Archive for January, 2010

The Opacity of Sin

January 12, 2010

“And this is the condemnation: that the light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the light for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

There is an opacity to sin: we do not see through it. Sin sheds light on nothing beyond itself. It refers only to itself and because of this it is darkness.

It is the nature of light to give beyond itself and what it illumines becomes light as well to a certain extent. Light always reaches out. Light is never turned inwards.

In the painting of icons – the use of “light” is extremely important. Generally, icons are painted beginning with darker colors, each successive color being lighter. The very last touches are themselves called “the light.” Often they are white (sometimes gold) and, to a degree, mark those places that are closest to the viewer. It is also of importance that shadow is usually not part of an icon. The exception to this is the darkness of figures such as the demons when they are portrayed at all. It is also of note that holy figures in icons are never portrayed in pure profile or with their faces turned completely away from the viewer. We may see them turned slightly, gazing on the Savior, but never in pure profile.

I am not an iconographer, but what little I have learned over the years has been instructive and the subject of frequent reflection. The use of light and the rules for its use are a representation of the holy life and the character of righteousness, as well as the character of sin.

I recall a conversation with a very iconographer once about materials. The traditional medium for a panel icon is egg-tempera. I asked about other materials, such as oil paint. I received an immediate response (almost of disgust). “No. It is opaque!”

Light cannot enter and pass back from such a medium – certainly not in a manner similar to that of egg tempera.

But my point in writing is not to think of icon-technique, but rather the opacity of sin. Reflection on icons is deeply important, for we ourselves are icons (images). Icons are not meant to be opaque.

The light of the glory of God is not given to us in order to “spotlight” us as though we were an antique on display. The light shines and illumines us by becoming both part of us and being reflected from within us. “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The light that shines from us is not our own light, but the reflected glory of God. Neither are the works our works, but the works of God given to us by grace. Thus the light that shines from us reveals the glory of God, the author of all good things.

Light and grace shine on everything and everyone. Without the grace of God (which is His life) nothing would exist or live. The creation is not self-existent but is rather contingent. The opacity of sin is not a quality of the light which it receives, but rather the quality of its own existence, such that it is turned away from the light and has reference only to itself. The most common word used by the fathers for the “root” sin is philautia (“self-love”). Turned towards ourselves and our own contingent existence, the light of grace simply disappears within us. It is given and received (else we would cease to be) but it does not do as is intended. It does not lighten and reflect. It simply disappears within the self-sustained shadows of our own world.

This is the existential hades of human life. Traditinally, hades, or sheol, was understood to be a place where no sound was heard, though the silence was not the stillness of heaven. It is the voiceless void where no praise and thanksgiving are heard. It is not a silence that is fullness, but a silence that is emptiness. “In the grave who shall give you thanks?” (Psalm 6:5).

When Job speaks of Sheol he says:

I go to the place from which I shall not return,
To the land of darkness and the shadow of death,
A land as dark as darkness itself,
As the shadow of death, without any order,
Where even the light is like darkness.

However we are to understand Hades and Hell in a metaphysical sense, we can already understand them on an existential level – particularly in the imagery given us by Christ as the preference of darkness to light (because our deeds are evil). No light comes from evil deeds for they are not the works of grace. Rather, they are our own self-generated actions whose purpose is utterly self-referential. Brought into the light, they are revealed as lacking any true existence. They are opaque.

Repentance, in these terms, can be easily understood: it is a turning from darkness to light (metanoia). The cry of repentance is not, “I promise to do good deeds from now on,” but the cry, “Lord, have mercy!” For we have no good deeds of our own to perform. We have nothing self-referential that has the character of offering. Instead we say, “Thine own of thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all!” “Lord, have mercy!” is a cry for the light and a turning to the light. It is a renunciation of a self-referential existence and an embracing of true existence – one lived in and through the light.

And the light shines and the darkness does not overcome it. Though our evil deeds disappear in the clear light of God’s grace, we ourselves are saved (1 Cor. 3:15).

To live as the image of God is to live fully in the light of God – the opacity of our hearts transformed.

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).

And,

…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.

