Archive for March, 2009

Personhood and Love

March 22, 2009


I have written several times recently about the understanding of personhood – particularly as found in the writings of St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony. They push the envelope of our understanding to the edge and then beyond. For many their work is difficult to understand – both because of vocabularly and because what they are saying in their writngs is simply hard to grasp. And yet, what they have to say is easily the most central part of their teaching – it is at the very heart of the “word” St. Silouan believed he had received from God for those of us of this generation. Thus I offer another post on the subject. After some reflection, I’ve thought about another way to approach their teaching.

We exist as persons solely by love. It is something that separates us as “individuals” from “persons.” An individual need love no one or no thing. An individual exists like a rock (forgive me Paul Simon). It is not the proper mode of existence for a human being created in God’s image – but it is a mode of existence that sin has birthed in us. Love is a struggle.

To exist as a person, however, is to exist by love. Thus, there must be others to love. For this reason it is said that we cannot exist as a person by ourselves alone. It is also the reason that ultimately we must love our enemies and all who exist – for to not love someone is to deny our own true existence. When sin entered the world, among its first results was murder, and necessarily so. Cain did not kill his brother – he couldn’t even see Abel as his brother. Before God he renounced any responsibility for his brother.

Since love is a gift from God and not something we create ourselves (at least the love by which we truly exist as persons) it is without limit. Every act of love extends the very fabric of our being.

I can recall in the early years of my marriage having conversations with my wife as our family grew. Having the first two children was a relatively “easy” decision. However there were and are many subtle cultural pressures to stop at two. Nevertheless we had four (thank God!). One of the absurd thoughts that crossed my mind during that time was, “Will I be able to love more children if we have them?” The thought is rooted in a concept of love as a limited commodity and the heart as unable to grow. Quite the opposite is true. The more we love the greater our capacity for yet more love. It is possible to love, even on the personal level, the entire universe (and not as a mere abstraction).

When you read the life of St. Silouan you realize that his love for all is also a love for each. He exists in something approaching the fullness of personhood.

My enemy is not only someone whom I am commanded to forgive and to love – he is also the means of my existence. The commandment to love your enemies is a word in the darkness crying, “Let there be light.”

May God Grant Us To Weep

March 21, 2009


From the writings of the Elder Sophrony:

Spirtual weeping is an abundance of life springing vigorously from potent love, whereas ordinary weeping prostrates mortal man…. The ascetic Fathers did not weep because they were deprived of temporal goods but they do insist on the necessity for spiritual weeping without which man’s stony heart is incapable of love as taught by the Gospel. The mind of the Christian who weeps is totally directed towards the sphere of Divine eternity. The commandments of Christ refer exclusively to this. A whole multitude of circumstances unacceptable  to those living the banal life of this world are disregarded by him who weeps according to God’s commandment. Poverty holds no terrors for him, he will not be dismayed by insults or slights from the sons of this generation, nor by blows of any sort, because not only his mind but his feet, too, are lifted high above ground. He feels compassion for people, sorrow over them before God, but he does not share their interests, inspired as he is by his striving after immutable Truth.

From We Shall See Him As He Is

For anyone who dares write for publication on the internet, there is a dangerous invitation. Unless you establish strict controls (my controls for this Blog are not wide open, but neither are they very tight) you have established yourself as a target. Part of the task of maintaining a blog is clearing out the spam on a daily basis which alone is disheartening because it consists primarily of comments that are seeking to plant links to pornography. Just the names for such links can be sickening.

On other occasions you have people posting who simply make no sense – and I don’t know what to say to nonsense.

I gladly write about Christianity, Culture and even Atheism because I think these are areas where conversation is useful. I am a missionary and I make no apology.

But this also has a way of inviting angry comments (I get the occasional one or two).

Most disheartening are the vituperative comments from Christians. Since I am Orthodox, I am not surprised that a large portion of my readers are Orthodox – and it is probably the audience I have most in mind when I write – that and those who may be interested in learning more about certain aspects of the Orthodox faith. Happily, comments from these readers are generally positive and supportive and are an encouragement to me that I value immensely.

