Archive for May, 2011

Mere Existence and the Age to Come

May 29, 2011

C.S. Lewis, in his marvelous little book, The Great Divorce, uses the imagery of “solidity” versus “ghostliness” to make a distinction between those who have entered paradise, and those who have not. He clearly did not mean to set forth a metaphysical model or to suggest “how things are.” But the imagery is very apt and suggestive when we take a look at what it means for something or someone to exist.

The nature of our secularized worldview is to take all that we see as a presentation of reality and truth. The daily world as we experience it is considered to be the very definition of reality. This is the natural world. Any other perception or presentation of reality is thus supernatural or somethingother than natural. For those who accept this definition, the onus is on those who suggest that reality is in anyway different than the daily perception of the modern secularized world. To be a “sceptic” is thus not to question everything, but to question everything other than what is perceived as normal and natural.

The Scriptures suggest a different perspective: “for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). The world in which we live is not “solid” in the sense of permanence – it is constantly changing and “passing away.”

The same can be said even of our own egos. They vary somewhat from day to day, often tossed about by fears and anxieties, shifting themselves as they encounter the trials of existence.

The Gospel of Christ speaks of a reality that is permanent and of an existence that has something of the same reality. Hebrews offers this description:

“Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire (12:26-29).

St. Paul tells us:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:1-4).

Our true life – our authentic existence – is not to be found among “the things on the earth.” Our life is something that will appear with Christ when He appears. Of course, this does not restrict our true life to a manifestation at the Second Coming. The Christ who is coming, is also the Christ who is even now “in our midst.” Thus, being in Christ is also the path to our own true existence.

This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Christian life. Most often we substitute the ego for our true self – we struggle to learn “to behave” as a Christian. But such efforts only lead us into the world of concepts and arguments, morality and guilt. We do not invent our true self, our authentic existence – it is a new creation and is found only in Christ.

St. John the Baptist offers the observation between himself and Christ, “He must increase and I must decrease.” Though this does not mean the disappearance of John, but the fulfillment of John in Christ. In Christ he becomes the Forerunner, the Baptizer and Prophet. He becomes who he was created to be (and prophesied in the Scriptures) and who is ever is in eternity.

Christ must increase and I must decrease. As I decrease so do the false images I cherish of myself. The anxieties that surround me decrease. Lies and deceit decrease for in Christ is only truth. Such a decrease is not the end of my existence but its beginning.

The stories we have in Scripture with regard to a number of characters are marked by this decrease and increase. St. Paul’s transformation (likely preceded by much inner struggle and pain) is one that comes easiest to mind. His decreased is expressed in the image of the Cross: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me…”

“Yet not I.”

The great patriarch Jacob struggles through a lifetime to realize his true self as “Israel,” culminating in his wrestling with the angel. Jacob’s decrease did not result in his annihilation but his fulfillment.

This pattern is repeated again and again in the lives of holy men and women within the pages of Scripture and within the lives of the saints. It is the not only the path to holiness – but also the path to our true humanity.

Learning to live this new existence is the heart of the Christian life. Finding language to describe a new existence is difficult. For lack of a better term, I would describe it as a new mode of existence. Met. John Zizioulas describes this as the ecclesial hypostasis(thus you can see my preference for “mode of existence”). We do not create such a mode or reform ourselves into such a manner of being – it is God’s gift, given to us in Christ. We are baptized into this existence (“raised in the likeness of His resurrection”). For a variety of reasons we often prefer the path of self-creation and reform – always a losing proposition.

And it is precisely at this point (the lost proposition) that the in-breaking of the life of the world to come becomes possible. It is not unlike the helplessness that an alcoholic admits when he says, “I came to find that my life was unmanageable and that only a power greater than myself could help me.” Of course, such moments go more easily than they come.

The heart of the spiritual life is not to be found in our efforts to do better or in other lost propositions – the heart of our true life is found precisely in our helplessness and its union with Christ. The disciplines of fasting, prayer, almsgiving, confession, etc., are not given to us for our improvement, but to bring us back to the moment of helplessness and to keep us as close as possible to that moment at all times.

I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

In such a confession we find the life of the world to come – our own true life.

