Thursday, February 28, 2013

God Is In Everything

In this world, nothing is continuous. Look in the street: in the morning there is rain, at noon it is clear, and in the evening it is cold again.  Wind then calm, cold then hot; so also in our life. Always be ready to follow the will of God, whether it is pleasing to you or not.
St. Anatoly in Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina

One of the secrets of the spiritual life is that everything can be beneficial. This is not actually a secret. Holy people and those who cite them have been saying this since the beginning of time. But hearing and knowing are not the same thing.

Knowing comes only through experience: experience of the hot and cold, and wind and calm of life. Vicissitudes. The only way we can grow in our relationship with God is to trust Him even in the vicissitudes, in the changes, in the ups and downs, in the blooming and the wilting.

Being ready to follow the will of God does not mean that one must interpret everything that happens as God's will--God's will in the sense that everything that happens is a manifestation of the nature of God. This is not the case. God has so constructed the universe that angelic and human free agents, with the real ability to say 'no' to God, determine to a large extent the course of events. Nevertheless, God is even bigger than our real ability to say 'no'. In his freedom, Cain can slay Able; but God in His inscrutable providence raises the dead.

To follow the will of God is to live in expectation of the resurrection. To follow the will of God is to live as though God is bigger than death, bigger than the 'no' of men and of fallen angels, bigger than what is or is not pleasing to me, bigger than what does or does not makes sense to me.

And living in expectation of the resurrection is not pie in the sky. The resurrection is an experience that we enter now. The resurrection is the experience of everything as miracle. The resurrection is the Life of God in our lives no matter what: rain or snow, fair weather or foul.  

Unfortunately, many of us only experience brief moments of this resurrection life.  I am often caught up in a stream of worried thoughts: schemes to change the weather, to avoid the unpleasant, the spectres I fear most. Some spectres I know, many are subconscious: death in all it's forms, murderous Cain.  Sometimes I even become Cain myself, imagining myself killing that which I am afraid might kill me; stealing from the one who might steal from me, taking "my fair share," looking out for me and mine. Sometimes even at times of prayer, I notice that I am tense, then I realize that for the last ten minutes I have let my mind wander in a godless fantasy, a fantasy in which I must figure it all out, in which it all depends on me. And then I have to bring myself back to reality.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner...

Living life as prayer, we accept the rain and the sun, the cold and the heat, the pleasant and unpleasant. We accept all as God's will.  We look for the resurrection in every death, we see the resurrection in ever bloom.  God is in everything--even when we forget, and worry, and get caught up in godless fantasies. God is still in everything, waiting for us to return to Him, to His inscrutable providence, to reality.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Longing For A Miracle To Happen

When you're longing for a miracle to happen, you might say, "Lord, if you exist, perform this miracle!"  And God does not hear you. Or perhaps He will, if your soul really needs it. More importantly, believe in God before any miracle occurs! Do not expect miracles; the deepest relationship with Christ is spiritual. Pray to the Lord and be in His presence, have Him abide in you! And God will answer you with His unseen wonders, through the strength of your spirit, rousing you to greater understanding of His judgments. Not as we tend to understand historically and rationally, but in a deeper spiritual sense, when you see the hand of God in everything.
Father George Calciu: Interviews, Homilies and Talks

"When you are longing for a miracle..." I think I am always longing for a miracle. I often feel like what I imagine the Prophets of old felt when they cried out to God, "Tear open the heavens and come down!" I wonder in prayer why God doesn't heal or help of fix this or that person in pain or this or that terrible situation. I long for the manifestation of the God of mercy and love, the God whom I know in my heart, the God who has again and again acted miraculously in my life and in the lives of those near me. I have seen God's power. God's arm is not too short to save.

However, and how often I forget this, God's ways are not my ways. As Fr. George Calciu says, God performs miracles when our "soul really needs it." I keep forgetting: Miracles are not about God fixing things. Miracles are signs to lead us into deeper relationship with Him. The goal is not a body without pain or a fixed situation, the goal is to abide in Christ. The goal is to see the hand of God in everything, thus understanding God's judgements--that is, understanding not with the rational mind, but understanding with the heart, the nous.

