Monday, March 30, 2015

Follow up on Coptic Martyrs

National Geographic has done a small piece on the families of the 21 Coptic martyrs.  Please check it out here.
Fr. Michael

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Two Kinds of Confidence

Seeing Through A Glass Darkly

In Homily 27, St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of two kinds of confidence. The first kind of confidence is what we generally mean when we say someone is confident. That is, the person is sure about what he or she is doing or saying.  St. Isaac tells us that this kind of confidence is spiritually dangerous. It is dangerous because we live in an age of changeability, or “ununiformity” as it is translated in the Holy Transfiguration edition of St. Isaac’s text. This ununiformity refers to the mutability or inconstancy we experience in this world.  Things and people don't stay the same.

On a basic biological level, human beings change. Not only do our bodies change with age, but even on a moment by moment basis, our moods and our ability to think clearly are easily altered by what we have eaten, how much sleep we have had or how we feel about what is happening around us. (Excitement or fear release adrenaline, for example.  Other chemicals such as endorphin, dopamine, and oxytocin are also influenced by the foods we eat and external stimuli, dramatically affecting our moods, our ability to think clearly and how we feel about what we think or experience—thus further influencing our body’s chemistry).

If this changeability truly occurs on a merely biological level, it is even more certainly occurs, according to St. Isaac, on the intellectual and even the spiritual level. St. Isaac says, 
“The different states of men’s hearts and the dissimilar ways of thinking that are usually born of them…are greatly assisted by the ununiformity of the theoria that arises in men’s minds concerning God’s judgements.”  
That is, people don’t think the same way about God, about God’s judgements (about what God is doing in the world and in their lives). As you probably know already, two people can have what seems to be exactly the same experience, but draw very different conclusions based on that same experience. Two people can hear the same lecture, for example, but go away with very different conceptions of what the lecture was about. Two people can read the exact same prayer or bible verse and one be profoundly touched, encouraged and motivated by it while the other person seems to get nothing at all out of it. Even the same person can one day find profound comfort and encouragement in a particular thought or reflection, but two days later see nothing at all profound about the same thought. 

Modern western culture wants to deny, or at least seem to limit or control, this mental changeability. Culturally speaking, it seems that in the west science provides the mirage by which we are trained not to attend to this changeability. We tell ourselves that science is about the careful observation of measurable and repeatable phenomena, and thus we comfort ourselves that consistency in thought is possible, that there is indeed a foundation on which to base our confidence. However, as anyone who has spent much time in the world of the academy knows, scientists are not very good at listening to one another, despite the facts; not very good at putting aside their egos, even in the face of observed phenomena; not very good at acknowledging the whole truth—especially the bits that don’t fit well into their theory. Scientists are, basically, just like everyone else: struggling to make a living and a name for themselves within a structure that is generally agreed upon, a structure in which certain incongruences are politely overlooked while others are focused on.

Then suddenly, every now and then, a conceptual revolution or profound paradigm shift takes place, and how scientists see the universe deeply changes.  But this change, this (we might say) evidence of changeability, does not produce humility in the mass of us scientifically-minded, university-trained thinkers—although it does seem sometimes to produce humility in a few of the most gifted and best trained scientific thinkers—but for most of us, a change in paradigm (such as the development of quantum physics) only increases our confidence as we arrogantly exult in our new found bit of insight and lament how misguided the previous generations were.

We do not stop to think that if the foundational paradigms of science have been changing throughout history, then certainly they will continue to change. Humility is called for. Confidence, as St. Isaac suggests, must always be tamed by fear. And this is the beginning of wisdom, as the scripture say, “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” It is the beginning of wisdom because, according to St. Isaac (and as I have said previously), it is our awareness of the changeability that we encounter within ourselves, among ourselves and in our interaction with the universe, that begins to save us, that begins to humble us so that we can be enlightened by the Grace of the Holy Spirit to start to see what is behind what is seen. This seeing what is behind or beyond what is seen takes place through what is called contemplation or theoria. And of course what people perceive through contemplation differs greatly: to quote again St. Isaac: “different states of men’s heats and the dissimilar ways of thinking that are usually born of them” come from the “ununiformity of the theoria that arises in men’s minds.”  

This reality of “dissimilar ways of thinking” and “different states of men’s hearts” when it comes to the understanding of God, is for many, one of the most disturbing aspects of their growing knowledge of God. As well-trained western thinkers we assume along with Immanuel Kant that anything that is really true will be perceived as true in the same way by all well-informed and clear-thinking people. But, as seducing as such a philosophy seems to be, just a casual glance at the turmoil of the world today (and since its creation, for that matter), should be sufficient evidence to prove that Immanuel Kant was wrong. Nonetheless, facts have never hindered philosophy. Like the clear-thinking makers of foreign policy among the western nations, we just assume that everybody is basically just like us; and where we differ, it is only a matter of training: if we educate others and train them to think clearly, they will certainly come to see things our way. That's how most of us inheritors of the western philosophic tradition think about almost everything unless we intentionally and with great effort try to think differently.

