The Communion of Saints in Prayer

June 18, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet Not I

June 9, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Death of the Moral Man

June 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Col. 3:5, 8-10).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here the Macarian saying is helpful:

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

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

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

The True Self and the Story of Me

June 5, 2012

At some point early in life, we begin to construct a narrative. Composed of memory and emotion, complete with  critical commentary, this narrative becomes what we consider to be the self. This narrative may be revised and reinterpreted any number of times across a lifetime. The great tragedy, from a Christian point-of-view, is that this carefully constructed and defended story is not the true self. At best, it could be termed the ego, but even that grants it a privilege to which it is not entitled. The true self is quite distinct. Distinguishing between the two is one of the most essential tasks of the spiritual life. It is also a task almost completely lost within modern Christian awareness.

Within certain strands of Orthodox Christian writing, the true self is seen as centered in the heart. Though the heart carries a variety of meanings (some contradictory) in both Scripture and spiritual writings – it is used in this article as shorthand for that place within us that it the true seat of the self – that place where we meet God and where we encounter paradise. This will be more clear as I write.

Fr. Meletios Webber, using this same understanding of the heart, states:

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

This seat of the self is not a narrative construct. Being entirely in the present, it is decidedly not a construct of anything. It is not our self-image. It is not our projection of desires or fears. It is not in danger or need such that it needs defending. It is the true givenness of our existence (given by God) and is therefore not in need of our self-definition. It is not the product of our intelligence or our choice. It is not generated by our nationality, genetics or social position. In short, it is not any of the things that we use to construct the illusion of the ego.

Modern man looks with terror at the threat of the diseases of the mind (particularly dementia). It is certainly a great tragedy (my mother was suffering from dementia at the time of her death). But the threat it presents to us is the loss of the many things from which we construct the ego. We too easily jump to the conclusion that the “self” has been lost. There is indeed a great loss, but the self remains. Dignity and worth remain (when properly understood). By the same token, a person in a “persistent vegetative state” remains a person and the self, the heart, is intact. A great measure of our terror lies in the fact that we cannot imagine an existence that is not identical with the narrative construct of the mind.

One aspect of our fallen existence is that the mind (thoughts and emotions) has come to dominate the heart. Indeed, it dominates the heart to such an extent that most people have little to no awareness of the heart. In popular parlance, “heart” means “emotions.” Thoughts and emotions are not evil nor are they somehow opposed to the heart. However, we are disordered. The heart is the true seat of the self and is meant to be that place out of which we live. Thoughts and emotions are meant to serve the heart and are not meant to create a false self.

Were our thoughts and emotions simply “information” the problem they create would likely not exist. But there are often very dark sources for our thoughts and emotions. The memories that shape our narrative are also the stuff that creates our wounds. In deep places, even very secret places, the need for the “ego” to protect itself can be overwhelming. Much of the material that makes up the actions we confess as “sin” comes precisely from these dark wounds.

Perhaps the most common such place of darkness can be described under the heading of shame. In modern therapeutic language, shame is the sense we have of ourselves as damaged and worthless. Guilt is the term used to describe how we feel about something we’ve done wrong. Shame is the sense we have that we ourselves are wrong. In many people, this deep sense of self-loathing is extremely toxic. I offer a sample description by a contemporary therapist about shame-generated thoughts:

[One] result is diminished energy: shame leaves us feeling smaller, weaker, and less potent. Shamed people build defenses to protect themselves from feeling completely overwhelmed all the time. One defense is escape, a pattern of seeking out private, secure places where one can be alone and unseen. Withdrawal is another defense, which includes actually running away as well as emotional withdrawal by developing elaborate masks–like smiling, always pleasing others, trying to appear self-confident and comfortable–that cover the real self. The shamed person sometimes thinks there will be nothing to feel ashamed about if he never makes a mistake, and so defends against shame by becoming a perfectionist who can’t allow himself to fall short in anything. Additionally, people who are always criticizing others are usually trying to give the shame away—-the critic defends herself against the bad feelings by believing herself to be better than others. The critic may need to feel superior to avoid being submerged in feelings of inferiority. Rage disguises shame too. One way to fight against humiliation is to attack the perceived attacker. Shame and rage in combination can often result in verbal or physical abuse.

Compare this to Fr. Meletios’ description of the actions of the mind:

In order to be right about anything, the mind has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task…. Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right.

Our shame-based perception of the world is a deep distortion. The information we think to be true and the judgments we make miss the mark. Our problem is often more than the failure of the mind to be grounded in the heart. The mind (thoughts and emotions) is simply insane (insanis).

