I am posting here a link to a wonderful article by Met. Jonah Paffhausen that speaks eloquently to the spiritual disciplines regarding anger and similar issues. It is entitled: Do not react.
I am posting here a link to a wonderful article by Met. Jonah Paffhausen that speaks eloquently to the spiritual disciplines regarding anger and similar issues. It is entitled: Do not react.
My title is slightly misleading. There are not “forty days of Christmas” in the Orthodox Church – but there is a major feast that marks the fortieth after Christmas: the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, sometimes called the Feast of the Meeting (February 2). It occurs forty days after Christmas in accordance to the requirements of the Jewish Law. Tradition holds that Joseph and Mary brought the child to Jerusalem before departing for Egypt.
There are two significant “meetings” that occur in that feast: the encounter with the Elder Simeon who has long awaited the Messiah and had been promised of the Lord that He would see Him before his death. He takes the child in his arms, gives thanks, and offers words of prophecy. The other is with the Prophetess Anna, who offers words to those around her concerning the Messiah.
Orthodox hymnography has a way of taking the people of God into an event and inside the Scripture in a way we would never have imagined on our own. Thus, my favorite image of the feast, sung in the fifth ode of the Canon in the Vigil:
The Elder bent down and reverently touched the footprints of the unwedded Mother of God
And he said: ‘O pure Lady, you are carrying fire!”
I am afraid to take God in my arms as a babe:
Lord of the light that knows no evening, and King of peace!”
‘Isaiah was cleansed by receiving the coal from the Seraphim!’
Cried the old man to the mother of God.
‘You fill me with light, entrusting to me with your hands
As with tongs, the One you hold:
Lord of the light that knows no evening, and King of peace!’
What marvelous imagery! To see the coal of fire touched to the lips of Isaiah and see in it a type of Christ Who is a burning fire! To see the hands that held him as like the tongs by which the Seraphim held the coal to Isaiah! It is a reminder that we are no longer dealing with heavenly visions of a prophet, but with the Reality itself. Indeed, it is a burning fire that was born of the Virgin, and the Elder takes Him into his hands – such boldness to reach out to the incarnate Son of God!
This same imagery is evoked in the pre-communion prayers when we remind ourselves that we receive into our mouths the burning coal of Christ, for purification, healing, and life everlasting! Would that we always approached our Lord and our God in such a manner!
Christmas goes on, bestowing its blessings on all the world around it, until it reaches the cross and the tomb. The the Divine Fire will light Hell itself. Those who sit in darkness will indeed see a great light – the Star of Bethlehem – the uncreated Light of God!
The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God (James 1:20)
I have occasionally read discussions or heard conversations in which the subject of a “righteous anger” is brought up. I understand the concept. I will say without fear of contradiction that I have never seen a single case of human “righteous indignation.” Just as I have never met a man who was pure in heart, neither have I man a man who is pure in anger.
I’ve seen anger and plenty of it. Priests are not strangers to anger, either within themselves or within others around them. But as St. James notes, it does not work the righteousness of God. In plain and simple terms, I’ve never seen it do anyone any good.
By the same token, if you have never had the experience of a righteous anger – then how would you know one when you saw one? The simple fact is that you wouldn’t. This is what makes discussions of the “anger” or “wrath” of God so academic. We have the words of the Fathers who direct our hearts properly to the love of God. St. Isaac of Syria once said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” And yet there are those who are bold enough to theorize a Divine Justice to which God is bound by necessity. Those who speak of such things do not know what they are talking about. These are theories and hypotheses, not Divine Teachings. This is the blind rationalism of those who have removed the Scriptures from the Church and the living witness of the saints who dwell in light.
From an Orthodox perspective, some things are quite simple. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos said, “If you do not love your enemies then you do not know God.”
It is also possible to conclude that if you do not know God then you do not know about such things as His anger, His wrath, His goodness, His power, etc. But there are many who “know” the Scriptures. But they do not know the path of salvation that has been walked by the saints through the ages.
From outside the world of Orthodox Christianity such statements can be judged as heresy (because they do not fit certain formulas of the heterodox). However, it is not formulas that save but the Divine Grace of God dwelling in us changing us from glory to glory into the image of His dear Son. The evidence of that glory will be manifest in the heart and will be manifest as love. “He who loves not, knows not God.”
