Archive for the ‘The Journey of Faith’ Category

Unbelief and the Two-Storey Universe

April 29, 2009

vm14451I have written extensively about what I have described as a “two-storey universe.” In short, this is a description of how many modern Christians see the world. There is the first floor – the natural world which operates according to naturalist, “secular” rules, and the second floor – the world of God, heaven, hell, angels, etc. The spiritual crisis of much of modern man is the inherent disconnect in these two worlds. It is a belief construct whose history goes back some centuries but whose fruit has been a very different form of Christianity and a growing tide of unbelief. As I have written elsewhere, many Christians have serious doubts about whether anybody actually lives on the second floor.

One interesting component of this world-view is unbelief. When a Christian whose world-view is dominated by the two-storey universe ceases to believe – what he ceases to believe in is the second storey. There need be little change, if any, to the first-floor on which he perceives himself to live. He does not cease to believe in the God who is here, but in a God who is “out there.”

Of course, what remains in such a situation of unbelief, is an acceptance of a universe that is less than a full account of how things truly are.  The first floor of a two-storey universe is not the same thing as the “one-storey universe” I have described: it is simply a house with the second floor blown off. It is in this sense that I have commented on Christian fundamentalism (one of the primarily proponents of the two-storey universe) and contemporary atheism being two-sides of the same coin. Their interminable arguments are a conversation that takes place in half a universe. One argues that there is a second floor while the other argues that the truncated, detached debacle of a first floor is all there is. However, they do not disagree about the fundamentals of the first floor. The daily world (and often the daily life) of a two-storey Christian is often as empty and secular as his atheist counterpart. He differs only in his anxiety to prove the existence of a second floor.

I believe it is important to go to the heart of these matters – to realize that when arguments take place between such inhabitants of the two-storey world – nothing authentic is taking place. Both positions are inheritors of a broken view of the world and neither will ever state the truth in a satisfactory manner.

It is interesting to me that there are atheists who do not belong to this category of “two-storey unbelievers.” Their lack of belief in God includes deep questions about the very character of the universe and the nature of human existence. As such, they share much in common with the Tradition of the Orthodox faith. Many converts to Orthodoxy must undergo something of an “atheist” stage in order to leave the mythology of the two-storey world and enter into the revelation of God as Christ has given to the Church. It is for this reason that in the services for the reception of converts there is included a formal renunciation of various errors. You cannot follow the “only truly existing God” while at the same time believing in a God who does not exist. We are to believe in but one God.

I recall the first year of my life as an Orthodox Christian. Having been an ordained clergyman for 18 years prior to that, it startled people when I said that the primary question for me in my first year of Orthodox life was the existence of God. People asked, “Did you not  believe in God before?” The answer had to be “yes and no.” To embrace God as He is revealed to us in the Orthodox faith requires, as well, not believing a number of other things. That first year was a struggle.

On the other hand, the same year forced me to a far more existential level – even to the place of crisis. How to believe in a God who is “everywhere present and filling all things” is a very different way of life than to believe in a God who is “out there.” In an Orthodox life our faith in God also changes how we see everything else (or it should). Nothing remains the same. The creation is not “self-existent” (a hallmark of two-storey thought) but utterly dependent and contingent moment by moment on the good will and providence of God. “Heaven and earth are full of His glory.”

I have found it interesting in my ministry as an Orthodox priest and missionary to meet people who, upon learning of the Orthodox faith, have replied with joy, “I always thought something like that must be true.” There are many people, who though never having heard the Gospel presented in its proper fullness, have nevertheless refused to be content with something less. They are, for me, miracles of grace.

It is a commonplace to say that Orthodoxy is full of paradoxes. One of those is the paradox that many non-Orthodox Christians may have to leave their God in order to become Orthodox and that many atheists will have to learn not to believe in a different God before they can come to the Truth.

It is simply the case that in order to find our life we have to lose it.

Everywhere Present

April 26, 2009

BOSNIA MONASTERY WINEEverything you do, all your work, can contribute towards your salvation. It depends on you, on the way you do it. History is replete with monks who became great saints while working in the kitchen or washing sheets. The way of salvation consists in working without passion, in prayer….