Our minds are so captivated by the external. We feel our weakness, our pain, our inadequacy. We see others hurting even more. We are just like Zuzu in It's a Wonderful Life asking daddy to fix the wilting flower. Flowers wilt and die. We all wilt and die. Zuzu doesn't know this yet. She can't. She must grow; and as she grows, she comes to know about wilting and dying. But wilting and dying is not the end of the story. This is what George Bailey learns only through his lifetime of dying for others.

Fr. George Calciu spent about twenty years in Communist prisons in Romania. Even in prison, he saw miracles. But God did not free the prisoners; though God showed signs and wonders, still they were beaten and mistreated in prison. God gave them as many miracles as their souls needed.  And through it all, God abode within them. Everything became miracle.

There are miracles greater than the parting of the Red Sea, greater even than raising the dead. These are the unseen miracles "through the strength of your spirit rousing you to greater understanding of God's judgements." The goal of our life is not to make it to eighty without suffering in the mind or body. The goal of our life is to know our Creator. The goal of our life is be changed, to be transfigured, to become like Christ. This begins with the knowledge of God in our hearts: the growing and transforming unseen miracle.

We should pray for all kinds of miracles, seen and unseen. But we should not expect external miracles every time we ask for them. These are in God's hands. If our soul needs them, He will grant them. We must entrust ourselves to God. This is our salvation. Like Jesus in the Garden we must learn to ask for what we desire, and to always add "nevertheless." Nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done. Nevertheless, I long for You more than I long for Your miracles. Nevertheless, I desire to know You more than I desire anything else.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Homosexuality, Culture Wars, and the Orthodox Church

A friend of mine saw a play that portrayed a fifteen year-old apparently gay girl bullied and eventually expelled from her Catholic school.  The play disturbed him, and he wanted to discuss some issues related to culture, homosexuality and the Church's response.  Here is a modified version of what I wrote him.

Let me begin by saying that you should read Fr. Thomas Hopko's book Christian Faith and Same Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections (published by Conciliar Press).  I think he does a good job of setting up what probably are and probably are not the issues. "Probably" is an excellent word here.

We must be careful not to be drawn into the cultural war surrounding homosexuality.  Like all wars, the first casualty is reason.  And this can happen both by leaning to the right or the left.  There may be several truths and several realities that need to be held in tension and which cannot be immediately or universally resolved.  That is, it may be impossible to come up with a universally applicable policy on this matter, though it may be possible to discern appropriate responses in specific situations.  This is true for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that homosexuality is defined so broadly.  The human sexual passion ranges over a large territory.  There is no single definition of homo vs. hetero sexual.  It is a more or less sort of thing. Extremes and hypothetical cases are easier to deal with, but the lived reality of most is not so clear. 

I (personally) know people who spent years in homosexual relationships only to crossover into a (satisfying) heterosexual relationship later. Similarly, I've seen it go the other way too.  I've also known people who have had homosexual experiences in their youth who then assumed (because it was an enjoyable experience—orgasm generally is no matter how one comes to it) that this must mean they are gay. They then spent their teens and twenties secretly or openly cultivating same-sex arousal.  Then around midlife, they realized that they really wanted to have a family, but because they had trained themselves to be aroused by same-sex fantasy, pornography and short-term relationships, they fear that they will not be able to perform in a heterosexual relationship.  And they may be right, but not necessarily. Some do make the crossover.  I know some.  But again, that crossover happens both ways. I even read of a man who in his seventies "realized" that he was homosexual.

So what's my point?  

First, that what sexually arouses a person does not define a person—unless he or she wants to be defined by it.

Second, the church is very clear that all sexual arousal leading to orgasm outside of marriage is less than what God has intended for human beings (i.e. sin).  The Church affirms that celibacy is good, even a higher path than marriage--though not necessarily a better path, each has his or her calling.  But that calling, as far as the Church is concerned, does not include the option of same-sex monogamy or any of thousands of other conceivable arrangements.

Third, human beings are sick, and many may indeed be born with same-sex tendencies just as some people are born with alcoholic tendencies.  But this tendency, which may be very strong in some, can be overcome given healthy spiritual care—which, unfortunately, is not common even in the Church.  Some of the Fathers (Sts. Barsanuphius and John come to mind) speak explicitly about overcoming "love for boys." Which, by the way, is one of the reasons why boys and men without beards were not traditionally allowed to enter many monasteries.  Certainly a healthy monastery under a healthy spiritual father is one place where people who struggle with sexual passions of any kind can work our their salvation.  Unfortunately, however, a quick look around will confirm that the Church is rather short on healthy monasteries and trustworthy elders (especially in North America).

