Monday, September 30, 2013

Great Oaks Grow Slowly

Abbess Victoria is on the right

Below is the cover article by Mother Victoria from the latest St. Barbara Monastery news letter.  In the article Mother Victoria reminds us of just how new Orthodox Christianity is to English-speaking North America.

This is needed perspective and a needed reminder.  At least it is needed by me.  I am impatient.  I want the infant English-speaking Orthodox Church in Canada to look and act like the thousand year old Orthodox Church in Russia, or the nearly two thousand year old Orthodox Church in Greece and the Middle East.  Great oaks grow slowly.

Dear Friends of St. Barbara Monastery,
One of our Friends happened to react with astonishment overhearing someone at the monastery remark that the Presanctified Liturgy was restored to general use in America in the early 1960’s, that is, about fifty years ago. This is, indeed, a fact, and one that is testimony to a theme we reflect on often: Despite all the deficiencies of the Orthodox Church in this country that we might lament (some of them, yes, quite legitimate and quite serious), things really are better than they were—and getting even better.
Fifty years ago, it was possible to have read just about every book that had been published in English on the Orthodox Church. Today, one can’t keep up with the wealth of Orthodox literature of every kind coming off the presses, even if one were to do nothing else but read. As few as twenty years ago, no complete collection of the lives of saints (Menaion) had been published and neither had a complete liturgical Menaion. St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow, when he was the presiding bishop in North America at the turn of the 20th century, attempted to address this problem and patronized the translation of certain service books—notably Isabel Hapgood’s famous volume of Divine Services that everyone relied upon for years and years for texts of the Divine Liturgy, Sacraments, and other services such as the funeral. People might lament the heavy use of foreign languages in their churches, but for complete church services the texts simply had not yet been translated! Now the tables have somewhat turned, and we have the happy task of translating services originally composed in English for saints like Herman of Alaska and Raphael of Brooklyn, that is, our American saints, into foreign languages for the use of our Orthodox brothers and sisters who live in other countries.
Last, but not least, we cannot fail to mention how fifty years ago there were almost no monasteries in the United States. Throughout the centuries, monasteries have been integral to Orthodox Church life; but in this country in 1960 there were only two monasteries for men and only two or three for women (our own Holy Assumption Monastery in Calistoga being one of these). Now, glory to God, monasteries can almost be said to dot the landscape from coast to coast. In California alone, we have something like six or seven (depending on how one counts them).
All that we have mentioned constitutes only the foundation, or one might say the foundation and the tools, for the growth of Orthodox Church life in this country. The years ahead are ripe with possibility, and we look forward to seeing what the Lord will bless.
Abbess Victoria and the community of St. Barbara Monastery 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Loving God With All Our Strength

I don’t usually talk much about money, especially money as it relates to Church giving. I don’t want to seem to be “always” talking about money, so I very seldom talk about it. Nevertheless, today I am going to talk about it.  

To gain some perspective on our financial offerings, let’s look at the example of the widow whom Jesus praises for giving her “two mites,” all she had to live on. Two mites translates often into English as two pennies because these mites were apparently made of copper. However, to get an idea of how much these two mites were worth in today’s economy, we need to understand that two mites, St. Mark’s Gospel tells us, was worth a quadrans, which is a quarter of a denarius, or a quarter of a day’s wage.

Now when I have to hire people to dig trenches or pound fence posts around our little farm, I pay them $20 per hour, which a contractor told me is the going rate for day laborers. Eight hours of labor at $20 per hour works out to $160 dollars a day. So if we want to update the story of the widow’s mites to make sense in our current economy, we would have to say that the widow gave $40, “all that she had to live on.”  

And this makes sense. You can’t live today on 2 cents, but you can buy a week’s worth of beans and rice and a few veggies for $40.

I am very careful at Holy Nativity never to inquire into who gives what--only the treasurer knows that, and then only for those who want a tax receipt. I never want what I say or how I treat people to be influenced (even subconsciously) by what they do or don’t give to the Church. So if what I am about to say hits anyone close to home, it is not because I am thinking about you specifically. I have no idea what any particular person at Holy Nativity gives.  

