Sunday, July 29, 2012

Seed to Fruit to Seed: Resurrection to Death to Resurrection

I was cleaning out some half-written essays and ran across this from last Great Lent.  It seems somehow appropriate in the light of my last few blog entries, so please forgive me for giving you a repeat.  I hope you find it as much a blessing as I have reading it again, and again, and again....

The sixth week of Great Lent is the countdown week to the resurrection of Lazarus.  The resurrection of Lazarus is a pivotal point in Jesus's ministry in at least two ways.  First, in raising Lazarus who had been dead four days, Jesus manifests to all his absolute power over death.  The hymns of the Church tell us that this final manifestation of His power was particularly for the purpose of making clear to His disciples that his own death was voluntary.  Having complete power over death, Jesus gives His life, no one takes it from Him.  In St. John's Gospel, this is further reinforced by the soldiers falling down when Jesus speaks to them when they come to arrest Him--falling down twice.

At the same time, the raising of Lazarus is also the pivotal act that forces the religious leaders to do something to stop Jesus.  The high priest realizes that now all of the people will believe in Him, as we see manifest on Palm Sunday.  The Gospel tells us that the crowd had gathered because they had heard that Jesus had raised Lazarus.  The religious leaders fear that the crowd's enthusiasm for this prophet would upset the tenuous peace they currently enjoyed with the occupying Romans and, perhaps most importantly, their own position of power vouchsafed by the current state of affairs. 

And so in this divine act of raising Lazarus, Jesus both triggers the final chain of events leading to His arrest and crucifixion and manifests His authority over the whole process, even over death itself.  

But isn't this the nature of existence as we know it?  The fruit manifests the tree, and within the fruit are the seeds of new growth, of the next level, of the new life.  When Jesus the Life of all speaks, the fruit is life, even for a man four-days dead.  And the seed of this fruit is His own death, which manifests even greater life--all in the tombs shall arise!

In our own lives this too is what we experience.  The actual fruit of our lives, as disappointing as it often is, manifests what kind of tree we are--fallen, sick, in need of transformation.  Yet this disappointing fruit, our failures, our mistakes, our sins, bears the seeds of new life; for how we respond to our failures to a large extent determines our growth.

Jesus the Life of all enters the world of our experience and by the laws of creation--fruit bearing seed--He plants the tree of resurrection in the middle of the earth.  This is the Tree of Life which grew in Eden of old, the Tree whose fruit we now eat as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Chief Hypocrite

Yesterday I wrote these words: "Irenic words and actions have little force when they proceed from a disturbed heart.  They are the words and actions of a hypocrite, a dissembler."  I have been thinking about them while I was mowing my lawn this afternoon.  I feel like I need to go to confession to confess that I am the chief hypocrite.

I struggle to maintain peace within myself.  True, I have experienced extended periods of peace--say, several hours long.  However most of the time I am not at peace within myself.  And some of the time, I am not at peace and do not even realize it because my passions have so roused me that I'm caught on the front lines of mental warfare.  I'm arguing with my thoughts, I'm throwing biscuits at the dogs. 

Sometimes, even while this is going on in my head, I am forcing myself to say prayers, I am speaking to someone about reconciliation with himself, with others, with God.  I am doing what I think will make for peace--even as I struggle to return to peace in my own soul.  Fr. Michael: Chief Hypocrite.

And yet, as a young child plays grownup thus beginning to learn to be grown up, so I think spiritual children must pretend a little to grow up (the word "hypocrite" comes from the Greek word for pretend or act).  We must pray as ones who are close to God even when we feel far away.  We must speak the truth even when we struggle ourselves to fully embrace it.  We must bring peace wherever we can even as we are painfully aware of the disturbance in our own soul.  We must pretend to be good even while we are still struggling to drive wickedness out of our own heart.

The kind of child-like hypocrisy that I am talking about is not the same as being duplicitous.  The hypocrisy of duplicity is to behave one way in one context and another way in a different context.  This is the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Repenting of duplicity is perhaps one of the most foundational areas of repentance.  Pretending to be good in one context while intending to be less than good in another is a willing embrace of hell-like torment.  It is an intentional division of yourself resulting in an inability to know yourself: which self are you?

However, the child-like hypocrisy of the beginner in the spiritual struggle is the painful tension of becoming.  What I am leaving behind still haunts me--and sometimes even "possesses" me.  Nevertheless, it is what I am leaving behind.  I am becoming the New Man that Christ has already implanted in me like a seed.  I am learning to act like a Christian (a little Christ), even if it means that sometimes I feel like I am pretending.  

May God bless the play of His children, we little hypocrites who long to be grown up Christians.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Reflections on St. Isaac The Syrian Homily 2

Be a persecutor of yourself, and your enemy will be driven from your proximity.  Be peaceful within yourself, and heaven and earth will be at peace with you.    St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 2

For years now I have been longing to read the Ascetically Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian.  At the Clergy Seminar last week I was able to purchase a copy of Holy Transfiguration's 2011 revised second edition.  That's why I've been liberally quoting him in my recent posts.  St. Isaac is not one of those Fathers that priests generally recommend for lay people to read.  The homilies were written, not merely for monks, but for hermit monks.  Most of what he writes, I am certain, cannot be deeply understood without living the prayerful life of a hermit.  However--and this is the almost scripture-like quality of his writings--much of what he writes can be scaled down, can be applied fruitfully and powerfully even in the lives of spiritual beginners.

