Archive for November, 2008

The Problem with Lying

November 30, 2008


Anyone familiar with Scripture will be aware of the commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Lying is treated as a problem from the earliest moments of Scripture. Adam and Eve fail to speak the truth in a direct manner when questioned about their breaking of the commandment and eating of the forbidden fruit.

The New Testament shows at least as much concern with the subject. St. Paul states in very simple fashion:

Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds (Colossians 3:9)

In Titus, St. Paul raises our understanding of lies, by noting that “God never lies.”

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life which God, who never lies, promised ages ago (Titus 1:1-2)

Christ not only establishes what is truth, but notes as well the source of lies:

[Speaking to the Pharisees] Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (John 8:44)

St. John also reminds us of this:

If we say that we have communion with God, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth (1John 1:6).

The Scriptures give us an understanding about the character of lying which makes it a much larger issue than the mere misleading of another individual. Lying is not a moral issue, but an issue that goes to the very heart of our existence.

There is a very simple way of stating this: Existence can only truly exist in the truth.

Thus lying, more than being a moral problem, states something which, in fact, has no true existence. It is a fiction and a fantasy. Of course, in the normal run of things, people lie for a wide variety of reasons: to avoid embarassment; to avoid pain or punishment; to make someone think better of themselves or worse of someone else; the reasons could easily be multiplied.

There is a deeper level of lying, however, far more difficult to discern: lying to yourself. At first blush it would seem a strange thing that we would ever lie to ourselves. Surely if we are “lying” to ourselves we must also know the truth. This is a matter that is rooted deep in the human heart, which Scripture says is “deceitful above all things.” It is an odd perversity that we are not only capable of lying to others – but also to ourselves – and in such a manner that we come to believe our own lies.

Such actions do tremendous damage to our heart – making it a place of darkness and unable to discern the truth. For where the truth is acknowledged, darkness and lies are swept away.

When Christians say that Christ is the Truth – it is a profound statement – but it is not to say that Christ is a rational syllogism. He is the Truth in that He is the ground of all reality. “In Him there is no darkness at all.” In order to truly see Christ as the Truth (no tautology intended), we ourselves have to be able to see Truth – which says something primarily about the state of our heart.

Of course the truth does not wait on the state of our heart. The lies we speak, even the ones we tell ourselves, have a way of being brought into the light by the mercy and kindness of God. It almost always entails pain – even great pain. But to speak the truth and to know the truth is the only path to true existence. Everything else is a route to an existence of shadows and non-being.

I write as a sinner and not as an expert on righteousness. Like anyone who reads my posts, I tell lies and sometimes I tell them to myself. Of course these are matters for my confessor and not for my readers. But I know the struggle that we all must endure in order to be freed from darkness. In many ways that struggle is itself one of the primary battles in our effort to find the place of the heart and have communion there with God.

The communion into which we are invited is and only can be a communion in the Truth. I cannot bring anything other than the reality of my true self into that communion. But we have reassuring words:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have communion with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:5-9).

And that is the truth.

The Act of Giving Thanks as a Way of Life

November 28, 2008

cathedral1The act of giving thanks is among the most fundamental acts of love. It lies at the very heart of worship – in which, in the words of Archimandrite Zacharias, there is an exchange. In giving thanks we make an offering which itself is always inferior to what we have received – but which is itself an enlargement of the human heart. To live rightly in the presence and communion of God is to live in a state of constant thanksgiving. For from Him we receive all that we have – our life and existence, all good things, the hope of redemption, and the joy of communion. The offering of thanksgiving is the acknowledgement within our heart that we ourselves are not the author of any of these things, but are rather the recipients – those who receive gifts from God.

The offering of our heart in the giving of thanks is itself an act of joy and of love. It is a moving away from ourselves as the center of our existence and the recognition that our true life is centered elsewhere – in Christ Himself.

We are also the recipients of many things from others around us. No one is self-sufficient. There is no such thing as a “self-made” man. The offering of thanks is a matter of living in our right mind – the failure to give thanks, an act of insanity (unwholeness).

With all of these things in mind, the teaching of Scripture to “give thanks always for all things” becomes yet clearer. We offer thanks not “from time to time,” or “whenever we feel grateful,” but always and for all things. Such an offering is itself an act of communion, a receiving of the love of God through gratefully acknowledging His gifts. To refuse to give thanks is, for the same reason, a rupture in our communion with God.