Fourth, the response to those who struggle with sexual matters (of all sorts) needs to be one of compassion.  It is a pastoral issue, not a political one. 

Finally, the cultural polemic surrounding this matter has made it almost impossible to discuss this matter peacefully. Politically correct and incorrect speech-monitors lurk around every corner (in all camps of the culture war). Words are construed as political symbols, as litmus tests. Thus, to say anything apart from the party line of any particular camp only alienates those in the camp (and may get you crucified by the camp you actually most agree with).  Therefore, great caution should be used in saying anything.  As I said earlier, this is a matter that probably cannot be neatly defined and solved in the current context.

Case in point: it is known (as well as such things can be known—it is suspected by many) that a few higher clergy and monks in the world-wide Orthodox Church do or have had male lovers. That is, there have been (sometimes) multiple accusations that were consequently dismissed as "misunderstandings."  This does not mean that the Church condones this behaviour any more than she condones gluttony or avarice because some clergy are fat or greedy. However, the Orthodox Church (unlike the western tradition) shies away from witch hunts. God will judge. Each must work out his or her own salvation. If, however, someone wants to challenge the Church's teaching publicly, then the Church will have to respond—but even then often reluctantly.  Our goal is to save, not to condemn, even if sometimes that is required.

It's not unlike fasting.  The Church has rules on fasting, tithing and usury but it does not go around checking up on people's dinners, bank statements or investments. So too the Church has rules about sex. These rules exist to help people become more like Jesus Christ, which is an inner change. But the outer is connected to the inner. We are embodied souls, and what we do with our bodies matters. But it does not matter in some sort of mathematical, political or legalistic way. It matters in a moral, spiritual way. It matters in creating healthy human beings with healthy relationships with God and one another.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Going The Extra Mile

There is a series of four parables at the end of the Gospel of Mathew that are central to the hymnology and psychology of the Orthodox Church. These are the parable of the servant who is unfaithful as his master tarries, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the parable of the servants entrusted with talents and the separation of the sheep and the goats at the end of the age (which isn't technically a parable, but I'm not sure what to call it). In all of these parables, the servants or virgins are put in situations that reveal what is really in their hearts. In each situation, the servants' or virgins' reasonable expectation is not enough.  

There is a distinction in the spiritual life from what proceeds only from the head and what proceeds from the heart. What proceeds from the heart must also pass through the head--mindlessness is not a Christian virtue even for the apparently pure in heart. However it is possible to live a Christian life based predominantly on the head, based on figuring it out, based on knowing the rules and expectations and fulfilling them. And while doing good is always better than doing evil, part of the message of these parables is that merely doing what's required, merely meeting the minimum, is not enough. It's not enough because God wants our love, not merely our conformity to expectations.

One of the reasons why we should not judge one another--for good or for ill--is that we can't see one another's hearts. Nevertheless, according to these parables there is a way love manifests itself through our behaviour through which God reveals the motives of the heart. This way of love is manifest through going the extra mile, praying and fasting in secret, being kind to the weak, and showing mercy to the apparently ungrateful or unworthy.

This interpretation of the parables become clearer when you read them as a group so that the unclear parts of one parable are interpreted by the clearer parts of the others. In the first parable, as the master delays His coming, the servant whom He has put in charge--the one with the authority to feed the other servants--lets this power go to his head. This is a particularly frightful parable for priests. Losing compassion and forsaking kindness, this arch-servant begins to use his power for his own advantage, to over indulge his own needs and wants, and to oppress those he is supposed to feed. Like those who didn't see Jesus in the needy, this arch-servant doesn't see the under-servants as important. This is one of the ways God reveals what is in our hearts. What teachers, parents, police officers, priests, or bosses of any kind do with the authority entrusted to them and to those subjected to that authority reveals to God what is in their hearts.  

