Sunday, May 31, 2009

What is worth living for ? A response

You have really asked the fundamental question: What is worth living for? You are right that an external constraint to be good only proves to be a burden that eventually produces some form of mental illness either because of guilt because you ignore the “rules” or fundamentalistic self-righteousness and condemnation of others because you deceive yourself into thinking that you are keeping the “rules.” Why bother? Of course, libertinism only produces more suffering. Suffering is a symptom of our sickness and of the sickness we impose on each other and the world. Suicide may take us out of this world, but it doesn’t change us. At least from an Orthodox perspective, heaven and hell are ways to experience existence, and you don’t have to die to begin experiencing either. I know people whose life is hell and I know a few who already taste heaven. As for me, I experience hellish periods (some last moments, some days); but I smell, sometimes, the roses of heaven, and I try to follow that fragrance.
I think the problem lies in a religious milieu that tends to posit knowledge of God as either emotional high or as ridged conformity to rules. This of course is no one’s dogma, but it is the experience and practice of many, many Christians of all stripes. Finding God, if you really find and know Him, makes suffering through life worth it: suffering has meaning in Christ. The problem is how to find, really find, Christ and know Him.
Genuine life in Christ is full of paradox. I think it begins with hope, even the faintest wish that the Creator cares about me. But this care is not like the Baalim, the gods of the world, who in exchange for sacrifices and offerings of various types promise material happiness and power. This care is rather that of a conscientious doctor who desires to heal the patient, not pander to the patient’s delusions. We are very confused children, sick in our minds and hearts; and if we can begin in hope to trust the Physician—because like physiotherapy the healing process is somewhat painful—the small “deaths” we experience through forgiving ourselves and others and turning away from ways that we hurt others begins to produce a kind of resurrection in our minds and hearts. There are no rules outside our heart, but then again our hearts are sick. We need guidance, a spiritual mother or father to help us along the way. But we live in a day in which reliable spiritual fathers and mothers are rare, and most of us stubble along through trial and error, gleaning bits of wisdom from wise people here and there.
And yet hope shines like a little light in a very dark room. We take small steps toward the Light, toward the True, the Beautiful, the Simple. Along the way we learn about ourselves, how sick we really are, what’s real and what’s delusion, what’s love and what isn’t. And part of the paradox is that the less we care about our healing and health, the more clearly we see ourselves and act and think in healthy ways. The more we look at ourselves, the less we see and the more deluded we become. And so we look to a model outside ourselves: “Looking to Jesus, the Author and finisher of our faith.” I’m not talking about the Jesus of Sunday School and of nine year olds. I’m talking about the Jesus who entered the insane world of a woman who had had five husbands. The Jesus who touched the raving maniac and calmed him. The Jesus who called religious hypocrites vipers and white-washed tombs.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Watch out for big words

