Archive for October, 2010

Whom God Would Have Us Be

October 28, 2010

When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. Eucharist is the life of paradise. Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven. But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven. He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being, He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World.


Perhaps the greatest single failure in the Christian life is the refusal to give thanks. Thanks that is dependent upon success or the fulfillment and pleasure of our own will is indeed thanksgiving – but is weak indeed. It is easy to give thanks for our pleasures and self-satisfactions (though even then we often forget to give thanks).

All too often in our relationship with God and others, thanksgiving is purely reciprocal: we offer thanks as though it were a token payment for that which we have received. As such, it may represent little more than a happy, greedy heart. It falls far short of the heart of thanksgiving (Eucharist) itself. The heart of true thanksgiving is not a payment for services rendered, but an existential expression of our love for God as the Lord and Giver of Life.

This fundamental attitude marks the relationship of Christ and the Father. He is always and eternally giving thanks to the Father. It is also the right and truly “whole” expression of what it is to be human in the face of God. We find ourselves beset with temptation, sickness and oppression of every sort – including the burden of our own failure and sinfulness. But true knowledge of God yields thanks despite all other temptations and trials. It is the sound of creation giving praise and thanksgiving to its Creator. Nothing is more fundamental nor more essential to the right-living of the human heart.

In the face of many circumstances that surround and crush us – thanksgiving to God can seem absurd. However, such absurdity is the voice of love that refuses to grant failure and oppression a greater place in our life than God Himself.

He is our God – and we praise Him. Let His enemies be scattered!

Thanksgiving, almost above all else, transforms us into the image of Christ – who Himself is the true Eucharist of all creation. To give thanks to God is inherently to unite ourselves with Christ and the true voice of creation.

It is truly meet and right…

Falling Short

October 28, 2010

I fail. We fail. It’s just how things are. It is not a conspiracy or the judgment of God or a universe arrayed against us – we simply fall short.

At times falling short is nothing less than embarrassing. This is especially so if we have raised our own expectations as well as the expectations of others. I do not measure up to my own expectations much less to those of others.

Falling short, however, is not the definition of my life or the meaning of my existence – at least I have not so learned it in Christ. My failure is not the bottom line of the universe – surprisingly the universe does not turn on the success of my personal journey. I am important to God – but that is sheer grace and an undeserved gift.

St. Paul said that he would “boast in his weakness” because in his weakness the strength of Christ was made complete. That, I would venture to observe, is not very American of him. In our culture, we glory in our strengths and say of our nation that “it is the best” or the “greatest” or other various superlatives.

Of course, it’s not really true. We can be grateful for what we have without insisting on superlatives. We can love what has been given to us without despising what someone else loves.

I cannot begin to share the depths of my own failure, nor would this venue be a proper place for such sharing. Thank God, there is Confession in the Church. But it is important for me, and for any of us, to remember what we are and what we are not. It is important to remember the gift of Christ, as well as why the gift is necessary in the first place.

When all else fails, Christ never fails. He is our sufficiency.

Believe It or Not

October 21, 2010

I have to confess as I begin this post that I find myself reaching for words. I reach for words to say something I know, but which is hard to express. To believe the truth is not the same thing as having a correct opinion – indeed the two have almost nothing to do with one another. And this is a great difficulty – for most of the things that we think of ourselves as believing – we in fact only hold as opinions. What a man believes, in the way the word is used in the New Testament, is not seen or heard in the syllogisms he is willing to confess, but rather in how he lives his life.

Thus, when the Scriptures seek to express what it is to have faith in God, the images cease to have any particular intellectual content (or virtually no such content). Instead, Christ will use images such as a vine and its branches. To believe in Christ, to hold to Christ as Lord and God is to be like a branch to a vine. This is not an intellectual image but is a very understandable image of a way of life.

In the Orthodox service of Holy Baptism, the candidate (or sponsor) is asked: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” It is a peculiar phrase. It is more than asking, “Do you give consent to the following propositions?” It is asking someone if they are willing to live as a branch to which Christ is the vine.

