Archive for June, 2012

The Long Journey Home

June 28, 2012

It’s not getting to the land of the dead that’s the problem. It’s getting back.

– Capt. Hector Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End

It is possible to speak in great detail about the origins and problems of the “false-self” (ego). Once the characteristics of the ego, it’s narrative, defenses, aggression, and unrelenting dominance of the mind are identified, it is not only easy to see, it is difficult not to see. It’s not finding the false-self that’s the problem: it’s finding the heart. Greater still the problem of learning to dwell there. We are told in Scripture that we are dead, “and our life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). The journey to the heart is a journey to God. It is not a strategy for self-improvement: it is the journey of salvation.

Salvation, in the fullness of Biblical teaching, is the whole of the Christian life. All that we do and all that God does for us and in us is salvation. It is our healing, justification, sanctification, cleansing, transformation, and deification. The salvation of humanity begins even before creation when the “Lamb was slain” (Rev. 13:8) and it ends when God is “everything in everyone” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Salvation is the long journey home.

Within the inner life, salvation is experienced as deliverance from the domination of the false-self (the ego or the old Adam) and our daily growth in the true self, centered in the heart. The heart is the place of transformation where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.

Though the journey is long and finding the heart is “the problem,” we are not left without guidance. I offer some thoughts here:

Silence. The ego is inherently noisy. To be quiet (the noise of thoughts having ceased) is the beginning of our awareness of the heart.

Thanksgiving. True thanksgiving is the great enemy of the false ego. To give thanks to God everywhere, always and for all things is outside the capabilities of the ego. It opens the heart and quietens the ego. Almost nothing is as salutary in the work of salvation.

Good thoughts. The Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica teaches extensively about the role our thoughts play in our lives. Good thoughts, in agreement with the Scriptures and the teaching of the fathers, full of kindness and forgiveness, are hugely important in the purification of the soul.

Watchfulness. This is a translation of the term nepsis (also translated “sobriety”). It describes our careful awareness of the rise within us of the false-self. Thoughts of anger, greed, judgment, envy, etc. are noted and dismissed. Sometimes they are easily dismissed. At other times we will find ourselves engaging in spiritual warfare. The battle turns in our favor when we realize that these thoughts are not “our” thoughts, but the lies and fantasies of a delusional ego. If everything that the ego imagines were to come to pass, we would not be happy and nothing would improve. There is no substance, nor true existence in such imaginings.

Breathe. The admonition to breathe will sound like yoga or new-age nonsense to some. St. Gregory Palamas goes to great lengths to talk about the importance of the body (and breathing in particular) in finding the place of the heart and pure prayer. We are psychosomatic unities – creatures who are not bodiless. How we eat; how we sleep; how we breathe; how we walk; all that we do with our body plays a role in our life before God. We are called to pray like human beings and not disembodied spirits. We are not the bodiless powers of heaven, but the embodied images of God. We are taught to breathe slowly (if you are anxious and fearful you cannot breathe in this manner). We are taught to relax our muscles. Trust in God. His goodness has a demonstrably physical component.


The discovery of the place of the heart is not the end of the journey but a beginning. I cannot write of the end of the journey, for none of us has yet glimpsed that blessedness. It is for us to begin. To find the place of silence where we do not judge or compare, where we do not justify or defend, where we do not fear or desire, dominate or label is to find the heart. Such a place is fleeting at first. But with silence, thanksgiving, good thoughts and watchfulness, we can slowly recognize a place (and learn to remain there for longer periods) where true prayer is possible. It is this place that is the object of our life of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and spiritual effort. The ego is an unruly fantasy and will never be improved. The work of salvation witnesses the slow abolition of the ego as it is replaced with the true life in Christ. It is a long journey – but it is the journey to our true home.

Is Anybody There? Speaking to the Heart

June 28, 2012

“Talking to you is like talking to a fence post!”

I can still hear the words. I don’t remember who said them – but I heard them sometime in my teenage years. The occasion was doubtless some sort of argument. There were many things to argue about: Love, Peace, War, Jesus, Drugs, Sex, Rock ‘n Roll. There was a great deal of talk and almost no conversation. But why was the experience of talking to someone similar to speaking to a block of wood?

The simple answer is, “No one is at home.” When the ego (the false self generated by our anxieties, fears, grandiosity, etc.) becomes our public voice, the true self is rendered mute. Conversations with the ego are almost useless. Conversations with the ego also tend to provoke responses from the ego – “like calls to like.” Thus one set of defenses speaks to another set of aggressions, switching places as the war of words waxes and wanes. No information is exchanged. No minds are changed. The heart remains inert, shielded in a fog of make-believe.

We are often struck by the relatively short statements of Christ. “Follow me,” and a man leaves his fishing nets and becomes a disciple. I have often wondered if the gospels simply give us a brief summary of a longer conversation. As years have worn on, I think not.

One of the longest conversations recorded in the gospels takes place between Christ and the woman at the well (John 4). Every word of Christ is addressed to the heart. The woman initially responds from the ego.

Jesus says, “Give Me a drink.” She responds (defensively), “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” Jesus speaks again to her heart, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” Christ continues and speaks about living water. Her first response from the heart says, “Sir, give me this water….”

Christ goes deeper into her heart, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” Her response, “I have no husband,” is a confession, spoken from the depths of her heart. There is no explanation no prevarication. In the final moments of the conversation the ego offers a last defense – one last argument of Samaritans versus Jews. Christ responds with the word of the coming Messiah, and reveals Himself to her. In the coming of the Christ, all space between Jew and Samaritan is bridged. The one common hope of the heart destroys the imagined pain of the false self. The words of Christ, spoken consistently to the heart, reveal a woman whose life is a story of broken relationships (five husbands and a live-in friend) to be a saint. The woman at the well, known to the Church as St. Photini, later dies a martyr’s death, having drunk to the full the living water given her that day.

Our own conversations, both when speaking and listening, do well to be grounded in the heart.

Here are some tools to use to remain in the heart:

Use fewer words – be silent if possible. (Eccles. 3:3)

Only speak the truth, though it is not necessary to be unkind. (Eph. 4:15)

Resist the effort to defend yourself. (Matt. 10:19)

It is not important to be right. (Proverbs 26:21)

Do not argue. Your effect on someone else’s ego will come to nothing.  (Hos. 4:4)

Tell your anxieties that everything will be ok. (Phil. 4:6)

Don’t be in a hurry to speak. Let someone else finish their thought. (Proverbs 29:20).


Those who know me will understand the irony of my advice. Of those who sin against speech, I am first.

