Friday, November 26, 2010

On Judging Pharisees

"He who searches the heart knows what the mind of the Spirit is.” There is a tension in the life of the Christian between law and Spirit, and often it is a very uncomfortable tension.
Those of us who have tried to take St. Paul’s advice and live by the Spirit, as in “walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh,” have quickly discovered that without some rules, some guidelines, “walking in the Spirit” quickly degenerates into doing what I think is right, which is hard to distinguish from what feels good to me at the moment.
And what feels good to me is not always what breaks the rules. What feels good to me might be what appears righteous, even though it might not be the mind of the Spirit. Jesus’s eating with publicans and sinners certainly never appeared righteous, yet Jesus always had the mind of the Spirit. One of the central themes of the Gospel is that harlots and sinners enter the Kingdom of Heaven before those who are externally righteous. The passions of inordinate desire are no less the mind of the Spirit than the passions of vanity, pride and self-righteousness. In fact, several of the Fathers of the Church have argued that inordinate natural desires (addictions to too much of what is natural to desire in appropriate contexts and in appropriate measure) is far less spiritually damaging than the spiritual, demonic passions of pride and her children.
How easy it is to slip off the narrow way! How difficult it is to attend to the mind of the Spirit! Having been filled with the Holy Spirit, we have grieved Him, and thus find it difficult to attend to His voice.
Keeping moral and religious rules does not make us righteous--but such rules do point to righteousness. Rules are important. Rules guide us, or better yet, guide us to the Guide. Because rules are important, St. Maria of Paris (Skobtsova), herself a famous and saintly rule breaker and martyr for Christ, wrote the essay “A Justification of Pharisaism.” In it she argues that those who keep with unbending strictness the rules of the Church, those who seem to sacrifice all compassion for the sake of keeping the rules exactly as they have been handed down, they too have a very important role to play in in the life of the Church. They preserve the Tradition. They preserve the rules that point to the Rule, to the Holy Spirit.
Just as it is wrong to judge sinners, it is also wrong to judge Pharisees.

Only God knows the mind of the Spirit. We see in part and know in part. We each struggle to stay on the narrow way, sliding neither to the left (licentiousness) nor to the right (self-righteousness). “The letter kills,” St. Paul tells us, “but the Spirit gives life.” And yet, not being full of the Spirit, having grieved the Spirit and struggling in repentance to be filled again, we look to the letter to guide us, to guide us to the Spirit who gives life.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Something To Be Thankful For

Some days I am more thankful for being an Orthodox Christian than others.  This morning I was more thankful.  I was thankful that I didn’t have to create the words for my prayers.  My mind was hard to control this morning.  Thoughts were leading me this way and that.  Nothing particularly evil.  Just a constant barrage of strong impressions, ideas, thoughts, and moments of disconnected pseudo insight.  (By pseudo insight I mean thoughts that have just enough promise of profundity to keep my mind off what I am doing, and that soon fizzle out with nothing left but the temptation to try another line of inquire in the thin hope that by wasting just a little more mental energy I will actually find something to justify the complete absence in my mind of the psalm I just read out loud.)
But that is pretty much the secret.  Keep reading out loud.  Keep saying the prayers.  Sooner or later the wind dies down and the part of your mind that has been fluttering in the breeze like a loose tarp can be tied down and attention returns to the present, to the prayers, to the still, small voice that is not in the fire or in the storm.
I’m thankful that I do not have to figure it all out.  I can enter into a tradition that thousands of men and women much more spiritually capable than I have found works.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Facing Myself

