Monday, October 29, 2012


Mystery in the Orthodox Church does not refer to something unknown that could be known through study or sleuthing.  Mystery refers to the interaction with or knowledge of that which defies human language or logic or categories because it transcends them.  For example, liturgical encounters with God that in the western Church are referred to as sacraments, in the Orthodox Church are referred to as Mysteries.  They are Mysteries because God is encountered.  There is no human speech, nor human logic, nor human conceptualization that can capsulize or circumscribe the divine, or the divine-human encounter. 

This is one of the reasons why I am not very good at the theology game.  I believe it was St. Gregory of Nyssa who said of his contemplation of the Holy Trinity that as soon as he began to see the Three-ness of God, the One-ness of God over came him.  And as he contemplated the One-ness of God, the Three persons pressed in upon him.  I have a similar problem on a much smaller scale.  Having nothing like the great mind or the holiness of St. Gregory, I never contemplate God: I don't even know where to begin.  I do, however, contemplate more mundane aspects of the Christian experience and find myself struggling with Mystery in matters that many find straight forward.  

Wealth and poverty, for example.  There are as many easy answers calling for voluntary poverty as there are easy arguments for the godly stewardship of wealth.  Violence and nonviolence: just about everyone who cares about this matter has their own slam-dunk argument to justify their position.  Then there are the theories of heaven and hell, the Second Coming of Christ, and the limits of the Church (that is, to what extent does the Church of Christ extend beyond the boundaries of the visible Orthodox Church?)

Every argument is full of truths, and yet does not encompass all of the truth.  When I think about the limits of the Church, I remember "The Wind blows where it will."  And as my vision opens to embrace widely, I remember "he who is not with Me scatters abroad."  When I consider the apparent necessity of violence in the world, I remember, "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek."  And when I resolve to reject all violence, I remember, "[the civil authority] does not bear the sword in vain," and "all discipline is painful."  What I have grabbed in my left hand slips away as I attend to my right hand.

I have found peace in accepting that the ends do not necessarily meet--at least not in a way my mind can grasp.  I have found peace in accepting the Mystery that most of the Christian life is not about having the correct argument, the right concept, or the neat conceptual package.  Christian life is mostly about life.  It is not about what one ought to do if....  It is about what one is doing right now.  It is about learning to attend to the Grace of God in each moment, the Holy Spirit giving us words to speak, or silence to keep; strength to act or patience to endure.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Limits of Cheek Turning

Jesus commanded us that if someone strikes us on one cheek, we should turn and offer him the other.  I must confess that for me this is a beautiful and difficult word.  It is a beautiful word when no one is striking me or threatening to strike me.  It is a difficult word when a haughty striker stands before me.

Today is the feast of St. Demetrius the Myrrh Streaming.  He was the military commander of Thessalonica under the Emperor Maximian at the turn of the fourth century.  Although commanded to persecute Christians, St. Demetrius rather preached Christ openly.  Eventually, he is thrown into prison and run through with lances.  However, before his martyrdom, St. Demetrius gave his young disciple St. Nestor a blessing to kill a certain gladiator named Lyaeus.

Lyaeus was a huge man, the emperor's personal gladiator.  Lyaeus fought on a raised platform surrounded by up-turned spears imbedded in the ground.  Whoever lost the fight was thrown onto the spears to writhe before the crowd as he slowly died.  Because no one wanted to fight Lyaeus, Christians who had been rounded up and thrown into prison were forced to "fight" him for the entertainment of the emperor and the crowds.  St. Nestor, who was not in prison, wanted to stop this barbarism, so he approach St. Demetrius to receive his blessing to fight and kill Lyaeus.

St. Demetrius gave St. Nestor his blessing, and told him that he would succeed, but that he would also have to surrender his life.  The next day, St. Nestor appeared in the arena as a volunteer to fight Lyaeus, whom he defeated and threw onto the spears.  Emperor Maximian was so upset by the death of his favourite gladiator, that when he found out that St. Nestor had defeated him "in the name of the God of Demetrius," he had St. Nestor decapitated by the sword.

There is a tension that Christians always live with.  On the one hand, we must turn the other cheek.  On the other hand, it sometimes seems that it is righteous to smite the cheek of someone in order to protect others.  What is the line?  Do you forebear to defend yourself but take violent action to help others?  Is a "just war" possible?  Is there a distinction between personal violence and state-sponsored violence?  Does God sometimes call us to use a lesser violence to avoid a greater violence?  If so, does that make the lesser violence somehow righteous?   My intuition tells me it doesn't.  

Actually, I don't think this tension can be resolved in a formula (just war theory, for example), but wiser and holier men than I have tried to offer one.  In my Orthodox Christian experience--the last eighteen years of my life--I have gone from being somewhat hawkish to being quite dovish.  And yet it is easy for me to be a dove in Canada, since no one is taking my stuff, no one is threatening my safety, no one is attacking my children.  However, I say this not to justify violence in protecting one's stuff, or in self defence or even necessarily in the defence of children.  I say this only to stress that it is easier to be a dove when there is very little real temptation to be a hawk.  

