Archive for September, 2009

Prayer – It’s Something Personal

September 7, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting the Great Crisis

September 5, 2009

IMG_1085As a companion to the recent post on the Death of Christ – the Life of Man – I offer this reprint of a short article on “the Great Crisis.” The Great Crisis, if I can coin a term, is the threat of non-existence, or relative non-existence. Classical Orthodoxy, following St. Athanasius, does not see humanity threatened with pure non-existence, but with a dynamic movement towards a “relative” non-existence, which some have described as a “meontic” existence (to get a little technical).

[If you want more on the word, just enter meontic in the search box on the blog and it will take you to more articles that involve this topic, as well as some good discussions.]

This same Great Crisis is the absolute epitome of what the Orthodox faith understands to be sin, or the root of sin. Sin and death are deeply intertwined. As stated in my recent article: Christ died because we are dead.

The Great Crisis is therefore not at all the same thing as an impending punishment from an angry God. This is not our fate. Rather it is the continued living in increasing modes of non-existence as we refuse to live in communion with the Only True God Who is the Lord and Giver of Life. It is this increasing mode of non-existence that is the “wrath of God,” though it is something we do to ourselves.

It is for this same reason that everything within the Orthodox Christian life is understood as a means to living more fully in communion with the One, True God. Every action of the Christian life exists for that purpose.

Because this is true, every work of our salvation begins in communion with God, continues in communion with God, and is fulfilled in communion with God. Thus our lives can never be defined extrinsically (from the outside), but only mystically and existentially. The mystery of our communion with God is not always manifested outwardly, but it will be, inevitably, because it becomes the true source and character of our existence. Thus we look towards the resurrection of the dead, and find nothing odd about the miraculous things associated with the bodies and relics of saints who have “fallen asleep” in the Lord. Nor are we surprised that God uses the material world as a means of communion with us, for all things are being gathered together in one, into Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:10).

And, of course, I only use the term “Orthodox” in describing these things, to note that there is and has always been a living, continual witness to this fullness of life in Christ, in full historical continuity with the Apostolic Church, proclaiming and living the same, one, true Life. This is the Orthodox Church.

The Great Crisis is answered in Pascha (the fullness of Christ’s resurrection) and has never been answered in any other manner. All things that seek to make themselves alien to Pascha, unite themselves to the Great Crisis.

The Great Crisis is not a problem peculiar to the modern world, nor any other period, but has always been present since the moment of man’s rebellion. It is manifest in many ways throughout human life and history, but is always the same – an abandonment of communion with the true and living God.

May God bring us all into the fullness of His Life.

Winners and Losers

September 4, 2009

Winners and Losers in Medicare Drug BenefitWe are a great society for competition – and America is not unique in this. What America thinks is competitive in her “Super Bowl,” pales in comparison to the frenzy engendered elsewhere by the “World Cup.” Several years ago I was in London when England was playing Ecuador in the World Cup. It was a Sunday afternoon. With my companions we walked across London heading to the museums, assuming that the afternoon of a World Cup match would be a quiet time elsewhere. We were correct. On foreigners (like us) were collecting at the British Museum. But we had an experience as we walked across town that taught me a lesson in world competition. A pleasant Sunday afternoon – it seemed every window in London was open. At one point as we walked along, we heard a cheer go up that had to be the collective voice of all London. “England scored,” one of our group remarked. Indeed it was the case. No touchdown in a Superbowl was ever greeted by such a roar.

Our competitive nature (and this is nothing new or modern) inevitably prepares us for a scenario of “winners and losers.” “To the victor goes the spoils,” the old proverb says. It is as if Darwin himself had hard-wired our brains. We understand the nature of competition – and since the winners write most books and almost all of history – little is made of this aspect of our lives.

