Archive for February, 2008

Holy Humility is Complete Trust in God – Elder Porphyrios

February 28, 2008


From the Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love.

Complete trust in God – that’s what holy humility is. Complete obedience to God, without protest, without reaction, even when some things seem difficult and unreasonable. Abandonment to the hands of God. The words we repeat during the Divine Liturgy say it all: ‘Let us commend our whole life to Christ our God.’ The secret prayer of the priest says the same thing: ‘We commend our whole life and hope to You, O loving Master, and we entreat You and beseech You and supplicate You…’ To you, O Lord, we leave everything. This is what trust in God is. This is holy humility. this is what transfigures a person and makes him a ‘God-man’.

The humble person is conscious of his inner state and, however unsightly it is, he does not lose his personality. He knows he is sinful and is grieved by the fact, but he does not despair and does not annihilate himself. The person who possesses holy humility does not speak at all, that is, he doesn’t react. He accepts to be criticized and rebuked by others, without getting angry and defending himself. He does not lose his equilibrium. The opposite happens with the egoist, the person who has a sense of inferiority. To begin with he seems humble, but if he is goaded a little, he immediately loses his calm and is irritated and upset.

The humble person believes that all things depend on Christ and that Christ gives His grace and in that way he makes progress. The person who possesses holy humility lives even now in the earthly uncreated Church. He always has the joy of Christ, even in the most displeasing circumstances…..

Fasting Without Force

February 27, 2008


The following is taken from Wounded by Love: the Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios 

You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love – the adoration of Christ which cannot be expressed, which is beyond expression, which is beyond… And such a person attempts to undertake ascetic exercises and to do things to cause himself to suffer for the love of God.

No monk became holy without ascetic exercises. No one can ascend to spirituality without exercising himself. These things must be done. Ascetic exercises are such things as prostrations, vigils and so on, but done without force. All are done with joy. What is important is not the prostrations we will make or the prayers, but the act of self-giving, the passionate love for Christ and for spiritual things. There are many people who do these things, not for God, but for the sake of exercise, in order to reap physical benefit. But spiritual people do them in order to reap spiritual benefit; they do them for God. At the same time, however, the body is greatly benefited and doesn’t fall ill. Many good things flow from them.

Salvation by Grace and Just Showing Up

February 25, 2008


There has been a tendency in much teaching about the notion of salvation by grace to ground the image in a legal or forensic metaphor. Thus, we are saved by grace in the sense that someone else’s goodwill and kindness (God’s) has now freed us from the consequences of our actions. Thus we speak of grace as the “free gift” of God.

There is no denying that grace is a free gift and that it is the true means of our salvation. But what if our problem is not to be primarily understood in legal terms? What if that which needs saving about us is not our guilt before the law of God, but the ravages worked within our heart and life from the presence of sin and death? This is probably the point where many discussions about salvation fall apart. If one person has in mind primarily a forensic salvation (I go to heaven, I don’t go to hell), while the other is thinking primarily in terms of an ontological change (I am corrupted and dying and were I to go to heaven I’d still be corrupted and dying). The debate comes down to a question of whether we need a change of status (forensic) or a change within our very heart. Of course, there are varying shades within this debate and I have surely not done justice to the full understanding of either point.

Orthodox theology, has largely been nurtured in the understanding of salvation as a healing of our heart and a transformation of the whole of our life. Others have sometimes referred to these elements as belonging to “sanctification,” but there has never been a distinction between sanctification and justification or salvation within the Eastern Tradition.

It is from within that understanding that my comments on grace are shaped. It is difficult for Christians of any sort in our modern world to grasp what it means to be saved by grace, if grace is indeed the very life of God given to us to transform and transfigure us – to change us into conformity with the image of Christ (Roman 8:29). The difficulty with this understanding is that, unlike a change in status, a transformation is slow work. We do not live in a culture that is particularly patient about anything. The political world thrives on repeated campaigns for “change,” though change is always a relatively slow thing (except in revolutions when it is usually not a change for the better).

