Friday, September 12, 2014

Error To The Right

The Spiritual Life is Not a Race

The Fathers and Mothers of the Church often speak of two ways we err in our pursuit of godliness: to the left and to the right.  Error to the left is the error of casting off restraint, of giving in to temptation, of letting go of all discipline.  It is what St. Isaac calls in one place, “the freedom that precedes slavery.”  We can easily err in our pursuit of the Christian life by being too easy on ourselves, by not disciplining and controlling our thoughts, words and actions.  However, this way of err is pretty well known.  Many of us have been warned repeatedly of the dangers of relaxing our discipline—we have been warned so much that we may have even developed a fear of letting up, a fear that we might loose everything if we relax in one area or another.

But this overemphasis on discipline and the fear of erring to the left has pushed many (Yours Truly included) to err to the right.  Erring to the right refers to becoming too righteous.  Consider the words of Ecclesiastes 7:16: “Do not be overly righteous, Nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself?”  This warning from the Bible is echoed throughout the spiritual writings of the Church fathers and Mothers.  

St. Isaac the Syrian also warns against “immoderate activity.”  One of the themes in St. Isaac’s homilies, a theme that he picks up from St. Macarious the Great (whom St. Isaac often quotes), is that so long as we are in the body, we are subject to change.  This change St. Isaac blames on the “humours,” following the medical understanding of his time.  Today we might speak of hormonal changes, changes in stages or circumstances of life, or changes in body chemistry (e.g. diabetes, diet induced changes, or stress induced changes).  St. Macarious likens the changes we endure to the atmosphere: just as we have no control over the weather, we have very little control (and often no direct control) over changes in mood, attitude and feelings within us.  Until our death (that is, so long as we are joined to what St. Paul calls “this body of death”) we will have to endure changes.  For this reason, we must be both disciplined and moderate in our spiritual pursuits.

St. Isaac puts it this way (and here I am summarizing):  If we err to the left by being too relaxed with ourselves, by not guarding attentively what we think, say and do, or by not keeping disciplined in our life of prayer and virtue; if we err in this way, we will find ourselves falling into confusion leading to temptation by lusts.  If, on the other hand, we err to the right by being too hard on ourselves, by being immoderate in our righteous works (including both external works and private prayer life), then we will also fall into confusion leading to despondency and despair: “Righteous works with moderation and…perseverance are beyond price; slackening in them increases lust, but excess, on the other hand, increases confusion.”

Moderation with perseverance are the key.  

Let me tell you a story.  A certain friend of mine has found a great deal of peace in praying the Jesus Prayer.  He has developed a friendship with a monk at a nearby monastery, and over the years, this monk has become his confessor.  My friend was afraid to ask his monk confessor for a prayer rule because he knows the monk prays (it seems to him) unceasingly.  Particularly, he was afraid to ask for a specific rule regarding the Jesus Prayer.  The monks in this monastery pray the Jesus Prayer exclusively for an hour each day and then continually throughout the day.  He was afraid that if he asked for a rule, the monk would give him something too big for him to do regularly.  After several years of relationship, my friend finally got up the courage to ask his confessor for a rule.  And you know the rule the monk gave him?  Not 100, not 300, not 500, but 50.  Fifty Jesus Prayers anytime during the day that he could fit it in—even while driving to work!

“Fifty Jesus prayers”, my friend told the monk, “that’s easy.  It takes less than ten minutes.”  And then the monk told him the same advice St. Isaac is telling us today:  “The secret to developing a prayer life is to begin very small and to stay consistent: you can always pray more if you want, but you don’t have to.”  

Prayer rules are funny things, in my experience.  (Not “ha ha” funny, but ironic funny.)  A small, easy to keep, regular prayer rule—even if it is only the Our Father muttered sincerely from your heart before you get out of bed in the morning—even such a small prayer rule, does more real, long-term good in our lives with God than do longer, more strenuous rules that we either continually fail to complete or (worse case scenario) we complete with frustration in our hearts.  Prayer requires discipline, but it is a life-giving discipline.  Disciplines that leave us depressed and confused are almost always manifestations of error: error to the right.

