Tuesday, August 31, 2010

All We Lepers Ten

When Jesus heals ten lepers, only one, a foreigner, returns to give thanks in a loud voice, falling at Jesus’ feet.  Jesus says to him, “arise, go your way, your faith has made you well.”
A long time ago, someone explained to me that this meant that while all were healed of the disease of leprosy, only the one who returned to give thanks was restored completely.  That is, the body of the one who returned to give thanks was completely restored so that the scars of the disease were also erased.  I have not thought much about this interpretation, until today.
Two things bother me about this interpretation.  First it bothers me that this interpretation of Jesus’ actions suggests that Jesus grants partial physical healing to the nine only to give complete physical healing to the one who “does the right thing.”  It seems a rather shamanistic interpretation, as if physical healing were an evidence of right behaviour, of God’s blessing in exchange for correct worship.  Such an interpretation does not seem to mesh with the teachings of Jesus who says that the God whose behaviour we should imitate is the God who causes the sun to shine on the good and on the evil, and causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.  I suggest that when Jesus says that the former leper’s faith has made him “well” or “whole,” Jesus is not referring to a more complete state of physical healing, which leads me to the second thing that bothers me.
The phrase, “your faith has made you well,” I think, is not a reference to some correct internal act of believing that then results in an outward manifestation of physical blessing.  I think the physical healings and blessings in the Gospels were a matter of Jesus’ manifesting His divinity and were manifested in all who drew near, or were brought near.  Often the Gospels say of the crowds that Jesus healed them all.  Often Jesus heals without reference to faith, or without reference to the faith of the person healed.
What then is the “wellness” that comes to the one who has faith?  As faith always has to do with what is not seen, at least according to St. Paul (where is the faith if you already see?), I suggest that the wellness that comes with faith also has to do with that which is unseen.  The wellness of faith has to do with the healing of or return to the normal, noetically discerned spiritual life of the person.  That is, the one who has faith has already begun to be healed so that he or she can perceive the reality that is not perceptible to the senses. 
In the story of the ten lepers, the physical healing reveals the divinity of Christ which somehow awakens the faith of the one (now former leper) so that he discerns (in his heart, or nous) that the appropriate response to God for His blessings (freely bestowed on the thankful and the unthankful) is to fall down at the feet of Jesus, glorifying God and giving Jesus thanks.  And in this action of falling down at the feet of Jesus and glorifying God, the former leper returns to the normal healthy condition of a human being: a creature in the image of God worshiping God.
We don’t worship God for what we can get out of it: God freely bestows His blessings on all. Worship is the natural response to awakened faith. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Work of God

"If three men meet, of whom the first fully preserves interior peace, and the second gives thanks to God in illness, and the third serves with a pure mind, these three are doing the same work." -- Saint Poemen

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Slaves, Victors and Forgiveness

St. Nikolai of Zica (Velimirovich) in his Akathist to Jesus the Conqueror of Death (Ikos four) says, “For a slave, the most difficult act is to forgive; but for a victor, the act of forgiving is already part of his victory.”
It may be particularly difficult for a slave to forgive because she is still suffering under the oppressions of the very one she needs to forgive.  The victor, on the other hand, can easily forgive since she has conquered those who would offend her.  It’s easy to forgive those whom you have subjugated.
But for St. Nikolai, the sufferings that we inflict and that are inflicted on us by others are actually the work of demons.  We play a role, much like debris carried by a flood plays a role in the destruction caused by the flood, but the driving force is not the debris.  It is the raging water, the spirits of wickedness.  Unless we fight against these spirits manifested in our passionate cravings and rages, we too are swept along by the flood of our age, wounding and being wounded, oppressing and being oppressed.  
Forgiveness is most difficult for the passionate person, for she is a slave to her cravings.  She sees only people, those who offend her and those who cater to her--no one else exists.  How can the slave forgive when her whole mind is filled with both anger at the people who hurt her and fear that she might lose those few who comfort her?  Forgiveness for the slave is indeed most difficult.
Yet in Christ, slaves may become conquerors.  A slave may conquer herself, and in conquering herself come to conquer the demons.  And once a slave becomes a victor she understands that the people who enslave her are themselves slaves of the very demons she has conquered.  Then forgiveness is possible.  Then forgiveness is the result of victory.  Hatred is melted by pity. The victor over demons has compassion on all who are still tormented by them.  And when the victory is complete, like Christ the Victor, she can forgive even those who crucify her.
Until we discover that the real battle is inside ourselves, we will find it very difficult to forgive.  But once we begin to achieve some small victories in the inner battle, the grace of forgiveness will begin to flow in our hearts as a natural consequence.  At least this has been, in large part, my experience.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fr. Gregory and Working With Your Hands

