Archive for February, 2009

Turning Points

February 12, 2009


On February 15, 1998, on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, my family and I were received into the Orthodox Church by Chrismation, bringing both the end to a very long pilgrimage, and the beginning to one far longer. It is significant to myself and my family, that this year the calendar has come back around to where it was 11 years ago. Thus this Sunday, February 15, will be exactly eleven years since we were received and the Sunday and the readings are the same. Sometimes it takes a while for such things to come back around, the calendar being such as it is.

But it is a very significant time in my family’s life – a time to realize that eleven years can mean nearly a lifetime, depending upon how it is lived. To my family’s credit, they have lived these eleven years almost as though they were all we were to be given.

My wife has grown in a wise Matushka – having always been a wise woman. Her prayers and support are a pillar of our parish and my life.

My eldest daughter, who had yet to begin college when we converted, now holds a Master’s Degree, her schooling having included a year in Siberia where she gained some fluency in the Russian language. She is today married to Fr. Hermogen Holste, Rector of Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Menlo Park California (a Russian language parish of the OCA). They have a child, Peter Alexis Holste, the joy of his grandparents lives.

My second daughter, who was but 15 when we converted, found the grace of God present with her from the outset of her Chrismation. A faithful child of the Church, she became very active in OCF (college ministry), served on its national board, made mission trips to both Guatemala and Mexico while in college. She is married to Fr. Philip Rogers of the Antiochian Archdiocese, Rector of St. Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. His father is an Orthodox priest, his brother a Deacon. She continues to work on her nursing degree and in every respect is a help and support to her husband’s ministry and always the joy of my heart.

My son, who is now 21, was only 10 when we converted. On Sundays during those first few years, he accompanied alone to be at Church an hour or more before everyone arrived as we set things up, lit candles and prepared for services. He was my first altar server. Those were invaluable hours for me as I leaned on his love and utter faithfulness to support me during a lonely transition in my life. Today he is finishing college, is married to a wonderful Orthodox woman, Anna, and is a tonsured Reader in the Church. His major is in computers and internet technology, and he is as loving and supportive, and even admiring as he was as a 10 year old boy. I cannot begin to say how proud I am of the man he has become.

My youngest daughter, now 18, was but a child when we were received. When she read the oath, “This true faith of the Orthodox Church, I do now humbly confess…” at her Chrismation – in clear and unwavering tones – the entire church wept as we heard the innocent one finds in the child-martyrs. “Til my dying breath…” one of the phrases that ends the oath brought us all to tears of thankfulness to God. She graduates high school this year having been as active in the Church and Camps as one could ask of a young woman her age. Last year she was the Audio-Visual Person for the Orthodox Summer Camp she attended, keeping a video-log of the camp and producing a wonderful DVD at its conclusion. I can hardly believe that this autumn will see her begin her college years and begin the “empty nest” phase of my home life.

I can remember, before our conversion, praying, “O God, give me my wife and my children before your heavenly throne – united in one faith and one confession.” Any parent who has converted knows the agony of that prayer – particularly if the prayer concerns those who are already in their teens. God heard my prayer and accomplished in my family abundantly above anything I could ask or think. I credit His mercy, the intercession of the Theotokos and the unfailing prayers of my wife.

At the time I thought it quite appropriate that we should enter the Church on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. It still seems fitting. I had wandered “far in a land that is waste.” And though for years I knew (on some level) the abundance that lay waiting in the Orthodox Church – like the Prodigal, I postponed returning to my Father’s House until I could no longer bear the famine that surrounded me. Much of my conversion was wrought in my heart by the thought of what I was doing to my family by raising them anywhere other than the Father’s House. His mercy since our reception in the Church has confirmed that instinct and has not punished me for my hesitance and procrastination.

The small accomplishments that have marked my ministry as an Orthodox priest have come to me as deeply underserved kindnesses. I now have a family (as I think of many of my readers) that stretches across the globe. I could never have imagined such a ministry. If all who were touched by my ministry were aware of how greatly enfeebled that I am by my sin and my many weaknesses – they would either despise me or pray ever harder for such as myself.

