Archive for July, 2009

At the Edge

July 18, 2009

A reprint…since we were discussing the end of the world…

guardian_angelOne of the peculiar marks of life in the modern world is the sense one has of standing on the edge. We are always (it seems) either standing on the edge of disaster or on the edge of some great discovery. Of course, a lot of this is simply the way we market the world to ourselves. But it is an inherent part of modernity to constantly look towards the future and forget the past. This is not to say that our culture is eschatological – we are merely oriented towards constant change with competing visions of light and dark with regard to a relentless future. To be properly eschatological (from the Greek for “concerning the last things”) is to believe that there is an actual end-point that is the fulfillment of all things – the fullness towards which God is drawing His creation.

To stand on the edge of the future is often experienced as anxiety. Like all of modernity, we believe in progress, but the myth of constant progress towards a utopian world has been shattered by the many tragedies of the 20th century. Like previous centuries it had its wars and its oppressive regimes. But unlike previous centuries, we learned that modern wars and modern regimes are apocalyptic in the fullness of their nightmares. We are at least as certain of a bad end as we are of a good end – and, I suspect, more people expect things to get a lot worse before they get better – if they get better.

There are other experiences of standing on the edge. I think that when we confront God, we find ourselves on an edge. As it says in Hebrews, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). It is not that the living God holds any animosity towards us, or that He intends us any harm. But the Light and the Truth that radiate from Him require light and truth to be present in the one who beholds Him. If we have no light and truth then His presence reveals within us the darkness and the lies that are present.

Any number of times in my life I have stood at that edge. To some degree, every occasion of private confession is an approach to the edge, to see the face of God. “Behold, child, Christ stands here invisibly before you receiving your confession,” the priest says. I have stood beside many, many others as they approached the edge and I have seen the wonders of the effect of God’s Light and Truth.

I can also recall very large moments – such as the time of my conversion to Orthodoxy. In some respects, I stood at the edge for nearly 20 years (and very consciously for at least seven). In various comments by readers, it is obvious that many stand at the edge of Orthodoxy and sometimes for a long time. Was I afraid? Yes, I was. Was I afraid of God? Yes I was. I was afraid of the Truth, of the Light, of myself, of everything around me. I can see now that my fear was baseless and that my waiting so long on the edge held far more drama than was necessary. But standing on the edge can be like that.

Dostoevsky had a feel for the edge. The tension that builds in the character Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) becomes almost unbearable until the young man at last turns himself in for the murders he has committed. And like all the rest of us who murder (at least in our heart), turning ourselves in, getting past the edge, becomes the path of salvation just as it was for Raskolnikov.

My children, while quite young, became aware that I had difficulty with heights and edges, particularly while driving. A long, high bridge, or a narrow mountain switch-back, raced my pulse and pumped adrenalin throughout my body. I believe it was my son who first came up with the game (though it could have been on of his sisters) …  When we were traveling and would reach such a frightful point, he (and his sisters) would begin to shout, “Over the edge!” Which usually sent me into paroxysms of terror and shouts of various threats. They found it great fun. To enter the kingdom of God, we must become like little children. Over the edge!

In the Grasp of Wonder

July 16, 2009

Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.

St. Gregory of Nyssa

St_gregSt. Gregory of Nyssa’s marvelous dictum is among a handful of things that describe what is required for the Christian life. So much of Christian history has been marked with a bifurcation – a split between those who study the faith and those who live it. It is not a necessary split – only a common one. Of course there is the larger number of Christians who do neither.

But wonder is an essential attitude of heart – without it – we will see nothing as it truly is.

The Scriptures tell us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” – which also means that other human beings should be approached with awe and wonder. We will not see them nor love them as we ought if our heart is dwelling in some other mode.

I posted recently a passage from the writings of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos on humility – around which, he taught, wages the whole of the spiritual battle. I suspect that wonder is a necessary part of humility. For humility is found not so much in thinking little of myself as in thinking more of everything and everyone else. Humility will flourish in a heart of wonder.

I tend to see wonder in two particular places – in children and in those of older years. My own children have always been a revelation of the world about me – a chance to see the world as though for the first time. To watch the wonder of a child beset with the jaded cynicism of our culture is surely to see one of the most crucial battles of our age. Cynicism is generally always correct for it lacks the wonder the alone would reveal its error.