The Specific Truth

May 27, 2011

The Truth, spoken in general, is, perhaps, the most easily spoken truth in all the world. It smooths over the rough edges of hard truth and says more easily that to which all can agree. If all can agree – it is not probably the truth – or it is not a truth worth speaking.

As a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, I find the present time to be one in which the truth is both difficult to discern and difficult to speak. My policy on this blog has always been to avoid the “politics” of the moment and to write of things of greater importance. The politics of the moment are among those things hardest to discern. None of us have enough information to speak with clear authority – and we are often compromised by our own allegiances and friendships.

However, I do believe in truth – not the truth that serves only one point-of-view, not a truth that paints itself as all white while painting its opponent as all black. In the long span of human history, such characterizations have rarely proved to be entirely true.

First off, truth is not simply an accurate account of events. Truth is defined in and by a relationship with Jesus Christ. We have all encountered “masters of the truth” who while offering an irrefutable account of events, have somehow departed from the truth as it is in Christ. Telling the truth is a means of our salvation, not a means of gaining an upper hand or of winning battles. Christ has no interest in the upper hand or in winning battles.

All of this is to say that in Christ, there can be no partisanship. Truth judges us all and makes our partisan commitments to be without meaning. Many of our commitments are but a thin disguise for our passions or the false truth of the ego.

Many of the positions of modernity argue for a form of truth that is rather malleable. That we must never offend each other is not a commandment – though some take a perverse pleasure in giving such.

The history of the Church is replete with Bishops, priests and laity who believed that their great mission in life was to rescue the Church from one error or another, just as today there are many (in various churches and elsewhere) who have a deep need to “fix” the world. This is not the same thing as living the truth, telling the truth, or becoming the truth. The world needs to know the truth even as the Truth knows the world.

Telling the Truth

May 27, 2011

My recent writings have caused me to want to offer this reprint. Truth-telling is not a moral activity, but an activity of true existence. It is a simple command: ‘Do not lie,’ but it is tantamount to saying ‘Exist!’


Abba Poemen said, “Teach your mouth to say that which is in your heart.”

Speaking the truth is as fundamental as the Ten Commandments. It also receives a great deal of attention within the pages of the New Testament.

Do not lie to one another since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Col. 3:9)

It is very easy to think of lying and telling the truth as simple “moral” issues. We do not lie because it is wrong, and we tell the truth because it is right. The weakness of such morality is its failure to understand either the nature of sin or the nature of the life to which we have been called as Christians.

Within a purely moral context, the question could be asked: “If you were able to tell a lie, and no one was hurt by it and no one but yourself knew it, where would be the wrong?” The answer would come back in a purely moral form that would involve the breaking of a commandment and the righteous judgment of God. Christianity as a moral system is Christianity misunderstood.

I have stated before that Christ did not die to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live. Christ’s teachings on the Kingdom of God, when measured by a moral yardstick, often seem to ask too much or to push Christians beyond the boundaries of morality. Thus the moralizers of Christianity have often described the Sermon on the Mount as an “interim ethic,” a teaching that only makes sense if the end of the world is but a short time away.

In various times and places the “Christian” moral teaching has been largely indistinguishable from the accepted morality of society at large – thus making the Church the underwriter of culture. A number of denominations are in serious difficulties today as the culture around them is undergoing serious moral changes. Those who have had the deepest investment in underwriting the dominant culture have largely been the first to find reasons to change their moral teaching to continue their cultural position.

The problem with morality (as we popularly understand the term) is that it misses the point of Christian teaching. Christian “moral” teaching frequently does an injustice to the faith by corrupting the nature of the Church’s life and the purpose of its teaching.

Truth is not a matter of morality – it is a matter of existence and non-existence.

This is the fundamental insight and teaching of St. Athanasius in his classical work, On the Incarnation.

For the transgression of the commandment was making them [humanity] turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good (De Incarnatione, 1.4).

As St. Paul would observe, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Right and wrong are not measured by abstract laws but by their relationship to existence. That which is wrong has about it – the nature of death.