May God give you the strength to keep your spirit, your mind, and your heart in the spirit of Christ. Then everything that happens to you can very quickly be radically transformed. What was tiresome and discouraging will disappear, transfigured by your desire to be there where Christ your God is….

Elder Sophrony

 

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The wise elder’s words are not only good for our salvation (which is always at hand) but reminds us that we should not divide our lives into two worlds. Even monks have to wash dishes…

If we concede that some of our life is drudgery, mindless, but needful, while other parts of our life are interesting and of value to God, then we have ourselves created a two-storey universe of our inner world. This part of my life is of no value – while this part is of great value. This, of course, is nonsense. Even service in the Holy Altar frequently consists in washing dishes.

The words of the elder teach us that the problem of the two-storey universe is to be found primarily in our own heart – not in the culture around us nor in the tasks we find at hand. God is everywhere present and filling all things. He is even present and filling the various tasks of “drudgery” we undertake. No task is beneath us. The Mother of God changed the diapers of the God of heaven. Our love for those around us should be no less. We are moved when we read in John that ‘Jesus wept’ at the grave of Lazarus, His friend. The Theotokos had long before heard Him weap and wail as all children do. Nor should any mother (or father) give less value to the weeping of their own children. God has invested everything with His love, transforming the world into the stage of our salvation. Glory to God for all things.

For the Sake of Envy

April 14, 2009

img_10073In the Praises for Matins of Holy Wednesday, we read:

Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! He saw the harlot kiss the footsteps of Christ, but deceitfully he contemplated the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her hair while he bound himself with wrath. He offered the stench of wickedness instead of myrrh, for envy cannot distinguish value. Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! Deliver our souls from this, O God.

We are also told in Scripture that Pilate perceived that Christ was being handed over to him “for the sake of envy” (Matt. 27:18). Thus, it seemed important to me to offer this small meditation on envy, or at least one of its sources – for it is rooted in false beliefs about God and His world and the hardness of our heart that keeps us from seeing the truth. There is much more to say of this primal passion. But this small re-write will have to suffice for now.

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We stand mournfully around the grave, letting the strains of the hymn find their resolution in the final chord. The priest approaches the coffin, now closed and ready for lowering into the grave. The closing of the grave begins with a single handful of dirt. The priest tosses the dirt with the words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fullness seems strangely contradictory to the mood of a funeral. The pain of loss and the emptiness of a life that seems to have gone from the midst of us speak not of fullness but of scarcity. I will not hear that voice, hold you close to me or listen carefully for your footsteps.

No setting could be more stark in which to proclaim “fullness.”

But it is at the grave that we are perhaps most clearly confronted with the claims of our faith. For it is here at the grave that God made His own final assault on the myths and fears of a world dominated by death. This world of death always proclaimed the sovereignty of sorrow, the ascendency of scarcity.

From the abundance of Paradise man falls into a world in which thorns and thistles dominate:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

But now, standing at this funeral, the priest proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

What fullness? Again it is the assault of God on the world man has made. The earth is not the kingdom of scarcity, but now the Kingdom of God. The grave is not the gate of Hades, but the gate of Paradise. Fullness can again be proclaimed for the grave has been ruptured and cannot hold its prey.

This struggle is a daily struggle. Is the world I live in one of scarcity or abundance? The answer to the question has much to do about almost every decision I make. The threat of scarcity tells me that whatever I have, like my own life, is limited. Nothing is ever enough. There is not enough money, enough food, enough love. The abundance enjoyed by another is always at the expense of myself and others because the world is governed by scarcity. Thus I must fight; I must wrestle to gain whatever I can and cling to it ’til death wrests it from my cold, dead fingers.

However, if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – if every good thing comes from God who is without limit – then scarcity has been defeated and abundance reigns within the Kingdom of God, now and always. In this abundance there is not just enough, but more than enough. I can share. I can give. I can love without fear that there will be too little to go around. The abundance enjoyed by another is not at my expense for those who have much are not the rulers of this world. Thus I need not fight; I do not need to gain or to cling. God knows “you have need of all these things.”

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The emptiness of death has been filled with such an abundance of life that it has been trampled beneath the feet of those who walk the way of Christ. In this fullness we can do more than give – we can love even to the excess of forgiveness. My enemy has stolen nothing from the abundance that fills my life.