The next parable deals with ten virgins, completely dedicated people. The hymns of the Church liken these ten to monks, but they could just as easily represent dedicated laity. All are dedicated, all have their lamps, yet all fall asleep--that is all are subject to human weaknesses despite their great zeal. What's the difference? All did what was required, but five did something more. The extra that these five had was that they had shown mercy (the words 'oil' and 'to show mercy' sound similar in Greek and share the same root). Further, the context of the proceeding and following parables lead us to understand the meaning of the extra oil in this way. All of the virgins did what was required. All followed God with their mind, but five loved from their heart and this manifest itself in mercy--the quality God is looking for, but that is not found on any fasting calendar.

The next parable is the parable of the talents (a talent is a measure of money equal to 75 pounds of Gold--worth about two million dollars nowadays). Here we see the servant with the one talent figuring with his mind only: "my master will be upset if I lose this; I better not take any chances." The servants who received five and two talents went out and traded with the talents. Because they loved, they were not afraid. I sometimes wonder if this parable could be applied to fundamentalism. That is, I wonder if sometimes fundamentalism is motivated by a fear that something might be lost, resulting in a kind of entrenchment, a burying of the talent, an unwillingness to trade with (to interact with) the heretics, pagans and schismatics. Yes, perhaps the faith can be preserved unchanged this way, but it doesn't grow either.  

However, burying the talent of our Orthodox faith does indeed change it. It becomes the faith of the ghetto instead of the faith that conquered the world, as we proclaim in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy. The servant with the one talent says to his Master, "I knew you were a harsh man.... I was afraid and hid.... Here, take what is yours." And so to the servant who believed his master was harsh, his Master is indeed harsh. But the servants who risked, who believed in the love of their Master, who were not afraid of the market place, of the arena of interaction with others, these increased the gift given to them. Perhaps my application of this parable to fundamentalism is off base--you, my readers, be the judge. Certainly the hymns of the Church teach that the talents refer to Grace freely giving to us. This grace is manifest in virtues that can be increased, but they can only be increased through use. We increase patience by being patient, mercy by being merciful, kindness by being kind, and so on with all of the virtues. It is not enough just to hold on to and bury what we have received. We must exercise the Grace given us and thus increase it.

Finally we have the parable of the Last Judgement, the separation of the sheep and the goats. What I find most interesting in this parable is that nether those on the right (sheep) nor those on the left (goats) realized the significance of what they did in their life. The sheep cared for the "least of these" not realizing that they were caring for Jesus: they were just caring for those who needed care (like the faithful arch-servants giving the others their food in due season). Similarly, the goats did not know that they were not caring for Jesus: they were just ignoring yet another needy person (like the lazy, wicked arch-servant who over feeds himself while others suffer). If they had known, they would have acted differently. But that's the point. We don't know. We don't know when the Master will return. We don't know how much oil (acts of mercy) is needed. We don't know if our talent, our virtue, will increase as we use it. And we don't know with our mind alone, that the least, the weak, and the unimportant really are our salvation. It is not revealed to our minds, but it is know in the heart. The heart that loves God loves as God loves, especially the theologically lost, the morally weak, the socially confused and the economically disadvantaged: the poor, the naked, the blind, and the wretched.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

More On The Fear Of God

It seems that some of my beloved readers do not recognize what I am talking about as I have been speaking about fear of God.  Let me keep working on it.

Certainly one of the hurdles to overcome when speaking about the fear of God is images of God that paint Him as vengeful.  However, an equally important hurdle to overcome is the dualism that often accompanies correctives to the false image of the vengeful God.  What I mean is that in trying to combat the false image of the irrational, vengeful and punitive God, we end up creating another false God, a God who is powerless, who merely weeps and suffers with us, as if that were all love was about.  We create a God for whom there is no justice, a God who is powerless in the face of suffering, a God whose ways are not higher than our ways.

It is this dualism, it seems to me, this inability to experience God as both just and merciful that is a large part of the problem.  And while I am the first to plead St. James' words that mercy triumphs over justice, still the triumph of mercy is not without its (or should I say our) encounter with justice.  And it is this encounter with justice that is the source (or one of the sources) of the fear of God.

It seems to me that this is one of the main points of the Book of Hebrews.  The audience of the book wants to shrink back from following Christ because it's getting hard.  They are being persecuted.  Their property is being plundered.  They are being rejected by their Jewish friends and family who do not follow Christ.  They are misunderstood, maligned and mistreated.  It's just getting too hard for them to live as Christians any more.  The author of Hebrews tells the readers to hang in there.  That their suffering is a form of God's chastisement: God is treating them as His own very children.  God is forming them through suffering.  However, the author adds that if they "willingly sin," if they turn away and "trample the Son of God underfoot," then they will suffer a much worse punishment (chastisement or discipline for reformation).  "It is a fearful thing," the author tells us, "to fall into the hands of the living God."  It is fearful because God does love us.  It is fearful because God will not let us go, no matter how hard we make it on ourselves.