This is the reason that Scripture gives such a priority to telling the truth. The nature of a lie is found precisely in its non-existence. Thus the devil is characterized in his rebellion against God as “a liar and the father of lies.” Evil has no existence, but in the malevolence of the wicked one, it seeks to draw everything that has existence into non-existence.

The Christian life is an acceptance of the true life in Christ – a life which is nothing other than communion with the true and living God. In this alone do we have true and authentic existence. In this alone do we have eternal life.

The various lies and distortions of the truth which we utter or in which we participate are enemies of our own existence. We give consent to corruption which is our non-existence when we give voice to a lie. The life of salvation is a constant movement towards the Truth, being conformed to the image of Truth.

We have the added difficulty that the truth is often opaque for us. We do not see it clearly. This is a manifestation of the state of our heart, our inner disposition. The admonition “to say what is in your heart” is an encouragement to move towards an authentic existence. It may be that “what is in your heart” is darkness. That darkness needs to be brought into the light. In Orthodox practice, this is normatively done in the mystery of confession. We reveal the darkness of our hearts and bring them before the Truth of Christ. In that healing light, we receive the forgiveness of our sins – we receive the life of Christ Himself.

Of course the Law, or rules, are not without benefit. They serve as a “tutor” in the language of St. Paul, to point us to Christ. They teach our heart that the process of healing might begin in us even at an early age.

But the clarity that comes with the light of Christ begins to remove the opacity of our vision and allows us to live without delusion and to see the Truth. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The admonition “to say what is in your heart” is not a call to say aloud every dark thought that infects us and to spew the darkness wherever we go. But there can be no integrity within us until our hearts and our lips are united. We cannot say one thing and mean another and remain in the light.

“The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” God give us grace to speak the truth. May He drive the darkness from our hearts.

From Under the Rubble

May 26, 2011

Dostoevsky wrote in the mid-19th century, a time when many ideas and cultural forces were only beginning to coelesce. We live in an age after which those forces have come together, and after which they have largely been judged by history to have fallen short of their stated ideals. The world has witnessed more than a century of failed promises and programs (not that we have completely rejected such things) and are, to a large extent, left drifting in a world in which we have few markers or sure bearings upon which to plot our lives, much less the future of mankind.

The Christian faith has not been immune to the cultural forces of the past few centuries. Some groups of Christians feel compelled to maintain strong ties with the present culture and to change themselves and the shape of their proclamation according to the prevailing winds of cultural understandings. Others have been swept along, always having been “cultural” Churches, and now struggling to know which part of the culture they are to represent.

Holy Orthodoxy has traditionally held to a course which is unchanging – though it has been profoundly influenced by the political and cultural institutions which have surrounded it. Today, with greater freedom than in many centuries, Orthodoxy struggles to find its proper place and stance amidst the rubble of the modern world.

Aleksandr Solzhnitsyn published a small book of essays in the early ’70’s entitled, From Under the Rubble. The “Rubble” of his title represented the rubble of Christian civilization that had been overwhelmed ultimately by various forces of modernity. His experience was of the crude realities of the Soviet System (where he spent some years within the Gulag system and where he spent his “freedom” under constant surveillance). But the “rubble” extends beyond the boundaries of Solzhenitsyn’s cultural and historical experience.

The whole of Christian civilization now sits somewhere in history. Condemned for its excesses and failures, used as the scapegoat for any and every imagined ill. Those who profess the Christian faith today, do so “from under the rubble.” We cannot look around for authentic Christian culture. It is only with difficulty that we may draw on the wisdom of the past.

But the story of the human relationship with God is a constant re-telling of life from within rubble. There is very little in Scripture that can be described as a golden age. Even the righteous King David is beset with his own personal sin and rebellion within his own family. The story of Creation and Paradise are followed immediately with the story of the first sin, the first murder, and the multiple failings of humanity.

However, nowhere in the gospel of Christ are His followers enjoined to create a great civilization. Such things have come about, from time to time, within the context of Christian believing, but always with flaws that mark the weaknesses that will bring about their downfall, and even with periodic persecution of the Church and the Truth itself. States are not inherently evil, neither are they inherently good.

