Archive for June, 2008

Eternity and the Rationalists

June 19, 2008

I attended a semi-religious college – one affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention at the time. Though it had a reputation for being “liberal,” beneath it’s surface it still had something of the simple faith that had marked the settlers of upper South Carolina. I recall a debate about the nature of the resurrection body of Christ in one of my religion classes. My professor, who held two doctorates (the second one from Oxford), was making the point that the resurrection body of Christ was different in some manner from the body of any of us in the room. I cannot remember what argument I was having with him – for I certainly agree with him now. But I recall (how could I forget) his driving the point home. He grabbed me by the shoulders, lifted me from my seat and forced me up against the wall.

“Your body will not pass through this wall!” he shouted. “But Jesus had no such trouble.”

I remember ceding the point and never arguing against that piece of orthodox Christian dogma ever again.

There was plenty of rationalism to be found on that campus, and even within the department of religion, but there was also something else – a core experience that I knew was a shared experience. If you had asked me at the time I would have simply said that I knew this professor to be a Christian. By that, I would have meant that “he knew Christ.” I could not have said much more than that, for I had no words for what I knew.

I went directly from college to an Episcopal Seminary. I found a different experience there, and a different sort of rationalist. We had a mystic on the faculty (something of an Orthodox wannabe) with whom I found great friendship. Through him I met (then) Timothy Ware (now Metropolitan Kallistos Ware), Fr. Alexander Schmemann and several other notable Orthodox men. He let me read Orthodox writings and push my mental envelope as I sought to comprehend the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas (the great Hesychast Theologian).

But there were rationalist within the faculty, at least one of whom argued vociferously that God could only be known in a mediated manner (which is no knowledge at all). Such knowledge carries an objective quality and can be described as “revealed knowledge” (such as the Scriptures) but no direct encounter with God was allowed within his theology. We did not get along.

There were others whom I could not begin to describe, though most seemed to be more of the rationalist and less of the mystic. One was an extreme legalist, or so I experienced him. He did not believe that “Jesus was God,” (this puzzled me greatly and we argued bitterly) but he was also the most fastidious priest at the altar I had ever seen. (I could never figure why the crumbs seemed to matter to him. If Jesus isn’t God, then surely the bread is not His Body.)

I left that institution with my Master of Divinity and shortly thereafter was ordained. But I knew then that the question – “how do we know God?” – was the truly important question. If we do not know Him, then the rationalists are playing silly games. As St. Paul would say:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.

I never abandoned the question. I discovered that the most reliable teaching (and witness) to the reality of our knowledge of God was to be found among the Orthodox. Long before I converted I knew that the truth was to be found among the Orthodox, if anywhere. Thus my conversion was simply a matter of time and circumstance, all of which, by the grace of God, came together while I still breathed the air of this world, for which I am forever grateful.

Thus words such as those found in St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony ring in my heart with a joyous ‘Amen’:

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

There is no argument against such experience within Orthodoxy or its theologians. There is instead the necessary humility that recognizes that a peasant from Russia (St. Silouan) may know more than most of us regardless of his lack of education, and that Whom He knows is the entire point of knowing in the first place.

I have a high regard for theological learning, though I have found no Protestant theologian who knows even a portion of what many Orthodox theologians know (frequently in several languages). Neither have I found an Orthodox theologian arguing that God can only be known through some mediated experience or that Christ is not God.

If the life of something calling itself “Church” is rooted in anything other than the lived experience of communion with God, then it is certainly not the Church, regardless of what it may call itself. We were created for communion with God, Whom truly to know is eternal life (John 17:3). If one does not know that, he is surely to be pitied.

True Knowledge of God

June 19, 2008

The Elder Sophrony made a strong distinction between the knowledge we gain by rational speculation and the knowledge of God that comes as a gift of grace. He used the term “dogmatic consciousness” to express the knowledge of God as found in the lives of the saints and great ascetics. It is not a contradiction of the dogma of the Church, but an existential encounter with God that ineffably confirms the teaching of the Church. As a side note, it is interesting that he thinks there is a time extending better than fifteen years between the knowledge gained in such an encounter and its verbal expression. It takes time to properly assimilate such knowledge and yet more time to find words.