This proclamation of abundance has nothing in common with the prosperity gospel which is all too often driven by the fear of scarcity and the need to amass material things to prove the goodness of God.

Instead, as proclamation the abundance of the Kingdom needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of Life.

In the world in which we live it is all too easy to create yet another scheme of the two-storey universe. The world we inhabit we assume to be defined and finite with scarcity as one of its leading boundaries. Abundance is shuttled off to a heaven somewhere else. But this is a failure to recognize what has happened in the world in the coming among us of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. As He Himself said:

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

In Biblical language, this was Christ’s proclamation of a Jubilee year – the great Jubilee Year – in which all debts are cancelled and righteousness is restored. He has extended this confidence of abundance even to the blind and the lame. They receive the abundance of sight and the ability to walk. Lepers, once trapped in the scarcity of their disease and shame, are cleansed and returned to the company of men. The world has changed. Christ did not do these miracles in a world removed from the one we inhabit. It was the blind and lame in the very midst of us and in this world who were healed. Thus it is with the same confidence that we proclaim the victory of His kingdom – in what we say and do.

What martyr disdained to live the abundance of this proclamation? What saint, in His poverty, declared God to be poor and this world to be bereft of its fullness? And yet in our own confidence in the material machine of modernity (not in God) we worry and are anxious about its limits. Modernity’s fullness has its limits for it is not the fullness of God but of man (and this as unredeemed). It offers a false promise. It’s fullness does not generally induce kindness and generosity but acquisition and envy.

True fullness will always beget generosity and kindness – it is a hallmark of the work of God. True fullness brought a cry of “the half of my goods I give to the poor” from the lips of the Publican Zachaeus. True fullness will always be marked by such cries – they are echoes of “Indeed, He is risen!” 

The abundance found in the Kingdom of God is not the same as the abundance imagined by a planet enmeshed in its own cycle of scarcity and envy. The abundance proclaimed in the Kingdom of God in which the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, is an abundance in which there is not enough to waste but more than enough to share. The abundance flows from the enlargement of our heart as we expand our very existence to include the other. A world constituted by love rather than the envy of individualism will always have more than enough. 

Envy plays a large role in the events of Holy Week. Strangely, it is a passion which is rarely mentioned in our culture, even though the Fathers (at least some) thought of it as the root of all sin. We frequently think of pride as the root of all sin, but some of the Fathers note that pride, unlike envy, can be completely private, whereas envy always seeks harm for another.

Many times the sins we think of as pride, are, in fact, envy, insomuch as they are directed at other human beings. We envy their success, their “good fortune,” and many other such things. If we examine our heart carefully we will discover envy to be frequently at the root of anger, our sense of injustice and unfairness. The first murder, Abel’s death at the hand of his brother, is clearly the result of envy.

Even Judas is described as envious in the hymns of the Church, as well as the rulers of Israel by the Scriptures themselves. Sometimes in our “free-market” society, our failure and the envy it engenders gets turned against us and we condemn ourselves because we are not as clever as others. The basic inequalities of life become the source of either anger towards others of self-loathing depending on our own personality (and sometime a mixture of both).

The great difficulty with having a God is the fundamental requirement that we renounce envy. As one friend told me, “The most important thing to know about God is that you are not Him.” And this is something that I must learn to be content with. God is the Lord of the universe and not me. Things work together for good according to His own redemptive plan and not according to my secret machinations.

Envy is perhaps the most subtle of sins. Even in the desert where no one possesses anything, there is always something about another that we can find to envy. Our adversary, himself dominated by his envy of God, will always have envious suggestions to make to us.

To combat envy several things are necessary:

We must believe that God is good.

We must believe that God’s will for us in particular is good.

We must believe that God’s goodness is without limit.

We must believe that God’s goodness, shed upon someone else, does not come at our expense.

Thus we can “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” We can see that it is possible to turn our lives over completely to God and trust Him in all things. We can bless who we are and where we are (even if our own sins and limitations have made of our lives a difficulty). God is good. We need not envy. Further, we can give thanks for all things for they proceed from the fullness of God and His kindness to us. Even those things we perceive as “evil” occur in the context of the world we have entered through Baptism. We may give thanks despite all the troubles that afflict us – for God is good, and His mercy endures forever. 