I think for many people, and this has been the case in my life, it often comes down to humilityor lack thereof.  I have wanted to think of myself as someone who is sincere and fairly mature in my Life in Christ, and whenever I have let this thought abide in my mind, it has resulted in my biting off more than I can chew.  I commit myself to habits of prayer that I cannot keep over the long haul, I commit myself to good works that I just don’t have the energy to do (not without sacrificing my family or some other responsibility that I already have), I commit myself to behaviour (righteous habits) that have more to do with what I think I ought to be like than they have to do with any genuine desire to love God and neighbour.  And when I fail in these commitments, as I always do, I return to humility (humiliation is often a doorway to humility).  

The advice of St. Isaac and St. Macarius can save us, can lead us to humility another way.  If we can observe and accept the reality in ourselves of our changeability, of our feebleness and our brokenness, then we can make a beginning with something small.  Since I know, for example, that cold rains are common here where I live, I’d be a fool to begin a long walk without rain gear—even if the sun is shining right now.  Similarly, since I know that I am spiritually weak and my inner world is subject to storms and snows and blustery days, it is foolish of me to begin any righteous endeavour without taking precautions for these realities, this changeableness that I know exist in myself—even if today I feel like I can climb Mt. Tabor to be transfigured with Christ.  The reality is that tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day, I won’t.  I stand a much better chance of actually climbing the mountain of holiness if I just get used to camping about the base for a long while.  The air is very thin on top of the mountain, and I get winded just walking about its base.  

It’s a good thing that our spiritual life is not a competition.  I think St. Paul’s metaphor of spiritual life as a competition may have made much more sense before the era of capitalism.  Nowadays, we have a terrible fear of losing.  We have a fear that if we don’t try hard enough, God will abandon us.  We fear that we will miss out, be left in the dust, or just somehow fail to make the grade if we don’t burn ourselves out climbing mountains too steep for us, doing righteous deeds that are too hard for us.  We don’t really trust in God.  We don’t really believe that God loves us, that we already have everything in Christ, and that any work we do is just so that we can better appreciate and perceive all that God has already given us.  We don’t realize that we misunderstand God and His calling in our lives just as easily by trying too hard as by not trying at all.


The Christian way is the middle way, the way of humility and life-giving discipline.  It is the way of trusting in God—it is not about trusting in my ability to please God.  

Friday, September 05, 2014

Advice On Distracting Thoughts In Prayer

I just received the newsletter from St. Barbara’s Monastery, in Santa Paula, CA.  I consider the Abbess there, Abbess Victoria, my first spiritual father.  Or as I sometimes say, “my first spiritual father was a mother.”  In this newsletter, Abbess Victoria gives excellent advice on what to do with worries and other distracting thoughts in prayer.  I can think of nothing more edifying than to share with you than what she has written.  She writes:

The advice of our Holy Fathers and Mothers is simple and direct, but probably too difficult for us to use all at once without practice.  They remind us that worries are temptations and that, when beset by worries and troubles of all kinds, we should as Christians give them over to the Lord and do this as quickly as possible.  How?  Not by some extraordinary feat of concentration whereby we might herd our thoughts into a box and seal them away!  Not at all!  Rather, when we cannot simply turn away from them, we do this by making our worries the very subject of our prayers.  The only sure way to put our worries to rest is to ask the Lord—not neglecting to employ the intercession of His saints—to resolve whatever is troubling us in whatever way He deems best, thus surrendering the outcome into His hands.  Our Holy Fathers and Mothers lived their daily lives on this exalted and most simple plane.  Not only do such prayers resolve the difficulties themselves causing our worry.  They bring peace of heart, purify, correct and illumine our thoughts, and lead us to repentance and pure prayer—the prayer that is beyond words.


However, to repeat what was said above, to live and pray this way takes practice.  As with anything else, at first one must remind oneself that there is a way to be rid of the burden of worry, and the way is Christ.  Then, one must make the effort to turn to Him, to pour out one’s worries and troubles to Him, and to give the burden of them to Him.  Over time, one finds oneself referring to this pattern more and more readily in the face of whatever comes until it is simply second nature.