I remain dismayed at comments from Christians which must be deleted either because of their anger, or because reading them would do harm to others. It is not unlike hearing confession. We all bring material to confession that we would prefer not to broadcast or for anyone but God to know – and we would like Him to forget. In such cases there is a ready forgiveness. But I would ask you to pray for those whose comments you will never see (because I will not publish them). May God’s mercy be with the angry, the mean, the misinformed and the violent (at least in language).

A monk once told me, “We need go no further than our own heart to find the cause of all violence in the world.” And it is true. May God help us all and teach us to pray for one another – “those who love us and those who hate us.” May paradise consume us all. Glory to God for all things.

Fr. Sophrony on Personhood

March 20, 2009

england-trip-293The incarnation of the Logos of the Father – Jesus Christ – furnishes a solid foundation for our knowledge of God. Actuated by love for Him, we undergo a profound transformation of our whole being. Christ’s infinite life is transmitted to us. Our spirit finds itself on opposite poles – in both the black depths of hell and the Kingdom of God illumined by the Sun that never sets. The content of our being expands ineffably. In urgent prayer the soul aspires to this wondrous God but it is a long time before we apprehend that He Himself is praying in us. Through this God-given prayer we are united existentially with Christ – at first in His searchless Self-emptying and descent even into hell, and then in His Divinity. ‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent’ (John 17:3).

The Persona-Hypostasis in Divine Being cannot be a limiting principle. And in our creaturehood the hypostasis [person] is the principle that assumes infinity into itself. When his spirit enters into the world of Divine eternity man is struck by the majesty of the vision opening before him. At the same time the universe undergoes a certain alteration in its destinies: ‘A man is born into the world’ (John 16:21) – an event that communicates to all creation a new unfading value. Man as hypostatic spirit belongs to eternal ontology. Those who are saved in Christ – the saints – receive Divine eternity as their imprescriptible possession though they immutably remain created beings.

From We Shall See Him As He Is


There is probably nothing more important in the writings of the Elder Sophrony Sakharov than his work on the “hypostatic principle” the role of personhood in Christ and in humanity. It goes to the very core of his understanding of prayer and the salvation of human beings.

He says nothing new – but brings together understandings from various patristic sources in such a way as to shed brilliant light on the importance of personhood. It stands at the very heart of our faith.

It’s Nothing Personal

March 19, 2009

patriarchpavelOne of the most frightening phrases in the English language is: “It’s nothing personal.” It almost always precedes something bad. For someone to tell me that what they are about to do is not personal is already a confession of sin. But why should the word personal carry such weight?

In the life of the Eastern Church few words could be more important. Oddly there is not a single definition for the term, only, as Met. Kallistos Ware notes, “a series of overlapping approaches.” And yet there is agreement as to its importance. The Elder Sophrony stressed what he called the “cardinal importance of the personal dimension in being.”

But what is it that is so important? Personhood, which is the Latin-derived English word for the more technical Greek “hypostasis,” refers not so much to what we are as to who we are. But it refers to a manner of existing as an individual that is not individualistic. To exist as person is to exist in a unique manner of communion. Person has the capacity for ultimate self-giving (emptying) and ultimate receiving (fulness). It has an individual aspect in that the person is unique and unrepeatable, but it is a unique and unrepeatable existence that always exists by communion (emptiness and fulness).

Speaking in such a way about personhood makes it somewhat clear that none of us yet exists in such a manner in any way that we could think of as complete. Personhood is indeed the glory that is being worked within us as we are changed into the image of Christ. The Person of Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is the Person Who is manifest to us in the incarnation. That Person Who from eternity is Divine by nature, “hypostasizes” – gives Personal existence to human nature in taking flesh of the Virgin and becoming man. Thus the image of personhood set before us as the Divine goal of our conformity is none other than the Person of Christ, human and Divine.

Personhood is the proper end of man – it is what we should have always become. Existing as less than fully personal beings – as mere individuals who do not share (emptying) nor receive (fulness) – this sinful mode of existence manifests itself in every form of selfishness and greed. Its ultimate expression is the sin of murder. The Biblical account does not wait to tell us of murder as a sin that took eons to develop, but rather in the second generation of humanity – between the brothers Cain and Abel – jealousy results in fratricide.

