Archive for November, 2007

America and the Church – More Thoughts

November 23, 2007

choir.jpg recently drew attention to a New York Times article on modern evangelicalism and the role that various forms of music are playing in their current configuration. The article contained this striking quote and observation from an interview with Tom Mercer, senior pastor of the evangelical church featured in the article:

“When you start a church,” said Tom Mercer, 52, the senior pastor, “you don’t decide who you’re going to reach and then pick a music style. You pick a music style, and that determines who’s going to come.”

High Desert Church has a sprawling concrete campus that includes a lavish auditorium, a gym, classrooms and office space for its 70 employees. Once a traditional Baptist church, it moved toward nondenominational and evangelical Christianity in the mid-1990s and experienced steep growth. Now more than 8,000 people attend services here at least twice a month.

This very frank quote points to a growing trend in modern American Christianity: marketing. The problem with this marketing approach is only beginning to reveal its flaws (apart from the theology behind it): America is becoming increasingly fragmented in its music styles. Thus Churches, or at least services, are having to be multiplied to meet the growing diversity of the market. Instead of a religion that unifies, the Church becomes the highly segmented, market-driven organization that ministers and feeds the fragmentation of Christianity. It is “enculturation” run mad.

At the same time this phenomenon is occurring, Orthodoxy in America (despite its jurisdictions), bumbles forward and continues to grow, using everything from Byzantine music (quite foreign to the modern ear) to Russian Obikhod (a rich harmony but somewhat repetitive) which does not sound foreign to the American ear, but does not sound like the hymns your mother grew up with. And yet it grows.

Someone asked me once (actually more than once) what St. Anne (my parish) does to grow. I answered simply: “We answer the phone.” I cannot explain where the converts come from, though there is a slow but steady stream. Frequently they have to be patient and become accustomed to the music. On the other hand, a recent delegation from Obninsk, Russia, visited, and though the service was (with but one or two exceptions) completely in English, they felt completely at home. The music, as least as far as “tunes” go, was the same as used at home.

There is no way to say to someone, “Our music is superior to yours.” That’s a very arguable statement. I do prefer the theological substance and meat of an Orthodox hymn when compared to the average American “praise song,” but I will not claim musical superiority. What I can observe is that Orthodox music (indeed Orthodox everything) is not market driven. It is what it is and you learn it as it is. The same is true for the faith. We teach what was given us and what has been “organically” part of the Orthodox Tradition. The faith remains the same whether the “market” is a village in Africa or a suburb of Los Angeles. It is thus truly “inclusive” and “universal” in the extreme.

There is today a great gulf fixed between the organic life of Orthodox Tradition and the ephemeral comings and goings of market-driven American religion. How can we compare such things? These are apples and oranges.

I receive comments and questions here at the blog, asking for comparisons or to offer an answer of “how do you know you are right and others are wrong?” I can never answer such questions sufficiently. But one observation can me made in the light of this posting. What I can say of Orthodoxy could have been said a week ago, a century ago, five centuries ago, etc. With the movements in the market I cannot be sure of what this changing American market-driven Church will say of itself even tomorrow.

Tragically, I’ve heard of some market-driven Churches seeking to put together services that would feel more “ancient,” with a bit of ritual, incense and chant. It is tragic because these things are not organically part of who they are but simply another stab at the American market. As such it cannot save because it itself is captive to mammon and the culture of the market.

Whether these current phenomena will continue in Evangelicalism is anybody’s guess. I have no idea. What Orthodoxy will continue to do I can describe with a fair assurance of being right. We’ll be doing what we’ve always done, with occasional new hymns written (we do still write music) – but it will be much like what has gone before. For some that is a comfort.

Thanksgiving Evening – 2007 – America and Christianity

November 22, 2007


My Thanksgiving over the past few years has mostly served as one of the few occasions for the gathering of extended family. Somethings are measured in these meetings – the passing of time – I am older; my parents are older – and now the children are increasingly the adults. I am beginning to assume my role as an elder (though not quite “elderly”). I’m sure many places across the world have their own holiday gatherings or other occasions that serve a similar existential role. Less of us were here this year. My father-in-law’s passing two years ago was a huge milestone in the life of our family. He was a great man of faith. His presence remains strong among us. But children are less and less students now, and with jobs and family come less mobility, and greater difficulty to join the clan as it assembles. Always a time of reflection for me.