I wonder if most of us have had this experience. You sin against and/or with someone and soon afterward feel regret. In fact, you feel so much regret that you admit to yourself and to God that you have sinned. And your conscience still bothering you, you set out to do what you can to make the matter right. However, to make the matter right, or at least as right as possible, turns out to be much more difficult and more involved, than you expected.
It soon becomes apparent that to make it right, as right as you would like to make it, will involve admitting your sin to others, others whose opinion of you matters, others who you would prefer not know about it, others whose mouths you have no control over. And coming up against such a social penance more severe than we had bargained for, we decide that perhaps it is better for all concerned to let the matter blow over. “I’ve confessed to myself and God that I have sinned,” we say to ourselves, “and I have made at least some effort to make it right.” We may be spurred, at least for a while, to make an extra effort at prayer or religious observance or even charity. And then in a fit of self righteous justification we may even throw in, “and besides, if God really wanted me to do more He wouldn’t have made it so difficult.”
Some inner reasoning similar to this goes on in the mind of Michael Henchard at the beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Throughout the novel Henchard’s unwillingness to be humbled by the revelation of specific instances of his various weaknesses--although the general outline of such weaknesses are known to all--creates situations in which even greater humiliation is inevitable. Eventually his own integrity, the same integrity that smites his conscience every time he grievously sins, this same integrity nettles him into swings of mood: from volcanic anger to “oppressive generosity” to mopey self-pity and depression. Eventually he sabotages himself, again and again. What was hidden is revealed and the fall is humiliating; though, ironically, it is not viewed nearly so badly in the eyes of others as he supposes.
Henchard is his own fiercest critic. What hurts Henchard most is not what others actually think of him, but his inability to tell the story of himself that he wants to tell. Circumstances, failures, and weaknesses of personality all work to tell a story of Michael Henchard very different from the story Henchard tells himself, very different from the story he would like to tell others.
But one of the beauties of the way the world works is that, from time to time, reality catches up with us. Sooner or later most of us have to confront ourselves as we are. And that moment of confrontation is, if we will let it be, a moment of salvation. It is perhaps necessarily a painful moment, for as it has been noted by many, pain has an amazing ability to get our attention.
I have often said that God meets us where we are, not where we wish we were. Sometimes, if we will not look humbly and soberly at ourselves as we are, then in the natural course of life’s events, who we really are grabs us and makes us take a good, hard look--no matter how much we’d rather not.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ezekiel's Temple and the Human Psyche

