Archive for May, 2008

Silent Sentinels and the Saints among Us

May 16, 2008

I originally ran this post last December. I have watched the film mentioned in it many times. The thoughts in the post came back to me again today.

Like many, I recall my highschool years somewhat vividly. Our school was of moderate size with a personal history for most students that increased its impact. It opened in 1965 with grades 7 through 12, among the earliest accomodations in our county to the “baby boom” phenomenon. Existing schools simply could not handle the growing mass of young people. By the time I reached 9th grade, plans were made and shortly implemented that placed students under the ninth grade into a middle school. But by my last year, our class consisted of students who had been together for six years, some longer than that. And so it was that we knew one another. For good or ill, we knew one another. I recall in particular a student who came to our class somewhat late – probably around the tenth grade. What was striking was not that he was the best student (though he was among the best), nor that he was a great athlete, though he made a contribution, nor that he was necessarily a “hit” with the girls, though I recall him as the sort of guy who usually had a date to school dances.

This young man had a different distinction: he was good. Or if it is improper to call another man good (in light of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:19) then I will have to say of him that he was kind. He was not only a kind young man, but kindness towards others seemed to matter to him. Thus he was intentionally kind. I was many times the recipient of his kindness – never hearing a mean or demeaning comment from him. This was a person who was never the source of a bad day for me.

Time has moved on and I now live away from my home town. I do not know the stories of my fellow students to a large degree. I married someone “from the outside” and have a life that rarely brings me into contact with that part of my past. But I have often wondered about the kindness of such a young man and what became of him.

I use this memory as a way of thinking about the phenomenon of saints., I do not know that his kindness approached that category – but it is a reminder to me that we are not all alike. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we meet those who are singular in their kindness, their goodness, their generosity, their compassion, and the presence of the good God is made somewhat tangible.

I recently watched a movie on the modern saint Nikolai of Zicha. His life spanned both World Wars and included a time in America, part of which was spent as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s seminary in Pennsylvania. What was most striking about him was the recognition by others around him from a fairly early stage in his life, that this was no ordinary man. At numerous points in his life people who were no strangers to political power or wealth, described him as the most extraordinary man of their acquaintance. He was compared to the prophets of the Old Testament. In one case he was considered the equal of an army. Kings sought his advice, which was not noted for political brilliance but for goodness. His was the voice of God to many in his generation, including those who seemed to have the “power” of God in their ability to make life and death decisions.

In a famous prayer from his Prayers by the Lake, he wrote:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitter against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

He was imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis and persecuted by the communists after their rise to power in post-war Serbia. Thus he finished his years in America, a saint who had not sought out our company, but was nonetheless a gift to us of a kind God.

I believe that without the presence of saints the world could not continue to exist. They cannot be seen as a great political force, but I believe that the goodness that dwells within them and the kindness that flows from them, by God’s grace, hold back the approaching darkness that will come before the Light of God sweeps all darkness aside.

Like my childhood friend, I cannot explain their presence or their character without some sort of reference beyond environment. Without the hand of God, such men and women simply could not exist. But they do. In our places of work, sometimes in our families, in the cities in which we dwell, there is a quiet presence that we cannot account for. Our sociology and socio-biology easily explain the sad presence of evil in our midst. Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.

But this other presence – to be found even at an early age – transcends our science. Not often recognized to the extent of Bishop Nikolai, these silent sentinels are nonetheless there. I do not know even that they are all Orthodox. God’s purpose needs more of them than He has of us. Their presence in an office can make an unbearable place of work into something bearable – even at times pleasant. I have no way to estimate their number or to surmise their universality, other than to suspect that they are everywhere. And I believe that they are where they are, because God placed them there and that they are where they are for our salvation. More than saints, they are like guardian angels in our social fabric. Without them, the whole world would unravel.

