilt for years because, for example, they used to play piano well and now they no longer play much.  They are full of guilt because they have been taught that the meaning of this parable is that God will judge us if we do not develop and keep growing in our natural abilities.  I have also hear sports figures, even fighters, boast of and justify their pursuit of an athletic career by claiming that they are just being faithful to the "talent" God has given them.  

Now, I am not saying that there is anything better or worse about pursuing an athletic career (certainly nothing worse than pursing a career in politics, law, finance or, dare I say it, writing blog posts on spirituality).  But what I am saying is that to refer to a proclivity and/or ability in any field of endeavour as the talent one has been given by God and for which God will judge them if they do not attend to it, this is just not true.  It is not the message of Jesus.  Yes, God will certainly judge us, but not concerning whether or not we continue to play piano or play football or stay in politics (or whatever other activity we may be good at).   No, God will judge us according to His Grace: according to what have we done with the Grace God has given us.  

Now certainly, Grace manifests itself in our life in concrete ways.  There are manifestations of the Spirit and fruits of the Spirit.  There are ministries and activities and experiences of all sorts that are the outworking of the Grace of God in us (which is the same thing as the Holy Spirit in us, which is God abiding in us).  Like Mary (the sister of Lazarus), we need to attend to the One Thing Needful.  Attending to the One Thing Needful, we may also wash dishes, play the piano, change a baby’s diaper, and yes, even play football; but the most important thing is the Grace in our hearts imbuing us, compelling us, and guiding us.  This is what the Church means when it teaches us to keep our mind in our heart.  

We attend to Christ in our hearts.  Christ in our hearts: this is the gift of Grace.  From there, from the heart full of Grace, all sorts of various ministries and works will be manifest.  But the works, even the works that we are naturally good at, are not the ‘talent.’  The talent is the Grace.  It is the Grace that we must increase as we “work with it,” as we attend to it, as we cooperate with it, as we co-labour with God.  This is the talent that God has given us, to be filled with His Grace (each according to our own capacity) and to work with that Grace until, as it says in Ephesians, we reach “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Speaking About Spiritual Things

He who is pure of soul and chaste in life always speaks the words of the Spirit discreetly, and in accord with his own measure he speaks of the things of God and of the things that are within him.  But when a man’s heart is crushed by the passions, his tongue is moved by them; and even though he speak of spiritual matters, yet he discourses passionately, to the end that he might be victorious….
St. Isaac the Syrian 

One of the mistakes I have often made in speaking of spiritual things is to speak about them in a worldly way.  St. Isaac points out that how one speaks of spiritual things is perhaps more important than the spiritual matters themselves.  

St. Isaac gives us some guidance to help us discern our actual inner state when we speak of spiritual things.   He is not providing us with a prescription for how we should speak.  Rather he his providing a diagnostic tool to help us understand when we are speaking of spiritual matters inappropriately, or according to our passions.  As a person interested in developing a deeper relationship with God and as one conversant in “spiritual matters”—especially as a priest who is almost constantly speaking about spiritual matters—I am concerned that it is all too easy for me to deceive myself into thinking that I am indeed living by and experiencing in my own inner life the spiritual realities and principles that I talk about, when in reality I am, as St. Isaac says, “crushed by the passions”. 

St. Isaac in the quote above seems to be offering us two pointers to help us discern our inner state.  The first has to do with speaking discreetly, which I will talk about in a moment; and the second has to do with speaking of things that our within ourselves.  This is a point made often by St. Isaac and many other spiritual writers: When we speak of spiritual things, we need to limit ourselves to what we ourselves actually experience.  

It is very tempting to give advice on spiritual matters about experiences, states, conditions and disciplines that I myself have not actually experienced and do not actually practice.  I’ve read a lot.  I have read about holy men and women who have experienced great heights in their relationship with God, men and women who have shone with the Uncreated Light, who have been caught up in prayer, seen visions; who have fasted, prayed and kept vigil with great perseverance; who have born the fruit of a God-filled life.  But I have personally experienced very, very little of this.  

My experience has been basically a continual trying and failing, a never-ending exercise in falling and getting back up again.  I have come to realize that I am a one-talent Christian, doing my best just to keep my one talent in the bank (the Church) where at least it will earn interest (rather than buried in self-pity, by pulling away and not even trying, again and again).  I appreciate—more than appreciate—I am amazed by those who have been given two or even five talents of Grace, who have taken the Grace given to them and “traded” with it, who have earned five talents more through their diligent application and attention to the Grace given them.  

