Archive for July, 2007

Where Have You Seen Beauty?

July 31, 2007


Within the bounds of propriety I will pose the following question: Where have you encountered Beauty and how did it relate to God? I’m just interested in hearing some stories. Be reasonable about length. But bear witness to what you have seen. I’ve written about “music from another room,” my first encounter with Rachmaninov’s Vespers. I could add to that my first encounter with a couple of famous icons. In each case, my heart ached for something that seemed to be behind or within the sight and sound. These encounters with Beauty were palpable encounters with God. I could only weep and pray.

May God bless your sharing.

All Things Work Together for Good

July 31, 2007


The doctrine of Divine Providence, stated in various fashions, has always been problematic for me. Years ago it was problematic because I wrestled with issues of human freedom and how they related to God’s good provision. Today it is less an issue of freedom and more an issue of faith. Simply believing on a day to day basis that God is doing good for me in all the things that happen.

Famously, in the Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina we hear:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy will. At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy will.

This prayer simply prays what St. Paul has taught in Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

This week I read yet another reflection on the same teaching, this time in the writings of Fr. John Krestiankin, a holy elder of the Pskov-Caves Monastery, who reposed in the Lord just this last year. His statement, however, seemed to me a more helpful statement of the teaching than I had encountered before:

There are no accidents in life; God the Provider rules the world. Every situation has its higher spiritual meaning, and is given by God in order to fulfill this eternal goal – knowledge of God. We must always remain true to this higher goal, true and faithful to Holy Orthodoxy, no matter what antagonistic external conditions we find ourselves in.

Fr. John was a survivor of Stalin’s camps and harassment for many years after that. He is not an individual who just glibly smiles and says, “All things work together for good.” To spend time in the heart of the Gulag, to be a witness to some of the worst the twentieth century had to offer, and yet state, “There are no accidents in life; God the Provider rules the world,” is to see with eyes that most do not have.

What I found most helpful was his statement that everything has a “higher meaning.” My great difficulty comes when all I see is before me and I refuse to see more. It’s as if I become a literalist about life around me, refusing to allow Christ to be the one who interprets life to me. But this is the faith of the Fathers. God rules, not man. Christ stood with calm in the face of Pilate’s threats. Pilate asserted Caesar’s power and yet Christ said, “You would have no power over me had it not been given to you from above.” Fr. John’s statement, St. Paul’s teaching, the Prayer of the Elders of Optina are simply the Church standing in that place before Pilate and saying, “You would have no power had it not been given to you from above.”

Where else could they stand?

Revisiting the Problem of Goodness

July 30, 2007


I first wrote and published this reflection back in May. It seemed relevant to recent discussions. I have added an additional reflection at the end that I think is worthwhile. I hope you find this useful. 

From my first class in Philosophy 101 in college, the so-called “Problem of Evil” has been tossed up as the “clincher” in arguments against the existence of God. How can a good God allow innocent people to suffer? The most devastating case ever made on the subject was in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov, in the chapter entitled “Rebellion,” which is the chapter preceding the famous “Grand Inquisitor,” makes the details of his argument known. He is at an inn with his religious brother, Alyosha. A brief summary would be to say the suffering of innocent children is not worth anything good that God might do.

It’s a very strong argument – so strong, in fact – that Dostoevsky, a Christian believer, feared he had made the case too strong and did not succeed in refuting it in the novel. I disagree with his gloomy assessment.

My argument is somewhat the opposite. It is the problem of Good. Why with the world as dysfunctional as it is do we encounter transcendant goodness in the lives of some people? No one on the basis of nature and nurture can really answer it. Given the world and its headlines, why are not all people largely stockaded in their homes, armed to the teeth?

Why does a stranger volunteer to donate bone marrow to another perfect stranger? The procedure invovles pain.

Why does Mother Teresa gather up over 40,000 dying children from the streets of Calcutta in her lifetime and treat them with love and dignity – when everyone around her is just walking past the problem? Or why does one man lay down his life for others in the death camps of the Nazi’s like the Catholic priest, St. Maximillian Kolbe?

In July 1941, a man from Kolbe’s bunker had vanished, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the Lagerführer (i.e., the camp commander), to pick 10 men from the same bunker to be starved to death in Block 11 (notorious for torture), in order to deter further escape attempts. (The man who had disappeared was later found drowned in the camp latrine). One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only four of the ten men were still alive, including Kolbe. During the time in the cell, he led the men in songs and prayer. The cells were needed, and Kolbe and the other three were executed with an injection of carbolic acid in the left arm.