Living With A Brain

May 15, 2008

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

Anyone who spends time listening to the spiritual struggles of other people – or spends time struggling with their own life (which, I am sure, we all must do to some extent) – will eventually come up against the question of where one thing ends and another begins. Specifically, I have in mind the question of where does the brain end and soul begin? I am certain that easy demarcations are misleading – we cannot say, “This is my brain, this is my soul,” with some easy clarity.

Depending on who you read – even within the Orthodox world – there can be a greater or lesser understanding of the role our body plays (specifically our brain) in the composition of our lives. Occasionally I will run across a “maximalist” (for wont of a better term) who makes little or no distinction between body and soul. There are days when this sounds right to me – and then there are days that I think such an answer is not subtle enough.

What I am certain about is that living with a brain has its ups and downs. I know that we all have “bad” days from time to time for no more reason than our brains are out of whack. Blame it on diet, hormones, or what have you, if your brain is not functioning well you’ll have a tough time – without having made any conscious decision.

This same certainty makes me skeptical of the role played by the will. Our culture is Arminian if not just Pelagian when it comes to the will (both theological positions emphasize the role of free will in salvation – Pelagianism making the will the very source of our salvation – a heresy). We choose many things, but most often, if not always, our choices are made in a context that we had no role in choosing. Fr. Alexander Schmemann is quoted as having said, “Spirituality consists in how you deal with the hand you have been dealt.”

I know that we make many choices during a given day – but the options are far less than infinite. And living with a brain, we are sometimes presented with options we would prefer to have avoided. Listening to others, I always have some sense that what I am hearing is simply what someone has done with what they were given. Some people may struggle more with anger than others – and it not be of their own choosing. Others may struggle with addictions or predelictions, anxieties and depressions that also have a component of “givenness” about them. All of which is to say that extending mercy and compassion towards one another must be one of the choices we make in our lives. We do not know the whole of another’s story or what “givens” they have to live with. God alone knows.

I have a small quote framed outside the door to my office at Church. It is a quote of the 1st century philosopher, Philo of Alexandria. It reads: Be kind. Everyone around you is having a difficult time.

It is such trains of thought that reinforce Christ’s commandments to be gentle and kind – to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Without such a fundamental choice (and here, it seems to me, a choice is indeed involved) life would be impossible. Without such a fundamental choice the family becomes an unbearable burden, the parish an outpost of hades, the nation a nightmare of incivility, and the world a planet plunged in darkness.

I have a brain. Somedays it is helpful and somedays not. Thanks be to God Whose mercy, as well as His word extends to the very division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Thanks be to God Who trampled down death by death and made for all a path through His resurrection.


Images in the Modern World

May 14, 2008

What do you do in a world that is awash with images and yet denies the very power of those images in our lives? It is possible to live in a make-believe world in which all Christians have to do is react to negative and improper images, leaving the Church with a “Church-lady” image that everything out there is simply of “Satan.” This is not an answer to the problems posed by images but simply an avoidance of the issue. For at stake for Christians is the very nature of images themselves, the notion of Beauty, and the relationship of God to the vast landscape of our culture. Christianity cannot ignore images and their power (particularly in our modern world) nor can it ignore the Tradition of images as it has existed in the historic Church (unless you really want to re-invent the wheel).

A single image can have an enormous impact on our culture – though it will doubtless have stiff competition. The utter inundation of our lives by images will have yet another impact on our lives, regardless of competition. Whatever else may be true, the Church cannot stand idly by and say nothing about images unless it is content to ignore the realities of our modern life.

There are several questions worth answering with regard to images:

1. What is the relationship of the image to reality?

2. What is the relationship of the image to propaganda?

3. What is the role of images in Christianity?

4. What images should play the dominant role in my life?

First – what is the relationship of image to reality? This is a significant question, particularly in our digital age. A picture may be an accurate depiction of reality or indiscernibly altered to fit someone else’s agenda. This is increasingly complex and will only become moreso. We are likely in the future to relate more and more to digital reality and less and less to things as they are. In this we must be wise as serpents and meek as doves.