The great contradiction comes in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. God has no categories of winners and losers. God has no competition and does not set His creatures in a competition. St. Paul uses the image of competition (“the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”), but he competes only with himself. Should he win – no one else loses. As the Scriptures tell us, “For all the promises of God are ‘Yes’ and in Him ‘Amen’, to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

A spirit of competition can easily enter into our activities as a Christian. Church growth can feel like a competition (“my church is the fastest growing…”). The same spirit of competition can erupt between Christians in the midst of serious discussion of doctrinal or other concerns. The result in this latter case can simply be the desire to win and not to serve the gospel. Who wins an argument is not the determination of the truth. It may say nothing more than that one person is more facile in argumentation. There are no prizes in heaven for argumentation.

There is a more important and more fundamental reason why “winners and losers” is not a category within the Kingdom of God. Properly speaking, our lives are united one to another. Christian with Christian, and Christian with all. Each of us is united to all of us. Your loss is my loss and my gain is your gain. This is part of the mystery of our existence as creatures who were made in the image of God.

St. Paul takes this understanding to its most extreme point during a reflection about the salvation of his kindred Jews:

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen (Romans 9:1-4).

Such is his understanding of union with his people. He does not say that his condemnation would mean their salvation, but he nowhere sees himself as the “winner” and his kindred as “losers”. Such a spirit is not within him.

By the same token, such a spirit should not find a place in any of us. Salvation is never merely individualistic. I have not come to know Christ except through the mediation and kindness of others. Their lives and prayers are mystically united to my own life and prayers (or lack thereof) and I find myself saved only in the context of the Church. As I have stated elsewhere, “The Church is what salvation looks like” (as disturbing as such a statement may be to some).

But the heart that has placed the spirit of competition away from its spiritual concerns is the heart that understands that if one loses, we all lose. If one wins, we all win. Such a heart will pray with compassion for even the greatest of sinners. We should not gladly see the condemnation of anyone.

Such an understanding undergirds our prayer for enemies. I should not wish my enemies to lose – only to lose their sin and to gain Christ. Such a prayer within me is itself to gain Christ – who for the sake of losers such as myself, became man and suffered the loss of all – the He might gain all. To Him be glory.

My Sins Pour Out Behind Me

September 4, 2009

MonkAbba Moses [one of the desert fathers] hesitated to accept a summons to be part of a council that would pass judgment on a brother who had committed a sin. A delegation approached him insisting that all the others were waiting for him. Reluctantly, he got up and went with them. He took a jug of water that leaked all along the path.

The council came outside to greet him. Puzzled by the water jug, they asked for an explanation. Moses said, “My sins pour out behind me, and I have the audacity to come here today to judge someone else’s errors.”

Hearing this, they forgave the sinful brother and sent him on his way.

Short Prayer for Enemies

September 2, 2009

050220-candlesThese two petitions are found in Orthodox Daily Prayers. Both give a model for our prayers on these topics:

Save, Lord, and have mercy on those whom I have caused to stumble, turning them away from the path of salvation and leading them to evil and unseemly deeds. Return them to the path of salvation by thy Divine Providence.

(a prostration is made)

Save, Lord, and have mercy on those who hate me and offend me, and do me harm. Do not let them perish because of me, a sinner.

(a prostration is made)

I often think the prostration is worth at least as much as the words. It is an action in which we can allow the words to sink into our hearts – and by God’s grace – melt them to some degree.

In Him We Live And Move and Have Our Being

September 1, 2009

mandylion_str_01St. John of the Ladder wrote:

Every free creature lives in God. God is everyone’s salvation. God loves believers and unbelievers, the just and the unjust, the pious and the impious, those free of passions and those subject to passions, monks and those living worldly lives, the educated and the illiterate, the healthy and the sick, the young and the old. God is like an outpouring of light, a glimpse of the sun, or changes in the weather. God touches everyone, without exception, through these things.

Abba Zeno told us:

If you want God to hear your prayer when you stand, stretching out your hands toward God, you must sincerely begin by praying for your enemies. When you do this, God will respect all your requests.


Apparently, when we pray for our enemies, our prayer becomes like an outpouring of light, a glimpse of the sun, or changes in the weather. It becomes good without exception.