Archive for January, 2010

Living Simply to Simply Live

January 30, 2010

I attended a clergy retreat this week led by Archimandrite Meletios Webber, Abbot of the Monastery St. John of San Francisco in Manton, California. His first talk of the retreat was on the subject of monasticism in the contemporary Church. It was a very thoughtful meditation. I was struck particularly by his description of a monastery as a “space” built on the four traditional vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. It is a very rich metaphor. I have written recently about holy space, thinking about the nature of our relationship to sacred places. The abbot’s meditation suggested that there is a spatial quality to our spiritual life itself.

The thought makes me ask the question: “What is it that shapes the space in which I live?” If the vows of a monastic create a sacred space within which he or she lives the life of salvation, what promises and vows shape my life in the world? Fr. Meletios suggested that all Christians live within the space of their Baptismal vows. This is certainly true, but the precise character of those vows remains a matter to be defined in each life.

I am not a monk – I am a married man. The “vows” of my marriage (there are no spoken vows in an Orthodox marriage service) are clearly a primary space within which I find my salvation from day to day. Marriage is the first sacrament given to the human race. My priesthood also frames a world in which I must work out my salvation. For every man and woman, the details of life offer a space within which we find God.

There are implications carried by this understanding of “space.” To speak of a defined space is to recognize that the life that I live has boundaries. For the monk, the boundaries are shaped by his vows. For the married, the marriage establishes boundaries: I will find my salvation within the boundaries of this union. One of the characteristics of sin is its resistance to boundaries. The first trespass is just that – a trespass – the boundary given by God is refused, and with it, the life-giving communion with God of which that boundary is a sacrament.

The commandments within our life, whether they be those that frame a marriage or those that govern our relationships with all, are not laws whose purpose is to restrain: they are boundaries given that we may live. There is no human life without boundaries. We will only be truly human if we allow the boundaries given by God to create the space in which we live.

One of the arguments of the icon-smashers of the 8th century was that God could not be circumscribed (placed in boundaries) and thus could not be depicted. The response of the Orthodox was that in Christ, God is circumscribed as man and it is the property of a man that he can be depicted. Every icon of Christ is a proclamation of God’s embrace of the boundaries of our human existence. The life of Christ is a representation of what it means to live as a human being.

Every God-given boundary is a point at which we are invited to lay down our life. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Love of God, love of spouse and family, love of neighbor, love of enemy – all love creates boundaries. Love establishes a limit which abolishes sin: “But 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” (1 John 1:7).

The God who created the heavens and the earth continues to recreate us – giving us a space within which we can truly live.

Keeping It Simple

January 29, 2010

A comment yesterday asked for greater simplicity. I am entirely sympathetic to the concern expressed and offer here an earlier posting which draws our focus to simple things.

I have written and posted numerous times that “I am an ignorant man,” which is to say that I do not consider myself a great source of wisdom and insight and that what knowledge I do have is indeed limited.

It is also true that wisdom and insight are in short supply these days. We do not live in a land that has monasteries everywhere within walking distance (or even a short drive). We do not have centuries of unbroken, living knowledge of the way of Christ in many places.

What we do have is a commercialized Christianity that panders to our culture and its passions at least as much as it considers the gospel. We do not thus produce a profound Christianity, but a passionate Christianity in which the impulse to consume remains unchecked and unnamed.

But to travel towards the Kingdom of God and to make true progress in the spiritual life is not necessarily dependent upon a holy culture or hordes of holy people. Indeed, it depends upon the grace of God and the very little that we know (if we put into practice that same “very little”).

In Christ, in the true light of the gospel, what do we know?

  • We know that God truly loves the world and gave us His only begotten Son that we might have life, true life, communion with the true and living God;
  • We know that this life is marked by love and forgiveness; even including and especially including the forgiveness of our enemies;
  • We know that giving is more blessed than receiving – thus we already have the means of being blessed;
  • We know that the Way of the Cross is the Way of Life and that following Christ on that Way means freely laying down our lives for others.
  • We know that we have been commanded to give thanks for all things, thus affirming God’s goodness as the true ground of our existence;
  • We know we are not alone – that many have walked this way before us and that our success in following Christ is of concern to them;

I certainly could add to this list with some further thought, though I find it is easy to state some things that not many of us know. What I believe is that, even in the absence of great and holy men, we can take the little that we know and live.