I cannot understand the Goodness of God – but I have seen it in my own lifetime. Were I to perish from the earth tomorrow I could offer no word of complaint. Were I to live another 55 years – I could ask for no more than I have already received.

Today, I pray mostly for the family of parishioners that accompany me from week to week in our pilgrimage to the Kingdom of God. I pray for the Deanery which must suffer through my leadership and ask for blessings beyond our present state. The brother priests I serve with there are my daily hope.

I pray always for my beloved Archbishop DMITRI, my father in God, who indeed welcomed me home eleven years ago and became for me the Spiritual Father I had never known.

Do not take time for granted. The good God who loves mankind can accomplish so much in so little time. We must always be filled with prayer and thanksgiving.

Our Common Life

February 10, 2009

dostoevsky1872I have long been intrigued with the notion of our common responsibility, or rather, that I am responsible for the sins of the whole world. I think I first came across the notion in a quote from the Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. And even there, Dostoevsky was only putting on the lips of his fictional Elder the sentiments of the saints and the common teaching of the Church.

At one time I mostly thought about all of this as having something to do with the fact that there is only one human essence, that our common humanity is a sharing in one being (ousia). Though this is a way to think about it, I have come to believe that it is not the specific teaching of the Church. In a way, the Western notion of Original Sin is far more akin to this. There is only one essence, and Adam took us down with him – a kind of Federalism as it is known.

Instead, I tend to understand this now as something potentially centered in us as persons. There is a freedom involved in accepting the common reponsibility of humanity for all of its sins. I can say, “Yes,” to this, or I can refuse it. As Fr. Sophrony writes, our very refusal, however, is a repetition of Adam’s sin, who refused to acknowledge any culpability in his own act. The problem was with God, who gave him “that woman.”

It also centers the problem squarely within the realm of love (which can only exist where there is freedom). I am not utterly free, there are many givens within my life and situation. And yet there are many things that I can choose to embrace or refuse to acknowledge. This embracing or refusing is the action of our heart towards others and ultimately towards God (”inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brethren”).

Thus I cannot argue on some objective ground that you are responsible for the sins of all. You may want to refuse that kind of unity with the whole of humanity. But it you do so, you will not be able to pray for them. You cannot pray for the other as though you had no connection to them. Praying as though you had no connection is mere noblesse oblige, our pride that somehow we are different (and superior) to those for whom we pray.

Prayer, in its final analysis, can only be accomplished as we stand in union with Christ, and Christ will not seperate Himself from others. He has “become sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus if we are to pray in union with Christ, we will also have to pray as though “having become sin.” Thus we can honestly pray and say that we are the chief of sinners.

But this must not be something we embrace as theoretical. We cannot theoretically pray. God is not a theoretical God, but He Who Is. If we embrace others and accept responsibility for their sins, then we do so only as an act of love that unites us to them and to God who has so humbled Himself. If we refuse them then we can at best find ourselves lost in our own righteousness, which, before God, “is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:5). But by embracing all, and becoming responsibility for all, we unite ourselves with Christ “who is through all and in you all.”

Safely in Florida

February 9, 2009

crucifixionIt seems ironic to report that I am safely in Florida, following so closely on a post concerning Science Fiction and the Orthodox Church. Florida, of course, has been the launching site for most American space research. I also find it interesting that my article on Science Fiction and the Church, which touched tangentially on the issue of cremation, stirred more response over that question than the actually questions engendered by Orthodoxy and Science Fiction.

It says to me that most of the questions that impose themselves on our faith – at a particular level – are far more practical than the speculations brought about by thinking about culture and Science Fiction. We still want to know how to bury our dead and why we should bury them in one way and not another.

As a priest it reminds me that the questions which surround my ministry are not nearly so much concerned with the theoretical as with the practical. And this is as it should be. God is not a theoretical God but the God who meets us in the most personal and uncomfortable places. Were it not so, our abstractions would rule and shortly we would become and imaginary religion and the Church of Jesus Christ.

The great battles of our lives will be fought on just such small battlegrounds. The more abstracted matters we can discuss over coffee and everyone can feel free to offer an opinion. No opinion matters because nothing is at stake.

