Archive for December, 2010

Between Christmas And…

December 29, 2010

The Feast of Christmas has, for many, come and gone. The eagerness of children for the day of their presents has now passed and, with it, some of their anxieties. Far from marking Christmas as “Twelve Days” (as the old English Christmas carol notes) many parts of the culture hurry forward, eager to put Christmas in the past. In my childhood, it was generally held within the surrounding Protestant culture that a Christmas Tree had to be removed before New Year’s Day, or the result would be “bad luck.” This eagerness to be rid of the feast is somewhat comically celebrated in the Elvis Costello/Paddy Maloney song, “The St. Stephen’s Day Murders”:

I knew of two sisters whose name it was Christmas
And one was named Dawn of course, the other one was named Eve
I wonder if they grew up hating the season
Of the good will that lasts till the Feast of St. Stephen

For that is the time to eat, drink and be merry
‘Til the beer is all spilled and the whiskey is flowed
And the whole family tree you neglected to bury
Are feeding their faces until they explode

There’ll be laughter and tears over Tia Marias
Mixed up with that drink made from girders
And it’s all we’ve got left as they draw their last breath
And it’s nice for the kids as you finally get rid of them
In the St Stephen’s Day Murders

The next great feast on the Church’s calendar is Theophany, the celebration of Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan. For a large portion of modern culture – the feast will pass without notice. Having left Christmas, the world moves back to its comfortable position of “ordinary time.”

The Christian year, in our modern experience, is filled with such stretches of ordinary time – the time between the feasts. It is not uncommon to hear theologians and clergy compare our lives to those of the “Church-in-waiting.”  It is pointed out that we live “in-between” Christ’s first and second coming, and therefore live in an in-between period. The conclusion of such sermons is to speak about various strategies of waiting. The conclusion also carries an inherent sense of the absence of God.

Such conclusions fit well in a secularized world and appeal to the modern sense of God’s absence. The heart of the secular world is not a belief that there is no God, but rather the sense that God is somewhere else. Our world is a “no-man’s land,” in which all things work according to “natural laws,” independent of God. I have previously written about this in articles on the “two-storey universe.”

Living “in-between” adds a twist to the two-storey experience: it is rooted in our modern understanding of history and time. It is easy, almost obvious, to think of ourselves as living between major events in the Christian story. Two-thousand years have passed since the resurrection of Christ. Christians continue to wait for His second-coming. How do we not perceive ourselves as living in-between?

St. Gregory Palamas (14th Century) uses an interesting example from the Scriptures that dismantles the “in-between” model that is so common in our modern world. His example comes in a sermon on the Cross (Homily XI). He begins with the assertion that the Cross, though manifest in history at Christ’s Crucifixion, has always been God’s means of salvation – at all times and places.

His example is quite illumining:

Although the man of the sin, the son of lawlessness (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3), by which I mean the Antichrist, has not yet come, the theologian whom Christ loved says, “Even now, beloved, there is antichrist” (cf. 1 John2:18). In the same way, the Cross existed in the time of our ancestors, even before it was accomplished. The great Paul teaches us absolutely clearly that Antichrist is among us, even though he has not yet come, saying, “His mystery doth already work in you” (cf. 2 Thess. 2:7). In exactly the same way Christ’s Cross was among our forefathers before it came into being, because its mystery was working in them. (Quotation from The Homilies).

St. Gregory goes on within this homily to illustrate (generally with typological interpretation) how the Cross was present in the lives of the Patriarchs and other righteous “friends of God” within the Old Testament period.

His sense of time recognizes a reality of history, “even though he has not yet come,” but transcends that limitation in recognizing that “his mystery doth already work in you.” And of the Cross “[it] was among our forefathers before it came into being, because its mystery was working in them.” This understanding of time and history places these categories in a subsidiary position – they are not the frozen, solid stuff of an empty, empirical world. They are a place in which we live – but also a place that is permeated by things that have not even “come into existence.”

St. Gregory’s treatment of these things is rooted in the classical Orthodox understanding of the relation between earth and heaven; past, present and future; and the mystery of the Kingdom of God at work in the world. His universe is distinctly “one-storey.” This understanding also undergirds the Orthodox understanding of eschatology (the study of the “last things”). St. John Chrysostom, in his eucharistic prayer, gives thanks for the Second Coming of Christ in the past tense – not that he is saying that the Second Coming has already occurred in history – but that the Eucharistic celebration stands within the Kingdom of God, such that the Second Coming can be described in the past tense. The Eucharist is the “Marriage Feast of the Lamb,” the “Banquet at the End of the Age.”