Evangelism and the Ego

June 24, 2012

Do I have a responsibility to rescue the ego-driven narrative of your life? Does the gospel of Christ exist to confirm your opinions and strengthen your arguments against the threats of a world-gone-mad? How should we evangelize the neurotic? I use the term “neurotic” lightly, under the assumption that we can all be described by the term to a greater or lesser extent. The ego, as used here, refers to a false-self, created by our thoughts and feelings:

Even though it is not really a “thing” at all, the ego slowly develops from childhood on, and is expressed as a story-line, complete with expectations (the “how things ought to be” section of our ever-churning imaginations), paranoia (“they” are out to get me, even when I am not quite sure who “they” are) and simple everyday self-centeredness (“I and my needs and opinions have to be heard, venerated and accepted by everyone else, or I am in danger of disappearing without trace”).

The problem we encounter with the ego is that it is often that part of ourselves which is presented to the world around us: the heart (nous), remains relatively hidden. It is largely the ego that we meet in argument (both someone else’s as well as our own). Such an encounter is the meeting of two figments of the imagination, an event destined for non-existence.

Sharing the gospel of Christ with another human being is not intended for the ego. The ego can be very “religious,” but not to its salvation nor the salvation of the heart. It is in the heart, the “true self,” that we meet Christ. Effective evangelism is the difficult task of speaking heart-to-heart.

Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (Matt. 13:18-33).

The ego never understands. It judges, compares, even “tries an idea on,” but never understands. Understanding is a function of the heart. The ego is riddled with anxiety (its existence is often maintained by constant anxiety). Cares and deceit will rob it of any true planting of the word. In truth, there is no soil in the ego. The heart is the place where we have “root” in ourselves. It is the seat of understanding. There, and there alone, the seed bears fruit.

To speak to the heart requires a word from the heart. The famous visit of St. Vladimir’s envoys to Byzantium are an excellent example. The story is relayed in the Chronicle of Nestor:

Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices in which they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell here any longer.

“We cannot dwell here any longer…” These are the words of the heart. The famous encounter in Byzantium was with beauty – but beauty in such a manner that “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”

My small parish does not appear to be a Church from the outside. It is plain. We have given much work to its interior, that we might worship God in beauty. A recent evening visit by a couple surprised me. Walking into the Narthex, the woman began to weep. “What is that smell?”

“Incense,” I answered.

“It smells like heaven,” she said. She went on, opening her heart and expressing a desire to know more about the faith.

There is no argument or explanation that rivals the simple odor of Divine worship. It is, of course, true that the couple had come to the Church searching. They were leading with their hearts.

Where the gospel is effectively preached, the heart is speaking, and the speaker is listening to hear the sound of the heart’s own door opening. The Elder Paisios famously offered this observation:

Often we see a person and we say a couple spiritual words to him and he converts. 
Later we say, “Ah, I saved someone.” I believe that the person who has the disposition and goodness 
within him, if he doesn’t convert from what we say,  would convert from the sight of a bear or a fox or from anything else. Let 
us beware of false evangelization.

Our egos speak in order to hear themselves. We listen to our own “evangelization” and admire the argument and think ourselves to be “obedient” to the gospel, or to be doing a good work. God is so merciful that he takes words from us (using them like a “fox” or “bear”) and makes them into arrows for the heart. Those whose conversions follow such encounters are not the fruit of our efforts – they bear fruit despite our efforts.

Evangelization of the ego yields fragile converts. Their own ego-driven needs may create a great deal of energy, but with possibly  destructive consequences. Fascination with fasts, feast days, cultural artifacts, correctness (the ego’s panoply) create a pastoral nightmare and a parish riddled with conflict.

True conversion (which happens over an extended period) occurs as we learn to dwell in the heart. Such conversion is an equal requirement within the Church. When it comes to life in the heart – we are all “converts” at best.

Follow-up: Speaking to the heart.

Evangelizing the Neurotic

June 23, 2012

I greatly appreciate the response and questions to the article by Fr. Meletios on parish life and ego-driven needs. I am working on an article with reflections.  I will be focusing particularly on the question of how we evangelize those whose egos are the driving force in their lives. If the ego (as defined by Fr. Meletios) has no true existence – what is there to be saved?

Most of us have encountered new converts who (beyond enthusiasm and zeal) seem newly-armed and ready for battle. Few things are more formidable than a well-honed critique of the West (my very formidable critique has been the product of many years’ work) and membership in the one, true Church. I do not make light of converts – I am notoriously a convert myself. However, our salvation lies within the heart and not within the neurotic narrative of the ego. What does evangelization from and to the heart look like?

I’ll have a post ready sometime Monday.

Comments and thoughts are welcome.

When Taking Cover Is Not Enough

June 22, 2012

The following article by Fr. Meletios Webber was originally published on the Website, In Communion. It is an extremelygood discussion and illustration of the work of the true self (heart) versus the false self (ego) – as seen in the action and life of a parish. I share it here with gratitude for Fr. Meletios’ work.


Get out of the head and into the heart.

– St. Theophan the Recluse

A statement of the problem: When I was little, I went to church with my family each Sunday. There were services morning and evening, with Sunday school in the afternoon. Since we lived more than a mile from the church and had no car, this level of commitment was actually very high. However, since that was all I knew, I did not complain … at least not very much.

I remember having favorites among the people at the church, and there was one in particular, Mrs. Ward, who was in charge of my section of the Sunday school. Looking back I have no idea why I liked her so much more than the others; I simply felt drawn to her. In later life I have observed that children can often have very strong personal likes and dislikes for no apparent reason, and Mrs. Ward (I never knew her first name) was one of my likes.

This particular lady, together with her husband, was one of those people who fall into the “almost indispensable” category in a parish situation. Apart from the Sunday school, they were both involved in all sorts of other activities; my fondness for her had many opportunities for expression since she was at the church every time I was there, and I was there very often.

As I grew older, however, I slowly became aware that, from my parents’ point of view, this hard-working couple were not quite the ideal people that I had imagined them to be. I am not suggesting anything untoward here – far from it. They were upstanding members of the community, somewhat conservative in their views, and very much at home in their own particular religious tradition. However, what gradually became apparent to me (probably over ten or more years) was that while they were very good people under most normal circumstances, if they happened to be present in a meeting (of any kind) they always managed to be opposed to the majority view. Moreover, their m.o. consisted of stating their opposition repeatedly, loudly and (almost) obnoxiously, and their performance often culminated in the ultimate threat: to leave the church if their views were not accepted.

This pattern of behavior was as predictable as it was successful, and they almost always got their way. In our house, the phrase “the Wards are anti” was a common way of describing any situation where tenacity and closed-mindedness won the day.

In my later years as a pastor and parish priest, I have been successful in finding people just like the Wards in almost every parish I have worked in: good, well-meaning people, hard-working and admirable in every respect except that if you find them in a meeting where views are being expressed (which is almost all meetings), they turn into raving banshees, incapable of seeing that it is possible to have a point of view other than their own, and shouting down any and all opposition to their vision of reality.

