Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Prayer

This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world;
So let no one threaten;
This is the night of the Most Gentle One -
Let no one be cruel;
This is the night of the Humble One -
Let no one be proud.
Now is the day of joy -
Let us not revenge;
Now is the day of Good Will -
Let us not be mean.
In this Day of Peace -
Let us not be conquered by anger.
Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.
Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.
This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.
Today the DIVINE BEING took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of DIVINITY.
(St. Isaac the Syrian)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Joseph Shows Mercy

According to the Proto-Gospel of James, Righteous Joseph was away for the summer doing construction work while the infant Christ was growing in the womb of Mary.  In the autumn, Joseph returned home to find his espoused wife seven months pregnant.
The details of this encounter between Joseph and Mary are not recorded in the Scripture.  A few of the Fathers of the Church have attempted to construct a possible dialog between the two, with a frustrated Joseph making accusations and a preachy Mary quoting scripture.  I find such supposed dialogs hard to imagine.  After all, the Gospels say that Mary “treasured these things in her heart,” implying that she was not wont to talk about her spiritual experiences.  Also, Her Son when accused was silent.  I tend to see the encounter as St. John Chrysostom does.  Sticking closely to the biblical text, as he usually does, St. Chrysostom says that Mary remained silent before her husband’s questions and doubts--whatever they were.  And we know from the iconographic tradition of the Church that Joseph did struggle with doubt.  
In the icon of the Holy Nativity of Christ, usually in the lower corner, one sees a thoughtful Joseph being spoken to by what looks like a shepherd often wearing a furry coat.  That fellow represents doubt.  And why wouldn’t Joseph struggle with doubt?  After all, the Annunciation took place between the Mother of God and the Archangel Gabriel when Mary was alone.  And according to the Gospel, Her cousin Elizabeth was the only one who knew of Her pregnancy (and that by revelation).  Joseph had gone off to work well before Mary began to show her condition, so when he came home, suddenly he was confronted with an obviously pregnant espoused wife.
On many levels, Joseph was in a pickle.  Mary was a well known consecrated Virgin.  According to Church Tradition, after She had been reared in the Temple--probably by the Righteous Anna (see Luke 2:36)--and when she reached marriageable age, Mary had to be married to a righteous man for her protection as a consecrated Virgin (Her father and mother having died and there being no near family to take her in and protect her).  According to both the Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew and the Proto-Gospel of James, lots were cast by the priest among eligible righteous widowers to determine who would have the honour of receiving the righteous Virgin into his home.  The purpose of this “marriage” was not pleasure or procreation.  The purpose of this marriage was to provide a place of safety for this well-known young woman to continue her life of prayer and consecrated Virginity.  This is why a candidate for this honor was chosen from among old widowers who had already established families.
But less than a year after the Righteous Joseph had received this great honor of protecting the Virgin Mary, she is found pregnant in his house.  What was everyone to think?  Had Joseph failed to protect Mary?  Had Joseph himself violated Her? Or had everyone been deceived?  Was the Holy Virgin not the holy virgin she appeared to be?  Doubts assailed the Righteous Joseph.
In the Gospel of Matthew we are told only the following details of Joseph’s struggle: “After [Jesus'] Mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.  Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make Her a public example, was minded to put Her away secretly.”  
Note it says that Joseph was a “just” man (this, indeed, is why in the Church he is called the Righteous Joseph).  Normally we associate justice with the application of the law.  But Joseph does not seek to apply the law.  According to the Law of Moses, a betrothed woman who is found pregnant is to be stoned to death in the city gate.  No, Joseph does not seek to apply the law.  The moniker “Just” does not refer to justice as we most commonly understand it.  Justice for Joseph is to show mercy.  Justice for Joseph is to quietly send Mary away (perhaps to a cousin in the countryside).  Justice for Joseph is to bear the reproach he would certainly suffer so that his betrothed wife does not suffer any more than the consequences of her presumed actions require.  Even in the face of sure ridicule and public shame, and certainly with great disappointment and confusion, the Righteous Joseph decides to show mercy and protect from severe punishment his apparently unfaithful wife.
And then the Angel comes to him in a dream.
Why did the Angel wait?  Couldn’t Joseph have had the same dream two or three days earlier--the night before he arrived home?  Why did the Angel wait until after Joseph struggled through his doubt, anger and frustration?  The Angel waited because Joseph was a just man, because in allowing Joseph to struggle to show mercy in the face of doubt, Joseph’s righteousness is manifest.  Who he is, is manifest in what he does.
And isn’t it the same for all of us?  It is only after we choose mercy, it is only after we choose kindness, it is only after we choose self control that the Angel comes to us, that we know that we have made the right choice.  
Doubt in all its forms blankets our life.  There is no easy way to know what the right (the just) thing to do is.  But the Righteous Joseph provides an example for us.  No matter how loudly the “facts” cry out that justice lies in the way of punishment, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).  Or as the prophet Zachariah says, “Execute true justice: Show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother” (7:9).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bearing Fruit in Good Works

