Saturday, December 29, 2012

Is Humility Possible Today?

I'm still working my way through Everyday Saints. I recommended this book a few posts back.  Now about 4/5ths of the way through, my praise for the collection of stories has not dwindled.  However, I do not want to praise Everyday Saints in this post so much as I want to talk about humility: humility as it is evidenced in the life of one of the "everyday saints" Archimandrite Tikhon tells about.

In a set of stories called "His Eminence the Novice," Fr. Tikhon tells the life of, and of his experiences with, Bishop Basil Rodzyanko.  The bishop refers to himself as a novice monk because he was tonsured a monk only shortly before he was made a bishop.  This often happens when a married priest loses his wife and the Church needs a bishop.  Orthodox Bishops are chosen from among the monastics, so it has become the practice in many Orthodox jurisdictions, when the hierarchs want to consecrate a widowed priest a bishop, to tonsure him a monk shortly before making him a bishop.

Fr. Vladimir (Bishop Basil's name as a priest), took his tonsure (at the age of sixty-six) very seriously.  Therefore, he was troubled.  He said to his spiritual father that he understood poverty and chastity very well and willingly embraced them, but obedience would be difficult.  A little worried, his spiritual father asked him to clarify what he meant.

"Well I mean," Father Vladimir reasoned, "instead of starting me out as a simple monk, you're immediately making me a bishop.  In other words, instead of being a novice and obeying the commands of others, my job will mean that I'm the one who will have to command and make decisions.  How then do I fulfill the vow of obedience?  To whom will I be a novice?  Whom will I obey?"

His spiritual Father, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, after a moment's thought replied: "You will be in obedience to everyone and anyone whom you meet on your journey through life.  As long as that person's request will be within your power to grant it, and not in contradiction with the Scriptures."

Father Vladimir was very pleased by this commandment.

Others, however, were not very pleased with this commandment because once consecrated Bishop, Bishop Basil was a very difficult bishop to manage.  While obeying little old ladies and people on the street, he would often be very late to important meetings with important people.  He would find himself on long journeys to small churches, blessing houses or doing other smaller liturgical acts usually done by a junior priest--in obedience to the "anyone" who asked him.  

Fr. Tikhon, who sometimes traveled with Bishop Basil and witnessed first hand many of his adventures, reflects on the meaning of a life lived in obedience to anyone:

Gradually I began to grasp that it was through this humble vow of service and obedience, remaining a novice even upon attaining the rank of a senior cleric, that our sovereign Bishop Basil taught himself how to sensitively hear and to obey the will of God.  Because of this his entire life was nothing more nor less than one constant search for the knowledge of the will of God, one mysterious yet absolutely real conversation with our Saviour, in which He would speak to mankind not with words, but with the circumstances of this life, while granting unto His listeners the very greatest reward there is--a chance to be His instrument in this world.

In my opinion, this sort of humility lived regardless of one's position in life is evidence of saintliness in the world today.  St. Benedict in his Rule for monks says that obedience is the first step in the ladder of humility.  Even in today's world, humility is attainable.  Bishop Basil has proved it.  Humility will always be attainable so long as there is someone, anyone, to obey.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Discreetly Speaking the Truth

He who is pure of soul and chaste in life always speaks the words of the Spirit discreetly.... But when a mans' heart is crushed by the passions, his tongue is moved by them; and even though he speak of spiritual matters, yet he discourses passionately, to the end that he might be victorious....
St. Isaac the Syrian

In my teens, I heard a story at a Pentecostal revival meeting.  The preacher related that in a dream--or perhaps he was citing someone else's dream--he was at the back of a large crowd listening to a preacher.  Although everything the preacher said was from the Bible, something was not right.  Slowly he made his way to the front of the crowd, listening for some mistake in the preacher's words to confirm the discomfort he felt in his heart, but he heard no error.  Finally he made it to the front of the crowd and saw that it was the devil himself preaching.  Shocked, the man said to the devil, why is it that you are speaking the truth? The devil answered him with a grin, don't you know, the truth is the strongest weapon a liar has to wound and deceive others?

This story has always stayed with me.

St. Isaac the Syrian says something similar.  Even when speaking of spiritual matters, a passionate person, "a person whose heart is crushed by the passions," speaks moved by those passions.  For the passionate person, truth is about being right, about being victorious, about winning.  This is contrasted with the person who is pure and chaste in life, someone not driven by passions.  Such a person is discreet, careful, and quiet when he or she speaks "the words of the Spirit."  

Many in the Church have pointed out that a true word is only effective as truth when it is spoken by a true person in a true way at a true time.  Or as the King James version of the Proverbs puts it, "A word spoken in due season, how good it is" or "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pitchers of silver."  To fittingly speak on spiritual matters, one cannot be secretly motivated by either a fear of being wrong or a need to be right.  To speak the words of the Spirit, to speak fitting words, they must be in due season.  

But how do you know when it is a due season?  Generally speaking, most of us don't.  This is why one should always speak the words of the Spirit gently, carefully, discreetly.  

Many years ago, when my wife and I would visit Mother Victoria occasionally (when we lived in Southern California), I was often amazed by how piercing, how accurate, and how powerful the words she spoke were.  But what amazed me even more was that as soon as Mother Victoria encountered any resistance from the person she was speaking with, she would always stop speaking--sometimes merely adding, "well, maybe you're right."  This was not a show on her part.  If you wanted to know what Mother Victoria thought, you had to listen with an open heart.  She was not at all certain that she was right, and she definitely was not interested in winning an argument.  When asked, she merely and discreetly shared what she thought, what the Spirit had taught her, the wisdom of a woman who had spent her whole life praying and serving others.

God help me to be more like Mother Victoria when I speak.

One of the huge struggles of my life is not to let the passions sometimes raging in my heart, not to let these passions move my tongue.  My insecurities want to use truth as a weapon to attack others.  My fears want to hide behind true statements.  My lusts dance at the titillation of seeming to influence or even control others with high sounding but empty words gleaned from books.  God have mercy on me.

