Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Prayer of Not Knowing

St. Philaret of Moscow

In the Missionary Letters of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich (Vol. 3) #254, St. Nikolai records a secret prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow (+1867), found among his papers after his repose. Many of us are already familiar with St. Philaret's morning prayer: "O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace..." This prayer touched me so much that for my last few years of teaching, I printed it and gave it to my students at the beginning of each semester and began every class by reciting it (which I could get away with because I was teaching at a Christian institution: Trinity Western University). Interestingly, my mostly Evangelical or agnostic students became so accustomed to the prayer that when I didn't say it because I was in a hurry or distracted, they would sometimes ask me why I hadn't said the prayer. Even Evangelicals and agnostics can appreciate liturgical consistency.

The secret prayer of St. Phiaret goes like this:

  • O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You.  You only know what I need.  You love me more than I am capable of loving myself.  O Father, give Your servant that which I cannot even request.  I dare ask for neither suffering nor blessing, but I stand before You with my heart open toward You.  You see the needs which I do not know. Look upon me and act according to Your mercy.  Chasten and heal, let me fall and get me up.  I tremble and remain silent before Your holy will and before Your judgment which is beyond reach for me.  I offer myself to You as a sacrifice.  There is no desire in me except for the desire to fulfill Your will.  Teach me to pray.  You, Yourself pray in me!  Amen.
Notice how much this saint does not know. For me, the beginning of open-hearted prayer comes as I begin to know my ignorance in prayer. I don't know what to pray. I don't know what I need. And I most certainly don't know what other people need. The God who knows everything, loves everyone, and can do whatever is necessary, this is the very God to whom I am speaking. God knows. What I can do is say amen. What I can do is open my heart to either suffering or blessing, falling or rising, chastening or healing. God knows. What I can do is offer myself as a sacrifice. Or at least, this is what I can pray to do.

Those of us who are living in a context of relative religious freedom may find sacrifice, perhaps, too strong a word. However, I suggest that every kind of suffering we endure for the sake of love for others or in resisting sinful passion or in enduring sickness without complaining or even in enjoying blessings without forgetting God and those who are suffering is exactly the sacrifice St. Philaret is referring to.  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Real Stuff

I don't want to annoy you by referring again to Kh. Krista West, but her latest pod cast on "Real Stuff" is, as far as I am concerned, the Real Stuff.  The talk is only 17 minutes long, and is worth the listen.

Kh. Krista talks about the importance of real things: real wood, real stone, real pottery: real stuff made by real people, not mass produced.  Real stuff made by real people for a real purpose is expensive, and the Church is full of it.  Wooden icons, bees wax candles, vestments made from wool and cotton, and brass or silver Altar hardware (for lack of a better word) all covered in real gold.  The Church is a real place.  Plastic and other forms of imitation materials are shunned.  

However, more than just material, the teaching of the Church is real.  And here it will start to get uncomfortable.  We don't want to face the real.  We would rather live on in our delusions, in our theories, in our explanations as to why it is not my fault.  We don't want to accept that we are sinners.  

Sure, we will say the words: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner.  So long as were are general sinners, members of a category, we freely acknowledged our state as sinners.  But when it comes to specifics, ah, there's another matter.  We have the specifics covered, we have an excuse, a reason, a theory.  We cannot find the courage and strength merely to say I was wrong.  I sinned.  I hurt someone, someone I love and there is no way I can fix it.  God heals everything, but I can't fix it.

I think part of the reason why it is hard to face reality is that reality doesn't fit in our mind.  We have in our mind ideas and interpretations, theories and understandings that--if we indeed have failed--are not valid, not true.  And the pain in this is not so much that we are wrong (although that may be a large source of pain for some), but that we have no other ideas, interpretations, theories or understandings to replace to old ones with.  We are left not knowing what to think.  And not knowing is the greatest suffering, it is a kind of dark night of the soul.

I think God forces us to confront our sins and failures, thus smashing the idols of our ideologies and theories, in order that we might come to know what's real.  And what's real doesn't fit into theories, ideologies or principles.  What's real is God Himself.  What's real is life in the Holy Spirit.  But to know this, to learn to live in the Holy Spirit, we have first to let go of our idols.  And sometimes, if we have trouble letting go, the idols of our mind have to be smashed.  And it's painful, even frightening, because we have depended on them for so long and we do not know what will replace them.

Like the Children of Israel, God calls us to leave the comfortable slavery of our justifications and our understandings and to cross the Red Sea to wander in the desert of not knowing, journeying to the Promised Land, to the heavenly Jerusalem, where we will know as we are known.  This not knowing, this unknowing, is reality: the reality of a Kingdom that is already and not yet.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Penny and A Pearl

“If you owe the Lord a penny, He will not accept a pearl.”
St. Isaac the Syrian  

We do not understand value the way God does.  Sometimes in our life there are pennies we owe God: little sins He asks us to forsake, little sacrifices He asks us to make, little weaknesses in others He asks us to endure graciously, little gestures of kindness he asks us to perform.  And yet we resist.  We resist in the little thing and offer something to God that we think is much bigger, much more important.  

