Archive for August, 2009

Being Famous Doesn’t Make You Moral

August 14, 2009

huge.96.480462The news story is so common that the name can be left blank.  “N. confessed today that he has been unfaithful to his wife and children and let down his fans. ‘I want to say I’m sorry for what I’ve done and ask God’s forgiveness.'” I do not believe that our nation is suffering a rash of infidelities. We are suffering a rash of cheap shots – easily made because the targets are too big to miss.

A Basketball Coach, a Senator, a Congressman, a News Anchor – these, and similar folk, are all people that our entertainment culture has “writ large.” The few minutes of fame afforded certain figures usually brings additional wealth and influence. Many of those around them are eager to use the cache of their presence for their own ends – sometimes the ends even seem good. Thus the commonplace headliner at a local evangelical church – the popular coach or the football star. It carries a not so hidden message: ‘Jesus is a winner.’

With every winning headline the target gets bigger. When human frailty reveals itself, the headlines that follow are bigger still. That a football coach goes to Church and believes in Jesus is not news. That he does drugs and chases women on the side – that’s news.

Hypocrisy sells.

The popular-figure-as-Christian-leader is an American myth. For years our history books were filled with mythic tales of the righteous founders of our nation. Not even ancient Israel had such righteous leaders. King David was a murdering adulterer. George Washington could not tell a lie. The disconnect between these two figures is the disconnect between the traditional Christian faith and the American Christian faith. Jesus is not an American and He did not found our country. He also did not coach at Notre Dame.

Being moral does not make you famous – and being famous has nothing to do with being moral.

I am not a believer in traditional morality – because I think it’s a modern invention. Conventional morality thinks in terms of a moral code well kept. Think Immanuel Kant as business leader. Proper Christian morality thinks of death and resurrection. Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live. Immoral people act the way they do because within they are filled with death and corruption. There is something fundamentally broken about the human being – and we often find our lives to be a mass of contradictions.

The moral man, in this understanding, is the one who acknowledges his utter weakness before God. Christ told His disciples, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Someone who believes this spends his life learning to depend not on himself but on the only Lord and Giver of Life.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the 12 traditions teaches that  anonymity is essential to the program. AA does not depend on famous spokesmen to sell its way of life. It wisely depends on men and women who successfully struggle for sobriety. What they do and who they are is of no consequence. All that matters is sobriety. Indeed a famous spokesman, returning to the bottle is just the kind of advertising they do not need.

The Christian faith is not helped by the endorsements of the rich and famous, the talented and successful. The resurrection does not need the testimony of dead men. For the Christian Church is a communion of dead men and women who cling to God because He alone gives life. We survive because we can share the good news of that life with each other. Anonymity is not a bad idea.

In 1998 I was received into the Orthodox Church. Several reporter friends of mine wanted to “do the story”: “Episcopal priest converts to Orthodoxy.” I politely refused the invitation. It’s not an interesting story I told them. I am becoming Orthodox because I am a great sinner. This is just the story of a prodigal returning home. Just another dead guy.

The Last Battle

August 14, 2009

IMG_0740The Scriptures end with the description of a battle that is truly “apocalyptic” in its scale: all the forces of evil arrayed against all the forces of good. It is grand theater, having caught the imagination of countless generations (and even Hollywood). I do not know quite what to make of the description. That it describes a reality, I do not doubt. What that reality will look like to its bystanders (if any there be) is another question entirely. Things that seem hidden now will surely be made manifest – but will that manifestation have to await the completion of things? My own suspicion is that the answer is yes. We’ll see it all quite clearly when it is all quite clear.

Another vision is cited in my earlier post and is worth a short ponder:

The answer to that diatribe [the argument against God and the goodness of His work] is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.

“Their lives frequently hidden from the larger view” … is the point which seems worth pondering. Why should not those who are having the greatest impact on the world be the one’s who seem most hidden? Christ Himself came to us in a way, though manifest, that was all but hidden from the view of the world of that time. Galilee. Really.