I have my limits.  I would like to think that I would not use violence to protect my stuff.  And on a good day, I might even be able to trust God and not use violence to defend myself--on a good day only, mind you, on most days I'd quickly lose my temper and go down biting, kicking and scratching.  But at this point, I think I would consider it God's will for me to do what ever I could to protect others, especially if the others are defenceless and vulnerable and I could immediately do something to protect them.  But this raises all sorts of other problems.  Again, what are the limits?  Where are the lines?  I don't know.  

When I pray, "lead us not into temptation," one of the temptations I am praying to avoid is this temptation: the temptation to use violence, to take matters into my own hands.  I don't know what I would do.  I cannot predict or control the future.  I can, however, today pray "lead us not into temptation."  And perhaps if I keep praying this prayer, God will have mercy.  God will have mercy and the temptation will never come; or if it comes, he will provide a way of escape so that I may bear it according to His will (1 Cor. 10:13).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Good Guys and Bad Guys

I’m reading an unpublished novel.  It is historical fiction set in the 1950s or 60s in the first all English language Russian Orthodox Church in America.  It is a story full of intrigues and dark spiritual forces working through evil men who want to manipulate the Orthodox Church to serve their personal thirst for authority and wealth.  The main character of the story is a hard-working, godly and humble priest who has risked everything to get this all English language Church off the ground and running.  However, once running and very successful, “St. Vladimir’s” becomes the target of greedy men, clergy, who want to suck up the wealth and prestige of the community to satisfy their greed and further their personal ambition.  I am only half way through, which is further than I get through most pre-publication novels I review.  I may even finish it.

However, something bothers me.  Although the novel is well written and is set in an interesting Orthodox Church world, it still somehow boils down to a good guy versus bad guy story in which the bad guys are demonized (both literally and metaphorically).  This bothers me.  It bothers me because, in my experience, the real demon is not out there in someone else, but it is experienced in me as the desire to see the demon out there in someone else. That is, the devil (diabolos, literally, the one who throws or accuses) at work to destroy the Church is found not so much in the weaknesses of the clergy or the laity but in the accusations they throw at one another.

Much of what is wrong with the Church and the world, I think, has less to do with the devil than it has to do with human weakness and immaturity.  People--and I chief among them--are lazy, confused, fearful, lustful, and generally mostly just watching out for Number One.  No wonder churches flounder and institutions of all kinds ferment corruption.  We are screwing things up pretty well on our own, we don’t need much help from the devil.

But the devil does help, but not in ways we usually suspect.  Frank Peretti’s novels (This  Present Darkness, etc.) in many ways typify how we suspect the devil and the demons work in this world: pretty much the way we would if we had their abilities and limitations  (as the novels imagine them) and wanted to manipulate others.  The demonic, as it is commonly imagined, is organized like a human army that is out there attacking true believers and true faith.  We fight those demons by praying “hard” against them and resisting the demons’ human accomplices--who also happen to be our enemies. I think this scenario is terribly flawed, even demonically flawed.

Jesus told us to love our enemies and to pray for (not against) those who despitefully use us.  Yes, St. Peter tells us to resist the devil (1Peter 5:9), but the context makes it pretty clear that resisting the devil means to suffer with patience, to remain sober and vigilant in prayer and to humble oneself, “casting all of your care upon [God] for He cares for you.”  We resist the devil by casting our cares upon God, not casting accusations agains one another.

And this brings me back to this novel I am reading.  The main character is so far doing an excellent job casting his cares upon God and not accusing others, but his companions are not doing so well.  The narrator keeps telling the reader of the almost monolithic evil of some of the characters, encouraging the reader to see them bad guys only, as one dimensional, demonized villains who must be resisted by “hard” prayer and intrigues as deceitful as their own that are plotted by secondary characters (on the good guy’s side).  I guess the lesson is supposed to be that deceit isn’t a bad thing when the good guys deceive.  

Certainly Church life is messy.  All of life is messy.  But the devil’s work in the Church probably has almost nothing to do with clear good guys and bad guys and almost everything to do with encouraging us to think there are, thus through accusation becoming like him (like it?).  The devil is an accuser and a liar; and in as much as we also accuse others and practice deceit--even for a good cause--we may find that we are acting much more like the devil than that other person on whom we’ve focused our accusation.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Preaching on Hell

I will be convicted at the dread judgement without accusers,
And condemned without witnesses;
For the book of my conscience will be opened,
And my hidden works revealed.
O God: Before you examine my actions in the presence of all creation,
Be merciful to me and save me.
Octoechos, Tone 3, Monday Matins, Sessional Hymns (of repentance)

On Sunday I preached a homily on hell.  It appeared like the people were a little nervous at the beginning.  Heck, I was nervous.

