Archive for the ‘Orthodox Christianity’ Category

The Heart of Darkness – the Dawn of Mercy

July 6, 2012

The Christian faith is not about ideas – it is about things that are. As such, we do not need to cultivate theological systems – we need to know how to live.

This also tells us something about darkness. The dangers we face are not found in mistaken ideas – they are found in the negation of what is. Scripture says that our adversary was a “murderer from the beginning.” It is existence that he hates, though he does not have the power to cause anything to cease to be. It is God alone who brings us into existence and God alone who sustains all things.

And yet, we encounter darkness. I have seen two kinds of darkness (surely there are more). One is the darkness that resembles despair. I have both seen this in others and walked there myself. It is a darkness that is easy to pity and towards which mercy comes swiftly. Despair can take you to the brink and beyond, but it is not poisonous.

The second kind of darkness bears almost no similarity to the first. C.S. Lewis captured a picture of this darkness in his novel, Perelandra. There the “Unman” (Satan using a dead man’s body) pursues an opportunity to cause a second planet to “fall.” There is a great dialog in which the Unman engages Perelandra’s Eve. But it is in less grand settings that the darkness reveals itself. As the hero, Ransom, follows the Unman’s trail, he finds small acts of cruelty, a frog needlessly tortured and left to die; then another and another…. These petty acts of meanness point to a deeper darkness that is simply marked by hatred.

…He told himself that a creature of that kind [the frog] probably had very little sensation. But it did not much mend matters. It was not pity for pain that had suddenly changed the rhythm of his heart-beats. The thing was an intolerable obscenity which afflicted him with shame. It would have been better, or so he thought at that moment, for the whole universe never to have existed than for this one thing to have happened….

The energy of hatred is black. The real thing (and I’ve seen it – if you’ve strayed to the wrong places on the internet – even the ‘Orthodox’ internet – then you’ve seen it, too) is a vapid darkness that steals the breath. It cannot be engaged without staining everything it contacts. It bathes in shame and spews it forth. To acknowledge its very existence is to risk a kind of damnation (from which Christ rescues us). It is hard to imagine this darkness as having a human face, but it often does.

I understand the tragedy and the pain of despair. There are those who imagine suicide as the worst of sins, but it is as nothing in the face of the mercy of God. I do not hesitate to pray with confidence for such souls, for though the pain of their darkness was dark to them, “the darkness and the light are both alike to [God]” (Psalm 139:12).

I do not understand the second kind of darkness and do not know how to enter such a place in order to bring someone out. I believe that Christ does so, and that He knows both the path of entry and creates the way of exit. The souls who have embraced such darkness are not beyond the mercy and kindness of God ( “for He is kind to the unthankful and evil” – Luke 6:35). I believe this to be so because I trust in the kindness of God. But I do not understand it.

I believe in the goodness of God. The darkness of evil is not anything. It is not a creation of God; it has no being. It is a direction and a movement away from goodness and being. In most cases it is a stumbling and a falling away. It is only in rare instances that it becomes a willing force that pushes away all goodness and despises existence itself (not its own so much as that of others). This malevolence (literally “evil willing”) is described as a “mystery” in 2Thess. 2:7. God will destroy it.

It is because the Christian faith is about things that are and not theories and ideas, that I often resist various theologies that are grounded in concepts of justice. Though justice makes an attempt to address the problem of evil, it only compounds matters, offering little more than a theoretical need for evil to suffer yet more. Justice is used as well in an attempt to describe Christ’s atonement. But in such models, evil presents a need for balance and payment, when the true existential crisis is the need for rescue and for evil’s destruction. Humanity has no need for such justice. God has no needs.

The sound of human need is more visceral: “Who will go there to bring them home? Who will come here to deliver me?”

I am reminded again of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. There, the hero Ransom (whose name and work mirror Christ), discovered that his mission was not to engage the Unman in conversation. Conversations with evil grant a nobility that does not exist. Our own talk about evil with theories of balance and atonement are equally fruitless. Ransom discovered that his mission was simply to destroy the Unman. The Orthodox approach to human sin and the darkness that afflicts us is equally to the point:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

In the book of Acts, it is recorded that God gave St. Paul a ministry for us: ” to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (26:18).

God give us light and destroy the works of darkness.

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Written with prayers for the servant of God, Aaron Kimel. May his memory be eternal!

To Tell the Truth

July 3, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transformation of Orthodoxy

July 2, 2012

I apologize. There are many others who can write with far more knowledge and expertise about this topic. I write out of deep gratitude from within the limits of my situation.

