Thursday, September 30, 2010

Food, Sex and Humility

In the Garden of Eden, Eve was tempted by food.  The draw to the food, or the justification for the draw to this particular food, was intellectual, not biological.  That is, she was not drawn to the forbidden food because she was hungry.  Eve's mind and the machinations of her mind (with the help of a serpentine friend) increased desire and justification to the point that she was overcome by desire.
The Garden of Eden is within each of us, and the struggle of Eve is the struggle we all face.  Food, in many respects, is the most basic and natural manifestation of this struggle (it is natural in that the desire that must be controlled is a natural desire--there is nothing wrong with wanting to eat).  Sexual desire follows a full stomach (this is the experience of the Fathers and the Bible--"neighing as a well-fed stallion" [Jer. 5:8]).  Controlling the stomach weakens the body and makes sexual desire (also a natural desire) easier to control.
However, many people who are good at controlling their eating do so for the sake of vanity or some other pride-related weakness (thus conquering a natural perversion by a spiritual one and in the end being worse off).  Humility is the only safe path.  The humble begin with very small steps--because the humble person knows that anything but the smallest steps will lead to failure.   Alcoholics Anonymous and groups that follow a similar pattern are successful largely because they are like church.  They begin with confession and humility.  They take things one day at a time (I might eat the cake tomorrow, but today I won't).  They know that without God's help and the help of others they will fail.  If we are going to control our stomachs, thus weakening our sexual drive so that we might more easily control that too, we have to begin small and be faithful in those small things.  

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Politics and the Image of God

"Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement." -- St. John of Kronstadt
It is often hard for us to believe that the person who hurts us, opposes us, takes from us in one way or another is still a person in the image of God.  Anger and fear blind us--lust blinds us too, but that's a topic for another day.  I have been thinking lately of how large a role fear plays in how I think about politics.  I am not a very politically minded person, and I know so little about politics that I refuse to argue with anyone about it.  Nevertheless, I must vote, and when I think about who to vote for, the largest motivating factor in my mind has been fear.  I have more often voted for party A because I was afraid of what party B might do.  Somehow this does not seem healthy.
Of course we could blame the political parties.  And certainly we can all see weaknesses in every party and platform and candidate.  But fear has more to do with a "devilish reverie" in our own hearts than it does with the party or person who is in power.  We read about the Christian martyrs who "overcame the demons' strengthless presumption" by not fearing: not fearing death, not fearing loss of property, not fearing a political system that outlawed their faith.  How is it that they did not fear?  How is it that love conquered all?
Part of the secret, I think, is pointed out by St. John of Kronstadt.  By loving the icon of Christ, I overcome fear.  If in political parties I can see men and women who are formed in the image of God, men and women who want to do good--despite evil misfortune, illness and devilish reverie;  if I see in every political platform well intended (even if misguided) goals: then perhaps I can entrust myself, my neighbours, and my country into the Hands of the One who is able to work with and save me in spite of my own misguided good intentions.  It really comes down to believing that God is bigger than government.
I am not saying that politics do not matter or that they are unimportant.  I am saying that for a Christian, the importance of politics is only secondary.  Of course, this is true only for Christians who are not materialists first and Christian later.  If we cling to prosperity, then it becomes a god to which we sacrifice even Christ Himself in the icon of those whom we fear and hate.  For the materialist, politics become very important; and fear is usually the prod that motivates their political action.
Christians must be a good citizens, first of heaven and then of whatever state they find themselves in.  If the state encourages you to vote, you should vote--and vote intelligently, responsibly.  However, vote as a Christian, without fear.  Vote trusting the God who can work with all our misguided good intentions.  And most of all, vote loving your enemies, despising no one and believing the best even of those whose politics you are not able to support.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Because I Carry You In My Heart

To the Philippians, St. Paul says, “I thank God at the remembrance of you...being persuaded of this very thing, that the One who began a good work in you will bring it to perfection until the day of Christ Jesus.”  
Isn’t it wonderful: the good work that God has begun in us will be perfected, if not in this life, then in the next.  My perfection in Christ (“perfection” in the New Testament means “maturity”), is not something that has to be finished before I die.  God who started the work in me will complete it on/until/by the day of Christ Jesus (in the age to come).  This fills me with hope because I am always aware of my failings, my immaturity, my sliding back into old and deadly patterns of thought and behavior.  God is able to complete His work in me, and the time limit of my own biological life or my current circumstances is not a hinderance to Him.  
But what amazes me most about this passage is that St. Paul goes on to give the reason why he is so sure that God will complete the work He has begun in the Philippians: “Because I have you in my heart.”
Because the Saint carried the Philippians in his heart, he was confident that God would complete His work in them, even if it takes the next age to do it.  Certainly, it is a great thing to be carried in the heart of a saint.  But perhaps the same principle applies to us who are less than saintly.  Perhaps, if we will carry one another in our hearts, we too can become confident that God will complete His work in us.