The wonder of older years has been something of a new revelation for me – if only because I barely qualify for “older years.” I will turn 56 later this year. But I have been around long enough to see my last child through high school and now preparing to enter college. I have been blessed with nearly 34 years of marriage. With those years comes an increasing sense of wonder at how things have worked together to be what they are. I am less impressed with my choices and the power to choose. Rather I am overwhelmed at the good that has come to me that I did not know to choose (and it came unbidden).

The are many delusions in life – many of them are about ourselves, other people and the nature of things. Wonder sets a guard about the heart that – along with other things – provides a hedge against delusion. Wonder may recognize what we do know, but always brackets such knowledge with the realization of what we do not know.

I am occasionally upbraided by some of my non-Orthodox friends for becoming a part of a Church “that thinks it has all the answers.” This is a mistaken view of Orthodoxy. The certainty established by the dogmas of the faith and the discipline of the canons are not meant to create in the Orthodox mind the hardness of flint. They describe the boundaries given us by Christ and set before us the markers of a pilgrim’s journey.

But the life of the Orthodox faith is one that is rightly lived in wonder. To confess God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not to say that I have now “comprehended,” but to confess Him who is beyond our comprehension and who, wonder of wonders, condescended to make Himself known in the incarnation of the Son of God.

One of my favorite sayings a statement I’ve heard often from Fr. Thomas Hopko, the Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary: “You can’t know God. But you have to know Him to know that.”

It is a wonderful thing to say and expresses so much of the Orthodox way of life.

In a conversation with him last autumn, I told him that the more I write, the less I know. His response was to the point: “Keep writing. Someday you’ll know nothing. Then you’ll be holy.” Wouldn’t that be a wonder!

The End of History

July 15, 2009

The first part of this article is from one of my earliest posts. Appended to it are some current reflections. If it was worth reading the first time…

O, Mama, can this really be the end?
To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again.

Bob Dylan

DaisyAdOk. I’ll confess it right up front – I’m a Dylan fan. It shows my age and generation. My children have had to learn to put up with his voice, but more than that, to put up with a parent who seems to find lines from Dylan songs that fit almost anything – at least anything significant. It must be ok. One of my daughters took me to my first Dylan concert as a gift. And I took my youngest to her first Dylan concert as a gift to her. There’s nothing liked shared pleasures with your children!

I read a review recently of Dylan: The Essential Interviews. In it, the reviewer says of Dylan: “…he started off singing about the end of the world, and he ended up adopting the theological beliefs that made sense of his musical prophesying.” The comment made me realize much of what I enjoyed about Dylan. His sense of the “end of things” (it is indeed a frequent theme in his lyrics) inevitably gives meaning to the songs themselves. Because, in the end – it is only in the end that anything has meaning.

Back at the fall of the Soviet Union, the historian, Francis Fukuyama, spoke about “the End of History.” Such would have been possible (one supposes) if the end of the Soviet Union had meant an end that carried meaning. But, as it is, the end has not been much of anything.

I used to ponder (in my college years) what the end of the Soviet Union might mean. I was reading a lot of Solzhenitsyn at the time – not to mention a heavy diet of 19th century Russian writers. I was able to imagine an end that would mean the beginning of a new spiritual rebirth for the whole of the West. But I probably had higher hopes in the spiritual resources of Russia, and seriously underestimated the power of our own vapid commercialism.

The great battle in the West today is not about democracy (though we are told democracy is what it’s all about), but about the end of history. For democracy, and the freedom it presumes, has no meaning unless it has an end in mind. Freedom is useless if it is not freedom for something.

I went shopping this afternoon (or, more accurately, I accompanied my wife and daughter as they went shopping). I had a lot of extra time on my hands – time to stand outside and think. I don’t smoke anymore so thinking is about all that’s left to me. Looking at the newly constructed vast commercial enterprise that has recently been driving our shopping malls out of business (it is a massive commercial development on the West end of Knoxville – I suppose it has clones all over the country but it is a wonder to behold), I could not help but ask, “Why?” What are we shopping for? For what end? And Dylan came echoing into my head, “Can this really be the end?”