To speak of ourselves as living “in-between” is to place history in the primary position, relegating the Kingdom of God to a lower status. It is the essence of secularism. The Kingdom of God is not denied – it is simply placed beyond our reach (as we are placed beyond its reach). The Kingdom, like God Himself, is reduced to an idea.

Living “in-between” is part of the loneliness and alienation of the modern Christian. Things are merely things, time is inexorable and impenetrable. There is an anxiety that accompanies all of this that is marked by doubt, argument and opinion. Faith is directed towards things past or things that have not yet happened.

This stands in sharp contrast to St. Paul’s statement in Hebrews: “Faith is the substance (hypostasis) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). The relationship of faith with things “hoped for and not seen” is more than a trust that they will be, more than a longing for what is not. Faith is the very substance of such things.

In earlier postings on faith, I have noted that faith is more than an intellectual or volitional exercise. It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith. To describe faith as the substance of things is to grant a kind of existence to them. And so in Hebrews 11, St. Paul describes the faith of our forefathers (Old Testament) and the impact that the substance of faith had in their lives and world. St. Gregory’s homily echoes this very same phenomenon (indeed he quotes extensively from this chapter in Hebrews).

By faith, we do not live in-between. By faith, we live in a one-storey universe in which the realities of God’s Kingdom may permeate our existence. We are not alone nor need we be alienated. The anxiety that haunts our every step is produced by a false perception – a delusion.

Of course, this is an easy thing to assert, but a difficult thing to live: it is the great struggle of our times. But without this struggle, faith will remain alien to us and we will remain lost “in-between” the worlds, trapped within those things that “are passing away.” Christ has given us something greater.

St. Paul says, “But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus…” (Heb. 2:8-9). It is the presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit that is made manifest in our feasts – but this is the same Christ who is made manifest in our hearts and who promised to “abide with us.” We do not see Jesus “in-between” but rather as the “author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Indeed, He is the Feast of feasts.

Christmas Time

December 24, 2010

The feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, draws near and the anxiety of the world increases. There are those who worry that the feast is surrounded by too much commercialism. Others fear that religion will once again invade their safely guarded secular spaces. These are only the most vocalized anxieties – busyness consumes our lives. I think of the words from the Dr. Seuss character, the Grinch, “I must stop Christmas from coming!”

Many Christians see Christmas as something bound in history – it is the birth of Christ into this world – and is marked like other historical events. Some care is given to the exact year (some say 4 B.C., some other dates). Others will concern themselves with calculating what it was that the Wisemen say (star, comet, etc.?). All in all, modern Christians, bound by the historical model, find themselves on the defensive. For they are celebrating a historical event and find it assaulted by all the weapons wielded by those who wage war on Christian history. They must stop Christmas from coming.

But Christmas belongs to another category of event. It is certainly historical: Christ was born into this world. But the fact of His birth into the world does not properly or completely describe His birth into this world. For the birth of Christ cannot be placed into the general category of “births.” I was born into this world, on an unremarkable day in November of 1953. My death will also be an unremarkable day. But the birth of Christ into this world is the entrance of the Alpha and the Omega, the entrance of God into the midst of the human race. Though it came by a birth, it made birth into a wholly different category.

We can describe His birth in “biological” terms – He was born of a virgin – and in His birth no damage was done to her. His birth did not cause harm to the Virgin. He was born and she remained a virgin.

But we can also describe His birth in terms of time. What does it mean that the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, were born in time? Just as the Virgin endured no damage from the birth of Christ, so time and space endured no damage from the entrance of the timeless One – and yet the timeless One has entered into our history – and history cannot remain the same.

The consequence of Christ’s entrance into history is described by St. Paul:

Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him (Ephesians 1:9-10).

What has occurred in the birth of Christ, is more than historical event. It is an entrance of the very End (and Beginning) of all things into that which we know as space and time. As such, space and time have been altered. The Nativity of Christ belongs to that category of event into which “all things are being gathered together in one in Christ….”

There is an inexorable character to this entrance of Christ into history. History, having admitted the entrance of One who transcends both space and time, is no longer defined by space and time. History is defined by the timeless One who has entered.