Friday, September 24, 2010


[An e-mail exchange]
Dear Fr. Michael,
If you are looking for a blog topic, I'd love to hear you explore motivation within an orthodox understanding of existence.  Education is locked in the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy (I think they're two sides of the same coin and arise from an individualistic understanding of humans) and I have some of my own ideas, but you could help my thinking by sharing yours.  
Dear Educator,

I think the quote from St. Silouan on love that I posted this morning gets at motivation.  I think you are right about intrinsic and extrinsic as self centred categories (inside me and outside me).  Love is also both inside and outside.  Longing (to love) is inside leading to "ecstasy"  which motivates my actions.  But love is all directed outward.  Of course, without God, love "grows cold" pretty quickly.  Being loved helps keep the flame of love lit.  This is why spiritual exercise is so very important.  Through prayer, liturgy, and spiritual reading we rehearse (remember) God's love for us, and this helps keep the flame of love for others burning within us.  It is not our struggle alone.  We join in the love of God.  In fact, it is really the love of God in us that produces longing.  God Himself is in us loving the world through us.  But we are leaky vessels of the Grace of God.  We need to continually return to the Source.
God bless you!

Love and Equality

"The Lord wants us to love each other; this is the essence of freedom: love for God and for your neighbor. This is both freedom and equality. But in earthly titles there can be no equality; this is of no concern to the soul, however. Not everyone can be a king or a prince; not everyone can be a patriarch or an abbot, or a leader, but no matter what your title you can love God and serve Him, and that is all that matters. And whoever loves God more on earth shall be in greater glory in the Kingdom." -- St. Silouan of Mount Athos

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Icons and Idols

(From a letter to an inquirer)

Probably to begin with, I suggest that you get some icons (if you haven't already) and set up an icon corner or wall or space in your house where your family can say prayers together (and individually).  Just one icon will do and it need not be an expensive hand-painted one.  You can cut the icons out of the Orthodox Study Bible and put them on the wall.  Icons are an important part of ancient Christian worship.  Certainly we can pray without icons on the wall, but even words and (according to St. Gregory of Nyssa and others) concepts are icons.  That is, words and even concepts are images that both point to the reality that they depict and participate in that reality.  Icons are already a normal part of our lives.  To take a simple example, you might have a picture of your wife that you keep in your wallet or that you keep on your desk at work or (if you wife is away on a trip) that you keep by your bedside.  Although the picture of your wife is just paper and ink, it is more than paper and ink.  Because it bears the image of your wife, that paper and ink participates in some way in the reality of your wife and points to the reality of your wife.  When you honour the picture (by carrying it in your wallet or putting it in a prominent place) you are not honouring paper and ink, but what the image on the paper and ink represents as an icon.  
Most Protestants and sects that came out of the Protestants are iconoclastic (icon destroyers).  However, excavation has shown that the earliest Christian Churches and even Jewish Synagogues before the time of Christ had pictures on the walls.  Even in the Pentateuch, God commands Moses to build images of angles and other living things for the Temple.  This is in the very context of commanding Moses not to make images for worship as idols.  I think one can safely say the second commandment, "you shall not make for yourself an image of anything in  heaven or earth," does not refer to all image making.  It refers to images made as idols.  Otherwise, why would God command Moses to make images for the Temple?
A very important distinction for Orthodox Christians is the distinction between an idol and an icon.  Many Fathers of the Church have written books on this distinction (I am thinking specifically of St. John of Damascus' Three Treaties on Divine Images [8th Century] and some of the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa [4th century]).  Briefly, an idol is anything but God Himself that one treats as an absolute.  St. Paul says greed is idolatry because a greedy person "worships" whatever he or she peruses as an absolute, as something desirable in itself, as something for which he or she will sacrifice, or more often sacrifice others, to obtain.  It is as if the desired thing (person, relationship, position, etc.) were god, an end in itself.  An icon, on the other hand, always points beyond itself, and yet participates in some way with the reality to which it points.  
St. John of Damascus introduces a distinction into the early Christian vocabulary.  (Some background: in Greek, the word translated "to worship" just means to bow down to.  This word is used in many different contexts.  Sometimes (from the context) it is clear that this word should best be translated "to honour" in other contexts it is clear that it should be translated "to worship."  This ambiguity was not a significant problem for Christians until their confrontation with Islam and the iconoclast controversy of the 8th century. End of background.)  In the context of this spirit of iconoclasm that had come into the world, St. John makes a clear distinction between what we call veneration or honour and the worship that is due God alone.  We venerate an image of Christ because the image participates in some way with the reality; however, the veneration "passes through" the image to the reality (the prototype) it depicts.  
Furthermore, icons can be Spirit bearing.  That is, the Church has taught from the beginning (and even in the Old Testament) that physical objects can be holy (sanctified) and carry Grace.  So, for example, in the N.T. handkerchiefs from St. Paul were laid on the sick and they recovered.  Or in the Old Testament, the bronze serpent made by Moses (at God's command) healed all who looked to it, and at the time of Solomon, the Glory of God fills the temple "so that the priests could not stand to minister."  Similarly, icons (or any physical object for that matter) can carry divine Grace.  This is an important concept not only because of icons (in fact, icons are a secondary consideration).  It is important for Christology: understanding who Christ is.  
If Christ is really, really both God and man (without change or alteration of either nature, human or divine) somehow the physical matter of his human body was able to bear (carry) the divine Person of the Logos.  If we take this seriously, it has implications for all created reality.  Thus we say in our daily prayer to the Holy Spirit, "Who is everywhere present and fills all things...."  Now the depths of what this means and how we experience it is a mystery that we will spend eternity exploring.  However, for the time being and considering our weakness, God has given us the Church and the Tradition handed down by wise and experienced Fathers (that is, experienced in their actual relationship with God).  Icons, written prayers, feasts, fasts, liturgies, all of these exist to help us repent and come to know God better (by participation in Grace leading to sanctification).  All that the Tradition has given us points beyond itself to the reality of God Himself; and by entering into the Tradition, we participate in that to which the Tradition points, and thus we are transformed.

