Archive for December, 2009

The Heart of Forgiveness

December 10, 2009

Nothing is more difficult to our heart than forgiveness of our enemies. I cannot complete this small series on the heart without a few words on this topic. This post was written last March.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Heart Reveals

December 9, 2009

It has been said that “icons do not depict but rather reveal.” It is an insight into the intrinsic character of icons. Events that are seen in a merely historical manner do not reveal their true nature. The meaning of an event and its significance are almost never  apparent. Indeed, the world itself does not yield its significance to us by mere observation.

In St. John Chrysostom’s prayer of the Divine Liturgy, we offer thanks to God “for the benefits both revealed and not revealed.” It is one of my favorite thoughts within the liturgy. What we do not see in the course of a given day far exceeds what we do see. I did not see the many accidents that did not befall me today. Such things could be multiplied infinitely.

It is why our lives are properly defined by the state of our heart. Life cannot be measured or lived in a literal manner. Life cannot be reduced to what I see or know or understand. But the heart can see what the eye does not. The heart can be aware of the goodness of God and give thanks for His hidden hand.

The heart can also allow itself to become enthralled to the lies of the wicked one. Such a heart sees evil even where none is present. Fear is its companion and shadows mark its path.

This capacity of the heart and what it reveals is the meaning of Christ’s statement: “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (St. Matthew 6:22-23).

Yesterday a beautiful story was shared in the comments – worth bringing forward for more to read. It was printed in the September 1987 edition of AGAIN Magazine, a story told by the Lutheran pastor, Richard Wurmbrand. It is about the faithful witness of an Orthodox priest whom he met in prison.

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Always Rejoice

The first man was a priest who was put in jail at the age of seventy. His name was Surioanu. When he was brought in with his big white beard and white pate, some officers at the gate of the jail mocked him. One asked, “Why did they bring this old priest here?” And another replied with a jeer, “Probably to take the confessions of everybody.” Those were his exact words.

This priest had a son who had died in a Soviet jail. His daughter was sentenced to twenty years. Two of his sons-in-law were with him in jail—one with him in the same cell. His grandchildren had no food, they were forced to eat from the garbage. His whole family was destroyed. He had lost his church. But this man had such a shining face—there was always a beautiful smile on his lips. He never greeted anyone with “Good morning” or “Good evening,” but instead with the words, “Always rejoice.”

One day we asked him, “Father, how can you say ‘always rejoice’—you who passed through such a terrible tragedy?”

He said, “Rejoicing is very easy. If we fulfill at least one word from the Bible, it is written, ‘Rejoice with all those who rejoice.’ Now if one rejoices with all those who rejoice, he always has plenty of motivation for rejoicing. I sit in jail, and I rejoice that so many are free. I don’t go to church, but I rejoice with all those who are in church. I can’t take Holy Communion, but I rejoice about all those who take. I can’t read the Bible or any other holy book, but I rejoice with those who do. I can’t see flowers [we never saw a tree or a flower during those years. We were under the earth, in a subterranean prison. We never saw the sun, the moon, stars—many times we forgot that these things existed. We never saw a color, only the gray walls of the cell and our gray uniforms. But we knew that such a world existed, a world with multicolored butterflies and with rainbows], but I can rejoice with those who see the rainbows and who see the multicolored butterflies.”

In prison, the smell was not very good. But the priest said, “Others have the perfume of flowers around them, and girls wearing perfume. And others have picnics and others have their families of children around them. I cannot see my children but others have children. And he who can rejoice with all those who rejoice can always rejoice. I can always be glad.” That is why he had such a beautiful expression on his face. ———–

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The heart of such a man reveals the truth of our existence.

Guard Your Heart

December 7, 2009

I often think about the admonition of the fathers to “guard your heart.” It seems so obvious to me that the disposition of my heart has everything to do with how I will perceive and react to everything around me. An anxious heart perceives everything as a threat – a disaster or vexation in the making. An angry heart perceives the slightest hindrance as a great provocation. A sad heart can have a difficult time finding joy in anything. It is clear that it is not the world that is assaulting us – but our own hearts which use the world against us as a weapon.

There is a Greek word, philotimo, which when used in its spiritual meaning carries the sense of “responsive gratitude,” an awareness of deep appreciation and gratitude for all of God’s gifts. We do not seem to have a single English word for this disposition. But it is a word that describes the most proper and natural state of man’s heart. Philotimo is a state within which we can perceive the world in its truth and respond appropriately.