The Holy Eucharist (eucharist=”thanksgiving”) is thus not simply a sacrament which is celebrated in the Church on an occasional or even regular basis – but a description and revelation of the truth of our life. We were created to live “eucharistically,” always giving thanks to God.

It seems to me no coincidence that St. John Chrysostom, the author of the most common Eucharistic prayer in the Orthodox Church, offered his last words as a Eucharistic offering. Exiled to the very edge of the empire by an ungrateful Emperor, St. John’s last words were, “Glory to God for all things.”


Give Thanks In All Things

November 25, 2008

img_0531I heard this from Archimandrite Zacharius, the disciple of the Elder Sophrony:

The Elder Sophrony once said that if a man would give thanks always and for everything, he would have kept the saying which Christ gave to St. Silouan: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

I pondered this statement for a long time. For more than 30 years I had been aware of the famous dictum of St. Silouan – and though it sounded profound I never understood it. Only when thinking about this explanation reported by Archimandrite Zacharias did the saying become clear. Life brings many things to us – good and bad – joyous and calamitous. Sorrow is inescapable in this life.

But if in the midst even of sorrows (which bring their own taste of hell) we are able by grace to give thanks to God, then we will have found the way to despair not. I have in my lifetime been witness to a few great souls who gave thanks to God for all things and in all things and their witness was filled with the grace of God.

Thanksgiving is more than a day – it is the only means to the true Life.

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thess. 5:18).

I am appending an earlier article: “Grace and the Inverted Pyramid,” on the teachings of St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony, particularly in their understanding of our union with Christ in His descent into Hades. I hope it is helpful for those who may not have seen this before.

Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart


The teaching of St. Silouan, itself a continuation of the unbroken Tradition of the Church, was continued in the life and writings of the Elder Sophrony. Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.

One of the strongest elements drawn out in both the life and teachings of St. Silouan is just this word of humility as illustrated in my opening quote. To be a follower of Christ is to accept a “downward path,” to follow Christ into the depths of His humility. This is not a new word, but echoes that of the Apostle (which itself seems to have been a hymn which the Apostle was quoting):

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:5-11).

This clear teaching of the Apostle, which only echoes the utterly consistent teaching and example of Christ, has a history of being obscured within Christianity – with Christians forgetting this essential teaching and following after a human Lordship and model of salvation.

In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.

I am reminded of a statement by Stanley Hauerwas, Protestant theologian and professor at Duke University:

The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.

in A Community of Character

In countless lectures and seminars in which I participated while a student at Duke’s Graduate School of Theology, I heard Hauerwas echo this quote with the assertion that “so soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.” This violent outcome is a complete perversion of the “downward Way” described by Archimandrite Zacharias and the Orthodox Tradition. Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

This same contradiction, in narrative form, can be found in Dostoevsky’s classic chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor lashes out at Christ for His failure, as measured in the outcomes of history, and justifies Christians’ use of tools such as the Inquisition as an improvement over the weakness of God. The argument of that famous chapter, as well as the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” mark the high-point of Dostoevsky’s summary of the argument against God and the Orthodox Christian faith. The answer to that diatribe is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.


The Tree in my Backyard

November 24, 2008

dscf0048I have given this posting a very prosaic title in order to help readers focus on precisely what I am saying. In my previous post on icons – I noted that even the world functions as an icon – but, undoubtedly, having put that in a very theological context, most readers think simply about the traditional icons found in Orthodox Churches.

Instead I want to talk about the tree in my backyard. I currently only have one tree there (within the fence). There is nothing particularly noteworthy about it other than it’s a mature oak and leans slightly towards my house (it adds excitement to our daily lives). How does the tree in my backyard function as an icon? And it’s not just this tree but every tree.

For one, every tree points both towards the tree of life, in the Garden of Eden, which itself was a type of the true Tree of Life, the Cross on which Christ died. This tree points towards that tree, because in submitting Himself to death on the Cross, Christ has raised all trees to the level of icon.

