Monday, December 23, 2013

Today Remembering Today

Today the Virgin comes to the cave where she will give birth in an ineffable manner to the Word Who is before all the ages. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when you hear it heralded: Glorify Him, with the angels and the shepherds, Who chose to be seen as a new-born babe, the God Who is before all the ages.
Kontakion of preparation of Christ's Nativity

Come, you nations that have put on Christ, let us behold a wonder that overtakes all minds with astonishment; and as we kneel down in true worship, let us give praise in faith; for the Maiden, having conceived, comes today to Bethlehem, to give birth to the Lord. The ranks of angels hasten, and Joseph, seeing these things, shouts, crying, What is this strange mystery that has befallen You, O Virgin? And how shall you give birth, O ewe lamb that has not known wedlock?
Idiomela for the sixth hour of Christ's Nativity

In many of the hymns of the Church around great feasts (like Nativity), the hymns say "today."  Someone asked me to help him wrap his mind around what "today" means in the Church's hymns.  This is what I wrote him.  Maybe some of you will find this helpful.

When the Church hymns say “today,” there are two meanings, and these two meanings are connected.  On the easiest level “today” means “on this day in history” and we are remembering this day.  But remembering is more than just calling to mind that something happened in the past.  For example, when someone dies, we pray “memory eternal.” There is something about remembering something or someone that keeps it or them alive.  There is something spiritually real about remembering that makes us present with the person or event we are remembering.  On an emotional level, we can feel emotions in the present when we remember past events or people.  

This leads to the second meaning of “today,” which is that in God all events and people of earth are present.  God is not limited by time, and as we grow in theosis and partake more and more in the divine nature—especially in the Age to Come, but to a smaller degree in this age too (especially saints)—we can and will know and experience reality in the same way: outside time.  So in that sense, all of history, and especially all of the events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, are always now.  We can, in a spiritual sense, be with Christ in Bethlehem and be with Christ on the Cross and be with Christ at the Last Supper.  We sing these verses by faith, even though most of us don’t really experience much of this in a conscious spiritual way.  Nonetheless, we believe it is true, and many Orthodox faithful experience a brief glimps of this reality at various times in their life.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Swimming Above The Hands Of Our Teacher

Recently I have encountered several people who are in distress because they don’t feel that they are doing some aspect of their spiritual life correctly. They experience stress, depression, fear, even trembling and extreme anxiety because, for example, they fear they aren’t fasting correctly, or are not believing completely in the resurrection (or incarnation or the authority of the Church), or are not confessing well, or are not attentive enough in divine services, or are inconsistent in their daily prayers, or often have to expel wicked thoughts from their minds—the list could go on and on. These are all common temptations or struggles of those who sincerely give their life to God.

Yes, some struggle with one thing, while others struggle with something else. Like in the Special Olympics, each athlete has his or her own specific handicaps. Thank God that He does not allow us to be overwhelmed with everything at once. That we weak human beings should struggle in some areas of the spiritual life should be no surprise for us. We are beginners. We are beginners with serious handicaps—it’s like we are newly enrolled in the Special Olympics of the the heavenly life.  A young woman with Down Syndrome will need lots of extra help and patience with herself to learn how to throw a discus well.  Similarly, we need not be surprised when, again and again, we have to go through the same motions in our spiritual life, seeming to make the same mistake over and over again. We are learning. God is helping us. Yes, we are spiritually handicapped in some pretty serious ways, but our coach is God—and God is the best, most patient coach.

St. Isaac the Syrian says the same thing, only he says it much more beautifully than I can. He says, “If… [the devil] is permitted to attack [someone], it is for instruction; but the holy power [of God] continues to accompany and support him…”  St. Isaac describes this support in two beautiful metaphors:

The divine power teaches him just as a man teaches a small boy to swim. When the boy begins to sink, the man raises him up, because the boy swims above the hands of his teacher. And when he begins to grow fearful that he will drown, the teacher who holds him in his arms cries out to him encouragingly, ‘do not fear, I am holding you!’ And just as a mother who, in teaching her little son to walk, steps back from him and calls him, and as he comes toward her on his little feet he begins to tremble and is about to fall by reason of their softness and delicacy, and she runs and catches him in her embrace, so the grace of God also embraces and teaches [those] who purely and with simplicity have surrendered themselves into the hands of their Creator, and have renounced the world with their whole heart and follow after Him.

We are the babies with soft and delicate feet. We are the ones learning to swim above the hands of our Teacher.

You know, I think that the devil’s attack is not so much in the fact that we struggle to pay attention in divine services or struggle with doubts or seem unable to fast very well.  I think these are merely the stumblings of a beginner, the stumblings of a handicapped beginner in the spiritual life.  Where I think the devil’s main attack lies is in our anxiety and frustration over our apparent lack of progress in the spiritual life. This is the main dart of the evil one, the poisonous dart that can do real damage. When we allow ourselves to become frustrated with our slow progress (or apparent lack of progress), we are subtly giving place to pride. We are thinking that we should be better than we are, that we should be able to just make ourselves do it (whatever the ‘it’ may be).

It reminds me of a young man I knew with autism.  Whenever he became frustrated that he couldn’t communicate what he wanted, he began hitting himself in the head. In my struggle with spiritual things, I have sometimes treated myself the same way. When I became frustrated that I just couldn’t pray (or love or be kind or patient) like I wanted to, in my frustration I would push myself in ways that were not healthy and in the end in ways that sometimes turned out to be destructive. Somehow I didn’t want to simply trust that I was swimming above my Teacher’s hands. Somehow I just didn’t want to accept that my feet were soft and delicate and my heavenly Mamma was running to catch me ‘in Her embrace’.

So what if I have spiritual autism? So what if I have a serious spiritual handicap? Does God love me any less? Of course not. In fact, we might even say that he loves the handicapped more, because they need more love.  (Although theologically speaking, God’s love is the same for everyone, it never changes because God never changes.) The problem lies not with God or His love, but with me and my willingness to rest in His love. Martin Luther said that faith was like learning to swim in the middle of the deepest ocean. I think he was right. Only we are not learning to swim alone. We are above the hands of our Teacher, and if we will just relax a little and trust His love, we will learn to float above His hands. And once we learn to float, we can begin to swim—but always above His hands.