St. Maria Skobtsove demonstrated similar kindness in the Nazi camps after being arrested for her help with Jews. She died in prison.

And the litany of such actions grows. I do not find it hard to explain Hitler’s evil. He and the men like him were products of their time, their environment, perhaps with demonic inspiration thrown in. Hitler ordered the Berlin Philharmonic to play pieces from the Goetterdamerueng [the Twilight of the Gods] while the Russian troops entered Berlin. He existed in the most educated and enlightened country in the Europe in its day.

The serial killers, even of children, are fairly explainable. I saw an interview with Jeffrey Dahlmer before his death in prison. He sounded quite normal except for his habit of killing and eating people.

But where does transcendant goodness come from? Are some people born with a goodness gene? I do not think so. Their unanimous declaration is that they are imitating Christ without whose Divine aid none of their good works would be possible. They want no credit for their work. Mother Teresa gave away the money from her Nobel Prize.

How is it that someone forgives their enemies?

Such goodness in the world is easily outnumbered by the acts of evil, petty and otherwise. And yet these manifestations of Goodness continue.

Outside the Christian tradition, the work of Gandhi comes to mind. Though most people do not know that his ideas of non-violence were formed during a correspondence early in his life with the Christian, Leo Tolstoy. I would not deny that Divine Grace was at work in his actions.

And finally, why does there arise a teacher of goodness in the first century A.D., proclaiming that we should love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? Why does he tell us to sell what we have and distribute it to the poor. Why does he say and do what he does while the very religious authorities of his own nation sought to kill him. Why does he forgive all while enduring the pain of crucifixion?

I am not a good man. I want to be a good man. I believe that such good men exist and that it is possible to become one. I believe this because the One who was crucified said that He was God and that because He was God those who love Him could do even greater works than He.

As for the problem of Goodness – I want to become part of the problem.


First I will state that the mystery of goodness is a mystery. I believe all goodness comes from God – for so I have learned the universe – but having said that is not the same thing as saying that I fully understand it in any form. The Scriptures are clear that “[God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Unbelievers are capable of good as well as unbelievers. If this were not so we could sort one another out with ease. But it’s simply not the case.

So why do we believe in God? This is where the reasons begin to go all over the map – though there needs to be a common core. That core is to be found in Christ Himself. Belief in God cannot finally be belief in an idea or a principle or even the nature of the universe for He is none of those things. The heart of our encounter with God is that He has made Himself known to us as person – indeed as persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A modern Western should not assume that he knows the meaning of those words, for the Church certainly means by them something quite different than common English usage. For the moment I will let it suffice to say that to know God as person means we can only know Him in freedom (both on our part and on His) and we can only know Him in an act of love (both on our part and on His). It is these latter realities that makes arguments about the existence, non-existence of God only marginally useful. God who is not a principle or an idea cannot thus be proven as though He were. In preserving our freedom He is also not necessarily obvious. He is readily knowable but not knowable of necessity. It is quite possible to look at the universe and come to a conclusion that there is no God.

I have always marveled at this latter point – sometimes wondering why it is not other than it is. And yet I am convinced that it is in the very humility of God that things are as they are. It would have been quite possible to have walked by the cross of Christ and assumed there was just one more Jew dying on a cross. The Gospels are a witness of faith, not a newspaper.

And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (Jn. 20:30-31).

So what are we left with? We are left with God. Nothing will substitute for Him – not argument or reason – not miracle or magic. And we who know Him should want nothing more. Our lives should be and become a living witness to the Life of God. If they are not, then why should anyone listen to us? As for others, they will come to faith as mysteriously as we did. Whoever heard of a single means by which people came to Christ other than the single means of grace? The last time I checked the Spirit blows where it wills and you can’t tell where it comes from or where it goes.

Thus we believe and we pray and we lean more deeply into Christ and God adds to the Church daily such as should be saved. And we, following the lives of the saints, should pray for everyone as if they were already further in the Kingdom of God than we.

Music from Another Room

July 29, 2007


In the 1998 Jude Law film Music from Another Room, the lead character makes an argument for love, describing it as being like “music from another room.” Whether you saw the film or liked it, there is something in the metaphor of music from another room that has stayed with me. There is something about our relationship with God that is like music from another room. In this case I do not mean to infer the “upstairs room” to which secularism would tend to relegate God. Rather, there is a room in which we often find ourselves, where, for whatever reason, we have closed our eyes and ears to God.