Of course, you don’t have to look at a tree like that. You can be literal and see wood and bark, limbs and leaves. It’s beautiful, but it lacks the fullness of meaning that Christ has given to His creation. Everything and everyone points to Pascha, is an icon of our redemption. Creation preaches the gospel of Christ for those who have eyes to see.

rublevtrinityA traditional example of this use of a tree is found in the famous icon by Rublev, the so-called “Old Testament Trinity,” in which the three angels who appeared to him beneath the oak of Mamre are depicted. There in the center of the icon stands a tree. The tree is more than background (this is an icon and not a renaissance portrait – everything has meaning). The tree foreshadows the cross. Some say that the angel over whose head the tree appears represents the Second Person of the Trinity. But like the tree in my back yard – it’s an oak.

St. Seraphim of Sarov had a spiritual practice that transformed the space around his hermitage. Various places in that small area were renamed by him. One would be Jerusalem, another Bethlehem, and so forth. Thus he not only walked outside his hermitage – he made spiritual pilgrimage to all of these sites of our salvation in the “icon” of his small forest.

I could substitute “the man next door” for the “tree in my backyard” and see more than the eye usually reveals. I could in fact see that my neighbor is none other than an icon of Christ – and that whatever I do for him or do not do for him – has been done or not done for Christ.

If it is true that “heaven and earth of full of Thy glory,” then there is a need for our eyes to be trained to see glory, particularly when it is given to us in iconic form. Such vision not only changes how we see the world, it also reveals the truth of things far more clearly than is apparent to an unredeemed eye. Should an unbeliever and a believer look at a tree and see the same thing? When they see Christ on the Cross, do they see the same thing?

The Role of Icons

November 23, 2008

iconoclasmIcons are not about art. Icons are not about left-overs of Byzantine style. Icons are not about the idolatrous impulse within fallen humanity. Icons are about the very nature of our salvation. The history of Western theology, particularly the opposition to icons within the Protestant movement, has removed one of the most traditional components of Christian theology and handicapped the modern imagination and understanding of our relationship to God.

Our encounters with God, when icons are not present, are relegated to an imaginary world of “spiritual things,” or replaced by models of experience which can be highly delusional if not blasphemous (I am here speaking of some forms of pentecostalism). Thus the modern choice is between a God of the mental world or a God of the psycho-physical world – extremes that are brought about by the iconoclasm that has become inherent to our modern ways of thought.

Icons, as stated above, are not about art. They are a way of seeing and understanding many things – indeed the whole of the universe – in which God is not absent but has made Himself present – without at the same time becoming the universe. The theology which underlies the making and veneration of icons also provides a key to the Patristic understanding of Scripture that escapes the confines of literalism on the one hand and the emptiness of modernist forms of criticism on the other.

Icons are utterly distinct from the sacraments – though in modern non-Orthodox theology the terms “icon” and “sacrament” are frequently used in a less-than-accurate manner. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in offering a precise definition of icons and their place in the Church, made it abundantly clear that the Holy Eucharist is not an icon (the iconoclasts had said that it was an icon, and the only one that could be venerated). The Fathers of the Council were clear that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the true Body and Blood of Christ. Thus a sacrament offers something more than an icon.

But what is it that an icon offers that is less than a sacrament and yet more than nothing?

In short, an icon offers a means of seeing, interpreting and encountering the Truth of things, that is somehow less than the thing (for lack of another word just yet) itself. It is not a sacrament of which the Orthodox faith says, “make this bread to be the precious Body of Thy Christ, etc..” The sacrament does not point to something (or someone) beyond itself, but itself becomes the Body of Christ.

An icon does not become other than what it is – but its existence points towards something (or someone) else – and makes them present in a representational manner. [The precise theological language of iconic representation is that an icon is a hypostatic representation – in the language of St. Theodore the Studite – but I will refrain here from such a technical discussion].

In pointing us towards the Truth, an icon shows us what we might not see otherwise. Thus the icon of a saint, more than mere biography or photography, points us towards the reality of the risen life in Christ. It bears witness to the glorification in Christ of a person.

In the same manner, it is possible to speak of creation itself as icon (rather than sacrament) in that, through the eyes of faith, all of creation points beyond itself and bears witness to the glorification which it will have in Christ (Romans 8). Some particular things, places, events, have a very potent iconic function. Thus the tomb of Christ, though clearly having a pivotal historical role in our salvation, also points to more than the small edicule within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It is, on earth, the center of our redemption, the womb of the world to come – but it points to a fullness of Pascha that broke every confine and lifted the definition of space beyond anything we imagine.

