Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why Is It So Hard For Me To Grow Spiritually?

Have you every wondered why you struggle to keep your faith strong, even while you never really struggle to find something to eat? Perhaps the reason has to do with the fact that gifts and abilities in the Body of Christ are not equally distributed. They are not equally distributed so that Christians may grow in Christlikeness by sharing. The Bible and the Fathers of the Church tell us that some of the spiritual gifts that the wealthy are lacking exist in abundance among the poor. And it is through the sharing of material gifts and the thanksgiving prayers of the recipients that spiritual gifts are shared throughout the Body of Christ.  

Below is a letter I wrote this morning to the Faithful of Holy Nativity Church and to a few of my friends (I hope they are still my friends) about the need of some brothers and sisters struggling (and succeeding to an amazing degree) to save the lives of orphaned boys near Tijuana. Please read it and consider what is lacking in your life spiritually. Perhaps the answer to your spiritual need is in the thanksgiving prayers of these poor saints who are rich in faith.

Dear Holy Nativity Faithful and Friends,

I am writing you on behalf of Project Mexico and my friends Geoff and Deanne Bray, the directors. "The poor you will always have with you," Jesus said. And truly it seems that there is always an urgent need. However, I would like you to read the note printed at the bottom of this post that I received from my daughter Sarah's mother-in-law, Lois Machnee.   

St. Paul in the second letter to the Corinthians, uses the example of the generosity of the Macedonian Christians, in spite of their "deep poverty," to encourage the Corinthian Christians to be generous. His goal, he says, is not that one group should be burdened while another abounds. Rather, he says, it is that there may be equality--and then he quotes the Old Testament: "He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack." Then at the end of chapter 9, St. Paul mentions that the gift of the Corinthians will result in thanksgiving to God not only by supplying for the "needs of the saints," but also (in verse 14) in their (the needy saints') prayer for them. St. James tells us that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith.  By sharing in the poverty of the poor—even in some small way—we gain their prayers which are powerful because of the rich faith God has given them. And so in the spirit of St. Paul, I share with you the poverty of our friends at Project Mexico in the hope that it will spur you "to love and good works."  

As many of you know, I was raised in orphanages and foster homes. Were it not for the deep generosity of people who opened first their hearts and then their homes and pocketbooks, I would not be who I am today. There are thirty or forty boys near Tijuana whose lives are in the balance and a handful of staff who are skipping pay cheques and going without cooking fuel to try to save them. Are you going without anything for Christ's sake? Maybe a small sacrifice on your part will make a huge difference in the life of a poor boy (and the poor staff trying to help him). And maybe their prayer of thanksgiving on your behalf will result in the spiritual gift—faith, love, patience—that you have been longing for. After all, we are a body, and each part is supposed to supply what the other is lacking. 
Forgive me,
Fr. Michael

August 30/12

Hello everyone:

All of you are familiar with Project Mexico and the work they do to serve the poor in Mexico. Our son Tony, has spent several summers there working with the Housebuilding project. As well, most of you know Geoff Bray, who is the Director and carries a very heavy load in trying to make that place fly. I received an e-mail from him yesterday, requesting help. A year ago, they were in a similar state of desperation and I told him then, that if ever they were desperate he should contact me and I would do what I could, both personally, as well as publicly, to bring some much needed assistance. So... some of you are clergy, some are not, but I would like to suggest that you make a presentation of this need in your parish and possibly do a fund raiser or a general offering, or even take some money from your parish budget, and send them some financial assistance. I know that they would be SO grateful for anything they receive, and God will pour our His blessings on you that give. I know that Tony said many of the staff have not been paid in months and I also know that Geoff and his family often go without a paycheque. Last year they were so broke they couldn't even fill the propane tanks so that all the houses could function with stove, dryer, etc.  So the need is great! It saddens me that we, as corporate Orthodoxy cannot make that place fly a little easier without a constant struggle and much stress for Geoff.

May God guide and bless all of you as you consider this urgent need.

With love in Christ,

Lois Machnee 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

99 Murders and the Mercy of God

In the third volume of the Missionary Letters of St. Nicholai Velimirovich, in letter 230, St. Nicholai tells a story to explain how God's mercy works. The story goes something like this:

A priest is walking down a lonely road on a hot day when suddenly out of the bushes jumps a wild looking man with a gun. The man says to the priest, "I have killed 99 men, and you will be the 100th."  The priest says to the him, I am ready to die; but please before you shoot me, give me a little water to drink. I am so thirsty. The murderer is confused for a moment, and then directs the priest at gun point to his hovel in the bushes where he gives the priest a cup of water to drink. As the priest is drinking the water, the murderer dies of a heart attack.

The angels from heaven come to escort the soul of this murderer to heaven, but the demons contest with them. "This man murdered 99 men and committed many other smaller sins. His soul belongs to us." But the angels answer the demons,"But he also did two great deeds for the Gospel of Christ which outweigh all his sins. First he confessed his 99 murders to a priest and second he gave water to the thirsty. 