Second – we should assume that images in our modern context have much to do with propaganda. American’s who assume that their news in unfiltered and largely accurate would do well to watch news from elsewhere in the world. Our news has a slant and a bias as does the news from everywhere. We should not be so foolish as to assume that a picture necessarily gives us reality.

Third – the role of images in Christianity. This is by far the most important point, it seems to me. A modern Christianity which denies the role of images in the Christian faith is an unarmed and uninformed Christianity. Images are not optional and may not be doctrinally dismissed. They are everywhere present in our world. The question is what are we to make of them? In the Eastern Church, there is a defined role of what images are and how they should act in our lives. Their content is controlled by conciliar doctrine (though there are many exceptions to this) and the honor which we give them is carefully defined so that we know the difference between honoring something and rendering worship (this, by the way, is not so clear in our image driven culture – what does a young man mean when he places a poster of a nearly unclad woman on the wall of his bedroom?).

In essence, the Orthodox Church declared in its dogmatic pronouncements on holy images: “Images do with color, what Scripture does with words.” A properly executed icon should do for us precisely what Scripture does. It should point us beyond itself and towards the heavenly reality which it means to convey. Scripture, as compared to the cacophony of words is easily the more edifying. By the same token, properly rendered images of saints, angels, Christ and His mother, have a salutary effect on the soul, lifting it to God and the contemplation of heavenly things. Indeed, one of the functions of a proper relationship to icons is to teach us how to relate the everything around us – for everything, in some way, points beyond itself. The depth of creation takes us well below (and above) its surface.

The fourth question is easily answered: holy images should play the dominant role in my life. If my consciousness is filled with the images that are being sold by the media, then I should not be surprised at the anxiety and anger which fills my soul. The images of the mass media are geared towards your passions and mean to engage you on precisely that level.

In a contrary way, the images of the Church, particularly the Holy Icons, do not engage the passions, but the very heart of who we are, offering us images of salvation – windows to heaven.

We live in a world that is filled with images. Only the most reclusive family could protect children from the images that often sully their precious minds. How important it is, then, to give their minds the images which God has set forth for us – images that do with color what Scripture does with words.

St. Silouan on Peace

May 14, 2008

The following is a small excerpt (including the prayer) from St. Silouan the Athonite written by the elder Sophrony. The painting is Vasnetsov’s Baptism of the Prince Vladimir.

The soul that has known the Lord wants to see Him within her at all times, for the Lord enters the soul in quietness and gives her peace, and bears silent witness to salvation.

If the kings and rulers of the nations knew the love of God, they would never make war. War happens to us for our sins, not because of our love. The Lord created us in His love, and bade us live in love, and glorify Him.

If those in high places kept the commandments of the Lord, and we obeyed them in humility, there would be great peace and gladness on earth, whereas now the whole universe suffers because of the ambition for power and absence of submission among the proud.

I pray Thee, O Merciful Lord,

let all mankind, from Adam to the end of time,

come to know Thee,

that Thou art good and merciful,

that all nations may rejoice in Thy peace,

And behold the light of Thy countenance.

Thy gaze is tranquil and meek

and draws the soul to Thee.

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.

A Dowry Much Finer Than Gold

May 10, 2008

I have wrtten before of my Father-in-law. Regular readers of this blog will know that he was a man of great faith whom I never knew to be less than thankful to God. The goodness of God was doubtless his greatest joy and favorite topic of conversation. He was also a man of great prayer.

I found out early in my married life just how great his prayers were. In the course of a conversation when I questioned how easily he accepted me into the family (I would have been far more hesitant had I been him), he stated very matter-of-factly, “Well, when Beth (my wife) was first born, we began praying for her future spouse. When she brought you home, we trusted God that He knew what He was doing.”

That was that. My presence was accepted as a matter of faith. It also meant, I have come to realize, that my marriage carried a treasure that was beyond comprehension: twenty years of the prayers of a righteous couple for a man (and a boy) whom they would only someday meet. It was a dowry (if you will) much finer than much gold (to use a Biblical expression).