The veneration of icons is not about art, much less, idolatry. Icons are, like many things that were given us throughout the history of our salvation, markers that teach us how to see, how to know and how to love. The veneration of the saints in the Holy Icons is a lesson to the heart of how to venerate Christ in every person (who is made “in His image” [icon] ). Without the holy altar, and all that surrounds it, we would likely never learn to see the True Altar which is in heaven, and within the heart of every person. We would not know how to enter that Holy Place and sup there with the Lord.

The icons of the Church are a school for the human heart, teaching it how to see the world and yet to see more than the world. We live in a society that is quite familiar with veneration – but directed in the wrong place and for the wrong reason. We venerate talent, sexual beauty, money, even criminality at certain times. We venerate what is manufactured and sold to us – often no more than an illusion. Thus even actors and actresses frequently resort to “body doubles” in order to appear to be what they are not. We learn to venerate what is effectively – nothing. Little wonder that such veneration leaves us empty: it has the substance of cotton candy.

Interestingly, those who oppose the proper, Orthodox veneration of icons, are frequently themselves the venerators of false images presented by the world. Captive to the passions, they oppose what is true (icons of the Truth) and easily accept what is false (the images that cater to our passions). Nothing good or holy is protected by such iconoclasm. Instead, without the proper and complete understanding of icons as taught in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Christians stand unarmed in a world where images, most of them false, bombard us and our children at every turn.

I want my children to know the good from the bad. I want them to love the one and turn from the other. The Church has given us, by God’s grace, the proper instruments and understanding to school the hearts – both of our children and ourselves. Without the Holy Icons and the theology that supports them, Christians stand poorly armed to conduct spiritual warfare in a hostile world. May God give us grace to rightly see what is rightly depicted.

The Agent of Change

November 21, 2008


As inhabitants of our modern culture, we find ourselves trapped in a world of “cause and effect.” It is a physical explanation of the universe that has, for all intents and purposes, become a universal metaphor, dominating religion and the most personal aspects of our lives.

We see ourselves as the agents of change – or responsible for the disasters that litter our lives. Those who “succeed” imagine that they are the masters of their fate, or, perhaps the ones who responsibly “chose” God.

For the weak, the addict, the genetically impaired, the myth of choice and the power of freedom are often experienced as a merciless taunt. We not only fail – it is judged that we fail because we have not willed to succeed. Our weakness becomes a curse, while the blessed enjoy their prosperity and their health. Choice is a myth believed best by the young. Old age almost invariably makes a mockery of its boasts. The “pro-choice” movement and the growing acquiesence to legalized euthanasia are but natural extensions of our “free will.” These last manifestations of our “freedom” are the freedom to kill and to commit suicide, which, of course are only illusions of freedom.

There is an important and occasionally subtle difference between these modern concepts of freedom and choice – man as the agent of change – and the traditional Orthodox understanding of the world and the place that free will plays within it. On the most fundamental level, the world of cause and effect (the realm of our willful choices) is an insufficient arena for the Truth as revealed in Christ. God cannot be described merely as an agent in a world of cause and effect. He cannot be described as First Cause – because He cannot be described by a term of which there is a Second. God is not the First of anything – God is the Only of which there is no other.

The God Who has made Himself known in Christ Jesus is rightly identified as the Creator of all that is. However, how God creates is not a proper subject for scientific study. Cause and effect are simply insufficient as a description of God as Creator. Instead, an interesting verse in the LXX translation of Exodus offers the suggestion of a better starting point for understanding the role that our choices do and do not play:

Now Moses built an altar and called its name The-Lord-My-Refuge; for with a secret hand the Lord wars with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16).

God’s secret hand well describes His involvement in our world – a metaphor which is a recurring theme in the images of Scripture (particularly as understood by Orthodox Christianity).

An excellent example of this theme can be found in the account of the Three Young Men, in the book of Daniel and its continuation in the Song of the Three Young Men (LXX). There, the faithful youths are confronted with the command to commit idolatry, to fall down and worship before an image of the wicked King Nebuchadnezzar. If you will, the threat is typical of those who view the world as simple “cause and effect.” Power is defined as the ability to cause your own will to be done. As such, the Three Young Men are powerless. They are able to do nothing against the power of the King. His threat, of course, is death in a furnace of fire. They refuse, adhering to the commandments of God and trusting in His goodness. Their reply to the king is classic:

So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the gold image which I have set up? “Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. “If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. “But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan. 3:13-17).