And yet, I have Mother Victoria and other godly examples to follow.  I have St. Isaac's advice and the advice of other saints to guide me.  By the prayers of St. Isaac and of all the Saints, may we all learn how to speak truth, discreetly.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Life as Prayer

Boxing Day: 8:00 am
Bonnie and I are at an art store to buy canvases and other art supplies at 70% off.  My heart is feeling lonely for God.  I've been so busy with visitations and relatives over the past week, I have not been still to pray a minute except at the Christmas services, which--thank God--were peaceful and beautiful and I think many busy people were able, for a few minutes, to find themselves and pray. 

I talked to one of my daughters on the phone this morning.  She spent the Christmas liturgy wrestling with her three children in a little mission church in Arkansas--with nowhere to take the children except outside where it was 20℉ (-7℃) and threatening snow.  Now that's life as prayer.  I'm very proud of my little girl.  It's a huge sacrifice to raise children who pray, who love the Church, who have the opportunity to feel the knocking of God on the door of their hearts.  Raising children in the Church is an exercise in self sacrifice.  Parents are distracted and unable to pray as they would like so that their children can smell the incense, hear the prayers, see the icons, and feel the "something" of the Presence of the Holy Spirit tugging at their hearts.

Most of us in the world pray a great deal, not by being quiet, but by freely giving our quiet to others--out of love.  It's not that we do not have our moments of quiet prayer--like occasional buoys of hope and rest we hang onto for a moment before we must begin another long swim across the sea of our life.  And there are seasons of life--single adulthood and the empty-nest time, for example--when it is not too difficult to find, if we want it, regular time to be still and know that God is God.  Until the grand children visit or the family gets together or the demands of life and work and love compel us to stay busy for others.  It's an offering given in love.  It is life as prayer.

A word from St. Ephraim the Syrian:
The Lord does not seek the monk or the layperson, the scholar or the simpleton, the rich man or the pauper, but only the heart that thirsts for God, full of sincere desire to be true to Him and His commandments.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Homily of St. Isaac the Syrian

This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world;
So let no one threaten;

This is the night of the Most Gentle One -
Let no one be cruel;

This is the night of the Humble One -
Let no one be proud.

Now is the day of joy -
Let us not revenge;

Now is the day of Good Will -
Let us not be mean.

In this Day of Peace -
Let us not be conquered by anger.

Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.

Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.

This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.

Today the DIVINE BEING took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of DIVINITY.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lynn Sexton: Memory Eternal

Bonnie's father died yesterday, at 78 years old, after suffering many years with Alzheimer's disease. On the one hand it was a relief. He seemed to be trying to die for many years. A couple of years ago he lost the ability to chew or swallow anything but a pudding-like paste that was fed him. It had been about five years since he seemed to recognize anyone. We had to institutionalize him about seven years ago because he kept going for walks and ending up in the ditches--and the ditches can be very deep in countryside: the ditch in front of our house is 12 feet deep. The neighbours would find him in a ditch and bring him home muddy, wet and cold. It seems mean of me to think it, but sometimes I wonder if I had been him if I wouldn't have preferred to have been allowed to drown or break my neck in a ditch rather than to languish for seven more years safely in an institution losing my mind and being fed survival pudding.

On the other hand, death is always a tragedy, no matter how or when. Man was not created to die. And it is a deeper tragedy when one dies outside the Church, when one dies with no religious faith whatsoever, except whatever scraps of pop spirituality one may or may not have picked up throughout seventy years of conscious participation in North American culture.

Lynn was raised in a nonreligious home. His mother had been a Methodist, but had stopped going to Church much once she married. His Father hated religion of any sort, having had a bad experience with a Methodist preacher. The bad experience wasn't due to anything immoral. Walking to town one day as a teenager, Bonnie's grandfather was offered a ride in the buggy with a Methodist preacher who felt it necessary to impress on him the terrors of the age to come that awaited him if he would not repent and do whatever it was that early twentieth century Methodists did to evidence their adherence to Methodism. The teenage boy was so angered and offended by the preacher that he jumped out of the buggy and hated religion of any kind the rest of his life. This was the home Bonnie's father was raised in.

During the Korean War, Lynn joined the Marines and after training was shipped off to Korea just as the war ended. Back in San Diego, Lance Corporal Sexton fell in with Four Square Gospel revivalists and married a beautiful, young pianist on a traveling revivalist team. Despite the heat of revivalist fervour, the depth of religious experience was no proof against the realities of married life: getting revived again and again does little to heal passions, promote virtue or encourage healthy communication in marriage. Soon even that form of religion fell away. Lynn always respected the religion of others, he just never got into it very much himself. Given the right circumstances, I'm sure he could have been a relatively faithful something or another, if that's what his wife or family had been into. However, left pretty much on his own, he couldn't seem to find his way onto any particular path of faith.

Lynn was the sort of fellow everyone liked. He always went with the flow. His strengths were beautiful--he was a very gifted watercolorist--and his vices were more or less gentle. He was never one of the sharpest tacks in the box, but he was always the one of the friendliest and most generous. When Bonnie and I had nothing, he gave us $10,000 for a down payment on our first house--back when that was a sufficient down payment on a house.

I don't know why some people get religious faith and others don't seem to. I understand that some are offended, like Bonnie's grandfather. However, I wonder if the vast majority don't see much in religion because the religion they do encounter is vacuous.  I wonder if it is our fault, my fault, the fault of religiously minded folk like me for loving this world so much that those around me cannot see any difference Faith has made in my life. That's probably part of it too. But I have one more theory. I think maybe some people are just naturally more inclined to Faith than others: sort of like IQ, only its F(aith)Q. Some people just have a higher FQ than others. That does not make them better, it just makes them more responsible to be faithful with the Faith they have been given.  

