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Friday, June 26, 2015
Saturday, June 20, 2015
Trusting God To Hold You
One of the struggles I have as I strive to pay attention to my heart, is that (at the same time) I perceive in my heart very sad things and joyful, hopeful things. It’s as if two realities, or two reflections of the world around me are manifest within me. When I first started to notice this reality within myself I found the concept of “bright sadness” helpful. I first ran across this phrase, bright sadness, in the introduction of Alexander Schmemann’s little book, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. In that context, bright sadness refers to the feeling one has at the beginning of Great Lent: on the one hand, sadness as we contemplate our sin and brokenness, which will be the theme of our prayers for the next forty days; but on the other hand, we also feel a kind of joy, a joy at the anticipation of Pascha, but not just anticipation, a joy as I begin to meet the Resurrected Lord even as I intentionally descend into the shadows of my own brokenness and misery. Christ is there, I find out, even in my shadows, even in the lowest pits of my sinful confusion and brokenness, Christ is there.
And perhaps we experience this bright sadness more intensely, or maybe just more easily, as Great Lent begins and as we are helped liturgically, guided by the hymns of the Church, to contemplate the brokenness and shadow in ourselves that we always know is there, but that we also always try very hard to ignore. And as we discover each Lent, looking steadfastly into our shadow, into our sin and brokenness, we discover that even there, even in the darkest recesses of our heart, even here there is nothing to fear for Christ has descended even into this hell.
Some of us, however, may go through periods of our life when times a painful awareness of our brokenness are not a feature just of a particular liturgical season, but are perhaps overwhelming, even sometimes debilitating experiences that seem to stay with us much of the time, a kind of Great Lent with no Pascha. When this happens, it is as though I cannot—or perhaps I refuse to—see Christ in my hell, it’s as though I am too ashamed of what I am, of what I see and what I know God sees so very clearly in me, I am so ashamed that I only look down at the mud on my feet and do not lift up my eyes to see my God, Master and Friend with a towel around his waist stooping to wash my feet. Maybe we are somewhat like Peter. We can’t imagine that our sinless Master would stoop that low, we can’t accept that we actually need our God to stoop so low, so low as to wash even our feet, to be with us in our shadow and sin. We wanted to offer God something more, something better; but as it turns out instead of being better than others, we realize that we are indeed the chief of sinners, the worst of the worst.
Have you ever noticed in the lives of the saints or in books about saints, that whenever they talk about themselves, which is not often, but whenever they do, they only have bad things to say about themselves. They only see their own shadow, they only see their own sin, and in their own eyes, each holy man or woman sees himself or herself as the chief of sinners? I’ve noticed it. I’ve noticed that part of our Transfiguration, or becoming more like Christ, part of that process is learning to hold within ourselves both the painful awareness of the depths of our own sin, our complicity in the pain, suffering and brokenness of the whole world, the utter darkness stubbornly lodged not far from the centre of our hearts, coming to know and see this about ourselves is part of our metamorphosis, part of our change in Christ from mere human beings to sons and daughters of the Light. This seeing of our darkness is part of the process. However, this seeing of our darkness is accompanied by an awareness of God’s nearness, a thankful doxology or joyful exulting in the gifts God graciously pours out—despite our sin, despite our failure. God draws near with the blessings and gifts of His presence and pours them out on us and around us even as we are deeply aware of how unworthy we are of even the slightest and smallest heavenly gift.
Joy and sadness, light and darkness, exaltation and lamentation, despair and hope, looking down and looking up—all of these can exist in our hearts at the same moment. Archimandrite Aimilianos seems to speak of this experience, this experience that I have sometimes likened to holding joy in one hand while also holding sadness in the other. Archimandrite Aimilianos says the following:
Now, at this stage, you begin to sense that God rejoices over you…. Such a joy is a foretaste, an awareness that God is near, that He is coming. It is also a feeling of gratitude, because before you receive God’s gift [the joys of heaven] you see Him emptying His pockets to give them to you.Together with the joy that the soul feels, there comes a second feeling, which is always bound up with it: a feeling of pain. This is the pain of a soul which is so rich and yet so poor. It is the pain of a soul which, in the face of God’s mercy, understands its own hardness, its tragic failure, the dreadful state that it’s in. It understands how small and petty it is, and begins to feel pain. This pain is caused primarily by the soul’s consciousness of its distance from God….The soul is in pain because of its fall and exile. When we reach this point, when our soul begins to feel this pain, we come to the second, extremely critical stage in our communion with God. It’s what the Church Fathers call the “highest intellection.” What does it mean? It’s as if you were standing on some great height, from which you could fall into an abyss, but from where you can also see all there is to see. You’re conscious of having been seized and raised up to a place where you can look into the abyss of your transgressions and understand the depth of your fall.
But there is a problem when we begin to ascend the heights—or at least I can say that I experience this problem. The problem is that I am so used to looking down, I am so used to looking into the abyss, looking at my sin, that I fail to look up. It is as though I am afraid to stop looking at my sin, it’s as though I can’t trust God to hold me as I seem to stand on the edge of that abyss, I can’t seem to trust so that I might relax, breathe deeply a bit and look up and look out at the gracious acts of God happening around me, at the presence of God even in the midst of the brokenness of the world. Or to use a metaphor that I have used often before, to take my eyes off the dung in the dung pile and to look at the flowers growing up all around the dung pile. Yes, my life is a dung pile; but it is a dung pile experiencing God’s grace. Yes the world is a mess, yet still in this messy, messy world, beauty pokes through, kindness happens, gentleness and self-sacrifice out of love appear suddenly as if out of nowhere. God is here. God is present. God has descended even into the dung pile of our world, even into the hell hiding in my heart.