It seems to me that whenever we think about the afterlife, we must remember that we are talking about a mystery. We are talking about a reality that cannot be accurately portrayed in the language and concepts of our fallen reality. Consequently, in the scriptures and among the Church Fathers, one will find all sorts of descriptions, warnings and encouragements.  There are descriptions of judgement and hell in the scripture and among the Church Fathers that sound as extreme as some T.V. hell-fire preachers. There are also descriptions of God's love and desire that all human beings be saved both in the scripture and among the Fathers, which sound universalist--and may indeed be universalist.  

However, when we try to reduce heaven and hell to easily understood talking points that can be used to make other points, I think we err greatly. It is much like trying to speak of God and only focusing on the three-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To focus on the three-ness is to err on the one-ness. To reduce the three-ness to an easily conceived metaphor is to do violence to the lack of division in God. Similarly, to push too hard on God's undivided nature is to err in regard to the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is a mystery: several irreconcilable, seemingly opposing aspects of God are revealed to us.  And how could it be any other way?  A God that we could conceive is no God at all.

I think the same thing is true about the afterlife. St. Paul says that when he was caught up into the Third Heaven, he heard inexpressible words that were unlawful to utter. What he heard could not be expressed in words and concepts of the fallen creation. When Jesus talks about the final judgement, he uses parables: a shepherd dividing sheep and goats, a rich man tormented after an affluent life while a beggar is comforted, wise virgins who acquired extra oil (virtues? grace? good works?) were accepted into the bridal chamber while those without extra oil were shut out. Jesus speaks of burning and worms and weeping and gnashing of teeth--all of which is and has been experienced by almost all human beings at times of great suffering though out the ages. What does all this mean when applied to the afterlife, when time and space as we know it will not exist? We don't know.

What do we know?  We know that there is and will be a judgement--the Church's creed tells us this much. We know that something called hell/hades, or Gehenna, or Tuataras, or the abyss has something to do with it--but we don't know exactly what, except for a few parables, metaphors and allegories: enough to motivate us to avoid it. And enough to motivate us to pray that everyone may avoid it. We also know for sure that God is love. We know that mercy triumphs over justice.  We know that God wills that all human beings be saved. And we know from the prayers the Church teaches us to pray that we are to hope for and pray for the salvation of the whole creation. And most importantly, we know that Christ has broken the bonds of hell through His resurrection. How exactly these seemingly contradictory revealed truths fit together is unknown to us.  

Maybe Paul knew in the Third Heaven. Certainly there are theories.  But theories are only theories. We don't know for sure. As far as I am concerned, generally speaking, I have not found it helpful to try to literalize biblical metaphors of either heaven or hell. Heaven is a party, a wedding supper. Hell is a place or condition of regret, of unfulfilled longing, of loneliness. And most of us have already in small ways experienced a little heaven and hell in this life. I think these actual experiences tell us more about the afterlife than fanciful accounts of horned creatures with pitchforks or winged creatures flying about in long robes. The judgement of the age to come will be no surprise. It will be only a revelation of what is already in our hearts. This is what the Monday morning hymn cited above is telling us.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hellbound? First Impressions

I just got back from Hellbound?  I have to say that I was expecting much less.  I was expecting a sort of anti-Evangelical, maybe even sarcastic poke at one traditional Christian view of hell that is, conveniently, very easy to poke.  However, I was pleasantly treated to a balanced presentation.  Yes, there were screaming and angry street evangelists glorying in the damnation of everyone but themselves.  Yes, there were scenes of a "satanic" metal concert. And yes, there was even an exorcist who bases his understanding of hell on what Jesus says in the bible and "what the demons have told me."  However, there were also thoughtful Evangelicals providing a rational defence for "eternal, conscious, torment" in hell.  There were also thoughtful Evangelicals (and at least a couple of Orthodox and one Catholic) presenting a universalist view.

I was particularly pleased that the film pointed out that most universalists do not hold that there is no hell.  Rather, they hold that hell is an experience or process or something of the sort that is not greater than God.  Further, I was also glad that both the main Orthodox source and Catholic source argue that universalism is not a dogma, but rather a hope.  In the end, only God knows.  But we can hope, and indeed the prayers of the Church teach us to hope in God's mercy and love.

Finally, I think the strongest point the movie makes is not that universalism is right and eternal, conscious torment in hell is wrong.  The strongest point the film makes is that different opinions on the matter of afterlife have existed in the Church throughout history, and these differences have been tolerated and should be tolerated today.

I encourage everyone to see this film.  It will make you think.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Some Thoughts on God's Foreknowledge

God's foreknowledge is a mystery.  It is a mystery like God Himself, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.  As soon as I think I am wrapping my brain around the threeness of God, I am confronted with the oneness.  And when I am confident in God's oneness, I cannot avoid the threeness.

God's Foreknowledge means at least two things to me.  First, it means that God is outside time and space as we know it.  The theological word for that is "transcendence."  Since God is transcendent, God sees the end from the beginning.  God already knows what's going to happen (but for God there is no "already" or "going to," because God sees the whole history of every person as though it were laid out on a singe page before Him).  Words like "already" and "going to" are words of our human experience in time.  Time is a great thing; it is a gift from God.  Time allows us to grow, to change.  God is already complete.  God doesn't change, we do.