Sometimes I just have to say these things. No arguments. Forgive me if I offend.
Comments are now open. Tread lightly.
In the hour of prayer, when our mind wanders to thoughts of bad things, or if these thoughts come without our wanting them, we shouldn’t wage an offensive war against the enemy; because, even if all the lawyers in the world joined together, they wouldn’t make any headway with a little demon. Only through ignoring these thoughts can one chase them away. The same is true for blasphemous thoughts.
The Elder Paisios
I have also heard it said that filling our hearts with prayers to God, rather than chasing evil thoughts, can be effective.
I am both opposed to theological systems that have at their heart an angry, wrathful God whose justice much be satisfied – but I am also understanding of those who, having been raised or nurtured in pious settings, take theHoly Scriptures pretty much at face value and are thus discomfited by people like myself who seek to give an account of God that does not include God angrily and wrathfully punishing the deserving (even though He does this in a “loving manner”).
Some of the contradiction between the God of love and the God of wrath first struck me at age 13 – and occasioned my first rejection of Christianity. I know from personal experience that these wrathful/loving accounts of God have their theological casualities.
I am also aware of attempts to treat the wrathful image under the rubrics of a “Semitic” approach to God. Some of which come from Orthodox sources. However, I find that Semitic witnesses such as St. Isaac of Syria were not nearly so dominated by a so-called “Semitic” understanding.
There are several quotes I wish to offer from the Fathers:
From St. Anthony in the Philokalia (ch. 150, first volume):
God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.
Many will say: “Does not Holy Scripture itself often speak about the anger of God? Is it not God Himself who says that He will punish us or that He will pardon us? Is it not written that ‘He is a rewarded of them that diligently seek Him’ (Heb. 11:6)? Does He not say that vengeance is His and that He will requite the wickedness done to us? Is it not written that it is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God?”
In his discourse entitled That God is not the Cause of Evil, Saint Basil the Great writes the following:
“But one may say, if God is not responsible for evil things, why is it said in the book of Esaias, ‘I am He that prepared light and Who formed darkness, Who makes peace and Who creates evils’ (45:7).” And again, “There came down evils from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem” (Mich. 1:12). And, “Shall there be evil in the city which the Lord hath not wrought?” (Amos 3:6). And in the great Ode of Moses, “Behold, I am and there is no god beside Me. I will slay, and I will make to live; I will smite, and I will heal” (Deut. 32:39). But none of these citations, to him who understands the deeper meaning of the Holy Scriptures, casts any blame on God, as if He were the cause of evils and their creator, for He Who said, “I am the One Who makes light and darkness,” shows Himself as the Creator of the universe, not that He is the creator of any evil…. “He creates evils,” that means, “He fashions them again and brings them to a betterment, so that they leave their evilness, to take on the nature of good.”
As Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense… those who have a mind understand this” (Homily 83, p. 317).
I understand the care many have to give proper weight to the words of Scripture, and in their experience have only found enemies of the Scriptures who ever suggest alternatives to a more-or-less literal reading. But the sources I quote are great among the Fathers of the Church.
My concern as a brother Christian turns towards my heart and the hearts of others. I understand the intellectual satisfaction found in justice – but I do not find its place within the goodness of the heart. I cannot rejoice in the anger of God nor of anyone else. I weep – or more accurately – when I find that I rejoice in the anger of anyone it should be a cause for weeping. For I am a sinful man and I rejoice at things that should cause my heart to weep – so great is the darkness within it.
The Orthodox understanding of the wrath of God is not an endorsement of universalism. God alone knows who is saved. But it is a call for universal love. For there is nowhere (certainly within the New Testament) that we are commanded to hate. We are to love our enemies. And if that is to be anything more than lip-service then it must first be modeled in the Good God and grafted within us by His grace.
Strangely, I find our century (and the ones preceding it) not overburdened with love, but rather riddled with those who believe their hatreds to be justified. God save me from the man who believes Himself just. I do not stand a chance before him. Rather, number me with the harlots and the publicans – number me with the worst of sinners. Within that refuse of humanity I may find mercy and a heart kind enough to pray for a man as wicked as myself.
Again, some thoughts from Kalomiros’ Nostalgia for Paradise. This particular selection is on the reality of the Kingdom of God within us – and the particular importance of Hesychasm, the practice of inner stillness and the knowledge of God dwelling within us. I have written myself about the utter centrality of communion with God. His work underlines and expands this in a marvelous way.