I have to say that this is about the best, simply-presented advice on overcoming distracting thoughts in prayer that I have ever come across.  Yes, it’s not easy—it takes practice.  But it is very simple advice.  We have to give what is causing us worry to God in prayer trusting Him with the outcome.  In this way, any distracting thought can become prayer.  Even shameful or sinful thoughts.

How can this be?  When a shameful thought comes to my mind in prayer, if I can’t immediately turn away from it, I then “show” it to God or His Mother in my mind as further evidence of my poverty and need for help and mercy.  Of course, I am not really showing God anything He doesn’t already know about, but the intentional act of mentally pointing out to God the filth or frivolity that happens to be tormenting my mind at that moment shifts my focus from the distracting thought to a certain shame and humiliation I feel knowing that God and even His Holy Mother take pity on me and still come to me despite the pig muck that sometimes tenaciously sticks to me.  Those feelings of shame and humiliation reduce my prayer to nothing but a heartfelt “You see what a mess I am, please save me.”  This is a prayer that, in my experience, God always answers.  

I have found that feeling ashamed and humiliated before God and the Saints is very beneficial, salvific even.  Of course, one has to have correct theology or else shame can be destructive.  If one wrongly assumes that God’s love is based on our performance or our righteousness, then shame only produces guilt and a sense of hopelessness.  If one wrongly thinks that one has to clean him or her self up before they come to God in prayer, then they will quickly give up on prayer.  However, if we liken prayer to the Prodigal Son’s coming to his senses and beginning his walk home (with big clods of pig muck hanging from his clothes, mashed in his hair and clinging to his bare feet), then we too—regardless of what ugly swinish thoughts may be bombarding our mind—we too can come to God in prayer.  Like the Prodigal, we come stinky and covered with muck (our filthy thoughts), but like the Father in the parable, God runs out to meet us.  And it is this encounter with God (when He clothes us) that cleans us up.

Prayer, when I struggle with unclean thoughts, is sort of like a filthy child coming to Mum and saying, “I need a bath.”  Yes, it is embarrassing.  Yes, it is humbling.  And yes, Mum loves me and will not reject me; she will clean me up.

We had a young family over for dinner last week who have a two year old boy (Samuel) they are potty training.  I was amazed by the love and trust this little boy had in his parent’s love.  With his wet pants he came to his mum and dad, not really ashamed at all, almost wondering where these wet trousers came from.  Dad rushed him to the toilet. Mum ran out to the car to find the bag with the extra clothes.  Baby sang songs on the toilet.  Mum set a timer to set him on the toilet again later.  Baby played happily in his new clean pants until the timer went off about an hour later, and led to the toilet he peed, accompanied by parental shouts of joy.

I want to be like little Samuel in my relationship with God.  I am a spiritual two year old and God and His Mother and my guardian angel and all of the saints (its a big family) are training my little two year old spiritual mind to stay out of the gutter of empty or unclean thoughts.  Like little Samuel, I sometimes get it, but I often don’t.  But even when I fail miserably, I do not doubt my family’s love.  I do not doubt that mum will change my pants.  I do not doubt that God will come to my aid.

Of course, I would rather think of myself as a more spiritually sophisticated person than that.  But maybe that’s my big problem in the first place.   I am not always calling out to God for help.  I am not always keeping disciplines, like timers set to help me remember when to pray and how to avoid spiritual “accidents.”  I think I am beyond such things.  I think I am ready for school when I’m still not quite ready to be out of diapers.  But regardless of my maturity or lack thereof, God’s love is a constant.  And assured of God’s love no matter what, I can bring any “mess” I find in my mind to God in prayer—which I often do.  


St. Paul asks us, “Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?”  Nothing.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God—not even my mental ugliness, confusion and distraction.  All of this can become prayer because none of it changes God’s love for us.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Church Camp, Blackberries and Thorns

Berries in my back yard

“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.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

What Does God Look Like?



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.  


Saturday, August 09, 2014

Coming To Confession



What do we confess in confession?

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.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Like Jonah In The Whale


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Surviving The Valleys

Homily 70

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, July 11, 2014

Signs of Forward Motion


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What Does God Expect From Us?


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

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

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


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

Thursday, June 26, 2014

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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