St. Gregory the Great comments that the heavenly temple described by Ezekiel (chs.40-48) is a type of the soul. Because this part of Ezekiel and much of the rest of the book are apocalyptic in nature, we must realize that these images refer to spiritual realities that cannot be nailed down in tight correlations such as X only and always represents Y. Nevertheless, within the Church certain interpretations of apocalyptic images have stood the test of time. One of those interpretations is that of the temple as the image of the human soul. Of course, this is not new to St. Gregory. In the New Testament, believers both corporately and individually are referred to as temples.
As I was reading Ezekiel’s account of the heavenly temple and reflecting on how the layout of the temple reveals the architecture of the soul, the following impressions came to me. These reflections use some contemporary psychological categories--not because I think contemporary psychology accurately describes the human psyche (“psyche” is the Greek word for “soul”), but because we have very few words in English that can be used to describe the inner workings of the human being. Therefore, I ask you to bear with me. Please use the psychological term to help you look inside yourself to see beyond the term to what is actually going on inside yourself.
Ezekiel’s temple, like all of God’s temples described in the Bible, has three areas. The outer wall delimits the first area called the outer court. This is the area of the ego. Here I would like us to understand ego as the story we tell about ourselves. That is, the outer court corresponds to the self we choose to see ourselves as, the self we present to others. This outer self is not a reference to anything that can be seen by others. It is hidden within us by the outer wall, but it is the self we see ourselves to be. This identity is based largely on the story we have told ourselves about our own life.
We all like to say things like, “that’s just the way I am”; however, it doesn’t take too much reflection to realize that “who I am” is really “who I have become,” or “who I want to be based on the options I seem to have.” As our psyches (souls) develop from childhood, we are assailed by impressions, urges, fears, desires, and thoughts all of which are influenced by real and imagined experiences. We observe people and imagine what may be motivating them (because actually we really do not know what goes on inside someone else). We experience neglect, misunderstanding, lack of restraint, too much restraint, want, abundance and thousands of inherited and biologically induced tendencies and proclivities. All of these are at work in and upon us, and how we relate to them--influenced a great deal by how we have observed others relate to what seem to us to be similar experiences--all of this together forms our story of ourselves, who we tell ourselves we are.
However, this outer court, this story of ourselves, is overseen by a deeper self: the inner court. The inner court might roughly be thought of as the super ego (but please try to leave the Freudian baggage behind). This is the self that ponders and considers and chooses. This inner self interprets experience and can reinterpret the story of the self. It is this part of ourselves that has the ability to change the self. When I realize that I do not like who I have become or I do not what to become the person my story of myself is telling me I will be, the inner self is the part of me that has the power to change. It has the power to retell the story. The power to repent.
Of course, our story of ourselves is not directly a story of outcomes or of behaviors, it is an inner story of who we are striving to be or of who we are just letting ourselves become. Life circumstances and habituated thought patterns and behaviors make it difficult (but very seldom impossible) for us to change our thoughts and behaviours in ways that are apparent to others. However, the inner story can be changed dramatically, even if the outward behavior does not seem to change much or changes very slowly. A person who is addicted to a substance or a behavior or a relationship (or set of relationships) may repent, may begin to retell the story: “No, this is not who I am. No, this is not who I want to be. No, I will not be defined by this mess I have gotten myself into.” And although the inner self may begin to retell, and indeed fight to retell, the ego’s story, finding ways to actualize the better, new, retold self takes time, persistence and patience. While the inner story may change dramatically and even relatively quickly, changes to our outer lives seldom come in bucketfuls. Drop by drop we seek out and find ways to manifest ourselves according to the new story, the story of who we are becoming, of who we want to be.
And by the way, as a side note, this is part of the reason why we cannot judge others. We do not know who a person is striving to become based merely on what we can observe.
When Ezekiel describes the inner court of the temple, the only decoration he mentions are icons, images painted or engraved on the walls of palm trees and cherubim. The cherubim are angels who are depicted each with two faces: that of a man and of a lion. I think these images function as the conscience of the soul. That is, they represent both the sweetness (date palms) and the severity of God imprinted in us as unalterable images by which our inner selves may continually evaluate our outer story of ourselves. This image of God’s sweetness (God’s unchanging love for us) and severity (God’s unchanging nature) acts as a spur in our mind prompting us to evaluate our lives and encouraging us to repent.
However, as everyone who has seriously tried to change the story of themselves knows, it is not easy to repent. Our old selves and the circumstances of our life and our habits operate as a great inertia. Really our habits of thought, of thinking about ourselves according to the old story, operate like a huge flywheel ever turning in one direction. Our small drops of resistance seem futile (they are not futile, but they seem futile). Without help, we despair, and we slide back into old patterns. We slide back into the self we hate, the self we don’t want to be, the self whom we tell ourselves can be no other, the story (the life) we are trapped in. And if we cease resisting the flywheel of old habit long enough, even the conscience becomes dull, maybe even silent.
But the temple has three courts. The inner court is the court of the priests. The priest is the mediator. While the priest watches over the outer court (the ego, the story of the self) the priest (high priest in the Old Testament) also has access from the inner court to a court that is still deeper. In the temple, this innermost court is the Holies of Holies. There is no English word that I know that roughly equates to this as it applies to the psyche, to the soul. However, a Greek word is often used by Orthodox spiritual writers that I think equates to this innermost chamber of the self. The word is nous. Nous is commonly translated “mind” or “intellect,” but what these words mean in English is not what the Orthodox spiritual writers mean when they use this word. For the purpose of this essay, let’s just say that the nous refers to that inner, inner self, the place where we can meet God.
As a culture, we imagine heaven (the place where God is) as some place far away, some place “out there.” However, according to the image of the biblical temple, God is not “out there,” but “in there.” The spiritual writers of the church say that the doorway to the kingdom of heaven is in our heart. By heart, I do not mean the seat of the emotions. For the fathers of the church, heart is generally (but not exactly) synonymous with nous. The doorway to God is within our innermost self.
Repentance, changing the story of my self, is only really possible with the help of God. In fact, often the very difficulties I encounter as I try to repent, to retell the story of myself, force the inner me (the priest) to turn more inward still, to turn to God for help.
“Vain is the help of man,” the psalmist tells us. I think we all learn this lesson the hard way. We all learn that the help we need to become our better selves seldom comes from outside ourselves. Sure there are those who help us, who make it easier for us to do what we want to do (that is, what we really want to do, not what is easy or habitual or what we are driven to do). And certainly there are many who make it harder for us to be who we want to be, people whom we need to avoid, if possible, if we are going to retell ourselves. However, even the best mentor and the most holy spiritual guide, in the end, will fail us. In the end, the only helper is God Himself. And the only way to find God is to enter the holy of holies within our own hearts.
What a good spiritual father or mother will do is help you enter the holy of holies within yourself. A good spiritual father or mother will not tell you what to do (except, perhaps, to suggest specific disciplines [“obediences” or practices] to help you strengthen one area or another). A good spiritual father or mother will help you accept the blood of Jesus, the perfect temple sacrifice by which the priest may enter the most holy place. He or she will help you accept the forgiveness of sins that cleanses our hearts and makes it possible to enter “with boldness” the holy of holies, the innermost court, the presence of God within our hearts. And meeting God in our hearts, we find “grace and help in time of need.”
We are living temples, both as persons filled with the Holy Spirit (or at least potentially filled with the Holy Spirit) and as “living stones” built together as one “spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Interpreting our inner life according to the three spaces of the biblical temple (outer, inner and innermost), may help us better understand ourselves and help us better find our way through repentance to God. May God grant it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Riu Riu Chiu


