Archive for May 14th, 2009

Personal Issues

May 14, 2009

refusing confession by RepinThe title of this post is quite misleading – for in proper theological language – there are no “personal issues.” Our culture is quite fond of issues – both the politico-entertainment industry – and many individuals. It is a word and a phenomenon that has been baptized by the culture such that “being concerned with the issues” makes someone sound as if things matter to them in a significant way. The Orthodox response to the issues should generally be – not to respond.

The true “issue” of our time and of all times is the salvation of our souls. And, it is important to note, this is not a “legal” or “forensic” issue, but a matter of the deep healing of the spiritual disease that infects us, and, through us, all the world around us. We do not see things as they are (we are spiritually blind); we do not think as we ought (we are spiritually ignorant); we do not feel about things in a proper way (we are spiritually disordered in our emotions). Coming to grips with the passions and their disordered state (which effects our mind, emotions and our body) is very difficult work. It requires insight and honesty and a deep commitment to the Truth of Christ, through Whom we may alone find healing and salvation.

In the meantime it is possible to avoid all this by concerning ourselves with issues. Some concern themselves with political issues, particularly if those issues carry a moral component. But it is as possible to take the “right” position on a political issue as a wretched sinner as it is to take the “right” position on a political issue as a saint – though saints often have a strange way of not being involved in “political issues.” 

Others set their sights in other places and concern themselves with theological issues or local issues such as the goings-on in a parish. 

I would offer a brief definition of “issue” as I am using it here: any subject or situation with which we may concern ourselves, that having been addressed, leaves ourselves and others involved no closer to our salvation than when we began (and perhaps farther away).

The transformation of the world will not come about through the successive addressing of issues. It will, according to the Fathers of the Church, come about through the transformation of human persons, whom, having been restored to the proper image and likeness of Christ, are able to restore others and creation around them. It is thus that the “movers and shapers” of our world may never be acknowledged by the world itself. 

It is significant that the world admires Christ as a moral teacher – for He was not a moral teacher. Christ, the God-Man, was an is the Mediator between God and man, the means by which our distorted selves may be restored and transfigured and all creation set free. That transformation is simply impossible through “moral” effort.

Classical monastic spiritual teaching would speak instead about the purification of the passions and the illumination and deification of man. More recent Orthodox writers and teachers, such as St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony have addressed the same teaching in terms of personhood. However, in both cases the nature of our salvation is described in the most profound terms of the inner life. 

Orthodoxy is a seamless garment. The sacramental life and the ascetical life are not two separate compartments. Both have to do with the healing of the soul. It is for such a reason that communion in the Orthodox Church is always linked with fasting and confession, however the discipline is applied. Communion is the “medicine of immortality” in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch. But that same medicine must be received by a heart that has prepared itself through fasting and repentance. As Christ Himself proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” So too, we approach the Kingdom in the Cup of Christ, and our hearts must greet it with repentance.

Our issues are not intellectual or political – but existential. Our brokenness is at the very level of our existence. 

Some years ago I heard the abbot of a monastery describe the young people who came for retreats during the 60’s and early 70’s. “They were so angry about peace,” he said. He added this thought: “The contemplative need go no further than his own heart than to find the source of all violence in the world.” 

This, indeed, is the issue.

Dostoevsky, the great 19th century Russian writer, spent his early adulthood deeply involved in a group of semi-revolutionary writers, artists and intellectuals. As a group, they were deeply committed and involved in the issues of the world. The reform of the Russian state – and in some corners – the reform of the Russian Church was an all-consuming passion. The Romanticism of the 19th century – its belief in the perfectibility of man, if only the proper state and economic system were employed – yielded the various experiments of the 20th century – with generally disastrous results.

Dostoevsky’s own existential crisis occurred when he and a small group of similar conspirators were arrested for sedition and sentenced to death. At the last moment their sentences were commuted to short terms in the Tsar’s Siberian prison system. It was in the few minutes that preceded his commutation – during which the great writer had opportunity to ponder death and his short life – that an inner change occurred. It is not that he saw everything in a flash – but rather that the issues moved away from an intellectual stage and into the deepest parts of his heart.

In what are perhaps his two greatest novels – the heart of man is revealed in the crime of murder. In Crime and Punishment a young man, Raskolnikov, convinces himself that only the will to power matters, and that he should be able to rob and kill a wretched old woman because he would put her money to better use. He succeeds in killing her only to discover that his “philosophy” is bankrupt. Utility (what works) is insufficient for the human soul. He finds salvation in prison through the unrelenting love of God.

In The Brothers Karamazov, murder again is at the center of man’s “issues.” Again it becomes the catalyst for a crisis in which the truth of God is revealed. The moral reform of the characters of the novel is a non-issue. Indeed, the most “moral” of the Karamazov brothers is arguably the unbeliever, Ivan. But Ivan, interestingly, is the devil. It takes little character to argue about justice and to be concerned with fairness. In my experience, even unredeemed humanity is born with an instinct for such arguments.

Most of us do not see ourselves as murderers and are thus content with lesser “issues,” none of which will push us to the point of repentance. I often think that Jesus asked those who sought to follow Him to give everything to the poor precisely to bring them to the point of crisis. To give away everything in the name of Christ raises the question about the name and nature of Christ to its proper place. Either He is worthy of such an action or He is not worthy of any action. The Kingdom of God is never found in half-measures, or in carefully measured actions of any sort. Anxiety and care cannot map the road into the Kingdom.

I am not suggesting that we cease to care about people or the things that effect them. I am suggesting that our concern for “issues” falls far short of actually caring about people and the things that effect them. It is possible to love humanity and actually hate people. I have seen it far too often and have done it myself.