Met. Kallistos Ware relates this story:

In one of his letters, St. Barsanuphios of Gaza (sixth century) says in passing that, at the present time, there are three person whose prayers protect this wicked and sinful generation from the wrath of God, and because of these three persons and their prayers, the world continues in being. And then he mentions their names. John, he says is one them; Elias is the second; and the third is a person in the province of Jerusalem. Now the third person, presumably, designates himself, living in Gaza. But the first two, John and Elias, are otherwise totally unknown to us. So here we have the word of a saint, gifted with insight, that the people who were preserving the world from destruction in his day were three persons, two of whom are entirely unknown to history and the third of whom was a hermit in the desert.

The things which seem important are often of little true consequence. Does it matter that the President of the United States had a beer with two men? Does it matter that a hollywood figure dies tragically and suddenly? Does almost anything most people treat as important matter at all?

Who sustains the universe and why does it exist?

The difficulty with political schemes and grand plans is that even at their greatest moment – they have done very little. It may be that everything they have done carries less weight than the prayers of a hermit in the desert.

And so we are called to pray – to stand quietly before that “still point of nothingness” that “disposes all things.”

Such things seem quite hidden – unless the definition of “manifest” means “what God sees.” Perhaps prayer is not about my “prayer life.” Perhaps prayer holds the entire universe in existence.

The last battle may be fought quietly in a human heart that stands sentinel before God and says, “Lord, have mercy.”

The Inverted Pyramid

August 13, 2009

No greater image of prayer and the love of God has been given in our modern time than that of the Elder Sophrony’s Inverted Pyramid. The subject of such prayer has risen. I thought to share this as an effort to shed some light.

Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart

Picture 021The teaching of St. Silouan, itself a continuation of the unbroken Tradition of the Church, was continued in the life and writings of the Elder Sophrony. Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.

One of the strongest elements drawn out in both the life and teachings of St. Silouan is just this word of humility as illustrated in my opening quote. To be a follower of Christ is to accept a “downward path,” to follow Christ into the depths of His humility. This is not a new word, but echoes that of the Apostle (which itself seems to have been a hymn which the Apostle was quoting):

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:5-11).

This clear teaching of the Apostle, which only echoes the utterly consistent teaching and example of Christ, has a history of being obscured within Christianity – with Christians forgetting this essential teaching and following after a human Lordship and model of salvation.

In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.

I am reminded of a statement by Stanley Hauerwas, Protestant theologian and professor at Duke University:

The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.

in A Community of Character

In countless lectures and seminars in which I participated while a student at Duke’s Graduate School of Theology, I heard Hauerwas echo this quote with the assertion that “so soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.” This violent outcome is a complete perversion of the “downward Way” described by Archimandrite Zacharias and the Orthodox Tradition. Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

This same contradiction, in narrative form, can be found in Dostoevsky’s classic chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor lashes out at Christ for His failure, as measured in the outcomes of history, and justifies Christians’ use of tools such as the Inquisition as an improvement over the weakness of God. The argument of that famous chapter, as well as the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” mark the high-point of Dostoevsky’s summary of the argument against God and the Orthodox Christian faith. The answer to that diatribe is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.

The Icon We Love Most

August 12, 2009

An early post on icons – hopefully part of a short series…

Years ago when I was studying in an Anglican seminary (mid-70’s), I had the beginnings of my interest in icons. I owned a couple, and read what little was available on the topic in English at that time (believe it or not there was a time when not many books were available in English on the topic of Orthodox Christianity). One day, in prayer, I had an overwhelming urge to paint an icon. It was as though I had seen an image in my peripheral vision. It stayed there for a while – and I felt a compulsion to paint. I knew nothing about painting and even less about painting icons.

Southwest Trip 392Sometime that week I went out and bought art supplies. I mounted a large canvass on the inside of the front door of our apartment (the only flat surface we really had). And I began to paint.

In between studying and eating, I would paint. I would paint and repaint. It was almost like an obsession. I came to a place one day when I thought I might show my work to someone else.

One of my best friends at the time was a seminarian and an artist. I brought him in and asked what he thought. He began to laugh (not that the painting was that bad).

“Did you use any model?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I didn’t think you were supposed to use models in painting icons.”

