In the Normal Course of Things

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.

22 Responses to “In the Normal Course of Things”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Photo: “Fr. Anatoly” in the film “The Island” (Ostrov).

  2. Barbara Says:

    “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.”

    Yesterday our Priest spoke about the Lazarus parable and our tendency to distance ourselves from both Lazarus and the Rich man because we are not as poor as Lazarus nor as rich as the Rich Man. He challenged us to think of ourselves as both AS poor and AS rich – as poor in our personal suffering or woundedness and as rich in whatever is excessive in our lives. Both must be given to God.

    I saw “The Island” as a catechumen. I remember finding it very hard to understand – wondering if Fr. Anatoly’s life was a waste and why his repentance had to be so hard and joyless (at least my perception of joy at that time). Now that I have been Orthodox for almost a year, I thank God for his “violent” example in what it means to exchange the temporal for the eternal. May God help me to be violent with myself.

  3. luciasclay Says:

    The normal course has sure changed over time. I’m struggling right now, at the experiential level, between the way the church has always been and the way I always thought it was. The non denom protestant who has realized that in fact the church always was liturgical, sacremental and the center of service was always the eucharist -vs- what I grew up with.

    I’m not sure that accepting what is laid out before me would be “violence” but it sure would be earth shattering.

    For now I continue looking for something to prove to myself that I am mistaken. That the way of the the protestant is right. But I know its not there.

    I start next sunday in the catechumen class. As an inquirer only not as a catechumen. That is where the Father suggested I start.

  4. L.T. Says:

    Reminds me of Abp Oscar Romero of El Salvador’s “Violence of Love.”

  5. Barbara Says:

    Dear Luciasclay,

    It will be earth shattering, but you will find yourself in heaven!

    Barbara

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    lucisclay,

    “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.” To find yourself united with God in heaven, is also to find yourself united with Him everywhere else (which includes His suffering for others). If you encounter the suffering, don’t let it turn you aside from the goal of union with Christ. He is faithful.

  7. Pastor Chad Says:

    This is one of the reasons I find Reformed theology to be somewhat incomplete. We understand very well the depth of our sin. We profess to be utterly depraved, but we forget the value that we are as God’s children.

    So we expect the ‘normal’ / sinful lives that we live, and do not expect to change. We do not ‘extend ourselves to the treasures of God’, content to live mired in the mud.

  8. Raphael Says:

    Pastor,

    Theology can only go so far. It cannot, on it’s own, take us past the threshold into the inaccessible places where God is. Theology can give us a good framework for living, but it was never meant to replace the Bread of Life and the Life of God Himself. This is where so many of us get stuck, as you rightly put it, in the mud.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    In Orthodoxy, we do not generally mean by “theology” the exercises of academics. Rather, theology, is itself the true, experiential knowledge of God. It is a common saying in Orthodoxy, “A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.”

    I do not think I’ve ever met anyone who actually believed they were “totally depraved,” except in an intellectual, or purely rational manner. When Archimandrite Zacharias, working from living Tradition, (as he knows it from the Elder Sophrony, and Sophrony’s Elder, St. Silouan) speaks of an experience of “unbearable horror at our spiritual poverty,” he is referring to an experience that itself is as profound as the experience of the Divine Light of God – because it is a gift of that same Divine Light.

    The tragedy of Western “theology” is its substitution of rational formulation for existential reality. If we knew our depravity we would flee to God, but we frequently know neither depravity nor God.

    There is a constant urging from the Eastern fathers to press forward into the reality of God and to flee the delusions of rational substitutions.

    I don’t mean to sound critical – but to clarify language – and to urge us all forward.

  10. Raphael Says:

    To clarify, I was referring specifically to reformation theology and to counter reformation theology.

    We must move forward because the dynamic is counter productive and a dangerous stumbling block.

    I apologise to all for not being clearer in my response.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Raphael,

    I understand, and appreciate the clarification. By Orthodox reckoning, I’m not sure there would be a Protestant theology. Not that Protestantism is devoid of the experience of God. That by no means has been my experience of Protestants. I count my father-in-law, a Baptist, as among the more holy men I’ve ever known. But he was not a student of “theology” – he read the Bible a lot, and prayed even more. He kept the commandments as he understood them, and was obedient to God.

    Actually, I’ve known a number of truly holy Protestants and hold their acquaintance and memory in great esteem. But invariably – they were people of much prayer.

    God genuinely wants to make Himself known, and does not limit Himself to just the Orthodox. He’s kinder than that – more willing to give than we to receive. Though this does not diminish what I believe to be true of the Orthodox Church. I just think God is kind and good beyond anything we can imagine or conceive.