Love Every Person

"Love every man in spite of his falling into sin. Never mind the sins, but remember that the foundation of the man is the same - the image of God." -- St. John of Kronstadt

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tolstoy and the Orthodox Church, Some Reflections

One of the ways to understand Tolstoy’s relationship with the Orthodox Church is in the context of his search for certainty, certainty regarding truth. Tolstoy’s relationship with the Orthodox Church is paradoxical, that is, very Russian, quite Orthodox.
In 1878 at the age of 50, Tolstoy was experiencing a kind of religious awakening during which he frequently attended the village Church wanting to absorb the spirituality of the people. However in the year before the Russo-Turkish war began and this year the Tzar commanded all of the churches to pray for the troops (Sounds like this could be the U.S. today). However, part of the prayer, apparently, contained references to the Turks being destroyed by sword and exploding shell. This was too much hypocrisy for Tolstoy. How can the priest proclaim the Gospel of Christ and at the same time pray for the death of enemies?
Tolstoy had never been a fan of the Church hierarchy. His Orthodox Christianity had always been of the sort that focused on the piety of the people, the monks and the hermits. But with this latest moral outrage, Tolstoy quit the Church all together and for good--sort of. It is important to note that Tolstoy’s rejection of the doctrine of the Orthodox Church was not based on rationalism. That is, he did not reject it because he couldn’t accept it rationally. He rejected it because of the hypocrisy, because of his moral outrage that the same body that proclaimed the message of Jesus also promoted class distinctions, oppression of the poor and weak, and violence in many forms (particularly wars, pogroms, and capital punishment).
And when you look at the state of the Orthodox Church in Russia in the latter half of the 19th century, it is hard to blame Tolstoy for being outraged. But don’t just take my word for it. Let me read to you the words of St. Maria Skobtsova, or St. Maria of Paris, a Russian Orthodox Nun living among the Russians in France who had fled the religious persecution of the Communists. She died in Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945 where she had been interred for smuggling Jews out of France and providing them with false baptismal certificates. On a Saturday in April, she took the place of another woman, a mother, who was about to be gassed and died in her place.
This is what St. Maria wrote in 1938 about the state of the Orthodox Church in Russian during the18th and 19th centuries:
The Church reformers of Peters time [Peter the Great, 1720] were least of all religious reformers. They never felt themselves to be prophets or saints. They laicized and secularized the Church; they took the world from under her jurisdiction and drove her fire into the wilderness, the forest, the [hermitages], into remote, isolated monasteries.
We should not close our eyes to the fact that they [the reformers] achieved a great deal. Synodal Orthodoxy [headed by a layman appointed by the Tzar] ... actually became one of the departments of the great State of Russia. The hierarchy, decorated with state medals and ribbons, often had the psychology of an important imperial bureaucracy.
There is no need to enumerate the countless facts that speak of this secularization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We may say only that it is precisely what led to the falling away from the Church of the entire searching, educated part of the nation--the Russian intelligentsia.
Like I said, even devout Orthodox Christians find it difficult to be too hard on Tolstoy. However, Tolstoy did not make it easy. When he rejected the Orthodox Church he threw the whole weight of his intellect, writing ability, wealth and fame into the effort. He not only denied the efficacy of the Church’s sacraments and the legitimacy of its hierarchy, he claimed that the sacraments were even harmful and that the hierarchy was indeed the exact opposite of what Christ intended Christianity to be. Particularly, Tolstoy railed against the Church for its supposed claim to infallibility.
This is an interesting matter. Infallibility was an important issue for modern thinkers. In 1870 the Roman Pope was declared to have infallible powers under certain conditions. This, I think, was the logical consequence of the development of scholastic theology: theology along the lines of Aristotelian logic: something either is or isn’t, yes or no, on or off, fallible or infallible. Such thinking was not a part of Christian theological reflection before the twelfth century, and then it took hold only in the Latin Church and her rebellious or reforming children (depending on your perspective). The Eastern Orthodox church continued to persue theological reflection based on mystical experience for which words and concepts could only at best serve as icons pointing to something beyond themselves. Therefore, in the Orthodox tradition, yes and no are not necessarily mutually exclusive. That is, due to human limitations, one saint’s yes and another saint’s no could point to the same mystical reality. (I am making gross generalizations for the sake of giving you a sense for the difference between Eastern Orthodox Christian thinking and the thinking of the Christian Scholastics that became dominant in the west after the twelfth century.)
This is important because in the 18th century, Russia came under the influence of western Christian theological trends so that Russian seminarians were required to learn Latin, not Greek and many western concepts and categorizations influenced the theological world of the Russian Orthodox Church. All this is to say that the Church in Russia at the time of Tolstoy was in many ways sick with the western tendency to minimize mystical experience and maximize scholastic logic, and for logic to work, there must be undeniable, infallible givens. The Latin Church claimed the infallibility of a person, the Pope; Russian Orthodox Theologians of this period claimed the infallibility of the Ecumenical councils. Tolstoy rejected any church's claim of infallibility.