  • It is better to live seeking communion with the true and living God than to believe that God is somewhere at a distance;
  • It is better to forgive and to love even if it means we make ourselves victim to the hate and cruelty of others;
  • It is indeed better to give than to receive, even if I can give but little. No one can keep me from giving.
  • It is better to die for others than to die alone.
  • It is better to give thanks for all things than to be eaten alive with regret and bitterness;
  • It is better to have the saints as friends than to be famous or popular with those of this world.

I know that these things are small (though they are truly large). But such small things, lived and acted upon with prayer will make the way for paradise in our heart and write our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much… (Luke 16:10)

Mystical Theology

January 28, 2010

A question was posted recently about “mystical theology.” I offer a few thoughts (written in my hotel room) that might be of some use.

My first exposure to Orthodox thought was reading Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church when I was a college student. A friend gave me the book and urged me to read it. Lossky’s work read like one of the fathers from the pen of a modern contemporary. The word “mystical” in the title was new to me. It was a word that had many associations for me, none of them particularly Christian.

Mystery is an important word within Orthodoxy and fairly common. On one level, the Greek adverb mystikos, is a frequent direction in liturgical books meaning nothing more than “silently” or “quietly.” The priest is directed in the liturgy that certain prayers are to be read mystikos.

In another usage, the Church commonly uses the word mystery where the Latin would say sacrament. Thus it is normal to speak of the “mysteries” of the Church meaning nothing more than the sacraments of the Eucharist, Baptism, etc.

However, Lossky’s use of the word in the phrase, “mystical theology,” gets at a deeper meaning and a more essential part of Orthodox life and thought. “Mystical” theology is a reference to theology not as a set of ideas, but theology as a description (or verbal expression) of a life lived in communion with the living God. But the very fact that the word “mystical” is used to describe this life of communion says much about the character and reality of this life.

It is not unrelated to the article I posted a week or so ago on allegory – a reflection not simply on a literary device – but a literary device that is itself a reflection of the “allegorical” nature of reality. The modern, secular account of reality tends towards a form of literalism: what you see is what you get. In such an account, history, and some general notion of an immutable law of cause and effect, dominate the popular sense of reality. It is this same “literal” sense of reality that underlies both modern liberal theological thought (dominated by various forms of the historical-critical method) and various modern fundamentalist forms of Christian thought. The “allegorical” view that dominates the writings of the Church fathers has a completely different intuition about reality.

What we see is not what we get – what we see is not all there is. The mystical quality of theology is rooted in the belief that the ground of reality is to be found in communion – a reality and experience that is not an inherent part of a “literal” account of reality. If it is possible to have communion with another human being – to have communion with God – and for that communion to be something more than mere psychological interaction – what must be the nature of reality? How do we describe a reality in which such a communion is possible?

Orthodox thought and life begin and continue in the reality of communion. The Christian is “baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” according to Holy Scripture. The union of a believer with these historical/cosmic events in Christ’s life is no mere identification or show of loyalty, nor can the mere intellectual assent to the reality of these events that these events, be described as a “union.” Orthodoxy believes that we are truly and really united with the death and resurrection of Christ: His death and resurrection become our death and resurrection the very ground of our being and our hope.

With these things in mind, all Christianity should be “mystical,” and in many places this is indeed true, at least to some extent. The secularization of the Christian world-view has reduced the importance of communion (true participation) with both creation, other people, and God Himself. In its place has arisen a variety of forensic and relational schemes that only reinforce the loss of communion. A change in the meaning of sacrament (or the almost total loss of sacrament) has been a natural part of this shift.

The loss of “mystical theology” in the understanding of many Christians renders a fair amount of Scripture, particularly the New Testament, to be rather opaque. St. Paul writes (“cries out” would be more accurate) in Philippians:

…that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death (3:10)…

Such a plea falls on deaf ears where the understanding of the mystical character of our union with God is lost or diminished. St. Paul’s constant refrain of “in Christ” is an unyielding call to the life of union with God.

Lossky’s intention in writing the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church was to present to the West (and to much of the East) a recovery of this participatory understanding of our life in Christ. Every aspect of the Church’s dogma has had this communion with Christ in mind. Even the doctrine of the Trinity was carefully spoken so that we might better understand the saving union with God given to us in Christ Jesus. It is the very heart of our faith.

