“Until we find love, our labour is in the land of thorns.”
Last week I drove from Langley, British Columbia to Gull Lake, Alberta, which is about a 750 mile drive over the Canadian Rockies, each way. St. Philip Church in Edmonton was sponsoring the first ever Antiochian Orthodox youth camp in Western Canada. The camp was, it seemed to me, quite successful. We had 23 children ages 7 to 17. The camp facilities were excellent and the program went smoothly. The daily services were prayerful and the kids stayed mostly awake during the teaching times, and there was continual running and laughing and jumping and screaming and hugging during the activity times. By the end of the camp, all of the campers and staff were like old friends, each already looking forward to next year’s camp.
But camps are a lot of work—a lot of work, especially if there isn’t already a tradition to follow and every activity and exigency must be anticipated and provided for in advance. And once camp begins there is a lot of work and very little sleep—especially for the cabin counsellors and the camp directors. For clergy, it is pretty easy. All I was responsible for was to teach once a day and lead prayers and liturgical services. I could catch a nap in the afternoon and slip off to bed early if I wanted to. But I seldom went to bed early because often the most fruitful conversations I have with older campers and with the staff is late at night. Worn out by the day, teens and young adults often open up late at night in ways they wouldn’t normally open up in the day time. They ask questions late at night that they might never ask in the busyness of the day. And even if they don’t ask any questions, just hanging out with the young people earns credibility with them. They begin to see that I actually like being with them. Later, when they are ready to talk, they feel that they can approach me.
I think it is a good idea for kids to go to Church camp. I still remember a YMCA church camp I went to after sixth grade (and I remember very little else from that period of my life). A good church camp experience lasts a lifetime, it helps the kids know that they are not the only Orthodox Christian young people in the world. It give them opportunity to make friendships that can last a lifetime. It gives them an opportunity to experience an Orthodox lifestyle that includes daily morning and evening prayer and to experience teachers and other authority figures who are gentle and kind. It gives them a chance to experience their faith in a new environment and to begin to make it their own. When my children were young, I was hesitant to send them to camp (I was not a very trusting parent when it came to my children), so I volunteered to work at the camp. That’s how I initially got started in Orthodox camp ministry. This week too, we had a few parents volunteering. It think that’s a good way for parents (like me) to let their kids have a good camp experience but still be close enough to keep an eye on things. Plus, there is always work to be done and more hands make the work a little easier. Also, the parents may just get as addicted to camp as the kids do and turn out to be great supporters of the camping ministry in the future.
Just after I got back from the camp, I was speaking to a recent convert to Holy Orthodoxy about the camp, and he wanted to know what exactly I thought made the camp “successful.” In his previous church camp experience, success was measured in how many children made “decisions for Christ,” and the whole camp experience was seen as auxiliary to that one main goal. I explained to this person that Orthodox youth camping experiences are very different from that. At an Orthodox youth camp, the total experience is what is important. It is important that the campers have a fun, prayerful, educational and love-filled experience. The goal is that the children experience God’s love in the community of the Church. Everything is about experiencing God’s love, not just the services or the explicitly religious parts. And while it is certainly our hope that this experience of God’s love in the community of the Church stays with the Children all year long (and all life long), we do not look for any specific response from them except whatever comes naturally from them—most generally in the form of smiles, giggles and expressions of friendship.
The words of St. Isaac speak to me when I think of all that went into camp and the joy that seemed to flow from all of those who worked so hard: “Until we find love, our labour is in the land of thorns.” When we love God and love others, the thorns of hard work seem to melt away. Even my long drive to and from camp seemed blessed. I got to listen to a recording of a new book on the Septuagint (“When God Spoke Greek” by Timothy Law), which was interesting enough to keep my attention during the boring parts of the drive, but boring enough to be ignored during the stunning parts of the drive through the Rockies. I got to pray and chant psalms along with the chanters of St. Andrew Church (in Riverside, CA) which I had recorded on my phone. The whole experience was a blessing—a lot of work, yes; but a blessing more. Love makes the difference.
Now that I am back home (in the rain) and getting back to my normal routine, I find myself thinking about the campers and staff, praying for them, and feeling joy in my heart concerning the whole experience. Life goes on, and I work to do at home too. There are thorns enough here. But to tell you the truth, I don’t generally notice them. It’s kind of like picking blackberries. The thorns are huge and sharp and plentiful (and you do have to be careful), but the berries are fat and juicy and delicious, and when you see them, you hardly notice the thorns at all. It is not until the end of the day, when your bucket is full and your mouth and fingers are dark purple, that you notice the scratches on your arms and rips in your clothes and little trickle of blood from that one that got you as your reached for some particularly plump berries. Yes, the thorns were there, but you hardly noticed them. May God help us to love the berries in our life and hardly notice the thorns.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down! That the mountains might shake at your presence. (Isa. 64:1)
A common question people ask a priest goes something like this: “If God is real, why isn’t it obvious to everyone?”