In Colossians chapter one, St. Paul prays for the Colossians that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and live (“walk”) in a manner worthy of and pleasing to the Lord, bearing fruit in good works and increasing in their knowledge of God. In order to do this the Colossians are to be “empowered with the strength that is according to God’s glorious might.” But then comes the surprising part.
We think we already know what it means to bear fruit in good works pleasing to God. Good works, we assume, are to do something, to accomplish something. Especially when St. Paul’s prayer uses synonyms for power three times, we assume that the good works pleasing to God have to do with the accomplishment of some great task, a feat, the overcoming of some injustice or the establishment of some righteous policy or institution. For us, bearing fruit in good works that are pleasing to God means doing something that can be seen: changing the world--or a least a piece of it, a piece outside myself.
Ah, there’s the rub.
The surprising part of this prayer is that St. Paul tells the Colossians exactly how “the strength that is according to God’s glorious power” is to empower them to bear “fruit in good works.” The power is “for all patience [endurance] and longsuffering with joy” which is manifest in “giving thanks to the Father.” The good works that are pleasing to God are born and manifest in endurance and longsuffering with joy, in giving thanks even in distressing circumstances.
Suffering is a part of life. Everyone suffers. Endurance and suffering for a long time (i.e. longsuffering) is nothing unique--it is the common human lot. What is uniquely Christian, what requires the power of God, is to endure and suffer for a long time with joy and giving thanks to the Father. Without the power of God, we suffer only as Michael Henchard does in the Mayor of Casterbridge, of whom Hardy says, “Misery taught him nothing more than the defiant endurance of it.” However, by the power of God, suffering with joy and thanksgiving can become a means of growth and transformation.
This is counter-intuitive. How can enduring evil transform it? Aren’t we called to change the world? Isn’t that what it means to do good works? Aren’t Christians called to be “salt and light” (i.e. agents of change)? The short answer is no. We are called to be changed and be transformed. We are called to transform that part of the world and its evil that dwells within ourselves. Then, as God wills, the world outside ourselves will be influenced.

The crucible of our transformation is the patient endurance of suffering with joy and thanksgiving by the power of God.
Patient suffering with joy and thanksgiving is not all the Christian life is about. This is, after all, only one of St. Paul’s prayers. However, patient suffering with joy and thanksgiving is an essential part of the Christian life. It is a part wherein we share in the sufferings of Christ, a part wherein we bear fruit in good works pleasing to God, and unfortunately it is a part we’d prefer to ignore. We feel so much more comfortable imagining that God’s glorious power in our lives exists to help us to do something rather than to endure something.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

