Friday, December 12, 2014

Whose Got Talent?

What is a talent?  Generally speaking a talent refers to a special ability someone has.  This meaning of talent developed from the ancient meaning of the word which had to do with weighing, scales and money.  In biblical times, a tenant did not refer to someone’s ability, it referred to a certain weight of gold or silver (the exact weight varied over time and by culture, but it was a large amount, 50 -75 pounds).  It is easy to see how, as a natural extension of the meaning of talent as a large quantity of gold or silver, talent came also to refer to the deposit of one’s natural abilities.  Just as wealth is something people have in varying degrees and in varying commodities (cash, land, livestock, investments, minerals, etc.) all of which must be managed and wisely invested to be beneficial, so also each person has abilities, strengths and desirable qualities that need to be developed and used in order for those ‘talents’ to bring about the greatest benefit.  

According to some etymological dictionaries, one of the reasons why the word ‘talent’ came to take on the meaning of personal ability has to do with the fact that the word ‘talent’ is used in the parable of the talents recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  The popular interpretation of the parable of the talents has largely focused on the natural “God-given” gifts and abilities that each person has and for which each person will give an account to God on the Day of Judgement.  While I wouldn’t say that this is a wrong interpretation of this parable, I will say it is an interpretation that has, in my experience, created more guilt and excused more pride than it has actually helped people to enter into and experience the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  This parable is, after all, a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, not a parable of capitalist economics.  Christ is certainly not teaching us that we please God by getting the most out of life, the most out of our investments, and the most out of your natural abilities.  And yet this is how many of us have come to understand this parable because this is how the parable is generally taught—if not explicitly, certainly implicitly.  

And thus, natural abilities have more and more come to be associated with this word, ‘talent,’ to the extent that one cannot read this parable without thinking that the talents mentioned by Jesus refer to natural abilities, not units of money.  And even if we have bothered to read the notes in our bible telling us that the word ‘talent’ refers to a unit of money, still we do not stop to consider that this large amount of money referred to in the parable might refer to anything other than one’s “God-given,” that is, natural abilities.   

But how does the Church teach us to interpret this parable?  One of the themes of the services of Holy Tuesday is this very parable.  The following is a verse from the Presanctified Liturgy of that day:

Come, O Faithful,Let us work zealously for the Master,For He distributes wealth to His servants.Let each of us according to his ability Increase his talent of Grace:Let one be adorned in wisdom through good works;Let another celebrate a service in splendour;The one distributes his wealth to the poor;The other communicates the Word to those untaught.Thus we shall increase what has been entrusted to us,And, as faithful stewards of Grace,We shall be accounted worthy of the Master’s Joy.Make us worthy of this, O Christ our God,In Your love for mankind.
From the Holy Myrrh  Bearers translation of the Lenten Triodion 

Note that in these verses, and elsewhere not only in this particular service but in other hymns of the Church, the Church interprets the talents in this parable to be referring to Grace.  The wealth of the Kingdom of Heaven is Grace.  God distributes to His servants Grace according to their ability, or to quote 1Corinthians 12:11, the Holy Spirit “distributes to each one individually as He wills.”  Grace is God’s, it is not our own.  It is given to us.  Grace is, indeed, God Himself, God the Holy Spirit, as He comes to us, as He gives Himself to us and abides in us: to quote the parable in Matthew, “to each according to his own ability.”  

I like to use the image of three glasses of water to illustrate this idea of “to each according to his own ability.”  Imagine a shot glass, an orange juice glass, and a one-pint beer glass.  If all the glasses are full of water, we can say that each is full, even though the capacity of each is different.  In the same way, we can say that each Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit, or even full of Grace, although the capacity of each person differs.  

But unlike glasses of water, the human capacity to be filled with the Holy Spirit is not static.  As in the parable, the ones who received two and five talents and “traded” with them (literally, in Greek, ergzomai: “worked” with them), they increased their talents; so we also, if we work with or cooperate with the Grace of God given to us, we too increase our capacity for Grace.  God gives Himself to us freely.  We cannot earn the Grace of God.  We can, however, increase our capacity for the Grace of God.  We can also, if we are not attentive, lose the Grace of God—perhaps not completely, but certainly practically.  

Our spiritual life, our life with God, is given to us freely; but it is not static.  This is why the word ‘gift’ is so troublesome when we are talking about God’s Grace.  The problem with the word ‘gift’ used to translate the word charima in the New Testament (especially in 1 Corinthians 12) is that it just doesn’t mean in English what it means in Greek.  There are two word groups in the Greek New Testament that are translated into English as ‘gift’ and these two Greek word groups have very different emphases.  

The Greek words doron or dorea translate very nicely as our English word ‘gift.’  A gift (in English) as doron or dorea (in Greek), refers to a fixed thing that is given or received.  Charisma, on the other hand, refers to Grace, ‘a bit of Grace’ or ‘some Grace.’  It can be manifest in concrete actions, things or experiences, but charisma is not about the action, thing or experience—as it would be if it were a doran  (gift proper) or even a dorea  (a free gift)but rather the word charisma draws attention to the Grace that causes or manifests the action, thing or experience.  The very word itself is just a form of the word Grace (charis = Grace; charisma = some Grace, an endowment of Grace, or perhaps even a “graciation”).

When God gives us His Grace, God gives us Himself.  This is the teaching of Orthodox Church.  [If this is a new idea to you, I suggest you take a look at a transcript of Fr. Peter Alban Heers podcast, Post Cards From Greece, entitled “The uncreated Grace that is God.”]  Grace is nothing less than God Himself coming to us by his divine energies or workings.  