I wonder if this isn’t what St. Silouan was referring to when he said his famous aphorism: “keep your mind in hell and despair not.” Or if it isn’t what his disciple, Elder Sophrony meant when he spoke of going to the edge of the abyss, looking in, and then taking two steps back and having tea. I wonder if maybe these are ways of talking about the same spiritual experience. When God draws near to us and raises us up so that we can see the sin we have been wallowing in, the sin and brokenness and hell that we were swimming in all along, but that only now we ourselves are beginning to perceive the depth and breadth of, when God lifts us up, then perhaps we are at first shocked and ashamed at how much more broken and sinful we are than we had ever suspected. Perhaps we might even have the thought that God may not love us, may not want to be near us, now that we see how rotten we really are. But the truth is, God has seen it all along. God knew how broken we were long before we began to have an inkling of it. God knew and loved. And now, God has lifted us up a little so that we ourselves can see, or begin to see, the depth and breadth of our sin, not to lead us into despair, but to show us the greatness of His love, the immensity of His goodness.
A real long time ago, when I began to climb rocks, it took quite a while before I learned to trust the equipment: the ropes and the anchors. In the beginning, I could never take my eyes off of my hands, off of the rock itself and the next hand hold, the next place to grab onto. The higher I was, the harder it was to enjoy the scenery. But once I learned to trust the equipment, once I wasn’t so afraid of falling, then I could look around a bit. I could see for miles across the valley down below me. I could see the top of eagles as they soared below me. And maybe this is somewhat like our spiritual experience when God lifts us up and we see in frightening ways the depth and breadth of our sin. But instead of equipment, it is God Himself holding us up and instead of focusing our attention on holding onto the rock, we continue to focus our attention on our own sin and brokenness instead of looking about, instead of relaxing a bit knowing that God is holding us up, relaxing a bit and looking about at what God is doing, looking about to see God’s wonders to see God’s nearness, to see the glories that can only be seen from this new and higher perspective.
It is frightening to be held up by God. It is frightening to look into the abyss of our own darkness and sin. It is frightening and it is glorious. Or at least it can be glorious, once you learn to relax in God’s embrace, once you learn to trust the One who has held you from the your mother’s womb, the One whose love never fails. Once you learn to trust, then it can be glorious, then you can see not only your sin, but also the amazing and glorious works of God despite your sin.
Friday, June 12, 2015
Reflections From Tea With Bonnie
|Tea At The Clayburn Store|
This morning my wife and I took one of our occasional half-day vacations. It’s a warmish 19 degree day (68 Fahrenheit) with the sun poking through the clouds. We walked a mile or so up a trail in the hills and then afterward stopped by a country tea and scone place for a bite and a chat and just some quite time together, Bonnie working on her knitting project and I reading a book (what else would I be doing?). Bonnie asked me what I was reading, so I read her a little quote from from Archimandrite Aimilianos.
What does it mean to be dispassionate? It means turning exclusively to God, with all your strength, energy, power, and love. There is no turning aside to anything else whatsoever….
Bonnie’s response to this little word was to say, well I guess you can’t experience dispassion outside a monastery and certainly not if you read novels in the evening (as she likes to do).
I told Bonnie that I didn’t know if novels were absolutely detrimental to dispassion. A lot would depend on what kind of novels one was reading and why one read them and what was happening in one’s heart and mind while reading the novel. I have had moments reading, for example, the earlier George Elliot novels and some of Thomas Hardy and bits of Dickens and much of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, moments when what I was reading launched me into prayer, when the insight of the author expressed in a comment or action or reaction of a character gave me a sudden glimps into myself, into human nature, into the human condition in such a way that my only response was to stop reading because I was praying—or even to be praying at some level even while I was still reading. And as for monastic life being requisite in order to experience dispassion, I am almost certain it is not (though some monastic settings may be much more conducive to developing dispassion than most settings in the world). Nevertheless, there are saints in the world who have attained a high degree of holiness working, for example, in a bakery (here, Crazy John of Athens comes to mind) or as mothers and fathers (here the father of St. Siluan comes to mind).
Of course, a sustained experience of dispassion is different from a moment, a brief encounter with dispassion. For Archimandrite Aimilianos, dispassion, or a “dispassionate capacity” is synonymous with “a state of union or intimacy [with God],” or “a state of prayer.” That is, a state of prayer “not [as] merely an address of words to God, but as an ascent to Him.” And we all, if we are willing, if we will offer ourselves, ascend to God from where we are, in our own octave, from our own place on the key board (to pick up again the metaphor I used last time). Even the beginner, even the prostitute soaked in sin can touch the feet of Jesus, shed tears and for a moment experience an ascent towards God. For a moment, she and even a religious hypocrite like myself, can experience dispassion—or if not dispassion proper (I guess a lot depends on how one defines it), if not dispassion proper then something like dispassion. For a moment. For a moment as the tears fall and as “all of our strength, energy, power, and love” is turned exclusively to God we experience ascent, we experience intimacy, union, prayer, dispassion. For a moment. And then the moment passes.
And I am certain that those who have trained themselves, either in a monastery or in the world to spend hours in quiet through night-time vigils or perhaps through hours of kneading dough all alone in the early morning hours at the bakery, those who have trained themselves to let go of the world even while in the world, these are able to sustain that experience of ascent longer, they are able (as St. John puts it in the Gospel) to abide in Christ and Christ abide in them.
As many of you know, Bonnie is an iconographer. She often laments her supposed spiritual poverty because she is not a bookish, teacherly person like Yours Truly. She thinks that that just because she doesn’t do what I do, she doesn’t write or speak or read books by Greek authors whose names she can’t pronounce, she thinks that because “all she can do” for God is paint icons and sew Altar covers, she the thinks that may never experience the prayer or ascent to God that I (Oh too easily) talk and write about. She will complain that sometimes she can waste a whole day painting and not even remembering to pray, only to have to scrape off a face and start over again the next day. But what she forgets, is that at other times she does pray, she prays so that she almost forgets that she is painting: it is as though the icon is painting itself. And this experience, in my opinion is, or certainly seems to be, that state of prayer, that ascent to God that Archimandrite Aimilianos is speaking about.