For us to survive as a culture for any serious length of time it will be necessary for us to be able to answer the question: For what end? Militant Islam has an answer to the question and not the answer we would choose. But no answer is not the answer.

Christianity is inherently eschatological – it is precisely about the end of things and about a very specific end. The meaning of Orthodox worship is found in the fact that we believe ourselves to be standing in the very end of all things as we celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Even the Second Coming is referred to in the past tense. The End has come and Christ is victorious and as His people, Baptized into His death and resurrection, that End is our hope and our own victory.

But democracy and freedom for the sake of commercial enterprise are not the same thing and they will consistently prove insufficient for us as a nation and as a people. One of the stores we visited this afternoon was inexplicably decorated with crosses. Jewelry – crosses with clocks in them – crosses that were just pieces of wall art. One splatter of crosses had words scattered among them. One of the words, “Indulge,” stood out. If the cross has become one more bit of art to indulge, then the End will never come. We’ll be stuck inside of Mobile for ever so long, with only the Memphis blues. We will be stuck in one place wishing we were somewhere else while the End of history never comes to redeem the time in which we live. Can this really be the end?

+++

Every age in the West seems to have its own mythology – particularly its own version of the apocalypse. We live in a culture that has enough of a Christian basis that the idea of an apocalyptic end to things is a significant idea even for some of the most hard-bitten secularists. One manifestation of this is that things are important – particularly if they can be described in apocalyptic terms.

As I wrote above – it is the end of a matter which gives meaning to the thing itself (or so it seems to our Western mind). I do not deny this – its truth is an inherent part of my Orthodox Christian faith. But just so, it is important to ask about the end of things and how that end relates to us.

I take it as a given that there are many false ends – both religious and non-religious. There are many ways that we seek to describe the world, and its end, in order to understand where we are, why we are, and why others should agree with us about both. It is thus that political parties, frequently in their most strident elements, describe one another in apocalyptic terms. A president of the opposite party whom one opposes is not just a poor choice, but is “the worst president in history.” The other party’s candidate is a threat to the entire American Way of Life. I am sure that such conversations can be extended and found elsewhere across the globe (though not necessarily everywhere).

Current apocalyptic imagery includes mysterious musings about the year 2012. I lived through the end of the world in 2000 when computers across the world were supposed to fail and bring civilization as we know it to an end. I was not very well prepared.

Current interest in climate politics generally describes the threats to the environment in apocalyptic terms. I grant the possibility, even the inevitability of radical climate change. It’s something that happens on this planet from time to time regardless of the culprits. But, it is not the apocalypse. It is, to quote the title of a book, an “inconvenient truth.” How inconvenient is a matter of conjecture. My guess is that it will be worse than those who oppose the idea will admit and not as bad as its apocalyptic preachers predict.

My concern as a believing Christian is the creation of a false apocalypse. The meaning of the world is not to be found in avoiding radical climate change. It would be a good thing if it is possible – but it is not the defining apocalyptic event by which all life must be judged. Even Christian rhetoric on the environment would do well to speak in measured terms and be wary of the abuse of apocalyptic imagery.

There is a very grounded understanding of the end of things within the Tradition of the Church. It is not an end that will be understood outside of the life of the Church – or not well understood. Our faith is that Christ is the End of things (He is also the Beginning – the “Alpha and Omega” in the words of Scripture). His life, death and resurrection are the meaning and definition of history. They, in some sense, precede all history, occur within history, and summarize and complete all history.

A purely linear approach to the end of things (such as is common in fundamentalist protestantism) does not comprehend the fullness of Christ as the beginning, middle and end of all things. The end of the world is simply a culmination of events – which many fundamentalists believe can be predicted through a study of “Biblical prophecy.” We have passed so many failed predictions within my lifetime that I wonder at the power of such predictions to sustain themselves.

A proper Christian understanding of the “end of things” sees Christ triumph over history as well as over sin and death. Thus, every week I stand at the end of all things as I stand at the Holy Altar and offer the Holy Eucharist. To not see this meal as the end of all things, the Messianic Banquet, is to miss a large part of the meaning, power and presence of the Eucharist itself. Thus for many Christians, the meal is only a memorial, an action as trapped within history as they imagine to be the very event which they memorialize. For the same reason the elements of bread and wine cannot be understood by them as the “Body and Blood of Christ.” For if this meal is a true participation in His body and blood, then how is this not the end of all things?