To give thanks is not hard for me. I have very much to be thankful for. A family beyond anything my life would have deserved and a joy in gathering together. Often, the gathering of family means the increase of anxieties during the holiday. It is quite the other for me. It is one of my greatest joys.

But to the topic at hand and a reflection on this night of the holiday.

America is an unusual country among the nations of the world (I’m sure many of you could offer many observations on how that statement would be true). But most unusual about it was that its founding was the first to occur in human history in which an “idea” was the occasion for the founding. This idea, or the set of ideas that became “the idea,” are enshrined in such things as Declarations and Constitutions. The Declaration of Independence was as much a philosophical statement of some important ideas that had the ascendency in the late 18th century as it was political proclamation. The notion of individual rights, and the ability for individuals to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness,” were abstractions. These abstractions became the basis for a state with a government and an army. But they also became the basis for a culture in which abstractions would also hold a very high place. In political years (which seem to occur annually now) such abstractions become raised to very high levels indeed.

It is possible, in such a culture, to begin to think that this is normal or the way things are everywhere. They are not. Ultimately, to be an American, in this place, means to have accepted the ideas, or at least to live under the ideas as a way of life.

In many if not most places across the globe, to live and to exist is somewhat more organic. To be an Englishman, though it is rich with meaning and even obligations, is also to live in a somewhat organic way. There is no (written) constitution, no single document that enshrines the ideals that make one an “Englishman.” You could establish, I suppose, an “English” form of government, but it would not be an English government. The organic elements are just that – organic – and they are not easily uprooted and placed somewhere else – though many of us would gratefully acknowledge that many English ideas have given rise to much that is good in this land of America. I sometimes think the Constitution would not have worked here had we not already had such a rich inheritance from across the “Pond.”

To broaden this reflection a bit, it is also possible or even likely, for Christians living in this culture, to be greatly affected by the culture itself. It is likely that Christians in this culture may see themselves, as Christians, as Church, living under a set of ideas which make them uniquely Christian. Thus to have a Church with the 39 Articles, or the Westminster Confession, or any number of such documents seems quite normal in this culture.

It is also common for Churches, especially parishes, to resort to statements of purpose, or self-definitions of many sorts – seeking to give voice to the “idea” which unites them.

Here is where Orthodox Christianity stands in a uniquely different position, one, I might add, that makes it quite difficult for us to answer questions that call for a comparison between ourselves and other Christians around us. Orthodox Christianity, despite its involvement in the 7 Ecumenical Councils of the Early Church – does not define itself by the “ideas” of those councils. The Church is an organic (if I may use the term) matter. It has a life which is better described by Tradition (how else do you describe something that has lived for 2000 years and continues the same life and not simply a contemporary incarnation under the same name?). To be Orthodox is not unnatural, but it does force someone to think in terms that are not normally American.

An American is scandalized at the Greek who sees his own self definition as both Greek and Orthodox, and may seek to find a heresy lurking somewhere in such a self-definition, while the Greek is simply describing a life in which his identity by family, language, etc., are as organic as is his religion. These realities have lived so symbiotically for so long that they have a way of becoming enmeshed in one another. And this cannot be entirely wrong. For a Greek is not Greek as an American is an American. Nor is he a likely to be a Christian in a manner similar to other Americans (I could have used any number of Orthodox ethnicities for this example).

I give thanks this day as an American, but mostly as a human being who has a Creator to whom all honor is due, and from Whom all blessings proceed. And this would be true were I living in any other land in the world. It is not the unique inheritance of a set of ideas my ancestors came to live under some 250 years ago.

There need be no apology from the Orthodox that their religion seems to have come to them as a gift and a given rather than as an idea to which they now give loyalty. It expects us to believe certain things, and to live in a certain manner, but this “organic” life of faith will largely remain the same wherever it goes. It may enjoy freedom and bless God for its opportunities, but it may also endure persecution and give thanks to God that we survive. But the life will not change in either case. Or it should not change.