But the great battles, as noted, will be on very small grounds. How do we bury? How do we pray? How do we fast? How do we marry? How do we sing? and so forth.

These are not small questions – but questions which test our faith, our humility, our love, our obedience – in short, all of the things that are truly saving in the life of an Orthodox Christian. And thus our faith is perceived as hard or difficult by others. It is only hard and difficult because it asks us to be real. And this is the greatest test of all. God have mercy.


February 7, 2009

I will be in Jacksonville, FL for most of next week, attending a clergy conference and retreat (with Met. Jonah). I can never tell on these things how much time there will be for blogging. Sometimes plenty – sometimes hardly any at all. I ask your prayers and your patience. I’ll be back at things as I can towards the end of the week.

Orthodoxy and Science Fiction

February 6, 2009

north-pole-moon21If you are 55 or younger (as a guestimate), then you have grown up in an age in which science fiction has been a major genre of the culture (whether as writing or movies, television, etc.). I began reading some science fiction as a teenager and quite a bit when I was a college student. I have shared a home for a number of years with a now adult son who was and is a great fan of science fiction.

Strangely, I have long thought of science fiction as a form of modern theology – or at least of modern theological thought. It is a sad tragedy that a science fiction writer, in at least one case, was so bold as to create his own religion – but it seems a not so strange result from a genre that is so inherently theological.

Why do I consider science fiction theological? For the simple reason (for the really well-written material) that it has to imagine a world or a universe and what is true and not true for that universal system. There may or may not be any overt religious material in a particular science fiction work, and yet the world it imagines inherently contains rules and norms and a “way things work” such that some theological account is created.

Some years ago, as a protestant pastor, I had an underground missionary from Nepal come and speak at my parish. He was an old college friend and one of the bravest Christians I have ever known. As he was completing his talk to my adult class, a youngish female (who seemed distressed by his talk) asked him about the morality of interfering with another culture.

I could not help interrupting at the time and pointing out to her that the moral rule she was invoking was the “Prime Directive” from Star Trek, and not a part of Christian theology. My guest was far wiser than I and said instead, “There is nothing that can be done to protect them from the outside, modern world. It is already there. But if you have questions, come with me to Katmandu!”

“Come with me to Katmandu,” will always ring in my ear as among the most inviting missionary challenges I’ve ever heard.

But, of course, the point of this small story, is to demonstrate the impact that a science fiction television show can have on a modern, American Christian. She had internalized the moral thought of a work of fiction. Doubtless there are many such examples in our pluralistic culture.

To its credit, the exercise of Science Fiction, gives people permission to imagine the world as other than they have always thought it to be. It is an exercise in the imagination – but an exercise than can help someone to realize that there may be other ways of seeing than those they presently know.

The Orthodox faith is not a work of science fiction – indeed, there is no fiction within it. However, it gives an account of the world and man’s place within it that can seem as foreign to a modern man as any work of fiction. It tells us that the world we see and experience is a distortion and that we do not see things as they truly are. That is quite a challenge and a bold claim. However, such a message does not necessarily fall on deaf ears if the hearer has already found ways to imagine the world other than the givens of his own culture.

The Christ who has been preached on these American shores is a very modern version of the expected Messiah. His teachings have been filtered through a lens that assumes the emptiness of the material world. His message, in this culture, has been transformed into a very high form of morality, but a moral tale nonetheless. As such His words compete with those of every moral teacher. Invariably in that company, His teachings are seen as ideal but not practical. Something good but not something by which people can live. His teachings and commandments are trumped by the failure of their usefulness (in a utilitarian world).

The doctrine of the Resurrection is seen as primarily directed towards the “after-life” and not towards the salvation and recreation of the entire created world. I recall some years ago a well-meaning Anglican priest saying to me that he’d feel much more comfortable with the doctrine of the resurrection if we could find the body of Jesus. I choked at his comment, completely caught off-guard. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, if we could find the body of Jesus, it would mean much more as we sought to comfort someone about the loss of their loved one.” Obviously, this seriously misinformed priest (if not heretic) had equated the resurrection with mere survival and found the entire story of the empty tomb and the encounters with Jesus after the resurrection to be competely problematic.

