Monday, January 30, 2012

On Humility And Transformation

Once, when we were on the way to Orthodoxy, the leaders of our community were taking a retreat at a Benedictine monastery. One of the monks casually asked me what I was looking for: what did I (a Protestant) hope to find at a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery. At the time I had read the Rule of St. Benedict several times and one word particularly bothered me. It was a word for which I could find no definition. I said to the monk, "I want to know what humility is. I have no idea what that word means."

The monk did not respond and did not ask me any more questions. Over the years since then, I still ask myself that question: What is humility? What does it mean to be humble? In the Rule of St. Benedict, humility is very important. Humility is the ladder by which one climbs to the knowledge of God. According to St. Dorotheos of Gaza, "In as much as [a believer] is always making progress in virtue, he is always growing in humility. The more humble he is, the more help he gets [from God], and so he advances through this virtue of humility." So we see here too, that humility is a kind of foundation, it is the virtue through which all other virtues are attained.

[By the way, "virtue" is just the traditional Christian word used to refer to Christ-like qualities. So to grow in virtue is to become more like Christ in specific ways: gentleness, peace, self-control, etc.]

Harry Boosalis in his book, The Orthodox Spiritual Life according to Saint Silouan the Athonite, offers this definition of humility based on his understanding of the teachings of the Orthodox Church Fathers: "Humility could be defined as an honest and contrite recognition of one's own shortcomings and weaknesses together with a focus on the mercy of God." I find two aspects of this definition quite helpful.

First, is the word contrite. Contrition is a difficult feeling to find and nurture in a world in which anything goes and the strong finish first. A humble person does not merely acknowledge her weaknesses (any moderately successful person does that). A humble person is heartsick over them. So long as we nurture in ourselves the thought that we could change if we really wanted to, we could have done differently if we had really tried, and our mistakes are our mistakes (the mistakes we chose) and we could have done differently if we had wanted to and had tried harder--so long as this is our thought, we may feel guilt, we may feel remorse, but we will not yet feel or be contrite.

A contrite heart, I think, comes from a knowledge of brokenness. Yes I am sad. Yes I am also guilty. But what breaks my heart is that even when I try really hard, I still fail miserably. This brings contrition, and it is dangerous. The experience of such contrition can be hellish, or even the beginning of hell because it brings one to the door of despair. But there is also another door here: the door of humility.

And now the second particularly helpful aspect of Professor Boosalis' definition: "with a focus on the mercy of God."

Contrition leads to despair when one forgets the mercy of God. Humility continually looks for the mercy of God. The humble person continually calls out to God for mercy because she is contrite, she knows her many weaknesses and she knows that only God can help her.

And here, with despair never far behind her (yet nonetheless behind her) and the mercy of God ever before her, the child of God experiences mercy, an feeling that many have called a "bright sadness." Joy and brokenness; hope and an honest recognition of weaknesses, all weaknesses, mine, yours, the world's. God's greatness and love and mercy incarnate in our messy, brutal reality. Jesus crucified, and we crucified with him. Jesus resurrected, and we resurrected with him. At the same time. All at once.

This my friends, is normal Christian life, at least as far as I can tell. This is the process of transformation from glory to glory.

Friday, January 27, 2012

By Your Words....