A widely held misconception of monasticism is that the monks spend their lives repenting for their own sins. What they are really doing is repenting for the sins of the whole world. As Orthodox Christians we believe that salvation is of the Body: Salvation is a we thing, not a me thing. We all have gifts that differ, and just as I eat the food someone else has grown and am kept alive by it, I think we may also benefit by the prayers of others and are being saved by them. The hand does not do very well what the foot does very well. We pray, we love, we give, we care--God saves. If Lynn was better at the love, give and care part than he was at the pray part, then I don't think God will hold it much against him. At least I hope not.  I would hate for God to hold against me my cold heart and stinginess. I am happy to share some of my prayer with Lynn just has he shared some of his wealth with Bonnie and me at a time when we really needed it. Actually, I think that's how it's supposed to be.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Making Movies and Making Cheese

Yesterday we hosted a film crew at Church. They were filming a funeral scene and wanted to use the front of Holy Nativity Church as a backdrop, with people coming out of the Church. The film company gave the Church a generous donation for the right to film for half a day, so I agreed. However, matters turned out more complicated than everyone expected, and it turned into an all-day affair with six main actors stationed for the day in the nave of the Church and twenty-six extras stationed in the hall (and thirty or forty crew members who spent the whole day out in the 5ยบ drizzle). The actors and extras were coming in and out being filmed from various angles caring an empty casket and pretending to be sad or angry or loving or supportive--depending on what character they were playing or what scene was being shot.

It had been a long time since I worked with actors and a crew on set. The stress is intense. Every detail takes on huge importance.  Everyone's job and prospect for future work, is on the line. Film industry work pays very well, but there is not much of it, so only the best, the hardest working, the least complaining, the most driven keep getting work. Everyone is en pointe for sixteen hours a day for as many days as it takes to complete the filming (usually two to three weeks).

Thank God, I was able to stay relatively peaceful through the whole thing. Most of the crew and actors were respectful of the Church--indeed, many of them, actors and crew, thanked me for letting them film  there. Most recognized it as a sacred space, one extra even venerated the icons. Only three times did I have to stop an unthinking crew member or actor from opening the Royal Doors--I was stationed most of the day on the Solea just for that purpose. They didn't know; and when I told them that they were not allowed to enter, but that I would be happy to help them with whatever they needed, they apologized and asked me to turn on or off a light, or whether or not they could pass through to the other side. I had locked the door at the back of the Holy Place, so everyone had to walk around outside to the fellowship hall.

For the last couple of hours of the day, the main actors were moved out to their next scene (at Porters Coffee Shop around the corner), but the extras were still in the Church Hall, being shuttled back and forth from Porters as the filming required. The makeup and hairdos of the extras were at this point suffering from the long day in and out of the drizzle. Everyone looked much older. The stress of the day was taking its toll. Some were in small groups kvetching about something or someone. Others were ceaselessly talking--bragging or giving unasked for advice--to whomever was nearby. No one was listening much. Some had fallen asleep in their plastic folding chair with their heads on a plastic folding table. Plastic everywhere.

Finally, the extras were let go for the day. Fake hugs and kisses all around. "I love you, man," one man said to me with the full sincerity of a barely employed actor who had never met me before. 

And then it was just me and Beverly, the Location Assistant's assistant who had been the first one to arrive that morning (she was waiting for me when I arrived) and who made sure that everything was absolutely clean and set right before she left. Bonnie came to pick me up as Beverly was mopping the floor of the fellowship hall. I was so happy to see her. Bonnie is real wife, my real friend, my real lover. No pretending, no boasting, no stress, just mellow love.

This may sound strange, but as we were driving home, I thought that the comfort I felt with Bonnie reminded me of cheese: mellowed, aged cheese. Young love is sweet, like fresh milk, nothing like the Coffee Mate and warm water that the actors were putting on for show. But even the sweetest and freshest milk does not stay sweet. It must change--if it is real milk, if it is alive at all. Real milk changes. The trick is to love the change, to go with the change, to care for it tenderly, to enjoy the cheese of love.  

I don't know where all of the actors and crew members are today. Some are in my heart. May God help them today, may God help them to find the Real, the Real One and their real selves--and may God have mercy on all of us.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Anna Karenina The Movie

“Stunning,” as an adjective to describe a movie is so overused that it has little meaning.  Nonetheless, Bonnie and I spent the first ten minutes of the new film version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina stunned and whispering to each other things like, “this is amazing” and “I love this.”  Sparing us from yet another BBC-like treatment or modernized, politically correct period piece, Universal Pictures gives us an artfully presented and faithfully interpreted version of Tolstoy’s great novel of love, passion and consequence

The film uses a theatre back drop, moving from set to set, following characters through doorways and curtains from one set to another, from country to city, from train to carriage. The sets and costumes are lavish--late ninetieth century Russian aristocracy--and the space between sets is imaginative, suggestive and always artful. One is caught in a two-hour dream, watching as life in all of its complexity unfolds: temptation and resistance, fall and rapture, pain and forgiveness, confusion and insanity. There is no hero or villain. There are only people, good, confused and passionate, with God and faithfulness as their only hope, a hope that is so easily lost sight of, and then just lost.

The writer, Tom Stoppard, offers us a faithful rendering of the story, although obviously, much must be cut to fit a seven-hundred-page novel into a two-hour movie. And what is mostly cut is the story of Levin and Kitty, which in the novel is the understated and gentle love story that makes up more than half of the book, offering Tolstoy’s own (and perhaps semi-autobiographical) ideal of love and providing a foil for Anna’s passion. Levin and Kitty are not absent in the film, but those who have not read the novel might wonder why this innocent, gentle couple is there at all.

I am unspeakably thankful that the folks at Universal Pictures did not feel the need to modernize the story.  Sure, there is a good ten minutes of Keira Knightly and  Aaron Taylor-Johnson open-mouth kissing scattered through the middle of the film, which I guess they figured was necessary to get the voyeuristic element to pay twelve bucks to see the movie, but essentially Tolstoy’s moral message stays in tact: faithfulness is better than adultery, and repentance and forgiveness are better than continuance in passion-driven self-fulfillment disregarding the pain of others. Such continuance is, indeed, a kind of suicidal insanity.

Certainly there is plenty of blame to go around. Some might see the hypocritical society as being most at fault: a society that, according to one character, doesn’t care that she broke the law, but can’t accept that she broke the (social) rules in not hiding her passion. That, apparently, is what closets are for. But all societies have their moral taboos.  For example, as open as Vancouver society is to sexual identities and lifestyle options, there is just no room in good company for a person who would cull fifty sled dogs from his stock. Every society has rules. And it is certainly one of Tolstoy’s points that ignoring the feelings of others, ignoring the rules, is suicidal--especially if one is also ignoring the feelings of religion, friends and family.