By the same token, Orthodox insistence (with the exception of Japan for reasons of law) on the burial of a body rather than the practice of cremation, seems peculiar to most people. The body is dead, has now served its purpose, and is to be discarded in a respectful but inexpensive and non-intrusive manner. Orthodoxy seems primitive on its insistence of burying a body – and down right macabre when it displays the incorrupt relics of saints, or the hundreds of skulls of martyrs that I saw in the monastery of St. Saba in Palestine. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the renewal of all creation runs afoul of the economics and sensibilities of a culture which (though strangely materialistic) has no particular respect for material things. We want material things because we can use them not because they have any value. As such, our materialism exhausts us and depletes us of spiritual strength. We are not living properly because we do not properly see the world.

The world as revealed to us in Christ Jesus may not be a work of science fiction – but it is just as foreign to the modern world as any work of fiction might seem. To be a Christian means to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and thus not a citizen of this world. It is a confession that the world as it imagines itself is seriously mistaken and lives in enmity with its Creator. Only a life of profound repentance and the miraculous work of the Grace of God can renew our mind so that it is fit to inhabit the Kingdom.

Strangely, there is a hunger for just such a transformative work. It is often manifest in works of science fiction and similar things. I recall my daughter’s stories from the year 2000 when she lived in deep Siberia. To her surprise, there was a thriving “society of creative anachronisms” (as we term them in America) where hundreds of young Russians gathered in the woods of a weekend to dream and live out the fantasy life pictured in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Here were the historic compatriots of St. Seraphim and Theophan the Recluse, of St. Sergius of Radonezh and Barlaam of Khutin, running around and playing elves and dwarves, wizards and orcs for lack of any better imagination. Admittedly it was a brighter imagination than the 5-year plans of Stalin’s frightfully unimaginative Soviet Regime – but it was infinitely short of the imagination and reality of Holy Russia. That reality has returned to the consciousness of many and a true transformation is occurring in Russia in various places – thank God.

For us in the Western world, our imaginations continue to run rampant, fleeing the confines of the legal/moral metaphors of the Enlightenment and modern West. Never has humanity been more reduced in its personal definition, its religion robbed of color and meaning. The realities of Geneva and Puritan England are competitors with Stalin’s Russia. The human is not liberated to a greater life but constrained to something that is less than human. No wonder the children of such worlds read science fiction and imagine something better.

But something better and something Real, has entered the world in the birth of Jesus Christ. The universe is not made smaller by His coming, but extended beyond all human imagination. And this is not found simply in the musings of theologians. Rather, it is more completely found and expressed in the lives of the Christian saints – who demonstrated the limits of reason and the false confines of space and time. In the manifest life of the Church we have seen the human raised to the level of Divinity. We have seen that God became man so that man could become god. And this has been in no theoretical manner, but in the brute manifestation of transfigured flesh and blood.

The Kingdom of God is not science fiction, but is probably what the heart of science fiction (at its best) has hungered for. In our world we want something more and we like to imagine it. Our imaginations take many forms and are not surprisingly colored by the scientific language of our cultures. But the dream is not a false hunger – simply a manifestation of the human instinct that there is something more – something better. We will not find the answers in fiction nor in the sudden appearance of extra-terrestrials. The answer is found in the true meaning of the world in which we live (indeed I believe this true world is often the very cause of our varied imaginations). Our hope does not lie in pretense nor in weekend games in the woods, but in the heroic lives of the men and women who have taken Christ at His word and have gained entrace to the Kingdom of God. They have lived and do live as the often silent witnesses of a world not seen by most. It is a world whose wonder is the stuff dreams are made of.

Dreams and Reality – Prayers by the Lake XXXI

February 5, 2009

The following poem is from St. Nikolai’s  (Velimirovich) Prayers by the Lake. The only true Reality is God and only in Him do we find ourselves to be real.


ochridYou pour out light over the darkness, Lord, and colors and shapes emerge. You bend Your face over the abyss, whose name is Nothingness, and the abyss tries to depict the beauty of Your face in shadows. All creation expresses You the way the abyss dreams of You.