Over the past few years I have had the privilege to get to know and spend time with an Orthodox hermit. Fr. Gregory and I don't always see eye to eye, but over the years his prayers and the wisdom of his words have worked on me.* His words are making more and more sense me. One of the words Fr. Gregory often gives young men and women who are looking for career guidance is to avoid teaching, business, computers and anything that is done at a desk. He says that the lines of employment that are most conducive for salvation are farming, craft work and, if necessary, the trades. Of course, he realizes that not everyone can receive this word. Some people are called by God, it seems, to teach or manage money or even (Lord have mercy) to write and edit. Others are constrained by life circumstances in a specific career path. Still others just don't have the courage to change their lifestyle (I find myself in this camp more often than not).
Nevertheless there is a great deal of wisdom in what Fr. Gregory says, even if very few can hear it. The wise Sirach in Ecclesiasticus warns, "Sin is wedged between selling and buying" (27:2). And St. James warns "not many" to become teachers, for theirs is the stricter judgment (3:1). And certainly anyone who works with computers and communication is all too aware of the sins swimming in that pool.
However, there are also positive reasons why working with one's hands is good for the soul. One of the most important reasons is that working with our hands keeps us connected with our body and thus keeps us aware of our weaknesses.
As a priest and wordsmith I spend a lot of my day sitting in a soft chair reading, writing on a computer, or talking with parishioners. It is oh so easy for me to spend hours on end lost in a world of ideas, blissfully contemplating the strengths and weakness of abstract subtleties. I can have my opinions, my reasons, and no one can prove I'm wrong. When my parishioners disagree with me, I can magnanimously allow them to be wrong. I can even disagree with the saints, or with the Bible: after all in the Orthodox Tradition no one is infallible, so maybe St. Paul didn't quite understand X, Y, or Z (as well as I do?). In the abstract world of ideas the only criterion is plausibility, and my ideas are always very plausible to me.
However, in the world of hammer and nail and wood, in the world of soil and seed and snail, what is plausible to me is irrelevant. The wall of my little shed, which in my mind should be straight, isn't. No amount of argument will change it. I made a mistake. I didn't think clearly. I didn't handle my tools well. The humiliation (once one works through the baser reactions) is liberating. The splinter in my hand, the sore muscles in the morning, the pulsating fingertip kissed by the hammer, all of these keep me aware of my body, of my weakness, of my dependence. I take the wall down and measure again, and again, and again. The second wall is straighter. Lord have mercy.
Fr. Gregory advises those of us who do not work with our hands for a living to work with our hands as a hobby. It's good to make plants grow. It's good to eat what you have grown and nurtured. It's good to remember that you are in a body. And it is good be humbled by reality. This also is for the salvation of our souls.
*After I had visited Fr. Gregory several times and we were developing a friendship, he asked me to take a walk with him. He let me do most of the talking. Toward the end of our several mile walk he said that it wouldn't be right for him to hide his real thinking from me. So he began to tell me some of the things that he believes are true (about nonviolence, simple living and a few other theological matters). He chose topics that he knew I would struggle with. When he finished, I didn't know what to say. After walking along silently for a while, I finally said as we approached the hermitage, "I'm sorry but I cannot yet accept much of what you said, but will you still love me anyway?" Fr. Gregory gave me a big hug, and we have been friends ever since. I keep going back, and he keeps talking to me and praying for me. I feel a lot like the young man who came home from college and remarked: "It's amazing how much Dad has learned while I have been away."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Tongs Revisited

In response to my blog entry called The Tongs, someone has asked me if, as a convert to Orthodoxy, I had a hard time at the beginning praying to the Theotokos. The answer is yes.
In my whole-life confession the week before I was received into the Holy Orthodox faith, I confessed to the priest that I had a hard time praying to the Theotokos. I told him that I had no problem with the theology related to the intercession of the Saints, nor with the special place of the Mother of God in the dispensation of salvation and as an intercessor. My problem was that I just couldn’t do it. I could say the words of the prayer--O Lady, Bride of God, spotless, immaculate Virgin…--but the words had no meaning for me. I felt no connection. The wise priest told me not to worry about it, She’d make the connection.
Because I converted with a community (there were 85 of us), I was ordained a deacon on the day of my chrismation. And so I served as a deacon for about three years before she “made the connection.” For the first three years, standing in front of the icon of the Mother of God during the first part of the Divine Liturgy, I basically felt a blank inside my heart. I even had a hard time venerating the icon, finding myself always kissing the foot of Christ in Her arms, and not Her. (I’d be too ashamed to confess it now, except that it magnifies the greatness of the Love and patience of the Mother of God for those who are being saved.) I said the prayers to the Mother of God faithfully, but with no feeling. I often found myself trying to figure out what the words “meant,” as though that would help me find a connection.
Then one day a miracle happened. I was going through a particularly stressful season of financial worry. The stress was crushing me. During the Divine Liturgy one Sunday, while standing before the icon of the Mother of God, I asked Her for help. I don’t remember what I prayed, but I remember what happened. I heard a voice in my head. The exact words are lost, but the gist was this: you won't have to worry about money again. The words were accompanied by a very peaceful feeling, almost like an untying of knots inside me. The feeling stayed with me for several days.
Within a few days, there was a change in my circumstances that delivered me from the immediate cause of my financial worries. Since that time, whenever I am tempted to worry about money, I stand before the icon of the Mother of God and remind Her (remind myself really) of the words I believe She spoke to me. And the miracle is that I don’t worry. Financial ups and downs come and go, but the miracle is that She has freed me from worry.
Praying to the Mother of God, I have come to know in some small ways the Mother of God. She is our heavenly Mother. I know Protestants will freak out about that kind of language--I certainly would have--because they have no categories for divine-human synergy. But just as God distributes his gifts through the free will of his people on earth, so He also distributes His gifts through the intercessions of the Saints who are in heaven, especially the Mother of God.
When my daughter Hannah was 16, she wanted to work at Barbara Cheatley’s, an exclusive gift shop in a little high-end shopping area in Claremont, California. My daughter prayed fervently that she would get a chance to work there. Then she spoke to Barbara, but Barbara told her that there were no openings and she expected no openings: all of her “girls” had worked for her for fifteen years or more. Hannah was crushed when she told us the news. My wife, however, was not ready yet to give up so easily. Bonnie and the Barbara had been business associates for several years and had developed a friendship. Bonnie went to her and “interceded” on Hannah’s behalf. Eventually, after much intercession that may have sounded somewhat like nagging, Barbara agreed that if Hannah could learn to wrap packages well (and the gorgeous wrapping is one of the big reasons why people keep coming back to Barbara Cheatley’s), she could work in the back room for the two months leading up to Christmas. Hannah learned to wrap packages "Barbara's way," and she worked two exhausting months for minimum wage at Barbara Cheatley's.
God answered Hannah’s prayers through the intercessions of her mother (and my wife ☺). God often pours out his Grace to us through others, by the intercessions of others. It should be no surprise then if, when we are in trouble, we find help in the intercessions of God’s Mother. The Grace is God's, the intercession is His Mother’s, the help is from both. God works synergistically with and through His people.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Feeling of Triumph, Mixed