Secondly, God is also in time, encouraging us to grow, to grow into His Image.  God was in time historically through the Incarnation, but God has been in time from the beginning by the Holy Spirit.  This nearness of God in time and space is called "immanence."  In the western theological tradition, immanence and transcendence have been played off each other, as though both were not fully possible at the same time (Oops, time, there's that word again).  But God is both outside and inside time.  In God's dealings with us, in God's nurturing us to growth in godliness, God is not at all limited in knowledge or resources.  God is never taken by surprise; and God is always present in every time, place and situation--no matter how surprising or miserable or pleasing or frightening the situation is to us.

Some in the western tradition have tried to "demystify" this mystery with a version of predestination that reduces the divine-human relationship to mechanical playing out of predetermined movements.  This is not the Orthodox faith.  The Christian God is much bigger than that.  In the Orthodox Christian understanding, there is a genuine synergy between God and man in which God draws, but does not coerce; and in which man acts, but does not control.  Human freedom (to use the classical term) is real, yet God's foreknowledge encompasses even real human freedom.

Learning to trust God, to trust the foreknowledge of God is a lot of what the Christian life is about.  In this sense, I am using the word foreknowledge as almost synonymous with providence.  There is a technical difference between these two words, but, I think experientially, that doesn't matter.  St. Isaac the Syrian says that "when grace is abundant in a man," his "mind gives him assurance" that "there is no human being who is not under His providence."  But "when lack of faith is planted in a man's heart," then "trust in God is not present in anything he does, nor is God's providence for man taken into consideration, but such a man is continually waylaid" by unexpected turns of events.  The chief repentance of many of us, it seems, is to uproot this lack of faith that has somehow been planted in our hearts.  However, really only the Grace of God can do this, and God only grants Grace to those who want it.  Thus, in seeing our inner and outer turmoil when things don't go as we planned, we learn to pray not :"Lord, change the circumstances to fit my plan."  But rather we learn to pray, "Lord, have mercy.  Lord, grant me the Grace to trust in you."

This, I think, is one of the early lessons in faith and prayer--one I'm still working on.

With a little experience trusting the faithfulness of God, we can learn to trust that God is at work in all the varied circumstances of our life and the lives of everyone in the world to draw us and them to Himself, to save us all.  We can even learn to trust God in the midst of tragedy.  For example, St. John Chrysostom's last words as he was dying of exposure and exhaustion being driven as a prisoner into exile were, "Glory to God for all things." Even his suffering he understood to be part of God's loving providence to save not only him but also the whole world, making up in his own flesh what is lacking in the suffering of Christ (c.f. Colossians 1: 24).  St. Isaac puts it this way: "Therefore, beloved, have in your mind God's some excellent medicine...."  

Very few of us have made it to St. John's level of sanctity, yet.  But this is why we must learn to trust God in the small things now.  We must acquire the Grace of God (or acquire the Holy Spirit, as St. Seraphim of Sarov put it) while we can.  This, I think, is the whole point of Christ's parable of the wise and foolish virgins.  We need to learn to gather the oil when we don't need it, so that when we need it, it is there.  Or to put it another way, seeking the Grace of God in circumstances that merely annoy or distress us shows God that we really want His Grace, we really want Him.  Then when overwhelming circumstances overtake us (as they eventually do everyone), God's Grace will be supplied sufficiently for us because we want it.  That is, we want Grace, we want God, not just a change in circumstance.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Poverty of Falling Trees

If a tree falls in your front yard, and no one hears it, do you still have to cut it up and haul it away?

Somehow, philosophical conundrums lose their profundity when you are no longer dealing with hypothetical trees.

While I was cutting up and hauling away said philosophical tree yesterday and today, I was thinking about the words of St. Isaac the Syrian: "This is why you must surrender all things to God's foreknowledge, and not believe that there is anything in this life unchanging."  Watch out for the double negative there.  He is saying that everything changes.

We spend our few years in this life in a world that changes.  And while there is some small amount of predictability in these changes (night to day, summer to winter, the gradual failure of our bodies with age), a good deal of the change we experience is sudden.  Trees fall for no apparent reason.  People suddenly leave or enter (or reenter) the sphere of our life.  Men and women ignorantly or intentionally abuse and oppress one another leading to sudden outbreaks of violence, even war.  Opportunistic diseases or blights of various kinds are ever waiting in the wings for a chance to destroy.  Life changes.

Surrendering to the foreknowledge of God is no easy matter.  It is in many respects one of the major spiritual works of our lives.  What makes this surrendering particularly difficult is that life is not completely arbitrary.  The universe does seem to function with a certain predictability--sort of, most of the time.  Of course if you look too closely  or at the really big picture, the laws of nature as we generally encounter them do not apply.   And then there are the accidents and the unknown variables and the consequences of human stupidity, foolishness, greed and spite.  It is sort of like English grammar: there are rules, but they are complicated, with lots of exceptions and with regional variants.  

