Monday, December 23, 2013

Today Remembering Today

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 20, 2013

Swimming Above The Hands Of Our Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Defending Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark does not record the rebuke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cowardliness In The Spiritual Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Life of Pi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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