To live for oneself is suicide: painful, tormenting suicide.  The alternative is no picnic either. Anna is married to a faithful, loving and very busy bureaucrat, twenty years her senior, whose faithful love is as boring to Anna as are his policies and awards for meritorious service to the state.  And yet, not everything in Anna’s life is dull. She is wealthy, adores her son, and has all of the power and privilege of the highest levels of St. Petersburg society.  But isn’t this a lot like life, most of life, for many people?  (The lucky people, that is.)  No life is solid gold.  There is always tin mixed in.  Life for no one is so good that there are not also mixed in painful or annoying or boring bits.  And it seems that it is often the case, as it is in Anna’s, that the more gold one has in life, the more one is tormented by the bits of tin.

And it is this torment, if we let it, that will work us into a blind frenzy. Like Eve in the Garden, we no longer care what we may lose. All we can see is the promised sweetness of the apple, the excitement of the chase, the thrill of expectation, and the passionate ecstasy of longed-for experience. Nothing and no one else exists in this demonically inspired and self-induced frenzy. “How can it be wrong when it feels so good?” Even the object of our passionate love is no longer real to us: we see not a person with good and bad, strengths and weaknesses. We see only a vision, an idealized lover, a caricature with all blemishes hidden and all pleasing features grossly exaggerated.

Eventually pain brings us to our senses. In Anna’s case it is the pain and near-death experience of the birth of her love child. Anna comes to her senses and begs forgiveness, forgiveness from her husband whom she has deeply wounded. And he comes to her and forgives her and offers her everything. But this is not the end. Anna recovers and as her strength grows, so does her passion for her lover.  Anna can repent and be forgiven and die, but she does not find in herself the strength to repent, be forgiven and live.  The demon has taken root, the hand must be played out to the end.

Like most novels made into movies, it helps a great deal to have read the book before one sees the movie. However in this case, the artistic presentation is so engaging and the basic plot so evident that I can highly recommend this condensed version of Tolstoy’s novel even to those who have not or will not read the book. It is an amazing work of art and storytelling.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Suffering Leading to Forgiveness

I'm reading Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov).  I'm only 46 pages into this 500 page collection of stories about holy "everyday" people in Russia, but based on what I have read so far, I think I can fully recommend it.  The translation is excellent, revealing Archimandrite Tikhon's skill as a story teller.

The first story (or set of stories) in the book is about Elder John, Archimandrite Tikhon's spiritual father for twenty-five years.  These stories about Elder John are amazing, encouraging, and both fearsome and hopeful.  Elder John at one point relates a story from his youth. It is a story of an Archbishop Seraphim, whom the then twelve-year-old John revered.  On Forgiveness Sunday, the Archbishop drove both the Abbot and a deacon from the monastery, then went into the monastery church and conducted the service of forgiveness, prostrating before all present and begging their forgiveness.

"My youthful conscience was totally shocked," Elder John relates, "by what I had just seen, because of the utter contrast: on the one hand, and act of driving out from the monastery, in other words, the absence of any forgiveness, and yet on the other hand, his meek plea for forgiveness  for himself and others from all and to all.  At the time I only understood one thing: that sometimes punishment can be the beginning of forgiveness, and that without punishment forgiveness may be impossible."

Without punishment, forgiveness may be impossible.  What a strange idea for my western mind.  In our western way of thinking, punishment and forgiveness are opposites.  We usually think of forgiveness as replacing punishment--that is, those who are not forgiven are punished, and those who are forgiven are not punished.  But what Elder John speaks of is a punishment that makes forgiveness possible.  

Certainly he does not understand punishment juridically.  He does not understand punishment as a necessary paying off of one's debt to society or to God.  He does not understand punishment as a kind of balancing of the scales of justice that have been thrown off balance by one's crime, by one's sin, and require punishment to rebalance them.  If this is not what punishment is, then what is it?  How do we translate what a Russian Orthodox elder means by punishment into language that a contemporary western English speaker can understand?

One way to begin to understand what an Orthodox elder might mean by "punishment leading to forgiveness" might be to look at some of the work that has been done by truth and reconciliation groups trying to bring peace to war-torn parts of the world.  What they have found is that in order for reconciliation to take place between alienated factions, truth must be told.  That is, those who have perpetrated heinous crimes must admit what they have done.  However, this is not easily done, for those who commit heinous crimes often do not view themselves as criminals.  They may view themselves as patriots or as innocent victims themselves merely following orders, or as initiators of a new and better order of things; but they certainly do not see themselves a criminals.  Nevertheless, if reconciliation is going to take place, truth must be told.

Similarly in a spiritual sense, confession of sin must precede forgiveness.  This is, of course, from a human perspective--God has already forgiven everyone.  We are the ones who need to experience forgiveness.  God always forgives everything.  But in order to experience God's forgiveness, we must accept that we have sinned.  Just about everyone is willing to admit that they have sinned in some way or another, or to own up to a vague sinfulness.  However, the real difficult part is to admit, to really own, specific actions, words, thoughts and attitudes as sinful.  Often, and this has been the experience of the Church, only a certain amount of suffering will bring us to our senses.  It seems that in our pain we are able to see a little bit of the pain we may have caused others.  It seems that in our pain we cry out to God for help, to a God that may seem to us to be silent, even absent.  But this prayer itself draws our attention to what is in our heart, to the truth that we have striven so mightily to deny.

This suffering we call punishment, again not because we are paying for a crime, but because we know at some level that our suffering (and the suffering of others) is connected to our sin.  In fact, admitting this fact, that our suffering and the suffering of others is in some way connected with our own sin, often is a first step in finding healing, in finding reconciliation with God and neighbor.  The parable of the Prodigal Son is an example of this.  It is his suffering, which is not unconnected to his sinful actions, that brings him to his senses, that brings him to admit to himself and to his Father, "I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no longer worthy to be called your son...." The Father holds no grudge.  He does not delight to see his son suffer. The Father is ready to forgive, indeed has already forgiven; but for the son to experience this forgiveness he himself must "come to his senses" and admit to himself that he has sinned."

