Sunday, January 31, 2010

Merely Human Weaknesses

One of the challenges of life is navigating the physical and spiritual natures of reality. The Church is always living in both realities at the same time. And sometimes, the people who are more gifted at moving through the physical nature of things are not as gifted at the spiritual and vice-versa. When churches have to make decisions about money and property, things are complicated by normal communication problems, exigencies, fears, and all sorts of human weaknesses. So the challenge, the martyrdom really, is to maintain peace no matter what, even when you see believers lose it over something as apparently spiritually insignificant as money or property—and people will lose it: get angry, say things that are inappropriate, accuse, etc. Nevertheless, as in martyrdom, what witnesses the Life of Christ is the peace and utter trust in God even when things are not working out, when things are unfair, when people are (literally or metaphorically) killing you. Please try to keep this in mind.
Church politics are just like any other kind of politics. People feel strongly about their ideas; and if they are prone to anger or judging others or any other sort of weakness, it will come out when they are confronted by other people with different ideas that they feel just as strongly about. Bishop Joseph says that such things are “merely” human. What he means is that they are products of man’s fallen nature and shouldn’t shake us: the church is a hospital full of sick people. Should we be surprised if sick people behave as sick people? What is important is to separate what is merely human from what is divine. We so easily forget that Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation.” So when we see turmoil and politics with people acting as mere humans, we should not take it to heart, but “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” We must try our best not to get sucked in to the energy of upset people. Breathe deeply and slowly, pay attention to your heart (your peace in Christ) and as much as you can work to defuse people and problems before they explode. But even if they do explode (causing all sorts of additional and unnecessary damage), remember that God is God. Our life is in his hands no matter what.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Make Haste and Come Down

At a friend’s request, I’d like to write a little about Jesus’ words, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down.” As you recall, Zacchaeus is sitting in a tree when Jesus “looked up and saw him, and said to him” these words. Zacchaeus is a man who wants to see Jesus but because of his short stature, and because of the crowd, he cannot. Some of the Fathers of the Church interpret his inability to see Jesus as a kind of blindness, not unlike the blindness of Blind Bartimaeus whom Jesus had just healed before entering the city. Zacchaeus’ blindness, however, was a blindness caused by a spiritual illness called avarice—the love of money.

The crowd who surrounded Jesus could be likened to the worldly cares that because of Zacchaeus’ avarice were all that he could see. Interpreted more broadly, this crowd—the same crowd who told Blind Bartimaeus to be quiet when he yelled for Jesus to have mercy on him, the same crowd who will follow Jesus to Jerusalem to shout Hosanah at His entrance, and the same crowd who a few days later will cry out “crucify Him, crucify Him”—this same crowd represents the fickle jumble of distractions, excuses and bad experiences with religious people that keep any of us from seeing Jesus. But Zacchaeus was determined to see Jesus. The text tells us that “he ran ahead [of the crowd] a climbed up into a sycamore tree, for [Jesus] was going to pass that way.”

Please note that Zacchaeus was active: he ran and he climbed. Zacchaeus didn’t wallow in his weakness, in the unfair reality of his short stature and that he couldn’t see through the crowd of people who always seem to be surrounding Jesus and making it impossible to see Him. Zacchaeus left the crowd and made use of the instrument at hand to increase his height. He climbed a tree. This tree could be interpreted several ways. It could refer to the Law of Moses. It could refer to the tree of Knowledge. It could refer to prayer and spiritual activities that lift one’s mind above the worldly level. In fact, the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbs could refer to all of these and more, for it represents anything we can do that might get us in a place where we can see Jesus. Desire and longing must lead to action; otherwise, we are deluding ourselves to say we want something—want to see Jesus, for example.

But notice, again according to the text, Zacchaeus doesn’t see Jesus. Jesus looks up and sees him and calls his name. Desire and longing lead to action, but human action never makes us worthy nor earns us the right to have spiritual insight—to see Jesus. God is always taking the initiative and coming to us, nothing we do makes Him come. Nevertheless, our actions have a great deal to do with whether or not we are (mentally and spiritually) in a place to hear Him when He calls our name. Prayer, fasting, alms giving, study, self discipline, charity, and all of the various activities and disciplines that the Church recommends to us are like trees God has put along the way, the way he will pass by. When we climb these trees we are putting ourselves in a place where we can see and hear when Jesus looks up and calls our name. And what does Jesus say to Zacchaeus after He calls his name? Jesus says, “Come down.”

A couple of years after I had become Orthodox, I had the opportunity to have a long talk with the abbess of a small monastery. I was sharing with her some of my troubles and stumbling attempts at prayers. After I had babbled for a long while, she said to me the following: “Whenever you are praying and you sense the Holy Spirit stirring in your heart, stop praying and pay attention to what you are feeling.”