“Well,” he started, “there’s something many artists know about painting without models. It’s that you tend to paint yourself. Your icon of Christ looks just like you. Can you see it?”

I never could see it, but an important point was made. I learned years later that icons are not painted without models – but that the model is always another icon. They are painted according to Tradition.

But I also learned something about myself and human nature. We like to make icons, but our favorite image of God is the one we see in the mirror.

An old friend, a veteran of many years in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me, “All you need to know about God, is that you’re not Him.” I don’t agree that it’s all we need to know – but it’s certainly among the first things we need to know.

That ignorance, the God whom I don’t know, is the surface upon which the True Icon can be painted. I only know God as Christ has made Him known to me. He is the icon of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).

What I painted years ago, was a false image, not only of myself, but of God. As the years go by, I see more clearly that I look nothing like Him. May God have mercy.

I found the following quote from Thomas Merton in an article by Met. Kallistos Ware. It spoke to me of the place of the True Icon and seemed worth adding to this post:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is, so to speak, His name written in us. As our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our son-ship, it is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody. And if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing; it is only given. But the Gate of Heaven is everywhere.

From Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

The Time for Prayer

August 11, 2009

A brother asked a hermit, “If I oversleep and miss the time for prayer, I hesitate to keep the rule of prayer. I am embarassed and do not want the brothers to hear me praying.”

The hermit gave him this advice: “If you sleep late, get up and shut your door and windows. Then pray your psalms. Both day and night belong to God. You will glorify God whatever time it is.”

This story rings very true to my experience. Most people fail in a rule of prayer because they fail. This statement is not a mistake – but a statement of the most obvious. The reasons we do not pray almost do not matter – the reasons certainly do not matter to the enemy. Fortunately, finding oneself in a state of sin is a very good reason to pray – a reason that is almost never lacking in our lives. I wrote the following thoughts at the end of 2006. Worth repeating.

MonkPrayerSometime back someone said to me, “Whenever I’ve sinned I never feel like praying. I feel unworthy and I just can’t pray.”

The statement sounded correct – I’ve had the same feeling often enough. But I kept thinking about it until the question came to me, “What am I waiting to feel before I pray?”

In the case at hand, I would suppose one would be waiting not to feel like such a sinner. And then I understood.

There is the story in Scripture of two men who went to pray, one a Pharisee and one a Publican (bad tax-collector for Rome) (Luke 18:10-14). We are told that the Pharisee prayed easily, lifting his eyes to heaven, and thanking God that “he was not like other men.”

The publican did not even lift his eyes to heaven but smote his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.

What struck me on reflection, however, was the puzzle of not wanting to pray when I feel guilty of sin. Having sinned, I do not wish to pray, I do not feel worthy of prayer. What am I waiting on?

I think, upon reflection, I’m waiting until I feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so I can pray, without realizing that such prayer is almost useless. Indeed, strangely, I pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” with greater ease when I feel like a righteous man than when I feel like a sinner.

And this is part of the disease of religion – for make no mistake – religion is frequently a disease.

Relgious feelings (the Pharisees were masters of them) are deceptive in the extreme. I think I feel like praying, I am in fact feeling “pious.” And it’s a deep tragedy. I am not ready to pray – I’m eaten up with myself as a pious man.

When you feel like a Publican, then you can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell me, “Father, I can’t serve in the altar today, I don’t feel worthy.” No doubt. But you’re in much greater danger when you do feel worthy.

Come in and approach God’s altar knowing you are not worthy and you will find grace and forgiveness.

None of this is to say don’t go to confession. But it’s good for us to say, sometimes, “Father, forgive me, I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere.

To see the truth of ourselves is a very hard thing. And to love God precisely in the truth of ourselves is harder still. But this He wants from us. Pray like a publican. There are so many more times available for prayer if you do. And while you’re there, pray for those who are praying like a pharisee. May God free us from delusion.