My lake is also beautiful while the peaceful face of the sun remains bent over it. And all those who pass by praise the beauty of my lake. But as soon as the sun hides its face, my lake becomes dark and abysmal. And no passerby ever offers any praise for the lake except in the presence of the sun or the sun’s radiant companions.

The face of the abyss intoxicates those who do not see the sun bent over the abyss. The beauty of things begins when an onlooker bends his face over them. There is no mirror if there is no face in front of the mirror. But even a face in front of a mirror means nothing if there is no light.

In the light of Your face I pay no attention to any creature. Without You, creatures and I would not be mirrors of one another, but rather darkness, and an abyss, and an opaque chill.

Creation distorts Your beauty the way a dream distorts reality. Creation torments me just as dreams torment me. For what is creation except dreams of Your inexpressible Reality?

My neighbors say: “We have dreamed beautiful dreams.” The universe is my witness when I tell you that you are more beautiful than your dreams. The universe also dreams, and cannot dream enough about its own beauty. O my sleepy universe: as long as a dream dreams a dream, one dream is afraid of another, even if one dream seeks an interpreter and comforter in another. Who is prophesying to whom: the dream to reality or reality to the dream?

O my beautiful universe: dream of Reality and Reality will tell you everything. Admit the Reality, of which you are a dream, and you will awaken, and will no longer ramble about beauty, but will be Beauty. There is only one Reality and only one Beauty, and it is the reason for your dream.

Do not tell me, children, about the beauty of the stars. If the Lord withdrew Himself from the stars, your mouths would be struck dumb. Stand in the thick darkness by my lake and try to sing to it. Truly you will be struck dumb and remain silent until the sun dawns, until the sun pours its beauty over the lake and gives your speechless throat its voice.

Your face pours beauty over all creation. The universe swims in Your beauty as a boat swims in the sea.

And when You bend over cold ashes, the ashes are transfigured and receive a face.

Bring my heart to its senses, my Lord, so that it may not be captivated by mortal beauty but by You, my Immortal Beauty.

O my only Beauty!

Allow me to see Your Face, just more and more–of Your Face

Living in the Un-holy Land

February 5, 2009


Generally, our language reserves the word “unholy” to mean something evil or positively wicked (now there’s an oxymoron). Of course we also live in a culture where not much, or nothing at all, is considered holy. We think we live in a neutral zone – a place that is merely secular. Of course, the modern use of the word “secular” is just that – modern. It is part of our post-Enlightenment culture that believes that things are just things – and if something is “holy” it is only so because someone considers it so. Nothing is holy in and of itself – or because it has a particular relationship. Things are holy only in someone’s mind. Thus for one person a cross is holy – for another it is merely a piece of jewelry. There are plenty of Christians who agree with this cultural definition and generally hold all of their holy things lightly. Nothing more than their own good opinion renders something holy.

It is for this same reason that the dominant form of religious thought in our culture is any form that removes the spiritual life from our daily arena. Thus whether it is doctrine which is primarily intellectual in nature, or the general backdrop of a forensic (legal or moral) metaphor – God and His activity will always remain theoretical or imaginary in the context of a secular culture. A secular culture is a culture of the unholy. We live in the Un-holy Land.

None of this is to say that we are not a religious people. Every survey of American thought agrees that we are among the most religious of modern secular states. But our religion is held like all things holy: abstracted, and relative to our own private thoughts. When religious issues spill over into the public arena (as in the issue of abortion) many people want to scream, “Foul!” and argue that the issue is illegitimate precisely because it is religious in nature. Many in the Pro-Life camp will readily agree with this cultural critique and move quickly to point out that the right to life is a medical and political issue. A baby in the womb is a human person and is therefore entitled to the same rights as all others. But, of course, this is not the same thing as saying that all life is sacred, holy, and may not be wantonly and willfully destroyed. Many Pro-Life advocates do indeed believe that all life is sacred (and I see it as a genuine “wedge issue” by which Christians can be helped to see the bankruptcy of all secular thought.)