If our life were more apparently arbitrary, then perhaps it would be easier to trust in God.  This is probably why the poor--according to St. James and others--are strong in faith.  The poorer people are, the fewer resources they are able to manipulate to create predictability, or an illusion of predictability.  Thus the poor are much more exposed to the raw unpredictability of life and are in a sense pushed toward surrendering to the foreknowledge of God.  I am not saying that all poor people have great faith (or any faith at all, for that matter).  I am saying that it is easier for the poor to have faith, just as Jesus said that it is more difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. 

But poverty is not a fixed commodity.  That is, one can be cash poor, but resource rich.  One can be rich in knowledge or authority, yet have nothing to eat.  One can be lacking in honour or respect, yet have abundant material resources.  And one can live on the street and eat from other people's garbage, yet have a deep abiding relationship with God; while another has almost limitless resources at his or her disposal, yet frequently doubts even God's existence.  There are many ways we are poor.

It seems the lesson that we must learn again and again is the first lesson: blessed are the poor in spirit.  When trees fall in my front yard and I don't know how I will deal with it, I am blessed, if I will trust in the gracious foreknowledge of God.  When I don't know where my next meal, or bus fare, or month's rent will come from, I am blessed, if I will trust in the gracious foreknowledge of God.  And when I pray to God whom I'm not sure is there, and when I serve and love in silence because I don't know what to say, and when I am kind and generous and merciful not to receive a reward (for I'm not even sure such a reward exists), then I am blessed, if I will trust in the gracious foreknowledge of God.

The problem with poverty is that we can so easily see everyone else's.  It is our own deep poverty that we find so hard to see.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Prayer: Walking the Trail

This last weekend, I led a retreat on prayer.  I wanted the retreat to be about the experience of prayer, not the theory of prayer or someone’s ideas about prayer.  However, my personal experience of prayer is quite puny, at least compared to what I read of the experience of others.  Therefore, I entitled the retreat, “Prayer For Beginners,” thinking that by choosing that title I’d keep everyone’s expectations low and I would feel more comfortable saying things like, “Well, I have read about such experiences, but I really have no idea what they are referring to because I have never experienced it myself.”   

In fact, one of the points I wanted to make about prayer and reading about prayer is that different writers often use different words to refer to the same experience, the same spiritual psychology, if you will.  I have found that I have read some writers and understood very little, only to reread them five or ten years later and understood much more.  And here I do not mean “understood” in the sense of intellectually categorize.  I mean understood in the sense of knowing what the author is talking about--knowing in my knower, as my foster mother used to say.  Having this shared experiential knowledge, I could say things like, “What St. Theophan means when he says ‘heart’ in a particular passage is (I think) equivalent to what St. Maximus means when he says ‘intellect’ in the common English translation of the Philokalia.

However, I must also be quick to point out that much, but certainly not all, of the spiritual writings of the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition are to some degree scalable, or I might even say qualitative.  That is, St. Isaac the Syrian, for example, might write about the spiritual experience hermits praying in the deserts (hermits whose spiritual heights I will never even see from afar, much less attain), yet the principles or the pattern or the schema of what he is describing is scalable down, way down, to the level of the experience of a beginner.  And thus as a beginner in prayer, I can begin to recognize the way.  I can begin to understand the experience of prayer: what to expect, how to struggle, how to begin to learn to discern, where to look for help, what not to trust in myself, and much more.

I referred to an example of this scalable wisdom from a very experienced spiritual writer to address a topic that came up several times over the weekend.  The topic was the experience of the withdrawal of Grace.  I referred to a short passage by Elder Sophrony, disciple of St. Silouan, from his book called On Prayer.  I will paraphrase the passage because I don’t have the book with me.  Elder Sophrony said that he has had, in prayer, the experience somewhat like the experience he had as an artist before he became a monk.  In depicting something beautiful, he would experience a moment when he felt he had gotten it right, when what he depicted on the canvas truly reflected the beauty he saw in his mind.  At that moment he felt such joy and a sense that everything would now be well, that he would be able to express on his canvas the beauty he saw in his mind.  However, soon he would be overcome with doubt, with fear that he could never convey the beauty he saw in his mind to the canvas before him.  Elder Sophrony likened this experience as an artist to his experience in prayer, to his experience of the Grace of God and the loss of Grace.  

Even a beginner at prayer, I think, can recognize this pattern, this experience.  Although most beginners have not experienced the overwhelming Grace of God that, for example, St. Silouan experienced, and neither the depths of hell at the withdrawal of Grace.  Nevertheless, I think most, even those just beginning to learn to pray, have experienced ups and downs.  Times when prayer seemed effortless, and times (perhaps extended times) when prayer seemed like a thirsty climb up a desert mountain.  Knowing that such highs and lows in prayer are common--even for experienced monks--I think helps us beginners.  We have the examples of those who have indeed climbed the heights before us, that water, that Grace, will be supplied, that if we keep climbing, and we learn to repent and humble ourselves, God will indeed come to us.  We are not the first to walk this trail.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

What It Means To Be the True Church

I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

A reoccurring question of inquirers from an Protestant background is whether the Orthodox Church considers itself to be the only true church.  The short answer is an unequivocal yes.  But the longer answer requires a certain amount of explanation because what the inquirer means when he says "church" is usually not what the Church means when it refers to herself as church.  Perhaps one way to get at this longer answer is to consider what Jesus had to say about the Pharisees and the Samaritans in the Gospels.