The dogmatic consciousness I have here in mind is the fruit of spiritual experience, independent of the logical brain’s activity. The writings in which the Saints reported their experience were not cast in the form of scholastic dissertations. They were revelations of the soul. Discourse on God and on life in God comes about simply, without cogitation, born spontaneously in the soul.

Dogmatic consciousness where asceticism is concerned is not a rational analysis of an inward experience – it is not ‘psychoanalysis’. Ascetics avoid this rational speculation because it only weakens the intensity of their contemplation of the Light but, indeed, interrupts it, with the result that the soul sinks into darkness, left as she is with a merely abstract rational knowledge devoid of all vitality.

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

Dogmatic knowledge, understood as spiritual knowledge, is a gift of God, like all forms of real life in God, granted by God, and only possible through His coming. This knowledge has by no means always been expressed in speech or in writing. The soul does not aspire to expound her experience in rational concepts when God’s grace descends on her. She needs no logical interpretations then, because she knows with a knowledge that cannot be demonstrated but which equally requires no proof that she lives through the true God….

…God is made known by faith and living communion, whereas human speech with all its relativity and fluidity opens the way to endless misunderstandings and objections. (From St. Silouan the Athonite).

 This short passage itself expresses the faith of the Orthodox Church as expressed in its life and councils. Though the study of dogma or doctrine is certainly part of every priest’s education and in some form part of every catechumen’s training, it is never enough by itself. It is the deeper and truer expression of the ancient formula, lex orandi lex credendi (“the law of praying is the law of believing”). For many in our modern context, this ancient formula has been interpreted to mean that the texts of the Church’s liturgical worship should be the basis for the Church’s dogmatic expressions. In many ways this is true. The liturgical language of the Church gives a very full expression to the Church’s faith. But in another sense, implied by Father Sophrony, we may say that the actual participation in the liturgical life of the Church, our existential encounter with God in the worshipping context, is the proper meaning of the ancient formula. For without the knowledge that is known “by faith and living communion” words fall flat and fail to say the little that can be said.

The dogmatic expressions of the Church, though providing a grammar for worship, are not the proper object of worship itself. They provide a grammar but direct us to the worship of the True and Living God, knowledge of Whom is eternal life.

As one contemporary American Orthodox theologian has said recently, “After all, it’s really all about God.” Indeed.

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

Prayers By the Lake – I

June 18, 2008

Saint Nicholai Velimirovich, of whom I have written before, is the author of the wonderful, Prayers By the Lake, which he composed on the shores of Lake Ochrid. They are a treasure of modern Orthodox verse. His first poem in the cycle reflects a sense of the creation as God’s own, rather than an inert arena for secular life. I offer this poem and a link to an online edition of His prayers.



Who is that staring at me through all the stars in heaven and all the creatures on earth?


Cover your eyes, stars and creatures; do not look upon my nakedness. Shame torments me enough through my own eyes.


What is there for you to see? A tree of life that has been reduced to a thorn on the road, that pricks both itself and others. What else-except a heavenly flame immersed in mud, a flame that neither gives light nor goes out?


Plowmen, it is not your plowing that matters but the Lord who watches.


Singers, it is not your singing that matters but the Lord who listens.


Sleepers, it is not your sleeping that matters but the Lord who wakens.


It is not the pools of water in the rocks around the lake that matter but the lake itself.


What is all human time but a wave that moistens the burning sand on the shore, and then regrets that it left the lake, because it has dried up?


O stars and creatures, do not look at me with your eyes but at the Lord. He alone sees. Look at Him and you will see yourselves in your homeland.


What do you see when you look at me? A picture of your exile? A mirror of your fleeting transitoriness?