I have come to understand enough about prayer to know that my life had a hand upon it that I would never know until I was blessed enough to marry a young woman whom I met in a prayer group.

I have learned over the years that the dowry was more than 20 years of prayers: it was an on-going gift of prayer and compassion that was my wife’s own gift to our family. Thus it is that 32 years into this life has given us four children that are not only the joy of our life, but who themselves are clearly the beneficiaries of much prayer.

I cannot, on this Mother’s Day, do more than say, “Glory to God for All Things! Glory to God Who blesses beyond our capacity to understand or to comprehend! Glory to God for His goodness!”

Happy Mother’s Day, my dearest.

Myrrhbearers and the Truth

May 10, 2008

The second Sunday after our Lord’s Pascha is always remembered as the “Sunday of the Myrrhbearers,” when the Church remembers the women and men who cared for our Lord’s body after His death on the Cross. Joseph and Nicodemus are the two men remembered. Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleophas, Salome, Susanna and Joanna (and in some accounts Mary, the Mother of God) are those numbered as Myrrhbearers.

Some of them are among the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ. They are certainly the most fearless in their love and devotion to Christ when everyone else was hiding. Theirs is also an excellent example of how the Church “reads” Holy Scripture. There are the bare facts listed in Scripture, from which we may glean names and deeds attempted or accomplished. What we do not find there is theological commentary (at least not on this particular action) or more than the bare facts.

But the Church does not gather to rehearse bare facts: it gathers to worship. In its worship it affirms as much of the fullness of the faith as has been given to us – in Scripture – in doctrine – in the whole of Tradition. The Church does not stop with the facts for the facts point beyond themselves to eternal truth – and it is this eternal Truth that the Church proclaims.

Thus in Orthodox worship, Christ is almost always mentioned together with His Father and the Holy Spirit, for now the Church proclaims the fullness of the Trinitarian faith. We can do no less. We cannot speak of the Cross without at the same time saying all that the Cross has accomplished.

And thus it is, when hymns honoring the Myrrhbearers are sung, they reach into the depths of theology and sing what was True that day, though the Myrrhbearers would not yet have known it. It is the Church singing the fullness. For as the “Fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” how can the Church sing less?

Hymn to Joseph and Nicodemus from the Vespers of the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers:

Joseph, together with Nicodemus,

took Thee down from the Tree,

Who clothe Thyself with light as with a garment.

He gazed on Thy body – dead, naked, and unburied,

and, in grief and tender compassion, he lamented:

“Woe is me, my sweetest Jesus!

 A short while ago, the sun beheld Thee hanging on the Cross,

And it hid itself in darkness.

The earth qualked in fear at the sight.

The veil of the Temple was torn in two.

Lo, now I see Thee willingly submit to death for our sake.

How shall I bury Thee, O my God?

How can I wrap Thee in a shroud?

How can I touch Thy most pure body with my hands?

What songs can I sing for Thy exodus, O compassionate One?

I magnify Thy Passion.

I glorify Thy burial.

and Thy holy Resurrection,

crying, ‘O Lord, glory to Thee.'”

I Am Not A Theologian

May 9, 2008

It was noted in a comment earlier that this Blog was not nominated (for the Eastern Christian Blog Awards) in the category of theology. I should say quickly that I’m honored to be suggested as a blog worthy of consideration in any category and that there are some excellent theological blogs out there that I read regularly. I was not disappointed to be in a category other than theology (I do not have a category for what I write), but mostly because I would not be worthy of being classified as a theologian nor do I claim the title.

In Orthodoxy, “a theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian,” and I am certain that my prayer life does not qualify me as a theologian. It is too fitful, and fraught with weakness to rise to the level of “prayer” many days. My own flesh constantly pulls me away from the altar and from my icon corner.

I seek to write as simply as I can because I know (truly know) so little. My hope is that the little I know is of some use to someone. I ask and pray for nothing more (including awards). I’ve received a couple awards along the way but didn’t know enough about how to operate a blog site to post them.