Thus power, as defined by the world, confronts the power of God, and His secret hand.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” “Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” Then Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire (Dan. 3:24-26).

 In the LXX Song of the Three Young Men we hear this added description:

And the flame streamed out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, and it broke through and burned those of the Chaldeans whom it caught about the furnace. But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah [Shadrach] and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, and made the midst of the furnace like a moist whistling wind, so that the fire did not touch them at all or hurt or trouble them (Song of the Three Young Men 24-27).

Thus, like the bush that Moses saw on the Holy Mount that burns but is not consumed , or the womb of the Virgin that gives birth to Christ and yet remains a virginal womb (and so the image may be multiplied), God acts in a manner that cannot be described. If we say that He causes these things – then the word “cause” has a meaning other than what we normally mean.

Azariah states it this way in his prayer:

Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in Thy forbearance and in Thine abundant mercy. Deliver us in accordance with Thy marvelous works, and give glory to Thy name, O Lord! Let all who do harm to Thy servants be put to shame; let them be disgraced and deprived of all power and dominion, and let their strength be broken. Let them know that Thou art the Lord, the only God, glorious over the whole world (Song of the Three Young Men 19-22).

I have added emphasis – “deliver us in accordance with Thy marvelous works.” This is a proper description of the work of God. The power of God is not a power to be compared to the king’s, only bigger. For however the king works, he does not do so in a “marvelous manner.” Such works belong to God alone.

This phrase, “Thy marvelous works,” is echoed in the service of the Great Blessing of the Waters (used at Theophany, Baptism, and all blessings of Holy Water).

“Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works. There is no word sufficient to hymn Thy praises.”

Calling such words over the waters of the Jordan [as I experienced on pilgrimage in September] only emphasizes the secret hand of the Most High. For in the course of the Blessing of Waters, we specifically call down upon the waters “the blessing of Jordan.” It seems strange, at first, to ask God to make the Jordan to be the Jordan. It is an illustration of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s statement that in the sacraments, we do not ask God not to make things to be something they are not, but to be what they truly are. Thus a blessing is not added to the Jordan, but in the prayer, the Jordan is revealed to be what it is: an icon. It is the place where the people of Israel cross to enter the Promised Land. It is the place that reveals the Pascha of Christ – who descends into death to lead the dead to the Promised land of life. An icon does not symbolize, in the modern sense of the word, but makes present that to which it points. Thus, “as many as are Baptized into Christ are Baptized into His death.” The Jordan and all water so blessed are an entrance into Pascha.

Icons do not cause, but reveal. To cause would be a magical understanding (magic itself being something from the early modern world – see alchemy).

When we bring this understanding of God’s work to bear on the human predicament – the will is revealed to be other than what we imagine it to be. Rather than the agent of change, it is simply one part of the human creature which is itself in need of redemption and healing.

I can no more will my salvation than I can will my resurrection.

Like everything else in the human life – the will is in need of redemption, even though it plays its own small role in its cooperation with grace. We cannot be saved except by grace – even though grace requires our cooperation. That cooperation, however, can sometimes be as minimal as a cry for help. It is the voice of the thief on the cross crying, “Remember me!”

We are not the agents of change – but subjects in need of change. The world of cause and effect in which we can imagine ourselves (like Nebuchadnezzer) to be people of great power, is not, after all, the realm of true power. That realm, ruled by God’s secret hand, became flesh and dwelt among us – doing for us what we could not ourselves do. We could not ascend into heaven and become Divine. He descended among us and became Man – that we might ascend with Him and become partakers of the divine nature.

God cannot be chosen or consumed as though He were a product among products. Neither is He an idea or slogan to which we may give allegiance. He is the God to Whom we may cry for help and Who has manifested His love and assured us of the ready answer to our feeble call.

