Posts Tagged ‘religion of the heart’

To Bethink in Wonder

May 4, 2012

There are many cliches describing our cultural failure to be “present to the moment.” We do not “stop and smell the roses.” We do not “let go and let God.” There is a momentum to life that carries us along. Our jobs, our families, our habits – all conspire to make us oblivious to the landscape and lifescape hurrying past our awareness. It is not surprising that we are often described as being spiritually “asleep.”

Arise, O Sleeper, wake from the dead. And Christ shall give thee light (Eph. 5:14).

With this in mind, we can easily see that one of the hardest disciplines of the spiritual life is “staying awake.” In the fathers, the word for this is nepsis, variously translated as “watchfulness,” or “sobriety.” Christ speaks of the bridegroom coming “at midnight” (Matt. 25:26). We are told to be watchful, for there is someone for whom we should be watching.

This watchfulness is quite different from the sharp words, “Watch out!”  – the warning we throw at one another to avoid danger. There is certainly plenty of danger in the spiritual life and we should certainly “watch out,” but fear is never a proper foundation for our lives. It is the watchfulness of those who await the joy of the bridegroom’s arrival that is the hallmark of sobriety. St. John the Baptist, the “friend of the Bridegroom,” is the great saint who embodies this life of watchfulness.  He waits, watching – and finding, he announces the arrival and says, “He must increase and I must decrease.” The Church’s teaching sees his ministry extending even into Hades following his martyrdom. In the icon of the Resurrection, St. John is always depicted among the dead – for even among the dead he maintains his watchfulness and announces, “Behold the Bridegroom comes!”

The fasting employed by the Church in preparation for great feasts (such as Pascha), as well as the Wednesday-Friday fasts, are part of this watchfulness/sobriety. It is hard to sleep when you are hungry. John ate locusts and wild honey, observing a life-long Lent that awaited the Pascha of Christ’s coming to the Jordan.

In the middle of a busy world it is easy to imagine ourselves to be awake. However, the somnambulant spirituality of modern man (our usual state) constantly leaves us bumping into furniture and crashing about the world, injuring others and making a general mess of things. True nepsis requires a heart for the Bridegroom and His appearing.

Another way to account for our sleep-filled spiritual lives is our secularity – our default spiritual position. To see the world as self-existent, governed by its own rules, operating according to some set of independent principles, is to give ourselves over to an agreed-upon model of indolence. We assume the secular world-viewas the basis of our lives, with “religion” or “spirituality” as optional extensions of personal preference. The truth of things is that God is everywhere present and filling all things, all things existing only because He sustains them. The “principles”  which we see as “laws” are the providence of God, the bounty of His good will. Secularism is the sleep which deadens the mind and hardens the heart. Our stubborn faith in the immutable independence of the world is a breeding ground for fear and anxiety. The secular world-view leaves God at a remove: the world not the arena of His goodness, but the battleground of brute forces. We brutalize ourselves as we feel driven to control the world and our lives, bereft of the active kindness of a good God. We exchange neptic watchfulness for anxiety and panic.

Whenever we take charge of the outcome of history, we agree to do violence.

Watchfulness is inherently an attitude of wonder. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Only wonder understands anything.” Wonder is not the vision itself – it is not an awareness of the Bridegroom. However, it is the state of the heart in which we can see Him when He comes. Wonder confronts the mystery as mystery. It does not judge. It does not speak but listens. Wonder does not assume. Wonder dwells in the silence of the heart, for it waits for the announcement of the Bridegroom’s advent.

Wonder is an exercise of love, making room for the other as it recognizes that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” It is not a position of passivity – though it is not always acting in the “active voice,” seeking to impose itself on and control the “objects” around it.