My favourite Christmas song is Riu Riu Chiu (and this version includes some percussion, which I enjoy, but the voices don't seem as polished).  It is a late Mideaval Spanish Christmas song with an enchanting rhythm and beautiful, Christ-centered lyrics.  I also like Silent Night, Away in a Manger, and Good King Wenceslas and all of the Bing Crosby Christmas songs, but they are all somewhat elevator appropriate for me after all these years.  Riu Riu Chiu still gets my attention.  I have to stop and listen and somehow keep beat with my body.  It may just be that I am a sucker for good rhythm.

Riu, riu, chiu (nightingale's sounds)
The river bank protects it,
As God kept the wolf from our lamb
The rabid wolf tried to bite her
But God Almighty knew how to defend her
He wished to create her impervious to sin
Nor was this maid to embody original sin
Riu, riu, chiu (nightingale's sounds)
The river bank protects it,
As God kept the wolf from our lamb
He comes to give life to the dead
He comes to redeem the fall of man
This child is the light of day
He is the very lamb Saint John prophecied

Riu, riu, chiu (nightingale's sounds)
The river bank protects it,
As God kept the wolf from our lamb
A thousand singing herons
I saw passing,
Flying overhead, sounding
A thousand voices
Exhulting, "Glory be in the
heavens, and peace on earth,
for Jesus has been born."

Riu, riu, chiu (nightingale's sounds)
The river bank protects it,
As God kept the wolf from our lamb
He comes to give life to the dead
He comes to redeem the fall of man
This child is the light of day
He is the very lamb Saint John

Riu, riu, chiu (nightingale's sounds)
The river bank protects it,
As God kept the wolf from our lamb
A thousand singing herons
I saw passing
Flying overhead, sounding
a thousand voices
Exhulting, "Glory be in the
heavens, and peace on earth
for Jesus has been born."

Riu, riu, chiu (nightingale's sounds)
The river bank protects it,
As God kept the wolf from our lamb.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does God Punish?

Thomas Hardy says of the main character in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Michael Henchard, that “misery taught him nothing more than the defiant endurance of it.”   What does misery teach us?  What can it teach us?  Can it teach us more than just the fact that we must endure it?
This is a tricky topic, for suffering is a mystery--a mystery in the deepest sense of the word.  We all suffer, some much more than others; and some suffer under the same circumstance that others would consider a blessing.  