We may owe God a penny’s worth of faithfulness in forsaking what seems to us a small indulgence in pornography, for example; but instead we offer God long prayers.  We may owe God a penny’s worth of kindness shown to some annoying person whom we’d rather avoid; but instead we make a large donation to the poor.  We may owe God a penny’s worth of regular, daily prayer; but instead we fight for social justice.  We owe God a penny; but we offer a pearl instead, or at least what we think is a pearl.  

Isaiah warned us that our righteousness is as filthy rags before God.  Similarly, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for making long prayers while exploiting widows and for being excruciatingly careful in fasting while failing to show mercy.  God doesn’t need our long prayers, our donations, our strict fasts, or our social activism.  God sets the terms of our relationship, we do not.  It is the broken and contrite heart that God does not despise.  To obey is better than sacrifice, the prophet Samuel tells us.

When our heart tells us that we owe God a penny, that penny is the pearl to God.  And until we offer that penny, anything else, in God’s sight, may be just a filthy rag.

Friday, September 21, 2012


Marriage and Monastic Life

It is an unnecessary burden, really, in our culture that we do not have abundant monastic options. The monastic option is so difficult in North America that only the most zealous seek it out. The unfortunate consequence of this is that millions of people assume that marriage is the only normal option for a devout Christian. Single people feel uncomfortable and unconnected, either awkwardly attached to their family of origin or on their own, lonely, wondering what's wrong with themselves or seduced into immorality. Others eventually marry someone good enough, and with God's help the spouse and the children make up what is lacking in the communal existence of the formally single person. Some lose themselves in their work, never really experiencing the closeness, support, and burden that family (monastic or nuptial) supplies.

In traditional Orthodox countries, there are thousands of monasteries with hundreds of thousands of monks. Is the biology of men and women in North America and Western Europe really so different from the biology of men and women in Russian and Greece? Did God "just happen to" call many more men and women to monastic life in Russia and Greece while only calling a handful in North America and Western Europe? I don't think so.

Last night the brothers and I sat around after dinner discussing our callings. We each told the story of how we began in either monasticism or (in my case) the married life. The similarities were striking. For all of us, there was a moment of certainty, a moment of commitment, and a lifetime of struggle full of moments of joy, fulfillment, doubts and even second thoughts. Nevertheless. That's the word: nevertheless. Doubts and second guessing cannot be avoided. Our mind generates them against our will. However, we must live our life for Christ--this is where nevertheless comes in.

One may or may not have made the right choice. One may or may not have had the option of making a choice. One may or may not be in their ideal calling, married to their ideal mate, in their ideal occupation or career path. Nevertheless. Nevertheless, this is my life. This is what I have to offer God. It is this life that I have to give to God. It is this spouse I have to love. These are the children God has given me, or these are the monastic brothers and fathers or sisters and mothers God has given me. It might have been different, nevertheless, it is not. Nevertheless, this is the life I offer to God.

Fr. Abbot said an interesting word to me this week. He quoted the words of St. Paul, "All of the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ." We wrongly think our mistakes, our right or wrong choices, ruin God's plan for our life. To think thus is to have a very small view of God. If we go left, God will use it to make us like Christ. If we go right, God will use it to make us like Christ. We must do what seems best, what seems right at the time, yet we cannot know what is "really" right. Perhaps, sometimes there is no "really" right. God takes what we give Him. The promises of God are always yes in Christ, nevertheless.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Really, Really, Believing in God

We all begin from where we are. When we believe in God, we believe as we have come to understand both what it means to believe and as we have come to understand what God is. But what it means to believe and who God is that we might believe in Him are really only extensions of our own human experience. This is especially true of religion revealed in writing, in words. Words must be learned through human experience, and so reading even revealed words, we can only understand them in terms of our human conceptualization of those words. That is, we take our experience and amplify it: God is man in capital letters (God = MAN).

God accepts this. God accepts everything we offer him, no matter how misguided or misconceived or limited it is--God loves us that much. But because God loves us that much, He does not let us stay in our misconceptions. God breaks out of every conceptual box. And it is perhaps this continual experience of God not remaining quietly in the box we have prepared for Him that leads us to the knowledge of God beyond knowledge: a rather intuitive knowledge that makes use of conceptualizations only metaphorically.

A big part of our experience of God's breaking out is experienced as painful suffering. God doesn't do what we expect Him to do. God doesn't answer our prayers as we expect Him to answer. God allows the ungodly to triumph. God takes away from us all that we had been depending on, the certain pillars of our life, of our faith, of our reality. Everything is shaken so that only that which cannot be shaken remains, as it says in Hebrews.

And what remains is a deeper knowledge of God, a knowledge transcending knowledge. God is nothing like man; rather, the likeness is not because God is the ultimate human conception, but because man is a divine conception: man is God in minuscule: (man = god).

