Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Sinner, Yet Not Sinning

St. John of Kronstadt Press has recently published a translation of St. Theophan the Recluse’s commentary on Psalm 118 (119 in most English Bibles).  Like most of St. Theophan’s writings, this commentary is full of citations from the Scripture and from the Holy Fathers.  St. Theophan, as do most Orthodox spiritual writers, never saw himself as an original thinker, but rather as someone who breathed in the insight and teaching of holy men and women before him and having incorporated and assimilated this insight and teaching into his own life, then exhales.  He exhales not strictly memorized recitations of what was said before, but life-filled words appropriate to the specific context and audience he is speaking to.  This is the Orthodox way.  We don’t merely recite those who have gone before us.  We imbibe what has been passed down to us—the example and teaching of our holy fathers and mothers—and having brought this teaching to life in ourselves, we then share the wisdom we have received in life-giving actions and words.  St. Theophan’s commentary on Psalm 118 is full of such a life-giving words.

One of the life-giving insights that has helped me in St. Theophan’s commentary on Psalm 118 has to do with the paradox of being a sinner yet not sinning.  Beginning with a quotation from St. Macarios of Egypt, St. Theophan explains both this paradox and how it can best be understood so as to help us grow in humility in our relationship with God.  St. Macarios says that the Holy Apostles could not sin because they were filled with the Grace of God in such a way that they did not will to (or want to) sin.  However, quoting Blessed Augustine, St. Theophan asks how this is possible since St. John in his first epistle says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”?  After all, we believe the saints (and especially the Apostles), walked in the ways of the Lord, therefore they have not worked iniquity (Psalm 118: 3), yet “no one lives and does not sin” according to the Divine Liturgy of the Church.  How do we understand this paradox?

To explain this paradox, St. Theophan (following Blessed Augustine) points us to chapter seven of the book of Romans where St. Paul says, “It is not I who do it, but sin which dwells in me.”  That is, the sin that St. Paul finds working in his members (in his body and mind) is, on the one hand, his sin because it does not belong to another, it is experienced in his own body; but on the other hand, the sin he experiences in his members is not his because he does not choose it and in as far as he is able, he does not act upon it or let it dwell in his mind.  St. Paul says, “I do what I would not, and it is no more I that do it” (Romans 7:20).  St. Theophan explains, “When the sin inside us acts in us, then we are not doing it, as long as our will does not agree with it and keeps the members of our body from obeying it; for what can sin do in us, without us, except to invite and induce us to what is forbidden?  If no consent from our will follows, then although there is a motion of passion, it has no effect on us.”

What does this mean?  It means that sin does indeed dwell in our body and mind in a way that, in one sense is indeed us (because it is not someone else) and in another sense is not us because we do not choose it (if indeed we do not choose it—Ah, but there’s the rub, as Hamlet would say).  Within me there is a deeper me steering the ship, you might say.  Let’s take a look at a physical example to help us understand this spiritual reality.  If you touch a wire and get a small electric shock, the natural impulse of your body is to pull your hand away.  However, this natural impulse, this “working of your members” can with attention and practice be overcome.  That is, I can hold on to the wire if I want to even though my “members” experience an impulse to let go.  Certainly, holding on to a wire with a small current flowing through it takes intention, focus and practice, but it is possible.  You don’t have to let go of the wire every time you feel the electric shock just because that is your initial impulse.  

Sin is at work in us the same way.  Something in my body and mind has an impulse to sin.  This is what St. Paul calls, “sin at work in my members” or in other places he calls it “this mortal body” or just “the flesh.”   Sin produces in me a “motion of passion,” that is a feeling, impulse or thought to sin, but this motion of passion is not really mine until I choose it or agree with it.  This is why St. Paul can say in another place in Romans, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies that you should obey its lusts.  Neither yield your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin” (Romans 6:12-13).  And so St. Theophan explains, “Thus, sin acts in us through sinful desires.  If we listen to them, we will act sinfully.  But if, following the Apostle, we do not listen to them, then not we, but the sin that dwells in us is acting.”  And this, then, explains the paradox: “Thus we walk in God’s ways without obeying sinful desires; yet we are not without sin because we have sinful desires within us.”

