Posts Tagged ‘religion’

To Tell the Truth

July 3, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christian Crisis

March 3, 2012

Any student of Church history should be well aware that there has been no century in which the Christian faith was safe, untroubled and not in crisis. To a certain extent, the Cross will always bring Christians into crisis. However, these are some thoughts on the present and some aspects of the crisis in which we live (at this moment in history).


One of the larger crises facing modern Christians is the disappearance of the Christian Church. Protestant denominations are not the same thing as “the Church” and have never had a self-understanding that could properly be called “Church.” Historically they have been, more or less, Christian organizations with certain “Churchly” aspects. The first crisis of Protestantism was the existence of other Protestants. In England (where the standard Protestant expression was Anglicanism), the question became, “What do we do about presbyters (clergy) ordained outside of the Anglican Church?” Various answers were presented. Some demanded re-ordination – others not. So long as various groups stayed within their own original boundaries (Lutherans in Germany, Calvinists in Switzerland, Holland and Scotland, Zwinglians in their corner of Switzerland, etc.) everyone could pretend that they were the “Protestant Church.” A crisis was born in the realization that Sola Scriptura (and other Reformation principles) created more problems than it solved. Various solutions arose. The American solution became the primary model: let the Church disappear as an important category in theology. Thus the “invisible Church” was born. The Church exists “invisibly” and is only known to God. All ecclesiastical boundaries are simply man-made notions, with no theological significance. Thus, the Church, instituted by Christ and of primary importance in the New Testament (to whom were the Epistles written?), becomes a non-entity, or a Second-Storey entity at best.

Today this crisis has moved past the temporal manifestation of denominations. Mainline Churches are becoming akin to shopping malls – impressive in their time and all the more sad as they stand empty or irrelevant. Why someone might be Anglican or Presbyterian, etc., is now nothing more than a taste preference. The current manifestation of Protestant “Church” is well-represented by so-called mega churches. Driven by the marketing of Christianity, these organizations are self-defined in a manner that embraces the market as never before. They are today’s upscale malls in comparison to earlier years’ empty shells. Their own emptiness is inevitable.

At the same time that the Church has become glaringly obsolete in Protestant circles, authority itself has disappeared. There is no Protestant theological system that can command sufficient loyalty to support a local mega church. There exists an “evangelical consensus” in American society. Like every consensus, such agreement is simply part of the ephemera of popular culture. Its significance is only as a barometer or wind vane.

The tragedy in this crisis is primarily spiritual – for the Church is not an optional Christian reality. There is no authentic Christianity apart from Church. As difficult as it may be for some to accept – the Church is what the Christian life looks like. It is possible to “extract” a form of Christianity from within the New Testament and make of it a private practice – but this is a misuse of Scripture. The New Testament is the Church’s book from beginning to end.

The churchless Christianity of the modern world creates distortions within the spiritual life. These distortions are so wide-spread that they are frequently found within the lives of those within the Church itself. Authentic Christian life is inherently communal, and cannot be lived apart from the “other.” “My brother is my salvation,” in the words of the fathers.

The Jesus of popular salvation narratives is sometimes a stranger to the Church. “To accept Jesus as Lord and Savior,” as part of a private spirituality can be a very serious distortion of the Jesus revealed to us in Scripture. It is not necessarily a conscious rejection of Christ as He is revealed in Scripture. However, the cultural version of the private Jesus frequently has little relation with Christ as classically taught.

The weakness of a Churchless Christianity can also be seen in its inability to engage the culture. Private spirituality is culturally meaningless. Only a community of practice can transform a culture (though this is not necessarily a primary goal of the Church). But with the absence of a transforming Christian practice, an already secular culture will only pass more deeply into the twilight of a secular order.

In short summary: the Christian Crisis is the growing disappearance of the Church as anything more than a loose affiliation of individual believers. It is the triumph of consumerism over ecclesiology. Those communities where Church remains essential (Orthodox, Roman Catholics) will not (and do not) escape the struggle engendered by the crisis. The willingness of Christians to embrace a community of practices – will be the great test of our time.

In the short term, keep Lent like your life depended on it.