There is a saying from the desert fathers: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a recognition that stability is an inherent virtue in the spiritual life, and in the constancy and patience of our prayers and labors with God, grace has its perfect work.

In the modern parish setting, particularly with my catechumens, I have translated the desert saying into a more modern statement: “Ninety percent of Orthodoxy is just showing up.” We do not live in cells nor is our stability marked by sitting quiety through the day reciting the Jesus Prayer. There certainly should be times of the day set aside for prayer – but one of the primary locations of our life of grace – as Christians living in the world – is to be found within the life of the parish Church – particularly within its life of sacraments, prayers, and patience (there is equally as much patience to be practiced in the parish as in any monastery). One mark of our struggle for stability is “just showing up.”

The life of grace is central to our existence as Christians and must not become secularized. In a secular understanding, the Church has a role to play in a larger scheme of things (the secular world). Thus the Church becomes useful to me and at the same time takes on a diminished role in my life and in the culture of my life. Secularism is the dominant form of American culture. It is not hostile to Church attendance – but sees it as having a diminished importance. Church becomes just one of many programs in which we may be involved. In some families, choices are made between a child’s participation in a Sunday soccer league and a child’s participation in Church. Adults make similar choices for themselves. But the transformation that is occurring in such choices is the transformation of the Church and the gift of God’s life (grace) into a secular program which exists to meet my religious needs or interests. Such an approach is a contradiction of the life of grace.

Our submission to the salvation of Christ is a submission of our life to the life of grace – a recognition that there is no salvation apart from Christ and the life of grace. In cultural terms, it means a renunciation of the secular life – a life defined by my needs as a consumer within the American experience – and an acceptance of my life as defined by the Cross of Christ. If the Cross is to be taken up with integrity – it must be taken up daily and more often still than that.

The life of grace means that I have given myself to Christ and to the means He has provided for my salvation. I will confess my sins and embrace the life of repentance. I will approach the Cup of His Body and Blood with faith and with trust in His promise of Life. I will be patient as I await His coming to me – as forgiveness – as healing – as transformation from the death of Adam into the Life of Christ. All of which requires that we “show up” – not in the casual sense of the term – but in the sense that we truly struggle to make ourselves available to God.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:3)

To Hear the Word of God Frequently

February 25, 2008


I would not want to give a wrong impression that an Orthodox Christian needs less Scripture. We need more – but it should be used in a right manner. Many so-called Bible studies simply increase information in an already information-overloaded world. We need not so much information as the powerful work of the Word of God moving in our heart. Thus memorization and repetition of Scripture, as prayer, is a very important and effective means of the use of Scripture. Knowing the stories of Scripture is vitally important, but applying them, not just mentally, but as prayer (as in the Canon of St. Andrew) is much more to the point of our heart’s need. From the Desert Fathers:

John, whom Emperor Marcion had exiled, reported that he and others went to Syria to visit Abba Poemen. They had questions about the hardness of the heart, but Poemen, did not understand the Greek they spoke. No one could interpret for them, and Poemen observed their embarassment. Speaking in Greek, Poemen said, “Water is naturally soft and stone is naturally hard. But let water drip continuously on a stone and it will erode. The word of God works the same way. It is soft and our hearts are hard, but if we hear the word of God frequently, it will open our hearts to reverence.”

The Warfare of Prayer

February 24, 2008


A friend relates the story that when as a young, protestant teenager, she approached her pastor to ask about a prayer life, she was met with little or no answer. She had an instinct that there was more to prayer than she knew – but she was living in a tradition that knew little about prayer.

It is a lack that is born of a truncated notion of salvation. Salvation itself, in her early tradition (the same as I grew up in) was confined to the mental assent to Christ as Savior. Once an individual had said, “Yes,” to God, the rest of life was spent in helping others say, “Yes,” as well. The weakness of this presentation of salvation is that our relationship with God is severely reduced. Missing is the sense of communion that is our true life with God.