“Stop praying?” I protested.

“Yes. Stop praying with words. The purpose of prayer is to cleanse us and prepare us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. When that begins to happen it is time to leave the words and try as long as possible to pay attention to the quiet presence of the Holy Spirit in your heart. Once your mind begins to wander again, that is the time to resume your prayers.”

When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “make haste and come down for today I must stay at your house,” the tree has fulfilled its purpose. The tree was no longer needed; indeed, the tree was in the way. The whole purpose of religious and spiritual activity is to make our hearts vessels able to receive the Holy Spirit, to make our houses a place where Jesus can enter. Once this happens, we need to come down: we need to shift our focus from the “running and climbing” of religious and spiritual activity and pay attention to the presence of the God who is calling our name.

It does sound rather arrogant to claim that I or anyone who is not already a saint could have such an experience, to hear Jesus calling my name, to sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in my heart. With Nicholas Motovilov (in his conversation with St. Seraphim) I want to protest: “How do I know it is the Holy Spirit?” How do I know whether this calm, peaceful presence I sense is really the Holy Spirit and not just another distraction keeping me from my spiritual discipline? How do I know? I think the answer to this question is twofold. On the one hand, as St. Seraphim says to Motovilov, it is very simple. That’s it. It is simple. You just know. On the other hand, you can’t know—not in the same way you know that two plus two is four or that the yellow mug sitting on my desk is half full of poorly brewed, lukewarm coffee. The presence of the Holy Spirit in my heart is known neither through logical certainty nor with my physical senses. The voice of Jesus calling my name, the presence of the Holy Spirit in my or anyone’s heart is known intuitively, noetically, through discernment and by experience.

Ultimately, on a human level, the only real evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life is holiness. The Spirit of Holiness manifests holiness wherever It goes. The evidence that Zacchaeus had heard the voice of Jesus and that Jesus had come into his house is the changed life of Zacchaeus: “Behold I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore it fourfold.” No house stays the same after Jesus enters.

Most of us do not experience a repentance as dramatic and public as Zacchaeus’. Most of us experience repentance rather in dribbles. We have a faint inkling of the voice of Jesus calling our name. We feel a slight conviction, we think (we hope) maybe it is the Holy Spirit, that we should do some small act of goodness or love, or that the attitude we took with our spouse or child or coworker yesterday was really quite selfish and unloving. We act on this feeling. We say we are sorry. We force a little more self control on ourselves. We let go. We confess. We ask for help. Dribbles. But dribbles of living water, dribbles of repentance.

And so like Zacchaeus full of longing we run and we climb. We say our prayer rules, we keep the fasts, we give generously, we go to Church. We do all these things in longing and hope, waiting for Jesus to come by and call our name. And when He does—or when we think He does—we come down. We make haste to obey, to repent, to make room in our heart for the Guest who today must come and stay in our house.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On Virginity