Although the quotation above has at least a month's worth of sermons hidden in it, I couldn't decide which part to leave out.  So I quoted both sentences. Let me briefly comment on them.

Be a Persecutor of yourself, and your enemy will be driven from your proximity.  It amazes me again and again how the "attacks" of the evil one increase as my personal discipline decreases.  When I live a disciplined life--pray when I'm supposed to pray, eat when (and what) I'm supposed to eat, read edifying spiritual books instead of watching t.v., go out of my way to be kind when I don't feel like it--when I am persecuting myself and making myself do what I know I should do, the temptations and disturbing thoughts and fears seem few and easily dealt with.  But when I get busy with STUFF, so busy that I don't have time to pray, don't feel like reading good books, need a break, and am grumpier than normal, when I get like this, temptations abound, lusts and fears attack my mind and only with difficulty do I overcome them--and sometimes not.

Be peaceful within yourself, and heaven and earth will be at peace with you.  I believe it was St. John Chrysostom who said, "No one can harm you unless you let him."  He was speaking of real harm, inner harm.  The Martyrs lost their bodies and gained Heaven--they were not harmed.  But this is very hard for us to accept.  All someone has to do is infringe on some right of mine and I am wounded at heart.  I yell at the driver who takes my intended parking spot.  Whether or not others are at peace with me has almost everything to do with me being at peace with myself.  Others may be angry with me for a while, but even their anger can be calmed if I am at peace.  Our connection with and influence on those around us is much more a matter of heart than of words or even actions (although, as Jesus noted, both actions and words proceed from the heart).  Irenic words and actions have little force when they proceed from a disturbed heart.  They are the words and actions of a hypocrite, a dissembler.  But a man at peace, according to St. Seraphim of Sarov, saves thousands around him.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

What's So Good About Failing?

In a homily recently I spoke about the Christian experience of “falling and getting back up again.”  That is, I spoke about the need to be intentional about our repentance, to actually try to do the things we suspect would please God and stop doing the things that we suspect are not pleasing.  This intentionality leads almost always to failure.  But it is a very healthy failure.  It is the failure of one who has tried--which is very different from the failure of the one who hasn’t.  He who hasn’t tried, tried really hard, tried with all his might, is susceptible to the delusion that he could have succeeded if he had really tried.
Healthy failure is illuminating on several levels.  Healthy failure reveals our true self, its limits, its arrogance, its foolishness.  It reveals the depths of our dependence on others and on God.  Healthy failure produces humility, and humility is the foundation of all God-like virtue.  
Humility and self knowledge are the goals of falling down and getting back up again.  Success has never been the goal of any Christian endeavor.  Knowledge of God and love of neighbour and transformation of the inner man: these are the goals of the Christian life no matter what endeavor we may find ourselves involved with.  Success is nice, but success too early (or the illusion of success) is often a source of pride.  God has not called us to be successful, He has called us to become like Him.
And even in our endeavor to become like Him (to acquire virtues), it is not our successes that make us successful.  We must labour, for this is how we show God what we really want--words have very little weight; what we do speaks the loudest.  However, just as the Father of the Prodigal Son rose and went to meet him after the Son had begun his journey home, so in our lives God sees our striving and rises to meet us with Grace, with illumination, and with the knowledge of God in the Holy Spirit.
We really don’t know what we need.  In my own repentance I find myself continually realizing that what I thought I needed to change were merely the leaves of a much deeper and more stubborn root.  I cut the leaves down, and they grow back.  I cut the leaves down, and they grow back.  I cut the leaves down, and they grow back.  Somewhere along the line (often with a word from a spiritual father, written or spoken, or a word from my wife or daughter or a parishioner, or with a very rare flash of insight) I realize that I have to look deeper.  And what I see when I look deeper is usually pretty ugly.  But that’s OK.  That’s good.  It’s better to see the wound than to ignore it and let it fester.  
St. Isaac the Syrian in Homily 2 says, “If a man is ill and he recognizes his ailment, his healing will be easy.  If he confesses his pain, he draws nigh its cure….The patient who resists his physician amplifies his torment.  There is no unpardonable sin, save the unrepented one."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Little Bit on Illumination

"Do not, like the pupils of teachers, over-scrutinize the words that are written from experience for the fostering of your way of life, which render your soul great because of the greatness of the insights found within them" (Homily one of St. Isaac the Syrian Ascetical Homilies).

One of the problems when speaking of the spiritual life is there are no fixed words or categories.  Spiritual writers will use words such as soul, heart, mind and spirit in slightly different ways.  Our tendency is to try to understand spiritual writing in the same way we would understand an academic text--"like pupils of teachers." We define terms and map out logical implications.  

However, St. Isaac warns us that spiritual writing is not understood this way.  We must "discern the purport of all the passages that [we] come upon in sacred writings," he says.  Discernment is a different faculty from the rational, analytic part of the mind.  Discernment is much more intuitive, more reflective, more platonic.  By platonic I mean that the understanding comes not from figuring out what is presented but from recognizing the likeness of what has been presented to something that already exists in yourself.  Exact wording or carefully defined terms do not help here.  What is necessary is self knowledge that recognizes the likeness (image or pattern) of what is presented as something already known (albeit vaguely) in yourself.  But in recognizing this likeness, what is presented becomes a kind of illumination of what is already known (now more clearly).