It is much easier to trust someone who wants to “save the world,” if they have also bothered first to “save themselves” (yet another paradoxical statement). It shouldn’t take an arrest by the Tsar to bring us to our senses – though for Dostoevsky it seems to have helped. Perhaps it would be sufficient if we would recognize that we ourselves are murderers and that no amount of moral reform will return the life we have taken. Nothing short of resurrection will present us with the medicine for which our souls thirst.

Prayers By the Lake XXV – Prayers for the Departed

May 14, 2009

Picture 184This poem is from the collection of poems by St. Nikolai Velimirovich, the great 20th century Serbian saint. The Church continues its journey through the 50 days of Pascha and will conclude the feast with the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost (Troitsa) at the end of which the Kneeling Prayers are offered where (among many things) the souls of the departed are remembered before God. Christ came that the dead might live.

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You sinful souls, yearn no longer to enter the body, as though you could flee the fire that is roasting you and the smoke that is smothering you! You would only bring the fire and smoke with yourselves, and your body would not be your rescuer but your burnt offering.

Rather direct all your attention to the eternal Virginity of God, which can cast out the evil stench from you, and to the Son of the Virgin, who would illuminate you with the flame of the wisdom of the Trinity, and to the All-Holy Spirit, who would give you the strength and the wisdom to elevate you to the choirs of angels.

You purified souls, who smell more captivating than all the balsams on earth, do not separate yourselves from those of us still on earth, who for another hour or two are still wandering over your paths of suffering and your ashes. All those who are pure on earth will be pure in heaven also, and will be your companions, perfumed with the balsam of paradise and clothed in the whiteness of virginity.

Strengthen your love for us and your prayer for us. For between you and us is no partition other than the frail veil of our flesh. For even though you have gone ahead while we have remained behind, the path is the same and the city at the end of the path is the same.

You righteous souls, we pray to the Lord for you as well, so that He may make your passage to Him easy and swift. Even though we are weaker than you, we nevertheless pray to God for you. We pray out of the love with which our heart burns for you, even as a younger and weaker brother reaches out to help his older and stronger brother.

For just as younger and older brothers are one flesh in the eyes of the love that gave them birth, so also are we and you one flesh in the eyes of the exceedingly wise and exceedingly strong love of the Most High.

You countless flocks of souls of the dead, do not be distraught and confounded, and have no more regard for the cold island of life on earth, to which we, being few in number, are still stuck for another hour or two until we come to join you for the summer in warmer and brighter regions.

For all of you, both righteous and sinful, we who are half dead, half-alive pray to the Mercy of Heaven, so that you may not be confounded, so that you may not be afraid and look back, but may, in the fullness of summer, head ever forward and ever higher–

toward light and joy

toward peace and plenitude.

Negative Thoughts and the Communion of Prayer

May 14, 2009

communion_AfricaTo pray for someone else means that, because of the good disposition of our heart towards him, we help him to resist the negative thoughts that he may have, and not without cause, about us. On the contrary, not to pray for someone else means that we justify by our lack of love the negative thoughts he may have against us. Let us preserve unity in prayer around Christ’s chalice, and we will see that it is easy to love.

The Elder Sophrony

Generally speaking, our minds experience a torrent of thoughts. Finding the means to quiet the mind, to allow the mind to be united to the heart, is quite difficult. The Fathers have much to say on that matter – far more than I can begin to offer in such a setting as this. But the torrent of thoughts that flow within us are of little to no use in the spiritual life. They are a distraction and frequently have the character of sin.

On Wednesday morning of this week I took part in a Synodal Liturgy – a celebration of the Eucharist in which the entire Holy Synod of Bishops was present. There were people gathered from many places. The Cathedral in Dallas was crowded. The Cathedral was not only crowded, but the very altar and appended sacristies were overflowing with Bishops and priests. A full Hierarchical Liturgy, particularly with so many Bishops present, is a long, complicated service (even by Orthodox standards). The distractions which attend such a gathering are beyond number. 

There are priests to look at and judge, bishops to look at and judge, people in various distracted states to be looked at and judged, and all of that is only if you have managed to keep the torrent of thoughts within the confines of the Church’s walls. Of course, what I have described would be sin. We are to judge no one. But the temptation is ever present.

I found myself reaching for my prayer rope and struggling to bring my mind back to the Jesus Prayer – to offer up the prayer for others. As a priest, I also followed the service in my prayer book (something priests are always to do) and sought to bring my heart to the words and keep them there. 

I saw a man in the service whose heart was visibly present to the words of the service and to God. I felt an inward rebuke – a recognition of how scattered and disordered is my own interior life – and I prayed that God would keep him ever in such prayer for the rest of us.

Elder Sophrony’s words a very simple – we should pray and seek to avoid negative thoughts about others. Of course, there is much more to be said about our corporate prayer life. But the elder offers a simple beginning. Seek to pray and do not judge others. I share my experience from this week only to say this is not an easy thing. But I take the holy elder at his word. Strive to preserve unity in prayer around the chalice of Christ and we will see that it is easy to love.

It is good to remember, that in the chalice is not only the Body and Blood of Christ, but also the body of Christ, the Church. The one whom I have judged earlier is presented to me for communion. The approach to the Holy Cup is never an invitation to a “me and Jesus” event. It is a true participation in the fullness of the Body of Christ – a participation in Christ which is always a participation of all who are in Him.

O wondrous cup! O treacherous heart of mine! May God have mercy on us and bring us to know His perfect love.