The Christian life is formed and shaped by the risen Christ (or it is misformed and misshapen). The Christian life formed by an ending that is other than Christ will have an apocalyptic shape – but only the apocalypse of modern mythology. Such mythologies abound – some even find intersection with appropriate Christian concerns. But such concern does not and should not raise them to the level of apocalypse. It is Christ Himself who is that which shall be revealed and has been revealed and is revealed even now. Let us keep the feast.

Miracles and Creation

July 11, 2009

Southwest Trip 116There is an aspect of the modern use of the word “miracle,” that is more than a little problematic. While it is true that a number of Orthodox hymns in referring to certain dramatic events use the phrase, “the order of nature is overthrown,” this is far from being a complete theological account of what we know as the miraculous. A common understanding in the secular world of the miraculous is that it is somehow a disruption of the natural order – something that does not belong in our world. The classic “proof” of a miracle used in some parts of the Christian world is that it must not have any “natural” or “scientific” explanation. It seems to me that this approach makes an inappropriate and radical distinction between the actions of God and the actions of nature: it is more of the “two-storey universe” about which I have written at length.

The two animal stories I have posted to the site are both explainable by natural means. Thus many, both believers and non-believers, would say, “These are not miracles.” However, in our secularized two-storey universe this is tantamount to saying, “It has nothing to do with God.” And this is problematic.

The redemption for which we await is not a redemption that destroys nature or discards nature. Our redemption is equally a redemption of the material order:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance (Romans 8:18-25).

The redemption of the world does not make it into something other than the world – though it raises it to a new manner of existence. So, too, we do not cease to be human in the resurrection, nor do we cease to have bodies: our bodies, however, exist in a new manner.

Miracles as the world understands them are things that prove the existence of God – and thus become points of argumentation with those who do not believe. Such argumentation based on miraculous proofs is not the foundation of true faith. The God who has made Himself known to us in Christ is “everywhere present and filling all things” as is said in the prayer, “O Heavenly King.”  Isaiah says that “the whole earth is full of Thy glory” (Is. 6:3). The present age has so constructed its worldview that the glory of God is nowhere to be seen. But this is a perversion of sight – a modern manifestation of the fall.

With such limitations even well-meaning efforts can be misdirected. Thus there is a tendency in our present moment to equate global warming with the apocalypse and imagine that failure to control and manage this phenomenon will bring the judgment of God down on our heads. That we should live rightly with creation and as stewards of what we have been given is true. But our hope is not to be found in a new technology or ecology by which we manage to control the climate. No God is needed for such imaginative projects – though many will use His name to underwrite their efforts.

A more radical transformation (as well as stewardship) is asked of us. That transformation is first made known to us in the incarnation of Christ in which “matter becomes the means of my salvation” (in the writings of St. John of Damascus). It is daily made known to us in the mysteries of the Church in which the simple elements of bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands and other actions are means by which our salvation is made effective within us and made known to us. It is the transformation of Creation that beckons to us and the transformation of our very selves by the mercies of God.

The blessing of objects in this world does not make them to be something other than what they are (I make an exception of the Eucharistic elements which must be reserved for a different discussion). It reveals them to be in a unique position with God and His Divine Energies. But the Great Blessing of the Waters or the blessing of Water at Holy Baptism does not make the water to be something that is not water. This was strongly emphasized in my heart when, standing at the Jordan River last year, I heard the words of the Great Blessing from the Bishop who was presiding, “Send the blessing of Jordan…” Do we pray to make the Jordan River to be the Jordan River? Yes, in an important sense, we do.

Our redemption in the course of this life is, among other things, a recovery of our true humanity. Christ is “fully human” (and “fully Divine”). In the words of Met. Kallistos Ware, and He is the first “fully human.” At the least we may say that in comparison to the humanity of Christ – our humanity is broken. Thus this life is lived in a recovery of the glory that is proper to human beings.

I believe that glory is revealed in many ways – most of which might not be recognized as “miraculous.” Love of enemy, which is probably “miraculous” when it actually occurs, is one of the ways in which that glory is revealed. Love of friend – love of wolf and bird (and all creation) are also revelatory. The icon of the New Creation is made manifest in such moments.

