Thursday, March 31, 2011

Theology and Potatoes

St. Gregory of Nyssa says that there are three levels at which we participate in God: through understanding which banishes evil behaviour, through appreciation of beauty which is the contemplation of God in created things, and through darkness which exposes us to He who is beyond ourselves.  
And today, I plant potatoes.
I know from experience and instruction that the soil must be prepared to receive the seed.  What is unfruitful has to be removed so that good fruit can be born. I have to build a fence around the garden or the ducks and chickens will peck and peck my potatoes and they will never grow.  I understand these things (the easy part), but I also must do them.  I must make my body obey my mind.  This is the beginning of theosis, participation in God.  This is salvation.
And today, I plant potatoes.
Life is in the seed: how lovely the sprout.  Life is in the soil: warm, black, crawling and squirming.  The duck does not understand.  The chicken cannot know.  Adam alone understands and restrains the animals so that they may have more in the autumn, that there be plenty in the winter.  And so God calls me to restraint, to exchange things earthly for things heavenly.  In the beauty of the garden, I come to know the Gardener.
And today, I plant potatoes.
And then the darkness.  I bury my food to find more food.  In the darkness of death, or threatened death, or even just not getting my way, I do not see.  Why has God buried me?  Why is He so far from the voice of my groaning?  Why does he let us suffer so? Warm black darkness, the crawling worms, the hopeful sprout in darkness that pushes, pushes, pushes to the Light.
And today, I plant potatoes.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lenten Reflection on the Publican and the Pharisee

(for biblical reference, see Luke 18: 9-14)

Sinfully I have followed the Pharisee in his arrogance; bitter and terrible has been my fall, and I lie trampled by the enemy.  But take pity on me, O Christ, and save me for out of pity You have humbled Yourself, O most high King of Glory.
(Lenten Triodion: Cantical 9, Matins, Tuesday, week 4)

You Yourself have shown us, O Christ, that the best path to exaltation is humility; and You have emptied Yourself and taken the form of a servant.  You have not harkened to the arrogant prayer of the Pharisee, but in heaven You have accepted the contrite sighing of the Publican as a blameless sacrifice.  Therefore I also cry to You: Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful, my Saviour, and save me.
(Lenten Triodion: Aposticha, Matins, Monday, week 4)

I have surpassed the Publican in my transgressions, yet I do not vie with him in his repentance; I have not gained the virtue of the Pharisee, yet I imitate his self-conceit.  O Christ my God, in Your supreme humility You have upon the Cross destroyed the devil's arrogance: make me a stranger to the past sins of the Publican and to the foolishness of the Pharisee; establish in my soul the good that each of them possessed, and save me.
(Lenten Triodion: Aposticha, Vespers, Tuesday, week 4)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Death, Torment, and Reading the Bible

