Friday, May 30, 2014

Death to the World

A couple weeks ago, I spoke to the regional Greek Orthodox Youth convention.  While I was there, I had a chat with one of the editors of the Death to the World (maga)zine.  We chatted quite a bit on the topic of happiness.  Afterward, Jason invited me to write an article for Death to the World on the topic of happiness.  If you follow the link above to the Death to the World web page, you will see that the audience for Death to the World is a rather edgy bunch.  So keeping that audience in mind, I wrote the following.  

I'm sharing the article here because I haven't been able to write much over the past two weeks because of construction work on Holy Nativity (we moved the iconostasis back several feet to make more room in the nave).   As we move into June and July I will be traveling, so it looks like blog postings will be sparse for a while.  But I will try to put something up at least once a week—even if it is only an edgy, death-to-the-world rant like what follows.

Happiness is underrated.  Yes, underrated.  Most of what passes for happiness now days is either infantile fantasy, whether of the Disney or the Maxim Magazine sort, or, in most cases, what passes as happiness is merely the momentary relief from pain.  There is very little happiness out there.  Driven by passions to succeed, to win, and to appear to be the best, we seldom are ourselves--if we can even figure out who our real self is.  The world shreds us into multiple selves.  And we put up with it because of a lie, because of the lie that if I play along nicely my passions will be fulfilled, that if I succeed, I will finally be happy.

But you never succeed, you are never successful enough.  That’s part of the lie.  Passions are never satisfied.  Living inside us like parasites, our passions feed and become stronger each time we let them rule us, each time we let ourselves be driven.  And the lie never changes.  You would think that having been lied to so many times by driving passions, by lusts and envy, fears and hatred, you would think that we would learn.  But we don’t.  We’re addicted, addicted to our passions.  Happiness is always somewhere else.  Happiness is always yesterday or tomorrow.

St. Isaac the Syrian was a hermit who taught how to quiet the passions, how to find yourself, find peace, find God.  In fact, to find yourself is to begin to find God, for God dwells in our hearts--our as St. Isaac puts it, our heart is like a great house in which there are serpents and demons and hell itself; but also in our hearts dwell the angels, heaven and God Himself.  Finding ourselves and our true heart is the beginning of finding God.  And finding God is happiness, or blessedness.  It is the happiness of finding yourself and being at peace with who you are and who you are becoming.

But how do we know?  How do we separate what is true and good within ourselves from what is twisted and broken?  St. Isaac says that it begins with a hatred of the world.  Until you hate the world, you cannot begin the journey to yourself.  The world is the lie.  The world is our passions--it is what drives us and preys upon us and feeds in us hate and fear and the lustful desires that seek only selfish gratification (which also is a form of hating).  The world teaches us to hate other human beings, that other people are the problem, are the barrier to my happiness.  But really it is the system, the system of this world that we must come to hate.  The world we must die to, the world that we must hate is the system, not the people.  And we can only begin to die to the world once we realize that the world “out there” is not so much my problem.  The biggest obstacle to my experiencing happiness, to experiencing the blessedness of union with God, is not the world out there, but the world as it has latched itself to my own heart and mind as a parasite.  

St. Isaac tells us that there are two common ways that people come to hate the world.  Both begin with a simple deduction, a realization that goes something like this:  If there is a world, there must be a creator; and if there is right and wrong, then there must be a judge; and if there is a creator and judge, there must be Truth.  Some who come to this realization experience a fear of judgement, and this fear goads them to seek the Truth.  Others, however, do not experience fear so much as longing, longing for the Real, longing for the True, longing for the happiness that cannot be taken away.  Both fear of judgement and longing for the Real motivate us to turn our back on the world, to say no to driving passions within us: to stand up when the world sits down.

Jesus said, “Happy (Blessed) are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”    When we hate the world, we are free to be poor.  We are free to be meek, to be weak, to be at peace, to be happy.  And being at peace, we become peacemakers.  Letting go of driving passions, we radiate something different, a Light from another Realm.  Turning our backs on what the world loves and values, we find freedom to be ourselves, freedom to become and grow.  In learning to control ourselves we are free not to control others (or better, free to let go of the fantasy of controlling others, a control that we never really had).  

There is a happiness that comes from weakness, a happiness that is often called joy.  When I am weak, St. Paul said, then God is strong in me.  So long as I love the world, I have to be strong.  I have to win.  I cannot show weakness.  But when I find the strength to turn my back on the world, I find the strength to accept my weakness.  I find the strength to depend on God, the strength to weep with those who weep.  Then there is peace.  Then there is happiness, a kind of happiness that remains even in sadness.  The hymns of the Church sometimes refer to this as the “bright sadness.”  

