Posts Tagged ‘asceticism’

The Long Journey Home

June 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

Salvation is the long journey home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

How Do You Feel About That?

February 16, 2012

In the near decade-and-a-half that I have been Orthodox, I cannot recall ever being asked, “How do you feel about that?” It is not a wrong question, but one that simply doesn’t come up much in Orthodox conversation. The Tradition of the Church is not set by feelings (at least officially). Neither is the Church a therapy group (officially). But I sometimes suspect that conversation is neglecting an important question – and that many Orthodox Christians are avoiding asking themselves an important question. “How do you feel about that?” is more than modern psycho-babble. It has a proper place within traditional asceticism.

The opening lines from the Philokalia (from the writings of St. Isaiah the Solitary):

There is among the passions an anger of the intellect (nous), and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without this anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy. When Job felt this anger he reviled his enemies, calling them ‘dishonorable men of no repute, lacking everything good, whom I would not consider fit to live with the dogs that guard my flocks’ (cf. Job 30-1-4 LXX). He who wishes to acquire the anger that is in accordance with nature must uproot all self-will, until he establishes within himself the state natural to the intellect.

There is not time or space in this post to explain everything meant by intellect or passion – they are technical terms (among many) describing the inner life of man. What is of note here, is the balance and the wholeness described by St. Isaiah. Human beings are never deprived of feelings, even in a state of spiritual purification. When writing about the passions, the early fathers and later ascetical writers do not describe them in a wholly negative manner. They are simply energies of the soul – often distorted – but subject to healing like all of our human existence. They do not disappear in a haze of holy mindedness.

Feelings, of course, is a word used in modern parlance and in psychological systems. Passions, an earlier word for much the same thing, has shifted its meaning in modern English and refers largely to sexual and romantic urges. Language changes.

I began thinking recently about the role of feelings when a modern writer (in psychology) noted that the will and the decisions we make are not completely rational – they are not a product of pure thought. Many people think they are – but they are ignoring much of what takes place within themselves.

Decisions require more than reason – they require energy. To choose something goes beyond our reasons for making the choice – it requires something to power it. Decisions bring about changes. The energy of our thoughts does not derive from logic or discursive reasonings – it comes from that which we label feelings. Feelings (passions in the fathers) have an energy associated with them. Anger, for example, has a sudden power, giving us the ability to do things quickly and decisively. Other feelings have their proper function as well. A life of wholeness requires more than proper thoughts – it requires a proper ordering of our feelings – both in their character and their direction.

The inner life of Christian tradition has far more depth than is often treated in modern psychology. It is deeply neglected in much of modern Christian thought and writing. The living tradition of ascesis (spiritual discipline) was largely lost in the West through a variety of historical circumstances. The focus on a forensic model of salvation made the inner life of less interest within Protestantism. If one’s sins are forgiven by God and we are admitted to heaven – of what concern is the inner life? The evolution of Western monasticism away from the contemplative life of prayer (as well as the growth of scholasticism) weakened the primary means of remembrance of the ascetical life. The virtual disappearance of fasting within Catholic devotional life is but one example of this weakening.

What remains within Western Christianity is the theological life of the mind (doctrine) and the inner life of a modern secularist. Popular books on Christian spirituality are largely Christianized versions of the psychological self-help genre. The three-fold dynamic of purification, illumination and theosis (the traditional Orthodox description of stages within the spiritual life) is foreign to Western ears and unknown to most modern Christians.

Books on the topic (of which there are today an abundance) are insufficient. We cannot regain the knowledge of tradition through reading, regardless of the benefits of information. The Orthodox spiritual life cannot be borrowed from without. Tradition, by its very nature, is handed down in a living manner – from person to person. The life of the Church in the fullness of her Tradition, preserves a model of the inner life – we fast, we pray, we confess our sins, we do penance, etc., and the Tradition knows no Orthodoxy apart from such a praxis. It is possible to be a member of the Orthodox Church and ignore such things – but only to one’s self-detriment. More than this is the living practice of the ascetic tradition in the monasteries of the Orthodox across the world. These remain a vital part of the Church’s life (their number world-wide has been rapidly increasing). America, which had less than 5 monasteries a generation or so ago, now has over 50.