This knowledge on the one hand gives us a certain sense of relief:  I can be at peace knowing that even though filthy thoughts and unclean impulses occur within me, they do not define me.  I am not my thoughts or impulses. What I do with my thoughts and impulses determines who I am.  If I repent quickly when a wicked thought or impulse assails me, if I say to myself, “No.  That is not who I am.  That is not who I want to be.  That is not who I am becoming in Christ.”  If I say these things to myself and turn immediately to Christ in tears (whether inner or outer) of repentance and call out to Him for deliverance, then those wicked thoughts and impulses are not mine, but they come from sin acting in my members.  However, if I dally with sinful thoughts and nurture passionate impulses, then that is who I am and what I become.  Even if I do not act outwardly on those sinful impulses right away, if I willingly entertain them in my mind, then I am choosing them and thus they are mine.

One of the great gifts God has given humankind is time and space as we know it.  That is, we are able to change.  Even when we make wrong choices and go down the wrong road, we can still change.  This change is called repentance.  And just as owning the sin in our members begins as an inner choice or desire, an inner wanting to entertain or dwell on sinful thoughts and feelings; so also repentance begins as an inner desire, an inner choice or an inner wanting to be different, an inner desire to forsake our sinful ways and to turn toward Christ.  Certainly, repentance involves outer actions—because everything we do begins in some way in our heart.  

Yet outer actions are not easy to read.  In the Gospel we read about Zacchaeus who was a rich tax collector whom everyone thought was a sinner, but who in reality was a righteous man who gave half of his income to the poor and went out of his way to meet Jesus.  And there are others who outwardly appear righteous, but inwardly are full of bitterness, envy and deceit—that is they have chosen the bitterness, envy and deceit of their sinful passions but have done very well at keeping them inside, keeping up appearances on the outside but rotting on the inside, like Jesus said of some religious leaders, they are whitewashed tombs.  It is essential to remember that even when our outer sins seem few, when we seem to have our outer sins under control, we are still nonetheless sinners who need to repent because of the sinful impulses and thoughts still at work in our members, even though we do not choose them—or perhaps we just hide them very well.  And when we see others who appear to be sinners, we must be careful not to judge them because we do not know what is going on in their hearts.  Perhaps, like in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, that sinning person that we see in church or on the street or at work may secretly in their hearts be hating their sin and be seeking Christ in repentance.  Only God sees the heart.

Friday, January 23, 2015

More Thoughts on Movies, Holiness and Brownies

I received an email from someone regarding my last blog post.  What this person said what generally encouraging and helpful, but at one point, he asked why would one see a movie if a saint would not watch it.  Here is may response.

Thank you for your feed back about defiled brownies.  I agree that most saints would not at all want to see an ugly movie; however, movies, like life, are seldom completely ugly or purely beautiful.  Good movies, like Dickens’ novels or Shakespeare’s plays, can help us see the beauty hidden in ugliness or the ugliness hidden in beauty. This is why I think parents (including saintly parents) should be reading novels, watching movies, reciting poetry, listening to music, etc. with their children talking to them about it and helping them to see what is good and what is evil as it is portrayed in the movie, novel, poem, song, etc, and as it is manifest in their own hearts and in the world around them.  And parents should begin doing this right away, when children are young.  We need to talk to them about what they think and feel about the picture books they read or the Disney films they watch when they are very young (e.g. “do you think it was a nice thing when the Princess ran away from her family?”  “Why do you think she did that?”  “Could she have done something else instead of running away?”). When children grow up thinking about and discussing literature (and movies are the literary genre of our age par excellence), they learn to pay attention to what they see, what they think and what they feel.  

I imagine very holy people (saints) don’t see many movies (or read many novels, see plays, recite poetry or listen to music). But then again, very holy people also eat very little and pray several hours each night.  I think it is a huge spiritual mistake to try to incorporate into our lives one aspect of what we associate with holiness apart from other often more essential aspects of holiness.  For example, I think it is a mistake increase fasting without also increasing prayer.  Similarly, I think it is a mistake to impose on ourselves and on our children external constraints that holy people may impose on themselves when we ourselves do not in our own hearts experience the same holiness.  It may indeed be delusional to say to ourselves something like, “If Saint Seraphim of Sarov wouldn’t have watched this movie, neither should I or my children.”  Saint Seraphim of Sarov also spent a thousand days kneeling on a rock in prayer. What St. Seraphim of Sarov did he did because the holiness in his heart compelled him.  We may be greatly deceived if we think we can or should do in our outer behaviour what the saints have done when our inner life with God is very little like theirs.