How one reads the scripture determines what it says. St. Irenaeus (2nd century) said that the scripture is like all the pieces of a mosaic of the Great King, but we have to put the mosaic together. Consequently, what image you bring to the scripture, you are likely to find there. Therefore the Tradition and the holy fathers and mothers (saints) become essential. They provide the image that we see in the scripture.
To use the story of the flood at the time of Noah as an example: modern people look at that story and see senseless destruction. They see God arbitrarily destroying millions of people because their thoughts are evil--which is generally interpreted to mean that they do not obey God's rules. God appears as a vindictive and totalitarian despot punishing those who do not follow His (apparently arbitrary) rules.
However, if the death that results from sin is not (and never was) a punishment but rather an end to sin, a reboot, a limitation on the human foray into non-being, selfishness, and non-reality (virtual reality?), then the Noah story can be read quite differently. Before the flood, people are living almost a thousand years long. Evil has become their continual habit of thought; that is, they are constantly tormented and driven by demonic passions--or as the hymns of the church put it: they have become "a plaything of demons." They have no freedom left. They are complete slaves to passions. To set these people free, God releases them through death and starts again, limiting the human lifespan to 120 years and beginning a a new covenant-based relationship with humanity which will instruct them through the patriarchs, the law and the prophets. This process will produce a holy people--and most specifically a holy person, the Virgin Mary--from whom is incarnate God himself. Through His incarnation, God not only teaches the way and transforms creation (making heavenly life possible even while on earth), but He also dies, descends to the place of the dead, and raises with himself all who from Adam have sinned and yet who long for the Light. Those who died in the flood have lost nothing. We all die. Even God when He became man died.
We have a problem with the concept of hell. In the Old Testament, hell was merely the place of the dead. The concept of hell was not of torment, but of inability to praise God (not having mouth nor body to praise with). The concept of torment is introduced through Jesus with what He called Gehenna--the dump outside Jerusalem that continually burned and where the maggots never ceased. Jesus introduces the concept of eternal life and eternal torment (actually, the prophets introduce the idea, but Jesus really explains it).
But what does "eternal" mean? When we say eternal life, are we talking about a life (like everyone breathing on earth experiences now) only never ending? Is the eternal life that Jesus promises just an unending continuation of what we already know? Of course not. Eternal life is the life of the age to come. It is a new quality of life, not a greater quantity of the life we already know. It is the life of the new age which even while still living in this world we can begin to experience. Similarly, eternal damnation is not a reference to an unending duration of damnation. Rather it is the damnation, or suffering, of the age to come. In other words, what we do, the choices we make, and who we become in this life, has consequences in the age to come. And the bliss or the torment of the next world even begins to be experienced by us in this world.
What most people imagine when they think of either heaven or hell has much, much more to do with European superstition and mythology (Dante and Milton for example) than it has to do with what the Bible actually says or with how the Church understood these matters for its first 1000 years (and still today in the Orthodox world).
God is real, but sin is delusion. God has created man with freedom (within the created order, not ultimate freedom) so that man may freely love. When man rejects love, he (or she) experiences torment--like the smoldering fire in a dump or the gnawing of maggots--because love is real. For example, I may want to run around in a t-shirt and shorts as if it were summer even though it is 0 degrees outside. I might choose to do it, and for a while I may stay warm enough by activity or mental distraction or the thrill of breaking free from the apparently arbitrary constraints of warm clothes. But eventually, I will suffer torment because I am living in unreality. I am acting as though how I dress is irrelevant, and I might even imagine that God is punishing me with pain in my extremities and uncontrollable shaking. I might say God is unjust to make me suffer so much just because I want to wear shorts and a t-shirt to walk outside in March in Saskatchewan. But I am the one who is insisting that the universe conform to me, rather than cooperating with the universe. In terms of theology, we call that salvation: working together with God.
God loves us and created us to love Him. But love involves freedom. God will not change reality to fit our delusions (the Bible word for this is "vanity"). We suffer, not because God is punishing us. We suffer because we refuse to love the truth (love what's real) and so be saved.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sex and the Image of God

