Saturday, June 30, 2012

What I Remember

The football experience was good.  Bonnie enjoyed the train ride--took a hundred pictures on her i-pad of people and buildings for possible future oil paintings.  We had dinner at Patron's Tacos and Cantina on Robson St. near the stadium.  Best Mexican food in Vancouver area.  The game was fun: good athleticism and smart play.  I like to think of football as a sort of combination group sumo wrestling and chess with large men.  The Lion's Geroy Simon broke the record for most yards receiving, becoming the CFL's all-time leading receiver, and the Lions won the game 33 to 16.  All in all, it was a great night out.

And then morning came.  The problem with fun worldly activities is that they are best enjoyed in anticipation; sometimes, but not always, enjoyable in the execution; and in the end leave you tired and empty.  There is nothing lasting about a football game--even if you win, even if you break the all-time CFL record.  What I remember from last night, what I remember in the Christian sense of holding in my heart, is a lovely time hanging out with my beloved.  That's what I remember, and that's what will last.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Lions Vs. Bombers

Some of you know that I am a football fan.  Our B.C. Lions won the Grey Cup last year and tonight they have a rematch with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.  I don't get to go to many games because they are usually played on Saturday night and so conflict with Great Vespers.  However, today the game is on Friday.

The fellow I usually go with--who lives next to the Church and has season tickets--couldn't make this game so he gave his tickets away.  There is an interesting story here.  Serg, the neighbor, was out working in his yard one Saturday three years ago, when we first took possession of the church building.  I was doing maintenance around the church and saw he was wearing a B.C. Lions cap.  We struck up a conversation about football, and he offered to share his season tickets with me.  Since then, at the beginning of the season, I tell him which games I can make (usually only two or three), and he saves a ticket for me.  We've become friends--he calls me Father Mike--and we have even had a couple of serious conversations.

I've come to really enjoy Canadian Football, and even prefer it to NFL.  Certainly, the quality of play in the CFL is not at the same level as the NFL.  It's more like top level NCAA play.  However, the game is faster paced.  There are only three downs, much more passing (receivers can run toward the line before the snap giving them a big advantage receiving).  The end zone is twenty yards, making it easier for end zone catches.  And the tickets are reasonably priced.

I had to buy tickets on-line, so they cost more than I usually pay, but I got great seats: ten rows up on the 45 yard line.  Bonnie will be going with me tonight.  I am very excited about that.  I know she won't enjoy it as much as I do, but it is kind of her to want to be with me and at least be willing to share my excitement.  That's part of the reason why I spent a little more for good seats.  I want it to be as nice as possible for Bonnie.  When I'm with Serg, it doesn't matter.  We sit in the end zone with the rowdies and try to catch field goal kicks.

We are taking the train into the city.  Bonnie has never taken the train before, so she is excited about that.

Sorry for the decidedly unspiritual tone of this entry.  And yet, I don't know.  I think even in football love can shine, and even sitting next to a stranger cheering on your team, you can be kind and patient and even express a kind of rough, manly sort of gentleness.  Perhaps that doesn't make sense if you have never experienced it; but I have, so it makes sense to me.

Go Lions Go!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Save Us Lord

I ran across this verse in matins this morning and it encouraged me quite a bit:


While it is significant to note that the church teaches us here that our evil deeds are our enemies (not someone outside us), that is not what struck me this morning.  What struck me was the words of the Disciples, "Save us, Lord, before we perish."

I had to stop reading for a moment this morning because this verse hit me so forcefully and think about where it came from and when the Disciples used the words, "Save us, Lord, before we perish."  Then it came to me.  On the sea, when Jesus had fallen asleep in the back of the boat and the waves were tossing the boat (Mark 4: 38).  Jesus then arose and rebuked the wind and the waves and the sea became calm.  

For the Disciples, the prayer for salvation had nothing to do with eternal matters.  It had everything to do with the storm that they feared would capsize their boat.

I need to learn from the Disciples.  Too often I don't pray for salvation from the rough sea of thoughts that is often rocking my boat and filling me with anxiety.  Maybe I don't pray to be saved because I assume "salvation" is a heavenly matter.  Maybe, and I think this is most often the case, I don't pray because I think I should be able to handle it.  I think I should be able to work it out in my head--all the while experiencing anxiety, doubt, fear, and a generally bad attitude.  

You know, I think sometimes I don't want to be saved.  I don't want God to calm the waves inside me.  I want God to give me an answer.  I want God to fit all of the pieces of the puzzle together for me.  I'm holding out.  I'm enduring the storm in the vain expectation that if I suffer long enough it will all somehow make sense to me.  It seems I want things to make sense more than I want peace.

This morning as I read this verse I realized that to have peace, to let Christ calm the waves disturbing my mind, I have to first let go of the waves.  I have to let them go away unexplained, unresolved, unanswered.  I have to be willing, just like the Disciples, only to worship Him.  

I don't know why I need to figure out why things are the way they are.  I don't know why it is so hard for me just to trust God.  But it is hard for me.  I hope I can learn to say, "Save us, Lord, before we perish," before my boat is swamped by everything I don't understand, before I exhaust myself with worrying, figuring, and dot-connecting.  After all, I'm grumpy when I am exhausted, and I'm sure everyone who has to be around me would appreciate it if I would just let go of my need to figure out the unfigureable and let Christ calm the sea of my mind.

Save us, Lord, before we perish.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What Is The Light That Shines In The Darkness?

Every morning in the Matins prayers we sing the Hymns of the Guiding Light in the tone of the week.  Each tone has a slightly different wording of the same basic theme.  The theme is that the rising sun each morning is evidence that even in the darkness of this world God provides guiding light.  The hymn in tone two goes like this: “Send forth Thine everlasting light, O Christ God, and enlighten the hidden eyes of my heart.”  In tone four: “O Thou who make the light to rise upon thy world, cleanse every sin of my soul which is in darkness.”
What is this light that shines in darkness?  I think the light is love.  

