Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Like Jonah In The Whale


“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”
Thomas Merton

I am reading Jim Forest’s biography of Thomas Merton: “Living With Wisdom.” I have never read any of Thomas Merton’s work. It seems my journey has led me through communities that were not Merton readers. I knew people who read Merton, but they always seemed to be people who were on a path quite different from mine. Consequently, I early on developed a distrust for Merton (having never read him myself). There is, for me, a stinging irony in this, for I developed this distrust for Merton during a period of my life in which I somewhat prided myself in not rejecting an idea before I understood it. During that period of my life I read a great deal of what is called “theology” from perspectives as far ranging as Evangelical to liberation and “God is Dead,” and from feminist and gay perspectives to the Institutes of Calvin. But Thomas Merton I didn’t bother reading. What a pity.

I am only halfway through the biography. Merton has now become a Cistercian monk and become successful in his writing (about 1949). Throughout the book, Jim Forest highlights interesting quotations in the margins that give a flavour of Merton’s reflections on or during the season of his life that is being discussed in the main text. One of the quotes sent me into a reverie, and I felt I had to write about it. This quote seems perfectly to capture how I and perhaps many of us experience our inner life. The quote is this: “I find myself traveling to my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

This metaphor of Jonah is quite fitting for my experience. I resist God thinking that I know better, thinking that things should be reasonable, make sense, should  line up. It is as if reason and a sense of “how things ought to be” is the ship on which I flee God’s ridiculous (in my eyes) calling. It is not so much that I know God wants me to do a certain thing like “go preach to Niniveh” and I don’t want to do it (although that can sometimes be the case). Rather, most often, it is that I cannot be at peace with where I am right now and with how things are right now. I can’t accept that God is present right now in this mess and that it is here that He has called me to trust Him. It doesn’t make sense to me. I want to be on the ship where everything makes sense, where everything fits into a plan that I understand. However, instead, I have been thrown into the sea and swallowed by Paradox as by a great fish.  

I am trapped amid many paradoxes, as in the belly of a sea monster. I am a priest and the father of a community, yet I am also married and have a wife and family of my own. I am looked to as a spiritual father, yet I am an infant when it comes to spiritual things. I am surrounded by great pain and great beauty at the same time. I say one word and it sets someone free, and to someone else my words are only annoying—and I seldom can tell the difference. I strive to live as an ascetic and friend of the poor, but I reside in a million dollar house. I love to rise early and pray, but I also like to stay up late to watch football. I am trapped in the belly of a monster called Paradox.

In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the sea monster plays a significant role. It is the theme of the sixth of the nine odes that are always sung at matins. And particularly, Jonah’s prayer (2:3-10), is read every Friday morning (in monastic contexts): “I cried aloud in mine affliction unto the Lord my God, and He hearkened unto me; out of the womb of Hades You heard my cry and my voice.” When we are swallowed by a sea monster (literally or figuratively), we find ourselves in the womb or the belly of Hades. I imagine that I am not the only person who can relate to this.

Another important liturgical aspect of Jonah’s experience in the sea monster is that it is a type of Christ’s descent into Hades and resurrection on the third day. On Holy Saturday, we read the entire book of Jonah along with other Old Testament passages during the vesperal Liturgy while the baptisms are taking place. We descend into the water of baptism and are swallowed by the deep—just as Jonah was swallowed by the sea monster. And then three times we rise again in the Resurrection of Christ—just as Jonah was spat forth from the sea monster “like a babe from the womb,” or so the Paschal canon puts it. We die and rise with Christ in Baptism, but our Baptism is not the end of the story. Like much in the Orthodox liturgical tradition, things repeated thrice signify a pattern of life. Baptism is an initiation into a life of dying and rising, a life of finding oneself enclosed in the depths of Hades, in the belly of Paradox, only to cry out to God there, from the midst of the monster, from the depths of Hades. We cry out to God in the midst of the pain and the paradoxes that make up our life.  

We have no clean life or straight path to offer God, nothing reasonable or neat. We have to pray here, where we are now. We cannot wait to pray. We cannot wait until things are better, until we better ourselves. We have tried and we know that we cannot fix ourselves, much less can we fix the craziness of the network of relationships and responsibilities we find ourselves in, the paradoxes that have swallowed us. Like Jonah, we can only cry out from the belly of the sea monster, the womb of Hades, and wait, wait for God to save us.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos said famously, “Keep your mind in Hell, and despair not.” I think one of the Hells (or perhaps a better way to put it is one aspect of Hell) that he is referring to is the monster of the life that has swallowed us, a life full of pain and paradox. The Hell of our life is real. We cannot pretend it is not a mess. But the Resurrection is real too. God is real. Prayer is real—even, perhaps especially, from the belly of a sea monster. “How long O Lord, how long?” This is the prayer of the Psalmist and the Prophets, and it is the prayer of the saints in the book of Revelation: How long O Lord?  


The scripture says that a day with the Lord is as a thousand years. We cannot put God on our time schedule. What does three days in Hades feel like? How long does it last? How long,O Lord?  Ours is to pray and wait: to pray and wait and hope. And hope is often nothing more than a stubborn refusal to give in to despair. And yet there is mercy.  There is beauty amid the ashes.  There are moments when hope even buds into something that looks strangely like faith.  God is good, even in tragedy.  Mercy is present, even in suffering.  Jesus descended into Hell so that we would know that there is no place where His presence is absent: not even in the belly of a sea monster, not even in a life full of pain, not even in a life full of paradox.  In fact, as with Jonah, it is this very sea monster that we find ourselves trapped in that is carrying us to the place God wants us to be.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Surviving The Valleys

Homily 70

One of the realities of created life in this fallen world is variableness, according to St. Isaac the Syrian.  Variableness is the reality of change, both good and bad. In a sense, you can say that this variableness of life is what mankind chose (and continues to choose) in the Garden of Eden by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Life as we know it is a varying experience of both good and evil, pleasure and pain, joy and sadness.  Even in our relationship with God, we experience mountain tops and valleys, or what some of the Fathers refer to as the abundance of Grace and the withdrawal of Grace.  

Of course, in a very important sense, abundance and withdrawal of Grace refer our experience. Our experience of abundance and withdrawal of Grace does not mean that God is any less present in our lives. God is present in the abundance of Grace and in the withdrawal. Nonetheless, the mountain tops and valleys of our spiritual life are often quite troubling. Each new valley brings us again to our knees as we wonder if we have made any progress whatsoever in our spiritual life, if we have taken even one step nearer to God. When we are on the mountain top we think we have finally made it, that we have finally acquired a bit of the Grace of God. When we are on the mountain top we rejoice in the ease of prayer, the nearness of peace, and we marvel at the sense of compassion for the whole creation (and even our enemies) that seems to flow through us. That’s the mountain top. 

On the mountain top we don’t want to remember that the valley is coming. We don’t want to remember that everything that seems so easy and the Grace that seems so near now will change. In a little while prayer will be difficult again and Grace will not seem so near. Variation: this is St. Isaac’s word for it. And St. Isaac tells us that variation will be with us until the grave. It is the way of salvation for us in this fallen world. When we don’t realize this, valleys can seem unbearably low—largely because we don’t think we should have to pass through them, because we think something is wrong, because we wrongly thought we had things pretty much figured out, back on the last mountain top (so many months or years ago).   