To Blush

This morning while waiting for the weather report on the radio, the announcer reported a study conducted by an on-line service that helps facilitate adulterous affairs (yes, such a site exists and, unfortunately, is quite popular).  According to this site, men give more expensive gifts to their mistresses than to their wives at Christmas.  
Apparently that’s news.  
I was not shocked to find out this bit of information, I was just embarrassed.  And yet for the news commentators, one male and one female, this was just an interesting and saucy bit of news-worthy information to be bandied for thirty seconds before the weather report began.  (And perhaps the commentators were embarrassed.  You cannot easily tell the attitude of someone's heart from their voice, especially the trained voice of a radio announcer.)
One of the conditions of a people who have forsaken God according to the prophet Jeremiah is that “they don’t even know how to blush.”  That married men and women have lovers is nothing new.  Why would God have to tell His people not to commit adultery if it were not common?   And it is not surprising that wealthy men and women give expensive gifts to their lovers.  Why would they need to give expensive gifts to their spouses who already have access to much of their wealth?  Throughout the ages and in all cultures, married men and women have been tempted to be unfaithful, and many have been unfaithful; but what is a particular manifestation of an advanced state of degeneracy is the inability to be ashamed about it.
And yet I think salvation is still possible.  I blushed when I heard this on the news.  I’m sure hundreds, maybe thousands, of others blushed.  I think it is possible to feel shame on another’s behalf.  I think this is part of the way “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.”  
When Lot was in Sodom, “his righteous soul was vexed day by day as he saw and heard of the unrighteous deeds of those he lived among” (2 Peter 2:8).  God spared the entire city so long as one person living there was “vexed” in his soul by the lawlessness he encountered.  One man blushed for the whole city.  
Moral outrage often is nothing but a waste of energy, and sometimes it is a platform for arrogance and self righteousness.  Moral outrage goes nowhere.  Shame, however, works in the heart and in the soul.  Shame creates a contrite heart, a contrite heart that God does not despise (Psa. 50/51).  When Lot felt shame, God sent an Angel to investigate.  When Lot felt shame, God sent His friend Abraham to intercede.  One man’s vexed soul moved heaven and earth on behalf of a sinful city.
In the end, not even God could save Sodom.  Man’s freedom is a profound mystery that even God does not violate.  If we consistently choose to pervert reality, God will give us the fruit of that perversion.  But before God can give the people of Sodom over to destruction, before the earth itself responds in perversity equal to that of men’s hearts, God removes from the city Lot, the one man who blushes.
To blush, to feel shame, to be vexed in our souls for the sins we see and hear about (our own and others'), this is one of the ways God saves a city, a family, a woman or a man.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Corporate Sin: Azariah's Prayer

When the Three Holy Youths were threatened with fire for refusing to bow before the golden image erected by King Nebuchadnezzar, they did not back down.  However, their confidence in the face of a fiery death was not due to a confidence that they would be delivered by God.  The Three Youths say to King Nebuchadnezzar that God is able to deliver them, but even if He doesn’t, they refuse to bow before the image the king had set up.  They did not believe that they deserved to be delivered from fiery death merely because they were doing the right thing, the righteous thing, the God-pleasing thing.
The prayer of Azariah (in the Septuagint version of Daniel) reveals why the three young men did not expect God to save them.  After being thrown into the flames and standing unharmed, Azariah says a long prayer.  The prayer begins with praise, but then quickly turns to confession of sin.  What is particularly instructive about this confession, is that it is all in the plural: “We sinned and acted lawlessly…. We sinned in every way…. Neither did we...do as you commanded…. All You did to us, You did in true judgement.”  Azariah confesses the sins of Israel, the sins of many generations, sins that resulted in the various invasions of Israel and ultimately in the destruction of Jerusalem.
Azariah, however, is not personally guilty of the sins he is confessing.  He was a boy when Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah--how could he be guilty of bringing this judgement?  Not only was he not personally guilty of the sins that brought God’s judgement on Judah, once captive in Babylon, he refused to eat the king’s (ceremonially unclean) food.  Azariah keeps the law of Moses while captive in a foreign country and at the risk of his life.  The Three Holy Youths really are holy.  And yet Azariah and his friends do not think their striving for holiness should set them above the consequences of the sins of others.  In fact, for these Holy Youths, there are no “others,” those sinners.  There is only “us,” the sinners.
Holy people understand that sin is not merely a personal matter.  Yet on a moral level, this concept is difficult for many of us to accept.  Most of us have no difficulty seeing that the consequences of sin are social.  When someone acts selfishly, even in ignorance, she or he hurts others.  How many of us trace our emotional problems and struggles with addictions to some neglect or abuse we experienced at the hand of another?  No, we as a culture have no problem accepting that the consequences of sin are corporate.  What we can’t seem to accept, however, is that the guilt for sin is also corporate.  My sin is your sin. It is our sin.  We are guilty.  We must repent.
Just as Azariah accepts the sin of all God’s people as his own, and thus accepts that whatever consequences he may suffer for that sin are just; so also does Azariah pray as though his repentance is not merely a personal matter.  His repentance is on behalf of the whole nation.  Azariah prays, “Yet with a contrite soul and humbled spirit may we receive mercy…. Let this be our sacrifice before You today, and may it be accomplished for those who follow you. Now we are following You with all our heart, and we fear You and seek Your face.”  Just as sin is a corporate matter, so is repentance.  
Sin and repentance are both personal and corporate.  In fact, if we understand “personal” correctly, we need not add any other word.  In Orthodox Christian anthropology, personal is not synonymous with individualPersonal is a community word.  A human person is always connected to all other human persons--just as the three Persons of the Holy Trinity are always connected to each other.  When one person sins, all people suffer (c.f. Genesis 3); and when one person is righteous, all people benefit (c.f. Romans 5).  Therefore the righteous acts of Daniel, Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael are not only for their individual salvation, they are for the salvation of all people.  Similarly, when we suffer the consequences of sin--death, disease, injustice--it is not generally because of some specific sin we have committed as an individual.  We suffer the consequences of sin because we sin, because human beings sin and we are human beings.
But here is the Good News.  We can repent not only for our individual sin but also for the sins of the world.  We can confess our sins to God--not their sins, our sins.  We can turn to God with “a contrite soul and humbled spirit.”  We can follow God with all our heart and fear Him and seek His face.  Just as Jesus bore the sins of the whole world, so too we who are in Christ bear the sins of all people with Him.  This is our Christian calling, to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.  This is our glory, to repent for our personal sins: the sins of the whole world.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Power and Humility

