Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

Kalomiros on the Orthodox Life

January 21, 2009


Dr. Alexander Kalomiros, author of the River of Fire and other well known Orthodox writings, offers these simple thoughts on the Orthodox Life. They are taken from the small book, Nostalgia for Paradise.

When the ascetical life of a Christian and the privations that he imposes upon himself are beyond the measure of grace that he has been given, a void is created in his soul. Either it will lead him to sin, or it will make him perverse, proud, hard, and unmerciful to his brothers. The wise man puts greater effort into positive virtues and less into negative virtues. Examples of positive virtues are prayer, worship, meditation, study, participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, love for God. In general, their action brings us into contact with God. On the other hand, negative virtues are activities such as fasting, self-denial and self-deprivation, abstinence, asceticism in general, and the “thou-shalt-not” kinds of commandments and rules that are essentially directed to ourselves. It is not derogatory to call these negative for, together with the positive virtues, they form the balance that makes up the spiritual life. If the soul is filled with the presence of God, no place remains for sin. The light casts out darkness by its own power without our effort as long as we keep the shutters of our heart open to it.

Do not seek to understand God for it is impossible. Simply open the door of your soul so His presence may fill you and illumine your mind and heart, warm your body, and enter your reins. Theology is not a cerebral knowledge but a living knowlege that is directly relevant to man and sustains and possesses the whole man. A cold, cerebral man cannot know and discourse on divine things, even if his head contains an entire patristic library. He who is not moved by a sunset, a tree, or a bird cannot be stirred even by the Creator of these things. In order to grasp God and be able to talk about Him to others you must be a poetic soul. It means that you must have a heart that is noble, sensitive, and pure. You must be as an ear that is turned to the whisperings of the Infinite, and as an eye that sees through the bottomless depths while all other eyes see only pitch blackness. It is impossible for timorous souls and stingy hearts to discourse on divine things.

The heart that grasps the mysteries is one that is naive enough to think all souls worthy of Paradise, even souls who may have drenched their heart’s life with bitterness. It is a heart that feels and sings like a bird, without caring if there is no one there to hear it. It rejoices over everything that is beautiful, everything that is true, because truth and beauty are two aspects of the same thing and can never be separated. It has compassion for every living thing that is animate or has roots, and even for every seemingly lifeless stone.

It is a modest soul that is out of its waters in the limelight of men but blooms in solitude and quiet. It is a heart free to its very roots, impervious to every kind of pressure, far from every kind of stench, untouched by any kind of chains. It distinguishes truth from false hood with a certain mystic sense. Its every breath offers gratitude for all of God’s works that surround it and for every joy and every affliction, for every possession, and for every privation as well. Crouching humbly on the Cornerstone which is Christ, it drinks unceasingly of the eternal water of Paradise and utters the Name of Him who was and is ever merciful. Such a soul is like a shady tree by the running waters of the Church, with deep roots and a high crown where kindred souls find comfort and refuge in its dense branches.

Such is the true theologian. If anyone wishes to be so named, let him be measured by this measure. Even he who simply wishes to be a disciple of such theologians must walk in their exact footsteps if he desires their words to be echoed in himself, and his eyes to see light.

The Seven Holy Maccabbees

July 31, 2008

August 1 is the Feast of the Precious and Life-Giving Wood of the Cross, but also the feast of the martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees. Since Protestant Christians do not include the books of First and Second Maccabees in their canon, they will be unfamiliar with this historically accurate and Godly tale of the courage of these holy martyrs from the Old Testament. In their honor I share the story of their martyrdom. I should add that their death was preceded by their teacher, Eleazar, who, at age 90, refused an easy ruse offered to him to spare his life, fearing that the young might misconstrue him and believe that he had yielded to the wicked King (who was trying to force him to eat unclean meat). Thus he taught us that the appearance of righteousness can be as important as the letter of the Law. The mother of the seven brothers, Salome, also gave her noble life as a martyr.



2 Maccabees 7:1-42  It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.” The king fell into a rage, and gave orders that pans and caldrons be heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, “The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, `And he will have compassion on his servants.'”