Monday, December 03, 2012

What We Know Of God

Last Sunday I preached on the Prophet Habakuk and at one point spoke of reaping what you sow. One of the messages of Habakuk is that if you oppress and exploit the poor, God may eventually allow someone more powerful than you to oppress and exploit you.

After the homily, one of my bright catechumens, asked me: "So then what's the difference between 'reap what you sow' and deism. If bad things automatically happen as a result of bad and good things because of good, then it sounds like the Great Clock wound by God and left alone that the deists suggested.

While there are many ways I could have responded to this, what I actually said was something like this: the universe is like a great clock wound by God in the beginning. It is also like God is intimately involved (immanent) in every on-going detail of the universe. It is also like God has left a great deal up to human free will. And it is also like God has predestined everything.

We are talking about God, after all. Why should it surprise us that true statements about God and His relation to us and the universe are contradictory? God is ineffable. That means there are no words to describe Him. God is inconceivable. That means there are no concepts that can encompass Him. To speak of God, as several Church Fathers have said, is to lie. God does not fit into a conceptual box, into a category, into a scheme. God is God.

Nevertheless, God is known, really known. Yet God is not completely known, for God is unknowable. Fr. Thomas Hopko puts it this way: "God is unknowable, but you have to know Him first to know that." God reveals Himself, but the limitations of the creature are such that knowledge of the Creator can only be in bits. True bits, but true bits that do not fit into any rational pattern, scheme or category that would enable us to approach God without faith.  

We come to God with faith. We know bits, but really only enough to suggest to us how very much we don't know. We come with faith to the God who orders all things, and grants us freedom. We come with faith to the God who allows us to reap what we sow and does not deal with us as our sins deserve. We entrust ourselves to the God we know we don't know. Any other conceivable god wouldn't be God.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

I'm Not Hurting Anyone

The fact that repentance furnishes hope should not be taken by us as a means to rob ourselves of the feeling of fear.
St. Isaac The Syrian

Isn't it interesting that St. Isaac considers the loss of "the feeling of fear"to be a kind of robbery?  For the Fathers of the Church, fear is a good thing.  For the Fathers, fear is not a nebulous thing; it is not a vague fear of "I don't know what."  The fear the Fathers are speaking of is godly fear, or pious fear (the Greek word usually translated as "godly" in the Bible is same word that in Orthodox Church texts is generally translated "pious").  There is a good fear, a pious fear that keeps us from sinning.

I think many of us figure that if God forgives us, then there is nothing to fear; however, the consequences of sin are more than an offence against God which He freely forgives.  Life is real, and the consequences of sin are real too.  What we do affects other people.

We live in a culture that values so much what goes on in the head.  Notice that we will spend almost all of our youth being trained to think.  We receive almost no explicit instruction in morality.  It is as if thinking well were the only important matter.  The moral implications and consequences of what we think or do, that seems to be completely irrelevant--so long as we don't get sued or go to jail.  And what makes matters worse is that we now have the technology (internet, video games, credit cards, birth control, and antibiotics, for example) to almost completely shield our mental immorality and much of our actual immoral behaviour from its immediate natural consequences.

This psudo-reality of life shielded from consequence is brought home for me every time I hear someone say in confession: "But it's not hurting anyone."  Set free from most of the immediate negative consequence of our actions and robbed of the fear of God, we licentiously indulge our blood lust in video games and our sexual urges in "safe sex" and our avaricious fantasies in government sponsored gambling.  We say we are not hurting anyone.  And the tragedy is that many of us are sincere.  We believe the lie: "I am an island.  What I do doesn't effect others."

King David, I'm sure thought he was not hurting anyone as he was ogling at the bathing Bathsheba.   And David was certain that he was not hurting anyone when he invited Bathsheba to the palace--no one would know, at least no one important, and God, God forgives everything, God will understand.  But when Bathsheba was found pregnant (a failure of technology, perhaps), David had a plan.  No one would be hurt.  He'd just call Uriah home form the front lines to give a report on the battle.  However, David did not figure that he would be dealing with a man more righteous than he. And so David did have to "let" someone get hurt--"it was his own fault, really," I'm sure David mused, "if he hadn't been so damn careful about his piety, everything would have worked out fine.  No one would have known. No one would have been hurt."

And so someone is hurt.  A man more righteous than David is killed to cover David's sin.  But the consequences are just beginning. Nathan the prophet confronts David regarding his sin and David repents.  David's repentance is legend.  It is the pattern for all repentances.  And God forgives David.  God forgives David, nevertheless....

Nevertheless David has turned the course of the river.  Our thoughts and actions have real consequences.  We change the world by what we do, what we say, and even by what we dwell on in our thoughts.  David changed the world.  He didn't think he was changing the world.  He didn't think he was hurting anyone.  He was just indulging his lust in a way God had warned us not to--"Don't look on your neighbour's wife to lust after her."  God knows the consequences of thoughts and actions even if we do not.  "Don't eat of the tree," God warns Adam, "for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die."  "Don't kill, don't steal, don't commit adultery."  Don't do these things for you will change the world in ways you cannot anticipate; you will hurt and oppress and kill even without realizing it.  

St. Isaac the Syrian makes a point of noting that God had forgiven King David before his troubles began.  God was not punishing David in a retributive sense.  God was not purging David of his sins through the suffering that would follow.  What followed was merely the plant that grew from the seed David had planted.  David's own sons would follow his example of despising God for their lusts and thinking lightly of murder.  David had thought he was hurting no one.  Little did he know that he was opening the door to a civil war that would plague his kingdom for much of the rest of his life.  

To fear God is to know that we don't know.  We don't know the real consequences of our little disobediences and our hidden indulgences.  We don't know who we can not love because our hearts were distracted.  We don't know what Grace we have turned away because we loved a little darkness more than the Light.  And we don't know the wounds we have inflicted on others by our words and actions and even our thoughts because we did not fear God, thinking only of what we could see, what we wanted to see--that we weren't hurting anyone.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why Not Me?

In the hour in which we are tempted we must be patient and pray.
Elder Amphilochios

When it comes right down to it, we don't like being patient because patience requires that we continue to suffer. We don't like suffering. We want the suffering to end as soon as possible. In fact, much of the power of temptation is in that it seems to promise an end to our suffering--at a cost. But we are not only assailed by temptation when we are suffering.