Despite all the work of Grinches, Christmas cannot be stopped. No matter how the world may improperly commercialize the event or Churches fail to properly acknowledge it, Christmas is a timeless event, an entrance into our world of the Alpha and Omega. As such, it is inexorable. There is nothing we can do to prevent its entrance and nothing we can do to change its reality. Christ has entered into our world, with the purpose of gathering all things into Himself. That purpose cannot be changed or altered.

A timeless event cannot be celebrated in the same fashion as a merely historical event. As timeless, it cannot be confined to history, even though it has a historical aspect. Thus Christmas is as present now as it was 2,000 years ago. King Herod perceived the birth of the Christ-Child as a threat to his kingdom. That Child remains a threat to every kingdom – for “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ.”

“Peace on earth, good will towards men,” is not a slogan nor a measure of the success of the season. It is a description of the reality that entered the world in the person of Christ. He is Peace on earth. His very presence is God’s good will towards men. The world is being gathered together in one – into God’s peace and goodwill. It is not always a gathering that is greeted with joy – and this is condemnation – “that Light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the Light.”

“Christmas time” is more than a season of the year – it is God’s work of redeeming all time – of making the time of this world into the timelessness of the age to come.

It’s Christmas time. God is with us.

The God Who Became Small

December 19, 2010

An annual December posting:

Whom have we, Lord, like you
The Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,
The Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,
The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.
Blessed is your honor!

St. Ephrem the Syrian


We draw near to the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity, and I cannot fathom the smallness of God. Things in my life loom so large and every instinct says to overcome the size of a threat by meeting it with a larger threat. But the weakness of God, stronger than death, meets our human life/death by becoming a child – the smallest of us all – man at his weakest – utterly dependent.

And His teaching will never turn away from that reality for a moment. Our greeting of His mission among us is marked by misunderstanding, betrayal, denial and murder. But He greets us with forgiveness, love, and the sacrifice of self.

This way of His is more than a rescue mission mounted to straighten out what we had made crooked. His coming among us is not only action  but also revelation. He does not become unlike Himself in order to make us like Him. The weakness, the smallness, the forgiveness – all that we see in His incarnation – is a revelation of the Truth of God. He became the image of Himself, that we might become the image we were created to be.

It seems strange to speak of God as humble, and yet this is what is revealed in Scripture. Cultural references to God are full of power and mankind’s own claim to wisdom that somehow the all-powerful God has not straightened things out yet. On this basis some will even come to reject the very existence of God. The power of God is nothing like our power. Though He created all that is, He did so out of nothing. This bears no resemblance to anything we think of when we “create.” And He who created is also He who sustains, and yet in His humility we cannot directly see His sustenance, unless He has given us eyes to see.

The all-powerful reveals Himself in His weakness, and not, I suspect, because it was a “backdoor” plan. Rather I believe the all-powerful revealed Himself most fully, most completely on the Cross because this is indeed what the power of God looks like. I do not know how to fathom the reality that the power that can only be seen in the Cross of Christ, is the same power that created the universe, but I believe it is so.

We never know fullness, until we empty ourselves into His emptiness. We never know love until we are drowned in the waters of His mercy that do not kill but make alive. We cannot see the great until we see Him very small. He who enters the womb of a Virgin will also enter the waters of Jordan, and will also enter infinitessimally small spaces of hades’ yawning gape. And there we shall see greatness indeed, He who is everywhere present and fillest all things.

The Presence in the Absence

December 15, 2010

There is a strange aspect to the presence of God in the world around us. That aspect is His apparent absence. I read with fascination (because I am no philosopher, much less a scientist) the discussions surrounding “intelligent design” and the like. I gather that everybody agrees that the universe is just marvelous and wonderfully put together (I can’t think of a better universe). But then begins the parting of ways as one sees God everywhere and another sees Him nowhere. Reason surely need not deny Him, though reason does not seem forced to acknowledge Him. I have spent most of my life around these arguments – one place or another. I can stand in either place and see both presence and absence.

But as the years have gone by, I have come to see something I never saw before – the Presence within the Absence. I don’t mean to sound too mystical here – only that I see in the hiddenness of God a revelation of His love. The Creator of us all draws us towards Himself and knowledge of Him, with hints and intimations, with seen and yet unseen signs.