"The Lord Jesus Christ visited the earth in power and humility, in order to teach men to love God and man.  Men are powerless in themselves; love for God fills them with power.  Men are proud in themselves; love for mankind fills them with humility.  Love for man comes from love for God.  Humility comes from a sense of divine power.  All love for men without love for God is false, and all other power but that of God is proud and powerless.  But men have chosen a third thing, that is neither love for God nor love for men--they have chosen self-love, and this is a barrier that separates them from God and from men, leaving them completely isolated."


"Loving only himself, a man loves neither God nor his fellow men.  He does not even love the man that is in himself; he loves only his thoughts about himself, his illusions about himself."


St. Nikolai VelimiroĈˆ, from his commentary on Luke 13:10-17 "On the Twisted Body and the Twisted Souls"

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Susanna

In the biblical story of Susanna as recorded in the Septuagint version of Daniel, the virtuous Susanna is falsely accused by two elders who had hoped to coerce her into immoral relations with them.  The description of the fall of these two men is quite helpful in that it describes the two stages that most people pass though as they fall into temptation. 
The first stage of the elders' fall is the cultivation of desire.  Susanna’s husband was a wealthy man and owned a large house where the Jews captive in Babylon would often meet to discuss their plight and resolve conflicts among themselves.  As honored members of the community, the two elders, who were also appointed judges, would stay longer than the rest enjoying the hospitality of Jehoiakim, Susanna’s husband.  It says that the elders would see her go into and walk about her garden every day, and they desired her.  
Notice that they would see (or a more accurate English word, watch) her every day.  Even after immoral desire had been aroused within them, they continued to watch her, they continued to pay attention to what was arousing their immoral desire.  They did not heed the lesson of Joseph who fled, even naked, to avoid temptation; nor the lesson of Phinehas who used violence within the tent (that is, within his heart) to check the immorality of Israel; nor the lesson of Samson who lost all of his strength through an immoral relationship.  These elders continued to watch knowing full well that the desire being aroused in them was evil.
But being enthralled by what arouses temptation is not the whole story of their fall.  The next verse tells the rest of the story.  Sin is not merely a matter of what is outside us and how we relate to it when tempted.  The next verse says, “They turned away their heart and averted their eyes from looking to heaven, from remembering righteous judgments.”  Sliding into a temptation is always a movement on two fronts.  It is a movement of one’s attention to what arouses the temptation and a movement of attention away from heavenly things.  It is possible to be godly and struggle with temptation, but once you cease remembering--calling to remembrance--God in your heart, the struggle is over.  Sin wins. 
Then follows what I think is the saddest line in the story: “they were pierced to the heart.”   
The wounded hearts of the elders allow them to see Susanna no longer merely as someone who arouses desire in them.  Now they no longer see her even as a someone.  In their wounded hearts they have already murdered her, they have already reduced her to an it, a means to an end, an expendable, consumable something.  Sin wounds our heart and makes it easy for us to murder others, to transform them into its.  And when the wound is not cured, the wounded heart follows us into our graves.  
Death, eventually, claims all.  In the story, Susanna is justified and the elders are condemned.  But even if Susanna had not been justified, even if injustice had triumphed--as it often does, or so it seems--Susanna won.  The elders lose no matter what the temporary outcome had been.  The full knowledge of what they have done in their hearts and tried to do in action torments the elders forever.  This is what Jesus calls Gehenna, “Where the worms that eat them do not die and the fire is not quenched.”  Susanna on the other hand, whether death comes sooner or later, forever shines with the divine Light in the eternal Kingdom of God.  Her conscience is clear, there is nothing to torment her.
Susanna is the hero of this story: the righteous person who refuses to let the fear of Power compromise her integrity before God.  She suffers false accusation, and some would call her a victim, but I would not, at least not a victim as it is commonly understood.  Susanna is not a victim because she refuses to descend to the level of abusive power.  She refuses to be made a victim.  For her, misunderstanding and death are preferable to fear.  When accused in court, she doesn’t even respond to her accusers.  She weeps and looks up to heaven while the elders accuse her; and when they finished she “cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘O eternal God, who know both what is secret and all things before they come to be, You know these men testified against me falsely, and behold, I shall die, though I did none of the things they wickedly invented against me.’”
She doesn’t even condescend to respond to her accusers.
So then, maybe Susanna is a victim, the kind of victim Christ is, who Himself did not respond to His accusers.  While unlike Christ, Susanna could not summon ten thousand legions of angels to her defence if she chose to.  She did not have the option of over powering her enemies. Yet like Christ Susanna commits herself and her suffering and the unrighteous judgment against her to God.  Like Christ she commits herself to “the One who judges justly,” win or lose, live or die, honor or dishonor.  Like Christ Susanna bears (endures) before God the sins of others, and in so doing she shares in the victory and resurrection of the Victim who bore the sins of us all.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Megamind