The Experience of Prayer

August 9, 2009

As a foolish man I go so far in this post as to speak of the experience of prayer. I write this not to speak of great experiences but, if possible, to quiet our minds, and to speak a word of peace in a culture that is full of madness and spiritual delusion.

dmitri-petrovthe-prayer-of-an-expectant-mother-2005There are many wonderful spiritual stories to be found in the lives of the saints and elders. Many people, having read such stories, easily develop expectations that such things as visions and ecstasies are normative for the spiritual life. They are indeed, not normative, but quite the opposite. Such experiences, though occasionally genuine, are far more often born out of our own imaginations and delusions or even demonic deceit. Orthodox writings on the spiritual life (such as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena) are abundantly clear about this.

There is an entire “spiritual industry” that caters to the desire for spiritual experience and related states of consciousness. The so-called New Age Movement is largely concerned with this. A significant segment of contemporary Christianity is enmeshed in this with deep confusion and delusion about spiritual experience. Compared to such things – the hallmark of the Orthodox spiritual life is sobriety (nepsis) in all things. Despite Orthodoxy’s reputation as among the most “mystical” forms of Christianity – it is also among the most cautious about the inner life. The reason for this is two-fold: Orthodoxy believes that God is truly real. It does not require constant reassurance from miracles and visions to believe what it knows to be true. But because it knows God to be real it is quite cautious about those things that are not or may not be real. The second reason is also quite simple: human beings, as sinful, spend most of their life in some form of delusion. The clarity required for the spiritual life is something that usually comes with time, much prayer, and not a little asceticism. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

So what is normative for the spiritual life? What should someone expect? The first thing any Christian should expect in prayer is to struggle and to fall. “Prayer is struggle to a man’s dying breath,” says one of the desert fathers. When asked what the monks do all day in the monastery, one of the fathers replied, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up, fall down and get up again.”

Having said that – there still remains something more that is a reasonable expectation. This, however, is the most difficult of things to describe. God is real and true and He does not begrudge us the knowledge of a living relationship with Him. Here I beg the reader’s patience, I will be a little technical for a moment or two. The fathers teach that “icons make present what they represent.” This “presence” is further explained as a “hypostatic representation,” that is a presence of the person represented in the icon. There is an awareness of such a presence – but not an awareness that presses other things out of the way or that imposes itself upon us. It is a very quiet, even subtle awareness that we are not alone. It should not seem frightening or haunting or any such thing – simply there. Our attention (mind in the heart) is so weak that such an awareness often comes and goes. It is not God or the saints who come and go – it is our attention.

And here I add a few words of caution:

The quiet presence of person we may know in prayer is not a public thing – it is an intimate matter of the heart and does not belong in the public converse of our lives (just as other intimate parts of our lives should remain intimate and not public). What you find in prayer should generally remain between yourself and your confessor. Even the little I have shared here is more than I would generally care to. Those who speak a great deal about spiritual experiences are either in delusion or far worse. They should be avoided as guides for daily living. They can be the source of great confusion and sadness.

I have mentioned icons in prayer. This is normative for Orthodox prayer – particularly on this side of the 7th Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.). To pray in the presence of icons is an Orthodox Christian’s proclamation of the dogma of that council: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” For an Orthodox Christian to purposefully pray without icons can also be seen as a repudiation of that council and its affirmation of the character of the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation (there are, of course, many occasions in which we pray in which it is not practical to have an icon present). On this side of that great council it can be said that we make icons because the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It is understandable that non-Orthodox who have no experience with icons are reluctant or hesitant about the entire subject. I am not concerned about such a hesitancy and do not suggest that the non-Orthodox rush out and buy an icon. I only mean to describe what is normative in Orthodox Christian prayer.

There is also the experience of better than a millennium and a half of such prayer. Those who warn of the dangers of idolatry (with icons) fail to see that Orthodoxy does not confuse an icon with the one whom it represents nor has it made such a confusion. This is the subtle point of “hypostatic representation” (which subject will have to be covered in another post). Christ is personally (hypostatically) present in his icon – which is not to say He is materially present in His icon. Christ does not become the icon and the icon does not become Christ. It is a place of personal encounter.

