Archive for October, 2006

The Descent into Hades

October 26, 2006


Charles Williams, one of C.S. Lewis’ circle of friends, once wrote a book entitled, The Descent into Hell. In it he chronicles the slow inexorable damnation of a soul. Choices made or not made – a chronicle more of spiritual ennui than of willful rebellion – it is a very sobering novel.

There is an understanding of hell that goes far beyond the typical lake of fire and burning Gehenna. Those images, though Biblical, frequently do not speak to the full existential character of hell. Thus it becomes something of a commonplace in our time to think of hell much like heaven – just one of the alternatives we face in life after death. Neither are considered alternatives within the present or having anything to do with daily life other than as eventual consequences.

This is a tragedy, both for its failure to give a more compelling account of the “nowness” of the Kingdom of God (which Christ certainly preached – Luke 17:21), and for its frequent caricature of hell which falls far short of describing the emptiness of humanity apart from God.

The Orthodox faith, particularly in its liturgical cycle, makes much of the descent of Christ into Hades. The service on Holy Saturday is very much about this descent noting that the victory of Christ over death and hell, begins first in hell (I am using “hell” and “hades” interchangeably at this point – a common practice within Church language).

The closest thing to a definition of hell given in Scripture is not the imagery of burning gehenna, but in a statement Christ makes in the Gospel of John. “This is condemnation, that Light has come into the world, and men preferred darkness to the Light” (John 3:19). This image is, for me, far more poignant than the lake of fire and such. The weakness found in the frightening, graphic imagery of the fire, gnashing of teeth, etc., are their passive character. It is easily translated into something that is done to us. It might even imply that one would have wanted things to be different.

The verse in John implies just the opposite – hell (condemnation) is what it is – only because we want it so. As a priest this portrayal of condemnation has been by far the most helpful approach in dealing pastorally with people. It is not the threat of what someone (God) may do to them, but the existential reality of what you are doing to yourself – even now.

For some, thinking about hell as a choice sounds absurd. They reason within themselves, “Who would willingly choose hell?” I think to myself, “Plenty of people – I meet them all the time and sometimes I am one of them.”

In the gospel the story of the rich young ruler is the story of someone who meets Christ, is loved by Christ, and is invited into the intimacy of discipleship by Christ himself! The cost, however, is everything he owns. And we are told he went away sad because he was rich. He went away sad, but he went away. Human beings frequently choose something other than God – even though it makes them sad – because they love darkness more than they love the light.

That is the story of our descent into Hell. It is a movement away from God, away from the light and a descent into darkness, alienation, and self-love. It is a hell that infects our hearts even in the present and has the potential for becoming the very definition of the state of our souls beyond the grave.

But this is where the liturgical celebration of Christ’s descent into hell becomes particularly joyful. The love of God is such that He entered into hell – into the depths of darkness where we had plunged ourselves. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” refers not only to the Gentiles who can now hear the gospel, but to those souls in Hades who behold the Light of Christ in the midst of that great darkness.

“Hell was embittered!” is the refrain in St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily. The darkness did not want to give up its captives.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos (+1938) heard from God, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” It ranks among the most peculiar sayings in the lives of any of the saints. For him it meant that he was to enter into the despair and darkness of others, in prayer, but not to despair himself. He was to pray for the world as though we were responsible for the sins of all. He was, like Christ, to follow love to its complete conclusion and extend his love to the uttermost. This is the love that we see on the Cross – the love of God that reaches even to the depths of hell.

If we are not bound by forensic imagery, but instead understand heaven and hell as the state of the soul before God, then we can see far more clearly the extent of the love of God. “Lo, if I make my bed in hell, Thou art there” (Psalm 139:8). It also is the measure of the love that is expected of us. Thus we are commanded to forgive even our enemies.

On a day to day basis we are called to descend into the darkness of those about us and pray. We should pray for Light, for forgiveness for grace to do whatever mysterious work it does in creating a clean heart. To follow the path of Christ always leads us to the Cross – but we should see that the Cross stands firmly in the midst of man’s darkness. Glory to God who has shown us the Light!

An Update on the Pontificator and Limbo

October 24, 2006

Al Kimel, writing on Pontifications, has posted another article on Limbo, this time doing a masterful job of stating quite clearly why the doctrine is wrong, why children, unbaptized, still enjoy the bliss of heaven. His reason is simple: the love of God. The problem that has plagued the West on this subject is accurately analyzed as well: the false assumptions by St. Augustine, et. al. concerning what we know.

