Archive for July, 2008

Sanctify Those Who Love The Beauty of Thy House

July 24, 2008


After communion in an Orthodox Liturgy, the priest prays the “Prayer Behind the Ambo,” a prayer offered from the midst of the Church (more or less). It gives thanks for all that God has done for us, and asks blessings on His people. I particularly love the phrase that asks, “Sanctify those that love the beauty of Thy house. Glorify them in return by Thy divine power.”

I think in particular of God “glorifying us in return” by making beautiful with spiritual adornment the temple of our souls and bodies. Having within ourselves a love of beauty – and beauty properly understood – is an essential part of the spiritual life. This week, young children in our parish are enjoying “Vacation Church School,” which this year is centered around worship. Learning hymns, Bible stories, making things that are part of the beauty of worship (candles, incense, etc.) – all of it seems to me to part of nurturing a love of beauty within the souls of young children.

Interestingly, when Plato wrote his Republic, in which he imagined an ideal society, he included the need for instruction in music, for without this, he thought, the soul of a child would not be properly formed. It is a deep insight, though from outside the Tradition. But it is truly essential that we allow to be formed in us and in those we love a love for Beauty – for it is God Himself who is Beauty – that we find mirrored in the beauty around us.

The Passion to Consume – Revisited

July 24, 2008

This article first appeared last March. It seems to bear reprinting at least for a fuller discussion of the passions.

I have mentioned the role that the passions play in our consumer culture. I would like to write in greater depth about that phenomenon. It permeates our culture – and yet, strangely, I do not find it to be a dominant concern of people when they think about their sins or when they think of our culture and its sins. In that sense it reminds me of a study I did several years ago on the subject of envy, a passion which many of the Fathers of the Church thought was the “original sin,” but in my recollection had never been the subject of a sermon that I had ever given or heard. I preached the first of my sermons on the topic following that and have included that passion much more thoroughly in my map of the human heart than I once did. The same should be true of the passions that work in our consumerist culture.

I should say at the first that I am not opposed to shopping, or buying or owning things. I live in a house that I’m buying with furniture and furnishings like most of America. I went through a 2 or 3 year phase of communal living in my early twenties – so that I know what it is to consciously opt out of the consumer culture. But since my marriage in 1975, that has not been my way of living.

To say that I am not opposed to shopping, etc., is also to confess that I am not immune to the passions that come into play in our consumerism. I know what it is to want what I can’t have. I know what it is to abuse a credit card on an impulse purchase. Some years ago (many years ago now, I realize) when I was a “tie-wearing” man (priest in cassocks don’t wear ties), I remember wondering how ties that had once seemed so fashionable (think of the really wide ties of the early 70’s) overnight seemed so terrible (think skinny ties of the 1980’s). The question that came to my mind was, “When did I ever make a decision about how a tie actually looks – how wide it should be, etc.?” The answer, of course, is that I never did make such a decision. Those decisions were made in fashion houses miles from me and in the marketing departments of the fashion industry. What disturbed me then (and now) was that it was clearly the case that “how I saw the world” (at least as measured by ties) had nothing to do with reason, decision, preference, etc. It was “planted in my brain” to quote Paul Simon, and I never noticed the operation.

The question that followed was, “How many other things are there in our world-view, that exist within us through the same process?” The answer, of course, is, “Far more than we know.”

To be fully human does not include becoming a passive receptacle to marketing forces (ideas are as marketable as ties). To be a person of virtue includes not being a slave to any of the passions. Struggling with the passions (greed, envy, lust, gluttony, etc.) is an everyday struggle for Christians and should be part of the agenda of every Christian who intends to be obedient to Scripture.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked, when you lived in them. But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:5).

The list of the passions is not exhausted in St. Paul’s admonition. But we are commanded to join the battle. The passions are inherently strong in every human being. To a degree, some are completely natural and have a proper place within us. Hunger is natural and necessary. Gluttony is hunger in a disordered form. Sexual desire has its proper place as well as its disordered form.