However, there is a way to level out our experience of the mountains and valleys, the good and the evil of this life.  For St. Isaac, it is called repentance. Repentance keeps us from assuming too much on the mountain tops and from losing prayer and the nearness of God in the valleys.  Repentance for St. Isaac does not refer to a change of behaviour, as we generally think of it. For St. Isaac repentance refers to prayer itself: “continual, intense…prayer filled with compunction.” We repent when we remain in (or return to) prayer.  

Prayer is a habit born of effort (you really do have to make yourself do it) and a continual awareness of the nearness of God (whether you feel it or not) coupled with a continual awareness of your own frailty, or changeability, or variability—what I often refer to as brokenness. Like a broken cup, I cannot hold the Grace God gives me. Like a broken wheel, I cannot continue straight in the path God has set for me. Like a broken record, I can’t stop repeating in my mind what I should have forgotten long ago. And like a spoiled child, I cannot stop thinking about myself: what I like and what will make me happy. My body is continually slipping out of my control, my eyes and ears and appetites wandering where they should not be. My brokenness is so obvious, yet I continually forget that I am broken. I forget that I am broken and so I forget to pray. And in my forgetfulness I think I have things pretty well under control, and my attention wanders everywhere: everything is important and interesting to me except the One Thing Needful. 

This knowledge of my own brokenness is the source of compunction. Compunction literally means “with piercing.”  Compunction is a pain, sometimes literal, or nearly literal, in our heart or mind caused by our awareness of our brokenness—both our own personal brokenness and the brokenness we share with all humanity and that is manifest in the pain and suffering of the world. Compunction with the awareness of the nearness of God (felt or not) leads to intensity of prayer, or what St. Isaac simply calls repentance.  

Repentance, or this way of continual, intense and compunction-filled prayer, is something we need “throughout the twenty-four hours of the night and day” according to St. Isaac. It is prayer that can be expressed in all sorts of prayers. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can be expressed in the Jesus Prayer or some similar prayer as we call out to Christ in our hearts even while we must also be doing other things with our minds and bodies. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can be expressed through akathist hymns or daily prayers. It can be expressed through prayerful attention in matins or vespers and especially in the Divine Liturgy. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can even (and perhaps sometimes best) be expressed through the silent cry of the heart for help and the silent longing of the heart for wholeness, salvation, and deliverance for ourselves and for those we love and for the whole world.  

When we pray with compunction, with the knowledge of our brokenness and the awareness of our changeability, when we pray this way all of the time, then it is easier to stay a little longer on the mountain top without our mind constructing false structures of permanence (like St. Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration trying to make permanent that which was meant to be only a taste, a glimpse into the Age to Come). And when we pray with compunction the valleys are never quite so low, because the comfort promised to those who mourn is near at hand. And the suffering is somehow lessened because the valleys become more familiar to us because we know we have walked this way before and will walk this way again, because the tears of repentance and the pain of compunction no longer surprise us, but are our old friends, our companions on the journey through this transient age and into the Age to Come, into the Age in which all sickness, sorrow and sighing will flee away.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Signs of Forward Motion


In homily 67, St. Isaac gives some signs or markers to help the monk discern whether or not he or she is actually progressing in their spiritual life.  It seems to me that these markers apply as well to those struggling in the world as to those struggling in a hermitage.

Progress in developing the habit of attention, or what St. Isaac calls “moving forward intelligently,” is discerned by certain markers, just as “heedlessness” in this matter is also discerned by certain other markers.  Heedlessness means that you are not paying attention to divine Grace (the "leaven" planted in our hearts), but rather are attending to scattered thoughts.  The six markers of heedlessness are the following.  Please note: one can experience aspects of both sets of signs in one’s life.  This only means that although we are on the way, we still have far to go.  These signs are not in any particular order.

Signs of Heedlessness
  1. “You secretly feel in yourself that you are weak in your faith”  St. Isaac clarifies that by “faith,” he is not referring to credal faith, but rather to “the noetic strength that steadies the heart by the light of [noetic] understanding...so that...she casts her cares on God.” So a sign of spiritual heedlessness is the inability to cast one's cares on the Lord.
  2. “You covet visible things.”  (Position, Power, Possessions, Property, Privilege, Prestige)
  3. “Your confidence wanes.”  He means here confidence in God.  If your confidence has been based on things that pass away (your own strength, intelligence, the correctness of your rational understanding of things, or any of the six P's listed above), then you will experience a loss of confidence on the way to learning to place all of your confidence in God.  
  4. “You are being harmed by your neighbour.”  St. John Chrysostom says that no one can harm you unless you let him.  When I feel harmed by what my neighbour does or says against me, it is because I have become heedless of spiritual things.  The Martyrs of Christ are able to love those who persecute them precisely because their enemies cannot harm them--cannot harm them so long as their eyes, the eyes of their heart, are fixed on Jesus.
  5. “Your whole soul is taken up with fault-finding in mouth and heart against every [person] and [in] every matter...even agains the Most High Himself.”  For me, this is the sign that is easiest for me to recognize in myself.  As soon as I notice that my mind is focused on picking out what is wrong with others, what they are doing or saying, then I know: my heart has wandered from Grace.
  6. “From time to time, your soul is shaken by fear so that you are terrorized.”  

These are the signs, according to St. Isaac, by which we can discern that we have been heedless in our inner life.

The signs by which we can discern that we are “moving forward” in our spiritual life are the following. 

  1. “You are strengthened in your hope, and you are enriched by prayer.”  When we experience hope (not necessarily in a given situation, but in God’s providence and love regardless of the situation) and we experience blessing, Grace, or encouragement in prayer, then we know that we are moving forward on the right path.
  2. “The material of profit is never absent from your mind in everything you meet.”  When we are moving forward in God, then we can find Grace and spiritual encouragement in anything we encounter.  Trees can speak to us.  What we see, what we notice, what we encounter, anything can become spiritually profitable to us when our minds are attending to the Grace in our hearts.
  3. “You have an awareness of the frailty of human nature; and on the one hand, by [this knowledge] you are kept from pride, and on the other, your neighbor’s faults are set at naught in your eyes.”  When you are growing in your relationship with God, you acquire a growing knowledge of human brokenness and sin, and specifically of your own brokenness and sin.  This is a gift of the Holy Spirit enabling you to become humble and to forgive the sins and offenses of others.
  4. “You long for departure from the body by reason of your aspiration for the [state] in which we shall live in the age to come.”
  5. “All of the afflictions that befall you openly and in secret you find to be rightly yours, all having descended on you precisely so as to keep you from conceit.”
  6. “For all of these things (afflictions) you render confession and thanks to God.”

These are the signs or markers by which we can discern that we are moving forward in our relationship with God.

In English, we talk about knowing something about ourselves, but St. Isaac uses the word “discernment.”  This is an important distinction.  Our inner life is full of bent mirrors, old tapes and perverted images.  We cannot know it easily or well.  However, we can discern certain things.  We can discern that we are tending too far to the left (indulging the flesh) or too far to the right (unfruitful rigorism).  We can discern signs that suggest that we have been heedless to our inner life, and we can discern signs that encourage us to persevere in our spiritual disciplines, in acquiring the “habits” of inner attention that allow us to attend to the “leaven” of Grace that has been placed in our hearts.  

