Archive for September, 2007

Scarcity and Abundance in a One-Storey Universe

September 30, 2007


We stand mournfully around the grave, letting the strains of the hymn find their resolution in the final chord. The priest approaches the coffin, now closed and ready for lowering into the grave. The closing of the grave begins with a single handful of dirt. The priest tosses the dirt with the words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fullness seems strangely contradictory to the mood of a funeral. The pain of loss and the emptiness of a life that seems to have gone from the midst of us speak not of fullness but now of scarcity. I will not hear that voice, hold you close to me or listen carefully for your footsteps.

No setting could be more stark in which to proclaim “fullness.”

But it is at the grave that we are perhaps the most clearly confronted with the claims of our faith. For it is here at the grave that God made His own final assault on the myths and fears of a world dominated by death. This world of death always proclaimed the sovereignty of sorrow, the ascendency of scarcity.

From the abundance of Paradise man falls into a world in which thorns and thistles dominate:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

But now, standing at this funeral, the priest proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

What fullness? Again it is the assault of God on the world man has made. The earth is not the kingdom of scarcity, but now the Kingdom of God. The grave is not the gate of Hades, but the gate of paradise. Fullness can again be proclaimed for the grave has been ruptured and cannot hold its prey.

This struggle is a daily struggle. Is the world I live in one of scarcity or abundance? The answer to the question has much to do about almost every decision I make. The threat of scarcity tells me that whatever I have, like my own life, is limited. Nothing is ever enough. There is not enough money, enough food, enough love. The abundance enjoyed by another is always at the expense of myself and others because the world is governed by scarcity. Thus I must fight; I must wrestled to gain whatever I can and cling to it till death wrests it from my cold, dead fingers.

However, if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – if every good thing comes from God who is without limit – then scarcity has been defeated and abundance reigns within the Kingdom of God, now and always. In this abundance there is not just enough, but more than enough. I can share. I can give. I can love without fear that there will be too little to go around. The abundance enjoyed by another is not at my expense for those who have much are not the rulers of this world. Thus I need not fight; I do not need to gain or to cling. God knows I have need of all these things.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The emptiness of death has been filled with such an abundance of life that it has been trampled beneath the feet of those who walk the way of Christ. In this fullness we can do more than give – we can love even to the excess of forgiveness. My enemy has stolen nothing from the abundance that fills my life.

This proclamation of abundance has nothing in common with the prosperity gospel which is all too often driven by the fear of scarcity and the need to amass material things to prove the goodness of God.

Instead, as proclamation it needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of life.

In the one-storey world in which we truly live it is all too easy to assume its boundaries are those set by geographically defined notions, and that, by definition, things are finite, hence scarce. But this is a failure to recognize what has happened in the world in the coming among us of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. As He Himself said:

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

In Biblical language, this was Christ’s proclamation of a Jubilee year – the great Jubilee Year – in which all debts are cancelled and righteousness is restored. He has extended this confidence of abundance even to the blind and the lame. Even they receive the abundance of sight and the ability to walk. Lepers, once trapped in the scarcity of their disease and shame, are cleansed and returned to the company of men. The world has changed. Christ did not do these miracles in a world removed from the one we inhabit. It was blind and lame in the very midst of us and in this world who were healed. Thus it is with the same confidence that we proclaim the victory of His kingdom – in what we say and do.

What martyr disdained to live the abundance of this proclamation? What saint, in His poverty, declared God to be poor and this world to be bereft of its fullness? And yet our own confidence in the material machine of modernity (not in God) worry and are anxious about its limits. Modernity’s fullness has its limits for it is not the fullness of God but of man (and this as unredeemed). It offers a false promise. It’s fullness does not generally induce kindness and generosity but acquisition and envy.

True fullness will always beget generosity and kindness – it is a hallmark of the work of God. True fullness brought a cry of “the half of my goods I give to the poor” from the lips of the Publican Zachaeus. True fullness will always be marked by such cries – they are echoes of “Indeed, He is risen!”