Lanza Del Vasto, a French Christian philosopher of the mid 20th century said the same thing in his writings.  He said that if what he was saying is true, the hearer will recognize it as something that he had always believed.  This, I think, is part of what illumination means.  Illumination is the seeing more clearly of what you have already known.  This is why, in the Christian tradition, the words of a spiritual father or mother are so important.  Illumination comes from spiritual words--not from analyzing them, but from discerning them as true words because they already exist deep inside you in your heart, in your true self.  Those of us who live in the spiritual desert, however, have very few and very weak spiritual fathers and mothers*, so most of our encounters with spiritual words comes through reading spiritual writings.  But just as Jesus said to his hearers, "Be careful how you hear," so we who read must be careful how we read.  We must read with discernment (and humility!) not expecting to gain spiritual benefit from rational analysis.  And we must hold what we see lightly (this is the humility part) knowing that if we see at all we "see in a glass darkly."  

*Please note that a weak spiritual father is much, much better than no spiritual father. When I say weak here, I mean weak by the standards of the saints of the Church.  I do not mean weak in relation to us, the spiritual children. Nevertheless, many have made the observation that the parents of a teenager know almost nothing, but in the years that the young are away at college, the parents sure seem to learn a great deal.  As we grow, our appreciation for our spiritual fathers and mothers generally grows too.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Some More Thoughts on Purification

As beginners in the spiritual life, when we consider purification, the first of the three steps or aspects of becoming like Christ, we usually think of our behaviour, or our moral life. It is true that any sort of purification must begin with what is easiest to control: what we actually do. St. Paul says, "Let him who stole, steal no longer" (Eph. 4:28). If we are going to take seriously our spiritual life and participate in the transformation into the Image of Christ, then we must begin by changing basic outward behaviour that we know to be contrary to Christ. If we are stealing, we should stop stealing. If we are fornicating, we should stop fornicating. If we are doing anything that we are pretty sure Christ would not want us to do, then we should stop doing it. This is the beginning of repentance.  

However, once one seriously engages repentance, one finds out that our outward behaviour is much harder to control than we imagined.  We find out that our outward behaviour proceeds from a mind a jumble with discordant thoughts and a body driven by strong feelings.  Purification, then, begins with the outward and moves quickly to the inward. Repentance begins with the outward and moves inward.   "First the natural, then the spiritual" (1 Cor. 15:46).  Jesus said that it is from the heart that murders and adulteries flow. So for those beginners who take the spiritual life seriously, the work of purification quickly becomes a matter of spiritual warfare, or controlling of our thought life.

The Fathers of the Church offer several techniques to gain victory over our disordered thoughts. All of them require effort.  St. Isaac of Syria highly recommended the reading of scripture (both the Bible and spiritual works by trusted Fathers and Mothers in the Church). Others recommend physical labour. St. Pacomius recommended the unceasing recitation of the Bible (from memory). However, in the Orthodox Church today, probably the most commonly recommended technique is the recitation of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner."  

One of the mistakes we beginners make as we are learning to purify our thoughts is that we attempt to control our thoughts by our will, or we try to counter one thought with another.  It doesn't take long to realize that thoughts cannot be controlled by will power: Don't think of a pink elephant!  Once you set your mind not to do something, your mind is already doing it.  Forcing yourself not to think about something only increases your thinking about it. The second technique, that of countering one thought with another, sometimes works--which is the problem. Countering thoughts with thoughts sometimes moves our minds away from a specific thought that we want to flee, but such countering often creates a cycle of argumentation in our mind. Soon we find ourselves mentally constructing arguments against antagonists that don't even exist--except in our mind. One of the Desert Fathers said that arguing with your thoughts is like trying to drive away dogs by throwing biscuits at them. A well aimed blow may spook the first dog, but will only attract more dogs.

In my experience, the best way to deal with disordered and wicked thoughts is for me to turn my mind towards God. When I do this, the thoughts will be screaming at me, but if I ignore them and engage God in a short and repeated prayer, the thoughts begin to lose their traction in me.  The Jesus Prayer is a good example of this sort of prayer, but it is not the only prayer I have used successfully.  Sometimes a short prayer to the Theotokos or another saint is effective. Other times, a short passage of Scripture is very effective. Once when I was intensely worried about how my mistakes may be hurting others, I repeated ceaselessly (or at least whenever I was bothered by worrying thoughts--which seemed ceaseless) "Lord, let none who wait on Thee be ashamed because of me" (Psalms 24/25: 3).  It took some time and effort, but before too long, I was seeing victory over my disturbing thoughts.  

When we call out to God, He comes to our aid. I have discovered that I am not smart enough nor strong enough to battle my disordered thoughts. As soon as I notice that I am being besieged, I turn to God and fervently cry out for help. And God does help. The Jesus Prayer and similar prayers are not "Christian mantras."  We are not merely playing a mental game. Like Peter drowning in the sea, we are calling out desperately: "Lord, save me!"  And the Lord has compassion and saves.