Happiness, or blessedness, comes from hating the world, especially the world in ourselves.  Happiness comes as we gain knowledge of ourselves, knowledge of our weaknesses and of our dependence on the Creator.  This is the journey of Salvation.  This is the narrow way. This is the path to blessedness.

Monday, May 19, 2014

St. Isaac and Theosis (and the Experience of Fear)

I am preparing now to give a presentation at the Antiochian Orthodox Institute in the Fall on the topic of divinization or theosis according to St. Isaac the Syrian.  I have been enjoying reading through the latest edition of St. Isaac’s homilies, and when I was asked to present a small lecture on some aspect of the topic of theosis, I suggested that my focus be St. Isaac.  Most of the time, when Orthodox Christian people speak about theosis, they focus on the language and patterns presented in the Philokalia.  Specifically, following St. Maximus the Confessor, we usually speak of three steps or phases in the process of theosis. [By the way, theosis--also sometimes called deification or divinization--refers to the process or experience by which one becomes, by Grace, more like Christ, that is more like God].  The three steps or stages of theosis according to St. Maximus the Confessor and the tradition of the Philokalia are these: purification, illumination and theosis.

In this most common way to look at or present the process or experience of theosis, purification generally refers to our cooperation with the Grace of God to purge passionate thoughts from our minds.  But purifying our minds of passionate thoughts begins with controlling our bodies through ascetic discipline.  Therefore, the beginning of theosis is often found in beginning to control oneself physically leading to a knowledge of oneself that makes the purification of the thoughts, by the Grace of God, possible.

Illumination refers to the knowledge of God, again and always granted by Grace, that transcends the rational aspect of our minds.  This knowledge of God is often referred to as noetic after the Greek word for ‘mind’; however, in this context it does not refer to ‘mind’ as we usually think of the word in English. It refers to the aspect of our mind that is open to and perceives spiritual, heavenly realities.  There is no equivalent word for this aspect of the mind in English, which is why the Greek word noetic is generally used, although the words ‘heart’ and ‘spirit’ are sometimes used in English to try to get at this higher or deeper knowledge: for example, we might say something like “knowing God in your heart”  or “to know God spiritually” to try to distinguish this kind of knowledge from merely rational knowledge, knowledge about God.  

The third step or experience of theosis in this philocalic pattern is to actually participate in the Grace of God to such an extent that one becomes, as the Fathers say, a god by Grace: that is, one acquires the Mind of Christ (to use St. Paul’s expression), or partakes of the divine nature (to use St. Peter’s expression), or one loves as God loves (to use St. John’s oft repeated expression).  Another way the Fathers talk about this final stage of theosis is that one shines with or reflects the Grace of God without ceasing to be oneself; without ceasing to be a creature, one shines with or reflects the uncreated Light of the Creator.  This Grace or Light is also sometimes referred to as the Energies of God by the Greek Fathers.

Certainly this way of speaking about thesis (purification, illumination and theosis) as it is found in the philocalic tradition is useful and thoroughly Orthodox, but it is not the only Orthodox way to speak of this process or experience of becoming more and more like Christ.  St. Isaac the Syrian (+700) was a near contemporary of St. Maximus the Confessor (+662), but he lived in a very different part of the world--outside the Byzantine Empire--and he did not write in Greek (he wrote in Syriac).  Although St. Isaac does not use the same vocabulary or the same imagery that many of the Greek Fathers use to speak of the experience of theosis, he nonetheless speaks of a transformation or transfiguration that one goes through as one draws nearer to God.  St. Isaac uses several different images to speak of this process or experience.  One image he uses (in Homily 62) is that of three different kinds of knowledge: Carnal knowledge, natural knowledge and knowledge of the truth.

I find this particular image or way of speaking about our transfiguration in (and into) Christ to be particularly helpful because St. Isaac uses this image to speak directly about the Christian experience of fear.  Many Protestant and Catholic converts to Orthodox Christianity have a very perverted understanding of the fear of God that torments them to no seeming end.  Unfortunately, for some converts the only way they have been able to deal with the pain that their perverted understanding of fear has caused them has been to reject completely the notion of fear in relation to God.  Of course this is not a very helpful strategy because we do actually experience a kind of fear in our relationship with God and denying its existence leads only to delusion or worse.  But St. Isaac can help us here.   In many of St. Isaac’s images of the Christian journey, he speaks of the transformation of fear, and of the various kinds of fear we experience as we grow in our relationship with God, and of how all of these fears eventually dissolve or transform into love.  This particular image of the three knowledges, or kinds of knowledge, is no exception.  St. Isaac speaks of two kinds of fear linked to the first two kinds of knowledge.  These fears, however, are “swallowed” by love as one comes into the third kind of knowledge.  