These Holy Ones amaze me.  They inspire me.  But when it comes to my giving advice to others, I need to speak “in accord with my own measure.”  Yes, I can and should speak of what the Saints have achieved, the advice they give based on their actual experience with God.  But I must be very careful not to speak in such a way that might give the impression that I personally know and live and experience what I am talking about.  The passions are tricky things.  It is especially difficult to notice that we are speaking passionately about spiritual things when others are asking us for advice.  We must be very careful.  I must be very careful.  

According to St. Isaac, one way to know that we are speaking passionately about spiritual matters is to notice if we are speaking in accord with our own measure, of things that are actually in ourselves.  Truly, I think we deceive ourselves when we speak beyond ourselves about spiritual things.  We deceive ourselves because we think speaking of spiritual matters is just like speaking of airplanes or philosophical principles.  The spiritual life does not work that way.  When we speak of spiritual things, we communicate much more by who we are than by what we say.  And if these two do not line up relatively well, those to whom we speak will know.  The effect of our words will not be life-giving, but will rather be just more information, and that’s in the best case scenario.  In the worst case scenario, our passionate words on spiritual matters will communicate not life but death, not help but condemnation, and not encouragement but guilt.  When speaking on spiritual matters, less is generally more.

So, one of the ways St. Isaac give us to discern our spiritual state when speaking about spiritual matters has to do with staying within the limits of ourselves: our own actual experience of the spiritual life.  When we find ourselves speaking or tempted to speak beyond ourselves in spiritual matters, then we know it is time to shut up.  We are speaking passionately, and even if the words we speak are true on some level, to speak them with passions is to betray the very words we speak.

The other pointer St. Isaac gives us to discern whether or not we are speaking of speaking passionately of spiritual matters is tied to the word “discreet.”  
discreet |disˈkrēt|
adjective (discreeter, discreetest)
careful and circumspect in one's speech or actions, especially in order to avoid causing offense or to gain an advantage: we made some discreet inquiries.
  • intentionally unobtrusive: a discreet cough.

My first serious spiritual conversation with a holy person was with an abbess.  More than any particular thing she said at that time, what has stayed with me over the years has been how she spoke.  She was not only tentative in what she said (This might be, Have you considered this, You could try to…), she was very quick to back down and admit that she might not at all know what the best or right thing to do in this situation was.  As soon as I challenged something she said, she would respond, “Perhaps you are right.”  In order to get anything out of her I had to shut up and just humbly listen.  Mother Abbess was very discreet.  

St. Isaac tells us that a passionate person, one “crushed by the passions,” speaks of spiritual things “to the end that he might be victorious.” It seems to me to be a pretty sure sign that I am speaking passionately about spiritual things when I find myself angling to be right, trying to prove my point, or showing how the other person is wrong.  When I am not speaking discreetly about spiritual things but am intruding where I am not invited, causing offence or gaining advantage, when I am intent on showing that my position, idea, advice or observation is right, then (if I notice it in time) I know it is time for me to stop talking.  Spiritual advice must be given and received in a spiritual, holy, manner.  We are not talking about worldly matters, so we cannot speak in a worldly way.  It just doesn’t work.  You end up communicating many things you never intended to communicate and little of what you intended to communicate.  Here I am speaking from personal experience.  

It seems as though it is always best to say nothing at all.  “Silence,” St. Isaac tells us, “is the language of heaven.”  And yet, love compels us to speak.  With all of the dangers and possibilities for misunderstanding, still we feel we must speak because we love.  And so we speak about spiritual things, we speak in words that which can only be rightly communicated in silence.  We speak in words because in our fallen and broken and not-yet-healed state it is all we have to encourage and instruct, to help and to aid one another.  But we speak carefully, discreetly, and about that which is within us, careful not to imply that we too experience the same spiritual heights as those holy Fathers and Mothers we read of.  

Because, in the end, I know that I cannot help anyone.  God is the One who helps.  “Salvation is of the Lord,” we are told repeatedly in the scriptures and hymns of the Church.  I am merely a helper.  We might even say an unnecessary helper in that God doesn’t need anyone’s help to save.  And yet, God has made us necessary.  God has invited us (each of us in our own little ways) to be helpers in bringing about the salvation of those around us, the salvation that He alone effects.  And God brings us to this work of love even before we are perfected, even while we are still sinners and broken and screwing up every time we open our mouths, God uses even us as we are now.   God has invited us to love with Him, to give what we have (not pretending that we have more), to share what has been giving us, even if what has been given us is much less than what has been given to others.  

It’s OK to be a one-talent Christian—even to be a one-talent priest.  Like the widow who gave her two mites (all that she had to live on), so we too give in love to each other the little that we have.  The power to save lies not in the size or effectiveness of the words or gifts or actions we give to one another, but the power to save lies in the One who has invited us into His labour of love.