The assigned lenten reading from Proverbs today (6:20-7:1) contains one of many warnings in the Proverbs against fornication. Of course Proverbs was written by a man for men--one must keep that in mind. It can be quite disconcerting to read repeated exhortations to flee the temptress and the evil woman as though fornication were only and always a matter of weak-willed men giving in to strong-willed women who are seeking to destroy them. I have often wondered what a similar exhortation written by an old wise woman for women would sound like.
I find it interesting that also in our lenten reading today from Genesis (5:32-6:8) we hear about sexual perversion too. Even the “sons of God” (generally assumed to refer to fallen angelic beings) find the “daughters of men” so beautiful that they “came in to...all they chose.” From a man’s perspective, the temptation of women is so great that even the gods fall prey to it.
Yet we know that fornication is not solely a matter of wicked women tempting weak-willed men. Wicked men just as commonly tempt weak-willed women. But this is not really the gist of the matter.
God created man (the human being) in His image as male and female. It is not that man by himself is in the image of God, nor that woman by herself is in the image of God. “Male and female created He them.” There is something about the sexual union of a man and a woman that manifests or presents (makes present) the reality of the image of God in human beings. (Please note, I am not saying that the image of God in a particular man or woman is lacking apart from an active sexual life. What I am saying is that something is in the sexual act that uniquely presents the image of God.)
God has chosen again and again throughout His self-revelation to use marriage as a picture of who He is and how He loves us. Somehow in marriage, including if not particularly the sexual aspect of marriage, God reveals Himself. He is the Bridegroom of the Church. He is the Lover of the beloved. Heaven is the bridal chamber. He the faithful Husband who remains faithful even when we are unfaithful.
Therefore, it seems to me, beyond or underneath emotional and physical longing for sexual intimacy there is a longing for completeness, for the presence of the image of God. Nevertheless, we are all wounded by sin, and even in the best and healthiest marriages, sexual desires and longings are a mixed bag. And in a culture that has almost lost the meaning of marriage, motivations for sexual intimacy become even more mixed and distanced from the original image. Yet “we have this treasure in earthen vessels”: even mixed with dirt, gold shines.
However, longing for union is not the only reason people have sex. Exactly because sex has (more than many other aspects of our lives) the potential to present the image of God, some people express their anger and rebellion against God through their sexual behavior. Sex can become more than merely selfish. It can become a means to strike out, to exert will, to dominate, to hurt, to satisfy perverted and sadistic images of independent power. And the consequence, the fruit, of this perverted use of sexuality is the spiritual, emotional and even intellectual damage of those involved.
Consider with me Proverbs 6: 31 in the Septuagint: “For the value of a prostitute is only one loaf…” I immediately ask the question, “Who has failed to love this woman that she must sell her body for bread?”
That a man might be tempted by a prostitute (most commonly through pornography) has, I think, little to do with the sin of the woman and a great deal to do with the sins of the people (probably mostly men) who in the woman’s life from childhood not only refused to love and care for her but also abused her in all the ways only demonic hatred can imagine. Of course there are always exceptions, but I think Jesus’ particular care for female adulterers and harlots and his frequent mention of them as first in the Kingdom of Heaven gives weight to to my assertion.
We live in a culture in which the only limitation on sexual intercourse is consent. It is hard for us to hear the message: Don’t. But it is not the prudish don’t of an uptight killjoy. Rather, it is the word of a loving Creator, a Creator who has made us male and female in His image to present Himself, to reveal Himself. When we separate sex from faithful, life-long, loving care, we lie about who God is. We deface the image of God.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Open For Me The Doors Of Repentance

Hearing the hymns for Lent, one is continually urged to beg God for tears of repentance.    These verses often cite as an example the repentant harlot who wept on Jesus feet.  
I find it very difficult to weep in repentance.  I think part of the reason for this is that I share my culture’s tendency to see repentance as the turning away from sin, and sin as a violation of a rule.  Certainly I have violated rules, but not much recently, and no recent violation of a rule (that I’m aware of) is of such a nature as to make me particularly sad.  Sure, I’m sad that I don’t fast or pray or give alms enough.  And I’m sad that I do not have complete control of my thoughts, so that I often have to catch myself thinking things I ought not think.  And I am sad that I often do not love my neighbor (or even notice that my neighbor needs loving). But these are areas of on going repentance and growth.  Nothing new.  The same struggle--which I have gotten better at over the years--but the same struggle nonetheless.  Nothing to cry about.
But what if tears of repentance are not so much about sadness over the violation of rules, and more about the sadness of separation?
Certainly God is far away from my thoughts.  Certainly I do not keep guard over my heart.  God comes to me in moments of grace and fills me with an awareness of His Presence; and then I allow distractions of all sorts to lacerate my heart.  Awareness of His Presence leaks out of my heart, like the lost oil of the foolish virgins, and I am left with no reserve, no extra oil, only distracting thoughts and fleeting (and foolish) longings.
I know from experience that I can watch over my heart--even if only for ten minutes.  I know that it is possible to work, to write, to clean, to teach even with my inner eyes guarding my heart.  It is possible.  I just don’t do it.  Is that the laziness and faint heartedness that St. Ephraim’s prayer warns us about?
I think the lenten prayers put in our mouths the supplication for tears of repentance because we do not see how far from God we have drifted, or rather, how near to God we could be.  We ask God to grant us tears of repentance because they do not come automatically.  Just because I want to turn to God doesn’t mean that I realize how much I really do need to turn to God.  
I am reminded of the story of the farmer who a stepped on a nail and refused to go to the doctor until his whole foot was swollen and full of infection.  By the time he went to the doctor, he didn’t realize how late it was, how radical the remedy would be.  As the doctor explained to the farmer the seriousness of his condition and that he would have to amputate his lower leg, the farmer then began to cry tears of repentance: “Why didn’t I go to the doctor right away as I was told to do?  Why did I procrastinate so long?”
In the same way, we beg God to reveal to us our true condition, to show us how radical the treatment is.  Like the farmer, we will lose something; and also like the farmer, we will gain life. 
And yet God is also not like a physician.  Whatever we lose in this life, we will gain a hundred times more in the next.  And not only in the next life after we die.  The next life begins now.  The Kingdom of God is within you: Christ dwells in your hearts by faith.  How can we hold on to tin when silver is offered to us?  Why do we insist on paying attention to the corrupting and petty angers, jealousies, lusts, and past regrets that fill our hearts when the Master of the Universe wants to make His dwelling there?
Perhaps it is because we are blind.  We do not see how we let everything but the Master fill our hearts.  Perhaps that’s why we pray that we be granted tears of repentance.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Listening for Echoes