Purification of thoughts leads to purification of heart.  And here I'm on thin ice again. I cannot speak much of the heart for I am a beginner. However, I can say that when, with the help of God, the battle in the mind calms a little, peace is often found lingering in my heart. Attending to this peace often keeps the mind from wandering. Attending to peace in my heart often functions as a kind of wall around my thoughts. Or better put, attending to peace in my heart functions kind of like a bright light that keeps shadowy thoughts out of my mind. And perhaps, that is the beginning of Illumination. I couldn't say for sure, but perhaps it is.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Purification, Illumination and Theosis

St. Maximus the Confessor

The Fathers of the Church often use the metaphor of a ladder to discuss the various stages or steps or transformations of Christian life and growth. The steps of the various ladders are sometimes expressed as virtues (obedience, patience, faith), sometimes in terms of experiences (tears, peace making, confessing) and sometimes as abstract nouns (purification, renunciation, detachment). Sometimes the ladder has many steps, like the thirty in St. John Climicus' Ladder of Divine Asscent.  St. Benedict of Nursia describes twelve steps in the acquisition of humility.  Others have based their discussion of Christian growth on the nine Beatitudes mentioned by Jesus in Matthew chapter five.  Many have reduced the steps to three.  Perhaps the most famous version of these three steps in the Orthodox Church is quoted from St. Maximus the Confessor in his Four Hundred Verses on Love (I don't remember exactly where) in the second volume of the Philokalia.  These are Purification, Illumination and Theosis.

Modern Christians seem to make three common mistakes when they read patristic descriptions of the Christian life that use steps as a metaphor.  The first mistake is that they assume that to move from one step to the next is to leave the previous step behind.  This is not the case at all.  Consider the Beatitudes for example.  One who mourns does not cease to be poor in spirit.  In fact, the case has been made that it is exactly spiritual poverty (or the knowledge of one's spiritual poverty) that produces spiritual mourning.  That is, the steps are more like building blocks: the former become the foundation of the latter.  The peacemakers who are called sons of God are also the ones who see God in their pure heart and are merciful and hunger and thirst for righteousness and are meek and who mourn and who are poor in spirit.

The second way that patristic ladder metaphors throw off contemporary Christians is that we sometimes assume one must master one level before we can begin the next, or that because we have experienced some grace in a higher level we have therefore mastered the lower levels.  In the matter of growth in the spiritual life, there is no mastering.  There is only striving on our part and mercy and grace on God's.  Let's take St. Benedict's steps to humility as an example.  Just because one, by the mercy of God, experiences a certain amount of grace in being content to be the lowest in the community (step six in St. Benedict's Rule) does not mean that he does not still have a lot of work to do on some of the lower steps such as obedience in all things or confessing evil thoughts.  I have found it helpful to think of the ladder metaphor as an ascending helix or screw.  The steps are compass points around the helix.  As one ascends from one level to the next, one encounters in varying degrees all or most of the steps, but each time around he or she is at a different place and so experiences the steps differently: the steps work in us at deeper and deeper levels.

Which brings us to the final and perhaps most serious mistake contemporary Christians make when they seek to apply patristic ladder metaphors to their life.  The ladders or the steps that the fathers of the Church describe are steps in, not out.  The ascent is inward and outward.  Ideas of God from the secular culture  have so influenced most Christians' understanding of God that they really think that God is somewhere outside them, that heaven is a place far away.  Fr. Stephen Freeman has famously referred to this way of thinking as a two storey universe.  In a two storey universe there is a God, but God is far away.  In a two story universe one must ascend up and out to God who comes down to meet us.  However, in a patristic understanding of God, a New Testament understanding of God, God is in our heart, in our midst.  God is not far away; God is near at hand.  The problem, however, is that we have become so alienated from ourselves that only with much difficulty are we able to perceive Him.

In the one storey universe, the ladder, or steps of Christian development, identifies both the means and the markers of the return to one's own heart, one's true self, where one genuinely encounters God.    To return to the three stages mentioned by St. Maximus the Confessor (and others)--purification, illumination and deification--we might say that the means of returning to one's heart begins with purifying one's life.  That someone is purifying his or her life, or seeking to be purified by the grace of God, is also a sign, a marker, that one is likely on the right path inward towards one's heart, to one's true self, to the place where one genuinely meets God.  Purification, although it not possible without the grace of God, is mostly a participatory activity of the mind and life.  That is, one must work at purification.  Illumination, on the other hand, is much more passive.  It is a gift of seeing, of knowing or of understanding that comes from a source deeper than our rational faculty.  One's participation in illumination is to apply what is newly seen or known to deeper levels of repentance and purification.  

Time Out. 
 I must stop and confess at this point that I am treading on very thin ice.  All I have to say on this topic is based on what I have read and my own experience--which dramatically limits my ability to understand what I have read.  Please be aware that there are levels of Christian growth and experience in God to which I have never come close enough even to imagine: "Eye has not seen nor ear heard...But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit"(2 Corinthians 2: 9,10).  St. Paul and other holy men and women throughout history have seen and heard "inexpressible words, which it is unlawful for a man to utter" (2 Corinthians 12:4).  That I am able to write these words down should be a clue to you, my beloved reader, that I am only a beginner in the journey to the heart and that what I have to say is only to help other beginners on their way.
Back to the ice.

Theosis, or deification, is the third step in St. Maximus' three stages of Christian growth.  If illumination refers to a kind of seeing or understanding, theosis refers to the transformative encounter with God.  As a beginner, I have only experienced very brief encounters that might possibly be considered the frontier of theosis.   It is like an encounter with a spark, a spark from a very bright light which seems far away.  It is not far away: God dwells in our hearts by faith.  But it seems far away because of my blindness.  Or it is like the scent of a flower from a garden on the other side of a wall.  My encounter with the flower is real, yet faint.  So are my encounters with God in my heart: they are faint but real.