The fathers are quite clear about all of this. Before we begin the grace-filled work of illumination (knowing God and being conformed to His image), there is the work of purification. Most people engage the work of purification as though it were a stationary bicycle. We battle one disordered thought with another disordered thought, even turning on ourselves with more loathing. We not only judge others – we condemn ourselves for the act of judging. We echo St. Paul’s cry for help, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

The way forward begins with the recognition of our true predicament. The mind will not be taught to behave. The toxic sources within our inner selves need to be addressed. Confession – and even therapy in competent hands, are important. Spiritual direction with someone who understands the place of the heart and the means by which an individual finds it is essential. Refusing to accept the conclusions of our inner narrative and the ego that it generates is fundamental to Christian repentance. Concerning the mind (and thus the false self), St. Paul tells us:

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast….

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col. 1:21-23 and 3:1-4).

The Trees of Pentecost

June 2, 2012

My annual posting for the feast of Pentecost:

From the Feast

The arrogance of building the tower in the days of old
led to the confusion of tongues.
Now the glory of the knowledge of God brings them wisdom.
There God condemned the impious for their transgression.
Here Christ has enlightened the fishermen by the Spirit.
There disharmony was brought about for punishment.//
Now harmony is renewed for the salvation of our souls.

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The first time I saw trees in an Orthodox Church was at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Pennsylvania, just after Pentecost Sunday. I was completely caught off guard. Though I had been in a number of different Churches over the years, I had never been in a parish of Russian background for the feast of Pentecost. Thus I had missed the Slavic practice of bringing trees into Church for the feast of Pentecost. It was wonderful – like going into Church only to find a forest.

My Western background left me completely unprepared for this Eastern take on the feast of the gift of the Spirit to the Church. In Western Churches, Pentecost focuses primarily on the “fire” of the Holy Spirit lighting upon the disciples in the upper room and the “empowerment” of the Church for mission. Traditionally in the West, the color of the feast is red (for the fire).

In the East, the color of the feast is green – which is also the color worn for the feast days of monastic saints. In the West, green is the “ordinary” color worn in the “in between” Sundays and weekdays of the Calendar. For the Orthodox, gold serves this function.

But I found myself in the midst of trees on a major feast that was “green.” I was simply baffled.

In Russian practice the feast is normally referred to as the feast of the Trinity (Troitsa) rather than Pentecost, or “Pentecost” is listed as an afterthought (Pentecost). It is obvious that something quite different is at work in the understanding of the feast day.

Both East and West keep the feast as the day upon which the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. Orthodoxy does not ignore the various tongues with which the Apostles began to speak as they announced the gospel to those assembled in Jerusalem. However, as noted in the verse quoted at the beginning of this article, those tongues are seen as a spiritual counterpart to the confusion of the tower of Babel, when men in their hubris sought to build a tower into heaven. The multitude of tongues that came upon those men only proclaimed darkness and confusion and brought to an end the last great ecumenical effort of humanity.

The Church is God’s vision of united mankind – a union achieved through the gift of God and not by human effort. It is a union which maintains a diversity of sorts (the languages do not become one “super” language – so much for the “unity” of Latin) but a diversity whose unity is found in true union with the one, living and true God. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles on the day of Pentecost, though preached in many languages, was one and the same gospel.

One may still wonder why the feast becomes a feast of the Trinity. Like the feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ), Pentecost is a feast in which the revelation of the Holy Trinity is made manifest. The Spirit is the gift of the Father – given through the Son. There were many centuries that passed before a parish was named for the Trinity.

Among the first within the Orthodox world to be so named was the Lavra (Monastery) of the Holy Trinity outside of Moscow, founded by St. Sergius in the 14th century. His vision of the common life was seen as an earthly icon of the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity in which each of the Divine Persons shared a common life. The monastery was itself a place of spiritual rebirth for the Russian land as it began to come out from under the oppression of the Tatar yoke. The spiritual life of Holy Trinity monastery was a spiritual awakening for the land when Russians remembered that they were brothers of one another and shared a common life. This common life became the strength that allowed them to assert their freedom.

Of course, all of the above is both interesting and true but has yet to explain the trees. The Jewish feast of Pentecost (fifty days after the Passover) marks the beginning of the harvest feast. The first-fruits of the harvest are brought to the temple to be blessed of God. For Christians the harvest that is sought is the harvest of a renewed humanity and the renewal of creation. Thus the trees are a representation of the created order, assembled together with the people of God, awaiting and receiving the gift of the Spirit through whom everything is made new.