About twenty-five years ago, Bonnie and I had to move to a new area for work and thus had to begin in a new church.  A particular couple in our new church community were very gracious to us and helped us settle in.   They helped us find a good neighbourhood to live in and generally made our transition much less painful than it could have been.  Although their children were a few years older than ours, our families became good friends.  
Our friends, however, had an awkward habit.  It seemed as though they could always find a double meaning in everything that was said.  Just about every sentence was accompanied by a knowing glance, a smirk, a giggle, a raised eyebrow.  And just about every double meaning had to do with sex.
At the beginning, I just laughed with them at the irony and edgy-naughtiness of the unintended (or intended) double entendres.  It was just fun, we didn't mean anything by it--at least that's what we told ourselves.
However, as I got to know this couple better, I began to see that there were some deep problems in their minds and relationship.  It was not that they had or were committing specific illicit actions.  They were very devout.  Rather, it was that their minds were tormented, tormented by what was not satisfying in their own relationship and fascinated by what they imagined might be satisfying if things were different.  In fact, it was probably this imagination of what might be, that, to a large extent, made what was so unsatisfying.
Bonnie and I were increasingly disturbed by this awkward habit of our friends.  Our time together was tearing us down, not building us up.  Eventually, we began to find excuses not to be with them.  When I was with them, I adopted an intentional ignorance: I didn't get the double entendres, and when they were explained or pointed out I just said, "Oh yea, it could mean that; but that's not what I meant."  No smirk. No giggle.
At that time, we were not Orthodox.  We did not have the spiritual teaching of the Church to help us understand that our thoughts control our lives, and that our words reveal what is in our hearts.  We didn't know that the logismoi (the words) of demons enter our mind as evil thoughts that, if we dwell on them, become our thoughts.  We didn't know that by playing with words and ideas about sinful behaviour--behaviour that we had no intention of actually doing--we were in fact revealing what we were already to some extent doing in our hearts.
Jesus said that we will be judged by every idle word.  This judgement will fully take place on the Last Day; however, the New Testament tells us that we are already in the last days.  Even now our words are judging us.  May God help me to "set a guard before my mouth, and a door of enclosure upon my lips."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Going To Hell

I suspect that going to hell, much like going to heaven, will be neither a new nor unfamiliar experience. From an Orthodox Christian perspective, really, there is no actual "going to" in going to hell. Hell is a reality that is spoken of only metaphorically as a place: a lake of fire, a deep abyss, the toasty side of a great gulf, a "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," etc. After all, what can "place" mean to a soul without a body?

Furthermore, the very real experiences of weeping, gnashing of teeth, and burning torment are common enough in our fallen world without going anywhere. In fact, I have observed (in myself) that much of my pursuit for entertainment, comfort and importance is motivated by a need to distract myself from the painful worms of conscience, fear, envy, uncontrolled desire, and the like that I often experience gnawing away at my mind. Hell is here. Hell is now. At least the beginning of it.

But if hell is here and now, then heaven is here and now too.

St. Silouan, a contemporary saint of the Orthodox Church, advises those who would know God to keep their mind in hell, but not despair. For those who live in a two storey universe, such advice makes no sense at all (c.f. Fr. Stephen Freeman's Every Where Present). If the spiritual realm is "upstairs," then both heaven and hell can only be realities that will surprise us after we die and "go to" one or the other. However, if heaven and hell are spiritual experiences (realities, ways of being, "places") that we are already beginning to experience in this life, then the saint's words begin to make sense.

Saint Silouan's words make particular sense in an Orthodox Christian theological context. One dogma of the Orthodox Church is that Christ, after His death on the Cross, descended into hell and "loosed the bonds of those who were there." This decent of Christ is part of His kenosis (His humbling of Himself) that began with His Incarnation and continued through His life as the Suffering Servant, to His horribly unjust death on the Cross and even to the depths of hell, the deepest hell, the hell that perhaps some of us have known a little of in our life.

St. Silouan tells us not to distract ourselves from the hellish realities we find in our minds because Christ descends even here. Heaven comes to hell, and we encounter Christ--not hiding from our darkness, but looking for Christ even in the midst of our very dark night.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Silent Work Upon Our Neighbours