The sun makes an excellent metaphor of this reality.  We actually experience the sun itself when we experience it’s warmth and light—for the heat and light of the sun is nothing else but the sun itself as it radiates outward.  However, although we do truly experience the sun itself, we do not experience the sun in its essence, in its inner reality.  All we know about the inner reality of the sun is based on scientific speculation, not actual experience.  We both experience and don’t experience the sun.  Similarly, we both know and do not know God.

We know God, in that intimate, biblical sense of the word ‘know,’ in as much as God comes to us, as God reveals Himself to us, as God the Holy Spirit fills us.  We do (or at least can) certainly know God.  However, God is also unknowable.  God in His essence, in His “Godness,” in Himself, as God knows Himself—this is completely unknowable to us.  We are creatures.  God is Creator.  That’s it.  

And yet, God has created human beings “in His image and after His likeness.”  God has created human beings to walk with God—as did Adam and Eve in the Garden before the fall.  God has created human beings to participate in His divine Light, and even to some extent in His divine Nature, so St. Peter tells us (2 Peter 1:4).  God has created us to know Him, love Him and have Him even abide (or dwell) in us (see John chapters 6 and 15 and 1 John 2:14). This is Grace, this is God coming to us, walking with us, transforming us, abiding in us and loving us and the world through us.

And so, to return to the parable of the talents, when we read this parable, we must realize that the Master is none other than God and the talents that he gives are nothing less than God’s wealth: God Himself, God’s Grace, God in His energies or workings, God as He comes to us.  This parable is not really at all about external things, our natural abilities or what we normally call talents in English. And when we interpret this parable in this merely external way, I believe it causes more harm than good.

I actually know people who have been burdened with guilt for years because, for example, they used to play piano well and now they no longer play much.  They are full of guilt because they have been taught that the meaning of this parable is that God will judge us if we do not develop and keep growing in our natural abilities.  I have also hear sports figures, even fighters, boast of and justify their pursuit of an athletic career by claiming that they are just being faithful to the "talent" God has given them.  

Now, I am not saying that there is anything better or worse about pursuing an athletic career (certainly nothing worse than pursing a career in politics, law, finance or, dare I say it, writing blog posts on spirituality).  But what I am saying is that to refer to a proclivity and/or ability in any field of endeavour as the talent one has been given by God and for which God will judge them if they do not attend to it, this is just not true.  It is not the message of Jesus.  Yes, God will certainly judge us, but not concerning whether or not we continue to play piano or play football or stay in politics (or whatever other activity we may be good at).   No, God will judge us according to His Grace: according to what have we done with the Grace God has given us.  


Now certainly, Grace manifests itself in our life in concrete ways.  There are manifestations of the Spirit and fruits of the Spirit.  There are ministries and activities and experiences of all sorts that are the outworking of the Grace of God in us (which is the same thing as the Holy Spirit in us, which is God abiding in us).  Like Mary (the sister of Lazarus), we need to attend to the One Thing Needful.  Attending to the One Thing Needful, we may also wash dishes, play the piano, change a baby’s diaper, and yes, even play football; but the most important thing is the Grace in our hearts imbuing us, compelling us, and guiding us.  This is what the Church means when it teaches us to keep our mind in our heart.  

We attend to Christ in our hearts.  Christ in our hearts: this is the gift of Grace.  From there, from the heart full of Grace, all sorts of various ministries and works will be manifest.  But the works, even the works that we are naturally good at, are not the ‘talent.’  The talent is the Grace.  It is the Grace that we must increase as we “work with it,” as we attend to it, as we cooperate with it, as we co-labour with God.  This is the talent that God has given us, to be filled with His Grace (each according to our own capacity) and to work with that Grace until, as it says in Ephesians, we reach “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Speaking About Spiritual Things


He who is pure of soul and chaste in life always speaks the worlds of the Spirit discreetly, and in accord with his own measure he speaks of the things of God and of the things that are within him.  But when a man’s heart is crushed by the passions, his tongue is moved by them; and even though he speak of spiritual matters, yet he discourses passionately, to the end that he might be victorious….
St. Isaac the Syrian 


One of the mistakes I have often made in speaking of spiritual things is to speak about them in a worldly way.  St. Isaac points out that how one speaks of spiritual things is perhaps more important than the spiritual matters themselves.  

St. Isaac gives us some guidance to help us discern our actual inner state when we speak of spiritual things.   He is not providing us with a prescription for how we should speak.  Rather he his providing a diagnostic tool to help us understand when we are speaking of spiritual matters inappropriately, or according to our passions.  As a person interested in developing a deeper relationship with God and as one conversant in “spiritual matters”—especially as a priest who is almost constantly speaking about spiritual matters—I am concerned that it is all too easy for me to deceive myself into thinking that I am indeed living by and experiencing in my own inner life the spiritual realities and principles that I talk about, when in reality I am, as St. Isaac says, “crushed by the passions”. 

St. Isaac in the quote above seems to be offering us two pointers to help us discern our inner state.  The first has to do with speaking discreetly, which I will talk about in a moment; and the second has to do with speaking of things that our within ourselves.  This is a point made often by St. Isaac and many other spiritual writers: When we speak of spiritual things, we need to limit ourselves to what we ourselves actually experience.  

It is very tempting to give advice on spiritual matters about experiences, states, conditions and disciplines that I myself have not actually experienced and do not actually practice.  I’ve read a lot.  I have read about holy men and women who have experienced great heights in their relationship with God, men and women who have shone with the Uncreated Light, who have been caught up in prayer, seen visions; who have fasted, prayed and kept vigil with great perseverance; who have born the fruit of a God-filled life.  But I have personally experienced very, very little of this.  