Back to the $40. Could it be that some of us are not even contributing the widow’s mite to the upkeep and functioning of Holy Nativity Church? I know it is true that, with one or two possible exceptions, every household in the community of Holy Nativity has a lot more than $40 a week to live on. The “great faith” of the widow was that she gave all she had. I certainly do not have such great faith, and I do not expect of the parishioners of Holy Nativity to have such great faith. However, I do expect something, an offering, an offering of yourself to God.

What are we saying to God when we toss a couple of toonies into the offering box? Are we saying, “I entrust to You, Oh God, all that I have?"  Are we offering our selves to God?

When the scripture says, love the Lord with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength, the word “strength” does not mean mere physical ability--as in your ability to lift heavy things.  The actual word, ischus, means ability or resources. Your strength is all of the might or resources or ability to do things (i.e. money nowadays) that you control.  What would it mean to us if the Bible said, “love the Lord your God with all of” or “all of your resources”--both of which would be perfectly legitimate translations? Would that make a difference?  

Of course we all have responsibilities. Of course we all have to manage our resources, our money, so as to care for our needs and the needs of those around us, so that we do not become a burden to others. Nevertheless, offering, the offering of our “whole lives unto Christ our God,” is central to what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. Can we really pray this? Can we really offer our whole life to Christ, but not our finances, or at least not more than occasional pocket change? What would it look like to really commit our whole life to Christ our God?

The Church has an answer, and it’s called a tithe: 10%. Ten percent, that’s how you entrust your whole life to Christ--or at least the financial aspect of your whole life. Ten percent, that’s how the early Church was able to care for the widows and orphans and pay “double honor” to the elders (priests) “who labor in the word and doctrine. For,” St. Paul continues, “‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain’ and ‘the laborer is worthy of his wages.’” I think St. Paul adds these last two quotes from the Old Testament just in case anyone might think that he wasn’t actually talking about money.

Ten percent is a lot of money, if you make a lot of money.  And then again, it’s not so much. It's not so much that with a small adjustment of our lifestyle we could not offer 10% of our income. After all, 10% is merely an icon of the whole, a sign that our whole life is God’s. But it would require an slight downsizing of our lifestyle, and I guess that’s the issue. Are we willing to adjust our lifestyle for Christ’s sake? Are we willing to live smaller as a means of entrusting our whole life to Christ?

In Canada today it is up to us. There is no government tax for Churches (as there still is in some European countries).  No one will make you give. At Holy Nativity we do not even “take offerings” so as not to pressure people into giving. We want it to be an offering. We want giving to be prayer. We want the parishioners of Holy Nativity to freely give their whole lives to Christ our God. It’s up to us, its up to you. Only God will know. And He's the only One who matters.

Friday, September 27, 2013

And The Last First

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter (at the end of chapter 19) of the blessings and glory that His followers will receive “in the regeneration” because they have left behind this-worldly security (wealth and family) to follow Christ.  However, He warns that “many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  The next verse (beginning chapter 20) begins with the word for, “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like….”

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner hiring laborers to work in his vineyard, Jesus tells us.  The landowner goes out and finds laborers early in the morning, agrees to pay them a denarius (a day’s wages) to work in His vineyard.  Throughout the day, the landowner finds more laborers and sends them too out to work in the vineyard, agreeing to pay them “whatever is right.”  Then “at the eleventh hour,” at the very end of the day, he finds more laborers and sends them out into the vineyard.  Then when the work is done, the landowner pays the laborers, beginning with those hired last, giving them each a denarius.  Those hired first (and paid last) thought that they would receive more because they worked longer, but they were paid the same.  When they grumbled, the landowner points out to them that they were paid what they had agreed to receive, and then he asks them if their "eye is evil” (are they envious) “because I am good.”

And immediately Jesus reiterates, “so the last will be first, and the first last.”

When we hear this story, I think we forget that it is a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We tend to hear it not as a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather as a morality tale presenting God (the landowner) as generous with his money (blessings), so we should be generous too.  And while we should be generous because God is generous, that is not what this parable is about.  It’s about the last being first and the first last.  To see this more clearly, it may help us to reflect on the fact that the denarius each laborer receives is not merely a unit of money, it is the image of the King.