Indeed, sometimes such behavior gets so bad that one wonders how the church manages to survive at all, since in many cases you will see and hear things at annual meetings, parish councils and similar gatherings which would have to be categorized by an observer as “un-Christian.” Not just in meetings either. I learned the hard way that if a parish community is going to misbehave and turn into warring factions of undiluted hatred and boundless egotism, it is likely to happen either just before Easter (or any time when there is large scale flower-arranging) or, in the case of the particular parishes I served, in connection with the annual Greek Festival. People are tired and restless at such times, and even small difficulties can become pretexts for all-out war.

What exactly is it that turns pleasant, supportive people into raging maniacs?

Raiding the treasures of secular psychology, I would hazard a guess that people behave like this when two things happen – when they lack a clear self-image of themselves (i.e. they are not quite sure who they are in a given situation) and when they are engulfed by, and identify entirely with, the needs of their own ego.

Everyone has an ego, and the ego can be considered and defined in a number of ways. Generally it sums up how we view ourselves. Unfortunately, since we live in a fallen world, this view of ourselves is often wildly inaccurate, and contains toxic levels of fear and desire. Even though it is not really a “thing” at all, the ego slowly develops from childhood on, and is expressed as a story-line, complete with expectations (the “how things ought to be” section of our ever-churning imaginations), paranoia (“they” are out to get me, even when I am not quite sure who “they” are) and simple everyday self-centeredness (“I and my needs and opinions have to be heard, venerated and accepted by everyone else, or I am in danger of disappearing without trace”). The ego is forever in need of support and encouragement, since it sees itself failing miserably in its own task of dominating the universe. The ego is always in need of a boost: hence, “ego-boosting.”

What happens in meetings is that everyone present faces the temptation of using the occasion for a bit of ego-boosting. Of course, this does not occur on a conscious level, but it happens nevertheless. Ego-boosting is a very natural thing to want to do, even if it is not on the agenda of the meeting (which, of course, it is not… at least not in any obvious way).

So, when looking at the agenda of a meeting, everyone present who feels insecure about their role in the parish (almost everyone, including the clergy, office holders, and certainly everyone who expects to be influential) looks to find an item when they can project their ego, even if just a little bit.

Let me give some examples: Someone may want to remind the parish that they do the flowers every Tuesday – as if anyone would dare forget – so under “any other business” that person may ask a rather pointed question about the possibility of such-and-such a family having a memorial service on that day, “which is inconvenient for me since, as everybody knows, I am a very busy person and I do the flowers on Tuesday.” The point of the exercise has nothing to do with flowers, or Tuesdays, but is simply to elicit sympathy, a commodity greatly treasured by the ego, and to let everyone know how complicated and important the person’s life is.

Another example: Someone may have very strong views about Sunday schools. Everyone present at the meeting has heard this person talking on the subject many times before, but since his or her views have not been adopted as general policy, this person finds it necessary to talk at length about the subject once more. The unspoken title of the speech is actually “I am not being listened to” and not, as one may imagine, “Sunday schools.” So, in item seven there is something about the Sunday school wanting money to do something or other, and the possessor of the ego says, “Aha… this is my chance.” What results is yet another example of a lengthy list of the insecurities felt, rightly or wrongly, by the speaker, and expressed in terms of what the Sunday school needs to do. Of course, nobody points this out. They are too scared.

It belongs to the nature of the ego that it loves strong views, preferably the ones belonging to its owner. Strong views give people identity, make them feel important, give them an excuse to stand up and address the meeting, and above all they give one the satisfaction about being right about something. The ego loves to be right, more than anything else in the world.

As Orthodox, we have a particular relationship with the concept of “rightness.” It is actually written into the title by which we most often call our Church. I always thought “Orthodoxy” should be translated into something approximating to “right-glorifying” or “right-praising.” Indeed, I think I am right in saying that in Russian this is precisely what is meant by pravoslavni. Recently I have learned that the original Greek word also (or rather) contains the concept of “right teaching” (from dokeo, I teach, rather than doxa meaning glory).

Whichever interpretation is correct, we need to bear in mind that infallibility, in terms of Orthodoxy, lies at the heart of the experience of the whole Church, but not in any present-day decision, nor in the voice of any one person. The very idea that infallibility can be exercised in some active sense by one person (even a bishop, or a patriarch) is repugnant to Orthodoxy. Everything needs to be tried and tested against the experience of the Church of every age before it can be said to take on an infallible quality. However, to listen to some bishops speaking (let alone parish priests, parish council presidents and other local worthies) one would imagine that infallibility was a very common commodity indeed.

The faith of the Church is infallible. This means that I do not have to be – or to be more precise, it means that at no point does my ego have to feel that it is responsible for the truth of Christ expressed in the life of the Orthodox Church. Moreover, my internal experience of faith is usually expressed in terms of holding strong opinions about things, while, in reality, faith and strong opinions are quite different from each other. Indeed, holding strong opinions is not particularly useful in one who is a member of the Body of Christ. The louder we proclaim our opinions as a matter of faith, the more difficulty the Holy Spirit has of being heard.

“Being right” takes numerous forms. Sometimes simply stating how wrong everything is makes one feel right by comparison. Snatching the moral high ground (simply because no one else has) is another way.

Members of the clergy have a particularly difficult task in ensuring that the exercise of their ministry is not one of ego-boosting. Sitting in a meeting, it is very tempting for a priest to attempt to show all the skills of leadership that he may be required to display in the secular world, including being the figure-head, the source of authority and the person with the most influence in the parish. Some bishops may actually encourage this sort of leadership from their priests, since parishes run along these lines may appear to be the most successful, or at least require the least maintenance.

In the Church, however, the dynamic of authority and leadership is quite different from that which is deemed to be successful in boardrooms, union meetings or political parties. Coercion, manipulation and power-ploys are not the required tools. Members of the clergy, in particular, need to turn back time and time again to the Gospel sayings in which leadership is genuinely and obviously viewed as a mode of service – not in any metaphorical sense, but in a straight-forward “down on your hands and knees washing feet” sort of way. Whether regarded as the seat of passions or merely as a piece of fiction, the ego has to be placed aside before any such leadership-as-service can be exercised. The most powerful weapon in the repertoire of the clergyman is to bring his people back time and time again to the words of the Gospel… even during Church meetings.

The really bad stuff happens when a person at a meeting, priest or parishioner, identifies totally and completely with the needs of his or her own ego. This state is akin to being completely unconscious – a form of being absent. What is actually required is a state of very profound presence.