In my last post I talked about fornication and murder. In this post I want to make it clear that no sin, no matter how many times repeated, is greater than the mercy of God.  

Fornication Leads To Murder

Fornication leads to murder. The first time I read this statement was, I think, in the life of a certain saint who after early victories over lustful passion had suddenly succumbed when visited by a young woman, whom he then, overcome by his shame, murdered and threw into a river. The hagiographer then comments: "and so as often happens, fornication leads to murder."  At that time, this statement seemed to me to be a gross overgeneralization.  

And so, as I am inclined to do, I went to the Scripture to see if such a principle is evidenced there. To my surprise it was (when I will stop being surprised that the Fathers of the Church know the scriptures better than I do?). The first bigamist, Lamech, becomes the second murder after Cain. The Children of Israel are seduced into fornication and a plague spreads through the camp, abated only by Phinehas's murder of a fornicating man and woman. King David's adultery with Bathsheba leads to the murder of  Uriah. Amnon's rape of Tamar leads not only to Absalom's murder of Amnon, but to civil war. And in our time, there is the unprecedented rate of human abortion following closely on the heals of the sexual revolution. The philosophy "Make love, not war" has resulted in more deaths than all of the wars together. There indeed does seem to be a pattern. Fornication leads to murder.  

And yet such a statement afflicts our mind. "No!" we protest. "Not all sex outside marriage leads to murder." "No! Something so beautiful as loving, consensual sex between two adults cannot and does not carry the seeds of murder just because the couple are not married!" "I cannot accept that!" This is what our minds scream.  Nevertheless, it is what the Scripture and the Saints reveal to us about the fallen human condition.

In the case of Amnon's rape of his half sister Tamar, there is an interesting line (the whole story is found in 2 Samuel/2 Kingdoms 13). Amnon becomes sick, his love for Tamar is so great. Yet once he has forced her to lie with him, the Scripture says, "Then Amnon hated her exceedingly, so much so that the intense hatred he bore against her was greater than the love with which he at first loved her." This phenomenon of intense romantic love being very close to intense hatred has not only been noted in the Scripture. Secular literature is full of examples of intense love switching to intense hate, spurned lovers hating, even murdering, their former lovers or spending their life hating and blaming the one they had once so intensely loved. Both uncontrolled desire (often called love) and uncontrolled anger (often called hate) come from the same source in the sick soul. Once one despises God's law sufficiently to be seduced by the first, it is a small step to be driven by the second.

And today, as we remember the beheading of St. John the Baptist, we are reminded of yet another example of fornication leading to murder. As in all cases, the connection is not linear. "A" does not always pass through "B" and then "C" or any other set of predictable steps to "Z." Herodias was bitter against John for rebuking her for her adulterous relationship with King Herod, her brother-in-law. She was holding a grudge and abiding her time. The time came when Herodias' daughter danced for the King at a drunken birthday bash. The King foolishly promised the girl any reward she asked for. At her mother's bidding, she asked for John the Baptist's head on a platter. Fornication led to murder. It took a circuitous route, it often does. Sometimes it doesn't. It's unpredictable. That's why it is easy for us to dismiss, despite the saints, despite the scripture, despite the testimony of secular literature, despite millions of abortions. No, we cannot easily accept that we are the murderers, that what feels so right leads to death.

I saw a wonderful movie a couple a days ago on Netflix, My Afternoons with Margueritte (French with English subtitles). The main character is the child of passion. He is not murdered, physically, only psychologically. His single mother is so wounded and unsupported that she cannot, it seems, do anything but hate her child. But this story has a happy ending.  Grace appears in the form of a very old lady named Margueritte (with two t's).  

Grace appears in every life. God abandons no one. The vicious cycle of abuse and seduction and hatred can be broken in Christ--if we want to be free, if we are willing to humble ourselves, listen, learn, repent. No, it is not easy. Yes, we make mistakes and fail along the way. But God is faithful, even when we are not. His Grace is sufficient. His Grace will help us. His Grace will guide us as much as we are willing to guided.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Getting Dressed for the Wedding

How shall I, the unworthy, dare to enter the brilliance of Thy holy place? If I venture to enter into the bridal chamber, my garment will denounce me, for it is not a wedding garment, and I shall be cast out bound by the angels. Cleanse, O Lord, the defilement of my soul, and save me, for Thou art the Lover of mankind.

Every time a priest enters the Sanctuary at the beginning of a service, he prostrates before the Altar and says this prayer. The prayer calls to mind Christ's parable of the man who is found at the wedding supper, after those who had been invited had refused to come; yet this man at the wedding is not wearing wedding clothes (which in ancient Semitic tradition were provide to the guest by the bridegroom).  Although the man has harkened to the call of the servants sent out into the highways and the hedges to "compel" them to come in and although the man has indeed entered into the bridal chamber, he has not bothered to put on the clothes that the Bridegroom Himself has provided.