The purpose of prayer is nothing other than communion of God and man. Salvation itself is the restoration of this communion. The Christian life is to be a continual growth in communion with God. Thus our life of prayer is not an occasional intercession thrown out at the universe on behalf of some matter about which we have concern – but is rather a continual relationship in which we give ourselves to God and receive God again to ourselves.

Though such a relationship is clearly taught by Scripture and by Christian tradition – it is frequently not known or taught in some Christian circles. It is an absence that empties the Christian life of its true content. Substituting Bible Study for communion with God is not a proper solution. All too often, the Christian life is offered an American form of spiritual “busyness” rather than the traditions of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and penance. These are the traditional practices that have been given to us for the formation of our life in Christ. The study of Scripture is a good thing if its result is its application in our lives. Anything less would be a distraction. The same could be said about other forms of spiritual reading. From the Desert Fathers comes this short reminder on the life of prayer:

Abba Agathon said, “I consider no other labor as difficult as prayer. When we are ready to pray, our spiritual enemies interfere. They understand it is only by making it difficult for us to pray that they can harm us. Other things will meet with success if we keep at it, but laboring at prayer is a war that will continue until we die.”

For the Love of God – the Elder Porphyrios

February 23, 2008


From the Elder Porphyrios and the book Wounded by Love. 

There is one thing, O Christ, that I want, one thing I desire, one thing I ask for, and that is to be with You.

Let us Love Christ and let our only hope and care be for Him. Let us love Christ for His own sake only. Never for our sake. Let Him put us wherever He likes. Let Him give us whatever He wishes. Don’t let’s love Him for His gifts. It’s egotistical for us to say: “Christ will place me in a fine mansion which He has prepared, just as the Gospel says: In my Father’s house there are many mansions…so that where I am you may be also.” What we should say rather is: ‘My Christ, whatever Your love dictates; it is sufficient for me to live within Your love.’

As for myself, poor soul…what can I say… I’m very weak. I haven’t managed to love Christ so very fervently and for my soul to long for Him. I feel that I have a very long way to go. I haven’t arrived at where I want to be; I don’t experience this love. But I’m not discouraged. I trust in the love of god. I say to Christ: ‘I know I’m not worthy. Send me wherever Your love wishes. That’s what I desire, that’s what I want. During my life I always worshipped You.’

When I was seriously ill and on the point of leaving this life, I didn’t want to think about my sins. I wanted to think about the love of my Lord, my Christ, and about eternal life. I didn’t want to feel fear. I wanted to go to the Lord and to think about His goodness, His love. And now that my life is nearing its end, I don’t feel anxiety or apprehension, but I think that when I appear at the Second Coming and Christ says to me: Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment? I will bow my head and I will say to Him: ‘Whatever you want, my Lord, whatever your love desires. I know I am not worthy. Send me wherever your love wishes. I am fit for hell. And place me in hell, as long as I am with You. There is one thing I want, one thing I desire, one thing I ask for, and that is to be with You, wherever and however You wish.’

I try to give myself over entirely to the love and worship of God. I have consciousness of my sinfulness, but I live with hope. It is bad to despair, because someone who despairs becomes embittered and loses his willingness and strength. Someone who has hope, on the contrary, advances forward. Because he feels that he is poor, he tries to enrich himself. What does a poor man do? If he is smart, he tries to find a way to become rich.

And so inspite of the fact that I feel weak and that I haven’t achieved what I desire, I nevertheless do not fall into despair. It is a consolation to me, as I’ve told you, that I don’t cease to try  continually. Yet I don’t do what I want to. Pray for me. The point is that I cannot love Christ absolutely without His grace. Christ does not allow His love to show itself if my soul does not have something which will attract Him.

Love and the True Faith

February 22, 2008


Reading more on the life and teaching of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, I found it interesting that what he thought of as “true faith” was the manifestation of the love of God in us towards all the world. It would have been certainly the case that as an Orthodox monk, St. Silouan would have believed all of the Church’s teaching without question. And yet when he spoke of the true faith it was the state of the heart that he considered rather than running a doctrine check on somebody.