I have a long fascination with language (having been a Classics major in college). Ancient Greek had a “Middle Voice” in its verbs (as does modern Greek). In the Active voice, the action is directed towards the other (such as a direct object); in the passive voice, the action is directed towards the subject (“I was struck”). But in the middle voice, the action is my own, directed towards myself. The Middle is often the voice of the inner life. English once had something like a Middle voice. It survives in the suffix “be.” Thus verbs such as become, bemuse, besmirch, beclothe, bedazzle, etc. are all “middle voice” verbs. The action is inward.

Wonder is middle-voice in its meaning. A word, largely fallen out of use, that seems useful to me is: bethink. The dictionary defines it as “to cause oneself to consider.” We think about many things, but we would do better to bethink, or at least to bethink whenever we think. The world is not as it appears to someone who has been nurtured in a secular world-view. There is far more than meets the eye. This “far more” does not yield itself to the easy, active attentions of life in the Active voice. Neither does it impose itself on us should we choose to live in the Passive voice. It comes and is seen when we live with our eyes wide-open and our hearts watchful. It is revealed to the heart of wonder, which alone understands anything.


The Language of Silence

April 29, 2012

The language of the heart is silence—not a bleak, empty silence, but a profound and meaningful silence that ceaselessly sings the glory of God.

Archimandrite Meletios Webber

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The language…is silence. I will violate this wonderful oxymoron by speaking about the silence. It is the inherent problem with all theology. We use words to speak about what is ineffable. When we speak best about such things we speak in contradictions and oxymorons – in riddles, enigmas, mysteries and paradox. For the truth of these things is not in the words but in the space between the words, the silence brought about by the contradiction.

It is said by the fathers that “silence is the language of heaven.” Fr. Meletios’ transference of the statement from heaven to the heart simply recognizes that the heart (in the sense in which he writes about it) is the place of heaven. Those who do not now know heaven have yet to find the place of the heart.

Finding the place of the heart is among the most difficult and essential parts of the Christian spiritual life. Those outside the Christian tradition may very well find such a place – we should not begrudge them – finding the place of the heart does no harm and may do much good – I leave this in God’s hands.

Webber (and Orthodox Tradition) notes that the mind, the place of discursive reasoning, emotion and the like, plays an important role in human existence, but should never have had an independent and governing role. Anyone who has ever noticed how completely undisciplined the mind is will understand what he means. The mind endlessly produces noise about almost anything, generating a stream of images and feelings that are more than useless. The noise of the mind, for some, can be a deeply distressing state of being.

The silence of the heart is not the silence of emptiness or a state of nothingness. The silence of the heart is the sound of fullness. It is silent because no word, no image is sufficient. Only silence can contain the uncontainable.

Vladimir Lossky, the 20th century theologian of the Russian exile, equated silence with Tradition. His thoughts are worth quoting at length. He begins by citing St. Ignatius of Antioch’s dictum: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.”

The faculty of hearing the silence of Jesus, attributed by St. ignatius to those who in truth possess His word, echoes the reiterated appeal of Christ to His hearers: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The words of Revelation have then a margin of silence which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside. St. Basil moves in the same direction when he says, in his passage on the traditions: “There is also a form of silence, namely the obscurity used by the Scripture, in order to make it difficult to gain understanding of the teachings, for the profit of readers.” This silence of the Scriptures could not be detached from them: it is transmitted by the Church with the words of the Revelation, as the very condition of their reception. If it could be opposed to the words (always on the horizontal plane where they express the revealed Truth), this silence which accompanies the words implies no kind of insufficiency or lack of fullness of the Revelation, nor the necessity to add to it anything whatever. It signifies that the revealed mystery, to be truly received as fullness, demands a conversion towards the vertical plane, in order that one may be able to “comprehend with all saints” not only what is the “breadth and length” of the Revelation, but also its “depth” and its “height” (Eph. 3:18)