It is why, in reflecting on our conversations here on this Weblog, that really good arguments (one idea versus another rarely happen). An organic life (including the beliefs that are integral to it) cannot be reduced to ideas whether religious or merely political. To live as an Orthodox Christian is, among other things, to live an authentically human life – that is to become more human than I would have been had I not been Orthodox. This becomes possible because a life lived in conformity with the life of Christ is a life in conformity with the only authentic human life. All others are abstractions or deviations. Christ alone was fully man.

I have more to say than I can work with tonight. I sit in a parking lot outside a restaurant, which has kindly left its wi-fi on. Such are the depths a blogger may sink to in order to write. I hope (if you were in America) you enjoyed the holiday, and that the rest of you will be patient with us here as we pause to feast, and to give thanks to God for so much for which we have been such poor stewards.

If there are thoughts on the organic character of Orthodoxy, the fact that it is lived in Tradition, I would welcome them as comments and an aid to this traveling writer.

May we remember to give thanks for all things, especially these many things which were given to us, the gifts of a kind God and the generations of faithful Christians who loved God enough to be faithful to His commandments. Glory to God.

Happy Thanksgiving (American Holiday)

November 21, 2007


In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thess. 5:18).

A Little Child Enters the Temple

November 20, 2007


The story in the gospel of Christ’s visits to the Temple in his childhood – the first at 40 days of age (marked by the Feast of the Presentation and the occasion of prophecy by the Elder Simeon and Hannah the Prophetess) and at age 12 when He is lost and later found giving instruction to the teachers and scribes, is a reminder of the importance of children in the Temple of God. In Orthodox liturgical practice, a child is “churched” after its Baptism, being presented to God. The priest concludes the Churching by holding the child before the Royal Doors and reciting the words of the Elder Simeon: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…” In Orthodox practice in some places, the child is then placed on the floor of the ambo and the mother picks it up – the clear implication that God has accepted the child and now returns it to the parents to be raised in the Church. It also is a reminder that our care for children is underwritten by the childhood of Christ – that to misuse a child is to misuse Christ. He has radically identifed Himself with the “least of these.”

It reminds me Stanley Hauerwas’ statement (I misplaced its source long ago) that “since Christians already know the outcome of history, we have nothing better to do than to have children and tell them about Jesus.” I studied with Hauerwas for two years – I can remember much that he said but not always where he said it – for he (not surprisingly) liked to quote himself.

Another feast of a child entering the Temple occurs this week (on Wednesday the 21st – New Calendar): the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. The historical evidence for this feast rests within Tradition rather than Scripture which leaves it in a questionable category for most Protestants. But the Biblical evidence of the feast rests in a category unknown to many Christians that was the delight of the Fathers and remains one of the joys of being an Orthodox Christian. It is the category of typology.

The Fathers’ reading of the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, is to see in its pages “types” of Christ. Christ Himself had said that the Scriptures of the Old Testament “testify of me,” and thus from the Apostles forward, the Church has learned to read and find Christ in every word and image of the Old Testament. These images fill the liturgical life of the Church. Just as Protestants sing, “Rock of Ages cleft for me,” so the Orthodox will sing of the Rock and the Ladder and the Burning Bush and every stick of furniture in the Temple and – well everything.

The types are not always pointing to Christ Himself – some point to important events or people around Him. None can be more important than His mother, without whom there is no incarnation. Her existence and role in the defeat of Satan are already part of Biblical prophecy in the words of Gen. 3:15.

In reading the typology of Scripture, the Fathers are particularly drawn to irony – for it marks virtually the whole of God’s economy of salvation: the strong becomes weak; the wise becomes foolish; the righteous becomes sin; death is defeated by death; we lose in order to gain, etc.