Murder is the utter antithesis of personhood. It does not give, nor is it interested in receiving that which may be legitimately received. It is interesting that Christ said that our enemy “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).

A more subtle form of murder than Cain’s is the frequent diminishment of another human being to something less than person – or the self-murder we perform as we refuse to allow ourselves be raised up towards the level of personal existence. There are many ways in which this is done. Making of another human being nothing more than an object or granting nothing more than a collective existence are both denials of personhood. When a human being becomes for us a mere object, then we find it easy to do to them anything we might do to a stick of furniture or something else that we regularly treat as object. The collective existence is manifest when a person simply becomes an example of a larger group: worker, management, nationality, gender, etc.

“It’s nothing personal!” is the battle-cry of murderers through the ages. We hear elements of it in Cain’s defense of his murderous action: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” His “brother” in this case is less than a personal category. He does not call him by his name.

Though none of us yet exist in the fulness of personhood, we are, nevertheless called to that mode of existence and our Christian life offers us disciplines and the grace for precisely this purpose. One of the Biblical images that frequently reveals this graceful manifestation is found in the stories of the  changing and acquiring of names. Thus the Patriarch Jacob, who begins his life conniving and tricking to get everything he wants and all he feels has been promised to him. His name, Jacob, means “one you tries to take someone else’s place.” Jacob endures muc, including wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. After that experience, Jacob is partially crippled. He has been marked by his struggle with God. The end of the matter is his name is changed. He has moved from someone who does not share and cannot receive legitimately, to one who is now, “The Prince of God,” Israel.

Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. The stories surrounding these changes are the stories of personhood coming forth. Christ frequently gives new names to His disciples. Peter, the Rock, who had to live nearly an entire lifetime to fulfill the name Christ had given him. Saul becomes Paul. Indeed in the Revelations of St. John, each of us will receive a new name. Personhood is our common destiny in Christ.

But we live in a world that does not know Christ and thus does not know of the human destiny of personhood. We speak about “personal” relationships with Christ, even though we ourselves have not yet reach personhood. Thus the phrase misstates the present case. “Personal relationship” is a weak term. Of course, it is not a Biblical nor a Patristic term – but something that has largely grown out of modern American evangelical jargon. There it exists with little or no theological underpinning, just a phrase to be used.

What we seek from Christ is Personal Communion. We want to participate in Him as He is Person. The transformation that flows from that communion or participation is the transformation of our individualistic existence with its greed and self-centeredness to a growing manifestation of personhood in which our heart contains more of the universe and our lives are marked by giving (emptiness) and receiving (fulness).

Fr. Sophrony describes this transformation:

…[It is] in the utmost intensity of prayer that our nature is capable of, when God Himself prays in us, [that] man receives a vision of God that is beyond any image whatsoever. Then it is that that man qua persona really prays ‘face to Face’ with the Eternal God. In  this encounter with the Hypostatic [personal] God, the hypostasis [person] that at first was only potential, is actualized in us.

The Elder Sophrony’s Grand-nephew, Fr. Nicholai, offers this observation:

When man’s self remains his ultimate existential concern, he is existentially directed toward himself and so his potential for embracing the infinite, God, and thus himself becoming infinite, is not realized. And vice versa: when his existential concern is reoriented toward the infinite, his own infinite potential opens up and comes to its realization:

Quoting his uncle:

I is a magnificient word. It signifies persona. Its principal ingredient is love, which opens out, first and foremost, to God. This I does not live in a convulsion of egoistic concentration on the self. If wrapped up in self it will continue in its nothingness. The love towards God commanded of us by Christ, which entails hating oneself and renouncing all emotional and fleshly ties, draws the spirit of man into the expanses of Divine eternity. This kind of love is an attribute of Divinity.


“It’s nothing personal” is a statement that is almost correct. More precise would be: You are not personal. You are nothing. Beware of such men and don’t be numbered among them.

Quotes from Nicholas V. Sakharov are from his work: I Love Therefore I Am: the theological legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony.