The scandal of Christianity is the incarnation.  The scandal is that the eternal, pure and true God loved as a man in this messy, futile, confusing, irrational world.  And this is our scandal: that we too are called to love in a world that makes no sense, within systems that are corrupt, using words and rituals that at best merely point toward what is eternal, pure and true; and at worst, these same words and rituals can be used to foster pride, division and even hate.  This is the darkness in which the light of love comes.  This is the darkness in which we are called to love.
Sometimes, especially when I am tired or sad, the brokenness of the world weighs heavily on me.  It is like the cold darkness of early morning, rising to pray before the sun armed with nothing much more than hope, hope that the sun will rise, that light will shine in darkness, that love will dawn in our hearts.  I can do nothing more than rise, and pray, and love those God has given me to love.  I can’t fix the world, but I can love in the world.
Praying in the early morning has an interesting effect on me.  Like the rooster who thinks the sun rises because he crows, I feel like the sun rises, not because of, but with my prayers.  I am prepared for the darkness I will encounter through the day, a darkness in which I know the light of love can dawn.  I know this because I have already seen one miraculous dawning that day.  Some people think the sun rises (or the earth turns) by some mechanical necessity.  I choose to believe that it is a miracle, a miracle of God’s grace and His promise that darkness will not win.
In the darkness before the day, men and women rise in hope to offer themselves and the whole world to the God who cannot be seen in the weak light of this world.  In the darkness of a world gone mad, where futility seems to reign, love rises as a guiding light.  The love of God rises in our hearts and through us into the dark world.
St. Paul ends Romans chapter eight saying that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  He lists some pretty grizzly possibilities: “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword.”  He even goes so far as to quote Psalm 44 (43): 23, “For Your sake we are killed all day long: We are counted as sheep for the slaughter.”  But even death, even the long, slow, seventy-year death of existence in a futile world is not able to separate us from the love of God.  And this love of God is the only love we have, our only light in the darkness, and the very light we have to shine in this world.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


In the Old Testament, darkness, cloud or smoke are often references to the Presence of God.  Probably the most famous example is Moses’ experience on the mountain when he enters into the “thick darkness where God was” (Ex 20:21).  There is also Isaiah’s vision of heaven “filled with smoke” (Is. 6:4).  And there are many more.  Darkness, cloud and smoke, all of these obstruct our natural sight and thus they are appropriate images for the encounter with God.  This is because God cannot be perceived through the means by which we perceive created things.  But what about light, which is a dominant image for the encounter with God in the New Testament.  Gregory of Nyssa and many other Orthodox fathers have noted that light also blinds us.  Whether we enter into deep darkness or light as bright as the sun, the result is the same: we cannot see.
St. Paul in Romans chapter eight speaks of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, by whom we cry out to God, “Abba, Father.”  By the Holy Spirit we are heirs and children of God and joint heirs with Christ, “if indeed we suffer with Him.”  St. Paul goes on to describe this suffering as a groaning because of the futility to which the creation has been subjected until the “revealing of the sons of God.”  
I would like to suggest that the darkness, or very bright light if you like, of our experience with God is often experienced as an overwhelming awareness of the futility of created things.  We simply cannot see the use, the value, the fruit, the end.  All we see is futility.  This too is the thick darkness.  In fact, St. Paul goes on to say that this very groaning within ourselves is part of the first fruits of the Spirit: it is the hope in which we were saved.  
The very nature of hope is exactly this: hope is not seen.  Hope, true hope, requires of us that we eagerly wait with perseverance for what we know in our hearts but cannot yet see.
And what is St. Paul’s next word (in v. 26)?  “The Spirit also helps us in our weaknesses.”  The very groaning within ourselves, the groaning produced by our inability to escape the futility of all that surrounds us, this groaning of the Spirit within us is itself the intercession of the Holy Spirit.
This is a large part of our sharing in the sufferings of Christ.  This is the thick darkness where God dwells.  This is the crucifixion of our minds, our wills, our senses and sensibilities.  This is where faith is faith indeed, where obedience is tested, where the knife is lifted, where we are girded by others and carried were we do not wish to go (c.f. Jn. 21:18).
Stripped of concepts, theories and systems by the awareness of their futility, we gently cry out Abba.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

How Do You Say "I Love You"

One of the things I learned early in my marriage was that loving someone in a way that feels loving to me, may not feel loving to her. The words, gestures and actions that would say "I love you" if my wife were to say or do them to me, do not necessarily say "I love you" when I say or do them to her. A huge part--a never-ending part, in my experience--of married life is learning what says "I love you" to my spouse.  

Learning in this case is not merely hypothetical, although that also is hard. Less so these day, but earlier in our relationship, I was often confused by Bonnie's response (or lack of response) to loving gestures on my part. And even more bewildering to me were her requests--after a few years of marriage, when she finally figured out that she would actually have to tell me what she liked because I would never figure it out. But most frustrating of all has been the on-going struggle to actually do and say in the midst of the grind of daily life what I know I should do and say--and truly want to do and say when I am undistracted and focused. This is particularly true of some gestures. I know that certain gestures say "I love you," but I still don't think of doing them very often. I'm still a husband in training.

However, there are some ways that I have learned to tell my wife that I love her that have over the years become natural, almost second nature, to me. Now I feel like I am loving her when I say or do these things, even though at the beginning of our relationship they felt awkward or contrived to me.

I think my experience learning how to love in marriage is similar to my experience in learning how to love God. In the early days, prayers and songs that felt loving to me were the only way I knew how to express my love for God. With time, however, God began to introduce me to ways of loving Him that did not come so naturally to me. Self control, ancient prayers, generosity to the poor, kindness to those who annoy me, patience and trust in trying circumstances--these all are ways God has taught me. These all are ways that God has taught me how He wants to be told "I love you."