True doctrine is of great importance because it reveals the nature and truth of God and the world to us. But such knowledge is not the final goal of the Christian life. Our final goal is indeed the true faith – that is – the love of God towards all the world dwelling within our hearts. From Father Sophrony’s book on St. Silouan: 

The Staretz [St. Silouan] interpreted both the incarnation of God-the-Word and Christ’s whole earthly life as love towards the whole world, though the world is totally hostile to God. Similarly, he knew the Holy Spirit in the love which with its advent drives away all hatred, like light cancelling darkness; in the love which likens man to Christ in the inmost impulses of his soul. And this, according to the Staretz’ teaching, is true faith.

There is no opposition to rationality in any of this and certainly no opposition to true doctrine. But there is a recognition that the very simplist of all things – available to children and the weak minded (perhaps more truly available to them than the rest of us) – is the love of God dwelling in our hearts. Without this there is no true faith, no true salvation, no theosis, no true conformity to the image of God.

It is for this reason (at least) that the Church sets aside entire seasons of the year (such as Great Lent) so that we may pray and fast and give ourselves over to God in such a way as to acquire His love for the world in our hearts. And though true doctrine is found in every service, and there are feast days on the calendar to celebrate the great Ecumenical Councils – there is not anything like a season of the year set aside for the people of God to acquire “true doctrine.” It is simply the case that if we do not know the love of God for the whole world in our heart – then we would never be able to know true doctrine. The words spoken by the Deacon at every liturgy when he summons us to repeat the Nicene Creed say everything: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.” We may say the words for the rest of eternity – but unless and until we love one another we will not truly know or believe a word of it.

And thus we are called to love.

Through the Prayers of Our Holy Fathers…

February 21, 2008


It is a phrase that is heard frequently in Orthodox services: “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us and save us!” The meaning of that phrase is enlarged and enlightened in the writings of the Elder Sophrony. The following excerpt is from his book, St. Silouan the Athonite.

Prayer for the whole world, for all Adam, in many instances distracts the monk from putting himself at the service of individuals. One may question whether this withdrawing from individual service means refusal of the concrete for the sake of the abstract? Not at all, for the whole Adam is not an abstraction but the most concrete fullness of the human being.

The ontological unity of humanity is such that every separate individual overcoming evil in himself inflicts such a defeat on cosmic evil that its consequences have a beneficial effect on the destinies of the whole world. On the other hand, the nature of cosmic evil is such that, vanquished in certain human hypostases [persons] it suffers a defeat the significance and extent of which are quite disproportionate to the number of individuals concerned.

A single saint is an extraordinarily precious phenomenon for all mankind. By the mere fact of their existence – unknown, maybe, to the world but known to God – the saints draw down on the world, on all humanity, a great benediction from God. The Staretz [St. Silouan] writes:

‘Because of these people, I believe the Lord preserves the world, for they are precious in His sight, and God always listens to His humble servants and we are all of us all right because of their prayers.’

‘Prayer keeps the world alive and when prayer fails, the world will perish…”Nowadays,” perhaps you will say, “there are no more monks like that to pray for the whole world.” But I tell you that when there are no more men of prayer on earth, the world will come to an end and great disasters will befall. They have already started.’

The saints live by the love of Christ. This love is Divine strength, which created, and now upholds, the world, and this is why their prayer is so pregnant with meaning. St. Barsanuphius, for instance, records that in his time the prayers of three men preserved mankind from catastrophe. Thanks to these saints – whom the world does not know of – the course of historical, even of cosmic events, is changed. So then, every saint is a phenomenon of cosmic character, whose significance passes beyond the bounds of earthly history into the sphere of eternity. The saints are the salt of the earth, its raison d’etre.  They are the fruit that preserve the earth. But when the earth ceases to produce saints, the strength that safeguards it from catastrophe will fail.

What Is Good for Us?