Al has been a long friend of mine, and though we took different directions when we parted ways with Anglicanism (he to Rome, I to Orthodoxy), I hold him in high regard, both for his integrity and his ability to think and write. I am pleased to see that integrity and clarity put to such good use on the subject of Limbo.

How long before they send him to Rome?

Worship and the Knowledge of God

October 23, 2006


We prove God’s existence by worshiping Him and not by advancing so-called proofs. We have here the liturgical and iconographic argument for the existence of God. We arrive at a solid belief in the existence of God through a leap over what seems true, over the Pascalian certitude. According to an ancient monastic saying, “Give your blood and receive the Spirit.”

Paul Evdokimov

Evdokimov’s insight follows quite literally the pattern of the Church’s liturgy itself. Catechumens in the early Church were not, interestingly, given great lessons in theology prior to Baptism. Indeed, the Symbol of Faith (Creed) was not given to those being Baptized until the service of Baptism itself. In the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), the Creed is not recited until afterthe dismissal of the catechumens. Such knowledge was reserved for those who had been illumined in Holy Baptism.

In the service of Baptism itself, after catechumens have been exorcised, and have renounced the Devil, they are then brought into the Church. There, facing the East, they are told, “Worship God!” Making a prostration, this first profound act of worship precedes the Creed – indeed it is an act that makes the Creed intelligible.

We know God in an act of giving ourselves to Him. He has, of course, given Himself first – but our response cannot be to consider the gift, to reason the gift. We embrace the gift – we bow before Him.

Christ said, “If you continue in my words, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). The second part of this statement is usually quoted free-standing, without its context. The context of knowledge given by Christ is continuance in His words. As we give ourselves to Him, whether in worship or in the “least of these my brethren,” we know Him.

The proof of God’s existence liturgical and iconographic is thus a dynamic relationship with the God who gives Himself to us. This alone makes possible the Truth which sets us free.

In Limbo No More

October 22, 2006

Al Kimel, over at Pontifications, has posted an excellent article that supports the Vatican’s possible abandonment of the doctrine of Limbo, that is, a doctrine that consigns unbaptized babies to somewhere other than the Beatific Vision of Heaven (in some Catholic accounts, limbo was a place of natural bliss, in others a place of torment.) He references an article by Fr. John Breck which is an excellent Orthodox statement on the subject. Fr. John has been my confessor since my conversion to Orthodoxy – he and his wife Lynn are deeply committed to issues surrounding the death of children. His article comes from a heart and a mind that has engaged the subject on the deepest theological level.

For the Orthodox faith, the question of unbaptized children is not fraught with difficulty. The Western doctrine of Original Sin, in which we are born with the guilt of Adam and thus born deserving of Hell, is simply not part of the Orthodox faith. Orthodox theology speaks rather of Ancestral Sin – we inherit from Adam a fallen world that includes our mortality. Children are born mortal – but not liable to guilt and punishment.

The tragedy of the doctrine of Original Sin, when it is understood in a forensic (legal) manner, is that it inevitably presents God as merciless, or powerless, or worse. It creates stumbling blocks for unbelievers who reject a God who would consign an infant to Hell (or less than heaven).

The sacrament of Baptism, in which we are united with the death and resurrection of Christ, is in no way weakened by the mercies of a God who saves beyond the bounds of the sacraments. The sacraments are not limits – mere “instruments” of grace in the toolbox of the Church. The sacraments are concrete manifestations of the Life of God in the Church. As such, they cannot be limited to those acts that have been given to us for our salvation. The Life of God is the Life of God. He saves whom He wills, how He wills.

Our salvation is no mere legal transaction. Our salvation is our union, our incorporation in the Life of God. It is not foreign to us (death is foreign to us) but is the reason for our existence in the first place. The forensic metaphor tends to make punishment and hell our natural state instead of the failure that it is. Sin, hamartia, means “missing the mark.” It is the failure to become what we are created to be. Sin is not natural to us, but contrary to our nature, a contradiction of who we are as human beings. A God who did not spare His son for the sake of our salvation would not be so unkind as to neglect our salvation because something intervened in our Baptism. Again, I mean no belittling of the greatness of our Baptism. However, in the Orthodox blessing of Water in that service we sing: “Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and there is no word which sufficeth to hymn Thy wonders.” Such a God knows no limits to His love, or the power of His love.