But here’s the irony: infallibility is not an Orthodox Christian category. It is a category that entered the Russian Orthodox Church during it’s period of Latinization (sometimes referred to as the “Western Captivity of the Orthodox”). So in rejecting the 19th century Russian Orthodox Church’s claim to infallibility, he was not actually rejecting Orthodox Christian doctrine.
Nevertheless, Tolstoy’s vitriolic condemnation of the Church and her sacraments--what, in my opinion, was his throwing the baby out with the bathwater—eventually resulted in his official excommunication in 1901. Although much was made of this official act, it was really only an acknowledgement of what Tolstoy had been saying for years. Since Tolstoy so publicly separated himself from the Church, the Church made it official. And they had to do this because much of what Tolstoy continued to write was so imbued with a genuine Orthodox Christian ethos, that many supposed that he did indeed represented the Church in his writings.
In fact this ethos is so evident that even as recently as last year, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople referred to Tolstoy as an Orthodox Christian author.
I’d like to illustrate this Orthodox Christian ethos by telling you one of his short stories, the story of the Three Hermits. The first time I heard this story (from a priest) I was told that it was from the “Fathers” (a convenient category for Orthodox Christians that often means no more than “I don’t know where it comes from but I think it communicates an important Orthodox Christian theme, idea or feeling”). The story goes roughly like this:
A bishop was on a boat crossing a large lake when he overheard a sailor talking about three hermits that lived on a island on that lake. The bishop was intrigued and spoke to the ship’s captain to get more information. When this bishop learned that these hermits had no church or priest--no one to teach them--he asked the captain to stop the boat and that he be rowed over to the island so that he could meet these hermits and perhaps give them an edifying word.
When the bishop had been rowed to the island, he met the three very old and very skinny men and he asked them how they lived. They said that they lived the best they could on their small garden and the herbs of the forest. Then he asked them how they prayed and the oldest said to him, “We are simple men. We do not know the words to big prayers, so we repeat constantly this phrase: ‘We are three, You are three, have mercy on us.’”
The bishop was encouraged that at least they had heard something of the Holy Trinity, but he was concerned that they have a better prayer. The bishop said, I will teach you how to pray the Lord’s prayer. And beginning with “Our Father,” the bishop worked with the hermits until they had memorized the prayer. The hermits were overjoyed at their new prayer. Then the bishop felt that he had done his best and returned to the ship. As the ship was sailing away, one of the sailors noticed a dot on the horizon behind them towards the island. The dot got bigger and everyone was speculating as to what was following them so quickly. In a few moments everyone could see what it was. It was the three hermits running on the water after the ship. When they got to the ship the ladder was let down and they climbed on board. Everyone, particularly the bishop was dumbfounded.
“Your Grace,” cried the hermits, “we need your help. We remembered the words of the prayer so long as we kept repeating it, but when we took a break, we began to forget one or two words. Then it became a jumble in our minds. Please teach us the prayer again.”
The bishop could only reply, no. You go back and continue praying as you prayed before I came.
This story in many ways illustrates a very central aspect of the Orthodox Christian tradition, that of pure prayer of the heart, beyond words. If Tolstoy had stuck to emphasizing this non-hierarchical, non-liturgical aspect of the Orthodox Christian tradition without so vehemently condemning other aspects, he would have fit quite nicely into the Church.
One of the not often mentioned facts relating to Tolstoy and the Orthodox Church is that Tolstoy visited, at least five times, the Optina monastery. Optina was famous for its “spirit bearing” elders (called in Russian Staretzi). In fact, in the last month of his life, Tolstoy, according to his diaries, was rereading Dostoyevsky’s Karamozov Brothers and specifically mentions elder Zosimos, the fictional Staretz in the novel--fictional, but based on the very real Staretz Ambrosy of the Optina monastery on whom Dostoyevsky based the character.
And so, when Tolstoy begins his self imposed exile a few days before his death, where does he go? He goes to the Optina monastery where, after spending the night, he stands in front of the cabin of Elder Joseph for a long time, apparently debating whether or not to knock on the door. In the end, he does not. A few days later, Tolstoy will be dying of Pnemonia in a train masters house. Elder Joseph will send Elder Barsanuphius to be with him in his last moments. But alas, Tolstoy’s followers will not allow anyone to see him, not even his family, until he slips into a coma.
Tolstoy condemned the Orthodox Church of nineteenth century Russia, which in many ways, perhaps, deserved condemnation. However, as G. K. Chesterton famously said, “heresy is truth gone mad.” So Tolstoy, having gotten a hold on a piece of truth and fueled by his rage at the failures of the State Orthodox Church to live up to its own precepts, took his truth and condemned other truths with it. His truth became the sole criterion. Unfortunately, in the end, Tolstoy discovers that condemning others for their failures to live up to their ideals is much, much easier than for one to live up to his or her own ideals. Frustration at his inability to live himself the life he proclaimed to others as ideal, tormented Tolstoy the last years of his life.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Speaking in Tongues