My experience has been basically a continual trying and failing, a never-ending exercise in falling and getting back up again.  I have come to realize that I am a one-talent Christian, doing my best just to keep my one talent in the bank (the Church) where at least it will earn interest (rather than buried in self-pity, by pulling away and not even trying, again and again).  I appreciate—more than appreciate—I am amazed by those who have been given two or even five talents of Grace, who have taken the Grace given to them and “traded” with it, who have earned five talents more through their diligent application and attention to the Grace given them.  

These Holy Ones amaze me.  They inspire me.  But when it comes to my giving advice to others, I need to speak “in accord with my own measure.”  Yes, I can and should speak of what the Saints have achieved, the advice they give based on their actual experience with God.  But I must be very careful not to speak in such a way that might give the impression that I personally know and live and experience what I am talking about.  The passions are tricky things.  It is especially difficult to notice that we are speaking passionately about spiritual things when others are asking us for advice.  We must be very careful.  I must be very careful.  

According to St. Isaac, one way to know that we are speaking passionately about spiritual matters is to notice if we are speaking in accord with our own measure, of things that are actually in ourselves.  Truly, I think we deceive ourselves when we speak beyond ourselves about spiritual things.  We deceive ourselves because we think speaking of spiritual matters is just like speaking of airplanes or philosophical principles.  The spiritual life does not work that way.  When we speak of spiritual things, we communicate much more by who we are than by what we say.  And if these two do not line up relatively well, those to whom we speak will know.  The effect of our words will not be life-giving, but will rather be just more information, and that’s in the best case scenario.  In the worst case scenario, our passionate words on spiritual matters will communicate not life but death, not help but condemnation, and not encouragement but guilt.  When speaking on spiritual matters, less is generally more.

So, one of the ways St. Isaac give us to discern our spiritual state when speaking about spiritual matters has to do with staying within the limits of ourselves: our own actual experience of the spiritual life.  When we find ourselves speaking or tempted to speak beyond ourselves in spiritual matters, then we know it is time to shut up.  We are speaking passionately, and even if the words we speak are true on some level, to speak them with passions is to betray the very words we speak.

The other pointer St. Isaac gives us to discern whether or not we are speaking of speaking passionately of spiritual matters is tied to the word “discreet.”  
discreet |disˈkrēt|
adjective (discreeter, discreetest)
careful and circumspect in one's speech or actions, especially in order to avoid causing offense or to gain an advantage: we made some discreet inquiries.
  • intentionally unobtrusive: a discreet cough.

My first serious spiritual conversation with a holy person was with an abbess.  More than any particular thing she said at that time, what has stayed with me over the years has been how she spoke.  She was not only tentative in what she said (This might be, Have you considered this, You could try to…), she was very quick to back down and admit that she might not at all know what the best or right thing to do in this situation was.  As soon as I challenged something she said, she would respond, “Perhaps you are right.”  In order to get anything out of her I had to shut up and just humbly listen.  Mother Abbess was very discreet.  

St. Isaac tells us that a passionate person, one “crushed by the passions,” speaks of spiritual things “to the end that he might be victorious.” It seems to me to be a pretty sure sign that I am speaking passionately about spiritual things when I find myself angling to be right, trying to prove my point, or showing how the other person is wrong.  When I am not speaking discreetly about spiritual things but am intruding where I am not invited, causing offence or gaining advantage, when I am intent on showing that my position, idea, advice or observation is right, then (if I notice it in time) I know it is time for me to stop talking.  Spiritual advice must be given and received in a spiritual, holy, manner.  We are not talking about worldly matters, so we cannot speak in a worldly way.  It just doesn’t work.  You end up communicating many things you never intended to communicate and little of what you intended to communicate.  Here I am speaking from personal experience.  

It seems as though it is always best to say nothing at all.  “Silence,” St. Isaac tells us, “is the language of heaven.”  And yet, love compels us to speak.  With all of the dangers and possibilities for misunderstanding, still we feel we must speak because we love.  And so we speak about spiritual things, we speak in words that which can only be rightly communicated in silence.  We speak in words because in our fallen and broken and not-yet-healed state it is all we have to encourage and instruct, to help and to aid one another.  But we speak carefully, discreetly, and about that which is within us, careful not to imply that we too experience the same spiritual heights as those holy Fathers and Mothers we read of.  

Because, in the end, I know that I cannot help anyone.  God is the One who helps.  “Salvation is of the Lord,” we are told repeatedly in the scriptures and hymns of the Church.  I am merely a helper.  We might even say an unnecessary helper in that God doesn’t need anyone’s help to save.  And yet, God has made us necessary.  God has invited us (each of us in our own little ways) to be helpers in bringing about the salvation of those around us, the salvation that He alone effects.  And God brings us to this work of love even before we are perfected, even while we are still sinners and broken and screwing up every time we open our mouths, even us as we are now.   God has invited us to love with Him, to give what we have (not pretending that we have more), to share what has been giving us, even if what has been given us is much less than what has been given to others.  

It’s OK to be a one-talent Christian—even to be a one-talent priest.  Like the widow who gave her two mites (all that she had to live on), so we too give in love to each other the little that we have.  The power to save lies not in the size or effectiveness of the words or gifts or actions we give to one another, but the power to save lies in the One who has invited us into His labour of love.


Friday, November 28, 2014

A Charismatic Learns To Take Up Her Cross


I am rereading a book that I read on my way to becoming Orthodox almost twenty years ago.  The book is Abbess Thaisia: An Autobiography.  It is published by St. Herman Brotherhood Press.  When the Charismatic Protestant community that I was a part of first discovered Holy Orthodoxy, our only contact with the the Orthodox Church was through the books published by the St. Herman Brotherhood—who at that time published books mainly by Fr. Seraphim Rose and by or about pre-Revolutionary Russian monastics.  We were so starved for information about the Holy Orthodox Church that we ordered and read every book they published.  This was our introduction to the Holy Orthodox faith, and for us, it was a pretty good introduction.