One way I begin to answer such questions is by saying something like this: God is obvious to everyone—as obvious as the air we breathe. But just as we easily take for granted and no longer notice the air we breathe (unless there are some unusual pollutants in the air or we are having trouble breathing), so too we easily ignore the obvious reality of God. The only exception to this tendency to ignore the obvious, is when we intentionally pay attention. When I intentionally pay attention to my breathing, I notice the air. Similarly, unless I work at paying attention to God, I can easily ignore Him.
Many of us, however, would rather that God’s presence be less easy to ignore. Like Isaiah, we want God to tear open the heavens so that no one can deny the reality of the Creator. But this is the very thing God does not want to do. Archimandrite Vasileios says that “He exists as if He did not exist. He intervenes as if He were absent, out of respect for His creature.” God respects His creation so much that He treats the creation as He Himself would be treated: with freedom. God does not come to us in any way that would overwhelm us, that would strip us of freedom and force or coerce us to obey and love him. In fact, once obedience is forced, it ceases to be obedience—not the obedience of relationship, the obedience that a mother wants from her child or a lover expects from his beloved. Forced obedience is mere conformity to outer criteria. God does not want that, for it is no foundation for genuine relationship.
Neither does God want a forced love, a necessary love, a love that must be because there is not choice. The only love God wants is that love that is freely given. The freedom God gives us is the freedom befitting God Himself. As I said above, God treats us as He would be treated. Were God to manifest His power, we would be overwhelmed. We would not understand it. We would be much like the children of Israel, who shuddered at the foot of Mount Sinai while the mountain itself quaked, but before forty days were passed, they had already begun to worship a calf made of gold. We would be in awe of the power, not the Person. We would tremble at the manifestation, but be unable to apprehend the Person behind the manifestation.
God comes to us with humility. God comes as a still, small voice. God comes as an infant in a manger. God humbles Himself and becomes a human being so that we can come to know Who He is, His personality, what God is like. Archimandrite Vasileios puts it this way: “I—the [One who is] beyond-being, come down, I empty myself, I approach you, I become one with you in order to make you my own; in order to save you by teaching you things untaught. By saying to you through my conduct that ultimately, what is great, unapproachable and terrible in me is not the power, the inconceivable magnitude, but the ineffable love, the kindness of beauty and the condescension of humility that is manifest in the way I behave.”
The manner in which I exist is the kenotic mode of love and sacrifice. Do not be afraid of my power, then. You should be afraid of my ineffable goodness and humility. You should be afraid, not because I threaten you, but because I respect you more than you deserve or understand.” [The Thunderbolt of Ever-Living Fire, p. 50]
God teaches us about Himself by his conduct, by the way He behaves. God respects us. God grants us the freedom worthy of gods. And this, not God’s might, is what we should fear. God lets me have what I want.
You might object: “No He doesn’t! I seldom get what I want.”
That is because you want what is not possible. You want corn without planting. You want flowers without gardening. You want love without sacrifice and self control. You want to sow folly but reap wisdom. You want reality to be something different from what it is. No, this is not possible, not for creatures. God gives us freedom, and we build houses on flood planes. God gives us freedom, and we build houses without basements in tornado country. God gives us freedom and we give guns to boys and fill their minds with hatred. God gives us freedom and then we call the consequences of our exercise of that freedom “the wrath of God.”
But even this suffering, this experience of what is called the wrath of God, even this—and perhaps especially this—reveals God to us, the God who became man and suffered. In our suffering we can, if we are willing, come to know the God who also suffered, the God who suffered all of the consequence of sin, all of what we call the wrath of God. God suffered as a human being, willingly, to show us the way, to show us the way of love, the way of freedom, the way through death to resurrection. And in showing us the way, God has revealed Himself to us.
What does God look like? God looks like Jesus. And so when God does come down, He does not rend the heavens; rather, He allows himself to be torn. God comes down and the mountains do not quake, but the gates and bars of death and hades are destroyed. God comes down and the angels of heaven sing, but only a few shepherds are listening. God comes down and only a few wise men from afar notice the Star. God comes down and enters the Temple of His people and only an old man and prophetess recognize Him. God comes down in such humility and meekness that only those who are looking for Him see Him. And in coming this way, God has torn the false heavens and shaken the lying mountains that have told us that God is proud and angry and full of vengeance toward us. It is only this false notion of who God is that has been torn and shaken.