It is no mistake that the proper name for the Divine Liturgy is the Eucharist. Again, this is a Greek word which simply means “thanksgiving.” God has called the Church in its most profound act of worship to stand before Him in thanksgiving – blessing Him for the goodness of His creation and His great kindness to us in the coming of His Son. It is the Holy Spirit setting us in the place where we most truly become what we were created to be. Man is homo eucharisticus, or he lives in a distortion that is less than truly human.

Thanksgiving is a wall of protection against anxiety – for how can we fear that for which we give thanks? Thanksgiving is the oil of gladness that anoints and heals the saddened heart. Thanksgiving is the solemn rebuke of the wayward energy of our anger.

Guard your heart. Let nothing rob you of your humanity. Let nothing destroy the peace of your heart. With true philotimo rejoice in the presence of God.

A Heart Without Exits

December 5, 2009

The following is a short collection of sayings from the Elder Epiphanios of Athens (1930-1989). They are quoted from the text, Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit.

True love is like the flame of a candle. However many candles you light from the flame, the initial flame remains unaffected. It doesn’t lessen at all. And every freshly lit candle has as much flame as the others do.

I want whoever is near me to feel that he has room to breathe, not that he is suffocated. I don’t call anyone to me. I don’t hold onto anyone. I don’t chase anyone away. Whoever wants comes, whoever wants stays, whoever wants leaves. I don’t consider anyone a supporter or a follower.

Speak more to God about your children than to your children about God….The soul of the teenager is in a state of an explosion of freedom. This is why it is hard for them to accept counsel. Rather than counseling them continuously and reproaching them again and again, leave the situation to Christ, to the Panagia [Mother of God], and to the Saints, asking that they bring them to reason.

I have made an agreement with God: I will empty my pockets in almsgiving and He will fill them. He has never violated our agreement. Will I violate it? May it never happen!

My heart only has entrances. It doesn’t have exits. Whoever enters remains there. Whatever he may do, I love him the same as I loved him when he first entered into my heart. I pray for him and seek his salvation.

My worst hell is to realize that I have saddened a beloved person.

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Thinking about the words of the elder, I am struck by the notion of a “heart without exits.” It is like the heart of God – nothing we do can remove us. I think we often fail to understand that such love is not passive but is ever reaching toward us – ever drawing us. Our blindness makes us think that it is easier to do evil than it is to do good. God has so created us that it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown. Even so, kindness is easier than hate. Hate exhausts us. Kindness renews our spirit moment by moment.

Ever Being Formed in our Heart

December 3, 2009

In our modern world we sometimes forget that a single person is not able to do much on their own. If Wittgenstein was right, then we really can’t do anything on our own. We live, for good or ill, within a culture, within a social matrix that makes most aspects of our life possible. Language is a social construct; world-views are a social construct; family is a social construct and I could continue for quite a long period of time.

To say that we cannot do much on our own does not mean we are powerless within the constructs around us. Societies change – and for various reasons. A construct can be rejected and replaced. But where do we go for our alternatives?

An inherent part of modern societies is their belief that social constructs can simply be chosen and invented according to what seems best to a society. Thus we have seen the great social experiments of the modern world, from Communism to Fascism, to Free-Market Democracy and a host of others. All primarily sharing in the idea that societies are self-defining.

This is an aspect of what I have earlier referred to as “cultures of forgetfulness,” or “cultures of amnesia.” It is not the past or any inherited limit or commandment which informs the structure of a society – only the will of its people (or whatever will is governing).

This, of course, is in deep conflict with the Christian understanding of what it means to live in communion with the living God. The Christian understanding assumes and expects that God has spoken to us and made Himself known. At the same time He has also revealed to us what it truly means to be human (Christ is fully God AND fully man). Thus we accept that there are parameters given to us as human beings and as a society. This, to a large extent, is a function of Christian Tradition – to hand down from one generation to another the reality and living understanding of what it means to be truly human as well as what it means to truly be in communion with God. The Orthodox Church adds to this that the Tradition is a function of the Holy Spirit, ever revealing in each generation the one Truth of the one God.

The inherent problem of the modern world and its view of the individual, is that a culture is more than one man can do. Society is more than a collection of individuals, an average of what is thought – it is a powerful collective, forming and shaping the lives of its members regardless, to a great extent, of the individual choices they may make.

It is thus that we all live according to some tradition, be it a figment of our cultural imagination or the Tradition of Holy Orthodoxy. What none of us can be is people who have no tradition. The tradition we have may be the thin ice of modernity – but even modernity, though it be anti-tradition, is itself a tradition.

Thus the question of tradition becomes inherently important. If it is unavoidable, we do well to give it some thought. I have said in any number of places that the Orthodox Church is the last “traditional” Church. I would, of course, add to that the “Oriental Orthodox,” those Churches who refused to accept the Council of Chalecedon (Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian). But all other “churches,” including Rome to a large extent, have rejected Christian Tradition in favor of the tradition of modernity. I understand that to say this of Rome is controversial – but until a traditional liturgical life is restored, modernity will remain largely triumphant within Catholicism.

