Archive for October, 2008

Reading Rightly

October 17, 2008

The course of your reading should be parallel to the aim of your way of life…. Most books that contain instructions in doctrine are not useful for purification. The reading of many diverse books brings distraction of mind down on you. Know, then, that not every book that teaches about religion is useful for the purification of the consciousness and the concentration of the thoughts.

St. Isaac of Syria quoted in The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrianby Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev

I believe that it was Stanley Hauerwas who once commented in a class I was taking that among some Jewish groups, a man was not allowed to read the book of Ezekiel until he was over 40. The idea behind that prohibition is similar to that offered above by St. Isaac.

In our democratic culture, we find it offensive that anyone should be forbidden to read anything. I would only point to the spiritual abuse found on any number of “Orthodox” websites in which serious matters, originally written for monastics or for the guidance of clergy are tossed about for even the non-Orthodox to read. As if the canons of the Church were meant for mass consumption!

Parents who care about the health of their children usually follow some regimen in the course of their young lives when it comes to feeding them. “Milk and not stong meat” is the Scriptural admonition for those who are young in the faith.

St. James offers this warning:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness (3:1).

And St. Peter’s Second Epistle offers this:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (15-16).

It’s not that Scripture or Canons or books of doctrine are to be avoided or forbidden to those beneath a certain age, but rather that we should learn to read with wisdom in an effort to grow spiritually and not in an effort simply to gain knowledge of a questionable sort.

St. Isaac’s observation is that we give attention first to “purification of the consciousness and concentration of thoughts.” By such phrases he refers primarily to the daily regimen of what we read and how we pray (as well as fasting and repentance) towards the goal of overcoming the passions. Only someone who is not himself ruled by the passions is ready to safely guide someone else beyond those same rocks. Anger and condemnation, pride and superiority are marks of the passions and cannot read the Scriptures and the Traditions rightly, nor offer them to others without doing harm. The same can be said about most argumentation.

Again, this is not to say that we should not be regular in our reading of Scripture. But we do well to consider how we read it. To read or sing the psalms is an effort which is a sweet sacrifice of praise to God. If we have difficulty with what we read, then ask questions. The reading of the Gospels, even on a daily basis, is a common devotional activity, properly, in an effort to draw closer to Christ. Reading the daily readings appointed for the Church (most Orthodox calendars have these) is also salutary, even if there are things that we don’t always understand.

Other things should be read with some guidance. There’s nothing wrong with asking your priest the question, “Is this good for me to read at this point?” I’ve seen many people take up the Philokalia with glee (usually after reading The Way of a Pilgrim) only to be disappointed when they find that it is boring and frequently incomprehensible. The same can be said of many of the writings of the Fathers. Taking these things up at the wrong time can leave us with a false impression and lack of proper respect for what we have just put down in frustration.

I generally suggest to people that they read devotionally, with some other things (possibly in the context of a group study) as well. And we should read sparingly – only taking in what we can digest. Many books that I read – I take in only a few pages a day.

Contrary to our popular self-conception, we are not a culture that values learning. We are a culture that values opinion, and opinion as entertainment (God save us from the pundits!). Dilettantism plagues us. If we want to be Christians, we must start with the small things and the practices that make for proper discipleship and “let not many of us become teachers.” Let many of us become those who pray, who fast, who repent, who forgive even their enemies and through the grace of God come to know the stillness within which God may be known.

I readily confess again in my writing that I am an ignorant man. I know very little. But this is the heart of my writing – to urge others to come to know very little. It is so much better than knowing nothing.

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).

Cultures of Remembrance

October 14, 2008

I grew up in a “culture of remembrance.” By that, I mean that the history of the place in which I lived was far more a matter of discussion and meaning than the present or the future. That culture was the American South. Much of the remembrance we discussed was not true – just a left-over from the sentimentality of the 19th century. My childhood was spent in the 1950’s, which may have been the last decade in America (or in many places of America) before the modern period became the norm. Modernity is not a culture of remembrance but a culture of forgetfulness. My children sometimes ask, “Which war was it Granddaddy fought in: Vietnam or World War II?” (The answer is World War II). But their forgetfulness staggers me. It is not that they are poor students of history (they were all great students) but history plays a different role in their culture than it did in mine.