There is something perverse about the commercial culture of America (I cannot speak for other lands in this matter). Americans like to own things. I have remarked (with some levity) that Americans want all of the shoes of Imelda Marcos and the inner life of Mother Teresa. Thus we have the common example of people running about with lives of conspicuous consumption dashing to spiritual assemblies where they have wonderful experiences to share with friends over coffee. This is just delusion.

The experience of God is a sober thing and a sobering thing. It pushes us towards quiet and stillness and abhors the violation of intimacy. God is not a “high” (as in, “I am high on Jesus”), nor does God exist for the sake of our endorphins. Rather, we exist for the praise of the glory of His grace.

Those who regularly stand in the presence of the Person of Christ will gradually find that they themselves have become more truly personal (in its theological sense), though it is a mark of such personal existence that we are less and less concerned with what we have become: Christ is everything.

Prayer Before Bed

August 9, 2009

Some written prayers are simply better than anything you can think of yourself.  There are phrases in this traditional Orthodox “prayer before bed” that speak worlds. “…or seen the beauty of someone and been wounded by it in my heart…”

MonkPrayerTo the Holy Spirit:

O Lord, the Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth: have compassion and mercy on me, Thy sinful servant! Absolve me, who am unworthy. Forgive all the sins I have committed this day both in my humanity and my inhumanity, behaving worse than beasts in sins voluntary and involuntary, known and unknown, from my youth,from evil suggestions, haste and despondency. If I have sworn by Thy name or blasphemed it in thought; if I have reproached anyone or become angered by something; or slandered or saddened anyone in my anger; or have lied, or slept unnecessarily; or a beggar has come to me and I have despised him; or have saddened my brother or quarreled with him; or have judged someone; or have allowed myself to become haughty, proud or angry; or, when standing in prayer, my mind has been shaken by the wickedness of this world; or have entertained depraved thoughts; or have over-eaten, over-drunk or laughed mindlessly; or have had evil thoughts or seen the beauty of someone and been wounded by it in my heart; or have spoken inappropriately; or have laughed at my brother’s sins when my own transgressions are countless; or have been indifferent to prayer; or have done any other evil that I can not remember – for I have done all this and more: have mercy, O Master, my Creator, on me, Thy despondent and unworthy servant! Absolve, remit and forgive me, in Thy goodness and love for mankind that I, who am prodigal, sinful and wretched, may lie down in peace and find sleep and rest. May I worship, hymn and praise Thy most honorable name, with the Father and His only-begotten Son, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Beginning to Pray

August 8, 2009

I have written from time to time on the nature of prayer. I was recently asked by a reader to offer a reflection on “beginning to pray,” which seems to me to be an invitation to write about something that happens for me, by necessity, every day. I cannot write as a man of great experience in prayer. But I have had years of experience in beginning to pray. If the reader will bear in mind that I am an ignorant man – then he/she might find some word of help in these thoughts.

CommCong3IconVenStranart_EliaI remember the first time I saw someone standing stock-still before an icon in Church. It is the practice of Orthodox Christians, upon entering a Church, to “greet” the icons, offering an act of veneration (such as a kiss), and a prayer (usually accompanied by lighting a candle). What I recall about this particular instance, was the obvious concentration and self-abandonment of the parishioner. She was a visitor to our congregation and a Russian national.

There is variety within Orthodoxy, despite our common faith. The variety is often associated with different national groups. It is not the case that Russians always stand so carefully before an icon when entering the Church – but there was a spiritual “rapport” with the icon that I do not associate with American Orthodoxy – particularly in the convert-rich South.

My experience of watching the devotion of a Russian Christian within the Church is not itself an example of “beginning to pray,” but it is an example of how to begin to pray. In various editions of Orthodox prayer books (private) the following instruction can be found for morning prayers:

Having awakened, arise from your bed without laziness and, having gathered your thoughts, make the Sign of the Cross, saying: “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Afterwards, stand in silence for a few moments until all your senses are calmed. At that point, make three prostrations, saying: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Then begin the Morning Prayers…”

My observation through the years is that the small instructions to “gather your thoughts,” and “stand in silence for a few moments until all your senses are calmed,” are very easily ignored, though they have ever so much to do with “beginning to pray.” All prayer is an act of communion with God. Taking time to gather our thoughts and enter in to the living communion with God that is His gift to us in the Holy Spirit has everything to do prayer itself.