Of course we were profoundly ignorant.  We thought, since these books (on or about Russian monastics) were the only exposure we had to the Orthodox faith, we even thought for a while that our whole community would have to become monastic in order to become Orthodox.  Thank God, we finally encountered the Church Herself and, to paraphrase the book of Acts, we were taught the way more perfectly.  Not only did we not have to become celibate to be Orthodox, but we could even be ordained to Holy Orders and stay married: There was great rejoicing in the land.

Abbess Thaisia’s autobiography was one of the first books we read on our way to the Holy Orthodox Church.  It was a particularly helpful book for us because Abbess Thaisia experienced dreams and visions, something we Charismatics thought highly of.  As a community we were used to God “speaking” to us and guiding us both individually and as a community through dreams and visions.  Needless to say, we had a lot to learn about how such phenomena were handled in the Orthodox Church, ways that focus on humility, discernment and repentance rather than on the celebration of the experience.  But that was to come.  For the time being, it was enough of an encouragement for us that within the Holy Orthodox Church, people were seeing visions and having prophetic dreams.  

However, as I am rereading Abbess Thaisia’s autobiography almost twenty years later, I am struck by different things.  I am about a third of the way through the book, and I have been struck  this time by the amount of suffering, caused primarily by misunderstanding, that Mary endured on her way to becoming a nun and in her early years in the monastery.   (Abbess Thaisia’s name in the world was Mary).  Mary, and then later the nun Thaisia, suffered terribly from false accusations due not only to misunderstanding and envy but also due to the misplaced love of her mother.  

Mary only wanted to love God with all of her being, but most others could not understand that.  Consequently, her motives were generally misunderstood: even in the monastery—or perhaps I should say especially in the monastery.  The monastery, like a much more intense version of a local parish, is not only a hospital, it is a crucible.  It is a hospital that heals us sometimes through cauterization.  It is a hospital that heals us through the Cross, through our own crucifixion with Christ on the Cross.  Below is a passage from Abbess Thaisia’s autobiography where she talks about the pain and confusion she experienced during her early years at the monastery as she learned to be crucified with Christ:


The enemy, however, is unable to endure peace among men, and soon enough he made his work felt.  He induced those willing to listen to his insinuations to make venomous calumnies against me, and I, being an innocent victim, began to lose heart.  Those around me were experiencing equally great confusion….

During the time that this storm was about me, I often lost heart.  Not only was this calumny and affliction getting the best of me ([although] I had medicine to cure that: the knowledge that those who want to follow the path of the cross cannot avoid this), but a question kept confusing me: Why are those in authority so short-sighted as to be unable to discern truth from falsehood?  Why are they so quickly inclined to trample down that which, not so long ago, occasioned their tenderness and concern?  Another question also came to my mind: Where can one find the truth when it is absent even in its representatives?  My sorrow was so great that it clouded my reason, and even my ability to clearly understand that our superiors are only ordinary human beings, and that one has no right to demand of them a clairvoyance possessed only by saints.  Nor will I hide the fact [that] because of my great spiritual confusion I lost my zeal for prayer.  When I stood at my icon-corner to pray, one of two things happened: either, having crossed myself, I fell down on the floor with great sobs (at which time the state of my soul was more stifled than prayerful), or a piercing question would keep drilling on my mind—“Where is the truth?  Why does nobody defend the innocent?  Why does nobody console their tears?”  With that, trying not to give way to such despondent thoughts, I would hastily go to bed.  But how could I possibly sleep?….

Finally the storm passed…. But my soul had been profoundly shocked, and it could not be easily calmed.  In place of my former cheerful and happy manner, I became mistrustful, sorrowful, and suspicious.  I could not help but realize (having personally experienced it) that all of this love and kindness could as quickly be changed to wicked and venomous mockery as one hour follows another.  To put it briefly, my former frame of mind had left me.  I even began to avoid my companions, scorning them, while inside I was languishing, asking myself over and over, “If even in a convent there is no sincere love—the cornerstone not only of monasticism, but of Christianity in general—then there is no salvation.  And if there is no salvation, why are we on this earth?  Once, with such thoughts in my head, I fell asleep….

And when Nun Thaisia falls asleep she has a dream through which she comes to understand that unjust suffering was the necessary cross she must experience to enter into the relationship with God that she longed for.  Misunderstanding, false accusation, confusion, calumny: This is the way of the cross for many of us.  

We do not all experience the Cross the same way.  But we all must experience the Cross, we must all “take up our cross and follow Christ.”  For some, the Cross is sickness or injury.  For others, it is mental imbalance of one sort or another: depression, adult ADHD, substance abuse and addiction, codependency issues, cognitive developmental issues.  There are many ways people are challenged “just to be normal.”   And all of these challenges are our cross—the very cross we must take up, we must accept and deal with.  And not only accept and deal with, but follow Christ carrying.  The addict must follow Christ even as he continues to struggle to stay clean.  The one with depression must follow Christ, even as she continues to struggle to turn away from the darkness.  We must all take up our cross and follow Christ.  

But in taking up our Cross and following Christ, we find peacepeace after the storm.  We find a foretaste of the Resurrection to comeeven as we are still tasting the bitterness of suffering.  Some of us are even healed and delivered from a Cross.  But then the Crosses only change.  St. John Chrysostom said that when God delivers us from one Cross, it is only that we may learn to carry a heavier one.  Suffering of one kind or another is the lot of every human being.  There is no human life without suffering (How many children of wealthy parents abuse themselves, cut themselves and in other ways drug themselves because they cannot stand the pain of their life of privilege?)  No, there is no human life without suffering.  The only question is: Will you offer you suffering to Christ or not?  Will you turn to Christ in your pain and trust in Him?  Will you wait in the tomb with Christ for the Resurrection?  Or, will you blame others, as our fore-parents did in the Garden of Eden?  Will harbour resentment, nurturing with anger the growing root of bitterness?  What will you do?