At the point which we have reached, we can no longer oppose Scripture and Tradition, nor juxtapose them as two distinct realities. We must, however, distinguish them, the better to seize their indivisible unity, which lends to the Revelation given to the Church its character of fullness. If the Scriptures and all that the Church can produce in words written or pronounced, in images or in symbols liturgical or otherwise, represent the differing modes of expression of the Truth, Tradition is the unique mode of receiving it. We say specifically unique mode, and not uniform mode, for to Tradition in its pure notion there belongs nothing formal. It does not impose on human consciousness by formal guarantees of the truths of faith, but gives access to the discovery of their inner evidence. It is not the content of Revelation, but the light that reveals it; it is not the word, but the living breath which makes the word heard at the same time as the silence from which it came; it is not the Truth, but a communication of the Spirit of Truth, ouside which the Truth cannot be received…. The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the Truth in the Light which belongs to it, and not according to the light of human reason.

Silence is thus the necessary condition to hear the fullness of the word – and this silence is the Tradition.

Such treatments of mystical theology (as Lossky’s most famous work was entitled) demonstrate how central Tradition is to Orthodoxy and why it is so much more than merely “doing what’s always been done.” “What has always been done,” is correct if, and only if, we understand that what has always been done is the silence in which the word is spoken – and not just any silence – but that silence which is the word of Jesus.

As Lossky would note, the silence which is the language of the heart, is no mere natural silence (and thus not truly accessible to the non-believer), but an inherent part of the word of Jesus. The silence of the word of Jesus speaks to the silence of the heart, even becomes the silence of the heart: “Deep calls unto deep” (Psalm 42:7). The silence of the heart becomes that necessary condition for hearing the word of Jesus, which is nothing other than salvation.

The Mystery, Upborne, Fulfilled

April 24, 2012

Orthodoxy has a number of “favorite” words – all of which fall outside the bounds of normal speech. Though we commonly use the word “mystery” (for example), popular speech never uses it in the manner of the Church. I cannot remember using the word “fullness,” or even “fulfilled,” in normal speech. More contemporary words have come to replace these expressions. This doesn’t mean that an English speaker has no idea of what the words mean – but, again, they do not understand these words in the manner of the Church. There is a reality to which words such as mystery and fullness refer – a reality that carries the very heart of the Orthodox understanding of the world and its relation to God.

In popular usage, the word mystery has become synonymous with puzzle. Thus a mystery is something we do not know, but something that, with careful investigation is likely to be revealed. In the Church, mystery is something which by its very nature is unknown, and can only be known in a manner unlike anything else.

Words such as fullness and fulfilled are equally important and specialized in the language of the Church, but whose meanings bear little resemblance to popular speech.  Fullness (pleroma), occurs a number of times in the New Testament. It was also a favorite word in the writings of the gnostics. In Christian usage it refers to a spiritual wholeness or completeness that is being manifested or revealed in some way. It is more than a Divine act – it carries with it something of the Divine itself. It is not simply the action of God, but is itself God. Prior actions and words may have hinted at the fullness, but in the revelation of the fullness all hints will have passed away and been replaced by the fulness itself.

The core understanding of words such as mystery and fullness is the belief that our world has a relationship beyond itself, or beyond what seems obvious. The world is symbol, icon and sacrament. Mystery and fullness reference the reality carried as symbol, icon and sacrament.

Many people read the frequent statement in the gospels: “This was done so that the prophecy of Isaiah (or one of the other prophets) might be fulfilled….” What many people think this means is that the prophet made a prediction and it came true. Biblical prophecy (in a proper Christian understanding) has little to nothing to do with prediction. The prophets do not see the future – they see the fullness. What comes to pass is the fullness breaking into our world such that the prophecy “has been fulfilled.”

This same fulness is referenced in Ephesians:

And He [the Father] put all things under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (1:22-23).

This description of the Church as the “fullness,” is among the most startling statements in Scripture. The phrase, “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all,” is an early version of “God became man so that man might become god” (St. Athanasius, 4th century). God is the one who fills, and we are what is filled (or even the “filling”). At least as striking is a kindred passage in Colossians (the two letters have many similarities):

For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power (2:9-10).