And we in our spiritual lives seem to have this same incorrect philosophical assumption. We assume that true spiritual insight will be the same for everyone. That spiritual truth will be seen and understood the same by everyone who really encounters it. But St. Isaac tells us that “The ununiformity of theoria, which in one soul changes and varies, is [caused by] the incomprehensibility of God’s eternal mind.” He goes on to warn us that “if nature, which is inclined to aberration, should receive here the real truth, it would die by reason of the impetuosity of aberration.” That is, so long as we are in this world, so long as we are subject to changeability, “the real truth,” or the revelation of God as God, would kill us because we are broken and cannot take it, not in its full form. 

Our capacity to know and encounter truth, especially spiritual truth, is kind of like a pipe that is designed to carry so many litres of water per minute. If that same pipe gets twisted and turned and shrunk and kinked, then the amount of water it can carry is dramatically diminished. And, in fact, if you try to put too much water through that perverted pipe too fast, you will burst the pipe (btw, the word “perverted” just means “twisted’).  

Or to try a different metaphor, it is as though we are attempting to read a letter, but we can only read every seventh word. What we do read in the letter is indeed genuinely what the author wrote, it is completely true in that sense; but how each one understands the letter varies—especially if we each understand a different word among each set of seven, or if, like me, we only really understand every tenth or twentieth word. Humility is called for. 

We all, as St. Paul put it, “see through a glass darkly.” So we not only need to listen to one another, but we must also accept that we may never quite see things the way a certain holy man or woman sees them; we may never quite get out of certain spiritual disciplines or practices what other people get out of them. We have to accept that we are different and that’s OK. We are all twisted in different ways, all broken at different joints, all struggling with different handicaps. But God in His love knows this about us already. That’s why the contemplations are different: God is giving to each what he or she needs to take the next step, to straighten out one part of his or her pipe. That’s why we have to trust one another, be patient with one another, and give one another the benefit of the doubt. Basically we have to love and be patient, not only with one another, but also with ourselves.

St. Isaac tell us that our experience of changeability not only leads us to humility, it also teaches us to lift our spiritual eyes to God who is above all of this variableness.  He says, 
“But when the understanding withdraws itself from [the changeable world] and ascends solely toward the Existent One by beholding the properties of that good Nature which possesses eternal knowledge that precedes all existent things, and by beholding all His properties, then immediately fear is cast out and the mind is sustained by confidence.”  
For St. Isaac, confidence returns. No longer is it a confidence based on a presumptuous understanding of worldly things—no this confidence “breeds contempt and an impetuous way of thought,” according to St. Isaac.  Confidence in or based on anything seen only leads to arrogance, to a further twisting our our souls, making it even harder for us to perceive what is real, to perceive what is behind what is seen. However, humility based on the fear of God has the ability to “bind up” or even “bridle” to some extent impetuous aberration, or changeability, so that we can to some small extent lift our eyes to God who is beyond change. When we do this and we begin to behold in our inner mind “the properties,” what I think the Greek Fathers might call “the energies” of God, then a new kind of confidence is born in us, a confidence in God.

And this is the confidence that casts out fear. It is the confidence of the martyrs, the saints, and the holy men and women who have manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives amid what St. Paul calls “this crooked and perverse generation.” This is the confidence we all long for, but we cannot attain—at least not until we let go of our confidence in what is seen, confidence in what we think we know, confidence in that knowledge which St. Paul says "puffs up."  

But it is a fearsome thing to let go. That’s why all of the evidence in the world does not persuade us that we really do not know, that we really are dependent creatures, that we cannot figure things out nor can we actually keep all of the balls in the air. We have to move to dependence, to humility, to the fear of God. This is the only path to the confidence that cannot be shaken, to the confidence based not on what is seen, but on what is not seen. This is the only path to the confidence that casts out fear.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Fighting Boredom and Despondency

I read the bible through the first time when I was in high school.  I was part of a youth group that made it a project.  We made a big chart with all of the books of the bible in columns on it with everyone’s names at the side and each Sunday we would check off whatever books (or parts of books) we had read during that week.  Since my main social reality in high school was with my Church friends and not my school friends, it worked well for me to read my bible during my lunch break at school most days.  And although at that time I had the rather competitive atmosphere of my youth group providing most of my motivation to read the bible diligently, I also thought it was a good idea.  After all, if I was going to be a Christian, I figured, then I should read the Christian holy book through at least once in my lifetime.