After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair, and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” He replied in the language of his fathers, and said to them, “No.” Therefore he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done. And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, and said nobly, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.”

As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing. When he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. And when he was near death, he said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”

Next they brought forward the fifth and maltreated him. But he looked at the king, and said, “Because you have authority among men, mortal though you are, you do what you please. But do not think that God has forsaken our people. Keep on, and see how his mighty power will torture you and your descendants!”

After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened.

But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!” The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their fathers. Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”

Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt, and he was suspicious of her reproachful tone. The youngest brother being still alive, Antiochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his fathers, and that he would take him for his friend and entrust him with public affairs.

Since the young man would not listen to him at all, the king called the mother to him and urged her to advise the youth to save himself. After much urging on his part, she undertook to persuade her son. But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native tongue as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: “My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”

While she was still speaking, the young man said, “What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our fathers through Moses. But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God. For we are suffering because of our own sins. And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all men, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty, all-seeing God. For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

The king fell into a rage, and handled him worse than the others, being exasperated at his scorn. So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. Let this be enough, then, about the eating of sacrifices and the extreme tortures.

Psalm 124:6-8 – Good News for the Day

March 26, 2008


Blessed be the LORD, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth. Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

May God keep us all this day without sin – may we not be devoured – may we forgive everyone and everything by the resurrection!

Living with Ignorance

March 10, 2008


Faith tells us some things – the Holy Scriptures serve as another source of revelation – the Holy Tradition of the Church also informs us of much – but, nevertheless, in the face of all these things our lives are still largely lived in ignorance. It’s not that we cannot memorize Scripture (some memorize much a wield it lika a “sorcerer’s apprentice” doing all sorts of damage). Neither are we ignorant of many things in Holy Tradition. The ignorance which envelopes virtually all of us is the difference between the general and the particular.

There are many things we can know about the Christian life in general and yet remain quite ignorant when it comes to some important particular.

We do not know ourselves and our hearts in anything like a full manner. We are frequently as enigmatic to ourselves as we are to those around us.

We do not know others who often remain far more enigmatic to us than we are to ourselves.

We do not always know God as we should or as we would like. The “pure in heart will see God,” but few of us are pure in any thing.

So how do we live in the midst of such ignorance?

First, it is important that we admit how much ignorance is a part of our lives. The result can be a much healthier humility than is usually encountered.

Second, recognizing our ignorance, we should refuse to claim knowledge that we do not have. This is a matter of avoiding self-deception.

I believe the important strategy for Christian living in the face of such ignorance is fully accounted for in Scripture itself. We are enjoined to be patient. Patience is a very great virtue for those who live largely in ignorance. With patience we have the opportunity to wait until God makes things known and clear. There is, as I mentioned before, a “slowness” about grace that requires patience. That slowness is only underlined by the ignorance in which we live.

Forbearance becomes an equally important virtue. My ignorance of myself is quickly overmatched by my ignorance of others. Thus, though I may find myself offended by others, I am enjoined to forbear. Putting up with one another is an absolute essential within the Body of Christ. We fail at this, and thus have to return to patience and prayer.

Along with all of this is a corollary: Knowledge is not necessary for the working of grace. In a self-help society, we are caught up in a culture of self-knowledge. There is a tacit assumption that by learning about ourselves, or the etiology of an personality disorder, we can therefore “fix” it. This is simply not true. The healing and saving work of grace – changing us into the image of Christ – is a great mystery – frequently wrought in such a way that we do not see its work in the least. Grace and workings of God tend to be referred to as being “made manifest.” They are true and have always been true, but they are not always “manifest” until the fullness of time. When the time is ripe, God will make them known.

The working of penance and confession, of communion and the many means by which God gives Himself to us is a river of grace – we are surrounded and sustained by grace – though we remain all too often ignorant of this reality.

Thus to live the life of grace – we live by faith – trusting in the Good God who made Himself manifest in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. I like St. Paul’s summary:

Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. (Philippians 3:8-15)

We Should Not Be Distracted By Anything

February 17, 2008


Reading the Philokalia is, at best, a daunting task. Where to begin? The following is a very useful section, drawn from the writings of St. Peter of Damascus in the Philokalia. It has been edited by Fr. Thomas Hopko. I am indebted to one of his many spiritual children for this copy. 