Those earnest for the spiritual life are often distressed because it seems to them that they are making no progress, but are actually getting worse.  And in a certain sense, this is how it should be--not that they should be distressed, but that they grow in the perception of their own sin and brokenness.  Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, when He comes, convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgement.  Consequently, one of the evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit in your life is that you are convinced more and more of your sin, lack of righteousness and of the just judgement of God.

St. Issac says (in homily 66) that we do not understand that we have “been accounted worthy of divine Grace and dispassion of soul” from a cessation of unseemly thoughts of various kinds nor from easy victory over such thoughts, nor from states of “lofty” thought that is entirely unsoiled and unshaken.  This is not how we understand (or know) that divine Grace has been granted to us.  How then do we know or understand the experience of divine Grace and dispassion?  St. Isaac says that rather than by an absence of such unseemly thoughts, one knows he or she is experiencing dispassion and divine Grace by the fact that when such thoughts occur, one does not engage them, one does not “wage war with unseemly thoughts and crush them.”  Rather than waring against such thoughts, the mind of one experiencing divine Grace and dispassion is “caught away” by the habit of mental prayer.  The “leaven” of Grace that abides in the heart and that is by “habit” the focus of the mind’s attention, this leaven does not let the mind attend to the unseemly thoughts that bombard the mind,  According to St. Isaac, such unseemly thought will continue to assail us so long as the mind is in a body of fallen flesh.  


The victory over unseemly thoughts and the evidence of divine Grace and dispassion is that we ignore such thoughts and that our attention and focus remain on the “leaven” of Grace which through habit we have trained ourselves to attend to.  Or, as in my case, I am just beginning to learn how to attend to.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What Does God Expect From Us?


What does God expect from us?  God expects everything.  However, God’s everything and ours are not usually the same.  When we think of giving God everything, we often think God only wants the worthy stuff, the aspects of our life that are not so broken, not so messed up.  When we think of giving God everything, we think God is not interested in the bad stuff, the dark areas of our life.  As someone recently asked me (with both sarcasm and despair), “why would God want my life?”  

God wants our lives because it is all that we have to give Him.  Whatever we imagine our lives should be, we don’t have to give Him.  Whatever we imagine God would want from a life, we don’t have either.  All we have is what we are: awkward and messy, sinful and unworthy.  What we are is what we have, and that’s what God wants us to give him. That’s the everything God wants from us.

Why does God want it?  God wants it because He’s the only one who can fix us, if only we would let Him.  Like children tinkering with a broken toy that we cannot fix, we tinker with our lives: trying one thing then another, improving a little in one area and failing miserably in others.  God waits, patiently and with longing, for us to give up and let Him have our mess.  The Father knows how to fix the broken mess of our lives.  


How do we give God everything?  That is something known and learnt in the doing of it.  

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Spiritual Discernment In The Fog, At Night, and Without My Glasses



Passions are like some hard [dark] substances that, standing in the midst between the light and vision, prevent the latter from discerning the difference of things.
St. Isaac the Syrian  Homily 66

St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of noetic vision as natural knowledge, that is, knowledge of God, of one another and of created things that human beings in a healthy (not sinning) state would know, not rationally (by deduction) but by seeing with their noetic eyes, the eyes of their soul or mind.  In English we might refer to this kind of knowing as intuition or as spiritual knowledge, or we might use a phrase like “knowing something in your heart.”

St. Isaac likens this noetic or spiritual vision to physical sight.  Just as there are many factors that either enable or interfere with one’s ability to see things with the physical eyes, so there are many factors that influence our ability to see spiritually--what St. Isaac calls discernment.  

The two essential factors in spiritual sight, or discernment, are a sound mind (nous) and Grace, which is “the sun that enables discernment.”  I cannot help associating “sound mind” with 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind (or self-control, sofronismos).  A sound mind, a healthy mind, is one that is under control.  Bringing our minds under control is healing our minds--it’s the same thing.  But if our minds continually wander and are easily caught up in arguments and “high things”(c.f. 2 Cor. 10:5 and Psalm 131:1), then no matter how much God shines His Grace upon us, our spiritual sight, or discernment, will be corrupt, fuzzy, and just plain wrong--like a blind man in full sunlight trying to guess the colour of the flower he smells.

A healthy mind is necessary for discernment, but so is Grace.  Grace, the light from God, does not always shine with the same intensity in our lives.  That is, sometimes God withholds a certain amount of Grace.  (Of course, God never completely withdraws His Grace, for then all creation would cease to exist.)  God may withdraw Grace for many possible reasons--or for no reason that reason can comprehend.  God is God.  However, one reason St. Isaac mentions for the withdraw of Grace is “stinginess,” and he even quotes a verse from the (Syriac) Old Testament: Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Wisdom of Sirach) 14:3 “Riches are not comely for a stingy man.”  

Riches here refer to the Grace of God, but stinginess, what can that be referring to?  After all, St. Isaac is a hermit writing to other hermits.  I don’t think he is referring to sharing your grace-filled insights with others.  In fact, I’m certain that is not what he is referring to because elsewhere he repeatedly exhorts his readers not to leave their cell on the pretext of edifying someone.  What then can this stinginess be referring to?  My best guess is that it is a reference to trying to save one’s own life (c.f. Matt. 16:25).  When we try to save our life, we lose it.  The riches of Grace are not comely for a person who is stingy with his or her life--trying to save it, not willing to lose what she or he thinks is important, not willing to die (spiritually) in secret, not willing to give up the delusion of control.  It is not comely for God to pour out much Grace (spiritual light) on those who hang on to life in this world (as it is) in a stingy manner, not wanting to give this paltry worldly existence completely over to God, not willing to let go in their hearts.

If this is what St. Isaac means, then no wonder I am so spiritually dense.  I am nearly blind wandering by the light of a crescent moon and a few stars.  Maybe the moon is the Theotokos, our Mother, shining with the reflected light of the Sun (Her Son), and the stars are the saints praying for us, the meandering ones.  But even the crescent moon and the stars are enough light to walk a well-trodden path.  It’s not enough light to see very far down the path or to see much of what’s off the path; but it is enough to put one foot in front of the other.  I know this is true physically for I have hiked in the dessert and mountains at night--it is possible, so long as the trail is well trodden.

I guess this is one of the main reasons why we need the Church--the well-trodden pathway to Christ.  St. Mary of Egypt gave herself completely to God and thus experienced tremendous Light, and as her mind healed, was able to live in the desert with God and without any direct, physical contact with the Church for 37 years (or was it 47, I don't remember).  I, however, hold back so much.  I fear so much.  Except for brief moments, my mind is a busy intersection of thoughts going this way and that.  It would not be comely for God to shine the riches of His Grace too brightly on me.  But I don’t despair.  I have a well-trodden path to follow.  I have enough Grace to see what is before me today: to say my prayers today, to control myself today, to manage my schedule so that I can go to Church on Sunday to receive the Precious Body and Blood of Christ.  One day at a time, one step at a time, through the prayers of our Immaculate, Most Blessed, and Glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary and all of the Saints.  One day at a time.