Just a cursory look at the New Testament Epistles reveals that to "put on" or to "clothe yourself in" are frequent admonitions.   We are to clothe ourselves in Christ, or as it says in another place, in the New Man.  We are to put off the old man.  We are to put on the armour of God, which is righteousness, faith, the Gospel of peace, salvation and the Word of God.  We are to put off anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, and filthy language.  We are to put on love, tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, and long suffering. These are all things we are to put on. The clothes that we have to take off and put on have to do with our attitudes and behaviour.  

The clothing that our heavenly Bridegroom has provided is virtue. Virtue is not an ideal nor a legal position before God. Virtue, if it exists at all, exists as the quality, the godliness, the Christlikeness of a life lived. You might even say that the wedding clothes of the age to come, the clothes that we will be found wearing in the Bridal Chamber of the Heavenly Kingdom are precisely our life: what we actually lived, or strove to live, in Christ during our time in this life. At the moment of my death, all that I have imagined myself to be will pass away. All that will be left, the only clothing I will have after my death, is the life I actually lived, the clothing (provided by Christ) that I actually put on--or strove to put on.  

A fearsome thought indeed.

However, "Strove to put on" is an important factor to keep in mind. God's judgement is always according to intention, not necessarily actual performance.  In this world, it often seems to be the case that the combination of natural ability/inability, training, circumstances, culture, demons and men is such that very little of the wickedness that I repent of goes away very easily, nor does much of the virtue I strive to obtain manifest itself in my life in any particularly noticeable way. It seems that I am the perpetual widow with only two spiritual mites. But whether it is two or two thousand, we give all we have. And that's what is important.

Often after I pray the prayer above, I find myself humming the expostalation of matins the from Holy Week: 

I behold your Bridal Chamber richly adorned, O my Saviour; but I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me. 

Christ clothes those naked of virtue.   only need to want to be clothed. But here's the catch: what I want is manifest not in what I think I want, or what I say I want, or what I confess I am supposed to want. What I want is manifested in what I actually strive to obtain (whether or not I am actually able to attain it in this messy world of sin). If what I want is Christ, if what I want is to put off the old man and put on the new, if what I want is to put off anger, malice and selfishness of all sorts and to put on patience and love and humility, then, if that's what I really want, I will get what I want. Christ will give it to me. Christ has already given it to me. It is mine to put on.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Politics, Moscow and Peace

I've read a couple of interesting perspectives on the Pussy Riot protest, one from a pundit in Great Britain and the other from an Orthodox Christian in Moscow.  You can read both here and here. Certainly there is a lot more going on than we in the West understand. Nevertheless, the whole matter has caused me to reflect on the role of faith in politics.

I find it interesting that from both the political left and the political right there are occasional cries that the Church or Christians generally take a clear political stand. This is particularly true as each political perspective sees their view "clearly" in line with the teaching of the Bible or the Church or the Fathers. (I always get nervous whenever anyone of any stripe says that something is "clearly" the teaching of Christ or the Bible or the Church.) As far as I can figure out, the Bible seems to clearly teach that we see through a glass darkly.  

Ideally, the Church can function as a kind of conscience to the state; however, this doesn't seem to happen very often. In fact, what often happens is that people in the Church are as divided and politically motivated by their own interests as the general population is.

I would like to say that monasticism is a refuge from politics, but this is not the case. Historically and even today, monks lead the charge in political causes on the left and on the right--not so much in the West, but certainly in largely Orthodox countries.

Truly, I do not know how to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.  

I have, however, made a kind of covenant with myself.  My covenant is that I may be active politically only so long as I am at peace. I cannot promote peace (either from the right or the left) if I am not at peace. When I lose peace, then it is time for me to pull back and find it again. I agree with Gandhi here: I must be the change. (I am not a complete fan of everything Gandhi said, but I have come to appreciate him more and more in recent years.)  

I believe it is possible for a Christian and for the Church to be politically active. There are many excellent examples in history of Church leaders and lay people righteously influencing government. However, that has not been the norm. What is happening in Moscow today is more like the norm.

May God help us to be the Light before we try to shine the light.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Prayer is Mostly About

Bonnie and I got back from Saskatoon yesterday.  Today we are recovering.  After matins, I took a two-hour nap.  Today at matins we commemorated the leave-taking of the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God.  One of the things I like about the hymns for the feasts of the Mother of God is that they focus on the mystery of God’s greatness being held in human smallness.  For me, one of my biggest struggles is to continue to believe that despite my smallness and sinfulness God is willing to dwell in me.  Some kind of false humility in me wants to argue that this is not possible.  That is, I want to say that the distance between who and what God is and I am is too great for God to transcend.  Such a thought only appears to be humble, but it is really arrogant.  It is saying that there is something God cannot do.  