Maybe that is our problem. Maybe we want to be swimming when we still haven’t leaned to float very well. Maybe like the girl with down syndrome, we have to keep going back to the fundamentals: hold the discus this way, put your feet here, twist with your hips this way. Or like the boy learning to swim we have to keep reminding ourselves to float, to trust, to relax and know that God’s hands are holding us up. Or like the baby with ‘soft and delicate feet’ we take our feeble steps knowing that God, like a heavenly Mother, is running to us to catch us even as we fall again, running to catch us and to hold us in His loving embrace.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Defending Ourselves

In Luke’s Gospel, just before Jesus is betrayed, he has this conversation with His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane:

And He said to them, “When I sent you without money bag, knapsack, and sandals, did you lack anything?” So they said, “Nothing.”Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For the things concerning Me have an end.” So they said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said, “It is enough.”

In this passage, Jesus seems to be telling his disciples that they should acquire weapons. Throughout history, much has been made of this verse in support of Christians taking up arms. It was, for example, a favourite verse of the Teutonic Knights of the Middle Ages. In fact, for most of Christendom (that is, whenever states saw themselves as Christian states), this verse was used to justify the use of arms.

However, those who support a more pacifist view of the Christian calling make much of Jesus’ words, “It is enough.” That is, this view sees Jesus speaking metaphorically, which is how, for example, St. Ambrose reads the passage.  He says that selling one’s garment to buy a sword is a reference to giving up one’s body (“garment”) to death by the sword (“to buy a sword”). The fact that the disciples (as they often did) interpret Jesus’ words literally, leads Jesus to break off the discussion with the words “It is enough,” referring not to the two swords, but to the discussion. 

I tend to favour this more spiritual reading of the passage because of what follows. Immediately after this conversation, Jesus prays while the disciples sleep, then Judas arrives, betrays Jesus with a kiss, and Peter takes a sword and cuts off the ear of Malcus, a servant of the high priest. Jesus’ response to this action is direct and unequivocal, but the Gospel writers record slightly different versions of this response:

Matthew records: “But Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?  How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?’”

Mark does not record the rebuke.

Luke records:  [Jesus said] “‘But permit even this.’ And He touched his ear and healed him.”

John records: “So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given me.?’”

Jesus may have told his disciples to acquire swords, but he rebukes the disciple who uses a sword.  

I think there is significance in the fact that Peter cuts off the ear of Malcus—and that Jesus heals it. When we use force to oppose those who oppose us, when we fight fire with fire, we end up destroying the ability of our enemy to hear. We cut off the ear of the very ones Jesus came to save.  

Unlike Jesus, we do not want to drink the cup the Father has given us, we are not willing to permit, “even this.” We do not believe that the Father hears our prayers and sends angels to assist us.

Many who have rejected Christianity have a very high regard for Christ. They just have never met any Christians who look anything like Him. We Christians and our various swords are cutting off the ears of those who long to hear the Gospel. They long to hear, not the Gospel as a proposition, but they long to hear the Gospel as a life lived; they long to hear the Gospel from men and women who actually live it, who prove that it can be lived, that what Jesus said is indeed true.

Thank God that Jesus heals. Jesus heals those whom we have wounded in our fear. But Jesus also rebukes us. Will we drink the cup the Father has given us? Or will we fight fire with fire? Will we “Permit even this”? Or will we strike out and wound and kill others to preserve what we think is our own?

Truthfully, I am much more like Peter than I am like Jesus.  I can be impetuous. I get angry quickly and violence is drawn easily from me. I don’t take easily the trampling of my rights, the denial of my dignity, or the loss of my possessions. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t own a gun. I might use it. I am like an alcoholic who doesn’t keep booze around. She may have been sober for thirty years, but still she knows that given the right trigger, she might grab a bottle if one were nearby. When we pray, “and lead us not into temptation,” it is good to learn to do our part and not to go anywhere near the temptation we are praying to be delivered from.  

Taken literally, Jesus may have said that the disciples should own weapons, but he rebukes them when they use them. Within the Orthodox tradition, we have many warrior saints. Some are considered saintly because of their military prowess in defence of an Orthodox people, some are considered saints because of their dependence on God in their military victories, and others, the majority I think, are considered saints because as soldiers they laid down their arms and refused to fight.

There is no “one size fits all” teaching in the Orthodox Christian tradition regarding the use of arms. However, I think a case can be made that any Christian use of violence is evidence of a failure at some level. I may not own a gun, but all I have to do is dial 911 and several people with guns will arrive in my defence. Is this, perhaps, necessary in a fallen world? I don’t know. One thing is certain, it wasn’t necessary for Jesus. That His followers find it necessary is probably not evidence of our great holiness; it’s probably evidence of our spiritual poverty.

And so we are poor, poor in spirit. If we can just acknowledge this, we may make a beginning. Maybe in our extreme spiritual poverty we need, or think we need, weapons. And if this is the case, then let us at least acknowledge it. Let us say, “I rely on violence (my own violence and the violence used by others on my behalf) because I am far from what God has called me to be. I am poor in spirit. I am far from my heavenly calling. Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!

If we acknowledge our spiritual poverty, perhaps we will be motivated to pray for our enemies, for those whose ears we damage by our violence. Jesus is merciful. If we confess our sins and pray for those who reject the Faith because they don’t see any Christ-like Christians, God may hear our prayer. It is our fault, after all. It is our fault that they don’t hear, that they don’t see Christians that look like Jesus. And maybe, if we acknowledge our failure, we will find Grace to  become a little more like Jesus, to accept the cup that the Father gives us, to allow, as Jesus said, even this.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cowardliness In The Spiritual Life

St. Isaac the Syrian says that there are several ways the devil attacks a person.  The goal of these attacks is to make us pull back from our pursuit of godliness.  Transformation into the image of Christ is a synergistic experience.  We labour together with Christ.  On the other hand, it is also all Grace.  There is no love, joy, peace or patience (or any other of the fruit of the Spirit) without God first giving Himself to us, for Grace is nothing less than God coming to us.  

Nevertheless, there is an accepting, or a cooperation on our part.  Part of what it means to be a human being and not a mere animal is that we can choose to cooperate with God’s Grace to raise ourselves above our merely animal (and sometimes sub-animal) lusts, fears and impulses.  This raising ourselves, or better, our cooperation with God’s raising of us, requires effort on our part.  Our nature has been twisted, perverted, by the general fall of mankind and our personal participation in this fall.  Christ, the perfect human being, has come not only showing us what a healthy human being looks like, but also providing us the power of the Holy Spirit to repent: to begin to straighten out our twisted selves.  