In the Gospels, the orthodox believes were certainly the Pharisees.  Jesus says of them that they sit in Moses' seat and that they should be obeyed: "Do what they say," Jesus says, "but don't do what they do."  Furthermore, in His conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus is uncompromising: "You worship what you do not know, but we worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews."  No compromise here.  The Jews, and particularly the most strict, most orthodox sect of the Jews, the Pharisees, these are the ones who know what they are doing when it comes to worship, these are the ones who sit in Moses's seat, these are the ones of whom and among whom salvation is.  But that doesn't at all mean that only Jews can be saved.  

In fact, it is particularly the Samaritans, this group of people who "worship what they do not know," whom Jesus seems to highlight as examples of people typifying what the Kingdom of God is like.  For example, of the ten leapers who are healed by Jesus, only the Samaritan among them returns to give thanks.  In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is not the Jewish leaders, not the priest and levite, who stop and help the wounded man.  Who helps the wounded man?  None other than the Samaritan--the one who doesn't know what he worships.  And the longest conversation of Jesus recorded in the Gospel is with a Samaritan woman, a woman of disrepute, a woman who didn't know what she worshiped, but who becomes a tireless evangelist for Christ, ultimately witnessing before Emperor Nero before her martyrdom.

In the Gospel we see that the Kingdom of God is not limited to the Jewish people ("the Wind blows where it will").  Nevertheless, "salvation is of the Jews."  The law and the covenants are of the Jews.  The very Word of God Himself is a Jew.  The "church in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38) is the Jewish people, the true church of the Old Covenant.

How can this be?  What is the Church that it should be called church?  The Church, and the Orthodox Church asserts that she and only she is this Church, is the repository of the true/correct teaching and true/correct worship of God.  However, everyone in the true Church is not necessarily a faithful follower of Christ.  And there are faithful followers of Christ who may be separated (by historical or geographical accident) from the true Church.  In fact, there may indeed be true and faithful followers of Christ who have rejected the true Church--because their only exposure to the Orthodox Church was to Orthodox Christians who were not faithful followers of Christ.  

Just as Jesus said of the Pharisees, that they sit in Moses's seat, so the Orthodox Church asserts at she sits as the bearer of the holy, catholic and apostolic teaching and the faithful, true worship of Christ.  Unfortunately, sometimes, it must be said of the some Orthodox Christians: "do what they say, not what they do."

The situation is comparable to the medical field.  One may have a perfect  understanding of the latest and best medical practices, but not follow them.  That is, a highly qualified doctor may also be completely lacking in bedside manner, motivated only by greed, and often drunk.  At the same time, there may be a person with only half a medical education, but motivated by love, full of empathy and attentive to the subtle bodily clues in her patients.  Now in the strictest sense, only the first doctor is "qualified" to practice medicine--never mind that she seldom actually cures anyone.  The second doctor--well, a quack really because she is not "qualified" to practice medicine--through her empathy and attention along with her not-quite-complete education cures almost everyone who comes to her.  The Pharisee who meets Jesus in the dark, leaves in the dark.  The Samaritan who doesn't quite know what she worships meets the Messiah and evangelizes her city.  

The Orthodox Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.  It is the field of wheat sown also with tares.  It is the field in which is buried the pearl.  It is the great net full of both good and bad fish.  The Holy Orthodox Church is where one will find true teaching and true worship, but one will also find lots of people who are less than true, who are struggling, or who are not even trying.  To say that the Holy Orthodox Church is the one true church is not to say that it is the perfect church.  Neither is it to say that those outside the Orthodox Church cannot find salvation.  Rather, to say that the Orthodox Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic is to make a statement of fact, of history and of doctrine--not of soteriology.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The River of Fire: Is It Orthodox?

St. Cyprian: To Demetrian 24: “An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life.” 