February 20, 2008


We live in a culture that has a fairly clear idea of what is good for a human being. We have notions of the “American Dream” and other ideals. Self-help books abound, each with its own understanding of what it means to be healthy, successful, well-balanced, etc. Frequently these cultural norms run counter to the writings of the Church fathers – sometimes scandalously so. Consider the following excerpt from the Desert Fathers:

Euprepius blessed us with this benediction: May fear, humility, lack of food and Godly sorrow be with you.

I am certain that were I to end a meeting in my parish with such a blessing many people would be either confused, maybe even outraged. There are things in our culture that treat fear as always a bad thing; almost nothing in our culture promotes humility (consider things like “American Idol”), lack of food is a curse and Godly sorrow is just the opposite of the spiritual life marketed through most of our culture.

But the writings of the desert fathers have a different point of view. Their goal is the salvation of the human person. There is a recognition that hardship, whether in the form of fear, humiliation, famine or sorrow are frequent tools in the hand of God to bring about the sanctification of our lives and to re-create us a holy beings.

Christ immediately sets out to fast for 40 days following His Baptism. He does not begin His ministry without such hunger. He did not make Himself a stranger to sorrow, but purposefully delayed His travel to help his dying friend Lazarus. There He encounters weeping and anger, questioning and heartache. And there He raised the dead.

I cannot think of a single saint in the Church, from St. Paul and the Apostles forward who were stranger to any of the benedictions offered by Abba Euprepius. But modernized Christianity has made itself a stranger to these things. Theologians of various stripes go so far as to abandon the faith in the face of suffering and sorrow and discover they have no root in themselves. (A recent interview on NPR offers a very thin reason by the scholar Bart Ehrman, of the University of North Carolina, of why he no longer believes in God. Of course, he never knew or was a part of Orthodox Christianity and has simply reached a trajectory set by the modern academy).

The quote from Abba Euprepius is a demonstration of the Tradition – one that not only knew and understood the meaning of suffering and did not fear to offer such a blessing. But such knowledge can only be known in the heart. It is not a syllogism that satisfies the mind. Thus, we are forced to remember that the great and only battleground of the Christian faith is the human heart. Someone’s unbelief only tells me something of their heart at a particular moment. Unbelief does not tell us of the ultimate end of a person, for only the God who know the human heart can know such a thing. But only the human heart can truly know God. For in the heart all things dwell: heaven, hell, God, the demons. Everything is there.

It is little wonder that we seek to live somewhere else. But every other world is but a false or poor construct of the human heart. We must make that difficult journey and enter through the narrow gate if we are to find the wideness of God’s mercy and the infinity that is the fullness of the human person.

Scripture and the Church

February 18, 2008


I recently encountered a use of Scripture in a web posting that was alarming to a degree. The writer (who was not apparently a believer) sought to use Scripture to prove that God was a murderer and that the Bible was an immoral book. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on why certain approaches to Scripture will never be productive of a proper understanding and why the Bible is not a “user-friendly” source of information on God and His will for man.

I think, first off, of an event recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel. It is the story of the encounter of two of Christ’s disciples with the risen Lord, on the afternoon of the resurrection. After not recognizing the risen Lord, they begin to instruct Him on the things that had just taken place in Jerusalem and which they, as yet, did not understand. Then we are told an interesting thing:

And [Christ] said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

It is obvious that three years (or so) discipleship with Christ, eating and sleeping beside Him, listening to His teachings, watching the miracles – were simply not sufficient to provide what was needed to understand the most fundamental things about Christ within the Scriptures (at that time, meaning the Old Testament). Only with personal instruction from the Risen Lord, and later continued instruction by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), do the disciples – those first disciples – begin to understand the Scriptures. Their instruction to those who followed after them, as well as the continued instruction of the Holy Spirit (which in Orthodoxy is the proper meaning of Tradition), remain essential elements of the interpretation of the Scriptures – by the Christian Church.

Anybody can read the Scriptures. Anybody can do what they want when it comes to interpreting the Scriptures. But what the Scriptures mean to the Church, is a very particular interpretation, given to it by Christ and the living Tradition within the Church.