A lot of this shaking results in seeing ourselves more clearly, seeing the foolishness, vanity and fantasy that we have clung to as reality, that we have believed and fought for, and through which we have wounded ourselves and those whom we love. This is the real pain of suffering, but it is a suffering that does not lead to despair, for in admitting what has been false, we come to see and then cling to what is true, to He who is true.

I think this is the wisdom of the Church in teaching us to pray, "Lord have mercy!" We do not know what needs to be shaken in our life and in the lives of those we love. We do not know what it will take for us to see and cling to the real, for those we love to see and cling to the real. But before we can pray "Lord have mercy" with an open heart, we have to let go of our fear of pain--which is really only the fear of death: pain being death on the installment plan, as someone once remarked. But not to fear death we must really believe in resurrection. We must really believe that pain is a door through which we enter life, or through which we may enter life, for not everyone who suffers finds life, which I think is a kind of hell: suffering with no meaning, no telos, no end.

But if we believe in the resurrection, then we have hope. We have hope not only in our own suffering, but in our shared suffering, in our suffering with the suffering of those we love. We can say "Lord have mercy" as a prayer full of hope, full of faith in the God of resurrection, the merciful God who loves us much, much more than we can ever love, who loves beyond our conception of love. Then we can thank God for all things. Then we can rejoice in every no as a yes from God.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sharing In The Virtue Of Others

Everyone should have a monastery across the street.

This morning after bible study time, one of the monastery's neighbors drove up the driveway. The brothers went out to greet him. The neighbor had come by because he was looking for his dog who had just run off...and then he proceeded to talk to the brothers for forty minutes.

The neighbor struck me as a man who had no particular religious impulse or training--he dropped no religious slang nor asked for prayer or anything like that. There was no cross or prayer rope hanging from the rearview mirror in his huge pickup truck.

And yet he greeted the brothers with a hug--as the brothers greet everyone. He opened up immediately, sharing his life in simplicity, without pretension, with no statements intended to impress. At the same time you could see that he had deep respect for the brothers, even at the end apologizing for not visiting more often.

It seemed to me as though he knew the brothers to be men of God, and although he was not particularly religious, he respected that these men were, and in encountering them, he was touching God in as far as he was able. It reminds me of the verse that to receive a prophet in the name of a prophet is to receive a prophet's reward.

When we recognize and respect others for their gifts and strengths (rather than being envious at the one extreme or fearful/hateful at the other), then we actually share in the gifts and strengths of the other. This is how God intended human beings to function. This is how we understand the Kingdom of Heaven to function.

In this principle we also find a path in the growth of virtues. I may be an impatient man, but if I can respect a patient man, the very act of my respecting him will help me begin to share in his patience. A envious woman can begin to acquire contentment if she can come to respect another woman who is content in her lot in life. Just the mere fact that she as begun to respect and honor the other woman for her virtue causes the virtue to begin to grow in her own life.

Unfortunately, very few of us live just down the road from a monastery. Nevertheless, "God has not left Himself without a witness," as the scripture says. Even a secular person who is kind manifests a godly virtue, even if she is ignorant of the fact that it is indeed God-like. And certainly there are Christians--even monks--who have been so damaged by sin that very few, if any, virtues can be easily identified in them. Orthodox faith and even monastic tonsure is not a sign of spiritual maturity. One must not mistake the road for the destination.

And so the prayers of the brothers this morning are not only their prayers, but the prayers of a neighbor whose faith is weak, so weak that he has to use the excuse of a runaway dog to drop by. The joy of a joyful colleague is the joy of all the colleagues who respect that joy. Those who despise it, however, those who ridicule the joyful colleague as "out of touch," or "simple minded," these will struggle ever to know joy.

May God grant us to find the "witness" God has left in our life. May God grant that we honor and respect virtue wherever we see it, that we may share in that virtue.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Off To The Monastery

I'm off to the monastery this morning.  

Why do I go to the monastery?  In many ways it is like going to visit friends, very peaceful, quiet friends.  It is also like undertaking a difficult project, or a backpacking trip.  I must force myself to sleep little and eat little, but the physical exertion is minimal--if I the brothers can't find something useful for me to do around the monastery (move fire wood or help with a building project), then I take a long walk in the afternoon.

I also go to the monastery to sit with the abbot.  I guess you could call him an elder, but he would not let anyone call him that.  He is just himself.  He has a direct way about him.  Some might even say harsh, but always loving and true.   Perhaps that's why he sometimes appears harsh in his opinions (not his attitude or actions), because I am so unaccustomed to true.  It often takes me a couple of months after a visit to digest my conversations at the monastery.  At the time of the conversations, I often have reservations, sometimes outright disagreements--why they keep letting me come back, I don't know (probably it has to do with love).  But as these conversations ruminate within me, coming to mind every now and then for some more mental chewing, they start to make sense.  Or is it that the seed germinates within me, sending down roots and breaking up the stoney soil of my heart?  Yes, that's probably it.

Usually, it take a couple of days just to empty my head, when I go to the monastery.  By third day, I start to feel that my mind, the rest of me, has arrived.  Now I'm here.  It is not that I forget the world, exactly.  It's rather that the cares, the people I love and hold in my heart, seem to be at the monastery with me.  They are with me among quiet, peaceful friends.  We are at the monastery.