My wife and I have swapped stories about our Southern childhoods and the experience of playing “Civil War” or “War Between the States” in our youth. The difficulty came in the fact that the game always involved where you were born. My wife was born in Washington, D.C. (where her native South Carolinian father was working at the time) which automatically meant she would have to play on the Northern side, which, in South Carolina, was always greatly outnumbered.

The culture of remembrance, however, is frequently false. We remember wrongs and hatreds that were not done to us and may not have even been done to our ancestors. No one in my father’s family fought in the Civil War (my mother’s family did). But no one burned our houses down or any of the other things we saw in “Gone With The Wind.” Many of those things happened to others – but not to all.

I was struck some years back when we took my home-schooling son to the Chickamauga Battlefield near Chattanooga. It is one of the oldest Battlefields preserved as a national monument. Reading about the history of its founding as a park is to read the story of soldiers from both sides working to set aside the area as a place of remembrance. It’s dedication was attended by men of both armies who met, ate, walked the fields and wept together. This is the remembrance of soldiers and was part of the healing of a nation. The culture of remembrance that I inherited included no such stories – it was the culture of a false memory.

The world has many cultures of remembrance – many of them bitter and angry. Many have continuing stories of violence and oppression – both of which feed the poisoned memories.

One of the promises in St. John’s Revelation is: And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (21:4).

There is a proper culture of remembrance – a culture which is born of the mercy and forgiveness of God. It abides and will remain when the former things are passed away. The toxic remembrance of past wrongs does not build a culture of life, but a culture that serves the dead. There are some wrongs that are so great that we cannot easily ask another to forgive. Forgiveness is always a gift, never a demand.

Orthodox Christianity practices remembrance in a number of ways. The Sacraments of the Church are always a remembrance – but always an “eschatological” remembrance in which our focus is on the transcendant truth of things tabernacling among us.

Our Churches are usually filled with icons – some are covered in frescoes from floor to ceiling. And these icons are always a remembrance – of Christ, His Mother, the Saints, the Parables, etc. But icons, when painted according to traditional norms, are never mere historical records. We do not walk into a Church of photographs of the past. Rather, the saints – everything and everyone – is painted in an artistic grammar that points towards the final truth of things – the world to come which is already coming into the world.

Thus as I visited the Holy Land and stood in the chapel of the Monastery of Mar Saba, I saw in a side transcept the skulls of the monks of the monastery who have been martyred for the faith – the largest number of which died in 618 A.D. It was a remembrance of the most vivid sort, and yet not a reminder of a wrong that had been done, but of the transcendant power of the prayers of the saints. We venerate their relics – and do not mourn their martyrdom.

I noticed during my pilgrimage that Jerusalem itself is like a monument of remembrance. The Jerusalem whose streets were walked by Christ is some 30 or 40 feet below the surface of the present city. To visit those streets and other sites, you often have to go underground. Below that layer is the city of Jebusites (and perhaps others still lower), and the city of David. And above the city through which Christ walked are yet more layers – the city of the Romans – the city of the Byzantines – the city of the Muslims – the city of the Crusaders – the city of the Turks – and today the city that holds all of those things in one place – a center of pilgrimage. For some, to be there is a pilgrimage to a lost past and the pain of wrongs not forgiven. For a Christian, it must be a place for pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre – which belongs not to the past but to a past transcendant – for it is not a place of the dead but a place where tears are wiped away.

For all the peoples of the world – the reality of that Sepulchre is the only way forward. Modernity would move forward, not in forgiveness but in forgetfulness, which is not the same thing at all. For tears to be wiped away, they must also be shed. For the dead to rise again, they have to die. To remember the truth is, finally, to remember the End of all things when the Truth shall be revealed. The former things – which were always distortions – will pass away. What remains will abide forever.


October 13, 2008

St. Macarius said, “If we remember the evil that others have done to us, we shut down our ability to remember God.”

From the Desert Fathers

Memory is a very powerful thing. The older I get, and the more of my earthly life lies behind me instead of before me, memory becomes indeed powerful. I have lived in my present home for almost 20 years, which, for a priest, can be quite a while. In the Orthodox life that we now live – I do not expect to be anywhere else in my lifetime.

Memory, like most things, has two sides. It can be the repository of blessings, the remembrance of the goodness of God, and it can be the repository of bitterness, the remembrance of wrongs. It is obvious in the life of the Church that we are given authority and grace to heal the remembrance of wrongs. Indeed, forgiveness (both of our own sins and those of others) seems to be precisely this power over the past – the grace of God working in us to heal what has been.