But then again, my point in the previous post wasn't really about movies.  I don’t think people should read books, watch movies, see plays, recite poetry or sing and listen to songs that stir up their passions (I think I have said that as clearly as possible).  My point is that, first, we should not teach our children that anything outside us can defile us (“it is not want goes into a man that defiles him,” Jesus said).  The defilement is already in our hearts, and what we avoid, we avoid because it stirs up the disordered passions in our hearts.  I do not avoid movies that have ugliness or wickedness portrayed in them, I avoid movies that stir up my ugly and wicked passions.  This distinction is essential. And it may be that a movie or novel that one person finds insightful and beautiful, another will have to avoid because some aspects of it stir up particular passions he or she may struggle with. Each person is different. I myself have found that I cannot at all listen to secular music without it causing terrible problems in my inner life, but I can watch a movie that some might consider inappropriate and it provide fodder for prayerful thought and contemplation for many days. 

We each have to find what is appropriate for ourselves, which brings me to my second point. That is, parents must help their children discern their own thoughts. We can teach our children to attend to their hearts and to their thoughts by talking to them about the books they read and the movies they see. But we must begin doing this when our children are young, and we must talk about all sorts of literature with them. If we do not talk to our children about their thoughts and what disturbs them when they are five years old, and reading fairytale picture books, then they will certainly not feel comfortable talking to us about their thoughts and what disturbs them when they are fifteen and being exposed to pornographic and explicitly violent movies and songs.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Poop In The Brownies: Old Testament Purity Code Thinking

There is an apocryphal story that is sometimes told at Orthodox youth retreats to teach the importance of purity, especially in regard to movies and music.  Since I serve at lots of retreats and summer camps, I have heard it in various renditions several times.  In fact, there was a time in my life when I myself told a version of this story to try to teach the importance of purity.  However, over the past several years this story has begun to bother me.  And this is what I would like to write about today.  The story goes like this:

A young teenage boy wants to see a movie because “all of the kids at school are talking about it.”  However, his parents are very strict and will not let him see movies that they deem inappropriate for him.  The parents tell their son that they don’t want him seeing movies full of sex and violence.  So the boy does a little research on the movie and discovers that there is little violence and/or explicit sex in the movie, and he returns to his parents with this new information.  The parents say that they will think about it. 
That same evening, Dad makes some brownies and offers some to his son saying: “I made these brownies for you.  I used an excellent recipe, and I added only a little dog poop to it.  Do you want to eat some?”  
When the boy predictably refuses to eat the brownies, the Dad asks, “If you won’t eat brownies with just a little dog poop in them, why do you want to go see a movie with just a little inappropriate sex and violence?”

This story bothers me.  I don’t have a problem with parents deciding for and with their children what kinds of movies and music they should listen to.  Parents should always be paying attention to what their children are exposed to.  And in as much as it is in their power to do so, parents should limit what their children see and hear to material that is, in their judgement, appropriate and that they themselves have seen and/or listened to.  In fact, in my opinion, the best approach is to watch and listen to media with your children and then discuss it afterward.  So my problem with the story has nothing to do with parents limiting what their children watch or listen to.  

The problem I have with this story has to do with the purity metaphor.  The dog poop in the brownies represents a contamination to what would otherwise be completely pure brownies.  The metaphor suggests that the boy and his family are already completely pure, and that in their pure state they don’t want to become contaminated by the dog poop that they would be exposed to by watching an impure movie.  This metaphor and its application bothers me.  I don’t even think it is Christian.  

Under the Old Covenant, when something was made ritually pure, any contaminant whatsoever, even the smallest amount, would make the entire purified thing impure—kind of like a little dog poop in your brownies.  Under the Old Covenant, some people could be ritually purified through certain actions, but this ritual purity could not last very long.  Sooner or later something would happen that would make one ritually unclean again.  (See the book of Leviticus for lots of examples of what makes one ritually unclean.)  In the Gospel accounts of the accusation of Jesus by the Jewish leaders before Pontius Pilate, we discover that the reason why Pilate has to go outside to speak to the religious leaders is that they didn’t want to lose their ritual purity by entering into a ritually unclean place.  Ritual purity was very important to many of the Jews at the time of Jesus, even while they were condemning the innocent.