That’s the question.  The question is not whether or not we will suffer.  We all suffer, sometimes more intensely, sometimes less intensely at various seasons of our life.  We all have Crosses.  We will all experience confusion and misunderstanding, pain and injustice.  The only question is whether or not we will turn to Christ and find Grace and Love even in our pain, whether or not we will join Christ on the Cross—or like the thief who would only rail against Christ, will we suffer anyway, only to die alone, far from the Grace of God?  This is the question.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

We Have A Little Garden...


My wife is a Beatrix Potter fan. I think she has collected all of her little books and many books about her. If you have ever received a thank-you card from Bonnie, you can see the influence of Beatrix Potter on her doodles and water colours. Often Bonnie will decorate with Beatrix.  Sometimes she will open a book to a particular page and then mount the book on the wall. Right next to our bed on her side, she has had Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes mounted for a few weeks. She has the book open to the first half of the following nursery rhyme:

We have a little garden,
A garden of our own,
And every day we water there
The seeds that we have sown.

We love our little garden,
And tend it with such care,
You will not find a faded leaf
Or blighted blossom there.

The first half of this nursery rhyme has stuck in my head for the past few days—as if it were a bible verse or insightful saying of a holy father. To tell you the truth, I am not in much for nursery rhymes. Neither am I particularly good at riddles or sayings with double meanings. I have a pretty thick skull—I’m a ‘say-what-you-mean-and-mean-what-you-say’ sort of guy. Subtlety is wasted on me. (That may be why I married an artist. I need someone to take care of me who sees what I don’t see, someone who will gently let me know when I’m missing what is obvious to everyone else.) Nevertheless this nursery rhyme has stuck in my head and it slowly dawned on me that Beatrix Potter is not merely talking about a garden. She is talking about life.

The garden is the life God has given each of us. Every garden is different. Every region and soil type and gradient in relation to the sun has its own challenges and opportunities. Some (like us) have lots of rain and very little sun in the spring: great for berries. Others have lots of sun, but little water: great for all kinds of vegetables, if you are faithful to water them. Some have alkali soils that need lots of treatment to grow most veggies. Some gardens have lots of sand, which is great for melons. There are some things about a garden you can change, but other things you can’t change. You can change the soil, slowly over the years. You can extend the season by building greenhouses and shelters. If you work at it, you can do many things to make your garden better.

But there are lots of things you can’t change about your garden. You can’t change the location: your garden is where it is. It is just like a family. You are born somewhere in a family you didn’t choose - into circumstances, limitations and opportunities over which you have had no control whatsoever and over which you will have only little control throughout your life. Like a garden, some things you can change, some things you can ameliorate, and lots of things you just have to accept and work with or around or through. Life is a lot like a garden.

And like a garden, you get to choose what you want to plant—although it is only with experience and sage advice that you learn what grows best in your soil. Nonetheless, you get to choose some things that you will plant. And then there are other things you will plant by mistake: seeds and bits of root that have stuck to your clothing or got mixed in with the good seed. Or sometimes we plant the wrong vegetable by mistake. The beets that you thought you had planted turn out to be turnips. Life is a lot like that. And then there are the weed seeds that the birds drop on your garden as they fly over, or the seeds that the wind blows into your garden or the runners from the blackberries thirty feet away that tunnel all the way underground just to come up in the middle of your strawberries. You don’t get to choose those seeds.

But whether you choose it or not, you have to deal with it.  It is your garden. The seeds you water will grow, maybe.  Weeds you ignore will take over, certainly. In life, like in a garden, it is hard to grow good fruit. It is easy to grow weeds. All you have to do is nothing and the weeds will take over. Plants that bear the fruit we want, however, require attention. We must pay attention to our life, to what we sow, to what we water, to what we encourage, to what we give our time and energy and money. We have to attend.  

Bonnie and I were at a coffee shop/bookstore last night and saw a book on 100 things one should do before he or she dies. I thumbed through the book full of exciting places to see and things to do. Really, none of them interested me.  

“And so what is on your bucket list then?” Bonnie asked me.

“I don’t have a bucket list,” I told her. I just want to tend the garden God has given me. There are lots of beautiful and exciting things that would be interesting and fun to see or do, maybe (I really don’t like traveling much. And as for excitement, I think my life is already about as exciting as I can handle). But even if I did get a chance to jump of a cliff in Peru with a parachute on my back, how is that going to help the fruit of mercy or love or gentleness grow in my garden?  

I don’t really want to do anything before I die. I want to be something. I want to be a kind person. I want to be someone who would rather be hurt than to hurt someone else. I want to be someone who knows how to love in ways that bring health and life. I want to be someone, as St. Paul puts it, whose gentleness is known to all. That’s my bucket list. That’s what I want growing in my garden when I die.


And so I water the gentleness bushes. I tend to the mercy vines. I pull the thorny thistles away from the struggling love flower—and then I tend to my fingers, pulling out thorns, stopping the blood, cleaning the wounds.  Gardening is not for cowards.  