In the gospel of Christ we are taught about the coming of the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is not the perfection of some other kingdom. It is not the product of human imagination and innovation. It comes as a gift – not even as a result of our prayers. As the wondrous gift of God it is the hidden treasure that we find beneath and within the rubble. The Kingdom is the Pearl of Great Price – the indestructible truth.

I once read that even a single commandment of Christ, if kept with all our heart, mind and strength, will become for us the door to the Kingdom. Such singleness of heart is a very rare thing – though it is not a complicated thing. I think of St. Paul’s words in Romans 12:

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.

It is not complicated – just a simple way out of the rubble. Solzhenitsyn’s boldest recommendation in his small essay entitled, “From Under the Rubble,” was printed in block letters: DO NOT LIE, REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE IN THE LIE.

How simple. How hard.

The Secular Man and the Christian Man

May 21, 2011

The Secular Man has been the great threat to the Christian faith over the past two or more centuries. Disguised as the person is only only doing the “normal thing,” he lives in a godless world, where others can be tempted to live as though there were no God. Earlier I quoted Berdyaev, “If God does not exist, then man does not exist.” I would add to that that the God Who Exists must be everywhere present and filling all things, or He is no God and a false god. Let us renounce the “soft atheism” of the secular man and live always and everywhere for God. 

Many Orthodox writers have spoken about the nature of the secular world, the defining form of modernity. I take here an opportunity to make a small comparison between the secular man and the Christian.

The secular man may believe that there is a God, but he also believes that the situation and outcome of the world are dependent upon the actions of human beings.

The Christian man believes that there is a God, and that all things are in His hands.

The secular man believes in Progress. Life changes, and with good human direction, it changes for the better. Every new discovery stands on the shoulders of every previous discovery. In this way, life improves and always improves for the better.

The Christian man believes that whatever man does may change his circumstances, but does not change man. A modern man is in no way superior to those who came before him. Goodness is not a result of progress.

The secular man believes in the power of human beings. Reason, applied reasonably to any situation, will yield a better outcome.

The Christian man believes in God, but he doubts the goodness of man. Human solutions are always questionable and capable of failure.

The secular man believes, ultimately, in the smooth path of progress. Even though there may be set-backs along the way, he believes that pursuing the path of progress will ultimately yield a better world – even a near perfect world.

Because the Christian man believes in God, he trusts that the outcome of history belongs to God and not to man. Thus, even the good things done by man are judged by a good God whose goal for us is always beyond anything we could ask or think.

The secular man, despite various failures, always believes that the next good is only another plan away. Compromise, negotiation, and a willingness to change will finally solve all problems.

The Christian understands the sinfulness of humanity. He knows that without God things will always fail and dissipate. Only through trust and obedience to God can the human situation improve – and such improvement always comes as a miracle from God.

The secular man does not believe in his own fallibility. He does not learn from history, but yearns repeatedly for a success where none has come before. What success he has known (in medical treatment of disease, etc.) is quickly translated into political terms. What is wrong politically can be eradicated as easily as malaria.

The Christian man knows that problems do not lie so much in the world as within himself. Unless man is changed by a good God, there will be a very limited goodness in the world. The secular man knows how to cure malaria, but he cannot manage to actually share that goodness with the world. The world (the third world) dies as it has always died. The secular man is powerless because he lacks true goodness.

The Christian man is largely marginalized in our modern world. He is considered an artifact of the past. However he is not a religious artifact – the truth he knows is eternal and is as applicable to the ills of the world as any part of the truth of God.

It is for this generation to understand what it means to be a Christian man and not to compromise with the secular man. God is good and wills good for all people. He is not a utilitarian, wishing the greatest good for the greatest number, but willing good for each and every soul.

May Christians be visible everywhere, and everywhere loyal to the Kingdom of God.