St. Isaac advises us, whatever our portion in life should be, that if we want to cooperate with the Grace of God in our lives, we must voluntarily accept, without misgivings, temporary sufferings for the sake of the goodness God offers (Homily 39).  By temporary sufferings, St. Isaac means the sufferings of this life, as opposed to the potential sufferings of the age to come.  

There is a significant irony here.  Suffering in this life is unavoidable.  Everyone suffers—you can lie to yourself and sometimes numb or medicate yourself in various ways to gain some temporary relief from pain, but still everyone suffers.  Fear of this suffering is one of the devil’s most effective weapons to keep us from pursuing repentance and a faithful relationship with God.  Notice that it is not suffering that the devil uses—suffering is ubiquitous in this broken world.  It is the fear of suffering that is the devil’s weapon.  

St. Isaac lists four circumstances under which the devil can attack a person with temptation.  

  1. “It is permitted by the bidding of Heaven”
  2. “It [might] be that the man himself grows lax and surrenders himself to shameful thoughts and to distraction”
  3. [The person] “becomes proud and conceited”
  4. “Or [the person] accepts thoughts of doubt and cowardliness.”

I am intrigued by the word, “cowardliness.”  It’s not a word that pops up very often in discussions of the spiritual life.  It’s the cowardly, St. Isaac says, who are driven by the devil as by a hurricane. The cowardly are those who would rather deny God than deny themselves, who let the fear of suffering keep them from cooperating with the Grace of God.

Suffering is a spiritual mystery.  Athletes have known from ancient times that disciplined acceptance of deprivation, suffering and pain is the price one pays to stay in shape.  Once an athlete accepts that, he or she experiences, merely as a matter of routineoften happy routinea disciplined regimen of life along with the pain and exhaustion of extensive, often boring, repetitive exercise.  Were it not freely chosen, an athlete’s life would be considered worse than the life of a prisoner in a hard labour camp.  Suffering is not the issue—it’s the choosing that’s the issue.  This is one of the spiritual mysteries in suffering.

An athlete chooses temporal suffering for the sake a temporal reward.  Christ calls us to follow Him, to share in His suffering by “voluntarily accepting” (to use St. Isaac’s words) the various sufferings of this temporal life that we encounter in our pursuit of love of God and neighbor.  There is a verse in the Prophet Hosea (7:14 LXX) that says, “Their hearts did not cry out to Me, but they wailed upon their beds.  They slashed themselves for oil and wine.”  Self mutilation, “slashing themselves,” was a common form of sacrifice to the pagan gods.  This verse seems to apply today to all of the ways we are willing to suffer to get a temporal gain: a better job, a better car, a better physical body, a better education, a better social position.  As a culture we think nothing of “slashing” ourselves” in one way or another for temporal gain; but when it comes to spiritual gain, we are suddenly afraid.  We become cowardly.

Voluntary suffering is not the goal of the Christian life.  Christlikeness is the goal.  Earlier in Hosea’s prophecy we are told that sacrifice is not what God looks from in His people: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than whole burnt offerings” (6:6 LXX).  God wants us to love Him with our whole heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is how we cooperate with the Grace of God and experience the transforming power of God in our lives.  The devil uses fear of suffering and deprivation to keep us from giving our whole lives to God.  However, we can, if we are willing, become athletes of Christ.  We can voluntarily accept the asceticism (from the Greek word meaning ‘athletic training’) the Church teaches us to follow and we can voluntarily accept the various pains and disappointments life throws our way because, like athletes, we have a goal.  Our goal is Christlikeness.

Our reward is not in this life, it is in the Life to Come.  But even in this life, we begin to experience the Life that is to Come.  Even now we experience some of the joy, some of the peace, some of the consolation and comfort of Age to Come.  Our path through this world is a painful one—nothing can be done to change that. It is the path mankind has chosen.  But our God is generous, helping us along the way and granting us a foretaste of the eternal banquet to come.  Only let us be courageous.  Let us not fear what must be endured anyway.  Rather, let us look with hope and joyful anticipation to the prize: the healing of our broken lives by participation in the very Life of God.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Life of Pi

After a quiet week at the monastery, I came home to a busy few days of catching up and then Bonnie and I were off to visit our daughter and her family in Arkansas, USA.  We flew into Indianapolis, Indiana, rented a car and drove to Terra Haute, Indiana to visit Monk Anthony for half a day.  That was a joyful visit.  Brother Anthony looks so much healthier and happier in his new government home (Federal Correctional Institution).  Brother Anthony has worked his way up to head orderly (we jokingly say that he has been awarded the dignity of Arch-Orderly).  I don't think the FCI has ever been so well cared for.  The other inmates love having a cleaner, less stinky, place to live (one of the changes Br. Anthony made was to get lids for all of the trash cans).  He has even performed exorcisms on some of the haunted cells that no one had previously been able to stay in (his section of the prison had been "death row" for many years before it was converted into a maximum security area in a medium security prison).  And, if all goes well over the next couple of months, there is a good chance Br. Anthony will be reclassified and moved to a medium security prison.  Then when we visit we can actually hug--at this point all of our visits have been through glass on a monitored telephone.

After our visit with Br. Anthony, we jumped in the car and began our eight and a half hour drive to Rodgers, Arkansas.  A snow storm was blowing in, and we hoped that we could stay ahead of it.  No such luck.  We drove right into it.  The trip took eleven hours, but we made it with no incident--Thank God.  This morning is the first quiet time I have had to write since we arrived four days ago.  Bonnie, Rebekah and the kids went to the exercise club (where there is free baby sitting) for a couple of hours.  Because of the snow, the cabin fever has really built up.  Church was cancelled yesterday and schools are closed today--probably tomorrow too: more snow is predicted for tonight and tomorrow.  We've had lots of grandchildren time, which is always good, but can get exhausting without breaks.  We thank God for exercise clubs with babysitting.  

 Last night we watched the movie, Life of Pi.  I have read the book twice.  The movie sticks pretty closely to the book, and is amazingly beautiful.  When I read the book the first time, I was intrigued by the question: which is the true story?  The main story, the colourful story, is the one about Pi's survival on a life boat with a bengal tiger.  The 'other' story is the more reasonable story that he told the insurance agents who came to interview him.  The question nagged at me so much, I read it again.  The second time through, I began to realize that something deeper was there for me, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

After seeing the movie, however, a meaningful interpretation of the book began to become clear to me.  First, the question of true versus not true was resolved for me.  There is a kind of true that we might call the "objective observer" true.  That is, what would an objective observer see were she watching from a satellite.  This is one way to talk about what "really" happens.  However, the problem is that what one sees is limited by all sorts of personal prejudices and assumptions.  As has been shown in court, several people who see a traffic accident each tell a different version of the incident.  Not only is an observer limited by her own mental baggage, she has no way of knowing what is actually going on in the head of the people (and animals) she is observing.  The objective observer's perspective is valuable, but it is not objective and it is skewed by distance.  It is  merely a perspective.  

