Archive for October 16th, 2008

Without Distraction

October 16, 2008

A desert hermit, dear to God and often in prayer, was joined by two angels as he walked, one on each side. He tried to pay them no attention. He did not want to be distracted from his conversation with Christ.

From the Desert Fathers

This is one of the great religious tragedies of our age – we do not want God so much as the proof of His existence – all of which is – in my thought – part of living in the world of a two-storey universe. We hope that there’s a God up there and we’ll grasp at any hint that it all might be true.

I’m trying to place the story of this hermit in today’s American setting and can only imagine that this would quickly become an “angel story” and not a story about God. Just as Church becomes a grocery story, or “look what she’s wearing” story or “what did he mean by that story” or “anything but God story.” And the goodness of God is that His is always, “I love you so much I gave you my only-begotten son” story. And even angels long to look into these things (1 Peter 1:12).

The very heart of Orthodox spiritual practice is Hesychia (stillness). It is not necessarily a matter of sitting or standing still (though sometimes it helps) as it is become still within our inmost selves. It is, indeed, the opposite of being distracted.

The stange thing about distractions is that they do not go away by paying them attention – but by not paying them attention. And this only happens because we are mindful of something or Someone else. Thus the remembrance of God is not only the vanquishing of a two-storey universe, it is also the quiet coming to the heart of our selves where indeed we encounter Christ.

Of course, it is hard to have such attention in our busy modern lives – but that is only an excuse we use. When I lose my keys (I do this on a fairly regular basis), I think nothing of taking the time to search for them, invoking help by prayer. I can’t go anywhere without them. If my keys are so important how much more so is God. How far will I go without that Key, and if I have not found the true heart of myself, then who is it that is running around so much anyway?

What Can One Man Do?

October 16, 2008

In our modern world we sometimes forget that a single person is not able to do much on their own. If Wittgenstein was right, then we really can’t do anything on our own. We live, for good or ill, within a culture, within a social matrix that makes most aspects of our life possible. Language is a social construct; world-views are a social construct; family is a social construct and I could continue for quite a long period of time.

To say that we cannot do much on our own does not mean we are powerless within the constructs around us. Societies change – and for various reasons. A construct can be rejected and replaced. But where do we go for our alternatives?

An inherent part of modern societies is their belief that social constructs can simply be chosen and invented according to what seems best to a society. Thus we have seen the great social experiments of the modern world, from Communism to Fascism, to Free-Market Democracy and a host of others. All primarily sharing in the idea that societies are self-defining.

This is an aspect of what I have earlier referred to as “cultures of forgetfulness,” or “cultures of amnesia.” It is not the past or any inherited limit or commandment which informs the structure of a society – only the will of its people (or whatever will is governing).

This, of course, is in deep conflict with the Christian understanding of what it means to live in communion with the living God. The Christian understanding assumes and expects that God has spoken to us and made Himself known. At the same time He has also revealed to us what it truly means to be human (Christ is fully God AND fully man). Thus we accept that there are parameters given to us as human beings and as a society. This, to a large extent, is a function of Christian Tradition – to hand down from one generation to another the living understanding of what it means to be truly human as well as what it means to truly be in communion with God. The Orthodox Church adds to this that the Tradition is a function of the Holy Spirit, ever revealing in each generation the one Truth of the one God.

The inherent problem of the modern world and its view of the individual, is that a culture is more than one man can do. Society is more than a collection of individuals, an average of what is thought – it is a powerful collective, forming and shaping the lives of its members regardless, to a great extent, of the individual choices they may make.

It is thus that we all live according to some tradition, be it a figment of our cultural imagination or the Tradition of Holy Orthodoxy. What none of us can be is people who have no tradition. The tradition we have may be the thin ice of modernity – but even modernity, though it be anti-tradition, is itself a tradition.

Thus the question of tradition becomes inherently important. If it is unavoidable, we do well to give it some thought. I have said in any number of places that the Orthodox Church is the last “traditional” Church. I would, of course, add to that the “Oriental Orthodox,” those Churches who refused to accept the Council of Chalecedon (Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian). But all other “churches,” including Rome to a large extent, have rejected Christian Tradition in favor of the tradition of modernity. I understand that to say this of Rome is controversial – but I ask only for them to bring me a liturgy that says otherwise.

Of course, the Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy, is now surrounded by foreign cultures. In fact, it has been an extremely rare thing in the life of the Church that it has been surrounded by anything other than a foreign culture, even when that culture was nominally Orthodox.

Thus it is the Scriptures tell us that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). There is a culture to which we belong within the life of the Church. That culture is not Byzantine, nor Russian, nor any ethnicity of the earth, but the ethnos of heaven. It has a language, even if the language is spoken in many languages of this world. The Church has a way of taking language and raising it up to become the language of heaven.

There is an art with a grammar than refers us beyond itself and to the coming reality of heaven. And we have a King who sits enthroned before us and within us. Praying, confessing, forgiving all for everything, this culture is ever being formed in our heart.

It is, of course, a difficult task to live with our “citizenship in heaven.” The powers outside the Church – especially these modern powers – want the Church to be a subset of their ethnos – a part of the larger culture. But how do you fit the whole of heaven into the small confines of a single human culture? The culture of the Church will either cease to be the Church, if it agrees to become but an artifact of something else, or it will come the empty tomb of Christ – proclaiming that the “kingdoms of this world are becoming the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ.”

What can one man do? He can refuse to be reduced to a receptacle for modernity. He can proclaim the reality of his Baptism. And he can pray, fast, repent, give alms, forgive as though these were the most important activities in his life. In the Kingdom of God these are the “coin of the realm.” He can become “rich towards God.”

This has apparently been possible in the very worst of human circumstances. Even the Gulag had its saints. What can one man do? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).