The remembrance of God has something which carries it beyond the past, however. In the Divine Liturgy, when the priest speaks the “words of remembrance” (“do this in remembrance of me”) he is not engaging in an act of recalling the past, but an act in which that which was spoken is made present reality. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. His life and actions are certainly historical, but, at the same time, they transcend any particular moment of history. The historical is united to the ahistorical: time and eternity find a union within Him.

By the same token, our “remembrance” of God is itself a union of time and eternity in which we (the timely) are united to the Eternal, and the timelessness of the Messianic Banquet is set before us. This is proper Christian eschatology (concern with the “last” things).

The remembrance of wrongs is an anti-eschatology. It seeks to make present that which has no true or proper existence. Evil certainly has tragic and destructive effects on the world, but it is still nothing. Evil is not a “something,” but merely the abuse of a free-will. It cannot truly destroy what God has established. It’s existence is a “false existence,” abiding only as a parasite on the truth of our existence.

Thus the remembrance of wrong “shuts down our ability to remember God,” not because we have put something else in God’s place, but because we have put “nothing” in God’s place. Forgiveness is the great tool of justice which God has given us. For with forgiveness we fill with goodness and the wholeness of love what before was only darkness and the emptiness of hatred and anger.

The good thief, crucified beside our Lord, found salvation “in a single moment.” His request, “Remember me when you come into Your kingdom,” is a confession of faith that recognizes that the remembrance of God, and the remembrance by God, is triumphant over every sin and every evil. It is the triumph of “that which is” over “that which is not.”

Paradise is never far away from us – it is in our hearts and on our lips as we remember God.

As the Romanian Elder Cleopa constantly greeted his disciples, “May paradise consume you!”

My it indeed consume us and with us sweep away every memory of wrong in the fullness of the remembrance of God.

Me, You and the Other Guy

October 10, 2008

It has been said that a recession is when someone else loses his job; a depression is when you lose your job. I am too young to remember the Great Depression, though all the adults I knew as a child had come through that period. In 1928, my paternal great-grandfather lost everything (farm, machinery, house, etc.) in the Cotton Market Crash that preceded the Great Depression. My father was four years old and traveled from South Georgia to the Upstate of South Carolina in a farm wagon (grim even for those days). His family took up share-cropping, the poorest of the poor in that farm economy. At age four he began to work, picking cotton, doing anything he could do. Those were hard times.

When I was 10, the local Air Force base closed. My father’s auto repair business was largely based on clientele who were stationed or worked at the base. We lost a lot – I remember a spate of about four or five years in which things were much “leaner” than they had been.

Recessions come and go. Depressions, too, come and go, though with greater impact. Historically, it is of interest that the Great Depression was not a time of increased Church attendance in America. I daresay it was a time of increased prayer. If you’re hungry enough, you pray. America has the strange phenomenon of increased Church attendance usually accompanying times of prosperity. Many other nations, particularly several I can think of in Europe (modern Ireland stands out) have seen Church attendance plummet when prosperity comes.

I suspect that this all has something to do with America’s strange marriage of prosperity and piety. In most cases it is not as blatant as those who preach a “prosperity gospel,” but the prosperity gospel would not even be preached in America if it did not already have a ready audience. On some level our culture equates wealth with “God shed His grace on Thee” (the words of one of our patriotic hymns).

Historically, Orthodoxy has always been resistant to prosperity gospels, they are doubtless kept at bay by the constant presence of the voluntary poverty of monastics. Monasticism is not viewed as a unique vocation within Orthodoxy, but simply the Christian vocation pushed towards a maximum. The typicon (the book which guides liturgical and ascetic practice) is the same book for both monk and non-monk. The non-monk simply does not keep the typicon as strictly. But the ideal remains the same.

This is less obvious in America where a monastic presence has been slow to take hold. But the ascetic ideal abides, nonetheless.

Economies will do all sorts of things – and we ought always to pray for the needs of the world. We ought also to remember that prosperity as a sign of God’s favor is a peculiar “heresy” of sorts in our modern world. By the same token, a collapsing economy may not be a sign of God’s disfavor, either. Judging others is not a work of the Holy Spirit within our lives. Prayer is.