Whenever theology runs counter to the love of God – no matter how neat and tidy – how carefully reasoned – something has gone wrong. I commend Fr. Breck’s article to all of you, and hope that new directions in Roman Catholic theology will indeed come to pass.

Saving Beauty

October 22, 2006



“God will save the World Through Beauty”


This saying, often attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky, never occurs in precisely this form in his novels – though the idea is present in such a strong sense that the phrase is correctly attributed to him. It is a phrase that is easily misunderstood. For Dostoevsky, in good Orthodox fashion, beauty is far more than a matter of aesthetics – it is the very goodness of creation itself.


However (and this is the great writer’s genius), Dostoevsky sees beauty in strangely contradictory forms. The beauty that Dostoevsky sees as potientially salvific is itself a great mystery. In a very powerful paragraph in the Brothers Karamazov, the Brother, Dmitri, states the problem very clearly. Drawing on a line of poetry that says that God gave to the insects “sensual lust,” Dmitri begins by calling himself an insect and says that all the Karamazovs are insects.

I am that insect, brother, and it is said of me specially. All we Karamazovs are such insects, and, angel as you are, that insect lives in you, too, and will stir up a tempest in your blood. Tempests, because sensual lust is a tempest worse than a tempest! Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but an enigma. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am not a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many mysteries weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water. Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Theotokos (Madonna)  and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

There is no simple definition of beauty for Dostoevsky. He recognizes the contradictions within it. “I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Mother of God and ends with the ideal of Sodom.” He even recognizes that the man who has fallen into the clutches and bondage of the ideal of Sodom still has in his heart the ideal of the Mother of God. Such contradiction.


Dmitri Karamazov speaks of beauty as a hunger, a passion: sometimes for the Mother of God, the Madonna, sometimes for Sodom. But we are people whose heart envisions and propels us forward. This sense of passion is expressed in the Fathers as eros, or desire. Eros can be desire for God when rightly directed, or misdirected becomes the engine of our destruction.

In gospel terms, we would say that everyone has a hunger for theKingdom of God. It is a deep hunger for the most profound relationship, for a beauty that is beyond the reckoning of this world. It is a beauty that is made manifest in forgiveness and responsibility for all and to all. It is the beauty of suffering love

But Dmitri says more about this seed – this passion. He indicates that from his perspective, the madness of humanity is that it can direct its passion in either direction: the Madonna or Sodom – and even when it is in Sodom, still maintain a passion for the Madonna. There have been many examples of this in our modern world: the ugliness of the totalitarian state and yet the beauty of Shostakovitch.


In Dmitri’s notions, I hear later echoes in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Zhivago (whose name is itself a play on the Russian word for life) is both doctor and poet. Surrounded by the collapse of his world, both as a child, and later as an adult, he nevertheless has this heart and passion for life. In David Lean’s movie version of the novel (which is different enough to make it almost mandatory that one read the novel), this passion for life is represented by the music of “Lara’s Theme.” From the moment of his mother’s funeral, to the end of his life, this drive for life compels him. And like the ambiguity of Dmitri’s beauty, Zhivago is able to find beauty in his marriage to Anna or in his adulterous relationship with Lara. His relationship with both is a reaching for life – despite the immorality of his life with Lara. Both he and Lara are aware of the wrongness of their situation (Sodom) but are sustained by the sheer beauty of the life they have between them (Madonna).


There is this strange contradiction and mystery to beauty within the hunger of the human heart. Dmitri expresses this with great insight: “What’s awful is that beauty is not only a terrible, but also a mysterious thing. Here the devil struggles with God, and the field of battle is the human heart.”

The field of battle is the human heart.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great survivor of the Soviet Gulag and prophetic giant among the Dissidents of the Soviet Union, said much the same thing:


It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil. (From Gulag Archipelago)


Beauty, whether a hunger for the Mother of God or a thirst for Sodom, are both found within the human heart. One is a true hunger, man’s true end – the other a distortion, a missing of the mark.


In Orthodox teaching this is the very nature of sin. Sin is not the breaking of a law and thus the acquiring of guilt. Sin is missing the mark. Man was created, the early Fathers taught, not as an absolutely perfect being who fell from paradise – an infinite sin – worthy of an infinite guilt (and punishment). Rather man was created with a proper end. He is created without sin, with no imperfection, but he was not made at the beginning as he was to become.