I believe a proper view of our world is to see its iconic character. Creation is a “window” to heaven – the glory that is being made manifest. St. John Chrysostom once said that “he who gives to the poor is greater than he who raises a man from the dead.” It is a simple echo of St. Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 13  (“if I have not love…”).

I do not know the truly full account of St. Seraphim and the Bear or of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio (and similar stories). But they contain more than the story of a circus performance. The friendship of man and nature is a reflection of the God who saw creation and said, “It is good.”

I know that when I see a monk walking with a wolf, friend to friend, something in my heart leaps and says, “It is good.”

The Monk and the Bird

July 11, 2009

bro ephraim mar saba

While we’re at it – here’s a photo of one of the brothers at Mar Saba Monastery in the Judaean Desert. It seems clear that right relationship with God and right relationship with nature are normal. We met this monastic last year when we traveled in the Holy Land. It’s good to know that the stories of St. Seraphim and the bear or St. Francis and various animals are not things of the past.

Serbian Monk and a Wolf

July 11, 2009

I do not understand the narration – but no words are necessary in this video. The reality speaks for itself.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
About this same monk and wolf, Fr. Milovan Katanic writes:

In Kovilje Monastery, at the foot of the Javor mountains, there were once many monks, during the time of the Turks there was even a monastic school here. Today, in the recently renovated late 12th century monastery, there is only one monk who, as he says, learns from wolves…

read the rest here…

The Whole of Spiritual Warfare Wages Around Humility

July 10, 2009

MariabaptFrom the Elder Sophrony’s Widsom from Mount Athos:

Thus the whole spiritual warfare wages round humility. The enemy fell from pride, and would draw us to perdition by the same means. The enemy praises us, and should the soul listen to his praise grace withdraws until she repents. Thus throughout her life the soul is occupied with the lesson of Christ-like humility. So long as she has not humility wrong thoughts and impulses will always torment her. But the humble soul finds the rest and the peace of which the Lord tells.

Fasting and abstinence, vigil and withdrawal into silence, and other exploits of spiritual discipline all help, but humility is the principal power.

Humility is not learned in a trice. That is why the Lord said: ‘Learn lowliness in heart and meekenss of me.’ To learn takes time. And there are some who have grown old in the practice of spiritual endeavor, yet still have not learned humility, and they cannot understand why things are not well with them, why they do not feel peace and their souls are cast down.

The Chief of Sinners

July 9, 2009

Picture 322A version of this post appeared last January. In light of the recent posts on prayer and communion it seemed timely to rerun this post. Though not on prayer, it carries some of the same thoughts to the commonality of our life as Christians and of our life as human beings. I believe that we will make little progress as Christians nor as human beings (as measured in the Kingdom of God) unless and until we begin to understand the commonality of our life and the significance of Christ’s participation within that life (and our participation in His).

In the Divine Liturgy, it is customary for this prayer to be offered by all who are coming to receive communion. I quote a portion:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

Of course the prayer is a reference to St. Paul’s self-definition as the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It is a confession made by all the faithful, gathered before the Holy Cup, everyone confessing to be the first among sinners. It would be easy to take such a statement as an example of pious excess – overstating the case of our sinfulness. Were that so it would be a travesty within the Liturgy – which exists to lead us into all Truth and to give us the gift of True Life. Such life is not grasped by uttering pious nonsense. Thus, we must accept the confession as actually what it says. How is it that I am the first of sinners?  We could assume that the language is a claim to be worse than all other sinners. But how is a comparison to be made between sin and sin? Some will say that murder is by far worse than stealing or lying – and perhaps take comfort by saying, “At least I’m not a murderer.” But this is only an echo of the prayer of the Pharisee who thanked God that he was “not like other men” particularly the Publican standing nearby (Luke 18:11).

The confession is not an exercise in comparative morality – but an exercise in humility and true contrition before God. Dostoevsky’s famous character, the Elder Zossima, speaks of “each man being guilty of everything and for all.” The mystery of inquity, spoken of in Scripture, is just that – a mystery. Our involvement in sin is itself mysterious. Our culture has made of sin either a moral failing, and thus a legal category, or a psychological problem to be treated as guilt. Both are sad caricatures of the reality and neither image allows us to say, “Of sinners I am first.” Morality would reassure us that we have not done as much as others and would leave us as unjustified Pharisees. Psychology would assuage our guilt by warning us that such feelings are bad for us.