St. Isaac speaks of other ways our spiritual vision is obscured.  Passions, he says, are like dark objects or clouds that come between the Grace of God and our minds (our spiritual eyes).  God may be pouring out His Grace abundantly on us, but because of our passions, we cannot see a thing.  I have hiked mountain passes that were shrouded in fog so thick that you could barely see your own feet--a dangerous state of affairs when the wrong move can send you plummeting several hundred feet.  This is what the passions do to us spiritually.  God may be giving us all of the Light possible, like the midday sun, but our passions shroud us like a thick fog and we make stupid mistakes and are easily seduced off the trail to our own (and other’s) hurt.

Another factor affecting discernment is ability.  That is, just as people with healthy eyes still have different abilities, so people with healthy minds still have differing abilities (remember, St. Isaac is writing in the 7th century, before anything was known about lenses and how the eye actually works).  There are one talent, two talent and five talent minds.  Not everyone has the same capacity for spiritual discernment.  What’s important is not how much or how little one sees or knows in their hearts.  What’s important is what they do with what they do see and know, how their knowledge of God leads them to repentance, how their knowledge of God leads them to surrender everything--rather than trying to save their own life like the servant who buried his talent because he was afraid.

Other factors that influence one’s discernment are  “the hinderances of times, places, and means.”  This is referring, I think, to the seasons and circumstances of life.  A parent raising small children is laying down her or his life in an very Christ-like way, but not in a way conducive to developing the inner life and prayer to a large degree.  It is a season. It is a season during which desire and longing can build so that when the season changes, longing and desire will lead you into the life of prayer that you have been longing for.  But even as a busy parent (or business person or auto mechanic or school teacher or nurse), just the longing itself and the mere desire for prayer and peace and stillness have a wonderful way of creating opportunities even in the midst of the zaniness, like a quiet park in the middle of a city.  The inner hermit in the cell of your heart can pray even while the “wild beasts” roar around you.


There are other factors too that St. Isaac mentions affecting our ability to develop the knowledge of God.  A weak will, the lack of a spiritual father or mother, a disposition (temperament or personality) not suited for spiritual pursuit.  None of these are unchangeable conditions.  God’s in the miracle business.  But we all have to begin where we are, with the limited ability and Grace we have, to seek to know, to long to know, to strive to give our lives to God.  If we do our part, God will take care of the rest.   If we follow what we know, maybe God will reveal to us some of what we do not know.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Heaven and Hell and Repentance (on the bus)


"He condescends to our infirmity and reveals Himself to Thomas, but He does not conceal the truth: 'Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.'"
Archimandrite Vasilios

There is nothing like a day on public transit to reveal your poverty.  Brokenness everywhere calling to my own inner brokenness.  Thoughts stray in increasingly unhealthy directions.  I am disgusted with myself, for a while.  And then I begin to see my arrogance, my self righteousness.  Why do I assume that I would be better than this, I ask myself.  And so on the bus, crowded by hurt, bleeding and silently screaming strangers, I begin to beg mercy.  I enter the cave of my heart as much as I can and beg: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner."

And then in a moment, a brush with Grace.  I come somewhat to my senses.    God condescends, again.  He condescends to be with me, to be with us, to be with the desperate woman before me and the angry man next to me, to be with the worried mother clinging to her baby on my other side and the frightened student behind me.  He comes to be with us. 

I cannot know what others experience in this moment, a faint scent of Paradise on the bus.  I experience a moment of peace.  A brief respite from the bombardment of thoughts.  And I sense a little window into reality, into myself, the truth that Jesus comes into my hell, our hell; and I am reminded that I am the one who turned away.  I am the one who wanted to wander in "a foreign land."

There is no hell too low or wickedness so perverse that our loving Lord will not (and has not) condescended to be with us in.  No matter where, no matter when, no matter how far we have fallen or how messed up we are.  Christ comes to us.  But he always comes with the truth, the truth about ourselves and the truth about reality.

Jesus came to Thomas in his doubt and allowed Himself to be probed by one who could be saved no other way.  Jesus came, but He did not conceal the truth: "Blessed are those who have have not seen and yet believe."  Jesus came to the Samaritan, in her immorality, in her heretical religion. Jesus comes to all who are willing to receive Him.  He condescends to come to us, but he always comes as Truth.  He comes to the Samaritan and also tells her the truth: "for salvation is of the Jews..."

Jesus comes to us where we are and calls us to move toward Him, to repent, to recognize the the brokenness and to call  it what it is.  

And then I am distracted again....

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Unity Through Freedom


Archimandrite Vasilios in the booklet, I Came That They May Have Life, And Have It Abundantly, Available from Alexander Press, makes this statement: “The open door that leads to freedom is the same one that leads to unity." The powerful irony here is no less true for being ironic.  Unity only comes in freedom. The Inquisition of the late Middle Ages and the Communist movement of the 20th century should be sufficient for us to prove at least that coercion does not bring unity.

Archimandrite Vasileios makes this statement in a discussion of Jesus as the Shepherd and as the Door: “I am the door of the sheepfold,” Jesus says. Jesus is the door of freedom that leads to unity.

Unity is extremely important, important not only for the practical reason that we can get very little done in the world if we are continually fighting with one another, but it is also important because Jesus both prayed for and commanded that we be one. But like everything else in the Kingdom of Heaven, the way is the thing. How we become one is more important than that we seem to be one because we can never be truly united by external, worldly means.  Just as many of the first are last and the last are first in the Kingdom of Heaven, so unity only comes about through freedom--the freedom in Christ, the freedom of love, the freedom of self sacrifice and letting go of our illusion of control over others (dying to our visions and plans and ideas of what aught to be to let become what is).

On the family, parish, diocesan and the catholic (universal or ecumenical) levels, the only path to unity is to lovingly let go. The Father of the prodigal son let go of His son and received him again. They had to suffer, the Father more than the son, so that the son could freely choose the Father’s home. The older son did not suffer, except in his own mind, except in the fantasy of his own sense of justice--not receiving even a goat from his employer (notice the older son never calls Him Father), even while a whole fatted calf has been slaughtered and is waiting for him to share in. The older son’s suffering was caused by an idol, a mental image of justice and equality, of “what is right,” that would not let him rejoice in what was true, beautiful and life-giving. The older son could not let go, he could not set his brother free from his expectations of what should be. The younger son had to suffer to “come to himself.”  But the older brother did not know this. He could not conceive of the possibility that someone might have to fall in order to rise.  

And the older son could not even grant his Father freedom to be Father. He could not set his Father free from his own understanding of things, of the way things ought to be. And because he bound his Father in his own mind to his own logic, the older son even lost his Father. Although the Father came out to him, as He did for the younger son, the older son cannot see him as Father, only as employer, only as an employer who is unfair. Love is seen by the older brother as injustice.

I wonder how often I am like that older brother?  How often does my vision of what is right become my own stumbling block to apprehending what is true and life-giving, that which creates unity? How often do I bind in my mind those I should set free to be themselves? How often do I fail to see God as He comes out to me (in the Liturgy, in prayer, in the person of those around me) because in my mind I have not set God free, but keep Him bound by the logic, justice and expectations I have put on Him?

Judas was a disciple, but he entered hell before Pontius Pilate; and Thief entered Paradise before any of the disciples. Judas thought he knew what Jesus should do. He was offended at the waste of the perfumed oil that could have been sold and the money given to the poor. He could not die to his own expectation, his own logic, his own sense of justice; and thus, he could not see Jesus the God-man even as He washed his feet and dipped His bread together with him at the Last Supper. The Thief, on the other hand, said simply, “remember me.” In a single moment, as the hymns of Holy Week tell us, the “Wise Thief became worthy of Paradise.” He did not come with an agenda. He did not have a plan, a better way, the right understanding of how it ought to be done. The Wise Thief brought only faith, trust, and a humble and contrite heart. He knew he had nothing to offer. The King was free to remember him in His Kingdom however He saw fit.