After thirty-three years of marriage, Bonnie and I notice more and more often that one of us will do or say something that would more naturally be said or done by the other. Bonnie will say when she notices such things in herself, "I am becoming a Gillis." I will say, "I am becoming domesticated." I have a hunch that our transfiguration into the Image of Christ looks like that too, at least in some ways.  

We accept the yoke of Christ. We are married to Christ in baptism. This involves a long process of learning how to love Christ the way Christ wants to be loved. It sometimes feels a little awkward and contrived at first. Some bits come more easily, others never seem to fit well at all. Yet in it all we say "I love you." We become a little more like our Bridegroom, a baby step closer. But at least we are moving. We have eternity.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Monastery: Final Day

Monastery: Final Day

I can already feel a certain amount of adrenaline in my veins. I haven't felt it for four days. Nothing to catch. No appointments to keep. No bills to pay. Nothing that has to be done. Now I'm calculating: "if I catch the 12:30 ferry, I will be home at... then I have to... before....

Getting up this morning was particularly difficult. I commiserated with two of the brothers about 2:30 this morning. "You know," one brother observed, "it doesn't really matter what time you get up. It's always hard. You say to yourself, 'If only I had one more hour...' but it would be just as difficult to get up an hour later." The other brother pondered, "I wonder, since falling asleep is likened to death and waking up is likened to the resurrection, if the final resurrection of the dead will not be more difficult than we like to imagine." We all ponder a moment, groan a little, take a sip of coffee and I comment, "At least God has given us the consolation of coffee. Perhaps there will be a spiritual coffee given us on the morning of the Great Resurrection." We giggle.

The Jesus Prayer was sweet this morning. Some of you (my readers) must have read yesterday's entry and said a prayer for me.

After matins and nap time, we had our "three-course breakfast": A reading from the Old Testament, from the Gospel and from the Epistle. We read Second Peter. Someone pointed out that "the knowledge of Jesus Christ" is only made fruitful by loving the brothers.

By the way, confession went well yesterday. Obviously I cannot reveal anything, but it went as usual: I was challenged. I could have even be offended, but I was not. I will hold it in my heart and think about what was said and maybe from a hard seed a beautiful flower will grow. Actually, I expect this will happen.

I'm on the ferry now. Despite the small amount of adrenaline, I feel very relaxed and peaceful. I want to hold this feeling as long as possible. I'm watching a tug boat pull two large barges of sawdust. It seems to be moving so slowly--but it is moving. Slowly, slowly, slowly. May I move through my summer slowly, holding tightly my barges of full of treasures collected these few days.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Monastery: Day Three

Monastery: Day Three

Yesterday was very peaceful. I took a long nap in the early afternoon and then helped one of the brothers cut into carry-able lengths an alder tree that had fallen across the path to the cross on top of the hill behind the monastery. We used a large bow saw, one on each side. Just the sawing was a good workout. Then we carried the logs back to the monastery to become firewood. On tuesday, when I was out walking on the road, he had cut an eight-foot section of the tree and quartered it (by splitting) and carried that back to the monastery to be dried for a year or so and then be made into furniture. The brother told me that one of his greatest joys is to create something beautiful and useful from a tree--taking the wood every step from felling to final varnishing.

I rejoice that there are such people. His joy is contagious, even if his love for labor is much harder to catch.

I walked up to the cross on the hill this morning. In fact, I am writing this sitting on the bench next to the cross.

Toward the end of the Jesus Prayer time and all through Matins this morning, I was engaged in spiritual warfare. I was solving problems in my mind. It's amazes me how easy it is to solve problems when you are supposed to be praying. Of course the "solutions" are seldom that. In the light of day, out of the foggy mist of my distracted, imagined reality, they are worthless, if I remember them at all. One very funny irony about this morning was that I caught myself figuring out how to teach someone not to be distracted in prayer while I was supposed to be praying. Ha! Sometimes the demons just play with my head. (Well, even to attribute such a thing to demons may be claiming too much for myself. My mind is perfectly capable of wandering on its own.)

Generally speaking, however, I have been able to find a great deal of stillness. It feels so good just to be at peace. Just to be, not to be thinking about what the next thing is that needs to be done. Ten minutes of such peace is worth more than several days of regular vacation. Even the fasting doesn't bother me very much. When I feel a little hungry, I just say to myself that dinner will be after vespers. I don't have to plan or prepare it. It will just be there, and then I will eat.

The joy of meal time is really indescribable. The bothers don't take their meal in silence. They are generally silent all day long unless they need to say something (or they have a guest like me who feels compelled to say something just to hear his own echo). But at dinner, they talk. The talk is simple, about the day; yet it is full of anecdotes, anecdotes that leave me with a feeling. I want to say either "Thank God" or "Lord have mercy" or just feel joy or satisfaction or the deep irony of poetic justice. Then after dinner, we all sit and talk for another 45 minutes or so eating our dessert of raisins and almonds. Father Abbot talks about whatever is on his mind. Real dessert. Peacefully we hug and kiss one another and go off to our cells for reading or private prayer rules and then off to sleep.

Every night and morning I share a sink with the brother who loves wood. We brush our teeth together and he tells me that he appreciated my insight into something we spoke about earlier in the day (a comment about a verse that I had picked up in an academic journal long ago). I tell him that I appreciate his love for and ability to work with wood. We hug and kiss each other on the cheek, and I go off to my cell deeply at peace. I don't even remember thinking about anything. I just fell asleep.

This afternoon I have confession time with Father Abbot in his cell. I used to dread confession. I don't so much any more. I just talk about my weaknesses and what has been bothering me. Sometimes I talk about problems in the church that I am particularly at a loss to address. Father never tells me what to do--even when I ask him to do so. He has opinions, sometimes strong ones. But he never makes me feel bad or wrong because I don't see it exactly the same way. Yet his words haunt me. And over the weeks and months I find myself seeing things in ways that are increasingly similar to his. I think that is probably how it is supposed to happen.