The God who suffered death in the flesh and descended into hell "to loose the bonds of those who were there" will certainly not shy away from entering with us into any kind of death or hell in order to save us.  That, for me, is another source of the fear of God.  God will indeed let me shoot myself in the foot.  God will indeed let me turn away from Him.  God will indeed let me choose the torment of a burning conscience carried even into eternity because I consistently and unrepentantly sought selfishness and hated all who got in my way.  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  Yes, God loves me that much.

Some of you know that I have universalist tendencies.  I do not think I am an actual universalist, I just trust that God loves everyone and will be as merciful and kind to everyone as is possible (though I really have no clue what that will look like in the age to come).  But even if I were a full-fleged, card-carying universalist, I would need to make the case for the fear of God.  I believe it is Dimitry in the Karamosov Brothers who presents a universalist vision of heavenly reformation likened to a man walking for thousands of thousands of miles and slowly, slowly coming to his senses.  But even such a vision of heavenly reformation, while much less severe than eternal conscious suffering in fire, is still a pretty frightening prospect.  Imagine walking for almost an eternity wondering: "Why did I spend my life ignoring God, driven by lusts and fears, selfish and unsatisfied, hurting people and in the end dying miserably?"  

And for me, fear of God has much less to do with what I may suffer than it has to do with the suffering I may cause others.  This hit me really hard when I had children.  I could do something really selfish and stupid and God would let me do it and my kids or my wife (most likely both) would suffer for it.  I also knew (from experience) that often my conscience would bother me before I fell into something really stupid (literally: like in a stupor).  However, I often ignored my conscience, preferring the pleasure of the moment.  And when I ignored my conscience, my conscience got quiet.  I didn't want God to let my conscience get quiet.  I didn't want others to suffer because of my sinful, selfish stupidity.  This feeling, akin to fear, I have also come to associate with the fear of God.  

Having said all this, I'd like to make a few caveats.  First and most importantly, my experience is not normative.  What I have experienced in my life and relationship with God and have associated with words (fear, faith, love, peace, etc.) may not be exactly what you have experienced and associated with those words.  That there is something called the fear of God the Church makes pretty clear.  What exactly that feeling/emotion/experience is probably varies somewhat (maybe a great deal) among people.  So much depends on our own journeys, at least in terms of what we actually experience in life and how we associate those experiences with words.  

For example, it seems that St. John the Beloved and St. Peter the apostles had somewhat different encounters with the Saviour.  Both were in the "inner three,"  both were with Him from the beginning, and both followed Jesus after he was arrested.  But St. Peter denied Christ three times.  He said so confidently that he was ready to die with Jesus--while St. John was leaning quietly on His breast.  Jesus said that St. Peter would deny Him three times, but he firmly denied it.  St. Peter was so confident that he attacked those who came "with clubs and staves" to arrest Jesus and cut off Malchus' ear. St. Peter was so, so confident. And yet, at the word of a little girl he denied Christ.  And again.  And again.  And then he heard the cock crow and ran out and wept bitterly.  St. John, on the other hand, stayed with Jesus all of the way to the Cross.

Perhaps St. John never experienced anything like what I think of when I speak of the fear of God.  But I am not much like St. John.  I am more like St. Peter.  I have tended to be boastful and arrogant, and like St. Peter I have experienced some of how terrifying the love of God can be.  Words are so tricky.  In heaven, I have heard, there are no words.  We just know as we are known.  Perhaps St. John knew that.  He knew that it was enough to lay quietly at Jesus breast.

Another caveat I'd like to make is that there seems to be a progression in the Christian experience from fear to love.  I believe it was St. Anthony the Great who said, "I used to fear God, but now I love Him."  This progression is probably not liner because our growth in godliness, our paths, our journeys, and our circumstances in life are all so varied.  Nonetheless, I think it is definitely the case that both one's experience with God and one's interpretation of one's experiences with God grows and changes in life. Where each of us are in our journeys may influence our abilities to hear one another clearly.  I, too, may be missing the mark.  We have to love and listen to one another and let the Holy Spirit make hidden things plain.  