I must confess, that I am much more like Judas than I am like the wise thief. Perhaps I am not the only one. Perhaps this why we review the story of Judas and the Wise Thief every year: to remind us. To remind us zealous ones who actually attend the services of Holy Week of the fate of Judas, Judas the disciple who thought he knew the way things ought to be. And to remind us of the Thief who had nothing but the plea: “remember me.”


Unity in the home or in the ecumene is a gift, it is Paradise. Unity will never come to us so long as we think we know, so long as we have an agenda, a restriction that we feel we must put on others. Rather, like the Wise Thief, we have to die together with Christ on the cross, the cross of trust in God’s power to save both us and others through freedom, the cross of letting go of our idols of how “it ought to be done.” And as we die, we must continually whisper to the One who changes hearts and bring prodigals to their senses: “Remember me, O Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.”

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Getting Started In Psalmody


In response to a recent blog post on psalmody, someone wrote to me asking for advice on getting started (i.e. for a prayer rule). Now ideally, one should go to a flesh-and-blood spiritual father or mother and get this advice. You really need someone who knows you well and can guide you along the way. However, the reality is that many people do not have such a person in their lives—or at least they do not recognize the person who is there. In either case, the result is the same: you don't know where to begin. Spiritual life is a matter of growth. You cannot begin where you should be, you can only begin where you are. And you can't wait until the conditions are ideal. You have to begin with what you have and where you are. As you grow, you will see more clearly and you will be able to discern more often what resources God has already put in your life that you perhaps had not noticed before, or have just heretofore ignored or dismissed. No worries. We are all works in progress. The most important thing is to begin. 

When asked to suggest a prayer book, I usually suggest the one produced by All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Church. You can get it on-line or order it for about five dollars plus shipping.  

Below is a link to the Psalter in pdf. You can take it to any printer and have in printed on half-page sheets and spiral bound for about $20. This Psalter was produced by some monks who actually keep the traditional monastic rule (not all monks do), so this Psalter has been read out loud literally hundreds of times before it was finally made available. The translation is their own, comparing both the Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) texts and the texts as they are used in the services of the Church. (BTW, that's what the italics means in this Psalter. It means that the verse is quoted in the Church services—as that particular monastery serves them).

You will notice that the Psalter is organized according the monastic reading schedule. The entire book of Psalms is included, but organized according to the days of the week as it would be read in normal monastic practice (the entire psalter is read out loud every week, twice a week during lent [although I don’t know of any monasteries that actually do that during Lent—but that’s the “rule”]). There are 20 sections, called “kathisma” and each kathisma is divided into three “stasis.” (Kathisma means 'to sit' in Greek, because the monks would all sit while one monk stood to read—generally they would stand for the rest of the prayer service). At each stasis, the monks will stand (so that they do not fall asleep during the reading) and say the following with three low bows from the waist touching ground and making the sign of the cross (these are called “metania”).

“Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to You O God (metania)
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to You O God (metania)
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to You O God (metania)
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen.”

(The following is specific advice that I wrote to someone who asked to be guided as he begins to practice psalmody)


Now for you, however, I suggest that you begin very slowly. I suggest that you start with a few prayers from the prayer book and one stasis from the psalter. It is much, much better to be small and consistent and to grow slowly than to start with too much and give up (which is what happens to most people). From the Prayer book, I suggest that you begin with the Trisagion prayers, the morning troparia and then one or at the most two more morning prayers and follow that with one stasis from the psalter. You should plan to do this every morning (or if you pray in the evening, do the same with the evening prayers—or both morning and evening if you are able). This should be followed by reading from the Gospel, Epistle and other spiritual writings. Don’t read much. A few verses that you think deeply about is much more spiritually edifying than reading several chapters. After you have completed your daily minimum, then if you have time and inclination, you can always say more prayers or read more. The trick is to have a small enough minimum that you can do it regularly (planing for everyday but only achieving 75% is very good for most people who lead normal, unpredictable lives—but if you can’t achieve 50%, then your rule is most likely too hard for you). If you find this to be the case (less than 50% daily ability to say your prayer rule), then humble yourself and shorten your rule until you can do it consistently.

Remember, the goal is not to succeed at your rule, the goal is to use your rule as a means to know yourself, your inner life, and through this to know God.  


Psalter
https://www.dropbox.com/s/7qom6ayp25hyypi/Hermitage%20Psalter.pdf

Friday, June 06, 2014

Holding Jesus in My Arms



It had not occurred to me before that in the Icon of the Mother of God, especially in the Icons such as the Vladimir Icon and the Sweet Kissing Icon, Christ is holding on to His Mother.  The typology and doctrine of the Church is clear.  The Theotokos is the Church, or the Church is type of Mary, the Mother of Jesus; or you might even say that who Mary is, the Church is called to become.  We are all called to conceive by the Holy Spirit Christ in our hearts and to bear Him, or bring Him forth in the world.  

But this very Christ, who is God, clings to us.  God as a man, as a human child, clings to us.  It is almost embarrassing.  God becomes like a child grasping his mother, clinging, refusing to let go.  God loves us that much.

Unlike a merely human child, the God-man as child experiences no separation anxiety, no insecurity, no need for motherly comfort.  Rather, He senses our need to be loved, our need to be clung to, our need to be reassured again and again of our Father's love for us.  And this is how our Father shows us His love, by becoming our child and clinging to us, wrapping His arms around our necks and not letting go.

What condescension!  What humility!  What amazing trust in us, who continually demonstrate our unfaithfulness.  God submits to the abuse of our neglect.  God waits for us to notice Him, to come to Him, to hold Him in our arms.
But will we hold Him in our arms as Mary did?  Will we let go of other things to hold Christ?  You can't have arms full of burdens and hold Christ.  You cant have hands busy with other things and hold Christ.  You can't serve two masters.  

Of course, we don't hold Christ in our physical arms as Mary did; rather, we hold Christ with the invisible arms of our heart--by our inner attention.  What busies the invisible arms and hands of our hearts are fears, fears like balls we must juggle, keeping our mind and heart busy, consuming our attention, but going nowhere, going only around in circles, occasionally falling, but always drawing us back into the same busy circle of anxiety.  The arms and hands of our hearts are too busy to hold Jesus--who so firmly clings to us.

In my life I have responsibilities.  I have balls I have to keep in the air.  That is why the quiet time is so important.  I need to set down the balls, the responsibilities, for a little while every day.  I have to wrap my arms around Jesus--even if just for a little while.  I cannot hold on to Him very long.  I know my love is weak, my attention is scattered, my life is busy.  But He clings to me.  He clings to me waiting for the arms and hands of my heart to be empty, for me to let go internally of the juggling balls which are my responsibilities in this world so that I can hold Him.  And holding Him, even for a moment, makes all of the difference.  For a brief moment I am somewhat like the Theotokos.  For a brief moment, I am moving toward becoming the Icon I see before me.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Silence and Baseball in Chicago


First let us force ourselves to be silent, and then from out of this silence something is born that leads us into Silence itself.  May God grant you to perceive some part of that which is born of silence.
St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 64

I'm at an archdiocese convention in Chicago, in a huge hotel with hundreds and hundreds of people.  Last night, I went to a Cubs game with some of my fellow delegates.  We took the subway (E-ticket ride if ever there was one!)  Lots of shouting and cheering, moderate amounts of beer and an unbelievable "Chicago Style" hotdog.  More meetings today.  More people.