It is a very rich feast – one that is filled with meaning (as is appropriate). But all of the meaning takes as its source the gift to creation of the “Lord and Giver of Life,” the Holy Spirit. Just as we are told in Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

With a word, God speaks, and where the Spirit hovered, life comes forth.

So it is in the life of the Church and in creation today. Where God speaks, renewed life comes forth. All of creation groans and travails, awaiting the final great Word that will signal the renewal of all things.  For now, we see that promise foreshadowed by trees in Church and green on the priests and by the joy of our hearts.

What Is the Post Man?

June 1, 2012

The pagans, by which I refer to pre-Christian Western man, may have been unwilling to accept that strange doctrine of the Son of Man, but they willingly accepted that they were sons of men. They may not have known how to be Christian, but they knew how to be human. The post-Christian, having left Christ, is in the busy process of altogether leaving Man. With respect to those delivering our daily mail, one might say we are moving increasingly to the Age of the Post-Man.

As [C.S.] Lewis says, “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not…” Indeed, and I would sum it so: The Pagans may have had false Gods, but they had real men. The post-Christian attempts to be God, and loses man in the process.

From a fine article on Bad Catholic

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It must be the week for thinking about man. It strikes me with deep interest that the conclusions of looking at our present world are so similar. It’s not just me…

What Is Man?

May 30, 2012

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8:4).

The question, “What is man?” written perhaps a thousand years before the coming of Christ, is the bedrock of true humanism, the only form of dignity that can sustain human life. Our modern world continually re-imagines our nature, but God alone sustains it. I can think of nothing more assuring that the speculation, “What is man?” in a heart of wonder. I can think of nothing more terrifying than the same speculation in the cold calculus of the modern state.

Human dignity is among the youngest thoughts on earth and far from universally subscribed. We are daily exploited, murdered and used for unworthy ends. Individuals fail to see their own worth and give themselves over to evil ends. “What is man?” indeed, and why should we consider ourselves to be of any particular value?

To declare that I am valuable because I am myself – is simply a statement of  self-interest – an instinct shared by most living things. To acknowledge the value of another because it helps preserve my own value is the same instinct extended through a community. This instinct, surely a part of human life from its beginning, has never demonstrated the ability to lift man above his basest desires.

The question, “What is man,” is an echo or a corollary of the question, “Is there a God?” For if there is no God, then the question, “What is man?” has only the emptiness of an echo for an answer. Human dignity is not self-evident. With reference only to our biology we can say that we are carbon-based life-forms that have self-awareness. We cannot assume that other life-forms do not have self-awareness. The question, “What is man?” is thus no more interesting than the question, “What is a bacterium?”

But the question is itself an inherent part of our self-awareness. We want to know if there is anything of transcendent worth in our existence or is it as simply one thing among the many that exists. The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is similar. Does that which exists have any transcendent meaning – anything beyond the ephemera of its ill-fated billions of years (“ill-fated,” for regardless of how you run the numbers, it will cease to exist).

There are many ways to answer the question, “What is man?” All religions do this in one way or another, and the answers are not at all the same. In Buddhism, self-awareness is simply one of many ephemera – having no bearing on the meaning of existence itself.

But the Christian answer is the primary claimant of the modern world’s attention, whether the modern world acknowledges the source of the answer or not. That we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that God Himself has become man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the basis of all thought of human rights – the language of consensus in the human community. The assertion of human rights is commonly made today without reference to God. It is thus nothing more than assertion. Human beings have rights because we say they do. Such unsupported assertions only have force when they are asserted by the strong to the weak. This is very much the state of human existence in a secularized world. Rights exist only because a controlling authority enforces such rights. Rights which are denied by a controlling authority have no existence.

Assertions by the West of various human rights, when heard by some non-Western cultures, do not sound like truth claims, only like cultural imperialism. Should women be allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia? The answer depends solely on who is speaking.

World culture at present is not grounded in a civilization. There is no consensus of transcendent values, no true common agreement. The secular triumph of a common Europe, the post-War’s version of the tower of Babel, presently stands ready to collapse as the Eurovision confronts the reality of the Euro. “We share a common currency and a bureaucracy in Brussels,” is an insufficient answer to the question, “What is man?”