I have an odd mix of feelings when I read the first few verses of Psalm 97 (LXX): 
Sing unto the Lord a new song, for the Lord has done wondrous things.  His right hand and His holy arm have worked salvation for Him.  The Lord has made known His salvation; in the sight of the nations He has revealed His righteousness.
My first feeling when reading these verses is somewhat along the line of what the psalmist probably intended to invoke when he first wrote them.  It is a feeling that I used to have when as a Protestant many years ago I would sing these words to a triumphant melody.  It is the feeling of winning, or of being sure that you are going to win.  It is like having all the trump cards, or like getting picked (even if last) to be on the team with all the best players in a school-yard game of kickball.  As far as feelings go, it feels great.
The psalmist is prophesying, though he may not have realized it at the time.  He probably thought that he was merely rehearsing the events of Gods deliverance of Israel from Egypt.  God’s right hand and holy arm did specific acts (in the sight of the nations) to make Israel “win”: God parted the Red Sea, God sent plagues on Egypt and destroyed Pharaohs' army, God drove out the inhabitants of Canaan.  God was on Israel’s team.  God is on the team of those devoted to Him!  Ah, what a glorious feeling.
The prophetic significance of these words, however, were not revealed until they were fulfilled in Christ.  Christ, the Right Hand of God, works salvation by destroying death by death.  The salvation shown to all the nations through the preaching of the Gospel is that death has been destroyed by the death and resurrection of Christ.  All are invited to enter into this life of resurrection by being united to Christ in Baptism and thus being united to His death.  Here’s where the feelings start to get mixed up.
The salvation of resurrection comes by joining Christ in His death.  But death sure doesn’t feel like anything close to winning.  In fact, death feels an awful lot like losing.  I don’t like that feeling.  
Of course, feelings are tricky things.  They are not only fickle, but feelings can also be trained; they can be guided.  For example, if one’s goal is to get his or her own way, then losing will always feel pretty miserable.  However, if one’s goal is God’s will (as in “nevertheless not my will but thine be done”), then winning or losing become irrelevant.  However, “God’s will” is a slippery concept, so let me concretize it a little.  
God’s plan, or the specific sequence of events that God “wants” to take place, is really beyond my ability to figure out.  It is impossible for a human being to know with complete certainty whether the left or right path is God’s will.  If it were possible, there would be no place for faith.  However, certain aspects of God’s will are pretty clear.  It is generally God’s will that I take the lower seat.  It is God’s will that I consider others as better than myself.  It is God’s will that I be the servant of all.  We can be certain that whether we take the left or right path, all of the injunctions of the Gospel remain God’s will.  God’s will is that I become like Christ.  And so, if my goal is to become like Christ, then however the circumstances play out--whether I win or lose in the various encounters of life--I win, if in the process I maintain the fruit of the Spirit in my heart.  And that feels neither like winning nor losing.  It feels like love, joy and peace; it feels like faith and hope; it feels not like God is on my side, but that I am on God’s.
The feeling of triumph is conflicted within me when the words of the psalmist pass through the prophetic prism.  I confront what someone has called “the bad news of the Good News.”  Life is in death.  But death is not the end; it is the beginning, and not a beginning that starts sometime later (as in pie in the sky).  It is a death and beginning that start right now: Today is the day of salvation.  Today I begin dying--in small ways, nothing heroic--and today I experience the resurrection.  Winning or losing mean a little less to me today.  The joy of the resurrection trumps all. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Tongs