The Allegory of All Things

January 11, 2010

Andrew Louth, writing in his book, Discerning the Mystery, says:

If we look back to the Fathers, and the tradition, for inspiration as to the nature of theology, there is one thing we meet which must be paused over and discussed in some detail: and that is their use of allegory in interpreting the Scriptures. We can see already that for them it was not a superfluous, stylistic habit, something we can fairly easily lop off from the trunk of Patristic theology. Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures. Of course the question of allegory in the Fathers is complex (and often rendered unduly complicated by our own embarrassment about allegory): but whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.

I have quoted Louth at some length to make a point. His characterization of a search for a “deeper meaning” is a hallmark of Patristic thought about Scripture. They do not all call it “allegory,” indeed, it was and is called by many names (theoria, etc.). But all shared a common sense that there was something behind or beyond the text that confronted them.

I have written about this topic primarily under the heading of iconicity – a word I use to connote the referential character of not just the text we read, but the world we inhabit. The world as pure object, as a collection of self-contained and self-explaining things (of which people are but examples) is a world that is foreign to the perception of traditional Christianity. Though this is true, it is, nevertheless, the world-view that is increasingly offered to us in a secularized world. Others may afford us the luxury of believing that something has reference beyond itself, but only do so as a courtesy, a social bargain. We allow others to infer meaning (where secularly none exists) simply out of respect for their will. If you want the world to be referential, I will respect that, remembering, however, that this is only “true for you.”

The classical Christian claim is not the same thing as relativist courtesy. The text has a deeper meaning not because I infer it but because I discern it. The meaning is real and true. Indeed the classical Christian claim is that the truth of things (and not just texts) is to be found precisely in their referential character and in that to which they refer.

To know the personal God is to know God in the manner in which persons are known. The content of a person always has an infinite quality (and this is especially so of God). And that content always has a referential quality as well. Thus, to know Christ is also to know Him as Son, and hence the Son of the Father. “No one knows the Father but by me,” Christ says. For the person of the Father (as is indicated by the name revealed to us) is always referential to the Son (as the Son is to the Father).

And this must be said even of human persons. We never know each other exhaustively nor in the crass manner of modern objectivism. For each of us, fearfully and wonderfully made, is also infinitely referential. Thus knowledge of another is perhaps better described as relation or participation. It cannot mean comprehension.

The same is true of the text of Scripture. To read the text of Scripture without the constant and abiding sense that there is more here than I can see or understand is not to have read Scripture at all, or at least to have read it badly.

St. Antony the Great was once asked by a philosopher where were his books. He replied, “My book, O philosopher, is the world.” St. Paul also sees this aspect of creation: “For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20).

This capacity of creation, for much of the modern world, has become the opacity of creation. We can see no further than the thing itself. Modern man is in danger of losing his ability to read the references of everything about him. And with that loss comes the diminution of everything, including himself.

The world and all that is in it is given to us as icon – not because it has no value in itself – but because the value it has in itself is the gift of God – and this is seen in its iconicity.

At Theophany, the waters of the world are revealed to be both Hades and the gate of Paradise. In Christ’s journey within and through the Church, everything is revealed to be such a place. You are my entry into Paradise as clearly as you may also be my entry into Hades. Love alone reveals things for what they are, and transforms them into what they were always intended to be. It is the gift of God.

Let No Anger Arise

January 10, 2010

One of the brothers asked Isidore, the priest of Scetis, “Why are the demons so afraid of you”?

” He said, “Ever since I became a monk, I have been trying not to let anger rise as far as my mouth.”

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In a culture which speaks and only later repents (if at all) such self-control is mighty indeed. There is much that is offered for the internet which time and hesitancy would have helped enormously. Words do have consequences. Though none of us here are likely to write something that turns the tide in favor of the faith (at least not by argument) nonetheless, we write. But for everything we write and everything that is read an event will happen. To write in a manner in which the truth is made winsome or, at the very least, kind, is a great accomplishment.

Imagine the writer who could say, “Ever since I began to write, I have been trying not to let anger rise as far as my fingers.” I suspect demons would fear him as well.

In the struggle which none of us can avoid – let us give our common enemy no comfort. Kindness, even to strangers, even to those who are wrong, will not violate any commandment of   God and will greatly frustrate those who do not wish any of us anything well.

May the blessings of God come to one and all this day!

There Be Dragons…

January 6, 2010

Today marks one of the greatest feasts of the Orthodox year (New Calendar), the Feast of Theophany, Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan river. Across the world Orthodox Christians will gather after the Liturgy to bless the waters: the ocean, a river, a spring, etc.

Every feast day in Orthodoxy is connected to the Feast of Pascha, because Pascha is God’s great act of salvation. However, some feasts show this connection more clearly than others. Three feasts in the year share the same pattern of services: Pascha, Nativity, and Theophany. Each has a Vesperal Liturgy on its Eve and a Vigil the night before (with occasional variances).

The icons of the three feasts are strikingly similar, with Christ descending into a background that is usually rendered with darkness. At Pascha the darkness is the darkness of death and Hell where Christ has gone to raise the dead. At Nativity the darkness is the cave in which he is born. This darkness is the darkness of the world that is caught in sin and death – but it is the same darkness as Hell. At Theophany the icon depicts Christ standing on the waters of the Jordan – but the waters themselves are depicted as dark, or at least highlighted with a dark background. The darkness at this feast is precisely the same darkness as that pictured in the icon of Pascha. For Theophany is the feast of Christ’s baptism – and baptism, St. Paul tells us is a baptism into the death of Christ. His Baptism is a prefigurement of His death.

Thus the waters of the Jordan are revealed as Hades. Christ’s descent into the waters becomes his descent into Hades where he “leads captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8) and sets free those who have been held in bondage to death. The vigil of Theophany, like the vigil of Pascha, includes the reading of the book of the prophet Jonah – the reluctant messenger of God who was thrown overboard by his companions and swallowed by a great fish. This book is read because it contains the same image as the icons – the descent into the depths of Hades.

Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

At the Vespers of Theophany we hear this phrase:

Thou hast bowed Thine head before the Forerunner and hast crushed the heads of the dragons. Thou hast descended into the waters and hast given light to all things, that they may glorify Thee, O Savior, the Enlightenment of our souls.

The phrase, “crushed the heads of the dragons,” comes from Psalm 74:

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea by thy might; thou didst break the heads of the dragons on the waters. Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan, thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

In this Psalm, God is recalled both as Creator, but also as the one who has brought order into the chaos of the world. He not only creates the waters, but crushes the heads of the dragons that dwell there. The “dragons” in the Psalm are an old English translation of the Hebrew word for whales. But the word “dragon” is an apt description of the demonic forces that are defeated in Christ’s death and its prefigurement in Baptism.

In the prayer over the waters, the priest says:

Thou didst sanctify the streams of Jordan, sending down from heaven Thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons that lurked therein.

This same prayer is prayed over the waters blessed on the day of Theophany. The service for the blessing of the waters usually takes place by a local body of water.. At the very heart of the blessing a hand cross is thrown out into the water three times and retrieved with the singing of the festal troparion:

When Thou O Christ wast baptized in the Jordan,
the worship ofthe Trinity was made manifest.
For the voice of the Father bear witness to Thee,
and called Thee His beloved Son.
And the Spirit in the form of a dove,
confirmed the truthfulness of His word.
O Christ, our God who hast revealed Thyself,
and hast enlightened the world glory to Thee!

The same troparion is sung throughout the homes of the faithful during the season after Theophany as the priest carries the same blessing into our homes. Theophany is a proclamation to nature itself of Christ’s salvation. Our lives have plenty of “dragons,” in all shapes and sizes. But Christ is victorious over everything that would destroy his creation – particularly the people who are His own.

Do Not Resent, Do Not React, Keep Inner Stillness

January 4, 2010

A very fine essay by Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA on essential practices of the spiritual life can be found among the abbatial essays on the website of the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. It is worth the read – even worth printing out and saving…

An excerpt…

…One of the things which is so difficult to come to terms with is the reality that when we bear anger and resentment and bitterness in our hearts, we erect barriers to God’s grace within ourselves. It’s not that God stops giving us His grace. It’s that we say, “No. I don’t want it.” What is His grace? It is His love, His mercy, His compassion, His activity in our lives. The holy Fathers tell us that each and every human person who has ever beenborn on this earth bears the image of God undistorted within themselves. In our Tradition there is no such thing as fallen nature. There are fallen persons, but not fallen nature. The implication of this truth is that we have no excuses for our sins. We are responsible for our sins, for the choices we make. We are responsible for our actions, and our reactions. “The devil made me do it” is no excuse, because the devil has no more power over us than we give him. This is hard to accept, because it is really convenient to blame the devil. It is also really convenient to blame the other person, or our past. But, it is also a lie. Our choices are our own.

On an even deeper level, this spiritual principle – do not react – teaches us that we need to learn to not react to thoughts. One of the fundamental aspects of this is inner watchfulness. This might seem like a daunting task, considering how many thoughts we have. However, our watchfulness does not need to be focused on our thoughts. Our watchfulness needs to be focused on God. We need to maintain the conscious awareness of God’s presence. If we can maintain the conscious awareness of His presence, our thoughts will have no power over us. We can, to paraphrase St. Benedict, dash our thoughts against the presence of God. This is a very ancient patristic teaching. We focus our attention on the remembrance of God. If we can do that, we will begin to control our troubling thoughts. Our reactions are about our thoughts. After all, if someone says something nasty to us, how are we reacting? We react first through our thinking, our thoughts. Perhaps we’re habitually accustomed to just lashing out after taking offense with some kind of nasty response of our own. But keeping watch over our minds so that we maintain that living communion with God leaves no room for distracting thoughts. It leaves plenty of room if we decide we need to think something through intentionally in the presence of God. But as soon as we engage in something hateful, we close God out. And the converse is true – as long as we maintain our connection to God, we won’t be capable of engaging in something hateful. We won’t react…

The whole of the essay can be read here.

Now Is The Change of the Most High

January 4, 2010

There is no doubt that God is changing the world – though most of this work is hidden. A strange part of this hiddenness is the work that God does within us. The work is not entirely hidden – I can look back and see change that has occurred in my life – it’s just that it helps sometimes to live long enough to see it.

Human beings seem to change at a pace that is entirely human – which should come as no surprise. Thus we find ourselves going to confession repeatedly with the same sins. But apart from abrupt personality changes, this is simply the likeliest and most human of events. The struggle against some sin is the struggle of a lifetime.

Some things happen quickly – in a “single moment” as we sing about the thief on the cross. But these are rare or involve decisions that have as their very character an either-or nature. “Either I am going to say yes or no.”

Patience is perhaps the most common word in the New Testament. Indeed, in its full meaning it is not just patience but “patient endurance.” Being patient is one thing, but bearing with the things with which we must bear while we are waiting is the stuff that endurance is made of. And, of course, if the change we are waiting on is in someone else (a lousy spiritual practice), the wait can be a very long time.

God is indeed transfiguring the world, and each of us in it as we give ourselves to Him. But this is always a day to day effort and generally a slow work. But occasionally – just occasionally – grace does what we would never do and we find ourselves already become what we could not be.

This is the grace of prayer, for instance. The marvelous gift of prayer when we did not think we could pray, or an act of kindness when our heart was deeply hardened. I give thanks to God for these small, sudden changes, gifts of grace that tell us not to lose heart in the long struggle. God wins. What I cannot change, He can, and will. Thanks be to God for His grace.

Having Then Gifts Differing

January 2, 2010

A brother asked a hermit, “Tell me something good that I may do it and live by it.” The hermit said, “God alone knows what is good. But I have heard that one of the hermits asked the great Nesteros, who was a friend of Antony, ‘What good work shall I do?’ and he replied, ‘Surely all works please God equally? Scripture says, Abraham was hospitable and God was with him; Elijah loved quiet and God was with him; David was humble and God was with him.’ So whatever you find you are drawn to in following God’s will, do it and let your heart be at peace.”