A lot depends on expectation.  The one who expects pain and finds only discomfort rejoices.  The one who expects luxury and finds discomfort is miserable.  We can be cheated or abused by a stranger and think little of it, but cruelty or mere neglect from someone whom we expected to love us leaves painful scars that last a lifetime.  Suffering and misery are never good, and yet good may come of it.  Misery does teach us, but what we learn depends a great deal on us.  
The prophets of the Old Testament repeatedly tell Israel and Judah to learn from their suffering.  What are they to learn?  They are to learn that their sins have separated them from their God.  Learning this, they are to repent, turning their attention back to God and ceasing to oppress their neighbors.  However, the correlation between misery and repentance is not a direct one. Turning to God seldom immediately changes our circumstances, although it may immediately change our attitude toward our circumstances, which makes a huge difference in how we experiences our circumstances.  
Some, like Michael Henchard, do not easily learn to turn to God in misery.  Henchard “could not help thinking that the concatenation of events...was the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing him.”  For the character Michael Henchard--and maybe for the author Thomas Hardy too--suffering is punishment.  Suffering is the “this” in the cry, “What did I do to deserve this?”  There is no answer to the question except the answer given in Genesis, an answer in the form of a story, not an explanation.  The questions itself reveals the problem: separation from the knowledge of God has resulted in a view of God as “a sinister intelligence bent on punishing.”  Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, our separation from God leads us to hide from God because we are afraid.  The shame of nakedness could have spurred Adam and Eve to run toward God, but it rather led them to fear punishment and hide.  Their view of who God is had changed.
Ultimately, Christ-God conquers misery by himself becoming the most miserable one.  He enters our misery and suffers with us, because of us, for us.  He suffers to destroy suffering through suffering.  He shows us how and what to learn from suffering.  He shows us how to turn to God and love our neighbor in the midst of suffering.  He shows us that suffering is limited, but Life is eternal--and that Eternal Life can begin even before the suffering ends.
We all die.  No suffering endures forever (unless somehow we choose it, but that is yet another mystery); however, the opportunity to repent, to turn toward God and to begin to love our neighbor, the opportunity to enter into Eternal Life, also may last only as long as our hearts beat on this earth.  Blaming God or our mother, or our illness or our society for our suffering only muddies the water and increases our anger and pride and misery.  Humbling ourselves brings peace in the midst of the storm, in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the misunderstanding and misery.  Humility lets us learn from misery.  Humility does not lead us to say that suffering is good, only that suffering is, and that I am no more or less an appropriate candidate for suffering than anyone else.  Humility enables us to turn to God, not as the Great Punisher, but as the Great Co-sufferer, the One who showed us the way to Eternal Life even in the midst of suffering.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bagging Experiences

I was speaking to an eighteen year old recently who told me about her bucket list: things she wanted to do before she dies. At the time, I didn’t think much about it. In fact, it seemed rather mature of her to have such specific goals. However, as I have thought about it, I’ve begun to suspect that having a bucket list is a symptom of a particular disease in our culture.

I have often heard people say things like, “God has something for me to do before I die.” It is as if the supreme cause to go on living is to accomplish “what God has for me to do.” It’s as if doing justified being, as if being were not enough, as if the Kingdom of Heaven were a matter of accomplishment. I suspect that such thinking is merely a religious reflection of a psychological need to justify our existence to ourselves.

This need to justify our existence manifests itself in several ways. For example, the bucket list assumes that one must “bag” experiences while one can. Each experience becomes a kind of possession, something no one can take away, something we have to show for our existence. It is as if your life consists in the abundance of the things you possess. The more experiences you bag, the more abundant your life, right? I don’t think so. At least that’s not the Gospel. Jesus said life does not consist in the abundance of things one possesses. What I do does not determine who I am; rather, who I am determines what I do. What that means is that no matter where I am or what my circumstances are right now, I can be myself, I can be my best self, and who I am will be reflected in what I do—regardless of how limited my options are. On the other hand, striving for a dream, I often create a nightmare. And even when circumstances work out just right for me to accomplish a long sought after goal, I wake up the next morning still myself. I wake up the next morning still me.

Once at a conference (and within two hours) I spoke with two women, both in their early 30s, and both frustrated because they were not able to bag the experience that they thought God was calling them to. The first was a single woman whose frustration lay in the fact that she loved children and wanted to be a mother—she was sure God wanted her to be a mother, but she couldn’t find a suitable husband. The other was a married mother of three, frustrated because she couldn’t “get out there” and serve the poor and needy as she was sure God was calling her. Both women were frustrated, both women were in a spiritual crisis, both felt as if God’s will in their lives was on hold, that they were treading water until their circumstances changed and they could finally do what they felt they were called to do, until they could bag the experience that had eluded them. And the experience of these two women is not very different from that commonly experienced by men who realize that they are never going to achieve their career goals, that for whatever reasons their options have closed in on them, that their identity can no longer be tied up in what they will do some day.