One of the reasons why it is difficult for many of us to “get” Orthodox Christianity is that we carry a supposition that nature, or things, are separate from spirit.  We may acknowledge that spirit may come upon flesh, or that that God may use material things; but by and large, most western-trained minds think material things get along just fine by themselves without some unseen force directly influencing them.  We are practical deists, neo-Nestorians.  
For the Orthodox Christian, the material and spiritual worlds are not separate realms that sometimes overlap.  Rather, the material world exists inside the spiritual world, is permeated by non-material reality, and is sustained every moment by the word of the Word of God.  The Word of God that spoke creation into being continues to echo in all creation.  Were that Word ever to cease, matter and energy would no longer be.  Or as it is put in Hebrews, the Son holds all things together by the word of His power.
Every material thing is a bearer of the word of God for an Orthodox Christian who sees the universe this way.  Unfortunately, many Orthodox Christians, specially those trained in western universities, do not.  Many Orthodox Christians have had the wonder trained out of them.  The botanist, for example, can only see the processes that form the biology of a tree, she has been trained no longer to contemplate the word of God that holds that tree together.  She cannot hear the echo of the Father calling out to her.
Of course we might say that proto-Nestorianism began in the Garden of Eden.  It began when Eve and Adam were deceived, and a tree that they were to contemplate became for them only a source of food--desirable to make one wise, lovely to look upon, something to consume, something to be seen from the outside but not known from the inside.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Communicating Yourself

King David, when he was just a page in King Saul’s court, used to play music when a demon would come on King Saul.  The music calmed him down and helped him control himself.  
I wonder if the power of David’s music did not completely lie in music itself, but in David’s playing it.  
I am not a musical person.  I play no instrument, sing badly and seldom listen to music--background or otherwise.  Nevertheless, I have noticed that live music has a quality that I don’t notice in recorded music.  Somehow in live music the player is present in some ways that are not noticeable (at least to me) when I listen to a recording of what I had first heard live.
I have found this particularly noticeable when I know the person who is playing.  I have many times felt that I was looking into a corner of the musician’s soul while I was listening to his or her playing or singing.
To me it is somewhat like a lecture or homily.  The effect of the speech--especially if it is on a spiritual or deeply personal topic--is affected a good deal by the person who delivers the speech.  I’m not just talking about delivery technique, although (as in music) technique plays a large part.  Yet beyond technique, there is something of the soul of the speaker that is often revealed in the speaking.  And this vibration from the speaker’s soul can touch our own and incline it toward or away from what he or she is saying.
And so I return to King David.  Was it, perhaps, the quality of his secret relationship with God, a relationship developed over years of watching sheep in the wilderness, suffering loneliness, fear, cold nights, hot days and injustice within the family; could it be that such a relationship with God is what was revealed by David’s playing for King Saul?  I think it was.  I think the power of David’s relationship with God was communicated through his music and this is what calmed the demon that attacked King Saul.
A friend of my used to say that a preacher does not communicate information, he communicates himself.  His usual “proof experience” for this was an experience my friend had had in a Protestant church in his youth.  The pastor of the church had been carrying on a secret affair for about a year before he revealed to the congregation what he was doing and resigned his position.  Within a few months of this, six couples in the church divorced.  The pastor had been preaching the Bible, but had been communicating himself.
While this is a negative example, I think the principle works in the positive direction also.
I am sometimes frustrated that I am not able to put into words what is in my heart.  I’m sure I am not alone in experiencing this frustration.  And yet I have hope that whatever it is that I do end up saying (or writing) will somehow reveal a little corner of my soul.  And to the extent that any of the Grace of God is there, I can hope that this will have the desired effect, that Grace, the vibration of Grace, will communicate peace and incline my hearers’ souls toward God.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Beauty and Consumption