The Mystery of God

September 28, 2007


Unless we start out with a feeling of awe and astonishment – with what is often called a sense of the numinous – we shall make little progress on the Way. When Samuel Palmer first visited William Blake, the old man asked him how he approached the work of painting. “With fear and trembling,” Palmer replied. “Then you’ll do,” said Blake.

The Greek Fathers liken man’s encounter with God to the experience of someone walking over the mountains in the mist: he takes a step forward and suddenly finds that he is on the edge of a precipice, with no solid ground beneath his foot but only a bottomless abyss. Or else they use the example of a man standing at night in a darkened room: he opens the shutter over a window, and as he looks out there is a sudden flash of lightning, causing him to stagger backwards, momentarily blinded. Such is the effect of coming face to face with the living mystery of God: we are assailed by dizziness; all the familiar footholds vanish, and there seems nothing for us to grasp; our inward eyes are blilnd, our normal assumptions shattered.

From Met. Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way.

There are several forms of mystery, particularly spiritual mystery, in our culture. One of them enjoys speaking of God in mysterious terms, for so long as God remains mysterious then nothing certain can be said about Him, nor can anything certain be said to us. Thus, such a mysterious God is very comfortable, for we are left only with our spirituality, and only a very vague God.

Another form of mystery is closer to the “whodunit.” It is the mystery of simply not knowing. If left at this point our relationship with God, like the previous form described, simply becomes another means of hiding from God.

Then there is Bishop Kallistos’ Mystery “[like a] sudden flash of lightning, causing [us]to stagger backwards, momentarily blinded.” As His Beatitude notes, “such is the effect of coming face to face with the living mystery of God.” This is not an encounter that leads us to a spirituality or to an agnosticism – but rather to a true knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Such an encounter is that of creature before His Creator – such an experience never leaves us unchanged.

Our Creator has revealed to us a Way of Life – a Way that allows us not only to know Him, but also to be slowly conformed to His image by grace. Our relationship with God does not exist to meet our religious needs (there are no such things). It exists to make us truly human – and as a truly human person – to conform us to the image of His beloved Son. Nothing less.

Metropolitan Kallistos tells the story of his own conversion – how he dropped accidentally into the Russian Cathedral in London on a rainy day and found himself in Paradise. What a fortuitous flash of lightening. May God bless all those who stumble into His path and grant them saving knowledge of the living mystery of God.

The Slowness of Grace

September 27, 2007


This is a reprint from November of 2006. I’m not trying to be lazy here – but to bring out some things that I think worth reading twice. 

From Prayer by the Elder Sophrony

At times prayer seems over-slow in bringing results, and life is so short. Instinctively we cry, “Make haste unto me.” But He does not always respond at once. Like fruit on a tree , our soul is left to scorch in the sun, to endure the cold wind, the scorching wind, to die of thirst or be drowned in the rain. but if we do not let go of the hem of His garment, all will end well.

 We live in a culture of fast food, and tend to want grace to operate on the same speed track. Some versions of Christianity make grace as “quick” as walking the aisle. This, of course, is misleading.

In my experience, grace works on a level that is proper to human beings with some notable exceptions (but even then one can wonder). Grace takes time because we are not built on a fast track. Human beings don’t wean until about 2 1/2 years, properly (women you may correct me). We take 9 months of gestation, and we do not reach puberty for 13 years, traditionally. We are not instant people.

Neither does grace work on such an instant level (or is not at least noticeable on such an instant level). We should know that to be a human requires years for some things, including things pertaining to God.

I am comforted, that, unlike physicists, theologians do not reach their best work until near retirement age. I’m waiting for my maturity!

But each of us would do well to slow down our expections and speed up our efforts of prayer. Pray more, but wait on God. This lesson of patience is not something God does to us to torture us, but is something He does to bring us back into line with our humanity. Let patience have her perfect work (James 1:4).