The first kind of knowledge is called knowledge of the flesh, or carnal knowledge.  Carnal knowledge, according to St. Isaac, refers to a subhuman knowledge:  knowledge of oneself, of the world and of God in a way that is sub-natural, or not according to nature, or not according to reason.  When one knows with carnal knowledge, one perceives according to the impulses of the flesh, of the fallen nature, or in accord with the temptations of the demons. One who knows according to carnal knowledge, St. Isaac says, fears death “as an animal fears slaughter.”  For someone with this kind of knowledge, the fear of God consists mostly in the fear of death, and in the fear of losing those things that one has come to associate with power over death: political power, the perception of control, wealth, authority, etc.  Thus, the fear of God, when one knows only according to the knowledge of the flesh, is a fear that God will take something away from us, a fear that God will kill us or diminish our lives in some way.  A carnally minded person is often superstitious in his or her relationship with God. It is a relationship that is full of fear and appeasement because, as we all know, death is inevitable; and so long as one fears death “as an animal fears slaughter,” one is in a kind torment trying desperately to postpone the unavoidable.

The second kind of knowledge comes as one draws near to God with what St. Isaac calls natural or reasonable knowledge.  When we begin to overcome animal appetites and urges through reason and begin to perceive through observation of the world and of ourselves that A) there is a Creator and B) I am not Him, then we also begin to know naturally that this Creator will demand from us an account for what we have done with our lives.  Thus the fear that is associated with this second kind of knowledge, this rational knowledge, is the fear of judgement.  According to St. Isaac, this rational knowledge is our natural knowledge, or our natural way of knowing reality; and the fear of judgement that comes from this natural knowledge is the initial motivation or the “rod” we use to control ourselves.  The fear of judgement, then, is the kind of fear St. Isaac associates with the natural or rational knowledge of God, ourselves and of the world.  Although there is a kind of fear associated with this kind of knowledge, St. Isaac points out that rational or natural knowledge is the “proper” and “fit” place or condition from which we can begin to actually draw near to (and thus become more like) God.

As we proceed forward, “guided by [natural] knowledge and discipline” we draw near to God and begin to know “the truth by the active participation of the mysteries of God, and [we] become steadfast in [our] hope in things to come, [and thus we are] swallowed up by love.”  Not only are our fears swallowed up by love, but our whole being is swallowed by love.  The trials and tribulations of life, our continual experience of fall and repentance, and the continual judgement of ourselves by our own conscience followed by the sweetness of forgiveness that we experience as we over and over again confess our sins, all of this experienced again and again throughout a lifetime convinces us, not by theory but by actual experience, that we are indeed sons and daughters of God, that we are indeed among the beloved, that we have indeed passed from judgement into Life.  Fear of judgement slips away as we judge ourselves.  The Love of God swallows us as we perceive within ourselves the action of Grace and as our hearts swell with pity, with the compassion that God Himself has and has shown through the Incarnation and the Cross for all creation.  Here there is no fear--only love consumes everything.  And for St. Isaac, as I read him, to love as God loves is to be what God is, in as much as it is humanly possible by Grace.

I want to stop here, on the mountain top, at the crescendo;  but I must go on.  I must explain two more things before we end.

First I want to be clear that this is only one of the ways St. Isaac talks about the process or experience of theosis, of becoming more like Christ.  He uses other images, types and patterns, some of which I hope to present in my little speech next Fall.  

Second we must also understand that although these three ways of knowledge that I have presented here represent a kind of progression, they by no means represent distinct steps or states or experiences.  Movement from the knowledge of the flesh to natural knowledge is not like crossing a line: it is not as though one moment you are on one side of the line and the next moment you are on the other side.  Rather, the progression that St. Isaac seem to be envisioning is more like a sunrise.  The light of a higher knowledge begins to dawn even while we are still surrounded by the darkness of a baser perception of reality.  And even as the light of a higher knowledge shines with noonday brightness, still there are shadows, still there are animal appetites and broken memories and demonic arrows that assail us, sometimes it seems, like the constant dripping of a rainy day.  Throughout his homilies, St. Isaac warns us never to think we have arrived.  The greatest ascetics fall, how much more must we then be aware of our own shadows.