Notes from the Underground And Man’s True Heart

May 20, 2011

I have recently been reading in a classic work, Nicholas Berdyaev’s Dostoevsky. Berdyaev was a twentieth-century Russian philosopher (existentialist) and deeply sympathetic to Dostoevsky’s works. I find some of his treatment to be tremendously satisfying and “on the mark.” I offer an extended quote and some thoughts…

Berdyaev quotes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground:

I shall not be a bit surprised, if in the midst of the Universal Reason [referring to various utopian schemes popular in the 19th century] that is to be, there will appear, all of a sudden and unexpectedly, some common-faced, or rather cynical and sneering, gentleman who with his arms akimbo will say to us: ‘Now then, you fellows, what about smashing all this Reason to bits, sending their logarithms to the devil, and living as we like according to our own silly will?’ That might not be much, but the annoying thing is that he would immediately get plenty of followers – men are made like that. And the cause of all this is so absurd that it would scarcely seem worth speaking of : man, whoever he is and wherever he is to be found, prefers to act as he wills rather than as reason and interest dictate. One may will against one’s own interest – sometimes one has to. Scope for free choice, personal caprice, however extravagant, the matter of fancies – those are what man is after, quintessential objects that you can’t classify and in exchange for which all systems and theories can go to hell. Where then have all these wiseacres found that man’s will should primarily be normal and virtuous? Why have they imagined that man needs a will directed towards reason and his own benefit? All he needs is an independent will, whatever it may cost him and wherever it may lead him … In only one single case does man consciously and deliberately want something absurd, and that is the silliest thing of all, namely, to have the right to want the absurd and not to be bound by the necessity of wanting only what is reasonable.

Berdyaev offers his own analysis:

To the very end [Dostoevsky] refused to rationalize human society and repudiated all attempts to exalt happiness, reason, and well-being above liberty; he would have nothing to do with the Great Exhibition [held in London in 1851, to demonstrate that technology was the way to a better future] or any anticipated harmony based on the ruins of human personality. Instead he wanted to take men along the ways of wildest self-will and revolt in order to show them that they lead to the extinction of liberty and to self-annihilation. This road of liberty can only end either in the deification of man or in the discovery of God; in the one case, he is lost and done for; in the other, he finds salvation and the definitive confirmation of himself as God’s earthly image. For man does not exist unless there be a God and unless he be the image and likeness of God; if there be no God, then man deifies himself, ceases to be man, and his own image perishes. The only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ.

I have written on a number of occasions of modernity’s misguided admiration for reason. The Enlightenment (18th century) witnessed the birth of the modern fascination with reason – and to a degree – all things mathematical. Its ideas continue in many varieties (even as it began with many varieties). There is a continual hope in various “brave new worlds,” from Camelot (progressive America) to the Worker’s Paradise. Today everything from cybernetics and genetics to chaos and anarchy are offered as utopian solutions to the problems of the world – or necessities on the road of progress.

Berdyaev correctly analyzes the theme of liberty in Dostoevsky’s thought. He lived and wrote during a period in which Reason and its various advocates had yet to place their dreams into completed action but stood at that very precipice. Dostoevsky’s essentially Christian voice seemed like the voice of madness to some, or an empty effort to defend tradition, etc. His age not only clamored for Reason but for a new and Reasonable Christ (were there to be one at all). Dostoevsky in a developing string of novels explores the consequences of the various forces of his age. He ultimately ends with Christ – but not the Christ of man’s imagination. The Christ He sees is the Christ of the Gospels, the Christ of the Fathers, the Christ of the living Tradition of the Orthodox faith.

He embraces the irrational claims of the gospel – every man is guilty of the sins of all…we must forgive everyone for everything…. His characters introduce such ideas into the midst of a rationalizing culture and the novels move towards their resolution in the dynamic of that conflict.

Our present age is deeply shattered. We cannot point to one modernity – but to a plurality of modernities. Christianity is itself fragmented (with fragmentations within each fragment). The temptations offered to believers are as manifold as could possibly be imagined.

The Christian faith has its own champions of Enlightenment – those who are certain that various schemes will result in a better world, or hasten the coming of Christ, or create a better Christian. Orthodoxy itself is not immune to such champions: those who believe that a new Byzantine Empire (or Holy Russia) or even Orthodox America are very vulnerable to the utilitarian temptations of our age. “It is good; we want it to happen; let’s make it happen.”