Envy has no place within the Christian life. It belongs to those who drive nails into the flesh of God and taunt Him with their perceived victory. When all is said, they will stand as mute as fish, unable to cry, “Alleluia.”

In the Tomb of Lazarus

April 11, 2009

img_1088Largely ignored by much of Christendom, the Orthodox today celebrate “Lazarus Saturday” in something of a prequel to next weekend’s Pascha. It is, indeed a little Pascha just before the greater one. And this, of course, was arranged by Christ Himself, who raised His friend Lazarus from the dead as something of a last action before entering Jerusalem and beginning His slow ascent to Golgotha through the days of next week (Orthodox celebrate Pascha a week later than Western Christians this year).

One of the hymns of the Vigil of Lazarus Saturday says that Christ “stole him from among the dead.” I rather like the phrase. Next weekend there will be no stealing, but a blasting of the gates of hell itself. What he does for Lazarus he will do for all. 

Lazarus, of course, is different from those previously raised from the dead by Christ (such as the daughter of Jairus). Lazarus had been four days day and corruption of the body had already set in. “My Lord, he stinks!” one of his sisters explained when Christ requested to be shown to the tomb.

I sat in that tomb last September, as I mentioned in my last post. It is not particularly notable as a shrine. It is today, in the possession of a private, Muslim family. You pay to get in. Several of our pilgrims did not want to pay to go in. I could not stop myself.

Lazarus is an important character in 19th century Russian literature. Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, finds the beginning of his repentance of the crime of murder, by listening to a reading of the story of Lazarus. It is, for many, and properly so, a reminder of the universal resurrection. What Christ has done for Lazarus He will do for all.

For me, he is also a sign of the universal entombment. That even before we die, we have frequently begun to inhabit our tombs. We live our life with the doors closed (and we stink). Our hearts are often places of corruption and not the habitation of the good God. Or, at best, we ask Him to visit us as He visited Lazarus. That visit brought tears to the eyes of Christ. The state of our corruption makes Him weep. It is such a contradiction to the will of God. We were not created for the tomb.

I also note that in the story of Lazarus – even in his being raised from the dead – he rises in weakness. He remains bound by his graveclothes. Someone must “unbind” him. We ourselves, having been plunged into the waters of Baptism and robed with the righteousness of Christ, too often exchange those glorious robes for graveclothes. Christ has made us alive, be we remain bound like dead men.

I sat in the tomb of Lazarus because it seemed so familiar. 

I have to go now. Someone is calling.

It Is But a Small Thing

April 9, 2009

 

childcandleI have noticed in my daily struggle that most of the things that are of importance turn on very “small things.” The decisions that set me on the course of prayer or kindness are made not with fanfare or even large efforts, but on a moment’s turn. By the same token, the decisions that set me on a course of sin are often so small that I can hardly notice that they were decisions at all.

History books are written about large things – making the in between times in our lives seem insignificant and not worth much trouble. Generally, large decisions are made because we have reached an unavoidable crossroad – but a crossroad that would not exist except for many, even hundreds, of small so-called insignificant decisions.

Dostoevsky is correct that God and the devil engage in warfare and the battleground is the human heart. However, the battle is often fought in very small skirmishes. Brief encounters with the good and brief encounters with evil.

It is not true that the little things do not matter. It may well be that the little things are all we will ever encounter. It is true in every great battle. The historians write about large movements of troops and the effect of terrain – but those who actually do the fighting are aware of each stroke of the sword, of the difficulty of fighting wounded, or without food or rest.

By the same token, those who take up their prayers and beg for the mercy of God, may appear to be engaged in a very small thing. Yet prayer is never small. If it has gained the ear of the God of the universe, how can it ever be small?

No act of kindness is ever too small. No generosity of spirit is ever insignificant. No harsh word not spoken is a minor act of restraint. No effort of forgiveness is without value.

This is the day of salvation. It may come in a thousand discreet moments, every one of which is alive with the fire of God. May He gives us grace to know that all that we are, have and do, is truly great and worthy of every prayer and effort of grace. We draw near to the end of Lent (for the Orthodox). The benefit we will have gained will rest on the grace we have received – mostly as we went faithfully about the small things. Even Pascha itself – for us – will largely consist in our efforts to be present. Christ is our Pascha. We do not have to make it happen. We need only come to the feast. Christ our Pascha is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.