A weary priest, after listening to a college student share in rapture all that he has learned from the latest Life of an elder on the Holy Mountain: “Prayer of the heart? Theosis? These are big words. Do me and yourself a favor. Don’t speak those words again until you have either (A) spent a least fifteen years in a monastery under obedience; or (B) you have raised at least five children to love Christ and His Church. Once you have done either of these, then, maybe, you will be able to begin to say these words. For right now the words for you are patience, kindness, faithfulness, and self-control. These words will keep you busy for the next twenty years. Learn to say these little words, then you may come to know how to pronounce bigger words.”
One of the stumbling blocks I find in parish life is that single adults are reading spiritual material written to challenge and stir-up the spiritual life of experienced monastics, and thinking that they understand it! As a pastor, I find that the a young person can carry on happily in his or her delusion—reading more spiritual books, visiting monasteries, and “explaining” Orthodox spirituality to their non-Orthodox acquaintances--until their delusion of spiritual knowledge is shattered by the realities of marriage and family life. I cannot tell how many times I have sat with a weeping young married man or woman who was afraid that he or she had lost Grace.
“By the time I have gotten up two or three times during the night because of the baby,” a young mother says, “I can’t keep my eyes open to say even one prayer from my Rule. Then once I’ve cleaned up breakfast, started the laundry and picked up the house, it’s time to start making dinner. My heart feels so far from God. I can’t even pray in Church. I spend the whole time taking the baby in and out. My spiritual life doesn’t exist anymore.”
A similar tale is told by a young father, working 50 to 60 hours a week at his first real job, trying to make it up the initial rungs of a corporate ladder, barely making rent and car payments. “I try to say the Jesus Prayer as I drive to and from work, but my mind is buzzing with things I have to remember for work or things I have to do at home. I have no peace. When I get home, it is all I can do not to yell at the kids and be angry with my wife. I have not read a spiritual book in years. I am depressed because I seem to have fallen so far spiritually from where I was before the children came along.”
These are not unusual tales, as any parish priest can tell you. Somehow the responsibility of family life throws young parents into a spiritual crisis for which the Church and our culture has not prepared them. While there may be many causes for this lack of preparation, one that seems to be functioning in the church is what Alexander Schmemann called a “monastic trend.” That is, so much emphasis is placed on individual piety, spirituality and asceticism, that young Orthodox Christian adults do not recognize the spirituality of self sacrificial love when the circumstances of life finally force them to practice it.
To a certain extent, this monastic trend (or as a friend of mine called it, “anchoritization”) of popular Orthodox piety is unavoidable. In all western cultures, including many traditionally Orthodox countries (Greece and Russia, specifically), the individual is king. Almost no one lives in an extended family. Technology has made dependence on local community, on the neighbor (whether you loved him or not) a thing of the past. It is really easy to convince myself that I love my neighbor when I don’t even know his name. I succeed if I work hard and am lucky. I fail if I’m lazy and foolish. If I’m spiritually inclined, I grow in my relationship with God through my spiritual activities. Even alms giving is a disembodied act: IOCC conveniently accepts credit card donations and distributes aid to people I will never meet. And of course, all of this success or failure, spiritual growth or not, is at my own pace. No one tells me what to do. I choose my own books, I choose my own spiritual exercises, and if I’m so inclined, I choose my own spiritual father, whom I can ignore if I choose.
Those who actually enter real monastic life discover the communal nature of Christianity right away—they choose nothing. Those who follow the path of marriage often are not confronted with genuine community life until the children come along. For many, this is the first time in their adult life that someone else is telling them what to do. This is the first time they are compelled by love to lay down their life for another. The problem is that no where along the line of their Orthodox Christian experience has it been made clear to them that such self sacrifice is what Christianity is all about. Consequently, young parents are confused: how can losing my “spiritual” life be gaining it?
Books like Mountain of Silence provide a mixed blessing. On the one hand they introduce the Orthodox Church and spirituality to a world hungry for real spiritual life; on the other hand, they do not, they cannot, make evident that the apparently individual spiritual struggle that they describe takes place in a community of self denial and obedience.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

For fear of the Jews

One of the phrases that repeatedly appears in the biblical and liturgical texts surrounding the death and resurrection of our Lord is "for fear of the Jews." This is a very misleading, though accurate, translation of the text. It is accurate because, well, that is what the text says. It is misleading--and, I might add, has been used to justify terribly inhuman behavior to Jews throughout Christian history--because it gives the impression that "the Jews" who were feared were somehow a different race or religion from those who were fearing. This is not the case. The followers of Jesus--those who were fearing--were all Jews, too. Gentiles (non-Jews) did not begin to join the followers of Jesus for many years after the resurrection. In fact, the first big argument in the Church was whether or not non-Jews could be followers of Jesus at all.
Within a couple hundred years, the phrase, "for fear of the Jews," actually began to have a meaning that is the exact opposite of what the original writers intended. What the biblical writers intended is something like what I might mean if I said in a letter to my bishop, "We fear the British Columbians." I and everyone in Holy Nativity (except one couple who commutes from the States) are British Columbians. At the time of the Apostles, when all followers of Jesus were Jews, Judea was under foreign occupation by the Roman military. The name "Christian" had not yet been coined--they were just followers of the Way, one of many sects of Judiasm. At that time, Jews were generally in fear of the Romans. But the biblical writers want to make clear that it was thier own people and their own religious and political leaders (and not the Romans) whom the followers of Jesus were fearing. They do not fear someone from another group, a religous or political or racial foreigner. Rather, they fear their own family.
Today, and thoughout most Christian history, "Jew" has referred specifically to a non-Christian religious group, often conceived as a different race from the Christians. Consequently, a phrase like the following, spoken by St. Peter on the day of Pentecost, has almost the opposite meaning today as it did 2000 years ago.
"Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
When Peter, the Jew, said this, he was speaking to Jews. In this sentence, "you" means "us." Today, "you" means "not us, but them."
Therefore, I do not like the literal translation of "Jew" in biblical and liturgical texts. It just doesn't mean what it used to mean. Furthermore, and this is huge, throughout history this changed understanding has been used as a defense for the undefendable brutality of powerful Christians against Jews. Therefore, wherever possible, I prefer translating "Jews" as either "the people" or "the rulers" or "the Judeans" depending on the context.
Unfortunately, I am on no committies for liturgical translation. I do not have the authority to change texts (only bishops do). However, if you ever hear me reading the Bible or a liturgical text and substitute "Judeans" or "leaders" for "Jews," now you will know why.