My internet connection has been down, so I'm late responding to Anonymous' question about speaking in tongues.  As many of you know, I was a Charismatic/Pentecostal Christian before I became Orthodox.  I was a tongues speaker.  After I became Orthodox, I found myself using (what we called) "prayer language" less and less--not because anyone told me not to pray in tongues.  What I found was that the Jesus Prayer as a prayer technique and the other prayers of the Church were meeting the need of my heart.  I could say that the longing of my heart to pray beyond words, a longing that was somehow partially satisfied by praying in tongues, was much more fully satisfied by the practice of the Jesus Prayer (along with the many written prayers of the Church, which freed me from the burden of always trying to find my own words to express what was in my heart).

But what of that experience of speaking in tongues?  Was it the same experience that St. Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 12 - 14 and also alludes to in Romans 8?  My firm conviction is "I don't know."  I don't know what it was I was experiencing.  I do know that God heard the longing of my heart and has led me into the Church and in the Church given me a wealth of prayer "resources" such that what I used to do then, now seems like a childhood memory.  I know that much of what I did then and called exercising the gifts of the Spirit I now consider suspect.  This is largely because what I used to experience when I or others "functioned in the gifts" was largely deprived of holiness.  They are the gifts of the Holy Spirit after all.  And by holiness, I do not mean not drinking, not smoking and not dancing.   By holiness, I am referring to humility, self control, gentleness, obedience, hidden acts of virtue, etc.  I am not saying that these qualities do not exist among Pentecostals; I am saying that they did not exist in me and I seldom saw them in those around me.

About speaking in tongues specifically, there are references to Orthodox saints speaking in tongues.  However, in all cases that I know about, the person speaking in tongues was understood by everyone in the room in his or her own language.  A famous example of this is St. Pacomius in Egypt in the forth century.  St. Pacomius had several communities of monks (each of about a thousand monks) and each organized into houses based on language group.  When all of the houses got together to be addressed by St. Pacomius, they would all understand him regardless of their language.  Now that's speaking in tongues (if you ask me).  What I was doing as a Pentecostal, I don't know what that was.  I do not condemn it because it was part of my journey that has led me to the Church; however, I cannot recommend it either.

Excitement and enthusiasm are not fruits of the Spirit.  Zeal is a tricky thing.  Elevated feelings can be caused by many things.  I was shocked the first time I heard an Orchestra.  I was sure the Holy Spirit was filling the room because I "felt the Spirit" just like I did in (my Pentecostal) church.  The experience did not end my practice of "the gifts," but it did set me to paying attention to my feelings, and looking for something beyond those feelings.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Virtues are the Christian Way

