Sunday, February 13, 2011

Where You Are Right Now

We are all tempted at various times to think that if the conditions of our life were different, we could serve God better.  This is not wisdom.  Right now, where you are, in the condition of your life today, you not only can serve God, but it is also the only way you can serve God.  A sick man can not serve God as a healthy man, for he is not a healthy man.  To put off full-hearted devotion to God until circumstances change is to waste you life in procrastination.

"The general gifts consist of the four elements and all that results from them, all the wonderful and awesome works of God outlined in Holy Scripture. The particular gifts are those gifts which God bestows upon every man individually, whether it be riches for the sake of charity, or poverty for the sake of patience with humility; whether it be authority for the sake of justice and the strengthening of virtues, or subjugation and slavery for the sake of the expeditious salvation of the soul; be it health for the sake of helping the infirm, or illness for the sake of the wreath of patience; be it understanding and skill in gaining wealth for the sake of virtue, or weakness and lack of skill for the sake of submissive humility. Even though they appear contrary to one another, all these are very good according to their purpose." -- St. Peter Damascene


Jake said...

I read this book review the other day that starts with this:

"Among the 300,000 pieces of paper in Simon Wiesenthal's private archive is a letter from a Holocaust survivor explaining why he had ceased to believe in God. In Tom Segev's description “God had allowed SS troops to snatch a baby from his mother and then use it as a football. When it was a torn lump of flesh they tossed it to their dogs. The mother was forced to watch. Then they ripped off her blouse and made her use it to clean the blood off their boots.”"

I wonder St. Peter Damascene would say - how such evil can be a "gift", and in what way this women's torture could be for "expeditious salvation of the soul".

Sometimes I think we Christians try to turn evil into something it is not. God does not justify himself, nor evil - it simply is. As he says to Job "where were you?" - not, "this is a gift".

Seems to me like St. Peter Damascene is wondering into theodicy here. Our faith, that we are saved from evil and falleness and death is not the same thing as saying evil IS a gift. If so, then evil is a means. Christ suffered (suffers) WITH us, He does not turn suffering into something it is not. Not at least as far as I can tell...

Fr. Michael said...

All of existence is a gift. Evil is the twisting of this gift. Evil is not a thing in itself; it is the perverting of a thing. In fact one of the greatest gifts God has given human beings is freedom, and this freedom when wrongly used perverts the other good gifts God has given us.

And so we find ourselves in this messed up world: the good gifts of God have been and are being twisted. What is good also carries the scares of evil. How can this be?

Good and evil are not opposites. God only created good. Only Good is. Evil has no being, no existence of its own. Evil is the name we give to twisted or misused or perverted good.

Certainly the callous murder of children is an example of evil. The secularist Ivan in The Karamazov Brothers uses such examples of the brutal treatment of children, particularly the murder of a child torn to pieces by dogs before his mother, to goad pious Alyosha into saying that the perpetrator should be shot--thus showing Alyosha also to be a murder at heart. Extreme examples evoke extreme emotional responses, but perhaps that is the point Dostoevsky is making. Even the most pious has within him or her the potential for the most brutal forms of evil. And once I see that, once I see that I too have the potential--given the right circumstances and the right provocation--to twist God’s good gifts in unspeakably evil ways then I can perhaps begin to see even my own suffering as a doorway to life. With Christ we pass through the evil of the cross to the resurrection of life.

The quote from St. Peter the Damascene cited before, unfortunately, ended a little ambiguously. The following is from the translation of by Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, in The Philokalia, vol. 3 (p172), and I think it is a little more clear:
“… All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.”

His point is that it is possible for the most perverse evil to be used for good, but the exact same evil when misused is harmful (or continues to cause more harm than it already has). Evil is always evil. Evil is never good. Yet good can come out of evil. If a Tunisian man sets himself on fire, that is certainly evil. But if those who see it are motivated to create a better government, then perhaps a good has come out of what was evil. It doesn’t make the evil any less evil. It does, however, demonstrate the perennial power of good, even from the ashes of evil to produce a beautiful flower of good.

St. Peter’s point is that the fruit of the Spirit can be born even in, or even because of, the most distressing circumstances. It may be evil that some are rich and most are poor, or that some are healthy and many are sick, or that (in some parts of the world) a few have authority and most are like slaves. Nevertheless, the gift of God is such that in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, it is possible to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness and self control. Or to quote Romans, “What can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus?”

This is not a philosophical solving of the problem of evil. It is an observation that evil is not the end, that life springs forth from the tomb.

Jake said...

Thanks for the lengthy response Fr. Michael. I have heard this outline before, and yet something does not satisfy. I think I find the use of "freedom" in this explanation wanting. I don't think we are quite that free (granting we have a real freedom on some very important levels – most important a spiritual freedom to not choose evil). In the end, we are created into a world where forces larger than ourselves that are quite evil impose suffering on us. We did not choose this, so in an important sense we are not free at all...

Fr. Michael said...

I agree that we are not as free as we can imagine we would like to be, but neither are we as trapped as we fear. Part of what it means to be a creature is to be dependent on other aspects of the creation. And yet this dependence does not completely destroy freedom. It may destroy some ideal conceptions of freedom. You might say that the absence of complete (idealized) freedom does not completely destroy freedom (the real ability as some levels to transcend matters over which we have no control).