When Jesus’ disciples asked him why he spoke in parables, Jesus did not say so that it would be easy for simple people to understand Him.  Actually, Jesus said the opposite.  He said, “so that in seeing they may not perceive and in hearing they may not understand.”
No wonder I don’t get it.  Jesus intentionally spoke so that he would not be easily understood.  
Perceiving and understanding is not a mere matter of study, that’s just the seeing and hearing part.  It is not a matter of mastering words and ideas outside myself.  Rather, perceiving and understanding requires revelation, not the revelation of what Jesus meant (as though that could be objectified), but a revelation of ourselves, a revelation of what inside us corresponds to what Jesus said, a revelation of our hearts.  
Jesus is quoting Isaiah, the part where God calls Isaiah to his prophetic ministry.  The passage is found in Isaiah chapter six, and it is one of the very few direct glimpses into heaven that are recorded in the Bible.  In this chapter we learn about the seraphim and the thrice holy prayer (trisagion in Greek): “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of Your glory.”  Here in the presence of the holy God Isaiah is immediately aware of his not-holiness, his uncleanness, particularly his unclean lips.  Then one of the seraphs using a pair of tongs takes a live coal from the altar and touches his mouth with it and says, “Behold, this has touched your lips. Your lawlessness is taken away, and your sins are cleansed.”
Now God calls Isaiah to “go and tell this people, ‘You shall hear indeed, but not understand: and you shall see indeed, but not perceive.’ For the heart of this people has become insensitive….”  
It’s a matter of the heart.  Understanding Jesus' parables is a matter of the heart.  An insensitive heart cannot perceive or understand.

The notes in the Orthodox Study Bible point out that many of the words from this passage in Isaiah are quoted in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  The notes mention that the touching of Isaiah’s lips with the coal from the altar is understood in the Church to be a reference to receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion (which takes away our lawless deeds and cleanses our sins).  However, I would like to draw another connection.
In a few of the hymns of devotion to Mary the Theotokos, she is referred to as the “tongs” that carried the live coal from the heavenly altar to touch the lips of men and women in this world.  When it comes to matters of my insensitive heart, I have found that I often need to appeal to the Mother of God for help, for intercession.  Her intercessions are like tongs that carry the purifying and clarifying fire of God from the heavenly altar to touch my lips--and if this is not mixing metaphors too severely--the lips of my heart.  Didn’t Jesus say,“Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks”?
When I draw a blank in my spiritual life, when, as they say, the heavens are brass, when  I am confused or just so frustrated that I can not see straight, that’s when I most urgently call on the Mother of God.  Somehow Her intercession brings to my heart the cleansing fire of Divinity.  Somehow Her intercession brings to me the Grace of God that I in my sin, pain and the confusion of my insensitive heart cannot reach out and receive myself.  
Perhaps someone reading this today is confused, frustrated or spiritually shut down.  I urge you to pray to Mary, the Mother of God, that she would carry some of the Grace of God that she holds (the Bible does, after all, say that She is “full of Grace”) and touch the lips of your heart.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Rage Monster, the Cage, the Counter and the Offering

Most people who know me now would never guess that I have an “anger problem.”  At moments of sudden pain or disappointment (i.e. physical or emotional pain), a surge of adrenaline rushes through my body, and with satanic force, a clear picture appears in my mind of something (or someone) to hit, break, throw or kick.  In my late teens and twenties I learned to keep the rage monster in its cage.  But every now and then it still rattles the cage seeking to get out, and to my shame sometimes does, or very nearly does.
As a teenager I noticed (the first step in almost all spiritual and personal growth) a predictable process whenever I lost my temper.   The very first phenomenon was always a numb shock, followed by either intense pain or anger depending on whether the trigger was physical (banging my shin into a low table) or situational (a sudden disappointment).  The pain or anger would release adrenaline and I would feel what seemed to be a surge of strength pulse through my chest and arms.  After a moment--there is always a mental moment before the picture appears--the image of me hitting, kicking or destroying something becomes vivid in my mind; and with this picture comes a tacit shadowy promise that by acting out the pain will go away. 
It never does.
This rage monster cycle was getting embarrassing.  I looked stupid, hurt myself, broke things, and drove away people I loved.  I decided to try an experiment.  Unfortunately, these episodes of rage happened often enough that I could experiment with them.  I said to myself, “You don’t have to do what you see in the picture that appears in your mind.  Just don’t do anything.  Just bear the pain.  Make the choice in the quiet moment and then ignore the picture. Just walk away.”  Somehow by the Grace of God, I was able to try this experiment and experienced inconsistent results, but decreasingly inconsistent.  In the quiet moment between the rush of adrenaline and the mental picture of violence, I chose to master myself, to walk away, to just bear the pain.
One of the problems I encountered in this experiment, and it is a problem I have encountered in other areas when I have attempted to control myself, is a particular counter thought, or counter feeling, which is not very reasonable though the feeling is forceful.  That is, when I would say to myself “no” something else inside me would say and I would feel, “but you are missing an opportunity that you may not get again.”  What a strange counter thought (you might say), but it is quite effective.  I would ask, “the opportunity for what?”  And the answer would come (and again, this is a feeling-thought), “you will miss the chance to show how much you hurt, to impress on others the reality of your pain.  If you don’t do something, they will never know how much you hurt.”
This counter thought has often tricked me into letting the rage monster leak out a little (the rage monster is like used motor oil: it squeezes through the smallest gaps and stains whatever it touches).  The only successful response I have found to the counter thought is “the offering”:  I treat any freely chosen missed opportunity is an offering to God.  
Up to the point of the counter thought, caging the rage monster is pretty much merely a personal and social affair.  I don’t want to look like an ass, break things, hurt myself and alienate people, so I do what I can to control myself.  But transformation is seldom successful on a merely human plain.  We need something (Someone!) bigger than ourselves.  We can’t, as the saying goes, pull ourselves up by our own boot straps.  By offering missed opportunities to God, negatives are turned into positives.  When I let go of a chance to be recognized, I gain an offering to give to God.  When I walk away from the opportunity to inflict the intensity of my pain or disappointment on others, I have a gift, a unique gift in that moment, to offer God.  When I don’t eat the last piece of cake, the uneaten cake becomes an offering to God.
So far this strategy has worked fairly well for me, so long as I pay attention.  When I look for ways to make my life an offering to God, I usually find them.  Often, however, I don’t look and the wake-up call of a flaring temper or a bulging waist reminds me that I have not been offering, or paying attention to offering, my life to God.  
And so we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed.  Even my failures, in a sense, can be offered.  I can do nothing about the past but offer it to God.  Today, however, I can pay attention.  By God’s Grace, I may pay attention a little better today, and in paying attention I may see the unique gifts I have to offer to God today.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Soy on Wednesdays