However, there was also another, deeper motivation.  I wanted to know God better and I wanted to be able to help others know God too.  At some deep level, this also was my motivation--even though I experienced it faintly at that time and perhaps I couldn’t even identify that as a motivation at the beginning.  However, as time went on, as I kept reading the bible, my awareness of that deeper motivation continued to grow.  But it took time.  And that is what I want to talk about today.  In those early days of diligent bible reading, I discovered that often verses or ideas I had encountered several months earlier in my reading would suddenly take on life for me as I read other passages or as I encountered new situations in my life. 

When I say diligent bible reading, I am distinguishing it from either casual bible reading (reading a little here or there when I felt like it) or crisis bible reading (opening the bible hoping to be divinely guided to a verse that spoke directly to a crises I was experiencing in my life at that moment).  There is nothing wrong, I think, with reading the bible casually or in a crisis; but if we are really going to grow, not only in our knowledge of the bible as a text, but also to grow in our knowledge of God through the holy text, then we have to devote ourselves to diligence in reading.  And while a casual reader might often find something interesting or beautiful to think about whenever she picked up the bible; and while, in His mercy, God usually provide some help, guidance or comfort to anyone who looks to Him for help by picking up and reading a bible in a time of crisis, yet reading the bible diligently does not usually produce immediate results.  

As those who have read the bible diligently know, especially in the early years, you can go for months at a time reading faithfully and not encountering anything that strikes you as particularly beautiful, interesting, or divinely inspired.  Unlike casual reading and crisis reading, the desired results are not so immediate, but they are longer lasting.  And this makes sense, even on a purely literary level.  To really appreciate a very well written novel, for example, you often have to read it twice or more.   The first time I read the Karamozov Brothers by Dostoyevsky, I appreciated some bits, but I had no idea what was going on.  Ten years later, when I reread it, I got the plot and saw some of the spiritual aspects of the novel thus appreciating the novel so much more.  Ten years after that, on my third reading (now in my forties), I  saw Dostoyevsky’s profound grasp of human psychology and was in awe of his ability portray with accurate detail and compassion (and mostly it is the compassion that awed me) the inner lives of the several very different characters in the novel.  Now I am sure that I was able to see these things in my forties because of my own life experience, but if I had not already been familiar with the novel, I almost certainly would not have been able to have gained so much from reading it at that point in my life.

But if this principle of diligence bearing fruit is true at a merely literary level, it is even more profoundly true on a spiritual level.  In homily 25 of St. Isaac the Syrian’s Ascetical Homilies, the saint talks about this very experience in the spiritual life as it applies to prayer.  St. Isaac says:

“It is a sign of the beginning of a man’s recovery from his [spiritual] illness when he desires hidden [i.e. spiritual] things.  There is, however, a delay until he witnesses true health.”  

When a person begins to be healed of spiritual illness, when he or she begins to actually repent and draw near to God; then the sign that this is really taking place, according to St. Isaac, is that the person will also begin to desire spiritual, or hidden, things.  This desire for hidden things is then the motivation that empowers one to diligently pursue a spiritual life.  This pursuit of the spiritual life can take various forms depending on one’s personality, calling and circumstances in life.  In my case, as a young man in a Protestant context, this pursuit of God took the form of bible reading.  In contrast, my wife, or the young woman who would become my wife, who was in the same high school youth group, diligently sought God in ways that worked well for her. Although she also did her fair share of bible reading, that wasn’t where she found life in her pursuit of God.  Bonnie is an artist, and since there was very little room for artistic expression in the frigid iconoclastic air of the Protestant context we found ourselves in, Bonnie found life in the diligent pursuit of God through music: playing the guitar and writing songs that were really more like prayers than songs.

And just as I had to slog through Leviticus and the prophecy of Habakuk, getting very little immediate edification for my effort, Bonnie had to slog through music theory (“the circle of fifths,” I think, is what she called her tedium).  Discipline and diligence are necessary if one is going to pursue God whether it is through prayer or reading or painting or music.  The hidden things in our heart, the spiritual treasures of a relationship with God, do not reveal themselves to the lazy.  St. Isaac names the two enemies that keep us from acquiring the spiritual treasure we seek.  These are “tedium” and “despondency.”  “Tedium” refers to what we might nowadays call the “boring” nature of what we are doing.  Let’s face it, until you know something about the history of Israel and the spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament, most of the the Old Testament is just plain boring.  But the only way to learn is to begin to read.  You have to pass through the boredom to the life.  The same thing is true with beginning a prayer rule or learning music theory or basic drawing and brush strokes.  You have to be faithful through the tedium before you can start to enjoy the fruit of life in what you are doing.