The strange deniability that He leaves us is the space in which love is born. Love cannot be forced, cannot be demanded. It must come as gift, born of a willingness to give. To give God trust that what I see is indeed evidence of the wisdom in which He made all things is also a space – one which God fills with Himself and the echo, the Yes, that the universe shouts back to us.

It is where I grow weary of the arguments – not because they need not be made – but because it becomes hard to hear the silence in the noise of our own voices – a silence that invites us to hear the sound of the voice of God that rumbles all around us.

There’s more to say – but not now.


Personal Issues

December 13, 2010

From 2009

The title of this post is quite misleading – for in proper theological language – there are no “personal issues.” Our culture is quite fond of issues – both the politico-entertainment industry – and many individuals. It is a word and a phenomenon that has been baptized by the culture such that “being concerned with the issues” makes someone sound as if things matter to them in a significant way. The Orthodox response to the issues should generally be – not to respond.

The true “issue” of our time and of all times is the salvation of our souls. And, it is important to note, this is not a “legal” or “forensic” issue, but a matter of the deep healing of the spiritual disease that infects us, and, through us, all the world around us. We do not see things as they are (we are spiritually blind); we do not think as we ought (we are spiritually ignorant); we do not feel about things in a proper way (we are spiritually disordered in our emotions). Coming to grips with the passions and their disordered state (which effects our mind, emotions and our body) is very difficult work. It requires insight and honesty and a deep commitment to the Truth of Christ, through Whom we may alone find healing and salvation.

In the meantime it is possible to avoid all this by concerning ourselves with issues. Some concern themselves with political issues, particularly if those issues carry a moral component. But it is as possible to take the “right” position on a political issue as a wretched sinner as it is to take the “right” position on a political issue as a saint – though saints often have a strange way of not being involved in “political issues.”

Others set their sights in other places and concern themselves with theological issues or local issues such as the goings-on in a parish.

I would offer a brief definition of “issue” as I am using it here: any subject or situation with which we may concern ourselves, that having been addressed, leaves ourselves and others involved no closer to our salvation than when we began (and perhaps farther away).

The transformation of the world will not come about through the successive addressing of issues. It will, according to the Fathers of the Church, come about through the transformation of human persons, whom, having been restored to the proper image and likeness of Christ, are able to restore others and creation around them. It is thus that the “movers and shapers” of our world may never be acknowledged by the world itself.

It is significant that the world admires Christ as a moral teacher – for He was not a moral teacher. Christ, the God-Man, was an is the Mediator between God and man, the means by which our distorted selves may be restored and transfigured and all creation set free. That transformation is simply impossible through “moral” effort.

Classical monastic spiritual teaching would speak instead about the purification of the passions and the illumination and deification of man. More recent Orthodox writers and teachers, such as St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony have addressed the same teaching in terms of personhood. However, in both cases the nature of our salvation is described in the most profound terms of the inner life.

Orthodoxy is a seamless garment. The sacramental life and the ascetical life are not two separate compartments. Both have to do with the healing of the soul. It is for such a reason that communion in the Orthodox Church is always linked with fasting and confession, however the discipline is applied. Communion is the “medicine of immortality” in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch. But that same medicine must be received by a heart that has prepared itself through fasting and repentance. As Christ Himself proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” So too, we approach the Kingdom in the Cup of Christ, and our hearts must greet it with repentance.

Our issues are not intellectual or political – but existential. Our brokenness is at the very level of our existence.

Some years ago I heard the abbot of a monastery describe the young people who came for retreats during the 60’s and early 70’s. “They were so angry about peace,” he said. He added this thought: “The contemplative need go no further than his own heart than to find the source of all violence in the world.”

This, indeed, is the issue.

Dostoevsky, the great 19th century Russian writer, spent his early adulthood deeply involved in a group of semi-revolutionary writers, artists and intellectuals. As a group, they were deeply committed and involved in the issues of the world. The reform of the Russian state – and in some corners – the reform of the Russian Church was an all-consuming passion. The Romanticism of the 19th century – its belief in the perfectibility of man, if only the proper state and economic system were employed – yielded the various experiments of the 20th century – with generally disastrous results.