You know, to use the parable of the Land Owner entrusting his goods to His servants as it is recorded in Luke’s Gospel, whether one doubles one mina or ten minas, to work with and increase what you have been given is just that: to work with and increase what you have been given. Most people I know are one or two mina types. What I mean is that they really only seem to have one or two ways they feel that they are able to connect with God, to turn exclusively to God with all their strength, energy, power and love. I have a parishioner who is a professional house painter. Not only does he absolutely refuse to be paid for work that he does on the Church, he actually prefers to be left alone at the church while he works, so that he is there alone with God. Taking one of the minas God has given him, he offers his attention exclusively to God with all of his strength, energy, power, and love. I wonder what kinds of ascents to God he experiences as he is there alone on a ladder, with a roller in his hand, offering back to God what God has given him?
God has given all of us something that we can give back to Him, something by which we can ascend with all of our strength, energy, power and love. Do you wake up in the middle of the night? Offer that to God. Turn necessity into an offering—as the Church hymns say of the martyrs who reasoned: since we all have to die anyway, why not turn a necessity to our advantage and offer our lives to God? If you can’t sleep, chant akathist hymns. Turn necessity to your advantage. Is your work monotonous? Say the Jesus Prayer. Focus your inner attention exclusively to God. Take the one thing you have and bring it to God with all of your attention, all of your strength, energy, power and love.
“God is with us,” Archimandrite Aimilianos say, “at every stage in our progression.” No matter where we begin, no matter if we only have the strength to show up and stand at the back of the Church beating our breast and saying inwardly, “have mercy on me a sinner,” no matter if all we have to offer are two copper coins or the tears of our brokenness, no matter what the little bit of near nothingness we feel we have to offer to God, if we offer it with full attention, with all of our strength and energy and power and love, if we do this then no matter where we are, God is with us and we are beginning to experience prayer, beginning to experience in some small way and for at least a brief moment union and intimacy and dispassion before God.
And even though I am writing about this right now, I must confess that I often forget this. I often get bogged down in sadness because I seem so inadequate, so ungifted, so completely lacking in any gift from God that I might offer back to Him that I am tempted to cave in on myself. I am tempted to not offer God the little bit I have, the laundry, for example, I have to fold, the floor that needs to be cleaned, the peas that need to be picked in the garden. These I can offer to God. I can fold laundry with my attention on God, certainly not with the kind of attention that a holy person might. But I can fold laundry attending to God with all of the strength I do have (which isn’t much), with all of the energy I have (which is even less), with all of the power and love I do have. With what I do have to give God, I can enter the garden and pick peas, I can get down on my knees and clean the kitchen floor, alone, just me and God. With what I have, my work can be an offering, my words of prayer can, perhaps—even if only for a moment—my words of prayer can transform into a state of prayer, a brief, a little ascent to God.
And when I do offer what I do have instead of lamenting what I don’t have, then, as Archimandrite Aimilianos says, “God is with us at every stage in our progression.” Then even in the mundane and the boring, even in the frustration of trying to put in words thoughts I barely grasp, even when I can’t seem to do any more than keep my mouth shut praying that I do not hurt someone by speaking the unkind words that are coming to my mind, even when I know that there is something I should be doing, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is and so I wander around the house saying, “Lord have mercy.” Even then, God is with me. And that, I think, is the beginning of heaven even while I am still on a sometimes hellish earth.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
From the Plain To The Foothills
|Mt. San Jacinto|
“So there you are on the heights, surveying the earth below and the sky above. Your intellect [nous] now begins to feel its freedom and wants to fly.”
I enjoy reading spiritual literature from holy people in the Orthodox Christian tradition. I like it because I often catch glimpses of myself, of my own struggles and my own triumphs. In many ways, books have been like a surrogate spiritual father to me. However, there is also a great danger in reading books for spiritual guidance. Often—actually, just about always in my experience—the writers of spiritual books, especially the classical spiritual books of the Orthodox tradition such as The Ascetic Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John of Sinai, and the the writings found in the Philokalia, these were written to be read by monastic men and women who have already attained to a high degree of spiritual life. They was written, we might say, for those who have already attained the foothills and have now set their eyes on the heights.
But what about us, what about us who dwell on the plain, both those of us plain dwellers in the world and in monasteries, what about us? Why would we read such literature written for those so far ahead of us and what are the dangers of reading such literature? As far as I can see, there are two dangers, both of which I have struggled with—the second more than the first. The first danger is to read of the spiritual heights of holy men and women and lacking a flesh and blood spiritual father who will help us see who we really are, we read of these sublime experiences with God and think that we have already attained to them. The second is just the opposite: having read of extreme ascetical struggle and the profundity of the encounter with God these men and women experienced, we despair that we will ever really discipline ourselves at all and we wonder if we have really ever actually encountered God at all.
The first danger, thinking that you have already—or just about—attained to the heights of the life with God described by the Holy Fathers, this danger comes about because first of all we think we understand what these fathers are talking about because we can define (to our own satisfaction) the meaning of the words they use. We can do this because we find certain parallels to what they say in our own experience. And I don’t think we are always mistaken when we think this. There is a sort of scale to spiritual realities and our experience of them, somewhat like scales on a well-tuned piano. That is, starting at one end of the piano we strike certain notes, shrill and of small duration—but notes nonetheless. And as we move across the keyboard, we encounter the same notes, but with each octave offering a deeper experience, a longer reverberation, a less shrill, but more deeply moving encounter. So yes, even reading of very holy monks and nuns who have disciplined themselves to the extreme and who have walked with God in the heights—even while still in the body—yes, even reading these we can sometimes see parallels to our own spiritual experience on the other end of the keyboard.
The Life of St. Seraphim of Sarov is an excellent example. I will certainly never experience the self discipline that he experienced nor the spiritual heights, but still reading about his life can inspire me where I'm at. I have never knelt on a rock to pray—much less for three years, outdoors, and during the Russian winter. However, I do get tired kneeling at the Kneeling Vespers of Pentecost. My feet do get sore standing for prayers. Sometimes, when I endure this discomfort, I experience a kind of spiritual high, it is as if my body finally submits at some level and I stop thinking about it. Then, maybe only for a brief moment, I sometimes feel a kind of spiritual freedom, a moment before God, a moment in which I am not just saying the words of prayer, but I am somehow actually before God, somehow actually entering into a prayer that is beyond saying the prayers. St. Seraphim can inspire me, and in a very scaled down sense, I may indeed be experiencing some small part on my end of the keyboard of what he experienced on his end of the keyboard.
So I don’t think it is necessarily arrogant to think or say that you have experienced in some small way the life with God described in the Philokalia or described by St. John of Sinai. The problem is when we forget where we are on the scale. It’s like knowing where you are on a hike up a mountain. Northeast of Palm Springs is Mt. San Jacinto (Mount Jack, we used to call it). Mount Jack is about 11,000 feet tall (3,300 meters). I have climbed Mount Jack a few times, but never all the way from the valley. I have also hiked the foothills of the same mountain, and there is one thing I can tell you: the experience of walking up a foothill is in many ways very similar to walking up to the peak. It is very similar and very different. Walking up hill is hard work whether you are starting in the valley going up the foothills or already in the heights walking to the peak. However the dangers of the foothills are different from the dangers of the peak.
In the foothills there are cacti and various venomous snakes and no water. In the heights, the air is thin and cool, the weather can change quickly and dramatically, and a slip at many points means certain death. Nonetheless, an experienced hiker in the foothills could learn a lot about hiking foothills from the stories of men and women who have scaled the peaks. However, just because, for example, Archimandrite Aimilianos speaks of a spiritual height where the passions cease to bother you—we might liken the passions to the snakes and cacti of the foothills—that doesn’t mean that I no longer need to be on my guard against besetting sins and passions that arise in me. Although I am inspired by the mountain climbers, I cannot forget that I am still just rising out of the plain. I have to stay vigilant against the dangers of the plain and of the foothills.
And yet, sometimes these dangers, the snakes and the cacti, the passions and my lazy, selfish tendencies, are sometimes so much on my mind, that I forget to look up to see the mountains before me. When I am hiking in the desert my eyes are continually on the ground. Rattlesnakes, and the much more poisonous sidewinders, are common. There are “Spanish bayonets,” a yucca-like plant with poky leaves that grow near the ground and are so strong and sharp they can pierce a leather boot—experience is speaking here. The dangers of hiking out of the valley and into the foothills are many. If I am not careful, I can despair of ever getting out of the valley, of ever walking closer with God, of ever even seeing the heights, much less climbing them myself.
This is the second danger of reading spiritual literature. When I compare what I read with what I actually experience, my life with God seems so paltry as to perhaps not exist at all. Sometimes I wonder, since my own relationship with God is so far from what I read about, I wonder if I really have a relationship with God at all. St. Seraphim prayed kneeling on a rock for three years, I moan if I kneel for ten minutes. Archimandrite Aiminianos speaks of “the highest intellection,” when “just as you can look down from the window of an airplane and see the world you've left below, so now you look down onto the self you've left behind, while your intellect ascends to the heights.” But for me, the highest point of my spiritual journey is to experience a moment’s peace, a moment when I am not besieged by tempting or tormenting or just plain distracting thoughts. For me the Jesus prayer is not, as some spiritual writers have said, a warm up leading into wordless ecstasy in prayer. For me the Jesus prayer is a club by which I beat back the coyotes and the snakes and the prickly pear cactus—my impassioned thoughts in all their forms—that seem always to be closing in on me. This is my spiritual life. No heights for me, just a step by step struggle to make it into the foothills.
But what I have to constantly call to mind as I slog through the sand of despondency is that God is with me here, even in the desert, even before I reach the foothills (or in the many sandy patches among the foothills). I would not be longing for the mountains, if God were not already with me, if the Holy Spirit were not already drawing me. Every now and then a vista opens up. Every now and then you can lift your eyes and see something a little higher than yourself, something that helps you to keep on going.
You know, it’s a funny thing. The further you are from the mountain, the easier it is to see it’s peak. Once you get close, once you get close enough to start climbing the foothills, you are too close to see the peak any more—except for very occasional glimpses. All you can see most of the time is the next hill, the next big barrier between you and your goal of drawing closer to God. And so sometimes it helps to read the stories of those who have been to the peak. Even though I am no where near the peak myself, even though I am a spiritual infant, a beginner who seldom looks up because he is too often encountering snakes and cactus, even though I am not very near God in my heart, still I know that I can grow closer to God because others have. I can climb a little higher because others have been to the top, so I know it’s possible; it’s possible to really know God, to walk with God and to be transfigured like Christ by the Holy Spirit’s presence. I know it’s possible because others have been there. And that helps me to keep on climbing.
Monday, June 08, 2015
On What Is Only Mine To Give
Mother Alexandra, formally Princess Ileana of Romania, back in 1960 wrote a little booklet called “Our Father: Meditations on The Lord’s Prayer.” The booklet is divided into fourteen prayers each focusing on a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer and arranged to be prayed with one’s morning and evening prayers over a week (so there’s a morning and an evening prayer for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.). In the very last prayer, the prayer for Sunday evening, the prayer contains this sentence: “Only this have I to recommend me, that Thou has made me; nothing have I to give Thee, for all I have has come of Thee; only my love is mine to give or to withhold.”
Archimandrite Aimilianos says that when we go to Church with longing, we often encounter God in our prayers. Not always, of course. Nothing is formulaic in our relationship with God. Nonetheless, if all we really have to give God is our love, then it seems that if we are going to encounter God at all, if we are going to offer ourselves to God in any way or through any service, then it seems to me that having love in our heart and being motivated by love are essential if we really want to know God, if we really want to see God, as Archimandrite Aimilianos puts it.
Of course love is not static, as though you can say, “You either love me or you don’t.” Love grows. Love fades, it can grow cold. So often for many of us, our religious life becomes routine. Even if it is rigorous, even if we do our best to keep the fasts and feasts, even if we give generously, and serve the Church in lots of small and large ways, even if we appear to everyone else to be zealous, pious Orthodox Christians, still all of this activity can become routine, mere habit, like a marriage that has grown cold—or if not cold, perhaps just lukewarm.
It’s not that habit is wrong. St. Isaac the Syrian speaks at length on the importance of developing good habits. It is good to have a habit of prayer and of fasting, a habit of giving to the Church and of going to confession and Communion of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ our God. Habit is good, but habit without love, that’s not good. Habit without love may be partly what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of the Pharisees (quoting the Prophet Isaiah), “These people draw near me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
I think I do that. I think I sometimes draw near to God with only my lips, only the words of the prayers, only the outer actions. I draw near to God with my lips, but my heart is somewhere else. And as wretched as that makes me, at least I know that I am not alone with this problem. Apparently St. John of Damascus experienced the same problem. In one of his pre-Communion prayers, St. John of Damascus begins with the words, “Behold I stand at the gates of Your Temple, yet I refrain not from my evil thoughts….” This problem of drawing near to God with our lips, out of habit or convention, yet having our hearts far away, is perhaps a common problem. Many of us, and often, it seems, fail to bring to God the one thing we actually have to Give Him: love.
Love does not always have to be emotional. People are different, and how each person feels and experiences love can be different. However, one thing, I think, is certain: love always requires a certain attention, a certain focus, a certain intentionality and devotion of the mind and heart. I cannot say I am loving someone by doing some act of kindness for them if my principle thought before, during and after the action is how I will benefit in some way from the action. Sure it's always good to be kind. It is good to have a habit of kindness even if it is not really motivated by love, but we should not fool ourselves (and we cannot fool God). To give hoping to receive, to act kindly out of a sense of mere social obligation, to give so that I can get, this is not love. And love, according to Mother Alexandra is all that is really my own that I can give.
I can look into someone’s eyes and say the words, “I love you,” but if my mind is somewhere else, then the words have no meaning. And so, what should I do? If I have a habit of going to Church, of praying and of faithfulness in various religious obligations, but my heart is cold, what should I do? Should I just stop praying? Should I stop going to Church if my heart is not in it? What should I do if I realize—like St. John of Damascus—that though I draw near to God’s Temple, my heart is full of evil thoughts? Should I just stop drawing near to God with my lips if I realize that my heart is far from Him?
However, there are times when the right thing to do may indeed be to cut back on your actions and to curtail your words. This is sometimes the case with young adults who have been raised by very pious parents. Having been raised to say all of the prayers and attend all of the services and to keep all of the pious traditions, some young adults once they get a chance to do so, pull away from everything. They may lie to themselves and to everyone else that they are busy (after all, isn’t that the universal excuse we all use, the excuse no one dare challenge: I’m busy with studies, busy with work, etc.). Many parents lament when they see their children fall away from piety; however, something very important may be going on in their child’s life. It may be that the child is trying to find his or her level, trying to find what of the faith that they have received is really theirs. They are indeed trying to love God genuinely.
This is a dangerous time, no doubt, and parents with children who have wandered from piety should pray diligently for them realizing that in no small way their own sins have contributed to their child’s struggles. Now is the time for parents to draw near to God with longing to find mercy and help in the time of need. Now is the time to pray, not preach, for only God is able to bring the prodigal home.
An old priest once told me a story about a man who had confessed to him that he was always angry and frustrated when he came to Church. This man was a regular attender and active in many ways in the Church community. Do you know what this priest told him to do? He told him to not come to church so often, to come only once a month or so. After an initial struggle with guilt, this man began to pull back, he began to attend church only once a month. And for the first year or so, having most Sunday mornings to himself was a great joy, and he found many enjoyable ways to take advantage of the extra half day each weekend. But then, after a few of years, the strangest thing happened, this man started coming to church more often, started asking the priest for spiritual advice, started being more at ease and prayerful in Church. Why was this? It was because this man was now coming to Church out of love, out of longing, out of a desire to meet God. Having been freed from the self imposed “have to” and the “should” of strict religious observance, after a while, this man had started to become lonely of God, he had started to want to express his love, he had started to want to draw near to God again.
All we have to give to God is our love. Religious observances, prayers, fasting, generous donations, all of these are ways we express that love. These are all ways that the longing to draw near to God is expressed and through which we can come to actually encounter God. All of these disciplines of the religious and spiritual life require practice and consistency and, yes, they all work best as they become habit for us, all of these are ways to express the one thing we have to give God, the one thing that is our own to give. Love is all that is really my own to give.
Saturday, May 30, 2015
On Needing God's Kneading
Archimandrite Aimilianos in a lecture entitled “On The State That Jesus Confers” says that the basic human problem is that we do not see God. In fact, most people cannot see God, but can only seek Him. This is because our eyes (both physical and the eyes of our souls) are earthly, they are trained to see, to think about and to contemplate only physical things and what can be deduced from physically perceptible things or what directly affects how we feel, that is, the emotional realities that are at work within us—although some people work hard to ignore even theses.
If, however, we want to see God, where do we begin? Archimandrite Aimilianos says that we must begin with what we can do. We can seek; we can come to God with longing. In other words, if you want to see God, you have to want to see God. I’m not being redundant. There is wanting, and then there is wanting. I can want to become a doctor, for example; but if I don’t want to become a doctor more than I want to play video games, more than I want to hang out with my friends and more than just about anything else, I will never become a doctor. There is wanting, and then there is really wanting: wanting so much that it is pretty much all I want. And so we might say that if you want to see God, you have to want to see God more than just about anything else.
Now I may be stating the obvious here, but I should probably make clear that the word “see” is a metaphor. Archimandrite Aimilianos is not talking about physical sight, neither is he talking about some sort of inner vision or soul sight within our imagination. Rather, by seeing God, he is referring to a knowing of and encounter with God that is so real that it is like seeing. He is saying that one can know and encounter God with such clarity and force that “seeing” is the only adequate word to describe the experience. Just as we say that we know something to be the case, to be true, if we see it ourselves, test it, feel it, try it and in many physical ways experience it, so also Archimandrite Aimilianos tells us we can encounter and experience and know God in ways that involve so much surety that this knowledge of God is more real to us than the evidence of our physical senses. In fact, he would say, that this knowledge of God is indeed more real than the whole world perceptible through my senses and my logic, more real because the God whom we can come to know is not merely real, but is the source and ground of all reality. All that is immediately perceptible through the physical senses or through logic or even human feeling are only contingent realities, realities contingent on the One, on the unperceptible God whom we can, nonetheless, come to perceive if we seek for Him.
And yet seeking God is not like seeking things that I can physically or logically see because in seeking for God, we cannot find God. God is not to be found. But, you might ask, if God is not to be found by seeking, why seek Him? Actually the answer is quite simple. God cannot be found, regardless of how diligently we seek Him, God cannot be found, but God does reveal Himself. But when God reveals Himself, if we are not seeking Him, we will not see Him or know him. There is a passage in the Prophet Jeremiah (17:6-8) in which the prophet compares those whose hearts are not turned toward the Lord to a shrub in the desert that doesn’t even know when the rain comes. That is, when we are not seeking God, when we are not longing to see or be touched by God, then when God does come, when God does reveal Himself to us, we don’t see it, we don’t perceive it.
And so if we want to see God, we must seek Him, but in seeking Him we will not find Him; but rather, by seeking Him, we prepare ourselves to see Him when He reveals Himself to us. Someone once explained it this way, “You can do absolutely nothing to make the sun rise, but you can be awake when it rises.”
Similarly, we can be awake, we can be watching, looking, seeking God so that when God reveals Himself we can perceive it. However, it is not as though God is one minute revealing Himself and the next minute not, as though God were playing hide and seek with us. God is continually revealing Himself to us, speaking to us and making Himself known to us in ways that can only be perceived as we allow our minds to be changed—or to use the biblical word—as we learn to repent. To repent means to change your mind, to think and perceive differently. In other words, God is only perceived by us as we change, or rather, as we allow ourselves to be changed. And the very seeking of God changes us because wanting one thing more than anything changes everything.
When we begin to seek God, according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, we ask God to satisfy our desires; and when He doesn’t, we think that He is ignoring us. We ask God to realize our hopes, and we are dismayed because they are not fulfilled. We ask God to let us feel His nearness, and God seems to stay far away. God does not answer these prayers because they are all, in a sense, requests to stay were we are, requests for God to strengthen what we already think, already envision, what we desire now. In fact, Archimandrite Aimilianos goes so far as to say that God does not answer these prayers because we are asking God to strengthen the very things that God, through repentance, wants to lead us out of.
And so we experience a kind of tribulation, a separating of the wheat from the chaff, a kind of suffering that takes us through what feels like a desert of God’s absence. But God is not absent. God is as near as He has ever been. God is near and is helping us change our minds, helping us to let go of inappropriate or immature ways of thinking about God and ourselves, helping us to let go of ways of knowing and feeling the nearness of God that rely primarily on our more shallow feelings or external serendipitous events that confirm our expectations, our hopes and our desires. God is forcing us to go deeper into ourselves so that we can come to know God more deeply. God is taking away what is familiar so that we can reach out to perceive and know God more as God is and thus to grow ourselves.
Archimandrite Aimilianos gives us a helpful image to understand how we begin to see God when we are seeking Him. He says that we do not begin by seeing God’s face or even his back, but we begin by first seeing God’s hands. We see God’s hands as God kneads us like dough. As our seeking brings us to Church, to the Tradition, to the people of God where we hope to find God, our expectations are thwarted in many ways, not the least of which are our expectations about what we expect from the Church. Instead of the Glory of God, a lot of what we see at first are jars of clay, broken, cracked and misshapen. We look to the place where God’s Glory dwells, and much of what we see in the beginning is the brokenness of others: foolishness, selfishness and hypocrisy—not greater than our own, mind you, if we are honest with ourselves. But still, we had hoped to find something different, we had hoped that people here would be different. And this very disappointment, for many, is the beginning of the kneading.
Disappointment leads to contemplation. We begin to think more deeply, and consequently, we begin to look more deeply, to seek more deeply, and through this contemplation, our eyes are adjusted, we begin to see things differently, we begin, first of all, to see ourselves as we hadn’t seen ourselves before, and thus we begin for the first time to see God, we see God’s hands pushing and pulling and pressing us, kneading us, changing us. Archimandrite Aimilianos puts it this way:
You contemplate the depths of your soul being kneaded by grace, like dough being kneaded into bread. Your soul is now a malleable lump kneaded by the hands of God. You see our soul being worked on, passing through His fingers…. All you see is His hand, as we see it in certain icons, emerging from a cloud in order to bless the saint standing below it. And now you are standing next to God, watching His hand as it kneads your soul.
And this is the real beginning of the spiritual life, of a life with God. Most of our spiritual journey is seeking, seeking and not finding much until we begin to see God: we see God’s hand. We see God’s hand opposing us, pushing us, kneading us, making us into bread. And when we can indeed begin to see God’s hand in all that we do not expect, in every disappointment, in every vicissitude of life, every uncomfortable change and unexpected outcome, when we see God’s fingerprints in everything that humbles us, everything that forces us to trust only in the mercy of God, when we see God’s hand here, we are now, according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, we are now beginning to see God, we are beginning to see the hand of God.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Of Course There Are Many Inconsistencies
St. Theophan the Recluse is today one of the most popular spiritual writers of 19th century Russia. In many ways his great gift is that he was able to summarize the whole Orthodox teaching on inner growth and spiritual life and apply it to the very specific context of 19th century Russia, especially 19th century Russian monasticism. Like his near contemporary, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, St. Theophan recognized that the monastic institutions of his time were broken in many ways but were nonetheless
“springs of sweetness…by which the soul is filled!—the Word of God, and daily church services, and the reading, and the fasting, and the guidance of the elders, and God’s enlightenments, both secret and open warnings, the ceaseless state of prayer from which come all goodness and [spiritual] gain.”
And while all of this is what is wonderful, or potentially wonderful, about a monastic life, about a life intensely focused on the inner life with God, while it is this that draws us to the monastery or to a disciplined ascetic life in the world, the reality of our lived experience, whether in the monastery or as a pious Orthodox Christian in the world, the reality of our experience is that much of the time, most of the time, the “springs of sweetness,” as St. Theophan calls them, seem to be hard to find and separated by long dry stretches.