The Mystery of Ourselves

September 27, 2007


For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 1 Corinthians 2:11

I think it can be quickly agreed by all that God is a mystery – we do not know God as we would like to know God nor is it possible to know God except by His own gracious gift. What we would not so readily agree to (unless we had all just read the Scripture cited above) is that we ourselves are mysteries – even to our own selves.

That God mostly remains a mystery – that other people are mysteries – all of this can be more easily accepted – but that I do not know even myself can leave us wondering, “Well then, what do we know?”

The answer is: “Not much.”

This is or should be a beginning of wisdom – certainly a beginning of humility.

Socrates age old admonition: “Know thyself!” is much more easily said than done. It is possible to know ourselves – St. Paul says the “spirit of the man which is in him knows a man.” But my experience says that knowing what my spirit knows is not an easy thing nor is their an easy remedy. Much time, quiet, listening – many things are required of us in order to know even this mystery of ourselves.

Surrounded by so many mysteries – why doesn’t the world seem a more mysterious place? Indeed.

We live in an age of false knowledge. Many people know much about trees (I’m not one of them) but they don’t feel mysterious to me because someone else knows many things. I could multiply such false knowledge. We do not expect to receive any great revelations from the world about us because we live in an age where others are tortuously extracting knowledge out of everything around us.

Of course, I will sound quite mysterious when I say that you can dissect a tree and study it down to its last element of genetic code and yet not know a tree. To know the logos of a tree – what it is before God – is given only to a few – and saints at that.

Armed as we are with such ignorance, we should go about our day in wonder at the wisdom and mystery of everything. Do your job, but become as a child, at least sometime during the day. But most especially when you are standing before the mysteries – of God, of the world, of your self, of another human being. In reverence and in awe they occasionally yield something of the mystery up and we know what can only be known by a gift. And this is marvelous indeed.

Praying Like a Publican – A Reprint

September 25, 2007

Sometimes I want to say things I’ve already said. My parishioners have apparently learned to put up with this as my children did long ago. The subject of this posting came up recently in a sermon (probably not for the first time – but who can remember?). It is not all that is to be said about prayer – but it should be said sometime and is said too infrequently. If you are struggling with your prayer-rule don’t give up. But if failure is keeping you from prayer (or worse, from Church) then rush to pray – the doors of heaven are open – and now you can pray like the Publican (who “went down to his house justified”). The text of this post first ran in December of 2006.

Sometime back someone said to me, “Whenever I’ve sinned I never feel like praying. I feel unworthy and I just can’t pray.”

The statement sounded correct – I’ve had the same feeling often enough. But I kept thinking about it until the question came to me, “What am I waiting to feel before I pray?”

In the case at hand, I would suppose one would be waiting not to feel like such a sinner. And then I understood.

There is the story in Scripture of two men who went to pray, one a Pharisee and one a Publican (bad tax-collector for Rome) (Luke 18:10-14). We are told that the Pharisee prayed easily, lifting his eyes to heaven, and thanking God that “he was not like other men.”

The publican did not even lift his eyes to heaven but smote his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.

What struck me on reflection, however, was the puzzle of not wanting to pray when I feel guilty of sin. Having sinned, I do not wish to pray, I do not feel worthy of prayer. What am I waiting on?

I think, upon reflection, I’m waiting until I feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so I can pray, without realizing that such prayer is almost useless. Indeed, strangely, I pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” with greater ease when I feel like a righteous man than when I feel like a sinner.

And this is part of the disease of religion – for make no mistake – religion is frequently a disease.

Relgious feelings (the Pharisees were masters of them) are deceptive in the extreme. I think I feel like praying, I am in fact feeling “pious.” And it’s a deep tragedy. I am not ready to pray – I’m eaten up with myself as a pious man.

When you feel like a Publican, then you can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell me, “Father, I can’t serve in the altar today, I don’t feel worthy.” No doubt. But you’re in much greater danger when you do feel worthy.

Come in and approach God’s altar knowing you are not worthy and you will find grace and forgiveness.