Back in my running days, I was a friend of Jim Ryun, the man who held the world record in the mile for about ten years. Jim used to talk about waking up the day after a big win frightened. Having bagged the big win or the great record, he had to do it again. That’s the problem with winning, with bagging experiences: once you climb Everest, there is always K-2. Possessions, even when those possessions are experiences, cannot define our life. Our life does not consist in what we posses. Our life consists in who we are and how we love God and how we love the people in our life right now. Our life consists in being, and in the doing that comes out of being.

Isn’t that at least part of the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan—the one who shows mercy to the wounded man is the neighbour. Neighbour is who the Samaritan is, so mercy is what he shows. His deed manifests who he is; his deed does not make him who he is. The priest and Levite do not show mercy because mercy is not already in them. They were not neighbours so they could not be neighbours. The Samaritan did not become good because he showed mercy; he showed mercy because he was good.

This is a mystery. Both the Levite and the Samaritan knew what the right thing to do was. Both had other things to do—it is almost never convenient to show mercy. And yet one reveals himself to be good, not because he felt good or thought himself to be good (I’m sure both the priest and Levite thought themselves to be good, or at least good enough). The Samaritan reveals himself to be good not because he met his goal for the day or bagged an experience he had sought. The Samaritan manifests himself to be good because good is already in his heart and it is manifest in the circumstance he finds himself in.

The same mystery works in our lives, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. What we do does not define who we are, it manifests who we are. Nothing hinders us for showing mercy and kindness. Nothing limits our ability to be patient, wise, humble or helpful. Married, single, parent, or prisoner, no circumstance is more or less suited for manifesting who we are, who we are becoming in Christ. Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, experiences or even good deeds. Life consists in transformation, in loving God and neighbour, whoever that neighbour may be.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Michael Henchard, Power, and Me

Michael Henchard has lost it all. He lost his wealth trying to squeeze his rival and former employee out of business. Blinded by his desire for revenge and willing to suffer loss to destroy Fanfrae, Henchard seeks in a Saul-like manner the guidance of a seer and based on the seer's words mortgages his business to make a huge purchase only later to doubt the seer's word and sell at a loss. A week later, a week too late for Henchard, the seer's prediction comes true. Losing his wealth, however, is not the greatest loss Henchard suffers this autumn.

Lucette Templeton had compromised her social integrity with Henchard and he promised to marry her--before his lost wife returned. However with the return of Susan and Elizabeth Jane, Michael writes Lucette a letter with a large financial gift explaining that he could not marry her. With the death of Susan, however, Lucette shows up in town--now as a relatively wealthy lady having inherited a small fortune. Lucette comes to Casterbridge and rents a fine house with the hope that Michael will now marry her. Michael, however, shows no eagerness to meet her, and when he finally does agree to meet, he delays and Lucette meets Fanfrae instead.

When Henchard figures out that Lucette's sudden dallying on the matter of marriage is due to her friendship with Fanfrae, he plays the strong hand that he has always played (and has generally worked well for him). He threatens: If Lucette doesn't promise before a witness to marry him, Henchard will tell Fanfrae of their earlier inappropriate relationship. Although Lucette promises before Elizabeth Jane to marry him, Henchard does not suspect Lucette's willingness to deceive him. Lucette is now a woman of independent wealth and marrying Fanfrae will legitimate her social standing as well as marrying Henchard--and if she marries Fanfrae quickly, then no matter what Henchard says to him, it will be too late to change the fact that she and Fanfrae are already married. Henchard's strong hand backfires.

There are seasons and relationships in our life when power is very imbalanced. Adults and children; professors and students; employer and employee; big, aggressive children and skinny, timid children; popular teens and teens who don't seem to fit; the wealthy and the poor; those with authority and those with none. Most of us are very aware of who has more power than we do and are seldom aware of how the power we do have affects those around us. Often, like Henchard, it is easy to use the strong hand, the threat, the bribe, the push, the shove. It does not feel like an abuse of power; it only feels like we are getting things done. Coercion only feels coercive to the coerced one. How often have I couched a threat in it's-for-your-own-good language? How often have I felt good about getting another to do the "right thing" without thinking about why really this person is doing what I have asked him to do? How often have I been Michael Henchard?

Sure there are those who revel in their power over others, who fully realize when they are forcing others to submit to their will. However, I think most of us most of the time do not see ourselves as intimidating; and when someone says or does something revealing that they feel coerced or intimidated, we are certain that it is their problem. Kind of like Henchard is.