The inner life of the Tradition is not inimical to modern psychology. In their own time, the early fathers adopted the popular language of the inner life, found in Platonic (neo-Platonic and Stoic as well) philosophy. However, they refined its terminology, conforming it to Christian understandings of grace as well as the Christian understanding the human.

Modern psychological language is equally useful (should a writer or thinker so choose). Words would need refinement just as the language of Hellenic culture itself once required.

“How do you feel about that?” remains a good question. Responsible spiritual growth requires that Christians slow down and look within. It is not enough to hold opinions. In the teaching of the fathers, opinions are generally worthless: they are manifestations of an unruly will and disordered passions. “Why do I value my opinions so strongly?” is a good question. “Why do the opinions of others make me angry?” is at least as good. Both questions require that we look at our “feelings,” for both of them have to do with the energy we invest in certain forms of thought. To leave such things unattended is to hand ourselves over to spiritual slavery.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, desire, lust of power and idle talk.
Give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions,
And not to judge my brother.
For Thou art blessed, always now and forever. Amen.

The Prayer of St. Ephrem

Making the Journey

December 6, 2011

The photo posted with this article is from Zion National Park in the American Southwest. I took the shot five or six years back when my wife and I were vacationing in the area. This blog started in late 2006 – this photo became a visual symbol for me of the journey toward Christ’s Kingdom. It is not so steep as many journeys are, but it is “upwards.” I am also aware that “journey” is something of a cliche in speaking about the spiritual life, but there are few other words that quite capture its character: “exodus,” “pilgrimage,” are two that come to mind.

In the past five years of this blog, I have, from time to time, shared portions of my journey with others, and many have shared portions of their own within the comments. I have also had conversations through email with many who wanted a more private conversation. In the course of these five years I am deeply grateful that many have said that these writings were of help in their conversion to Orthodoxy. Nothing could make me happier. I am also aware that many have sent notes of thanks that were not about conversions. I am equally grateful.

Somewhere in the next few months (I don’t watch numbers all that close anymore), Glory to God for All Things, will log over 3,000,000 views in its short existence. It is staggering – such a large conversation – so one-sided – forgive me. But the journey continues.

I believe that the most critical parts of our pilgrimage to the Kingdom are found in details and not in the general thrust and direction. A word of kindness, an act of kindness, is worth more than every book or article on kindness that may be read. The Kingdom of God does not consist of books and blogs – but of “righteousness, peace and joy.” Such acts of kindness are the steps that take us toward the Kingdom of God.

My life has changed dramatically in the five years of this blog. I have become a grandfather (twice); three of my children have married during the time of its writing; both of my parents and my in-law parents have been laid to rest. Thus now, together with my wife, I journey as an earthly orphan, though gifted with heavenly parents. I have published a book, doubtless the fruit of this blog’s work.

Most especially, I have found (to my surprise), a host of friends. The internet sometimes gets a bad name (because some bad things can be found there). But I have found an international community of friends – people for whom I can pray and who will pray for me. This is not facebook, nor a “social” network – but the common love of Christ is a network called the Body of Christ, and I am deeply grateful for this one.

I ask your prayers for my continuing journey as I offer mine for yours. I give thanks for you all and give glory to God for all things. All things!

The Nativity Fast – Why We Fast

November 12, 2011

November 15, marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast (40 days before Christmas). The following article offers some thoughts on the purpose of fasting.


Fasting is not very alive or well in the Christian world. Much of that world has long lost any living connection with the historical memory of Christian fasting. Without the guidance of Tradition, many modern Christians either do not fast, or constantly seek to re-invent the practice, sometimes with unintended consequences.

There are other segments of Christendom who have tiny remnants of the traditional Christian fast, but in the face of a modern world have reduced the tradition to relatively trivial acts of self-denial.

I read recently (though I cannot remember where) that the rejection of Hesychasm was the source of all heresy. In less technical terms we can say that knowing God in truth, participating in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life. Hesychasm (Greek Hesychia=Silence) is the name applied to the Orthodox tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness. But ceaseless prayer and inner stillness are incorrectly understood if they are separated from knowledge of God and participation in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything.

And it is this same path of inner knowledge of God (with all its components) that is the proper context of fasting. If we fast but do not forgive our enemies – our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility – our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unite us with the life of God – which is meek and lowly – then it is again of no benefit.

Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian version of kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.

I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who “fasted well.” Publicans enter the kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.