We know that God transcends because we have the evidence of the Incarnation and the Mother of God.  God "dwells in Her ever-virgin womb."  I think that means the same thing as a pure heart— “a humble and contrite heart God does not despise.”  The problem is not God’s ability to transcend.  The problem is my ability to attend to God’s presence.  I think that is what prayer is mostly about: learning to attend to the heart--we might even say womb--to the place where God dwells in human beings.  The pure heart can be likened to the ever-virginal womb of Mary.  

One of the things I don’t like about traveling is that my rhythm of life and discipline of prayer is interrupted.  I love seeing my daughters and grandchildren and I enjoy a being with friends and doing new things (like driving a combine harvester) a great deal, but the busyness of it all along with the lack of a disciplined prayer routine keep the mirror of my heart cloudy, the only mirror in which I can see the face of Jesus Christ and be saved.  God does not abandon me.  I can pray a little around the edges.  I can say the Jesus Prayer driving the combine--until it jams and I have to “shut ‘er down,” climb down and try to figure out how to unjam it.  God does not abandon me in the godly conversations I am able to have here and there with family and others.  It must be the faith of the one speaking to me that I am able to say a word or two that seems to encourage them.

It’s good to be home.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Straight Talk to a Single Christian About Sex

Dear Friend,
I would like to respond somewhat backwards to your questions about sex beginning with your questions, "Where are the healthy Orthodox Christian marriages in the hagiography? and Why does the Church seem so down on the pleasure of sex?" and then move to the matter of ontologically-based sexual morality, and finally offer some suggestions and some advice about how to think about this matter.  I will speak directly and not pull any punches.  May God help us both!

That you only mention pleasure in reference to Orthodox Christian teaching about sexuality and the saints in your letter identifies you and I both as products of a post birth control, post antibiotic generation, a very, very new phenomenon in history.  The Fathers always connect the pleasure of sex with the pain of childbearing (which includes not only the birth itself, but also the care for and raising of children) along with other relational burdens (such as your body no longer belonging to yourself but to your partner--cf 1 Corinthians 7) and the myriad of diseases that are the fruit of unrestrained sexual practice.  All of these are or can be part of the "pain" that accompanies the pleasure of a relationship that is sexually intimate.  That you and I so easily separate the two perhaps shows how out of step with the Church we are as products of this culture.

Children and the burden of caring for them and raising them into healthy human beings is and always has been the principle (but not exclusive) purpose of sexual intercourse--this is a fact of biology first of all, and only secondarily a matter theology. So, not too long ago historically speaking, the only way to avoid the responsibility of children was to avoid sexual intercourse. If you wanted the leisure to learn to read and to pray with any regularity and discipline, the only two practical options were monasticism or great wealth.  Anyone who was not very wealthy and yet wanted to develop a prayer life or an intellectual life had only one option: celibacy.  If you had sex, you had kids that you had to feed, protect and shelter.  If you were celibate, you only had to care for yourself, and in an intentional community that ate very little and worked very hard (a monastery), it was possible to devote lots of time to prayer and study.  Since the only people for most of history who could read and write anyway were monks, it makes sense that most of what is written about saints in the past is about celibate men and women--or married men and women who became celibate.  However, you don't have to read too deeply to figure out that many of the saints had robust sex lives--even though (for obvious reasons) it is not mentioned explicitly.

The parents (or one of the parents) of many of the saints are also saints.  And these saints came from large families.  Something must have been going on.  Or take our Holy Foreparents Abraham and Sarah (and Sts. Joachim and Anna, and Zachariah and Elizabeth) for example.  They must have still been sexually active in old age if they were still earnestly praying for children in their eighties and nineties--and when they finally do have a child, it is through God-aided regular biology, not immaculate conception.  However, the Orthodox Church very seldom addresses sex directly, except where it goes wrong--which is how the Orthodox Church deals with just about everything: The Church does not multiply dogma unless there is a need.  Saints with children are Saints who are having sex, and if they have a lot of children into their old age, then they are probably enjoying lots of sex for a long time, but obviously that is not what you want to focus on if you are a monk writing for other monks.

If a married man and woman wanted to devote their life to prayer and study, however, then for most of history they had to live together as brother and sister.  In such cases dealing with desire is a huge issue.  And that is why a lot of the Church's writing about sex focuses on controlling desire.  Even St. Paul talks about this in the New Testament.  It has not been at all uncommon in the Church that married people have stopped having sex--not because the pleasure is bad, but because the freedom from responsibility for children is more desirable than the desire for sexual pleasure.  However, that does not make the desire for pleasure go away. And that is why a lot of the Church's writing about sex focuses on controlling desire. It is not unlike the problem with diet.   The desire to be healthy and be of a reasonable weight does not make the desire for the pleasure of eating fattening and unhealthy foods go away.  The Fathers are quick to point out that because of the nature of the world after the fall, pleasure is always coupled with pain, the roses always have thorns.  We have to pick our pleasures.  Who do we want to be?