But even a fall, even a great fall is not the end.  St. Isaac tells us that a great fall, if we confess our sin, then even this can be the beginning of a new humility, a new knowledge of the mystery of God’s love.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why Does Life Have To Be So Hard?

“The door to heaven is opened for a man by the hand of trials.”

“It is not possible that God should benefit the man who longs to be with Him otherwise than by bringing temptations upon him for the sake of truth.”
St. Isaac the Syrian Homily 59

“Why does it have to be so hard?”  This is a question I have often asked myself.  It is a common question, one that I think we have all asked at various times in our lives--even if we have not asked it out loud.  “Why does life have to be so hard?” 

During the Paschal season, we read the Acts of the Apostles.  Pascha declares Christ’s triumph over death and the promise of our victory in and with Him.  In the Acts of the Apostles we see how Christ continues to preach the Gospel and work signs through His Apostles.  Christ continues to be present in this world, now in a many-membered body.  However, not only is Christ’s power manifest in signs that amaze and draw the attention of the crowds.  Christ is also present in the continued trampling down of death by death.    In fact, according to the Acts of the Apostles, it is often these very signs that lead to the persecution and tribulations that provide the opportunity for His disciples also to follow Christ in trampling down death by death.

For example, when Sts. Paul and Barnabas were preaching the Gospel in the town of Lystra (Acts 14), by the Grace of God, St. Paul heals a man who had been crippled from birth.  However, this leads to a profound misunderstanding: the people think that Sts. Paul and Barnabas are pagan gods and the people want to offer sacrifice to them.  When Sts. Paul and Barnabas figure out what is going on, they tear their clothes and run about among the people telling them that they are mere men and with much effort, we are told, “they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them.”  

But as often happens, misunderstanding leads to frustration and frustration leads to violence.  Urged by some enemies of the truth who had already heard and rejected the message of Christ, the crowd dragged St. Paul out of the city and stoned him, apparently, to death.   However, after the crowd’s left, the disciples gathered around him in prayer and St. Paul got up: he arose like our Master Christ, trampling down death by death.  

And lest we think that St. Paul’s experience of following Christ’s example of suffering and death (or near death) was an exception, we are told immediately after this account that St. Paul went to all of the Churches strengthening and encouraging the disciples by saying the to them the following: “We must through many tribulations enter the Kingdom of God.”

St. Isaac the Syrian says, “No one has ascended into Heaven by means of ease, for we know where the way of ease leads, and how it ends.”  And even the “way of ease,” as many of us have found out, is not that easy.  Worries, illnesses, discipline and self control are encountered and required no matter where we are or what we do in this world.  “The way of ease” is not really an easy way.  The way of ease is just the way of the world, it’s my own way, a way that leads the heart away from God, a way led by passions and impulses, and a way isolation, delusion and fear.  

But the very unavoidable sufferings of this world (illness, misunderstanding and violence) are also the means of salvation, if we will embrace them in Christ.  It really does seem like trials and tribulations and suffering of all sorts create a moment of decision, a moment of choice, a crisis in which we must choose: will we humble ourselves and turn to God in our pain and confusion, or will we turn away from God and try to handle it ourselves.  Will we lift up our hearts and hands to God and beg mercy, believing that our whole life is in His hands: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the brilliant and the dark.  Or, will we turn a way, perhaps in anger, perhaps in pride, or perhaps in a simple unwillingness to admit that we are not really in control of our lives.

“The door of Heaven,” St. Isaac says, “is opened by the hand of trials.”  Whether we enter or not us up to us.  If we enter, or seek to enter, then the trial becomes a means of personal transformation, a context for a new and deeper intimacy with God, an opportunity to love others as God loves us.   But if we don’t, if we turn away from God, then the trial becomes meaningless.  The suffering is just as painful, but it is now empty.  God seems far away and instead of polishing us and transforming us to be more like ourselves, more like our better selves, the selves we long to be; instead of this, the suffering becomes a corrosion eating away at us, producing bitterness, and driving us into an insular mental reality that blames everything and everyone else and makes love stingy, something we mete out in small bits, something that shrinks and does not grow within us.