Dostoevsky’s own existential crisis occurred when he and a small group of similar conspirators were arrested for sedition and sentenced to death. At the last moment their sentences were commuted to short terms in the Tsar’s Siberian prison system. It was in the few minutes that preceded his commutation – during which the great writer had opportunity to ponder death and his short life – that an inner change occurred. It is not that he saw everything in a flash – but rather that the issues moved away from an intellectual stage and into the deepest parts of his heart.

In what are perhaps his two greatest novels – the heart of man is revealed in the crime of murder. In Crime and Punishment a young man, Raskolnikov, convinces himself that only the will to power matters, and that he should be able to rob and kill a wretched old woman because he would put her money to better use. He succeeds in killing her only to discover that his “philosophy” is bankrupt. Utility (what works) is insufficient for the human soul. He finds salvation in prison through the unrelenting love of God.

In The Brothers Karamazov, murder again is at the center of man’s “issues.” Again it becomes the catalyst for a crisis in which the truth of God is revealed. The moral reform of the characters of the novel is a non-issue. Indeed, the most “moral” of the Karamazov brothers is arguably the unbeliever, Ivan. But Ivan, interestingly, is the devil. It takes little character to argue about justice and to be concerned with fairness. In my experience, even unredeemed humanity is born with an instinct for such arguments.

Most of us do not see ourselves as murderers and are thus content with lesser “issues,” none of which will push us to the point of repentance. I often think that Jesus asked those who sought to follow Him to give everything to the poor precisely to bring them to the point of crisis. To give away everything in the name of Christ raises the question about the name and nature of Christ to its proper place. Either He is worthy of such an action or He is not worthy of any action. The Kingdom of God is never found in half-measures, or in carefully measured actions of any sort. Anxiety and care cannot map the road into the Kingdom.

I am not suggesting that we cease to care about people or the things that effect them. I am suggesting that our concern for “issues” falls far short of actually caring about people and the things that effect them. It is possible to love humanity and actually hate people. I have seen it far too often and have done it myself.

It is much easier to trust someone who wants to “save the world,” if they have also bothered first to “save themselves” (yet another paradoxical statement). It shouldn’t take an arrest by the Tsar to bring us to our senses – though for Dostoevsky it seems to have helped. Perhaps it would be sufficient if we would recognize that we ourselves are murderers and that no amount of moral reform will return the life we have taken. Nothing short of resurrection will present us with the medicine for which our souls thirst.

Formed in the Tradition

December 11, 2010

Thinking of raising Christian children (in the light of St. Silouan’s family experience), I offer these few thoughts. The Nativity season offers many opportunities for families to be guided by Holy Tradition – just as we are also swamped by the distorting demands of commercial culture. May God guard our children and keep us all by His grace.


Sometime back, I watched a group of linguistic-psychologists (of varying sorts) in a panel discussion (CSPAN). All of them were involved in advising political campaigns. What they know about the science of language and how people actually make decisions versus how we would like to think we make decisions was staggering. Among the most staggering of agreed pieces of data was that 98% of the process of so-called rational decisions are actually unconscious. That is to say, that most of what goes into a rational decision is something that is far deeper than rationality (rationality turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg and not a very big tip at that.)

Thus, it would seem when it comes to reading Scripture, it is likely the case that most of what we think of as “interpretation” is also beneath the surface of rationality (and thus beneath the surface of “literalism” or the “plain sense”). All of this knowledge has a frightening aspect when considering politics – but a confirming aspect when considering our religious world. It argues all the more strongly for the role of Tradition, Liturgy, the many things that we engage in that are not strictly “Scripture interpretation.” It is not until the heart itself is reformed (that place where some very large percentage of our thoughts and decisions are made) that our reading will actually be changed. If the heart is not being rather consciously (on the part of the Church) formed by the pracatices we have been given (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, veneration of icons, crossing oneself, etc.) then it is likely being formed by something else. It seems that we will either be formed by the Tradition of the Christian Church or by the traditions of modern mammon. Thus I will gladly entrust myself to the Church.

Apparently Romans 12:1-2 does not have any middle ground.

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Another Story of St. Silouan and his Father

December 8, 2010

This is another wonderful story told by St. Silouan of Mt. Athos about his peasant father.  His father was clearly a man of great faith. St. Silouan thought his father to be wiser than many so-called spiritual fathers. The following story is an interesting account of how a father dealt with anger in correcting his son.

This excerpt is from the Elder Sophrony’s St. Silouan the Athonite.