“Despondency” refers to my own downward spirals, my own inability to motivate myself, my own struggle with bad days or weeks or months.  When I am despondent, I just cannot motivate myself to do what I need to do, nor even, sometimes, what I want to do.  When I struggle with despondency, it seems like it takes a herculean effort for me just to get my bible open and to read the same few verses over and over again, as though my mind has been greased and every word slides right off.  Or I have to force myself with all my might just to light the vigil lamp in my icon corner, open my prayer book and stand there just whimpering for a few minutes.  In times like these when I struggle with despondency, a saying from my days of athletic training has helped me a great deal:  “Something is always better than nothing.”  To open my bible is itself a prayer.  To read the same verses over and over again making no sense out of it: this too is prayer.  To light a vigil lamp is a prayer.  To stand before an icon and just whimper, that too is prayer.  Something is always better than nothing.  

St. Isaac advises us that when we find ourselves confronting either tedium or despondency, we need to call to mind why we are doing what we are doing.  Why do I pray?  Why do I read my bible?  Why do I do any spiritual discipline that I do?  I do it because I desire the hidden, spiritual realities.  I desire to know God.  St. Isaac tells us that we must allow this desire to generate expectation in us: expectation that God will come to my aid, expectation that soon something hidden will indeed be revealed to me; expectation that this simple act of being diligent and hanging in there will indeed bear fruit.  

Jesus loved agricultural metaphors.  He sure used a lot of them.  A sower sows, farmer plants and the crop grows.  The farmer labors in hope, in expectation.  Even though there is nothing he can do to hurry the crop along, the farmer knows that if he keeps at it, eventually he will have more fruit than he will know what to do with it all.  But he has to hang in there.  There is a delay, as St. Isaac tells us, between the beginning of our efforts in spiritual growth, between our desire to enter into the hidden things of our heart, and the time when we do actually begin to enjoy the fruit of our labor, what St. Isaac calls the witness of true spiritual health.  And the meat, you might say, that we have to sustain us during this long growing seasons, through the tedium of weeding and through the droughts of despondency, the food that will sustain us during these sometimes dry and sometimes boring times, this food is expectation, expectation that we will indeed, if we do not give up, come to see and know the hidden things of our hearts, the hidden things of God and His kingdom.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Humility By Accident

In homily 24, St. Isaac points out a fundamental law of discernment: 
“Everything that can be perceived by the senses, whether an action or a word, is a  manifestation of something hidden within.”  
This principle of discernment is not given to us so that we can spy into the hearts of others by trying to surmise what is hidden in their hearts by scrutinizing their words and actions.  No, if we apply this principle to others then it ceases to be about discernment, and is rather about judgement, something none of us are called to do.  Of course, in certain contexts and in certain roles in the world (teacher, parent, police officer, judge, etc.) we may be called upon to make distinctions and decisions based on other people’s words and actions.  Even in the Church—actually, very often in the Church—we must make such distinctions and decisions based on people’s words and actions, yet we are never called upon to speculate about what may or may not be hidden in the hearts of others motivating their action. Only God and perhaps the person him or herself knows what is hidden in the heart.

I say perhaps the person knows what is hidden in his or her heart, but more accurately I should say seldom does a person know what is hidden in his or her heart motivating their words and actions. To know one’s own heart, many have said, is to begin to know God for the heart is the meeting place, the door, or the temple where the person meets with God. And so, the purpose of St. Isaac’s instruction that every word and action proceed from the heart is to help each of us to examine our own words and actions and begin to discern and discover what is hidden in our own hearts. It isn’t the warm fuzzy or cold prickly feelings we have inside that faithfully reveal to us what is in our hearts; rather, it is what we actually do and say that reveals what is in our hearts—often regardless of how we feel.

However, St. Isaac tells us, that some occurrences, that is some words and actions that proceed from us, are accidental. These do not come from the heart, unless they become continual or typical. These accidental words or actions, according to St. Isaac, do not necessarily come from our will or our free choice. Whether or not they are freely chosen and come from our will, thus revealing our heart, is shown primarily by the fact that they continue to occur. If they do not continue, then they are less likely to be from the heart.

For example, I might in a moment of tiredness or stress snap angrily at my grandchild. If I immediately repent and do not do it again, then we could say that it was an accidental occurrence, and St. Isaac says it is “only slightly taken into account.” This principle applies not only to bad behaviour, but also to good. If on a good day, someone catches me in a good mood and hits me up for a contribution to a good cause, I might give a hundred dollars. However, if this is not something I am continually doing, then St. Isaac says that it also is an accidental occurrence not really revealing anything in my heart. You might call this accidental generosity, but because it is not a continual action, not something I’m always doing, not something that characterizes me, this accidental generosity does not reveal a genuinely generous heart.

Why does this happen? Why is it that I can sometimes say some terribly mean things to the people I love the most.  Things that are not in my heart, things I do not want to be true. And why is it that I can suddenly be so amazingly patient or self controlled or generous in a particular unusual situation, but then immediately return to my normally impatient, intemperate and selfish self as soon as things return to normal? St. Isaac would chalk this up to human changeability, or to use his word, variableness. That is, human beings are able to change, able to repent, either for better or for worse.  