None of this is to say don’t go to confession. But it’s good for us to say, sometimes, “Father, forgive me, I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere.

To see the truth of ourselves is a very hard thing. And to love God precisely in the truth of ourselves is harder still. But this He wants from us. Pray like a publican. There are so many more times available for prayer if you do. And while you’re there, pray for those who are praying like a pharisee. May God free us from delusion.

Some Further Thoughts on the Atonement

September 23, 2007


One of the most peculiar statements relating to the Atonement can be found in Revelation 13:8 where Christ is descibed as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth.” In a similar fashion we read in 1 Peter 1:18-20:

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake.

It is part of the wonder of the eschatological use of time in the Scriptures that they can speak of Christ (the Alpha and the Omega) in terms in which He, whose sacrifice is foreshadowed in the sacrifices of Israel, is Himself sacrificed, a forshadowing before even the foreshadowing began.

One of the questions raised by this Biblical statement is fairly obvious: which lamb of sacrifice does this verse foreshadow? Of course no simple answer can be given, no one-to-one ratio in this heavenly typology. He is the Lamb, while all other sacrifices are only lambs. The same distinction can be made concerning all other sacrifices within the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Christ is not only that which those sacrifices looked towards, but is also that Prototype of which they themselves can only be shadows.

Here the system of sacrifice within the Old Testament becomes of less importance for me. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth is a declaration of God’s primordial purpose. He had always known that our creation would also be followed with our treachery and our turning away from Him. As well, He had always known that He would come for our salvation and that our rescue from the power of death would involve His own entrance into death, the sacrifice of the Lamb.

This revelation – that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth – is also a revelation of Who God Is. The God Who Created Us is also the God Who is Slain for Us. Just as He is the God who enters into death in order to rescue His creatures, so is He the God Who creates out of nothing. Life from death is not simply a rescue operation – but an act of making those things are not to be as though they were.

This same wondrous pattern in found through virtually every action of God throughout the Scriptures. This weekend we marked the feast of the Conception of St. John the Forerunner, whose mother, Elizabeth, had been barren. She is part of a long list of barren women from whose offspring God brought salvation to the people around them. The whole of salvation history is an impossible account of God bringing from nothing, or as good as nothing, things that are wondrous and working of salvation. This is another way of saying that the great miracle of Pascha is the pattern revealed in all the actions of God on behalf of His world – from its creation from nothing – to its resurrection from the dead.

This, to me, is the great act of atonement. The concentration on deeds done amiss and debts owed for sin are almost a distraction from this greater existential crisis of all creation. Not only do we do things amiss – we are collapsing into the nothingness from which we came. Our deeds only reflect this drive towards nothingness. Every murder is only a fiendish attempt to make something into nothing – to make death reign over others.

The great atonement is the rescue of our very selves and our world from its mad course towards non-being. St. Athanasius in his wonderful De Incarnatione uses this very imagery to describe our reconciliation with God. For me it has always had the advantage of its obvious universality. I can read from Scriptures and tell someone that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” For some, such a statement has an impact. For others, less so.

But for all, the statement that we are all moving towards death, and are even threatened with nothingness has an undeniable quality. If there is to be an eternal life, it will only be an atoned life. Only the life that God rescues and gives back to us again can be called eternal life. The gracious God has rescued and given life to all. The immediate question for us is whether we will live this atoned life in a manner that is in union with God or whether we will choose to make of this re-gifted existence an eternal alienation from the very source of its being.

A Project to Come

September 22, 2007

I have started work on a Blog project that I’m entitling “Catechesis Project.” It is to be a slow writing of catechetical materials designed for those inquiring into Orthodoxy. There is a wealth of material out there, and I use everything I can get my hands on, but I still haven’t found any one thing that does some of what I would like to be able to do with Inquirers and Catechumens in my parish.

I am setting up a blog site where the work will be available for reading and comments (I hope to have many helpful, including questions – if it’s not answering questions then it’s not doing it’s job).