Which brings me to the matter of ontology--how sex relates to what we are, to our being as creatures of God.  Before the fall, we were certainly sexual creatures, Genesis makes that pretty clear; but we were not driven by sexual passions.  So if we want to talk about sexuality rooted in ontology, then we have to deal with the problem of passion.  Ah, there’s the rub.  Human beings, male and female (together) are created in God's image.  So to understand how sex relates to our being as creatures of God, we have to look at what God says about sex relating to Himself--and in the Bible and the liturgies of the Church, God says a lot about Himself using sexual language. God is the Bridegroom who betroths humanity to himself as a virgin bride.  God has no other lovers.  God does not "consummate" the marriage until the "Wedding Supper of the Lamb."  God suffers everything to present to himself a virgin bride.  The sexuality of man and woman created in God's image reflects this; or rather, the way the Church talks about God using sexual metaphor reflects God's relationship with human kind seen most clearly in how human beings were created to relate to one another sexually.  

Ontologically speaking, we are virgins who offer our virginity to God our Groom who has purchased us with His Life and cares for us forever.  Biological virginity is the manifestation in time and space of this ontological reality.  Thus, there are two states in Christian anthropology: the virgin bride of God expressed in either the monastic state that iconically manifests the virginal longing of the espoused bride for the Bridegroom, or the married state that iconically manifest the longing fulfilled in the fruitfulness (and faithfulness!) of God's ultimate consummated relationship with mankind.  Anything else is an aberration.  Aberrations, though,  are not the end of the story.  God continually calls his unfaithful spouse back to Himself.  Biological virginity is meant to be a manifestation of a deeper, inner virginity--an inner virginity that can be restored through repentance even if the outer virginity has been lost  (i.e. St. Mary of Egypt is listed among the Holy Virgin Women).  

Stepping down from ontology to morality, we have to admit that morality is often influenced by culture.  Yes, King David had many wives and concubines (although he did take responsibility for them and their children for the rest of their lives).  We can also point out that many Christians (Orthodox or otherwise) completely ignore certain Biblical and canonical prohibitions against, for example, lending money at interest and other moral teachings of the Bible or the Church Fathers (e.g. the prohibition against selling church properties, the commandment to tithe, the prohibition against work on the Sabbath/Sunday or against taking a fellow Christian to secular court).  However, in spite of some pockets of cultural waffling or slippage in some areas of the Church’s moral teaching, the moral teaching regarding sexual behaviour has been amazingly consistent throughout both Jewish and Christian history and in multiple different cultural settings.  Even in the midst of secular cultures that were very sexually loose, Christians have never allowed polygamy (or polyandry for that matter) and have only reluctantly allowed divorce (or annulment, which has become a longer and more expensive route to the same end).  Even in ancient Jewish contexts that allowed polygamy, it was expected that the husband was to care for all wives and concubines and their children for life.  And certainly in all Jewish and Christian contexts--I really cannot think of one exception--any sexual intercourse outside of marriage was considered a moral failure, a failure that at least for Christians can be forgiven and healed, but a sin nonetheless, a missing of the mark.  This universality of understanding about sexual morality is, it seems to me, quite significant.  

But what do we do now?  What do we do in an age of birth control and penicillin?  And what do we do in a culture of sexual license?  Well first regarding modern medical technology, I must point out that I do know people who are suffering terribly from physical conditions--not to mention psychological conditions--acquired through sexual licentiousness and despite modern medicine; and despite modern birth control, unintended pregnancy is common and often tragically ends in the death of the child and the serious maiming (if not physically, certainly psychologically and spiritually) of especially the mother and also the father.   Also, regarding Christian morality in a sexually free culture, we must acknowledge that the Church has been here before, often.   It might help us to look at what the Church has actually said in these sexually licentious cultures--but let's save that for another time (take my word for it, the Church teaching has historically become more explicitly strict, not less, in sexually licentious cultures).

But to be practical, let's look at dating.  For a Christian, dating is not a good idea (please refer to my blog post on Orthodox Christian Dating).  However, many Christians find themselves single and living on their own.  They do not know how to get to know someone whom they might want to marry except through dating.  Yet even in a dating model, it is not that difficult to avoid physical sexual intimacy if you really want to avoid it (which is really the issue).  Physical sexual intimacy requires privacy.  If you don't want to have sex, don't go somewhere with your date where you could have sex.  In other words, only be alone with your girl/boy friend in public settings: parks, restaurants, malls, bowling alleys, etc.  Don't park your car in a lonely spot "to talk."  Talk in a corner in the library, talk walking in a park, talk at church, talk on the bus.  Don't, for God's sake, go to each other's homes.  No news here.  The problem isn't avoiding physical sexual intimacy, the problem is wanting to avoid it, which of course we don't--unless we very much want to live as the Church has taught us to live.  And even then, desire does not go away; so we must, as St. Paul says, "walk circumspectly."  We have to be careful not to let ourselves get into situations in which we could possibly do what our passions are screaming at us to do but that we really don't want to do.