What happens when bad becomes boring? This is one of many questions related to good and evil raised in DreamWorks animated movie Megamind. The tagline gives the viewer fair warning: “A superhero movie with a mind of its own.”
Without telling you any more than is revealed in the trailer, the movie is about an evil villain with a large mind and “the hue of a popular primary color.” Megamind is bad, he wants to be bad, it’s his destiny. He just isn’t very good at it. Metro Man is the superhero who saves the city, is loved by all, and who relishes his pop star status as, well, a pop star. And the damsel in distress, news reporter Roxanne Ritchi, just isn’t in distress, much to the consternation of the evil Megamind.
Megamind not only plays with the problem of badness gone banal, but also with questions such as what causes someone to be bad, and whether or not a bad good guy is worse than a good bad guy. These questions are explored in a cartoon reality that spoofs the super hero genre with wit and compassion, compassion for the bad guy, for the good guy, for the girl who refuses to be a victim, and even compassion for the bad good guy whom the good bad guy creates to be good, which his evil assistant, Minion, insists will be bad for bad, but who turns out to be good for bad, but not in the way that the good bad guy expects. Got it?
Super hero movies work because human beings tend to absolutize moral good and evil. We categorize good and bad in convenient ways that ignore how we too participate in bad and emphasize how others participate in bad, or at least in what we prefer to call bad. And once we have acquitted ourselves of much badness, we reduce the matter further by assigning certain symbols and symbolic actions to badness, and then even further to stereotypes and finally badness by association. The good guys always wear the white hats, or in Metro City, the white capes, don’t they? How is this much different from the good guys always wearing NATO insignia or Allied uniforms, or carrying police badges while the bad guys wear turbans, or SS uniforms or sport gangland tattoos? The messy reality of our common human predicament is just too much for most of us. It’s so much easier to stereotype, to scapegoat.
But we are only fooling ourselves. The mess is ours and we are all culpable. In a fallen world, good and bad are very slippery commodities. If, as the Scripture says, “none are good, no not one” and “no one is good but God alone”; then probably the good guy versus bad guy myth is not very helpful. And in as much as Megamind tweaks that myth, I recommend it. It is also pretty entertaining, “G rated” (although it carries a “PG”), witty and leaves you feeling both feeling good (oops, there’s that word again) and thoughtful.

