Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I think therefore....

What you think others think is probably a good indication of what you think.  Much of what we think, that is much of our attitude toward life, our circumstances and  our relationships, lies unacknowledged in our hearts.  Often our general opinion of our inner lives has more to do with what we think should be going on there rather than what really is.  However, counselors and wise spiritual guides have always known that one of the truest indicators of what someone really thinks, what their attitudes really are, is revealed in their candid assessment of others.

This principle is set forth masterfully in Dickens' Dombey and Son.  Mr. Carker the Manager is the trusted assistant of Mr. Dombey, the very rich and very proud protagonist of the novel.  When confronted by Mrs. Dombey for his deceitful fawning of his employer, Mr. Carker the Manager explains that if he did not play to Mr. Dombey's pride, someone else would.  His justification for his deceitful flattery is that others would do the same, or so he thinks.

Later in the novel, Mr. Carker the Manager accuses his brother John, and all of the lower staff of Dombey and Son, of secretly wishing for the fall of the Great Man, Mr. Dombey.  Mr. Carker the Manager cannot believe his brother when he tells him that none of the staff that he knows have any but the highest regard for Mr. Dombey and wish him only good.  The Manager calls his brother a liar, so sure is he of the malice in the hearts of others.  John's denials do nothing more than strengthen the Manager's conviction, for he reasons that subordinates would never admit such evil thoughts.

But the thoughts are only those of the Manager, thoughts that he projects on others creating an imaginary justification for his own deceitful dealings with his employer.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why Support Monasteries?

Monasteries are essential because they pray for the world: "they are blast furnaces of prayer for the world." Also monasteries preserve the wisdom of the faith, not in books, but in the lives of holy people whom we in the world can turn to when everything seems to go upside down.  Also monasteries provide a home for single people where they can be freed from selfishness, the selfishness that married people have to overcome in marriage and parenting.  Single people do not know that they are selfish (generally speaking).  The monastery is a place where singles can be saved from themselves.  
Since Orthodoxy is so young in Canada, and monasteries are just in the infant stages of their development here, it may be hard to see their importance.  But Orthodoxy in Canada is not normal.  It is sick in many ways that healthy monasteries could heal.  For example, bishops should come from monasteries.  Because we have so few monasteries, most of our bishops are just unmarried men--this is courting trouble.  Years of monastic obedience and discipline are necessary to form a man who can bear the weight of the church and not be squeezed by stress into some sort of unhealthy behavior.  Bishops and priests need very holy and very wise (and very strict) men as father confessors to help them stay on course.
Yes, of course, we should support the poor in all conditions, but monks and nuns are the best example of the poor we should be supporting. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dombey and Son #1

I am again reading Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.  When I started on my Dickens binge about fifteen or twenty years ago, the first work I read was Dombey and Son.  I didn't much enjoy it.  I didn't get it. 

The story is about a completely self-absorbed, successful businessman who fixates on the fame of his company, Dombey and Son.  However, to make his fantasy complete, he needs a son.  His firstborn, a daughter, is of no use to him, doesn't even exist (as far as  he is concerned) except as one who gets in the way.  And yet this daughter is a saint.  Out of the dry, rocky ground of emotional abandonment, a flower blossoms.

When I first read Dombey and Son it seemed too fantastic to me that love would take hold in the heart of one so despised by her only parent (mother having died as a result of the birth of her brother, who himself lives only long enough to complete his first year of schooling).  

At the time I first read Dombey and Son, I was of the raise-up-your-child-in-the-way-he-should-go school.  Like Job's comforters, I thought the lines of cause and effect in relationships were pretty clear: Good, loving parenting produced good, loving children; troubled children came from....[I wouldn't have actually said it, but I thought it].  That's why I didn't get Dombey and Son.

Reading Dombey and Son a second time, now that my children are raising their own children, I see things differently.  Maybe I get it more.  Maybe the lines of cause and effect, while still important, are much more convoluted, interrupted, and influenced by the inner workings of the child herself and the Grace of God and the mysteries of free will than I had ever imagined.  Maybe the inner workings of the child, her dispositions and her choices, her responses to her perceptions and interpretations of what is going on around her (regardless of her parent's good, evil or indifferent intentions), maybe these inner workings of the child have as much (or more) to do with who a child becomes as do the quality of the parental nurturing and other circumstances in which a child finds herself.

This is not to say that parenting is irrelevant--clearly it is not.  Rather, it is to say that parenting, even very good parenting and advantageous social and economic circumstances only provide a context, a soil if you will, in which the seed of the child grows.  But then children are not seeds.  Children are human beings who make choices, who interpret, who assume, hope, doubt, believe.  Children are very complicated seeds planted in very complicated soil.  The lineaments are not easily traced out.

One aspect of a child's inner workings is her openness to God; or rather, her openness to dependance on God, openness to receive from God.  In Dombey and Son, Florence, the saintly yet despised daughter, prays: "it is the pouring out of her full heart," Dickens says.  And in her prayer, the finite world of her temporal circumstances opens to take in light and comfort from another realm.  