Sunday, November 09, 2014

St. Isaac's Three Degrees of Knowledge

Below is a paper I presented for the Orthodox Institute on the topic of St. Isaac the Syrian's understanding of Theosis.  It's long.  I thought I would post it as one piece instead of breaking it up incase anyone wanted to copy any of it.  At least it will all be together.
Fr. Michael


The Three Degrees of Knowledge: An Exploration of Theosis in the Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian
V. Rev. Michael Gillis

Glory be to Him who richly pours forth His gifts upon men! …By His grace He has dispelled the hardness of our hearts, that we might gain understanding from the divine vision of the Scriptures and the instructions of the great Fathers.  For by my own struggles I have not been vouchsafed to experience even one thousandth part of what I have written with my hands, and especially in this homily which I now compose for the healing and enlightenment of our souls, and of those who come across it, with the hope that, perchance, some might rouse themselves by reason of their desire for what I speak of, and endeavour to practise it (238)

The influence of St. Isaac the Syrian (+ c. 700) on Orthodox Christian spirituality cannot be overestimated.  He was a man of practical spirituality, a bishop and a hermit who, through his writings, has been able to guide thousands upon thousands of other hermits, monks and laypeople into a deeper relationship with God in Christ.  In my own life, St. Isaac’s words have been a light to me, not so much a light outside illuminating my path, but a light inside.  That is, sometimes when I read St. Isaac it is as though I am not reading words in a book outside me; but it is as if something inside me suddenly sees, knows and understands; it is as if a lightning flash suddenly appears within me.  This inner experience is often wordless.  It is a knowing and seeing beyond conception (in contrast to “getting it” in mathematics, science, languages or other academic pursuits).  Consequently, it is very difficult to speak about.  To speak of such things feels too much like lying.  There are no words, and yet love compels us to find words, to grope, to try to share an image, metaphor or allegory that points in some small way to the reality one knows and experiences beyond words. 

St. Isaac wrote in Syriac, not in Greek.  Furthermore, St. Isaac was outside the Christian empire, outside the intellectual world that influenced much of the Orthodox Christian Spirituality written in Greek.  As a result, St. Isaac didn't use many standard Greek technical terms such as, for example, theosis.  But that doesn’t mean that St. Isaac didn’t know and teach the way to becoming sons of God by grace.  It means that he taught the Orthodox way with a perspective that is fresh to us who are used to thinking in the categories and vocabulary of the Greek theological tradition and that often brings enlightenment through unexpected images and vocabulary.  Archimandrite Vasileios, a man whom Metropolitan Kalistos Ware describes as “the pioneer of the striking revival and renewal of monastic life on the Holy Mountain,” (Editor’s Note, Vasileios, 5) says St. Isaac “describes to you with assurance and sobriety what happens on the journey towards deification” (Vasileios, 14).

St. Isaac is not a systematic writer.  He writes as one moved by the Spirit, not as one writing a treatise.  Consequently, it would be foolish to try to impose order on his writing based on my own limited understanding of his writings and even more limited experience of the spiritual realities of which he writes.  Nonetheless, as a fool, I have endeavoured to layout some of his teaching in a form that may be easier for beginners like myself to understand—with the hope that some may be enticed to buy his homilies and read them and even begin in some small ways to practice what he teaches.  

St. Isaac’s homilies are full of several-step dictums, pithy proverbs and colourful images each pointing the way along the spiritual path to Christ-likeness. Nevertheless, there is one particular metaphor that is often quoted from St. Isaac’s works.  Understanding this image will, I think, help us enter in some small way into understanding St. Isaac’s teaching about human transformation into Christ-likeness.  The image is of three degrees of knowledge.  St. Isaac is quick to point out that these are not three different kinds of knowledge; but rather, they are three degrees, or levels of perception.  All three degrees are necessary—even the first, or lowest.  For St. Isaac, lower degrees of knowledge must be “swallowed by” or submitted to higher degrees.  These three degrees of knowledge are called 1) contrary to nature, 2) natural, and 3) super natural (128, 362, 399).  It will be easier to understand these three degrees of knowledge and how they relate to and reveal theosis if we begin with the second, then discuss the first and finally the third.

The Second Degree
The second degree of knowledge, the natural degree of knowledge, is a knowing that is according to a human being’s created nature, or knowing according to a healthy human mind.  This degree of knowledge discerns good from evil and leads to the fear of God.  It is a knowing that deduces the existence of God and the reality of judgement from the observation of the creation (291-3, 360) and by the initial stages of attention to one’s own inner life (i.e. one might reason, ‘if I judge others for being unkind to me, probably the Creator will judge me for being unkind to others’).  Through turning from bestial appetites and merely calculating, worldly ways of knowing, one returns to a healthy state of mind, a mind ruled by a kind of moral (not merely calculating) reason.  As one returns to a healthy state of mind, God can grant the gift of faith which “produces fear in us, and fear compels us to repent and to set ourselves to work” (361).  

Knowledge leads us to virtue, but faith is greater than knowledge; and knowledge must follow faith, which is the appropriate order, once faith is revealed.  This initial faith St. Isaac refers to as the faith of hearing (c.f. Job 42:5).  Faith then leads knowledge to virtuous works of the body such as fasting, vigil, love for one’s neighbor, investigating the Scripture, controlling the passions, etc. (394,5,8).  However, this progress in virtue does not go unhindered.  In this second degree of knowledge, labour is required, “the sweat of the brow”; and virtuous works are often accompanied by the pain of thorns.  Nevertheless, these virtuous actions are perfected by the action of the Holy Spirit (398) and lead one to the beginning of contemplation, or theoria -  “Divine vision of created things” (148), “divine vision of God’s judgements and of visible creation” (146).

When one is being perfected in (maturing or growing in) the good deeds expressed in concrete actions and the theoria of the second degree of knowledge, “another faith is begotten…called the faith of divine vision”  (361) which is the condition and the means by which one begins to enter the third degree of knowledge.


The First Degree
But before we look at the third degree of knowledge, let’s go back and take a look at the first.  The first degree of knowledge is what St. Isaac calls “common knowledge” or knowledge that is “contrary to human nature.”  St. Isaac says that we fall to this level of knowledge by being concerned for our body and its comforts: “the pleasure loving will veils natural knowledge” (362).  It is merely psychic (e.g. according to the [unenlightened, merely calculating] soul or mind; c.f. 1 Cor. 2:14).  It is the knowledge of “rational wisdom” which is suitable only for guidance in worldly, merely mechanical things.  It is the knowledge that produces “novelties of invention, the arts [i.e. how to do stuff], sciences, doctrines [i.e. laws]; and all other things which crown the body in this visible world” ( 396).