A friend wrote me recently, "I'm  curious to know if the view of hell as a 'river of fire' is patristic. This view certainly resonates with me but I've come across a lot of patristic writing that seems to have a very western view of it as punishment. Can you clarify this at all." This friend included the quote from St. Cyprian cited above along with quotations from seven additional major Orthodox Church Fathers of the third through seventh centuries.  For what it is worth, here is my response:

Dear Friend,
When we talk about the experience after death, we have to keep in mind that we are talking about mystery. Certainly, if one already has a western view of the judgement of the next life, one would read these quotations and see in them an affirmation of what he or she already thinks. However, there are other Fathers who say different things and these very Fathers that you have quoted say different things in other places. It is not merely a matter of the Fathers having different opinions on the matter of what the judgement after death is like (although sometimes that may indeed be the case). What is more fundamentally the issue here is that we are talking about mystery. It has not been revealed clearly to the Church what shall be. Words like "punishment," "retribution," "penalty," "recompense," "suffering in unlimited agonies," and "being devoured by living flames," these are not descriptions of what the afterlife of the ungodly** will be in the same way that one might describe what it is like to visit the Queen. There are words to describe exactly what it is like to visit the Queen, because visiting the Queen, while uncommon, is not a mystery. Heaven and gehenna and all that has to do with the age to come is a mystery, and in as much as we must use the words and concepts of this age to describe the experiences of the age to come, we are only providing metaphors and parables, we are only pointing toward a mystery that is spiritually apprehended (and then only darkly) in this age, but that will be known fully in the age to come. This is why the same Father in the Church might use many different (sometimes seemingly contradictory) metaphors to talk about the Last Judgement and the experience of the ungodly in the age to come.  

The problem with the common western view of the suffering of the ungodly in hell is that it is part of the whole soteriological package of retributive justice. Hell is understood in this western scheme as a matter of satisfying God's justice through human suffering. If one already holds this view of God, then of course one would read the patristic passages you quote as buttressing their view of retributive punishment in hell. However, the Orthodox Church does not hold this view of God. In the Orthodox way of thinking, justice (which is certainly an attribute of God) is part of love and subservient to mercy: mercy triumphs over justice, St. James and several of the Prophets tell us. This, however, does not mean that the day of judgement will not be terrible. It will be terrible, in the old English sense: full of terror. The Liturgy does not call it the "fearsome day of Judgement" for no reason. And all of the terrible words and concepts that we can use from this age only begin to paint a picture of what that final reckoning will be.  

I think some people, when they encounter the river of fire metaphor, when they encounter the Orthodox idea that the fire of gehenna is nothing other than the presence of God, they think that Orthodox Christians don't believe in a hell-like experience in the afterlife. This is a misconception. Just about all of the terrible things that can be and have been said about hell could in one way or another metaphorically and allegorically point toward the actual mystery of the judgement of the ungodly in the age to come.  However, we must keep in mind that any words in this life describing the age to come are metaphorical, not literal. And we must keep in mind that whatever suffering anyone experiences in the age to come is not to satisfy God (not God's justice, nor Gods plan, nor God's calling).  Sins have been forgiven. That's not the issue. The sins of the whole world have been forgiven at the Cross.

Using words (as metaphors) that I find helpful to explain the suffering of the ungodly in the age to come, I would say that the suffering of the ungodly will be due to their exposure to Reality—the Reality about God, the Reality about ourselves, the Reality about the life we have lived. And what is going to cause so much burning, so much pain, is that we will not be able to avoid it. We will not be able to pretend. And it will be eternal; that is, life on earth as we have known it will be over, and nothing at that point can be changed, nothing can be repented of. Which is why the call to repentance now is such Good News. It is the Gospel: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! This is why we must confess our sins ("confess" in Greek is homolegeo which means 'to say the same thing' as God says about a matter: e.g. I confess that losing my temper is sin—which is also what God says about it, which is reality).  

And as we live a life of repentance and confession, and as we are transformed to love with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, we come to actually live Christ's life. We begin to experience the judgement of God in prayer every day ("every morning I put to silence all of the wicked of the land" psalm 100/101: 8). The life of repentance and prayer is a life of self judgement ("judge yourselves lest you be judged," Jesus said). Those who take their Christian life seriously experience in this life a little bit of the age to come, a little bit of gehenna and a little bit of heaven. That's why the holy Fathers can speak of these things. But like St. Paul who said of his visit to the Third Heaven, that the words he heard there are "unutterable," so any experience of the age to come is unutterable in the language and concepts of this age. Nevertheless, love compels us to encourage and warn one another. The language of this age must be used, but only as a metaphor, as a pointer to what can only be known by direct experience.

** please note that I am using the word "ungodly" as a technical term referring to those who will experience the torment of gehenna in the age to come. I am intentionally not defining the term any further. Who the ungodly are in this life, I could not say. May God have mercy on all of us.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Prayers Becoming Prayer

Treat the words of the prayers you say so as to make them part of your emotions and bring them all of the intensity of your personal life.  But if the words we use in prayer are not made real by the way we live, they will be meaningless and lead to nowhere. They will be like a bow without a string. It is absolutely pointless to ask God for something that we ourselves are not prepared to do. If we say, "O God make me free from every temptation," while at the same time seeking every possible way of falling into temptation, hoping now that God is in control, that He will get us out of it, then we do not stand a chance. God gives us strength, but we must use it.
Paraphrased from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom points out two very important aspects of life-giving prayer. The first is that we must make the words of the prayers into the words of our prayer. We must bring the words into ourselves, into our emotions and feelings. We must fill the words with meaning from within ourselves, our personal experience. There is an interaction between the meaning of the words, their denotations and connotations, and our own experience. This interaction makes the words of the prayers given by the Church, our own prayer.