And yet, I have been thinking about silence.  I have been practicing silence--in a crowd.  I explained to someone once that a hermit is the most connected member of the Body of Christ because he or she carries the whole world in their heart.  We who are surrounded by the world, who swim in the world, have hearts that are empty, lonely and selfish.  Silence, it seems to me, functions in a similar way.  Of course, outer silence is part of the way to inner silence; but the "forcing" of silence that St. Isaac is speaking of is not talking so much about that outer silence as it is the quieting of the noise in our minds.  Forcing our thoughts to be silent, we can experience something of a birth into an even deeper Silence--the Silence which is the language of God Himself.  

Even at a busy convention one can take moments alone.  You go to your cell (room), unplug the TV and turn off your phone; or if you have a busy room, then you take a long walk or find a lonely room in the convention centre part of the hotel.  If you look, you can usually find a corner of relative external quiet somewhere.  Here you say your prayers, read your spiritual book, say the Jesus Prayer and do a few prostrations.  Here you force the mind to be quiet.  You let go of all of the world that you mentally started grabbing onto through the day.  You find, or create, the quiet place in yourself and you just stay there for a while, for a few moments, for as long as you can.  

And then you take the quiet with you into the noise.  As your attention is drawn from here to there, for person to person, from responsibility to responsibility, under it all is a kind of eson, a kind of hum of quiet, gentle remembrances from the quiet place.  Sometimes it is a feeling (faint, for sure), sometimes it is a word from your spiritual reading or an impression that came to you in prayer.  You let it re-emerge even in the midst of the hubbub.  It's your little secret thought, your secret communion with God in the midst of the city, the noise, the people.  It doesn't stay long.  As you get tired and busy and passions flare up, the quiet is hidden beneath the layers of noise.  

That's why you have to return to the quiet place.  You have to go back to your corner, go for your walk, hide in your closet...whatever it is that you do to find enough external quiet to force your mind to let go and return to the quiet.  

We can't do anything much about our situations in life.  We are where we are, and we do what we do.  God knows that.  But God also knows that there are closets, quiet places, niches, walks in the park, stolen moments in the middle of the night, God also knows that these are there for us if we want them, if we will look for them.  And God will use whatever it is that we have and whatever we offer to Him to come to us, to help us know His abiding in us.  We can't make that happen.  We can just take advantage of whatever little spaces and places and moments we can find to wait in relative quiet--Just in cast, just in case God at that moment wants to give birth in us something of the Silence that comes from silence.

One of the things I love about St. Isaac it that he speaks not only to those who achieve the heights, but also to us who slog it out in the muddy lowlands.  He prays for us.  St. Isaac prays that God would grant even us who are still in the valley, that even we may perceive some part of that which is born of silence.  You see: even a part.  A part is good.  Just because I will never be in a place in life where I can scale the lofty spiritual heights that St. Isaac knows, still I can know a part.  And as it is with the Holy Eucharist, so it is with any way God comes to us: a part of God is all of God.     

This is the mystery.  This is the irony.  I can fail and still be full, as full as I am capable of being.  God will fill my little cup if only I will make a little effort to hold it out to Him.  Sure saints have much more capacity--they have spent a lifetime purifying themselves so that they can hold more.  But whether our cups are large or minuscule, to be full is to be full.  

Silence is possible in the city--in some small part.  And a small part is huge when we are talking about God.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Compuction and Tears as Prayer

The fullness of prayer is the gift of tears.  
St. Isaac the Syrian

Growth in prayer comes through discipline and routine and the recitation of fixed prayers.  This recitation of fixed prayers, hymns and psalms is often referred to generally as psalmody or one's rule or office of prayer.  Learning to attend to psalmody can bring an experience of "sweetness." Sweetness in prayer is the term used by St. Isaac (and many other Orthodox spiritual writers) to describe peaceful joy and communion with God in prayer--or at least that is what I think he means by sweetness.  

However, psalmody is not the end, it is the means.  Psalmody is a training ground, a place where we can learn to concentrate our attention by paying attention to our thoughts in prayer.  More specifically, in psalmody we attend to thoughts and learn to control them, forcing ourselves to attend to what is true, pure, good and beautiful emerging from our hearts as we reflect on the words of the prayers and psalms.  In psalmody we also learn to attend to compunction, to feel the pain (literally, the puncture) of our heart.  This pain is the mother of the pure prayer that emerges from undistracted thoughts--what St. Isaac calls "unwandering concentrated prayer."  When this feeling overcomes us we can no longer say prayers because this unwandering concentrated prayer is the prayer that overtakes prayers.

St. Isaac says, "When prayer gives you her hand she will take the place of your office."  

Compunction is the pain of heart, or the broken and contrite heart, that God does not despise.  Sometime, however, we wonder: is the pain of heart that I am experiencing godly compunction? Are the tears the "gift of tears" that the holy Fathers and Mothers talk about?  Certainly there is such a thing as selfish tears, tears of self pity and anger.  There are also tears of laughter and sentimentality.  In my experience, it is usually easy to identify selfish tears.  What I cannot identify in my own experience are tears that are godly, that are a gift given by God and offered to God as prayer.

Tears shed in confession, for example, are they holy tears?  My heart and mind is so mixed.  I cannot tell where in myself the tears are coming from.  Do they come from my anger with myself for my lack of self control?  Do they come from my shame and embarrassment?  Do they come from a sadness that I have broken God's commands and alienated myself from Him?  I don't know.  I have stopped trying to figure it out.  Whenever I feel compunction, pain of heart, and that pain leads to tears, I offer the tears to God as prayer.  Sure it is impure prayer.  All of my prayer is impure.  There is nothing pure in me.  Yet all I have to offer God is the mixed mess that I am.

St. Isaac says that the fullness of prayer is the gift of tears.  I don't know if I have ever experienced the gift of tears.  I do know that I have often experienced pain in my heart--pain at the brokenness of the world, of myself, of those I love.  And sometimes, though not often for me, that pain leads to tears--and even if no actual tears appear, I often feel as if I should be crying.  When I feel this way I can only offer this feeling, this sadness, this what I think is compunction, to God: "God you see!  God you know!"  

When I am feeling this compunction, I cannot say prayers.  I cannot read.  I can only sit or stand in pained silence with no thoughts at all, just an overwhelming sense of sadness that is sometimes, but not often, slowly overcome by hope.  Most often the prayerful experience of compunction leaves as my thoughts distract me--almost always thoughts of how I can or should or might "fix" things.  The pain remains, but somehow the prayer is gone.  That's when I have to return to the prayers, to psalmody and reading.