Fables and myths have received a bum rap over the past few hundred years.   But fables are a powerful way to tell the truth.  I can imagine some of you reading this might be saying to yourself, "Oh, so Fr. Michael thinks that the story given to the insurance agents is the true one and the story with the tiger is just a fable."  That is absolutely wrong.  It is not just anything.  The story with the tiger is a true telling of what happened, a telling that is probably more true than the other because the story with the tiger reveals something of Pi's inner experience, something that Pi wants to impress on his listeners.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the story with the tiger reveals something Yann Martel (the novel's author) wants to say about human experience.  At least that is what I think now after my third encounter with the story.

Pi is a good boy, a religious seeker who zealously pursues the religious options open to him.  Yet he has a dark side.  Pi's dark side isn't a hidden addiction or rage, but a hidden pride.  This pride is revealed in his willingness to ignore his father's instructions and trust his own instincts in his first encounter with the tiger, Richard Parker.  His father tells him that whatever Pi sees in the tiger's eyes, is merely a reflection of his own emotions.  Pi see's himself in the tiger and trusts in that more than in the instructions of his father and the warnings of his brother and the zookeeper.  

It seems to me that the shipwreck and the first few days in the life boat set up the contest between Pi and his own darkness: the religious, vegetarian young man and his inner, hidden, carnivorous tiger.  In the battle with our inner demons, addictions and darkness of all sorts, there comes a time when--if we are going to battle seriously at all--we must take all that we have learned from others and go to battle with the tiger within ourselves in our own lifeboat.   There is a certain unavoidable loneliness in much spiritual struggle.

Pi's first attempt to control the tiger is one of will and force.  By harnessing the waves to make the tiger sea sick, Pi attempts to force his darkness into submission.  This fire-fighting-fire attempt at control fails because no matter how much bravado Pi shows, the tiger has more.  This is most literally portrayed as a pissing match.  After making the tiger sick, singing a triumphant song and yelling at the tiger, Pi urinates on the canvas tarp covering part of the life boat as a way to demark his territory.    The tiger responds by spraying Pi with his urine.  In the struggle with inner darkness, force and bravado do not succeed.

Pi next attempts to train the tiger, and this method produces a little more success.  through bribery, Pi is able to train the tiger to stay under the tarp.  It is a system that works for a while, but does not solve the problem.  The darkness stays hidden, the darkness is somewhat controlled, but the darkness, like the tiger, can still attack without warning at any time.  

The tiger is not completely subdued until the final storm.  Like the biblical Job, Pi sees God in the storm.  The tiger, however, only suffers.  The tiger cannot see God in the storm.  Pi suffers too, but Pi sees (experiences, knows, and/or encounters) God.  That makes the difference for Pi.  He sees the tiger suffer and asks God why this is necessary.  Why must our dark passions, our tigers, suffer so painfully for us to gain mastery over them?  Why must there be storms and flames and weeping and gnashing of teeth?  Isn't there an easier way?  Apparently not.

Pi, it seems, now sees himself in the tiger.  The tiger's sufferings are his own, and as the tiger lay sick, dehydrated and starving, Pi places the tiger's head on his lap and attempts to comfort it.  Pi calls on God, offering (again) his life to God and saying that now he is at peace.  Then he encounters the miraculous island--a place of rest and peace.  But even this miraculous island of peace and strengthening is itself a carnivorous entity.  It seems, so long as we are in this world, there is no freedom from death.  It reminds me of one of God's questions for Job out of the storm: Who feeds the eagle's fledgelings?  

The island marks the end of fervent struggle between Pi and the tiger.  They are not separated until the end, by a kind of death at the end of the journey, but from this point on there is an understanding between Pi and the tiger.  It is as if the vegetarian Pi is now at peace with his inner, now submissive, carnivore.  Like St. Francis of Assis--who used to refer to his body as "brother ass"--Pi is now at peace with his own animal nature that no amount of religious effort can destroy.  Only by Grace, only God who sees our struggles can bring peace.  

There is no easy way.  The struggle itself is necessary, even though it is not the struggle that brings us peace.  One contemporary elder of Mt. Athos put it this way: by struggle we show God what we want.  And then God gives it to us.  Pi's struggle with his tiger brought him to the place were he could receive as a gift the peace and freedom from fear that only God gives.

Friday, November 29, 2013

6:00 am. Friday

It is my last morning at the monastery. We have just finished Matins. Now is the time when I usually nap for about an hour before we begin our communal time of Bible reading. Today I wanted to reflect a little on the last four days.  

I spent most of the first day sleeping. Father Abbot encourages that. It is senseless to force your body until it collapses. When we are well rested and at peace with ourselves we can find our disciplined rhythm. After the first day, I was able to participate in the full cycle of the prayers with the brothers. Of course, even with enough rest, it is still hard to get up in the morning to pray. It helps a great deal to pray together--even if your are praying together each in your own cell. It reminds me of my running days. In those days I could (and often did) push myself to run ten miles alone at a good clip, but it was always easier with a few friends. We drew some sort of energy from each other. One plus one is significantly more than two.  

Father Abbot found this to be true in his years praying alone as a solitary hermit. He says that he became aware of the angels and saints--the great cloud of witnesses--praying with him. He was not praying alone. It was not merely his own energy, although, as he says, he often had to force himself to get the ball rolling, to get prayer started. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the Church teaches us to pray before the icons. The icons help make present for us the Holy Ones, our Lord Christ, His Holy Mother, the Angels, the Saints, all who are praying with and for us. Truly it is not our own energy we feel when we pray--if we can just get out of bed and get the ball rolling.

Wednesday, one of the brothers quoted a saying of Mother Theresa (of Calcutta) to me. It went something like this: "Even a cup of water, in Christ's hands, becomes infinite." I had been thinking about God's graciousness to accept the inadequate offering of our inadequate lives. The brother with Mother Theresa's words showed me even deeper wonders of God's graciousness. Our inadequate offering becomes infinite in God's hands. The God who takes dust and makes a human being, then takes a human being and makes him a son of God. Both are miracles of equal profundity. "This is the Lord's doing," as the psalmist says, "And it is marvellous in our eyes."  