Modern, secular culture is derivative. Its values are largely drawn from the treasure of earlier Christian values, regardless of their present distortion. Human rights are contingent upon human dignity, itself contingent upon the creation of man in the image of God. Remove the source and the contingencies collapse (in time). Human rights have already begun their collapse. The concept of rights remain, but they exist only as those in power define them. Thus the rights of women (as defined by the state) or the rights of those with minority sexual orientations (as defined by the state) or other state-defined groups have rights that frequently supersede those of other groups. These rights are arbitrary and represent nothing more than the present state of political reality. As such, they do not represent rights, but assertions of power.

The language of rights continues to have the cachet of the earlier imago dei, but one in which the deity is no more than a function of government bureaucracy (of which the courts are but an arm). The great weakness of our present cultural existence is its lack of foundation outside the bald assertion of power. The two most distorted examples of such power-based cultures were Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. These two cultures continue to strike most moderns as distorted when they are compared to our cultural memory of the imago dei.  But their distortions were justified in the same manner as today’s secularist assertions. Only the present direction of the winds of power stands between modern culture and state terror. The slightest change in that wind can revisit the world with a renewed holocaust. The regime is the same: only the victims change.

The belief that man is created in the image of God yields its own corollaries. As the image of God, human beings are endowed with infinite worth. A human life has value derived from its very Divinely given existence. Our value is not a gift of the state or the result of our own assertions. No one life has greater value than another. Neither usefulness nor talent add value to that given by God.

States (as well as the quasi-states of ecclesial institutions) have sought to reduce these corollaries over the course of the Christian centuries. Thus some have been given greater rights by reason of birth, wealth, race, gender, creed, etc. Each of these assertions of greater rights represent departures from the givenness of the imago dei and a distortion of the Christian faith.

If one human being exists in the image of God, then all human beings exist in the image of God. None of us is more fully the image than another. In Christian teaching, Christ Himself is the definition of the image of God. To the question, ” What does it mean to be human?” Christ is the answer. In Christian understanding, Christ as incarnate image of God is celebrated from conception (the feast of the Annunciation) to His ascension to the right hand of God. No quality of Christ (sentience, wisdom, volition, race, age, gender, etc.) defines or establishes His place as imago dei. He is the image of God. In the same manner, our own unqualified existence establishes us as the image of God.

Only in this fully Christian understanding of man are the value, and thus rights of each human being guaranteed. Only in a culture in which this understanding is agreed and accepted is such value safe and secure. It is perhaps the greatest treasure given to us by God.

There are many modern Christians who have been lulled to sleep by the language of the larger culture, accepting that those who speak of “rights,” actually accept the imago dei. Many Christians have abandoned the public defense of man as God’s image in exchange for a place at the bargaining table of the state’s assertions of power. The state’s ability to assert various perceived rights is not a defense of our humanity – it is its destruction. Our acceptance of the state’s assertion is a capitulation of the gospel. Nothing less than the Divine value of every human life is worthy of the Christian gospel. Those Christians who do not accept such a value have departed from the faith and made common cause with those who would destroy us.

O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. Out of the moth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightiest still the enemy and the avenger. When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou maddest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8)

Memorial Day

May 28, 2012

In America, today is called “Memorial Day.” It was originally established to remember the fallen soldiers of the American War Between the States (Civil War) in the 19th century. Today it commemorates all fallen soldiers of the nation. It marks the unofficial beginning of the Summer holidays and is not often kept as a day of memory. This short video has the Russian hymn Vechnaya Pamyat, “Memory Eternal,” which is intoned in services for the departed.

Too many, everywhere, have died in wars within the memory of those whom I’ve known. May their memory be eternal!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Within A Mandorla

May 23, 2012

There is a small class of events within the gospels that are treated in a special manner by iconographers. This special treatment reflects the language of Scripture as well. In the icons of the Transfiguration, Pascha and the Ascension, there is a particular artistic device used called a Mandorla. Sometimes circular, sometimes almost star-shaped, it serves as something of a “parenthesis” within an icon. What is being set in the parenthesis is an event which somehow transcends what most of us think of as normal. Revealed in the context of a mandorla is that which we know by the revelation of Scripture but which might not have been witnessed by the human eye – or – if witnessed – somehow transcended the normal bounds of vision.

In the icon of the Transfiguration, the transfigured Christ stands within the mandorla. The Church’s hymns remark on this in their own manner:

You were transfigured on the mount, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners,
through the prayers of the Theotokos.
O Giver of Light, glory to You!

In this text for the Troparion (Hymn) for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Christ’s glory is described as having been revealed to his disciples “as far as they could bear it.”

