Posts Tagged ‘Thankfulness’

Life in a Sacramental World

August 21, 2012

At the ordination of a priest, the consecrated Body of Christ is placed in his hands. He is told to “Guard this!” until the coming of Christ. It is a very solemn moment – the beginning of a lifetime in which a man’s relationship to bread will never be the same. It is also something of a conversion – a movement from the secular inert character of matter towards a world of sacrament, mystery and icon. This same movement should not be restricted to the ordained priesthood – for it is the most essential element of the Christian life. All of us live in a world that is sacrament – the priesthood of the Church exists for a ministry within the Church – but humanity itself was created for a priesthood of all creation. The words directed to a priest at his ordination apply to all of us: “Guard this!”

Protestant teaching early on isolated the text in 1 Peter 2 that describes believers as a “royal priesthood,” and interpreted it in a polemical manner that negated the special character of the ordained priesthood. Many Christians today have no sense of priesthood, whether it be the priesthood of Christ or of themselves. “Priest” has ceased to have much modern meaning.

Orthodoxy holds that Christ is the one, true priest. The priesthood exercised within the Church is a participation in Christ’s priesthood. But what do we mean by priesthood in the first place? How is Christ our priest?

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins (Heb. 5:1).

The most essential act of priesthood is offering. The priest presents our offerings to God on our behalf. He gives us the blessing of God on God’s behalf. Christ’s self-offering both to the Father and to humanity is the very definition of priesthood. The focus on Christ’s sacrifice as “payment,” as well as other images, have tended to weaken the sense of offering inherent in His death. Offering, for a variety of historical reasons, has been deeply diminished from the religious consciousness of many. The inner dynamic of the Eucharist is an offering. To live the sacramental life is to live a eucharistic life, a life of offering.

For most, the word “offering” immediately invokes the image of “money.” This is not incorrect, even if it is limited. Money can certainly be an “offering,” but our thoughts on the subject probably miss the point. Money indeed has a sacramental character (as does all of creation). In  a modern culture, money is something of a sacrament of all of our activity. As Christ Himself noted, it remains the primary means by which we may know the heart (Matt 6:21). Interest in spiritual things by those who do not practice “tithing” (returning to God a tenth of what we receive) can easily become an exercise in vanity. The failure to give alms generously (as in the tithe) can reduce spiritual activity to the level of a hobby. In this matter, the Orthodox differ in no wise from the non-Orthodox. Our culture is deeply enslaved by Mammon. Moderns are deeply suspicious of all things having to do with money. We see greed everywhere around us (except within ourselves). Non-believers think of Churches as rich and despise them. The myth of Church wealth is largely just that – myth. (The place of ancient land-holdings and State support of the Church, in lands such as Greece, is a separate topic).

Generosity is more fundamental than fasting (people seem to pay great attention to the latter and little to no attention to the former). I have occasionally been told that modern welfare states have made tithing a thing of the past because our taxes now support the poor, etc. Taxes, no matter how well spent, are never a matter of offering, they are not eucharistic in nature. They are the object of coercion: no one voluntarily pays more than they forced to. What Caesar does with what belongs to Caesar is of no spiritual consequence to us. It is what is offered to God that constitutes a priestly existence.

Generosity is fundamental – but it only lays a foundation. St. Maximus the Confessor taught that “man is a microcosm”: we are the entire universe gathered into personal form. If the physicists are correct, the largest number of elements within our bodies were formed in the furnace of the stars. In the words of pop-singer, Joni Mitchell, “We are stardust.”

At the same time, we are the universe gathered into conscious form. In human beings, the universe has self-understanding and can speak. Our ability to speak is perhaps the most profoundly human thing we do. The universe exists as a gift – there is no necessity in its existence – it is created out of nothing. But in the words and volition of human beings, the gifted universe can freely offer itself back to the Giver. It is this cycle of Giver-Gift-Giving that is the heart of all priestly existence (and the true heart of the Christian faith). In Chrysostom’s liturgy the priest prays:

Therefore, I entreat Thee Who alone art good and ready to listen: Look down on me, a sinner, Thine unprofitable servant; and cleanse my soul and heart from an evil conscience; and by the power of the Holy Spirit enable me, who am endowed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this, Thy holy table, and perform the sacred mystery of Thy holy and pure Body and precious Blood. For I draw near to Thee, and bowing my neck I implore Thee: Turn not Thy face away from me, nor cast me out from among Thy children; but make me, Thy sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to Thee. For Thou art the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

…”The Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received…” This is the very depths of the Eucharist. Read through the Eucharistic liturgy and note the use of the word “offer” and its various iterations. It is an exercise in truly hearing what is being said.

To live the sacramental life is to live the life of offering.  We offer has been offered to the Receiver and the Received. To behold the Received (and the Offered) in every element and moment of creation is to see the world in its truth. This is not an exercise in the imagination or a mere interpretation of the world. The fathers teach that the pure in heart actually perceive the “Logos-ness” of creation. The relationship between Logos and His creation is true, real and substantial, not merely referential.

Modern Christians are profoundly non-sacramental. The simple statement, “We use things,” says it all. The world around us consists of things and is not perceived in its Christic relation. That this is so is only a comment on the frailty of our sinful state. That we are willing to think that this frailty is an actual description of the truth of things, however, is a comment on our perversity.

Secularism is the life of the anti-sacrament. Priesthood ceases to be a life of Offerer and Offered, Receiver and Received. In the secularized world the priest becomes something of a civil servant, a functionary. Priests are hired and fired, compared and judged. They are measured by worldly standards of effectiveness or the simple whims of parish politics. If this is the case of the ordained priesthood, then it is worse still for the priesthood of all believers. Rather than bearing the dignity of the Microcosm, the anti-sacrament modern man reduces himself to Thing and User. Users and Things cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.

Chrysostom again gives us words:

O Lord God almighty, Who alone art holy, Who accepts the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon Thee with their whole heart, accept also the prayer of us sinners, and bear it to Thy holy altar, enabling us to offer unto Thee gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people. Make us worthy to find grace in Thy sight, that our sacrifice may be acceptable unto Thee, and that the good spirit of Thy grace may dwell upon us and upon these Gifts here offered, and upon all Thy people. Through the compassion of Thine only-begotten Son, with Whom Thou art blessed, together with Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Stumbling Toward Salvation

February 20, 2012

On occasion I have written on topics that seem to scandalize readers, or certainly cause difficulty for many. Some of those topics have been articles on the wrath of God; the radical forgiveness of everyone for everything; the commonality of our life and our salvation; and various posts on giving thanks always for all things (there are others as well). I am not intentionally contrarian – I do not write in order to create any sensation (sort of). But I have a heart-felt instinct about the path of salvation and the part played by skandalon (a cause of stumbling).

Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame (Romans 9:33).

There is something about the Kingdom of God that causes us to stumble. The Kingdom is marked by scandal. Such a stumbling is inherent in the contradiction of the Kingdom. Christ’s Kingdom is “not of this world.” As such, this world stumbles as it comes in contact with the Kingdom.

I believe that the first and great skandalon is Pascha itself: Christ’s death on the Cross, His descent into Hades, and His resurrection. Indeed St. Paul describes Christ crucified as a skandalon (1 Cor. 1:23). What haunts my thoughts, however, is the rather tame shape taken by the Cross and resurrection in the mind of most Christians. Why are these things not a stumbling block for so many? Why do we so easily track our way through Christian doctrine, finding our own moral failings to be the only “stumbling” within our life? The taming of the Christian faith makes it harmless and without offense. I suspect that this phenomenon marks the conversion of Christianity into a religion – a pious activity that saves none.

Pascha runs utterly contrary to this world: from death comes Life. But this “principle” of Pascha is manifest in many other ways: we lose so that we might gain; we forgive that we might be forgiven; we love those who hate us; we give thanks where no thanks would be expected, etc. All of these actions make sense only in the light of Pascha. They are no less radical, no less scandalous.

It is this “contrarian” nature of Pascha that forms its skandalon. The “Jews” would not have found Christ’s crucifixion to be a stumbling-block (St. Paul’s description), nor the Greeks found his crucifixion to be “foolishness,” were they not contrary to all that these great cultural stalwarts expected. Pascha is not the work of man, but of God. It is the work that undoes death, hell, hatred and greed. “Let us forgive all by the resurrection” (Pascha hymn).

By the same token, the way of the Cross is the way of Pascha, the way of “contradiction” so far as the wisdom and rationality of this world are concerned. The Cross is the rationality of the Kingdom of God.

Without this contrary element, this skandalon, Christianity may be noble or kind, but it falls short of the kingdom. Our faith must not only be about doctrines concerning Christ and what He has done for us (which can easily be reduced to mere religion): our faith must be a way of living that is itself a manifestation of the Cross and resurrection of Christ – a contradiction to the world and an affirmation of the Kingdom of God.

Thus it is that I find myself drawn to those practical instances in which the Kingdom transports us into this “way of contradiction.” The radical demand that we “forgive everyone for everything” is a manifestation of Pascha, a contradiction of the way of retaliation, a proclamation that something has occurred that destroys all such debts. The same is true in the commandment to love those who hate us – nothing could be more contradictory to that which seems reasonable – but it bears witness to the “reason” of Pascha. To give thanks for all things, will take us to a place of contradiction, a place where the goodness of God is utterly triumphant, despite the deep tragedies that confront our lives.

All such gospel actions bring the skandalon of the Kingdom into true focus within our lives. They are invariably the signs that accompany the saints and the invitation to every believer to embrace the Cross and become a witness of the Kingdom.

No idea, no doctrine, no words can replace such actions – united as they are with the actions of Christ and God’s holy Pascha.

There is another rationality of our faith – but it is largely expressed in ideas and words. It’s struggle is to believe one thing and not another. But as such, it reduces our faith to simply one belief system among a world of competing belief systems. The Pascha of Christ is the end of all belief systems. With His crucifixion all human efforts to explain or understand are brought to an end. Indeed, Christ’s Pascha is the end of all things. To walk into Christ’s Pascha, is to walk into the great skandalon, the contradiction of religion and the negation of the reason of this world.

I cannot do more than to suggest such points within the gospel and then struggle to walk in them. The contradiction which we find within such points, I believe, is the very call of the gospel – that which caused Apostles to hesitate. But these very points are the points of salvation. They are the gospel birthed yet again into the world.

Giving Thanks

November 22, 2011

The act of giving thanks is among the most fundamental acts of love. It lies at the very heart of worship – in which, in the words of Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex, there is an exchange. In giving thanks we make an offering which itself is always inferior to what we have received – but which is itself an enlargement of the human heart. To live rightly in the presence and communion of God is to live in a state of constant thanksgiving. For from Him we receive all that we have – our life and existence, all good things, the hope of redemption, and the joy of communion. The offering of thanksgiving is the acknowledgement within our heart that we ourselves are not the author of any of these things, but are rather the recipients – those who receive gifts from God.

The offering of our heart in the giving of thanks is itself an act of joy and of love. It is a moving away from ourselves as the center of our existence and the recognition that our true life is centered elsewhere – in Christ Himself.

We are also the recipients of many things from others around us. No one is self-sufficient. There is no such thing as a “self-made” man. The offering of thanks is a matter of living in our right mind – the failure to give thanks, an act of insanity (unwholeness).

With all of these things in mind, the teaching of Scripture to “give thanks always for all things” becomes yet clearer. We offer thanks not “from time to time,” or “whenever we feel grateful,” but always and for all things. Such an offering is itself an act of communion, a receiving of the love of God through gratefully acknowledging His gifts. To refuse to give thanks is, for the same reason, a rupture in our communion with God.

The Holy Eucharist (eucharist=”thanksgiving”) is thus not simply a sacrament which is celebrated in the Church on an occasional or even regular basis – but a description and revelation of the truth of our life. We were created to live “eucharistically,” always giving thanks to God.

It seems to me no coincidence that St. John Chrysostom, the author of the most common Eucharistic prayer in the Orthodox Church, offered his last words as a Eucharistic offering. Exiled to the very edge of the empire by an ungrateful Emperor, St. John’s last words were, “Glory to God for all things.”


Knowing the Beautiful God

October 12, 2011

We prove God’s existence by worshiping him and not by advancing so-called proofs. We have here the liturgical and iconographic argument for the existence of God. We arrive at a solid belief in the existence of God through a leap over what seems true, over the Pascalian certitude. According to an ancient monastic saying, “Give your blood and receive the Spirit.”

Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty


I have been writing and thinking about the “unknowable God” and the “unnecessary God.” These have been but small attempts to give example and expression to what the Church does in the work of “apophatic” theology – a theology which is beyond words – one which cannot be spoken. The quote from Evdokimov’s wonderful book, given above, goes to the heart of things. He fully understands that what we know of God is not something that is subject to rational argument and proof. For God is a living God and not an idea that we can “grasp.” Salvation itself is not such an idea. Though God is utterly beyond our knowing, He has made himself known and the journey we begin towards that knowledge is transformative. To know God in the manner in which he should be known – is to find ourselves knowing in a manner that, in our sin, has been foreign to us. Both who we know and how we know are part of our salvation.

The learning involved in how we know is perhaps the most challenging of all the things we face within the faith in our modern context. For modernity itself has no language nor place for the kind of knowing involved in the Christian journey of faith. Even the meager glimpse that we have of God in our journey is of infinitely more value that the knowing that comes through mere rational consideration.

The great difficulty is the knowledge of God that is proper to the Christian journey of faith, is that is not sought as knowledge, per se. It comes to us as insight, sometimes suddenly and unexpected, but it comes as the fruit of humility and penance in our lives. The proud do not know God for we are told that “God resists the proud.” Humility is a very difficult struggle, for we learn ourselves to be lower than others rather than greater. This is a great mystery for we are surrounded by those whom we would easily judge to be less than ourselves and greater sinners than ourselves. However, in the truth that is revealed by the light of the Kingdom of God, this is simply not the case. That Holy Light reveals us to be less than others and the least worthy of God’s good favor.

This is a great mystery by most if not all objective standards – thus we must abandon such objective standards for it must be that their evidence is not the truth (or not the truth we seek). We seek the excellence within those around us, and if we then judge, we find ourselves beneath them. Only the heart can see such excellence or our own weakness in its presence.

We hate and fear our own failure when it confronts us and scurry about to find something with which to cover our mistakes. This is the scurrying of Adam and Eve as they sought to cover themselves falsely from the presence of God. Humility would embrace such God-given moments (our failures) not to shame ourselves, but because in such moments our hearts are broken and far more able to see God. I also find (sadly) that when such moments come I am easily more aware of my failure than I am of God’s presence – such is my pride.

However, God does not wish to crush us, to break us beyond all recognition. He is, after all, a kind God.

Embrace the failings that come naturally as we are humbled before ourselves and others. Flee from pride and stubbornness. Beware of being “right.” Give thanks for all things, in all circumstances, and always. God will make Himself known.

Crossing the Bar

September 24, 2011

I served a Church in the course of ministry in which a large group of my members were educated (in a way few are today), thoughtful and of an age similar to that of my parents or a few years older. They belonged to that “greatest generation,” veterans the Second World War or deeply enmeshed in the economic and military structures that swept an entire culture into a new way of being. It inevitably became my lot to listen to their stories during their last days – to hear that of their children – and finally to give voice to what I had seen and heard in a spoken word of faith that was part of the ritual of their passing.

It was not the passing of giants, though their accomplishments outstripped in many ways the generation that followed. But they were larger men and women – if only for the fact that many of them had known death far more intimately than their heirs do – and in knowing death – knew their own limits and in that humility knew God.

In the past three years, sped along by the past month, I have buried my parents with a spoken word of faith, buried my spiritual father in the figure of Archbishop Dmitri. All three of whom belonged to that larger generation. They had buried their parents and many of their loved ones. My mother and father had seen the death of war and the poverty of the Depression-Era South. There was no perfection, other than lives that were full – sometimes of joy – sometimes of hope – sometimes of the Sturm und Drang that threatened to sweep us all away.

And now I stand as witness to what I have seen and known, a challenged man who need no longer measure his existence by transient marks. Coming face to face with that transcience and the empty offerings it yields for existence, I long for a greater measure – not necessarily perceptible to anyone else – the wondrous fullness of Christ. There is nothing to be found in the past – I cannot go there and do anything other than give thanks for it all and forgive it.

The Greatness stands in this moment, in this new day. I will either join my voice with the eternal chorus of witnessing cloud, or disappear in the soundless mumble of a heart growing numb. I choose to light the candle and begin the day surrounded by icons who announce to new day, and with them lift my no longer orphaned voice. “Blessed is our God, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages.”

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 Difficult Path of Giving Thanks

February 9, 2011

The mark of a soul that loves wisdom always gives thanks to God. If you have suffered evil, give thanks and it is changed to good. He has not sinned who suffered the evil but he who has done the evil. Give thanks even in disease, lack of possessions, or false accusations. It is not we who are injured but those who are the authors of them. – St. John Chrysostom


My experience in writing and teaching about the life of thanksgiving has had a fairly consistent response. I find general agreement among readers when I write that we should “give thanks to God in all things,” meaning that we give thanks to God despite our circumstances – the relationship of thanksgiving is removed from the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

I have a completely different response when I write about giving God thanks for all things. The insane activity (or so it would seem) of giving God thanks for the cancer one has, or for the tragic death of a child or other loved one, is more than many people can bear.

How thankful should we be and for what should we be thankful?

St. Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:20 that we should be “giving thanks always for all things unto God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ,” is not ambiguous. The underlying Greek uses the construction [hyper panton] which cannot be interpreted as “in” all things. It clear means “thanks for all things.”

The quote from St. John Chrysostom given above echoes this same commandment:

If you have suffered evil, give thanks and it is changed to good. He has not sinned who suffered the evil but he who has done the evil. Give thanks even in disease, lack of possessions, or false accusations.

The scandalous nature of the commandment, to my mind, underlines its place within the Kingdom of God. Anyone can give thanks for good things, or even give thanks to God despite the bad things that surround them. But the purposeful giving of thanks for even the bad things, is repulsive. It is this very plunging into the heart of the repulsive that carries the mark of the Cross. The Cross “makes Him to be sin who knew no sin.” (2 Cor. 5:21). Where is the justice in that? There is no justice – only love. It is the same love that is “gathering together in one all things in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:10).

The life that we are called to live as Christians is the “eucharistic” life [eucharistein=to give thanks]. It is the most essential activity for humanity. In living out this calling, we fulfill the “priesthood of all believers.” That for which we cannot or will not give thanks is that which we are excluding from the Kingdom – from the possibility of redemption in Christ.

We are commanded to love our enemies (many of the fathers also teach that we should give thanks to God for our enemies).

There is no “limited atonement.” Christ is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” There is no modifying clause, nothing that delimits what sins it is Christ takes away. From an Orthodox understanding, Christ’s descent into hades (at the moment of His death) is an entrance into the whole of human sin, the fullness of our emptiness.

It is the good God who loves mankind who offers Himself on our behalf, and also makes it possible for us to be united to His offering. We become creatures of the Eucharist, and are transformed from grace to grace into the image of Christ, becoming eucharistic beings. We become what we were always created to be.

The limitations of our thanks (which is quite common) is also a limitation on God’s grace, refusing for His grace to work in all the world and for it to work in the whole of our own lives.