Please pray for me.  And as much as you are able, in your heart, join me at the monastery this week.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Strategy Against My Lazy Self

Below is a question based on the post, "Standing Outside the Kingdom."
Hello Fr. Michael, Can you clarify a bit on your meaning of: "At times like this, regardless of my dogmatic understanding of theology, I know at some level I have left the Kingdom of Heaven. I must beg for mercy. I must hear again the gentle tapping of my Saviour to find my way back. Only this will save me."

Dear ------,
In the "Standing Outside the Kingdom" post I am trying to discuss an appropriate attitude in prayer, especially as we experience that attitude.  In my human weakness, I often cannot hold the "already and not yet" realities of our relationship with God together in my mind and heart at the same time.  I know from my readings in the Fathers that a peaceful rest is possible, that it is possible in the spiritually mature to be completely absorbed in the Love of God and at the same time fully aware of human weakness and God's judgement.  Saints such as St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. Silouan of Athos and even Fr. George Calciu of Romania reveal this maturity.  I believe it was Fr. George (or it may have been St. Silouan) who said that if he goes to hell he will be happy because that is were the Love of God put him.  Of course, Fr. George had already been to hell in the communist prisons--and there he found the Love of God.

However for beginners, it is a struggle to hold together the Love of God and the feeling of abandonment, or of outsiderness, or that God is far away.  I know theologically, dogmatically, that God loves me and will never abandon me.  I know dogmatically that I eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ and thus I am incorporated into Christ's Body (and "No man ever hated his own body, but nourishes and cherishes it").  Nevertheless, if I approach God with a sense of certainty, with a sense that I am already righteous, already saved (or as saved as I need to be), if I approach God in prayer this way (if I bother to pray at all), I find myself mouthing the words of the Pharisee: "I thank you God that I am not like other men..."

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom suggests that there are levels of being in and out of the Kingdom, so every spiritual breakthrough leads to a new door.  I don't find that metaphor very helpful, that's why I didn't include it in the last post.  Perhaps I should have because it is probably helpful to many--which is why Metropolitan Anthony included it in his book.  Nevertheless, that metaphor doesn't work for me because I am lazy.  "If I'm already in a relatively safe place," I figure, "why get out of bed to pray?"  At some level, something akin to fear has to be at work to motivate me to pray earnestly, to pray fervently, to pray when I don't feel like it.  And for me, the metaphor of being outside, of turning my back on God, of grieving the Holy Spirit, these work.  It gets me out of bed in the morning to pray.

I do sometimes feel the Love of God.  Occasionally I have a sense of longing for God, a desire to pray.  But that's not very often.  I'm just a beginner, I'm still very sick with the disease of sin.  And so it seems I play a game with myself.  In my mind I know that God loves me and has included me in His beloved, but emotionally I am listless, apathetic, self indulgent.  But when I think that I could turn my back on God--and God will let me do it!  When I think that the Grace of God (as I perceive it) could be withdrawn from me, from the Holy Nativity Church community , from those I love and pray for, when I think this, something like fear rises in me, a fear that motivates me to pray, a fear that motivates me to get out of bed, a fear that motivates me to work to find my heart and to place my mind in my heart (to use the language of St. Theophan the Recluse) and to offer to God all that I find there.  In my heart is where I can hear the "gentle tapping" of Christ on the door.  

This is what I mean by approaching God in prayer as though I am standing outside the Kingdom.  Perhaps it is nothing but a mind game, a crutch for a beginner, a crutch that will be abandoned as I grow in my relationship with God.  Nevertheless, it is a crutch that I have found useful.  You may need a different crutch (if you need one at all) depending on the weaknesses you struggle with as you seek to pray. I just thought, perhaps, in sharing my strategy to motivate me in prayer, I might help someone else who is working out their own.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Kh. Krista West  "The Opinionated Tailor"

This morning I had to drive around quite a bit, and as I was driving I was listening to podcasts by a friend of mine, "The Opinionated Tailor," Kh. Krista West.  Krista is a professional vestment maker, a calling she takes very seriously, so seriously in fact that she has taken upon herself to research and write the only book in English completely dedicated to the history and meaning of Orthodox Church vestments.  On her pod cast at Ancient Faith Radio, she is currently reading through chapters of her manuscript (which I expect will be published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press when she is completed).  And while listening to the historical development of Orthodox Church vestments may not be for everyone (although I find it very interesting), in between talks on vestments, Kh. Krista gives talks on other topics, talks on motherhood, Church life, and practical aspects of the interaction of these two realities.

I found two talks I listened to this morning particularly insightful and helpful.  The first is on how to prepare for Lent as a family--a family with children.  Krista gives the practical advice to plan together as a family before lent begins what and how as a family you will engage Lent.  Not everyone can or should keep Lent as strictly as possible.  Discussing Lent before Lent begins helps both at the basic level of planning (what will and won't be eaten by whom, and what services will or won't be attended by whom) and it also helps at the level of spiritual struggle.  The goal of fasting is to think less about food, not more; to be more at peace, not less; to pray more, not to be crushed by guilt.  