Among the truest insights within our culture (although itself the product of Christian theology rather than modern culture) is the understanding found within the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step recognizes that we are powerless over the addictions which bind us. Strangely, the alcoholic who wants to be sober, must begin by recognizing that he is powerless to become so alone. The second step recognizes that “only a power greater than ourselves could help us.” I would say that only a power that is utterly unlike anything we know as power can help us. The third step is to turn oneself over to that power. Strangely, millions of men and women have found sobriety, not because of the power of their will, but through the recognition of the weakness of our will. It is the most non-consumer community within the whole of our culture – aside from Christianity rightly lived.

We are not the agents of change, though without change our very existence will become moot. The change for which we, and the world, hunger is finally dependent upon the secret hand of the Most High, Who created us, sustains us, and redeems us through His marvelous works. In Him the weak become strong, the meek inherit the earth, and those who weep laugh, while the mighty fall from their thrones.

From the midst of the flames we hear the Song of the Three Young Men, who see the true freedom of creation – not as inert objects or brute beasts to be coerced by wordly power, but as a joyful chorus of grateful creatures, whose voices unite in the great song offered to the God Whose secret hand sustains us in His presence:

O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever,
O ye heavens, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye waters that be above the heaven, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye powers of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye sun and moon, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye stars of heaven, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O every shower and dew, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye winds, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever,
O ye fire and heat, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye winter and summer, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye dews and storms of snow, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye nights and days, bless ye the Lord: bless and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye light and darkness, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye ice and cold, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye frost and snow, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye lightnings and clouds, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O let the earth bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye mountains and little hills, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye things that grow in the earth, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye mountains, bless ye the Lord: Praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye seas and rivers, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye whales, and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O all ye beasts and cattle, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye children of men, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O Israel, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye priests of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye spirits and souls of the righteous, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O ye holy and humble men of heart, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.
O Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever: far he hath
delivered us from hell, and saved us from the hand of death, and delivered us out of the midst of the
furnace and burning flame: even out of the midst of the fire hath he delivered us.
O give thanks unto the Lord, because he is gracious: for his mercy endureth for ever.
O all ye that worship the Lord, bless the God of gods, praise him, and give him thanks: for his mercy
endureth for ever.

The Kingdom of Choice

November 16, 2008

wheat2This is a slightly edited version of a post from last June. I plan to use it as an introduction to a series on the choices we make – and don’t make.

Part of the spiritual landscape of American religion is the sizable role played by choice in a culture shaped in the free market – with freedom as a mythic symbol. It is not unusual to hear American politicians describing solutions to social problems as a matter of “trusting Americans as consumers.” It is as though we could “shop” our way out of life’s difficulties.

And thus it is that Calvinism, as a Protestant option, never quite captured the mind of the American religious “consumer.” Our culture has long been driven by its own sense of freedom and the inherent right of every individual to make his or her own choice. Thus Christian teachings which do not give heavy weight to the importance of free-will (such as classical Calvinism) have never come to the place of dominance in American life. For Americans, religion is about a choice.

This is not all wrong – human beings do have freedom and it plays an important role within the life of salvation – even in Orthodox understanding. However, Orthodoxy sees our freedom as something flawed – we do not always choose as we should – nor do we always know what the good is to be chosen. Freedom has a role to play in the life of salvation – but is not itself what constitutes salvation. Indeed, our freedom is itself in need of salvation.

This brings me to the title of this short piece: the Kingdom of God is not a choice we make. There are many ways to describe the Kingdom – a variety of metaphors employed in the New Testament – but in every case the Kingdom is God’s Kingdom – not our response to God.

I occasionally state in sermons that “the Kingdom of God is coming whether you like it or not.” In this sense, particularly, it is not a choice we make – it is a gift that is given from God. In Christ, particularly in the fullness of His death and resurrection – the Kingdom of God has come. Though we still pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” we are not devoid of its presence now. “Thy Kingdom come” is a prayer for its fullness – but not for its inauguration.

The Kingdom of God is a reality already among us – though we frequently are oblivious to its presence. The heart of secularism is its assurance that the Kingdom of God is not here now, not yet, and perhaps only refers to something somewhere else or even nothing more than a utopian vision of the future. Of course, secularism and its infection of Christian thought is commonplace in modern culture. The world is not seen as sacramental, capable of bearing the Divine, but at best as a neutral playing field in which human beings choose sides in the religious contest of Christianity (or other religions or none of the above).