Last weekend, I was blessed to be the speaker at a high school retreat. I ran the meetings in a Socratic style so that I was continually interacting with the young people and doing my best to push them to see within themselves or to hear from one another the answers to their questions. As sometimes happens when I am pushing people to think something through, I pushed too hard on one young woman and I could tell immediately that her countenance fell. By the end of the day, she seemed to be intentionally asking questions that took us off track. My heart was breaking inside me because I knew that her frustration was my fault. I also knew that to say anything would only make matters worse. I spent the whole evening and the next mornning bearing this pain in my heart and silently begging Christ for mercy. The next morning I could see a different look on this young woman's face. She did not share much during the first session, but her words were meek (though her questions were genuinely tough). After the first session, she waited until everyone left. Then she asked me to forgive her. I asked her to forgive me. Then her face glowed. Beginning Monday, I have been attending the annual diocesan clergy seminar. One of the lectures was on prayer and inner work. The words of Elder Paisios were quoted that inner work, prayer within one's heart, with pain, with brokenness, "such work is quiet work upon your neighbor." We can best influence those around us when we work on ourselves, when we bear one another's burdens in our hearts and energized by that pain beg Christ for mercy. This is how we may be saved and those around us.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Some Thoughts on Freedom

St. Theophan tells us that freedom is part of the divine nature that God has implanted in human beings and that freedom is the gift that we have to offer back to God.  However, freedom itself is a faculty of our being that is not easy to identify.  Freedom is not the same thing as choice.  Much of what we generally identify as freedom is nothing more than a lack of constraint on our passion-driven, culturally-formed urges.  Freedom in our culture merely means that no one can tell me what to do--I am "free" to destroy myself in whatever ways my passions drive me and my culture tells me are trendy.

And even when we are "free" to do what we want, how free is that really?  How free is a young man who was beaten by his father, sexually abused by his uncle, and was hyperactive in school?  Having dropped out of high school, how much freedom does he really have?  Sure he has choices--limited choices conditioned by biology and experience that he has had no control over.  But even his ability to choose, to see probable outcomes and consequences, is sorely limited.  He may make choices, but he is not very free, even if no one but his own inner urgings is telling him what to do.

Although the limits of what our culture calls freedom are easier to see in the extreme (but unfortunately not too uncommon) case I mention above, the limits that a person raised in the best circumstances experiences are much the same--although the choices may be more pleasant and the person's ability to predict probable outcomes may be less damaged.  Still, "freedom" is conditioned in this lucky person by nurture and nature that he or she has had no control over: passions, fears, cultural dictates and childhood experiences largely dictate the choices he or she makes. This is not a very free freedom.

So what is freedom then?  What is the freedom that St. Theophan talks of?  What is that freedom which is part of the divine nature that God implanted in human beings?

To understand this, first we have to do away with the idea that freedom has to do with independence.  Human beings are dependent beings.  Independence is a delusion.  On the merely biological and psychological levels this is obvious.  We cannot survive without a supportive physical environment--like animals, we are dependent on our environment (even though we can morph it more than animals can, still without oxygen, water, warmth and food in the correct amount, we will die).  Human beings are social.  We depend on others not only for physical survival, but for psychological health.  There is no such thing as independent human existence.  Human beings are dependent beings.  Freedom is not independence.

But humans are not mere biological and psychological beings.  What makes us different from animals (not just in degree, but in kind) is that men and women, all men and women, are also angelic.  That is, human beings have the capacity to know and experience God, even to have a relationship with God.  And this angelic capacity is something human beings have the freedom to ignore or develop.

It does not matter where one is, or how gifted or disabled or even religiously inclined one is.  This freedom to pay attention to the angelic life within each of us is the same.  Religious contexts (or lack thereof) certainly influence how this striving for God, this inner longing for spiritual reality, manifests itself.  And I would even go so far as to say that some religious contexts make it easier to pay attention to this inner reality than others.  Nevertheless, the freedom is the same: to turn toward God (no matter how poorly conceived) or to ignore the inner longing.

I wish I could tell you that this pursuit of God was easily identifiable.  It is not.  Even within ourselves.  Good religion helps give us concepts, forms and specific actions that make our pursuit of God more fruitful.  But religions and the practice of religions can become perverse.  Even Orthodox Christianity, which I have become convinced is the True Faith, can be perverted in its practice such that some might think that the God that they want to turn towards could never be found there.  Religion (or lack of religion) influences how we express this freedom, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but it influences it none the less.  