Why do we fast? Perhaps the more germane question is “why do we eat?” Christ quoted Scripture to the evil one and said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We eat as though our life depended on it and it does not. We fast because our life depends on the word of God.

I worked for a couple of years as a hospice chaplain. During that time, daily sitting at the side of the beds of dying patients – I learned a little about how we die. It is a medical fact that many people become “anorexic” before death – that is – they cease to want food. Many times family and even doctors become concerned and force food on a patient who will not survive. Interestingly, it was found that patients who became anorexic had less pain than those who, having become anorexic, were forced to take food. (None of this is about the psychological anorexia that afflicts many of our youth. That is a tragedy)

It is as though at death our bodies have a wisdom we have lacked for most of our lives. It knows that what it needs is not food – but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the living God. The body and its pain become a distraction. And thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced.

Christianity as a religion – as a theoretical system of explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment – is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the living God or we have nothing. Either we eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us. The rejection of Hesychasm is the source of all heresy.

Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and that in dying we can be born to eternal life.

Living the Life of the Publican

November 7, 2011

For many people in our culture, the idea of private confession is neither attractive nor comforting. We prefer “to put our best foot forward,” and make the best impression on others. Everyone is aware that everyone has faults. Those who have grown up Protestant may have been frequently reminded, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In the polite Southern Protestant culture in which I grew up, it was also made clear that gentlemen did not discuss those shortfalls despite the fact that their presence was universally true.

Everyone quickly acknowledged that “all have sinned” – it was the specifics that were avoided. And so it is that most can easily acknowledge that they have sinned generally – it is the particulars that we find embarrasing and hard to discuss.

Churches that practice private confession within our culture notice that confession is the sacrament most avoided. People rarely stand in line or rush to their priest. And upon reaching the priest, people frequently rush to describe their general sins and avoid the particulars. One of my closest and most beloved Archpastors once told me, “I still hate going to confession.”

The Church frequently contrasts the prayer of the Publican and the prayer of the Pharisee in the parable told by Christ (Luke 18). The Pharisee goes to the temple, offering his prayer to God. In the course of his prayer he thanks God that he is not like other men (sinners). He tithes, he fasts, he keeps the Law. The publican (a tax-collector and seen as a traitor to Israel) goes to the temple but avoids even lifting his face towards God. He smites himself on the chest and exclaims, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It is the Publican whom Christ says goes home justified before God: “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luk 18:14).

There is no discussion of the legal merits of either prayer or either man: everything depends upon the state of the heart of the one who prays. The same is true of confession and of the whole of the Orthodox life. There are no measures of achievement – no rules which once kept render us safe and secure. In this life the heart always rests on the line between paradise and hades and rests nowhere else.

In many Protestant models of the Christian faith, it is paramount to render the question of paradise and hades as moot. We perform certain actions, or accept certain ideas, and all is settled. We are forgiven, our place in heaven is secure. Orthodoxy can be unnerving in this regard – it recognizes the on-going and dynamic state of the line between paradise and hades and the movements of the human heart. The stability within Orthodoxy is found in the state of continual repentance. “A humble and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17).

Of course abiding in a state of continual repentance runs deeply counter to those habits formed within a legal or forensic context. We would like the matter to have been settled once and for all and never discussed again. We would like God to abide by the rules of polite Southern culture. A gentleman would never discuss such things more often than necessary.

But God is not presented to us as a gentleman, nor is the problem of our sin presented to us as a series of legal problems to be rectified by a pronouncement of “forgiven!” Rather, God is presented to us as the “Great Physician” and we are told that we suffer from a mortal wound or disease. The doctor, having diagnosed us, would be derelict in his duties were he never to mention our mortal wound ever again for fear of scandalizing the mores of a dissolute but polite culture.

For the wound we bear is nothing other than a hard and unrepenting heart. The sickness that infects us is pernicious – for its very character is that it hates and resists both its diagnosis and its cure.

And so the Publican and his prayer become the model for healthy Christian living. We do not repent one time – we repent all the time. Repentance is not a discussion with God over the legal status of our sins – it is a discussion with the Great Physician over the “medical” status of a heart that is hard and far from contrite. Repentance is another word for living with a broken and contrite heart.