Tonight we have spaghetti to celebrate my last meal with the brothers this visit. Typically meals consist of cooked vegetables and a grain, so spaghetti is a big deal. We might even have the brother's homemade wine with dinner. Simple, simple men living a simple, simple life, yet possessing the wealth no one can buy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Monastery: DayTwo

Monastery: Day Two

I went for a walk yesterday afternoon. The foxgloves were in full chorus along the road. Purple to white to purple, like keys on a color scale singing a song I could only appreciate but not understand. Native red and yellow berries hung in various stages of ripeness. The birds were feasting. And I was feasting, but not eating.

I try to keep the monastery rule of one meal a day while I am here. I figure I have taken the effort to come, so I might as well enroll for the whole program. Not that there is really a program; it's just that I want to fit into the cycle of the brother's life so that at as many levels as is possible I might share in some of the Grace God has given them. My visits are infrequent, but I find that the Grace lasts a long time--like a sliver of sweet candy that I hide under my tongue that melts very slowly. The flavors of this candy are the various memories: of a feeling, of a word, of a loving or meaningful or pregnant glance. But to understand, to begin to understand, what is said and done, I have also to understand what is not said, what is not done; what is not said or not done in the same love and with the same pregnancy. Like the berries along the road, the seed is hidden in the sweetness.

For bible study this morning, the brothers read the betrayal of Christ in Mark's Gospel. One brother noted that Judas waited for a convenient time to betray Jesus while the other disciples, in order to find the place for the Last Supper, had to obey Christ, trusting his Word against their own uncertainty, and look for the donkey and colt which required a miracle for their master to let go. Is not one of the lessons of this passage that convenience has no bearing on God's plan and that convenience, as a criterion, may indeed lead to betrayal? Faithfulness, on the other hand, generally entails inconvenience: obedience, searching, faith, a miracle.

Instead of tea today, one of the brothers made me "Russian tea without the tea." He finely chopped a piece of a green apple and put it in a mug of hot water with honey and a little lemon. It was like heaven. I drank it as slowly as possible because I didn't want it to end.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Monastery: Day One

Day one at the monastery.

The semantron sounds at 2:00 am: make the bed, wash (cold water), coffee or tea and low mumbling (not grumbling) between the brothers: "Good morning. Did you sleep well?" Gentle hug.

3:00 am, Jesus prayer in the cells. This was one of the toughest parts of the monastery cycle for me to get used to. It took me several years of regular visits to make it through the whole hour actually praying somewhat. I say somewhat because I have experienced nothing like what I read about nor what I hear slip occasionally from the brothers' mouths--they generally do not talk about their prayer life. I imagine it is like the love life of a healthy husband and wife. Some secrets are too precious to be shared.

This morning prayer time went pretty well. I could not get my parishioners out of my mind. I would see one and feel their concerns and ask Jesus for mercy: "They need a miracle. Nothing less." I would feel a little peace (or relief) and then say a few more Jesus prayers before someone else came to my mind. I asked Father Abbot later about this and he said that it is as it should be. As a pastor, I carry my parishioners in my heart, so who else should I encounter when I begin to enter my heart?

4:00 am, matins begins. Two kathismata (10% of the Psalter). My stomach is beginning to bother me. The tea I had earlier is not agreeing with me. With each metania, the tea seems to be revisiting me. At the end of the kathisma, I slip out and go back to my cell above the chapel. I listen to matins. As I slip in and out of sleep, I feel like I am with the brothers chanting. The vibration of their voices radiate through me and I seem to vibrate with them. In my drowsy state, I am sure there is a spiritual principle at work, but I don't know what it is. I can't think. I can only feel my body vibrating with their voices as though I were chanting with them--and I am, or am I? Oh we are at the Theotokos, The Mother of the Light already. Matins seems to be moving quickly: "More honorable than the Cherubim..."

7:00 am and I get up felling much better, but I drink only water for the morning just in case. One father is off to give the Holy Mysteries to a sick elderly woman. The work day begins. I chat a while with Father Abbot and another guest. Then the guest and Father go to Father's cell for serious talk--maybe confession. That's where I will have my confession.

9:00 am, I am helping with the candles. I drill holes in 2" votive candles and insert wicks. I am conversing with a brother about helpful words we have received. He tells me about a time long ago when he spoke to a wise nun asking what he should do with his life. She told him that the most important thing is to be yourself--even if yourself is nothing important or seems to be nothing important, no big deal. Still, just be yourself and give. Give to others. Then in my crude logic I said, "Yes, even a pile of manure has something to give for it can fertilize the lettuce." The brother smiled.

It seems to me that no matter how insignificant one is or imagines oneself to be, one can always give. There are always menial tasks to be done. In fact, it is exactly the menial tasks that no one wants to do. Maybe it is because I think I am too important.

Maybe if I were not afraid of accept myself as myself, then I would stop trying to be something I'm not--something important. After all, someone has to fertilize the lettuces. It's good to be small in the Body of Christ. It is good just to do what needs to be done--and be at peace.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Nice Place

Bonnie and I are at the Summerland Waterfront Resort. It's a nice place and Bonnie seems to like it. She is the one who really knows the difference between nice and OK. Bonnie very seldom complains, but she will tell me when she thinks something is nice. The SWR ranks as nice, so I'm happy. 

The restaurant here has an amazing chef. We were impressed by everything we tried. Two particularly wonderful items are the breaded and fried avacodo and the baby iceberg lettuce salad. I am not a culinary writer, so I don't have the vocabulary to describe the taste experience, but if you are in the Okanogan and want to go out for a very nice meal, you should try it. The place is called "Local." We liked it so much the first night, we ate there again the second night just so that we could try something else on the menu. 