Each one begins where he or she is, with whatever personal, cultural or familial tools (concepts, rituals, morality, religion, etc.) they have at their disposal.  The freedom, however, is the same: to attend to the angelic life, to follow the Star of Bethlehem, to turn toward Life; or to turn toward death, to ignore the angelic reality that may be only faintly perceived and is certainly inadequately conceived.

The life of St. Mary of Egypt is quite instructive in this matter (and certainly provides an extreme case study).  Becoming a prostitute at twelve, Mary lived for fifteen years the life of a low-end whore in fifth century Alexandria, Egypt.  She said of that period of her life that "Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life." So addicted was she to what she regarded as "life," that she often refused payment, "doing free of charge what gave me pleasure." 

Mary was a mess.  And yet, at some level she was pursuing "life," what she in her very perverse and oppressed circumstances perceived as life.  "Life" is her word.  This is how she understood her experience.  And this thirst for life drew her to the One who is Life, even if she continued prostituting herself along way.  Eventually life leads her to circumstances, religion, that provide the forms, concepts and context in which a transformation can take place.  The transformation is not a change from not pursuing life to pursuing life.  Rather, it is a transformation in how she pursues life.  A particular religious context provides the means through which she can encounter this life she is pursuing more clearly as the One who is Life and the categories and institutions through which she is able to understand and peruse that Life in a much more fruitful and healthy way.  In St. Mary's case, it is as a hermit.

Freedom was at work in Mary,  even in very perverse circumstances.  This is why we must be so, so, so careful when we judge.  In fact, it is better not to judge.  And yet, the realities of our life require us to make some judgements.  Certainly we can "judge" that Mary's lifestyle as a prostitute was neither healthy nor righteous.  Nevertheless, we cannot judge Mary herself, and all the Marys in the world in their various circumstances, for we cannot know from the outside how they are exercising their freedom to turn toward life.  We do not know how abuse and ignorance have perverted their reality.  We do not know what they experience as life, and thus we cannot know how they are exercising their freedom to pursue that life, even in their wretched contexts, contexts in which they have very little choice.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


"The goal of human freedom is not in freedom itself, nor is it in man, but in God. By giving man freedom, God has yielded to man a piece of His divine authority, but with the intention that man himself would voluntarily bring it as a sacrifice to God, a most perfect offering." -- St. Theophan the Recluse

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Of Dogs and Christians

I'm reading George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, which is so full of profound ideas I can't begin to paraphrase them.  At midpoint, Eliot stops to reflect on the Christianity of the family whose demise she has spent the first half of the novel chronicling.  She says of them that "Their religion was of a simple, semi-pagan kind; but there was no heresy in it..."  I think such non-heretical, semi-pagan religion under the guise of Christianity is more common than we would like to admit.  If indeed greed be idolatry, as St. Paul says, then I with many of my Christian brothers and sisters might be classified as semi-pagan.
     One of the few generous characters to whom we have been introduced in the novel thus far is Bob, a simple-minded childhood friend of Maggie's (the main character) older brother Tom.  Bob has gone off as a travelling felt salesman to make a living for himself and at one point returns and attempts to give Tom all of his savings to help his soon-to-be impoverished family.  Tom stiffly refuses.  A year or so later, Bob returns with books for Maggie because, as he says, "I'n niver forgot how you looked when you fretted about the books bein' gone."  Bob is a simple man, but a generous one.  He is a man with very little paganism left in him.
     When Maggie thanks Bob for his kindness in thinking about Tom and her, she confesses that she hasn't many friends who care for her.
     Then Bob responds with this penetrating word: "[you] hev a dog, Miss!--they're better friends nor [than] any Christian..." 
     Bob then goes on to relate a comment made about a bitch whose pup he is willing to procure for Maggie.  "One chap," he relates, "he says, 'Why, Tobys nought but a a mongrel.'''
     Bob responds to the chap, "Why, what are you yoursen but a mongrel?  There wasn't much pickin' o' your feyther an' mother, to look at you.  Not but what I like [could do with] a bit o' breed myself, but I can't abide to see one cur [dog] grinnin' at another."
     There it is.  The Christian philosophy of the generous traveling salesman, Bob: one dog ought not to be grinnin' [thinking more highly of himself, c.f. Rom. 12:3] at another.
     I wonder how much paganism I could purge from my life if I didn't somewhere in the secret places of my heart think that I was better than someone else?  I wonder how much idolatry would be driven from my heart if I "niver forgot" the pain I see others suffer?  
     Christianity, even without heresy, if it does not produce the broken and contrite heart King David speaks of, can be nothing more than semi-paganism.
     One cur ought not be ginnin' at another, for our worth comes not from our breedin', but from our Master's great love and desire to receive all mongrels and mutts into His kennel.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