We should not be distracted by anything; neither by dreams, whether evil or seemingly good, nor by the thought of anything, whether good or bad, nor by distress or deceitful joy, nor by self-conceit or despair, nor by depression or elation, nor by a sense of abandonment or by illusory help and strength, nor by negligence or progress, nor by laziness or seeming zeal, nor by apparent dispassion or passionate attachment.  Rather with humility we should strive to maintain a state of stillness, free from all distraction, knowing that no one can do us harm unless we ourselves wish for it.

Because of our conceit and our failure constantly to have recourse to God, we should cast ourselves down before Him, asking that His will should be done in all things and saying to every thought that comes to us:  I do not know who you are; God knows if you are good or not; for I have thrown myself, as I shall continue to throw myself, into His hands, and He looks after me.  (1Pet 5.7)   […]

If we do not have anyone to advise us, we should take Christ as our counselor, asking Him with humility and through pure heartfelt prayer about every thought and undertaking. […]  If our sole purpose is to do God’s will, God Himself will teach us what it is, assuring us of it either directly, through the mind, or by means of some person, or of Scripture.  And if for God’s sake we cut off our own will, God will enable us to reach, with inexpressible joy, a perfection we have not known; and when we experience this we will be filled with wonder at seeing how joy and spiritual knowledge begin to pour forth from everywhere.  We will derive some profit from everything and God will reign in us, since we have no will of our own, but have submitted ourselves to the holy will of God. We become like kings, so that whatever we desire we receive effortlessly and speedily from God, who has us in His care.

This is the faith with which the Lord said it is possible to move mountains (Mt 21.21); upon it, according to St. Paul (1Cor 1.23) the other virtues are founded.  For this reason the enemy does everything he can to disrupt our state of stillness and make us fall into temptation.  And if he finds us in some way lacking in faith, wholly or partially trusting in our own strength and judgment, he takes advantage of this to overcome us and to take us captive, pitiful as we are.   […]

Then (following the path of stillness with resolute faith), Christ takes the place of all things for us, in this world and in the age to come….  Christ feeds us, clothes us, brings us joy, encourages us, gladdens us, gives us rest, teaches and enlightens us.  In short, Christ cares for us as He cared for His disciples…[…]   We sit…and we await our Teacher….so that we may be helped to rise spiritually from the passions and be given peace….”

St. Peter of Damascus
A Treasury of Spiritual Knowledge
The Philokalia, III, p. 149-15.

Edited by Fr. Thomas Hopko

How Can We Give Thanks?

February 11, 2008


Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic and that there are many things worth saying in a second article. Most specifically I want to write on what seem to me necessary elements in giving thanks to God. If giving thanks to God is difficult these may be places to begin or to which to give attention.

1. We must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a hosts of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter or my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly and more after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalm tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to so much be true that they feared excellence lest they provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this eats the worm of jealousy and anger.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless.” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

God and the Universe

January 29, 2008


The material and organic world is not a world of thought. Only man can think, knowing himself and everything that surrounds him. In our mind an entire ideal world is borne in which is reflected everything we know. But we see that the universe is filled with wisdom, that in acquiring the knowledge of the truth we do not invent it but perceive it through our spiritual eyes. The truth about the universe is neither matter nor a human concept.What is the source of this truth and this wisdom, which penetrates all that exists without merging with it, this wisdom which abides in the world but is not the world itself? Philosophers have invented an ideal world or a world soul having, as it were, an independent existence. But everything that is spiritual is personal, and the universe is not a single, living being, such that it could have a soul. The world of thoughts and ideas must belong to someone’s mind. Whose thoughts, then, fill the universe? It is obvious that only an absolute being could conceive of all that exists and of all that has ever existed. Every thought or idea of God is the eternal plan for something that in fact exists. In accordance with these plans God has created everything in the universe, and His creative thought continues to communicate meaningful, unbroken existence to everything. God’s powers and actions are always meaningful and His thoughts always efficacious. It is precisely in the divine ideas that we find an ideal measure of the truth toward which we are striving when we try to know anything.