The second talk that inspired me this morning was about the importance of adorning the Church.  As Krista points out, this is something that makes no sense in western culture.  We ask ourselves, "Couldn't the money be better spent on helping the poor rather than just making the Church more beautiful?"  Krista challenges this thinking.  Krista provides an insightful theological foundation for the adornment of the Church--and she does it from the perspective of a busy mom, a busy mom who muses while refinishing the cabinets in her bathroom.  I was deeply challenged to reconsider some of my own priorities and attitudes by this talk.

I highly recommend Kh. Krista's talks on Ancient Faith Radio ("The Opinionated Tailor").  And I especially think every mother and father, or potential mother and father, should listen to the two talks I have highlighted here. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Standing Outside the Kingdom

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in his wonderful introduction to prayer, Beginning to Pray, insists that in order to begin to pray we must adopt the attitude of outsiders, of outcasts, of ones unworthy to enter among the righteous.  He goes so far as to say that we should consider ourselves outside the Kingdom of God, knocking at the door, who is Jesus Christ.  And it is this same Jesus Christ who is standing outside the door of our hearts knocking.  In fact, the door of our hearts and the door of the Kingdom are one and the same.  It's kind of like the door between two adjoining hotel rooms that has to be opened by each side at the same time.

On an intellectual level, however, I struggle with this advice.  I am a baptized, communing member of the Church.  How can I see myself as one outside the Kingdom God?

Yet on an existential level, on the level of my actual experience in prayer, I know His Eminence's advice to be bang on.  It seems that when I have had my nose rubbed in my weakness, sin and failure, when I am intensely aware of my unworthiness, unfaithfulness and inconsistency, it is then that my prayer, "Lord, have mercy!" has the most meaning, the most bite.  Somehow I experience the comfort of the Comforter.  Somehow, knowing I have allowed myself to move away from God, God in His mercy comes near me.

It is as if hearing the light tap of the Master at the door in my heart, I open the door and find both humiliation and Grace, both tears and joy, both fear and comfort.  

And then I look away.  My mind races after a thousand thoughts, thoughts from my past, thoughts about what if, thoughts about others, thoughts about my feelings, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts.  And the door gently closes, as if in turning to my busyness, I forget about my Lord.  But the Faithful One continues to knock.

I usually don't notice that the door is closed right away.  I move on to my prayers.  I have my routine.  The words move from my mouth to the floor.  "What's wrong?" I ask myself.  "God, where have You gone?"  

Tap, tap, tap... 

Sometimes it takes a while.  Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring me to my senses.  Sometimes I just get lonely.  "Oh, my goodness!  I've turned away.  I don't even know the way back, back to my heart, back to the Door."  At times like this, regardless of my dogmatic understanding of theology, I know at some level I have left the Kingdom of Heaven.  I must beg for mercy.  I must hear again the gentle tapping of my Saviour to find my way back.  Only this will save me.

Tap, tap, tap...

Lord have mercy.  Lord have mercy.  Lord have mercy.

Tap, tap, tap...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Following a Star

"It is just as shameful for lovers of the flesh and the belly to search out spiritual things as it is for a harlot to discourse on chastity."

"If you have something above your daily needs, give it to the poor, and then go with boldness to offer prayers."
St. Isaac the Syrian

When I read St. Isaac the Syrian, I am at the same time inspired by how clearly he seems to be reading my thoughts and advising me, and I am also blown away by how extreme his advice is.

It helps to keep in mind that St. Isaac is writing for hermits, not married folk in the world; nevertheless, St. Isaac speaks to me.

It is somewhat like being guided by a star.  The star itself is virtually unattainable given my calling and circumstances in life, yet the star can guide me even from afar.  It can help me know which is the right direction as I take my baby steps in the spiritual path.

I think it would be a mistake to dismiss St. Isaac's teaching as unattainable and therefore irrelevant.  In fact, I think the opposite is true.  St. Isaac is one of the most relevant Fathers for the serious Christian to read today.  But he must be read carefully, ideally with the guidance of a spiritual father or mother.  St. Isaac is a star in the heavens, and his writings light up the sky; but they are very lofty, and if read without care could lead either to delusion or despondency.

However, if read as a bright and distant star, a star giving its full light to the few planets (hermits) in near orbit, but giving a clear pinpoint of guiding help to those very far away, if St. Isaac is read in this way, then he can be a great help, encouraging and guiding those spiritual harlots like me who still long to search out spiritual things and long to offer prayers with boldness.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Resting In The Storm

"But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow" ( Mark 4:38).

Jesus is at peace in the midst of a storm.  How do we find peace in the midst of the storm?  

I think first, and most importantly, we have to be with Jesus "in the stern."  That is, we have to find the hidden, secret place within ourselves were Christ abides, and there the attention of our heart must be fixed.  When the attention of our heart is drawn out from within us, we are tossed and turned by the instability of all that is manifest in our feelings and in the circumstances around us.  Even if nothing is particularly threatening to us, if our heart's focus is outside us, we will be tormented, tossed and turned, and eventually consumed by worry, fear, anger or any number of passionate feelings that we have taken upon ourselves from what we imagine to be threatening in the lives of others.