St. Paul uses the image of a body and its head. Are we willing to live as a body lives in relation to its head? St. Paul also uses the image of the union of a husband and a wife.

These are living images – images to which we can relate. But they cannot rightly be reduced to syllogisms or abstractions. To believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the true God, in Whom alone is found salvation, is to unite one’s life to His life. It is to die and find that the only life now lived is Christ’s life.

It is in this way that argument is so often beside the point. I know what it is to be corrected or even to lose an argument and be convinced that something I once believed is not, in fact, true. But many times this represents only a shift in opinion, a matter of little consequence. To accept that Christ is the Truth is more like accepting that the air in a room I am entering is breathable (and then breathing).

By observation I see that people believe many things in this way that are not the truth. Some people believe that they are economic units, defined by production and consumption. Life is good depending on the level of production and consumption. The world is good as measured by its production and consumption. I doubt that those who believe this would ever actually confess this to be the case. But the evidence of this faith will be found in their manner of life – what they choose and how they choose it. What center organizes the activity of their day?

Some people believe in pills or alcohol or sex.

Some people barely believe in God (and that they do so is a good thing). However, it is also possible that having a minimal faith and an unmanageable life to go with it, does not restrain the same person from holding careful opinions about God and the Christian faith and diverting themselves with opinions about almost every aspect of the faith.

The Christian faith uses words – but the force of the words is found in the reality from which they are spoken. A single word from a saint can bring a sinner to repentance. The most correctly stated argument from an unbelieving life may have little effect, none at all, or even be deleterious to those who hear it.

To believe the truth is to venture onto the holy ground of reality and not the fantasy of well-formed ideas. On holy ground we remove our shoes and remain silent – giving voice to words of praise letting words possess integrity. It is a very difficult thing indeed.

It is a rare thing to meet a man who believes in God – but it is a life-changing encounter. May God give us all the grace to believe.

The Boldness of Prayer

October 14, 2010

In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, at the end of the litany that precedes the Lord’s Prayer, the priest intones:

And make us worthy, O Master, that with boldness and without condemnation, we may dare to call upon Thee, the heavenly God, as Father, and to say: Our Father…

It is a phrase that relfects Hebrews 4:15-16:

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

It also echoes Ephesians 3:12 – “In whom [Christ] we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.” Having been made the children of God and joint-heirs with Christ, we are able to enter into the place of a son in our prayers. My experience over many years of pastoring, is that people generally do not like to pray. Most Christians would not state their feelings so clearly – we would rather say that “I do not pray like I should…etc.” But underneath that confession lies the uncomfortable fact that most people find prayer difficult, awkward, and full of distraction.

One of the desert fathers said, “Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath.” Thus our difficulties with prayer are perhaps nothing new. But since prayer is, at its heart, communion with God – it is among the most essential expressions of our reconciliation with Him. I have long suspected that our hesitancy and distaste for prayer is rooted in the our lack of experience of prayer as communion. The reward of prayer is nothing other than this communion with God. Such communion, made possible by the reconciling work of Christ, often remains at the level of “idea” rather than becoming the content of our experience. This is true both because of our own failings, as well as God’s gentle care for us in which He draws us slowly into such an experience lest we become afflicted by our own pride (and other passions). Thus we pray with patience and humility.

I offer a small passage from Mar Jacob of Serugh (6th century). It is a meditation on the “boldness” of prayer and its measureless worth. I trust that readers may find it an encouragement in the life-long struggle.