Why Does God Sing?

March 17, 2009

167502985_1130add41dWhy would God sing? The question may sound strange and yet it is said in Zephaniah (3:17), “He will rejoice over thee with singing.” I first noticed this verse when I was a very young Christian and have puzzled about it for nearly forty years. Equally puzzling to our modern way of thought is the question, “Why does anybody sing?” I have been to plenty of operas and have to admit that even the ones in English need subtitles – singing does not necessarily make something more easily understood. And yet we sing.

God sings. Angels sing. Man sings.

Other than some adaptations that have been made in a few places in the modern period, any Orthodox service of worship is sung (or chanted) from beginning to end (with the exception of the sermon). Like opera, this musical approach to the liturgy does not mean that it will be better understood. And yet, the Christian Tradition, until the Reformation, was largely universal in its use of singing as the mode of worship. In the Western Church there was a development of the “Low Mass” in which little chanting was used – though this never found a place in the East.

This is not solely a Christian phenomenon. As a teenager I had a close friend who was Jewish. As a young teenager he began training to become a Cantor (the main singer in a congregation – second only in importance to the Rabbi himself). I was curious about Hebrew so he began to instruct me privately. Hebrew is a great language – particularly as published in Hebrew Scriptures. 

I mastered the alphabet and began to understand that most vowels were not letters at all, just dots and lines, strategically placed to indicate their sound. I felt somewhat proud the first time I read a line aloud without prompting. I recall that when I finished I pointed at yet another set of markings that my friend had yet to mention. 

“What are these?” I asked.

“They’re for the Cantor,” he explained. He also had to explain what a Cantor was and, fortunately, was able to demonstrate when I asked him how the musical markings worked. The sound would have compared easily to Byzantine chant – perhaps with lines of kinship. This past autumn I became acutely aware of another singing religion: Islam. My wife and I made pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September. The first morning (it was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) a canon went off at sunrise (that will wake you up in Jerusalem!) and suddenly a plaintive chant blared across the city as the Muezzin chanted the morning call to prayer.

Indeed, if you made a study of world religions, you’d be hard pressed to find any people who prayed or worshipped without singing (almost exclusively) other than forms of Christianity that have been influenced by the Protestant Reformation. In light of that fact it might be more appropriate to ask, “If God sings, and the angels sing, the Jews sing, the Muslims sing: why don’t Protestants chant their services?” What is it about modern man that changed his religious tune?

I’ll come back to that question in just a few moments. However, I would first like to take a tour through some experiences I’ve had with music and pastoral care. Wherever in our brain that the ability to sing and understand music resides – it is not the same place as pure speech. I have been making pastoral visits with patients for nearly thirty years. During that time I have frequently noticed stroke patients, who had lost one particular brain function (governed by the area effected by the stroke) be perfectly normal in another area not affected by the stroke. It’s as simple as being paralyzed on one side of your body but not on the other (a common result of strokes).

In the same way, I have seen any number of patients who could not speak or respond to speech, who, nevertheless, could sing and respond to music. The most extreme case I ever saw was in a patient suffering from multiple infarct dementia (thousands of tiny strokes). He was a paraplegic and virtually unresponsive. However, his devout Christian wife had discovered that he responded to both music and to prayer. He would say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer and tried to join in when you sang a familiar hymn.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. And so the mystery grows.

A surprising musical experience for me came in visiting St. Thekla’s Summer Camp (in South Carolina). We have youth in our Church, including some who attend the summer camp. However, my experience in Church, is that, like most teens surrounded by adults, they remain quiet. However at the summer camp, surrounded by their peers, they sang with all the gusto of their youth. It was completely natural. Kids sing.

So what happened in the Protestant West that made them change their tune? To their credit they did not completely stop singing. Some of the finest hymns in Christian history were written during the Reformation. Hymns that sang doctrine and offered praise to God – all these were part of the hymnody of Protestant worship. And yet something different did take place. What was different was a shift in understanding how or if we know God and the place that worship plays in all that.