St. Maximos the Confessor, in his forth century on love, verse 74, in the Philokalia (vol. 2) says that the biblical use of the word "way" is equivalent to the classical word "virtues" as it is used in patristic Christian teaching.  The Greek of the Bible is called Koine Greek.  It is a simplified form of Greek developed under Alexander the Great and his descendants in the third century BC so that the conquered people could be quickly assimilated into the military and understand the commands.  This is the language of the Septuagint and the New Testament.  However the language of Greek theology, the language of the Greek fathers, is Hellenistic Greek.  Hellenistic Greek is a sort of revival of classical Greek, a more precise and nuanced form of Greek that was useful for philosophic inquiry and was adapted to Christian theology.  Several words important in Christian theology do not appear in the Bible (Trinity, theosis, consubstantial, for example).  It is not that these ideas cannot be found in the Bible; rather, it is that the need for such precise words did not exist during the first few centuries of the Church.  While the Church was being persecuted, there was little opportunity to explain fine distinctions of the Christian experience of God to philosophically trained inquirers.  The basic message of the Gospel was (and always is) sufficient to produce martyrs.
However with peace, many people trained in classical philosophy became important bishops in the Church.  Part of their job was to differentiate the genuine Christian teaching from novel ideas that were emerging.  Because of their classical training, they were able to "baptize" words from classical philosophy and coin new words and make new distinctions between older words in order to clarify what is and is not the experienced life and teaching of the Church.  This was the experienced life and teaching of the Church from the beginning, even if some of the vocabulary and conceptual distinctions were newly adapted to the need of the hour.
"Virtue" (Arete, in Greek) is one of the words that appears seldom in the New Testament, three times in the epistles of St. Peter and once in Philippians (I think).  Protestants who come from a Bible-only background are sometimes at a loss for how to understand this word.  Perhaps this is because they do not understand how the Greek Fathers of the Church reinterpreted and applied this word in the context of the whole Christian teaching.  As mentioned above, St. Maximos the Confessor points to the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13 as a sort of proof text for equating the word "virtues" with the biblical use of the word "way" or "path":
And now I will show you the most excellent way.  If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I have not love....
The virtue of love, or better yet, all of the virtues of love--patience, kindness, gentleness, meekness, self control, etc.--are the way of the Christian life, they are the path that we walk.  The Christian way is the life of virtue.
Growth in the Christian way is a growth in virtues.  Many Fathers liken the growth in virtues to climbing a ladder.  In most accounts of this ladder, the first rung is humility, poverty of spirit.  In a country that is wealthy and as people who are well educated and free, humility is a virtue that is hard to find.  St. Benedict advises those who want to attain humility to embrace obedience, to let someone else tell you what to do.  In a sense, this is the beginning of the Christian way, the first step in the acquisition of virtues.

Friday, September 10, 2010

On Interpreting the Interpreters of the Holy Fathers on Education

I have not read most of what St. Gregory Palamas (or any Church Father for that matter) has written. I have read his homilies (at least those recently published in English by Mount Thabor Publishing), bits from the Philokalia, and about twenty years ago The Triads, published in the Classics of Western Spirituality series--of which I understood absolutely nothing. However, the great majority of what he has written I have not read. Most of what I know of his teaching has come to me through secondary sources, those who have actually read all or most of his extant work in the original language and who, most importantly, carrying the Orthodox Christian ethos have tried to pass on the essence of the saint’s writings.
Consequently, any time you read in this blog the words “According to St. So and So…” you should be aware that what you are getting is an interpretation of an interpretation.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Academically, it is dicey, but this blog is not about academics. It is, I hope, about finding Life in Christ, particularly finding Life in Christ through the wealth of the lived Orthodox Christian Tradition. What I try to do is share musings that I have found or suspect to be Life-giving. An unfortunate reality of our reliance on my writing to communicate this is that even if God grants me a Life-giving thought, the words that communicate this thought fairly well in my mind may fail miserably in yours. Although silence is safer, love compels me to try to communicate.
Archimandrite Vasileios in Hymn of Entry (a book that should be read and reread by anyone who wants to understand the Fathers of the Church) says,
Communication of the patristic word, the word of the Holy Fathers, is not a matter of applying their sayings to this or that topic with the help of a concordance. It is a process whereby nourishment is taken up by living organisms [that’s you and me], assimilated by them and turned into blood, life and strength. And, subsequently, it means passing on the joy and proclaiming this miracle [the miracle of being nourished by the Fathers]….Thus the living patristic word is not conveyed mechanically, nor preserved archaeologically, nor approached through excursions into history. It is conveyed whole, full of life, as it passes from generation to generation through living organisms, altering them, creating “fathers” who make it their personal word, a new possession, a miracle, a wealth which increases as it is given away.
This organic process of passing on the Life-giving teaching of the Holy Fathers means that fallible human beings, who “see in part and prophesy in part,” pass on the “nourishing” teaching.
My thinking about the passing on of Life-giving words has been stimulated by a comment by Barbara on my blog entry, Education and Illumination. It think part of the problem with that entry is that I used the word “education” when perhaps a more narrow word like “study” or “scholastic inquiry” might have served better. Nonetheless, Barbara’s concern is well taken. While only the Holy Spirit can illumine the heart, the words, actions, prayers and the general lives of “spirit-bearing” people are often the means by which someone’s mind is brought into her heart (to use the famous expression of St. Theophan the Recluse and other Church Fathers) and attention is given to the activity of Grace there.
One of the points I was hoping to make in the Education and Illumination entry was that heart, mind and body are not separate, which I think is also the point Barbara is making. Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, even the holiest spirit-bearing elder is just another old man. However, God has also ordained that we depend on one another: “One Christian is no Christian,” as I believe St. Augustine said. In a mysterious way, the Grace of God is carried in and passed on by people (the Treasure is in earthen vessels). Some earthen vessels are called to be teachers but all are called to be taught. And so, yes, in a mysterious way, the Grace of God often does dawn in our hearts through teaching, through the Grace of God in the teacher that somehow communicates God’s Grace to our hearts.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