To see God is to become like Him (1 John 3:2).  Theosis, if it is theosis, is always transformative.  Like Moses who saw only the backside of God and glowed for days afterward, we too, if we really encounter God, will glow with the light of the Holy Spirit.  Some people have been so full of the Holy Spirit that they have glowed with a visible light, the light of the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor.  For most of us, however, the light manifests itself in the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  A person who is full of the Holy Spirit does not necessarily speak in new tongues or work miracles.  But a person who is full of the Holy Spirit is definitely full of love, joy, peace and patience.  In fact, to seem to have the former without the latter makes the former suspect.  

God became man so that man, by grace, might become like God.  We must indeed become like God for Christ has promised mankind a relationship with Himself as intimate as a husband and a wife.  A man does not marry a rock.  A man marries a woman, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.  Christ has betrothed to Himself the Church, and during the engagement period, the time we have left on this earth, we are invited to be transformed into Christ's image.  The Holy Fathers of the Church have provided us with many teachings and metaphors to help us find our way on this road of transformation.  Most begin with some kind of purification, some kind of repentance, desire, faith or some other effort on our part.  God then meets our effort with understanding, with illumination which helps us and encourages us along the way.  But the goal of all of the steps and ladders is the encounter with God Himself and the transformation that occurs in this encounter.  Because of God's merciful care, even beginners can genuinely encounter God in transformative ways.  God helps us encounter sparks from the fire of the godhead.  And these encounters return us to the beginning  of the ladder refreshed and encouraged to again strive for purification so that we might further be illumined and perchance again genuinely encounter God in our hearts.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Last Day of the Clergy Symposium

The Clergy retreat ended today with a Divine Liturgy and a light brunch--eaten quickly to get packed and on the shuttle by noon.
The sound of three hundred priests chanting together is still ringing in my ears. Bishop Anthony gave the homily based on the theme of St. Elias (whose memory we celebrate today). "Just as Elias called down fire on the sacrifice, we too as priests call down the fire of the Holy Spirit on the gifts at the Altar." The fire, he went on to elucidate, is the zeal of Holy Spirit and a life lived on the prophetic frontier. This is God's calling for priests. On the day of our ordination we left the land of safety. It is like the story of the Coast Guard captain who in the midst of a hurricane said to his crew, "We are going out. There is a ship floundering." A young crew member said to the captain, "But sir, if we go out in this storm, we may never come back." The captain replied, "Don't worry, we have only been commanded to go, not to come back."

This is the calling of a priest--and of all God's people really--to go, to leave the land of safe predictablilty and to seek and save those who are floundering. We may lose everything comfortable and predictable in the attempt, but that's OK. We've only been commanded to go.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Words That Make Holy Silence

Up date from the Archdiocesan Clergy Symposium

Day two of the Clergy Symposium found me sleeping through the first session. After a wonderful yet exhausting Sunday, I caught the red-eye flight out of Vancouver at 11:00 pm, arriving at the Antiochian Village Conference Center about 1:00 in the afternoon on Monday. The excitement of catching up with old friends kept me up late, and Matins called me up early. By ten this morning I could barely keep my eyes open.

Everyone said the lecture was wonderful. It was by Bishop Anthony and should be on Ancient Faith Radio tomorrow. I'll try to listen to it during break time tomorrow.

In the afternoon, I attended a session with two speakers. The first speaker, although most of what he said was good, upset me somehow. At one point I even verbally challenged him, trying to put in words what was bothering me. Like usual, I only made things worse, muddied the water and probably upset him or others. When am I going to learn to keep my mouth shut when my spirit is disturbed?

The second speaker, however, even though his style of speaking was similar and the topic the same, instead of disturbing me, calmed me. When he was finished, I just said Amen. It wasn't that I even agreed with every detail of what he said. I just felt calm and as if he were speaking with Grace. He spoke to something inside me. The words and sentences were mere vehicles for something else, something calming and peaceful and maybe even Holy.

This evening (having slipped away from the youth skit night on behalf of the clergy--such things make me nervous) I read Photios Kontoglou's Encomium (essay in praise) of St. Isaac the Syrian. One of the things Kontoglou says of St. Isaac is that "even though he writes so much, he makes a holy silence come to rest within our spirit, just as if there were no one speaking, but we only heard the distant echoing of the sea hidden from our sight."

That's the way I want to speak. That is the way the second speaker this afternoon spoke. What he said was good and true--just as what the first speaker said was good and true. But what was heard in the heart through the words of the second speaker was a kind of peaceful silence, a stillness with a gentle roar, like "the distant echoing of the sea hidden from our sight."

May God help us and teach us both to speak and listen so that the gentle roar of the hidden but echoing Holy Spirit be always the kernel of all we say and do.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Orthodox Christianity: It's Better Than Nothing!