The irony of the child Mary entering the Temple is an image the Fathers could not ignore. Drawn on the literal level from Tradition, it is then found echoed in images and types throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. Thus the liturgical service of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple took its shape. The greatest irony is that the Temple is, in fact, empty of its glory. There is no ark in this Temple – it having long since been lost. There is no story of its having been filled with God’s glory at its dedication (as had been the case with Solomon’s Temple and the Tabernacle of Moses). But this child who enters the Temple is the True Ark for she will bear God in her womb. She is the true bearer of the glory of God. The irony is far too rich to be ignored. Two of the hymns from that feast: the first from the stichera on Lord, I Call, the second from the Litya. Both are wonderfully rich. A child has entered the Temple.

Today, let us dance, O faithful,

singing to the Lord in psalms and hymns

and honoring His sanctified Tabernacle, the living Ark,

that contained the Word Who cannot be contained;

for in wondrous fashion she is offered to the Lord

as a young child in the flesh,

and Zachariah, the great High Priest, joyfully receives her

as the dwelling place of God.


Today, let heaven above rejoice,

and let the clouds rain down gladness

at the mighty and exceeding marvelous works of our God.

For behold, the Gate that looks t’wards the east,

who was born from a barren and childless woman according to the promise

and dedicated to God as His dwelling place,

is today brought to the Temple as an offering without blemish.

Let David be glad, striking his harp.

For he says: “Virgins shall be brought to the King after her,

her companions will be brought to Him”;

that she may be raised within God’s tabernacle, His place of atonement,

to become the dwelling of Him Who was begotten of the Father without

change before the ages.

for the salvation of our souls.

What Faith Shall I Defend?

November 19, 2007


Contemporary challenges to the Christian faith, whether from children’s writers such as Pullman or various scientific voices in the world of mass media, are frequently not challenges to the Christian faith but attacks on the misperceptions of the Christian faith. By the same token, many professions of the Christian faith are not professions of the faith, but professions of misperceptions of the Christian faith. To some degree, one can beget the other.

I occasionally find myself in social situations in which a conversation partner has left the Christian faith for one reason or another – or becomes curious about why I am an Orthodox Christian rather than the Anglican I once was. The conversation frequently reveals the fact that short of a full-blown catechism, including a removal of masses of misinformation, no real progress can be made in communication. What many people understand of Christianity and what I believe the faith to be are simply worlds apart.

It is for such reasons that I struggle to find language to help people re-understand the faith. The language that I have been writing about in recent months – that of a One-Storey Universe versus a Two-Storey Universe – is simply one of those efforts. God is not as many people imagine Him to be and has not revealed Himself to be as His detractors frequently claim. Indeed, God cannot be the subject of discussion in a manner similar to the discussion of some object we may have before us. God is never an object before us.

Indeed the knowledge of God is not analogous to the knowledge of anything else, for God has no true analogy. Thus conversations that are productive of an encounter with God tend to be idiosyncratic. In sharing a story, or explaining an idea, in singing a song, or sitting in silence, God is encountered. The same story, idea, song, or silence will not necessarily yield the same result (indeed it would be rare) with another human being. For God has revealed Himself to us as Person and is thus always Free. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” St. Paul says (2 Corinthians 3:17). He will not be at our beck and command or standby as our object. If we know Him, we will know Him in His freedom, just as we must approach Him in our own freedom.

There is a living witness among us that this God who revealed Himself to us in Christ is indeed the True and Living God. That living witness is His Church – itself maligned and misunderstood. To see the Church as merely a human organization or as an association of like-minded individuals is not to see the Church at all. When the Church is described in Scripture as the “Pillar and Ground of Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) or the “Fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23) it should give us pause. If the Church is such as St. Paul described it – what does he mean? How is it that the Church can be this?

Answering such questions is an inherent part of the search for God and I have no other purpose in writing than to share and encourage that search. The knowledge of the true and living God is the only faith that I care to defend. I have no interest in defending someone’s misperceptions of the faith.

My own experience is that those who want to know the truth eventually find their way – sometimes despite overwhelming odds. Even a man bent on murdering Christians can become Christianity’s greatest apostle. The wonderful truth behind all of this is that God is searching for us and always has been and will go to the depths of hell to find us. If I have not found Him, then what have I done so that I missed Him?

Where Do the Children Play?