I personally long for a united, single Orthodox Church on American soil – but such a miraculous leap forward in the practice of ecclesiology will not serve as a solution for America or for the Orthodox who live here. It will correct our failures to properly observe canon law, but it will still only yield the Church – the arena of our struggle and the Golgotha for the Cross we have each promised to take up.

Reason and rationality (when left to themselves) can never lead to the promises of God: they are too small, too limited, unable to imagine the wonder that is man in Christ. By the same token, Reason finally has as its ultimate weapon the use of force – for those who refuse Reason stand in the way of a better world. In the liberty in which Dostoevsky dares believe – there can only be love – for liberty can have no compulsion. Those who resort to force have abandoned liberty as surely as they have abandoned love.

Berdyaev offers a correct conclusion: the only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ. I would amend this statement to bring it in line with Scripture: the only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. It is the love of God in the last extremity of crucifixion that solves the problem of man. For the paradox is clear – the liberty of love along with its renunciation of compulsion – leads, it would seem, only to the triumph of evil. Love is conquered by death. But the Christian faith transcends reason. Death is reasonable and reason’s end. Christ is the Logos, the only true image of man, capable of sustaining man in his true image – with the freedom that can only come in Christ. For He has constituted the world in freedom (the freedom of love) and offers us this gift without compulsion. By His resurrection we forgive everyone for everything and find our true life in the very place where others would fear to go.

The great truth of this matter is that it is not an ethical sidebar to the larger matter of Christianity – but is its very heart – a heart that when missing, misses the Kingdom of God. For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

The Church and the Cross of Christ

May 13, 2011

This series is a reflection of the life of the Cross in the life of the Church. Orthodoxy in the modern world (as well as its past) frequently engages in struggle – not only with the world – but within itself. This is not the failure of an ideal – for the Church is not an ideal – but instead is the life of salvation lived out in this world and in the age to come. These thoughts stay with me and are a comfort when the struggles of salvation seek to overcome. I reprint this in such a time.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points:

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

The Things We Share

May 11, 2011

Modern culture frequently celebrates the freedom we each enjoy – in come cases going so far as to think of human beings as discreet individuals. Of course each of us lives in his/her own body – but even as such – we live in a common world. What I do and how I live affects others whether I want it to or not. In one manner or another, we live on the consequences of those who have gone before us – our landscapes – our resources – the shape of political boundaries – the language we speak – generally the whole of our life – is something that is being shared with us – again, whether we want it to be so or not.

There is a more profound sharing that takes place within our lives. That sharing is found in the communion, the participation (koinonia), which we have in the life of Christ and, because of Him, in the lives of each other.

In a number of spiritual writings within the Christian East, the word anadoche is used to describe an aspect of this sharing and participation. It’s meaning (at least at the time of its adoption into the language of the Church) is roughly translated, “responsibility.” It seems to have been borrowed from the world of ancient banking in which it has something of the meaning of “surety,” as in to stand surety for the debt of another.

Within the Church it began to be used to describe certain aspects of our mutual existence. Thus the sponsor at Baptism is sometimes referred to as anadochos – someone who is standing as a guarantor of another’s life in Christ. It is also used to describe the relationship between confessor and penitent and between Spiritual Father and disciple. Particularly in the role of Spiritual Fathers, the understanding of anadoche becomes important. The disciple renders obedience to his elder, but his elder bears far more – taking upon himself the burden of another’s salvation.

This, of course, is perhaps the most extreme example of a spiritual principle. That it is possible to take such a reponsibility, to “bear one another’s burdens” as St. Paul describes it – is only possible because our lives are not discrete individual events -but rather a deeply enmeshed communion with the lives of others and everything around us.

I recall some years ago discussing a mistake I had made (canonically) with my Archbishop. He had the authority to punish me for my error (by suspension for a time) or to be harsh in lecturing me, etc. Instead, as a kind father, he listened to my account, noted my ignorance, corrected me, and then said, “Fr. Stephen, you and I will have to bear this.” I was overwhelmed at such mercy. I was not excused, nor was my failure treated as of no consequence. But I was assured by a more mature elder in the faith that he would share the burden of my action. This is anadoche.