St. Paul teaches us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). We appear to be in a time when you, me, and the other guy will be doing one or the other – with perhaps more weeping than usual. Thus our prayers for the world before God should not be shy in weeping for the pain of others and should be totally devoid of rejoicing at the pain of any.

When Money Fails

October 9, 2008

I know little about economics, perhaps less than most. I do know when I hear scary stuff on television, though I know television likes to scare us (it keeps us watching). Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice that, world-wide, various markets are in a bit of a panic – and if not panic – at least they recognize a crisis when they see one.

One of the great difficulties in our modern world is the fact that it is built so firmly on the continued stability and growth of economies. Again, I confess my ignorance about economic theory. However, I do know that although we must work and eat and engage in most of things that make up economies, such activity can easily become the center of life. Whenever that center ceases to be stable, then we find ourselves shaken to the core. In my parents’ life the two great events were the Great Depression and the Second World War. One is unlikely without the other. Thus a time of world-wide anxiety is a time of increased danger, and thus should be a time for increased prayer.

There are some who will look at the collapse of a market as the just desert of those with whom they disagree. But inevitably the victims of world-wide tragedies are always the weakest. The strong and the rich almost never seem to starve. All the more reason for prayer – may God protect the helpless!

Money is only one of many intangibles upon which our world rests. Our culture gods are far more flimsy than one would expect. In the Scriptures, within the Revelation of St. John, the angel cries, “Babylon the Great is fallen, is fallen.” Thus it is with the world – things that seem to be great are not so great and things that seem to be of little value are of great value.

It has been a commonplace within Orthodox spiritual thought to believe that the continued existence and well-being of the world depends first on the goodness of God, but secondly on the prayers of but a few righteous souls (known only to God). It is the math of Sodom and Gomorrah (whom God would have spared for the sake of ten righteous souls).

I do not believe it to be the case that those few righteous souls are aware of the value of their prayer. Such a burden is too much for the pride of man. But it also says that no one should undervalue the prayers they offer for the world.

As the world shakes (yet again), Christians must be about prayer – not about “I told you so” or other comments that proceed from something less than mercy. Let God save souls. Let us pray. The first activity is never ascribed to man in the Scriptures. The second is a commandment from God.

The Great Crisis

October 8, 2008

I wanted to write a bit more on “crisis” following up on my previous article on Dostoevsky, et al. The “Great Crisis,” if I can coin a term, is the threat of non-existence, or relative non-existence. Classical Orthodoxy, following St. Athanasius does not threaten humanity with pure non-existence, but with a dynamic movement towards a “relative” non-existence, which some have described as a “meontic” existence (to get a little technical).

If you want more on the word, just enter meontic in the search box on the blog and it will take you to more articles that involve this topic, as well as some good discussions.

This same Great Crisis is the absolute epitome of what the Orthodox faith understands to be sin, or the root of sin. Sin and death are deeply intertwined.

The Great Crisis is therefore not at all the same thing as an impending punishment from an angry God. This is not our fate. Rather it is the continued living in increasing modes of non-existence as we refuse to live in communion with the Only True God Who is the Lord and Giver of Life.

It is for this same reason that everything within the Orthodox Christian life is understood as a means to living more fully in communion with the One, True God. Every action of the Christian life exists for that purpose.

Because this is true, every work of our salvation begins in communion with God, continues in communion with God, and is fulfilled in communion with God. Thus our lives can never be defined extrinsically (from the outside), but only mystically and existentially. The mystery of our communion with God is not always manifested outwardly, but it will be, inevitably, because it becomes the true source and character of our existence. Thus we look towards the resurrection of the dead, and find nothing odd about the miraculous things associated with the bodies and relics of saints who have “fallen asleep” in the Lord. Nor are we surprised that God uses the material world as a means of communion with us, for all things are being gathered together in one, into Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:10).

And, of course, I only use the term “Orthodox” in describing these things, to note that there is and has always been a living, continual witness to this fullness of life in Christ, in full historical continuity with the Apostolic Church, proclaiming and living the same, one, true Life. This is the Orthodox Church.

The Great Crisis is answered in Pascha (the fullness of Christ’s resurrection) and has never been answered in any other manner. All things that seek to make themselves alien to Pascha, unite themselves to the Great Crisis.

The Great Crisis is not a problem peculiar to the modern world, nor any other period, but has always been present since the moment of man’s rebellion. It is manifest in many ways throughout human life and history, but is always the same – an abandonment of communion with the true and living God.