Prayer reveals the deep things of the Divine,
by it one enters to behold the mystery of hidden things.
It is the key able to open all doors.
From it one can clearly espy what is hidden,
by it the soul can approach to speak with God,
it raises up the mind so that it reaches the Majesty.
It is easy for prayer to learn the mysteries of the divinity,
for it can go in and out unhindered by the angelic powers:
no angel is as swift-winged as prayer,
nor do the seraphim fly up with it as it ascends;
it whispers its words in the ears of the Lord, without any intermediary,
it murmurs in the heart, and God hears it in his exalted place.
Where it ascends not even the Watchers have ever reached,
for it is capable of approaching the very Divinity.
The seraph hides its face fromm the divine Being with its wings,
but prayer stands there unveiled before the Majesty:
nothing at all stands in the way between it and the Lord,
for it converses with him and he hears it gladly.
The Watchers tremble and the heavenly hosts in their modesty are held back,
whereas prayer goes in and relates its affairs before God.
The cherubim are harnessed and cannot see him whom they bear,
but prayer goes up and speaks with him lovingly.
In its love prayer speedily attains the exalted place,
in its love prayer advances to be raised up above the heavenly orders.
The cherub is afraid to raise its eyes to the Majesty,
being harnessed in its modesty with the pure yoke of flame;
the ranks of fire do not approach the Hidden One,
whereas prayer has authority to speak with him.
Prayer enters closer in than they and speaks unashamed;
above the myriads of heavenly hosts does it pass in flight, unhindered by their ranks.
As though to a close relation prayer reveals its secret to the Lord of the Watchers,
asking of him what is appropriate in all sorts of activities.
Prayer does not bend down to the angels to speak with them,
for it asks God himself, and he bids the angels attend to its affairs.

The Fullness of All Things

October 12, 2010

I am fascinated by what the Holy Tradition does with the idea of “fullness” or “fulfillment.” The Church is described as the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). And it is not unusual for Orthodox Christians to express the meaning of Orthodoxy under the rubric of “fullness”: Orthodoxy is the “fullness of the Church.”

The Scriptures do much with the concept – speaking of the “fullness of time,” or the “times being fulfilled.” It says far more than something being merely large (full) – but of a completeness in which nothing is lacking, or of a completion in which that which was anticipated is now here.

I believe that the word or concept of fullness is very expressive of what we look for in the Resurrection – not a destruction of the Person nor of the replacement of a Person, but of a Person who is finally existing in his fullness. The American Miltary may once have advertised “be all that you can be,” but such is only possible in Christ and in the fullness of time. A uniform will not fulfill you.

I use the example of a tree. I have not seen a tree in the fullness of what a tree should be. I know that in some sense all trees have been changed by the One Tree which is now the “invincible weapon of peace.” In that sense trees have seen their fullness in the Cross which was transformed from instrument of torture into instrument of life. Just as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil once became the instrument of our death – so now the Tree of Life has become the instrument of our life. The Cross itself, and how we see it, is an excellent example. Before Christ the Cross could only be seen as an instrument of execution. After Christ we have to be reminded of its original use. After the Cross, all trees must be seen with at least a hint of their fullness.

There is a peculiar Appalachian folktale which posits the Dogwood tree as the substance of the Cross (Holy Tradition is much more elaborate, with a tree that was a composite of three different evergreens – a biological impossibility but irresistable to medieval writers). The Appalachian folktake goes on to say that the Dogwood is now a short, twisted tree as a curse, so that it could never again be used as a cross. But, of course, this runs so terribly contrary to what the Church understands of the Cross. Christ’s death on the “tree” was not an event to occasion new curses, but an event to lift all curses. Were the Dogwood the tree of the Cross, it would be the most honored tree in the forest. As things stand – we must instead give the honor to all trees and include the Dogwood (and the evergreens) among them.

After Christ, we must look at human beings differently as well. In Christ we have seen the fullness of the human. What it means to be “fully man” is revealed only in the God/Man.

All things will have their fullness – though very few yield up to us clear hints of what that fullness will be. We cannot know the fullness of a man until we see him in the fullness of Christ. Reading the lives of saints occasionally carries revelations of such images. That which seems to escape the ability of our language to describe is often a fullness for which language is inadequate.