I am only in the initial stages of its construction but would appreciate your prayers for me as I take this on. I have no idea how long it will become or what it’s final use will be – though I have thoughts on the subject. Time and God’s good grace will make all things clear. But pray for this work. I will be publishing links to it in the near future. Thank you!

What’s At Stake in the Atonement

September 21, 2007

One of the more common topics both on this blog and on a number of other Orthodox sites are questions about the Atonement. In general the Atonement refers to how it is we understand that Christ reconciled us to God. When we say, “Christ died for our sins,” what does it mean?

The questions of the Orthodox tend to center around the doctrine of the Substitutionary Atonement, which in conservative Evangelical circles is often made a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. It is referenced in many Christian schools’ statement of faith – required of teachers and students on a par with the Resurrection of Christ.

Questions of the Atonement seem significant from a Protestant direction (in classical terms) based on Reformation debates with Roman Catholics. In those debates Protestants tended to hear Catholics say that there was something that could be added to the “merits” of Christ’s death – something that made His death on the cross less than sufficient. This is an historical argument. Generally Catholics did not mean what Protestants accused them of saying and neither group was interested in finding common ground. The purpose of debate was to prove the other wrong.

The ground shifted on Atonement doctrine during the 20th century when liberal Protestants began to question Atonement theory, in some cases making reference to Christ’s “death” where traditional texts had read “blood.” This was famously the case in some verses of the RSV translation of the Scriptures which was a translation sponsored by the National Council of Churches, and thus dominated by liberal Bible scholarship. Though the intention on the part of the translators was probably not to deny anything about the blood of Christ, the hue and cry of conservative Protestants was, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus!” (The same translation rendered the Greek hilasterion as expiation rather than propitiation, again alarming conservative Protestants that Christ’s atoning death was being denied.) 

Orthodoxy comes late to this entire discussion, having been completely absent at the Reformation, and not a party to the debates between liberal and conservative Protestants in the 20th century. The understanding of Christ’s atoning death developed in a very different manner in the Eastern Church. Untouched by the debates of the Reformation, alien to the metaphors that came to dominate in the Latin-Germanic West in the Middle Ages, the atonement never became a matter of debate or conciliar doctrine in the East. The language used in the prayers of the Liturgy were probably the most eloquent statements of Christ’s atoning death, but generally made no mention of the ideas found in the Substitionary model.

Today, those ideas have occasionally come under sharp attack from some Eastern Orthodox (Kalomiros’ River of Fire is probably the most commonly cited screed), though elements of the Substitutionary model can be found in a number of Orthodox prayers or catechisms of the more modern period. It can be argued that these examples are largely borrowings from Protestant writings rather than developments from within Orthodox patristic thought.

The clearest Orthodox complaint about Substitionary imagery is the role played within it by the Justice of God and the Wrath of God. In classical Substitionary doctrine, God’s justice is understood to have been offended by the sin of man (in Anselm it is not so much justice as “God’s honor.”) Indeed, God’s justice or honor is “infinitely” offended in most classical treatments. Thus, man is infinitely deserving of infinite punishment. However, God’s love responds with infinite mercy and, in Christ’s death on the cross, He offers His only Son as a substitute for man, Christ Himself bearing the burden of the wrath of God on behalf of all humanity. In accepting His substitution on our behalf (by faith) man comes into a saving relationship with God.

There is no Orthodox complaint with the mercy of God, nor with Christ’s death as God’s saving act for mankind. The primary complaint is with the imagery of God’s wrath being raised to the point of dogma – that is to a place where the whole turn of a central doctrine of the faith depends upon this image. Equally problematic is the language about God’s justice, which is frequently described as “requiring satisfaction.”

The Orthodox problem with these images is that they are just that: images. Orthodoxy teaches that, through Christ, we can know God, though God in His essence is unknowable. The mystery which surrounds God and even our knowledge of Him is essential in Orthodox understanding. There is always a warning within Orthodox theology when we speak very plainly about God – that we know only what God has made known to us – and though we know Him, that knowledge is itself frequently a mystery – something that cannot be expressed sufficiently in words.