When we pray for others, to some extent we enter into a relationship of responsibility. I do not necessarily take something away from someone else, but I willingly thrust myself into the living communion established in Christ, and unite my life with theirs in a mysterious manner. To pray “for the world” is thus not a light thing – but the greatest possible burden. Christ bears the burden to its fullest possible extent. He took upon Himself the sins of the world. This is God’s great anadoche. Christ has become the surety of a better covenant (Heb. 7:22).

But because our lives are united in a communion established by Christ, there are other forms of responsibility, or sharing, as well. We are commanded of Christ not to judge another “lest we ourselves be judged.” This teaching is far deeper than a warning that God will do to us what we do to others. Indeed, God is far more merciful. Rather, Christ’s words are a warning that judging is a dangerous activity.

To judge another is to enter into the life of another – to inadvertently enter into their sins and weakness. Condemnation, according to Christ, is darkness (John 3:19). The communion into which we are called is a communion of love, in which we bear one another’s burdens freely and with love. The communion of darkness is a communion of coercion and force, where sins are not forgiven and where hatred, greed and envy hold court.

Thus we are told by St. John:

God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7).

For a similar reason we are taught to “honor our father and mother.” We share a very deep communion with parents and ancestors. To curse them is to curse ourselves. We cannot make it be that we have no father or mother. We can extend the light of Christ even to our past and our foundation, or we can make ourselves stand on a foundation of darkness – a deeply dangerous thing to do.

The world largely lives in a communion of darkness. This is the character of life outside of Christ. It is also the character of many whose lives profess Christ as Lord and Savior. The call to everyone, believer and unbeliever, is to walk in the light. For some such an invitation comes as a relief. To others, it can be heard as a threat or a burden too hard to bear.

Christ has not offered us threats and has asked us only to share in the burden which He Himself carries. Our part of the load is miniscule – such is His mercy.

The Hard Reality of the Kingdom of God

May 4, 2011

There are many things that bring us up against the hard reality of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel given to us by Christ, the verbal icon of the Kingdom, often gives us commands or parables that run radically counter to instinct (as we experience it) and, not infrequently, against reason (or so it seems).

No commandment in the teachings of Christ fits this description better than “forgive your enemies.” Our instinct is generally always to avoid and protect ourselves from our enemies, and, in extreme cases, to kill them or imprison them if possible. Again, this seems entirely reasonable for enemies may indeed be genuinely serving the cause of evil, and present a danger (physical, moral, etc.) to those around them.

It is this instinctual reasonableness that makes the teaching of Christ regarding our enemies difficult, and, frequently the subject of modification or amelioration. There are many who would brook no amelioration of Christ’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, who will quickly agree to modifications on Christ’s teaching regarding our enemies.

There is a significant question to be asked: what is the meaning and purpose of Christ’s difficult teaching on the love of enemies? What do they reveal to us about the nature of God and the reality of the Kingdom? Christ Himself makes it clear that the commandments are an inherent part of our conformity to the Divine Image. His appeal is not to morals, but to the very goal of our salvation.

The commandments of Christ are not mere iterations of an abstract moral code: they are revelatory of who God is? To a degree they answer the question: “What kind of God would command such a thing?”

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 6:35-36).

Christ answers the question. A God who is kind to the unthankful and the evil, a God who is merciful is that “kind” of God who would command such a thing – and would do so in order to make us “sons of the Most High.”

Years (centuries) of scholastic torment have rendered the commandments of Christ of little effect, transforming them into virtual rabbinic arguments about the rightness and wrongness of certain actions. Their dynamic in the role of salvation is completely lost (particularly where salvation itself is seen through a forensic lens). Salvation is to be conformed to the image of Christ – a work of grace – a gift from God. However the distortion of that image becomes an enemy of grace and stumbling block to salvation.

And so we come back to our salvation and the commandments of Christ. It is a difficult thing to ponder and yet we must – who are my enemies that I should love? Why does my heart hate them so? Why do I rejoice at their downfall and not weep for the sins of another human being – who is – by definition – my brother?