One of the things that makes this outward attention of the heart so difficult for us to rein in is that we have been taught by the example of those around us that this worry for others is really love.  That is, we think that to love someone is to be turned over inside, to be frustrated, confused, and to be full of anxiety over the real and/or imagined troubles in the loved one's life.  But that is not love.

We want to love, but we don't know how.  

Certainly loving involves suffering--most of it hidden.  However, there is a self-indulgent suffering, almost like self-flagellation, that has the self at the centre.  The self is perhaps wounded by guilt (if only I had or hadn't done this or that) or the self is wounded with self importance (if only my loved one would listen to me) or some other spiritual wound afflicts the self and allows it to think more highly of its influence in someone's life than it ought to think, to forget that God is God, to assume that my carrying of this person (emotionally, financially, technically, as an advisor, etc.) is what could or could not have saved, or will or will not save this person.  Sometimes worry soothes this wounded self, and we mistakenly call this love.

Yet Jesus loved the disciples even while he slept in the back of the boat.  

Love will certainly require that we give everything, but it is a giving that does not destroy our peace.  This is because the One who loves my loved ones much more than I ever can, abides in me in a peaceful place, hidden, in the stern.  And this Peaceful One is able not only to save me, but also to save those whom I love, or should love, or could have loved better.  Christ saves, and once I accept this, I can actually cooperate with Christ in His saving work.  And the beginning of this cooperation is to attend to Christ in my heart, where there is peace, and to offer my loved ones to God, to let them go into God's gracious care.  And in offering my loved ones to God I also offer my own failures, fears, and hopes: "Let us commend ourselves, and each other, and our whole life to Christ our God."

There is a peaceful place within each of us.  This is where Christ abides.  When the attention of our heart is there, instead of on the storm, then the attention of our heart is on the One who can actually calm the storm.  And that is love.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

"Giving To The Poor...Washes Away Every Sin"

A question and my response: 
Hi father. I was wondering if you could shed a bit of light on a particular passage/concept for a protestant friend. This is from the Book of Tobit.

"Prayer with fasting[a] is good, and so is giving to the poor with righteousness. The possession of a little with righteousness is better than much with injustice.[b] Giving to the poor is better than storing up gold. Giving to the poor saves from death, and it washes away every sin. Those who give to the poor will feel satisfied with life, 10 but those who commit sin and injustice are their own worst enemies."

He took exception to the bolded part. It seems to me that he sees salvation and performing good deeds as exclusive things not really related to each other. Could you elaborate on this for me?

The problem probably lies in your friend's forensic understanding of salvation: salvation as a legal act before God.  If salvation is merely a legal change of position or change of standing before God, then you can speculate about what the conditions are to obtain that salvation.  Protestants and Catholics have argued (based on the same forensic paradigm) about this since the 16th century.  Catholics have argued that the change in standing takes place because of both faith and good works.  The Protestants have argued faith alone (although there are as many Protestant opinions as there are denominations).  

Orthodox Christians understand salvation as something one actually experiences in this life and in the next.  It is not a change in God or God's attitude towards us.  It is a change in us.  Salvation has many aspects, not merely spiritual aspects.  Salvation includes the whole process of experiencing the Grace of God at all stages of our life and in all areas of our life.  It includes repentance and it includes transformation by the Grace of God.  It includes growing in the knowledge of God.  Of course all of these involve faith, but they all also involve aspects of work on our part.  There is a synergy (which is the technical, theological term for this).  We depend completely on God, but we too must believe and act because we are the ones changing. 

Sometimes acting is the way belief is manifest—as in this passage from Tobit.  When we feed the poor, for example, we are, through our actions, believing that we are feeding Christ.  This is the core of one of St. James' arguments in the book of James.  He says, "show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works."  But again, it is not about something in heaven.  It is not about a change in position before God.  It is about becoming by Grace more like Christ.  It is about my ongoing repentance and transformation.  That is what Orthodox Christians mean when they say "salvation," which is why it cannot be easily parsed into either faith or works, or some specific formula.  Salvation encompasses our whole life, thus being saved entails many different kinds of inner and outer actions—all of which can be said to save us.

Not only do our faith and actions, by God's Grace, save us, but also the prayers, good will and actions of others save us.  This is why we pray for one another.  Of course, all and any salvation is a matter of the Grace of God; however, God has ordained that His Grace be distributed through His Body, the Church.  Therefore, if you pray that I be delivered from a terrible situation, and I am indeed delivered, I can say that I was saved by your prayers.  Yes, I know that God is the One (the only One) who saves, but I also know that God has chosen to distribute the gifts of the Holy Spirit in His body severally, so that one part supplies what another lacks.  Thus we become, in St. Paul's words, co-labourers with Christ.  