The pay, the reward, the blessing and glory of the age to come is just that: we receive the clear image of the King.  Or to put it another way, "in the regeneration," the image of God that has been tarnished and spoiled by sin (the old Adam) will be replaced by the renewed Image (the new Adam).  Or as St. John says, “When He appears, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is” (1John 3:2).

It seems to me that for all but the very holiest saints, this transformation (regeneration) will be quite a shock.  But for those of us who have labored in the vineyard for a while, who have in this life (and in some small ways) left houses and family and lands to follow Christ, the transformation will be much less of a shock than it could be.  Those who have shared even in the smallest ways in the sufferings of Christ in this life, will have already tasted in some small ways of the Glory, the Comfort, the Light and the Consolation of the age to come.  I don’t mean by this that all or even most of those already laboring in Christ’s vineyard have experienced the Glory, Comfort, Light and Consolation of the age to come in a way that they can point to and identify: “Ah, yes, this bit here and that bit there are instances of God’s Light and Consolation in my life.”  I don't mean that at all.

Most of us are so sick and distracted by the diseases of this world, that even the Glory and Light of God shining brilliantly around us goes unnoticed.  We are truly blind.  But even as a blind man may not see the light of the sun, but nonetheless experience the blessings of its warmth, so we too, the spiritually blind, experience the warmth of God’s Grace in our lives, even if we are not able to identify it exactly.  But in the age to come, when all is Light and Grace, when our blindness is healed, then we will know.  Then we will say, “Aha, that’s what that is.  God has been so near to me all along.”  This is the joy of those who spend the day working in the vineyard.  They are with the Master, they are not experiencing the torment of those loitering on the streets, waiting because no one has hired them.  

The workers in the vineyard, because they are with the landowner, already know to some degree the joy of their Master, His kindness, His generosity--or at least they can know it, they can come to know it.  But sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes, like the workers in the parable, instead of rejoicing in their labor, in their nearness to the heavenly Landowner, in the love of the Master who has already promised them a denarius (His Image), they judge and evaluate others.  Instead of attending to their labor, the salvation of their own soul, they are attending to what others are or aren’t doing, how long or how hard others seem to be working.  Jesus tells us that these long-term laborers, those who appear to have been working for a long time but who are really not, these are the first that will be last.

The last who are first are those who are surprised, consumed, by the Master’s love and generosity.  They do not see what others do or don’t receive; they do not attend to what others have done or should do or might get: this is the attitude of the workers of the eleventh hour.  And I think that this attitude of the eleventh-hour workers is the attitude Jesus invites all His workers to embrace, regardless of how long they have been in the vineyard.  

St. Paul never stopped viewing himself as the least of the Apostles, as the chief of sinners.  The Apostle to the Gentiles had the attitude of an eleventh-hour laborer.  Regardless of our position in the Church or the number of years we have been laboring in the vineyard of Christ, it is, I think, possible to nurture the mindset, the attitude, of the last who will be first, of the eleventh-hour worker.  

May God help us to have the attitude of eleventh-hour workers even if we have “borne the burden and heat of the day.”  For this is our joy, to bear somewhat the burden and heat of the day, to get to be with the Master and share in His sufferings.  That God would include me, that God would invite me to share in what He is doing, this must always surprise and consume me, because as far as I am concerned, there is no greater love, no greater condescension, no greater miracle.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rachel Weeping For Her Children

A Voice Was Heard In Rama, Rachel Weeping For Her Children

This is an Icon of “Rachel Weeping For Her Children.” It refers specifically to the slaughter of the innocents. That was the murder of thousands of young children (males under the age of two) who lived in and around Bethlehem just after the birth of Christ. King Herod had heard about the birth of Christ from the Wise Men from the east, and in an attempt to kill Jesus, kills all of the male children in the area.

Generally, however, this icon refers to all of the people, children or adults, who are killed and abused through the fear and selfishness of the powerful. This includes both victims of abortion and victims of “collateral damage” as powerful nations seek to kill those they perceive as threats. It includes those who suffer from economic oppression and those who die or kill themselves because they have been starved of love and care. Rachel weeps for them all.  Rachel, here, is a reference to the women of Israel, specifically, but generally to the whole Church. The whole church weeps for the innocent ones who are so easily trampled on and counted as nothing by the powerful.  

And like most revelations of the truth, there is a profound irony here. In some ways we all participate in and experience life as powerful oppressors, as weeping mothers, and as murdered and abused innocents. We are all victims, and we are all guilty, thus we all weep.