It's always a little hard on me going to a nice place. I feel like I relate much more to the workers than to the other guests. I find myself wanting to help, to fix things that are not quite right (the toilet seat was loose, so I tightened it; I keep holding doors open for staff till I noticed that they were not going through but were looking at me uncomfortably). I guess I'm really the uncomfortable one. 

Yesterday morning I noticed that the girl cleaning the rooms also worked as hostess at the restaurant. I asked her If she was the same one. She said she was and that she worked two jobs. Bonnie and I both said at the same time, "God bless you." She looked us in the face with a faint smile. There were puffy bags under her eyes. As we were walking away, I noticed a cross tattooed on the under side of her wrist. It was black and unadorned, like what prisoners sometimes do to themselves with a ball point pen. I can't get that hard-working girl out of my mind. I looked for her last night and this morning, but I haven't seen her. I don't know what I'd say to her except to say again God bless you.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Be Really Holy: Take a Vacation

Bonnie and I are taking a little vacation.  A real vacation--two days at a "resort spa" with a massage and pedicure.  My heart is at peace.  It seems the right thing to do, but my mind is full of accusations.

"If you were really holy," my mind tells me, "You wouldn't waste all that money on yourselves." "If you were holy like Mother Teresa or St. Mary of Paris, you would care more for the suffering of others and use all of your resources to help the poor."  "If you were really holy, like St. Seraphim of Sarov or  Elder Paisios, you would deny yourself."  "If you were really holy...."

Actually, these thoughts, though perennial, are not disturbing me very much.  I have heard them all before, and I have begun my response to them in the way I have learned works best: "Well I guess I am not holy then," I say to the thoughts.  "I am only myself, married to Bonnie, who is only herself."  "Someday I may be holy, who knows?"  "But right now this is where I am, and this is where I find peace and grace in my less than holy heart."

One of the reasons why we need spiritual fathers and mothers, or at least honest people, in our life--especially as zealous Orthodox Christians--is that it is so, so easy to accept the delusion that holiness is found in living someone else's life.  Honouring and reading the lives of saints and learning  from contemporary elders and wise fathers and mothers are important aspects of our spiritual growth.  We learn some of the markers along the path to holiness and are warned of pitfalls along the way by attending to the lives and sayings of the holy ones who have gone before and who are still among us.  However, it is a crippling error to confuse spiritual teaching with its specific application in any one person's life.

I may be at the beginning of the same path that St. Silouan was (is) on, but I am not a Russian monk with a third grade education on Mount Athos in the early 20th century.  I can learn a great deal from St. Silouan's life and words, but I cannot live his life.  I have to live my life, the life of a married priest with way too much education, way too little wisdom....and an opportunity to take a vacation.

If I am ever going to be holy--or even holy-ish, I'd settle for that--it will be as I am transformed and transfigured by the Grace of God.  It will not be by becoming someone else or trying really hard to do what someone else does or did.  I am the one who needs to be changed, not the imagined holy one that my mind sometimes presents to me as the me I should be.  Being someone else is no one's path to salvation.

And so, for the next couple of days it seems that my path (whether it is towards or away from holiness, God will judge) seems to be through a resort spa.  I will do my best to enjoy it--it shouldn't be too tough.

Prayers for this sinner are appreciated.

Monday, June 11, 2012

What Is The Soul and Heart and Spiritual Life?

Defining the soul is as easy as defining love. But just because it is difficult to define something, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Sometime in the middle of the last century, the communist scientists of the old USSR boasted that they had dissected every part of a human being and found no soul. They probably didn't find love either.

The word "soul" is used slightly differently in different discourse communities (that is people who talk with each other and know basically what each other means by the words they use). Sometimes soul means the life force. This is what the Latin word for soul implies. Sometimes soul refers to the whole life of a person, which is what the biblical Hebrew word generally means. In the Christian tradition in the west, soul has referred to that part of a person that lives on after the body dies. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, according to Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, "the term 'soul' refers both to the spiritual element in our existence and to life itself."

So what is "spirit element"?  I think what Metropolitan Hierotheos means is that which is not strictly physical. Of course, the physical and spiritual interact and influence each other. If I don't get enough physical sleep, my spiritual attitude can get very grumpy. And happiness, a spiritual quality, can have a salutary effect on my health. And when I am at peace, a quintessentially spiritual quality, I sleep like a baby. There is no clear line between soul and body, which is why "soul" often refers to the whole life of a person.

When we speak of someone's heart in the Orthodox Church, we are not referring to the seat of the emotions--which is a common dictionary definition of heart (as in "I love you with all my heart"). Both in the New Testament and in Orthodox Christian teaching, heart refers to our inner self, the self that ideally (in a healthy human being) monitors and guides what happens in the mind and body. The mind is the place of both the thoughts and the feelings (including emotions). People who live in their minds--and that is most of us most of the time--are usually scattered in several different directions, propping up more than one different persona, and telling a story (or stories) to themselves which they consider to be their lives. Life in the mind is generally driven by strong feelings that the Church calls passions.

Passions are natural, healthy impulses and feelings that have gotten both sick and out of control, so out of control that they drive us to do and say things that we would not do or say if we were at peace. Fundamental to salvation, if salvation means returning to the likeness of God in which we were created (not just going to heaven when we die), fundamental to salvation is the return of the mind into the heart; or the submission of the mind to the heart, to the inner person of the heart.

Returning the mind to the heart is simple, but not easy. The bulk of the ascetic tradition of the Church, at least as it is practiced by most people, is all about learning to control passions and pay attention to the heart. One of the clues to finding the heart is peace. When peace rules our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (to quote St. Paul), we can manifest a spiritual life, a life full of the virtue (fruit) of the Holy Spirit. Like I said, simple but not easy.