November 18, 2007


I recall an old Cat Stevens song from the early 70’s, Where Do the Children Play? It runs through my head from time to time when I think about the adult world interacting with children. I had the phrase somewhat in mind when I reacted to the recent invasion of Harry Potter’s world by JK Rowling’s world. I stated then that I was sad that children can’t be left out of some things. But this is the modern world, and apparently we are at war (forgive me for saying it). Terry Mattingly, who is Orthodox and a columnist for Scripps Howard, and one of the most astute observers of the media and religion, wrote one of the most alarming columns this weekend I have seen in years.

His column deals with the up-coming movie based on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (children’s books). The movie is a production of his first book: The Golden Compass. Quoting Pullman from an Australian interview:

I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry [Potter] has said. My books are about killing God.

And, there’s more. Mattingly notes in his column that evil incarnate has a name in Pullman’s books: the “Church.” Apparently Hollywood is too shy to be so up front and chooses in the movie to substitute the word: “Magisterium.” I’m sure that Catholics will find that comforting.

I tend not to be alarmist in culture matters. I know that in the end God wins (not in Pullman’s books but in the real world). But I continue thinking, “Where do the children play?”

Then I have to remember that we Christians have been writing children’s books for years with the understanding that introducing children to God and His Kingdom at an early age is laudatory. We even go so far as to Baptize them. But apparently an atheist writer considers it equally laudatory to educate children in killing God. This indeed is a culture war – with its merchants – Hollywood and the publishing world sitting back and making money off both sides (now I think of a song by Dylan).

Where do the children play? In the same minefield that we adults play – and the merchants are playing for keeps. It’s a topic of discussion in my house. I don’t plan to fill the coffers of those who would kill God. But the ironic thing is that this God already died for them. I recommend Terry Mattingly’s Column and all of his writings at

Another Milestone – with Thanks

November 16, 2007


Sometime tomorrow (here in Tennessee) or this evening (if something unusual happens) Glory to God for All Things will reach another milestone in its young life. We will cross 400,000 “views” since the blog’s debut in October last year. Readership has continued to grow (slowly but steadily) which is encouraging. In general, I think we’ve managed to maintain kindness within the posts and comments, even if both occasionally speak quite frankly.

My thanks to so many readers and commenters. The since of community that I have when I write is always present – as well as my prayers for all of you. That Glory to God for All Things finds itself with links in other nations, even translated occasionally, is very gratifying. It makes you think more than twice before clicking on the “publish” button.

Again my many thanks to all of you for your reading and my request for your prayers as I write. May the good God Who loves mankind bless all of you!

A Faith Worth Believing

November 15, 2007


In the past month of more I have been working from time to time on posts about a “One-Storey Universe” versus a “Two-Storey Universe.” The comments and the readership have said to me that I am writing about a topic that touches many. Perhaps the most poignant responses I have had have been those who have heard descriptions of the One-Storey World, in tales from monastics in which the language is clearly simple: the monks speak of God, the saints, miracles, visions, healings, etc., in precisely the same language they use to described beans and sand, the sunrise and everything else in their day-to-day existence. A “miracle” is a much a part of their day as the soup that sits before them. The responses to such normalcy and integration of the spiritual life have occasionally been of the sort I would expect: “This is wonderful. I would like to believe like that, but I find it so hard.”

Perhaps the greatest journey many of us have to make in this modern age is the journey from the corroded faith of modernity itself towards a faith worth believing. Some have made a journey to the Orthodox Church because they sensed that here such a faith can be found. Some have made that journey though they have not personally found such faith as yet. They are simply not willing to stay where they have been and listen either to the vapid emptiness of modern liberal Christianity, or the emotion-filled delusions of pentecostalism and much of modern-day evangelicalism. And thus they have made the difficult journey to Orthodoxy – waiting for the arrival of a one-storey faith, a time when the words they say and hear will become the words of their heart, without question, without second-guessing. This is a very difficult journey indeed.

Part of this is the plight of modern man. He lives in a world in which faith has been largely removed. Faith has become a function of the second-storey. We may speak of things that have been relegated to that realm and believe in them much like we believe in imaginary numbers (I can’t remember what those are!). That the things on the second-storey are true, we believe. Indeed, the doctrine about the things that have been relegated to that place are believed very vehemently, for the doctrines are almost the sole intellectual content that we can access. We cannot access the angels, or God, or the resurrection. Instead, there are a set of rational principles, derived from Scripture (perhaps even the Fathers) and these we may access and “believe” and argue.