My spiritual father once said to me that Adam and Eve misused the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden when they ate it’s fruit.  The contemplation of the tree was the means by which Adam and Eve were to grow in their knowledge of God, not by eating it.  
When Satan tricked Eve into thinking about the tree as if it were the same as any other tree in the Garden and then suggested that God was keeping something good from her, Eve ate from the tree.  Not only did Eve go astray by doubting God’s love and disobeying his command; but before she picked and ate the fruit, she began to go astray when she started to see the fruit of the tree as merely something desired by her, as merely something to be consumed for her own benefit or pleasure.
For those of us born outside Eden, it is hard to imagine any other way to look at the world around us than in terms of how it can be used or consumed to benefit or please us.  
We do, however, have traces of Eden-like perception left in us.  When we look at any created thing and appreciate beauty in it, we are, I think, experiencing traces of pre-fall perception. To see beauty is to begin to contemplate, to begin to perceive the word of God in the creature brought into being by a Word.  
Learning to pay attention to and value beauty without consuming it is part of salvation, the return to Paradise.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Death and Reality

I was reading in Romans this morning the part that says, “They changed the glory of the incorruptible God for an image made like corruptible man--and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.”
I was wondering if the robe of God’s glory that Adam and Eve lost in Paradise was the ability to see God’s energies, or to clearly see God’s revelation of himself in created things.  That is, when Adam and Eve were clothed in the glory of God, and Adam looked at Eve, he saw her as a revelation of God or a manifestation of God’s creative energies.  Adam saw in Eve the Eve-ness of God.  Because God spoke creation into being, all creation is a word of God. By interacting with what God had created, man could know God because the creation reveals God.
When Adam and Eve began to see according to the serpent’s deceit, instead of according to God’s revelation, they began to change God’s glory into an image of something else.  So the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of good and evil, instead of being seen according to God’s glory (as revealing that aspect of God that God created it to reveal), was seen in the image of “corruptible man,” or in the image of the Deceiver. 
When man begins to see in nature what is not there, then death must enter because what man sees is not real.  

Monday, March 07, 2011

From Faith to Atheism

What do you do when God does not do what you know he should do?  What do you do when what you have believed about God turns out not to be true?  Most Christian believers, if they are sincere and thoughtful, go through a Job-like experience at least once in their life: an experience in which life, logic, emotion, friends, and any manner of other circumstances, thoughts and feelings work to convince us that everything we had believed about God is false. We even begin to question God’s existence.  
In modernity, such a Job-like crisis is looked upon as a coming of age, as a triumph of reason over superstition.  Atheism is the widely proposed means to resolve this crisis.  Walk into any major bookseller and you will soon find (prominently featured) books explaining why atheism is the only reasonable or compassionate or courageous solution to a crisis of faith.  And for those who do not have quite the fortitude for atheism proper, its decaffeinated variety, agnosticism, works just as well.
However, there is another path out of a crises of faith.  It is the path that Job himself took.  It is the path of humility, or often, the path of humiliation leading to humility.  When everything you have believed about God turns out to be untrue, instead of assuming that God does not exist, perhaps the wiser route, the humbler route, is to accept that God is not limited nor defined by what you have believed.
This humble response to a crisis of faith is much more painful for most of us than simply denying God’s existence.  It is much easier to say “I have been deceived.  Nothing is there” than to say, “I have not seen clearly. I have not listened carefully. I have conceived of God according to my own expectations.”  
There is a huge difference between being created in God’s image and creating God in your own image.  In God’s image, we can sense that He is there, we can even know Him.  However in that process of knowing God, we often create images of God in our minds: categories, reasonings, conceptions, ways we are convinced God is and isn’t. We write books and preach sermons based on these conceptions.  Some of these conceptions and syllogisms are helpful, for a while: in a particular culture, at a specific stage of development, or to overcome a particular doubt.  But God is in no way limited by our conceptions and categories of Him.  God is under no obligation to relate to his creation the way we think He  should, no matter how theologically trained we are--no matter how long and faithfully we have served the church.
A seven-year old may have a genuine relationship with God, but whatever conceptions of God that seven-year old has in his mind, and which may indeed be appropriate for a seven-year old, will have to change as he grows.  God as conceived of by a seven-year old is the ridiculous god of superstition leading a twenty-year old to atheism.  And God as conceived of by a confident--if not cocky--seminary graduate will certainly be the god who does not exist for the burnt out, middle-aged pastor.  And God as conceived in times of prosperity, may turn out to be the cruel god who could not possibly exist for the Holocaust survivor.
After God appears to Job in the whirlwind, Jobs says to Him, “I had heard of you with the hearing of my ears, but now my eyes see you.”  God doesn’t change, but our ability to spiritually hear, see, conceive and eventually let go of our conceptions, changes as we grow.  But if we make idols of our conceptions, they become our gods enticing us to conclude that any god that doesn’t conform to our conceptions doesn’t exist.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