Friday, November 26, 2010

On Judging Pharisees

"He who searches the heart knows what the mind of the Spirit is.” There is a tension in the life of the Christian between law and Spirit, and often it is a very uncomfortable tension.
Those of us who have tried to take St. Paul’s advice and live by the Spirit, as in “walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh,” have quickly discovered that without some rules, some guidelines, “walking in the Spirit” quickly degenerates into doing what I think is right, which is hard to distinguish from what feels good to me at the moment.
And what feels good to me is not always what breaks the rules. What feels good to me might be what appears righteous, even though it might not be the mind of the Spirit. Jesus’s eating with publicans and sinners certainly never appeared righteous, yet Jesus always had the mind of the Spirit. One of the central themes of the Gospel is that harlots and sinners enter the Kingdom of Heaven before those who are externally righteous. The passions of inordinate desire are no less the mind of the Spirit than the passions of vanity, pride and self-righteousness. In fact, several of the Fathers of the Church have argued that inordinate natural desires (addictions to too much of what is natural to desire in appropriate contexts and in appropriate measure) is far less spiritually damaging than the spiritual, demonic passions of pride and her children.
How easy it is to slip off the narrow way! How difficult it is to attend to the mind of the Spirit! Having been filled with the Holy Spirit, we have grieved Him, and thus find it difficult to attend to His voice.
Keeping moral and religious rules does not make us righteous--but such rules do point to righteousness. Rules are important. Rules guide us, or better yet, guide us to the Guide. Because rules are important, St. Maria of Paris (Skobtsova), herself a famous and saintly rule breaker and martyr for Christ, wrote the essay “A Justification of Pharisaism.” In it she argues that those who keep with unbending strictness the rules of the Church, those who seem to sacrifice all compassion for the sake of keeping the rules exactly as they have been handed down, they too have a very important role to play in in the life of the Church. They preserve the Tradition. They preserve the rules that point to the Rule, to the Holy Spirit.
Just as it is wrong to judge sinners, it is also wrong to judge Pharisees.

Only God knows the mind of the Spirit. We see in part and know in part. We each struggle to stay on the narrow way, sliding neither to the left (licentiousness) nor to the right (self-righteousness). “The letter kills,” St. Paul tells us, “but the Spirit gives life.” And yet, not being full of the Spirit, having grieved the Spirit and struggling in repentance to be filled again, we look to the letter to guide us, to guide us to the Spirit who gives life.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Something To Be Thankful For

Some days I am more thankful for being an Orthodox Christian than others.  This morning I was more thankful.  I was thankful that I didn’t have to create the words for my prayers.  My mind was hard to control this morning.  Thoughts were leading me this way and that.  Nothing particularly evil.  Just a constant barrage of strong impressions, ideas, thoughts, and moments of disconnected pseudo insight.  (By pseudo insight I mean thoughts that have just enough promise of profundity to keep my mind off what I am doing, and that soon fizzle out with nothing left but the temptation to try another line of inquire in the thin hope that by wasting just a little more mental energy I will actually find something to justify the complete absence in my mind of the psalm I just read out loud.)
But that is pretty much the secret.  Keep reading out loud.  Keep saying the prayers.  Sooner or later the wind dies down and the part of your mind that has been fluttering in the breeze like a loose tarp can be tied down and attention returns to the present, to the prayers, to the still, small voice that is not in the fire or in the storm.
I’m thankful that I do not have to figure it all out.  I can enter into a tradition that thousands of men and women much more spiritually capable than I have found works.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Facing Myself




I wonder if most of us have had this experience. You sin against and/or with someone and soon afterward feel regret. In fact, you feel so much regret that you admit to yourself and to God that you have sinned. And your conscience still bothering you, you set out to do what you can to make the matter right. However, to make the matter right, or at least as right as possible, turns out to be much more difficult and more involved, than you expected.
It soon becomes apparent that to make it right, as right as you would like to make it, will involve admitting your sin to others, others whose opinion of you matters, others who you would prefer not know about it, others whose mouths you have no control over. And coming up against such a social penance more severe than we had bargained for, we decide that perhaps it is better for all concerned to let the matter blow over. “I’ve confessed to myself and God that I have sinned,” we say to ourselves, “and I have made at least some effort to make it right.” We may be spurred, at least for a while, to make an extra effort at prayer or religious observance or even charity. And then in a fit of self righteous justification we may even throw in, “and besides, if God really wanted me to do more He wouldn’t have made it so difficult.”
Some inner reasoning similar to this goes on in the mind of Michael Henchard at the beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Throughout the novel Henchard’s unwillingness to be humbled by the revelation of specific instances of his various weaknesses--although the general outline of such weaknesses are known to all--creates situations in which even greater humiliation is inevitable. Eventually his own integrity, the same integrity that smites his conscience every time he grievously sins, this same integrity nettles him into swings of mood: from volcanic anger to “oppressive generosity” to mopey self-pity and depression. Eventually he sabotages himself, again and again. What was hidden is revealed and the fall is humiliating; though, ironically, it is not viewed nearly so badly in the eyes of others as he supposes.
Henchard is his own fiercest critic. What hurts Henchard most is not what others actually think of him, but his inability to tell the story of himself that he wants to tell. Circumstances, failures, and weaknesses of personality all work to tell a story of Michael Henchard very different from the story Henchard tells himself, very different from the story he would like to tell others.
But one of the beauties of the way the world works is that, from time to time, reality catches up with us. Sooner or later most of us have to confront ourselves as we are. And that moment of confrontation is, if we will let it be, a moment of salvation. It is perhaps necessarily a painful moment, for as it has been noted by many, pain has an amazing ability to get our attention.
I have often said that God meets us where we are, not where we wish we were. Sometimes, if we will not look humbly and soberly at ourselves as we are, then in the natural course of life’s events, who we really are grabs us and makes us take a good, hard look--no matter how much we’d rather not.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ezekiel's Temple and the Human Psyche