St. Maximus on Hoarding

This morning I was reading St. Maximus the Confessor ("Four Centuries on Love" in volume two of the Philokalia) and I came across these verses. 
It is not so much because of need that gold has become an object of desire among men, as because of the power it gives most people to indulge in sensual pleasure. There are three things which produce love of material wealth: self-indulgence, self-esteem and lack of faith.  Lack of faith is more dangerous than the other two.  The self-indulgent person loves wealth because it enables him to live comfortably; the person full of self-esteem loves it because through it he can gain the esteem of others; the person who lacks faith loves it because, fearful of starvation, old age, disease, or exile, he can save it and hoard it.  He puts his trust in wealth rather than in God, the Creator who provides for all creation, down to the least of living things.  There are four kinds of men who hoard wealth: the three already mentioned and the treasurer or bursar.  Clearly, it is only the last who conserves it for a good purpose--namely, so as always to have the means of supplying each person's basic needs.
I have noticed that those entrusted by God with wealth sometimes struggle with the fact that they are wealthy and a Christian.  The clear teaching of the Church is that every Christian is to forsake all and follow Christ, but how each is to do this, in his or her unique context, varies.  The Deaconess Olympia, friend of St. John Chrysostom, was a very wealthy woman who desired to give away all of her wealth immediately.  St. John counselled her not to do so.  Rather, he said, she should give it away judiciously so that it would be the greatest benefit to the greatest number.  Consequently, Olympia throughout her lifetime founded hospitals, schools, churches and funded all sorts of worthy initiatives both within the church and in the community.  Because of her wealth and holiness, she was a powerful force for good at a time when the Church was struggling with corruption (as, it seems, always) and she was able to defend St. John when he was exiled for rebuking the Empress for her inappropriate use of wealth. 
Remember, it is those who desire to be rich who fall into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition" (1 Timothy 6:9).  Perhaps God has ordained that wealth be concentrated in the hands of some so that they can excel in generosity.  The principle is the same with all natural and spiritual gifts.  The Holy Spirit distributes gifts according to His will for the edification of all.  Just as someone with great wealth experiences certain temptations more acutely than someone without great wealth, so someone with (for example) a beautiful singing voice experiences certain temptations more acutely than someone who does not.  Every calling in life comes with trials and temptations that are particularly virulent within that calling.  But St. Paul goes on to tell us that it is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil (v. 10)--and you don't have to have a dime to suffer from that malady.
St. Peter Damascene said, "As the poor should give thanks to God and love the rich who do them good, even more should the rich give thanks to God and love the poor; for they are saved by the providence of God ... because of their alms."