True Fasting

"When fasting is understood in a true, Christian sense and not in a legalistic, pharisaical way, then the forgiving of insults and abstaining from covetousness are a fast, and this the most important fast, or, if you wish, the greatest fruit of fasting. For indeed, there is very little value in abstaining from food without abstinence from the returning of insult for insult and the illusion of earthly riches." -- St. Nicholai of Zica on The Forgiveness Sunday Gospel (Matt. 6:14-21)

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Charismatic Gifts and the Orthodox Church

What is the role of the charismatic prophet and prophecy in the Orthodox Church?

In the Orthodox Church there is no office of prophet (while, I have been told, there is in the Roman Catholic Church).  However, we have great respect for the prophetic gift, which in the Orthodox Church is usually called "clairvoyance."  That's a tough word for Protestants because it is the word commonly used to refer to pagan fortune tellers.  However, the word just means the ability to know by personal revelation what would not normally be known. 

The Orthodox Church does not generally focus on charismatic office, but does honour charismatic function. So for example, we do not have an office (or title) of Apostle.  However, we recognize certain saints as being "equal to the Apostles."  That is, we say that their life manifested the Charism of Apostolic ministry.  We do not have in the Church the office of "healer."  However, we recognize "unmercenary healers."  We do not have the office of "prophet," yet we expect to hear from God when we speak to our spiritual fathers/mothers.

All of the charismatic gifts function freely in the Church, but they do not function in the haphazard, make-it-up-as-you-go sort of way they do among the Protestants (I speak from personal experience as a Pentecostal-Charismatic Protestant for the first 36 years of my life).  Within the Orthodox Church personal holiness is key to discerning the prophet.  That is, if the healer, prophet, preacher or whatever does not live a holy life, does not preach the Orthodox faith or does not submit to the bishops, then we do not pay any attention to him/her--regardless of how powerful his/her miraculous power appears to be.  

Another important difference between the way charismatic giftedness functions in the Orthodox Church and the way it apparently functions among the Protestants is that the Orthodox ethos does not generally promote miracle workers until after they have fallen asleep in the Lord and their whole life can be evaluated.   Of course you can always find an exception somewhere; however, the charismatically gifted Orthodox Christians I have known or heard about take the words of Jesus litterally: go and tell no one (Mark 7:36).  We do not put miracle workers on T.V.  Most commonly, those with the greatest and most powerful spiritual gifts are hidden most from the eyes of all but a very few and the very humble.  For example, they may hide themselves in hermitages, or they may appear to be somewhat insane ("Fools for Christ's sake"), or they may be generally despised because of their unwillingness to cooperate with those who are powerful in this world (St. John Maximovich is a good example here).  

Only after their deaths, when they cannot be corrupted by human glory and the holiness of their life is manifest, do their charisms become widely known.  Since death does not hinder the Grace of God, the gifts that are given to these holy men and women continue to be poured out through their intercessions after they have fallen asleep.  This is one of the many reasons why we "pray" to the saints--or more exactly, ask for their intercessions.  God has given them charisms for the Church, so we ask them to continue to pour them out on our behalf through their intercessions to God with and for us.