A Nature That Is Less Than Obvious

January 24, 2010

In modern usage, the word “nature” generally refers to growing things – “the great outdoors.” Having been born in the ’50’s, I have been the veteran of several “back to nature” campaigns. There is a sense, at least as old as the Enlightenment, that if we could only get ourselves “back to nature,” things would be alright. Some of the present day environmental movement has this sense about things. Green is good.

Christian theology also uses the word “nature,” but in a far more precise sense. The word was borrowed from Greek Philosophy and given a different meaning – one which eventually did double service – becoming part of the carefully worded doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as well as the equally nuanced doctrine of the incarnation of Christ (Christology). Later Protestant theology would take the same word and push it into further use – or offer varying takes on its meaning. Thus it is not unusual in some strands of Protestant theology to discuss precisely what is meant by the statement “fallen nature.”

The use of the word “nature” (Greek: physis) was also used interchangeably with “being” (Greek: ousia), and by the 6th and 7th century had acquired an extremely precise usage in the Church’s continued refinement of the Council of Chalcedon (457 A.D.). Perhaps the most precise usage was that found in the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor (whose feastday was but a week or so ago). His thought is frequently difficult, occasionally almost impenetrable. But much of what he wrote is quite important, even if often neglected.

I have been reading Andrew Louth’s book, Maximus the Confessor, with great interest lately and deep appreciation. I found a particular  passage (among many) worth noting:

Willing is a natural power, that desires what is natural….But with fallen creatures, their own nature has become opaque to them, they no longer know what they want, and experience coercion in trying to love what cannot give fulfillment. For, in their fallen state, rational creatures are no longer aware of their true good, which is God. Various apparent goods attract them: they are confused, they need to deliberate and consider, and their way of willing shares in all this.

Maximus (and the Orthodox Church) teaches that the nature of something (or someone) is not fallen. Everything and everyone created by God was created good, and in its nature remains unchanged – else it would be something other than what it is. Nature is an answer to the question: what is it? If it has a human nature – it is a human. Were its nature changed – it would be something else.

This runs counter to much modern Christian thought – where nature is either used in a less nuanced manner – or where the traditional teaching of the Church is unknown or rejected. It is a commonly held opinion among many modern Christians, that human beings have “fallen natures,” some taking this into a misuse of Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity and concluding that people are basically bad.

We are not basically (or naturally) bad. Human beings, and all of creation, are, by nature, good. Maximus offers a more precise understanding of our fallen state: our own nature has become opaque to us. We do not see who we are and what we are. We do not clearly see what is naturally good (the good that is naturally desired within our being). We were created for God, but this is not clear to us.

Thus, Maximus teaches, we find ourselves in a confused state. We have to “deliberate and consider.” Making choices is the stuff of our lives and we often do it badly.

None of this is to say that the confused state of humanity does not result in great evil – for it obviously does. Our confusion is more than a mental aberration. Our confusion is existential. Our own nature has become opaque to us: what it means to be human is not at all clear.

This can be taken a step further. It is the very desire of our nature to want God. But just as our nature is not clear to us, so God Himself is not clear to us. Confusion darkens our thoughts even when we turn to God.

Without the work of grace, the fathers taught, our confusion would leave us in rebellion against God (and our own nature). The Christian life, our growth in grace, is a movement from glory to glory, returning to the truth of our being, returning to union with God in whose image we were created.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor. 13:12).
But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).

What is not now obvious will be someday. What is not clear today will be someday. What seems confused and opaque will someday shine like the noonday sun – when the glory of God is revealed.

The Existence of God and the “God Who Does Not Exist”

January 21, 2010

There is a current “pop-sensation” in the writings of a number of “atheists” whose pronouncements are always sure to garner media attention. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others are current “go-to” sources for the media’s search for usable quotes from atheists. In many ways, the current popularity of such figures is fueled by “pop” Christianity. One mirrors the other. In matters of serious Christian thought – neither is of particular concern – neither has anything to say that should be of note.

