Archive for September 17th, 2007

Why The Small Things Matter

September 17, 2007

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Perhaps one of the greatest disservices done to Christians by the spate of “Left Behind” novels and the like, and the romanticism that is inherent in the drama depicted – is that it makes the true struggle undergone by Christians seem trivial by comparison. When the small actions, little choices for kindness, forgiveness, joy, comfort – the whole panoply of our daily struggle – are minimized, the heroism of our struggle and its importance can be reduced to insignificance.

When this is coupled with a reduced doctrine of the Atonement, in which a simple act of intellectual acceptance, a “choice for Jesus,” acquires a blood payment for sin in a once-for-all momentary encounter (I’m doing my best to describe the popular conception of the Substitutionary Atonement Theory), Christianity itself becomes minimized. One decision and you’re done. Little wonder that many have traded-in Christian ascesis for political action – at least the latter seems real to them.

I have described the Substitutionary Atonement as a “reduced” doctrine because it uses only one sacrificial image to describe Christ’s work on the Cross. This single image does not begin to do justice to the many images of sacrifice given in the Scriptures, all of which are fullfilled by Christ’s death on the Cross. Christ sacrifice is not one thing – but all things.

The reduction of Christianity to a virtual land of fantasy has granted undue power to our present age in the guise of the secular. There is, in fact, no such thing as secular – it is a modern fiction – one which Christians should not empower by granting it recognition. God is excluded from nothing whatsoever, nor does He ask for our permission in order to be present. We may do unspeakable things in His presence – but that does not render Him absent. It renders us hardened hearts but can make no change in the changeless God.

The sooner Christians awaken to the marketing scheme of secularizing dogma-merchants, the sooner they can begin their search for the God whom they have “left behind.” He is truly near us, even on our lips and in our mouths. We should renounce the false romanticism of modern dispensationalism and the hucksters of false messianic prophecies. All of these things are removing the truth of our faith from the smallest of things before us, and placing them on the false stage of “history.”

Small things matter for it is there that we will meet Christ – and there alone. Every moment of our life, even when it is later dramatized for narrative effect, is still quite a small thing. Either we will see and embrace Christ in these moments of our existence, or we will worship a false Christ manufactured by human imagination and fantasy. For the Christian, God is here or He is nowhere at all.

What St. Seraphim Meant

September 17, 2007

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“Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” This is perhaps the most famous quote of the great Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov. Many of his icons have this saying on them. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like it. On the other hand, I think there are many who do not understand it. And understanding what he meant can take you to the very heart of Orthodoxy.

“To acquire the Spirit of Peace,” has a wonderful ring to it – and most of us assume that it is the fruit of the great saint’s long years of strict monastic practice. Doubtless many of the gifts of St. Seraphim were manifested in such a powerful fashion on account of his years of silence and prayer.

But his statement on acquiring the Spirit of Peace is not nearly as complicated or mysterious as some might think.

In many ways it is simply an expansion of the Gospel parable of the talents:

For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property;to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, `Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, `Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, `Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, `You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth’ (Matthew 25:14-30).

This very familiar parable is quite odd. Christ is alluding to something in the imagery of the “talents” of silver (or gold). Whatever it is, it has been given freely to the stewards – but the stewards are expected to do something with the gift. It is to be given back, with a profit.

First, the parable is not about talents: piano-playing and the like. Nor is it about public-speaking, or even being a good teacher of children. It is not about talents. It is about a sum of money – but is not a “stewardship” parable in the sense that Christ is not trying to tell us to be sure and make money.

It is a parable about grace, about the Holy Spirit.

St. Seraphim, in his own teaching, would be almost crass. He told his disciples to “acquire the Holy Spirit,” and used the gross comparisons of a businessman investing his money in order to make more. His own father was a merchant. He knew what he was talking about – but the imagery was carried over to the spiritual life – and its goal was supremely described as the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”

The larger question then (and it applies to the parable as well): How do we acquire grace – or the Holy Spirit?

Please note that I am not speaking about earning more grace and performing works in order to gain the Holy Spirit.

Grace is nothing other than the Life of God. In proper theological terms (of the Eastern Church) grace is the uncreated Divine energies. But that phrase, unless correctly understood can be all to confusing. I prefer to speak either of grace or of God’s own Life, freely given to us.

First, grace is a gift. You don’t have to go anywhere to get what you already have been given. What we need to do is allow the grace of God to work in us what God intends.

St. Paul would urge: “We entreat you not to receive the grace of God in vain! (2 Corinthians 6:1)

Each of us (certainly in our Baptism and Chrismation) have been given the grace of God for our salvation – that is to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit and to conform us to the image of God in Christ. The question is what do we do with it?

This is a question particularly about the small things of the day. Do we pray? Do we begin the day by crossing ourselves before our feet ever hit the floor? When tempted to grumble do we refrain and give thanks instead? Do we condemn others, even when we could have been silent? Do we forgive when we could have nursed a grudge?

There is grace for each of these things and thousands more. We are able, because God has made us able. Grace that is put to use in our lives produces dividends of grace. St. Seraphim did not become what he was through a momentary gift, but through a lifetime of ascesis and “reinvesting” the grace given him.

Some words from the great saint for the little things of the day:

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.

This is what St. Seraphim meant.