Young, strong, handsome, and by this time prosperous, too, Simeon [later to become the monk Silouan] revelled in life. He was popular in the village, being good-natured, peaceable and jolly, and the village girls looked on him as a man they would like to marry. He himself was attracted to one of them and, before the question of marriage had been put, what so often happens befell late one summer evening.

Next morning, as they were working together, his father said to him quietly,

‘Where were you last night, son? My heart was troubled for you?’

The mild words sank into Simeon’s soul, and in later life when he recalled his father the Staretz [elder] would say,

‘I have never reached my father’s stature. He was absolutely illiterate – he even used to make mistakes in the Lord’s Prayer which he had learned by listening in church; but he was a man who was gentle and wise.’

They were a large family – father, mother, five sons and two daughters – all living in affection together. The elder boys worked with their father. One Friday they were out harvesting and it was Simeon’s turn to cook the midday meal. Forgetting that it was Friday, he prepared a dish of pork for their lunch, and they all ate of it. Six months later, on a feast-day in winter, Simeon’s father turned to him with a gentle smile and said,

‘Son, do you remember how you gave us pork to eat that day in the fields? It was a Friday. I ate it but, you know, it tasted like carrion.’

‘Whyever didn’t you tell me at the time?’

‘I didn’t want to upset you, son.’

Recalling such incidents from his life at home, the Staretz would add,

‘That is the sort of staretz I would like to have. He never got angry, was always even-tempered and humble. Just think – he waited six months for the right moment to correct me without upsetting me!’

Raising a Saint

December 7, 2010

Most of us would be satisfied to raise children who remain faithful believers. It is not always an easy thing and every parent who has such a child should rejoice constantly. There is no method to raise a child to be a saint, for God alone gives the grace that results in the mystery of such wonderful lives. However that may be, I am often struck in reading the writings of St. Silouan by his stories about his father. It would seem that the most fundamental spiritual lessons are not ones he gained from an Elder, but from the simple peasant that was his father – but a simple peasant with the faith of a saint. A small example:

Let us not be distressed over the loss of worldly goods, such losses are a small matter. My own father taught me this early in life. When some misfortune happened at home, he would remain serene. When our house caught fire and the neighbors said, ‘Ivan Petrovich, your house is burnt down!’ he replied, ‘With God’s help I’ll build it up again.’ Once we were walking along the side of our field, and I said, ‘Look, they’re stealing our sheaves!’ ‘Aye, son,’ he answered me, ‘the Lord has given us corn and to spare, so if anyone steals it, it means he’s in want.’ Another day I said to him, ‘You give a lot away to charity, while some who are better off than we are give far less.’ To which he replied, ‘Aye, son, the Lord will provide.’ And the Lord did not confound his hope.

From St. Silouan of Mount Athos

There is no better way to teach a child Christianity than to actually live it – truly and from the heart. You cannot teach what you do not live. The deepest things are revealed in the simplest things.

You Never Pray Alone

December 4, 2010

Forgive me if this offers any offense.

There is a conception of what it means to be human, rooted in Medieval thought and refined in the furnace of modernity. This conception views each person as a “free moral agent.” Each of us is a unique individual. Our choices are our own and set our path for good or ill. Moral decisions may be submitted to varying forms of ethical tests. The choices each individual makes may effect others around him, but does not impinge on the free moral agency of others. Salvation, in this conception, is an individual matter – between each of us and God. The Church, in this conception, is a free association of free moral agents, who gather together for worship and praise and other matters of mutual benefit.

This conception of humanity runs counter to the Tradition of the Church, substituting much later definitions and understandings for the thought of those who wrote Scripture, and those who, following them faithfully, propounded the Christian faith over the subsequent centuries. (A suggestion for reading – Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.)

When this matrix of a human as an individual moral agent is used as a lens through which Scripture is read – the result is often a distortion of Scripture (which was never meant to be a book for individuals). Such a lens all too easily ignores verses that clearly teach a different conception of what it means to be human and thus distorts the role of choice and free will as well as the account of salvation.

Were this distortion confined to an abstract debate then it would simply remain a matter of debate. But since it is actually based on flawed assumptions about the very nature of our existence – it goes far beyond mistaken thought and becomes positively harmful as a basis for human living, especially human life as a Christian.