On July 1, the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist fell asleep in the Lord. His story, along with that of many others, is part of a modern transformation of the Orthodox Church, an awakening to the work of evangelism for the Church that carried the gospel to the Roman Empire and beyond, and witnessed the conversion of ancient kingdoms across the face of the globe. It was also a Church that, battered by persecution, dominated by hostile states and limited by state policy, had largely seen its role as the care of its own with evangelism left in the hands neighboring, colonial powers.  In America, Orthodoxy was a Church of immigrants, often held in disdain by the surrounding Western European-based ethnic groups. It was viewed as “exotic,” but “backwards,” and ill-suited to the needs of a modern world.

Stories abound in the English-speaking world of those who inquired of Orthodoxy only to be turned away. Met. Kallistos Ware relates how his first approaches to the Orthodox faith were rebuffed. He was told to remain an Anglican. With persistence he was told that he could become Orthodox, but should not expect to become a priest. The late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, came to the Orthodox Church at age 16 with his sister. They attended Holy Trinity Church in Dallas for weeks before anyone spoke to them. Vladyka said that he was 21 before he ever heard a service in English.

The language barrier was difficult for many. Following his conversion in 1958, Met. Kallistos authored one of the first books in English to give a comprehensive introduction to the Orthodox Church. It was published in 1963. The first all-English language parish in the United States (according to my sources) was founded in the 1955’s in Tarzana, CA. It was a novel idea.

My first explorations of Orthodoxy came during my college years in the mid-70’s. In 1981 I lunched with a Greek Orthodox priest who told me that I was “better off staying where I was.” It felt positively ecumenical.

It was not an ecumenical gesture. The priest had no doubt of the nature of Orthodoxy (as the true faith). He simply had no sense that the treasure given to him was meant to be shared. History had divided Christians, and they were best left where they were.

Fr. Peter Gillquist, an extremely gifted writer, speaker and evangelist, was part of a group of evangelical Christians who had begun to explore Orthodox thought and life. In true protestant fashion, the group formed a series of Churches (the Evangelical Orthodox Church). But in true Orthodox fashion, they began to pursue reception into true, canonical Orthodoxy. He related that story in his book, Becoming Orthodox. In 1987, 17 parishes with 2,000 members were led into the faith under the omophor of the Patriarch of Antioch. Though the group would initially have its own unique life and character, by 1995 they were fully assimilated into the life and liturgical practice of the Orthodox Church.

Their reception was greeted in a variety of ways by the Orthodox. Some worried that they would bring corrupt practices and ideas into the Church (in practice, those parishes proved to be more “traditional” than many ethnic Churches). Others worried that their reception itself had violated canons (their clergy were ordained as priests as a group rather than individually – unusual but not unprecedented).

But their journey into Orthodoxy was part of a transformation for Orthodoxy in the Western world. There were many factors that came together in the last quarter of the 20th century that opened the path of conversion. No one thing can be singled out. However, the evangelical commitment of Fr. Peter and others (including figures such as Archbishop Dmitri and Met. Kallistos) coincided with this transformation. Perhaps all of these came at a “tipping point,” as we say today. Recent statistical studies show that in the Greek Archdiocese of America, 29 percent of its members are converts (from Protestant or Catholic) with 12 percent of its clergy being convert. In the Orthodox Church of America (the jurisdiction in which I serve), over half of the clergy and the laity are converts (this does not include the significant number of young clergy who are the children of converts).

Together these converts have brought a wealth of energy and insight. Publishing of material on the Orthodox faith, geared towards the non-Orthodox, has undergone an “explosion” in the last generation. The internet, though very uneven in its content and accuracy, echoes with this same energy.

According to a 2010 demographic study, more than half of OCA clergy and laity converted from Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. In GOA churches, 29 percent of lay persons are converts to Orthodox Christianity and 12 percent of clergy are converts. Doubtless, such an influx of converts has had an impact on Orthodoxy. From all indications, however, the impact has not been to make Orthodox parishes more protestant or Roman Catholic. Converts are often eager to be less like their former associations. At the same time that this influx of converts has entered North American Orthodoxy, monasticism has rapidly expanded. For much of the 20th century, there were three to four Orthodox monastic communities in America – yielding a Church largely devoid of monastic experience. Today there are over 80 monastic communities. Though most are small, they are a growing part of the life of many American parishes. Orthodoxy in America is not becoming less traditional, but more so.

My family and I were received into the Church in 1998. My two oldest daughters are married to Orthodox priests, and a significant number of my extended family has entered the faith. What was relatively easy for me was made possible by many others. Fr. Peter was an untiring evangelist, nurturing individuals in very isolated places. He took time for everyone. He lived in the best missionary manner. May his memory be eternal!


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.

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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).

Breathe.

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.

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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.