It really is a small thing and feels somewhat exaggerated even to call it “fasting.”  But it is fasting, it is going without.  It is even strict fasting, but it certainly isn’t harsh.  A small no.  A limit that I do not set but that I submit to.  
  I anticipate it as I wait for the coffee to brew: the sharp taste of soy instead of the smooth sweetness of cream.  I argue with myself as I open the refrigerator and reach past the cream to the soy milk.  
  “Really, what’s the difference?  You’re not truly fasting anyway.  Why not go without any additive?  Why not go without coffee all together?  That would be real fasting.  If you are not going all the way, why fool yourself with half measures?”  
  I grab the soy milk and pour a little in my cup.
  And then the coffee, rich aroma almost like incense calling my sleepy mind to my morning prayers.  For a moment I hold the hot mug to warm my slightly arthritic left hand and peace slowly warms my heart to prayer.  
  With the first sip I remember it's Wednesday.  I remember that today Judas betrayed the Master for silver.  I remember that I too have greedy fingers, wanting what I want, when I want it, the way I want it.  
  I take another sip and look at my icons.  “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.”  Another sip, and another.  
  And then the mug is empty and I stand to say my prayers.  “O heavenly King, O Comforter….”  My heart has been warmed by the coffee, by the soy milk, by the early morning struggle to be faithful, by the remembrance of one disciple’s weakness and the soft cry for mercy.  It’s Wednesday.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Unique Monastic

In the Preface to the English edition of St. Nikolai (Velimirovich) of Zica’s Akathist to Jesus Conqueror of Death, the following comment is made: “The foremost calling of a monastic is to be unique--unique in how one witnesses to the risen Christ.”
Unique?  A monastic?  And yet, I have heard this saying before.  Those of us not in a monastic setting are deluged from infancy by the presumptions of individualism which drive us to seek ways to express our individuality outwardly in matters like dress, hairstyle, music we listen to, car we drive, and all that we can (consciously or unconsciously) choose ourselves.  It seems to me that much of what passes for individual expression is merely a faint cry for uniqueness.  
The uniqueness of each human person has very little (almost nothing, really) to do with easily (or not so easily) alterable externals.  In fact, so long as our focus is on what is external--what we like or don’t like, what appeals to us, what excites us, what we loathe--we will never come to know who we are, our unique self.  Our unique human person is that which is in the image of Christ; it is that which uniquely “witnesses to the risen Christ.”  And “witness” is merely the English translation of the Greek word “martyr.”
The monks have the secret.  And to varying degrees we can all enter into the secret.  It is a secret that is no secret at all.  Jesus already said it plainly: “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt 16:25).  In losing what seems to be our life, we find our life.  Yet losing our life is never fun, even if finding our life is Life itself.
When we walk this pathway of salvation, we all take up a unique martyrdom.  Each of us witnesses to Christ by a unique death for His sake.  We lose our life, we lose bits of what is familiar and comfortable, of what we like and prefer, in order to find our life, our life in Christ.  And this life in Christ is not something monochrome, except perhaps to those who see only easily alterable externals.  Externally, we may fast on the same days, say the same prayers, maybe even (in the case of monastics) wear similar clothes and seek to live similarly simple lifestyles; but all of this external similarity is merely for the sake of revealing our unique selves, our unique witness to the risen Christ.  