It is in such times that “music from another room” occasionally breaks in on our quiet ignorance. Several people have made comments here about the effect that Orthodox hymnography played in their conversion. For me, the first instance occurred during my first year of marriage. We owned very little and confined our evening life to listening to the radio (NPR), or to a record of our small collection, or occasionally a show on our old black-and-white tv.

One particular evening after supper, I turned on the radio and was suddenly greeted with music that was clearly “from another room.” I could not recall having heard such music, such that I could say, “Oh, that’s __________ music.” I said to my wife, “I don’t know what that is, but when we get to heaven this is what will be around the throne of God.” We sat quiet and transfixed as we listened. We were especially quiet waiting for the announcer to tell us the name and author of the music. We were surprised at the end that it was by Rachmaninov. It was his Vespers.

The next day I went on a search for the album. It was published by the old Melodiya label (of the Soviet Union). I bought a copy – a two record set. When I got home it turned out that side three was a misprint. I searched other stores from time to time but never found a copy with the third side. It wasn’t until many years later (with CD technology) that I ever heard the third side – though I’ve never heard a performance that rivaled the old Melodiya recording – perhaps because it was my first listen.

But it was more than music. It was a sound from a world that I could only imagine – a world you only think about in your dreams. I was no stranger to good Western Christian music – but this belonged to another world. Strangely it occurred in the same year that I was introduced to Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church as well as the essays of Solzhnetisyn (it was also the year that I took one year of Russian grammar). I did not know it then, but God was opening windows and doors from another room such that the sounds and the scents, the echoes of words would begin to form something of a solid reality to me. Eventually that reality took on the shape that is its own – Orthodox Christianity.

Not every Sunday has the impact of that first hearing – but many times I hear things from the choir that are indeed from another room, only I now know that I stand inside that very room. It is the antechamber of heaven.

Music and Scenes from Georgia (the Old One)

July 29, 2007

I think of our young Church member who is living and working in Georgia this summer and pray he has such beauty around him many times. The richness of the Orthodox faith has such a depth that very little has been seen in the outside Western world. Enjoy the day.

Reading and Being Read

July 29, 2007


There is one experience (at least) of reading Scripture, there is another altogether different of being “read by Scripture.” Both are quite valid but very different things. Reading Scripture is, of course, something we do all the time – perhaps so much so that we rarely stop to think about what we are doing. It is never a simple gathering of facts (like reading a newspaper article), nor is it like reading a novel in which we are simply entertaining ourselves. Scripture exists as a peculiar writing and not because of theories that are frequently put forward in fundamentalist circles.

In those circles we can be told that the Scriptures are what they are because the writers were simply taking passive dictation. This would be a strange thing indeed and would make almost no sense of any of the Epistles. The Gospels demonstrate a clear shaping that is more than accident. The writers seem to know what they are doing.

Several postings back I noted that the Seventh Council stated that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” In the theological writings that surrounded that council the “do with” was largely explained in terms of “representation.” When St. Theodore the Studite wrote about the Holy Icons he referred to them as “hypostatic representations,” that is, of representations of the “person,” rather than representations of the “substance” portrayed. That is, when we paint an icon we cannot portray the “Divinity” of someone (such as Christ), nor for that matter can we portray the “humanity” of someone, such as you or me.

Imagine if you will a painting entitled, “Humanity.” I suspect what you would get would be something only a committee spending someone else’s money could love. Humanity, as the substance, or being, that we all share together cannot be portrayed – only when it is actually presented in concrete form as “Peter,” or “Paul,” or someone else, are we able to see it.

Thus the icons were defended not because Christ became man, but because He became a man. There is a difference. By the same token it is not possible to speak in the abstract about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, without having said something that becomes dangerously general. St. Paul was quite clear about what he meant by “the Gospel of Christ.” Thus when we read the Gospel in the Church it is always, “The Gospel of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ according to ….”  The witness of the Church is that we find the same Gospel in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and other New Testament writers. One and the same gospel presented to us – though its presentation is neither photographic nor like a news account. The Gospel does with words what icons do with color (if I may flip the saying of the Fathers).