St. Gregory the Great comments that the heavenly temple described by Ezekiel (chs.40-48) is a type of the soul. Because this part of Ezekiel and much of the rest of the book are apocalyptic in nature, we must realize that these images refer to spiritual realities that cannot be nailed down in tight correlations such as X only and always represents Y. Nevertheless, within the Church certain interpretations of apocalyptic images have stood the test of time. One of those interpretations is that of the temple as the image of the human soul. Of course, this is not new to St. Gregory. In the New Testament, believers both corporately and individually are referred to as temples.
As I was reading Ezekiel’s account of the heavenly temple and reflecting on how the layout of the temple reveals the architecture of the soul, the following impressions came to me. These reflections use some contemporary psychological categories--not because I think contemporary psychology accurately describes the human psyche (“psyche” is the Greek word for “soul”), but because we have very few words in English that can be used to describe the inner workings of the human being. Therefore, I ask you to bear with me. Please use the psychological term to help you look inside yourself to see beyond the term to what is actually going on inside yourself.
Ezekiel’s temple, like all of God’s temples described in the Bible, has three areas. The outer wall delimits the first area called the outer court. This is the area of the ego. Here I would like us to understand ego as the story we tell about ourselves. That is, the outer court corresponds to the self we choose to see ourselves as, the self we present to others. This outer self is not a reference to anything that can be seen by others. It is hidden within us by the outer wall, but it is the self we see ourselves to be. This identity is based largely on the story we have told ourselves about our own life.
We all like to say things like, “that’s just the way I am”; however, it doesn’t take too much reflection to realize that “who I am” is really “who I have become,” or “who I want to be based on the options I seem to have.” As our psyches (souls) develop from childhood, we are assailed by impressions, urges, fears, desires, and thoughts all of which are influenced by real and imagined experiences. We observe people and imagine what may be motivating them (because actually we really do not know what goes on inside someone else). We experience neglect, misunderstanding, lack of restraint, too much restraint, want, abundance and thousands of inherited and biologically induced tendencies and proclivities. All of these are at work in and upon us, and how we relate to them--influenced a great deal by how we have observed others relate to what seem to us to be similar experiences--all of this together forms our story of ourselves, who we tell ourselves we are.
However, this outer court, this story of ourselves, is overseen by a deeper self: the inner court. The inner court might roughly be thought of as the super ego (but please try to leave the Freudian baggage behind). This is the self that ponders and considers and chooses. This inner self interprets experience and can reinterpret the story of the self. It is this part of ourselves that has the ability to change the self. When I realize that I do not like who I have become or I do not what to become the person my story of myself is telling me I will be, the inner self is the part of me that has the power to change. It has the power to retell the story. The power to repent.
Of course, our story of ourselves is not directly a story of outcomes or of behaviors, it is an inner story of who we are striving to be or of who we are just letting ourselves become. Life circumstances and habituated thought patterns and behaviors make it difficult (but very seldom impossible) for us to change our thoughts and behaviours in ways that are apparent to others. However, the inner story can be changed dramatically, even if the outward behavior does not seem to change much or changes very slowly. A person who is addicted to a substance or a behavior or a relationship (or set of relationships) may repent, may begin to retell the story: “No, this is not who I am. No, this is not who I want to be. No, I will not be defined by this mess I have gotten myself into.” And although the inner self may begin to retell, and indeed fight to retell, the ego’s story, finding ways to actualize the better, new, retold self takes time, persistence and patience. While the inner story may change dramatically and even relatively quickly, changes to our outer lives seldom come in bucketfuls. Drop by drop we seek out and find ways to manifest ourselves according to the new story, the story of who we are becoming, of who we want to be.
And by the way, as a side note, this is part of the reason why we cannot judge others. We do not know who a person is striving to become based merely on what we can observe.