So their are indeed holy prophetic or clairvoyant men and women in the Orthodox Church.  In fact, I encourage you to expect your spiritual father or mother to speak to you prophetically.  Keep in mind, however, the words of St. Paul that you must discern these words, accepting what is good and letting go of what isn't.  No prophet, even the most holy "God-bearing" elder, gets it all right every time ("we have this treasure in earthen vessels").  Our own faith and our discernment interacts with the gift of God in the holy man or woman.  

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Maria Blokonsky in War and Peace

Do you think Maria Blokonsky best embodies the Orthodox way in War and Peace?

I would say that Maria Blokonsky, and I believe there is also an aunt who is pious in St. Petersburg, is certainly the most pious. However, I would not say that she embodies the Orthodox way. The Orthodox way is very personal. Each person based on ability, life situation, education, etc. walks toward Christ in a rhythm or rubric that is appropriate for them. The Church lays out tools, but each person picks up the tools and uses them according to their personal situation. Piety is a visible conformity or participation in the life of the Church, but (as we know from the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee), piety is not equivalent to holiness or justification before God. Both Andre and Pierre struggle spiritually, and perhaps before God are counted righteous. The Orthodox way, in a culture that has been formed by the Orthodox way, is not so narrowly viewed. In the west, we want to contrast the Orthodox way with other ways, and end up with a sort of checklist. Certainly, we can talk about what the Church teaches; however, how those teachings are applied and lived in each personal life varies a lot. Part of what is so very Orthodox (and Tolstoyan) is Pierre's relationship with Platon Karataev (the peasant foot soldier he befriends as a POW) and Maria's relationship with the pilgrims. These relationships get at the heart of this very personal nature of the Orthodox way. Ignorant peasants, homeless people, and fools can be saints. The Orthodox way is a way of transformation through humility. The rules and services and teachings of the Church are tools, but humility and transformation are the goals. In a sense, we see in Maria's submission to the terrible treatment under her father's hand a personal application of the Orthodox way. In a sense, she is a fool to have submitted to such abuse; yet her willing submission to humiliation transfigures her. If it had embittered her, it would have been the wrong path. Viewing life this way is very Orthodox. The same unjust suffering that destroys one person, makes a saint out of another. One cannot carry a cross that has saved another. One must find his/her own cross.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Hans Boersma -- Heavenly Participation

I’d like to recommend Hans Boersma's Heavenly Participation to any one trained in western thought (that’s about everyone who will read this). He presents a look at the mystery of what Eastern Orthodox Christians understand as an iconic view of all creation. That is, Orthodox Christians understand all creation to reveal God. As one of the Fathers said (St. Anthony the Great, I think), “Creation is the Word of God written in very large letters.”

I must confess also that Boersma's exploration of the western tradition’s resources for this “sacramental ontology” has caused me to rethink some of my own harsh criticism of western Late-Medieval and Reformation theology. In many ways, I have been guilty of the very excess of which I have accused Protestants. That is, I have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. For example, although I have acknowledged what seems to be the very great personal piety in Thomas Aquinas, I have completely rejected his Summa for the pivotal role it has played in the development of western theology as it moved away from a spiritual, iconic understanding of creation. Boersma points out that although Aquinas' “(This worldly) Aristotelianism did bring about a change in theological ethos,” one of the most often quoted Father in Aquinas’s work is St. Dyonisius the Areopogite. That is, perhaps, the problem with Aquinas has more to do with how he has been read and interpreted, and less to do with what he actually wrote. Or to put it another way, perhaps there can be an Orthodox reading of Aquinas.

I don’t know if this is possible. I will never have the time to read Aquinas. And as Boersma points out, there are matters of “ethos” that would need to be attended to. Nevertheless, within Aquinas a Christian in the western tradition may indeed find resources to acquire a mind more in harmony with Eastern Orthodox Christianity than I had thought possible.

My point here is a matter of my own repentance. I am not recommending Aquinas to Orthodox Christians. Rather, I am repenting of disparaging too much the western tradition. Perhaps, as Boersma shows, there may be a way back for western Christians to the great consensus of the first thousand years of the Church.