There is no two-storey universe of thanksgiving. We give thanks always for all things – else we risk giving thanks for nothing at all. I understand that this is a hard word for many and I do not say these things lightly. I know the pain of losing a child, of murders within my family, of tormenting disease ravaging loved ones, and all the tragedy that is common to most. And yet I have seen no other way towards healing and reconciliation other than the fullness of giving thanks as taught in the Scripture.

Glory to God for all things!

Raising a Saint

December 7, 2010

Most of us would be satisfied to raise children who remain faithful believers. It is not always an easy thing and every parent who has such a child should rejoice constantly. There is no method to raise a child to be a saint, for God alone gives the grace that results in the mystery of such wonderful lives. However that may be, I am often struck in reading the writings of St. Silouan by his stories about his father. It would seem that the most fundamental spiritual lessons are not ones he gained from an Elder, but from the simple peasant that was his father – but a simple peasant with the faith of a saint. A small example:

Let us not be distressed over the loss of worldly goods, such losses are a small matter. My own father taught me this early in life. When some misfortune happened at home, he would remain serene. When our house caught fire and the neighbors said, ‘Ivan Petrovich, your house is burnt down!’ he replied, ‘With God’s help I’ll build it up again.’ Once we were walking along the side of our field, and I said, ‘Look, they’re stealing our sheaves!’ ‘Aye, son,’ he answered me, ‘the Lord has given us corn and to spare, so if anyone steals it, it means he’s in want.’ Another day I said to him, ‘You give a lot away to charity, while some who are better off than we are give far less.’ To which he replied, ‘Aye, son, the Lord will provide.’ And the Lord did not confound his hope.

From St. Silouan of Mount Athos

There is no better way to teach a child Christianity than to actually live it – truly and from the heart. You cannot teach what you do not live. The deepest things are revealed in the simplest things.

“A Sword Will Pierce Your Soul”

November 11, 2010

The Mother of God, while bringing the Christ child to the temple, was greeted by an elderly man, the “just and devout man,” Simeon. Taking the child into his arms he spoke the well-known prophetic words of the Nunc Dimittis, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace….” He spoke as well of the child’s future, with dark tones that hinted at the suffering he would endure. He turned as well to the young Mary and said, “And a sword will pierce your own soul also.” This inner suffering of the Mother of God, a mystical communion in the suffering of her Son, is, I believe, an unavoidable communion for all who would enter the Kingdom of God.

Human beings dislike suffering and in our modern age have directed much time and money to reduce and eliminate it. It is well and good to care for one another and to use God’s world and the gifts of healing that it affords. But there is no elimination of suffering – it remains an integral part of life.

The crucifixion of Christ and His death on the Cross are not removed from His proclamation of the Kingdom of God – the Cross is an inherent and integral part of the encounter of the Kingdom with the broken and fallen world in which we live. St. John’s gospel speaks of Christ’s crucifixion as His “glorification.” In the same manner, Christians are commanded by Christ to “take up your cross and follow me.” There is no description of the Christian life consistent with the gospels that does not contain a cross.

In many ways, Christ’s ministry can be described as a continual confrontation with the suffering world. In sending out the Twelve, he charged them:

…as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give (Matt. 10:7-8).

The preaching of the Kingdom is here described as synonymous with these encounters with brokenness, disease and bondage. In answer to inquiries from John the Baptist, Christ describes His ministry in terms that are unmistakeable in their proclamation of His messiahship:

Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them (Matt. 11:4-5).

Our daily lives are not commonly marked by our victorious prayer in the face of suffering. Often, the sick remain sick, the blind remain blind, lepers remain lepers, the deaf remain deaf and the dead remain dead. Needless to say that the poor remain with us always. But such encounters and spiritual weakness in our lives are not to be excused by consigning the blind, the lepers, the deaf and the dead to the “stuff of life” – as inevitable and unavoidable parts of the natural order. In much of modernity such a consignment is not only seen as “natural” – the Kingdom itself is consigned to the “supernatural” and postponed to some later date at the end of history. Those who accuse Christians of believing in “pie in the sky, by and by,” are speaking of this displaced and postponed Kingdom – which is decidedly not the gospel of Christ.