But for Orthodox, living in an unholy land is an absolute contradiction in itself. No place can be unholy. God is “everywhere present and filling all things.” An Orthodox Christian cannot secularize his world without betraying his faith. But in our culture, it is, doubtless, not an uncommon betrayal. It is a frequent unwitting betrayal on the part of converts to Orthodoxy for the simple reason that seeing the world in a manner that is utterly foreign to one’s own culture is a very slow process with a steep learning curve. For many (including American cradle Orthodox) it is easier to simply hold to Orthodox doctrine and practice the same way a Presbyterian or Baptist holds to Presbyterian and Baptist practice – which is simply an American holding on to the secularized versions of religion that populate our Republic.

It is very difficult to do something if you’ve never seen it or been taught it. The liturgies and sacraments of the Orthodox Church are in no way secularized. They completely pre-date the concept. Thus hearing them for what they are saying is important. Also listening carefully to those who have a life-experience from within some form of Orthodox culture is equally important.

One of my daughters is married to an Orthodox priest who serves in an all-Russian (or mostly) community in the U.S. Their observations are frequently interesting to me, even though I have to stop and think and pray to understand what at first might simply seem wrong. Living in a culture whose root metaphor for the spiritual life is “legal/moral,” it is easy to see some normative Orthodox practices as simple superstition.

I recall in the early years of our mission, we were moving from our original warehouse location to rented, commercial space. We set a day after liturgy, when we would pack-up Church and move. A good portion of our congregation were converts. Watching them, I would have said they were treating everything with respect. One of our members from Eastern Europe, however, was scandalized by how icons were being handled. At the time I simply thought he was being superstitious. But I have come to understand that like most things in the Church, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things – and the right way is there to teach us a true and proper respect and to understand what it means that something is holy. Holy is not at all the same thing as simply “this is very special to us.” Holy carries with it boundaries and borders that often ignore the American sense of practicality.

For instance, simply failing to properly clean the holy vessels after communion is a canonical violation which a priest or deacon is required to report to the Bishop. The result can either be a suspension (not serving for a period of time) or even being deposed from one’s ordained position. These are not obscure or antiquated canons. They are still very much in force and are an inherent part of the faith. In our cultural context, this simply sounds like legalism. But they are canons that come out of a very different culture and are not in the least legalistic. They are for our salvation. Coming to understand how this is true is part of the inner journey of the Orthodox faith – the “renewing of our minds.” And it is a long, slow journey.

I wrote several weeks back that the Scriptural description of human beings as “fearfully and wonderfully made” is a confession that other people should be approached with fear and wonder (Biblical fear). The same should be said of creation itself.

I am writing about something that I am only beginning to know – as a pilgrim who has made the journey for only a short distance. I find that conversations with older Orthodox, reading lives of the saints and listening carefully to what is being said or shown, is an important part of the journey. As we pray in Vespers: “O Lord, teach me Thy statutes!”

The Desert and the Struggle in a Flat Land

February 3, 2009


Originally posted in August of 2007 as part of the One-Storey Universe Series

One of the best-known sayings to have come from the Desert Fathers is: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” To a large degree the saying extols the virtue of stability. Moving from place to place never removes the problem – it only postpones the inevitable. Somewhere, sometime we have to face the heart of our struggle and by the grace of God overcome. Of course, not everyone is entirely successful in such struggles in the course of this life. How our healing is completed beyond this life is left to the mystery of grace.

There is nothing secular about the desert, the arena of our spiritual struggle. The early monastics who fled to the desert for prayer did not think that they were avoiding problems by seeking out such solitude. St. Athanasius, in the 4th century, had written the Life of St. Antony, one of the first and greatest of all hermits. That book, in a time before printing presses and book agents, still became a “best-seller.” It was read by many and propelled literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women into the monastic life. Modern Christians are overwhelmed when they hear the estimates of the number of monastics by the 5th century. It is hard to believe that the desert could sustain so many.

But that book on the life of St. Antony, held no romanticism for the desert life. Antony’s life of prayer is also a life of struggle against demons. They literally toss him about and beat him up. If anything, such a novel should have made generations afraid to go near the desert.