I have sometimes counseled parishioners that they should “learn to pray like a Publican.” It is not unusual in the Christian life to fail. We fail at prayer. We fail in our sins. We fail in our well-intentioned and sworn obligations. The most common reaction to such failures is not making another effort, but giving up all together. Our pride overcomes us. If I cannot pray as I have sworn I would, then I will not pray at all. This, of course, is simply a delusion sent us by the enemy. We want to pray like a Pharisee – to pray with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. We have been taught to hate the feeling of contrition, and to despise a broken heart. The so-called “middle class” in our cultures embraces a middle class standard of virtue. No one is really good, but no one is really all that bad (or so we think). Mediocrity is the perfect standard – for its measure is those around me – and thus I easily engage in judging others and compare my life to theirs. We trust that there is safety in numbers.

Scripture tells us that our measure is the “stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). To make anything or anyone else our standard of measure is, at best, blasphemous. It is an agreement to be less than human, much less the divine union with Christ into which we have been called. It reduces Christianity to mere religion, and a mediocre religion at that.

The full measure of the stature of Christ’s fullness is found only in following the path which Christ Himself has set for us: the self-emptying way of the Cross. This too, is nothing other than the daily and continual path of repentance. Christ accepted His humiliation as though it were just – as though it belonged to Him. He neither sought to defend or justify Himself. “Like a sheep led to the slaughter or a blameless lamb before its shearers is mute so he opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Christ “emptied Himself” according to St. Paul. He went to the Cross with a “broken and contrite heart.”

This way of the Cross is the way of repentance and is normative for daily life in Christ. All theories which seek to set this “mind” aside and replace it with rationalized atonement theories, is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture and the fathers and the way of salvation as taught us in Christ.

We learn to “pray like a Publican,” for like him, we learn to be meek and lowly of heart. We learn to accept our brokenness, not as a problem to be solved or overlooked, but a state of heart to be embraced and from which to seek God.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”.

And thus it is that publicans and sinners will enter the kingdom of God before many who thought themselves righteous. Pray to be found among the publicans and sinners on that great day.

Freedom and Slavery – A Word to Neurotic Christians

July 3, 2011

Be both a servant, and free: a servant in that you are subject to God, but free in that you are not enslaved to anything – either to empty praise or to any of the passions.

Release your soul from the bonds of sin; abide in liberty, for Christ has liberated you; acquire the freedom of the New World during this temporal life of yours. Do not be enslaved to love of money or to the praise resulting from pleasing people.

Do not lay down a law for yourself, otherwise you may become enslaved to these laws of yours. Be a free person, one who is in a position to do what he likes. Do not become like those who have their own law, and are unable to turn aside from it, either out of fear in their own minds, or because of the wish to please others; in this way they have enslaved themselves to the coercion of their law, with their necks yoked to their own law, seeing that they have decreed for themselves their own special law – just when Christ had released them from the yoke of the Law!

Do not make hard and fast decisions over anything in the future, for you are a created being and your will is subject to changes. Decide in whatever matters you have to reach a decision, but without fixing in your mind that you will not be moved to other things. For it is not by small changes in what you eat that your faithfulness is altered: your service to the Lord of all is performed in the mind, in your inner person; that is where the ministry to Christ takes place.

St. John the Solitary, Letter to Hesychias, 25-28.

I have entitled this post, in part, “A word to neurotic Christians.” We all suffer from our personalities, that cluster of fears and fearlessness, of anxiety and over-confidence, of false images and hopeful dreams, guilt and cares – and our “religion” is often lived out precisely in that arena. My meager understanding of modern psychology uses the term “neurotic” to describe those who tend to take more responsibility upon themselves than is appropriate. Those who take too little responsibility are far more difficult personalities – falling generally somewhere in the category of “narcissists.” Neither is the path of true freedom as a Christian.

The “neurotic” path can seem extremely religious, precisely because of its deep sense of responsibility. Those of us who are “neurotic” always feel responsible. The troubles of the world are not something we ignore – and the closer the troubles come to our doorstep the more responsible we feel. Many clergy are neurotic – if we didn’t care so much we would never have yielded ourselves to this level of responsibility. Sometimes – even often – those reponsibilities crush us.

The words of St. John the Solitary seem particularly appropriate to many in our modern age. Not satisfied with striving to keep Christ’s commandments, we create laws for ourselves, our internal rules, which hound us and persecute us and grind us into dust (greatly driven by the enemy of our faith as well as our own proclivities). Frequently, we give more weight to these self-made laws than to the true law of Christ (love).