May God Grant Us To Weep

March 21, 2009

vladimirskaya.jpg

From the writings of the Elder Sophrony:

Spirtual weeping is an abundance of life springing vigorously from potent love, whereas ordinary weeping prostrates mortal man…. The ascetic Fathers did not weep because they were deprived of temporal goods but they do insist on the necessity for spiritual weeping without which man’s stony heart is incapable of love as taught by the Gospel. The mind of the Christian who weeps is totally directed towards the sphere of Divine eternity. The commandments of Christ refer exclusively to this. A whole multitude of circumstances unacceptable  to those living the banal life of this world are disregarded by him who weeps according to God’s commandment. Poverty holds no terrors for him, he will not be dismayed by insults or slights from the sons of this generation, nor by blows of any sort, because not only his mind but his feet, too, are lifted high above ground. He feels compassion for people, sorrow over them before God, but he does not share their interests, inspired as he is by his striving after immutable Truth.

From We Shall See Him As He Is

For anyone who dares write for publication on the internet, there is a dangerous invitation. Unless you establish strict controls (my controls for this Blog are not wide open, but neither are they very tight) you have established yourself as a target. Part of the task of maintaining a blog is clearing out the spam on a daily basis which alone is disheartening because it consists primarily of comments that are seeking to plant links to pornography. Just the names for such links can be sickening.

On other occasions you have people posting who simply make no sense – and I don’t know what to say to nonsense.

I gladly write about Christianity, Culture and even Atheism because I think these are areas where conversation is useful. I am a missionary and I make no apology.

But this also has a way of inviting angry comments (I get the occasional one or two).

Most disheartening are the vituperative comments from Christians. Since I am Orthodox, I am not surprised that a large portion of my readers are Orthodox – and it is probably the audience I have most in mind when I write – that and those who may be interested in learning more about certain aspects of the Orthodox faith. Happily, comments from these readers are generally positive and supportive and are an encouragement to me that I value immensely.

I remain dismayed at comments from Christians which must be deleted either because of their anger, or because reading them would do harm to others. It is not unlike hearing confession. We all bring material to confession that we would prefer not to broadcast or for anyone but God to know – and we would like Him to forget. In such cases there is a ready forgiveness. But I would ask you to pray for those whose comments you will never see (because I will not publish them). May God’s mercy be with the angry, the mean, the misinformed and the violent (at least in language).

A monk once told me, “We need go no further than our own heart to find the cause of all violence in the world.” And it is true. May God help us all and teach us to pray for one another – “those who love us and those who hate us.” May paradise consume us all. Glory to God for all things.

Great Lent – the Second Week

March 8, 2009

Great Lent began a week ago for the Orthodox. Interestingly the first week of Lent is the hardest week until Holy Week. There are services pretty much every evening and the rules for fasting are stricter. It’s as if you began a race with a sprint only to realize that there are many more laps to go.

Many years ago I was on my high-school track team. I don’t really mean to joke when I say that it was so long ago they had not invented the running shoe. There were only shoes for sprinting – none of these modern, technological marvels that actually support your feet and ankles. My place on the track team was as a miler – but not the really pheidippidespic2good miler. I was what they called a “rabbit” (named for the mechanical rabbit that greyhounds chase). The starting pistol would go off, and off I would begin at a fairly fierce pace. If the other team took the bait, then they would try to keep up with me and after a couple of laps were exhausted. Then our really good miler, who had been running a sensible pace would kick into greater speed and leave the field behind. If I had a really good race, I might finish third. Generally, I finished tired. Being a rabbit is hard work.

The pace of the first week of Great Lent – though beginning at a rabbit’s speed – is not meant to set the pace for the rest of the fasting season. This second week, we begin to slow down to a pace we can sustain until Holy Week.

How that works varies from person to person. For me, it means fewer services (since I obviously attend all of them). My fasting becomes a little less rigorous.

St. Paul seems to have been fond of sports metaphors. To the Corinthians he wrote:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (9:24-25).