The inauguration of the Kingdom of God – announced in the preaching of Christ – is the confrontation between heaven and earth. It is not a preaching of a Second Storey to which we may all someday go when we die – it is a frontal assault on a world which sought to declare itself as secular territory – uninhabited by God. This proclamation does not cease with the Cross and Ressurection – it is Christ’s commission to His disciples – the very life of the Church.

But the character of this proclamation continues to hold the promise that “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” St. Paul describes his hope in the faith, praying that he might have:

the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him [Christ], and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:9-11).

Nor does the great apostle see this as his own peculiar desire. At the conclusion of his expression of hope he encourages his readers to take on the same goal:

Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. (Philippians 3:15).

The Mother of God knew the communion of Christ’s sufferings at the Cross – a sword pierced her own soul. Her communion in the sufferings of Christ certainly included her grief as His mother, but far more as well. How does the grief of every mother not have some participation in the sword which pierced Mary’s soul? The grief of Mary, sanctified by its communion with the suffering of Christ, sanctifies the grief of all mothers in the same manner. It does not take away the grief, but it makes possible a transformation in which our grief is no longer the “stuff of this world,” but a communion in the Kingdom of God.

The commandment to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” remains. St. Paul certainly fulfilled this commandment according to the measure of his faith. In our own life of faith such dramatic encounters may be present as well (according to the measure of faith), but even without such encounters we must refuse to cede territory to the adversary (including the disguise of neutrality in the secular account of life). The inauguration of the Kingdom of God includes Christ’s descent into Hades. There nowhere that is off-limits to Christ’s Kingdom.

Our encounter with suffering, whether in ourselves or in others, is also a place of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not its cause, but its hope and redemption. Thus we can obey the commandment:

Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…(Ephesians 5:17-20).

It is doubtless the case that in our thanksgiving a sword may often pierce our own soul – but that, too, is a communion with Christ. In Christ it is also a communion with Mary and with all the saints who have taken up their crosses in obedience to Christ. Our souls, pierced by such a sword, groans together with all creation, awaiting the final triumph of the Kingdom. Our thanksgiving is an act of Eucharist (eucharistia=thanksgiving), a transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God. It is the fulfillment of the priesthood of all believers.

Such a life is not a freedom from suffering, but a communion in the sufferings of Christ that we might know the power of His resurrection.

Glory to God for all things!

Suffering in a One-Storey Universe

November 1, 2010

A comment on a previous post which mentioned the Biblical and patristic teaching that we should “give thanks to God for all things” has been an occasion for personal reflection – the substance of which forms this present post. For those who wrestle with the inherent difficulties of giving thanks for all things – I hope this reflection will be helpful.

The comment which occasioned these thoughts:

..I think the lines separating suffering FOR Christ/for His sake and the suffering in life as is common to ALL men have become blurred….if i suffer persecution or if i am treated unjustly for naming Christ or for righteousness sake then i partake/share in Christ’s sufferings and would have joyful reason to Thank God for it…Yet for the christian NOT ALL  suffering experienced is FOR Christ’s sake…the vast majority (if not all)of my sufferings and trials while living my life as an american christian has nothing at all to do with my being a christian but is the common ‘stuff’ of life….there is a difference.. is there not?

As I thought about this very excellent question – I began to see the familiar pattern of secular thought which marks the “default position” of our culture – for believers and un-believers alike. Secularism does not disbelieve in God, but it divides the world into separate spheres: we inhabit a natural “non-God” arena – but God may be “accessed” in prayer, etc. In earlier writings I have described this construct as a “two-storey universe.” God dwells in heaven (or somewhere) while we live here in a world which works according to its own laws, etc. Transcendent meaning and all things “religious” are thus exiled to certain moments, or certain spaces, or to events of a certain nature. Things that are not so exiled are just “the stuff of life.”