The second aspect of life-giving prayer is engagement in real life. That is, when we treat God as a distant God who pull strings behind the scenes, without our cooperation, effort, will and determination, then it may be that our prayer life is not much different from a fantasy life. No wonder people abandon prayer--if their prayer life is not intimately engaged with, if it is not born out of, their real life.

Learning to pray is not unlike learning to read. It takes practice and it takes engagement. When we personally engage the prayers we are given and live a life of repentance, of actual striving to acquire virtue (striving to enter the rest, as it says in Hebrews), then prayers can become our prayer.  

Monday, October 01, 2012

Intercession and the Body of Christ

Today the Church celebrates the Protecting Veil of the Theotokos. The feast is commemorated on October first because of a vision in the tenth century, but the truth that the feast commemorates is not merely historical but is also fundamental to how Orthodox Christians understand the Body of Christ.

There are two fundamental Christian truths that one must accept if one is going to understand the theological importance of this feast. The first fundamental truth is that although Christians die, they are never dead. This is a mystery. All human beings taste death, but since the resurrection of Christ, death is no longer the door into the realm of the dead (i.e. hades, or hell, as it was understood in the Old Testament), it is now the door into life, the door into the presence of God. Christ Himself died and entered hades bursting the doors and bonds of hell and freeing all that were held captive there. Thus there is no longer a realm of the dead, but only the presence of God--experienced as joyous embrace by some and as burning torment by others.

The second necessary Christian truth that we must accept if we are to understand why this feast is so important is the interdependence of all Christians. St. Paul put it this way: the Church is a body, and each of us are a part that body, each supplying something, and each completely dependent on the others. A hand cannot exist apart from an arm and the rest of the body that supports it. But while this body metaphor is helpful, it is somewhat misleading to many because it has too often been interpreted merely as an example of how we physically help one another. Certainly, we physically help one another, but that is the reality for all humanity--no human being is an island. What is unique for the Christian understanding is that the body is a metaphor for our spiritual dependence on one another, our prayers, our intercessions for one another. This is why St. Paul is continually begging everyone he writes to pray for him, and why he continually reminds everyone he writes that he is praying for them. Our spiritual success--growth in life and godliness--depends on the prayers of others. I cannot be saved on my own.

Any spiritual growth, any victory over the passions, any enlightenment or understanding of spiritual truth comes to us through the prayers and intercessions of others. This is how God set it up. God set it up so that with Christ as the head, the whole body would supply what every part needs (c.f. Eph. 4:16).

What I have noticed in my experience, is that many Christians do not have much time for prayer. They have to learn how to pray. Life has to teach them to pray. Often beginning with selfish prayers ("God, I could sure use a new car"), life experience, the scripture, the Liturgy and the spiritually wise whom God has placed along our path, all work together to teach us. We learn through failure and pain and just enough encouragement to keep going what works, what doesn't work and that indeed we can trust God to take care of our needs (as Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount: don't pray for these things for your heavenly Father already knows that you need them).

As our trust grows in God's care for us personally, we pray more for those around us, for those we love. Here too, life experiences (often painful) teach us how to pray and how not to pray, what works and what doesn't. Having gained a little confidence in prayer, we want to tell God how to save our friends, our enemies, and our loved ones. Like the new apprentice trying to tell the master craftsman how best to do his work, we newbies in the spiritual path want to tell our heavenly Father how to do His job. "Salvation is of the Lord," remember? God is the One who saves. We get to watch, watch and pray, watch and pray and stay out of the way.

Here the Church helps us with prayers that remind us that we don't know whether pain or blessing, tribulation or relief will best help someone grow into the person he or she needs to be. Most importantly, the Church teaches us to pray with the words: "Lord have mercy." These are the most succinct words of prayer. These are the best words for intercession. When we can pray, "Lord have mercy," and mean it, we are letting go of all of our agenda, all of our claim to know what's best, and we are getting out of the way and inviting God to be Himself, to be His loving, merciful, powerful, gentle, and all-gracious self.

And I have heard about even higher forms of prayer and intercession: prayer in silence, in stillness. But I have not yet experienced this, except perhaps, as Moses on Mt. Nebo, to view it from afar. Heck, it's only on really good days that I can pray "Lord have mercy" with any integrity. But some people do pray in stillness. Some people do pray in silence, in the language of heaven. And it is the intercession of these still and silent voices to God that the Body of Christ needs most of all. For these silent intercessors, death will be the most easy. The threshold into the silence of heaven holds nothing new for them: they already speak that language. And in heaven, these silent intercessors continue, now undistracted by any physical needs, to intercede for the rest of Christ's body.

But the greatest intercessor in heaven, the one whose feast we celebrate today, is the Mother of Jesus Herself, the Theotokos, Mary, full of grace. God's holy Mother intercedes for us, along with all of those who are with Her in heaven interceding for us. They protect us. This is what the Church means when it talks about the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. The Mother of God is interceding for us. We depend on her as a body depends on its heart