Friday, November 05, 2010

A Generous Reverie

On the way home from matins this morning I fell into a reverie (“reverie” sounds so much more sophisticated than daydream). I was looking at a piece of property and immediately began imagining what sort of glorious Orthodox Church could be built there with 50 million dollars--although a quarter of that would do just as well. I noticed the feeling of goodness and generosity that swelled inside me as I imagined myself financing (anonymously, of course) the construction of a basilica, school, park area and cemetery. It felt so good. It’s amazing how good you can feel imagining the good you would do if it were in your power to do it.
When Jesus commented on the offerings of people made to the Temple in Jerusalem, he said that the widow who had given two mites had given more than all the others because the others had given out of their abundance whereas she had given out of her poverty all that she had. Giving ten, or lets be generous, fifteen million dollars out of fifty million is actually, according to Jesus, not much of a gift at all. It doesn't dramatically alter your lifestyle and you get the immediate and long-lasting satisfaction of feeling you have done something good. Of course it is much easier to imagine what you would give if you could (if you could give a large sum without it affecting your lifestyle)--the immediate sensation is the same, but it doesn’t last very long.
What’s really, really hard to do is to give what you actually have, all of what you have, or at least so much of what you have that it pinches. It is particularly difficult to give when that pinching feeling overwhelms any good feelings that might also accompany the giving, when the dominant feeling is one of nervous “trust” in the Lord, the Lord-you’d-better-help-me-because-I’m-giving-it-all-to-you kind of trust. And for most of us, any sacrificial gift that we might give is so many decimal places to the right of fifteen million, that it barely makes a blip in the treasurer’s report. The giving really is in secret, no one even notices.
No one, except God. No one except the God who gives generously to us what money can never buy. The God who rewards openly those who pray and do good works in secret.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Emily Carr as Emily Carr

For the last two or three years Bonnie has been on an Emily Carr kick.  She has read everything she has written, read every book about her, and studied all of her paintings--she even visited her home in Victoria.  Bonnie has been inspired by her, almost as if she has found a kindred spirit, a patron saint. I’ve followed along, reading a bit over her shoulder.  Emily’s painting doesn’t do much for me, and I found her writing not very engaging.  However, as a person, I am very impressed by Emily.  
Emily was Emily.  That, for any human being, is a great achievement.  If you only read books about Emily, you get the idea that she was a feminist before her time, but Emily wasn’t any kind of an -ist, she was Emily.  In fact, I wouldn’t even say that Emily was an art-ist, except that Emily had a creative spirit that expressed itself in painting, drawing, writing, pottery and handicrafts.  She was not being an artist, she was being herself.  Emily was somewhat rebellious as a teenager, smoking and riding horses--not sidesaddle.  Like most of us, finding herself required a little experimenting with what she was not.  She was not a Victorian lady.  Emily was Emily.
If you really want to get to know Emily--instead of the -ist of a biographer’s imagination--you have to read her works.  You have to read Emily on Emily.  One of the aspects of Emily that doesn't make it through the filter of her biographers is her profound Christian faith.  Almost all of the biographers briefly mention that Emily was a “spiritual” person, and biographers often mention her rejection of churchy hypocrisy.  But no one writes about her deep love of Christ, of God in Christ Jesus.  Towards the end of her life, this comes out in her writing.  But knowing about her Christian faith, one begins to see it in all of her life, in her love for the poor and rejected native peoples, in her strong reaction against snobby self-righteousness, in finding life in native art and in all nature, and in her courage to be herself.
Two relationships in Emily’s life particularly speak to me of her courage as a Christian, as a human being.  The first is her polite refusal to become part of the circle of the Group of Seven painters.  Emily was happy both to be recognized by them and to learn from them, but in the end she chose not to associate closely with them because she could not accept their Christless Transcendentalism.  For her, there is no knowledge of God except in Christ.  You don’t hear about that in the biographies.  However, she is quite clear about her reasons in her journal and personal letters.  As much as Emily wanted her work to be appreciated (and she did, suffering depression, and going long periods without painting because no one seemed to appreciate her work), she would not compromise her firmly held simple Christian faith for the trendy Transcendentalism of the age.  Not even for notoriety.
The other relationship that speaks volumes of Emily Carr as a Christian is her relationship with Sophie Frank.  Sophie was a native woman who bore fifteen children, all of whom died in early childhood.  With Emily’s friendship and patronage (and Emily was quite poor herself), Sophie wove and sold baskets night and day to save enough money to buy simple tombstones for her fifteen children.  Emily did not have many long-term friendships.  She was quite blunt in her criticism of Victorian etiquette and had no time for snobbery of any kind.  She used to keep the chairs in her studio on ropes attached to pulleys on the ceiling.  She only let them down when she had visitors whom she wanted to talk to.  She seldom let them down.  However, when Sophie came to her door selling baskets, Emily recognized in her a real human being. Their friendship lasted thirty years.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Spirit Gives Life