Now regarding compromise.  Many have said, and indeed this is what the general culture says, if it is "really" loving, it is okay.  But what does that mean?  Legion are the people who have given in to this line of reason only to find out a few weeks or months later that "real" love is not really as real as they had thought. If you really love someone (in that way) and really want to spend your life together, then really get married.  Commit.  For life.  That's real love.  At least that is real love as it has been revealed to us by God.  It is how God loves.  It is how God has called us to love.  

But, you might say, a wedding is only a ceremony, a piece of paper.  The real marriage is in our hearts--and in a technical, theological sense, the real marriage may even be understood to be the actual act of sexual intercourse itself with the blood of the first virginal intercourse being the seal of the covenant.  However, the fact is that we don't really want to be married (at least not yet), and we may not even be sure, for sure, for sure, that we want to be married to this person.  We merely want to dance but we don't want to pay the fiddler (as my foster mother used to say)--or we don’t want to pay the fiddler yet, we’ll pay sometime later if it works out.  That is, we may devote our lives to each other as a holy icon of Christ and the Church later, if it works out.  Honestly, this argument that the ceremony doesn't really mean much is actually an argument to wait for sex.  If the sexual act itself is indeed the symbol of the commitment (rather than the ceremony being the symbol), then definitely the sex should wait until the commitment is certain.  That is, if sex is not really merely about mutual affection.  

I'm all for mutual affection, but is that what Christ and the Church has taught us that sex is for?  Typologically, it is kind of like treating the Holy Eucharist as a common thing (c.f. Hebrews 10:29 and 1 Corinthians 11: 17ff).  Holy Communion is our participation in the very Body and Blood of Christ.  It is for the forgiveness of our sins.  It is for our sanctification.  It is our uniting with Christ and His Body.  But if we treat the Holy Eucharist as a mere snack, as something we eat because we have the munchies, then like the Corinthians to whom St. Paul was writing, we are eating and drinking condemnation to ourselves.  Why?  Because the very means of our salvation we are no longer treating as the very means of our salvation.  If we despise what God has given us for our salvation, then there is no other salvation.  It is not as though God has plan B.  Sex functions similarly.  

Sexual intercourse in life-long marriage is an icon in the flesh of God's love for mankind.   Sexual intercourse is how we participate with God in the creation of new human life. Sexual intercourse is part of the glue that keeps a man and women united for life--the secret garden, the spring that does not run into the streets, the hiding place of love.  But can sexual intercourse be all this to us  if we treat it  as a common thing, as an mere expression of mutual affection--or worse yet, as a mere means of giving mutual pleasure?  Not that sex is not or should not be pleasurable.  It should be pleasurable, just as the Holy Eucharist should taste sweet, but mere pleasure is not the purpose.  As far as the Church is concerned, physical pleasure is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg of what sexual intercourse is about. 

And regarding this matter of compromise, I must also point out that if someone and his/her girl/boy friend have significantly different views on sexual morality at the beginning of the relationship, then most likely it indicates that the foundation for a life-long monogamous relationship does not exist.  I am not saying that a relationship is impossible.  But I am saying that how you treat sex before you are married will certainly influence how you experience and think about sex after you are married.  You are setting a pattern, a precedent for life.  

Nevertheless, everything can be healed in the Church.  Nothing is impossible.  But there is the easier way and the hard way and the very hard way.  What do you want sex to mean to you and your possible future spouse for the rest of your life?  Is it merely an expression of affection and mutual pleasure or is it an icon of Christ and the Church, a commitment to be with and for each other forever, a devotion to cling to one another throughout your entire life no matter what?  You have to decide.

My friend, I know this sounds harsh.  But honestly I would speak just as directly to a parishioner who told me that they wanted to join the army so that they could go fight in Afghanistan.  It is a serious matter.  Just like joining the army, sex eventually becomes a matter of life and death, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Leaning to Learn

My foster brother learned a valuable lesson when he joined the Marines Corps (about thirty-five years ago). He had taken Junior Reserve Officer Training in high school which enabled him to enter the Corps already one rank up. He already knew how to march, clean a rifle, shine his shoes and many other skills that are generally taught in boot camp. However, this step up proved to be a problem because although he could do many things others could not do, he had not learned to listen very well. Consequently, in the first weeks of Boot camp, he lost his rank; but by the end of boot camp he earned it back again.