However, the message of Jesus and many of the Old Testament prophets interpreted the purity codes of the Pentateuch in a different way.  For Jesus, cleanness has to do with the heart, not with external matters.  Jesus likens the ritual cleanness of the religious leaders to the white-washing of a tomb, a tomb full of death and rottenness.  He said it was like cleaning only the outside of the cup or dish.  In fact, Jesus went so far as to turn the Old Testament law of cleanness and uncleanness on its head.  Using different metaphors, Jesus teaches that we are already dark, already barren and already without life—that is, we are already completely unclean, no matter what we do on the outside.  However, salvation comes to us as a small light that we allow to illumine us, as a seed that we must plant and nurture in our hearts and minds, and as a little living yeast that we must work into the whole lump of our lifeless dough.  For the Christian, it is not a little defilement that defiles the whole clean body, but a little light that enlightens the whole dark body.  For the Christian, touching the unclean thing is not about avoiding the possibility of our being contaminated by something outside us.  Touching the unclean thing refers to giving free reign to the uncleanness that is already in our heart and mind.

And so to return to the metaphor of the brownies, you might say that it is a biblically appropriate metaphor—if the prophets had never spoken and Jesus had never come.  But the prophets have spoken and Jesus has come.  We are not ritually pure beings trying to avoid uncleanness.  We are already in darkness, eating the food of pigs (to use the metaphor of the parable of the prodigal son).  We need to come to the Light.  We need to make our way to our Father’s House to eat with Him in His House.  

But how can we apply this Christian understanding of cleanness and uncleanness, darkness and light to help us decide what movies we should let our children watch?  Well to begin with, I think we need to recognize that there are no one-size-fits-all formulas.  Darkness and sin are matters of the heart.  Nevertheless, first of all, I think we have to ask ourselves some hard questions about why we do or do not watch certain movies or listen to certain music that we deem inappropriate for our children, if indeed we do this.  How is it exactly that I can “handle” a certain movie but my 15 year old son cannot?  Remember, our children will learn largely from our example, not from our words.  Next we need to think carefully about how we want our children to be exposed to secular media.  That is, sooner or later our children will be exposed to inappropriate media—whether we like it or not.  How can we help them think about and process this experience in ways that help them choose light rather than darkness?

I do not (and would never) suggests that parents expose their children to media that they themselves deem inappropriate.  However, I do suggest that parents consider exposing their children (whenever they think their children are ready to think about such things) to whatever it is that they do consider appropriate in their presence.  That is, parents should watch movies with their children and then talk about it with them.  

Remember, it is not the movie that is unclean.  It is the human heart, even the heart of our children, that is unclean.  The passions lie in the heart not on the screen.  The reason we avoid certain media is because of our passions, because of our thoughts that we cannot control. It is not that I am pure and the sex or violence in the movie is unclean.  Rather, it is that my heart is full of violent and lustful passions already, and seeing such passions acted out on a screen only makes it more difficult for me to control them in my heart and mind.  I’m the one with the problem.  

I think talking with our children is the most important thing.  If our children feel free to talk to us when they are disturbed—rather than feeling like they will get in trouble if they reveal a breach in their expected behaviour—then we may have many opportunities to discuss inappropriate media.  Most kids, sooner or later, will hear a lewd song at school or see an inappropriate video on a friend’s smart phone.  No matter how hard we try to protect our children, sin (as God says to Cain) is crouching at the door.  Now if the child has been raised in a home that emphasizes a Old Testament style purity code (we’re pure, so don’t you go and spoil it by eating any contaminated brownies), then she might not be eager to talk about her early exposures to inappropriate media or to any other sinful behaviour or thoughts that might disturb her.  After all, she might get in trouble for eating contaminated brownies.  However, if the child is raised speaking openly with her parents about various temptations, failures and passions that she may be experiencing as she grows, then she is likely to want to talk to her parents about the disturbing video or music she was exposed to.  She will want to speak about it not because she broke a rule, but because she is disturbed in heart and mind, and because she is used to speaking to her mum and dad about things that disturb her.  

We live in a sick world.  We all want our children to grow to be as spiritually and mentally healthy as possible in the midst of (what Jesus calls) this crooked and perverse generation.  However, resorting to images and metaphors appropriate to the Old Testament purity code is not a helpful way to do this.  In fact, it is counter productive.  I have heard many confessions from children and teens who confess a sin or disturbing thought to me that they are afraid to tell their parents about.   Purity code thinking only increases darkness.  

The brownies with the dog poop metaphor certainly stumps the kids—they never have a come back, which I suspect is why priests and parents like to use it so much.  But if we want to teach our children to be Christians, perhaps we need to look a little more deeply at the way sin actually works in our hearts and in the hearts of our children and find and use metaphors that open up communication with our children rather than using metaphors that shut it down.