When Ezekiel describes the inner court of the temple, the only decoration he mentions are icons, images painted or engraved on the walls of palm trees and cherubim. The cherubim are angels who are depicted each with two faces: that of a man and of a lion. I think these images function as the conscience of the soul. That is, they represent both the sweetness (date palms) and the severity of God imprinted in us as unalterable images by which our inner selves may continually evaluate our outer story of ourselves. This image of God’s sweetness (God’s unchanging love for us) and severity (God’s unchanging nature) acts as a spur in our mind prompting us to evaluate our lives and encouraging us to repent.
However, as everyone who has seriously tried to change the story of themselves knows, it is not easy to repent. Our old selves and the circumstances of our life and our habits operate as a great inertia. Really our habits of thought, of thinking about ourselves according to the old story, operate like a huge flywheel ever turning in one direction. Our small drops of resistance seem futile (they are not futile, but they seem futile). Without help, we despair, and we slide back into old patterns. We slide back into the self we hate, the self we don’t want to be, the self whom we tell ourselves can be no other, the story (the life) we are trapped in. And if we cease resisting the flywheel of old habit long enough, even the conscience becomes dull, maybe even silent.
But the temple has three courts. The inner court is the court of the priests. The priest is the mediator. While the priest watches over the outer court (the ego, the story of the self) the priest (high priest in the Old Testament) also has access from the inner court to a court that is still deeper. In the temple, this innermost court is the Holies of Holies. There is no English word that I know that roughly equates to this as it applies to the psyche, to the soul. However, a Greek word is often used by Orthodox spiritual writers that I think equates to this innermost chamber of the self. The word is nous. Nous is commonly translated “mind” or “intellect,” but what these words mean in English is not what the Orthodox spiritual writers mean when they use this word. For the purpose of this essay, let’s just say that the nous refers to that inner, inner self, the place where we can meet God.
As a culture, we imagine heaven (the place where God is) as some place far away, some place “out there.” However, according to the image of the biblical temple, God is not “out there,” but “in there.” The spiritual writers of the church say that the doorway to the kingdom of heaven is in our heart. By heart, I do not mean the seat of the emotions. For the fathers of the church, heart is generally (but not exactly) synonymous with nous. The doorway to God is within our innermost self.
Repentance, changing the story of my self, is only really possible with the help of God. In fact, often the very difficulties I encounter as I try to repent, to retell the story of myself, force the inner me (the priest) to turn more inward still, to turn to God for help.
“Vain is the help of man,” the psalmist tells us. I think we all learn this lesson the hard way. We all learn that the help we need to become our better selves seldom comes from outside ourselves. Sure there are those who help us, who make it easier for us to do what we want to do (that is, what we really want to do, not what is easy or habitual or what we are driven to do). And certainly there are many who make it harder for us to be who we want to be, people whom we need to avoid, if possible, if we are going to retell ourselves. However, even the best mentor and the most holy spiritual guide, in the end, will fail us. In the end, the only helper is God Himself. And the only way to find God is to enter the holy of holies within our own hearts.
What a good spiritual father or mother will do is help you enter the holy of holies within yourself. A good spiritual father or mother will not tell you what to do (except, perhaps, to suggest specific disciplines [“obediences” or practices] to help you strengthen one area or another). A good spiritual father or mother will help you accept the blood of Jesus, the perfect temple sacrifice by which the priest may enter the most holy place. He or she will help you accept the forgiveness of sins that cleanses our hearts and makes it possible to enter “with boldness” the holy of holies, the innermost court, the presence of God within our hearts. And meeting God in our hearts, we find “grace and help in time of need.”
We are living temples, both as persons filled with the Holy Spirit (or at least potentially filled with the Holy Spirit) and as “living stones” built together as one “spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Interpreting our inner life according to the three spaces of the biblical temple (outer, inner and innermost), may help us better understand ourselves and help us better find our way through repentance to God. May God grant it.