Some people have a superabundant amount of God's Grace in their life, and when they pray for and help others, the results are amazing, wondrous, miraculous.  When this grace-filled power is yoked to holiness in a man or woman's life, we often recognize the person as a saint (miraculous powers alone are not sufficient, in fact, they can be very misleading).  We believe that the gifts and callings of God are without repentance, that the Grace of God stays with the person forever.   Therefore when a saintly person falls asleep in the Lord, we believe that the Grace that worked in that person's life continues to work in and through them by their intercessory prayers in heaven.  This is why we pray to the saints: we pray to them asking them to pray for and with us (not instead of us).  This is no different from asking my best friend to pray for me when I have a difficult job to do.  Of course I am also praying to God, but I also recognize that God uses or accepts the prayers of others on my behalf too. 

All that to say that, that is why we can say, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us."   

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Thinner Than Silk

St. Nicholai Velimirovich in his missionary letters (#235), quotes a three point sermon from a monk whom he respects.  The following is the entire sermon:

"I tell you three things: 
First, our salvation is thinner than silk.
Second, where your mind is, there is your home.
Third, we came into this world like to a marketplace, to buy something good and take [it] home again.

The third point reminds me of the parable of the talents.  We are all given breath, a life with which to "trade" in the marketplace of life.  Our goal is to "spend" our life on what is good, good in God's eyes, because heaven is the home to which we will bring this good.

"Where your mind is, there is your home."  This reminds me of "out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks" or "Set your minds on things above."  It is a reminder that heaven is not a place we go after we die.  Heaven is the reality we live in right now--if our mind will dwell there.  "If you abide in me and my words abide in you," Jesus said.  Where our mind dwells, or on what our mind dwells, where it abides, really has eternal implications.  Both heaven and hell are right now.  Where our mind is determines where our home is.

However the first saying, "Our salvation is thinner than silk," doesn't remind me of anything immediately.  It frightens me.  But it is not the overwhelming fear of total loss.  It is the fear that comes from not being in control.  It is the fear of "With the fear of God and faith and love."

I like to think of my life and relationships as pretty much fixed.  That's comfortable to me.  I like to think that my family, my church, my employer, my own self and even my relationship with God can pretty much weather whatever version of "me" I bring to the table.  Sure, I could do something really, really stupid and blow up my family or church relationships, lose my job or even alienate myself from myself and perhaps even alienate myself from God.  But generally speaking, I normally take most of my relationships for granted.  They are solid, so if I'm not particularly careful, they can weather my storm.

Accepting this idea that salvation is thinner than silk introduces a sort of humility into everything.  Life is delicate.  I really do have to nurture relationships, healthy relationships with those I love, those I work with, with God and with myself.  I really can hurt myself, hurt others, hurt my relationship with God through carelessness.  Thinking this way produces a kind of humility, a kind of fear, a sense of dependence on God and God's help.  

I notice something inside me rushing to provide assurance.  I want to provide or manipulate a metaphor that will make me feel safe.  I don't want to depend so utterly on the mercy of God.  It's scary.  I don't want to consider the possibility that I could break the thread.  Fear and faith must walk together.  Fear and faith and love.  Love, that's were I find peace.  Fear drives me to God.  Faith helps me to find God in my heart, to attend there, to abide.  And then love comes.  Love casts out fear.  Love absorbs and dissolves fear.

St. Anthony the Great said, "I used to fear God, now I love Him."  We want the love, but we do not want to pass through the fear.  Like the fifteen year old who is certain he is in love--and perhaps he is in some sort of love.  We too perhaps are certain of our love for God--until doubts and disappointments, trials and disciplines and depravations come.  Then our love is tested.  Then perhaps we experience fear again, a fear that leads us to a love deeper than we ever knew before.  

The wisdom of some of the Church Fathers seems to be to embrace the fear to dive deeper into the love.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Messiah of Peace Through War

I watched the movie Dune yesterday. I had seen it many years ago and read the novel, but I had forgotten the plot. It is the story of a messiah, a man born with the right combination of spiritual and physical characteristics, the right training, and the willingness to begin a new universal order. He trains an army of simple desert dwellers to use magical weaponry to defeat the army of a superior and sadistic overlord to gain control over their planet's resources and thus rule the universe--because theirs is the only planet in the universe that produces spice, a substance that makes space travel possible.

As I watched the movie, I was noticing elements of Islam and Christianity mixed with techno magic, science mixed with religion in a Nietzschian universe in which power to force your will on others is the only good. The good-guy/messiah brings peace to the universe by killing his enemies and monopolizing the most valuable commodity in the universe. Peace through war and capitalism.

In many ways, this "peace through war" theme reminded me a great deal of how many Christians conceive of the Second Coming of Christ.  Meek and mild came Christ the first time, lowly and riding on a donkey. But His Second Coming will be in Glory--which to many means with military might, angel warriors who will kill all who oppose Him.  

Certainly the Revelation of St. John is bloody, full of destruction and plagues and wars of all types. However, while most readers of Revelation have no problem recognizing the symbolic nature of much of the book (locust with lion's heads, etc.), they cannot conceive of the battle and war imagery in any way other than literal killing in war: "Blood flowing to the height of a horse's bridle.  Wow, that's a lot of blood. I wonder how many people you have to kill to get that much blood?"