There is no need for us to “imagine” God (this is not the purpose of gathering our thoughts). But there is a need for us to actually be present where we are and to be quiet before God. This is far more difficult than it sounds. The distractions of the mind generally carry us everywhere (mentally) other than where we are. Prayer then becomes an annoyance, an activity that competes with the wandering passions of our mind. It is little wonder that we experience this competition as boring or irksome – as almost anything other than what it is. How can we experience prayer for what it is if we are not there to experience it?

The simple act of being quiet, of gathering our thoughts within ourselves, is essential to the beginning of prayer.

I pray Matins each morning at the Church. Frequently I am alone or accompanied by one or two others. I leave the electric lights off and pray by candle light. Lighting the oil lamps before the icons is, for me, part of the quiet act of gathering myself for prayer. I have also noticed that rising early for prayer has a side benefit: I am frequently too tired for my mind to wander. It’s actually helpful. It is not for nothing that monastics often curb their sleep in order to pray.

A second simple act is of equal importance: meaning what you say. There is no necessary superiority to praying with one’s own spontaneous words rather than praying prayers that are written for you. It is possible to practice either form while giving no attention to what you are saying. I have heard “spontaneous” prayers that were as “rote” as the worst misuse of written prayers. In either case – whether prayers are read or “spontaneously” uttered – it is essential to mean what we say. Reading things (or saying things) that have no connection to our heart is a guaranteed way to force your mind to wander. How can you be present with words you do not mean?

It is thus useful to be familiar with the words of our prayers (if we are reading). Spontaneous prayer is another matter – which I’ll say something about in a moment. Most of the words of Orthodox daily prayers are taken from the Psalms (or are the regular pattern of “Trisagion” prayers and the like). Teaching our heart to understand and mean the words of the Psalms is a discipline of conforming our heart to the heart of God.

Of course this requires learning how to “read” the Psalms. If read on a literal level or on a historical level, the Psalms will never rise to the place of prayer. Hearing the Psalms in their Christological meaning (and learning to unite oneself to Christ in that meaning) are essential to meaning what we say.

An example:

Matins traditionally begins with the Six Psalms (3, 37, 62, 87, 102, and 142 LXX numbering). Psalm 87 (88) reads:

O Lord, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is filled with evil,
And my life draws near to Hades.
I am counted with those who go down into the pit;
I am like a man without help, adrift among the dead.
Like the bodies of the slain who sleep in the grave, whom you remember no more,
And who are cut off from your hand.
They have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, and the shadow of death.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you have afflicted me with all your waves.
You have made me an abomination to them; I am shut up, and I cannot get out;
My eyes have grown weak from poverty.
I have cried to you, Lord, the entire day. I have stretched out my hands to you.
Will you work wonders for the dead? Or shall physicians raise them up so that they
might thank you?
Shall any in the grave speak of your mercy and your truth in the place of destruction?
Shall your wonders be known in the dark, and your righteousness in the land of
But as for me, I have cried out to you, Lord, and in the morning my prayer shall come
before you.
Lord, why do you cast off my soul, and turn away from me?
I am a poor man and in trouble.
From my youth, having been exalted, I was humbled and brought to distress.
Your fierce wrath has gone over me, and your terrors have sorely troubled me.
They came around me all day long like water; they engulfed me altogether.
You have put far away from me friend and neighbor, and my acquaintances because of
my misery.

A literal treatment of this Psalm will rarely find an echo in our heart. Certainly there are times that we feel “cast off” and that God has “turned away” from us. But this is by no means a daily experience or one that is present each time we pray the Psalm. Literal gets you nowhere. Nor is it of any use to have deep historical knowledge of the Psalm or even great expertise in the “original” meaning of each word, etc. Of essential importance is the Psalm’s Christological meaning. It is the prayer of Christ from Hades (where He descended in His death to free us from death). A useful way to pray the Psalm is to unite oneself to Christ in His descent into Hades and there pray with Him to the Father. It is also the prayer for all of us who find ourselves “in Hades,” as well as for the whole world (“which lieth in the power of the evil one”).