The English disguises the wordplay within the verse. We are told that “in Christ dwells all the fullness (pleroma) of the Godhead (or deity) bodily, and you are the ones who have been made full (pepleromenoi) in Him…” Again, this time Christ is described as the fullness, but we have also been made the fullness (pleroma) in Him. His life is our life, and this life or fullness is precisely that which is important about us.

The idea is not dissimilar to Christ’s statements in St. John’s gospel:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (17:20-23).

In John, Christ has given us “his glory,” just as the Father gave Him glory. Glory is not praise or reputation, but rather something substantial (as I search for words). In Hebrew, glory (Kavod) is precisely something substantial, the weight of something. God’s kavod pushes the priests to the ground at the consecration of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:11). But glory is not simply an effect of God, it is, somehow, God’s presence itself.

Fullness has a relation to glory, in this substantial sense.

… we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full [pleres] of grace and truth…. And of His fullness [pleroma] we have all received, and grace for grace (Jn. 1:14 and 16).

The glory of the only begotten is full of grace and truth and it is of this fullness that we have all received.

I am sure that this excursion through Scripture may be somewhat tedious for readers – but it is an excursion through unknown territory for many. Mystery, fullness, glory and the like are largely neglected in many of the doctrinal structures of the West. Where they are not neglected they are stripped of mystical content and morphed into more rational systems.

Within the Orthodox East, the mystical content is allowed to shine forth – particularly within the liturgical life and prayers of the Church (this is also true of the ascetical tradition of the Church). One place where language and reality are deeply united is in the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts (celebrated on the weekdays of Great Lent and Holy Week). The Eucharist is not celebrated on these days, but communion is given from the gifts consecrated on the Sunday previous – thus the “Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts.”

It is a very solemn service, with a liturgical “climax” when the Pre-Sanctified Gifts are brought out of the Altar and processed through the congregation in silence. The congregation is prostrate during this procession with faces to the floor. Thus the procession occurs in silence and “invisibly.”

Just before the entrance, the choir sings, “Now the powers of heaven do serve invisibly with us. Lo, the King of glory enters. Lo, the mystical sacrifice is upborne, fulfilled.” The Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood are indeed the “mystical sacrifice,” the very mystery hidden from the ages made manifest and present in the midst of the Church. This same mystery is also the fullness – its presence is fulfilled.

The Christian life lived within the mystery is a life in which God is hidden, made known, revealed, perceived. It is a life in which the Kingdom of God is breaking forth, not destroying nature but fulfilling it. In the same manner, we are not destroyed by our union with Christ but rather fulfilled. We become what we were created to be – the fullness of that life and more is made manifest within our own lives.

It is this same fullness that describes the lives of saints. Saints are more than moral exemplars to be copied – they have the quality of life-fulfilled. In them the fullness that is ours in Christ is made manifest.

The mystical life marks the whole of Orthodox Christianity. It’s doctrines are replete with references to the mystery and speak of matters such as the atonement in a manner that is consistent with the revelation of this mystery. The Conciliar definitions, from first to last, are rooted in this language and presuppose its grammar within every aspect of the life of the Church.

Upborne, fulfilled.

To Know What You Cannot Know

April 18, 2012

You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.
– Fr. Thomas Hopko

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This small quote from Fr. Thomas has stayed with me since I first heard it. It says so much by saying so little.

I find two groups of people increasingly common in my conversations – those who profess to not know God (agnostics) – and those who struggle greatly with what they have been told about the Christian God. The largest group within my conversations are those who feel very secure in their knowledge of God but who believe a lot of strange things that they cannot possibly know. I feel a calling to help people know a lot less so they can know anything at all.

Orthodox theology is often described as “mystical.” The term does not mean “weird” or “esoteric.” Instead it refers to a union of thought and experience and a grounding in an approach to knowledge rooted in not-knowing. This form of theology is also described as “apophatic,” that “which cannot be spoken.”