Thus, for as long as we live we need to watch ourselves carefully and never allow ourselves to pridefully boast in our mind that we have pretty much got things under control. In fact, St. Isaac tells us in homily 5 that 
“in each matter about which a man boasts himself, God permits that he change, so that he should be humbled, and learn humility.  This is why you must surrender all things to God’s foreknowledge, and not believe that there is anything in this life unchanging.”  
No matter how holy a person becomes, change for the worse is possible; similarly, no matter how sinful a person becomes, changes for the better is possible. However, with habit in either virtue or sin, change becomes more painful with time. This is why St. Isaac advises us, “While the transgression is still small and blossoming, pluck it up, before it spreads to cover the field.”

St. Isaac points out that although these accidental occurrences are not necessarily intentional on our part, neither are they random. God and our guardian angel, he says, work providentially to “pilot” these accidental occurrences, whether good or bad, so that they serve one of four functions in our lives. These four functions are (1) as incentive, (2) as a trial, (3) for training, or (4) as a recompense. St. Isaac advises us—in fact more than advises, he says we are blessed—if we compare every occurrence, that is everything we do and say, with what is really in our heart; and if it proves to be an accidental occurrence, then we should seek out its cause or function and see in it the instructing, providential hand of God.  

For example, I might stay up too late watching “just one more” episode of my favourite new series on Netflix, and the next day snap angrily at my wife, something I generally don’t do. Upon reflection I might realize that this accidental occurrence, this unusually bad behaviour on my part was a kind of recompense, a reaping of what I had sown. If I foolishly squander the time God gives me for rest, then I am more likely to change in bad ways: I am more likely to give myself permission to take my tiredness out on other people.  

Or here’s another example. Once (and only once—you will soon see why) the bishop asked me to serve vespers at a large conference. I have served vespers at least once a week for about twenty years. I know vespers. And yet, despite all of this experience, in the opening declaration of the service, I said the wrong words, which I realized right away, but it was too late, they were already loudly proclaimed for the bishop and all one thousand plus attendees to hear. And then the service went down hill from there. I must have made a dozen Jayvee mistakes in that one vespers service, all of which I noticed immediately and some of which I had been focusing very hard on immediately beforehand not to commit. But I made the dumb mistake anyway. The bishop’s one comment to me afterward was, “you need to study liturgics,” as though I were a seminarian celebrating vespers for the first time.  Here, my accidental occurrences, my liturgical mistakes, were along the line of trial. It was a large spoonful of humiliation, and I just needed to swallow it calmly and move on.

And then there are the good accidents. Most of what I know about counselling, for example, has come from good accidents. Somehow in God’s mercy, I say something or do something in counselling that works, that bears good fruit.  When this happens, St. Isaac calls it incentive. When an accidental occurrence creates or leads to something good, then we are given an opportunity to repeat it and learn it and ingrain it in our heart. I know nothing about counselling technique. Nevertheless, through trial and error, or rather through the incentive God has providentially given me through accidental occurrences producing good fruit, I have learned that I counsel best when I allow my heart to be open to the person I am talking to, to listen with an open heart and to love intensely the person or people sitting in front of me right at that moment. What begins as accidentally good behaviour on our part can be repeated and can sink into our heart making our own the character that will regularly produce this good behaviour.  

St. Isaac ends this homily by reminding us that the purpose of this changeability, these accidental occurrences, whether good or bad, is to teach us humility and self-reproach. When we know that we can always fail, in fact that we often fail even though others may not see it, then we can more easily humble ourselves before God and before our fellow human beings. St. Isaac reminds us that when we see ourselves as feeble and despicable (which, by the way, does not mean evil, it just means “to be looked down upon,” as Jesus taught us, to see others as higher than ourselves) when we see ourselves humbly, then we can know “that in very truth [we] walk on the path of God.”

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

When Apples Are Sometimes Oranges

One of my big confusions during the first few years of my journey as an Orthodox Christian was caused by an assumption I had that words used by different Orthodox spiritual writers would refer to the same thing. There may be a philosophical name for this way of thinking about words and reality (other than ignorance), but I don’t know what it is. It took me a few years and abundant consternation to finally figure out that, for example, the words soul, or prayer, or nous (sometimes translated intellect) did not necessarily have the same meaning when used by St. Paul, the Desert Fathers, St. Gregory of Palamas or St. Theophan the Recluse. In fact, even within the writings of one Holy Father, sometimes words take on slightly different meanings in one context than they have in another. Figuring this out the hard way cost me several years of headache wondering why apples sometimes looked more like oranges.