Doctrines and Opinion

September 9, 2009

From the Desert Fathers:

Malicious sceptics visited Abba Agathon to see if they could annoy him. They had heard that Agathon possessed great discretion and self-control. They spoke directly to him, “Agathon, we heard that you are an adulterer and full of pride.”

He answered, “Yes, that’s true.”

“Are you the same Agathom who gossips and slanders?”

“I am.”

“Are you Agathon the heretic?”

“No, I am not a heretic.”

“Why did you patiently endure it when we slandered you, but refuse to be called a heretic?”

Agathon answered, “Your first accusations were good for my soul, but to be a heretic is to be separated from God. I do not want to be apart from God.”


candlesChristianity inhabits a confused and confusing world of religious belief. There are those among us (including the Orthodox) who use the label “heretic” too easily. There are others for whom the word has no meaning – they are indifferent to doctrinal belief.

One reason for this particular confusion is that, for many, doctrine inhabits a space called “opinion” and they are right not to give much weight to opinion. My opinion in doctrine does not matter. Others recognize that doctrine matters (the history of the Christian faith bears witness to this) but still do not make a proper distinction between opinion and doctrine.

Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, once wrote that doctrine is “a verbal icon of Christ.” That statement may not carry much weight with the non-Orthodox – but should come as a profound revelation for contemporary Orthodox believers. What we find in the teaching of the Church is not a collection of “right opinions” but a verbal representation of Christ, similar to the representation found in the holy icons. Again, the non-Orthodox may not perceive the power in this statement – but it is an important way for Orthodox Christians to remove themselves from the position of valuing opinions and restore them to the position of holding doctrine in its proper veneration.

It has been noted on this blog (and in many other places) that argumentation rarely brings someone into the faith. Argument may have an important role to play in the lives of some – but generally the Orthodox faith (even for those who came to believe it through argumentation) must be embraced not as the result of right argument – but as a gift from God given to us to correct our heart and rightly dispose us to the work of God within us.

For instance, it is not possible to give God proper honor nor to rightly dispose our heart to Him unless and until we acknowledge Him as our Creator (to use one of the most simple but profound doctrines of the faith). “For He that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). But such a belief must be held as more than an opinion – it is a profound revelation of Who God is and how we must relate to Him. It is not a mere statement of Christian cosmogenesis. If God is Creator, then I am creature and there is a profound love and veneration due to Him.

I could take this same method and look at everything the Church holds as doctrine. The role of doctrine and dogma (officially stated teaching of the Church) is not a morbid concern with correct phraseology or ancient metaphysics: all doctrine is taught for the sake of our salvation. This does not mean that, in the end, God will reward those who get an ‘A’ on their doctrine report card. Rather, doctrine is for our salvation because it teaches us the true path to union with God, Who alone is our salvation.

Many times the statement of Doctrine is an answer to the question: “Which God?”

I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible:  and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds,  Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father: God from God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, etc.

Orthodoxy exists as a place for the embracing of teaching and the living out of its reality: it is not a place for the sifting of opinion.

Abba Agathon understood the role of doctrine. It was not His opinion he held in high regard (for He held his opinion with no regard). Rather He recognized the verbal icon of Christ and would never choose to be separated from Him.

It is a thought worth considering – and perhaps a place for the heart to be changed.

The God Gene

September 7, 2009

Being Famous Doesn’t Make You Moral

August 14, 2009

huge.96.480462The news story is so common that the name can be left blank.  “N. confessed today that he has been unfaithful to his wife and children and let down his fans. ‘I want to say I’m sorry for what I’ve done and ask God’s forgiveness.'” I do not believe that our nation is suffering a rash of infidelities. We are suffering a rash of cheap shots – easily made because the targets are too big to miss.

A Basketball Coach, a Senator, a Congressman, a News Anchor – these, and similar folk, are all people that our entertainment culture has “writ large.” The few minutes of fame afforded certain figures usually brings additional wealth and influence. Many of those around them are eager to use the cache of their presence for their own ends – sometimes the ends even seem good. Thus the commonplace headliner at a local evangelical church – the popular coach or the football star. It carries a not so hidden message: ‘Jesus is a winner.’

With every winning headline the target gets bigger. When human frailty reveals itself, the headlines that follow are bigger still. That a football coach goes to Church and believes in Jesus is not news. That he does drugs and chases women on the side – that’s news.

Hypocrisy sells.

The popular-figure-as-Christian-leader is an American myth. For years our history books were filled with mythic tales of the righteous founders of our nation. Not even ancient Israel had such righteous leaders. King David was a murdering adulterer. George Washington could not tell a lie. The disconnect between these two figures is the disconnect between the traditional Christian faith and the American Christian faith. Jesus is not an American and He did not found our country. He also did not coach at Notre Dame.

Being moral does not make you famous – and being famous has nothing to do with being moral.

I am not a believer in traditional morality – because I think it’s a modern invention. Conventional morality thinks in terms of a moral code well kept. Think Immanuel Kant as business leader. Proper Christian morality thinks of death and resurrection. Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live. Immoral people act the way they do because within they are filled with death and corruption. There is something fundamentally broken about the human being – and we often find our lives to be a mass of contradictions.

The moral man, in this understanding, is the one who acknowledges his utter weakness before God. Christ told His disciples, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Someone who believes this spends his life learning to depend not on himself but on the only Lord and Giver of Life.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the 12 traditions teaches that  anonymity is essential to the program. AA does not depend on famous spokesmen to sell its way of life. It wisely depends on men and women who successfully struggle for sobriety. What they do and who they are is of no consequence. All that matters is sobriety. Indeed a famous spokesman, returning to the bottle is just the kind of advertising they do not need.

The Christian faith is not helped by the endorsements of the rich and famous, the talented and successful. The resurrection does not need the testimony of dead men. For the Christian Church is a communion of dead men and women who cling to God because He alone gives life. We survive because we can share the good news of that life with each other. Anonymity is not a bad idea.

In 1998 I was received into the Orthodox Church. Several reporter friends of mine wanted to “do the story”: “Episcopal priest converts to Orthodoxy.” I politely refused the invitation. It’s not an interesting story I told them. I am becoming Orthodox because I am a great sinner. This is just the story of a prodigal returning home. Just another dead guy.

The Fullness of Faith

August 4, 2009

fralexander I prefer to use the term “fullness” when describing the Orthodox faith because it is far more explanatory than simply saying that we are the “true Church,” etc. “Fullness,” of course does not deny this, but it moves us onto more fruitful ground. In this post I offer a short list of what seem to me important consequences of giving one’s life to the “fullness of the faith.”  This is a reprint from earlier – but one which bears re-reading.

  • It is to accept the corporate nature of our salvation. The model of what it means to be a Christian is to be found in the life of the Holy Trinity. Thus we live no longer for ourselves but for everything and everyone.
  • It is to embrace the Christian faith “without onesidedness” (to quote Professor Serge Verhovskoy of blessed memory). Thus we do not reduce Christianity to a tension between grace and law, or to an expression merely of the sovereignty of God or any such other reductionist models that have come to be in the past half-millenium.
  • It is to embrace the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, as the full and complete revelation to us of God. His words, His life, His actions, are the complete salvation of all mankind. As He said on the cross: “It is complete.”
  • It is to accept that the faith is larger than we are and that we cannot reduce it to anything less than its fullness and be faithful.
  • The consequence of this last point is that we attend Church always with an attitude of humility for we are standing within the larger life which is itself revealing God to us.
  • We renounce our selves as “autonomous individuals” and recognize instead that we are children of the One God who directs our lives in His commandments and He alone is the definition and meaning of our life.
  • We accept that the Holy Mysteries of the Church (such as Baptism, Chrismation, Penance and Eucharist, Unction, Marriage, and Ordination, are sure means by which God gives His very Life to us, though He may give His life to us in many other ways as well.) Thus we view this Life of Mystery as our true life and not simply an organizational expression of the Church.
  • We accept that we are only the current representatives of this faith on the earth, but that we are joined by a great “cloud of witnesses,” the Saints, by whose prayers we are aided and by whose Holy relics we are encouraged to run the race faithfully to its end. Thus we honor them as Holy friends, and our companions on the road of salvation.
  • Among the saints we recognize the unique place of the Mother of God, whose obedience to the word of God undid the disobedience of Eve, and through whose cooperation with the working of God, salvation became incarnate in the God-Man, Christ Jesus.
  • We recognize and accept that our salvation is nothing other than true and living communion with God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit. This salvation is a whole life and not a single decision. It is lived in a community (the Church, the Body of Christ) and lacks nothing for God has provided it with all that is necessary for our salvation.
  • We recognize the authority of the Scriptures within the life of the Church and accept with the Apostles that all of Scripture is understood only as it reveals Christ, for “these are they which testify of Me.” We recognize as well that Scripture is a gift to the Church and read them in and through the living Tradition of the Church as expressed in the Fathers, the worship life of the Church, and the decisions of the Holy Councils of the Faith.
  • We see in the world an icon of the world to come – the Scriptures as icon – the Saints as icons – the Church as icon and we live for the age when all things will be made known.
  • We believe that the fullness of the faith can only be known through the revelation of God as we follow the way of the Cross, tracing the steps of Christ’s humility, taking upon ourselves, as He took upon Himself, the sins of the world, and from within that humility praying for all to the gracious God Who alone can save.

I could, of course, continue writing until my last breath for no lifetime can exhaust or express completely the fullness. This modest list, however, seems a reasonable place to begin. In particular they are points which have been written about in some detail in the posts I have placed on this blogsite. God, forgive me, for I fail so completely in all of them.

At The Edge of Tradition – More Notes from the Edge

July 22, 2009

15There are many things that we see in our lives to which the word “traditional” may be attached. It can refer to a style of dress or an understanding of relationships. In Church it may refer to the use of certain kinds of music or a sytle of worship. Many years ago, pastoring my first parish as an Episcopal priest, I had a young couple who were Roman Catholics, who had come to the Church as inquirers. One of their first statements and complaints to me was that the service in my parish was not “traditional” enough. I was slightly puzzled. My eleven o’clock service was a choral Eucharist, about as traditionally “high church” as Anglicans get. I was also aware that the surrounding Catholic Churches were all pretty contemporary in their worship. I should add that the couple was in their early twenties.

They explained away my confusion. By “traditional” they meant: “where are the guitars?” “In the eye of the beholder,” is all I could think.

The same can be said of the contemporary use of the word “traditional” or other phrases such as “ancient,” etc. I know there are experiments out there to bring a more “traditional” style of worship into Evangelicalism (and here “traditional” means, I believe, “liturgical”). In many places an increased emphasis on the Eucharist as the primary service of worship on Sundays is also part of the package.

On the one hand, these efforts can hardly be faulted from an Orthodox point of view. The more people explore the “tradition,” the more likely they are to confront the faith – which was, after all, “once and for all ‘traditioned’ to the saints,” for that is the meaning of Jude 1:3. But on the other hand, there is a danger in confusing the outward trappings of “tradition” with “Tradition” itself. For what was once and for all delivered to the saints, was not so much questions of liturgy and incense (although all of these ritual and liturgical elements of Orthodoxy do carry with them the content of Tradition – they are not electives), rather the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints was and is indeed the content of the faith – the living union between the true and living God and man. That faith truly reveals to us and makes accessible to us the true and living God, and it also reveals to us and makes accessible what it is to be a truly living human being. The content of the Christian faith, the living Tradition, is the truth of both God and man, and the truth of our salvation through union with God in Christ.

The content of the Tradition is not a set of ideas – but a reality – God with us.

And this is the problem that always accompanies attempts to reach that reality through reform. It is not our reformation that is the problem in the first place. We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else. We can cooperate with union with Christ.

Invariably, the great stumbling block faced by various attempts to “recreate” or “rediscover” the “early Church,” is that the “early Church,” is not an historical reality. It is a present reality – not simply as the “early Church” (this is not a Biblical phrase anyway). The present reality is the same as the “early Church”: it is the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the true and living Way. It never ceased nor was overcome by the gates of Hell. It has lived and thrived in enough places to have picked up many languages, many customs, but always the same faith.

This always comes as a stumbling block, I believe, because the existence of the Orthodox Church stands as a stark witness to the True and Living God – not the idea of a God – but God. In my own conversion, I was utterly shocked by this fact. I had read about Orthodoxy for years. I agreed with it for years. I would have even readily agreed for years to everything the Orthodox Church said of itself, and yet I remained outside. When, at last, my family and I were actually received into the Church, I was staggered by the reality of God. I know that sounds strange (since I had been an ordained Anglican priest for 18 years prior to that) but such was the case. There was no longer any question about discussing God, or refining the tradition, or even debating how all of it was to be applied. I was now in the thick of things and God was reigning down in canon, text, Bishop, sacrament, penance, sight, sound, rubrics (which I could not begin to fathom at first) – everything!

Thus, I surprised friends constantly in my first year or so of Orthodoxy when they asked me what was the most important thing about my conversion. My constant reply (to this day) was: the existence of God.

This, somehow, is the content that sets the Tradition apart from all discussions of appropriating tradition, etc. You do not appropriate something whose content is God. You are Baptized into it. You are Chrismated into it. You are absolved for ever having lived apart from it. You are fed it on a spoon. You are splashed with it. But you cannot appropriate it. To paraphrase: Your life’s to small to appropriate God.

Thus many in our time stand at the edge of Tradition. I have written that it is all really about Being – and it is. Thus it is worth going over the edge, to cross from thinking about God, to being plunged into the heart of it all. Frighteningly, it will come complete with Bishops whom you like and whom you despise – with stories of contemporary saints – and encounters with contemporary sinners. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. What else can a man do?

Orthodox Dialog

January 2, 2009


Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is among the better known figures in English-speaking Orthodoxy. One of the Greek Orthodox hierarchs in Britain, he is an articulate spokesman for the Orthodox faith. In this small video he speaks about three areas where Orthodoxy in the contemporary world needs to be in “dialog” – not to learn what it does not know – but to bring the riches of Orthodox understanding to places that should be of particular concern to the Church.

What Is Man – That Thou Art Mindful of Him?

December 21, 2008

mikhail_nesterov-holy_rusIn 1839 the eighteen-year-old youth Dostoesvsky wrote to his brother: “Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.”

From Konstantin Mochulsky’s Dostoevsky: His Life and Work

A short time ago I wrote about the “soul as mystery” – the fear and wonder with which human beings are made is a given starting point for me – an assumption that must be afforded to every human being. I have already confessed my debt to Dostoevsky but I wonder, “To what extent is he a man for our time?”

He wrote in the early to mid 18th century. In many ways he was ahead of his time – prescient – able to describe the tragic forces which, if not reigned in, would destroy Europe and the modern world. Those forces were not reigned in – and the twentieth century saw the destruction of Europe in two successive world wars that spent the largest part European cultural inheritance and then engaged in an orgy of madness with the competing worlds of Nazism and Communism. For a time, the mystery of man was placed on a shelf, or trampled underfoot.

But what of our time. We are now better than a generation removed from the last of those wars. My aging father (86) has stories to tell me and I can see about me – in books and in other things – the vestiges of a passed world. There can be no nostalgia for that world. For even Dostoevsky saw its impoverishment 100 years before my father witnessed the madness that would, in time, come to pass.

I am no Dostoevsky. I am only a priest. I listen to the hearts of other moderns like myself who are struggling to be faithful to the teachings of Christ in this early part of the 21st century. We are not filled with the idealism that bordered on insanity that marked Dostoevsky’s 19th century man. Nor are we the madmen who would come later and destroy all that had been left us.

There is likely no single nor easy way to characterize the man of the postmodern West. Some believe, and some do not. Most of the great cultural forces are either economic or hedonist. If there are ideals they are the dreams of youth who find purpose in “saving a planet” they imagine to be dying.