One must be careful interpreting apocalyptic books, most particularly Daniel and the Revelation. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is not to teach, but to inspire and reveal—not in the sense of explain, but in the sense of pulling back the curtain of time and space to expose in symbol and metaphor some of the reality hidden behind reality. From the early days of the Church, Christians have gotten themselves into trouble and formed various sects around charismatic leaders who thought they had the key to interpret the apocalyptic books and passages of the Bible.
Nevertheless in these books faithful Christians throughout the ages have found grace-filled impressions, glimpses into the heavenly realm, that have inspired self control in the face of abundance and martyrdom in the face persecution. One image that has been particularly powerful is that of the 144,000 (12 X 12 X 1000: the full completion of God’s work throughout the ages—the twelve patriarchs representing the faithful before Christ’s advent, and the twelve apostles representing the faithful of the church, and one thousand representing all of the ages). These faithful witnesses are the “redeemed from the earth.” These are the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb. Both St. James and St. Paul refer to all believers as the firstfruits of God, so it is not stretching it too far to say that the 144,000 of the Revelation represent all believers.
One statement concerning these 144,000 that is particularly inspiring is that they “were not defiled by women, for they were virgins.” Virginity throughout the Bible (Old and New Covenants) has been held up both metaphorically and literally as a standard for one’s relationship with God. Indeed, by the end of the Revelation, we discover that these 144,000 are none other than the Bride of the Lamb, who have keep themselves pure—the Bride of Christ. On the one hand, this virginity is metaphorical, for the Church recognizes many saints who were not biologically virgin, from former harlots and debauches to holy mothers and fathers of children. Furthermore there are the martyrs who as a part of their martyrdom suffered physical defilement of various kinds, none of which altered their status as virgins among the 144,000 redeemed of God. But on the other hand, the church has also valued biological virginity.
Even under the Old Covenant, where begetting was the name of the game, biological virginity was the only (righteous) norm for all relationships except between husband and wife. This norm is so ingrained in the Jewish culture that the prophets are able to hold up the woman who bestows her “favors” on “every high hill and under every green tree” as the powerful and easily recognizable image of the unfaithful people of God.
Under the New Covenant, or really at the juncture of the Old and New Covenants, virginity and begetting meet in one woman: Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Son of God. Mary is the prototype for all faithful followers of the Lamb. She is both Virgin and Mother. And for Christians throughout the ages, she has been seen the Proto-Christian, the first to carry Christ within her, the first to bear Christ and the first to follow, love and adore Christ. Mary’s virginity is both biological and metaphorical. And many Christians have followed her example, manifesting in their bodies the purity that is (or at least is developing) in their souls. Under the New Covenant, virginity, without forbidding marriage, becomes the preferred way of life for the one who wants to devote himself to caring “for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord.” Marriage is still holy, and “the marriage bed undefiled,” but now the Kingdom of Heaven has been revealed, and this passing world is no longer our home. No longer is the promise of God an earthly homeland to be inhabited by our biological decedents, but a heavenly one to be filled with those born from above.
In a few places in the world, where almost every village has a monastery nearby, it is not so difficult to see the value of biological virginity in helping one attain the spiritual virginity of which the first is a sign, metaphor and aid. But in western cultures, where virginity has been under attack and monasteries destroyed since the Reformation, and where nowadays it is popularly viewed as a curse to be remedied as soon as opportunity and equipment allow, virginity has no meaning to many Christians. Perhaps this is part of the reason why many Christians have a hard time relating to the Mother of God. Perhaps it is because there is no cultural impetus to value virginity that many people don’t realize that they need the intercessions of the most pure Virgin. And yet the image from the Revelation shines brightly: the Bride of the Lamb is a pure virgin. May God, through the prayers of His ever virgin Mother and of all the holy ones who throughout the ages have striven for pure devotion in both body and soul, grant us unworthy ones, who live in a world that laughs at virginity, virgin hearts and minds that can begin to see the value of virginity in all its manifestations.

Friday, January 15, 2010

On Steps to Knowing God

Some Christians tend to simplify spiritual life into steps or principles that can be easily communicated: Twelve Steps/Four Laws/Seven Principles of Salvation, or of A Successful Marriage, or of A Prosperous Business, or of Raising Godly Children. But the problem with this way of dicing up wisdom or knowledge is that once someone begins to look at salvation, for example (or any other aspect of life), as a simple matter of “Four Spiritual Laws,” they then begin to base their faith, their security in God, on those laws. While laws and principles have a use in that they can help us begin to think rightly about God or marriage or raising children, they are really only just aids. Reality—especially spiritual reality—is much bigger than any set of laws, principles or steps. And those who tie themselves too tightly to their neat little set of laws, steps or principles (no matter how helpful they may have been in the past) will sooner or later be confronted with the harsh reality that life, especially spiritual life, is much bigger than their laws, steps or principles allow for.

When this happens, unfortunately, people often give up on God altogether. Or worse, they demonize everyone who does not fit into their scheme of reality. The Fathers of the Church recommend a different way.

The Fathers say that to really know God, you have to be willing to ascend the Mountain into the “thick darkness” with Moses, leaving behind easy answers, wise insights and even reason, and enter into direct encounter with God beyond all reason and categories. And the irony is that it is here in the direct encounter with God, that God sometimes gives laws; but laws are not an end in themselves. Laws, principles, steps, teachings, and traditions all exist to lead us back to God Himself.

It is kind of like Zacchaeus climbing the sycamore tree to see Jesus (next Sunday is Zacchaeus Sunday, so I have read St. Gregory Palamas’s and St. Nicholai Velimirović’s sermons on the story). Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but the crowd was in the way: he was a short man. (His short height may be a reference to his lack of spiritual inclination, insight or ability.) However, in spite of the crowd, Zacchaeus ran ahead (he didn’t wait for the crowd) and climbed up the tree (which perhaps represents learning, study, prayer, law, and all of the things we might do to seek God). But notice, Zacchaeus does not see Jesus, Jesus sees him! Nothing we do makes us worthy or “earns” knowledge of God. However, God sees our desire and our effort and our longing and reveals Himself to us. We can only discipline our bodies and minds in such a way as to be ready to obey when Christ does “look up” and calls our name. Then, notice, the first thing Jesus tells him to do is to get down from the tree.