St. Isaac the Syrian addresses this problem directly in homily twenty-three as he tries to address some misunderstandings about the nature of “spiritual prayer.”  For St. Isaac, “prayer” refers to an act of the human will (manifested in various forms, or what he calls “modes”) by which a person “give[s] his attention to God, and he yearns for and awaits mercy from Him.” The highest form of prayer for St. Isaac is what he calls “pure prayer,” that is, prayer without distraction—a state that St. Isaac points out is exceedingly rare, especially as a sustained experience.  Spiritual prayer, for St. Isaac is a state beyond pure prayer that is no longer prayer. It is no longer prayer because the human will is no longer leading or making the prayer happen, but rather the Spirit now leads and the will and mind now just go along for the ride. St. Isaac cites St. Paul’s experience in 2 Corinthians 12, “whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know” as an example of this spiritual prayer.

But then St. Isaac anticipates a question: If spiritual prayer is not prayer, why is it still called prayer? St. Isaac begins by explaining that “The Fathers were wont to call every good motion of the spiritual activity by the name of prayer.” Prayer, for the Fathers, is a general term that can refer to any motion (that means thought or action) that points one to God or by which one draws near to God. This is why you will often hear holy people say that almost anything can be prayer, if it directs your attention to God.  All sorts of activity, everything from a walk in the woods (even perhaps a walk around a golf course) to a midnight vigil, from the practice of inner silence to the building of houses for the needy, all of these in some ways and for some people can be called prayer, if indeed the motion (the thoughts and activities) direct one’s attention to God in a way that the person “yearns for [God] and awaits mercy from Him.”  

But then St. Isaac goes on to point out that what is sometimes called spiritual prayer is other times or by other people called theoria, or knowledge, or noetic vision.  “Do you see,” St. Isaac says, “how the Fathers interchange appellations for spiritual things?” And why, you may ask do they do this.  He goes on to explain: 
“For the exactitude of designations holds valid for things here, while there is no perfect or true name whatever for things of the age to come, but a simple [state of] knowing only, surpassing every appellation, every rudimentary element, form, colour, shape, and compound name.”  
When it comes to things of this world, yes, we can define and label them. Type 316L stainless steel is, well, type 316L stainless steel. It is defined and the definition is agreed upon. It can be counted and measured and weighed so that when an engineer calls for type 316L stainless steel, the manufacturer knows exactly what she means. But spiritual realities are not “rudimentary elements.” They cannot be measured, weighed or counted. Spiritual realities are just known.

Of course this causes problems for those of us raised and educated in the world of Einstein and matrix coding, a world in which we have been taught to quantify even the most intimate aspects of our experience. It seems we have come to believe that nothing really exists if it cannot be defined and reduced to numbers that can be compared to other numbers. The world of the spiritual Father is so far from us. It seems absurd to us to take the word of a holy man or woman about a matter that we ourselves have not personally seen, tasted or touched, that at least someone has not counted, defined and numbered.  It seems quite irresponsible, even foolish to us that we would take the word of a holy man or woman about a spiritual reality just because, well, just because they are holy and they themselves have known it. What make this even more difficult for us is the fact that the transfer of such knowledge is deeply personal. It cannot be objectified into words which, if transposed into a different context, will have the same meaning.  

Holy people use different words to describe the same experience, words that will help the hearer, the specific one(s) that the holy person is speaking to. There is no attempt (because it would be impossible) to objectify the language. The goal is not analysis, but the goal is to help the hearer also enter the experience and him or herself to acquire the direct knowledge of the spiritual experience or reality that the holy person is speaking of.  St. Isaac puts it this way:

For this reason, once the soul’s knowledge is raised out of the visible world, the Fathers employ whatever appellations they please to indicate that [state of] knowing, since no one knows its name with exactness. But to make the soul’s deliberations steadfast therein, the Fathers resort to appellations and parables, according to Saint Dionysius, who writes, “we use parables, and syllables, and permissible names, and words, on account of our senses; but when our soul is moved by the operation of the Spirit toward those divine things, then both our senses and their operations are superfluous when the soul has become like unto the Godhead by an incomprehensible union, and is illuminated in her movements by the ray of the sublime Light.”

What does he mean?  He means that there are no right words, there are no definitions for this experience of knowing that which is “out of this visible world” because, as St. Isaac says, “no one knows its name with exactness.”  Nevertheless, “on account of the senses,” that is, because the saints are still in the body and still have mouths and minds and a reasoning faculty, because of this and in order to help others and to help themselves “remain steadfast” in what their souls are deliberating or knowing or thinking about as and after they have been “raised out of this visible world,” because of this very experience of illumination in the “sublime Light” and the soul’s transformation into the likeness of the the Godhead, because this happens while the saints are still in the body, they find that they are compelled in some contexts to talk about it. Some things they cannot speak of, as St. Paul tells us, there are “inexpressible words that are unlawful for a human being to utter.” However, there are some aspects of their spiritual experience that they can and apparently are compelled to talk about.