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Both the Charismatic Movement and modern management theory have given attention to St. Paul’s admonition on spiritual gifts. St. Paul offers a vision in the 12th chapter of First Corinthians of the diversity of gifts within the Body of Christ and their place within the spiritual life. His simple point (and he may have meant nothing more) was to note that there are varying gifts within the Body of Christ, just as a body has many parts, and that each of them is of value. His excursus on the gifts finds its summary in his chapter on love (chapter 13), for his concern was not to give a manual for the use of spiritual gifts, but to heal the divisive and competitive character of a dysfunctional Church.

Those few chapters became a central text for the various manifestations of the Pentecostal Movement. For some, the presence of the gifts described in those chapters served as proofs of the presence of the Holy Spirit and signs that the New Testament Church was being restored in a new movement of the Holy Spirit. In more subtle ways (and occasionally not so subtle ways), Pentecostalism made its way into mainstream denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church (the few examples of this same movement within Orthodoxy have largely disappeared). In a wide variety of ways various aspects of the Pentecostal Movement have left indelible marks on mainstream Protestantism, and, perhaps, Roman Catholicism.

Many “Church Management” workshops (in the Protestant world) use the model of diversity offered in St. Paul’s Corinthian passage as the model of the healthy parish. I have long suspected that there were problems hidden within the assumptions behind this use of what is, after all, a small excursus by the Apostle offered to a Church in trouble. The observations offered within 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 may have little to do with a “healthy” parish. On the other hand, I am certain that 1 Corinthians 13 is essential to the whole of Christian living.

Our modern culture, driven by varying market models, tends to teach us that everyone must have a job or a career in order to be “fulfilled.” Human beings are all too easily defined by their place within the economy. The same psychology is often carried over into the Church with people thinking of their place within the Church as defined by “what they do.” In such a context, “my ministry,” is an important question to people. The weakness of this question is its tendency to transform the Church from the “Ark of Salvation” to the “Spiritual Manufacturing Center.”

The question, “What is my place in the Church?” seems to me to be a question whose origin is to be found more in the culture of our modern economy and its view of the human than it is to be found anywhere within the pages of Holy Scripture. The small story from the desert fathers, offered above, is an illustration of the proper question for our lives – a question too often ignored. “What good thing must I do to be saved?” This is not a question (in its original meaning) of “what must I do in order to earn my salvation?” There is no question of merit whatsoever.

“What must I do to be saved?” is one of the primary questions asked within the pages of the gospel. Christ directs the rich young ruler to the commandments within the Law. When pressed, He answers the young man more directly, “Sell what you have, give to the poor and come and follow me.” The young man goes away sad. Today the young man might say, “But what will be my role within the Church?”

Our role within the Church is to seek our salvation – to follow Christ. We may indeed have gifts that differ (how can we not?) but our gifting is not about ourselves but about our service to others. And our service to others is not about ourselves (watching ourselves “do ministry”). All ministry is simply the act of love – whatever form it takes. And if it is not love, it is not the ministry which Christ gives.

The failure to seek salvation – always and at all times – is a failure which is a distraction. We are too easily distracted by our “ministry,” when that ministry is about our own “role.” A Reader “sees” himself reading instead of simply praying to read well for the benefit of others. A priest becomes aware of his “place” within the Church rather than simply doing those things which a priest must do.

Of course, we are fallen creatures and our life within the Church is easily corrupted. But it will be less corrupted if we do not import into that life the false images created by our economy. For the vision offered by our economic life is itself false: “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25). Our existence is not defined by our job titles nor our careers. Nor is our life in the Church defined by our job title – even though the title may sound spiritual.

Our life within the Church is lived towards salvation when it is the life of Christ lived in us. That life is manifest when it is consistently laid aside for others. It is the shape of love at work within us.

And so the great Nesteros could say:

Surely all works please God equally? Scripture says, ‘Abraham was hospitable and God was with him; Elijah loved quiet and God was with him; David was humble and God was with him.’ So whatever you find you are drawn to in following God’s will, do it and let your heart be at peace.

Every good work to which love draws us will work for our salvation and the salvation of those around us. It is the fullness of St. Paul’s admonition:

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men (Romans 12:6-18).