St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in the late 2nd century, described Adam and Eve as adolescents. Their turning aside from God was a turning aside from the fullness of life in union with God that was intended for them. Thus St. Paul calls Christ, “the Second Adam.” He is the true Adam, the true man, the One who is what man was always meant to be. As Christ will say of himself, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” Or as St. Paul will say of Jesus, “He is the author and finisher of our faith.”


In the world of Orthodox Tradition, no story captures the transformation from the distortions of passion to the pure desire of God more deeply than that of St. Mary of Egypt. Far more than an obscure story about an obscure desert saint, hers is perhaps the best known story of a woman saint in the Church (not including the Mother of God). The fifth Sunday of Great Lent is always dedicated to her. Earlier in the week, in preparation for her service on Sunday, a lengthy service of repentance is done in the Church, during which her Life, first told to the Ven. St. Zossima (another 6th century saint), is read aloud in its entirety.


She begins life (at least in her teen years) as a prostitute in Alexandria. She makes it clear that she did not do this out of necessity, but because she liked it. She added to this all of the debauchery and drunkenness that one might have. She admits that she often engaged in evil not for profit, but simply for the pleasure she found.


One day, hearing a party going on (or what she supposed to be a party) she followed the sound down to the wharves. There a group was gathering and preparing for a pilgrimage to Holy Jerusalem. As a lark, she decides to join them (working the price of her passage off by corrupting various young male pilgrims). Arriving in Jerusalem she goes with them to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ’s true Cross was exposed for veneration, as well as his empty tomb. Coming to the doors of the Church, something like an invisible wall, prevented her from entering. She tried repeatedly but could not enter.


In a single moment she is struck with the reality of her life and the work of repentance begins. It matures over the course of a lifetime as she becomes an anchorite in the desert. By the end of her life she has lost all outward beauty. Withered by sun and heat she is almost ghost-like in her appearance. But within there is a beauty that is the glory of sainthood.


Her story is read aloud in the Orthodox Church every year. It is a model of repentance and of the forgiveness of God. The most vile prostitute becomes a most holy woman. She has abandoned false beauty and been redeemed by a beauty that is not of this world but of God. This transformation is at the heart of the Orthodox way of life. It does much to explain the more or less canonical requirement that our churches be made beautiful. (Sometimes it’s a challenge if you’re doing church in a warehouse, a storefront, or buildings not designed to be used for Orthodox worship. Nonetheless buildings, like the people in them, should strive for beauty, the beauty of heaven.) It certainly is a large component in the making and veneration of icons.


In the creation story in Genesis, God looks at what He has made and says, “It is good.” In the Greek translation of the passage, God looks at the world and says that it is kalos a word that means “good” – but also means beautiful. The Hebrew carries some sense of this as well. The goodness God sees can be described as Beauty.We can thus say with great confidence that whether God will save the world through Beauty, Beauty certainly will be the result of salvation.


May God make us truly beautiful with the beauty that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Putting the Finger on Modern Paganism

October 20, 2006


I spent a fortnight in England this summer. Staying in an excellent Orthodox monastery (St. John the Baptist in Essex) and touring the country for another week. The greatest part of the week, I believe, will prove to be the fact that I was roommate for 14 days with my 19 year-old son, James. He’s good company and very down-to-earth in his assessments of things. Solid man – the type you’d want in a foxhole with you. The most fun moment probably came at Stonehenge. We enjoyed the monument, even when it was attacked by a giant finger! It’s an incredible piece of prehistoric work, whatever it was used for. Shortly after we arrived (in the week following summer solstice, mind you), busloads of badly dressed pilgrims showed up for druid stuff. I say, “badly dressed,” not because it was poorly sewn and what-not, but because everyone seemed to think that something period-based was necessary. Now, mind you, I was standing there in standard issue Russian Orthodox cassock, so I can’t complain about looking a bit different. But things suddenly looked like historical reenactment events – only, organized by highschoolers. They drifted away to a neighboring field and carried on whatever religious rites they have contrived.

The great tragedy is that they are drawn to this mysterious place for something (they know not what) and nothing has challenged them beyond the ordinary other than this silly dress up druidism. Not the Church – nothing else. Something has got to be better than a do-it-yourself religion (no one knows more than a paragraph or two about genuine druid thought). Here I ached for the children of Britain (and America). Their experience is emptied by our vacuous culture. They’re willing to buy literally just anything. And the greatest story ever told has become somehow so tame that it cannot capture their imagination. How sad. How deeply sad for us all.