Taking our spiritual life seriously is in many ways like enlisting in the army. We think we can already do some things well. We think we know basically what our strengths and weaknesses are. We think we know about where we should be, what our inner life should be like.  However, It was (and sometimes is) a painful shock to me when I realize in specific ways that St. Paul's words apply to me: "If anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing as he ought to know it" (1Cor. 8:2). Generally it is only painful confrontation with my own weakness and failure that teaches me that I know nothing as I ought to know it. And once I accept this, I do, somehow, begin to know, really know.

This is one of the profound ironies of Christian life. We painfully realize that we are not who we could or think we should be, but this is the beginning of us becoming who we can and shall be. Like my foster brother in boot camp, we also learn how much we do not know, how much we are not what we think we could or should be in our spiritual journey into the Image of Christ, becoming our true selves. We learn this in a way that is humbling or even humiliating. But if we will accept it, if we will accept that we are false, hypocritical, self righteous, greedy, selfish and not really a Christian (at least as we think a real Christian should be), then we begin to be real Christians. Then we are at the place where real change, real transformation is possible. This is one of the reasons why the Church Fathers put so much emphasis on tears. It is as if our tears are the water that washes our souls. Our hearts are cleansed as we weep over how we have fallen short.

And in this weeping, somehow God comes to us, heals us, helps us, and leads us forward.

By the way, weeping and tears do not always involve actual tears. A wounded heart may weep deeply without necessarily having streams of water pour from the eyes. Sometimes even that connection is wounded.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The movement of thoughts in a man originates from four causes.  Firstly, from the natural will of the flesh; secondly, from the imagination of the world's sensory objects which a man hears and sees; thirdly from mental predispositions and from the aberration of the soul; and fourthly, from the assaults of the demons who wage war with us in all the passions through the causes which we have already mentioned. 
(St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 3)

It would take weeks to unpack this saying of St. Isaac, and that is only to the level of my understanding.  I'm sure there are depths of meaning here that I have yet to experience and which I will never experience due to my lack of stillness.  But for now I would like to briefly explain how I understand these four sources of thoughts, or as the later Greek fathers call them, logismoi; then I would like to comment a little on the third source as it applies to the struggle to conquer bad habits.

By "natural will of the flesh," I think St. Isaac is referring to our bodily communication with our mind: My feet hurt, I'm thirsty, I'm aroused, I need to find a washroom.  What the body says to the mind we experience as thoughts which the rational aspect of our mind (ideally in submission to the noetic or spiritual aspect of our being) manages: Acknowledged, keep standing; acknowledged, get a drink of water; acknowledged, run away; acknowledged, wait for the intermission.  Similarly, all four sources of the "movement of thoughts," should be managed by the rational aspect of the mind in submission to the noetic aspect.  However, as we move out from the natural will of the flesh, it becomes more difficult.

The second source of thoughts comes from external stimuli: what we see, hear, smell, taste, etc.  And if I have a little control over my body, I have no control over what is outside me.  I think this is one of the reasons why men and women become monks: to cut themselves off as much as possible from the external stimuli that fills them with distracting thoughts.  Yet even in the world we have some control over what we see or don't see, hear or don't hear, eat or don't eat.  And whether we are monastic or in the world, at the end of the day, it is only God who saves us.  Only God can heal the mind and calm the thoughts.  But what I can do is choose, in whatever ways I can choose, not to provide unnecessary and unhelpful stimulus.  Sometimes I don't have a choice, but sometimes I do: what I look at, what I listen to, what I smell or touch or taste.  Experience teaches us what "sensory objects" disturb us most and which we are able, if we try, to avoid.  It seems to me that God often rescues me and grants peace to my thoughts if I first make some effort, some effort to control what I allow my eyes to see and my ears to hear.  

The third source of thoughts are our own "mental predispositions" and "aberration of the soul," and the forth is from the demons "who wage war in all the passions through the causes which we have already mentioned."  That is, the demons use all of the above in their warfare against us.  For example, I may smell a barbecue cooking somewhere (source #2), have a disgruntled disposition that is angry at God and thinks I deserve a break (source #3) and feel hungry (source #1).  These the demons use to war against my resolve not to eat between meals or to be thankful for the meal I have or whatever godly resolve that I have committed myself to.  It is that these sources of thoughts work together that often foils our resolve.  I think, "Oh, that smells good!  And I have been so good for so long, really I deserve a break--God will understand [yes, more than I know !] and I am really hungry after all...."  Perhaps others experience this inner warfare differently, but for me, the scenario that often defeats me is the coordinated attack of all the sources at once.  However, more on this another time.

What I would like to talk a little more about today are "mental predispositions" and "the aberration of the soul."  It seems that it is here that we often succumb because we figure something like this: "If I really think this, it must be what I really think."  That is, if I really experience covetous thoughts about my neighbour's wife or car or job or house, then it must mean that I really do want my neighbour's wife or car or job or house.  But I don't really want my neighbour's wife--it's taken me thirty-three years to build the relationship I have with my wife: why would I want to start all over again, or what makes me think I could do better?  I have enough headaches with my own car and house and job, someone else's will only be more stressful, not less.  I don't really want what my neighbour has (or seems to have).  So if I don't really want what my neighbor has, what is this thing in me that wants it?  Ah, that's what St. Isaac calls "the aberration of the soul," it is my mental illness, my spiritual disease.  