Learning to read the Scriptures as we would view an icon can be most helpful, particularly if you are trying to read them in a manner similar to the Church and not in a manner similar to the average televangelist. Listening to the Old Testament, we learn, in colors of slaughtered Amalekites to see the representation of Christ’s defeat of the hosts of evil (and so forth). Much more could and should be said about this in a later post.

But there is also the experience of “being read by the Scriptures.” This happens to us when we cease to be the master of the text, and the text seems to be the master of us. This is a reading in which the Scriptures are speaking the truth of my life, and not just about someone else. Before such a reading we fall down. I believe that this is just as important a reading as any other, perhaps more important than how we ourselves read.

There are portions of Scripture that were always meant to be heard in this manner. Thus the telling of the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea is not just about what God did for our fathers, but what God did for us.

I will sing unto the Lord for He hath triumphed gloriously the horse and rider thrown into the sea. The Lord is my God and I will praise Him, my Fathers’ God, and I will exalt Him!

When these verses are read on Holy Saturday I always feel a deep stirring within me. I know that this song is not about Egyptians but about death and hell and everything that Christ has drowned in the waters of baptism. I hear in them of my former slavery and of my present liberty, and thus of the uncompromising love of God.

Reading and being read. Both have their place – but I confess to preferring Scripture to read me – to read me completely out of the bondage of my life and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

Why We Don’t Believe In God

July 28, 2007


A note: This article has been described by someone on a blog reference site as a description of why atheists don’t believe in God. Apparently they haven’t read the article. Throughout I use the pronoun “we” because I am not talking about non-believers, per se, but about both believers and unbelievers. I have not spared myself in the use of “we.” I think all of us have common issues. If you think otherwise, fine. But do not report me as having said what I have not said. Happy reading.    – Fatherstephen

I offer this strange title as something of third in my series on belief in God. I do not mean here to offer reasons non-Christians may offer as their own reasons for non-belief in God. Frankly, I think most people don’t know why they don’t believe in God, and as an Orthodox Christian, I would assume that all discussions with those who do not believe in God, and a majority of discussions with those who claim to believe in God, would be be discussions that are rife with delusion, at least at some level. Thus my first reason why we cannot believe in God.

1. We do not believe in God because we are under delusion. We do not see the world as it truly is. We do not see ourselves as we truly are. Most importantly we do not see God as He truly is.

The Scriptures tell us: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). For this reason Orthodox Christians turn to the writings of the Fathers and the living treasures of the Tradition of the Church – the living legacy of those who have seen God. Our hardness of heart makes our own knowledge poor and frequently deluded. We need to hear and learn from the knowledge of others.

2. We do not believe in God because we have substituted false definitions for the true revelation of God.

Thus many Christians who speak about God, are speaking of the God of syllogisms, a God of rational construction, not the true and living God. This is an easy option that does not require the ascesis and struggle of those who know God in purity of heart.

3. We do not believe in God because we hate our enemies and are consumed with anger about the world.

My understanding of 1 John 4:7-8 would make it clear that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. Admittedly, this sets the bar very high for knowledge of God. But anything less is deluded on some level. This point also carries with it the assumption that knowing God involves certain activities on our part. I cannot (apart from some marvelous divine intervention) come to know God as I sit on my sofa, channel surfing, and emitting various opinions about the state of the world.

4. We do not believe in God because such belief would cost too much.

I never know how to judge this in the life of another. I can only speak from personal experience. In this case there are points and times in my life that I find it more convenient not to know God but to talk about God, to discuss religious questions. This is my refusal to move beyond the armchair and to enter into the sufferings of Christ, particularly as they are made known in the least of His brethren. Love is very expensive. If we cannot know God without love, we frequently choose not to afford it.

5. We do not believe in God because of pain and misconception.

I mean to state this in the most merciful manner possible. There are many who do not know God because their lives have been so emerged in pain and delusion (not self chosen) that the very mention of God is painful. These are fequently the victims of those who falsely claim to know God. By the same token, in God’s mercy, their very rejection of the false God that has been offered to them, is an act of grace, enabled by the true God. Such persons are far closer to the Kingdom of God than those who have inflicted their false religious views on them.

It is doubtless possible for me to expand this posting. Perhaps I will at a later date. For the present, it is all that I have within me.