And finally, some of us may have been so abused or beleaguered by false understandings of the fear of God that the phrase itself has become toxic.  We can't imagine anything associated with that phrase being connected to our loving Father.  It may be that some of us can't understand or associate any experience to that phrase because the phrase itself carries too much baggage for us.  These people may indeed experience the fear of God, but they do not call it that.  Their aversion to the phrase is such that they can only use love language when they speak about their relationship with God, despite the fact that the Church uses both words: love and fear.  In as much as this is the case with some of us, patience and charity is required by all.  Again, words are tricky.  The advice of St. James is, I think, the best: "let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Of Fear and Feet

Barbara asks a very good question: "Your last blog talks about love and faith being wed to fear. This blog talks about love casting out fear. Can you write more about what you mean by fear and its relationship to faith and love? "

What indeed is the difference between the fear that is united to faith and love as we draw near to God and the fear that love casts out?  

On one level I don't think I can find words to talk about these different experiences, both of which we call fear. The problem is that the word 'fear' refers to multiple experiences. Some have tried to distinguish fear in the sense of reverent awe from fear in the sense of an emotion of dread in the face of something dangerous or potentially painful. Such a definition is certainly useful, but not adequate. God is dangerous, in the sense that He is powerful and cannot be controlled, manipulated or avoided. At a certain level, all fear has certain characteristics in common. All fear involves a certain unpleasant emotion caused by feeling out of control, by not knowing what will happen and by suspecting that whatever may happen will be painful. I think the fear of God and the fear of rattlesnakes (for example) have these things in common.

However, and this is something experienced and not easily explained, the fear of God can also be mixed with the love of God and faith in (and the faithfulness of) God in such a way that fear of rattlesnakes or fear of any other created thing is driven out. Fear of what might happen is driven away when I draw near to God with fear and faith and love. And even the fear of God takes on a new dimension when it is combined with love and faith--both my love for God and more importantly God's love for mankind, and my faith in God and more importantly God's faithfulness to mankind. Fear of God and faith and love enable us to draw near to God. Fear does not go away. There is always, at least in my experience, a certain trembling before God. However, fear mixed with faith and love somehow creates something new. And this something new draws us toward God whereas fear alone makes us want to hide from God.

Similarly, even on a human level, love for someone or even love for an idea or an institution can drive away fear.  Love is stronger than fear (love is stronger than death, the Song of Solomon says). Yet even when love overcomes fear, the fear does not completely go away. Compelled by love, I have faced confrontations with people or situations I have feared, willingly accepting the pain, misunderstanding or suffering that might result because I considered the love motivating me more worthy, more important than the potential pain I might endure. The fear did not go away, but the love overcame it.

And so when we talk about love driving away fear, I don't think we mean that the unpleasant emotion that we call fear goes away completely (although sometimes it may). I think what it means is that love overcomes fear: the snake loses its fangs, the wasp loses its sting. The fearful feeling may annoy me, but it no longer overcomes me. And this is on a human level.

When we speak of our relationship with God, however, things are somewhat different. God never loses His Power. Yet as great as God's power and justice is, God's love and mercy are greater. "Mercy triumphs over justice," St. James tells us. God's love and our little love, God's faithfulness and our little faith blend with God's justice and our sometimes crippling yet still little fear so that with "fear and trembling" we are able to draw near to God. And drawing near, God touches our trembling heart and grants peace. I don't know how, it just happens.  

At the washing of the disciples' feet at the Last Supper (John 13), Jesus said to his disciples that it is right that they call Him Master and Lord. However, two chapters later Jesus calls his disciples friends. I think this illustrates a principle of the spiritual life. When we approach God, it is always with a certain amount of fear and trembling. We are approaching our all-knowing, all-powerful Lord and Master. Yet when we approach, we find that our Lord and Master washes our feet and calls us friends. He calls us friends, we do not call Him friend: we call Him Lord and Master. And so there is a paradox. We draw near with fear and faith and love, and He comes to us with compassion and mercy and peace. How can we find words to adequately describe this? I don't think we can.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why Do We Fast In Lent?