François Fénelon says something similar. He says that when someone is converting (and this happens repeatedly throughout our lives in different areas or in the face of new temptations, opportunities, realizations, and situations), the first thing that is necessary is to gain wisdom. But once we begin to gain wisdom, we must see the limits of that wisdom and the dangers of becoming wise in our own eyes. Finally, real knowledge of God (which includes knowledge of God’s presence in my marriage or business or in raising my children) only comes with the abandonment of what can be known, in order to know Him who cannot be known except in “thick darkness.” There is no static point, no point of self-satisfied or confident security. We are always growing. Our security is only in the knowledge of God, a knowledge which is beyond what is called knowledge.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fr. Hopko on St. Seraphim on the Holy Spirit

Please, listen to this lecture by Fr. Thomas Hopko on St. Seraphim's conversation on the Holy Spirit. It is very encouraging, enlightening and edifying. The talk is about an hour long, so you might want to download it to listen while on the go. You will be glad you did.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Successful Spiritual Warfare

It is interesting, given the amount of time I spend talking about spiritual warfare with my more zealous parishioners, how little the New Testament speaks of spiritual warfare. The New Testament does indeed speak of it, but really much less than it focuses on the result of successful spiritual struggle. The most famous passage on spiritual warfare, the one that immediately come to mind, is Christ’s exhortation in the Sermon on the Mountain. “Wash the inside of the cup and the outside will be clean as well.” What we allow to circulate in our minds is what will be manifest in our lives; therefore, the sins of murder, adultery and lying (as examples) all begin in the mind. The mind is where the battle must be fought and won, as St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”

Nevertheless, most of the exhortations of the New Testament do not deal with this inner, mental warfare, but rather with the result of this warfare: what we actually do, how we actually live, the way we love one another. In 1 Timothy, for example, St. Paul near the beginning explains to Timothy that “The purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith.” Developing a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith are all matters of spiritual warfare, but the purpose of these is love—spiritual warfare is not an end in itself. By the end of chapter one, St. Paul is charging Timothy to “wage a good warfare” the result of which will be good conscience and a faith that does not suffer “shipwreck.” What a non-shipwrecked faith looks like, what someone with healthy faith actually does, is subject of the rest of the letter.

First, someone who is effective in spiritual warfare prays and is thankful for all men. Note, St. Paul says the prayers are for others. Inasmuch as the focus of our prayers is on our own struggles, we may be completely missing the point of spiritual warfare. Successful spiritual warfare results in the abandonment of self into the hands of God (with all its conflicts, irresolutions, doubts and unruly thoughts and urges) so that love of God and neighbor become dominant. “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” When we let go of ourselves—including the preoccupation with fixing ourselves—then God’s desire becomes ours. God’s desire is a desire that goes out, out to neighbor, out to other. It is a desire to give ourselves, as our Master has, as a ransom for all, as an offering of service, as a living sacrifice wholly acceptable to God. However, for St. Paul, this offering of ourselves involves very specific attitudes and behaviors.

Women are to dress modestly and learn in silence and submission (ouch. I note that men also must dress modestly and learn in silence and submission, but for whatever reasons—and the text makes mention of reasons that are theological, not primarily cultural—St. Paul feels it’s necessary to emphasize this matter in regard to women. However, this is just as St. Paul and other New Testament writers emphasize certain behaviors—not loving money, for example— that are required of all, when specifically addressing certain groups—leaders, for example). Bishops (which would include priests at this point in history), deacons and deaconesses (translated “their wives,” but was probably a reference to female deacons) are held to a very high standard of behavior. Those who lead, who are examples to the rest, are chosen not because of the success of their inner warfare per se, but because successful inner warfare has produced a godly life.

And godly life is really what most of the New Testament exhortations are about. Godliness (the word could also be translated piety) is a quality of life and behavior that is easily (even by unbelievers) identified as dominated by love of God and neighbor. The way masters and slaves relate to one another, the way children relate to parents, and husbands relate to wives, and how the rich relate to the poor, all relationships are to manifest godliness. Godly behavior is the fruit of spiritual warfare.

St. Paul ends this first letter urging Timothy to “fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on to eternal life.” But to “fight the good fight” is a summary of the previous verses in which St. Paul tells Timothy to “flee these things” (see 6:3-10, but most importantly the love of money). Successful spiritual warfare results in our ability to flee attitudes and behaviors that are not godly and “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness.” Notice, by the way, that one must flee and pursue (in Greek, it is the same word that can be translated “persecute”—to pursue relentlessly). One does not casually become godly. The focus of our spiritual warfare is to flee (like one flees an invading army) behaviors and attitudes that are selfish and self serving, and pursue (persecute) godliness in all my relationships: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness.