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?”

Monday, November 18, 2013

Take Heed 3

Take heed how/what you hear (Mk. 4:24; Lk. 8:18).  

In both Mark and Luke's Gospel, after the parable of the sower and the seeds, Jesus says to his disciples, "take heed how/what you hear" ('what' in Mark; 'how' in Luke). St. Luke records it this way:
No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a vessel or puts it under a bed, but sets it on a lamp stand, that those who enter may see the light.  For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, or anything hidden that will not be known and come to light. Therefore, take heed how you hear."
We must be careful how we hear because nothing hidden will remain hidden. What is hidden in our heart determines how we hear. Ungracious, arrogant and unrepentant attitudes in our hearts and minds keep us from hearing well. Some of these bad attitudes may be hidden not only from others but also from ourselves, but how we hear (or don't hear) the words of Jesus can reveal to us our weakness.  

I have always read these verses as a warning to listen to the Gospel with an attitude of obedience. That is, I have understood them to mean that when I listen to or read the Gospels, my "hearing" should be with a predisposition to obedience. I have understood it this way because the Greek word for obey is based on the word for hear. Hear is akouo and obey is hupakouo (to 'hear under' someone is to obey them). In Hebrew there is just one word that means both hear and obey—to hear is to obey, not to obey is not to have heard.  

St. Luke emphasizes this connection between hearing and obeying by moving the incident of Jesus' Mother and brothers coming to see Him from before the parable of the sower (where it is found in Matthew and Mark) to immediately after the warning about hearing. Who are Jesus' Mother and brothers? "Those who hear the Word of God and do it". To hear is to do; not to do is not to have heard.

St. Mark emphasizes the judgement that comes about because of what or how we hear. St. Mark says,
"Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be me measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him." 
Hearing is a measure. If we do not listen to the Gospel with an open heart and an attentive mind (or at least with as much openness and attention as we can muster), then the measure by which God measures out (grace? understanding? blessing? the fruit of the Spirit?—the text does not say exactly what) will be limited in the same way. On one level, this makes practical sense: how can you understand anything unless you pay attention? The less you pay attention, the less you understand. However, the judgement is not merely a matter of "getting out of it what you put into it." Rather, Jesus tells us that what we hear also determines whether or not we can keep what we have already received.  

St. Luke gives us a hint as to why this judgement of hearing is so important. Both Mark and Luke record Jesus saying, "Nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to the light," but St. Luke repeats this phrase several chapters later in a contexts that enlightens this one:
"Take heed of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed nor hidden that will not be known" (Lk. 12:1, 2).
When we hear without openness and attention, it is possible merely to garner information to be used hypothetically, and thus hypocritically—for there is nothing hypothetical about the Gospel. When we hear only for someone else ("old Mrs. So and So sure needs to hear this) or as though the words did not apply to me ("that's a good word if someone has that problem), then I end up storing information to be used according to my own agenda, to support my opinions, and not to produce obedience and repentance. God's words are dangerous. "Sharper than a two edged sword," St. Paul says somewhere. Not to hear carefully brings about judgement; it may even lead to hypocrisy and the loss of what little genuine spiritual life one has. This is a serious matter. That's why Jesus said, "Take heed."

And I suspect that it is not only in hearing the Gospel that we should take heed. God has been known to speak through donkeys. It was the children, not the learned, who recognized the Messiah on Palm Sunday. How we listen, or better, how we are when we listen to anyone determines to a large extent what we hear. If we take heed, the voice of God calling us to repentance can be heard in the voice of a child, a loved one, a teacher, or even (or perhaps especially) in an enemy.  

Hearing well is not a matter of intellectual ability or even attention span or ability to focus. Hearing well is a matter of a broken and contrite heart, a heart ready to repent, a heart turned toward God, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. We hear well when we are humble, when we know that we do not know, when we know that there are many ways we sin that God has yet to reveal to us (plus the many sins we do see but can't seem to escape). Hearing with this attitude brings the Gospel to life and opens one's ears to hear in a way that brings more: more of all that God has for us.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Take Heed 2

Jesus warned us to take heed concerning covetousness. In the immediate biblical context (Luke 12:15), someone had just asked Jesus to command that his brother share his inheritance with him. Jesus responds first by saying, "who made me arbitrator over you?" But then He goes on to say, "take heed of covetousness, a person's life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions." St. Paul also tells Timothy that those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare of the devil (1 Tim. 6:9).

I think the reason why Jesus warned us particularly about covetousness is that covetousness seems so natural, so healthy (to want to get ahead, to do better, to prosper), and it doesn't seem to harm anyone. Yes, "Do not covet" is one of the Ten Commandments, but unlike murder, theft or adultery, coveting doesn't seem to hurt anyone else. But of course coveting does hurt others. When I covet something I start seeing people as means to an end.  A covetous person sees the people in their life as things to be manipulated to reach a goal.  

What makes Jesus' warning particularly poignant for us today is that we live in a consumer society that depends on covetousness to function. If everyone did not want bigger and better and newer things, the economy of much of the world would tank. Therefore, everything around us encourages us to want more. Not to covet is to go hard against the flow of our culture. No wonder Jesus tells us to take heed.

But aside from the fact that covetousness hurts other people, covetousness hurts the one who covets most of all.  It hurts us by pulling our attention away from what is eternal and important to what is temporal and unimportant—from what is inside us to what is outside us. I was speaking to someone recently who was telling me about their life. They were talking about how unhappy they were and made the following comment: "not that I think there is a secret to happiness or anything like that." I immediately said, "I do."  

As Jesus said, our life does not consist in the abundance of what we possess. So long as we are looking outside ourselves for happiness, we will never find it; we will always be disappointed. Happiness is not in possessions; it is not in vacations; it is not even in friends or family, especially if you are looking to them to make you happy. A better wife or husband or parent or child or friend (or priest or bishop, for that matter) will not make you happy.   Coveting such things only makes you miserable because it only adds bitterness to the already weak relationships you have.  

Happiness, or to use more biblical terms, blessedness and contentment, come from within us. They come from doing to others what you would want them to do to you (whether or not they ever do what you want). Blessedness and contentment come from thinking of others as better than yourself, from taking the lower seat, going the extra mile, and giving without expecting anything in return. Basically, blessedness and contentment come from doing what Jesus said, or to use Jesus' metaphor, blessedness and contentment are the result of a house built on the rock foundation of Christ’s commandments rather than on the sandy foundation of what seems best to me, which washes quickly away.

However, I am the first to admit that actually doing what Jesus said is counter intuitive, counter cultural, and very hard. It is the narrow way. I completely understand why very few of us do, or even try very hard to do, what Jesus said. When I look in my own heart, I see that I am full of fear. I don't want to lose my stuff. I am full of fear also because I don't know how. I don't know how to do the things Jesus said. Certainly, how one should follow the words of Christ in any specific context is not at all self evident, as anyone who has seriously tried to do what Jesus said has found out. Like the Ethiopian Eunuch, one needs to be taught, discipled, and guided into the narrow way.

Immediately before Jesus was asked to divide the inheritance, Jesus said that we need not worry about what we will say when brought before magistrates because of our faith in Christ. "Don't plan beforehand," Jesus says, "for the Holy Spirit will give you the words." I think the same is true about following Christ in any situation. Don't worry, the Holy Spirit will help you. "How," you may ask, "will the Holy Spirit help me?"  

The Holy Spirit will help you the way It has always helped people--through other people. The Holy Spirit resides in the Church, but no one in the Church has all of the gifts, all of the ministries, all of the functions. If we want to follow what Jesus said, we need to be discipled, taught, and led by teachers, pastors, prophets (preachers) and elders (the English word 'priest' comes from the Greek word that is translated 'elder').

Unfortunately, if following Jesus is the narrow way, then finding a good spiritual father or mother to help you in the way is only slightly less narrow. It is narrow, but not impossible. You can even start where you are:  using common sense to weed out any obviously bad advice, treat whatever spiritual leader you currently have as though he or she were a godly, spirit-filled person. In my experience, in most cases, this is sufficient for the Holy Spirit to guide one in the fulfilling of Christ's commandments. (Yes, I know this can be dangerous, and common sense along with occasional second opinions are called for, but who ever said spiritual life was any less dangerous than all the rest of life?)

The truth is that we can covet even spiritual fathers. We can covet anything we don’t have, or don’t think we have.  But Jesus warns us, take heed! The answer is not outside you. The answer is not even a better spiritual father. The answer is contentment, trust in Christ, and obedience to what you already know to be true. (Honestly, I think if we all merely did what we already knew we should do, and just didn’t worry about the stuff we were unsure of, we would all probably make very rapid progress toward godliness.)

Christ warns us about covetousness, nevertheless, sometimes Christ also gives us things. Sometimes we have much more than we need and Christ lets us share in His ministry of generosity. Sometimes relationships are blessed and blossom. Sometimes we even stumble across a wise and loving person whose guidance and love amazes us.  Whenever this has happened to me I have felt profoundly lucky or amazed—“Why would God let me have such a friend?” But even in the midst of unimaginable blessing, sometimes, if I’m not careful, I find myself slipping into covetousness. I find myself thinking, “It would be nice to have a bigger, nicer, newer, shinier, kinder, more understanding ________ (fill in the blank). Often I find myself thinking, “If only it were different”; “If only they were different.” When I realize that I am thinking such thoughts, as soon as I come to my senses like the Prodigal Son, I am training myself to immediately give God thanks.

Thanksgiving is, in my experience, the best weapon against covetousness. To be thankful for what I have and for what God has done—this is what destroys covetousness.  Covetousness is a deadly vine. It can drive the root of bitterness deeply into our hearts if we let it have its way.  Covetousness is a deadly vine that grows in the darkness.  Thanksgiving is the light that withers away all covetousness and selfishness. When we thank God, we are already obeying Him and so we begin to be filled with light, the light that shifts our focus from outside to inside, from what should be different out there, to Christ dwelling in my heart and the difference Christ makes within me. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Take Heed

Several times in the Gospels, Jesus warns us to take heed of or beware of something. It's a little tricky finding all of the instances of Jesus's warnings because there are three Greek words that are often, but not always, translated into English as 'take heed of' or 'beware of.' Following the New King James translation, there are seven things Jesus specifically tells us to beware of:

  1. Doing righteous works in front of others in order to be seen by them (Matt. 6:1).
  2. The leaven [teaching] of the Pharisees and of Herod (Matt. 16:6 and Mk. 8:15).
  3. Despising or offending the little ones (Matt. 18:10 and Lk. 17:3).
  4. That the light inside us not really be darkness (Lk. 11:35).
  5. Of covetousness (Lk. 12:15).
  6. Of what or how we hear (Mk. 4:24 and Lk. 8:18).
  7. Regarding the End (Matt. 24:4; Mk. 13: 5, 23, 33; Lk. 21: 8, 34).
I'd like to look at Jesus' warning concerning the End.  

I got my start as a conscious follower of Christ in the 70s under the influence of a Charismatic Christian ministry in California called "Melodyland." At Melodyland, they talked a lot about the Second Coming of Christ. In fact, for the next twenty-five years in the various Charismatic churches I attended, I heard hundreds of sermons on the end times.  I knew the first half of Matthew 24 by heart. I knew all of the signs. I read the newspaper with the Bible in my hand seeing everywhere confirmation that Jesus' return was just around the corner.  

I was aware that Jesus warned against setting an exact date for his return, but I was certain that rough guesses were encouraged (at least that was implicit in my church culture). I knew from Matthew 24 that Jesus warned us to beware of those who claimed to be the Christ or who claimed to know where on earth one could find the already returned Christ (in the deserts or in the inner rooms). But somehow in all those years and in all of the fervour, I never noticed these lines from Luke's account of Jesus' warning regarding the last times:

"And He said: 'Take heed that you not be deceived.  For many will come in My name, saying "I am He,"  and, "The time has drawn near." Therefore, do not go after them.'"
How could I have missed that? The warning was not only to avoid those claiming to be Christ, but was also not to "go after" those who claim "the time has drawn near." Oops. I missed that one. 

Submitting myself to endless preaching that the End was near did significant damage to my spiritual life. End times preaching (at least as I experienced it) stirred up emotions ranging from fear to excitement, and from confident self-assurance that I was "saved" to anxious concern for those who were damned. (Although I must confess, that this anxious concern was not very altruistic because the version of end times preaching I was exposed to also posited that the sooner everyone "hears" the Gospel, the sooner Jesus would return and pull us saved ones out of this mess). For years I associated these feelings of fear, excitement, confident self-assurance, and anxious concern for others with the nearness of God.

Part of the spiritual damage caused by "going after" those who stir up emotion preaching that "the time has drawn near" is that it makes it difficult to learn how to be with God in silence. I'm not talking about mere outer silence, although that is often where the journey to inner silence begins. I am talking about the inner silence of a meek and gentle heart, the silence of a heart that does not think on things too high for herself, the silence of a heart that is both broken and contrite while remaining secure in the love of God.

At the end of the warnings about the last days in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that the way they can be ready for the End is to watch, watch and pray. The word, 'watch,' literally means, 'stay awake' or 'stay alert' or 'pay attention.' In the Orthodox spiritual tradition, this watchfulness is specifically understood as guarding our mind/heart, or our nous. That is, the house that we are to watch so that it is not robbed (Matt. 24:43 ff) and the house that we are to manage until the Master returns (c.f. Mk. 13:34 ff) is our nous

We prepare for the Second Coming of Christ (and our own death—which is functionally the same thing) not by watching what is going on outside us. Jesus told us that these outer signs mean that "the end is not yet." We prepare for Christ's coming by attending to our nous. But learning to attend to the nous requires quiet, inner quiet; it requires that we learn to hear the voice of silence and to notice the movements of stillness. These are paradoxes, I know. But only by means of paradox can we talk about that which is beyond words.  

In the Divine Liturgy, we speak of the Second Coming of Christ as something to be remembered. All eternal realities exist right now, even those that have not yet taken place in time and space. Those who are ready for the Second Coming are those who have already come to remember it, not emotionally, but quietly in their nous. Getting ready for the coming of Christ has nothing to do with reading newspapers, but has everything to do with stilling our minds, watching and praying.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Holy Paradox!

About a year ago, I wrote a blog entry entitled "The Chief Hypocrite."  I feel like rehearsing that essay today.

We live in a culture that is so afraid of poor self image, that self boasting has become the norm not only in secular society but also in many church contexts. It is almost as if Jesus had never said, "take the lower seat," or St. Paul had never said, "esteem others as better than yourself." What would it look like if I really did esteem others as better than myself? How would I speak? How would I act?

When I read some of the Orthodox spiritual writers, I am often amazed at how aware of their weaknesses and shortcomings they are. Like St. Paul, they consider themselves the worst of sinners; and yet, the Grace of the Holy Spirit speaks through them to me. How can it be?

A monk once told me that each one of us stands before God and is judged alone, not in comparison to anyone else. This judgement is not some future experience; it is an eternal, eschatological experience that we can begin to experience (or experience by anticipation) now. When I stand before God, I am always the chief of sinners. Carrying with me this experience of judgement is, I think, part of the secret to living a transformed life. Seeing myself as last, seeing my self as weak and broken, allows me to experience the Grace of God in a way that would be impossible (and that might even destroy me) were I to imagine that I really had something to add to what God is doing.

When I am weak, then I am strong. When I focus on repentance, on seeing my weakness and on turning again, and again, and again to God, God somehow allows me to participate in some of what He is doing in the world. When I focus on what God is doing and how I can help, I almost always mess things up. And so, like St. Paul and thousands of thousands of holy men and women before me, I rather glory in my weakness (or at least I try to do this).

But sometimes this seems hypocritical. Sometimes it seems like I am just saying words or pretending, that something inside me is protesting: "I'm not that bad."  

I think it's insecurity speaking. I'm afraid that God and others will reject me and that I won't be loved and accepted if I am really that bad, that broken, that messed up.

However what saves me when I feel and think this is that the very same eschatological experience of judgement comes also with an eschatological experience of the love of God. God loves me. Yes, I am a mess, but I am God's mess. I am the chief of sinners, and I am beloved of God. Holy Paradox!

I have an excellent chiropractor. He studies my body, pushes things around a little, and then sends me home with exercises. These exercises often involve exaggerating movements, over compensating or pulling my body one way to train the muscles to find the harmonious middle. And his exercises have worked very well for both Bonnie and I.

Sometimes I think my spiritual life is a little like my chiropractor's exercises. The first sin, we are told, is pride. Perhaps it is necessary for each of us to see ourselves as the chief of sinners to be healed of pride—loved and accepted by God, but messed up, weak and sinful nonetheless. Perhaps this is how we are healed of the pride that has perverted and twisted our souls. We have to push ourselves, we have to "put on" humility, to exercise ourselves in lowliness, even when it doesn't feel quite natural. This is part of our therapy. This is how we are slowly being conformed to the Image of Christ.

Friday, November 01, 2013

The Rich Man And Lazarus: An Allegory Of The Soul

  1. I am rich in passions; I am clothed in vile garments of hypocrisy. Through lack of abstinence, I delight in foul deeds, and show a boundless lack of tender-heartedness. Cast before the gates of repentance, I despise my mind, thirsting for every blessing, but ill from lack of concentration. Make me, O Lord, like Lazarus, who was poor in sin, lest I receive no answer when I pray for the finger dipped in water to relieve my burning tongue. Make me to dwell in the bosom of Abraham, as the lover of mankind.
    Verse 10 "Lord I Called" Wednesday Presanctified Liturgy, Week Six.

    Our Gospel reading this Sunday is the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus.  

    Those of us familiar with this parable have probably only thought of applying it in a moral sense. That is, we see the parable teaching us that those who fail to care for the poor in this life will suffer fiery regret in the Age To Come. However, those who suffer poverty will be comforted in the next Age. Therefore, we deduce, the parable is teaching us to care for the poor.  

    This moral interpretation is useful. Yes, it is always good to care for the poor—especially the poor at your gate, the poor you see every day. But there is a downside to reading the parable only this way. The downside is that we tend to read the description of the afterlife too literally and atomize the judgment of the life to come. That is, we see all human beings in the Age to Come either burning in torment or comforted by Abraham.  

    However, the Church also reads this parable as an allegory, an allegory of the soul. My soul is the starving and wounded Lazarus, begging at the gate of my life. The sumptuous food and clothing of the parable refer to the way I pamper my appetites while refusing to give any notice to my soul, my spiritual life starving at the gate. Reading the parable this way, each of us seem to face both fire and comfort in the Age to Come—the burning up of the flesh and its passions and the comfort of the impoverished soul.  

    How this works out in the next age, we are not told. The Church only exhorts us to chose to be "poor in sin," like Lazarus while learning abstinence from foul deeds and nurturing tender-heartedness. This is how we prepare for the next life.  

    There is much in my life that will not survive the fire of the Age to Come. All of my sins are forgiven, yes; and the sins of the whole world are also forgiven, for that matter. Yet I have built on the foundation of Christ much that is wood, hay and stubble. These cannot survive in the Kingdom that tests everything by fire (1 Cor. 3:13). Nevertheless, Lazarus will be comforted. And in the Age to Come, I think (for I do not know for certain: "we see through a glass darkly") in as much as I have learned to be poor like Lazarus, that same comfort Lazarus experiences will sustain me as all that is not gold, silver and precious stones passes away.

    This is why we pray for one another, in this life and especially as we pass into the next. Through prayer we can be with each other, even those far away and those departed this life. Many a dying person wants someone just to hold his or her hand. Praying is another way we hold each others' hand.