We establish a rule of prayer (sometimes without so much as the blessing of a spiritual father). Our failure for even a few days (sometimes just one) can send us into such a spiritual depression that rather than repent, we simply quit.

Most of us would never be so hard on someone else. We find ourselves able to extend mercy to all but ourselves – or we extend mercy to ourselves where we should be strict and strict with ourselves where we should be merciful.

St. John the Solitary’s words (from the early 5th century) demonstrate how unchanged the inner life of human beings has remained despite the passage of time. The outward concerns of our culture are perhaps little more than phantasmagoria, while our inner lives remain the same. And thus his sane advice to our modern neurotics continues to read true.

There is indeed a marvelous freedom vouchsafed us in the mercy of Christ our God. His liberty is often more than we are willing to grant to ourselves. And thus we remain slaves – indeed worse than that – we become both Pharaoh and slave. The liberty that is ours in Christ is not a liberty to sin – but a true liberty to be free in the Spirit of God.

The freedom that is ours in Christ abides forever. It is not an idea nor an ideal, but the truth as it is made known in Christ. Thus, if we err, and submit ourselves again to a yoke of bondage, our true liberator remains by our side, speaking a word of liberty and calling us to the life of the Spirit which is manifest in the life of love.

Many of us are tormented by the continuing process of life that confuses us and returns us to various yokes of bondage. But the good God, who loves mankind, is persistent and steadfast. He will not yield until every yoke of bondage is destroyed and we are established in His true freedom.

Glory to Christ who has made us free!

The Things We Share

May 11, 2011

Modern culture frequently celebrates the freedom we each enjoy – in come cases going so far as to think of human beings as discreet individuals. Of course each of us lives in his/her own body – but even as such – we live in a common world. What I do and how I live affects others whether I want it to or not. In one manner or another, we live on the consequences of those who have gone before us – our landscapes – our resources – the shape of political boundaries – the language we speak – generally the whole of our life – is something that is being shared with us – again, whether we want it to be so or not.

There is a more profound sharing that takes place within our lives. That sharing is found in the communion, the participation (koinonia), which we have in the life of Christ and, because of Him, in the lives of each other.

In a number of spiritual writings within the Christian East, the word anadoche is used to describe an aspect of this sharing and participation. It’s meaning (at least at the time of its adoption into the language of the Church) is roughly translated, “responsibility.” It seems to have been borrowed from the world of ancient banking in which it has something of the meaning of “surety,” as in to stand surety for the debt of another.

Within the Church it began to be used to describe certain aspects of our mutual existence. Thus the sponsor at Baptism is sometimes referred to as anadochos – someone who is standing as a guarantor of another’s life in Christ. It is also used to describe the relationship between confessor and penitent and between Spiritual Father and disciple. Particularly in the role of Spiritual Fathers, the understanding of anadoche becomes important. The disciple renders obedience to his elder, but his elder bears far more – taking upon himself the burden of another’s salvation.

This, of course, is perhaps the most extreme example of a spiritual principle. That it is possible to take such a reponsibility, to “bear one another’s burdens” as St. Paul describes it – is only possible because our lives are not discrete individual events -but rather a deeply enmeshed communion with the lives of others and everything around us.

I recall some years ago discussing a mistake I had made (canonically) with my Archbishop. He had the authority to punish me for my error (by suspension for a time) or to be harsh in lecturing me, etc. Instead, as a kind father, he listened to my account, noted my ignorance, corrected me, and then said, “Fr. Stephen, you and I will have to bear this.” I was overwhelmed at such mercy. I was not excused, nor was my failure treated as of no consequence. But I was assured by a more mature elder in the faith that he would share the burden of my action. This is anadoche.

When we pray for others, to some extent we enter into a relationship of responsibility. I do not necessarily take something away from someone else, but I willingly thrust myself into the living communion established in Christ, and unite my life with theirs in a mysterious manner. To pray “for the world” is thus not a light thing – but the greatest possible burden. Christ bears the burden to its fullest possible extent. He took upon Himself the sins of the world. This is God’s great anadoche. Christ has become the surety of a better covenant (Heb. 7:22).

But because our lives are united in a communion established by Christ, there are other forms of responsibility, or sharing, as well. We are commanded of Christ not to judge another “lest we ourselves be judged.” This teaching is far deeper than a warning that God will do to us what we do to others. Indeed, God is far more merciful. Rather, Christ’s words are a warning that judging is a dangerous activity.