We are created in God’s image – the image of the Triune God. This is not the same thing as saying each individual is created in the image of the Triune God (pace St. Augustine). All that God creates is pronounced “good.” The first thing described as “not good” is man alone. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). We are created in the image of God – persons of  one essence – our existence is inherently a common existence. It is this reality that ultimately provides the ground for understanding our life in Christ and the path of salvation.

St. Paul offers these admonitions:

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-8).

So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another (Romans 12:5)

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor. 12:26).

Within St. Paul’s statements is an understanding of what it means to be human – and particularly what it means to be persons who are members of the one body of Christ – in which individuality (as it stands alone) is the antithesis of the Christian understanding. Why should it be true that if one member of the body of Christ suffers, I should suffer as well? Does this not impinge on my freedom and reality as an individual moral agent? Of course it does – because I am not merely an individual moral agent. What each of us does effects all of us. Were it not so, Christ could not have taken upon Himself the sins of the world.

The forensic (legal) account of salvation, popular within many modern Christian circles, is easily misused, making our salvation extrinsic, a transaction offered on our behalf, but a transaction that only touches us as individual moral agents. We are forgiven as a man could be forgiven for a crime he has committed. He remains a criminal. This account of salvation is extremely well-suited to a world view in which man is seen primarily as an individual moral agent. He has been offered a forensic forgiveness. All that remains is for him to make a choice, accepting this boon with gratitude.

But such an account ignores the bulk of Christian Tradition (including large amounts of Scripture itself). Christ took the sins of the world upon Himself when He took upon Himself our human nature (at the Incarnation). He carried that burden to the Cross, into Hades, and raised it forgiven and healed in His Pascha. He remains united to us, having carried our humanity with Him in His glorious Ascension. Such an understanding of the Incarnation is consonant with the commonality of our existence.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together,” including the Head of the Body, Christ Jesus.

The truth of our existence is revealed in our life within the Church. The Church is the restoration of humanity to the truth of its existence. In the garden of Eden, human beings chose to act as individuals. Eve makes a choiceapart from Adam as Adam does apart from Eve. That rupture is perhaps more significant than the eating of the forbidden fruit itself.

The eating and drinking which are given in the life of the Church are a participation in a common life – the common life of God, given to us in Christ. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56). We are also told, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). All of the sacraments of the Church (indeed the whole of everything of the Church) have this same character.

The disruption of our common humanity is the result of sin. Such a disruption can be seen in the first murder (Cain kills Abel) and is writ large in the story of the tower of Babel. Our common life has been shattered by sin – and it is not healed by becoming more fully what sin made of it. We do not find our salvation as individuals, but as members of the Body of Christ. “Christ is our life” (Col. 3:4). The Church reveals the truth of human existence, indeed, the Church is what salvation looks like (as troubling as that thought may be). The life of the Church is a true union, a common life in Christ.

Prayer (as well as the whole of our Christian praxis) is properly understood in the context of our common life – and not within the confines of existence imagined as single and individual. Thus Christ teaches us to pray, “Our Father….” That prayer which is understood to be the most perfect – is a common prayer – the cry of our common heart in Christ.

Nor do we pray apart from Christ. “…God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!'” (Gal. 4:6). Our prayer is the cry of Christ through the Spirit to the Father. In is in this way that we can pray, “Our Father.”

Prayer is the offering of our common life before God. Whether or not we ourselves enter into this common prayer, the prayer remains. In the Tradition we begin our prayers: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” What follows is thus not our own individual existence but the voice of our common life given in Christ Jesus through the Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

In the matrix of humanity conceived as individual – prayer – at best – is conversation. It obviously does not inform God of what He does not know – nor does it convince Him to do what He does not will to do. As such, prayer is reduced to the sound of our own ego.

There are times when such a sound is all that we can manage – indeed there are times when we cannot manage even a sound. Such times are all the more reason to become increasingly familiar with the ceaseless prayer of the Son to the Father through the Spirit. It is also reason to become familiar with the voice of the whole Church (in heaven and on earth) as it prays in union with Christ.

The anxieties of those who refuse to understand the communion of saints, and the prayer which ascends ceaselessly from the Church, is, I think, largely born of an individualism – the hallmark of most forms of modern Christianity. Christ alone saves us (apart from Him we can do nothing), and yet it pleases Him to share His life with us (it is our true existence). There is not a life of Christ that is not also a saving life. Salvation is part of our common life, even though it be solely the work of Christ.