This first degree of knowledge “uproots love” (397).  It is a knowledge that “investigates the minute faults of other men and the causes thereof, and their weaknesses; and it arms a man for stubbornly upholding his opinion, for disputation, and aids him in cunningly employing devices and crafty machinations…. In this knowledge are produced and are found presumption and pride, for it attributes every good thing to itself, and does not refer it to God” (397). It “follows the desire of the flesh” (398).  It is the knowledge of one who has “fallen away from the light of the knowledge of God” (398).  “For whenever the mind is drawn away by the senses, it also eats the food of beasts with them.  But when the senses are drawn by the mind, they partake together with it of the sustenance of angels” (144).  This matter of what is drawing and what is being drawn is critical in discerning first versus second degree knowledge.  The senses yank around the mind in the first degree, but the mind begins to reign in and control the senses in the second degree.

However, first degree of knowledge is not evil in and of itself.  It is merely the knowledge of the body and the lower calculating aspect of the soul uncontrolled by the higher, “rational” aspect of the soul and unguided by faith (360). When one falls away from faith and the fear of God through desire for pleasure and comfort, one is then left with only this first degree of knowledge, and cannot “enter into incomprehensible matters” (397).  Those stuck in this first degree “know not that there is something better… because they measure their discipline according to the standard of the ear and the flesh” (397). Thus they are become as “mindless beasts,” rejecting natural knowledge and the faith that is revealed through it.  St. Isaac points us to the psalmist who says: “Man being in honour did not understand; he was compared to the senseless cattle, and became like them” ( 360; c.f. Psalm 48:13 LXX).  Functioning in this first degree of knowledge, a man does not fear God, he fears only death (438), and he measures himself only by the satisfaction of his flesh and “according to the standard of the ear”: the scuttlebutt of the current trend, fashion, prejudice or wisdom of the age.

The Third Degree
St. Isaac mentions two specific virtues that both create the conditions for and manifest the presence of the third degree of knowledge. These virtues are humility and love.  Humility enables the theoria that begins to be experienced in the second degree of knowledge to beget another, second kind a faith, a faith that St. Isaac calls a “confirming” faith, a faith of seeing (361; c.f. Job 42:5).  That is, one begins to see, or perceive directly, the divine reality that one had only “heard” of before.  

However, to see, one must acquire humility: “By humility, true knowledge makes perfect the soul of those who have acquired it” (397).  This humility makes one “worthy” of “diverse theorias and divine revelations, by the lofty vision of spiritual things” (397). “Humility attains to divine vision because of her continual self-constraint”(144).  As a gift of God, one “sees,” or experiences directly, “perfect rest” [from labouring in virtue], “consolation, words in the heart, awareness, delight, fruition of the soul, burning love, joy in God, and whatsoever things…are bestowed on a soul counted worthy of yonder blessedness, whatsoever things are subtly indicated in the divine scriptures” (395).  As knowledge begins to be led by this faith of seeing, or as this “faith swallows up knowledge…it begets it anew”; knowledge is “converted” by this faith (399).  This is the third degree of knowledge, a knowledge converted and born again by being “swallowed up” by the faith of the direct knowledge of or experience of God.  Knowledge “becomes wholly and completely spirit” (399).

St. Isaac emphasizes that this spiritual knowledge is in no way the product of human cognition: “Take care,” he says, “lest you think in any wise that a man receives that other, spiritual knowledge through this merely human knowledge of ours…. Not even an inkling of it can be perceived by those who are zealous to train themselves in such knowledge” (500,1).  Therefore he exhorts: “Take refuge in weakness and simplicity.”  And, “If…you wish to pass your life in [spiritual knowledge], by no means encourage your feeble deliberations” (502).

Humility not only precedes this third degree of knowledge, this faith of seeing; but the third degree of knowledge also manifests God-like humility—which may be near to some of what the Holy Fathers in the Greek tradition refer to when they speak of theosis: “Wherefore every man has put on Christ when he is clothed in the raiment [of humility] wherein the Creator was seen through the body that He put on” (535). “For humility is the raiment of the Godhead…every man who has been clothed with it has truly been made like unto Him” (534).  “And if she [humility] becomes ours, she will make us sons of God” (484).  

As lofty as humility is in the eyes of St. Isaac, he is very clear that humility grows in us as we grow in our knowledge of our weakness which we gain through striving and falling through temptation and striving again to keep God’s commandments, which is the work of virtue (363, 503).  “Virtue,” he says, “is the mother of mourning, and from mourning humility is born, and upon humility a gift is bestowed.  Therefore the recompense is not for virtue, nor for toil on account of virtue, but for humility that is born of both” (422).  It strikes me as profoundly ironic yet deeply real and true that, as St. Isaac sees it, one is clothed in “the very raiment of the Godhead” through one’s falls, through the struggle and tears and ‘falling down and getting back up again' of our Christian struggle for virtue in this world.   

However, there is another, perhaps even more important mark of the third degree of knowledge:  love.  “Love, however, raises him above nature and the struggle, the fear, [and] the toil [;] and the weariness in all things passes away from him.”  In the second degree of knowledge, one is motivated to repentance and virtue by the fear of God, which is the awareness of coming judgement (438).  Yet loving one’s neighbour as virtue, that is, doing the loving thing by your neighbour, is not the same thing as actually having love in your heart for your neighbour.  Similarly, attaining virtue is not the same as loving God, although it is preliminary. Or we might say virtue is the fertile field in which love of God (and neighbour) grows.