God is the place, the means, and the power of any communion. He is the communion itself, the love itself, because God is a Trinity, a loving communion of Persons. Only the communion with God is capable of providing the communion of creaturely persons. Any attempt at direct communion among humans is doomed to failure because it is powerless. There is no true power of communion but the divine energy. Only a communion with the divine energy enables true communion among ourselves. Any communion that overlooks or ignores God comes to self-delusion. Indeed, if a communion of persons exists in the Church, it exists to the extent that those persons have communion with God.
When there is no personal communion with Him, a simple gathering of persons in the house of God, even around the Table of Sacrifice and in the communion of His Body and Blood, can be blasphemy against God and unworthiness before the Church’s most sacred mystery. For communion with God is in persons, by the Holy Spirit.
Whether a Christian is in a church, in the street, at home, in a crowd of people, or alone, the matter of communion with God is a matter of turning inward. It is in our hearts that we will encounter God. And when we do, He will take us by the hand and put us in communion with others. And in our communion with others, the bond that joins us will always be God Himself.
So there is no other path to the Kingdom of God but the one which leads to our heart, the one which leads “within you.” It is the path of hesychasm or stillness. Hesychasm is the deepest characteristic of Orthodox life, the sign of Orthodox genuineness, the premise of right thinking and right belief and glory, the paradigm of faith and Orthodoxy. In all of the Church’s internal and external battes ever, we had the hesychasts on one side and the anti-hesychasts on the other.
The very fabric of heresy is anti-hesychastic.
Dr. Alexander Kalomiros, author of the River of Fire and other well known Orthodox writings, offers these simple thoughts on the Orthodox Life. They are taken from the small book, Nostalgia for Paradise.
When the ascetical life of a Christian and the privations that he imposes upon himself are beyond the measure of grace that he has been given, a void is created in his soul. Either it will lead him to sin, or it will make him perverse, proud, hard, and unmerciful to his brothers. The wise man puts greater effort into positive virtues and less into negative virtues. Examples of positive virtues are prayer, worship, meditation, study, participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, love for God. In general, their action brings us into contact with God. On the other hand, negative virtues are activities such as fasting, self-denial and self-deprivation, abstinence, asceticism in general, and the “thou-shalt-not” kinds of commandments and rules that are essentially directed to ourselves. It is not derogatory to call these negative for, together with the positive virtues, they form the balance that makes up the spiritual life. If the soul is filled with the presence of God, no place remains for sin. The light casts out darkness by its own power without our effort as long as we keep the shutters of our heart open to it.
Do not seek to understand God for it is impossible. Simply open the door of your soul so His presence may fill you and illumine your mind and heart, warm your body, and enter your reins. Theology is not a cerebral knowledge but a living knowlege that is directly relevant to man and sustains and possesses the whole man. A cold, cerebral man cannot know and discourse on divine things, even if his head contains an entire patristic library. He who is not moved by a sunset, a tree, or a bird cannot be stirred even by the Creator of these things. In order to grasp God and be able to talk about Him to others you must be a poetic soul. It means that you must have a heart that is noble, sensitive, and pure. You must be as an ear that is turned to the whisperings of the Infinite, and as an eye that sees through the bottomless depths while all other eyes see only pitch blackness. It is impossible for timorous souls and stingy hearts to discourse on divine things.
The heart that grasps the mysteries is one that is naive enough to think all souls worthy of Paradise, even souls who may have drenched their heart’s life with bitterness. It is a heart that feels and sings like a bird, without caring if there is no one there to hear it. It rejoices over everything that is beautiful, everything that is true, because truth and beauty are two aspects of the same thing and can never be separated. It has compassion for every living thing that is animate or has roots, and even for every seemingly lifeless stone.
It is a modest soul that is out of its waters in the limelight of men but blooms in solitude and quiet. It is a heart free to its very roots, impervious to every kind of pressure, far from every kind of stench, untouched by any kind of chains. It distinguishes truth from false hood with a certain mystic sense. Its every breath offers gratitude for all of God’s works that surround it and for every joy and every affliction, for every possession, and for every privation as well. Crouching humbly on the Cornerstone which is Christ, it drinks unceasingly of the eternal water of Paradise and utters the Name of Him who was and is ever merciful. Such a soul is like a shady tree by the running waters of the Church, with deep roots and a high crown where kindred souls find comfort and refuge in its dense branches.