The insidious way of the evil one is to use our experience, whatever it is, to separate us from Christ. Even in the Garden of Paradise, the evil one suggests to Eve that greater delights were to be had. A seed, a word of doubt is planted in her mind concerning the love and care of God: "God's holding out on you. God has forbidden something because He doesn't want you to have some good things." These and similar thoughts the serpent whispers into Eve's ears. Even in Paradise, even in a world with nothing but good, the evil one uses even the good, the desire for good, to deceive and separate the creature from the loving Creator.

And so either from the left or from the right, either with the promise of greater pleasure or of less pain, temptation comes to us. It comes to us as a shortcut. It comes to us with a lie, a lie that God does not really love us, a lie that "it" won't hurt anyone, a lie that we'll finally get what we want--we'll get what God has been holding from us.  

But just as Eve got what she thought she wanted--the knowledge of good and evil--we too get in one way or another what we want only to find out that it wasn't really what we wanted at all, and that the hidden costs are excruciating. But not to worry. There is always another lie....

The way of the Cross is the remedy to temptation. The way of the Cross is the way of patience and humility: patience in suffering and humility in blessing. I heard Mother Victoria once say in response to a question that contained the phrase, why me: "Why not me?" If there is sickness in the world, why shouldn't I be sick too? If there is tragedy in the world, why shouldn't I be touched by tragedy too? If there is poverty in the world, why shouldn't I be poor too? If there is confusion and frustration in the world, why shouldn't I be confused and frustrated too? Am I better than everyone else? Does God love me more?   

Asking ourselves the question,"why not me?" helps us find patience in suffering. "Why not me?" defuses many of the lies and untangles many of the mental webs of the evil one. This attitude helps us endure--knowing that we are not alone in the suffering common to all mankind. The "why not me?" attitude helps us entrust ourselves to God who really does "work all things for good," even when it doesn't feel very good at the moment. And "why not me?" also diminishes the importance of our suffering in our own eyes. It keeps our suffering from becoming all-consuming. It helps us look past the pain and to see more than the sorrow. It removes us and our troubles from the centre of our universe.  

Asking "why not me?" also creates humility. When things are going our way, when the bills are paid and the kids are healthy; then, "why not me?" helps us hold everything loosely. It reminds us that nothing this side of grave is permanent. It gives us compassion. The suffering of my neighbor could have been mine, and indeed may yet be mine before the end. It makes us generous--giving to those who are in need knowing that we too may someday be in need. And this humility that comes from a "why not me?" attitude guards us from thinking we deserve more than we have, thus blunting the temptation of the Garden of Eden to deny God by reaching out to take what God has not given us.

Finally, and this can only be confirmed by experience, having embraced a "why not me?" attitude toward life, all of life--the good, the bad, the ups, the downs--becomes much more peaceful, meaningful and even enjoyable.  Peaceful because I am not fretting, meaningful because I am not alone, and enjoyable because I can now see beyond myself. The lows are not nearly so low. The highs are just a different kind of Cross, a cross with a pillow perhaps; but still just a particular context in which to give your life away.  

In the hour in which we are tempted we must be patient and pray.  Temptation is a clever craftsman.  He is able to make small things loom large.  Temptation disquiets, saddens, and creates external battles. He knows many arts.  He brings man to doubt.  For this reason we have many shipwrecks.  When we are beset by temptations, that's when the grace of God comes.  When one undergoes temptation, he recognizes his weakness, is humbled and attracts the grace of God.  Don't let the winds of temptation affect you.  They can't do you any harm.  [i.e. You can only harm yourself.]
Elder Amphilochios in Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece

Monday, November 26, 2012

Forgetting That I'm Mostly Blind

"[Death] took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen."
St. John Chrysostom Pascha Homily

One of my perennial battles with myself has its root in the fact that I am mostly blind. I'm not talking about physical blindness, but about the inability to see what is really going on in my life and in the lives of those around me. I do see some things, but the problem is that I forget that I don't see a great deal more. I see the tip and think I understand the whole iceberg.

Blindness, actually, is not really the problem either.  Jesus said to the Pharisees, when they asked if He thought they were blind, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now that you say, 'we see,' your sin remains."  I say I see, and that's my problem. I think I really do know what's going on, what the problem is and how to fix it. "Ah! If only they would just listen to me." And what makes this so tricky is the fact that I probably do see some of what the problem is and some of what might help to fix it. But like arrogant Death, I too so easily gobble up what I see only to crumble before what I had not seen. I can blow my horn and confidently affirm the tip that I see, all the while missing the great mass of the issue that I do not see.

This is one reason why gentleness is so important--gentleness with yourself (to a lesser degree) and gentleness with others (to a greater degree). In spite of our blindness we do have to speak, we have to act, make judgements and live in the world. We have to interact with and try to help and encourage those around us. Some people look to the sometimes harsh words and manner of Jesus when he speaks to the Pharisees as a model. I don't think that is a very good idea. Jesus sees everything. We don't. 

Still we should speak. When it is appropriate to do so, we must say what we see. But regardless of what we see, we should speak gently and compassionately, keeping in mind that there is much more that we do not see.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The light of the Light of Christ

Water is life. Too much water is death.  

Gregory of Nyssa likens the distractions of life to a rushing torrent uprooting trees and pushing boulders out of its way. A huge part of the struggle of those living in the world is to learn not to let the water--life with all of its "demandments": obligations, expectations and responsibilities--rush too violently into their souls. Otherwise, the Tree of Life and the Rock of our Salvation may seem to be swept away in the torrent.

This is one of the big draws of the monastic life according to St. Gregory. The flow of life is regulated (in a healthy monastic context) so that there is enough of a flow of the messiness of life for virtues to grow, but not so much that it threatens to wash away the inner garden.  

Those of us in the world, however, have very little protection from the deluges of life. And it seems that the more prosperous one is in the world, the more rushing and gushing the demandments of life are. This is probably one of the reasons why it is so hard for a rich person to be saved, why it is so hard for just about anyone who is doing OK in the world to be saved (for there are many ways in which a person can be rich--money is just one of them). The rich attend to the screams of the urgent and have no attention left for the whispers of the important. The rich are driven by the needs of the immediate and have no energy left to walk in the garden of the eternal.