And yet, weeping is not the end. Every tear is carried to heaven by our angel; ever tear is a prayer. Those who have fallen asleep are now safe in God’s hands. We are the ones who mourn. We mourn because of our sins, the sins of the whole world; but we do not mourn (as St. Paul says) “as the gentiles do, who have no hope.” We mourn in the hope of the resurrection. We mourn in the hope that the Holy Spirit will guide us into repentance. We mourn in the hope that God will soften the hearts even of the powerful, even of us, the blind and foolish ones. Tears are a gift from God to those who begin to see.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tactics In The Spiritual Warfare

For when the causes of [temptation] are distant from [a person], he is not endangered by the twofold warfare, that is, the one which is both inward and outward.  See how much easier is the struggle when [a person] desires things that are afar off than when the very things themselves are close at hand and by their sight inflame the thoughts; for the struggle in the latter case is twofold.  
St. Isaac the Syrian  Homily 37

During the late 80s, the Los Angeles Lakers were the reigning professional basketball team.  One of my joys at that time was to relax in the evening watching the Lakers work their way through the playoffs to another NBA championship.  There was a problem, however.  I had a wife and three small children who needed my attention.

I was disturbed by the way I ignored them and snapped at them.  I didn’t want to be that way.  I would come home from work, focus on “quality time” with my family, and then when everyone seemed content, it seemed safe for me to turn on the game.  And sure enough, ten minutes into the game, my wife would need me, the kids would want to show me something or need help in the bathroom or start bickering with one another.  And then I would start snapping at them.  

So I’d skip a few games, and then when it looked like things were under control, I would think that now I could enjoy a game in peace.  Maybe I thought I had earned it.  And yet, try as I might to control myself and the situation, I would inevitably end up snapping at my wife and kids.

Then a miracle happened.  In the middle of the NBA finals, the TV went out.

I decided not to replace it.  

The reason I snapped at my wife and kids really had nothing to do with watching basketball.  It had to do with my internal demons, my internal struggles, passions, fears and desires.  But I couldn't focus on these because I was fighting a twofold battle, as St. Isaac points out.  So long as I was focussing on an outward passion (watching basketball, as my right, as my way to relax), I could not focus on controlling the inner passions.  I was losing the spiritual battle because I was fighting on two fronts.

However, when the source of the outer passion was removed (or at least not easily accessible--I could still go over to a friend’s house and watch the game), I could focus on the inner struggle.  For whatever reason, I could read a book and not be upset by interruptions.  Reading wasn’t a passion for me.  Without a TV, I made it through all of Dickens’ novels in a decade.  And more importantly, I wasn’t snapping at my wife and kids in the evenings--or at least not snapping nearly as much as I had been.

An essential strategy in the spiritual warfare is to change our physical surroundings so that sources of external passions are not easily accessible.  For many today, that my be the computer and internet, but there are many possible sources for external passions.  Distancing ourselves from these external passions makes it easier to focus on the inner passions, the ones really driving us.

I think this removal of external sources of passions is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “If your right hand offends you, cut it off.”  He was not talking about mutilation; he was talking about the removal of that which is dear to us, even useful, for the sake of the transformation of our soul.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

On Not Reading the Bible

"Quit worrying about corroborating your sources--it's not as if anyone is going to take all this literally."

A friend of mine, a fairly recent Orthodox Convert from Protestantism, asked me to read an article by an Orthodox scholar that discussed a certain construct for interpreting the Old Testament. My friend was struggling with "how to understand" many passages in the Old Testament, and he was wondering if he should be reading the Old Testament at all. He mentioned that recently he wasn't even reading the New Testament that much either. He asked for my input; so, for what it's worth, this is what I put in.