Many human cultures, particularly those in which Christian spiritual teaching had a dominant role, actively sought to discourage the reign of the passions. There are certainly failures and even coercive nightmares to be recounted in that history – but few ages have lived as we do now in which the passions are actively used as a means to maintain the very affluence of the culture.

From time to time the masters of the media will decide to promote something they decide is virtuous. You can hardly watch a children’s show today that is not at the same time a propaganda piece for environmentalism. Perhaps that is a good thing. I make no judgement. Lip-service is paid to “less violence” but it remains. Children are sexualized at earlier and earlier ages.

I recall an event in my family from years ago. Two of my children were watching Saturday morning television. I sat quietly behind them and during one of the more tantalizing commercials I whispered: “All they want is your money.” I thought I was being very subtle and helpful. One child heard my warning and reeled in abhorrence as she saw the truth of it. The other smiled at me and said, “How much?” We’re all wired differently when it comes to the struggle with the passions. But the struggle remains.

We are at a great disadvantage today – for we are all being studied like lab rats. Research groups are wiring us up and testing even the speeches of politicians so that what we are being told about our civic life is itself shaped to our passions. Can freedom survive in such a setting? Or what kind of freedom is it that we have in such a setting? It is little wonder that political passions run as strongly as they do and that we are so divided. That’s just the problem: they are political passions.

Christ has come to set us free and to change us into the likeness of His image – to make us fully human and united to God. Slavery to the passions is not part of the plan. The Church must be a place where this struggle is taught and nurtured. It is the last place where the passions should be manipulated and used for any end.

I add this short technical note on the passions from Dmitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality:

The objects which the passions look for can’t satisfy them because objects are finite and as such don’t correspond to the unlimited thirst of the passions. Or as St. Maximus puts it, the passionate person finds himself in a continuous preoccupation with nothing; he tries to appease his infinite thirst with the nothingness of his passions, and the objects which is gobbling up become nothing, by their very nature. In fact, a passion by its very nature searches for objects, and it seeks them only because they can be completely under the control of the ego, and at its mercy. But objects by nature are finite, both as sources of satisfaction and in regard to duration; they pass easily into nonexistence, by consumption. Even thwn the passion also needs the human person in order to be satisfied, it likewise, reduces him or her to an object, or sees and uses only the objective side; the unfathomable depths hidden in the subjective side escape him.

Either we believe in a good God who is working good for His world, or we don’t. Either we turn ourselves towards the infinite God who alone can fill the infinite need of our soul or we perish. I am not surprised by the actions of unbelievers. As Dostoevsky said, “If there is no God, all things are permitted.” But if there is a God (and there is), then some things are not permitted. A Christian should know the difference.

Hypocrisy of the Stomach

July 23, 2008

I have no intention in this posting to preach to those who struggle with gluttony, or, more likely, just feel guilty most of the time when they think of their weight, etc. Orthodoxy is not a weight-loss program. However, this passage offers wonderful insight into the struggle with the passions. It is quoted from Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ.

Eating itself is natural to a human being, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying the food one eats; it is gluttony, rqther, which is a passion and a vice. As St. John Climacus describes it, gluttony is a false opinion about the way things are: “Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach. filled, it moans about scarcity; stuffed and crammed, it wails about its hunger. Gluttony things up seasoning, creates sweet recipes….Gluttony has a deceptive appearance: it eats moderately but wants to gobble everything at the same time.” Glottony has its own cognitive element, and one which is based in deception. Through the practice of fasting, controlling the stomach, one does not simply reduce one’s dietary intake to the minimum possible, but instead learns to break through the hypocrisy of the stomach, to know that one will not die if one does not eat as one has become accustomed to do. The “hypocrisy” of the stomach is not located in the bodily organ itself, but in the mind’s relation to the stomach.

It is a wonderful insight, and something that can be applied across the board to many of the passions.

Apocalypse Now

July 22, 2008

I am a “child” of the 60’s, which means I was born in the early 50’s and spent my youth and late adolescence in the thrall of all that was swirling around in our culture in the late 60’s and early 70’s. My experience is probably similar to that of many of my generation – the parents of many of my younger readers.