There are many aberrations of the soul, some we are born with, some we develop as mental predispositions: same sex attraction, kleptomania, gluttony, pedophilia, a driving desire to win, to be the best, to be right, to control.  All of these (and hundreds more) can come from some combination of inherited or learned aberration of the soul or mental predisposition.  They are not who we really are even though we really, really feel them.  These aberrations of the soul are manifestations of our sickness; it is who we were, not who we are becoming.  St. Paul gives a list in 1 Corinthians chapter six of what the Corinthian Christians were: fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, sodomites, thieves, covetous, drunkards,  revilers, extortioners.  These (and more) are what all of us in the aberration of our souls and in our mental predispositions have been or would be if given the opportunity.  It is sinners such as these, sinners such as I, whom God saves.  However, salvation is not merely the forgiveness of sins, it is also the transformation of the life, it is nothing less than transfiguration with Christ, it is the becoming of who we are in Christ.

But how does this transformation take place?  St. John tells us in 1 John 3: 2, 3 the following: "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.  And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as He is pure."  Who we are becoming is not yet seen--even though we are children of God already.  However, transformation takes place in seeing Him.  Even now, before the end, in prayer and quietness of heart we visit the end, we catch a glimpse of the eschaton, and in some small way we see Him--and in seeing Him in some small way, be become like him in some small way.  In fact, St. John tells us, that even the hope of seeing him works purity in us, and by purity I mean healing of the soul.

Of course we have to want it, or want to want it.  And just as it is with anything we want, we must begin to work at it.  Not that we can change ourselves, we cannot; but we can reach out for what only God can give us.  We can begin to act the way we want to be.  We can begin to cut off what feeds and strengthens what we were.  We can have this hope in us, this hope that in seeing Him, we will become like Him.  And most of all, when the thoughts from the aberrations of our soul, the thoughts of the Old Man, the thoughts coming from our sickness seem to overpower us as our thoughts, we must relax (that's right, relax), remind ourselves that it is our sickness speaking to us, and turn gently in our hearts and mind to the One who heals the sick, to the great physician.  And, perhaps, if we do this often enough we may catch a glimps in some small way of the Physician Himself and in glimpsing in some small way experience transformation in some small way.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

On Mindless Outpourings

Afternoon Service at Mellstock
(Circa 1850)

On afternoons of drowsy calm
We stood in the panelled pew,
Singing one-voiced a Tate-and-Brady psalm
To the tune of 'Cambridge New'.

We watched the elms, we watched the rooks,
The clouds upon the breeze,
Between the wiles of glancing at our books,
And swaying like the trees.

So mindless were those outpourings!
Though I am not aware
That I have gained by subtle thought on things
Since we stood psalming there.

From Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917)
By  Thomas Hardy

It has taken me a long time to learn to appreciate "mindless outpourings."  Becoming Orthodox, it took me years to overcome the fear of vain repetition--a phrase over-used and misunderstood.  I was able to accept repetition so long as it was not mindless.  My mind had to be engaged.

However, long hours of "psalming" with the brothers in the middle of the night at the monastery and my own regular habit of recitation have beaten my mind into a kind of mindless submission.  There is a kind of calm uniting that takes place in psalmody, a uniting beyond the "subtle thought on things." It is a uniting of my heart, my intuitive knower, my inner self with the words of the psalms as they interpret realities to me beyond mindful reason.  To speak of these realities is useless for words are a paltry lie.  If words could convey this reality, then mindful attention would be sufficient.  But it is not.

Prayer through the repetition of Psalms or the continued recitation of the Jesus Prayer or other short prayer seems to open a space in us, a space usually blocked by a busy mind.  Entering this space beyond mindfulness, I think we come close to what the Fathers call entering our heart. Here, sometimes, both the joy and sorrow of repentance are expressed in tears or tear-like pain.  It is as though the armour formed by words and concepts drops away from us and our naked heart stands in the Garden before God: weak, vulnerable, sometimes ashamed, often comforted.

It is not that I am against book learning.  I think we should all study and learn as much as our busy minds will let us. But I think Thomas Hardy has it right.  I don't think we gain much at all "by subtle thought on things," especially if we have not learned to know God in mindless prayer.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Prayer for Beginners

Save The Dates! Fr. Michael will be conducting a weekend retreat on the topic: Prayer for Beginners.
It will be held October 12-13 in Vernon, BC.
All beginners are welcome to join this beginner as we learn together from the Holy Fathers.
Please let me know ASAP if you are interested.