And yet we are not without hope. I asked someone recently how she was doing and she said to me,"I'm sad, confused and a little hopeful." That sums things up pretty well, I think. Life in a fallen world is nothing less than sad and confusing. However, there is hope. There is light in the darkness. When His disciples asked Jesus, "Who then can be saved?" after Jesus had said how hard it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus answered, "With human beings this is impossible, but with God nothing is impossible."

God gives miracles to those who ask, to those who seek, to those who knock. God gives miracles. Occasionally, the miracle is outward: a sudden change of circumstances or health or relationships. But most often the miracle is inward, and always the miracle is for salvation: to change the heart and the mind. Our salvation is to become like Jesus. So even a wealthy person--through a miracle of the Holy Spirit--can learn to be generous, which is like Jesus who gave everything. And even a well educated person--through a miracle of the Holy Spirit--can learn to be humble, which is like Jesus who humbled Himself even to death. And even a gifted leader--through a miracle of the Holy Spirit--can learn to serve the least of all, which is like Jesus who came not to be served but to serve.

But miracles like these do not happen without our asking for them. And generally we do not ask, not really ask, until we are certain of our need, of our total inability to save ourselves (much less those we love). And nothing convinces us that there is no hope except in God so well as this sad and confusing fallen world. It teaches us to cry out, to cry out in desperation, to the God for whom nothing is impossible. And the God for whom nothing is impossible touches our hearts, changes our minds (i.e. grants repentance), gives us a step, an act, or a small obedience that in spite of the flood begins to change our souls. It is as though we are raised somehow a little above the flood. The terrible flood rages by--"a thousand may fall at my right hand"--but the Tree of Life and the Rock of Salvation remain firm in our hearts.

Very few of us ever actually see the Uncreated Light of God, but everyone can see the effects of that Light. It is the light of the Light, the light that shines in the darkness. It is peace in the midst of the storm. It is gentleness in the face of rage. It is patience (suffering a long time) or generosity or kindness when others think we're crazy. It is the light of the Light of Christ shining in our hearts.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

On Virginity and Marriage

St. Gregory of Nyssa in his work, "On Virginity," in an early section of the work, describes the troubles of married life as a means of encouraging his readers not to idealize marriage, but to understand the evils that accompany the good.  He laments, "If only before experience comes, the results of experience could be learnt."

St. Gregory of Nyssa begins this section by conceding the joys of the best possible marriage: "...competent means, suitable ages, the flower and prime of life, deep affection, the very best that each can think of the other, that sweet rivalry of each wishing to surpass the other in loving...."  St. Gregory himself was a married man.  As he describes the highs and lows of the best possible marriage, you easily get the sense that this is his own experience.  He has known the best of what marriage offers...and he knows the distraction, anxiety, sorrow and sadness that must accompany even the best of marriages.

And then there is the reality that, by definition, few marriages are the very best.  "If you wish to know all of the trials of married life," St. Gregory advises those who are not yet married, "ask the women who actually know it."  Wise Gregory recognizes that, generally speaking, women, more than men, experience the most intense suffering in marriage.  I am not speaking here of merely the physical pain and constriction of freedoms that comes with bearing and raising children.  I am referring to the anxiety and tears associated with beloved children going their own ways and a spouse who fails to provide for, perhaps even to notice, her own emotional and perhaps even social and physical needs.  Men feel these things too; but I think women feel them more intensely.

Yet in spite of this reality, St. Gregory concedes, it is not ignorance of these sufferings that leads most people to choose the married life.  It is rather a kind of blindness, an unwillingness to believe that I will have to endure what my parents or relatives or acquaintances have endured.  An immaturity or unwillingness to believe that I am my parent's child, that my potential spouse is the offspring of his or her parents and that we all human beings alike suffer from similar passions and delusions.  And so we are surprised when the honeymoon ends, when our spouse is unresponsive, when we have to let go of our dreams for the sake of our family, for the sake of reality.

This reality, however, is also our salvation.  The seed of new life is in the fruit that we eat.  It is the very struggle to love, to love as Christ loved, to love unrequited--or at least not well requited--that makes us like Christ, that becomes the arena in which our martyrdom saves our souls and the souls of those we love: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."

Now to be clear, this is not an exhortation to remain in a dangerous relationship.  There is enough martyrdom in living as a single mother without also being beaten regularly by a drunken husband.  We are not talking about a legal obligation to enable another's wickedness.  No, abuse is not to be endured; but dissatisfaction is not the same as abuse. It is this continued love in the face of dissatisfaction that produces godliness.  It is a love that finds no other help except in God--God and His Mother and His Saints.  Here the Light of Christ shines brightly.

Some of you, those who are young, may be wondering why I present such a dismal view of married life. Is it because I have had a terrible marriage? Actually, no. After 33 years, I can say that Bonnie and I have (so far) beaten the odds. But this has not happened by accident. Love is work. All of life is work, the work of becoming like Jesus. And that's a good work. However, it is probably easier, more "glorious," as St. Gregory would say, to do this work as a virgin and in a monastery. That's the point of St. Gregory's work on virginity.  

Certainly, monastic life has its trials and tribulations too. And there can be failed monasteries just as there can be failed marriages. We are all broken human beings. And yet considering everything, if one can choose it, virginity is a higher path, a more sure (but not certain) path to Christlikeness. This is why St. Gregory recommends it. And yet married people need not despair. St. Gregory himself is married. Marriage is also a path to holiness. It is just a bumpier path.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Wisdom of Sirach: Praying With Our Hands

The Wisdom of Sirach is much like the book of Proverbs. It is a rambling book of wisdom that should probably be read carefully at least once every decade of one's life. The wisdom of the book becomes more profound as your experience in life increases. However, the world of Sirach was very different from our world.  