I looked briefly at the article, but I couldn't get into it—probably because it is not a driving question for me. The Fathers looked at the OT in all sorts of ways and often contradictory ways (contradictory, from a certain categorical, western perspective). Basil the Great might interpret one passage as allegorical in one context and as factual history in another. He might focus on a moral/legal interpretation of a passage in a letter, and in a sermon refer to the same passage typologically. For us who are so steeped in a "bible as history" mentality, we may need philosophical constructs that allow us the freedom to read the Old Testament spiritually, or read it in any way different from how fundamentalist Protestants have read it for the past few hundred years. So just about any construct that gives you that freedom is good, so long as you don't go and make an idol of the construct: that is, "Now I know THE Orthodox way to read the Old Testament." As far as reading the Old Testament is concerned, I think everyone who can read it should, at least once in their life, under the guidance of a spiritual father or guide of some kind. The Old Testament is our Bible, but it is read in the Church, and learning how to read the Bible in the Church requires mentoring. Regarding the New Testament, I understand that Protestant converts often need a break, a time of not reading the Bible on their own to soak in the Church's understanding of the story of our salvation, so that when they go back to the Bible they can see with new eyes. When I became Orthodox, about two years in, I had to stop reading the Bible. I realized that I kept seeing in the Bible what I had always seen as a Protestant. I needed time to take off my Protestant glasses. When I went back to reading the Bible regularly again (after a few years), I not only saw what I used to see, but I also was able to see so much more.  I felt like I was experiencing that line from the Gospels where Jesus speaks about Scribes who come into the Kingdom and bring out of their treasuries things both old and new.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Mourning For Sins

Some one asked me recently, "What does 'mourning for your sins' look like?"

Below is what I answered. It is only my best guess. Certainly those with more experience would know better.

There is a sorrow, a godly sorrow, that leads to repentance. This sorrow is for sins (specific misdeeds or attitudes, or mistakes or failures) that I have committed. This sorrow (when it is rightly experienced) leads to repentance. However, there is also a different kind of sorrow that is not for sins so much as it is for sin (the condition of brokenness experienced not only by me personally, but which is the experience of every human being: the brokenness of fallen human nature). So often when the Fathers are speaking about sorrowing for your sins, they are speaking about a kind of continuum that begins with our experience of personal failures, leads to ever deepening repentance (which is the changing or transforming of our minds and our turning to God) and results in a profound knowledge of human brokenness for which one bears a certain sorrow, but a sorrow mixed with hope and even moments of joy in that God has become man and healed the broken nature of man—even if it has not yet been realized in the lives of many people (nor will be realized, perhaps, in many people until the eschaton). So mourning for your sins is not necessarily just one thing. It is a journey. It is a movement from personal to universal and back to personal again as we learn to see ourselves as personally accountable for the brokenness of all of human nature.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Following In Christ's Steps

Immediately after the Apostle Peter recognizes Jesus as the Christ (something revealed to him from heaven), Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that He must be rejected and killed, (something inspired in Peter by satan).  Even the Apostle Peter, even immediately after a heavenly revelation, could not accept that the way we enter into the Father’s Glory, the way we experience the Resurrection, is through suffering and death.  Jesus, however, assures us that it is the way.  We see the Kingdom of God coming in power by taking up our cross and following Christ (Mark 8:27-9:1).

I am so like Peter.  I am sure that there is another way, another way to enter into Glory, a way other than asceticism, a way other than suffering, a way other than the Cross.  But Jesus tells us that there is no other way.

Asceticism and suffering are ubiquitous.  Life on the earth is often referred to as a valley of tears because suffering is universal.  Atheists, Moslems, Christians, agnostics, Jews… It doesn’t matter.  Everyone suffers.  What then is the difference?  What is this mystery that transforms suffering into Glory and Resurrection?  

Essential in the Christian understanding of Christ’s suffering is the fact that He suffered voluntarily.  That Christ could have said no, that Christ could have called twelve legions of angels, that Christ prayed, “nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done”: these facts are evidence of the voluntary nature of Christ’s suffering.  Moreover, Jesus Himself said, “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10: 17-18).  And that Christ’s suffering is voluntary grants us some insight into this mystery of the transformation of suffering into Glory and death into Resurrection.

After all, Jesus does say, “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself.”  To follow Christ is something one desires, it is something one chooses, again and again, day by day, moment after moment.

However entering the Father’s Glory is not merely a matter of self-imposed suffering, or suffering for suffering sake.  The suffering that leads to Resurrection is not ego driven.  It is a suffering that is voluntary, or that can become voluntary, but is not a suffering that is self chosen.  Fasting or alms giving are examples of voluntary suffering.  However, so that they may not be self chosen, the Church teaches us when and how to fast, to pray and to give.  We have spiritual fathers and mothers who guide us in asceticism so that our asceticism is not ego driven.  This is one way voluntary suffering (asceticism) is kept from becoming ego driven. 