I spent a couple of hours yesterday looking through books about Mother Theresa trying to find the quotation. I spent most of the time crying. I could not see the pictures and read her words without feeling great pain and hope at the same time. Human dust at its lowest and highest. Christ in suffering human being and Christ in the compassionate human being. Christ in the suffering of the one who feels compassion and Christ in the compassion of the one who suffers.

Today I go back to my parish. I love Holy Nativity Church. I love the people. I love leading them in prayer and helping them draw closer to God. I love helping them see the Hand of the Husbandman in the painful pruning of their lives, helping them learn the lessons, helping them recognize the call and way of repentance. I never (well, almost never) feel like I want to escape to the monastery. But I do need to escape sometimes, not because I want to leave something, but because I need to find something. I need to find myself.  

Sometimes when I return from the monastery, people ask me if I feel recharged. I say yes, but really that is not what I feel. I feel more like I have found myself again.  I feel like I see a little bit more clearly what is real, what is true, what is worthwhile. I feel like my internal compass has been calibrated.    

Okay, I've got about a half hour left to nap. I think I'll take it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Take Heed 7

Matthew 6:1-3 “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward."

The last 'Take Heed' brings us to the first in the Gospels.  Jesus tells his disciples to take heed not to do their charitable deeds (literally, their righteousnesses) before people, to be seen by them.  And like all of the other 'take heeds,' Jesus is warning us not merely because it is possible that we might do such a thing, but because it is likely.  It is likely that we would be more concerned with what other people see us do than with what God, who sees everything, sees us do.  

The warning is linked to hypocrisy.  It's a word that has been coming up a lot lately in my blog, and I am afraid that some of you are getting sick of me talking about it.  It is said of St. John the Evangelist, that when he preached, he spoke of nothing but the love of God.  He is, after all, called the Beloved Disciple.  I on the other hand have boasted often of being the chief hypocrite.  So assuming the duties of my office, I will speak more of hypocrisy.

I am writing this blog post on the second morning of my stay at the monastery.  Yesterday, the brothers and I had a discussion about the nature of judgement.  Someone pointed out that the English word 'crisis' is derived from the Greek word for judgement: krisis.  A crisis is a judgement because suddenly something is removed from us, something we were expecting and/or depending on.  When this expected thing (health, support in its various forms, or merely an expected outcome) is taken away, something is revealed about ourselves, something about the truth of ourselves.  We see and are seen without the mask provided by what we had come to expect.  The crisis removes the props, the mask, on which we had built our self image.  The often elaborate self image we had constructed of ourselves comes tumbling down (like the house built on the sand) and all that is left is the real me, the truth in all of its naked messiness.  Crises are judgements because they reveal what's real.

Then one of the brothers pointed out that the word hypocrite is a Greek compound word made up of the prefix hypo, meaning 'sub,' 'under,' or 'below'; and the word kritis, from the word 'to judge.'  There is a connection in the very word between hypocrisy and judgement.  The hypocrite is somehow below judgement, or we might say sub-judging.  The hypocrite--which is the Ancient Greek word for actor--is one who avoids the truth, the real, by putting on a mask and playing a role.  It seems to me that one important aspect of Jesus' warning not to do righteous deeds to be seen by others is to help us avoid putting on masks and playing roles.  But this is not at all easy to do--like most of what Jesus asks us to do, it is actually impossible to do without mercy and Grace from above.         

Roles are a part of the reality of social life.  And yet there is a way to fulfil the responsibilities of a role without that role becoming a mask.  Without the role becoming a disguise hiding the real you, without the role hiding the truth about yourself (hiding the truth of yourself from others and even from yourself).  It is possible not to be defined by a role, but is not easy--thus the warning of Jesus.  

Masks and roles are tricky things.  For example, it is possible to wear the mask of not wearing a mask.  In this "I'm not playing a role," role, one is intentionally obnoxious, rude and offensive to social sensibilities.  It is a play act just as much as any other.  A self-conscious attempt to assert one's identity in appearing not to conform to a social  norm is just as hypocritical as attempting to assert one's identity in appearing to conform.  Our identity is not found in appearances.  Where, then, is our identity found?  Ah, this is yet another difficult matter:  Who I am is not easily apparent to me.  

Coming to know ourselves is a process, a process that is not at all straight forward, a process that is easily sidetracked.  The path to self knowledge intersects many tempting side trails, tempting because the main trail is arduous.  The truth about ourselves is not pretty.  Like Adam and Eve, we would rather hide behind the fig leaves of self-constructed identities and blame others when our imaginary world doesn't work out very well.  This to us is preferable to confessing our sin, confessing our weakness and fear and confusion.  One of the problems with doing righteous acts to be seen by people is that the praise of others reinforces our false image of ourselves.  When we act in secret, we know that the little we have done is merely a token of what could, should and ought to be done.  Even the sacrifice of our whole life, we know in our heart of hearts is given with some reservation, some fear, some imperfection.

However, unlike the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, God accepts the imperfect offering of our imperfect lives.  All He asks is that we not hide, that we see the mess of our lives for what it is: a mess.  And from this acknowledgement comes my favourite prayer, "Dear Lord, I am a mess, but I am Your mess."  These two things are necessary.  We must hold them in each hand.  In the one hand we hold the knowledge of our inadequacy, of our brokenness.  This hand we might call the hand of judgement or the hand of the fear of God.  In the other hand we hold the love and mercy of God, the mercy that triumphs over judgement.  In the first hand we hold an unflinching vision of the corrupted and corrupting life we have willing participated in; and in the other hand we hold the growing vision of a glorified humanity, of the heavenly garment of the New Man already alive in us, but to be fully revealed in the Age to come.   

Faith then is the act of holding both, holding both the fear and love of God in our hearts.  Faith is also expressed in doing righteousnesses in secret.  We do our righteousnesses in secret as much as we can because we want the God who sees in secret to reward us.  We should note that the word "openly" is not in the earliest Greek texts.  God's rewarding us, or better, rendering to us, is not necessarily open.  The text is not implying that if you do not blow your own trumpet in the streets, God will blow a trumpet for you.  Rather, as is the theme of so many of the sayings and parables in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus is saying that God will treat us as we treat others: God will forgive us as we forgive others; God will show us mercy as we show others mercy.  We do our works of righteousness secretly because the the reward we need from God is mercy, forgiveness, and transformation of heart, none of which is seen publicly--at least not initially.  We must take heed to do our righteousnesses secretly, because we know that our wound is in our secret place, in our hearts.  But if we are unwilling to acknowledge both the depth of our brokenness and the more profound depth of God's love, we will spend our life looking externally, performing external acts of righteousness in search of an external cure. 