There are many such ways to pray the Psalms where we have entered into the prayer by uniting ourselves to Christ. Fr. Patrick Reardon’s Christ in the Psalms is a useful book for such study and preparation.

Those are just a few thoughts on beginning to pray. Be still. Be present. Let the passions calm down. Mean what you say.

I have not, in this post, said much about praying with icons, or the sign of the cross, or prostrations and the like – though they are quite important as well. I’ll say more in a subsequent note.

Transfiguration and the Bridal Chamber

August 6, 2009

IMG_0719There is a propensity in our modern world to break things down – to analyze. We have gained a certain mastery over many things by analyzing various components of their structure and manipulating what we find. It has become the default position of modern thought. This power of analysis, however, is weakened by its very success. Frequently the truth of something lies not in the summary of its parts but in the wonder of the whole thing.

This is certainly the case with the Christian faith. It is not uncommon for theology to be addressed under various headings: Christology, soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, etc. It makes for an impresive array of titles on a seminary faculty listing. The problem, however, is that theology ultimately seeks to describe or state one thing (or it should). That one thing, however, is so large that it cannot be spoken with ease.

If I had to use a single word to describe the one thing it would be Pascha (in its fullness). I cannot think of any part of the Christian life or revelation that is not gathered into the fullness of Pascha. It is one of the reasons that the liturgical celebration of Pascha is as utterly overwhelming as it is in its Orthodox expression.

Liturgy has a grammar, a way of speaking and revealing truth, that does things that cannot be done as easily in discursive theological writing. I have written about this previously.

For one, Orthodox liturgical practice has a habit of bringing elements of the Christian story together that are frequently kept apart – particularly in our modern compartmentalized approach to life. There are “theological rhythms” within the Orthodox cycle of services. Each of the seven days of the week has a particular assigned theme (Mondays for the Angels, Tuesdays for St. John the Baptist, etc.). Every day on the calendar has one or more (usually many more) saints whose memory is kept on that day. There is also the cycle of feasts that depend on the date of Pascha, and others that are determined according to a fixed date.

These cycles are always meeting each other and bringing their own elements and insights into the service. Thus those who come to worship are never “just doing one thing” but are always presented with “several things.” And, greater than that, everything is brought together as a “whole” and not just a collection of parts.

On the New Calendar, today is the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. The Church remembers His transfigured appearance before the disciples on Mt. Tabor, with Moses and Elijah appearing with Him. The material used in the liturgical celebration of the feast look at this event from almost every conceivable angle. One of those angles caught me by surprise – it was occasioned by the normal confluence of liturgical structure – but gave me an image that left me speechless in wonder.

It came at Matins on the day before Transfiguration (known as the Forefeast). During Matins each day, there is the reading of “the canon.” This is a hymn that follows a particular poetic structure. It consists of nine odes, each of which takes its inner meditation from one of the nine traditional Biblical canticles of the Old Testament (such as the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15:1 and following). The sixth ode is always a reflection on the hymn within the book of Jonah (whose three days in the whale is always seen as a “type” of Christ’s three days in the belly of the earth).

This is the verse that struck me:

Making ready for His friends a Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come, Christ ascendeth the mountain, leading them up from life below to the life of heaven.

I have generally viewed the Transfiguration in its own “compartment.” I have extended that consideration to include reflection on the Palamite doctrine of the Divine Energies, since St. Gregory Palamas used the image of the Light of the  Transfiguration for much of his theological understanding. But I had never made the leap to Pascha (to which belongs the image of the Bridal Chamber).

I found myself speechless. The idea was too full. The image of the bridal chamber and its affinity with Pascha is rich, in and of itself. The Church looks forward to the “marriage feast of the Lamb,” an image used for the close of the age and the fulfilling of all things. Pascha is that close and that fulfilling even though it also occurs at a particular moment in history in 33 A.D. The death and resurrection of Christ is the marriage of heaven and earth, the union of God and man, the fulfillment of all things.