True theology is inherently mystical (in this sense) because it is concerned with the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known. God is above, beyond, outside the realm of human knowing. He is not an object among objects so that He may be studied. Some of the Church Fathers referred to God as having hyperousia – an existence beyond existence. St. Gregory the Theologian famously said, “Inasmuch as God exists, we do not exist. Inasmuch as we exist, God does not exist.”

If such statements sound confusing or even like nonsense – they are supposed to. For we are speaking about God, who cannot be known. What can language do?

But theology does exist, even if it is mystical and apophatic. There is such a thing as knowledge of God, though He is beyond knowing. Such knowledge is not gained by thinking (or not primarily by thinking). Understanding how such knowledge is gained is key to an authentic spiritual life.

The classical formula of purification, illumination and deification is something of a shorthand for this authentic life, but too easily degenerates into mere formula. Purification refers both to the realization that we do not know (thus purifying us from delusions) and to the ascetical disciplines of fasting, prayer, repentance, almsgiving, vigils, etc. (battling with the disordered passions – thoughts and emotions). Illumination comes both as pure gift and as the fruit of the spiritual life and its disciplines.

In the realm of formal theology, we are often deluded by our ability to learn, discuss, dissect and compare intellectual systems. The academic world describes this as “theology,” but it qualifies as such only because of its topic. True theology is the life in pursuit of true knowledge of God.

And this brings us back to where we started – true knowledge of what we cannot know. This is the great witness of the Christian faith – that the God who cannot be known – makes Himself known in and through the God/Man, Jesus Christ. But even here, it is possible to substitute knowledge of a purely intellectual nature for true knowledge.

I recently thought of an example. Those who have learned a foreign language describe the process of learning. It involves memorization, practice, failure, embarrassment, etc. At some point, if someone becomes truly proficient, the process of thinking about the foreign language ceases, and simply speaking begins. So long as we are translating in our heads, we do not yet know the new language. But then if we ask someone who has become fluent in a foreign language how they know the new language, it would escape definition. But they certainly know it. The same question could be asked of our native languages: how do we know them?

I am not suggesting that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of a language are the same thing – but one is more like the other than either is like thinking. Indeed, thinking is the evidence of not knowing.

The language of belief, rooted to a large degree in the debates of the last five or six centuries in the West, becomes extremely misleading in all of this. When someone tells me they do not believe in God, I understand what they mean, but they have no idea what I mean when I say that I do believe in God. And they are certainly taken aback if I say that I know God. The same is true (to a degree) of many Christians who say they believe in God. Often they are referring to the sort of belief that St. James mocks in his epistle: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (2:19). And if the discussion moves to questions of debating various theological points – it is quite likely that true belief and knowledge will never be found.

Orthodoxy has both dogma and canons. These are not set forth as debating points but as markers within the life of faith, set by those who know the path. They guide us towards true knowledge – though they are not the knowledge themselves. Christ Himself is the content of faith and the true content of dogma and canon. The life of prayer and worship is communion with the true and living God, though we may often feel like strangers overhearing a conversation between others. Like the acquisition of a new language, worship slowly becomes something about which we need not think, but something in which we’ve become fluent. So it is with the knowledge of God.

But you have to know Him to know that.

The Border of the Grace of God

March 31, 2012

This Sunday, on the Orthodox calendar, commemorates St. Mary of Egypt, 6th century harlot-turned-saint. This meditation was written in Jerusalem in 2008 when I was on pilgrimage. The image is of the icon mentioned in the meditation.

Today, walking and weaving our way through the streets of Old Jerusalem, shops on each side of the alley, the smells of a rich mixture of spices and a thousand other things, shop-keepers calling with eagerness to the “foreigners” passing by – we were on a free morning, and there were gifts to be found.

We came across another pilgrim, separate from our group, who took us to a greater gift. In the environs of the Holy Sepulchre Church, there are two small chapels that are used for the local Arab Christian congregation. That chapel’s treasure is quietly situated in a corner of the rear of the Church. No sign announces its presence. It is an icon of the Mother of God – indeed – the icon which hung at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that spoke to St. Mary of Egypt, when, as a young harlot, she was unable to cross the threshhold of the Church. That moment led to her conversion and her immediate entrance into the trans-Jordan desert.