We had a work day at Church today.  We were scraping and painting the south side of the Church.  I was scraping next to one of our inquirers, so I asked him what his parents think of his interest in Orthodox Christianity.  He said, “Well, to tell you the truth, they are pretty much relieved.”
He went on to explain that after being raised by his parents who are “entrenched” Evangelicals (his word, not mine), and after graduating from a famous Evangelical college with honours, and after encountering some serious life problems, he completely gave up on God for a few years.  So now his parents are relieved that he again has an interest in Christ and the Church--even if it is the Orthodox Church.
Then the witty fellow working on the other side of him blurted out: “There’s our new motto to advertise our Church.  The bumper sticker will read: ‘Orthodox Christianity: It’s better than nothing!'”
After we all laughed, I kept thinking about that phrase.  It does seem that many people who come to Holy Orthodoxy come only after they have had a pretty serious crisis in their faith.  They often tell a story of having given up (or almost given up) on the Christ they had come to know in their Evangelical (or other Protestant) world, a Christ who just doesn’t make sense in a world full of suffering, weakness and failure.
I do not want to rag on Evangelicalism.  Evangelical Christianity introduced me to Christ.  I am a Child of Evangelicalism.  I am thankful for those “Bible believing” faithful men and women who loved me, introduced me to Christ and taught me to study the Bible.  They got me on the road.  However, the Evangelical road to Christ is not a very long road.  Or I might better say, it is not a very deep road: it does not offer many resources (beyond basic moral teaching) to a changed heart, to transformation into Christ’s image.  It does not teach prayer or psalmody, or fasting and alms giving (except as a means to get something from God).  There is no worship beyond happy or romantic songs about Jesus.  I like happy songs about Jesus (not so much the romantic ones), but that’s not worship, at least not like the worship we read about in the Old Testament and the Revelation: full of typology, theology, proclamation and mystery.  
Especially mystery.  Real life is full of mystery.  We encounter God in our often confused and certainly unpredictable and generally messy lives.  We encounter God in our joys, but more profoundly in our failures, our tragedies and our pain.  Like the whirlwind out of which Job encounters God, we too encounter God who comes to us mysteriously in the whirlwind of our lives.  This is the God we encounter, not the neat Deity of the Jesus song who makes me feel better because He loves me so much.  The God of the whirlwind is too big just to make me feel better.  He is so big and loves me so much that he will let my life be turned upside down and let the world beat me up terribly in order to get to my heart and change me, and  through me all those around me.
If you, my dear reader, have encountered the God of the whirlwind, and you are about to give up on God altogether because the God you have learned about in church is different from the God you have encountered in life, then let me encourage you to look a little further.  The Orthodox Church is certainly not the perfect Church.  It is made up of God and angels and human beings, human beings whose lives are probably as messy and confused as yours.  And yet, there is mystery.  There is a very long and deep road.  There are spiritual resources for men and women who encounter God in the whirlwind.
And, Orthodox Christianity is better than nothing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

From Pentecostal to Orthodox Christianity

I was speaking to a friend not long ago who is a Charismatic/Vineyard-type Protestant.  At one point in the conversation we were talking about what it might mean if he were to seriously consider becoming Orthodox.  One of his concerns was that he would have to “give up” his Charismatic ways.
“Yes, that’s true,” I said, “but ‘give up’ is probably not the most accurate or helpful way to look at it.”
I explained that when I became Orthodox (I had been Pentecostal), no one said that I had to give up anything.  The year-long catechism process that our community went through (about 85 of us) was all about what we were embracing.  And my first few years as an Orthodox Christian (and continuing) has been about entering into a paradigm of prayer and worship and spiritual warfare that is so deep and profound (and effective!) that the forms of my old Pentecostal paradigm fell away all by themselves--somewhat like the leaves of a flower that fall away as the fruit emerges.  
Language is also a useful metaphor here.  When I am in Stuttgart I speak German, not because someone is making me “give up” English, but because in Germany, the German paradigm communicates more effectively.  The dog is still a dog, but now it is called der Hund.  Similarly, the deep and genuine Christian spiritual realities (sans a lot of emotionalism and hype) are still there. They are, however, no longer expressed in a Pentecostal paradigm, but in an Orthodox Christian paradigm.  And I have found that the Orthodox Christian paradigm has been a much more useful and effective paradigm in which to experience personal relationship with God and transformation into His likeness than the Protestant and Pentecostal paradigm(s) I came from.
When we were first received into the Orthodox Church, some of us angst-ridden Orthodox newbies asked our bishop if anything in our religious past was real.  Had we been in complete delusion?  Our bishop wisely told us that, first off, much must have been good in what we came from because it brought us to Holy Orthodoxy.  Second, the Grace of Holy Baptism both precedes and follows Holy Baptism.  The Grace of the Church was already at work in us drawing us to God in whatever way (paradigm) we could understand it.  Our bishop told us not to despise our Christian past, but rather to glean from it all that is good and (slowly) to discover in the Church its meaning, its fruition.  
And that has been my experience seventeen years later.  I have lost nothing.  What was good and true and useful is carried over (with a few logistical and linguistic adjustments).  Much of what was good and true and useful has fallen away in the face what is better, truer and much more useful.  There were also specific practices and theologies that have been left behind because they are not true, although in my Pentecostal days I thought they were.  It’s almost like cleaning a bathroom by the light of a single candle.  What looks clean in the light of that one candle may indeed be cleaner than it was, but still very dirty.  But you don’t know that until the electric lights go back on.  For me, embracing Orthodox Christianity has been like having the electric lights turned on.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Suffering With Christ

The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together (Romans 8: 16, 17).

In as much as I have not faced overt persecution for my faith, I had always assumed that this verse did not apply directly to me--except in the sense that I had to be willing to suffer with Him.  However, I do not think that any more. I think suffering is a normal part of the Christian life no matter where one lives or under what circumstances one lives in this deeply broken world.  

Suffering with Christ is keeping my mouth shut when I desperately want to say something, but I have nothing specifically edifying to say.  Suffering with Christ is speaking when I should speak, but when remaining silent is safer.  Suffering with Christ is saying no to my wandering desires and to my never-satisfied body even when my body and mind seem to be screaming for satisfaction.  Suffering with Christ is being kind when I am tired and annoyed.  Suffering with Christ is hiding the sins of others and confessing my own.  Suffering with Christ is keeping silent and trusting God when I am misunderstood and wrongly accused.  Suffering with Christ is saying prayers and fasting when no one but God knows.  Suffering with Christ is loving those difficult to love.