Writing in the seventh-eighth centuries, St. John of Damascus offered the following:

But neither do we know, nor can we tell, what the essence of God is, or how it is in all, or how the Only-begotten Son and God, having emptied Himself, became Man of virgin blood, made by another law contrary to nature, or how He walked with dry feet upon the waters. It is not within our capacity, therefore, to say anything about God or even to think of Him, beyond the things which have been divinely revealed to us, whether by word or by manifestation, by the divine oracles at once of the Old Testament and of the New. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 1.2)

Indeed, it was noted consistently by the fathers of the Church that the existence of God was utterly beyond what we would mean by existence when we referred to anything in creation. Thus, if we say that we exist, we do not mean that God exists in the same manner. God’s existence is not like our existence – but utterly beyond – incomprehensibly beyond – anything we mean by existence. This important distinction is lost, of course, in modern conversations about the existence of God. In place of the reverential and careful statements of the fathers is the coarse pronouncements of modern atheists and their pop-culture counterparts.

Of course, St. John of Damascus and all of the fathers affirmed the existence of God. But they carefully hedged the word “existence” about with qualifiers, that it might be clear that the existence of God is not to be compared to the existence of anything in the created universe. We know God, only because He has made Himself known.

And though this knowledge, following the teaching of St. Paul (Romans 1:19-20), is recognized has having been “written” into the very heart of all created things, it is not the same thing as saying that the existence of God is “obvious” or that it should be compared to anything within the created order itself.

Instead, it is recognized by the fathers, that the perversity of our own hearts makes the existence of God less than obvious. The “pure in heart shall see God.”

Christians, therefore, do well to pay attention to this classical teaching of the faith. Arguments about the existence of God, often draw us into a level of speaking that forces us to say things that the faith does not say. It also tempts our hearts to think in a manner that is less true than what we have been given.

The existence of God is a profound matter, and never something that should be treated perfunctorily. That “I believe God exists” and that “I know Him” are among the deepest things that a Christian can say, and are a confession of the grace of God. We have been given something that is consonant with purity of heart, and should thus confess it with extreme humility.

More importantly, we should approach these profound mysteries with careful devotion and awe.

That there are those in our modern world who spurn God’s existence as absurd is tragic. But it should not be a cause for us to treat them as though they were idiots. More foolish are those who too easily assert God’s existence without the proper awe and humility that such a statement properly requires.

We are living in a time of history in which saints are required. We have long passed the time in which rational arguments will carry the day. Nothing less than lives which manifest the existence of God will do. The world has heard centuries of arguments – has been subjected to crass persecutions and atrocities in the name of God (even if these were largely not the result of Orthodox actions). We have survived a century of extremes (Bolshevism, Nazism, etc.). That the world is hungry is beyond doubt. But the world is not hungry for a new and winning argument. The world hungers for God (whether it knows this or not).

The proper Christian answer to the hunger of the world is to be found only in the manifestation of God. Thus the challenge of a modern atheist should not be met with an anxious rejoinder from our panoply of arguments – but with the urgency of prayer that we might ourselves become an answer through the reality of the presence of God in our lives.

In the course of my 56 years, I have occasionally encountered such living answers. To a large extent, I believe that I live and continue as a Christian as a result of the prayers of such persons.

As witnesses of the God who exists – we should strive in our small ways – to become persons whose lives are themselves an argument for the existence of God – a God whose existence is indeed beyond all existence.

It is a tall order. Nothing less than life in the image of the resurrection of Christ will do. Nothing less than that has been promised us in Christ.

The Secret Place

January 20, 2010

Of all the places and spaces to which we should attend – this article names the most important. I suspect that our failure to recognize holy space in the physical surroundings of our lives contributes to our inability to find the holy place within our own heart. I am not sure which must come first – but I think we must know both. Without a proper regard for the ‘secret place of the Most High God’ and the secret place that is our own true heart – then we will know neither God nor our own selves.


He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. Psalm 91:1

There aren’t many secrets anymore. I live in a city that is known as the “Secret City,” because in the Second World War it was one of the main sites of the Manhattan Project where the atom bomb, or elements of it, were developed. I have lived here for over 20 years and have come to take the name as a comonplace. But secrets are all too commonplace. During the war this city held nearly 100,000 people, most of whom had no idea what they were working on. Those who lived around the town had no idea at all.

It is obvious to me that secrets can be kept. But it is also obvious to me that, for whatever reason, secrets are being kept less and less. For some, the word “secret,” is synonymous with something nefarious and evil. Things that are secret must be bad or we would let everyone know.