To judge another is to enter into the life of another – to inadvertently enter into their sins and weakness. Condemnation, according to Christ, is darkness (John 3:19). The communion into which we are called is a communion of love, in which we bear one another’s burdens freely and with love. The communion of darkness is a communion of coercion and force, where sins are not forgiven and where hatred, greed and envy hold court.

Thus we are told by St. John:

God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7).

For a similar reason we are taught to “honor our father and mother.” We share a very deep communion with parents and ancestors. To curse them is to curse ourselves. We cannot make it be that we have no father or mother. We can extend the light of Christ even to our past and our foundation, or we can make ourselves stand on a foundation of darkness – a deeply dangerous thing to do.

The world largely lives in a communion of darkness. This is the character of life outside of Christ. It is also the character of many whose lives profess Christ as Lord and Savior. The call to everyone, believer and unbeliever, is to walk in the light. For some such an invitation comes as a relief. To others, it can be heard as a threat or a burden too hard to bear.

Christ has not offered us threats and has asked us only to share in the burden which He Himself carries. Our part of the load is miniscule – such is His mercy.

Dying We Live

March 23, 2011

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it (Luke 9:24).

The above quote is perhaps the most counter-intuitive thing ever said by Christ – as far as general human experience goes. We do not want to lose our lives – despite the presence of suicides (an entirely different discussion). The instinct for self-preservation is among the deepest drives in the human psyche. It is also, to a large extent, among the greatest problems of our disordered existence. Within the stories of the Desert Fathers we find examples of those who have followed Christ’s commandment and offered insight to others:

A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.” The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, “Didn’t they say anything to you?” He replied, “No.” The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, “Apostles, saints, and righteous men.” He returned to the old man who said to him, “Did they not answer you?” The brother said, “No.” The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too, if you wish to be saved, must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.”

And this:

Abbot Moses said: A man ought to be like a dead man with his companions, for to die to one’s friend is to cease to judge him in anything.

Such dying to “self” is difficult in the extreme. It is helpful to know that the “self” to which we are asked to die is not, in fact, our true self, but the illusion created by our fears, opinions, judgments and other such things. As St. Paul would say:

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 (Galatians 2:20).

The “self” which is crucified with Christ is the “I” who no longer lives. And the “I” which now lives is the true self, the “me” who lives by virtue of relation with Christ.

Often the difficulty with all this is that we have almost no experience or confidence in that “true self.” Thus our Christian journey consists in the constant effort and failure to reform the “self who no longer lives.” The truth is that it is an identity which never had true existence. The writings of the fathers, particularly those writings on asceticism and prayer of the heart, are full of discussion and teaching on this distinction and the spiritual battle that it entails.

In contemporary writings, I have found some thoughts by Archimandrite Meletios Webber to be most helpful. Of the ego, or false self, he states:

In order to be right about anything, the mind [the central organ of the false self] 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. Interestingly enough, Jesus never once suggested to His disciples that they be right. What He did demand is that they be righteous. In listening to His words we find that we spend almost all our energy in the wrong direction, since we generally pursue being right with every ounce of our being, but leave being good to the weak and the naive.

People fight wars, commit genocide, and deprive others of basic human civil liberties, all in the name of being right. There is little doubt that if a further nuclear war ever takes place, it will be because the person pushing the button believes himself to be right. About something…..

The heart [the primary organ of the true self] 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. Rather, it begins with an awareness of its relationship with the rest of creation (and everything and everyone in it), accepting rather than rejecting, finding similarity rather than alienation and likeness rather than difference. 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. Little wonder, then, that the mind, always impatient and very demanding, manages to dominate it so thoroughly.

Quotes are from Archimandrite Meletios’ Bread and Water, Wine and Oil.


 This draws out some of the parameters of our daily struggle. The true self is not a product of our own efforts – we cannot re-create ourselves. Nevertheless, we can be honest and recognize the nature of our noisy minds, our anxieties and fears, our regrets. Domination and desire, justification and defense are all part of the life of the false self – who is passing away.

These are all matters that, by God’s grace, we can resist and can bring into the light of confession and God’s compassion. In the same manner, by God’s grace, we can struggle to be quiet and to live in the present moment (without anxiety or regret). We can renounce our need to dominate and justify ourselves.