Thus to speak of God’s wrath (as the Scriptures certainly do) is not to say that God is angry in any way comparable to the anger of man. To speak of God’s wrath is a theological statement about the rupture in our relationship with Him and should not be confused with a statement about how God feels. Much use of the imagery of wrath in modern conservative Protestantism is often used in this literal manner, coming dangerously close (and in some cases crossing the line) of saying things about God that are simply untrue and deeply offensive. These literal uses give rise to caricature on the part of some (Monty Python comes quickly to mind) or rejection of God on the part of others (I have had conversations with many atheists and agnostics whose background was conservative Protestant and whose present rejection of God is primarily a rejection of the God of Wrath).

There are as well problems with speaking of God’s justice in terms that are all too human. St. Isaac of Syria famously remarks that “we know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” His argument is drawn from examples such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard – those who begin work late in the day are paid the same as those who work all day. There we see only God’s mercy, not His justice (the Saint says). That God is just is not a point of argument – what it means to say that God is just, however, remains largely a mystery. Anyone who claims to know what he means when he speaks of God’s justice is delusional.

Of course, raising such questions can sound like an echo of liberal Protestant attacks on Scripture and its reliability. Orthodox do not question the reliability of Scripture, only its misuse or misinterpretation. In general, Orthodoxy is uncomfortable with a dogma that seems new or foreign to its own continual usage. If it is central then why does it find no place in the Creeds or the Councils?

Of course, Orthodoxy did not face the same opponents as the West has had within its own internal life. Conservative Protestants, having been wearied by the constant shifts and changes and chimeric positions of liberal Protestants, are justifiably cautious when things that seem so certain for them are questioned by anyone.

A proper Orthodox answer is probably not to “come out fighting,” but to reassure that Orthodoxy has never wavered on the atoning death of Christ, nor questioned that His blood was shed for us, nor that He is the only way to the Father. The language of Orthodoxy has been shaped in the crucible of the great doctrinal debates surrounding the Trinity and the Doctrine of Christ – as well as within the spiritual world of apophatic theology, in which great care is taken not to assert of God what cannot be asserted. This language and this world have preserved a spiritual Tradition that has not wandered from the Truth nor lost its mooring in the reality of God. Conservative Protestants can be understood in their anxieties, but their anxieties cannot be justified in the face of Orthodox faithfulness.

Orthodox questions about Substitionary Atonement language and imagery are a worthy discussion for Protestants. It is the voice of Christian Tradition, rooted in the Fathers that calls for carefulness when speaking of God and circumspection when asserting something as dogma. Orthodoxy is no stranger to dogma and holds it in the highest regard (you can’t imagine), but just so, it questions a dogma when it cannot find it within its own two-thousand year history of councils and canons. Those questions should give pause to any Christian of good will.

The Heart of Silence

September 20, 2007


The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7) St. Macarius

One of the great difficulties in knowing silence is not to be found in the noisiness of our world, but in the noisiness of our own hearts. Of course there are many distractions around us. I have for years said that the sound of other peoples’ children during a sermon were far less distracting than the sounds of my own children (who are now grown and do not make sounds during my sermons). As a parent I am “hard-wired” to the sounds of my children (like almost all parents).

To a degree, our hearts are “hard-wired” to any number of things. If all the noise around us ceased we would not have silence. There is, of course, the inner “chatter” that most of us find to be ceaseless. I think it is why many choose to jog while listening to music or something else. Listening to the chatter in their own heads is deeply distracting from every activity.

But our chatter is only symptomatic of other things. It is symptomatic of the passions that rage within us. The dragons of anxiety and fear, the demons of self-loathing and pity as well as the fantasies that haunt our every move are all there. To practice silence is also to practice the slaying of these dragons and the “expulsions” of these inner demons. All of this is the hard work of repentance – forgiving those things that must be forgiven – and filling our hearts with the balm that alone can bring the peace which makes silence possible: the name of Jesus.