There is another place for secrets. Psychologists would place them in the category of “boundaries.” In theology we would see them as an essential part of what it means to be a Person.

It is important, it seems to me, that Scripture uses the phrase “Secret Place” to describe the most intimate of places where we can be with God. It is secret because I cannot share it, I cannot find words to speak of it. I am in it only because I was invited and once there (having removed my shoes) I am on holy ground and the “secret” is nothing evil, but the very Good Himself.

What do I do with the Secret? When I stand in the Secret Place of the Most High, I can worship. Anything less would be sacrilege. I can adore the Most High God, even if I can find no words to give voice to my praise.

Every human being has a “secret place” – that within them that is most intimate – that is beyond words – that is made for God. Learning to enter this place is a very difficult thing and only comes with time and practice. Our culture, the world where the most secret things in our lives are shouted from the rooftops, tells us to profane even our secrets and shout them to the world as well. And thus we lose something at the very core of our Personhood. Violated, every man and woman becomes a harlot.

The Church, particularly the Orthodox Church, has a very different attitude towards the Secret. It is not to protect the evil or to create a conspiracy – it is to honor the most holy within each of us. Thus we learn to approach the Secret Place with great reverence, even in silence and awe. Many modern Americans visit an Orthodox Church and find it offensive that the altar is occasionally hidden from their sight behind closed doors and a drawn curtain. It is an offense to their ingrained sense of democracy (a sentiment which has no place in the Presence of God). Where the Church would seek to teach them that there is such a thing as the “Secret Place,” that there are things before which they should be silent and into which not all can enter – we seek in our Promethian madness to democratize everything, defiling every secret place we can find, including the secret place within ourselves. [n.b. You will find some variation of doors, curtains, silence, in Orthodox Churches, including some whose doors stand open for the whole service, etc.]

The Church would bid us come to a very secret place – to come and discover that place within ourselves. Standing before the icon of Christ in the presence of His priest, we enter the secret place of our heart and speak what should often be spoken to no one else, and confess our sins. There is no legal exchange taking place (God’s forgiveness for your contrition). Here the priest only listens – he is forbidden to judge (though he may offer advice if it seems to help – it is nevertheless considered a great sin for a priest to judge the confession of someone repenting before God). The priest stands beside the penitent “only as a witness” as the prayers of confession make clear. He will speak the words of forgiveness when all is said as God’s representative, and then all that he has heard will be wrapped in silence, hidden in the Secret Place of the Most High, where God will purge and destroy our sins and make us new. The Fathers of the Church called the sacrment of confession, “a second baptism.”

It is also learning to recover our hearts, our secret place. The priest will never speak of it (on pain of being deposed). Indeed, it is normally understood that the penitent should not speak to others of what he or she has said in confession. Unless there is forgiveness of others that needs to be sought, all is done.

There is much in Orthodox worship and life that seeks to teach humanity of the Secret Place of the Most High and of the secret place that lies within our own heart. The lack of such knowledge robs us of our ability to worship God, of our ability to fully understand our own Personhood, of our ability to love others rightly, and of our right mind. Only a crazy world would destroy the secret places. Without them, we become human beings who have no center. Violated by the presence of others where we should be alone, we become mad with the madness of Legion.

Many visit, as I have noted, in an Orthodox Church and are offended at its practice of secret things, of the hiddeness of God. Some draw back at doors and curtains, others draw back at the exclusivity of the altar. I am asked, “Why can only men be priests?” And I respond, “It is not ‘only men’ who can priests, but only a few men.” Some few are set aside to stand in that most Secret Place and offer the Holy Oblation. Democracy and equality stop at its doors because before God no one is justified, no one is worthy, no one may make a claim. We come only as we are bidden. And those who have been bidden to stand in that place at the altar and to hold in their hand the Most Holy Body of our Lord, God and Savior, do so with trembling if they do so rightly. For they stand in the Secret Place of the Most High God.