Thus, it is a more or less meaningless statement when someone outside the Church says: “the Bible says,” or “the Bible teaches.” Books are not self-interpreting, and this is most certainly the case for the Scriptures, or is at least the case for the Scriptures as they are understood by the Christian Church.

To a degree, this ecclesiastical position of the Scriptures can be a weakness in the classical protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura (meaning the Scriptures alone). There is indeed a sense in which nothing can speak as clearly or authoritatively as the Scriptures for a Christian. With this, the Orthodox would never argue. But the Scriptures must speak in their proper context – which is in the living Tradition of the Body of Christ. Removed from that context, and the Scriptures remain problematic – subject to misuse and abuse – to misinterpretation (which simply means “not the Church’s interpretation”) – and to confusion.

Thus when a non-believer, or lone believer, takes up the Scriptures and begins to make them say things about God that the Church has never said about God – or uses them against themselves as though it were a book of perfect syllogisms to be tested by a process of non-contradiction – it is simply an absurd case of someone using something that does not properly belong to them and of remaining in at least as much darkness as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus prior to their encounter with the risen Lord.

The Church does not have to defend Scripture to those outside the Church – for the book is not the book-outside-the-Church. St. Paul wrote letters to Churches, or letters to leaders of the Church. The whole of the New Testament, in every instance, is addressed to believers only. Others may read it, and may even come to faith by reading it (God is sovereign and may do whatever He pleases), but they do not and cannot read it authoritatively. That reading – is and has been given to the Church and to the Church alone. It’s not a unique appropriation of a book – it is simply defining what the word “Scripture” means.

Now it is also the case that the ecclesiology of various groups of Christians will understand what the word “Church” means in different ways and will understand the relationship of “Church” to “Scripture” in different ways. What I have offered here is the classical understanding of the Orthodox Church – that understanding which is common to the Fathers of the undivided Church of the early centuries – and remains the understanding of the Orthodox Church today.

The Bible has come to hold a unique place within English-speaking culture, and American culture in particular – a place that is far removed from its proper ecclesiastical position. Everybody can own a Bible now and carry one around in their pocket. Everyone is free to study and to quote. Everyone is free to misunderstand the Scriptures to their heart’s content – but not everyone is free to speak in a manner that is authoritative for the Church. The Scriptures, as they are to the Church, is sui generis, a case unto itself. As such, there can be no “objective” discussion of the meaning of Scripture, or a discussion on its meaning in which the grounds of that meaning are something other than its meaning “to the Church.” Of course, such discussions take place all the time, but, to a certain extent, they are of no concern to the Church.

There is a danger, always present, that the Bible will be viewed as a “Holy Book” by itself – ripped from its context within the Church. The danger is that when Scripture is removed from that context it almost invariably comes to take on other meanings or to be used in a manner that seeks to give it an authority somehow unrelated to the Church. Christians are Baptized “into the Body of Christ,” and “into the death of Christ,” according to St. Paul. He nowhere says that we were Baptized into the Scriptures. And although we are taught by the Scriptures to “desire the sincere milk of the word,” we are also taught by Christ to “eat His flesh and to drink His blood” in the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, we are told that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no Life in you” (John 6:53). The living Body of Christ, the Church, is the proper context of all Christian activity.

The Apostles who were taught by Christ and who wrote the Scriptures of the New Testament, themselves gave instructions that go beyond the Scriptures:

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

And thus it is that in the life of the Church, the living Tradition is both the mind of Christ in the Holy Spirit, manifest particularly in the understanding of Scripture, as well as in those matters which have been handed down to us from the beginning (such as the sign of the cross, etc.).

I do not generally care for the phrase that says “the Bible is the Church’s book,” if only that it may make the Scriptures to seem to be less than they are. But it remains the case that the Scriptures are inherently ecclesiastical – they belong in the Church and are themselves, as Scripture, a part of the Church’s life. Torn from that context they become something else – which, as St. Peter warned (speaking of St. Paul’s epistles): “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).

May God give us His grace.