    In this past Sunday’s Gospel (Russian lectionary) He permitted even demons a mercy by allowing them to enter a herd of swine, though it doesn’t seem to have done them any good.

    May God keep us all and (in the words of C.S.Lewis) draw us “higher up and further in.”

  12. Raphael Says:

    Bless you Father,

    Everything you say resonates in ways that are outside space and time.

    Thus far, I have never been physically present during the Orthodox Liturgy, but have participated spiritually (encompassing some aspects of the physical).

    The truly holy, irrespective of denomination or even religion takes such things in his or her stride. Such a person will ultimately recognise Christ’s Divinity, and He will raise them on the Last Day.

    Bless you Father.

  13. Dean Arnold Says:

    On a lighthearted note, it would be fun to write a book with 100 very short chapters on incidents priests have encountered from wearing a cassock.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    It is interesting to me that in the Holy Land the cassock was treated with honor anywhere I went.

  15. Ioannis Freeman Says:

    The still-frame clip from the movie “Ostrov,” which introduces another provocative entry by Father +Stephen, offers an image of the central protagonist in the film. The clip shows a monk (Fr. Anatoly), whose job it is to do such ordinary things as keep the coal-fire burning and healing the sick. Yes, for stoking the flames with coal and such “violent” acts as healing–and for all things– we give thanks. Extraordinary things happen within the ordinary of everyday gratitude for God. It should come as no surprise, then, that I am not thanking God for all good gifts around me. Perhaps even looking for a miracle would be wrong-headed for any Christian, because Christ is among us not only in right praying in Communion, but also in right doing what we pray.

  16. Raphael Says:

    Such a person has already recognised Christ’s Divinity in the Orthodox Church.

  17. Mary Says:

    Pastor Chad said:

    “So we expect the ‘normal’ / sinful lives that we live, and do not expect to change. We do not ‘extend ourselves to the treasures of God’, content to live mired in the mud.”

    Yes! I can completely relate to that. Not too long ago, our priest gave a sermon about truly experiencing God rather than being content to know “about” Him, and as I was listening to that it struck me that that is exactly the difference in the Baptist faith I had grown up with, and Orthodoxy! As my priest is also fond of saying, “not to be a Saint is a sin”.

  18. Karen C Says:

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you for bringing home the practical ways in which in our everyday lives we can effectively “do violence” to the sinful chains that bind us to this world and keep us from union with Christ. Once again, a very helpful post for me, too.

    I have especially appreciated the Orthodox understanding of “theology,” as experiential knowledge of God through prayer, and the understanding of true knowledge and wisdom as that which comes only by love, i.e., by internalizing the radical compassion and mercy of God. With regard to the doctrine of total depravity of which Pastor Chad spoke, one of my frustrations as an evangelical was that although this means that every aspect of our being-our bodies, will, emotions and rational intellect, etc.–were affected by the fall, so many times in the western Christian mindset, we act and speak as if the rational intellect is the one aspect of our humanity that remains unfallen (following humanistic Renaissance thinking), that defines our true personhood, and that therefore is the means by which we will attain the doctrinal understandings that will save us! (I’m not suggesting doctrinal understandings can save us, either. Obviously, it is only real union with and experience of Christ that saves anyone!) God help us! I’m sure most theologically astute evangelicals would reject this belief in rationality outright when they see it so baldly stated, but honestly it seems so many times to be the hidden and unconscious presupposition behind much preaching, teaching, and apologetic witness that goes under the evangelical banner! Forgive me for getting up on a bit of a soap box here! I trust if you do not see it as potentially helpful to someone, Father, you will simply delete it! Thanks!

  19. Robert Says:

    As a former Protestant I would like to echo the sentiments conveyed by Pastor Chad, Mary and Karen. I experienced this in the form of a palpable fatalism – resigning myself to this state of “normalcy”. Frustrating indeed.

  20. Mary Says:

    Would it be ok to reflect on how the Fathers speak about death itself as a mercy? For instance St. Gregory the Theologian who wrote that death is a gain, in “the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal.”

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    Mary,

    Not only the Fathers, but the Scripture as well.

    Gen. 6:3 And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man,
    for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty
    years.

    The Fathers saw this as a mercy of God – that there was a limit set on the evil we could do.

  22. Robert Says:

    Ostrov is a worthwhile movie. Both in its treatment of the subject and its method of delivery. The musical score is hauntingly beautiful. Both the movie and the island are about as far away from Hollywood as one can get. A good thing.

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