The human heart is a complex matter – rendered complex by the presence of sin. Rather than simplicity and straight-forwardness, our hearts are fragmented producing both good things and bad. Our very core is distorted and we cannot trust our deepest instincts. This does not mean that we are “totally depraved,” but that we are damaged. The Christ who forgave His enemies from the Cross is more than an example of brave martyrdom – His pronouncement is a declaration of the heart of God and an icon of the kindness and goodness to which we are called to be conformed.

My own life, like that of others, is no stranger to enemies. Some of them are imagined (most, indeed) – some of them are well-defined and self-declared. My family has endured to murders over the years – one brutal and evil – the other stupid and senseless. In both cases the perpetrators were caught, tried and sentenced (none executed). Learning to pray for those who so hurt and injured not only my family – but changed its course in history – has been a difficult journey. I am not sure that all of my family has completed that trek.

But I know from this the pain that can drive the heart of vengeance and can also say that such pain never drives us closer to the Kingdom of God. We cry for justice – but only selectively. For myself, I do not want justice. I cry for mercy.

I have not killed – but I have wished others dead. I have not committed mass murder, but I have brought my curses down upon the heads of entire categories of people. As the heart of murderers are dark – so is my heart. Murder is the second oldest of human sins.

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the murderer, Raskolnikov, is advised by the prostitute Sophia:

Go at once, this very minute, stand at the cross-roads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled, and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go, will you go?

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ch. 30

And the call goes out to all of us, hiding in the darkness of our hearts, “Will you go?” Our culture has witnessed the death of another mass-murderer. They come and go – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, etc. The crimes committed against humanity within the life-time of many of my readers is truly devastating. It is a deep pain which echoes the memory of Cain and Lamech and even our arch-enemy.

But our hearts were not created for righteous anger, just-retribution, or any such noble thing. They were created for conformity to the image of God, who is “kind to the unthankful and evil.” And so with great difficulty we strive to “pray for our enemies.” We do not pray because our enemies deserve such kindness – but because our hearts cannot bear the darkness of hate or the joy at their destruction. Such sentiments only remove us from conformity with Christ.

This is a most difficult matter – and I do not wish to judge anyone who has struggles with this commandment of Christ. I am not free from sin in this matter myself. But it is necessary for us, as Christians, to remind one another of the nature of our calling in God.

Let us pray for one another – that God may give us grace in a time of temptation – that He may lead us not into temptation – but deliver us from evil. Let us pray that He will be kind and merciful to our enemies – for we ask nothing less for ourselves.

Forgive me. God help us!

Hiding from God and God’s Hiddenness

May 3, 2011

I have written a number of times about the “hiddenness” of God. It is a very important aspect of how He makes Himself known (though I know that is a paradox). His hiddenness both protects our freedom and removes compulsion from our relationship with God. There can be no compulsion where there is love. I found a small verse from the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian that offers some thoughts:

Lord, Your symbols are everywhere,
yet You are hidden from everywhere.
Though Your symbol is on hight,
yet height does not perceive that You are;
though Your symbol is in the depth,
it does not comprehend who You are;
though Your symbol is in the sea,
You are hidden from the sea;
though Your symbol is on dry land,
it is not aware what You are.
Blessed is the Hidden One shining out!

St. Ephrem’s use of the word “symbol” is in its ancient sense: something which makes present that which it represents. It is not something which stands in place of that which is absent (the more modern definition). St. Ephrem is celebrating the mystery that the God who is “everywhere present and filling all things,” is also the Hidden One, and yet also the One who is “shining out.”

This mystery comes to rest in the human heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We do not see God because He is everywhere present – we see Him everywhere present because our hearts are made pure. The darkness of our hearts does not reveal God to us – it distorts our perception of the world, of people, and certainly of God. Thus the darkened heart often projects its own darkness onto a concept of God and teaches falsely.

It is in this darkness of the heart that we find ourselves “hiding” from God. It is instructive that in the narrative of Adam and Eve in the garden following their sin, they seek to hide from God. God does not hide from them, but rather seeks them out, calling them by name. Their response is a distortion of the facts. Man hides within his lies.

God does not hide from us in order to condemn us – the “hiddenness” of God is a hiddenness in His light. And so He draws us forth from the darkness and into the light that we may know Him – everywhere present.

Blessed is the Hidden One shining out!