Let the Righteous Rejoice

July 27, 2007

Why I Believe in God – Part 2

July 27, 2007


In my earlier posting I wrote primarily about my personal journey as a Christian and why I am a believer rather than an atheist. In the course of my life I do not think atheism would have ever been a possible way to live – the questions of my life and heart would have been either silenced or bludgeoned into non-existence.

But there are other aspects worth writing about. One has to do with the reductionism of atheist thought. To view the world in a purely materialist fashion makes sense in a secular protestant mindset (I have written on this a defined my terms in a previous post). It is possible to see the world as existing in discreet, concrete terms – as self-existing. The problem is that it leaves so much of human experience unaccounted for, and undervalued.

Theories of knowledge, for instance, in a world of discreet materialism, are fairly straightforward, though boring. Materialist explanations of non-materialist experiences always border on silliness to me. It’s like reducing love to a chemical expression. If you like movies (though the rating is not what I would normally recommend) the independent film, Dopamine, has an artful explanation of love versus mere chemical reaction. What do we do with the encounter with Beauty? Materialist explanations not only sound contrived but manage to turn the experience of beauty into something of ugliness. This is why I earlier charged that atheism has produced no worthy art: it’s ugly and boring.

The very experience of Beauty has a way of drawing us beyond ourselves and towards the Transcendent. The number of conversions of which I am aware that involve an experience of Beauty extend far beyond those famous cases such as Dostoevsky and Bulgakov. One of the most profound I have heard came from the priest, Fr. Anthony Tregubov, an excellent iconographer, and late secretary and later priest to Alexander Solzhnetisyn (when he lived in Vermont).

I was reading earlier today in the theology of Fr. Pavel Florensky. His theology is deeply intertwined in the question of aesthetics and epistemology (Beauty and the Theory of Knowledge). I frequently think that if someone has had a true encounter with Beauty and can come away with a simple materialist explanation, they have either purposely diminished the experience, or have dismissed it in a way that protects them from the demands that Beauty would make.

I am sure that a materialist could respond to questions of Beauty that they are simply responses based on how we are “hard-wired.” If such an explanation is sufficient then Beauty has become as prosaic as digestion. There are experiences of Beauty that bring you to a complete stop – that render us powerless and speechless. We can be completely ravished by Beauty and find ourselves reduced to willing servitude.

On the other hand, to have lived life in this world and never to have experienced any Beauty of such power, is to have lived a poor life. The greater the saint, the more easily they are overwhelmed by such beauty – to the extent that every glance at this created world is itself a glimpse of God. No materialist account of human life has a place for such experience – at least not a place that has not rendered the experience as again as banal as digestion (though I venture that the saint even marvels at digestion).

When I was a child in second grade, my teacher was an artist. For whatever reason, she focused her attention on about three students in her class and gave us special attention (this is all probably illegal today). One thing she did for us was to take us on a private visit to the County Museum of Art (a deeply modest event compared to its existence today where it houses the largest Wyeth Collection in the nation). But we were children of the margin – not farm families nor city folk. My father was an auto mechanic, my mother a seamstress. The others were the child of a hog salesman and the manager of a trailer park. She took us to see art. Not the chalk drawings she dazzled us with on her blackboard in the classroom, nor our own feeble efforts in clay and finger-painting – but true art, wonderful, colorful and beyond anything we had known. Unlike pictures in a book it was the product of a human hand.

I remember aching with the experience. I wanted to be an artist (I never became one – seeming to lack the talent). But I have a daughter who draws with an absolute delight and intends on becoming an artist. She has no idea how I rejoice in her work and pray that she be transformed by the encounter with Beauty.

There is a vast human conversation – even a conversation I can have with a Buddhist or Hindu for that matter, despite the difficulties – that are simply foreign to the materialist account of reality. As a believer I also belong to the human race and the whole of its experience. I can at least take part in the conversation. Materialism and its concomitant brother, atheism, seem to have exempted themselves from the largest part of the human conversation.

Dostoevsky is quoted as saying, “God will save the world through Beauty.” He never quite said it that way – but the saying stands as true (I believe). I do not doubt that every assault on Beauty, every attempt to reduce it to less, to a mere process of the brain, and has diminished humanity and the eons of its encounter with this wondrous experience.

To Depart in Peace

July 27, 2007

My prayer for all today is that wherever you go you may arrive and depart in peace, your eyes “having seen the Savior.” I offer this short video as a prayer. The music if the Nunc Dimittis from Rachmaninov’s Vespers.