And while human beings will probably continue to find new and more efficient techniques and boastfully irenic justifications to kill one another, I am certain that the Christ who will return will be no other than the Christ who Ascended. And the Glory in which he will return will not be the human glory of military conquest. It will be the glory of the knowledge of His divinity, of His humility, of His love--a knowledge that cannot be escaped. The torment of the Age to Come has no more to do with literal lakes of fire than it has to do with a literal Lamb on a throne or literal riders on different coloured horses. It is symbolic language, a symbolic language that the Gospels teach us to interpret. When we interpret the Bible from the paradigm of our experience full of anger, lust and justification for wickedness, or when we interpret the Old Testament and Revelation as though the Gospels and Epistles stood in parentheses, then we will only see in the Bible what our culture of death and consumption and self-justification has taught us to see.

However, if we make the Gospels and Epistles the interpretive lens through which the rest of the Bible is read (with the guidance of the Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church), then we can begin to see what is very difficult to see. We can begin to see that the Christ who is to come is the same Christ who ascended, and that death is overcome by death--not by killing.  

Revelation 12: 11 "And they overcame him [the accuser of the brethren, the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and they loved not their lives unto death."

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The "Me First" Message of St. Isaac

One of the sayings of St. Isaac the Syrian that is often shared is not actually a quotation.  It is a paraphrase taking part of one sentence and attaching an end that's three sentences away. The paraphrase usually goes something like this:  It is better to make peace with your own soul than to raise the dead. Although this is a hack job as a quotation, it is nonetheless not an unfair paraphrase of this section of St. Isaac's fourth homily.  

St. Isaac is writing for solitary monastics: hermits. Consequently, much of what he says strikes our ears as extreme.  He says, "Love [the] idleness of [the] stillness [of prayer] above providing for the world's starving." A case can be made from the context that St. Isaac is not referring to those physically starving so much as those who are starving for teaching. Nevertheless, the force of St. Isaac's argument strikes our ears as, well, selfish. He exhorts us to love our own salvation before the salvation of others: "It is better for you to free yourself from the shackles of sin than to free slaves [of sin?] from slavery [to the passions?]." Can St. Isaac really be as selfish as he appears to be to our modern ears? Why would he proclaim what seems to us to be such a "me first" message?

One reason may be that different gifts in the Body of Christ require different disciplines. That is, those who are called to devote their life to prayer for the world cannot fulfill their calling if much of their time is spent caring for the sick or teaching catechumens or washing dishes in a soup kitchen. These are all duties and tasks in the Body of Christ, but not every member can do every thing. And certainly when we try to do too much, we do nothing well. My wife, for example, is an iconographer. When she is working on a big project, more of the responsibility for household chores falls on me (which generally means that the quality in all areas of domestic care takes a nose dive). If she is going to fulfill her calling as an iconographer, she cannot at the same time be busy cooking and cleaning. Perhaps what St. Isaac is saying is that for the hermits to fulfill their calling, they must not be distracted by other pressing needs that other believers should be (but perhaps are not) attending to. Certainly one of the lessons I need to learn (again and again throughout my life) is that I cannot do everything. With God's help, I may be able to do well what God has put before me to do. But if I stretch myself too thin, I will not even do what little God has put before me well.

However, there is a deeper and I think more important reason why St. Isaac promotes what seems to be a kind of selfish or "me first" attitude in spiritual discipline. He says, "Many have accomplished mighty acts, raised the dead, toiled for the conversion of the erring, and have wrought great wonders; and by their hands led many to the knowledge of God. Yet after these things, these same men who quickened others, fell into vile and abominable passions and slew themselves, becoming a stumbling block for many when their acts were made manifest."

There is a humility that underlies all of St. Isaac's teaching, a humility that encourages his readers to be aware of their own weakness. St. Isaac warns his readers that even the very gifted--perhaps especially the very gifted--are prone to "the infirmity of their senses (or feelings)" which makes them unable to withstand the "vehemence of the passions." And when such gifted ones fall they not only "slay themselves," but they also "become a stumbling block for many." This reminds me of St. Paul's awareness of his own weakness when he says, "But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:27).

And so St. Isaac recommends that if we do say something that seems profitable to others, we should speak as one still learning, not as an expert. And speak reluctantly from our own inner experience, awkwardly; rather "than to gush forth rivers of instruction from the keenness of your intellect and from a deposit of hearsay and writings of ink."  

St. Isaac's intense focus on personal spiritual discipline before the care of others isn't really selfish at all. It is humble. It is about seeing oneself as small and weak. It's about knowing one's sickness and, ultimately, it is about trusting God. God saves. He may or may not let me help in some small way; but at the end of the day, God saves.  And the biggest thing I can do to bring salvation to those around me is to let God save me first, to let God transform me, to let God teach me repentance, and to acquire peace. Then, as St. Seraphim of Sarov has famously said, thousands around me will be saved.