The most profound moment in all of the Liturgy (if I dare say such a thing) occurs as the curtains are opened along with the doors and the Deacon cries out: “In the fear of God and with faith and love draw near!” And the faithful come forward to receive the Body and Blood of God. That which is Most Holy, which lies in the Most Secret Place, is now brought forward as a gift to the believer who receives in joy, in faith, in repentance, and in a renewed knowledge of the God Who dwells in the Secret Place, and Who now enters into our most secret place.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)

I will offer a short exhortation: if you keep a website or a blog, do not make it a place for your secrets or the secrets of others (as is too often done in both cases). There is no virtue in this, but only sin. Bring your secrets to God and stand next to His priest. There you will find love and respect, not judgment. And you will find a balm for your soul. This most public of all places (the internet) hates your secrets and would only use them to destroy you. Learn to be silent and speak to God in your heart. I offer this begging…if you have posted your secrets – remove them! Close the doors, draw the curtain and stand in secret before the Most High God!

The Shape of Heaven

January 19, 2010

This post from 2007 continues thoughts on Holy Space and its place in our lives.

I am feeling my way forward with this post – that is to say – I have some thoughts that are probably still in formation – so bear with me. That human beings have a particular relationship with icons is, to me, part of the dogma of the Church. It is not an expressed dogma – the Seventh Ecumenical Council made its defense of icons dependent on the right understanding of the Incarnation of Christ. But we can move forward from there and acknowledge that the Incarnation of Christ is itself, in part, a revelation of what it is to be truly human. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, “God became man so that man could become god, but He also became man so that man could become Man. And icons, as we understand from the Seventh Council, are possible because God truly became a man.

To extend all of this a bit further – I would want to say that like the holy icons, space itself- the place we occupy at any given time – is deeply important to us as human beings. We are not disincarnate beings who have no relation to what is around us. We are quite the opposite – we are incarnate beings who are deeply defined and enmeshed in the space we inhabit.

This space can mean any of the tangible elements of our existence: light, heat, color, space itself – and so many such things – all deeply important to us. I hope that what I’ve been writing seems completely obvious.

Of course our environment and space are important. So what’s your point?

The point is that we frequently act as though these things do not matter to us. I can speak only of the places I have been – thus, mostly America – but here, we frequently treat space as though it were not important – or as though it was only important for someuse and not for its relation to us as human beings. Thus we build ugly cities or build mindlessly, with consideration only for profit or some other less human purpose.

To this day, it is relatively easy to spot a building built in the 1960’s or early 70’s. Go to anytown in your state and find the most silly looking building and you’ll probably be standing before some bright idea of those decades. It was a time where tradition played as little role as possible in the creation of space. I am not a student of architecture – but I know what makes me feel uncomfortable or out of place. Tradition has often created beautiful spaces for the simple reason that people prefer beauty to ugliness. Beauty is frequently destroyed either by ignorance, greed or just wrong ideology.

But I do not mean to rant here about American architecture. My point is to write about the importance of space. There are reasons that Tradition properly guides the construction of Orthodox Churches – the building itself is an icon. Done well, the space in which we worship is an aid to prayer. Of course, this is not the same thing as saying every Church building has to be in competition with Hagia Sophia. But serious thought and care for such spaces remains important.

You can pray anywhere. I have worshipped in a converted warehouse as an Orthodox Christian – and I would rather have been there than in a heterodox cathedral. Nevertheless, space remains important. The small spaces in our homes, the “icon corner,” (in Russian it is the “beautiful” corner), are critically important and thus worth paying attention to.

There is also the space we occupy in another sense – the place of our heart. It is deeply important for the heart to be “beautiful,” adorned with forgiveness and love. Without such beauty prayer becomes nearly impossible.

I was with a friend earlier today who has just moved into a new house (“new” in the sense that it is “new” to him). There were things to see and admire (hardwood floors, nice views out the windows, etc.). But what he commented on most, and thus what led to this posting, were some of the house’s unusual places: a space under a stair, an unexpected corner – things that gave the house character and somehow made it a space well-suited for a family and a delight to children.

At Theophany it is traditional for our homes to be blessed. But this same blessing continues as we pray and fill our spaces with the love of God. Perhaps in time our cities will become better spaces (some are already – I have my list – and, I suspect, you may have yours). With prayer, and attention to the fact that the spaces in which we dwell are places in which we incarnate the Christian faith, our spaces can be the garden of God, the space of Heaven. May God in His mercy grant us all such places to dwell.