From Serge Verhovskoy’s The Light of the World

It is always interesting to read books that are nearly 30 years or more old. It even seems strange to me that much should have changed in so short a time. I remember 30 years ago…as though it were yesterday. I was certainly a married man, as I recall.

But much has changed. The words above, penned by Serge Verhovskoy (of blessed memory), spoke rather comfortably of a universe whereas today it would be more accurate to speak of a “multiverse.” The unity of human thought (which has never been a reality) has today clearly given way to an awareness of just how diverse human thought really is.

When I speak with my son about his physics courses and how he thinks of the universe – he is clearly open to thoughts of multiple universes and things that my generation never considered. However, the diversity of post-modern thought does not change the relevance of Verhovskoy’s thought – though it is thought that is addressed to believers.

Of particular significance to me is his statement:

In accordance with these plans God has created everything in the universe, and His creative thought continues to communicate meaningful, unbroken existence to everything. God’s powers and actions are always meaningful and His thoughts always efficacious.

It is the Orthodox understanding that God is not a watchmaker (as the Deists imagined back in the Enlightenment). He did not create the world simply according to a plan and then let it unfold. Creation is more than the original event. It is the clear teaching of the Church that everything exists because God sustains it in its existence: only God is self-existent. It is a very important understanding for everything in our relationship with God.

Part of two-storey thought (itself largely a product of the Enlightenment) is the notion of a God who is distant – somewhere else – whose connection to the universe is, at best, philosophical. For Enlightenment thought, God as Creator, stands at a remove of billions of years. The universe is understood to have self-existence and thus God is reduced to interference if He is to have anything at all to do with the world He has made.

This is nothing like the teaching of Orthodox faith. God is not only “everywhere present and filling all things,” but also the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.” He not only gives the world existence in the sense of bringing it into existence – but gives the world existence by sustaining it in existence. Thus whether we believe in God or not – we existence in Him and through Him.

In this understanding, prayer takes on a very different role. In the world imagined by the Enlightenment – prayer is largely petitionary – asking God to break His laws and intervene to make things as we want them. It is almost always as if we were asking God to do something He does not want to do. Thus the importance of Scripture verses that promise that God will do what we ask (particularly if the formula set forth is carefully followed).

However, if everything that exists is moment by moment sustained in that existence by God, prayer becomes not an interruption of the established order, but communion with the Order itself. It is the central point of prayer – communion with God. The faith of the Church, proclaimed in every service of the Church is that “He is a good God and loves mankind.” Our very existence – at every moment – is a gift of the good God. And our existence itself is evidence of His goodness.

It is finally true, that there is a universe (rather than a multiverse) because there is One who creates and sustains it. Regardless of what diversity we may bring to the world – we share a common existence – a common gift. It is the same gift that will sustain us beyond this material existence and make our memory to be eternal. Glory to God for all things.

Being Formed in the Tradition

December 27, 2007


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

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

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

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

The Smallness of God – A Rewrite

December 20, 2007


Whom have we, Lord, like you –

The Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,

The Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,

The King who abased himself to ensure honor for all.

Blessed is your honor!

St. Ephrem the Syrian

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Faith Worth Believing

November 15, 2007


In the past month of more I have been working from time to time on posts about a “One-Storey Universe” versus a “Two-Storey Universe.” The comments and the readership have said to me that I am writing about a topic that touches many. Perhaps the most poignant responses I have had have been those who have heard descriptions of the One-Storey World, in tales from monastics in which the language is clearly simple: the monks speak of God, the saints, miracles, visions, healings, etc., in precisely the same language they use to described beans and sand, the sunrise and everything else in their day-to-day existence. A “miracle” is a much a part of their day as the soup that sits before them. The responses to such normalcy and integration of the spiritual life have occasionally been of the sort I would expect: “This is wonderful. I would like to believe like that, but I find it so hard.”