Like the honors given to clergy (especially those of us in the Russian tradition), they can serve most dangerously as things for which you have to give an account on the day of judgment. When my Archbishop awarded me the purple skoufia, he did so with the words, “Here, this is good for nothing.” He meant it in jest, but it was also the truth. His own humility speaks volumes that no awards could ever say.

I reprint (for at least the third time) my writing entitled “I Am An Ignorant Man.” I don’t do so to pretend to a humility I do not possess – but because it is the truth. I am grateful for comments from people who have been helped in their reading, but I do not look for them here – thus I have turned the comments off on this particular post. Be blessed.

An Ignorant Man

I am an ignorant man, despite posting writings on all kinds of things. But make no mistake – I am an ignorant man. Thus, I would always counsel any reader to remember, these are the writings of an ignorant man.

Why would I say this? Because it is true. How am I ignorant? I am as most of us are – I do not see the world clearly for what it is. I do not see other people clearly for what they are. I do not see myself clearly for what I am. And most importantly, I do not see God for Who He Is.

Ignorance cannot be an excuse. It should be an impetus to seek, to ask, to knock. If we do not know God we will perish – this is absolutely true. And ignorance in other matters brings its own perishing as well.

I don’t think I have always thought I was ignorant – indeed, I know I did not always think this. But as years have gone on, either I’ve become more ignorant, or I’ve become more aware of how ignorant I truly am. What do any of us actually know of another human being? The Scriptures tell us that our true life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians), thus the truth of any person is a mystery. And I know almost nothing of this mystery – not only towards myself but also and especially towards those around me. How do I know what another man needs? I do not know. God knows.

What do any of us actually know of God? I believe we only know of God what has been revealed to us in Christ. And just reading the revelation is a world away from actually knowing and “having” the revelation. That comes very slowly indeed.

The Elder Sophrony wrote that such revelations come in something like a “flash of lightning, when the heart is burning with love.” These relatively rare experiences accumulate over a lifetime:

The accumulation in the experience of the Church of such ‘moments’ of enlightenment has led organically to their reduction into one whole. This is how the first attempt at the systemization of a live theology came about, the work of St. John of Damascus, a man rich, too, in personal experience. The disruption of this wondrous ascent to God in the unfathomable wealth of higher intellection is brought about, where there is a decline of personal experience, by a tendency to submit the gifts of Revelation to the critical faculty of our reason – by a leaning towards ‘philosophy of religion.’ The consequences are scholastic accounts of theology in which, again, there is more philosophy than Spirit of life. (From his work On Prayer).

I ask those of you who read this blog to remember that I am an ignorant man and to pray for me, if you remember to. I pray for you all.

 A Romanian version of this article can be found here.

A French translation can be found here.

More on Peace from St. Silouan

May 9, 2008

St. John of Kronstadt

How may we preserve peace of soul among the temptations of our times?

Judging by the Scriptures and the temper of folk today, we are living through the final period. Yet must we still preserve our souls’ peace, without which – as St. Seraphim said, who upheld Russia by his prayer – we cannot be saved. During his lifetime the Lord preserved Russia because of his prayer; and after St. Seraphim another pillar reached up from earth to heaven – Father John of Kronstadt. Let us pause and consider Father John of Krondstadt, for he was of our day, we witnessed his prayers, whereas the others we did not know.

We remember how when his carriage was brought round after the Liturgy, and he stepped into it to take his seat, people surged about him, seeking his blessing; and in all the hurly-burly his soul remained wrapt in God. His attention was not distracted in the midst of the crowd and he did not lose his peace of soul. How did he manage this? That is our question.

He achieved this and was not distracted because he loved the people and never ceased praying to the Lord for them….

Just as Father John of Kronstadt preserved his peace of soul by praying for the people without ceasing, so we lose our peace because we do not love the people of God. The Holy Apostles and Saints desired the salvation of the world, and dwelling among men they prayed ardently for them. The Holy Spirit gave them the strength to love mankind. As for us, if we love not our brother we cannot have peace.

Let every man think on this.