May God bring us all into the fullness of His Life.

Crises, Dostoevsky and the Gospel

October 6, 2008

There is something of a common thread that runs throughout the novels of Dostoevsky, the 19th century Russian writer: personal crises. Dostoevsky has long been recognized as a genius of psychological perception, writing at a time before psychology was a formal academic discipline. Many of his novels carry a relgious theme, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are other personal crises in many of his other works – though none that compare with those two novels. It is in these personal crises that Dostoevsky introduces the reality of the Christian faith – in particular the Orthodox Christian faith. His characters frequently live in a state that is dangerously close to the edge of madness or self-destruction until they “come to their senses” and embrace the life of the gospel. He does not describe such conversions as instantaneous or easy.

But his recognition of the role of crisis in the conversion of the human soul is an important insight. American revivalism, born from roots in the First and Second Great Awakening, seeks to create crisis for the individual through preaching. Thus the famous and common references to Hell, or “if you were to die tonight do you know where you would go?” are attempts to foster crises within the human soul.

But a true crisis is not something which can simply be manufactured – at least not with any accuracy. I once worked with an Anglican priest who was very “high Church.” His services of Holy Week were about as complete as one could find in an Anglican setting. I remember him saying to me: “On Good Friday, when the service is complete, I don’t want anyone to know anything other than that Jesus is dead.” He wanted the crisis of the death of God to prepare the way for Easter. I understood his point but felt is was somehow, artificial. After all, everyone knew that Christ has been raised from the dead. The moment of surprise had long ago passed.

Indeed, in the services of Orthodox Holy Week, though the crucifixion and entombment of Christ are marked as profoundly as possible, they are always done so against the backdrop of Pascha. Thus there is no Eastern practice of refraining from “Alleluia” during Lent (as is the fashion in some Western Churches). Christ is never not risen and nothing we do makes sense unless it is placed in the context of Pascha.

Personal crises resist manufacture (and well they should). From the Christian point of view, inducing a crisis in someone’s life might very well have the character of sin (I would make exception for things such as drug interventions and the like, although even interventions fail from time to time). There is an integrity to the human soul that is not transparent to others. God knows us and does so far more deeply than we know ourselves. I have always assumed some activity of grace at work in the human heart that, in cooperation with the world around, brings crisis in a way in which it can be salvific and not destructive.

St. Paul’s conversion is probably the most widely attested crisis in Scripture – the story being related several times within the pages of the book of Acts. As St. Paul is told, “It is hard to kick against the goads.” It is difficult to resist the prodding of the Holy Spirit.

The temptation to manufacture crises, it seems to me, is a belief that God needs our help, or that, somehow, we are the ones who “save” souls. Instead, it would seem more correct to me, that we should trust that God knows very well what He is doing in the souls of men, and it is for us to be patient, prepared and equipped to offer what help souls in crisis may need as they reach out for grace.

My experience as a pastor is that many crises present themselves without clear or obvious answers. That the answer is always, “Turn to God,” seems obvious enough, but even this requires patience and frequently long endurance. The healing of the human soul can sometimes be a very slow thing.

As such, we “put our hand to the plow,” and seek to remain steadfast in all things. And we may trust that every crisis of our life is an opportunity of salvation – even though we may not see clearly how that is so.

The Humility of God

October 5, 2008

The humility manifested in Christ’s voluntary death on the Cross was not an aberration, but a manifestation of who God is. Humility is divine. St. Silouan offered the following observation:

There are many kinds of humility. One man is obedient, and has nothing but blame for himself; and this is humility. Another repents him of his sins and considers himself loathsome in the sight of God – and that is humility. But there is still another humility in the man who has known the Lord in the Holy Spirit. He who has known the Lord in the Holy Spirit has a different understanding and a different perception.

When the soul by the Holy Spirit sees the Lord, how meek and lowly He is, she humbles herself thoroughly. And this is an especial humility. No one can describe it, and it is made known only through the Holy Spirit. And were men to understand through the Holy Spirit what a Lord is ours, all would be transformed – the rich would despise their riches, scholars their learning, and rulers their glory and power. Every man would humble himself and live in profound peace and love, and there would be great joy on earth.

When the soul has given herself up to the will of God, the mind then contains naught save God, and the soul stands before God with a pure mind.

FromSaint Silouan the Athonite