But the Church insists that we stand together with St. Paul and join in his unique confession.

I prefer to understand the prayer in the terms used by the Elder Zossima, whose thoughts are largely derived from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. My solidarity with every sinner is such that I cannot separate myself as better or in no way responsible for the sins of another. Again words of Elder Zossima:

Remember especially that you cannot be the judge of anyone. For there can be no judge of a criminal on earth until the judge knows that he, too, is a criminal, exactly the same as the one who stands before him, and that he is perhaps most guilty of all for the crime of the one standing before him. When he understands this, then he will be able to be a judge. However mad that may seem, it is true. For if I myself were righteous, perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me now.

Of course, we live in societies where we frequently make distinctions between the good and the bad, the moral and the immoral. And there are truly people who behave in an evil manner that stuns our ability to understand. And yet we share a common life as human beings and every effort to deny its reality pushes us ever further down the road of pride, envy, blame, and every form of hatred.

Thus there is no way forward other than that of forgiveness – and a forgiveness which is in the image of Christ. Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world – indeed, in the raw language of St. Paul:

[God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

If we refuse our commonality with the Christ who Himself was “made sin,” then how can we claim our commonality with Him in the righteousness of God? And if we accept that commonality – then with St. Paul we can also confess ourselves “of sinners to be the first.” The forgiveness of God that is given to us is not a forgiveness which made itself aloof or estranged from us, even though He was without sin. How can we who are sinners then set ourselves above other sinners? The way of forgiveness is inherently a way of solidarity.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is certainly the word of a gracious God. It is also the cry of a Man who yielded Himself to utter solidarity with us all.

The Communion of Prayer

July 7, 2009

MonkPrayerNow it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).

Have you ever wondered what Jesus did when He prayed all night? Have you ever tried to pray all night? If your conception of prayer is a monologue of needs, information and requests, then your experience of prayer is either that it is very short or very repetitive.

Years ago, in my years between high school and college, I lived in a religious commune (yes, it was the early ’70’s). From time to time in our efforts to live a life based in Scripture, we “kept watch,” though we had no guidance from tradition to explain the meaning of the phrase. Our practice was first to stay awake all night. Second, we tried to pray. The monologue model made no dent in the hours of the night. We quickly learned that in order to pray all night something else had to serve as prayer. We learned to pray the Psalms. Accidentally, we had begun to practice one of the ancient forms of “keeping watch.”

Fittingly, it was one of the simplest forms of keeping watch – but the experience was instructive. We began to learn the value of simply being present to God (who is Himself everywhere present) and attentive to the words of prayer itself.

It seems to me that Christ would have had no need to hold conversation through the night with the Father. There was no information to be conveyed – no requests not already known. The need to pray in such an intense manner is simply the expression of true communion – such as exists eternally in the Godhead. For human beings, that communion is most frequently expressed as prayer. It is a need greater than food:

In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”
But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”
Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.

And:

When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

More valuable than food – such communion is greater than sleep as well. Thus Christ prayed through the night on occasion. The practice has continued in the ascetic life of the Church through the centuries.

It is prayer as communion with God that concerns me in this post. Such an understanding is not simply a description of so-called “contemplative” prayer, but is properly the understanding for all prayer. Prayer is communion, expressed in words, in songs, in a presence that sometimes transcends words. Prayer is stepping consciously into the life that has been given us in Christ – and remaining there for a period of time (unceasingly is the Scriptural goal).

Participation in the life of God (communion) is the heart of intercessory prayer.

But [Christ], because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:24-25).

Christ’s “intercession for us” should not be understood as an eternal torrent of words; intercession is Christ’s union with us who have now been united to Him and thus united to His eternal communion with the Father.

This same understanding of prayer is at the heart of the intercession of the saints. Much confusion about the intercession of the saints has been wrought by poor images of prayer. We have reduced prayer to talk and intercession to talk to God about someone else. It is in this imagery that the Protestant question comes forward: “Why do we need someone else to speak to God for us? Isn’t Christ’s prayer enough?”