In the 6th chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul had written:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (11-12).

St. Paul’s observation that the struggle was against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (literally the “heavenlies”) clearly did not dissuade the hordes of hermits from invading the deserts of Africa and the Mideast or the islands and caves of Gaul and the British Isles. One simple reason was that the “heavenlies” was not a description of a two-storey (or more) universe, but simply a description of the nature of the struggle. Those “heavenly places” were as much the territory of the human heart as anything. St. Macarius, a desert dweller, would write:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

 The heavenly cities are not to be found in contemplating some second storey of the universe, but are to be found within the terrible (in the classic sense of the word) confines of the human heart. This was the great promise of the desert: that in solitude and quiet, through prayer and fasting, a man could enter the depths of his heart and there do the warfare that had been given to us to do. Some few became great saints. Others found only madness. Orthodox Christianity received something of a handbook on warfare in that land of the heart in such writings as the Lives of the Fathers, the Philokalia, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and other similar works. They have remained staples of the spiritual life ever since.

The struggle in the desert does not ignore relationships with other human beings. But it recognizes that the trouble in those relationships does not lie in other human beings, but within my own heart. Christ did not suffer from trouble in His relationships with humanity. He was at peace with all. We cannot do more than be like Christ, who Himself began His ministry in the desert, defeating the enemy.

Later Orthodox reflection has widened the desert and recognized that it includes all territory. There is no place we go where the struggle can be differently defined. In the city, in a factory, an office or in school, the battlefield of our spiritual life remains within our own heart. Solitude is only a tool in learning to recognize that fact and to focus our attention on where our attention needs to be.

Obviously, most of us do not leave the company of other human beings in our journey to salvation. But we should draw proper conclusions from the men and women who first entered the deserts and left us the records of their struggles. We do not labor in a secular land beneath the watchful eye of second-storey perfection. We labor in the land where heavenly wickedness does its battle: the human heart. And if our hearts are where the arena is to be found, then we should recognize as well that it is in that very arena that the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is to be found as well. The vast array of saints described by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews who, having completed the course of their warfare, now surround us as spectators in the arena of our warfare, should themselves not be relegated to some distant second-storey where they watch us from afar. Thus it is not a strange thing that those who do spiritual warfare best also have many friends among the saints, and learn to call on them for aid. For though it may seem like “my” struggle, it is the struggle of all who name Christ as Lord. The saints do not surround us like a great cloud of witnesses in idle curiosity. They surround us to strengthen and aid us, to encourage us, and even, if need be, to fight along side us. Such is our heavenly warfare of the heart.

To spend time with someone who has learned well the battle of the heart is to sit at the gate of paradise. On some few occasions I have had opportunity to meet such warriors. The peace that is theirs, the complete lack of self-consciousness are signals that you have come to a new country. Such living witnesses are the loudest proclamation of the gospel known on earth. For in their heart, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. These are the dwelling places of the New Jerusalem and the living promises of God. Their hearts point us to the place where we should be engaging the struggle and remind us that with God all things are possible.

The Benefits of Ignorance

February 2, 2009

donkeyOf course, I have to begin this post with the acknowledgement that I am an ignorant man.

Having gotten that out of the way, I want to spend just a few moments on the benefits of ignorance. This past November I was blessed to have a conversation with Fr. Thomas Hopko while we waited in line to greet the new Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. Fr. Thomas is the retired Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY.  He has taught a generation of priests.

Our conversation turned to writing. My comment came from my reflection on the experience of writing this blog. I noted that the more I write, the less I seem to know. Part of this realization flows from the fact that I try to restrict my writing to those topics of which I have some knowledge (experience). His smiling response came immediately: “Someday you won’t know anything and then you’ll be holy!”

It was not entirely spoken in jest. There are many forms of knowledge – or many kinds of knowing which our limited language describes as “knowledge.” For Christians the most dangerous form of knowledge is that which we simply acquire through reading and study. It is largely just information. Of course, if you have enough information you can manage the illusion of actual knowledge.

I know a lot of numbers, but I am not a mathematician. I have met mathematicians. Most of what they know is not about numbers – strangely.