What is easy is self deception. Because we so easily deceive ourselves, humility is essential. It is possible to think yourself advanced, making good progress in the spiritual life when in reality you are merely going in circles, slowly slipping away from Christ. The voice of experience is speaking! This is why we need spiritual mentors. We need men and women with a little bit of spiritual experience who will speak the truth to us. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find a woman or man whom we feel safe and confident to speak to about our spiritual life. Nevertheless, I have found that just about anyone can speak to me (even when I haven't asked for it) humbling words. I have found that most of the time my weaknesses are so glaring and I am so blind to them that just about anyone with the courage or obligation to tell me plainly what they see can bring me a saving revelation. Of course, I have to be willing to receive it--which is where the humility part comes in.

I have often thought that God purposely waits to give us a mature spiritual father or mother. God is waiting for us to receive the words given to us by all of the weak ones who speak truth in our lives. If we cannot hear them, what makes us think we will hear a holy father or mother who reads our mail (spiritually speaking)?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rules As Rulers

The Apostle's fast begins tomorrow.  It is not as strict a fast as Great Lent, but it is a fast nonetheless.  I was explaining "less strict" to a catechumen last week, and she had trouble getting the concept beyond a strict reckoning of which days certain foods could and could not be eaten.  From her perspective, and perhaps from the perspective of many trained to think in a western culture, something either is allowed or it isn't.  You either do it or you don't.  It is either a rule or it's not; and if it is a rule, you either keep it or you don't.  I said to my catechumen, "it depends on what you mean by rule."

In Canada, a rule is synonymous with a law.  It is something you have to do; and if you don't do it, you are guilty: you have done wrong, and you deserve to be punished.  "You break rules and you get broken"--that's what I used to say in my Protestant days.  Rules are something you keep or you break.  Those are the only two options.  And rules, at least in our modern framework, are very fragile things: they break easily.  All you have to do is miss one point.  Like a law, if you fall short one inch of the rule, you have broken the rule.

This is not how the Orthodox Church teaches us how to understand rules.

Rules in the Orthodox Church are measures, like rulers.  So, for example, a rule of prayer is a standard, a routine of prayer that one seeks to emulate and follow, and by which one measures what one actually does.  To be specific, if someone has a rule of prayer that involves saying so many prayers and reading so much of the Bible every morning, and one morning (or several mornings in a row) she doesn't complete her rule, she has not broken her prayer rule.  She is not guilty.  The rule is a measure.  She has merely not met the measure.

When I was an athlete in college, we would sometimes do these killer workouts that began with running 4 X440 yds @ 60 seconds each.  You got to rest until your heart rate slowed to 100, then you were off on the next.  Then it was 3 X 880 yds @ 2 min 20 seconds (70 seconds a lap--10 K race pace).  Then 2 X 1320 yds @ 3 min 30 seconds.  Then one mile (four laps) @ 4 min 40 seconds.  Then 2 X 1320, 3 X 880, and finally four more 440s at 60 seconds each.  That was a killer workout.  The time for each set was the rule, it was what we strove for.  It was a certain pace that we hoped we could sustain for a ten kilometre race.  Some days we could do it (especially toward the end of the season), some days we fell short of the rule.

When we fell short of the rule, it didn't mean that we "broke" the rule or that we were guilty or even that we had failed.  It meant that for some reason we didn't measure up to the pace we had set for ourselves--our health or diet or mental focus was off.  Or it could mean that the rule was just too difficult for us, and we needed to work up to it.  The rule was a measure, it was a tool to help us train.

Rules in the Church function the same way.  They are not laws that we must keep or else we face punishment, they are measuring sticks to help us train.  The very word "asceticism" comes from the Greek word that means athletic training.  When the Church gives us fasting rules or prayer rules or any other rule, the Church is not laying a set of laws on us.  Rather the Church is giving us a measuring stick by which we can train ourselves in the various aspects of righteousness: prayer, fasting and alms giving.  In fact, we miss the point completely if we fast or keep a prayer rule perfectly but fail to be transfigured by the Holy Spirit.

Just as our goal on the Cross Country team in college was to win races, our goal as Christians is to acquire the grace and peace of the Holy Spirit.  However, unlike racing, acquiring the Holy Spirit is not a matter of working hard.  It a matter of humility, inner quietness and attention.  It is a matter surrender and love.  And it is a matter being open, saying "yes" to God--and to our neighbor.  Rules help.  They measure things.  But like the Sabbath, rules are created to help us; we were not created for the rules. 

Friday, June 08, 2012

Spiritual Intelligence

Who would have imagined that we would come to know so much yet understand so little?

For several years now I have had a loosely held theory that part of the reason why some people seem to hunger for spiritual life while others don't seem to be that hungry has to do with what I have called spiritual intelligence.  Right away I want to say that "intelligence" is a misleading word. I use it rather metaphorically.

In educational theory, it has become popular to speak of multiple intelligences. For example we might speak of musical intelligence to explain why some people "get" music readily and perhaps even enjoy making it for hours on end, while others (like me) don't really get music. I think music is fine, it's nice, but I don't normally listen to it nor do I produce it. Music just doesn't do much for me. You might even say I am musically challenged, or lack a high musical intelligence. Other sorts of intelligences that are often suggested are logical-mathmatical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, and several more.

Certainly all intelligences can be trained. Although I seem to lack a natural musical intelligence (a naturally low musical IQ, you might say), if I had been raised in a musical family and been taught to make and appreciate music from early childhood, I might probably love it today. But probably, I would have still been the dark musical sheep of the family, enjoying perhaps musical paraphernalia, culture or history more than the music itself. But who knows?