Things of note from that time:

  • A sense that something was “changing” and that young people were part of the force that was bringing about the “change.”
  • An apocalyptic sense of time – we thought a new world was about to be born.
  • A dissatisfaction with what had gone before. All institutions were questionable.
  • An idealization of the ability of human beings to make a difference.
  • A narcissism with our own generation. We were wiser than our forebears.
  • An impatience with everything.

There was a host of supporting characters – from the military-industrial complex to a parental generation who had endured the Great Depression and World War II and thus could not begin to understand the dissatisfaction with the world around us. How could we be so ungrateful?

The years of the 60’s became a decade in which everything of significance was universally available on the television: each political assasination as well as the upheaval in the South during the Civil Rights Movement was captured on the screen. Everything from rioting to war was an image – not just a story.

Part of the legacy of those years is a latent apocalypticism – a sense of the “end” of things that remains to this day. When the Soviet Empire came to an end, Francis Fukuyama asked whether we had reached the “end of history.” His was an apocalyptic vision of global consumerism.

There is a deeper meaning of the word “apocalypse” and its variations – its original meaning – the revealing of something that has before been hidden. Thus the Revelation to St. John also goes by the name of the “Apocalypse.” What, of course, was hidden and being revealed to St. John was the end of all things. Not a mere moment in history. As strange as the symbols of the book are, there is a very clear conclusion: what is revealed is the triumph of Christ over all things. “The Kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdoms of Our Lord and His Christ and He shall reign forever” (Rev. 11:15). It affirms that the victory of Christ’s Pascha is an eternal Pascha – the true end of history and thus the meaning of all things.

This very “apocalypse” is revealed in every Liturgy, every assemblying of the Church for the marriage supper of the Lamb, the Holy Eucharist. There the “Lamb Who was slain,” is made manifest to us and feeds us in the eternal victory of His Body and His Blood. The great revelation – the true apocalypse – is not to be found in the ephemeral images of beasts and plagues, but in their utter eradication and the resurrection of the world. “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17). And so it is. For those who have the eyes to see, the apocalypse, the true revelation, is now.

This is not to say that history will have no end. It will and it already has.

In The Last Days

July 22, 2008

Abba Ischyrion was asked, “What have we done in our life?”

He replied, “We have done the half of what our Fathers did.”

When asked, “What will the ones who come after us do?”

He replied, “They will do the half of what we are doing now.”

And to the question, “What will the Christians of the last times do?”

He replied, “They will not be able to do any spiritual exploits, but those who keep the faith will be glorified in heaven more than our Fathers who raised the dead.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

The Voice of the Lord

July 22, 2008


Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones, Give unto the LORD glory and strength.

Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name; Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; The God of glory thunders; The LORD is over many waters.

The voice of the LORD is powerful; The voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars, Yes, the LORD splinters the cedars of Lebanon.

He makes them also skip like a calf, Lebanon and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the LORD divides the flames of fire.

The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; The LORD shakes the Wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth, And strips the forests bare; And in His temple everyone says, “Glory!”

The LORD sat enthroned at the Flood, And the LORD sits as King forever.

The LORD will give strength to His people; The LORD will bless His people with peace.

Is Suffering Necessary?

July 21, 2008

While reading spiritual writings it is possible, on occasion, to draw the conclusion that suffering is necessary. Taken to an extreme it is easy to believe that Christians teach that God demands that we suffer and that we see it as a good thing. These are wrong conclusions based on a wrong presumption.

It is more correct to say that suffering is unavoidable than to say it is necessary. The fundamental story of the Christian faith is not the origin of evil, suffering and death, but rather of the God who was willing to enter into the midst of evil, suffering and death in order to rescue humanity. Suffering is not a necessity – but a fact of our present, fallen existence (indeed we are falling away from existence when we separate ourselves from God). Life in Christ is the way through suffering, but not an escape from suffering.