For many in the Reformation God could be known only as He made Himself known in Scripture. Knowing God as He had made Himself known in Christ was a description of knowing what Christ said and did in the New Testament. God was distanced from the sacraments in most cases. He was distanced from worship. We could offer worship to God in our assemblies, but not necessarily because He was present. 

The distance that arose between man and God at the time of the Reformation had many causes. Among the most important were the politics of severing God, the individual and the Church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). Such a severing created the secular sphere as we know it today and at last established the state as superior to the Church with, for the most part, the happy cooperation of the newly minted Churches. For most centuries the Reformation has been studied on the basis of its religious issues – indeed “religion” has unfairly borne the blame for years of hatred and wars. The role of politics has  been downplayed – indeed even seen as the force which intervened and spared Europe from further religious madness. The state, as secular state, was seen as the hero of the Reformation. However it is quite possible to understand the history of that period as the history of the rise of the secular state and the state’s manipulation of religion for the interests of the state (Eamon Duffy’s work on this topic is quite revealing).

The Reformation itself brought something of an ideological revolution, a redefinition of man as a religious being. The new thought saw man as an understanding, rational, choosing individual. Thus religious services began to have a growing center of the spoken word. God was reasoning with man through the medium of the spoken word. In most places of the new reforms, efforts were made to establish a radical break with the sacramental past. However God might be present with His people – it was not to be in the drama of the Liturgy. Vestments were exchanged for academic gowns, or no vestment at all. The minister was an expounder of the word, not a priest. The altar that had once clearly been an altar, a place where the bloodless sacrifice took place – a holy place where Christ Body and Blood were present – became a simple table – usually with the minister standing in a position that was meant to indicate that he was performing no priestly action. 

The words surrounding the Liturgy were spoken and not sung. Singing at such moments were associated with acts of magic. Thus the “hoc est enim corpus meum” of the Roman Rite, was ridiculed as “hocus pocus,” ever to be associated with magic. Chanting was for witches, not for Christians.

Music did not disappear at the Reformation. As noted earlier, many great hymns were written as part of that movement – and have marked every major “revival” within Protestantism. People sing. But what do people sing?

There is no doubt that vast changes in much of Protestant Church music have taken place in the latter half of the 20th century. The same was true in parts of the 19th century. In efforts to remain “contemporary” much music has taken contemporary form. The influence of Pentecostal worship forms have also shaped contemporary “praise” music.

In many ways a revolution as profound as the Reformation itself has taken place within Protestant Christianity. Whereas the founders of the Reformation saw reason as the primary mode of communicating the gospel – contemporary Protestantism has become far more comfortable with emotion. An interesting player in this modern revolution has been the “science” of marketing which has made careful study of how it is that people actually make decisions and on what basis do they “choose” as consumers. From an Orthodox perspective, it is the science of the passions

In this light it is important to say that people sing for many different reasons and that not all music in worship is the same. Orthodoxy has long held the maxim that music should be “neptic,” that is, should be guided by sobriety and not by the passions. Thus, there have been criticisms from time to time within the Russian Church that the great works of some modern Church composers are too “operatic” or too emotional. That conversation continues.

But why do we sing?

Here we finally come to the question that has no easy answer – just a suggestion based on human experience. We sing because God sings. We sing because the angels sing. We sing because all of creation sings. We are not always able to hear the song – usually because we do not sing enough. I will put forward that singing is the natural mode of worship (particularly if we follow the model of the angels) and that there is much that can enter the heart as we sing that is stopped dead in its tracks by the spoken word.

It is not for nothing that the one book of Old Testament Scripture that finds more usage in the Church (at least among the Orthodox) than the New Testament, is the book of Psalms, all of which are meant to be sung (and are sung within Orthodox worship). Years ago when I was a young Anglican priest – I introduced the sung mass at a mission Church where I was assigned. A teenager confided to me after the service that the chanting had made her feel “spooky.” She was clearly stuck in a Reformation “only witches chant” mode. She also had not learned to worship. In time, it grew on her and she grew with it.

The heart of worship is an exchange. It is an exchange where we offer to God all we are and all we have and receive in return Who He is and what He has. The exchange takes place as we sing to Him and He sings to us. 