O Lord, my beautiful veil, embroidered with golden seraphim, drape over my face like a veil over the face of a widow, and collect my tears, in which the sorrow of all Your creatures seethes.


O Lord, my beauty, come and visit me, lest I be ashamed of my nakedness—lest the many thirsty glances that are falling upon me return home thirsty.

Sacraments: The World as Mystery

June 17, 2008

My recent post on Pentecost and Evangelism occasioned several thoughtful responses. One of the responses seemed to me particularly worth further reflection. I start with an excerpt:

Truly it is God we need and want, nothing less. I experienced in my heart, but didn’t realize in my head until I began to study Orthodoxy, that in my evangelical world we affirmed “by faith” having God living by His Spirit within us and that His Presence was with us in our corporate context. But in reality, because a sacramental view of reality had largely eluded us, we failed to really experience that Presence in any consistent way, especially in the context of corporate worship.

The comment goes to the very heart of the modern Christian dilemma. Without a truly “sacramental” world-view, the presence of God and of all things holy remain alien to our life and are reached only occasionally and with great difficulty (if at all). The writings I have offered on Christianity as a One-Storey Universe are precisely an effort on my part to find language to describe the alienation of the holy from a secularized world.

The whole of Orthodoxy is rooted in an understanding of the world that is not only non-secular, but even pre-secular. The language of Orthodox worship, hagiography, and writings of the Fathers, never imagines a situation in which God is removed from the world and inherently inaccessible. The world itself is a sacrament – or in Orthodox language – the world is mystery (mysterion).

It is important to say just this much – “the world is mystery” – for if we say less – we run the danger of saying that the world is indeed secular, but that there are “sacramental” moments within it. This is the danger carried by the notion of limiting the sacraments to seven in number. Of course those actions and occasions which the Church formally refers to as “mysteries” or “sacraments” are precisely what the Church says of them – but in actions such as the annual blessing of the waters on Theophany – the Church reveals that all of creation is intended to be an occasion of communion with God. Indeed, it is the very purpose of creation.

I am not suggesting anything here that has not already been better said by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his classic For the Life of the World, nor is he asserting anything there that is not simply a clear statement of the Orthodox mind. In many ways such expressions are simply commentaries on St. Paul’s theology (in any number of passages). I quote only one for this purpose:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:7-10).

There is a vast difference and distinction between a world-view which allows for such things as sacraments and a world-view which understands that all of creation is a sacrament. With the first, one can be religious from time-to-time. With the latter, communion with God is a way of life and the whole of life.

Everything is changed in such an understanding. It is in just such a context (and quoting from Scripture) that we can understand that the Church not only reads the Scriptures, but is itself the Scriptures (see my earlier series on an Orthodox hermeneutic). In the same way we not only eat the Body of Christ, we also are the Body of Christ.

Prayer and worship cease to be specialized activities that we attend and become the very fabric of our lives. This in no way diminishes the worship of the assembled Church, but we do not cease to be Church when we exit the doors of a building. We are commanded to “pray without ceasing,” and to “give thanks always for all things.” In the language of Fr. Schmemann, human beings live rightly when we live as “eucharistic, doxological beings,” that is, human beings exist to give thanks to God and to worship Him.

As the angels ceaselessly cry: “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” Even so we can reply: “Glory to God for all things.”

Pentecost and Evangelism

June 16, 2008

We are told that on the Day of Pentecost, about 3,000 souls were added to the Church (Acts 2:41). This simple fact has for many linked the Day of Pentecost and the Gift of the Spirit to the Church to the process of evangelism. For many Christians in our culture, for whom evangelism has come to be the defining action of the Church, Pentecost need be nothing more. Thus the feast of the gift of the Holy Spirit becomes a celebration of a successful membership drive.

The problem surrounding such an interpretation is that the Church is easily reduced to a secular entity, whose goal is simply the increase of its membership, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit reduced to a boldness for evangelism. Lost in such an account are the deeper elements of the Scriptures and the feast itself.