Of course, suffering with Christ is also enduring overt persecution for Christ's sake--or because you are poor or handicapped or not considered beautiful, or because you are of a different race or cast or political party than those around you.  All of this is suffering with Christ, who became poor and weak and despised and an outsider for our sake.  When we suffer for any reason and we offer that suffering to God, we are suffering with Christ.

As Christians, all that we have and are belongs to Christ.  This includes our weaknesses, most especially our weaknesses.  It is easy to offer to God what we perceive to be our strengths.  Heck, even Pagans do that.  But  to offer to God our weaknesses, to offer to God our suffering--especially if it is suffering we are ashamed of, suffering that we know comes from our sinful weaknesses--this is a major step in our growth in Christ.  This is the true experience of sonship, of becoming childlike; for what three-year old hides from Papa his suffering, no matter what its cause?  

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch

The Order Of St. Ignatius of Antioch

One of the spiritual gifts within the Church is the gift of giving. Certainly every Christian is called to give. A strong case can be made that 10% is the starting point: it is the biblically designated sign that all we have belongs to God. However, some, like Ss. Joacim and Anna, have the spiritual gift of giving. For Ss. Joacim and Anna, one third of their income was enough for them: One third they gave to the Temple, one third they gave to the poor and one third they lived on.

In the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, the philanthropic arm of the church is the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch.

The amount of good work done by the Order is hard to summarize briefly. More than a third of the Archdiocese budget comes from the Order. However, certain programs are funded completely by the Order. The Order completely funds the Archdiocese church camp scholarship program, the clergy travel support program (I, myself received a $780. grant to help cover required travel this summer), and the clergy retirement fund. The Order is also a big supporter of St. Innocent Orphange and a long list of other worthy charitable works.

The Order is set up somewhat like a Medieval order of knights and ladies. This structure, along with some of the traditions such as receiving cross-shaped medals and certain titles based on the level of their contributions, is somewhat off putting for those not raised in an ancient Christian tradition.

Some are quick to point out that this seems somewhat like blowing trumpets in the street. However, anyone who actually knows members of the Order and has seen it in action knows that this is not the case. It is more like the boy scouts. It is merely a structure in which those with this spiritual gift of giving can spur each other on to more and more good works. It is a community of friends who have found that working together they can increase the effect of their spiritual gift of giving for good.

Let me end by tell you a story. Last year at the Parish Life Conference, at the dinner for the Order, one of the members asked me if I would be at the national convention that year. I told him that I would not because it was too much of a strain for our small church to send me. Immediately, he said, "let me make a couple of calls, and I'll talk to you in the morning." But before the evening was over he had personally set up and paid for my flight to Chicago for the convention, and by morning had arranged for the payment of everything else. No fanfare. No trumpets. Only the people involved knew about it. That's the Order of St. Ignatius. That's the spiritual gift of giving.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

An Eye For An Eye

Yesterday, after visiting the churches related to St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco and venerating his incorrupt relics, we were hosted for dinner at the Church of the Redeemer. The Church of the Redeemer is a mostly Arabic community near San Francisco that was fire bombed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. An eye for an eye, I guess. Or maybe not.

The Church was completely burned to the ground, and when the priest was allowed to look through the charred remains to see if anything could be salvaged, he found the burnt Gospel book, the gold cover melted off, but with the unburnt words of Jesus clearly visible: "You have heard it said, 'an eye for and eye...But I say to you."

The Church of the redeemer community refused to give in to bitterness. Rather, they prayed and worked hard to rebuild their Church. Below is a picture of the same burnt bible that now sits encased in glass in the narthex of the new Church.

The Church and Technology

I don't remember the novel, I think it was Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, in which one character is a mid-nineteenth century version of our contemporary biblical prophecy/end of the world fanatics. For this nineteenth century millennialist, the demonic star Wormwood that had fallen to the earth was the railroad with its power to overthrow the long-established order of things, moving peasants from the land to the cities, moving armies hundreds of miles in a day, moving food and goods to markets across the continent.

Each major technological development throughout history it seems has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand technology has brought abundance and has extended life expectancy and made universal education possible. On the other hand, technology has made sinful thoughts and impulses much more easy to act out. Take the railway as an example. Living one's entire life in a village in which everyone knows just about every detail of every person's life keeps the price very high for indulgence in sinful indiscretion. Each serious fall is known by everyone and forgotten by no one. However, if you get on the train and go to the city, then (using the money that should probably be spent getting your children shoes) you can secretly indulge just about any sinful fantasy you can imagine.

Does that mean that trains are evil. Not at all. But sin, that it might be seen as utterly sinful uses what is good for evil. This is St. Paul's argument modified from Romans 7:13.

Today, electronic technology has made the acting out of sinful desires easier than ever. Every sin imaginable (and many I've never imagined) is only a few key strokes away on the internet. And yet, the internet has made the entire library of the holy patristic Fathers of the Church available to everyone. You can learn a language on-line, see the wonders of the world on-line, even access the liturgical texts for any service of the Church on-line.

In the clergy meeting today, His Eminence Archbishop Joseph read the opening prayer from his iPad. He did this on purpose, for he said that he wanted to demonstrate to the clergy that technology is not our enemy. Sin is our enemy. If technology helps us pray and love and care for others, then we need not be afraid of it. He even went so far as to say, "We must in every way embrace the 21st century, in every way but sin." This sounds to me very much like what I imagine St. Paul would say were he living today.