But this is still not a faith worth believing. Our town has just endured a devastating tragedy. A young middle-school girl, well known to many (our town is only 25,000) was struck by a school bus on the way home from school and killed. The pain engendered by such an event is beyond description. Peoples’ reactions are much as I would have expected. My own grief is palpable.

But such a death, simply moved to the second-storey, is inadequately addressed. Children will listen to the explanations but will not be much comforted. For the weakness of the second-storey is that it removes things from us and places them beyond our ability to access. They are gone, and replaced by slogans. I go to graveyards here in East Tennessee and I see the grave of a young child. On top sits a decaying flower arrangement, complete with a little telephone. On the arrangement is written: “Jesus called.” It is too small a slogan to fill the emptiness of a parent’s heart.

Instead, I believe there has to be a steady movement and growth towards a one-storey world – where our faith, our experience, and our day-to-day existence are not separated. Where God and the saints, the angels and the world to come, are themselves constantly impinging on our consciousness.

The journey to this one-storey existence – to a faith worth believing  – is long and slow. It first means leaving behind the language and the false comfort (however little it is) of the two-storey world. I will not satisfy myself with the false reasonings of those who do not know anything about that of which they speak. I do not want to hear someone parsing the various forms of grace as if they knew what they were talking about. I do not wish to hear warmed-over medieval arguments as if they meant something to a parent who has just lost a child.

I do want to pray the prayers of those who stood in the lines of the Gulag and found the prayers to be real. I want to know God here and now where He is everywhere present and fills all things. I want to converse with my guardian angel and know that my words are heard. I want to carry my heart before God in its grief and pray for those I have lost, crying to God, “Memory eternal!”

I think we make this journey to a faith worth believing in first by coming to where faith is expected to be the normative way of life – the living Orthodox Church.

Second, we make this journey to a faith worth believing by slowly, day to day, praying and pressing our heart towards the place of believing.

Pray for the departed like it matters. Pray to God in the words of the saints (and in your own), and speak to Him here and now. Give to the needy as though you were giving to God (you are). Live the sacramental life of the Church. Use everything the Church gives you for a normal, one-storey Christian existence. And be honest with God and with your priest about the struggles you have – about the assaults you experience against the faith.

The great good news is that this faith worth believing is true. It survives even into the modern world because the modern world is weak and crumbles. It cannot feed a modern man, while the faith once and for all delivered to the saints sustains human beings even through the unimaginable horrors of the modern world. God is with us.

If you wait on your modern heart to just suddenly become the heart of a desert monk – you’ll have a long wait. The first floor is full of strange and wonderful things, but your heart will have to be changed in something longer than an instant (most likely). But most of us can find our hearts changed with something less than 40 years of weeping in a desert or a 20 year sentence in the cold of Siberia. Instead, you’ll have to pray even when you don’t feel like it and fast when you’d prefer to forget it, and attend Church like an old “Baba” in the dark years of Stalin. If the doors are open, be there – or at least try to be there – as if your life depended on it. It does. And the faith worth believing will come. Day by day it will come.

And then. in this modern world, you will see something that others don’t. You may be asked to tell what you see. Or you may prefer silence. But the reality of what you see will have removed the anxiety in your heart and replaced it with true faith. It is enough.

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov on Prayer and the Fire of the Spirit

November 13, 2007


St. Ignatius Brianchaninov was an early 19th century Russian Bishop and saint. His teachings on prayer, drawn from the fathers are among the best modern commentaries. His work, The Arena, is a must-read on the subject of spiritual delusion. The following excerpt is from his book, On the Prayer of Jesus, in which he draws from various fathers their teaching on this most classic of Orthodox disciplines. This excerpt is from the chapter on the teachings of St. John Climacus.