First, there is the phenomenon of the languages. As noted in the hymnography of the Church, the miracle of Pentecost is a clear reversal of the tragedy of the Tower of Babel. The continuing fracture of humanity, from the Garden forward, is manifest as well in the fracture of human unity in the story of the Tower of Babel. Man is fractured in his relationship with God – he is fractured in his relationship with his family (Cain’s murder of Abel) and he is fractured in his relationship with the larger race of humanity. Of course, in death itself, we see the fracture within the person of each particular human being.

The Communion for which we were created is lost and the story of the progressive disaster of that lost communion marks the opening chapters of Genesis.

In contrast, the closing chapters of the Gospels as well as the continuing gospel account that is the book of Acts is a reversal of that lost communion – and the Church is the manifestation of man’s renewed communion with God.

Christ the Second Adam reverses the sting of death and triumphs over Hades, restoring in Himself man’s communion with God. From His side flows blood and water (Eucharist and Baptism) from which His bride, the Second Eve, is spiritually reborn and birthed into communion with Him in newness of life.

And in the miracle of Pentecost, the lost communion of the human race is overcome, as language no longer becomes the sign of disintegration, but the very vehicle of a new union.

None of this has any place in a secularized account of the Christian Church in which numerical growth is the only measure of its existence. Were numerical growth the mark of the Church’s life, in what way would the Church differ from any number of international civic clubs?

Of course it’s also true that one could point to the moral teaching of Christ and contrast that with the simple utilitarian ethics of most civic endeavors – but to see the teaching of Christ as an example of moral teaching is to miss the entire meaning of His Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection. The essential teaching of Christ is, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The coming of the Kingdom is not marked by the improved behavior of man, the prisoner of death and corruption – but the new life begotten in Him by the gift of the Spirit – raising humanity from death and corruption into the eternal life of God. And importantly, not simply as a promise of a happy afterlife, but as an entrance into a new life now – even when marked by suffering or martyrdom.

This is one of the great challenges of the Church in the modern age – to return the proclamation of the Gospel to its proper existential and realist foundations and rescue it from the increasing secularism of marketing growth and moralistic interpretations.

Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. The miracle of Pentecost is its manifestation of new life among mankind. It cannot be measured by 3,000 new members – but by the tragedy of Babel reversed. It is a new life into which we have been inaugurated. The call of the Church is to turn away from the siren call of modernist success and to keep its focus on the life of the Kingdom. The martyrs have given themselves for nothing less – and we should live only for this reality.

Blessings on the Feast!

June 14, 2008






When He came down and confused the tongues,

The Most High divided the nations;

but when He distributed the tongues of fire,

He called all people to unity.

Therefore, with one voice we glorify the most-Holy Spirit.

Kontakion of Pentecost

Please forgive my absence from the blog for the last few days. I have been conducting a youth retreat at a monastery in South Carolina and have been away from computers (and several other amenities). I’ll catch things up tomorrow evening. Thank you for your patience. A good feast of Pentecost (Troitsa) to all of you!

The Emptiness of Christ

June 9, 2008

St. Paul speaks of Christ “emptying” Himself in His voluntary sacrifice for us all (Philippians 2:5-11). It is the only place in the New Testament that speaks of this particular action of Christ – at least as an “emptying” (kenosis) but the concept has always played a large role in the Church’s understanding of Christ’s death on the Cross.

It is interesting to me that Father Sophrony, in his writings, takes this idea of kenosis and applies it as well to the “not-I-but-the-Father” sayings: “I live by the Father” (Jn. 6:57; cf 5:30, 7:18, 15:15).

Fr. Nicholas Sakharov says of Father Sophrony’s point:

Christ, though the incarnate God, avoids any “divine action” of his own, so much so that the Father’s hypostasis [Person] is manifest absolutely through the absolutely “transparent screen” of Christ’s self-emptied hypostasis. Through this kenosis it becomes the “express image of the Father” (Heb. 1:3).