Unfortunately, some of us have been exposed to false theologies that present human weakness as somehow greater than the love of God.  Until we shed these false theologies, we will only see God as rejecting us, rejecting us more and more, the more deeply we come to know our brokenness.  The god of such false theologies is not the God seen in Christ.  Christ welcomed the harlots and the sinners and ate with them.  As we become more deeply aware of our brokenness, we find that we are in very good company.  The Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a wedding banquet.  Those invited were too busy with their masks and roles to come.  The banquet will be full nonetheless.  The blind, the lame and the halt are brought in.  If we can just for a moment put down the mask of our respectability and self-righteousness, if we can let ourselves be painfully aware of our blindness, our inability, our failure, then we too will begin to know and even experience a fore-taste of that Banquet of the Kingdom to Come, the Kingdom of the God whose mercy triumphs over judgement.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Take Heed 6

Luke 11:33-36 “No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a secret place or under a basket, but on a lampstand, that those who come in may see the light. The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is good, your whole body also is full of light. But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness. Therefore take heed that the light which is in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, the whole body will be full of light, as when the bright shining of a lamp gives you light.” 

Jesus warns us to take heed that the light in us not be darkness.  St. Luke sets this saying in the context of a discussion of light and darkness and the role of the eyes in seeing.  It seems that how we see (as with how we hear) can determine what we perceive.  In the case of seeing, how we see determines whether or not we see the light.  Or to put it another way, seeing, or how we see, plays a role in whether what we see as light really is light.  That is, it is possible to think we are full of light, full of understanding, full of seeing what is real and true, but in reality, we are full of darkness.  

That Jesus warns us of this must mean that it is possible.  It is possible to call the darkness light and the light darkness.  Just as it is possible to despise one of the little ones or possible to be deceived by teaching about the end of the world or possible to be leavened with the yeast of the pharisees; so it is possible to call the darkness in oneself light.  In fact, I would posit that it is not until people accept that they do not know anything as they out to know it and are willing to question everything, that they begin to become aware that their inner world is a mixed bag.  It is not as though one sees that they are full of utter darkness, for in utter darkness there is no seeing.  There is always a spark.  Where there is life at all, there is light, some light.  However, the light is mixed with shadows--deep and unknown valleys; large gaps of assumption; whole continents of shame and embarrassment; and dark oceans full of the ignored sea monsters of pain, confusion and anger.  Such is our inner world.

In my own inner darkness, I cannot begin to speculate how others learn to call their own inner spade, a spade, their own inner darkness, darkness rather than light; but I can tell you a little of what has helped me. In my own journey and struggle, I have often discovered that through embracing ideologies, I have been led or tricked into calling the darkness in me light.  

Ideologies are useful.  God has created us with rational minds that conceptualize ideas and systematize them into ideologies; however, ideologies so easily become idols (in fact, etymologically, the words 'idol' and 'ideal' are both related to the Greek word 'to see').  An idea, or an ideal, can can help me see what is there, but it also can (and often does) keep me from seeing what is there.  A materialist ideology, for example, may help one see the biology of mental illness--rather than merely seeing a demon behind every disturbing personal quirk.  However, the same materialist ideology blinds one to the obviously spiritual nature of human experience and existence--regulating the spiritual to a side-show of paranormal stage acts and optional religious preferences.      

In the Church also, we have our ideologies.  We speak of an ideal Christian and an ideal monk, of an ideal mother, husband, child or family.  And in as much as we can systematize these ideas and present them as, for example, "the characteristics of the ideal priest," or "the seven habits of an ideal family," in as much as we do this, we are creating an ideology.  Now, as I have said, ideologies are not useless.  They can help us see what we have not seen before.  However, ideologies can also be harmful, especially when they become idols, when the vision of the ideal keeps us from seeing what is actually in front of us or actually within us.

This reality of being blinded by a useful Christian ideology came home to me in a particularly strong way in the context of marriage counselling.  In the early years of our marriage, Bonnie and I were exposed to a lot of religious ideology regarding the Christian family--the role of the wife, the role of the husband, the 'correct' way to discipline children, etc.  It was not that this teaching was totally useless, it was not.  Neither Bonnie or I came from healthy family backgrounds, so having an ideal before us helped us imagine what a healthy marriage and family could be.  However, I have never been a good disciple of anything.  While at one level I was embracing and learning from the ideology, I was always criticizing it.  I was always seeing how it didn't make sense or apply in certain contexts.  I (thank God!) was often able to see when the limits were reached, when it no longer applied in our family, in my relationship with Bonnie, and in my relationship with each of my daughters as they grew each manifesting her unique personhood.  In the absence of good mentors and role models, I would have to say that such teaching on Christian ideals did (on the whole) more good than harm in our early family life.  The ideals helped us see light.

However, where I failed miserably was when it came to my teaching others.  The ideology had blinded me.  I couldn't see the person sitting in front of me.  I couldn't hear any wisdom the Holy Spirit might have been whispering to me.  I could only see the ideology.  The ideology was the light--but in many (probably most) specific cases, that light was really sprinkled with darkness. Each person is different.  Each marriage and family is its own reality.  Ideals, even helpful ones, are not real.  People are real, and paying attention to people--not generally, but to the person right in front of you—this is the only way real light can shine on any thing or any one in particular.  

Similarly, in regard to my inner life, it is so easy for me to lay an ideal blueprint on top of my inner reality and say to myself: "Oh, that's light and that's darkness."  It is so easy because I do not want to see what's really there.  I don't want to see the sea monsters, the gaping abysses within myself.  I'd rather have a neat system, a prepackaged explanation.  Unlike St. George, I am unwilling to confront the dragons.

An ideology is not unlike a flash light.  In my early experiences camping in the wilderness, I experienced a lot of blindness caused by my flashlight.  Flashlights are useful in the dark, but they create problems.  They allow us to see only what the flashlight is pointing at--and even then, what we see with the light of the flash light is skewed and distorted by the accentuation of shadow caused by the overly bright light.  And then, when you turn your head or turn off the light, you are almost completely blind.  It takes several minutes without the flash light to see with whatever ambient light is available.  With experience, I learned to hike and set up camp by the light of the stars (especially in the desert) or by the light of a quarter moon--it was plenty of light.  I actually saw much more.  The only time I needed a flashlight (and then at its lowest possible setting) was when I had to focus on some small area to light a stove or read, or find some small thing I had dropped.  The flashlight was useful, even essential, but its over use was actually harmful, creating the the perception of seeing, while actually causing blindness.