God is the teacher of prayer; true prayer is the gift of God. To him who prays constantly with contrition of spirit, with the fear of God and with attention, God Himself gives gradual progress in prayer. From humble and attentive prayer, spiritual action and spiritual warmth make their appearance and quicken the heart. The quickened heart draws the mind to itself and becomes a temple of grace-given prayer and a treasury of the spiritual gifts which are procured by such prayer as a matter of course.

“Labor away,” say great ascetics and teachers of prayer, “with pain of heart to obtain warmth and prayer, and God will grant you to have them always. Forgetfulness expels them, and it is born of sloth and carelessness.” If you want to be delivered from forgetfulness and captivity, you will not be able to attain it otherwise than by acquiring within you the spiritual fire; only from the warmth of the fire of the Spirit forgetfulness and captivity vanish. This fire is obtained by desire for God. Brother! Unless your heart seeks the Lord day and night with pain, you will not be able to succeed. But if you abandon everything else and occupy yourself with this, you will attain it, as Scripture says: Be still and realize (Ps. 45:11). Brother! Implore the goodness of Him Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). to give you spiritual vigilance which kindles the spiritual fire. The Lord of heaven and earth came to earth to pour that fire upon it (Luke 12:49). According to my power I shall pray with you that God Who gives grace to all who ask with fervor and toil may grant you that vigilance. When it comes it will guide you to the truth. It enlightens the eyes, directs the mind, banishes the sleep of languor and negligence, restores luster to the weapon covered with rust in the earth of sloth, restores radiance to clothes defiled by captivity to barbarians, inspires a desire to be satisfied with the great sacrifice of which it was revealed to the Prophet that it cleanses sins and takes away iniquities (Isa. 6:7), forgives those who weep, and gives grace to the humble (Prov. 3:34), manifests itself in the worthy, and by it they inherit eternal life, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

All of which yields a simple message: pray!

The Mystery of the Human Heart

November 12, 2007


St. Macarius is famously quoted:

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)

This, of course, only opens the mystery of the heart – it does nothing to explain it. There is this capacity within us – whether witnessed by the depths of repentance or the darkness of cruelty that is simply described as heart. Somehow, the language of modern psychology, even the clinical complexities of the DSR, fail to do justice to this most essential of all aspects of the human.

As a priest, I major in the heart.

I know that whatever it is that ails a parishioner, the answer lies within the heart. There is no absence of grace – God is not willing that any should perish. We, however, are not so generous – even with our own selves. We cannot expect the heart to act in its own self-interest (at least not in its own long-term self-interest). And, strangely, God’s approach to us is not to appeal to our self-interest. The Kingdom of God calls to the heart to empty itself and look to the interest of the other. The heart will only find itself if it loses itself. Wooing the heart to this place of self-effacement is, indeed, the great mystery of the faith in the course of our daily lives.

In the Mystery (as the Eastern Church most commonly terms the sacraments) of Marriage, we bring a couple into the presence of God, whose own love and whatever else has brought them together, and crown them with the crowns of martyrs. We pray for them and invite them to take up a life of martyrdom that is synonymous with marriage. And this is, in fact, no different than the life we initiate at Baptism. That both Mysteries include a “dance” – circling three times around a table in the nave (or around the font) is simply because both are journeys through life. Both are journeys led by the cross and destined to lead to the Cross – the ultimate place of self-abandonment.

But in every step of the dance, in every day that is lived, the mystery of the heart seems to govern at least part of every step. Each step will be met by grace (else who could walk?) but the shape of the step will be marked to some extent by the heart that meets grace. Darkness will bring its own stumbling, staggering either towards more light or deeper darkness. A broken and contrite heart can bring the poignancy of a dance that only God could choreograph.

I find that when I pray for others it is not the mystery of grace that strains my prayer – but the mystery of other hearts. What will prayer bring? What will the heart of another do with the grace it is given? What mystery surrounds the pattern of the dance that this life now displays before us? I find little solace in the complexity of my own heart, nor in the opaque riddles of others. Solace comes finally only in the constant goodness of God’s grace – a grace that never draws back nor turns away from the hardness we present. This grace and its goodness crushes the heads of dragons, including those that lurk in the darkest places of the heart. It also kindles a fire where we thought no flame could burn. May paradise consume us!