There are many books written on the Jesus Prayer, very few of which are helpful. They are not helpful because they are books about something which is more akin to riding a bicycle than thinking a thought. Books cannot teach you how to ride a bicycle.

I learned more about the Jesus Prayer by simply participating in the services at St. John Baptist Monastery in Essex last year than all the reading I had ever done on the subject in years past. Indeed, I quickly learned that almost everything I had ever read was useless. St. John’s has the unusual practice of having a 2 and 1/2 hour service in the morning and evening that consists primarily of the recitation of the Jesus Prayer. On the Eves of Feasts and on Feast Days they keep the regular vigils and liturgies. Those who lead the prayer take turns, each reciting 100 prayers. It takes about 15 minutes for each person.

What I learned, on the one hand, was a pace: how does the prayer feel? I realized that I always prayed the prayer too fast. I also learned (as a beginner) how helpful it is to say the prayer aloud, or to hear it aloud. Strangely, since in the course of the week I learned the prayer in two other languages, I also found in time that saying the prayer in other languages was helpful – whether because it reminded me of the prayers in England or what, I do not know. But I now say the prayer in Greek and Slavonic as often if not more than in English.

I have never used any techniques such as breath control or paying attention to the beat of my heart and have been told not to attempt such things (you find them mentioned in some books, which, frankly, is not only unhelpful but potentially dangerous). I recall in my time with one of the Elders, being told to simply say the prayer, remembering that it’s not magic, it’s not a technique, it is the power of the name of Jesus.

I do believe there is a place in prayer when silence itself becomes the prayer – not because silence is the best prayer by itself – but because we have found a fullness in Christ that words would only diminish. Such moments are rare and welcome.

I find moments within the liturgy, particularly when serving in the altar, that silence fills an action and nothing can be said. Occasionally the service of preparation, when the priest is usually alone in the altar, if not the Church, remembering the names of the living and the departed, can take a very long time, and be filled with times of silence. There is nothing to be said, but to hold someone in remembrance before God can take time – and should.

Today my house is empty. My wife is off on retreat; my daughter is in school; I am home recuperating from a medical procedure this morning (quite minor); and nothing happens until late afternoon. In the quiet I will look for silence and in the silence I will pray for all. May God bless.

The Silence in which We Dwell

September 19, 2007


There is a strange noisiness to our culture. Most of us live very busy lives in which time itself is noisy. My phones (there always seem to be two) are primed to go off at any moment and the very details that surround us carry a kind of noise about them. It is rare that the world would offer us silence.

And yet, the Fathers teach us about Hesychia (silence) in which we encounter God and see ourselves for who we are. I am a noisy person. I am likely to be bothered by the quiet when it surrounds me, and reach for a knob to fill the empty space with the sound of something. And if there is no knob, then the sound of my own brain chattering away fills the space with everything but God.

I do not think I am unique in this.

There is a fullness that is an emptiness and there is an emptiness that is a fullness. It all depends on the character of what fills us. If it is life apart from God – then its very fullness leaves us empty. If it is a life live towards God then our emptiness becomes the bowl which He can fill with Himself. I need only look at the fullness within me to know where my heart has turned.

It is the paradox of our Christian life that we find ourselves in losing ourselves – that the fullness of life is only found as we empty ourselves towards the Other around us. This, too, is found in very small actions. It is rare for most of us that the profound act of martyrdom, of the complete self-emptying that comes in giving our life for God, occurs in a single moment. Mostly it comes in thousands of small moments – the daily and momentary martyrdom in which we empty some small part of ourselves on behalf of the other around us. I make space to hear the sound of your voice instead of the sound of my mind. I make space to pay attention to your needs and not my own. I make space to simply be with you, present and not absent. And in such spaces, such moments of emptiness, we find a fullness that does not destroy us but feeds us and fills us with a Life that cannot die.

To dwell in such emptiness is to know the Fullness. To dwell in such silence is to hear the voice of God.