There is no great sin in ignorance – or at least there is far less sin in ignorance than in knowledge. The simple truth is that we will not know anything of value until we first know that we do not know. In the competitive world of American Christianity, this is hard. It is not hard for ignorant people to argue – but it is very hard to argue while at the same time admitting that you are ignorant.

This ignorant man has spent a lot of years acquiring “knowledge” (falsely so-called). Knowledge of the sort that is readily available is not at all the same thing as knowing God – the only knowledge that has worth (though every true form of knowledge flows from that single knowledge). Somewhere in the course of my life I came to the place of spiritual exhaustion – I wanted to know God badly enough that I didn’t want to know something else in His place. So I became an ignorant man.

Today I know very few things. And though I write almost every day – if you go back and read what I have written you will see that I know very little. I say many of the same things to different questions, for they are the answers I know.

Thus when I wrote recently that I had never seen a case of righteous anger – I did not mean to say there was no such thing, only that I’ve not seen it in 55 years of life. I have seen anger that would seem well justified (the anger a husband has over the senseless murder of his wife). But I have seen the same anger kill the man who bore it.

I was born into an angry world. “Jim Crow” South was full of anger. Whites were angry at Blacks and Blacks were angry at Whites. We were angry at Communism. We were angry about the Civil War. We were angry at poverty (especially our own). Others were angry at those who were angry and the injustice of the entire system.

I remember an Abbot, a friend now deceased, who said that after the Vietnam War many young people came to the monastery – “They were so angry about peace,” he observed.

I served as an Anglican priest while the Episcopal Church inexorably jettisoned its traditional doctrine. I was consumed with anger. My anger did not save that Church and did me (and likely many others) great harm.

It is not just anger that works in such a fashion. Any of the passions could be chosen. An ignorant man is frequently on the losing end of battles with the passions. It is therefore important for an ignorant man to be aware of his ignorance. Can such an ignorant man argue theology? Not to any benefit.

The great good news is that Christ came to save ignorant men. We are easier to save if we admit our ignorance up front. Our opinions are so much dead weight. I know very little of God. I know that He is good – beyond any grasp of my knowing. I know that He loves in the unfathomable measure of the good God entering Hell in order to bring us out.

I have been in several versions of hell and rescued numerous times. Ignorant men are always getting themselves into stupid, dark places.

That God is good, that He loves us without measure, that He will go to any lengths to rescue us – I know a little about these things, though even of these things I am mostly ignorant. But I will not tire of speaking this good news. Ignorant men everywhere may be glad to hear it.

St. John of the Ladder on Anger

February 1, 2009

johnclimacusladderI continue with some thoughts on this important subject. This is taken from the great spiritual classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (chapter 8). There are a number of very worthy insights – quite similar to those found in Met. Jonah article referenced earlier.

As the gradual pouring of water on a fire puts out the flame completely, so the tears of genuine mourning can extinguish every flame of anger and irascibility. Hence this comes next in our sequence.

Freedom from anger is an endless wish for dishonor, whereas among the vainglorious there is a limitless thirst for praise. Freedom from anger is a triumph over one’s nature. It is the ability to be impervious to insults, and comes by hard work and the sweat of one’s brow.

Meekness is a permanent condition of that soul which remains unaffected by whether or not it is spoken well of, whether or not it is honored or praised.

The first step toward freedom from anger is to keep the lips silent when the heart is stirred; next, to keep thoughts silent when the soul is upset; the lst, to be totally calm when unclean winds are blowing.

Anger is an indication of concealed hatred, of grievance nursed. Anger is the wish to harm someone who has provoked you.

Irascibility is an untimely flaring up of the heart. Bitterness is a stirring of the soul’s capacity for displeasure. Anger is an easily changed movement of one’s disposition, a disfigurement of the soul.

Just as darkness retreats before light, so all anger and bitterness disappears before the fragrance of humility.

Some unfortunate people, who have a tendency to anger, neglect the treatment and cure of this passion and so give no thought to the saying, “The moment of his anger is his downfall” (Ecclesiasticus 1:22).