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Education and Illumination

Referring to St. Gregory Palamas, Metropolitan Hierotheos (in The Science of Spiritual Medicine: Orthodox Psychotherapy in Action) makes the following comment: 
Secular learning (philosophy) is not a spiritual gift, which someone can only acquire through study and reading.  “Our divine wisdom,” however, is not a natural gift, but a gift bestowed by God on those who have purified their hearts.  If this gift comes to fishermen, it makes them sons of thunder and universal preachers; if it comes to tax-collectors, “it creates merchants of souls.”
This distinction between natural leaning (secular learning or philosophy) and divine wisdom (the spiritual gift of the knowledge of God in the heart) is extremely important.  The spiritual gift of knowledge of God is bestowed by God on “purified hearts.”  By purified heart, the Church does not mean hearts that have already been completely purified or hearts that have been purified by merely human effort apart from Grace.  Rather, a purified heart is a heart that  has entered into repentance.  As repentance begins, purification begins.  Purification brings enlightenment (the knowledge of God in the heart).  Enlightenment results in deification, or “Christlikeness,” or to use the words of St. Peter, partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  This is a synergistic process: the Grace of God works together with the human will.  God does not save us against our will, yet we cannot be saved by our will.  Grace and repentance work together.  You might say that salvation is a participatory activity.  We participate with, respond to, and cooperate with the Grace of God.
In this process of salvation (summarized by St. Maximos the Confessor as purification, illumination and deification), academics plays no part.  One does not need to be able to read to be illumined.  A mentally challenged person may be much more full of Grace and much more like Christ than a scholar (personal experience is talking here).  One of the greatest known saints of the 20th century, St. Siloun of Athos, had only a third or forth grade education.  Nevertheless, most of the Fathers of the Church were very well educated.  Some had formal education, such as the Capadocian Fathers. Others were educated in a monastic context by the services of the Church, the teaching of elders in their monastery and by themselves reading and copying the great Fathers of the Church.  Education is not irrelevant.
However, education cannot inform the heart.  
Then why educate at all?  If education cannot illumine the heart, then why bother learning to read at all?  The answer is that a human being is more than just a heart.  Asking why one who wants to be a saint should bother learning to read is sort of like asking why she should bother to fast or to say prayers or to make prostrations: does what we do with our bodies illumine our hearts?  No. Our hearts are illumined by Grace, and yet we are more than hearts, we are are also minds and bodies.  
Loving God is a matter of the whole person.  Salvation is a matter of the whole person, although the process is led by the repentant heart (nous) illumined by Grace.  Every human being has different gifts and abilities (both natural and spiritual).  All of these must be given to God; all of these must participate in our loving God and neighbor.  The heart that is illumined is not separate from the mind and the body: when the heart is illumined, the person is illumined, the whole person, heart, mind and body.  And although the heart leads, or should lead, the whole person participates in repentance and illumination and yes even deification--in fact, that is one of the main points St. Gregory of Palamas makes.  It is possible to be an illumined scholar.
The problem lies, however, in our western culture that has made an idol of education.  The power of this idol is so strong that even the Orthodox Churches in North America make a Master’s Degree (from a seminary at which most of the faculty have Ph.D's) the minimum qualification for ordination to the priesthood, rather than, say, a year or two living in a monastery under the spiritual direction of an experienced elder.  I’m a big fan of education, but I think we may have the cart before the horse here.  
But not everyone is called to be a priest or a monk.  Some people are called to be saints as English professors or carpenters or school teachers or even insurance salesmen.  Everyone, in my opinion, should strive to find an elder, a spiritual father or mother who can help them with matters of the heart, but each will have his or her own journey requiring the full use of all his or her spiritual and natural gifts and graces.  No one gets to take a short cut.  Everyone must develop and use everything.  Why else would we pray several times in the Liturgy, “Let us commend...our whole lives unto Christ our God”?

Monday, September 06, 2010

"Go and Learn What This Means..."

Twice in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to the Pharisees, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (9:13 and 12:7). The full quote from Hosea goes like this:
For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
In the context of the prophecy of Hosea, the knowledge of God does not refer to merely a mental or even a heart knowledge. The knowledge of God is a reference to an intimate marital relationship with God. Earlier in Hosea (2:20), God defines this knowledge:
I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness,
And you shall know the Lord.
Moreover, throughout Hosea the fault of God’s people, the fault of Ephraim and Judah, is that they have gone “whoring” and committed “harlotry” with vanity (the worthless idols of the world around them). Even the marriage of the prophet Hosea himself points to what it means to know, or not to know, the Lord. Hosea’s unfaithful wife turns (again) to harlotry, yet he persues her and “buys” her back. He is willing to know her, but she is unwilling to know him.
In marriage, intimacy is not merely a matter of a physical relationship, but it includes it. A wife (or husband) is unfaithful--no matter how much she protests that she truly loves her husband in her heart--if she has an intimate physical relationship with another person. A component of marital “knowledge” is physical faithfulness and loyalty. One cannot play the field: that’s not marriage, that’s whoredom, that’s idolatry.
In our relationship with God, our knowledge of God, our intimacy with God, also has a physical aspect. The worship of God involves not just our mind and heart, but also what we do. God has taught us through the Church how to love Him, what actions are appropriate, what actions say to God, “I love You.” The Church lays out for us a cycle of prayer, fasting rules, exhortations to give alms, all of which require physical action. These are the ways we are taught to worship, the ways we are taught to draw close to God. To pray you have to attend services and actually say prayers. To fast you have to eat or not eat certain foods (or, importantly, amounts of food). To give alms you have to work hard to make a buck, and then you have to give it away. And there are more, all things you have to do. These are part of knowing God, the physical aspect of our loving intimacy with God.
However, you can do all of the actions correctly and zealously and still fail to find intimacy. I have known couples who have divorced not because the physical aspect of their relationship was not working out, but because it was working out by rote. God does not ask for right technique or perfect performance, God asks for love. God’s first and greatest commandment is to love Him with all our hearts, minds and bodies.* The end of the physical relationship in marriage, and in our relationship with God, is intimacy. Our Christian goal is to know the Lord, to become “one flesh” with Him. And while the physical aspects of our relationship with God are important, they are the means to an end, they are the means by which we are transformed (heart, mind and body) into the Bride of Christ. Without a heart and mind fully committed to and being transformed by Christ, we may find ourselves hearing the same words Jesus spoke to the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”
*Note that in the various versions of the greatest commandment, sometimes the word “soul” (as in “life”) and sometimes “strength,” and sometimes both are used as a reference to the physical aspect of the triad, mind, heart, body.