The book, Kindling the Divine Spark: Teaching on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal, is a collection of talks, letters mostly, given by St. Theophan to women monastics. In one of his talks, in the talk that I quote above, St. Theophan speaks of the glories of life in a monastery and then he makes a the following statement:
“Of course, many inconsistencies occur here, too…”
Ah, there’s the rub. There’s the bit that throws us off, “many inconsistencies occur here, too.” And the saint says, “of course,” as though we should have never expected things to be consistent. But we do. We do expect things to be consistent and we are offended when they are not.
Part of the spiritual journey of our life with God is the work of uniting the mind and the heart. This is a dominant theme in St. Theophan’s various writings. This is an aspect or teaching of the spiritual life that I have found is relatively popular. People like to talk about bringing their mind into their heart. It’s an inner spiritual practice that takes a certain amount of attention and discipline, but with a little practice it often quickly brings peace, and (more to the point I want to talk about today) it is something I can do by myself, in my own private, little inner world. However, another aspect of the spiritual life, an aspect we touched on a little while ago when we spoke of Abbess Thasia’s struggles at the beginning of her monastic journey, another essential aspect of spiritual life is inner crucifixion, or as St. Isaac put it, the unseen martyrdom.
We each of us want to have a certain amount of control over our life and circumstances. We want to understand what is happening to us. We want to see how what we are experiencing right now fits into what we call God’s plan for our lives, but what often turns out to be our own version or vision of what we think or want God’s plan for our lives to be. And we know this is so, we know that it really isn’t God’s plan for our life that we are concerned about by the very fact that we are so disturbed by the inconsistencies—or as St. Theophan puts it, “Of course, [the] many inconsistencies.”
We all in various ways and at various seasons of our life fall prey to the temptation to think that we know how our life is supposed to go, how important people in our life are going to behave, how we are going to, or how we are supposed to, feel when certain things happen or don’t happen in our life. We think we know, and then we are so surprised, often scandalized, sometimes even offended to the point of turning away from God in some small or large ways, when our life is inconsistent, when spiritual leaders, church leaders, holy elders of the monastery, when men and women we trusted in and hoped in, when the people and institutions we trusted in are inconsistent. But inconsistency, many inconsistencies, St. Theophan tells us, are “of course” an essential part of our spiritual journey.
Why is that? Why must people disappoint us? Why must institutions (churches, monasteries, hierarchies of various sorts and orders) why must they “of course” be inconsistent? Why is this an essential part of our growth in Christ? Well, the first and most important answer to this question is that I do not know. I do not know why it has to be this way, but I do know that it is this way. I don’t know why people fail. I don’t know why I fail. I don’t know why sometimes I can say a word that sets someone free, and two days later say a word that offends and deeply wounds someone I love and want to help. I don’t know why I can do the right thing in one situation (and be praised unworthily for it, for I really didn’t know what I was doing); and in another situation do the wrong thing and be despised or even reviled for it (though I really didn’t realize I was doing the wrong thing at the time). I don’t know why I am so inconsistent—except for the fact that I am a sinner and that I am, at a deep level, very seriously broken.
And if I am deeply broken and that is why I am so inconsistent, perhaps that is also the reason why the men and women and the institutions that I look up to and depend on often seem to hurt and disappoint me. Maybe it’s because we are all human and for some unexplainable reason God has chosen to put His Glory in such jars of clay. Always in jars of clay, earthen vessels. There is no Glory of God in this world not hidden in a jar of clay.
In my experience I have found the question, “why do bad things happen,” in all of its various forms, is not a very helpful question. It is not helpful because it keeps our focus outside us, as though the bad things that happen are “out there,” as though the thing God really cared about was outside me, what happens to me, rather than God caring mostly—and I might even say entirely—about what my response is, what my response to what happens outside me is. That’s what God cares about—at least as far as I am concerned. Yes, God’s providential care is over all that He has created, but in as much as God’s calling for me (and for every Christian believer) is to be formed into His image, I can confidently assert that how I respond to what happens around me, how I turn to God for help in times of need, how I repent when I see my own sin (not the sins of others—that’s their business), these are the only things God cares about as far as I’m concerned.
And once we shift our focus inward, then everything changes. Once I see the darkness inside myself, then instead of asking why bad things happen to me, I begin to wonder why it is that anything good happens to me. Because I am so inconsistent, it is amazing to me that anyone shows any consistency at all. Because I am so easily confused, so self-obsessed and so tormented by passions, it is a bonafide miracle that I experience any Grace, any comfort, any love from those around me at all. If those around me are experiencing only one quarter of the inner conflict with depression, lust, selfishness, confusion and self-exulting pride that I do, it is truly a miracle of the Grace of God that I experience any good, any blessing, any encouragement of Grace through the people and institutions God has placed in my life.
In fact, we might even say that one of the reasons why there must, “of course [be] many inconsistencies” is because it is the very inconsistency of the world around us that forces us to go deeper into ourselves. When everything is going pretty much according to plan, when everyone is behaving pretty much as I expected, then it is very easy to stay stranded in a very shallow spiritual experience, a very shallow knowledge of God and of myself. So long as our spiritual life can be managed with nothing more than the rational aspect of our minds—as though progress in the spiritual life were somewhat like progress in mathematics or progress in the management of a construction project—so long as the spiritual life is mostly about just figuring things out, so long as this is the case, we will never grow to know God or ourselves very well. As many of the Church Fathers have pointed out, and as St. Theophan himself summarizes for us very neatly in the Book The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned To It, our true knowledge of God and of ourselves takes place at a deeper level of knowing than that which can be processed rationally.