To stay with St. Paul’s imagery – for what prize are we competing – and against whom are we competing? These are important questions because the answers tell us the reason for running the race. Our prize – as St. Paul notes, is an “imperishable crown.” It is the crown of eternal life – participation in the true Life of God. Our competition is everything that separates us from God. We fast, we pray, we give alms, we forgive our enemies, all in order to allow ourselves to be drawn deeper into the life of God. If in the middle of Lent we begin to fast in order to fast, or to say prayers because “we have to,” etc., we will have already lost the race. There is only one prize – Christ Himself.

And look out for rabbits.

The Difficulty of Lent

February 25, 2009

southwest-trip-317Many of our readers come from communities who use the Western calendar, on which today is the first day of Great Lent, Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Lent begins on at sundown this Sunday. This short reflection may be of help for us all.

Great Lent is one of the most important spiritual undertakings in the course of the Orthodox Church year. There is nothing unusual asked of us, nothing that we do not do the rest of the year. We fast; we pray; we give alms; we attend services, etc. But we do all of them with greater intensity and frequency and the Church’s contextualization of the season drives its points further and deeper.

Of course, repentance is at its heart. Here I think mostly of St. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1-3:

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. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.

No other single passage, it seems to me, manages to gather as many aspects of the Lenten life (and thus daily life at all times). Our bodies become “a living sacrifice.” I can only wonder which sacrifice St. Paul had in mind (there were many different ones in the Old Testament). Or it may be that the sacrifice of Christ is now the dominant image for him. But our bodies, now “crucified” with Christ are offered up and described as “spiritual worship” logike latrein.

 To offer our bodies as a sacrifice, through fasting and prayer, is itself lifted up to the level of worship, and interestingly our “logike” worship (“spiritual” really is more accurate than “reasonable” as some render it). It is a struggle to fast, to present a “living” sacrifice. This is so much more than a “one time” offering – but stretches through the days and nights of this great season.

St. Paul then admonishes us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (nous) which could easily be rendered “heart.” Fr. John Behr describes the passions, in his The Mystery of Christ, as “false perceptions,” our own misunderstanding of the body and its natural desires. Thus renewing our minds is an inner change in our perception of our self and our desires, or in the words of St. Irenaeus (quoted frequently by Behr) “the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of human beings.”

And I find it finally of most importance, that St. Paul concludes this small admonition by pointing us towards humility (as he will the Philippians in that epistle 2:5-11). It is in embracing the cross of Christ, in emptying ourselves towards God and towards others that our true self is to be found. We cannot look within ourselves to find our true selves. “For he who seeks to save his life will lose it.” Rather it is found when we turn to the other and pour ourselves out towards them. I find myself by losing myself in the beloved. This is the love that makes all things possible for us.

But, of course, all that having been said, Lent is difficult. It is difficult because it is the straight and narrow way of the gospel – nothing more. Thus we can only say again and again, “Lord, have mercy!”

Orthodoxy Where You Live

February 24, 2009

dragoncrushingI live in East Tennessee. It is an area of the nation famous for Davy Crockett (his descendants are still here). It is the place where bluegrass music originated. It was settled by Protestants – mostly Scots-Irish – which means Protestant Scots who had once lived in Scotland. It is a land of the Cherokee, though their impact is virtually invisible today.

It is an aspect of America that is hugely modern. An old city in America is 200 years old. There were places of human habitation that go back 10’s of thousands of years, but they yield very little information and they were not ancestors of my own people.

I contrast that to the time I have spent in England. There I was in my ancestral home. I am even aware of the names of Orthodox saints from those holy islands – for England was once among the Orthodox of places.

When I was in Palestine, the evidence of Christianity is simply as old as Christianity itself. I knelt in the very tomb of Christ. There are many other things in the Holy Land, many of them older than Christianity and yet related.

It is a question for me of Orthodoxy where you live. In some places – lands made holy by generation after generation of saint – the life of Orthodoxy is, or at least can be, a life lived in harmony with place and time. It is this strange aspect of America that to be faithful to Christ means to be unfaithful to the space and time in which I live. This modern land is Babylon. Almost everyone knows it other than Americans. I do not say this as praise for other places. There are worse things and places than Babylon. Some of my readers dwell in those places.