"Faith and Feminism" by Helen La Kelly Hunt

A friend of mine met Helen LaKelly Hunt at a conference and was impressed with some of her ideas.  He asked me to read and comment on her book, Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance, Five Spirited and Spiritual Women Throughout History.  For what it is worth, here are my thoughts.

As much as I appreciate what Helen is trying to do in Faith and Feminism, the book presents some serious problems for me.  On the one hand, in a secular context, any acknowledgement of faith, no matter how vaguely presented, is a good thing.  And I particularly found her examples of St. Teresa of Avila, Sojourner Truth and Dorothy Day inspiring.  What Helen seems to miss, however, is that these women were inspired not by an ambiguous faith, but by a concrete faith in a specific God understood in a specific theological construct within a specific tradition.  Given the audience Helen is trying to reach, she seems unable to extract the specifically Christian sources of inspiration for these women.  Helen seems to be able to do nothing more than trade in the current coin of the realm: to place her 21st century, post-Christian, enlightenment/modern/postmodern categories on the women she highlights and explain what does not fit these categories as "faith."  (Indeed, what largely makes her postmodern is that she allows for such a category as faith--ambiguously defined.)  

On the other hand, certainly both women and men have been and are oppressed by religious hierarchies, but the feminist insistence on "equality" as the correcting criterion is, in my opinion, sadly misguided and often hypocritical.  Very well-educated, generally wealthy and white women in North America and Europe use their positions of power as ruthlessly as any man has. Anyone (male or female) who has worked for or studied under more than a few women in his or her life knows from experience, that just like men, women vary in their use and abuse of power.  

Actually, it was a feminist professor (at Claremont School of Theology) who originally pointed this out to me.  She realized that equality could never be the basis for a healthy society because human beings do not have equal access to power--children are not equal to their parents; teachers are not equal to their students; a person who is wealthy is not equal to one who is poor; a strong, healthy person is not equal to a weak, sick person.  As a society we might generally agree to certain constructs that are more or less applied (such as, all human beings are equal under the law).  However, the reality is that, to quote Animal Farm, "some animals are more equal that others."  The woman or man who can afford to hire the best lawyer is more equal than the woman or man who is stuck with an over-worked, under-paid and probably less-gifted court-appointed lawyer.  The bright, well-educated, and highly-motivated sales person is more equal than the dull-witted sales person who suffers from migraine headaches.  And on and on it goes.

Equality, while in many ways a much better social criterion than might equals right, can never produce a harmonious society.  This is why the specifically Christian message is so important.  Love and self-sacrifice is the only way human beings will transform a sin-soaked, power-abusing culture.  Sure, the Church--as all other institutions have and do--has functioned as an agent of oppression.  But the Church has also produced saints--both men and women.  

Unity, rather than equality, is, I think, the only effective Christian criterion for social transformation.  Only as we act in humility as one body, one humanity, one anthropos will each member of the body find his or her place of fulfillment and service.  Of course since Christians themselves do not "walk according to this commandment," we have very little to offer those with whom we share this world except just another poetic ideal.  And because so few in the Church actually strive to be holy, to be saints, it is probably a very good thing that Helen and others work within the popular categories of the day to create some space, some possible crack in the secularist wall, out of which a genuine Christ-rooted Tree of Justice can grow.  If only some of us would let the acorn of our own individual rights die to grow into that tree.