The Mother of God comes to mind in particular. I am certain that what many Protestants find troubling about the place of the Theotokos in the Church is the problem of someone who has been made known to us in her fullness. She is “full of grace,” and we stagger before such a revelation. She is not mere mother, but Mother of God. We are accused of saying things about her, or offering a devotion which is inappropriate, but none of this is true if we are understood to be standing before someone who stands in her fullness.

Everything around us has a fullness – which also says that we do not yet see the Truth of the things that surround us. How carefully and joyfully we would move through the world if we knew or could see that fullness already – but this is the mind and the eyes of Christ. Such eyes could see a fisherman who seemed more talk than action and call him a “rock” while seeing in him a character and possibility that were years away from their fulfillment.

The same eyes could see a Publican and yet see a saint. The same eyes saw Jerusalem and wept for that great mother of all cities that has yet to see her fullness though her name is married and synonymous with the Fulness that is to come.

And so we sing with the angels, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” We do not yet see such a fullness. But as St. Paul reminded us – that which we do not see we await in hope. I hope to see us all in that fullness as well as the whole world.

Why Would Anyone Want to Forgive an Enemy?

October 8, 2010

That Christians are commanded by Christ to forgive their enemies is common knowledge. We often take this at face value – discover immediately that it is very hard (often impossible) and conclude that the commandment is an unachievable ideal. For non-Christians, forgiveness of enemies may, in some cases, be a shared ideal (most people believe in “peace”), but many if not most non-Christians would recognize immediately the dangers involved in forgiving an enemy – after all they are enemies. Why does Christ give us such a commandment?

There are several things that can be stated up front as not being reasons for this commandment.

1. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not part of a global strategy to bring peace to the world. Christ nowhere suggests that obeying His commandments will make the world a better place – indeed He warns his followers that taking the path He has taken will quite possibly mean their death.

2. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not given as an ideal for our moral improvement. The impossibility we encounter within this commandment is itself and indication that such behavior is a gift from God. With men, such things are impossible.

3. Christ’s commandment to forgive enemies is not given in order to “help us all get along together.” Indeed, He also says that His coming will also bring division, even within families. The forgiveness of enemies is, in practice, far less popular than we might think.

So why the commandment?

The answer to the question is given several places within the gospels – most notably in Matthew 5:43-45 and Luke 6:35-36.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew)

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. (Luke)

The passages are certainly parallel and occur in a similar context. In both cases a similar reason is given for the commandment: we are to forgive our enemies “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” and “to be sons of the Most High.” The forgiveness of enemies and the actions associated with it are specifically given that we may be conformed to the image of God. Indeed such forgiveness is a manifestation of that conformity.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos once said: “You only know God to the extent that you love your enemies.”

This conformity is not a moral conformity – we are not struggling to be like sons of the Most High – we are not struggling to be like sons of our Father in heaven. Within the commandment – Christ is also offering true union with God – a share in His life. He is also offering a clear sign of such a union, as noted in the saying of St. Silouan. There are many who may point to experiences they have had, and religious choices they have made, etc. But if they do not love their enemies there is still much further to go on the road of salvation.

There are also some who seek to draw a distinction between forgiving our enemies and actually loving them. This is something of a legal distinction in which people imagine themselves to be keeping the commandment while, in fact, not keeping it. This is a spiritual delusion. The commandment not only asks us to forgive our enemies but to love them and to do good things for them. That this is hard (often impossible) simply points to the fact that we are saved by grace – and this, too, is not a legal notion. God does not pretend that we love our enemies and call it “grace.”

In the understanding of the Orthodox faith, grace is not God’s good attitude towards us, but is the life of God, His “Divine Energies” in the language of the Fathers. It is God Himself, working within us that is our salvation: “For it is God who works within you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

Thus He who commands is also He who gives us the grace that makes the keeping of the commandment possible. But it is we ourselves who refuse to allow such grace to work within us. We resist God. We resist His good impulse to love and forgive. Of course, this is simply a description of sin at work within us.

In the face of sin, we repent (seek to yield ourselves to God’s grace), confess our sins, make communion, give alms, and make efforts to do good to our enemies. The work of grace sometimes seems glacial in its speed. A glacier moves but a few feet a year, but it changes the face of the earth. And so the Apostle tells us, “Let patience do its complete work” (James 1:4).