Everything here, things that have filled the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints who have populated this area, are amazingly proximate. Nothing is a terribly great distance. The desert is only a hill away from Jerusalem.

But winding through alley ways and shops, we found the Icon of the Mother of God through which God showed mercy on Mary of Egypt. It stood at the border of the grace of God. God’s grace, of course, has no border, except the stony heart that refuses Him hospitality. But He knocks on that stony door with great persistence.

I knelt before the icon and prayed for our stony hearts – my stony heart – the many places in our lives that have created borders for grace. St. Mary of Egypt pray to God for us!

Knowing the Truth

March 8, 2012

This Sunday in the Orthodox Church commemorates St. Gregory Palamas. His work represents the triumph of reality over theory – of true knowledge of God versus scholasticism. This is an article written in 2008, following my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

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From the book, The Enlargement of the Heart, by Archimandrite Zacharias:

For Elder Sophrony [Sakharov], theology was the state of being in God….theology was for him the description of the event of his meeting with Christ when he was caught up and saw the divine Light. [as described earlier in the text]. (For him theology was the narration of an event.) According to his writings, authentic theology consists not in the conjectures of man’s reason or the results of critical research, but in the state of the life into which man is brought by the action of the Holy Spirit. Theology is then a grace of the Holy Spirit which rekindles the heart of man. Whoever has acquired this gift becomes as a light in the world, holding forth the word of life.

The Archimandrite’s description of the Elder Sophrony’s understanding of theology is similar to the well-known saying in Orthodoxy that “he who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” At its very heart there is a steadfast allegiance to the traditional stream of Hesychast theology (as taught by St. Gregory Palamas) which insists that theology must be grounded in reality – in the experience of the Divine reality – and not simply in the creations and syllogisms of human reason. The point of theology is not to speak about God, but to speak with God.

This is always the difficult (and even frustrating) aspect of Orthodoxy. Unlike the inventions of the human imagination it is, instead, the gift of God, and therefore not under our control. Thus we are counseled to pray, fast, repent, forgive, give alms – all in the context of the remembrance of God. The Liturgy is a mystery in which God is truly among us and truly gives Himself to us – and yet we struggle even there to give ourselves to Him.

St. John in the beginning of his Revelation greets his fellow believers with these words:

I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

In a very few words he sums up the common experience of the Christian life: “to share in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance.” Our individual circumstances can differ greatly – but none of us escape the “tribulation” [he is here referring to the trials we all suffer and not the dispensationalist notion of a “great tribulation”], none of us are excluded from the Kingdom except by our own choosing, and for all of us there is the daily life of patient endurance.

I thought much about this during my pilgrimage in the holy land. Some places are more interesting than others for someone nurtured in a modern environment. My visit to the monastery of Mar Saba in the Judaean desert, carved and perched on the sides of a sheer cliff, in a sun and heat that clearly belonged in a desert – with a landscape which, though beautiful, is still largely uninterrupted rock and sky – was thrilling for the hour or so we were there. But the American monk with whom I had conversation had been there for 15 years. I found myself thinking back over the previous 15 years of my life – 15 years of serious change – 15 years, busy enough in “God’s service” that you can ignore prayer and forget that you are ignoring it.

In the desert and monastic rule of Mar Saba there is prayer, and the chores of the day – but mostly prayer. It is unavoidably part of the “patient endurance.”

For many of us in our contemporary settings, we find it difficult to stay put long enough to have “patient endurance.” I think the length of Orthodox services is one of the first experiences many people have of Christ saying to us, “Slow down.” Or in Biblical terms, “Be still, and know that I am the Lord.” There is a “patient endurance” that is an inherent part of Orthodox prayer. Some days we endure more patiently than others.