“Woe to you Lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear” (Lk 11:46). Sometimes I feel like one of those lawyers, when I talk about the ascetic aspects of the Orthodox life: fasting, prayers, disciplines, rules, rules, rules. Pharisees and Lawyers are where you find them. Just because I am an Orthodox Christian doesn’t mean that Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of the Jews two millennia ago can’t apply to me. Do I load men with burdens hard to bear?
I hope not. May God teach me not to load others with hard burdens.
One of the principles I have tried to keep in mind when I try to discern how to apply the ascetic teaching of the church in my life (and in advising others) is based on these words of Jesus in John 6:63: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” In practicing the ascetic disciplines of the Church both principles must be kept in mind. On the one hand, ascetic practice weakens the flesh, for it “profits nothing.” Fasting, bowing, prostrations, long services, sacrificial giving, all of these practices work to weaken the flesh. Flesh here refers not to our physical bodies, but to the dynamic at work in our bodies and minds that makes us want what we want when we want it, the dynamic that makes our bodily desires and fantasies seem so important. By making our body worship God through attending services, bowing, fasting and generally saying “no,” we weaken the flesh dynamic within ourselves which in turn helps us pay attention to the Spirit who gives life.
However, this is not automatic. That is, just because someone fasts strictly or says long prayers or gives generously does not mean that they will automatically pay attention to the life-giving Spirit. It is possible to be loaded with hard burdens of religious observance and not experience the Spirit who gives life. The various religious leaders that Jesus rebukes in the Gospels are examples. It is a frightening possibility to consider that I may be suffering from the same malady, that I too might to some extent be a white-washed tomb.
A lot, I think, depends on how one fasts and prays and gives alms. Not how in the sense of strict conformity to the rules, but how in the sense of paying attention to the life-giving Spirit. Yes, ascetic struggle should be struggle--we are weakening the flesh. However, ascetic struggle should also be life giving; and if it is not, then I think one needs to consider the possibility that some of Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees and Lawyers may apply to them.
This is especially true for priests. My job is to help people open up/pay attention to the Spirit who gives life. Teaching people to practice the ascetic disciplines of the Church is a necessary part of this process. And yet I must be careful. It is so much easier for me to teach rules than to prayerfully discern what brings someone Life.
But this is not just the calling of priests. All of us must be filled with the Spirit, all of us must find what brings life. As we start thinking about the Nativity fast that is to begin soon, perhaps we can all put a little more effort into finding life in this period of stricter asceticism. For, after all, it is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh profits nothing.

Monday, November 01, 2010


Sometimes I sing to my wife.  I don't sing very well, so I don't sing very long.  Just a line or two.  I make up the words.  Sometimes I have to sing, otherwise my wife forgets how much I love her.  My mindless actions and strayings into grumpy old manhood often communicate just the opposite.  It is easy for her to forget.  It's easy for her to be overwhelmed by my dirty socks, loud snores and my often ignoring her (when my mind is occupied on other things, like writing--I really cannot focus on more than one thing at a time).  But when my mind is not focused ferociously on something out there, something I'm doing, something I'm thinking; then my heart is able to speak to me, and Bonnie fills a large space in my heart.  There are lots of people in my heart, and when I am quiet, I know them there and love them too.  I wish I could sing to them all--but that would be embarrassing.  Bonnie puts up with me.  She has to.  We're married.
I sing to God too.  Not because God forgets, but because I do.  I sing to God and I remember how much I love Him, how much He loves me, how much He loves us.