I have heard the singing of angels. I am not certain that I have heard God singing – though it is something of an open question to me. But without fail, I hear His voice singing in the person of the priest: “Take, eat. This is my Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.” And I have heard the choir sing, in the voice of the people: “I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

God sings and so should everything else. 

Another Word from St. Isaac of Syria

March 16, 2009

solitudevalaamI prostrate myself, Lord, at the footstool of your feet and at your holy right hand which has fashioned and made me a human being capable of becoming aware of you. But I have sinned and done wrong, both in myself and before you, for I have abandoned holy converse with you and have given my days over to converse with the passions. I beg of you, Lord, do not set against me the sins of my youth, the ignorance of my old age, and the frailty of my nature…Rather, turn my heart towards you, away from the troublesome distraction of the passions; cause to dwell within me a hidden light. Your acts of goodness towards me always anticipate any kind of volition on my part to do well and any readiness for virtue on the part of my heart. You have never held back your care to test my freewill; rather, as with the care of a father towards his young son, so has your care for me run after me,…for you knew all the time that, even less than a child do I know whither I am traveling.

At the door of your compassion do I knock, Lord. Send aid to my scattered impulses, which are intoxicated with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness. You can see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition – though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed with the bitter pain from them…. O name of Jesus, key to all gifts, open up for me the great door to your treasure-house, that I may enter and praise you with the praise that comes from the heart in return for your mercies which I have experienced in latter days; for you came and renewed me with an awareness of the New World.

From The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev


I am particularly struck by St. Isaac’s words:

Your acts of goodness towards me always anticipate any kind of volition on my part to do well and any readiness for virtue on the part of my heart. You have never held back your care to test my freewill;

It is an excellent testimony and commentary on the mercy of God. His goodness towards us “always anticipates any kind of volition on my part to do well.” There is grace given to us even before we choose the good. We are not placed in a system of rewards and punishments.  “You have never held by your care to test my freewill.”

God knows us – it’s that simple – as well as His love. If He knows us, He does not need to test us. And His love for us is such as to set a merciful path before us.

This is not to say that everyone has it easy. Much to the contrary. But by grace, every hardship we receive is not to test or to punish, but is given as opportunity to share in the sufferings of Christ – if we will but receive it.

What human suffering did Christ not make His own? He seeks unity with us in all things. And the “door of the treasure-house” remains open for us.

Yes, We Can

March 15, 2009


Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

The Palamite Century

March 14, 2009

palamas_gregMany books on Orthodoxy spend time recounting the history of the Church. Not many recount the recent history of Orthodoxy or Orthodox thought. Many people do not realize how utterly captive Orthodox theology was to various Western groups and oppressed by the Turkokratia (Turkish empire) until the 20th century. Even in Russia, theology had been largely dominated by a growing Western influence from various directions, often under the sponsorship of various Tsars. It’s a difficult period in Orthodox history.

However, the 20th century, though difficult and bloody, a century of Orthodox martyrs –  was also the century that saw Orthodoxy come out from under the various yokes of bondage that had been placed upon it. The result of this freedom was the resurrection of Palamite theology – that is, Orthodox theology as it found in its greatest and most complete expression – the life and work of St. Gregory Palamas, remembered each year on the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent. 

The names associated with this resurrection are like a Who’s Who of 20th century Orthodox theology. Vladimir Lossky, Fr. Georges Florovsky, Fr. John Meyendorff, Fr. John Romanides, Christos Yannaras, Dimitru Staniloae, Met. Kallistos Ware, and in the area of experience and the teaching that flows from it: St.Silouan of Mt. Athos, the Elder Sophrony Sakharov, Archimandrite Zacharias, and more. In many ways, the vast majority of Orthodox scholars working today work within some model of Palamite understanding. The twentieth century is appropriately dubbed the “Palamite Century,” in Orthodox life.

The place of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodox life, the entire understanding of the Divine Energies and the Divine Essence, the experience of God on the deepest level as the root and ground of all theology, are all hallmarks of St. Gregory’s life and work.

It is fitting to honor him and to give thanks to God that we live in a time when his work has been restored to us and that we can know the fullness which he taught.