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Jesus Prayer and Pentecostals

I ran across a blog this morning by "Orthodox Monk" in which the author recommends that Pentecostals not practice the Jesus Prayer because it may be spiritually dangerous. On the one hand, I agree that practicing the Jesus Prayer is dangerous--for anyone, especially someone who is not under the guidance of a spiritual father who has spent years practicing (himself under the guidance of a spiritual father) the prayer. The greatest danger with any spiritual practice is delusion: one can think he or she is practicing prayer at a "level" (Oh how I despise that concept when it comes to spiritual matters!) deeper, greater, more profound, etc. than they really are.

On the other hand, spiritual practice, perhaps particularly the Jesus Prayer, is also a path by which one may be delivered from delusion. How else might one be enlightened to his own delusion than by calling on the Name of Jesus? It is an irony, like most of the spiritual life.

My recommendation to anyone who might stumble across this blog is to simply pray and pray simply. As a Pentecostal, I began "saying" the Jesus Prayer (what is and isn't prayer I leave in God's hands). At first it was something I mixed with "praying in tongues." But gradually, my heart was lifted and my mind focused through the Jesus Prayer so that I "prayed in tongues" less and less. The kind of prayer beyond words (groanings too deep to be uttered, a la Romans 8:26?) that "praying in tongues" seemed to provide for me was eclipsed by the Jesus Prayer. Actually, the metaphor is more like a faint star disappearing as the sun rises.

What I was actually doing when I was "praying in tongues," I do not know. God knows. My heart was crying out to Him and somehow He heard my cry and has led me to the Safe Haven of His Church.

If you would like to say the Jesus Prayer, do so simply. And God in His mercy will hear the cry of your heart.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Saint Myron

Most of the saints that we know about were monks. This is probably for two reasons. First, monks, in the best of circumstances, live a lifestyle that enables them to pay attention to their inner life in ways that are difficult for married people with children. Second--and I think this perhaps is more to the point than the first--for most of history only monks could read and write, and so most of what was written was for the edification of those in a monastic calling. There are a few exceptions. A few pious married folk make it into the synaxarion (the book of the lives of the saints). Most who make it in began as married people and end their life in the monastery or among the clergy--again, were this not the case, no one who could write would have been around to record their life, and those who could read, monks, would not necessarily have been encouraged in their vocation by reading stories of saints who raised 14 children for the glory of God. Nevertheless, the few stories we have of married saints reveal a great deal about what sanctity looks like in the world. St. Myron is an excellent example. From The Prologue of Ohrid (a synaxarion), August 8th:
Myron, a married farmer, joyfully and abundantly distributed the fruits of his land to needy people. Once he encountered strangers and thieves stealing wheat from his threshing floor. Not telling them who he was, St. Myron helped the thieves fill the sacks, lift them on their backs, and escape. Because of his exceptional virtue, Myron was ordained a priest and afterward consecrated a bishop. He was a miracle worker and performed many good and mighty works in the name of the Lord Jesus. Myron died sometime close to the year 350, in the hundredth year of his life.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Science of Transformation

The word in the New Testament that we translate "kingdom"--as in Kingdom of God--is interesting in that it is not a reference to the realm (the place, the geography, the property), but to the rule. That is, those who have the Kingdom of God--as in "theirs is the Kingdom of God"--are those who are ruled by God. That is the blessing of the Beatitudes: to be ruled by God.
On the one hand, that's pretty heady stuff, to be ruled by God; yet on the other hand it is something we all already know. God rules everything. All the physical, biological and psychological laws that rule our life, rules that we know already, rules that no one escapes from, these are all manifestations of God's rule in our life--even if since the 18th century we have preferred to ignore God and deify the creature, as if law and matter were eternal. Despite our protestation, this is still God's rule.
Within this rule, we can either cooperate and transcend even what seem to be our limits, or we can fight and rebel and destroy ourselves imagining that the universe as we would like it to be will somehow save us from the universe as it is. For example, mankind is limited by the rule of God as it is manifest in this physical reality, so we walk the earth and watch the birds fly. However, by careful attention, one can learn to cooperate with the rule of God. One can learn to fly.
More than a millennium before the word "science" came to refer exclusively to what used to be called natural science, holy men and women talked about the science of the spiritual life. I'm not referring to metaphysics. I am referring to the practice of paying attention to one's inner life, one's relationship with God. Through attention, one can cooperate with the rule of God in the heart/mind and transcend, or rather be transfigured beyond what were thought to be the limits of a merely human existence.
This transfiguration begins by learning and cooperating with the laws of God's rule, laws that have both been revealed and discovered. And herein lies the rub. Unlike some of the other laws of God's rule that can be manipulated to selfish and destructive ends--the science of flight, for example, has advanced principally spurred by the desire to exploit its military and commercial possibilities--spiritual laws deal with the healing of our sinful and selfish hearts, our inner selves, our selves hidden behind the mental fig leaves that we sew for ourselves. The beginning of our transformation, of our cooperation with God's rule in our hearts/minds, is a changing of our mind and heart called repentance. Repentance is the intentional cooperation with God in the heart.
Just as physical flight did not begin with rockets, so repentance does not begin with unceasing prayer. Flight began by paying attention to the wind, by observing what ascends (hot air) and what doesn't. Similarly, our repentance begins with attention to the Wind of God, the Holy Spirit. Where does it blow? How can I move with it? What in my thoughts or actions "quench" it's movement? What encourages my thoughts to ascend towards God? What drags them down to the replaying of mental videos of futility? Many of the laws for the spiritual life have been revealed, but until one applies them, they are only words. Those who have flown before us have left us instructions, advice on how to begin. Basil the Great left us this:
"How are we to come to this humility and leave behind us the deadly swelling of arrogance? By exercising ourselves in it in all things, and by keeping in mind that there is nothing which cannot be a danger to us. For the soul becomes like the things to which it gives itself, and takes the character and appearance of what it does."
"Let your demeanour, your dress, your walking, your sitting down, the nature of your food, the quality of your being, your house and what it contains, aim at simplicity. And let your speech, your singing, your manner with your neighbour, let these things also be in accord with humility rather than with vanity. In your words let there be no empty pretence, in your singing no excess sweetness, in conversation be not ponderous or overbearing. In everything refrain from seeking to appear important. Be a help to your friends, kind to the ones with whom you live, gentle to your servant, patient with those who are troublesome, loving towards the lowly, comforting those in trouble, visiting those in affliction, never despising anyone, gracious in friendship, cheerful in answering others, courteous, approachable to everyone, never speaking your own praises, nor getting others to speak of them, never taking part in unbecoming conversations, and concealing where you may whatever gifts you posses."