As we are inching closer to Great Lent, I have had several opportunities to speak with catechumens and others about fasting. One of the hurdles that many encounter as they think about fasting is their own legalist rather than Orthodox ethos when approaching this subject.

I find myself often saying in conversation: "Fasting is not about jumping through the right hoops, it's about humility, contrition and transformation." Unfortunately many, even those who have been Orthodox their entire lives, look at a fasting calendar and see only obstacles that must be overcome or a challenge to be conquered. For them, a good Lent is to strictly keep all of the rules, as though we had returned to the Old Testament with its emphasis on ritually clean and unclean foods. I say repeatedly, "fasting is not about food, it is about inner transformation: food is only one of the means. It is the end, not the means, that is important." However, it seems like I am pushing sand uphill.

I once spoke to an Orthodox lay woman who told me of her best Lent ever. She said that about half way through Lent one year, having fasted very strictly and attended every service at Church that she possibly could, she became depressed. In a moment of weakness, she stopped her car at a fast food restaurant and ate a cheeseburger. The guilt she felt for this stayed with her. She continued the fast, and still attended services, but somehow it was different. She somehow now identified with the Publican, the Harlot and the Thief. She no longer had a sense of enduring or conquering Lent; rather, she now had a conscious awareness of her weakness. She fasted, but not as one conquering a challenge or enduring an ordeal; she fasted as one who had failed, as one weak, needy and unworthy. The prayers took on new meaning to her. She wept with the harlot, she prayed "remember me" with the Thief, and beat her chest with the Publican: "have mercy on me." And during Holy Week, she experienced the Humiliation, Death and Resurrection of Christ in a way she had never before experienced it.

This is why we fast. Not so that we can dot all of the "I's" and cross all of the "T's." We fast to see and know our weaknesses. We fast to know that indeed we are the Publican, the Harlot, and the Thief. If our fast is not producing this result in us, then we are not fasting correctly--even if we are keeping all of the rules.  

Jesus said to the Pharisees who saw his disciples picking ears of grain on the Sabbath, "Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man." The same is the case with Great Lent and all of its fasting rules and extra prayers and church services. Our goal is not to keep Lent perfectly. NO! Our goal is to know our weakness, to pray with longing and hunger in our hearts, not necessarily our bellies. Yes, fasting helps us do this, but to fast perfectly for the entire period of Great Lent and not to be broken and humbled by it is much worse than not fasting at all. At least the one who does not fast has no delusion of his or her spiritual prowess. Remember, the devils never eat at all.

So as we prepare with God's help to enter the arena of the Great Fast, let's not mistake the means for the end. Let's use the tools the Church gives us wisely. Let's push ourselves. Let's deny ourselves that we may know ourselves. Let's pray with the Publican, the Harlot and the Thief. And let's together long for the Glorious Resurrection of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Patriarch's Hopes and My Passionate Fear

His Beatitude, John the Tenth, newly elected Patriarch of Church of Antioch, was enthroned today in Damascus, Syria.  You can find his enthronement speech here.  The speech is certainly worth reading if you are at all interested in what the "spirit of Antioch" is.  It is not an emotional speech, yet it is moving.  It is moving in that His Beatitude lays out some of the emphases of Orthodox, particularly Antiochian Orthodox, Christianity; and he lays them out in a series of paragraphs introduced with the phrase "God is not pleased," or some equivalent statement.  I think this emphasis on humility (how we have not pleased God) portends good things.  It suggests that whatever His Beatitude thinks may need to be done or stressed during his reign as Patriarch of Antioch will be done in a spirit of repentance and the humility born of the desire to turn from what has displeased God.

The first thing that God is not pleased with is authoritarian leadership.  That His Beatitude would begin with this suggests that it is his sincere intention to lead not as an autocrat, but as a servant, brother and father.  Such a leader at the top helps set the tone for the entire Patriarchate of Antioch.  Of course the daily realities of leading a large organization of any kind are such that it will be very difficult "not to command as if he [were] an autocrat" (one of many citations from the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the speech).  Nonetheless, the fact that His Beatitude would specifically mention this matter as the first item with which God is not pleased bodes well for the future of Antioch.  