But the Transfiguration is also the Bridal Chamber – a glimpse, out of sequence, of the fullness of Divinity. Christ appears with Elijah and Moses, the living and the dead, the prophets and the law, and speaks with them concerning His Pascha. And this happens in the context of the Divine Light – a brightness that was beyond the disciples’ ability to bear.

Our faith itself should have this quality of fullness about it – something that is greater than our ability to bear. Our compartmentalization of the world and our faith reduce both to bearable levels – but then we fail to live or to believe. Understanding begins with wonder – and wonder requires something beyond our normal limits.

May Christ carry each of us into the Bridal Chamber of the glory of that joy which is to come – and us up from the life below to the life of heaven.

The Fullness of Faith

August 4, 2009

fralexander I prefer to use the term “fullness” when describing the Orthodox faith because it is far more explanatory than simply saying that we are the “true Church,” etc. “Fullness,” of course does not deny this, but it moves us onto more fruitful ground. In this post I offer a short list of what seem to me important consequences of giving one’s life to the “fullness of the faith.”  This is a reprint from earlier – but one which bears re-reading.

  • It is to accept the corporate nature of our salvation. The model of what it means to be a Christian is to be found in the life of the Holy Trinity. Thus we live no longer for ourselves but for everything and everyone.
  • It is to embrace the Christian faith “without onesidedness” (to quote Professor Serge Verhovskoy of blessed memory). Thus we do not reduce Christianity to a tension between grace and law, or to an expression merely of the sovereignty of God or any such other reductionist models that have come to be in the past half-millenium.
  • It is to embrace the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, as the full and complete revelation to us of God. His words, His life, His actions, are the complete salvation of all mankind. As He said on the cross: “It is complete.”
  • It is to accept that the faith is larger than we are and that we cannot reduce it to anything less than its fullness and be faithful.
  • The consequence of this last point is that we attend Church always with an attitude of humility for we are standing within the larger life which is itself revealing God to us.
  • We renounce our selves as “autonomous individuals” and recognize instead that we are children of the One God who directs our lives in His commandments and He alone is the definition and meaning of our life.
  • We accept that the Holy Mysteries of the Church (such as Baptism, Chrismation, Penance and Eucharist, Unction, Marriage, and Ordination, are sure means by which God gives His very Life to us, though He may give His life to us in many other ways as well.) Thus we view this Life of Mystery as our true life and not simply an organizational expression of the Church.
  • We accept that we are only the current representatives of this faith on the earth, but that we are joined by a great “cloud of witnesses,” the Saints, by whose prayers we are aided and by whose Holy relics we are encouraged to run the race faithfully to its end. Thus we honor them as Holy friends, and our companions on the road of salvation.
  • Among the saints we recognize the unique place of the Mother of God, whose obedience to the word of God undid the disobedience of Eve, and through whose cooperation with the working of God, salvation became incarnate in the God-Man, Christ Jesus.
  • We recognize and accept that our salvation is nothing other than true and living communion with God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit. This salvation is a whole life and not a single decision. It is lived in a community (the Church, the Body of Christ) and lacks nothing for God has provided it with all that is necessary for our salvation.
  • We recognize the authority of the Scriptures within the life of the Church and accept with the Apostles that all of Scripture is understood only as it reveals Christ, for “these are they which testify of Me.” We recognize as well that Scripture is a gift to the Church and read them in and through the living Tradition of the Church as expressed in the Fathers, the worship life of the Church, and the decisions of the Holy Councils of the Faith.
  • We see in the world an icon of the world to come – the Scriptures as icon – the Saints as icons – the Church as icon and we live for the age when all things will be made known.
  • We believe that the fullness of the faith can only be known through the revelation of God as we follow the way of the Cross, tracing the steps of Christ’s humility, taking upon ourselves, as He took upon Himself, the sins of the world, and from within that humility praying for all to the gracious God Who alone can save.

I could, of course, continue writing until my last breath for no lifetime can exhaust or express completely the fullness. This modest list, however, seems a reasonable place to begin. In particular they are points which have been written about in some detail in the posts I have placed on this blogsite. God, forgive me, for I fail so completely in all of them.