I take great comfort in the closing lines of St. Peters’ First Epistle: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings…” (1 Peter 5:13). Whatever city Peter was writing from (probably Rome), he identified as Babylon. It is more than “code language” it seems to me. It is Peter’s greeting from a place that seems profoundly foreign to the gospel.

The Christian is forced to remember that this world is not our home – or at least to remember that the land hallowed by the prayers of all the saints and the blood of the martyrs is no smaller than the cosmos itself. We breath the same air, and sweat under the same sun. Most importantly, we do not lose heart wherever we are. With ever icon erected, with every prayer prayed, with every Temple that is raised and consecrated, this place and all others become more fully what they were created to be – “Heaven is His Temple, the earth His footstool.”

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
 If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.

The Benefits of Ignorance

February 2, 2009

donkeyOf course, I have to begin this post with the acknowledgement that I am an ignorant man.

Having gotten that out of the way, I want to spend just a few moments on the benefits of ignorance. This past November I was blessed to have a conversation with Fr. Thomas Hopko while we waited in line to greet the new Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America. Fr. Thomas is the retired Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY.  He has taught a generation of priests.

Our conversation turned to writing. My comment came from my reflection on the experience of writing this blog. I noted that the more I write, the less I seem to know. Part of this realization flows from the fact that I try to restrict my writing to those topics of which I have some knowledge (experience). His smiling response came immediately: “Someday you won’t know anything and then you’ll be holy!”

It was not entirely spoken in jest. There are many forms of knowledge – or many kinds of knowing which our limited language describes as “knowledge.” For Christians the most dangerous form of knowledge is that which we simply acquire through reading and study. It is largely just information. Of course, if you have enough information you can manage the illusion of actual knowledge.

I know a lot of numbers, but I am not a mathematician. I have met mathematicians. Most of what they know is not about numbers – strangely.

There is no great sin in ignorance – or at least there is far less sin in ignorance than in knowledge. The simple truth is that we will not know anything of value until we first know that we do not know. In the competitive world of American Christianity, this is hard. It is not hard for ignorant people to argue – but it is very hard to argue while at the same time admitting that you are ignorant.

This ignorant man has spent a lot of years acquiring “knowledge” (falsely so-called). Knowledge of the sort that is readily available is not at all the same thing as knowing God – the only knowledge that has worth (though every true form of knowledge flows from that single knowledge). Somewhere in the course of my life I came to the place of spiritual exhaustion – I wanted to know God badly enough that I didn’t want to know something else in His place. So I became an ignorant man.

Today I know very few things. And though I write almost every day – if you go back and read what I have written you will see that I know very little. I say many of the same things to different questions, for they are the answers I know.

Thus when I wrote recently that I had never seen a case of righteous anger – I did not mean to say there was no such thing, only that I’ve not seen it in 55 years of life. I have seen anger that would seem well justified (the anger a husband has over the senseless murder of his wife). But I have seen the same anger kill the man who bore it.

I was born into an angry world. “Jim Crow” South was full of anger. Whites were angry at Blacks and Blacks were angry at Whites. We were angry at Communism. We were angry about the Civil War. We were angry at poverty (especially our own). Others were angry at those who were angry and the injustice of the entire system.

I remember an Abbot, a friend now deceased, who said that after the Vietnam War many young people came to the monastery – “They were so angry about peace,” he observed.

I served as an Anglican priest while the Episcopal Church inexorably jettisoned its traditional doctrine. I was consumed with anger. My anger did not save that Church and did me (and likely many others) great harm.

It is not just anger that works in such a fashion. Any of the passions could be chosen. An ignorant man is frequently on the losing end of battles with the passions. It is therefore important for an ignorant man to be aware of his ignorance. Can such an ignorant man argue theology? Not to any benefit.

The great good news is that Christ came to save ignorant men. We are easier to save if we admit our ignorance up front. Our opinions are so much dead weight. I know very little of God. I know that He is good – beyond any grasp of my knowing. I know that He loves in the unfathomable measure of the good God entering Hell in order to bring us out.

I have been in several versions of hell and rescued numerous times. Ignorant men are always getting themselves into stupid, dark places.

That God is good, that He loves us without measure, that He will go to any lengths to rescue us – I know a little about these things, though even of these things I am mostly ignorant. But I will not tire of speaking this good news. Ignorant men everywhere may be glad to hear it.