The Heavenly Spaces

January 19, 2010

“The Church is the earthly heaven; in these heavenly spaces, God lives and walks about.” In these words of Patriarch Germanus, we get a glimpse of the dizzying heights of the church building’s significance. The Byzantines treated space as God’s dwelling place. Their architectural problem was to create harmony between the natural scale of the human and the transcendent scale of the infinite.

Recent attempts to find forms adapted to the modern mentality have often resulted in drowning architecture in the surrounding landscape and in local preoccupations. It has become an anthropocentric religious art. It expresses man and his emotions and the aesthetic search for expressions and forms. Such art has completely forgotten the initial plan of the great workers and builders, the very mystery of the church, and sacred art which is always theocentric in its attempts to express God’s descent into his creation. It is perfectly legitimate to search for new forms, but these forms must express a symbolic content that remains the same throughout the centuries because it has a heavenly origin. Modern builders must listen to and appreciate the suggestions of the chief architect, the Angel of the temple (Rev. 21:15).

Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon: a theology of beauty


In thinking about the “heavenly spaces,” I write about something in which I am a neophyte. I have no long-considered opinions or thoughts about architecture. I do, however, know that many of the spaces we are forced to endure in our modern age have something terribly wrong about them. It is also worth noting that I write as a modern American (whose architectural experience often differs from that of many others).

There are many things that drive the construction of space in the modern world. Utility (usefulness) is clearly an important question in a world predicated on productivity and similar concerns. The neighborhood in which I live is strung with wires, connecting homes with the cable grid and the rest of our electronic and electric world. For most days, the wires have a way of disappearing – a mind’s trick that wishes to ignore their intrusion into landscape.

Last summer I began to hunger for “beautiful space.” Living next door to the Great Smokey Mountains, nature’s beautiful space is never far away – though I was looking for somewhere closer. Actually, I was looking for a place to walk and a place to relax and eat. For the former, I wanted a space whose beauty would give my soul something of the same “peace” I was giving my body in exercise. For the latter, I wanted a simple place where I could eat a non-franchised meal and not be assaulted by various schemes of faux decor.

I am not an aesthete, nor am I particularly demanding about food. However, I was taken aback by how difficult my simple request was to fulfill. Our culture is driven by something other than beauty.

The same is often true of religious space. Churches today are more commonly constructed with an eye to seating capacity than with an eye to God. The noted exception in America are the number (though still relatively small) of new Orthodox Churches being built. Some of them are truly wonderful spaces.

But there is something about the soul of man in the modern world (in many places) that makes beauty difficult to find or construct. If beauty is lacking within the soul itself, it is likely to be unseen even when it is confronted. I am certain that my “hunger” last year was far more than the desire for pleasant leisure. It was my heart telling me to pay attention to the disorder and distortions within myself.

Orthodoxy, in its fullest expression, has always urged human beings towards the beautiful. It is a recognition that God Himself is beautiful and the source of every good (kalos) thing.

One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4).

The Light of Beauty

January 18, 2010

Everything is beautiful in a person when he turns toward God, and everything is ugly when it is turned away from God.

Fr. Pavel Florensky


In thinking about darkness and light – and their role in our apprehension of the truth – I cannot but think about Beauty, which is a primary place in which the light of God made manifest among us (if rightly perceived). The heart that is full of darkness cannot truly perceive beauty: the heart which is full of light, cannot help but perceive it. Perhaps a measure of our heart can be found in how we perceive the world around us: is it primarily a place of beauty or darkness? It is difficult in the fallen world to maintain a witness to beauty. And yet those places where it is made manifest to us are so poignant, so piercing, that I think we cannot and should not remain silent about them. Perhaps they should be shouted from the rooftops! This article is a meditation on beauty and its role in our lives within the Kingdom of God.

The quote from Pavel Florensky contains a world of truth, indeed, from a certain perspective it contains the whole of the Gospel. It is both commentary on how we see the world (as beautiful or ugly) or how we are within ourselves. The ugliness of sin is one of its most important components – and the inability to distinguish between the truly beautiful and the false beauty of so much of contemporary life offers a profound diagnosis of our lives and culture.

