Archive for November 3rd, 2008

In the Normal Course of Things

November 3, 2008

There is an expectation that most of us share – at least in its general shape – and that is that the normal course of things will largely remain the normal course of things. Each day much like another and though changes occur they are often of an occasional or casual nature.

There are certain aspects to this expectation that are healthy. Constant change, if not a sign of insanity, will soon likely produce the same. Stability is generally good for human beings and our culture.

Having said that, it also raises the question about what we consider normal. In Christian terms what is normal for human beings is nothing less than the “measure of fullness of the stature of Christ”. Thus what we take as normal is something far less than is intended for us by God.

Perhaps the most devastating understanding of normality, is to assume our fallen normality as a given, while relegating all spiritual matters to a different place or level of understanding. In such a situation we speak easily of the “righteousness of God which is ours in Christ Jesus,” but mean by this something that exists elsewhere (perhaps in the mind of God) while we continue along in the same normality we have always taken for granted. For some, such an understanding is definitive of a life of faith. We believe that God has done saving things for us, but those saving things are removed from our daily lives to a greater extent. Thus the average Christian is known mostly by the outward signs of loyalities to “Christian” symbols and issues.

Arriving in Dallas Forth Worth Airport last week, my assistant priest and myself (in cassock) were suddenly confronted by a “businessman” (for so he was dressed) who looked at us and said, “Christians?” I must admit that when dressed as an Orthodox priest it seems a silly question. I replied, “Yes.” He immediately shouted a Bible reference to us (from Deuteronomy). We looked it up later and found only a nonsensical verse. For our confronter, Christians are people who quote Bible verses. I’m certain he enjoyed himself.

Normalcy has a tendency to avoid two extremes: it neither comprehends the depth of sin, nor does it extend itself towards the treasures of God. As sinners, we are not so bad and as saints, we’re not so good.

A brief excerpt from Archimandrite Zacharias on the “radical event of man’s renewal by divine Light”:

The radical event of man’s renewal by divine Light and his transition from the psychological to the ontological level of existence does not, however, signify a permanent state in the present life. While it affords true knowledge of God’s merciful condescension to man on the one hand, yet, on the other, it brings man’s despicable nothingness firmly home to him. The vision of God’s eternal holiness floods the soul with hitherto unknown gratitude and strength, but at the same time man is challenged by unbearable horror at his spiritual poverty, for he now knows how grave would be his failure to fulfill his pre-eternal destiny, which is to be united with the God of love for all eternity.

For most of us, “the radical event of man’s renewal by divine Light,” is not an apt description of the events in the normal course of things. We give ourselves to God, at most, on the “psychological” level, rather than on the “ontological” level (that, is the level of the very depth of our being). There are rare moments in which conversions consist of such events – but generally life runs its “normal” course.

This is also where we must refuse the normal course. The way of the Christian life is described in this manner by Christ:

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12).

Traditionally this verse has been seen to point towards the extremes of asceticism. However, for those of us who do not live the monastic life, there are many “violent” opportunities in the normal course of the day. The violence of which Christ speaks, does not have to be measured in extreme fasting and all night prayer vigils.

The violence of setting our will aside for the will of another is one of the most common opportunities. It can be as simple as allowing someone else to make a decision or choice without our argument. We can “violently” give alms, stretching ourselves to do for others what we so easily do for ourselves.

We can endure the violence of rushing to ask forgiveness.

Such “violent” acts, and many similar ones, may not appear to readily change the normal course of things – but indeed they do. Coupled with the sacraments of the Church they are the stuff that “take heaven by force.”

I can recall a man once saying to me, “You cannot buy your way into the Kingdom of God.” I replied, “Yes, I think you can, but I’m not sure you want to spend that much.” It would take more than money, of course, but many a saint began his or her journey into heaven through the violence of giving away all they had. It certainly has a way of disrupting the “normal course of things.”

Whether or not we can buy the kingdom of heaven may be a matter for debate, but I am sure that it cannot be rented.