The deepest longings of Paganism, strangely enough, are fulfilled in the fullness of the Christian faith. Everything man wants and desires (truly) is to be found in this fullness. I did not preach at Stonehenge, though I wanted to. St. Paul is  braver than me and would not have avoided such an opportunity. God help us and make us more like St. Paul.

Words for the Heart

October 20, 2006

You cannot be too gentle, too kind.

Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other.

Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.

All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other…

Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace.

Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Glory to God for All Things

October 19, 2006

Glory to God for all things. For things growing and things that are passing away. For a good walk on a summer day and the quiet of a country lane. Glory to God for all things both revealed and not revealed for He is good and Lord of all.

What Matters?

October 19, 2006


God matters and what matters to God matters. I know that sounds very redundant, but I’m not sure how else I want to say it. There are many things that do not matter – because they do not matter to God. Knowing the difference between the two – what matters to God and what does not requires that we know God.

And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.

Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.

Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He is person. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.

It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

The Orthodox way of life is only about knowing God. Everything we do, whether it is prayer, communion, confession, forgiveness, fasting – all of it is about knowing God. If it is about something else, then it is delusion and a distraction from our life’s only purpose.

Knowing God is not a distraction from knowing other persons, nor is knowing other persons a distraction from knowing God. But, like God, knowing other persons is not the same thing as thinking about them, much less is it objectifying them.

Knowing others is so far from being a distraction from knowing God, that it is actually essential to knowing God. We cannot say we love God, whom we have not seen, and hate our brother whom we do see, St. John tells us. We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies (1 John 4:7-8).

And this matters.

This blog does not matter – except that I may share something that makes it possible for someone to know God or someone may share something that allows themselves to be known. This matters.

Seeds from Different Worlds

October 19, 2006


God took seeds from different worlds and sowed them on this earth, and His garden grew, and everything came up that could come up, but all growing things live and are alive only through the feeling of their contact with other mysterious worlds. If that feeling grows weak or is destroyed in you, what has grown up in you will die. Then you will become indifferent to life and even grow to hate it. That’s what I think.
The Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This small quote from the “Teachings of the Elder Zossima,” is perhaps among the stranger sounding to our 21st century ears. “Contact with other mysterious worlds” sounds like extraterrestrial stuff which would put Dostoevsky in the boat with Jules Verne. But as it is, he is not referring to any such thing, but rather, in an odd turn of phrase, to the fact that everything that exists does so because of its reference to God. The seed of each living thing is its relationship to God – only here Dostoevsky has put that statement into terms that make us stop and think and perhaps see something we’ve not seen before.
Especially helpful is his statement that we only live and are alive by feeling our contact with that “other mysterious world.” Again, it is possible to misread the novelist. Our language has so devalued the meaning of feeling that we risk hearing this as another trite emphasis on emotion and the like. Instead, it is a profound reminder that we can grow cold and hard and sadly unaware of the true nature of our life.
More frightening still is his warning that letting our hearts grow cold we can become indifferent to life and even to hate it. This, in Orthodox terms, is a picture of hell.
In Christ’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, He speaks of a “great gulf that is fixed” between the Rich Man in Hades and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. I have read any number of metaphysical speculations on the meaning of the “great gulf.” Most venture some sort of impossible barrier between heaven and hell. The great gulf does seem to be a great barrier, but I have come to think that the barrier is nothing other than the hardness and emptiness of the rich man’s heart.
Every day the rich man passed Lazarus at his gate, and in doing so passed the entrance to paradise. Becoming cold and indifferent the gulf of empty hate is fixed. In another place Dostoevsky’s Elder Zossima says, “Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.”
Doctrine is the fruit of a Divine seed (to use Dostoevsky’s imagery). To think about it is necessary, but we must do so with great caution. If we approach doctrine as something inert, a mere idea, then we risk the loss of feeling (truly knowing in an experiential manner) its connection with that other “mysterious world.” In such a way it is possible to do “theology” in hell.
Orthodox life is most properly to be found as the living expression of what Dostoevsky referred to in his “mysterious worlds.” Fr. Georges Florovsky once called doctrine a “verbal icon of Christ.” As such, even the verbal icon (like all icons) has value only because it refers to its prototype. Or, in Biblical terms, “I believed and therefore have I spoken” (2 Corinthians 4:13).
The garden of God is a wondrous place. That’s what I think.


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