But the faith does not ask patient endurance of us, or tribulation itself, except for the sake of the Kingdom. God is not a taskmaster – we have been freed from the slave masters of Egypt. But just as the people of Israel traveled through the wilderness for two generations in order to become the people of Israel – so we travel in patient endurance, the Kingdom and the tribulation in order to become conformed to the image of Christ.

Standing on a ledge of Mar Saba, it is easy to feel the romance of the caves. But the reality of the caves bears more similarity to whatever it is in our lives that we must endure than it does to any romantic fantasy. Saints are real and are forged in reality by the Spirit of God. There is nothing that separates our lives from that of the saints – for we are one body. Their endurance is part of our inheritance as our endurance must become the inheritance of generations to come.

It is in that day to day remembrance of God that becomes our patient endurance that we ourselves become theologians, or at least catch a glimpse of true theology from time to time.

I was not surprised to hear from the monk who had endured 15 years in the desert, “I have no enemies,” (as I shared in an earlier post). He is a theologian and knows the truth.

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

Waking Up

January 10, 2012

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). This fear descends on us from on High. It is a spiritual feeling, firstly of God and then of us ourselves. We live in a state of awe by virtue of the presence of the Living God together with awareness of our own impurity. This fear places us before the Face of God to be judged by Him. We have fallen so low that our distress over ourselves turns into profound suffering, more painful than the torments of seeing ourselves in the darkness of ignorance, in the paralysis of non-feeling, in slavery to the passions. The dread is our awakening from the age-old sleep in sin. It brings us the light of perception – on the one hand, of our fatal condition and, on the other, of the holiness of God. It is an astonishing phenomenon – without its naturally purificative action the way to perfect love of God will not be opened to us. It is not only ‘the beginning of wisdom’ but of love, too. It will also alarm our soul with a revelation of ourselves, as we are, and bind us to God in longing to be with Him.

From We Shall See Him As He Is by the Elder Sophrony.

I remember the intense joy of waking up on Christmas morning as a child. The anticipation of the surprise to come was overwhelming. My father could be quite creative when my older brother and I were very young. I recall that my brother had once asked for a “stalk of Bananas,” something we had only seen in books. That my father actually found one and had it under the tree was beyond belief that Christmas Day. Every house in the neighborhood had a share in that surplus!

As years have gone by, waking up has taken on many different and more profound meanings – and increasing difficulty. The sleep that a child tosses aside so easily in anticipation of the joy that awaits him is a very light blanket indeed compared to the heaviness of delusion in which we so easily rest in later years.

Orthodox theology rests, finally, in the utter certainty of the knowledge of God. We do not simply speak about God – we knowHim. Anything less than such a knowledge would be an emptiness and speculation. No dogma is secure if it rests merely on bald assertion.

It is for this same reason that perhaps the most important spiritual discipline in the Orthodox life is to be freed from delusion. If you read the Philokalia, or, better yet, Branchaninov’s The Arena, you will hear the repeated chorus of warnings against spiritual delusion. It matters because there is such a thing as being awake and not being deluded.

None of us lives free from all delusion – none other than perhaps the greatest saints. But the process of awakening is itself the beginning of the spiritual life. It is the fear of God in the sense used by Fr. Sophrony and in the Scriptures that marks that awakening. Indeed, it begins with believing that there actually is a God, which strangely, is far less common than you would think.

The entrance of Christ into the world on that first Christmas morning was also an awakening. Mary was awake and understood what it meant to be the handmaiden of the Lord. Joseph, that good man, was awake and understood what it meant to act in obedience. The wise men were awake and found the Daystar from on High. The Shepherds were awake and heard the night sing.

But Herod slept, and doubtless dreamed. The soldiers who kept his orders slept with the peace that comes from a mission accomplished. The better part of the whole world slept, though there were some, like watchful children, who knew that joy was coming. The lightest footfall will arouse such sleepers.

Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.

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.

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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.