I treasure a story told by Fr. Thomas Hopko (and ask forgiveness for any inaccuracies that may have damaged the tale) in which he described someone who did not want to forgive (or repent – my memory grows fuzzy). He asked, “Well then, do you want to want to forgive?” The person thought and said, “I don’t think so.” So Fr. Tom said, “Then do you want to want to want to?” To which the person said, “I can do that.”

It’s a place to start.

Now That We’ve Come to the End of the World

October 6, 2010

And although in the course of their long history Christians have much too often forgotten the meaning of the cross, and enjoyed life as if “nothing had happened,” although each one of us too often takes “time off” – we know that in the world in which Christ died, “natural life” has been brought to an end.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World.


By age 19 I was living in a Christian commune – with a “radical” take on the Christian gospel. These were the days of what the American media called “the Jesus Movement.” I was by no means alone in my view of the gospel. As protestants, those young men who comprised the commune to which I belonged, had great gaps in the understanding of the Christian faith. We certainly repeated many errors of the past. Among those errors was a commonly held assumption that we were approaching the end of the world.

For myself, I could not imagine that the second coming of Christ could be more than five years away. The nature of that error was its complete misunderstanding of the character of Christ’s first coming and the consequence it brought to the world. Like cultural protestantism, we assumed that time moved along in a linear fashion – simply the flow of history. That we thought such a flow was soon to end was not nearly so great an error as how we perceived time itself.

The experience, however, was not without insight. It was the first time in my life in which most material questions seemed nonsensical. With joy, we gave away whatever we had and practiced a level of hospitality that was truly evangelical.

My abandonment of that way of life changed the radical nature of my faith, and postponed my expectations of a soon end to all things. But, I maintained the same understanding of time itself. In the first case, my behavior was changed by the reality of my expectations. In the second, much less needed to change – with additional time it was possible in many ways to live “as though nothing had happened,” to take “time off” from radical expectations and settle in to a place within the American “religion scene” (I went to seminary and was ordained as an Anglican priest).

Fr. Alexander’s observation that with Christ’s death on the Cross, “natural life has come to an end,” is an example of an understanding of time that is deeply contrary to the linear, historical model that dominates modern thought. His observation is, in fact, the proper Christian perception, taught within the New Testament. The Cross of Christ has initiated or revealed a change that does not render a “radical” response absurd – within a proper understanding – such a response is demanded. If “natural life has come to an end,” then whatever life we now live is necessarily of a character that reveals such an end as well as revealing what has brought it to an end.

This very understanding can be seen many times in the New Testament. One of my favorite examples is found in Hebrews 12:18-24. Here the author, reflecting on Exodus 19, makes this observation:

For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.” And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.

His contrast of the followers of Christ with those who followed Moses is the contrast between the fulfillment and the promise, between reality and type.

Of particular note is the statement:

You have not come to the mountain that may be touched…but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and Church of the firstborn…to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant…

How can such a statement possibly be true? The text does not say that we will come to the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, etc. Instead, we are told that we have come. This can only be true if the end of all things has already come among us. And this is precisely the proclamation of the Christian gospel: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” That Kingdom is made present and breaks into our world with the Incarnation of the God/Man, Jesus Christ. Throughout His mystery, the “natural life” is constantly “ended” and transformed into the Kingdom. The lame walk, the blind receive their sight, the dead are raised, lepers are cleansed, sins are forgiven. In other instances, bread and fish are multiplied to feed thousands. The Sea of Galilee bears the weight of Christ (and St. Peter for a short time). With Christ’s death and resurrection all such things come to their fulfillment. He who is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, shatters and transforms even time itself. Forever after, His followers are invited into this reality which has been birthed among us.