The second matter with which God is not pleased is that we do not care enough for the poor.  Here, citing St. John Chrysostom and sounding in many ways like a son of this great saint, His Beatitude challenges us to set as our goal not to "possess anything that [we] have," for all that we have is both ours and our neighbours', "like the sun, the air and the earth."  He then connects this care for the poor with the care for the youth in our churches who "drift away, leave the flock or become indifferent."  He suggests that the way we can do this is through "liturgical revival."

This comment on liturgical revival leads to the third matter with which God is not pleased, and that is "clinging to the letter of things." "Eccclesial Tradition," His beatitude says, "is not something motionless or stagnant but a tool of salvation."  We must "differentiate between the one Holy Tradition and the many secondary traditions and practices to which we often cling."  This renewal is to include the modernization of texts "to make them understandable in the language of our time."

Further, "the Lord is saddened" by violence.  His Beatitude calls us "to carry the cross of our countr[ies] and to pray and work for reconciliation, brotherhood, peace, freedom and justice in our region[s] categorically refusing all kinds of violence and hatred."  And finally, "Jesus cries" over the divisions in the Christian world.  His Beatitude encourages us to "try and instil harmony between the Eastern and Western churches and to strengthen cooperation in the fields of ministry and pastoral care."

I'd like to comment briefly on this liturgical renewal and ecumenical work that His Beatitude calls for.  As a former Protestant who saw the Main-line Protestant Churches slide into a moral and theological liberalism under the guise of liturgical renewal and ecumenicism, I must admit that His Beatitude's desire to "liberate some of our practices from monotony," to modernize the language of liturgical texts, and "to take daring  religious initiatives so that we may reach, in God's good time, the communion [presumably with Rome] in the one chalice" at first strikes me as frightening.  

However, I wonder if this initial fear response in me is a passion fuelled by past painful experiences and not based on the reality of the Orthodox Christian experience.  Once I take a few deep breaths and pray peacefully for a moment or two, I see that my emotional response to these words is indeed merely a passion.  The demise of the (already heretical) Main-line Protestant traditions was based not at all on liturgical renewal or ecumenical dialogue, but on the theological liberalization of Main-line Protestantism that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Liturgical renewal and ecumenicism were merely the pretexts to manifest openly the theological change that had already taken place.

On the contrary, Orthodox Christianity is, well, Orthodox.  It has nothing in common with the liberalized and academic theology of 19th and 20th century Main-line Protestantism.  Rather, as His Beatitude points out, as Orthodox Christians firmly rooted in our faith and Tradition, we are free to love and be open to others, to all others.

There is no compromise here.  There is only a hope.  It is a hope that Christians and Moslems can cooperate, as "sons and daughters of this good earth" to build societies of freedom and justice.  It is a hope that "in God's good time," all Christians will be united in one chalice.  And after all, isn't this what we pray for in the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil when we pray that God would cause "the schisms of the of the Church to cease"?  And it is a hope that guided by the Holy Spirit, as in previous generations, we may be able to communicate the Gospel clearly within the Tradition we have received, a Tradition that has and will continue to discover and lay aside traditions (small "t") so that the Light of Christ may shine brightly in specific contexts as the needs demand.

Of course what will happen remains to be seen.  Yet as a son of Antioch--an adopted son at that--the least I owe my Church and my Patriarch is love, and love casts out fear.  Love also "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things." So I choose to hope too.  I choose to believe that God has given the Holy Church of Antioch the right man for the job (and certainly I have no reason to doubt this).  And I choose to bear all things with patience and prayer that the hopes and dreams of our beloved Patriarch John X will indeed "in God's good time" come about.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Prayer Is Not About Me

Prayer Is Not About Me

This is what Fr. Abbot said was a necessary insight that must be grasped if one is going to experience any success, any regularity and consistency in his or her prayer life:

So long as we believe that prayer is supposed to be about our needs and our cares, so long as we expect prayer to conform to our expectation of a certain experience, we will be disappointed in prayer.  Prayer must be worship.  Not worship in the sense of singing songs that make me feel close to God--that's still about me.  Rather, worship in the older sense of offering in fear what is justly due to One supremely greater than myself.  And it is to this fear that faith and love are wed.

If we approach prayer, personal and corporate, as a sacred duty, a duty God has commanded of human beings, then we find the motivation to pray with a certain discipline and consistency.  Certainly, prayer motivated by duty alone will eventually produce bad fruit.  Duty is essential, but not enough.  But duty alone can carry us over the dry spots, when faith and love wane.