The Kontakion of the Feast carries the same message:

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world, That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

The disciples are described in the Scriptures as having been “afraid.” St. Peter speaks of building three tabernacles, “because he did not know what to say.” The experience is more than even the words of Scripture can express.

The depiction of the Ascension in iconography has this same artistic device. Some would perhaps wonder why an event that is described in a prosaic manner “a cloud received him from their sight” should need to be framed within the parentheses of a mandorla. Of course, this description is given only in the book of Acts. Mark and Luke simply say that he was “carried up into heaven.” We are at a place where language has a limit. Indeed, Mark says that he was “carried up into heaven and seated at the right hand of God.” This last formula is a creedal confession – but not an eyewitness description. That Christ was taken up and that He is seated at the right hand of the Father is the faith and dogma of the Church. But the Church knows this in a mystical manner and not in the manner of a newspaper reporter.

To acknowledge this is not to weaken the witness of Scripture or to make a concession to the historical uncertainty of liberalism. It is simply to recognize the nature of the Biblical witness. The iconographic witness of the Church affirms this – placing the Ascension of Christ within a mandorla – recognizing that this will only be known and understood by the mystical knowledge of faith (and by faith I do not mean an intellectual leap of judgment). I will return to this matter of faith shortly.

Very similar to this event is Christ’s Descent into Hades, the traditional icon of Christ’s Pascha. In this icon we see what is referenced in several places within the Scriptures and upheld in the Church’s dogma – that Christ descended into Hades and “trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” But when we confess this cornerstone of our faith we are not reciting what is known by eyewitness account. Eyewitnesses see Christ’s crucifixion and eyewitnesses place Him in the tomb. Eyewitnesses return to the tomb on early Sunday morning and find the tomb open and empty.

The resurrected Christ appears to his disciples. In St. Paul’s recitation of the “tradition” (for that is the word he uses to describe his recitation, we hear:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

There are interesting descriptions that accompany the Scriptural witness of Christ’s resurrection appearances. St. Mark says:

After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them (Mark 16:12-13).

This, of course, is St. Mark’s brief account of the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus, described in detail in St. Luke’s gospel. We could add to that St. Mary Magdalen’s mistaking the resurrected Christ for “the gardener” until he speaks her name.

Such statements are not accidental “slips of the tongue” in which the gospel writers leave clues that indicate doubts about the reality of the resurrection. This is a silly conclusion drawn by some modern, liberal scholars. The gospels are carefully written. It is absurd to assume anything accidental within their pages.

What we have instead is a “verbal mandorla,” a description that points to a reality that impinges upon our reality but which has a depth that transcends anything we could imagine. This is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

This brings me back to the question of faith. There is a form of Christian literalism which belongs to a secular culture. The world is rendered only in a secularized, objective manner. Nothing is ever set within a mandorla. There is no perception of the mystery which has come among us in our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. In such a form of Christianity, faith is simply a description of what someone accepts as a set of “facts” in the same manner that we accept or reject what we read in a newspaper, etc. The facts are as static and empty as our perception. No change need happen in the witness of such facts. Either it happened and you saw it, or it did not happen. But the Scriptures themselves indicate that the nature of the witness has a radically different character:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

If Christ appears to them, how is it that some doubted? The Biblical witness would never have allowed such a statement if it was trying to defend the modern literalism of secularized Christianity. Instead, the witness of Christ points us towards the depth of the mystery that is the truth of our relationship with risen Christ. We know Him and perceive Him not simply through a set of intellectual arguments, or even simply through our trust in reliability of historical witness. A “faith” which is founded on argument, no matter how sound the argument, still fails to change the one who accepts it. The result of such “faith” is opinion, not true faith.

True faith ultimately requires a union, a participation, in the very life of the risen Christ. Thus, we are not Baptized into opinions, but into the very death and resurrection of Christ. To use the language of icons, our life is plunged into a mandorla which is nothing other than the Kingdom of God. We are called to live within that parenthetical state – where our lives constant refer and point to the reality which has now filled us. Such a life transcends the literalism of doubt and opinion and enters into a union with God that is itself a witness to the coming of the Kingdom. It is the banishment of secularism and affirmation of the living truth of Christ.

I would not dare to shake the faith of any nor suggest an element of doubt with regard to the events of Christ’s Transfiguration, Ascension or His Descent into Hades. Instead I want to push us towards a deeper perception and participation in those realities – for this is the very root of the Christian life.