It is in this context that the commandments of Christ begin to reveal their true character. Christ’s commandments are not a recipe for the good ordering of the “natural life.” They are commandments that indicate to us the life now to be lived on this side of His death and resurrection. They are the commandments of the Kingdom of God. Those who obey them reveal by their actions that they now stand at Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, before an innumerable company of angels and the general assembly and Church of the firstborn.

Now that we’ve come to the end of the world, we forgive our enemies, we are kind even to the unjust and the evil. We take no thought for tomorrow. We give to those who ask without expecting in return. The martyrs who despised death and preferred it to the lies of tyrants reveal that the Kingdom is among us and has ended “natural life.” As Christ said to Pilate, “If my kingdom were of this world, then my followers would fight.” In short, the “radical” nature of Christ’s commandments are only radical if one perceives themselves as standing within the long span of historical time. But we have not come to such a place.

It sounds extreme to describe all of this as coming to the “end of the world.” I do not discount nor disbelieve the doctrine of Christ’s second coming. But when He appears in that manner, His coming will reveal the righteousness of those who have lived their lives as a foretaste and witness to what will then be manifest to all.

St. Paul’s admonition to the Philippians is quite appropriate:

Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.

Before the Cross of Christ, I pray for this assembly of the Church of the firstborn: that they may do all things without complaining and disputing – becoming blameless and harmless – holding fast the word of life. Such would indeed be the “end of the world.”

The End of Religion

October 5, 2010

Christianity…is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made this clear. “‘Sir,’ the woman said to him, ‘I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, believe me, the our cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father…. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him'” (Jn. 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult [the outward practice of religion], and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity presented as a cult [in its technical sense] or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion.

Christianity often appears, however, to preach that if men will try hard enough to live Christian lives, the crucifixion can somehow be reversed. This is because Christianity has forgotten itself, forgotten that always it must first of all stand at the cross. Not that this world cannot be improved – one of our goals is certainly to work for peace, justice, freedom. But while it can be improved, it can never become the place God intended it to be. Christianity does not condemn the world. The world has condemned itself when on Calvary it condemned the One who was its true self. “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (Jn. 1:10). If we think seriously about the real meaning, the real scope of these words, we know that as Christians and insofar as we are Christians, we are, first of all, witnesses of that end: end of all natural joy; end of all satisfaction of man with the world and with himself; end, indeed, of life itself as a reasonable and reasonably organized “pursuit of happiness.” Christians did not have to wait for the modern proponents of existentialist anxiety, despair and absurdity to be aware of all this. And although in the course of their long history Christians have much too often forgotten the meaning of the cross, and enjoyed life as if “nothing had happened,” although each one of us too often takes “time off” – we know that in the world in which Christ died, “natural life” has been brought to an end.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World.


I dare say that no voice has written as clearly or with greater insight on the subject of modern secularism than Fr. Alexander. The belief that the world has an existence and a meaning in and of itself and apart from God is the great heresy of the modern age. Its most insidious aspect is its claim to be simply the “natural” account of things – the true neutral ground where all philosophies, political voices and religions can meet. Modern Christianity has often accepted this invitation and argued only for a more visible seat at the table and a louder voice.

Fr. Alexander brings the cross to its proper perspective – there is no neutral ground, no natural world (apart from God) and the table that the world sets is an illusion. “Natural life has been brought to an end.”

The fiction of the “natural life” is, indeed, the truest expression of original sin. The story of man, as related in Scripture, is the story of a break in communion with God, the treatment of the world as an end in itself (“good for food”). We were created to be the priests of creation – offering all things in thanksgiving to God. Instead, we made the world our own servant to exploit for our own pleasure – and in the process lost true existence and joy. The cross of Christ, and His resurrection, restores all things to their proper place – thus bringing an end to the fiction of a “natural world.”

Articles that I have written using the image of a “one-storey universe,” seek to say nothing more and nothing less. Preaching the gospel in the modern world requires that the truth be repeated in every possible way, and most especially in a life lived in union with the true and living God.