However, when they talk, they do not use words the way an engineer or scientist does. They use “parables and syllables,” that is, they use the tools of this visible world to try to point to the reality of the world unseen. It’s kind of like using a wrench to model and explain open heart surgery. It is clearly not the right tool, but if you grasp the intentions of your teacher and follow closely his or her motions and if you already have at least a little familiarity with the experience of surgery and the human anatomy, you might just learn something new. And whether the teacher is holding a wrench or a screwdriver in his hand as he does his demonstration really makes no difference whatsoever. The wrench is just a parable.  \It stands in for a reality that for whatever reason cannot be exactly represented. And this is also how it is with words when one is reading or listening to holy men and women speak of spiritual realities. The goal is not to understand the exact meaning of the words.  The goal is to experience, or at least begin to experience, the spiritual realities to which those words point.

So, the next time you are reading a holy Father and are baffled by his words, don’t fret yourself very much. The words point to realities that have, as St. Isaac says, “no perfect or true name.” Nevertheless, through prayer, inner quietness, and contemplation (which, by the way, may all refer to the same thing), through these and with longing and desire to know the realities to which our holy Fathers and Mothers point, it is possible (at least in some small ways) ourselves to have our souls “raised out of the visible world” and to be ourselves illuminated by a small ray of the divine Light.

Monday, March 02, 2015

A Christ-like Response To ISIS

One cannot help being deeply troubled by the latest wave of persecution against Christians perpetrated by the ISIS movement. It is a terrible situation that demands from Christians everywhere some sort of response. To do nothing seems intolerable. We feel we must respond, but how?  From many different quarters I am hearing and reading the thoughts of Christians about what the appropriate response should be to such brutality against our brothers and sisters. It seems just about everyone has an opinion. But to tell the truth, I do not yet have an opinion. I feel very upset, angry even, but my experience has taught me that when I feel upset and angry about something, that is specifically not the time to be deciding what to do about something. I have always regretted words I have spoken and decisions I have made when I was angry and upset.

When I am angry and upset I am blind to the obvious—or rather, what seems so obviously the right thing to do or say when I am angry and upset is almost always (actually, is always in my personal experience) not life-giving, helpful or in any way actually salvific. When I speak or act while anger is still bubbling inside me, when I haven’t been able to return to peace in myself, and I speak or act with this disturbance still churning inside me, I have always just made things worse. But isn’t this also what St. James tells us when he says “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1: 20)?  I have found, however, that writing about my thoughts, does often help me clarify things. So who knows, maybe by the time were done here today, I will have found an opinion I can get behind.

There are many possible Christian responses to ISIS. In fact, basically any way a Christian responds is a Christian response to ISIS. Some Christians are more sophisticated than others in providing a biblical or theological or historical defence for their response, but basically, how any Christian responds to ISIS is a Christian response to ISIS. So I think this category of “a Christian response” in many ways is not very helpful. A different category, a category that I am finding more helpful as I am trying to think about my response to these very disturbing matters is not, “what is a Christian response,” but “what is a Christ-like response?”

I think a good example of a Christ-like response to ISIS is the official response of the Coptic Church to the martyrdom of twenty-one Coptic Orthodox Christian men working Libya. These men were given the opportunity to convert to Islam, and having refused were decapitated for their faith in Christ. How has the Coptic Church responded? It immediately canonized these saints, giving them a day on the Coptic Christian calendar to be annually venerated.  The Coptic Church glorified these men, setting them up as examples for all of the faithful. I think this is not only a Christian response to ISIS, it is a Christ-like Christian response.

Another Christ-like Christian response to ISIS is found in the words of a brother of two of the men who were murdered for their faith. Here I will quote my source directly:

In an interview with Christian channel SAT-7 ARABIC on Wednesday, Beshir Kamel, brother of two of the Coptic martyrs, even thanked the Islamic State for including their declaration of faith in the videos before killing them.
“ISIS gave us more than we asked when they didn’t edit out the part where they declared their faith and called upon Jesus Christ. ISIS helped us strengthen our faith,” he said.
Beshir said that he was proud of his brothers Bishoy and Samuel, saying that their martyrdom was “a badge of honor to Christianity.”

But even more than Beshir’s response, I think the response of Beshir’s mother is the most Christ-like Christian response I have encountered so far.  

When asked what his reaction would be if he saw an Islamic State militant, Kamel recalled his mother’s response.
"My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven,” Beshir said.

Basher’s mother seems to me to be the most Christ-like in her response. Loving one’s enemies, doing good to those who despitefully use and persecuted you—these are the ways Jesus told us to respond to violence.