I believe, however, that man is not infinitely malleable – we cannot, in fact, be anything we want to be. We are creatures and have a telos,an end and a purpose, that is Divinely given. Whether it haunts us just now or lies as a forgotten dream in the pages of a 19th century novelist, our purpose has not changed. The Gospel that was good news both to Galilean peasants and to a Russian intellectual, remains the same. The end and the purpose are eternal, for they are the fearful and wonderful reason of our making.

C.S. Lewis, in his The Abolition of Man, wrote of “men without chests,” describing a certain breed of modern man which had jettison his heart, having substituted false science and a devalued subjectivity for the eternal verities that had once linked human beings together in a common culture. He wrote his work in the immediate years following World War II. Nothing in our educational system has reversed the trends of which he complained. We have not regained our chests – not as a culture.

However, we have no where been commanded to change the world or to save civilization. These are things that are measured on a much larger stage of history and longer period than a single life. It is not the diagnosis of our disease that is so important as it is the medicine of our healing. The heart which must again fill our chests is not some missing part of Western Civilization but the heart of flesh that is our inheritance in Christ. It is an imperishable healing that alone can give us what we lack.

Dostoevsky – in his youth – rightly saw his life’s work and the work of every lifetime well-spent. We do well to ponder the mystery of man – for we are a mystery that is a reflection of God Himself. To know man as he truly is – one must know the God who created him.


What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:4-9)

“And For Thy Whole World”

July 10, 2008

Anyone familiar with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazovshould remember the teaching in that novel of the Elder Zossima. He states that “each man is responsible for the sins of every man,” and holds this realization as the key to the life of paradise. The great novelist is not inventing a new idea, but simply allowing one of his characters to give voice to a teaching that is essential to the Orthodox life.

We are told in a variety ways that we should pray for all, including our enemies – though the Scriptures do not always say much about how that is to be done. Many people find it hard to pray for enemies, much less forgive them.

The Tradition of the Church, particularly surrounding the life of prayer, has much to say about such prayer. The Elder Sophrony, following the Tradition of the Fathers and most specifically his spiritual father, St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, offers perhaps the most complete teaching on prayer to be found in modern writings.

His teaching is very much related to the understanding of prayer as communion (koinonia) with God (which I mentioned in yesterday’s post). But his teaching expands that communion to include communion with others and finally with the whole world. Thus, when we are praying for another, when we pray our best, it is not as one autonomous individual talking to God about another autonomous individual, but instead we speak as a Person who is in communion with the one for whom we pray, and thus their sins become our sins and we pray for them as Christ prayed for us.

The Elder Sophrony referred to this kind of prayer as hypostatic prayer  (hypostasis being Greek for Person). To exist truly as a person is indeed to exist in a state of communion with other persons (including the Tri-personal God). It is this communion that is the ground of our true being in Christ.

Elder Sophrony used the image of an “inverted pyramid” to describe the way of the Cross. Christ descended to the depths of Hades (downwards towards the point of the pyramid) and there He bore the weight and burden of the sins of all. It is this downward movement of humility that Christ invites of us when He says that “whosoever would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” We are invited into the downward movement in which we share in the “fellowship (koinonia) of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). It is in this manner and from this position that we can pray for the world. From such a position we truly have made ourselves responsible for the sins of all, just as Christ Himself “became sin that we might become the righteousness of God.”

When I visited the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, two summers ago, I found a community of monks and nuns who had been nurtured deeply in the teachings and living Tradition of Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan, and through them the Living Tradition of the Church (for they are the same). Most of the services in that monastery follow the “cell rule” of Mount Athos and consist of about two and a half hours of the Jesus Prayer, recited by different leaders, in a variety of languages.

One of the common variations I heard there was: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and on Thy whole world.” This is prayer that unites itself with the very heart of God who wills only salvation for the world, regardless of what the world wills for itself. It is prayer as communion – both with the Good God Who Loves Mankind, and with all mankind, saint and sinner alike.

Thus when we confess before communion, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ,  the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first…” it is not an exaggeration begotten of piety, but a true communion with the worst of all sinners, because we stand before Christ as Adam and all of his progeny. I am responsible for the sins of all and am thus worthy to be called, “the worst of all sinners.”

And it is in this state alone that we find the fullness of communion with God, for Christ did not come to save the righteous but sinners.