To say that God is Beautiful carries with it also profound insights into what we mean by knowledge of God. “How do we know God?” is a question on which I have posted several times of late. If we ask the question, “How do we recognize Beauty?” then we have also shifted the ground from questions of intellect or pure rationality and onto grounds of aethetics and relationship (communion). The recognition of beauty is a universal experience (as is the misperception of beauty). But the capacity to recognize beauty points as well to a capacity within us to know God. I would offer that this capacity is itself a gift of grace – particularly when we admit that the recognition of beauty is subject to delusion.

In a famous passage from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov has this to say on beauty as well as delusion:

Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but an enigma. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am not a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many mysteries weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water. Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Theotokos (Madonna)  and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

Dostoevsky’s paradox, that “beauty,” for the mass of mankind, is found in Sodom, is a paradox that can hold two meanings. Either it can mean that even the corrupted “beauty” of Sodom can be redeemed (this is not Dostoevsky’s own intention) or that our heart can be so corrupted that we perceive the things of Sodom to be beautiful (closer to Dostoevsky’s point). We can also bring in a third – that of Florensky quoted above – that the “beauty” found in Sodom is corrupted precisely because it is turned away from God. It’s repentance can also be its restoration of true beauty.

I prefer this third thought (which is more or less the same as the first) in that it carries within it the reminder that when God created the world He said, “It is good (beautiful)” [both the Hebrew and the Greek of Genesis carry this double meaning].

We were created to perceive the Beautiful, even to pursue it. This is also to say that we were created to know God and to have the capacity, by grace, to know Him. Consider the Evangelical imperative: “Go and make disciples.” What would it mean in our proclamation of the gospel were we to have within it an understanding that we are calling people to Beauty? The report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople that when they attended worship among the Orthodox they “did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. We only know that of a truth, God is with them,” is history’s most profound confirmation of this proclamation.

St. Paul confirms the same when he describes the progressive work of our salvation as “the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If we would have our hearts cured of the illness that mistakes Sodom for the Kingdom of God, then we should turn our eyes to the face of Christ. There the heart’s battle will find its Champion and beauty will find its Prototype.

Is This All There Is?

January 15, 2010

A comment deleted earlier today contained a short rant on the topic: “There is no such thing as sin.” I have no idea what the writer thought the word “sin” meant – and if I knew I might even agree. I certainly do not think of sin as a legal category. But when I think carefully about the statement, “There is no such thing as sin,” I begin to wonder how someone who makes such a statement sees the world. My conclusion was to think, “Such a person must think that this is all there is.”

It is a significant thought – not something to be ignored.

Is the world that we think we see all there is? I say “the world we think we see,” because cross-cultural conversations quickly reveal that what I think I see and what someone else thinks they see are not always the same thing. I do not argue for relative truth – only for humility in the face of reality. There is more to reality than meets the eye and our eyes often refuse to meet with many aspects of reality.

It is with some thought in this regard that I wrote the previous post on the “opacity of sin.” There is something about us that darkens our perception of reality and which obscures the truth. That darkness and obscurity are the “opaqueness” that I have described. I am suggesting, at least for the purpose of these posts, and thus for just a few minutes of any reader’s time, that we think about “sin” in a manner that is not common.

It is common in our culture to conceive of sin as a legal debt, or a guilty stain, or even a propensity for doing wrong things. These have their uses. But the Scriptures, on occasion, use the imagery of light and darkness, of translucence and opacity, to speak about the nature and character of sin. It is a Scriptural image – but one that is too often ignored.

In the terms of these images, to say, “All that I see is all that there is,”  is to utter a “sinful” statement. It is a reduction of the world to the crudest, material existence.  To say that there is more than I see is also to recognize (in terms of these Scriptural images) that there is something “sinful” about how we see the world. We (sinners) are all reductionists. We hide and obscure, darken and contaminate.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We do not see God, the statement implies, because our hearts are impure. It is sin that hides God from us.

We are living through another week in which natural disaster provokes many to say, “Where is God?” Of course, many who will now ask, “Where is God?” said nothing the week before when Haitian children were dying of a hosts of curable and treatable illnesses and circumstances. The Christian answer to the question, “Where is God?” is “He is everywhere present and filling all things.” God is in Haiti: in some cases crushed beneath stones and in other cases removing the stones from those who are crushed. But it is doubtless true that there is more there than meets the eye. What we think we see is not all there is.

I do not offer these thoughts as an answer to the so-called “problem of evil.” These are simply some thoughts on the “problem of blindness.”