But the fullness of Christian truth and revelation is that the Kingdom of God has already broken forth among us, and the Christ who brought it forth promised that it would remain. Thus we eat and drink His Body and His Blood – not reminders of a historical event – but a foretaste of the fullness of the Kingdom. It is the Bread of Heaven – food, though not of the world yet in the world.

The whole of the sacramental life has this character of the Kingdom. And the sacramental life extends far beyond the Seven Sacraments that are traditionally described. The Kingdom has a quality that breaks into all of life unable to be restrained or hindered by man. We are not in charge of its arrival nor are we the masters of its growth. We may participate in its life and serve as its witnesses – even as citizens – but it is not our creation or something we offer to God. It comes from God and bears God, for He is the “giver of every good and perfect gift.”

A Note of Thanks and Some Statistics

November 15, 2008

kathryn-b_day037One of my personal joys at the recent All American Council in Pittsburgh was the opportunity to meet face-to-face a number of readers of this blog, including some who regularly post comments. Their warmth and encouragement for the writing that I do is about all it takes to keep me writing. That, and a whole lot of grace.

I continue to be deeply thankful for the readers, and the generally warm community that seems to gather or pass through the site. In the two years the site has been in existence there has been a great deal of traffic.

This evening, we crossed the mark of 1,000,000 views (if you pay attention to statistics). Other statistics of note (the dashboard of the blog tells me all these things):

There have been 822 posts (articles I have written), which, astonishing to me, is more than one a day.

There have been 11,108 comments – all of which I have read and to many of which I have responded. The “conversations” are a very important part of what takes place here.

One of my favorite statistics is 43,732 pieces of spam blocked by WordPress’s Akismet Spam Blocker. It learns as it goes, so the program seems to only get better. I think 80 per cent of the spam has either been related to gambling or insurance, go figure.

If it were possible to have a party on a blog-site, we would have one. As it is, you will all have to settle for my heartfelt thanks. I will drink a toast (if it’s compliant to the Advent Fast) in your honor! Glory to God!

Cynicism and the Goodness of God

November 14, 2008

aslanI admit to being a child of the 60’s (which means I was born in the early 50’s). I have lived through a period in American history marked by assasinations, abuse of power, incompetence and unrelenting and outrageous pieties from the lips of the impious. As such, like many in my generation, I am tempted by cynicism – an assurance that things are never as they seem but that things seem mainly because someone wants them to seem that way. Of course, cynics rarely have to repent because history frequently supports their suspicions.

The difficulty comes, however, when cynicism becomes rooted in our hearts. It’s cold distance from the world can also dampen the warmth of love – it’s constant position of suspicion robbing us of the joy of simple wonder.

On a theological level, cynicism is largely irreconcilable to a belief in the goodness of God. It is true that the world is filled with sin, and that other people and our institutions fail us. The Scriptures tell us to “put not your trust in princes nor in the sons of men.” However, the same Psalm that warns us about such false hopes, is an exceedingly hopeful Psalm:

Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! While I live I will praise the LORD; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Do not put your trust in princes, Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; In that very day his plans perish. Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in the LORD his God, Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that is in them; Who keeps truth forever, Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; The LORD raises those who are bowed down; The LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked He turns upside down. The LORD shall reign forever — Your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 146/145)

Like so many other aspects of our spiritual life, emptiness cannot replace fullness. To trust in God and to rejoice in His goodness is an act of fullness, an act that fills the heart with good things. However, to refuse to put our trust in things human is not a command to cynicism. It is, instead, a commandment to center our hearts and lives on the goodness of God rather than placing our hope in the works of man.

The difference is not simply a matter of emphasis, but goes to the very heart of the spiritual life. It is easy to view many practices of devotion in a negative manner – to see fasting simply as abstinence from food, chastity as abstinence from sex, and so on. Such an attitude towards the disciplines of the spiritual life yields the opposite of its intent. We abstain from certain foods when we fast (and eat less as well), in order to give ourselves more fully to God. Fasting without prayer is known in Orthodoxy as “the fast of demons,” for though the demons never eat, neither do they pray. Chastity is not simply a resistance against the temptations of our flesh, but, again, and effort to give ourselves to God.