You might ask me then, based on what I have said so far, “Is there never a time when Christians should use violence to stop evil? Are you a pacifist?” No, I am not. I am not a pacifist. I do indeed think there are times when in our fallenness we can see no other appropriate way to respond to evil other than with violence. Sometimes, it seems, that violence is the least sinful way we can respond in a situation. However, if we feel we must use violence, then at least we should acknowledge that this is not the way Christ showed us. Christ, our pattern, our type, our guide, never killed any one. He rather let Himself be killed. It is true that once Christ did forcefully drive money-changers out of the Temple—causing a few bruises and minor lacerations perhaps, but not killing anyone. And Christ did once tell his disciples to acquire swords (Luke 22:36), but then he rebuked the disciple who used a sword (John 18:11). And so we have these two ambiguous instances in the Gospel that suggest that violence may sometimes be appropriate; but against these two we have Christ’s behaviour before Pontius Pilate and his words, “My kingdom is not of this world, otherwise my followers would fight” (John 18: 36), and then there is the whole content of Jesus’ moral teaching (“if someone strikes on one cheek, turn to him the other,” etc.).

It seems that if we are going to look exclusively at what Jesus did and said as our example, then a pacifist certainly does match more closely the example of what Jesus did and said than does almost any Christian military response that I can think of through out history. But this should not surprise us, Christians have never been very good at following Christ. I certainly am not. But then what human being doesn't fall woefully short of his or her ideals?  

And of course, Christians don’t simply follow the example and teaching of Christ as it seems best to them. They follow the example and teaching of Christ as it has been interpreted for them through the Church, through the Apostles and their successors the Bishops. And this is a very good thing. Sure, sometimes I chaff at this, sometimes I wonder if all of this interpretive tradition is really a good idea. I wonder this especially when in my self-righteousness I think that my interpretation of what Jesus said and did is better than everyone else’s.  (Ah, yes, the ultimate experience of self-righteous delusion: if everyone would just see things my way and do what I say, the world would be such a better place.) No, it is really a good idea that we have and respect the holy tradition we have been giving.

Yet even in the Holy Orthodox Tradition, there is ambiguity. There are warrior saints, on the one hand; but on the other hand, most of these these same warriors lay down their arms and submit peacefully to martyrdom or leave military service altogether to spend the rest of their life in prayer.  Yes, on the one hand the Church gives us prayers for weapons and prayers for soldiers about to go off to war, and then on the other hand, the Church imposes a severe penance on soldiers who have killed in battle (it’s a ten-year excommunication, I think). On the one hand, the Church teaches us to honour the emperor (an archetype of a military despot) and on the other hand, a priest is not allowed to carry a weapon and is laicized if he kills, even accidentally. And so within the tradition of the Holy Orthodox faith, we have a certain ambiguity about war and killing. Yes it is, at times, allowed; but no it is never good.

I wonder if the Church’s view of the use of military force couldn’t be perhaps likened to its view of divorce. The Church teaches that divorce is never good. In the Orthodox teaching, one man and one woman are married—joined by God—not only for life, not only “until death do you part” (as in the western wedding service); rather the Orthodox Church teaches that not even death breaks the marriage bond: “Whom God has joined together, let not man break asunder,” Jesus said. Nonetheless, the Church recognizes that in our sin and brokenness sometimes marriages fail, and sometimes people are not able to remain continent after the death of a spouse. And when that happens, after a season of healing and repentance, the Church does allow a second and even a third marriage. But this is a condescension to human weakness. This is not the teaching of the Church on marriage. The church never encourages divorce and remarriage even if it does recognize that it is sometimes the least sinful response to an already very broken situation.  

And if I am not too far off the mark in comparing the Church’s blessing of the use of military force with it’s blessing of second marriages, then I think the Church must always lead with the message of peace, the message that military responses to violence—fighting fire with fire—is not how God would have us respond to violence. Martyrdom is preferable to violence. This, it seems to me, should be the message that the world hears from the Church in times of persecution, as we have indeed heard from the Coptic Church in its response to the twenty-one martyrs killed in Libya. If our political and military leaders, those of whom St. Paul said they “do not bear the sword in vain,” if these decide to respond to violence with violence, then I think the church reluctantly should bless even this. The Church should bless not as though saying that the Church advocates or encourages violence as a response to violence, but because the political and military leaders have made their decision, and the Church needs to bring its blessing even into very broken places.

Well, I have rambled on enough about this. I still do not know what is right. I pray daily for the peace of the whole world and still people are killing each other every day. I marry people all of the time, and still some get divorced.  But in as much as I do not teach that divorce is an option for married couples (even though some will divorce), so also I think that as far as what the Church teaches in the face of violence, the Coptic Church has got it about right. We teach that martyrdom is the way to heaven, even if we know that many Christians would rather fight than accept martyrdom.