Florence's family certainly provides no sterling example of prayer or godliness.  How she learns to pray and receive help from God is a mystery.  It's always a mystery.  Similarly, many a child raised in a pious family never really seems to get prayer.  Some do later in life.  Some just fake it.  Some don't even try.  This too is a mystery.

That flowers can grow out of the scorched earth after a forest fire is amazing.  That a saint can come from the barren field of parental neglect is even more amazing.  But then, isn't it amazing that anyone in this world is saved, that anyone in this world exhibits the qualities of the next?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Crosses We Bear

Freedom is one of the crosses we bear.  This cross is particularly painful in relation to those whom we love the most.  There is no love without freedom.

We want the best for those we love.  We do not want them to suffer.  We do not want to see them suffer.  And sometimes, we can no longer bear suffering with them.  We want the suffering to stop, yet we see no end.  We do not see how the confusion of the tongues--the pride of mankind resulting in our inability to communicate--how this too is part of God's saving love.  We do not see how being crucified by those we love saves them.

In my opinion, the greatest tragedy of theology is that it reduces the Cross to a plan, a schema, a balanced and antiseptic explanation of how.  The Cross cannot be explained; it can only be suffered, it can only be endured. 
Just as Jesus could have called down legions of angels to avoid the cross, so we can set up defences, legions of explanations, excuses, denials, reasons, theologies, plans, and hopes rooted in delusion, all to avoid the pain of love in freedom, all to keep from having to really let go, to let our hearts be crucified through the freedom we give those we love.

We do not believe the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  We do not believe the Parable of the Lost Coin.  We do not believe that the suffering of the shepherd in search of the lost sheep will be rewarded.  We would rather not suffer so much.  Its easier (and makes much more sense too) to keep our heart close to the ninety-nine.  But love doesn't make sense.  And so love suffers. And so love is crucified.

The enigma of the Prodigal Son is that the loving Father gave everything to his son so that the son could all but destroy himself by means of it.  How is that love?  

Ah, there I go again, asking for a how.  There is no how.  Love just is, and it suffers.

The enigma continues in the son coming to his senses.  Suffering makes him remember what he had always known.  And when he comes to his senses, the son knows that his Father will receive him again.  He knows this because his Father has already given him freedom, real freedom--freedom to go and thus freedom to return.  Hidden in the heart of the son is the knowledge of his Father's love, a loved demonstrated to him in giving, in suffering, and in freedom, which is the cross.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Transforming the Devil into a Serpent

(Verse one, Lord I Call, Monday Vespers, Tone Three, Oktoechos, Monastery of The Myrrhbearing Women trans.)

I was struck by this verse as I was chanting it this morning.

Yes, I know it is for vespers, but since I only have vespers printed out of the Oktoechos, and I am only chanting daily matins, I chant the Lord I Called verses for the Kathisma verses of the following day. I will print out the whole thing one of these days, just like one of these days I will chant both daily matins and vespers. But "one of these days" may be a very long way off, so for now I am blessed to pray some evening verses on the following morning.

Now back to what struck me. I was struck by the devil's dependence on us. My laziness and my evil habits transform the devil into the lying serpent of temptation making the bitter fruit of sin seem to me to be sweet. Through my bad habits, the devil is transformed, through my laziness, I am tempted.

What is even more amazing to me is that in the end, I accept evil for good. That is, thinking I am grasping the good, I choose evil. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, I am deceived. God created me to long for sweetness, but my laziness and my unwillingness to control myself (bad habits) creates a space in which the devil is transformed into a serpent of deception. The snake lies to me. It tells me bitter is sweet and evil is good.

It is strange. Eve did not desire sin. She desired to be wise, to be like God. I do not desire bitterness, but sweetness; not evil, but good. Yet I am deceived--again and again. Somehow within myself I create the space to be deceived. Laziness, lack of attention, mental inertia: these create the eddies, the little vacuums, in which the evil one is transformed into a serpent.

The only little relief I have found is in a kind of constant inner appeal to God for help. This is often in the form of the Jesus prayer (or some similar cry), but is also sometimes in the form of a wordless ache, or sometimes a light and joyful snippet of a hymn, and most seldom but most radiantly in the form of a quiet peacefulness. I don't get there very often. It usually takes work. I have to force myself to pray, to pay attention to the words of prayer. I experience a little relief. And then I get lazy again. I let old habits of thought have their way.

It seems like I create a lot of eddies in my mind for the serpent to fill with misdirected desire.

And through it all, God is merciful, ever waiting to rush to my aid when I call upon Him. He never chastises me for calling on Him. (I think the bitterness that I bring on myself is the chastisement.)

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The problem with words

Words are like husks that carry a germ. This germ comes out of who we are. The husk is what you find in a dictionary. The germ carries the vital force of the seed; it is what determines what plant will sprout from the seed. Sometime, maybe often, the one who listens cannot hear, cannot receive the germ. When we discern that such is the case, it is generally better not to multiply husks.
Silence speaks very loudly. Silence invites the listener to hear differently.
Words have their place, but sometimes that place can only be found in silence.