Perhaps the greatest journey many of us have to make in this modern age is the journey from the corroded faith of modernity itself towards a faith worth believing. Some have made a journey to the Orthodox Church because they sensed that here such a faith can be found. Some have made that journey though they have not personally found such faith as yet. They are simply not willing to stay where they have been and listen either to the vapid emptiness of modern liberal Christianity, or the emotion-filled delusions of pentecostalism and much of modern-day evangelicalism. And thus they have made the difficult journey to Orthodoxy – waiting for the arrival of a one-storey faith, a time when the words they say and hear will become the words of their heart, without question, without second-guessing. This is a very difficult journey indeed.

Part of this is the plight of modern man. He lives in a world in which faith has been largely removed. Faith has become a function of the second-storey. We may speak of things that have been relegated to that realm and believe in them much like we believe in imaginary numbers (I can’t remember what those are!). That the things on the second-storey are true, we believe. Indeed, the doctrine about the things that have been relegated to that place are believed very vehemently, for the doctrines are almost the sole intellectual content that we can access. We cannot access the angels, or God, or the resurrection. Instead, there are a set of rational principles, derived from Scripture (perhaps even the Fathers) and these we may access and “believe” and argue.

But this is still not a faith worth believing. Our town has just endured a devastating tragedy. A young middle-school girl, well known to many (our town is only 25,000) was struck by a school bus on the way home from school and killed. The pain engendered by such an event is beyond description. Peoples’ reactions are much as I would have expected. My own grief is palpable.

But such a death, simply moved to the second-storey, is inadequately addressed. Children will listen to the explanations but will not be much comforted. For the weakness of the second-storey is that it removes things from us and places them beyond our ability to access. They are gone, and replaced by slogans. I go to graveyards here in East Tennessee and I see the grave of a young child. On top sits a decaying flower arrangement, complete with a little telephone. On the arrangement is written: “Jesus called.” It is too small a slogan to fill the emptiness of a parent’s heart.

Instead, I believe there has to be a steady movement and growth towards a one-storey world – where our faith, our experience, and our day-to-day existence are not separated. Where God and the saints, the angels and the world to come, are themselves constantly impinging on our consciousness.

The journey to this one-storey existence – to a faith worth believing  – is long and slow. It first means leaving behind the language and the false comfort (however little it is) of the two-storey world. I will not satisfy myself with the false reasonings of those who do not know anything about that of which they speak. I do not want to hear someone parsing the various forms of grace as if they knew what they were talking about. I do not wish to hear warmed-over medieval arguments as if they meant something to a parent who has just lost a child.

I do want to pray the prayers of those who stood in the lines of the Gulag and found the prayers to be real. I want to know God here and now where He is everywhere present and fills all things. I want to converse with my guardian angel and know that my words are heard. I want to carry my heart before God in its grief and pray for those I have lost, crying to God, “Memory eternal!”

I think we make this journey to a faith worth believing in first by coming to where faith is expected to be the normative way of life – the living Orthodox Church.

Second, we make this journey to a faith worth believing by slowly, day to day, praying and pressing our heart towards the place of believing.

Pray for the departed like it matters. Pray to God in the words of the saints (and in your own), and speak to Him here and now. Give to the needy as though you were giving to God (you are). Live the sacramental life of the Church. Use everything the Church gives you for a normal, one-storey Christian existence. And be honest with God and with your priest about the struggles you have – about the assaults you experience against the faith.

The great good news is that this faith worth believing is true. It survives even into the modern world because the modern world is weak and crumbles. It cannot feed a modern man, while the faith once and for all delivered to the saints sustains human beings even through the unimaginable horrors of the modern world. God is with us.

If you wait on your modern heart to just suddenly become the heart of a desert monk – you’ll have a long wait. The first floor is full of strange and wonderful things, but your heart will have to be changed in something longer than an instant (most likely). But most of us can find our hearts changed with something less than 40 years of weeping in a desert or a 20 year sentence in the cold of Siberia. Instead, you’ll have to pray even when you don’t feel like it and fast when you’d prefer to forget it, and attend Church like an old “Baba” in the dark years of Stalin. If the doors are open, be there – or at least try to be there – as if your life depended on it. It does. And the faith worth believing will come. Day by day it will come.

And then. in this modern world, you will see something that others don’t. You may be asked to tell what you see. Or you may prefer silence. But the reality of what you see will have removed the anxiety in your heart and replaced it with true faith. It is enough.