Many are scandalized when they first visit and Orthodox Church and hear the prayer, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” What they think they are hearing is Mary put in the place of Christ. In the Tradition there is no such thought. The prayer is a recognition of the one salvation in Christ of which the Mother of God is intimately a part.

The shift from individualistic thought to the understanding of life as communion is perhaps among the most difficult undertakings in the modern world. It runs counter to modern culture and asks us to enter a world that can seem quite foreign. But this strange world is nothing other than the Kingdom of God – life in Christ – communion in the life of Christ and the life of one another. May God hurry the day of our transformation!

Prayer and Communion

December 2, 2010

Having posted on the topic of prayer – I thought that reposting this earlier piece on the mystery of prayer as communion would be helpful. In particular it should be helpful for understanding the larger life of prayer – which includes our communion with the saints.


Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).

Have you ever wondered what Jesus did when He prayed all night? Have you ever tried to pray all night? If your conception of prayer is a monologue of needs, information and requests, then your experience of prayer is either that it is very short or very repetitive.

Years ago, in my years between high school and college, I lived in a religious commune (yes, it was the early ’70’s). From time to time in our efforts to live a life based in Scripture, we “kept watch,” though we had no guidance from tradition to explain the meaning of the phrase. Our practice was first to stay awake all night. Second, we tried to pray. The monologue model made no dent in the hours of the night. We quickly learned that in order to pray all night something else had to serve as prayer. We learned to pray the Psalms. Accidentally, we had begun to practice one of the ancient forms of “keeping watch.”

Fittingly, it was one of the simplest forms of keeping watch – but the experience was instructive. We began to learn the value of simply being present to God (who is Himself everywhere present) and attentive to the words of prayer itself.

It seems to me that Christ would have had no need to hold conversation through the night with the Father. There was no information to be conveyed – no requests not already known. The need to pray in such an intense manner is simply the expression of true communion – such as exists eternally in the Godhead. For human beings, that communion is most frequently expressed as prayer. It is a need greater than food:

In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”
But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”
Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.


When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

More valuable than food – such communion is greater than sleep as well. Thus Christ prayed through the night on occasion. The practice has continued in the ascetic life of the Church through the centuries.

It is prayer as communion with God that concerns me in this post. Such an understanding is not simply a description of so-called “contemplative” prayer, but is properly the understanding for all prayer. Prayer is communion, expressed in words, in songs, in a presence that sometimes transcends words. Prayer is stepping consciously into the life that has been given us in Christ – and remaining there for a period of time (unceasingly is the Scriptural goal).

Participation in the life of God (communion) is the heart of intercessory prayer.

But [Christ], because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:24-25).

Christ’s “intercession for us” should not be understood as an eternal torrent of words; intercession is Christ’s union with us who have now been united to Him and thus united to His eternal communion with the Father.

This same understanding of prayer is at the heart of the intercession of the saints. Much confusion about the intercession of the saints has been wrought by poor images of prayer. We have reduced prayer to talk and intercession to talk to God about someone else. It is in this imagery that the Protestant question comes forward: “Why do we need someone else to speak to God for us? Isn’t Christ’s prayer enough?”

Of course, if prayer is just talk, then surely Christ’s words would be sufficient. But this oversimplification of prayer fails to do justice to Christ’s own prayer (as well as that of the saints). The intercession of the saints is their communion and participation in the life of Christ. By His life they live and the very character of that life is a communion with God. Rightly understood – that communion is prayer itself. When we express our own communion with the saints through asking their prayers we are giving verbal expression to what is already an ontological reality. As we are in communion with Christ so we are in communion with the saints. The Church cannot be other than the Church.

There may be those who reject the “intercession of the saints” (particularly as caricatured by inadequate understandings of prayer), but if they are truly in the communion of the Church then the intercession of the saints is inherently part of that communion. There is no Church that is not also the communion of the saints.

Our salvation is participation in the life of Christ. It is our healing, our forgiveness, our resurrection and our peace. Prayer is the sound of salvation – even in a wordless state.

Our reluctance to pray (let us be honest) is a manifestation of the primordial sin. It is not the time or effort we avoid – but communion with God that causes us to recoil. It is the hardness of our heart that avoids participation in the heart of God. But it is also His mercy that continues to call us to the life of prayer despite our selfish rebuff.

Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him. When He came to the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow. Then He said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Luke 22:39-46).