I think the reason why Jesus put so much of His teaching into parables (rather than explicit instructions) is so that we could not easily create ideologies of His teaching.  Instead of many commandments, we are left with metaphors and analogies, stories that we must struggle through, stories that continue to have new meaning as we grow and change.  I think this is also the reason why the Orthodox Church has put so much emphasis on apophatic theology.  You can't idealize what you cannot first conceive.  All too often, conceptions get in the way of seeing, of seeing with what the Greek Fathers call the nous and what we might call the heart.

Take heed, Jesus said, lest the light in you be darkness.  Too easily, ideologies and conceptual patterns become the light within us resulting in a kind of blindness.  Learning to see with the nous, with the heart, begins with the exercise of accepting that we don't see.  Once we are convinced of our blindness, we can begin to learn anew to see the light.  Or as Jesus says to the pharisees, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.       

Let us not be like the Pharisees, but rather confess our blindness wholeheartedly.  Like the blind man beside the road, let us cry out to Jesus, “O Lord, grant that I might see.”

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Take Heed 5 (Warning: This is a Severe One)

“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones” (Matt. 18:10). St. Luke puts it a little differently:

“It is impossible that no offences should come, but woe to him through whom they do come!  It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves” (Lk. 17: 1-3a). 

In Matthew’s Gospel, the context makes clear that Jesus is specifically referring to children when he says “little ones,” for Jesus puts a child on his lap before he says this. However, Jesus is not only referring to those who are young in years, but he is also referring to those who become children to enter the Kingdom. In fact, a strong case can be made that the little ones refer not only to “the little ones who believe in me” (18: 6), but also to those who are lost:

“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost” (Matt. 18: 10, 11).

The very next verse then begins the parable of the lost sheep, which in Luke’s Gospel is referring to the publicans and harlots. Furthermore, in Luke’s Gospel, this warning not to offend the little ones follows immediately after the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which would imply that the little ones refer also to the poor and destitute. It seems to me that the little ones can refer to just about anyone who is weak and easy to ignore, dismiss, forget, or just not consider important—like the crumbs that fall from a table.

Jesus warns us to take heed not to despise or offend the little ones not only because it is so easy to do, but also because the penalty is so severe. Look at the whole context of the quote from Matthew: 

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offences! For offences must come, but woe to that man by whom offence comes! If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost” (Matt. 18: 6-11).

To tell you the truth, as someone who leans toward universalism, I am scared to death by these verses. In the Age To Come, we will see as we are seen. All of the little ones that I have despised will be known to me, all of the offences I have unnecessarily caused will be known to me, this for me will be the suffering of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire (to cite Jesus’ comments on this very matter as recorded in Mark’s Gospel 9: 42 - 50).

Jesus is serious about watching out for, caring for, and not offending the little ones: both the little ones who believe in Him and the little ones who are lost whom Jesus came to seek and save. But how are we to do it? How are we to avoid offending the little ones?  

When I look at my own life, I notice that whenever I think I am important or that the job that I am doing is important, I notice then that I am very likely to despise the little ones, the weak ones, the ones who get in the way. I start thinking that the job that I am doing is more important than the people I am doing it for or with, or more important than the people who just happen to be standing by (or in the way).  Thinking that the job that I am doing is very important is just a back-handed way of thinking that I am important. Functionally, it is the same (at least for me). But when I think that someone else could easily do the job I’m doing and when I remember that things and jobs and tasks are not eternal, but people are, then I am less likely to indulge my desire for self-importance. Then I am less likely to despise the little ones.

However, there is also an even darker aspect to the offence of little ones. Here I am thinking of the lustful passions of uncontrolled sexual desire. As I noted above, a strong case can be made that Jesus intended that harlots be included in the group identified as the little ones. Every human struggles at some points in their life with overwhelming sexual desire of one kind or another. And, if we are not very careful to control these desires, they will rage within us and drive us to actions that are not expressions of love, but expressions of self gratification at the expense of some little one whom Jesus came to save. Especially men, but not only men, are guilty here: for it is not so much a matter of testosterone versus estrogen as it is a matter of uncontrolled fantasy. Uncontrolled fantasy and the power to control, manipulate and use someone else, these are what drive us to offend the little ones.

At one point in my life, when I was experiencing particularly strong temptations to immoral thoughts, I began to be saved when I called to mind Jesus’ words in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off.” In my mind, whenever inappropriate sexual thoughts assailed me, I would picture myself cutting off my hand with a large meat cleaver. Extreme. Gross. And effective. With time, I have tried to train myself to see every person whom my mind presents to me as an object of lust, as a little one, a little one whom Jesus came to save, a little one whom I would offend if I continued thinking the wicked thought that had occurred to me. I do, however, keep the meat cleaver in a nearby mental drawer just in case….

And of course, sexual lust is not the only form of inordinate desire that drives us to offend the little ones. Greed in all of its forms drives us to despise the little ones: our underpaid employees, anyone lacking financial acumen, and the sucker born every minute. All of these little ones we blithely take from and offend—just because we can. Jesus’ words come to mind: “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world, and lose their soul?”  Perhaps it’s better to be poor than it is to become rich offending one of the little ones. Perhaps it’s better to sell all and give to the poor and so enter heaven with no money than it is to enter hell with millions of dollars.

Fear is another passion that drives us to despise the little ones. Fear creates prejudice. Fear generates hate. Fear drives a party spirit that feels entitled, even compelled, to insult, belittle and not take seriously all the little ones who do not hold the party line. What is it that we fear? Perhaps if we feared death and judgement as we should, we would not fear what people might do to us. Perhaps if we continually called to mind the hour of our death, as many of the Church Fathers advise us, then we would have nothing to fear in this world—nothing to fear except that we might offend one of the little ones.

Perhaps I am crazy. Perhaps I am too extreme. But Jesus had some pretty extreme things to say on this matter of offending little ones. Take heed.

But I can’t leave it on that note.  