Illness and oppression are other ways suffering is not (usually) self chosen.  They are examples of suffering that are unavoidable, yet can become voluntary.  When someone is suffering from illness or oppressive circumstances beyond his or her control, suffering is unavoidable and generally not ego driven; but the fact that it can’t be avoided does not mean that it cannot also become voluntary.  

What is voluntary is according to our will.  What is unavoidable can also become voluntary when we receive it from the Hand of God and offer it back to God.  When our whole life becomes an offering to God, then good and bad, pain and joy, peace and disturbance can all become a voluntary offering to God.  It does not matter who or what the visible agents of our suffering are.  In the case of Our Lord, it was a corrupt Roman judge, an envious religious leadership, and the harsh sentence of execution at the hands of rough and jeering soldiers.  But for Jesus, the voluntary nature of his Passion was settled in the Garden.  The Cup was from His Father’s Hand.  Whoever the visible agents of His passion were, Jesus saw only the will of His Father. His life and sufferings are an offering of love.  He entrusted his life to His Father even unto death, a terrible death on the Cross.  And the result? Resurrection and salvation for the world.

Similarly, we too can learn to turn our unavoidable suffering into an offering.  Like Jesus, the visible agents do not have to be primary to us.  The virus, the malformed limbs or organs, the uncontrollable movements of body or mind, and the friends and family that fail us: these are merely the agents, the agents of our crucifixion.  And though we cannot call 12 legions of angels, God can, but God doesn’t--or at least God doesn’t send us the angels we expect, the ones that will significantly alter our circumstance. But that doesn’t mean that there are no angels with us, helping, saving us in the midst of the our terrible circumstance.

Pain (physical and psychological) doesn’t always subside, broken relationships don’t always mend, circumstances do not always improve.  Suffering is unavoidable.  Yet we still have will.  We still can offer our lives, our whole life, our pain, our disappointment, and our suffering to God.  What is unavoidable can be made a voluntary offering to God.

And what is the result?  I suggest that the result is the same.  The same loving Father of our Lord Jesus is our loving Father.  Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray, “Our Father…?” The same Power that raised Jesus from the dead and grants life to the world works today, right now, in us.  Didn’t Jesus send the Holy Spirit?  And didn’t St. Peter, the same St. Peter from the Gospels, at the end of his life write, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21)?

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Mind That Cuts

The person who constantly sharpens his mind with knowledge, but lives a life apart from God, will eventually turn his mind into a double-edged sword.  With the one side of the sword, he will be slowly putting himself to the slaughter, while with the other, he will be slicing people to pieces with all kinds of absolute human views, sharpened by his unyielding mind.
Elder Paisios

In the quote above, Elder Paisios is discussing the liability of an intelligent mind.  At one point, the Elder says, the born simpleton or fool has the advantage over the intelligent person because, on the Day of Judgement, at least he or she will have an excuse. Intelligent people, on the other hand, if they are not very careful, will find themselves, “Slicing people to pieces with all kinds of absolute human views, sharpened by [their] unyielding mind[s].”

While mine is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I have nevertheless come to discover that a mind that is not humbled by mystery becomes a tyrant, a tyrant slicing this way and that with his or her own absolute human views.  And the more intelligent a person is, the more unyielding his or her un-humbled mind is.  It matters not whether one is a scientist or a theologian: absolute and unyielding human views hurt people.

I have met “atheists” who have encountered the mystery of God in creation and have been humbled by it, even though they cannot name it.  They are those to whom St. Paul refers, those who have come to know the “eternal power and divinity” of the Creator, understanding unseen things through what is seen.  I have also known (and at times been) very devout and well educated religious people who have so jabbed and sliced with their absolute views that they have left nothing but a trail of wounded people in their wake.  

This too is a humbling mystery.  Some of those entrusted with the mysteries of the Kingdom of God drive away the ones seeking to enter it, while some of those who deny the very God of this Kingdom seem to begin to enter it.  I guess it is no different today than it was 2000 years ago.  “The first will be last and the last first,” Jesus said,  “Therefore the harlots and the tax collectors will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before [the religious leaders].”  It’s quite a warning.  When handling the Truth, the how is just as important as the what.  