Of course, if prayer is just talk, then surely Christ’s words would be sufficient. But this oversimplification of prayer fails to do justice to Christ’s own prayer (as well as that of the saints). The intercession of the saints is their communion and participation in the life of Christ. By His life they live and the very character of that life is a communion with God. Rightly understood – that communion is prayer itself. When we express our own communion with the saints through asking their prayers we are giving verbal expression to what is already an ontological reality. As we are in communion with Christ so we are in communion with the saints. The Church cannot be other than the Church.

There may be those who reject the “intercession of the saints” (particularly as caricatured by inadequate understandings of prayer), but if they are truly in the communion of the Church then the intercession of the saints is inherently part of that communion. There is no Church that is not also the communion of the saints.

Our salvation is participation in the life of Christ. It is our healing, our forgiveness, our resurrection and our peace. Prayer is the sound of salvation – even in a wordless state.

Our reluctance to pray (let us be honest) is a manifestation of the primordial sin. It is not the time or effort we avoid – but communion with God that causes us to recoil. It is the hardness of our heart that avoids participation in the heart of God. But it is also His mercy that continues to call us to the life of prayer despite our selfish rebuff.

Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him. When He came to the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow. Then He said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Luke 22:39-46).

Salvation, Prayer and Communion with God

July 6, 2009

MACEDONIA-ORTHODOX CHRISTMASFew things are as fundamental to the New Testament as the reality of communion (koinonia). It means a commonality, a sharing and participation in the same thing. It is this commonality or sharing that lies at the very heart of our salvation. This communion is described in Christ’s “high priestly prayer”:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23).

The unity for which Christ prays is no mere “quality” of our life in Christ – but is our life in Christ. That this unity (communion) is the very life of salvation is made clear in St. John’s first epistle:

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have communion [koinonia] with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion [koinonia] with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 5:5-7).

Here our communion with God is described as a communion of light – though the nature of that light is made clear: God is light. St. John uses light to say that our communion is a true participation in God, in His very life.

This same saving participation in the life of God is presented in Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me (John 6:53-57).

Some time ago I wrote about the problem of many modern English translations in which koinonia is rendered “fellowship,” a very weak translation indeed. Our very life in Christ is trivialized by unwitting (I hope) translators into a noun used to describe church socials. It is a witness to how far removed many modern treatments of our saving relationship with Christ have become from the classic treatments of Orthodox tradition.

The compartmentalization of theology (ethics, soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology – and the list goes on) frequently results in a fragmented, disjointed account of the Christian life. When you view the massive tomes that comprise the average systematic theology it is a marvel that the New Testament manages to be so short.

A telling weakness of many “theologies” is their failure to give account for the most common aspects of our Christian life. Prayer is a very straightforward example. Many systematic presentations of theology have no treatment of prayer whatsoever, despite the fact that we are bidden to “pray without ceasing.” How is it that something so pervasive finds no place in a theological description?

It is just this kind of spiritual myopia that marks theology that has departed from the Tradition of the faith and set off on its own trail of creativity. Thus, much has been written on “predestination” (a word which occurs but a few times in all the New Testament) while prayer is relegated to lesser treatments in what amounts to a category of recreational reading.

The Tradition does not treat prayer in this manner. Prayer is so much at the heart of the teaching of the faith that it is stated: Lex orandi, lex credendi – “the law of praying is the law of believing.” This is far more than saying that liturgy preserves the most primitive and pure proclamations of the gospel (though this is true). It is also saying that prayer itself is a pure expression of the gospel.

This becomes particularly clear when prayer is understood to be communion [koinonia] with God. And it is not prayer alone of which this can be said: the whole of the Christian life – every sacrament of the Church – has as its foundation our saving participation in the life of God.

I offer here some thoughts from a post in 2007 on communion with God:

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What is wrong with the human race?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christian doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

St. Athanasius describes this in his On the Incarnation of the Word:

For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature ; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom : “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.” (Wisdom 6. 18)

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – the Orthodox Christian faith does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in our ontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, many vitally important parts of the Christian life are reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

We were created for communion with God – it is our very life. Thinking about communion with God is not a substitute for communion with God. Theology as abstraction has no life within it. Theology is a life lived in Christ. Thus there is the common saying within Orthodoxy: “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

This is our salvation.