There is Grace. There is mercy. There is forgiveness. We are forgiven as we forgive—and Grace helps us learn how to forgive. We are shown mercy as we are merciful—and Grace teaches us to show mercy. And Grace is freely poured out, if we would but turn to God, if we would but repent, again and again and again. Because, truth be told, we are all the little ones. The mighty and the weak, the rich and the poor, the important and the unimportant, even the abuser and the abused, we are all broken, we are all the lost little ones whom Jesus came to seek and save.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Take Heed 4

Jesus warns us to take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees.  St. Mark adds, “and the Sadducees,” while St. Luke adds “and Herod.” In Sts. Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, the disciples think Jesus is talking about bread, but later figure out, according to St. Matthew, that Jesus is speaking of the teaching of the Pharisees. However, St. Luke tells us that Jesus himself specifically says that the leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy.   

Leaven is a living thing, a yeast that grows when you feed it. It is an apt metaphor for any attitude or way of thinking that can begin small and grow to permeate the whole entity. Leaven is used as both a positive and negative example in the New Testament. The Kingdom of God is likened to a little leaven that a baker puts in a bunch of dough until the whole is leavened. However, we are warned to take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees. St. Paul tells the Galatians (ch. 5) that if they want to be circumcised, they will be obligated to keep the whole Law (of Moses).   Apparently, to tie righteousness to any outward behaviour (rather than to Christ) is to accept a kind of leaven that will lead to greater emphasis on outer righteousness. “A little leaven,” St. Paul then says, “leavens the whole lump.”  And to the Corinthians (ch. 5), St. Paul says that they are to purge themselves of the “old leaven of malice and wickedness.”

Just before Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, the Pharisees had asked Jesus for a sign that He was the Messiah—never mind the fact that Jesus had just healed and cast demons out of several people in their presence. In St. Luke’s account, after they ask for a sign, the crowds ask for a sign and they are told the sign of Jonah. Then a Pharisee asks Jesus to dine, and at that dinner, Jesus levels some pretty severe rebukes at the Pharisees (and lawyers and scribes who are among the Pharisees):
  1. They wash only the outside of the cup, but inside is full of greed and wickedness
  2. They are meticulous tithe givers (even tithing garden herbs), but have passed by justice and love of God
  3. They love the best seats and greetings in public
  4. They are like graves that people walk over not knowing they are walking over a grave
  5. They load people with burdens that they do not help carry
  6. They have taken away the key of knowledge and do not enter themselves
Then Jesus says to his disciples: “Take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”  

In past blog posts, I have reveled somewhat in what I have called a “holy hypocrisy.”  Holy hypocrisy aims at inner transformation by beginning with outward changes, it forces my actions to conform to the holy behaviour that is not yet fully fixed in my heart, but that I want to be fully lodged there. However, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees that Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with holiness. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is not aimed at inner transformation. It is aimed at hiding. It is a continuation of Adam and Eve’s hiding in Paradise. It is a covering of what is shameful not to heal it, but in an attempt to deceive and avoid consequences. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees focuses on what is seen, on the outside of the cup, in order to hide what is unseen, the inside of the cup. 

Jesus warns us of this kind of hypocrisy because, like leaven, if we allow a little of it to dwell in our hearts and minds, it will take over. Once we begin to care more about what we appear to be than what we are, we have already become a host to the leaven of the Pharisees.  

This Pharisaical hypocrisy has been rampant in much of my Christian experience. For most of my conscious Christian life, I have modified my behaviour not guided by what I longed to become in my Inner Man, but by what my church culture told me was or was not a good witness. What I ate, what I drank, what I wore, where I went, what kind of music I listened to, how I spoke, was (and still is sometimes) dictated by a concern for what others might think, not by my desire to be like Christ. Ironically, by the standards of “good witness,” as defined in most church culture (Orthodox or otherwise), Jesus was often not a very good witness. That is part of the reason why the Pharisees were so upset with Him: He eats with publicans and harlots. I can't imagine the kind of trouble I would be in if a picture appeared in a newspaper of me having lunch with known gangsters and prostitutes.

I don’t want my behaviour to be guided by a desire to keep up appearances, yet I don’t want to offend or confuse others unnecessarily.

This is a tough call. On the one hand, I don’t want to be driven merely by how I appear to be; but on the other hand, Jesus warns us (one of the seven “take heeds”) not to offend the little ones who believe in Him. Sometimes love compels us to modify our behaviour merely not to offend those weak in faith. This is a theme in several of St. Paul’s letters: not eating meat sacrificed to idols, not because there is anything wrong with it (if your conscience is not bothered), but because others may be bothered by it, and it is not loving to offend a brother or sister in this way.

And so, how do you know the difference?

It’s not easy. The difference is not outside us. The difference is in our heart. The inside of the cup is most important, but the outside should be washed too. Jesus speaks to the Pharisees about tithing garden herbs while neglecting the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matt. 23:23). Yes, outer matters have an importance, but not to the neglect of—and certainly not to hide the neglect of—the weightier matters: Justice, mercy, faith and love of God.

It sometimes happens that the love of God in us grows cold. And when that happens, it is easiest just to keep up the appearances and not to deal seriously with the coldness of our hearts. When we do this, when I do this, I am nurturing the leaven of the Pharisees. It’s easy to stay busy. It’s easy to be caught up in the “cares, riches and pleasures of life” so that we don’t want to take the time and effort to warm our hearts toward God. It’s easier just to wash the outside of the cup and leave the inside for another day.

Certainly, we all go through seasons of unusual busyness, when our relationship with God gets put on the back burner. When this happens in my life, I often don’t even notice that my love for God has grown cold. What generally brings my cold heart to my attention is how I start to treat others. When I find myself willing to cheat others, when I have no mercy, when I fear what others might do because my faith in God has slipped away, when I start to notice these in my life it is always a wake-up call: “Hey, Father Michael, your heart has grown cold!  Start washing the inside of the cup!”

Take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees. It slips in when we are not paying attention, like a yeast floating in the air.  It’s the old leaven that we have to purge out of ourselves—not if it appears, but when it appears. The leaven of the Pharisees is to hide our sin, to cover up by pretending goodness and doing what outwardly seems righteous. However, rather than hiding as our fore-parents did, we need to run to our loving Father saying, “I have sinned and I am no longer worthy to be called your child.”  When we do this, our loving Father receives us, clothes us and celebrates a Eucharistic sacrifice for us. And then we say to ourselves, “Why did I waste all that time in the dirty cup of my own passions and fears when love and forgiveness was waiting all of the time just for my return?”