In such a scenario, suffering takes on a “two-storey” character. There are specifically difficult things to be borne for Christ’s sake – persecution and other heroic religious acts – but there is also suffering that is just the “stuff of life”: cancer, tsunamis, earthquakes, being lost in a bad economy, the death of a child or a spouse, etc. This division of the world in which some suffering is “for Christ’s sake” while other suffering carries no particular meaning at all, partakes of the same problems raised by the two-storey model in every other area it touches. One part of our life is capable of transcendence while most of our lives collapse into the banality of “stuff.” Thus most of life is meaningless and absurd. It also seems to me, that the islands of transcendence which we posit in such a massive sea of absurdity, run the risk of a constantly shrinking shoreline. Transcendent meaning has not only been diminished, but stands on the edge of extinction.

I will offer a few observations:

1. Either Christ’s Pascha (His death and resurrection) contained all of existence (including all suffering) or it contained nothing.

2. Either Christ’s Pascha has filled everything with transcendence or it has filled nothing.

3. Every event, every particle of existence is “for Christ’s sake,” or nothing is “for His sake.”

This “all or nothing” approach to Christ and His Pascha lies at the very heart of the gospel and alone represents the fullness of life in Christ.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

St. Paul’s description of Christ’s saving work is expressed in cosmic, all-encompassing terms. In Romans 8 he describes the “whole” creation as groaning in travail awaiting the freedom that comes in Christ. In the first chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul speaks in unmistakeable terms:

Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him…” (Ephesians 1:9-11).

One of the great theological aphorisms of the fathers is that of St. Gregory the Theologian, who, addressing the doctrine of Christ’s humanity, said: “That which is not assumed is not saved.” His point was that our salvation in Christ was made possible by the fact that He took upon Himself the whole of human nature.

In the same manner, all of creation would have no hope were it not for the fact that the Creator assumed creation.

The two-storey approach to the world also creates a two-storey approach to our salvation. Those acts which have significance and transcendence are ultimately connected with human choice. Thus Christ dies for our sins (our wrong choices and actions). Actions which are not “wrong” thus have no need of redemption. Cancer caused the our choice to smoke, might thus be seen as a redeemable suffering – but the mindless, meaningless suffering of a childhood cancer cannot partake of that redemption. It is simply absurd within a two-storey universe.

I would readily grant that the suffering and evil which we encounter within the created order has the character of absurdity – but this is also part of its very character. If “all things are being gathered together in Christ,” then even absurdity is being gathered into Him – and in that union ceases to be absurd.

The Orthodox approach to the saving action of Christ has always had a very all-encompassing approach. The redemption of the world is not isolated to Christ’s death on the Cross (as payment for sin), but begins with His incarnation, when the Creator unites Himself to creation. That same Creator is crucified on the cross, and within Him all creation is crucified. The same Christ takes all of creation with Him in Hades and raises it together with Him in the resurrection. “That which is not assumed is not saved.” All is assumed.

The role of the human will (in its acceptance of Christ) is not insignificant in our salvation – but the will chooses or rejects what Christ has already accomplished. The ultimate outcome of those choices are known to God alone. However, God’s will is clear: He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

The great mystery of the suffering of Christ cannot be confined to a forensic account in which His death is simply a payment for sin. The Scripture and the fathers’ understanding of Christ is far more cosmic. Evil is inherently absurd and meaningless (for God is the only source of good and meaning is always relative to Him). But Christ has taken that absurdity into Himself and ultimately transforms it. It is the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection of Christ that make thanksgiving possible – including thanksgiving for all things. Christ is the Eucharist (thanksgiving) of the world and every act of thanksgiving finds its fulfillment in Him.

The world is not broken into sacred and profane. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory,” the angels sing in Isaiah’s great vision. The glory they behold is nothing other than the life of Christ which offered “on behalf of all and for all.”

For which I give thanks.