In times of peace, the ego sits around doing not very much, being just a small part of who a person is. Always on the look out for attack (such as someone pushing ahead of you in a line, or someone forgetting to use your correct title), it meanders through existence adding color, but very little else, to a person’s particular version of reality. However, when an ego gets challenged, it swells out to enormous proportions and can take over the operation of the entire person. Anyone standing nearby needs to take care and watch out, since the ego is vicious when threatened and there is very little anyone else can do except wait for it to subside to its more normal dimensions. From one point of view, an ego actually consists of pain and draws strength by feeding on the pain of others. It is entirely natural, then, that egos should provoke others, hoping to cause a painful reaction in those around them (in this case, the other people present at the meeting) so that they can have a good feed. Sharks feeding on a fresh carcass are tame by comparison.

The trouble is, when one person starts doing a little ego-boosting in a meeting, he (or she) is likely to be a threat to … every other ego in the room. This is how the ego sees the world: “I can only be absolutely sure of who I am if I know that I (and my entire world-view and everything about me) is safe from attack by you … and your world-view and everything about you.” Moreover, the ego long since discovered that the easiest way to defend is to attack, followed by a quick retreat behind an emotional wall which (as should be obvious to everyone) if you dare to breach, will result in me being well and truly “upset” … and you know you don’t want to do that.

I once worked for a bishop who used to run the diocese in a very idiosyncratic way and whose main tactic was to present things in such a manner that no one could challenge his actions for fear of upsetting him. As systems go, it worked very well, and may have been very productive if he had been the chairman of a company. The Church is not a company, at least not in the commercial sense.

At meetings, one of the favorite moves of the ego-booster in us all is to restate the problem being discussed, which everyone already knows, but in such a way to make the speaker feel better about him or herself – guilt-free, self-righteous or simply condemnatory. From the ego’s point of view, condemnation, whether justified or not, stems from a sense of superiority, so even if nobody present notices or cares, it still feels as if it has won a point by speaking out against something.

The result of a great deal of ego-boosting breaking out in several parts of the meeting room is the chairman’s (or the priest’s) worst nightmare (unless that person is also busy ego-boosting, in which case he will be too unconscious, too lacking in presence, to do anything about it). The meeting is no longer about whatever was up for discussion… it is now to do with power: manipulation, brinkmanship, drawing lines in imaginary sand, who can make whom do what and, ultimately, who has the strongest ego. Each person is equally (and indelibly) convinced that he or she is defending a point of view which is right, which thus justifies what is going on. Sometimes, in fact, everyone is in their head… no one is really present at all. This is a far cry indeed from the virtues listed in the Beatitudes.

Ego-boosting may be an entirely appropriate way of spending your time, unless (of course) you are committed to walking the spiritual path. Members of a parish are, by definition, on a spiritual path (even if we need to be reminded of this fact rather often). Ego-boosting is not something we need in the Kingdom.

A solution: The Fathers give a number of clues as to how to learn from this sort of experience, and what to do about it. While fully aware of the necessity to use the God-given ability to think, they point out that there is a dimension of thinking which, far from being helpful, actually hinders our spiritual progress. They called these thoughts the logismoi, and I think it is fairly safe to identify this word with the stream of thoughts which constantly and often very obtrusively courses through our minds almost twenty-four hours a day.

These logismoi are the source of most (if not all) of the turmoil in our lives. They are at the root of every sin, and provide an environment for the ego to develop. In fact, outside the context of these thoughts, these “logismoi,” the ego does not actually exist, since it needs the atmosphere of fear and desire which the logismoi create in order to be real. Since fear and desire have no obvious place in the Kingdom of Heaven, it is part of our spiritual walk to brush these thoughts aside… put them behind us, and to start to approach God in another way.

This other way is summed up in what the Fathers called the “nous” and which we (without getting into too much trouble) can perhaps call the “heart.” This definition stands in contra-distinction to the more general Western notion that the nous is to be identified with the mind. In patristic Greek thought, this is often not the case. There certainly exists a problem of terminology here, which naturally accompanies any attempt to define spiritual body-parts like “soul,” “spirit,” “mind” and “nous,” but finding a model by which we can make adjustments to our behavior is a pre-requisite, so that we might have a pattern to work with. Thus, “nous” here is used in this particular Greek and patristic way, meaning “the center of our God-given spiritual intelligence.”

The mind (or the head) is the playground of thoughts, and thus also of emotions or feelings which are the means by which the body reacts to these thoughts. (Here, feelings and emotions are linked to the mind, and not to the heart, as some would expect).Thoughts and feelings have no subtlety about them… they are unmistakable, even when they are difficult to interpret. For example, when someone is angry, it is usually obvious to everyone present that that is the case. Quite why the person is angry might be a little more difficult to understand.

The “nous” – or heart – is, by contrast, little disturbed by thinking (in this compulsive, involuntary and continuous sense) or by emotion. It simply “is” – but in a very profound way. The presence that results from this “being” is enormously powerful and yet very subtle. This subtlety is best appreciated in deep, inner silence. This “sound of silence” is the nous’s equivalent of thought. It constitutes very profound awareness, most often expressed quite wordlessly. In some respects it actually is the “place of the heart” of which the Fathers speak, the part of the human personality which is forever listening to God.

Having said this, it is now possible to return to the words of St. Theophan the Recluse and understand what he means when he says: “Get out of the head and into the heart.”

This is good advice from a saintly man, but never so practical as when applied to a parish, or a diocese, when it is meeting not at the Divine Liturgy (when the icon of the Church is most easily visible and where ego-boosting should be entirely lacking as being quite inappropriate to the task at hand) but as a quasi-democratic body, carrying out its work according to Robert’s Rules, or parliamentary or committee procedure.

Once everybody in a parish has found out what ego-boosting is all about, it is possible to start eliminating it from meetings. Of course, to do this, each person has to find a way of staying “present.” If this is done by using the Jesus Prayer, such a task is best developed in the context of Confession, since while there are many ways of achieving this state of presence, there is no “one size fits all” method. Any person who acts in the role of spiritual father, mother or friend has had to learn the art of prayerful presence if they are to be of any use to anyone else.

For those who do not have access to spiritual direction, please allow me to attempt to describe such an exercise in staying present (and avoiding the pitfalls of ego-boosting) in spiritually neutral terms. It goes something like this:

Stop listening to your thoughts – not the thoughts you have, but the thoughts that have you. They have nothing beneficial to offer you, and besides you have heard them all before. Brush them aside, and gently continue to brush them aside. Beyond their clamor and din there is available to you a level of greater awareness – a place of love, joy, peace and compassion. At first, it is difficult to “hear” it (since it is expressed in silence) but with practice you will start to recognize its voice, and a deeper state of presence will be yours.

In practical terms, it may be appropriate to invite people to be present at the beginning of the meeting, and to maintain their presence throughout, each monitoring his or her own level. If things start to get un-present it may helpful for someone to call for the equivalent of a spiritual “time-out.” Indeed, this can be done at any time by anyone present enough to use those words. Those who are busy ego-boosting are not going to be present enough to seek such a solution, so it may occasionally fall to somewhat unlikely people to take that particular role.

Gradually, people will learn to watch the process of ego-boosting developing in themselves. This is always more difficult than seeing it develop in others. A real breakthrough occurs in a parish the first time someone says something like: “Oh, I’m sorry… I realize I was about to indulge in a little ego-boosting.” Conversely, everyone needs to guard against using this statement as an accusation against someone else. That doesn’t work. Like all truly spiritual techniques, this one involves changing the world one person at a time, and that person is “me”!

In spiritually developed parishes where the Jesus Prayer is a regular part of parish life (even though normally a private affair), it may be entirely appropriate to break off a meeting for intensive use of the Jesus Prayer, even communally, until everyone at the meeting returns to presence. The words of the Jesus Prayer (and other similar short prayers) lead us to that place of presence… not in a perfect way (at least not for most of us) but so much more perfect than defending one’s beastly little ego that it makes all the difference in the world.

Another exercise which can be very instructive is to ask the members of the meeting to “become present” and then remain in silence until someone finds a solution to the problem at hand emerging from the silence. When someone has such a solution they state it quietly and without justification or commentary. The meeting then returns to silence, stilling all thought (which is likely to be nothing but reaction), and becoming more aware, until another person can do the same thing. Allowing everyone to speak if they want to, but restricting comments to positive suggestions, rather than a re-statement of the problem, allows the meeting to come to a consensus about what is being discussed. In spiritual decision-making, consensus is a victory. Compromise, by contrast, is the way of this world, and is rarely an acceptable solution.

I think it needs to be said that, even in spiritually ideal conditions, ego-boosting is very difficult to uproot, since it has been a dominant form of behavior for thousands of years. Nevertheless, since Orthodoxy is all about transformation and transfiguration (not about “thinking” about transformation and transfiguration) we need to encourage ourselves to believe that change, both positive and permanent, is within our reach.

In Scripture, we are commanded, “Be still and know that I am God.” Church meetings are a good, though not obvious, time to do just that.

No matter what our thoughts encourage us to believe, Jesus never once asked His disciples to be right. He asked them to be good. In His actions and words, Jesus displayed no ego, at least not in the sense being used here, and He did not praise His disciples when they were busy boosting theirs either. Consider James and John, the “Sons of Thunder.”

Yet it is that same John, the Beloved, who later leans upon the breast of Christ and listens to His heartbeat. The opportunity to be present like that in the Presence of God is the ultimate vocation of every single member of the Church; this is as true in church meetings of all sorts as it is in those precious “present moments” when we meet God in the Holy Mysteries. In order to be present, we need to get out of our heads, away from the anguish and relentless demands of our thoughts and feelings, and seek the warm, loving silence of the voice of God in our own hearts. Once present, the needs of the mind-contrived ego look petty, irrelevant and counter-productive to the work of the Church as a whole and that of each of its members… and the real work of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven a little bit closer begins.


A Request of Readers

June 21, 2012

Glory to God for All Things has been in existence since October of 2006. Nearly 1500 articles have been posted, with over 28,000 comments (which have been read and often responded to). Many readers have spoken of the role the blog has played in their lives (for which I give thanks to God). The community of comments has always been an evolving group of people – but the conversation has many times been as important (or more so) than the posts themselves.

The blog is in need of a face-lift and a technology overhaul. The developments over the past six years in WordPress (my blog platform) have been phenomenal. There has also been an evolution in other networks (most notably the social networking sites).

Glory to God for All Things is in need of a small capital infusion. The site will soon be overhauled to bring it up to date (with some improvement in appearance). It will particularly have a well-designed means of locating articles on important topics in an easy and user-friendly manner. 1450 articles is a lot of work to lie largely inaccessible or unorganized. The primary work of the blog – articles and comments will remain unchanged.

My parish (with the blessing of my Bishop) supports the aspect of my ministry that creates and maintains the blog – though its expenses (minimal) have been covered by myself alone. The face-lift and overhaul require a different approach.

The cost of the work will be around $1,000. I have located an excellent developer to do the needed upgrade. I am asking for readers’ support to make this possible. We are not, at present, adding a donations button on the site (maybe later). Instead, if you would like to support this next step, send a check to:

St. Anne Orthodox Church
560 Oak Ridge Turnpike
Oak Ridge, TN 37830.

Mark the check, “blog” in the memorandum. Excess gifts will support the parish’s ministry.

I apologize that we have no premiums, t-shirts or coffee mugs. All I can offer is the work that has been done and will be done and my thanks to God for your prayers and support.

Glory to God!

All In The Head

June 19, 2012

Some questions are so obvious we fail to ask them.

Is it all in the head?

The question is whether the sense of spiritual, refers to anything other than ourselves. Is there any connection between myself and others, between myself and God, between myself and nature, or is such a perception only a set of ideas in my head?

In classical theological/philosophical language, the question is between realism and nominalism. Nominalism, a philosophy that generally dates back to William of Ockham (1288-1348), holds that universals (ideas, concepts, etc.) only exist in the mind. Realism holds that universals have an existence outside the mind. These divisions, inside/outside, may be increasingly problematic in a post-Newtonian world.

For Christians this question is more than “angels dancing on the head of a pin.” At its heart, the question asks about the nature of sacraments and relationships. For many Protestant Christians, nominalism has become the default position. The sacraments are decidedly not real (in the philosophical sense). The bread and wine of the Eucharist are simply bread and wine. Their “spiritual reality” lies in the mind of the believer. Memorial theories of the Eucharist are quite clear about this: the Eucharist is only a remembrance (in the mental sense). Baptism is an obedience – nothing happens (except in the mind). Indeed, within this theological tradition, things spiritual are all in the head. Faith is a mental attitude. Love, kindness, forgiveness, etc., all find their existence as concepts within the mind. Christianity, within this tradition, is the adherence to a set of concepts.

Older Christian traditions, particularly Eastern Orthodoxy, are decidedly realist. The Eucharist is truly Christ’s Body and Blood; Baptism is a true union with Christ. All that exists does so as communion and participation. Everything we know, we know to some extent through participation. The inter-connectedness of all of creation is not a mental construct – it is a description of how things truly are.

There is a middle ground, fairly common within some Christian traditions. The general, nominalist view is accepted, but with exceptions for certain things such as the sacraments. I suspect that many “traditional” Christians find themselves within this view of the world. Modern culture is deeply nominalist. It assumes that things exist within themselves. All connections are merely mental associations. Such “two-storey” lives are stuck in a constant battle. The assumptions of nominalism feel “obvious” (as do most cultural assumptions). The reality of the sacraments runs counter to the obvious, constantly requiring a different set of assumptions (or the suspension of the obvious). This suspension is called “faith.”

It is important to note that this last view, the middle ground, does not have a sacramental view of the universe. It has a sacramental view of the sacraments – a tenuous set of temporary assumptions, at best.

These differences in world-view do much to explain the conversational difficulties between Orthodoxy and most other Christian traditions. Orthodoxy is decidedly realist. However, such realism requires some additional thought and understanding.

There is a view of realism (also quite ancient) which gives rise to magical and “superstitious” practices. If the interconnectedness of all things is understood in a manner similar to all things in nature (as just one more set of quasi-physical phenomena), then attempts to manipulate and control this interconnectedness becomes an obvious temptation. These attempts to control and manage take the form of magic and superstition. Various animist religions, some forms of paganism, and most efforts to influence “luck,” all have something of this world-view in common.

I have often thought that “good luck” is the most fundamental religious urge of all people. Modern notions of “prosperity gospel” and the like are simply semi-sophisticated versions of superstition. They have little or nothing to do with classical Christianity. Orthodoxy is by no means immune to magical practices. There are widespread abuses in much of the Orthodox world that are simply magical superstitions. These, too, have nothing to do with classical Christianity. No form of the Christian faith is without its temptations.

Orthodox Christianity holds to a realist view of the world – but does so out of regard to God as the Creator and Sustainer of all that is (“in Him we live, we move and have our being”). The universe is not established on abstract spiritual principles – inert laws of the “supernatural.” The universe is established by God and the principles of all things are rooted in God.

All of creation is a sacrament – but not of Plato’s forms or the ether of magic’s dreams. Creation is a multiform sacrament of God’s love, revealing itself to those who are God’s friends. The emptiness of modern man lies in his alienation from the world in which he lives. Even his primitive hunger for luck bears witness to his desperation for connection and meaning. The path to that connection and its communion lies through the Cross of Christ. In Him we find ourselves plunged into the uncreated life that sustains all things. And in that life sacrament and reality become one.

Where is reality to be found?

There are no criteria to which any Christian can appeal in order to win an argument. A world-view is an a priori assumption. Christians holding a classical understanding (such as the realism of Orthodox Christianity) have antiquity on their side. Nominalist views evolved at a period in time well-beyond the New Testament and early church era. Whatever nominalism is, it is not the view of ancient Christians.

But is the view of ancient Christianity true? Fr. John Romanides described Orthodox theology as “empirical dogmatics.” He did not mean an empiricism rooted in Enlightenment theories of objective reality. Rather, he meant that the teachings of the Orthodox faith are rooted in experience and borne out in the lives of its saints. Without embracing the entire body of Romanides teaching, it is easy to affirm his simple contention. The triumph of Hesychast teaching in the 14th century (a defense of monastic experience and its understanding of the knowledge of God) set Orthodoxy squarely in the middle of empirical dogma. “He who prays is a theologian, and a theologian is one who prays.” The truth of the classical Christian understanding is found in a life conformed to that understanding.

This empirical dogma is not an argument. It goes where no argument can follow. It is, like the gospel itself, an invitation. It can be proclaimed to the world, but like all things empirical, only experience will confirm its truth.

It is popularly said of Orthodoxy that it is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. In many respects, this is simply a manner of saying that Orthodoxy is not a nominalist view of the world, but a revelation about the world itself.

Those who stand outside inquiring should ask themselves: did Christ come to assert a set of ideas, or did He come to reveal a way of living? If the latter – then it is not just inside the head.

The Communion of Saints in Prayer

June 18, 2012

Biblical interpretation and doctrine based on Scripture have certain parameters that anyone rightly handling the word of truth must observe. The particular rule that I have in mind in this posting is the simple avoidance of anachronisms. That is, if an idea did not exist at the time of the New Testament, or shortly thereafter, but is, in fact, a modern development, then, whatever the writer might have meant, he could not have meant something that wasn’t an idea until the modern period. This is a fairly simple rule. If it can be shown that an idea is uniquely modern, then, if it is used as an interpretation of Scripture, we can be sure that the interpreter is reading back into Scripture something that is not there nor can be there.

In no case is this sort of anachronism more flagrant nor more distorting of Christian doctrine, than the notion of the self – and thus of the nature of what it is to be human. The idea of what it means to be a person, or “the self”, etc., is not a given. It varies widely from culture to culture (particularly between ancient cultures). Evidence of this would be quite strong if one was comparing the Christian understanding of the self (in any form) and the Buddhist conception of the self (or the non-self).

But within Christianity, the self has undergone radical change in its definition and the cultural understanding of what it means to be a person. One of the most magisterial treatments of this topic was published in 1989, Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity. For years, Taylor taught Moral Philosophy at Oxford and more recently at McGill University. He has his own philosophical agenda that is not of particular interest to me, but in the course of his work he offers one of the best descriptions of the evolution in Western thought of the conception of the human person.

He notes that a radical change took place at the time of the Reformation and the early Enlightenment. The arguments of the time succeeded in redefining what it meant to be a person – particularly a person in relation to God. At stake was the theological effort to undermine the traditional claims and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, many of which were simply the common inheritance of both Orthodoxy and Catholicism, the understanding and teaching of the early Church.

In a very insightful passage, Taylor has this to say about the Church and the change it underwent with regard to the emerging modern identity:

If the church is the locus and vehicle of the sacred, then we are brought closer to God by the very fact of belonging and participating in its sacramental life. Grace can come to us mediately through the church, and we can mediate grace to each other, as the lives of the saints enrich the common life on which we all draw. Once the sacred is rejected, then this kind of mediation is also. Each person stands alone in relation to God: his or her fate – salvation or damnation – is separately decided. [emphasis added]

As his description of this change develops he describes what happens to the Catholic Christian who is redefined by the Reformation (which happened throughout the Protestant world).

I am a passenger in the ecclesial ship on its journey to God. But for Protestantism, there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat. [emphasis added]

The great shift that occurred was to move from seeing a human being as a person participating in a common human nature – indeed whose existence and salvation are to be understood almost entirely in terms of participation (koinonia). The shift was a move towards the modern autonomous individual who is defined primarily by the choices made in his/her life. The modern individual, understood as consumer, is an almost perfect example of the evolution of this thought. Taylor’s book is a must-read for anyone who wants to follow this movement in the history of Western thought.

However, the modern conception of autonomous man is a concept not shared by Scripture. It does not undergird the thought of St. Paul or St. John, indeed it undermines both if it is wrongly brought into the realm of Scriptural interpretation. Its application in Christian doctrine has tended to shift the emphasis in modern Christian teaching away from a sacramental (participatory) understanding and towards a form of volunteerism where the decision of an individual for Christ is the sole defining characteristic of salvation.

Interestingly, Christ never said, “Except a man accept me as His personal Lord and Savior He shall not inherit eternal life,” even though many modern Christians would think that much of what He said means precisely that.