There's a start.
(Quote from St. Basil the Great, Homily on Humility, 20 as found in Kyriaki and Thomas FitzGerald's book,
Living the Beatitudes.)

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Pierre's Happy Insanity

Just before the Epilogue in War and Peace, the character Pierre, who has gone through the life changing experience of his suffering as a POW and his recuperation afterward, accidentally meets Natasha again, the only woman he has ever loved. Natasha is staying with Princess Marya, the sister of her fiance Andrei, who was mortally wounded in the only major battle before the capture of Moscow and who slowly dies as Natasha and his sister tend his serious wound and try to nurse him to recovery.

Pierre had always loved Natasha, yet it had always been scrupulously expressed in a brotherly manner--first because Pierre was already married (to a wife he hadn't seen for years, who was the social queen of Petersburg, and who never lacked the affection of the young men who attended her soirees) and second because Natasha was the fiancee of his best friend. But now Prince Andrei had died; and, in a fit of depression, Pierre's wife intentionally overdosed on an abortifacient that an Italian doctor was using to treat her "angina pectoris," an illness that comes "from the inconvenience of marrying two husbands at once." And one more reason, which in my mind is the reason that made the others reasonable. Pierre considers Natasha too pure, too sweet, too lovely for himself.

Now, Pierre meets Natasha again after she has wasted away in six months of mourning; but when they meet, for the first time she is able to tell the whole story of her suffering. And at the second meeting she smiles, faintly, for the first time. After several days of meetings, through Princess Marya, Pierre confesses his love (which was obvious already) and finds out that Natasha loves him too. This knowledge produced in Pierre a happy insanity. An insanity that made him "more intelligent and perceptive...than ever," able to understand "everything that's worth understanding in life."

Later in life when Pierre analyzes this insanity, he realizes that it consisted "in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people's merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them."

It's worth 1124 pages just to get to this sentence. Loving people based on their merits is merely a blind for "personal reasons": how the other affects me. However, in loving for no reason at all, one comes to discover the "unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them." What happy insanity. It is the insanity of Christianity, divine insanity.

May God save us from sanity and grant us the courage to embrace happy insanity and to love people for no reason at all.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Happy Anniversary!

Bonnie and I had a wonderful "Day Holiday" in Vancouver. We stayed at a very nice hotel near Stanley Park and brought our bikes to ride around. The first trip around the park at about 1:00 PM on Wednesday was terrible. There was a 5K long traffic jam of tourists and Japanese school children wobbling awkwardly along on rented bikes. I was so stressed out that when we got back to the hotel while Bonnie napped I had to take a brisk walk just to calm down and find my peace again.

Back at the hotel, I read a few more chapters of War and Peace (I finally made it to the Epilogue--you will be hearing more about that later), and watched a movie that was a waste of time (I don't even want to talk about it). Then off to dinner at Carderos Restaurant. This is a recommend. Bonnie and I were both very impressed by our entrees (she got the lemon halibut, I got the cajun lingcod); the Russel's Cream Ale is beer as it is meant to be: you can actually taste it, but it doesn't bite back. The prices are surprisingly reasonable for an excellent meal on the marina. One warning: don't order ice cream for desert. It's not. They put all that sauce on it for a reason. On the up side, when the waiter saw that we didn't eat it, it didn't appear on the bill--no questions, no hassle. I guess I'm not used to classy restaurants. By the way, the little lotto shop across the way sells pints of Ben and Jerry's in multiple flavours.

Back at the hotel enjoying a pint of strawberry (real) ice cream, Bonnie and I made a plan to get out first thing in the morning and try another cycle around the park before the tourists got up. Then we watched The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock. She deserved the Academy Award she received for this one. It is a movie that I had been putting off seeing because its plot hits too close to home for me. She portrayed accurately that same awesome combination of love, toughness and tenderheartedness that my own foster mother possesses and that saved my life. I never made it in professional sports though.