Forgiveness – the Hardest Love of All

March 13, 2009


I cannot think that any of my readers is a stranger to forgiveness, either the need to be forgiven or the need to forgive. The need to forgive, according to the commandment of Christ, extends well beyond those who ask for our forgiveness: we are commanded to forgive our enemies – whom I presume would rarely want to ask for our forgiveness.

Of course, our experience of those who are truly enemies is that we do not want to forgive them. We do not trust them; the wound has been too deep; their offense is not against us but against someone we love who is particularly vulnerable. I could enlarge the list but we are all too familiar with it. The reasons we find it hard to forgive our enemies is endless.

But the commandment remains – not as a counsel of how to live a healthier, happier life – but with the added reminder that we will only find forgiveness as we forgive. Forgiveness is not optional – but a fundamental spiritual action which we must learn to use as though our salvation depended upon it – for it does.

Several times in Scripture forgiveness of others (including enemies) is linked with our becoming like God, being conformed to His image. Thus when I think of forgiveness I think as well of the whole life of salvation – for the path to being restored to the fullness of the image of Christ runs directly through the forgiveness of our enemies. It may indeed be the very key to our salvation (as it is worked out in us) and its most accurate measure.

Having said that, however, is also to say that this commandment to forgive is not of man – we do not have it in us to fullfill this commandment in and of ourselves. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said that “man is mud whom God has commanded to become God.” Of course it is utterly and completely impossible for mud to do such a thing (unless God make it so).

All that being said, grace is the foundation of forgiveness. We pray for forgiveness to enter our heart. We beg for forgiveness to enter our heart. We importune God for forgiveness to enter our heart.

Even as a product of grace – we do not begin with the hardest things but with the easiest. We do not begin fasting by tackling the most strict regimen. We do not begin prayer with an effort to pray continually for forty days (or some other great feat). Such efforts would either crush us with their difficulty or crush us with our success.

These are a few thoughts on beginning the life of forgiveness:

1. Begin by struggling to form the habit of forgiveness in the smallest things. With a child, with traffic, with little irritations. Do not struggle in a small way but throw yourself into forgiveness. It should become a habit, but a habit of grace, a large action.

2. Use this prayer for the enemies who seem to be beyond your ability to pray: “O God, at the dread judgment, do not condemn them for my sake.” This places forgiveness at a distance and even a hard heart can often manage the small prayer of forgiveness at such a distance.

3. Be always aware of your own failings and constantly ask for God’s forgiveness. “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

4. As much as possible cultivate in your heart the understanding that all human beings are broken and victims of the fall. None of us enters a world of purity, nor do we enter the world fully fuctional as a human being. It is the gradual cultivation of mercy in our heart. Many will complain that our culture already has a “cult of victimization” in which no one takes responsibility for their actions. The same people will imagine that the world would be better if only everyone took more responsibility. But they themselves will not take on the responsibility that belong to us all. As Dostoevsky says, “Each man is responsible for everything before everyone.” Thus the complaint comes out of our pride. We think we ourselves are not responsible for the state of the world as it is and that if only others were as good as we were the world would be better. This is a lie.

5. The proper response to taking such responsibility is to pray and ask forgiveness. Feeling guilty is generally another self-centered action and is not the same thing as asking forgiveness.

6. Make a life confession at least once a year – being careful to name as many resentments as you can remember (this last advice comes from Met. Jonah Paffhausen).

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:27-38).

Living in a Crowded Heaven

March 11, 2009


Now the powers of heaven do serve invisibly with us. Lo, the King of Glory Enters. Lo, The Mystical Sacrifice is upborne, fulfilled.

From the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts

There is an old joke in which some member of some religious group, dies and goes to heaven. He passes by various rooms and is told who is there. When he comes to one particular room he is told to be very quiet for he is not to disturb those in that room. When the newly deceased asks, “Why?” the response is: “They think they’re the only ones here.”

You can fill in the name of various groups and the joke still works. There are problems, at least as we conceive things, of living in a crowded heaven.