It is often said by those with a little hard-earned experience in the spiritual life, that knowing what one might say is not enough.  One must also know how and when to say it.  Moreover, one must always be on guard against pride.  “Knowledge puffs up,” St. Paul says, “but love builds up.”  He goes on, “If anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he aught to know it.”  The arrogance of the unyielding mind is humbled when we are certain that we do not know as we ought to know, that we only see dimly, partially, and that there is always much more going on in a person, in a situation, or even in a chemical process than we know or see or understand--no matter how well our theories explain or predict.

Every personal strength is also a liability.  It is just as destructive to feel without thinking as it is to think without feeling.  We all have aspects of our personality that need to be humbled by the knowledge of God and by the law of love.  A sharp mind, apart from the knowledge of God, instead of being a tool to serve others becomes a weapon that wounds them.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Beauty and Truth Wrapped in Vice and Folly

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, unabridged, translated by Julie Rose and with excellent historical and cultural notes by James Madden. I alway prefer editions of the classics that have notes and even critical essays attached. It is perhaps a random way of learning, but at least it helps me make connections.

I mentioned before that I was amazed by Hugo’s description of a pious bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu.  It seems to me that even to imagine such a holy man inspires hope that holiness is possible even amid corruption.  It is for me the same inspiration I experienced reading Anthony Trollope’s description of the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital in The Warden.  Reading about such ideal humility and holiness somehow inspires me to strive for something similar.  

It is a curious thing how men and women can imagine holiness--perhaps based on some small encounter somewhere, such as Tolstoy’s encounter with the Optina monastics, though Tolstoy himself rejected the Orthodox Church formally.  Similarly, Hugo, Dickens, George Eliot and others whose novels hold gems of spiritual insight and inspiring examples of holiness, righteousness and humility, how these very authors are also clearly seen as anticlerical.  They reject Christian religion as they encountered it.  

Nonetheless, they were able to imagine.  And often the imaginings of these writers are not far off the mark.  In fact, as a “religious person,” I have heard many people with no particular talent for imagination explain to me that they reject “organized religion” because it does not conform to an ideal that they hold, which as they tell it, seems to be a pretty accurate description of the ideal held by the same “organized religion” they reject.  It all somehow seems to me like rejecting penicillin because the pharmaceutical companies are in it only for the money.  

We need to distinguish the germ from the husk, the wheat from the chaff--even if the wheat is bound up inside the chaff and only tribulation (literally, being threshed, or beaten with a tribulum) can separate the two.  

And yet there is a reason why religion and faith are synonyms.  Perhaps truth and beauty are hidden in the husks of folly and vice so that we can be free to ignore it.  Were the way plain to all, where would the freedom be?  But if the truth is veiled just enough to be ignored, to be an excuse for self-enforced ignorance, then one has a real choice.  If righteousness is not rewarded, if kindness must be paid for, and if humility seems like foolishness, then you have to really want it to find it.  You have to believe in what is not seen, or at least not seen very clearly; you have to believe in what is behind the veil, what is hoped for.

Hugo himself was a genius, a literary giant; but he was not by any stretch of the imagination a moral or religious example.  Perhaps real people who are like Monseigneur Bienvenu (whom Hugo says dies in the “odor of sanctity”) or like Trollope’s Mr. Septimus Harding (the Warden) could never write with the breadth and insight Hugo has into the many and varied aspects of human experience and history.  Perhaps it takes all kinds of people to make a world.  And perhaps in a world fallen and corrupt, the grains of truth and beauty found or even imagined by the more talented of us corrupt and fallen ones, even these very grains of truth and beauty are too a word of God pointing us in the Way.  

For me, sometimes that seems to be the case.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013


My friend Michelle commented on the last post that she wished that her "peace-o-meter" worked well. I love that concept: peace-o-meter.

In Philippians 4:7, St. Paul says, "And the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." Somehow in my early years, I came to understand this verse to mean that peace functioned as a kind of sentry or guard in our hearts to tell us when the city was secure and to warn us when we were in trouble. An expression I came to use based on this understanding was "follow the peace." And most of my adult life I have endeavoured to be guided by this principle.  I follow the peace, awkwardly, haltingly, and sometimes reluctantly.