By 7:00 am, Bonnie and I were on our bikes making our way around Stanley Park with no one but a few joggers. It was warm already and beautiful. The tide was out and we stopped three times just so that Bonnie could paint or sketch. I scampered over rocks trying not to fall on the barnacles looking for sea life in the tidal pools. When we finally ended up in English Bay about 8:30, we stopped for breakfast at the Sylvia Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Vancouver. Breakfast was great, and the old ivy-covered hotel provided lots of fodder for Bonnie's sketch book. We finally wandered back to the hotel at 11:00, napped until 12:30 and took a late check out at 1:00--priceless!

As Bonnie and I were clinking our pints of cream ale, toasting our our 31 years together, I said, "Here's to our first 31 years together." It got me thinking. If I live to 82, it means that I still have another half of a wonderful marriage to go. The front end was all the work: the rough first couple of years leaning how to be one pair instead of a pair of ones. The kids (wonderful and stretching). Adventures in survival, in religion, in work, in trusting God. Basically it is all pretty easy now, maintenance really. Together we are like very comfortable clothes that just fit. All the wearing in has been done, now there is just the occasional spill or popped button that requires attention. This is God's gift. Solomon was right: "He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favour from the Lord" (Proverbs 18:22).

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A reflection, not quite a poem, on the beatitudes

Blessed are the…
What does it mean to be blessed in a world of death? Jesus told us. First, let go; be poor. Receive the Kingdom of Heaven. This is where blessedness is found: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
And mourn. The world really is a sad place. And yet, not so sad that there is no comfort. We fight and lie and cheat to find comfort without mourning, only to squander our comfort so that even comfort is comfortless. We prefer blindness to the sadness of sight. See and be sad, then you will find comfort.
Don’t fight, be meek, and you will inherit everything. The world of death teaches us to hunt and kill--to win. And the fighting never ends; until we lose, which always happens: even giants get tired. A strange strategy for happiness Jesus offers us: let the other guy win. The meek are conquered and in losing win.
Feel the want of righteousness within you first and then around you. Let it oppress your soul. “Keep your mind in hell and despair not,” for righteousness is near to those who thirst for it. To feel that all is not right is the first hunger pang, the beginning of your salvation. Righteousness comes to those who lack it, who hunger for it.
And be merciful, so that you too may receive mercy. Righteousness without mercy is law without spirit. What law should we not bend for mercy’s sake? God bent the heavens in mercy. Happy is the one who is not imprisoned by his own ridged rule. Mercy leaks through the bars.
Don’t try to understand the darkness. The virgin heart will see God. Wheels within wheels darken the heart and it cannot see the God whose mirror it is. Blessed are the politically naive. Blessed are those who trust others. Blessed is the one who looks for the good in others: he will find it.
And having found the good, make peace with it. Empty yourself to calm the anger of others, and prove to be a child of the One who brought peace by emptying himself.
Finally, don’t assume they’ll like it or that they will understand; for to share in the resurrection, you must also share in the suffering. This too is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Monday, August 02, 2010

A Little Yeast

From Our Thoughts Determine our Lives: The Life and Teahings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitonvinica.  An old lady asked elder Thaddeus what she should do so that her grandchildren might become pious.  The elder answered that she should always be meek and good; let her never be angry but always happy.  Let her obey everyone, since no one will obey her.  Perhaps her grandchildren will not become pious, but one day they will remember their grandmother, and the memory will make them better people.
The power of one godly person is inestimable.  Many will reject piety and be ensnared in the traps of a wayward life, but the memory of one pious person can turn their hearts back to God.  Although they may never become pious, their hearts will yearn for it.  And this yearning will be their salvation.  At the regeneration (Matt. 19:28), when all the lies have vanished away in death, they will have repented in their hearts, knowing that they have chosen the wrong path, and longing for righteousness in their hearts.
A little yeast leavens the whole lump.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Pierre Finds Peace

In War and Peace, the character Pierre undergoes a profound transformation through suffering.  Although not in the military, Pierre is taken as a POW by the French occupying Moscow in the late summer of 1812.  Driven from Moscow with the fleeing French troops, Pierre survived (barely) the privation of adequate food and shelter that resulted in the death of most of the POWs and, eventually, almost all of Napoleon's army.  Pierre is finally liberated by a band of renegade Russian soldiers under the command of two sly officers who play their squabbling generals off one another so that in the confusion they can raid and plunder the fleeing French, who are carrying much of Moscow’s wealth.
After Pierre’s convalescence, people began to notice a change in him, a change that wins their favor.  Before the war, Pierre was courted solely for his wealth and despised for his absent-minded social and financial cluelessness.  After his sufferings, Pierre is no less absent minded or clueless, but now he is at peace, no longer looking for answers in things far away, but in things near by: in God, the God whom his nanny had taught him long ago “is here, right here, everywhere.”  Furthermore, Pierre had come to recognize that each person could think, feel and look at things his or her own way, and that it was impossible to change someone’s opinion by mere words.
What a peace-giving discovery: people are different, and that’s okay.  May God save us from the tyranny of mere words.