If it weren’t for the inconsistencies of our experience, we might never learn to lay aside (or put in its place) the rational aspect of our mind to go deeper and come to know God and ourselves at that deeper level, the level that the Fathers of the Philokalia call noetic (which is sometimes misleadingly translated as “intellect”). This movement to a deeper knowledge of God seldom comes to us without our first coming to the end of our rational systems and expectations. It seems that it is only through disappointments, often experiences that seem death-like to us, experiences that seem like inner crucifixions, like a martyrdom that no one sees, it is experiences like these that create in us a crisis, a crises that forces us to become aware of something deeper in ourselves, a knowledge of God that transcends even death, even the death of disappointment, betrayal and failure. The outer pain we discover functions as birth pangs within us giving birth to a deeper, more secure, more profound relationship with God.
However, all births in this fallen world are dangerous. Death is real, but so too is the Life that can come from death. Isn’t that what the Resurrection teaches us? Three days in the tomb can seem like an eternity to the one in the tomb, to the one in the belly of a Great Fish. But like Jonah, we cry out to God from the belly of the Great Fish, like Peter we cry out as we sink, “Help, Lord!” And in our distress we let go of our rational expectations, all that we had figured we could depend on, all of that is let go and in a kind of terror, all that is left is only God and me, only His help and my death.
And God does help, in various ways at various times, almost always unpredictably. God lets us suffer, lets us stew, lets us wallow in the mire for a while, and when the time is right, when we are ready, when we have come to our senses, when we have come to the end of ourselves, then God makes a way of escape, opens a door or provides us with another opportunity. This is the way of salvation, the narrow way, the way that few find, for it is the way of crucifixion, it is the way of transformation from the old to the new, from earth to heaven. This way of inconsistency is also a necessary part of our salvation.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
On Raising Snakes and Losing Mittens
Remove from me the way of unrighteousness
and with Thy law have mercy on me.
Psalm 118: 29
St. Theophan the Recluse in a wonderful commentary on Psalm 118 (119), commenting on verse 29, makes the following comment about sin:
St. Theophan’s comment:
The person who endures assaults from sin cannot but realize that he himself gave sin such power over himself; he reared the serpent in himself, and consequently suffers justly; and if justly, then where is his salvation, if not in [God’s] lovingkindness. And [the psalmist] prays in that sense: “I am guilty, and justly have to bear these attacks; but show me mercy, O Lord, according to the law of Thy lovingkindness set aside this way of unrighteousness.”
Some important and reoccurring steps in our spiritual life involve the following: A) accepting that the temptations we experience are largely self chosen and self induced; and B) that the suffering we experience, the unseen martyrdom, is itself the judgement, you might even say God’s judgement, for these sins, for this “opening of the door for the demons” as St. Isaac the Syrian puts it; and C) that I cannot of myself overcome these temptations, that they are too strong for me, that the little serpent I nurtured within myself (when I thought I was in control) has become a great viper that is poisoning me to death; and D) finally, that God’s response to my predicament is according to the law of His mercy, the law of His lovingkindness.
Many people hit a roadblock in their relationship with God when the weight of their sins catches up to them, when they realize they are trapped in a cycle of sin or habit of ungodly behaviour that they cannot control. It is a road block because now that they see and are fully convinced of their wretchedness, their complete and repeated failure in an area that they also realize they had allowed to grow and develop, once they are convinced of their fault, many people shut down in some way their relationship with God out of fear of God’s wrath, God’s judgement—as though God hasn’t known all along what you have now recently come to realize. When we become intensely aware of our shortcomings, sins and failures, we are the ones who are surprised and ashamed, not God. God has known and seen everything all along and has been waiting patiently for you to see it, for you to become aware of it.
In fact, the very wrath of God that many fear at this point, when they come to see their own deep brokenness, is not something that God is waiting to reveal. No, it is the very pain and turmoil you are now experiencing. The wrath of God is what the Bible calls the painful consequences of our sins, the result of our own sinful wandering, the venom of the serpent we have nurtured in our heart. This is the “just judgement” St. Theophan is talking about, the just judgement that brings us to our senses—like the prodigal son suffering in the pigsty, we too come to our senses and say to ourselves, “I will return to my Father. Perhaps he will accept me as a slave.” And of course, what does the prodigal son find out? He finds out that coming to his Father, confessing his sin and having the humble willingness to be a slave, the prodigal son finds out that the Father has nothing but compassion for him, what St. Theophan calls “The Law of [God’s] lovingkindness.”
But what about wrath? What about the judgement of God? What about the suffering that I justly deserve? I know now that I deserve God’s wrath, so now more than ever I fear it. I fear it, yet I know I deserve it. I deserve to suffer and there is a kind of pride, a kind of self-determination, that keeps me from seeking relief from God—no, not until I can do better. No, if I won’t show mercy to myself, then I will not ask God to show me mercy.
Yes, I know this experience well. I have come to this crossroad many times. This is the crossroad where we choose, where we choose either to hide our shame, to wallow in the pigsty, to creep in the shadows of the fig trees in a mixture of fear, shame, self-justification, and pride—a strange mix indeed. We chose to hide and lick our wounds by blaming others—our parents, our teachers, our siblings, our culture, perhaps even God Himself. At this crossroad we can choose to hide and blame, or we can choose to step boldly out from behind the fig leaf. We can stand naked before God (who has know along that we were naked), we can stand naked before God not hiding our shame, not making excuses for our weaknesses, for our failures, for our addictions. We can stand naked before God and say, “Father I am unworthy, I do not deserve to have you clothe me; but I am naked, please clothe me.”
It is kind of like a child losing her mittens again. But unlike our parents here on earth (who are as broken as we are), God is our heavenly Father whose law is lovingkindness. We have lost our mittens and our hands our cold. This is the judgement, the wrath (if you will), this is the suffering that comes from losing our mittens. But our heavenly Father can clothe us again, in fact He longs to clothe us, he knows the suffering of cold hands. Our God has become human, He knows what it is to suffer from the consequences of sin, to be a victim, to have his mittens taken away by the schoolyard bully and to stand with red, stinging fingers in the cold. God knows, and so God longs to clothe you.
But God will not clothe you unless you ask, unless you confess, unless you are willing to come out from your hiding place, bearing the shame so that God can clothe you and take away your shame.
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