I am sending you this message through the internet, an internet that I use only with the child protection software set at the highest level. Technology is a mixed blessing. I guess that is why Jesus told us to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Cruising Through Retirement

A long time ago, I was talking to a retired couple who were taking a cruise to Mexico. The conventional wisdom that they offered to explain why they were taking yet another cruise was "We might as well do it now while we are still able to enjoy it." I agreed... why not?

However since Fr. Peter Gillquist's falling asleep in the Lord, this conversation has returned to haunt me.

Let me make it clear from the beginning that I am not against vacations. I take vacations. What bothers me is the conventional wisdom. Knowing that you only have a few years left, a few years in which you will be able to get about and do things, a few years before you won't have the health and resources to do what you want to do; knowing that you are at this point in your life, what do you really want to do? In what do you want to invest? In your enjoyment?

It seems to me that for most people and for most of their lives just making a living and raising a family takes almost all their energy and focus. Their goal and great labor is to make a living and raise a family as Christians. Very seldom do we get a chance, a real chance, to give ourselves in any significant way to doing those things that Jesus said would really matter on the Day of Judgement: visit prisoners, feed the hungry, visit the sick, cloth the naked, or "give it all and follow" in some concrete way.

Retirement is tricky. Our culture tells us that if we work for thirty or forty years, we deserve to play for as long as we are able. But as Christians, is that really what we want to do? Maybe retirement is an opportunity to serve Christ in ways we were unable to serve Him while the children were at home and we were busy making a living. Or maybe it's the time to take yet another cruise.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Fr. Peter Gillquist

Fr. Peter Gillquist fell asleep in the Lord yesterday. He is probably the closest thing to a saint who might be considered "equal to the apostles" that I have ever met. Fr. Peter was not only one of the leading men responsible for bringing thousands of former Evangelicals into the Holy Orthodox faith, but up to his falling asleep in the Lord he worked tirelessly to bring more and more North Americans to Holy Orthodoxy.

I believe it was Fr. Peter who coined the phrase, "Orthodoxy is the best kept secret in America." Due to Fr. Peter's leadership and ceaseless labors, Orthodoxy is not so secret any more. Just a couple of days ago, I spoke with someone from Kansas (I believe) where the headquarters are for the International House of Prayer (an influential Protestant ministry). He told me that leaders of this organization are inquiring into Orthodox and ancient Christian (which is somewhat redundant) resources on prayer: the Jesus Prayer and the writings of the Philokalia. The Orthodox cat is out of the ethnic bag.

Of course, Fr. Peter would shudder at the thought of anyone thinking of calling him anything like a saint or equal to the apostles--except in the sense that all Christians are called (and called to be) saints and all Christians are witnesses of the Gospel of Christ. But isn't that what we mean when we call someone a saint? Don't we mean that here is someone who actually lived the calling, who lived the life we each in our own way are called to live?

And most likely, unless there are some pretty significant miracles associated with Fr. Peter's shoes or cufflinks or handkerchiefs, Fr. Peter will not be remembered in Church hymnography as St. Peter the New. Nevertheless, I think he was a pretty saintly guy, and I hope in my own way I will be able to follow his example of zeal in proclaiming the Gospel of Christ.

May God grant rest to the soul of His servant the Archpriest Peter.

Doing And Saying Through Compunction

The Oikos from Matins for SS. Peter and Paul:

Make my tongue to speak plainly, O my Saviour; enlarge my mouth and fill it, and give my heart compunction that I may be the first to follow what I say and do what I teach; for everyone that both does and teaches, it is said the same is great.  For if I speak without doing, I am reckoned as a sounding brass.  Therefore, grant me to say what is needful and do what is expedient, O You who alone knows the secrets of our hearts.

Saying and doing.  Following what I teach.  The Church shows us in this prayer that this kind of integrity begins with compunction of heart, which itself is a gift that must be sought.  "Compunction" means piercing, as in "puncture."  It is the pierced, the wounded heart that is able actually both to say and do, teach and follow.  

Most of us imagine that we do what we say and follow what we teach.  It usually takes a crisis, an extreme situation, or an embarrassing public failure for us to see through the narrative (the story) we have been telling ourselves.  We tell a story of ourselves to ourselves in which we are right, or basically right; and whatever discrepancies between what I say and do, teach and follow are due to the fault of others.  I am a victim.  I had no choice.  I have an explanation, an exception, an excuse.  It's not my fault.

Compunction comes from accepting our fault--or better yet, excepting our weakness, our illness, our inability, our confusion, our sin.  Fault is a somewhat misleading word, for it implies intention; it implies that you would indeed have integrity if you really wanted it, if you really cared, if you really tried harder.  Understanding fault this way turns even our failures into sources of pride.  Understanding fault this way deprives us of compunction, the beginning of change, the beginning of integrity.

There is a pain of heart that is normal.  It is normal to feel pain when you are wounded, when you are pierced.  Because we are wounded we feel pain.  But this pain, when offered to God, when attended to, can become a bridle for our tongue and a spur for our action. It can teach us to say only what is needful and to do what is expedient (in the older sense of the word, that is to do quickly what needs to be done).  

Sometimes, self pity is mistaken for compunction of heart.  Sometimes it is difficult for me to tell the difference in my own heart.  However, the fruit manifests the tree.  Self pity cripples.  Self pity accuses and blames.  Self pity wallows.  Compunction of heart leads to clear, moderate speech and faithful, humble action.