The statement of St. John the Baptist when comparing his ministry with that of Christ’s, placed things in their proper order: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:22). Cynicism with regard to the things of the world is not the same thing as trust in the goodness of God. Indeed, cynicism need have no God at all.

In C.S. Lewis’ classic The Last Battle (part of the Narnia series), cynicism plays a large role in the lives of a small band of dwarves. Having been fooled by a false pretender to the throne of Aslan (the lion who allegorizes Christ), they refuse to be “fooled” again, and in so doing refuse to recognize the true Aslan when he comes. Sitting in the new Narnia, paradise itself, they think they are in a dirty barn. However, until the end they comfort themselves with the false claim that “they are not fooled.”

Cynicism may refuse to believe what is false, but it does not possess the virtue of seeing what is good. Such virtue only comes because we rejoice in the good and set our hearts on God. Though we put not our trust in princes nor in the sons of men, we nevertheless recognize the goodness of God,  Who keeps truth forever; Who executes justice for the oppressed; Who gives food to the hungry; Who sets the prisoners free; Who opens the eyes of the blind; Who raises those who are bowed down; Who loves the righteous; Who watches over the strangers and relieves the widow and the fatherless.

Such hope does not disappoint nor does it poison our heart with the cold wisdom of those who cannot be fooled. The wisdom of the world is never the same thing as the wisdom of God – one offers only an emptiness while the other is the very fullness of God’s own goodness.


What Is the Truth?

November 13, 2008


In the Gospel record of Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate, we are told that Christ said He had come to bear witness to the Truth. Pilate, in what he must have thought was a clever response, says, “And what is Truth?” We know from elsewhere in the Gospel that Christ explained, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” It is a statement that is easily tossed about – to settle an argument by saying that Christ is the Truth – but Pilate’s question still remains: “What is Truth?”

Christ’s statement that He Himself is the Truth is a description of the nature of Truth, as well as its content. In saying this, we must accept that Christ’s claim is that Truth is not at all the sort of thing we generally consider when we ask for “the truth.” It is not a syllogism, nor a philosophical formula, or even a precisely stated account of history. If Christ is the Truth, then Truth must be understood as Person and not as concept.

And in saying that Christ is the Truth, and that the Truth is thus understood as Person, is not to say that Truth is a category – or merely an event within history. For the Christ who reveals Himself as Truth, also reveals Himself as the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Rev. 1:8). He is both the “Lamb slain from the Foundation of the Earth” (Rev. 12:8) and “He Who is, and was, and is to come” (Rev. 1:8).

In speaking of the Truth with regard to others St. Paul offers this same eschatological understanding:

Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts (1 Cor. 4:5).

Both St. Ambrose (in the West) and St. Maximos (in the East) maintained that the Old Testament was shadow; the New Testament, icon; and the age to come, the Truth. This is to say that the meaning of all things is found in the End of all things. The Old Testament (in Christian terms) receives its meaning from what it points towards and which lies hidden within it as though it were a shadow. The New Testament makes the Truth known, but in the form of Icon, an Image in which we see more clearly. But we do not yet see as we shall see.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).

This understanding does not negate the knowledge we have of the world in which we live. But it sets parameters on that knowledge and reveals its temporary and relative character. When we describe the world with the knowledge of science, we describe as best we can what we see and understand. This is not the same thing as saying we know the Truth of things. There is, even in the created order, an opaqueness that does not yield to us the full mystery of the things we see and know. In the words of St. Paul:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known (1 Cor. 13:12).

There is no conflict between what we know and what we shall know. Conflict on arises when we claim to know what we do not know. We cannot assume certain fixed principles from which we may deduce the Truth of things – for such principles and deduction cannot pierce the veil that lies over all we see nor the cloud that darkens our heart. We do not therefore reject knowledge that has not reached its fullness – but we do not call the knowledge we have the fullness of the Truth. That fullness awaits 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 (Eph. 1:9-10).

On the level of our daily lives, this understanding asks us not to look to the past for our meaning: we are not defined by our history but by our end. To know what we are, it is necessary to know what we shall be. Christ is, for us, both the icon of the Truth and the Truth of which He is the icon. To answer the question of what we shall be, the truth will only be found in Christ – who is both the revelation of God – but also the revelation of what it is to be human. Fully God and fully man, He is our definition.

Indeed, He is the Truth of all things.