An example of this different world, and an actual source of spiritual trouble for many people today, is that very few of us nowadays make our living with our hands. Very few of us practice a craft. Wise Sirach tells us that builders, blacksmiths, and potters pray with their hands: "Their prayer is in the practice of their craft" (38:34). He particularly points out that a source of this prayer is the attention they pay to their craft, the builder who is "keeping watch to perfect his work" or the blacksmith who "inclines his ear to the sound of the hammer and [whose] eyes are focused on the...object...and keeps watch to perfect its detail" (38: 27, 28).

But many of us today have no craft--not even as a hobby. I think the Wisdom of Sirach, which is the wisdom of the Church, would teach us to find a craft, to find something to do with our hands, something that requires attention and practice to acquire skill, something that produces a real thing.

The problem with sales, financial services, media, church work or scholarship, and just about anything that has to do with computing--where many of us make our living--is that although the work requires attention, it creates nothing real, or at least nothing very real and certainly nothing that is very lasting. We can spend our life's energy manipulating data and moving merchandise and never really touch or change what we are giving all of our attention to. And we who spend so much of our attention on moving and manipulating nothing very real, if we are going to experience the kind of prayer that Sirach speaks of, we need to plant a garden, or build a bathroom, or paint a picture or knit a sweater. We need to have a craft, even as a hobby. We need it as part of our salvation. We need it to learn how to pray.

There are many also who labour in serving others, in medicine, in teaching, in other various ways. These, it seems to me, also pray in their work in as much as they attend to their "masters" as to the Lord. That is, in as much as a doctor or teacher or a waitress serves others, the other is his or her master. The master of the teacher is the student. The master of the doctor is the patient. "He who is first shall be last."  "The greatest shall be servant of all." How can that be?  It can be because Jesus is both the Lord of all and the Servant of all. Laying aside His glory as God, Jesus came to all human beings as their Servant. Christians are empowered to imitate Christ. Nevertheless, it seems very few doctors look to their patients as masters or teachers to their students as masters--in this sense a waitress is in an easier position to find prayer in her work than a professor in that it is probably easier for a waitress to see her clients as Christ, the Master, than it is for a professor or doctor or politician to do the same.  

But serving others as master is a skill we can grow in. Like the blacksmith who must learn through attention and repeated encounters of hammer and steel how to form something useful; so we who serve others can grow in the ability to see Christ in our patients, in our students, in our customers. If we attend to this, if we look for Christ in the weak, sick, unruly and impatient faces of those we serve, we like the potter or the builder may too be praying in our work.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Young People and The Evolution Question

Often when I speak to young people, as I did last weekend, I am asked about evolution. The rhetoric of the culture wars has given many people the impression that one must either believe in creation or evolution. This is of course a false dilemma.  I am not, however, suggesting that the appropriate alternative to the either/or of this false dilemma (and of most false dilemmas) is both/and. Nor am I suggesting that a hybrid evolutionary-creationism is the answer either. [What I do suggest follows below, but I think I had to say that now so that some of my dear readers may more easily attend to what I actually do say.] And what unfortunately makes this struggle between evolution and creation even more problematic for young people is that the creationism that is most often presented to them as an alternative to evolution carries the same materialistic and causal assumptions of the evolutionary scientists, except with a God component.  

To my untrained eye (I am no scientist), this God-created-the-world-in-six-literal-days-about-ten-thousand-years-ago scenario offers little significantly different from the deist/atheist/agnostic evolutionary scenario. In both cases, God is not everywhere present and filling all things. Neither view, in my opinion, presents a Christian understanding, and certainly not an Orthodox Christian understanding of the state of things--how things came to be and why they are the way they are.  

Given this messy context and the heightened anxiety that often accompanies the question, what I have generally told young people when they ask the evolution question is that ancient spiritual texts (even fully inspired ones) are just as inappropriate as foundations for science as scientific theories are inappropriate foundations for theological speculation. We're talking about apples and oranges here. Apples and apes, really.

Fr. Aleis Trader in his book Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck's Cognitive Therapy makes a helpful observation as he tries to lay out the metaphysical assumptions underlying modern psychology. Commenting on attempts by Orthodox Christians to reconcile evolutionary theory with the account of Genesis, which he charitably says "have not been greeted by unanimous approval," Fr. Aleis gets to the root of the matter. He says that Genesis and evolutionary theory cannot be reconciled because "evolutionary theory is more than a description of a process and Orthodox theology of creation is more than a statement about causation." And it is this something more that cannot be ignored without making both what neither is.

Evolutionary theory is not merely the description of a process--a description that in some contexts may even be useful--it is also a set of metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality. Therefore, for Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, to oppose evolutionary theory as though its fundamental problem were that it doesn't get the primordial facts straight, is truly a travesty. It is the ultimate picking of gnats out of the camel stew. Similarly, at least from an Orthodox Christian perspective, Genesis is about much, much more than causation. Even granting the most literalistic interpretation of Genesis, to separate that God created a certain way from what that creation tells us about the nature of God and of the creation itself and of God's intimate relationship with His creation is certainly a far greater travesty.  

Nevertheless, and this seems to be the point of chapters one and two of Fr. Alesis' book, it is still possible for scientists and Orthodox Christians committed to a patristic understanding of God, man and the cosmos to have a conversation--even to learn from each other. However, before genuine dialog can take place, the nature of each worldview must be made explicit--and the rhetoric must be toned way down.

I am afraid, however, that for most Orthodox Christian young people caught up in a world of half answers to ill-formed questions, of emotionally charged rhetoric, and of hidden assumptions and intentional ignorance (on all sides), meaningful engagement with science without wounding their Orthodox Christian conscience is a very tricky matter. Many great Orthodox Christians have also been great scientists (Pavel Florensky comes immediately to mind). It is certainly possible for a devout Orthodox Christian to become an excellent scientist: I personally know a few. However, it requires at least the following things: that the metaphysical assumptions of science be made explicit, and that Christian truth not be reduced to mere measurable facts. It also requires that young people studying science know their faith and nurture their relationship with God with as much zeal as they pursue their scientific study. But is this not also the case for everyone in any field?  

**NOTE**  Some of you may have noticed that I accidentally deleted some comments.  I was cleaning out spam and somehow deleted several legitimate comments.  I tried to get them back, but I couldn't figure out how.  Sorry.