The “clear sign,” St. Isaac says, that “the image of the heavenly Father will be seen in” someone is when compassionate action moves you to compunction of heart so that “you are full of mercy for all mankind, and that your heart is afflicted by the intensity of your pity for men and burns as with fire, without making distinctions between persons.” (552). And he says elsewhere, “By the superabundant outpouring of their love and compassion upon all men [the perfected saints] resemble God…. This sign of complete likeness to God [is]: to be perfect in the love of their neighbour” (493). Here love is not a virtue, nor does one strive to do virtuous (loving) actions; rather, in the third degree of knowledge, love burns and pierces one’s heart—which of course results in loving actions, but not as labours, but as compelled by the love burning in one’s heart.

The virtuous person, on the other hand, functioning in the second degree of knowledge and motivated by awareness of judgement (i.e. fear of God), is constantly experiencing a “pricking of the conscience,” “an unceasing remembrance of death” (and the judgement of God) and “a certain anxiety” that one experiences as a “torment until a man departs from this life” (362).  Love, however, lifts a person above the suffering one experiences in the pursuit of virtue.  “We are among these things until we attain to love, which frees us from them all.”  And, “Until we find love, our labour [in virtue] is in the land of thorns” (358).  Moving from fear of God to love, is both the means to and the fruit of the third degree of knowledge. 

Once one has acquired love in the third degree of knowledge, on the human level, mercy, kindness, generosity and all other virtues are no longer something striven for, but flow freely, without labour.  And toward God,  “the soul then rushes forward…on the wings of faith…taking leave of visible creation, and as though drunken, she is ever found in the awestruck wonder of solicitude for God; and with simple, uncompounded vision, and with invisible perception of the Divine nature, the understanding becomes accustomed to attending to reflection upon that nature’s hiddenness” (401).  All fear is gone, and we run like children into the arms of our Father.

What begins as theoria in the second degree of knowledge, arising from a virtuous way of life as “the appetitive part is fixed in a natural state of health”(469), becomes “more refined” as glimmers of experience proper to the third degree of knowledge begin to dawn in one’s heart.  Theoria , one’s inner life, “acquires that which is of the Spirit, and comes to resemble the life of the unseen hosts which perform their liturgy not by the palpable activity of works, but through…the meditation of the understanding” (398,9).  Here a person perceives the mysteries of God personally and directly through divine theoria, and here all fear is lost, or is rather “swallowed up by love” : “But when a man has reached the knowledge of the truth by the active perception of the mysteries of God and becomes steadfast in his hope in things to come, he is swallowed up by love” (438).

Conclusion 
Using the tripartite image of a whole human being, body, soul and spirit, St. Isaac likens the first degree of knowledge to the body, which must be kept in subjection to the soul.  When the body is kept in subjection by the soul, one begins to experience the second degree of knowledge, which he likens to the soul itself.  The second, natural, degree of knowledge is enlightened by the first gift of faith (the faith of hearing) producing the fear of God, or awareness of God and His judgement.  This compels one to the practice of virtue and the contemplation of created things (theoria of created things and God’s judgement).  As one grows in humility through the trials, afflictions and failures in the pursuit of virtue in the second degree of knowledge, a second faith (the faith of seeing) enlightens one to ascend to the spirit, the third degree of knowledge.  Here, through the divine theoria of unseen and immaterial (heavenly) things and through love, one is freed from fear of God (c.f.395 - 401).

But nowhere, as indicated above, does St. Isaac use the word theosis.  It is apparently not part of his vocabulary.  Neither does the Saint use the language of participation in his description of the highest levels of our human calling to know God and become like Christ.  Nevertheless, the idea of theosis is found in St. Isaac’s writings.  However, instead of the language of participation with God, St. Isaac prefers to speak of the acquisition of humility and being consumed by love.  And this, then, has been the purpose of this presentation: to show through an introduction to St. Isaac’s three degrees of knowledge that he does speak of becoming sons of God by grace, albeit not using the technical language commonly used in the Greek patristic tradition.

And yet, to attempt to parse out St. Isaac’s teaching on any topic as though neat formulae can be deduced from his writings is to betray him.  St. Isaac is a mystic and a poet, a man who speaks of the journey he himself has traveled and the mysteries he himself has known.  Nonetheless, as an aid to our weakness, I have constructed an awkward schematic of his teaching on the progress of the Christian to Christlikeness.  I have both introduced you to St. Isaac and misrepresented him to you.  To know St. Isaac you must read him yourself—but not with the information-seeking mind of the first degree of knowledge, nor even with the rational mind of the second.  St. Isaac lives as a saint in the heavenly reality and he himself must help us understand.  We must come to him in a way that approaches the third degree of knowledge, humbled by our weakness and ignorance and pierced by love for every creature.  Here St. Isaac himself teaches us not with words, but in silence, “the mystery of the age to come” (467).

We must also understand that although these three degrees of knowledge 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.

And so, to sum up using the words of St. Isaac: “The carnal man fears [death] as a beast fears slaughter; the rational man fears the judgement of God; but the man who has become a son is adorned by love and is not caught by the rod of fear” (438).  Or to quote one of St. Isaac’s many allegories:
As it is not possible to cross over the great ocean without a ship, so no one can attain to love without fear.  This fetid sea, which lies between us and the noetic paradise, we can cross with the boat of repentance, whose oarsmen are those of fear.  But if the oarsmen of fear do not pilot this barque of repentance wherewith we cross over the sea of this world to God, we shall be drowned in the fetid sea.  Repentance is the ship, and fear is the pilot; love is the divine haven.  Thus fear sets us in the ship of repentance, transports us over the foul sea of this life (that is, of the world), and guides us to the divine port, which is love (359).