Thus in Christ each believer is commanded to “take up your cross and follow me.” There is no Christianity that does not entail the cross. But the voluntary act of love that is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the same voluntary act of love to which believers are invited – to make of our suffering an act of self-offering in union with the suffering of Christ (Romans 12:1). We do not seek an increase in our suffering, nor do we shirk the responsibility of aiding others whose suffering may be relieved. But to seek to avoid all legitimate suffering is a sign of sickness, not of health. Suffering is not necessary – but you’ll not get through life without it.

The Communion of a Book

July 20, 2008

I did not list the Scriptures on my list of “books of influence,” since it would seem somehow wrong to place it as a book among other books. Of course, it is a book, but it is unlike anything else we read. Over the body of the dead we chant the psalms so long as the body lies in the Church. If it is the body of a priest, we chant the gospels over the body so long as it lies in the Church. This is not a book like other books.

St. Seraphim of Sarov, great wonderworker and Staretz of the early 19th century, made it a practice to read one gospel each day. During Holy Week, following the directions of the Typicon, we read all four gospels in the Church over the first few mornings of the week in the context of praying the hours of the day. There is something unique in listening to the gospel in that manner – from beginning to end. They are not like other books.

St. John says:

And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us (1 John 3:22-24).

There is a communion that exists with the words of Scripture, just as surely as there is a communion that exists with Christ’s Body and Blood. Christ not only speaks to us, but He dwells in the very words He speaks, so that when we hear them, take them into our heart, and do them, there is a communion. The life of God, given to us in His word becomes our life.

And so, just as this is not a book like any other book, so we, as believers, do not read it like any other book. Sometimes we read it. Sometimes we sing it. Sometimes its very words direct the steps of our feet (I think of the “Dance of Isaiah” in an Orthodox wedding). But if we are to read as believers, then we must read listening for the voice of our Savior. It is not so much that we’re trying to hear unique and special messages, but simply to hear the living voice of God who speaks in the cadences of the heart.

My first serious encounter with Scripture (other than short memorizing of verses in Sunday School, and memorizing Psalms in public school – yes, in the South, in the 50’s, we memorized Psalms in public school) but my first more or less adult encounter with Scripture was with the Sermon on the Mount. I knew the words vaguely, but at about age 15 I read them and they seemed to me to be the clear voice of God. And it seemed to me that if these words were true, then much else I had been told was not true. It was, for me, the first glimpse of the Kingdom of God. I have never been satisfied with Christianity by the half-measure ever since, and sometimes despised myself and my own half-measures during my years as a protestant pastor. I did not have to live half-measures then – it was no one’s fault but my own. But when I came to the Orthodox faith I repented of half-measured Christianity and wanted to drink it to its very depths. Of course, I still seem to be in the “sipping stage,” the glass is so full.

The prophet Jeremiah declared:

Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O LORD God of hosts (Jer. 15:10).

The Fathers of the 7th Council said that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This of course is a dogma of the Orthodox Church. Though we live in a word filled with images we do not consider the communion we have with those images – how certain things have been burned into our minds and hearts – how some images seem to remain long after they are seen. We also live in a world filled with words and they burn their way into our ears and hearts. Craftily fashioned jingles from radio and television rumble into our minds unbidden and linger like so many household spirits. And we do not see the communion we have with these songs. We become walking exhibits of Marshall McLuen’s world, bits and bytes of information and song sharing only in their commercial connection if that. But they bring us communion with Mammon.

Better that we eat the Word of God and have communion with paradise. I suggested that we might pray each day at least as much as we read. That is a rule to apply apart from Scripture – for reading Scripture (with the heart) becomes a prayer, a liturgy, a communion with the Word Himself.

I shared the story of a hospice patient a while back who prayed a prayer with me until she had no breath left to pray. She said to me, “You can’t pray too much.” The same lady had read her Bible a full 95 times from beginning to end in her lifetime. She made a mark in the front of her Bible each time she finished reading. In such a case it is probably true to say, “You can’t read too much.”

With What Little We Know

July 19, 2008

I have written and posted at least three times that “I am an ignorant man,” which is to say that I do not consider myself a great source of wisdom and insight and that what knowledge I do have is indeed limited.