This, it seems to me, says much to us about what it means to become “like Christ.” The moralist approach (which I was taught as a child) is fraught with constant attention to “what would Jesus do?” in a moral calculation that can never end in anything but failure or delusion.

When St. Paul speaks of conformity to the image of Christ it is always clear that this is not something we accomplish, but something that is accomplished within us by God. In particular he says:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20).

Here is our own kenosis or emptying. “Not-I-but-Christ.” And thus we become transparent and finally transparent such that we are His image. This is not an effort of moralism, but a self-offering to God. And so St. Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).

“The Systematic Organization of Hatreds”

June 9, 2008

I normally do not comment on politics and do not plan to have discussions during this political season. However, I ran across a quote that makes a great deal of sense and certainly has bearing on the spiritual life. It is from Henry Adams’ novel Democracy:

Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.

Imagine what this means if one is speaking of “politics” in the Church. May God deliver us from all evil.

For Want of a Nail

June 8, 2008

Abba Zosimas would pick up small objects such as a nail, a short thread, and other valueless castoffs. He would ask, “Would you fight or argue over this? That would be insanity. Anyone who is making progress in God can think of the entire world as this nail, no matter how much of the world he possesses. There is no harm in owning something, but trouble comes when we are attached to what we own.”

I have always been troubled by the approach to Christ’s teachings in Scripture on money (mammon, etc.) in which the conclusion is: it’s ok to have it but we shouldn’t be attached to it. The trouble for me comes when this teaching is found addressed to people who have plenty of money. There is quick agreement and everyone then does their best (I suppose) to not be too attached to what they have.

My general impression of Christ’s teaching is that it is always more concrete than abstract. To the rich young ruler Christ does not say, “Try not to be attached to your money.” He says simply, “Give all you have to the poor and come and follow me.” Of course the issue of the rich young ruler is not that he has wealth, but that apparently his wealth has him. It is a choice between his soul and his money. Such a choice should be clear.

I am deeply sympathetic with the rich young ruler. It is hard to suddenly confront the truth of your heart and make the step into the Kingdom of God in a single moment. However, I am certain that there is no way for a person to “finesse” his way into the Kingdom of God. Our moments come in many shapes and sizes. Some of them may be marked by a dollar sign, others may be as simple as telling the truth. The marvelous shape of grace is that there are such moments. Imagine living a life in which the moment to enter the Kingdom of God was so subtle it passed you by. I give thanks to God for His lack of subtlety.

Whatever the moment brings may God’s grace give us each the courage to see things for what they are. No matter the choice, it’s really nothing more than a nail or a bit of fluff. It would be a pity to miss the Kingdom for want of a nail.


St. Silouan on Humility

June 7, 2008

The Staretz [St. Silouan] used to say that there was no end to the pretensions of pride. In his notes I found [this is written by Elder Sophrony] the following fable:

A certain huntsman liked stalking the woods and fields for game. One day after he had been climbing up a steep hill for hours tracking his prey, exhausted, he sat down on a large boulder to rest. Seeing a flight of birds soaring from one summit to another, he began to think, “Why didn’t God give wings to man, so that I could fly?” Just then a humble hermit walked by, divined the huntsman’s thoughts and said to him,

“There you are, sitting and complaining to yourself that God has not given you wings; but if you had wings, you would still be discontented and say, ‘My wings are feeble and I can’t fly to heaven with them to see what it’s like there.’ And were you then given wings strong enough to lift you to heaven, you would still be dissatisfied and say, ‘I don’t understand what goes on in heaven.’ And were you to be given understanding of this, you would again be discontented and say, ‘Why am I not an angel?’ Were you to be turned into a cherubim you would say, ‘Why doesn’t God let me rule over heaven?’ And if it were given you to rule over heaven you would still be dissatisfied and, like another we all know, insolently seek more. There I tell you, humble yourself at all times, and be content with the gifts you are given, and then you will be living with God.

The huntsman saw that the hermit spoke the truth and thanked God for sending him a monk to give him understanding and set him on the path of humility.

From Saint Silouan the Athonite