My point is that in the Church there is room for everyone, even those who do not seem very interested. In a culture that emphasizes individual initiative and responsibility, suggesting that the playing field isn't at all level may strike us as heretical. This is especially the case for religion and for those religious traditions (I am thinking especially but not exclusively of my own Protestant background) that believe salvation is attained only by personally (read: individually) accepting Christ. One who has not "really" accepted Christ--almost always manifest by behaviour considered inappropriate by the community--can't be saved according to this individualistic model.  

However, if we think of salvation on the level of a household, we get a different view. The Philippian Jailor, for example, asks St. Paul, "What must I do to be saved?" And St. Paul replies (in the singular), "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31). Here we see that the Jailor's faith is sufficient to save his household.  Similarly, when the friends of a paralytic tear open the roof where Jesus is teaching to lower the paralytic before Jesus, the text tells us, "And when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, 'My son, your sins are forgiven'" (Mark 2:5). It's not the paralytic's faith that prompts Jesus to forgive him, but the faith of his friends. And one more example: St. Paul says to the Corinthians that a believing wife makes her unbelieving husband holy and the believing husband, his unbelieving wife (1Cor. 7:14).

My point here is not to produce proof texts to argue against personal faith. Personal faith is very important. In fact, personal faith is so powerful that it can influence those who are near the person with faith. I don't think God is so stingy with salvation as many of us think. I will go so far as to say that those with strong personal faith really have nothing to boast in--it is a gift of God and the fruit, the manifestation, that the Holy Spirit is already at work in someone before he or she believes (c.f. 1 Cor. 12:9 and Gal. 5: 22).

One of the powerful aspects of circumcision on the eighth day after birth among the Jews is that it makes a man a member of the covenant community long before he can manifest any of the moral or spiritual virtues of membership in that community. Succeed or fail, virtue or vice, good Jew or bad, the fellow is a Jew. St. Paul seems to imply that baptism plays a similar role among Christians as circumcision has played among Jews (Col. 2:11, 12).  The actions of the Philippian Jailor seem to confirm this, for after he believed, his whole family was baptized (Acts 16: 33). And if this is the case, and I believe it is indeed the Church's teaching, then personal, individual faith--especially faith expressed by some externally identifiable marker--may not be the sole criterion for salvation. Salvation is a gift to the Body, and all those in the Body benefit from it.  

Some have used Noah's Ark as a type of salvation of the body (most notably, St. Peter in 1 Peter 3: 21, 22). All those who are on the Ark are saved even though it is principally Noah who has a faithful relationship with God, not necessarily his sons and their wives.

Some people have more faith than others. Some don't seem to get faith at all. But just as not getting algebra does not make algebra any less real, so not getting faith does not make God and the reality of God known through the Church and perhaps sought and hinted at in all religions any less real. And just as we can all appreciate and benefit from an architect who has trained his already high spatial intelligence, so we can all appreciate and benefit from the Grace of God found in holy men and women, men and women who have trained their perhaps natural spiritual intelligence to be aware of and remain filled with the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Reading Like A Christian

When I was an undergraduate taking freshman composition, my professor continually marked certain phrases I used as clich├ęs.  This frustrated me because although she knew that the phrases were over used, they seem novel to me.  I didn't have much experience with language at the time.  I didn't begin reading (any more than was absolutely required--and seldom even that much) until I was in my late twenties and in a job that was over my head:  Mr. C- in freshman comp was now teaching writing to international students at a graduate school.

And you know what I discovered?  You can actually learn stuff reading.  I know most people figure this out sooner than I did.  And it might have been helpful to know this, say beginning in junior high school; but I didn't.  I guess I'm just a really late bloomer.

After a few years in nonfiction, mostly books on writing, with forays into theology and patristics; I took a stab at fiction.  Actually, I was forced to do it.  I was on the "leadership council" of a Protestant church, the same church community that eventually became Orthodox.  Actually it was in the early nineties, just a few years before we became Orthodox.  The Council was on retreat and I was sharing my recent readings in John of the Cross and Bernard of Clairvaux.  I was troubled by my readings because I knew there was much more to them than I was getting out of them.  The brothers observed my frustration and put a discipline on me.  I was not to read any theology or similar literature until I had completed one long novel--they suggested I begin with The Lord Of The Rings, prefaced, of course, by The Hobbit.  

I didn't get much out of it.  It was a nice story, but I didn't know how to read fiction.  I kept waiting for the significant information to be presented.  Nevertheless, this kickstarted my move into fiction.  I read Shakespeare, and since I was homeschooling my girls, they read some too.  I began to get it, get how to read and learn about life from fiction.  Dickens was next, a project that took me about ten years.  I would have been quicker but I kept getting sidetracked by C.S. Lewis, Melville, Cooper, Chesterton, Orwell, Steinbeck and others.  Some I liked, some I quit after a few chapters, some I forced myself through even though I didn't like it much, but I felt that somehow it was good for me.  About the time I began to double back on my Dickens favourites, I also began reading Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hardy, Elliot, the Brontes and even three of Austin's novels (Emma is my favourite so far).  I've been stuck in the nineteenth century.  It's a rather nice place to be stuck.

I have to say that much of how I understand what a healthy human being is and what the various human sicknesses look like has come from my reading of literature.  Or more precisely, learning to pay attention to fictional characters has gone a long way in helping me pay attention to myself and those around me. 

This should come as no surprise to those of you who have been able to listen a little to the lectures by Fr. John Behr that I recommended last time.  Fr. John points out that many of the Fathers of the Church recommended the study of the pagan writers as a preparation for theological learning.

While it is certainly true that pagan writers are, well, pagan, and one must be discerning in one's reading and interpretation; nevertheless, and this is the important point, pagan writers are human.  And if indeed the writer--pagan, Buddhist, atheist, or otherwise--is attempting to say something true, something real about human experience, then there is a good chance that something true and real about human experience is said.  Sure, what is true and real will be packed in a load of delusion and falsehood; but since when has that not been the case with almost all human experience?  The Pearl of Great Price is hidden in a field of dirt.

