Archive for May 12th, 2008

Kinder, Gentler

May 12, 2008

The following quote (of St. Seraphim of Sarov) is framed and mounted in the narthex of my parish. I first obtained the quote from my Archbishop:

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.

I am continuously puzzled by the fact that people are frequently unkind and just as frequently not gentle. I cannot point to myself as a model in this – I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. But it nevertheless remains a puzzle.

As I ponder the human heart I can see that judgment comes easily to many of us. And most people who are harsh in their judgments of others are just as harsh in their judgment of themselves. It’s as if we had a Freudian Super-Ego living inside our heads judging everything in sight. Of course, this gives us no peace and robs us of compassion.

It is particularly difficult for religious people – for the expectations we allow ourselves to entertain may be nothing less than perfection. If you are Orthodox and you’ve dabbled in the canons or rubrics there are entirely new areas in which to expect perfection.

Of course, the answer to this is not “lowering expectations.” Some fear that anything less than the strictest approach will lead to wanton libertinism. The answer is have the right expectations. St. Seraphim did not say, “You cannot be too kind, too gentle,” because he was a famous libertine or had low expectations of the human capacity for a spiritual life. He spoke as he did, primarily, because he knew God. His admonitions do not differ from those of Christ – unless the reader of Scripture is reading with a bitter heart.

The question of right expectations is a matter of reading the gospels correctly and flows from truly knowing God. Religious knowledge can easily be substituted for knowledge of God – they are not at all the same thing. The conflict between Christ and the Pharisees has been there for us from the beginning to tell us that religious knowledge is the wrong expectation. Perfect conformity to religious regulation may indeed be demonic. It is the Publican who returns home justified rather than the Pharisee (Luke 18:14).

“You cannot be too kind, too gentle,” is itself a proper statement of right expectation. We cannot be too kind, because God Himself is kind, “to the unthankful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). For various reasons, the religious culture which most of us have internalized maximizes the importance of avoiding sexual temptation, performing certain religious actions (particularly outward ones), maintaining correct belief (this is particularly important for many Orthodox – and is not incorrect – when rightly practiced), and violations of certain moral matters.

These things are not wrong in and of themselves – but they can also be performed (to some degree) with no reference to God. There is the danger of simply becoming conformed to the general and accepted standards of middle-class behavior. This is a far cry from the Sermon on the Mount, and may completely ignore the matter of the heart – where grace alone can make a difference.

Thus St. Seraphim offers an admonition: “You cannot be too kind, too gentle.” Both are actions of the heart (unless we are simply being unctious like Dicken’s Uriah Heap). Compassion for others and sympathy for their failings will bring the heart closer to the heart of God than any form of judging.

As St. Seraphim boldly stated: “All condemnation is of the devil. Never condemn each other.”

Somewhile back someone (not Orthodox) wrote to me about a recurring problem of anger in dealing with their children. My suggestion (very Orthodox) was to fall down at the feet of the child whenever this happened and to ask for their forgiveness (like the Orthodox do at Forgiveness Vespers). Such an act of humility not only teaches a valuable lesson to a child but also applied frequently enough to the heart will curb anger (by God’s grace). How do we see a heart change? By repentance and the sooner the better.

I think the same action, used in a marriage, would often have a beneficial effect.

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the Prostitute Sonja (who is truly a saint), tells the murderer Raskolnikov, “Go to the crossroads, bow down to people, kiss the earth  because you have sinned before it as well, and say aloud to the whole world: ‘I am a murderer.'”

Her concern is far more for the redemption of his heart, and not for any outward shame or embarassment. Embarrassment be damned! A man’s soul is at stake!

The same is true for us when we turn to questions of kindness or gentleness. Kindness and gentleness require patience, require restraint, require a compassion that sees the truth of another human being rather than the abstract form of an imagined perfection. Kiss the earth and do not fear to confess before all men – not if your heart is at stake.

May St. Seraphim pray for us and ask the good God to teach us the true meaning of kindness and gentleness and give our poor hearts the grace to do what seems so hard.

You Can’t Pray Too Much

May 12, 2008

Some years ago I stood by the bed of an elderly Pentecostal woman in mountains of East Tennessee. She was dying from respiratory complications – I was visiting her as a Hospice chaplain. We chatted about many things – mostly the things of God. She showed me a well-worn Bible she had owned for most of her life. In the front she had marked down the date for each occasion when she had finished reading the Bible from cover to cover. There were over 95 such dates – more than the years of her life.

As we were finishing the visit I offered prayers for her. I prayed for 5 or 10 minutes – a respectable length of prayer in the mountains. When I finished she looked up at me and said, “May I pray?” I told her, “Of course.”

She then began to pray, quietly, her breaths labored. Her prayer rose in fervor as did the shortness of her breath. Her prayer had to have lasted at least 20 minutes – it was mostly a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.

At last, her breath gave out and she whispered an Amen. I could not move from the spot. I said to her, “Sister, that was a fine prayer.”

She looked up at me with a wry smile and whispered, “You can’t pray too much!”

I have carried that scene around in my heart for about 10 years. I have hoped that my last breaths would be shaped into such words of praise.

There is a failure in much of modern Christianity – a failure that is marked by a passivity in our approach to God. Some would justify such passivity by deriding certain actions as an example of “works righteousness,” mistakenly thinking that being saved by grace and not by works means that all we should do as Christians is believe. This is not even good Protestantism.

It is interesting to take a short look at what St. Paul actually wrote about being saved by “grace through faith.” One of the most oft-quoted passages on the topic is found in Ephesians 2.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Many will cite by memory the first part of this statement, but forget (or never knew) the second part. To be in Christ is to be a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). But the nature of that “new creation” is clearly described here by St. Paul. To be a new creation is to be ourselves the “workmanship” of God, that is, creations of grace. But he clearly states that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”

Thus it is that as Christians we are enjoined to:

Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thes. 5:16-18).

To this could be added admonitions to “walk in love,” to “forgive our enemies,” to “give without expecting in return.” The list of New Testament commandments, clearly intended for us as we walk the path of grace, is quite extensive – together pointing towards the call of God in our lives to be conformed to the image of Christ.

A friend recently told me of a conversation with a non-Orthodox Christian who could not understand the many hours of prayer and thanksgiving that mark the Orthodox services of Holy Week. To this Christian, such activities seemed like “works righteousness.”

The Orthodox do not pray because we think we will gain any merit by such action, but because we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in.” The goodness of God transcends our ability to give thanks.

In the simple words of a dying Pentecostal in the mountains of East Tennessee, “You can’t pray to much.”

I am reminded of a saying in the Desert Fathers: Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath.

I’ve not only read this statement – I’ve actually seen it. May God grant me the grace to struggle so until my last breath.