The Fathers taught us: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” The iconic grammar of the mandorla, points us to the great mysteries made known to us in Scripture and make it clear that such mysteries may be known and entered into. Glory to God!

A Secular Death

May 18, 2012

Almost no event shatters the confidence of the secular world like death.
Regardless of a person’s achievements, fame or wealth, death not only destroys but threatens to mock. Many older funeral customs evolved in a relatively non-secular context. It is not surprising that funerals in the secular world are changing quickly: their content speaks volumes about the nature of secularized religion.

A 2009 article states:

Nearly 50 years ago, only 5 percent of the funerals in North America involved cremation. That percentage increased to 20 percent 30 years later, and in the past 15 years that percentage is pushing past 40 percent, which amounts to about 1.5 million cremations by next year.

I have served as a pastor in the American Southeast since 1980. Over the past 32 years I have seen a vast change in popular thought about funerals. Orthodox tradition and practice is quickly being viewed as too expensive, too focused on religion, and too concerned with the body.

Contemporary funerals (frequently termed a “celebration of life”) often have no “body” present. As memorials, the emphasis is on remembering the past – and in the most positive manner. Some celebrations have the feel of a “production,” complete with large projection screen and digitally produced music. Most funeral homes are glad to provide the production work.

In contrast, an Orthodox funeral concentrates on a different memorial. It is God’s eternal memory of those who have fallen asleep that is asked. Our own memory is weak, and biased, itself destined to fade within less than a life-time.

I have often been told that a funeral is “for those who grieve.” This is a deeply secular understanding of death. Secularism thinks that those who have died have need of nothing – they are gone as if they never were. Those who remain have the burden of guilt and grief – it is their needs that should be our present concern.

Death challenges the secular world at its weakest point. Secular life is essentially meaningless. There is an old phrase which describes those who fear something so much that they seek to ignore its presence as “whistling past the graveyard.” It is even easier to whistle past the graveyard if you never go near one.

Iron and Wine (2004) offered the world perhaps the first love song about cremation:

She says “If I leave before you, darling
Don’t you waste me in the ground”
I lay smiling like our sleeping children
One of us will die inside these arms
Eyes wide open, naked as we came
One will spread our ashes round the yard

The song has the honesty of recognizing that death at least yields something tangible.

The inherent meaninglessness of an existence that has no transcendence – nothing beyond itself – offers the modern world great temptation. If we will have no God, then we will invent lesser gods and serve them instead. Radical environmentalism has become a growing substitute for God. Some lessen their “carbon footprint” by extreme measures – limiting family size by any means possible. Of course, the ultimate lessening of our footprint is to remove ourselves from the planet – to what purpose? Indeed, what purpose the planet itself? Who would laud such noble sacrifice?

The transcendence of a two-storey world – one in which this world only has meaning because of the “next” world – is equally flawed. The world in which we live is not only transcended – it is positively devalued (except in those accounts in which eternity itself is determined within the short span of life on earth). In traditional Western Christianity, this two-storey account of life and death predominates. The world in which we live has no connection to the world in which God dwells, apart from moral concerns. There is no sacramental union, only the token appearances that appear magically in churches from time to time.

In the traditional theology of the Eastern Church, this world and the “next,” are not two worlds. We use the language of place (heaven and earth) for lack of language not for accuracy. There is more to the created order than we see (“all things visible and invisible”). But that which is not seen is not inherently separate from that which is. Sacrament (mystery in the East) is a way of describing the relationship between what is seen and what is unseen. Everything is sacrament, icon and symbol.

In such a setting, death is a change, but not an end. That which we see, the body, remains important and worthy of honor. A funeral, the service of remembrance, is a sacramental gathering in the presence of God. The body is honored, even venerated. The life of remembrance, eternal remembrance, begins.

My wife and I have a fifth child, one who died in the 5th month of his gestation. I held him at the time of his still birth. We mourned his loss, and gave him a name. We entrusted his life to the good God who gave him to us. The only relationship I have had with him has been one of remembrance. Each day in my prayers he is remembered along with my grandparents, my parents and in-laws who have gone before. They are not a part of my past, but a part of my present, particularly when I am awake and stand before God, seeing the world as it truly is.

The fiction of sentimentality and the emptiness of secular mourning quickly fade before the great presence of God. The proclamation of Christ’s resurrection is no pious notion about the world to come. It is the triumph here and now over death – the presence of Life pressing in on us – lifting up the world into the fullness of its meaning – gathering together all things in one.

Memory eternal!