It is also true that wisdom and insight are in short supply these days. We do not live in a land that has monasteries everywhere within walking distance (or even a short drive). We do not have centuries of unbroken, living knowledge of the way of Christ in many places.

What we do have is a commercialized Christianity that panders to our culture and its passions at least as much as it considers the gospel. We do not thus produce a profound Christianity, but a passionate Christianity in which the impulse to consume remains unchecked and unnamed.

But to travel towards the Kingdom of God and to make true progress in the Spiritual life is not necessarily dependent upon a holy culture or hordes of holy people. Indeed, it depends upon the grace of God and the very little that we know.

In Christ, in the true light of the gospel, what do we know?

  • We know that God truly loves the world and gave us His only begotten Son that we might have life, true life, communion with the true and living God;
  • We know that this life is marked by love and forgiveness; even including and especially including the forgiveness of our enemies;
  • We know that giving is more blessed than receiving – thus we already have the means of being blessed;
  • We know that the Way of the Cross is the Way of Life and that following Christ on that Way means freely laying down our lives for others.
  • We know that we have been commanded to give thanks for all things, thus affirming God’s goodness as the true ground of our existence;
  • We know we are not alone – that many have walked this way before us and that our success in following Christ is of concern for them;

I certainly could add to this list with some further thought, though I find it is easy to state some things that not many of us know. What I believe is that, even in the absence of great and holy men, we can take the little that we know and live.

  • It is better to live seeking communion with the true and living God than to believe that God is somewhere at a distance;
  • It is better to forgive and to love even if it means we make ourselves victim to the hate and cruelty of others;
  • It is indeed better to give than to receive, even if I can give but little. No one can keep me from giving.
  • It is better to die for others than to die alone.
  • It is better to give thanks for all things than to be eaten alive with regret and bitterness;
  • It is better to have the saints as friends than to be famous or popular with those of this world.

I know that these things are small (though they are truly large). But such small things, lived and acted upon with prayer will make the way for paradise in our heart and write our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much… (Luke 16:10)

Will He Know Me in Heaven?

July 19, 2008

Some time ago I spent two-and-a-half years serving as a hospice chaplain. I have mentioned this before and some of the stories I encountered among the faithful people in East Tennessee. Most Hospice situations in America (home hospice) have a sort of commonality. One is that the vast majority of patients are older. Indeed in my time with hospice we never once had a patient who was a child. The reason, I was told, is that young people have such a possibility of life ahead of them that no one wants to declare them beyond help and consign them to palliative care alone. Thus they are usually treated vigorously until the very end.

The same is often true for not just children, but younger adults as well. My story is about one such adult. Unlike most others he had seen his prognosis and chosen hospice. It was difficult for everyone. The day he died I recall being with his young widow and two protestant pastors in the family room at the hospital.

The pastors were typical of many in the mountains of Tennessee: Baptist of the fiercely independent sort, holding part-time jobs to support themselves in small church ministry which is descriptive of most mountain churches.

The young widow turned to me (“Why me?” I thought when she had two pastors of her own in the room). Her question was as clear as it was difficult. “Will my husband be aware of me now that he’s in heaven?” I paused waiting for one of the pastors to jump in. They both looked at me and waited.

Being Orthodox I would have no difficulty with the answer, but I wanted to answer from the Scriptures alone lest I create a scandal. Thus I reminded her of the scene in Revelation where the saints pray for us day and night. I reminded her of the passage in Hebrews that speaks of the “great cloud of witnesses.” I even spoke of the rich man in Hades and his concern for his brothers still on earth (in Christ’s parable).

She seemed somewhat comforted with those passages. But then one of the pastors, a truck-driver by trade and a preacher on the weekend spoke up and gave a definitive answer.

“I think it’s like this,” he said. “I believe that when I get up to heaven I ain’t gonna be any dumber than I am now. So I think he knows you.”

I won’t even ask the proverbial “why didn’t I think of that?” because I don’t think I would have ever thought of that. Thus that day I learned some theology from a truck-driving preacher. And I pray that like him, I won’t be any dumber when I get to heaven.