As long as we live in this world, there will be suffering, trials and tribulation.  There is no escaping it.  The world is broken, sin has distorted everything.  What remains for us is not whether or not we will suffer, but whether or not we will, like Christ, find Life in death; whether or not we will, like Christ, willing lay down our lives for one another; whether or not we will, like Christ, be transformed and transfigured and drawn close to our Heavenly Father by drinking willingly the cup that has been given to us, the cup of trial and suffering in this life.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Avoiding Destructive Good

Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 58

“...[The realization of the good we desire] belongs to God. For this, a man has need of God’s help.  Therefore we accompany our good desire with constant prayer, and we pray not only because we need help, but also so that we can distinguish whether it [the good we desire] is pleasing to God’s will or not.
“For not every fair-seeming desire falls into the heart from God, but only that which is profitable*.  It happens that a man desires good, but God does not help him therein; for a semblance of a good desire may also enter a man from the devil.  It seems to the man that this [the good desire that came into his heart] is for his help, but often it is beyond his measure.  The devil himself contrives this for the man’s detriment and compels him to seek a [apparently good] thing, although he has not yet attained to this mode [level, depth, quality] of life; or because it is alien to his monastic [or other] state; or because when he moves the man to accomplish his desire, it is not the right time to do so; or because the man has neither the knowledge nor the bodily strength sufficient for it; or because the present moment does not lend us a hand.  The devil strives in every way under the guise of some good thing to trouble the man, or to harm his body, or to set a hidden snare in his mind.
“Howbeit, let us make constant prayer fervently, as I said, with respect to the good desire that arises within us, and let each of us say: ‘May Thy will be done, until I bring to completion the good work which I have desired to do, if it be pleasing to Thy will.  For it is easy for me to will it, but to do it is not within my power, unless I receive grace from Thee; though in truth both are Thine, “both to will and to do” (Phil. 2:13).  For it is not without Thy grace that I was either persuaded, or afraid, to accept this desire set in motion within me.’
“The habitual practice of the an who desires good in the discernment of his mind is this: in prayer to labor for it continually, and through prayer to receive power that aids him in doing it and wisdom to distinguish what is genuine from what is counterfeit.  The good is discerned by much prayer, by toil and watchfulness, incessant yearning, constant tears and humility, and by assistance from Heaven, especially when a man has proud thoughts which oppose it; for these obstruct God’s help from us; but we bring them to naught by prayer.”

* So often, we think of the good as a (Christian) philosopher would rather than in terms of what will bring profit (spiritual, emotional, social, even biological) to specific people in specific settings at specific moments in history.  We too easily crush the real, the immediate, the other in the name of a good.  Unlike Jesus, we rush to extinguish the smouldering wick and cut off the bruised reed.  Smoldering wicks are messy and far from ideal, but still contain a spark.  St. Isaac warns us to be patient and prayerful lest we create real harm (to ourselves and others) in our rush to impose idealized good.

Humility as Evangelism

Archimandrite Vasileios, “The Saint: Archetype of Orthodoxy” pp 45,6

A young man once came to the monastery and told us the story of how he had come to have a relationship with the Church.  It happened while he was still in school.  His parents were divorced.  He had read Nietzsche and Sartre, and gone quite wild.  He liked to give the impression that he was very atheistic, very modern.  At school, of course, they used to make fun of the Religious Education teacher.  But then that teacher left, and there was to be a replacement.  Soon they discovered it was to be a woman!  [not common in Greece in the mid 20th century where education was segregated] They thought they would really have fun stirring her up.  They prepared to receive her with provocative, ironic and impertinent questions.  The day came and she entered a classroom filled with smirking children who rained down on her the questions they had prepared.  She remained unmoved, however, and taught the lesson.  The same thing happened the next day, and the next.  The teacher calmly continued her work, and the children started to become curious.  Our young man began to ask himself: what is going on here?  If you shoot at someone and your bullets pass through them and do them no harm, then either they must be a ghost, or they are receiving power from somewhere else.  Something is happening here.  And indeed, the children’s behavior quickly changed.  The young man began to see their teacher as the only really genuine human being he had ever met--she became a mother to him, and he was able to open his heart to her.  It was she who led him to the Orthodox Church.  Now the young man was at university.  He went regularly to church and to confession, and had a relationship with saints.

This teacher presented in real life the archetype of Orthodoxy.  She showed her pupils what a saint is.  She demonstrated in action how Christ behaved during His Passion.  She made the Children understand the meaning of the words, “I neither disobey nor contradict.”  She endured everything, she let the children mock her--she had the strength to do it.  After all of the mocking and frenzy, the children became her own children.  In the process she introduced them to the Orthodox Church--to Christ, to the Mother of God, and to the saints--and in this way she enabled them to receive salvation.