Following the peace occasionally looks very foolish. "Wisdom," as this world knows it, would have us scratch and fight and figure out and most of all WIN.  But the wisdom that is from above is peaceable, according to St. James (3:17).  

I think we all have peace-o-meters that work just fine. The problem is not so much that the meter is broken, but that we don't pay attention to it. And if we don't pay attention long enough, we can forget that it is there. We can even forget what peace is, what it feels like, what it is to be at peace even for a moment.

One of the main goals of the spiritual life is to attend to our peace-o-meter. In fact, I will go so far as to say the purpose of religion (good religion, O/orthodox religion), prayer, asceticism, and good works is to teach us to attend to peace: peace toward God and peace toward one another. When we are at peace with God and neighbour, then we can say we are in God's will or that we are being transfigured into the Image of Christ.

But how do we get there? If I can't even find my peace-o-meter, if I can't even remember what peace is like, what do I do? Certainly there are lots of ways to begin. To begin anywhere is much better than to do nothing because you don't know where to begin. But if we take a look at St. Paul's letter to the Philippians and the context in which he makes this statement about peace guarding our hearts and minds, we can also see some clues, especially for those who are already fully immersed in the Church but have somehow lost their inner way.

I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all people. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving[s], let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Notice that the passage begins with St. Paul imploring two women whom he calls fellow labourers in the Gospel to be of the same mind--i.e. to stop arguing with each other.  The quickest way to end an argument is to let the other guy win. Do you want to find peace again? Then give up your right to be right. Let the other person have her way. Whatever it is, it's not that important, once you give up your right to be right. Let go and let God. That is, let go of your need to handle it, fix it, control it, guide it, and especially your need to be right; and by letting go you will be letting God, you will be getting out of God's way, you will be saying, "God it is your Church, these are your children, you are the only one who can save." And, you will begin to return to peace.

However, such letting go takes practice. How we let go and even whether or not we should let go depends on the situation, the relationships, the matters at hand. It takes discernment, and discernment only comes through counsel and experience. You learn by doing: Is hanging on producing only inner frustration and rancour? Then let go. Are you standing fast accompanied by Grace and inner peace despite the raging storm around you working? Then hang on. Talk to a spiritual mentor, learn from your mistakes.  

Nevertheless, while it is sometimes right to stand fast in an argument, in my life I have found that for every time I should stand fast, there are twenty or more times I should give in. Twenty or more times I am merely driven by my ego, my fears, my lack of faith in God. In my life I have come to the conclusion that if I am not sure what to do, then I almost certainly should give in, I should let go. Letting go almost always leads to peace.

After letting go of your right to be right, St. Paul's advice only gets harder: "Rejoice in the Lord always." He does not say, "Rejoice in being right," but "Rejoice in the Lord." God is the one who saves, not me, and He is who and what I rejoice in. "Let your gentleness be known to all"; not, "Let your correctness be known to all." And why can I take such a risk? How can I risk gentleness (instead of insisting on being right)? I can take such a risk, because "The Lord is at hand."  

St. Paul goes on, "Be anxious for nothing." If you are going to let go, you must also let go of anxiousness. Instead of anxiousness, prayer and supplication with thanksgivings (literally in Greek, meta eucharistias [pl]). The antidote for anxiousness is prayer with (in the context of, or together with) Eucharists--the liturgical life of the Church, communing with God through His Body and Blood together with all the Saints. There is no solitary Christian life. Even hermits are part of a community, have spiritual fathers, sons (mothers, daughters) and commune with Christ and all of the Saints in the Body and Blood of Christ. This is the Thanksgiving that God has given us, our Eucharist.  This is how we give thanks to God in everything.  

So back to the peace-o-meter. Mother Victoria, my first spiritual "father," said to me: "When the Divine Liturgy is completed, and you have eaten the Body and Blood of Christ, then stay still and quiet in the Church as long as you can. Then you will feel the angels' wings. Hold on to that feeling as long as you can, for that will teach you where God is inside yourself."  Mother Victoria's advice has helped me find my peace-o-meter several times when I have lost it.  

May God help us all find our peace-o-meter; assuming, that is, if we are actually looking for it.