When reading the spiritual advice of saints, I often get the sense that I am miles away from what they are talking about, that the experiences of my heart are nothing like what they describe.  Yet other times I recognize something that is familiar.  Not the same, but familiar.  It is like saying that you know someone.  Having met someone briefly once, you can honestly say that you know that person--you can identify her, you know her name.  However, a lifetime of intimacy is still not enough to really get to know someone--to know as one is known, to know as God knows us.  I think knowing God through prayer and the inner life is similar.  One can read the words of St. Isaac, someone who knows God well, and recognize certain features, certain characteristics of what he is talking about.  What knowledge of God I possess is cursory, fleeting, and very shallow--like the scent memory of a beautiful rose that walked past last spring.  And yet it is real.  And it is enough, enough to keep me seeking, enough to recognize in the words of St. Isaac and of other Saints descriptions of that same Rose, and to trust their advice, to let them guide me again toward that garden.    

Whether the pain I feel in my heart is real spiritual compunction or not, I do not know. Whether the few tears I shed are due to a genuine gift I tears, I doubt.  And yet, my experience has the faint fragrance of something St. Isaac is speaking about.  And if all I have to offer God is something that smells faintly like what St. Isaac speaks of (even if it is also mixed with a whole lot of what smells putrid), so be it.  It is what I have.  It is what I am.  And in the end, that is all any of us have to offer God: ourselves.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Death to the World

A couple weeks ago, I spoke to the regional Greek Orthodox Youth convention.  While I was there, I had a chat with one of the editors of the Death to the World (maga)zine.  We chatted quite a bit on the topic of happiness.  Afterward, Jason invited me to write an article for Death to the World on the topic of happiness.  If you follow the link above to the Death to the World web page, you will see that the audience for Death to the World is a rather edgy bunch.  So keeping that audience in mind, I wrote the following.  

I'm sharing the article here because I haven't been able to write much over the past two weeks because of construction work on Holy Nativity (we moved the iconostasis back several feet to make more room in the nave).   As we move into June and July I will be traveling, so it looks like blog postings will be sparse for a while.  But I will try to put something up at least once a week—even if it is only an edgy, death-to-the-world rant like what follows.


Happiness is underrated.  Yes, underrated.  Most of what passes for happiness now days is either infantile fantasy, whether of the Disney or the Maxim Magazine sort, or, in most cases, what passes as happiness is merely the momentary relief from pain.  There is very little happiness out there.  Driven by passions to succeed, to win, and to appear to be the best, we seldom are ourselves--if we can even figure out who our real self is.  The world shreds us into multiple selves.  And we put up with it because of a lie, because of the lie that if I play along nicely my passions will be fulfilled, that if I succeed, I will finally be happy.

But you never succeed, you are never successful enough.  That’s part of the lie.  Passions are never satisfied.  Living inside us like parasites, our passions feed and become stronger each time we let them rule us, each time we let ourselves be driven.  And the lie never changes.  You would think that having been lied to so many times by driving passions, by lusts and envy, fears and hatred, you would think that we would learn.  But we don’t.  We’re addicted, addicted to our passions.  Happiness is always somewhere else.  Happiness is always yesterday or tomorrow.

St. Isaac the Syrian was a hermit who taught how to quiet the passions, how to find yourself, find peace, find God.  In fact, to find yourself is to begin to find God, for God dwells in our hearts--our as St. Isaac puts it, our heart is like a great house in which there are serpents and demons and hell itself; but also in our hearts dwell the angels, heaven and God Himself.  Finding ourselves and our true heart is the beginning of finding God.  And finding God is happiness, or blessedness.  It is the happiness of finding yourself and being at peace with who you are and who you are becoming.

But how do we know?  How do we separate what is true and good within ourselves from what is twisted and broken?  St. Isaac says that it begins with a hatred of the world.  Until you hate the world, you cannot begin the journey to yourself.  The world is the lie.  The world is our passions--it is what drives us and preys upon us and feeds in us hate and fear and the lustful desires that seek only selfish gratification (which also is a form of hating).  The world teaches us to hate other human beings, that other people are the problem, are the barrier to my happiness.  But really it is the system, the system of this world that we must come to hate.  The world we must die to, the world that we must hate is the system, not the people.  And we can only begin to die to the world once we realize that the world “out there” is not so much my problem.  The biggest obstacle to my experiencing happiness, to experiencing the blessedness of union with God, is not the world out there, but the world as it has latched itself to my own heart and mind as a parasite.  

St. Isaac tells us that there are two common ways that people come to hate the world.  Both begin with a simple deduction, a realization that goes something like this:  If there is a world, there must be a creator; and if there is right and wrong, then there must be a judge; and if there is a creator and judge, there must be Truth.  Some who come to this realization experience a fear of judgement, and this fear goads them to seek the Truth.  Others, however, do not experience fear so much as longing, longing for the Real, longing for the True, longing for the happiness that cannot be taken away.  Both fear of judgement and longing for the Real motivate us to turn our back on the world, to say no to driving passions within us: to stand up when the world sits down.

Jesus said, “Happy (Blessed) are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”    When we hate the world, we are free to be poor.  We are free to be meek, to be weak, to be at peace, to be happy.  And being at peace, we become peacemakers.  Letting go of driving passions, we radiate something different, a Light from another Realm.  Turning our backs on what the world loves and values, we find freedom to be ourselves, freedom to become and grow.  In learning to control ourselves we are free not to control others (or better, free to let go of the fantasy of controlling others, a control that we never really had).  

There is a happiness that comes from weakness, a happiness that is often called joy.  When I am weak, St. Paul said, then God is strong in me.  So long as I love the world, I have to be strong.  I have to win.  I cannot show weakness.  But when I find the strength to turn my back on the world, I find the strength to accept my weakness.  I find the strength to depend on God, the strength to weep with those who weep.  Then there is peace.  Then there is happiness, a kind of happiness that remains even in sadness.  The hymns of the Church sometimes refer to this as the “bright sadness.”  

Happiness, or blessedness, comes from hating the world, especially the world in ourselves.  Happiness comes as we gain knowledge of ourselves, knowledge of our weaknesses and of our dependence on the Creator.  This is the journey of Salvation.  This is the narrow way. This is the path to blessedness.

Monday, May 19, 2014

St. Isaac and Theosis (and the Experience of Fear)


I am preparing now to give a presentation at the Antiochian Orthodox Institute in the Fall on the topic of divinization or theosis according to St. Isaac the Syrian.  I have been enjoying reading through the latest edition of St. Isaac’s homilies, and when I was asked to present a small lecture on some aspect of the topic of theosis, I suggested that my focus be St. Isaac.  Most of the time, when Orthodox Christian people speak about theosis, they focus on the language and patterns presented in the Philokalia.  Specifically, following St. Maximus the Confessor, we usually speak of three steps or phases in the process of theosis. [By the way, theosis--also sometimes called deification or divinization--refers to the process or experience by which one becomes, by Grace, more like Christ, that is more like God].  The three steps or stages of theosis according to St. Maximus the Confessor and the tradition of the Philokalia are these: purification, illumination and theosis.

In this most common way to look at or present the process or experience of theosis, purification generally refers to our cooperation with the Grace of God to purge passionate thoughts from our minds.  But purifying our minds of passionate thoughts begins with controlling our bodies through ascetic discipline.  Therefore, the beginning of theosis is often found in beginning to control oneself physically leading to a knowledge of oneself that makes the purification of the thoughts, by the Grace of God, possible.