Such is the true theologian. If anyone wishes to be so named, let him be measured by this measure. Even he who simply wishes to be a disciple of such theologians must walk in their exact footsteps if he desires their words to be echoed in himself, and his eyes to see light.
Someone commented on the last post that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This, of course, the the formal teaching of the seventh ecumenical council. I offer a reprint of an earlier article I wrote entitled “How to Read the Church,” which understands the Church as the interpretation of Scripture. It’s another way of saying some of the same things I’ve been suggesting about Scripture and the Old Testament. I hope readers will find it of interest.
If, as I have wrtten, the Orthodox Church itself is the proper interpretation of Scripture – then one might ask, “How am I supposed to read the Scriptures if their interpretation is the Church?” It is a good, even an obvious question, but one which points us to the very thing at hand: the nature of interpretation.
In general usage, to speak of interpreting something is to speak of explaining and commenting and seeking questions of meaning. Of course, this presupposes that the answer to the question is something that can be spoken, explained, commented, etc. Thus, interpretation is seen as essentially a literary question.
I have taken my lead from two verses of Scripture – both of which illustrate how I am re-presenting interpretation. The first is St. Paul’s statement to the Christians in Corinth:
Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Cor. 3:2-3).
And St. John’s description of Christ as the exegesis of the Father [John 1:18]:
No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared (exegato) him.
(Exegesis is the technical term that theologians use when they speak of explaining a passage of Scripture.)
Thus the question can be pushed back and asked, “How are the Corinthians an epistle?” and “What does it mean that Christ exegetes the Father?”
In both cases the answer is not a literary event, but a matter of a life lived. Christ so exegetes the Father that He can say, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” (John 14:9). God did not make Himself known by giving us words about Himself. Those who think the Scriptures are the revelation of God are sadly mistaken. Christians are not Muslims. Christ Himself is the Word of the Father and it is through Christ that we know God, not through the Bible. The Scriptures have their place of great importance and are an essential part of the life of the Church, but that place is precisely that of which I am writing.
The revelation of God to the people of Corinth is not to be found in St. Paul’s two epistles written to the young Church in that city, but in the Church itself. They are God’s revelation to Corinth, “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the Living God; not in tables of stone but in the fleshy tables of the heart.”
If the people of Corinth do not see and come to know Christ in and through the Church, His Body, which has been established in that place, then Corinth will not know God.
Some of this goes to the very heart of the Church’s existence. It has become a commonplace in modern Christianity to reduce the Church to a fellowship of convenience, existing only to encourage and strengthen individual Christians (this is particularly true in Evangelical Christianity but has spread as a larger cultural understanding as well). Whereas the Scriptures speak quite differently of the Church.
Is the Pillar and Ground of Truth (1 Timothy 3:15);
Is the Fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:23).
Is the very Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 and other places).
Is the Bride of Christ (Rev. 21:2 and elsewhere).
Such descriptions in no way fit an organization whose purpose is to encourage and strengthen individual Christians. The modern understanding of the Church is blasphemous in its denial of God’s own description of His Bride, His Fullness, His Body, the Pillar and Ground of Truth.
The Church is an epistle just as Christ exegetes the Father. Christ said, “For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). In the same manner, Christ is the life of the Church. The Church does not exist merely to speak words about Christ but to manifest the very life of Christ among mankind. The Church has no other life.
“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Col. 2:2-4).
Thus we do not “read” the Church as though we were reading a book. We “read” the Church as its life impacts and informs our own life. If we are part of the Church, then our life itself is to be increasingly the life of Christ, an epistle written on the fleshy tables of the heart. But this is not for us to do as individuals, for we cannot do this outside the Church and without the life that is lived by the whole Church. We do not Baptize ourselves.
The great challenge to the Orthodox Church in the modern world is to remain the Church, to be God’s faithful epistle to the world and not simply an exotic brand of modernized Christianity. For we are an epistle, written by the Spirit of the Living God, not an organization whose programs entertain the interested.
Let the dead bury the dead. The Church has to be about living a Life.
Please forgive me if the force of my writing in this post is in any way scandalous. I do not mean to cause someone to stumble, but rather to point the way to the truth of God’s Church and the place of Scripture within it.