Christ does say, “Except a man be born again (or “born from above” the Greek is purposefully ambiguous) he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” But birth is not an autonomous act, nor does it ever involve a decision by the one being born. I am not arguing here that the role of the human will plays no role in salvation, for it does – but not in the way imagined by modern volunteerists.

In the classical Christian understanding of what it means to be human – we do not exist alone – but as participants in a common nature – and though our fall from grace has left us damaged – so that we generally experience ourselves as autonomous individuals – this is not our proper end – salvation restores us to a place of proper communion with God and with other persons. There is an extension, an enlargement of the self, such that our life can no longer be defined simply by reference to the self, but must be seen as it exists in communion with God and others. Thus love becomes the defining act of our existence.

In no place does this participatory understanding of human existence play a greater role than in the life of the Church – both the Church that we see – and the Church that we do not see – the saints who surround us and pray unceasingly before the throne of God.

It is this proper understanding of human salvation that is safeguarded in the Church’s teaching of the communion and intercession of the saints. And it is the self understood in its modern, autonomous form that makes the doctrine of the intercession of the saints seem so foreign to many modern believers. Saints for them simply get in an individual’s way when he seeks to relate to God.

But if the human person and his salvation are understood in a proper participatory sense – nothing could be more normal than the intercession of the saints. It is simply a description of what it means to actually share a common life – the life of God. How can those who share in the common life of God not care for and pray for one another? How can they not solicit each other’s concern? Far from distracting from God – it draws us towards a right understanding of God – who is the Lord of Hosts – not the God of the autonomous individual.

Thus St. Paul when looking for ways to describe proper Church life will use images such as the body to describe how we are to relate to Christ and to one another. We cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” We cannot say to the saints, “I have no need of you.”

In classical Christian teaching we are told, “No one is saved alone. If we fall, we fall alone. But no one is saved alone.”

Our will has its role. Orthodoxy strongly teaches the importance of asceticism (acts such as fasting and prayer, almsgiving, etc.). But the purpose of asceticism is not self-improvement, but simply to learn cooperation with the communion of grace that is saving us. In fasting and prayer we learn that our life depends not on ourselves but on others – God who is the Source of all life – and our proper communion with the rest of creation.

The Church never teaches a doctrine or dogma simply for the sake of teaching. Such proclamations are always about the truth as revealed to us in Christ – particularly as it relates to our salvation. The intercession of the saints is one such dogma. For it safeguards the revealed teaching concerning what it means to be a human created in the image of God and the very nature of our salvation. Human beings are created such that we are meant to share and live a common life – the life of God. The Communion of Saints is simply a dogmatic expression of that reality – a verbal icon of the truth of our being.

Yet Not I

June 9, 2012

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20).


In my last two posts, I have written with some care about the “false self,” which has also been referred to as the ego. I have also spoken about the heart, the seat of the true self that is “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). An obvious question has been asked: “How do we move from life in the one into life in the other?” It is the practical form of the question, “What must I do to be saved?” For the death of the “old man,” and life in the “new man” is the primary ground for the working out of our salvation in Christ in this world.

An answer to the question is something that far exceeds the ability of a blog. However, I will offer some observations and suggestions that I hope will prove helpful.

There are many classical descriptions of the union of mind and heart. Met. Hierotheos Vlachos has written extensively on the topic (many of his other works cover some of the same territory and are not as expensive). The small book by Tito Coliander, is also excellent. Virtually everything found in the asecetic fathers applies to the question. Fr. Meletios Webber’s small book, Bread & Water, Wine & Oil has a slightly different approach. He gathers the tradition up under the approach of personal relationship, language that is much more accessible than many of the classical presentations. Regardless of the approach used, the guidance of a good confessor or parish priest is extremely helpful. A danger in describing any “method,” is that we are talking about the human heart and mind, not the multiplication table. Patience, kindness towards the self, and no form of slavish obedience are required. If anything within the following description seems unhelpful or too obscure – please feel free to ignore what is written here.

A key element in the previous articles has been the distinction made between the true self of the heart and the false self created by the mind (thoughts and emotions). Our persistent identification of our selves with this life-long, ever-changing narrative, is a bondage to a losing proposition. The behavior of our thoughts and emotions, when not rooted in the heart, is beyond the reach of reform. We will try – but we will fail. However, to simply acknowledge that this story that I maintain is not the same thing as “me,” is huge. It can be very difficult to accept this. We think, “If I’m not who I think I am, then who am I?” The answer: “You are hid with Christ in God.” Christ will reveal who we are as we learn to dwell in the heart.

Where do our thoughts and emotions come from? They come in response to the things and people around us – or they come from memories triggered by those occasions (sometimes buried quite deep). Many thoughts and feelings are entirely appropriate and helpful and would occur even were our minds united with the heart. But these thoughts and feelings are not the problem. Such thoughts do not race through the brain or recycle themselves ad insanitatem. Neither are such feelings the dark moods that color the world and our inner state and poison the world around us.

These insane thoughts and poisonous moods are the dark side of our self-constructed narratives. They are the wounds and fears that have gone untreated. Many of them are hidden even from our own consciousness. They are the primary origin of anxieties and panic. They feed depression and generate anger. They nurture a nervous self-consciousness in which we notice, compare and judge those around us. They construct the rules of our daily life and condemn us when we fail to measure up. At worst, they are the material from which we construct false images of God, endowing our self-constructions with an authority that is nothing more than idolatry

We have already acknowledged a first step towards sanity: admit that the “story of me,” is of my own making and not God’s. The self-made man is no man. All of my success, achievements, failures, and defeats, my knowledge and ignorance are not the content of my life. To admit this is to begin the path of humility. Humility is not about feeling less special – it is about recognizing that I do not know my own self. My self is an open book for God to fill its pages. My self is an empty vessel waiting for God to give it content.

The fathers often describe the initial stage of the spiritual life under the heading, “purification.” We all too easily mistake this with “moral improvement.” It is our enthrallment to the passions that the fathers have in mind. We are not only deluged by the thoughts and emotions of the false self – we feel powerless to do anything about them. Frequently, we are powerless because the toxic cause of our thoughts and emotions lies unidentified and unhealed. This is a very difficult and even “delicate,” object of healing. Memories and wounds such as toxic shame, arising from abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), can be anchored deep within a person, spewing thoughts and emotions towards almost every situation. Perfectionism, depression, anxiety, panic, critical thoughts, etc., are only a few of the inner behaviors frequently associated with shame. Purification in such cases means attending to the psychological/spiritual needs created by such deep wounds. Working with a skilled confessor/spiritual counselor in a setting that feels emotionally safe can be a place to start for some. Working with a skilled therapist or in a group setting might be useful for others. One book that is fairly straightforward and helpful is Letting Go of Shame by Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron. There are many other helpful books on the topic. I have found this one accurate and easy-to-read.