Illumination refers to the knowledge of God, again and always granted by Grace, that transcends the rational aspect of our minds.  This knowledge of God is often referred to as noetic after the Greek word for ‘mind’; however, in this context it does not refer to ‘mind’ as we usually think of the word in English. It refers to the aspect of our mind that is open to and perceives spiritual, heavenly realities.  There is no equivalent word for this aspect of the mind in English, which is why the Greek word noetic is generally used, although the words ‘heart’ and ‘spirit’ are sometimes used in English to try to get at this higher or deeper knowledge: for example, we might say something like “knowing God in your heart”  or “to know God spiritually” to try to distinguish this kind of knowledge from merely rational knowledge, knowledge about God.  

The third step or experience of theosis in this philocalic pattern is to actually participate in the Grace of God to such an extent that one becomes, as the Fathers say, a god by Grace: that is, one acquires the Mind of Christ (to use St. Paul’s expression), or partakes of the divine nature (to use St. Peter’s expression), or one loves as God loves (to use St. John’s oft repeated expression).  Another way the Fathers talk about this final stage of theosis is that one shines with or reflects the Grace of God without ceasing to be oneself; without ceasing to be a creature, one shines with or reflects the uncreated Light of the Creator.  This Grace or Light is also sometimes referred to as the Energies of God by the Greek Fathers.

Certainly this way of speaking about thesis (purification, illumination and theosis) as it is found in the philocalic tradition is useful and thoroughly Orthodox, but it is not the only Orthodox way to speak of this process or experience of becoming more and more like Christ.  St. Isaac the Syrian (+700) was a near contemporary of St. Maximus the Confessor (+662), but he lived in a very different part of the world--outside the Byzantine Empire--and he did not write in Greek (he wrote in Syriac).  Although St. Isaac does not use the same vocabulary or the same imagery that many of the Greek Fathers use to speak of the experience of theosis, he nonetheless speaks of a transformation or transfiguration that one goes through as one draws nearer to God.  St. Isaac uses several different images to speak of this process or experience.  One image he uses (in Homily 62) is that of three different kinds of knowledge: Carnal knowledge, natural knowledge and knowledge of the truth.

I find this particular image or way of speaking about our transfiguration in (and into) Christ to be particularly helpful because St. Isaac uses this image to speak directly about the Christian experience of fear.  Many Protestant and Catholic converts to Orthodox Christianity have a very perverted understanding of the fear of God that torments them to no seeming end.  Unfortunately, for some converts the only way they have been able to deal with the pain that their perverted understanding of fear has caused them has been to reject completely the notion of fear in relation to God.  Of course this is not a very helpful strategy because we do actually experience a kind of fear in our relationship with God and denying its existence leads only to delusion or worse.  But St. Isaac can help us here.   In many of St. Isaac’s images of the Christian journey, he speaks of the transformation of fear, and of the various kinds of fear we experience as we grow in our relationship with God, and of how all of these fears eventually dissolve or transform into love.  This particular image of the three knowledges, or kinds of knowledge, is no exception.  St. Isaac speaks of two kinds of fear linked to the first two kinds of knowledge.  These fears, however, are “swallowed” by love as one comes into the third kind of knowledge.  

The first kind of knowledge is called knowledge of the flesh, or carnal knowledge.  Carnal knowledge, according to St. Isaac, refers to a subhuman knowledge:  knowledge of oneself, of the world and of God in a way that is sub-natural, or not according to nature, or not according to reason.  When one knows with carnal knowledge, one perceives according to the impulses of the flesh, of the fallen nature, or in accord with the temptations of the demons. One who knows according to carnal knowledge, St. Isaac says, fears death “as an animal fears slaughter.”  For someone with this kind of knowledge, the fear of God consists mostly in the fear of death, and in the fear of losing those things that one has come to associate with power over death: political power, the perception of control, wealth, authority, etc.  Thus, the fear of God, when one knows only according to the knowledge of the flesh, is a fear that God will take something away from us, a fear that God will kill us or diminish our lives in some way.  A carnally minded person is often superstitious in his or her relationship with God. It is a relationship that is full of fear and appeasement because, as we all know, death is inevitable; and so long as one fears death “as an animal fears slaughter,” one is in a kind torment trying desperately to postpone the unavoidable.

The second kind of knowledge comes as one draws near to God with what St. Isaac calls natural or reasonable knowledge.  When we begin to overcome animal appetites and urges through reason and begin to perceive through observation of the world and of ourselves that A) there is a Creator and B) I am not Him, then we also begin to know naturally that this Creator will demand from us an account for what we have done with our lives.  Thus the fear that is associated with this second kind of knowledge, this rational knowledge, is the fear of judgement.  According to St. Isaac, this rational knowledge is our natural knowledge, or our natural way of knowing reality; and the fear of judgement that comes from this natural knowledge is the initial motivation or the “rod” we use to control ourselves.  The fear of judgement, then, is the kind of fear St. Isaac associates with the natural or rational knowledge of God, ourselves and of the world.  Although there is a kind of fear associated with this kind of knowledge, St. Isaac points out that rational or natural knowledge is the “proper” and “fit” place or condition from which we can begin to actually draw near to (and thus become more like) God.

As we proceed forward, “guided by [natural] knowledge and discipline” we draw near to God and begin to know “the truth by the active participation of the mysteries of God, and [we] become steadfast in [our] hope in things to come, [and thus we are] swallowed up by love.”  Not only are our fears swallowed up by love, but our whole being is swallowed by love.  The trials and tribulations of life, our continual experience of fall and repentance, and the continual judgement of ourselves by our own conscience followed by the sweetness of forgiveness that we experience as we over and over again confess our sins, all of this experienced again and again throughout a lifetime convinces us, not by theory but by actual experience, that we are indeed sons and daughters of God, that we are indeed among the beloved, that we have indeed passed from judgement into Life.  Fear of judgement slips away as we judge ourselves.  The Love of God swallows us as we perceive within ourselves the action of Grace and as our hearts swell with pity, with the compassion that God Himself has and has shown through the Incarnation and the Cross for all creation.  Here there is no fear--only love consumes everything.  And for St. Isaac, as I read him, to love as God loves is to be what God is, in as much as it is humanly possible by Grace.

I want to stop here, on the mountain top, at the crescendo;  but I must go on.  I must explain two more things before we end.

First I want to be clear that this is only one of the ways St. Isaac talks about the process or experience of theosis, of becoming more like Christ.  He uses other images, types and patterns, some of which I hope to present in my little speech next Fall.  

Second we must also understand that although these three ways of knowledge that I have presented here represent a kind of progression, they by no means represent distinct steps or states or experiences.  Movement from the knowledge of the flesh to natural knowledge is not like crossing a line: it is not as though one moment you are on one side of the line and the next moment you are on the other side.  Rather, the progression that St. Isaac seem to be envisioning is more like a sunrise.  The light of a higher knowledge begins to dawn even while we are still surrounded by the darkness of a baser perception of reality.  And even as the light of a higher knowledge shines with noonday brightness, still there are shadows, still there are animal appetites and broken memories and demonic arrows that assail us, sometimes it seems, like the constant dripping of a rainy day.  Throughout his homilies, St. Isaac warns us never to think we have arrived.  The greatest ascetics fall, how much more must we then be aware of our own shadows.

But even a fall, even a great fall is not the end.  St. Isaac tells us that a great fall, if we confess our sin, then even this can be the beginning of a new humility, a new knowledge of the mystery of God’s love.