Sometime in my early twenties after going through some particularly tough times it dawned on me in prayer that much of what it means to grow spiritually is linked to just plain growing up: taking responsibility, caring for the weak, doing what needs to be done just because it needs to be done.  And in as much as Jesus is our prototype, perfect God and perfect man, then becoming a normal, healthy human being is a big part of what it takes to be like Jesus.  I think good literature can help us with this part.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Feasting on Behr

I have been having something of a Fr. John Behr feast today on Youtube.  Both lectures feature what I have found to be his signature theme (that the disciples of Christ had no idea what was going on until after the Resurrection when Christ opened for them the Scriptures) and apply it in an apologetic context: particularly, the Christian use of academic learning.  His presentations are marvellous.

I must admit that the first time I heard Fr. John speak and the book and a half of his that I have read did not impress me.  It seemed to be much too much of the same old re-hashing of academic New Testament biblical studies.  That I was not impressed, by the way, speaks more of my dullness, of my need to have the writings opened for me, than it does of what Fr. John has to say.  

However, in these two lectures, apparently for undergraduate students, I saw his New Testament insight applied masterfully in an academic context so that it seemed to me to make Christianity look absolutely appealing to thoughtful young adults.  No small feat.  Moreover, he does this not with any spirit of revivalism or emotionality, but with a clear telling of the story of the Christian interaction with pagan literature in the early centuries--which is nothing like the anti-intellectual, anti-science, head-in-the-sand Christianity that College students often encounter.  I could imagine a young student saying to herself, "Well if that is what Christianity is, then perhaps I should look into it."

If you have a couple of hours and would like to listen to some excellent talks on the relationship between early Christianity and the academy, then I suggest that you check these out.  This link is to the first part of a lecture divided into ten parts.  This link is for another lecture that is not divided into parts.

Again, both are great, and if you haven't listened to a challenging academic lecture in a while, get a cup of coffee and let it work on you.  

My love for nineteenth century novels has taught me by experience that deep thought applied to the best of a culture's literature produces excellent fruit in one's reflection in Christian faith.  It's nice to learn that this was also the experience of some of the greatest Christian thinkers of the first several centuries.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Grace-filled Speech of Pentecost

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit filled the disciples of Jesus and they spoke with "other tongues" so that the multitude from every nation heard them speaking the "wonderful works of God" in their own languages.

Although I think many Christians have experienced moments of Grace-filled speech, very few of us have been so filled with the Holy Spirit that Grace-filled speech, speech such that others actually hear us telling the wonderful works of God, is rare.  Such Grace-filled speech, tongues of fire, enables the hearers to hear the wonderful works of God even if they do not speak your language. And in my experience I have found that very few people actually speak my language--and those who do speak my language don't do so very well.

What I mean is that even brothers and sisters who have grown up in the same home, without the Grace-filled speech of the Holy Spirit, misunderstand each other, cannot communicate what they really think and feel to each other, and more often than not completely fail to understand and appreciate what is most important to each other. Just because two people use the same words, doesn't necessarily mean they speak the same language. This is particularly the case when speaking about spirituality and religion. Without the Grace-filled speech of a heart filled with the Holy Spirit, I might as well be speaking Swahili to my neighbour, I might as well be speaking potatoes while he is speaking corn.

And the real tragedy in this is that although I have been filled with the Holy Spirit, I have quenched, squandered, buried, lost, and despised it. Most of what comes out of my mouth is at best ineffectual, and at worst death-dealing. Instead of tongues of fire, I speak with tongues of ice. I speak from my own insecurity and to maintain my own self-induced persona.  

Like the prodigal son, I too am returning to my Father having squandered the riches He gave me. And as I am returning, as I am slowly learning to attend to the Gift of the Holy Spirit, I find that I still must speak even though I know my words are probably not (or are not very) Grace-filled. In this condition, the condition of a mud-stained, repenting son of the Most High God, a son who has squandered the riches of My Father in heaven; in this condition, I must be very careful with what I say--ironic words from a man who writes an essay several times a week and posts it on the internet.

Because I am not very good at attending to the Holy Spirit, or at least knowing whether what I am attending to is the Holy Spirit or some self-made delusion, I have found three criteria helpful in determining what I should say when I think I must say something. These are truth, love and necessity.   usually pose these to myself in the form of a question: is what I am about to say true, loving and necessary?

Is it true? I do not confuse true with factual. Jesus told parables that were not necessarily factual, but were true. What is true reveals what is. Facts often obfuscate. I do not mean to say that one should have a wanton disregard for facts in the name of truth, but what I am saying is that one must never have a wanton disregard for truth in the name of facts. Truth requires that one be true. Truth seeks what is true in the other.

Is it loving? I have, to my shame, in the name of love destroyed others. When "love" means merely "for your own good," as if I actually knew what was good for another (I seldom know what is good for myself) this kind of love is no love at all. It is merely self justification. I find it most helpful not to use the word love at all when I ask myself this question. I find it best to use St. Paul's definition of love. Before I speak, I want to ask myself: is it patient, is it kind, is it without envy, does it not focus on me, am I saying this because I will feel better if I do, is it polite, is it seeking the good of the other, is it not motivated by provocation, is it not assuming evil in the other?  

Is it necessary? A teacher must teach, and so teachers receive the greater judgement. But even teachers, probably, speak much more than is necessary. Words so often get in the way. And really, at best, words can only point the way. Words are not the way.

Each day I hope I am growing in the Grace of the Holy Spirit--glacial movement is still movement. Someday I hope, when I speak at all, to speak in the tongues of fire. And maybe I have, briefly, in the past spoken in this Grace-filled way and I am too dull to realize it--or maybe it was just a lucky choice of words. God knows. In the mean time, when I think I must speak, I hope before I do, I will remember to subject my speech to these few criteria.