The most important thing that we say in confession has little to do with what we say. The most important thing is what is in our heart, or the condition of our heart in confession. When we come to confession, many words are not necessary. In fact, many words generally only muddy the water and reveal a mind that is not settled, but is rather still self-justifying, still trying to “get a handle on it” as though you could actually fix this problem yourself if you could only just figure it out.
The most important thing to bring to confession is a broken and humble heart. A broken and humbled heart God does not despise, the Psalms tell us. A broken and humbled heart expresses itself in simplicity, with few words: few words with much meaning.
There is no figuring it out in confession, but there can be revelation. In fact, so long as we continue trying to figure ourselves out, we will run in circles. As dogs chase their tails, human beings chase their thoughts. Around and around and around. The same arguments, the same frustrations, the same dead ends. Around and around and around. We have to stop running. We have to stop chasing. We have to admit, we have to confess, that we will never catch it, we will never figure it out—and even if we did, even if we did figure out why we sin in the many broken ways we do, still then, there would be nothing we could do about it. Catching her tail, the dog only bites herself.
But if we let go of the convolutions, if we stop chasing the thoughts and give up, if we just sit down and cry, then something begins to melt in our hearts. Then we feel the pain of our brokenness, the deep sadness of a broken heart, a heart that we cannot control very well, a heart that lusts after what we don’t want and hates what we long for, a heart that is broken. This is the beginning of self knowledge. It has absolutely nothing to do with figuring out. It has very little to do with psychology. It has almost everything to do with seeing, admitting and accepting that you are indeed broken. This is the beginning, this is the beginning of humility. And humility is the beginning of becoming like God.
When God revealed Himself to mankind, He revealed humility. This is what God showed us about himself when He revealed Himself to mankind, this is the quality that most defines God for us: love revealed by humility. This is how God reveals Himself: Not by power. Not through justice. But in Humility. God, who is whole, took on himself that which is contingent to teach us the way, to teach us that in accepting our contingency, dependence, inability, and brokenness we begin to imitate God. We begin to find salvation.
But we don’t want to be contingent. We don’t want to be broken. Like Eve in the Garden, we want to take for ourselves that which will make us what we want to be (wise, beautiful, well-provided for). Apart from God, we want to become like gods. We want to do it ourselves, our way, the way we like it; but in the end (and we have experienced this time and time again, this is not just philosophy or ancient mythology it is our daily experience), in the end we are merely driven by forces beyond our control: serpents and passions, culture and circumstance, need and opportunity. Like Eve in the Garden we are deceived, and we don’t want to admit it. We don’t want to admit it: we want to explain it: It’s her fault, it’s his fault, it’s not my fault.
We are stuck on fault, on guilt, yet fault is not the issue. Like a sick child who has caught a cold playing in the rain. Figuring out how he caught the cold does not help heal the cold. But to heal the cold, we have to first acknowledge that we are sick, that we are sick and cannot heal ourselves. This is why we come to confession. We come to confession to say that we are sick, that our body and mind is out of control, that we need a physician. And just this act, this act of contrition, this act of humbling ourselves, and saying out loud: “I am badly broken and I cannot fix myself,” this act begins to heal us. Why? It begins to heal us because we have already begun to see reality, to see who we really are, and to find the place where God meets us.
God saves the poor and needy, but for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is almost impossible. The way a rich man can enter the Kingdom is by seeing his poverty. It is the broken and humbled heart God does not despise. When in a few words, with simplicity, we can admit our failings, our brokenness, our faults, then the pain in our heart speaks. This pain is called compunction. And when compunction speaks, few words are needed, simplicity is everything, explanations are the meaningless.
When we come to confession, we come to God, as to a Physician, a Physician who listens more to our heart than to our words. Preparation for confession has much less to do with scribbling down lists of mistakes and sins as it has to do with allowing your reflection on your sins to break your heart—or rather letting yourself feel the brokenness that is already there. When we come to confession with compunction, with pain in our heart, then we confess everything with few words, few words and much meaning. When we come to confession with compunction and humility then we already have begun to be healed, we have already begun to reach out our hands to our loving and humble Father, to the Physician who heals our soul.
“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.
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.
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
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
"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.'"
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.
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.”
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
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.