Even If I Descend into Hell…

October 4, 2010

Charles Williams, one of C.S. Lewis’ circle of friends, once wrote a book entitled, The Descent into Hell. In it he chronicles the slow inexorable damnation of a soul. Choices made or not made – a chronicle more of spiritual ennui than of willful rebellion – it is a very sobering read.

There is an understanding of hell that goes far beyond the typical lake of fire and burning Gehenna. Those images, though Biblical, frequently do not speak to the full existential character of hell. Thus it becomes something of a commonplace in our time to think of hell much like heaven – just one of the alternatives we face in life after death. Neither are considered alternatives within the present or having anything to do with daily life other than as eventual consequences.

This is a tragedy, both for its failure to give a more compelling account of the “nowness” of the Kingdom of God (which Christ certainly preached – Luke 17:21), and for its frequent caricature of hell which falls far short of describing the emptiness of humanity apart from God (even now).

The Orthodox faith, particularly in its liturgical cycle, makes much of the descent of Christ into Hades. The service on Holy Saturday is very much about this descent, noting that the victory of Christ over death and hell, begins first in hell (I am using “hell” and “hades” interchangeably at this point – a common practice within Church language).

The closest thing to a definition of hell given in Scripture is not the imagery of burning gehenna, but in a statement Christ makes in the Gospel of John. “This is condemnation, that Light has come into the world, and men preferred darkness to the Light” (John 3:19). This image is, for me, far more poignant than the lake of fire and such. The weakness found in the frightening, graphic imagery of the fire, gnashing of teeth, etc., are their passive character. It is easily translated into something that is done to us. It might even imply that one would have wanted things to be different.

The verse in John implies just the opposite – hell (condemnation) is what it is – only because we want it so. As a priest this portrayal of condemnation has been by far the most helpful approach in dealing pastorally with people. It is not the threat of what someone (God) may do to them, but the existential reality of what you are doing to yourself – even now.

For some, thinking about hell as a choice sounds absurd. They reason within themselves, “Who would willingly choose hell?” I think to myself, “Plenty of people – I meet them all the time and sometimes I am one of them.”

In the gospel the story of the rich young ruler is the story of someone who meets Christ, is loved by Christ, and is invited into the intimacy of discipleship by Christ himself! The cost, however, is everything he owns. And we are told he went away sad because he was rich. He went away sad, but he went away. Human beings frequently choose something other than God – even though it makes them sad – because they love darkness more than they love the light.

That is the story of our descent into Hell. It is a movement away from God, away from the light and a descent into darkness, alienation, and self-love. It is a hell that infects our hearts even in the present and has the potential for becoming the very definition of the state of our souls beyond the grave.

But this is where the liturgical celebration of Christ’s descent into hell becomes particularly joyful. The love of God is such that He entered into hell – into the depths of darkness where we had plunged ourselves. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” refers not only to the Gentiles who can now hear the gospel, but to those souls in Hades who behold the Light of Christ in the midst of that great darkness.

“Hell was embittered!” is the refrain in St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily. The darkness did not want to give up its captives.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos (+1938) heard from God, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” It ranks among the most peculiar sayings in the lives of any of the saints. For him, it meant that he was to enter into the despair and darkness of others, in prayer, but not to despair himself. He was to pray for the world as though we were responsible for the sins of all. He was, like Christ, to follow love to its complete conclusion and extend his love to the uttermost. This is the love that we see on the Cross – the love of God that reaches even to the depths of hell.

If we are not bound by forensic imagery, but instead understand heaven and hell as the state of the soul before God, then we can see far more clearly the extent of the love of God. “Lo, if I make my bed in hell, Thou art there” (Psalm 139:8). It also is the measure of the love that is expected of us. Thus we are commanded to forgive even our enemies.

On a day to day basis we are called to descend into the darkness of those about us and pray. We should pray for Light, for forgiveness for grace to do whatever mysterious work it does in creating a clean heart. To follow the path of Christ always leads us to the Cross – but we should see that the Cross stands firmly in the midst of man’s darkness. Glory to God who has shown us the Light!