Of course, the Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy is now surrounded by foreign cultures. In fact, it has been an extremely rare thing in the life of the Church for it to be surrounded by anything other than a foreign culture, even when that culture was nominally Orthodox.

Thus the Scriptures tell us that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). There is a culture to which we belong within the life of the Church. That culture is not Byzantine, nor Russian, nor any ethnicity of the earth, but the ethnos of heaven. It has a language, even if the language is spoken in many languages of this world. The Church has a way of taking language and raising it up to become the language of heaven. There is an art with a grammar that refers us beyond itself and to the coming reality of heaven. And we have a King who sits enthroned before us and within us. Praying, confessing, forgiving all for everything, this culture is ever being formed in our heart.

It is, of course, a difficult task to live with our “citizenship in heaven.” The powers outside the Church – especially these modern powers – want the Church to be a subset of their ethnos – a part of the larger culture. But how do you fit the whole of heaven into the small confines of a single human culture? The culture of the Church will either cease to be the Church, if it agrees to become but an artifact of something else, or it will come the empty tomb of Christ – proclaiming that the “kingdoms of this world are becoming the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ.”

What can one man do? He can refuse to be reduced to a receptacle for modernity. He can proclaim the reality of his Baptism. And he can pray, fast, repent, give alms, forgive as though these were the most important activities in his life. In the Kingdom of God these are the “coin of the realm.” He can become “rich towards God.”

This has apparently been possible in the very worst of human circumstances. Even the Gulag had its saints. What can one man do? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

The Treasures of the Heart

December 2, 2009

A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. Matthew 12:34-35

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

St. Macarius (H.43.7)

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More thoughts on the place of the heart in our Christian life…

Christ’s teaching on the heart points to it as the very center of our life. He does not describe it as inherently good or inherently bad. It is inherently central. It is that place in the core of our existence from which all words and actions flow. And so Christ tells us simply that if the treasure of our heart is good – it will be evidenced by the good things we say and do – and, conversely, if the treasure of our heart is evil – it, too, will be evidenced by the evil things we say and do. What we should take from this is the realization that we are daily laying up treasure (good or evil) in the heart.

I recently gave some thought to St. Macarius’ saying on the treasures of the heart – that we find dragons and lions, poisonous beasts, etc., and that we find God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace. My thoughts stayed with his imagery as I walked myself through the day. It was obvious that over the course of the day I myself added to the treasures of my heart – and to some extent – others added to that treasure as well.

One image that came to me was travel on our busy freeways. In East Tennessee it seems that our interstate highway system is in a constant state of “under construction.” At times traffic is heavy, too fast, and frightening (especially if you add in cell-phone usage and the like as we zip along at freeway speeds). The image that came to mind was of cars barreling down the highway with dragons and lions and poisonous beasts pouring out the windows as travelers cursed one another on their daily commute. “Road rage” is a common phenomenon all across the nation. I wondered how we would react if we could actually see the “treasures” of our heart pouring out of our cars.

The same image could be applied across the whole of the day. For we are either bringing forth good out of the treasure of a good heart or pouring out dragons from the treasure of an evil heart.

There was an additional thought. The nature of the heart’s treasure is their inexhaustibility. When we pour forth our treasure we do not see its decrease. Quite the opposite – dragons begat dragons. And in the same way, every act of kindness of mercy does not diminish the kindness and mercy of our heart but multiplies them. Kindness begats kindness.

And so it is that over the course of every day we not only nurture the treasure of our own heart (for good or ill), we also add, or attempt to add, to the treasures of those around us. Some of the poisonous beasts that I find within my heart have been dwelling there a long time – placed there even when I was a child.

And so a significant question for all of us (daily) is: what treasure do I share with others?

Meditating on such imagery should also drive us deeper into repentance (not guilt, but repentance). What am I doing with the beasts that inhabit my heart? Frequent confession – telling the truth about the state of my heart is important. But equally important (perhaps moreso) is the attention we should give to the good treasures that are so lacking. Every act of kindness and mercy, every effort towards forgiveness of everyone for everything, does not exhaust the heart but stores up good treasures in the presence of the good God. Avoiding evil is an effort not to do something. I always find that such efforts alone are very weak indeed. The man who is busy being kind cannot be busy being evil. One of the powers of goodness is that it actually has substance rather than absence. And so St. Paul exhorts us, “Overcome evil by doing good” (Romans 12:21).

Dragons depart…