Attending to such major problems such as toxic shame can allow a person to move forward in dealing with thoughts and emotions. Unattended, such deep wounds will generally not allow us to be free of the cycles of the false self.

The primary daily battle of heart and mind can be put under the general heading of “mindfulness”  (nepsis). This term is used in therapeutic circles but is equally applicable to Orthodox efforts to ground the mind in the heart. A brief reminder from Fr. Meletios Webber:

The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling…. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. (From Bread & Water, Wine & Oil).

We do not have to create the heart (it already exists). We do not have to make the mind behave as if it were the heart. However, becoming aware of the heart (which is itself entry into the heart) involves the struggle of laying aside those things that do not belong to the heart. Putting away, noise, deduction, past and future, fear, desire, defense, justification, etc. are the primary efforts in this inner struggle.

We cannot do this all at once. Setting aside five minutes of our time for daily prayer as a place for practicing such “mindfulness,” is a sufficient start. Met. Anthony Bloom’s small book, Beginning to Pray, speaks very specifically to this effort. Breathing in a relaxed manner (from the diaphragm) helps the body to relax. Shut off thoughts of the past or future. For five minutes, all that matters is the moment. When thoughts that take you away from the moment occur, just dismiss them and return to the moment. Some weeks of such practice will begin to yield results. Our attention to the moment becomes easier.

That “moment,” is the place of the heart. This same moment can gradually be “accessed” at other times and places. Stopping and breathing slowly can be a helpful trigger. Adding the use of the Jesus Prayer to our awareness of the moment is the beginning of “prayer” in the moment. None of this should be forced and we should be patient with the entire exercise. Patience belongs to the moment.

This is but a brief description for the beginning efforts of acquiring the place of the heart. In my experience, there are some days when the entire thing seems wonderful. Other days, various events both outward and inward leave you feeling as if you have acquired nothing at all. And so we return to patience.

The struggle to acquire the place of the heart is a far more fruitful work than the struggle to create, refine and defend the narrative of the false self. Generally, life will be lived one place or the other.

These are simple beginnings – far more depth can be found in the books and authors I’ve suggested.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7)..

The Death of the Moral Man

June 7, 2012

There is no man who lives and does not sin. – from the Burial Office


There are many reactions to the pain of our existence. I try to remember from hour to hour that I live among the “walking wounded.” As the Jewish philosopher Philo said, “Everyone you see is fighting a difficult battle.” One of the great pains for active believers is the struggle to be moral. This struggle becomes all the more painful as we become aware of our inner life. We profess belief in the commandments of Christ only to discover that within us lives a judgmental Pharisee. We constantly compare ourselves to others, and compare ourselves to an inner standard, and in these comparisons, everyone comes up short. We come repeatedly to confession, bearing the same sins, carrying the shame (often unrecognized) of another period of failure. We want to change but we don’t.

This scenario could take another thousand forms. At its core is our expectation that the mind (thoughts and emotions) can and should be brought into some measure of Christian performance. There are things at which our thoughts often excel. We can master a system of thought or belief and defend it against those things which present a challenge. We can do the same with people – maintaining a version of “canon law” in our head against which behavior may be judged. It is this comparison and judging, systemization and defense that the mind truly loves. If we occupy the mind with “religious things,” even “Orthodox things,” then we easily begin to think that we are being faithful. We start to think of ourselves as trying and judge our failures (anger, hatred, envy, etc.) as mere stumbles than can be corrected and adjusted. This is certainly better than doing nothing, but is often more harmful than good. The local parish is often a community of neurotic minds, psychically rushing about trying to do good, but hurting one another in the name of God as the ego works desperately to meet its needs and feed its narrative. The parish is not always a safe place.

For the purposes of this post, I am choosing to refer to the ego’s struggle to behave as the “moral” man. I often use the word “moral” and “morality” to describe the life lived as an effort to conform to external rules and norms. It is a struggle that even unbelievers may (and do) undertake. There is nothing particularly Christian about it. I have said elsewhere, “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good, but in order to make dead men live.”

St. Paul takes this approach when speaking of what I’m calling the moral man. He does not counsel us to try and do better. There is no scheme of moral improvement in all of Paul’s writings. His language is quite clear:

Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. 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. 3:5, 8-10).

St. Paul’s language of “putting off” and “putting on” is the language of Baptism. We “put off” the old man and “put on” Christ. We are “clothed in righteousness,” etc. The Baptismal liturgy continues to display this language in its actions.

It is language that differs greatly from that of “moral” striving. To put to death “covetousness,” is quite different than trying not to desire someone else’s property. The language of “putting to death,” is rooted in our being (it is ontological) rather than our decision-making (legal, forensic). St. Paul’s language implies that something within us has profoundly changed.

The ego’s efforts to behave itself have little to nothing to do with such an inward, profound change. Non-believers can adopt a set of rules and endeavor to keep them. There is nothing particularly or uniquely Christian about moral efforts. This is one of the great weaknesses of those versions of Christianity that are largely extrinsic in nature. Theories of salvation in which an extrensic atonement is “accepted,” followed by a life of moral effort do not rise to the level of St. Paul’s “putting to death.”

The ego loves narrative – all of its greatest skills can be employed in destruction, construction and revision. Stories of conversion are extremely well-suited to such an existence. Those of us who are adult converts are easily enthralled with the story of our own conversion and just as easily enthralled by the ongoing narratives of others. Something is missing.

Our lives are like a Jane Austen novel. The narrative moves along with great drama. Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet and the whole cast, holding our attention, now up, now down. Whom will she marry? Will she be bereft of love forever? What will we wear to the dance? Is Mr. Darcy Orthodox? And so the drama unwinds.

When the drama of the Christian life comes to a happy ending (its conversion), there stretches before it the “ever-after” years (decades) of our life. Without the drama, the thought of settling down in the heart, praying, and restoring the mind and emotions to their proper state can seem quite boring.

Of course, there will always be ecclesiastical scandals, debates and small parish dramas to feed our disorder and stave away the fear of boredom. But all of this is to move away from salvation. It is a form of “Orthodox” damnation.

Here the Macarian saying is helpful:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

Life lived in the heart is a progression into the treasuries of grace. A moment of paradise outweighs all the pleasantries of the ego’s drama. Getting past the darker fears and wounds of shame and its kin, bringing thoughts and emotions to occasional calm, allows the work of the heart to begin. The dragons and lions, poisonous beasts and treasures of evil to be met there are greater than those we face in the early battles of the ego. But at the same time, we stand in the place of the angels, the kingdom and the light when we engage those struggles.

That battle is not at all the same as moral improvement. The moral man (and the immoral man) is put to death. The life that is hid with Christ in God is the new man. He is more than moral – he is good. He is no longer dead – he is alive. And it is for this man fully alive that Christ died.