But the very disturbing truth is that we already live in a very crowded heaven. We should not make such strong distinctions between the life we now live and the life we shall live. To do so can be very misleading. The difference may be qualitative, in some important senses, but not qualitative in others.

To love God now is already to anticipate the joys of heaven – for though the veil will be removed and we shall “know Him even as we are known,” that knowledge will not have a radical discontinuity with the knowledge we now have. And so I write of a crowded heaven.

The disciples once asked Jesus:

Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:23-24).

There is here no answer to the quantitative question, only an admonition to “strive to enter in at the narrow gate.” The difficulty with heaven now, in the diminished manner that we experience it, lies not in its diminished quality, but in the company we are asked to keep. If you had the ability to say who would not be allowed in heaven, who would you put on the list?

This is a revealing question, telling us nothing about other people, but much about the state of our own heart. Whose presence in heaven would change heaven into hell for us? Again, this tells us nothing about the state of the person whose presence we abhor, but much about the state of a heart that so abhors the presence of another.

If the presence of such persons is unthinkable to us now, how will be bear their presence later? Are we to assume that God will have fixed all those people such that they will no longer be abhorable? Or are we to assume that God will have fixed us such that we will no longer abhor others? And what if it is the case that the only problem that truly exists in many cases is not the other person but our willingness to so abhor others?

All such questions bring us to the proper question: how will we endure a crowded heaven?

The appropriateness of such a question is the sure testimony of Scripture that relates the image of God in heaven only as a God who rules in a crowd. He is the Lord God of Sabbaoth (“hosts” – let’s say “crowds”). What are we to do with a God who so loves those whom we hate? What do you do with a God who loves Hitler as much as He loves you? What kind of God can do such a thing and do you want a relationship with Him?

All of which brings us to proper questions about ourselves and our spiritual life. The commandments to forgive our enemies and to love our neighbors are so much more than God wanting us to be nice and get along with each other. It may be a matter of heaven and hell. Sometimes it may be the only difference between heaven and hell.

And thus it is that Christianity inherently involves Church. There is no salvation as a Christian that is simply between us and God, because the immediate question and commandment given to us as Christians always directs us to our neighbors. The Church is perhaps one of the lesser tests of the love of neighbor. Here we are keeping company with those who, on some level, believe as we do. Like those outside the Church they come complete with personalities and issues that we will either like or dislike. We love many people for the wrong reason in the wrong way, and dislike others for the wrong reason in the wrong way. But from the very inception of our relationship with God through Christ we are confronted with “the crowd.” There is no relationship with God that excludes anyone else.

The greatest of our spiritual battles will always be with these crowded relationships. We are created for love by a God “who is love.” And thus the Christian faith is a crowded faith. Ours is a sociological mysticism if you will allow me to coin a phrase. There is no private mysticism, no private relationship, no God apart from His creation. The desire to have such a relationship is demonic in its essence. Lucifer wanted to be like God (if you will, he was very religious). But he wanted such a divine aspiration at the expense of God Himself and certainly at the expense of creation. Thus Scripture calls him a “murderer from the beginning.” We would do well to remember that the demons are quite religious (almost by definition) but they hate God and His creation.

There is a legend among the stories of Orthodoxy that when God was sharing His plan to the angels in the councils of heaven, the sight of the Theotokos, and the glory given to her, was the occasion of Lucifer’s first anger. The thought of mere mud being exalted to such a place: “more glorious than the cherubim and beyond compare than the seraphim.” All of this was unbearable to his pride. The crowd of heaven could not include humanity in such an exalted position.

There is much of the same attitude to be found in the Pharisees and their judgment of Publicans and harlots. There is very much of the same attitude to be found in us towards – well – fill in the blank. Thus we are called not only to love God and to forgive our enemies but to refrain from judging everyone. These are not only “moral” commandments, but are descriptions of the very heart of salvation itself. If they are not present, then we are not doing well spiritually, whatever else we may think. And their presence in many whom we would consider unfit for heaven is a testament of judgment against us.

It’s a crowd. By the grace of God, get used to it. If it is a problem go to confession and pray.

But do not despair. Most of us in the crowd are wrestling with the same thing.