These are the difficult daily tasks of our struggle. We should not think that the work of the false self (or selves) will ever accomplish the work of the Kingdom. That glory is the gift of God which we may enter with thanksgiving. God help us.

The Daily Battle

July 29, 2010

More thoughts on the struggle with the passions:

One of the essential understandings of the passions within the fathers of the Church is that they are not inherently evil. Gluttony may be a passion, but the desire to eat is a gift of God. Fornication is a sin, but the marriage bed is blessed, etc. Passions are our natural desires manifested in a disordered state. This is an important understanding – for it keeps us from the delusion that the sins that result from the passions not to be blamed on someone else – they are our own.

It is true, of course, that we are also tempted by the evil one, but his strength lies in our own willingness to entertain the temptation.

The question was asked, “Why would someone want to be whole?” The Scriptures tell us that it is the Holy Spirit that works in us both to will and to do of God’s good pleasure. Our healing, even our desire for healing, is a gift from God. We can surely cooperate with that desire and add our own feeble desire as well – with great benefit. We were not created for sin – and there is within us a desire to be whole, even if it has been neglected or ignored.

Some of the fathers describe three levels of Christian motivation. The first is the simple fear of punishment, fear of hell. This is described as the mentality of a “slave.” It is not the best and most salutary motivation, but for some, it is a place to begin. I recall a friend who joined Alcoholics Anonymous because, he said, “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.” The misery of our brokenness is indeed a motive to do something different.

The second level is described as that of a “mercenary,” when we seek to follow the commandments of Christ for the sake of a reward.

The third level is that of a “son,” when we serve God for love alone. St. Anthony the Great said, “I know longer fear God, for perfect love casts out fear.”

Our daily battle with the passions, with our own disordered desires and the misery they breed often has one or more of these elements about it. God grant us the grace of a good battle – ultimately not to fight either as slaves or mercenaries, but finally in the unquenchable love that has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Another Look at the Passions

July 27, 2010

I have recently been reading Fr. John Chryssavgis’ In the Heart of the Desert, an excellent introduction to the teachings and spiritual practices of the desert monastics. His comments are interwoven with sayings from the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). I share here some of his work on the passions, very apropos of our conversations here over the past week or so.


When passions are distorted, then our soul is divided and we are no longer integrated, whole. The understanding in the desert was that a single vivid experience of authentic, passionate desire for God was sufficient to advance one much more in the ascetic life than any extreme feat of fasting or vigil. In fact, such purified passion, or pure passion, could never be checked or quenched. It could only be filled or fulfilled. True passion and desire does not seek to be stopped or satisfied. It can only grow endlessly.

Abba Zosimas said: “Our free will is not passionate. If it were passionate, then by the grace of God everything would appear simple for our free will. As I have frequently told you, a small inclination of our desire is able to attract God for our assistance.”

The Desert Fathers and Mothers recognized that it takes a long time to become a human being. It takes an infinitely patient waiting to put together all the variegated parts of the human heart. Moreover, in the unnoticeable changes toward ever-growing perfection, it is the things that we love that reveal to us who we are. It is the things to which we are most attached that show us where our priorities lie. It is our very imperfections – what they like to call passions, and what we invariably call our wounds – that lead us to the way of perfection.

Therefore, if we want to honestly discern the passions of our heart, we should consider what we actually like to do and even need to do, or what most characterizes our way of handling life. Some of these passions might be the desire to gossip or be judgmental; the desire to control or manipulate; the desire for perfectionism; the need for constant approval; the distrust of others or mistrust of ourselves; the fear of stillness or of silence; the tendency toward irritation or agitation; an attitude of impurity or darkness; a lack of self-control; and cravings or addictions of many kinds. In brief, that which makes us feel “high,” where we do not have to face reality; that is where our passions often lurk. These are the passions we may need to admit and address.

Then, knowing our passions becomes not a crushing but a healing experience. Then, we no longer excuse bad behavior, but accept our self without delusions. Then, fresh possibilities are discovered in our life and in our world. We perceive new dimensions of reality; we see the same things as before, but now with new eyes. This is why the desert elders, both fathers and mothers alike, prayed not to be rid of passions, but to be strengthened in their struggle to know them. For passions reveal that we are innately equipped, and by our very nature endowed, with qualities through which we may be healed and renewed in order to move on.