Saturday, March 30, 2013

Anger and Fear as Passions

There is something natural and healthy in our souls that St. Maximus the Confessor calls the “irascible aspect of the soul” and St. Basil the Great calls “temper” (at least in the English translations I am reading). This irascible aspect of the soul, or temper, when it is functioning in a healthy human being empowers the person do good and reject evil.  One might even say it is something like zeal. However, in fallen, sinful human beings, temper is manifest as a passion called anger. Anger is a sort of mother passion, for from anger come passions such as irritability, impatience, frustration and sometimes even despair.

The Fathers of the Church generally teach that our goal in repentance is not the complete eradication of the passions, but rather the healing of the passions. God created us to be zealous for Him and to reject sin; therefore, we seek not to obliterate all strong feeling, but rather we seek to heal our passions, to bring them under control, into obedience to Christ.

I wonder if fear doesn’t also function a similar way.   admit I do not recall reading in the Holy Fathers anywhere a treatment on fear in its healthy and unhealthy (passionate) forms. So what follows is merely my opinion based on my observation.

It does seem to me that there is such a thing as unhealthy, passionate fear. When I speak of the fear of God, I am not talking about that kind of fear. Unhealthy, passionate fear freezes us and keeps us from reaching out to God. This, for example, is the kind of fear Adam and Eve felt when they hid from God in the Garden of Eden. Unhealthy, passionate fear terrorizes us--often for no reason. It is irrational. It is vague. It does not lead to repentance. It does not lead to the loving embrace of God.

However, just as the passion of anger must be healed and returned to its healthy function as zeal for God and against sin, and just as lust must be healed and returned to its healthy function as longing for God and goodness; so it seems to me that unhealthy, passionate fear must be healed and returned to its healthy function as respect for and awe of God. When fear is functioning in a healthy way, when one fears God, then one respects the seriousness of life and the reality of the painful consequences of sin. One experiences the love of God as both a warm embrace and a good scrubbing. I wonder if the Prodigal Son, after the warm embrace of his Father and before the party, didn’t also receive a good scrubbing?

This morning as I was going to the Liturgy I had to back my car out of my driveway. I have to back out through a gate.  The driveway is wide, but my mirrors and mind are foggy in the early morning. I always experience a little fear when I back up my car. I think it is a healthy fear. I know there are spots I can't see. I know there are posts and gates and wheel barrows that I can run into. I know that God will not stop the car if I back up carelessly--I can indeed back into the gate, or even worse into someone walking down the street early in the morning. I must be careful. My fear does not freeze me, it just makes me go slowly, carefully, and prayerfully. I commit my way to the Lord and slowly, carefully back the car out of the driveway.  

This, it seems to me, is an example of how healthy fear should function. In the fear of God we serve and love Him.  We serve and love God thoughtfully, not willy-nilly as if God didn’t care, as if it didn’t matter what we did so long as we called it “serving God.” We care. We are careful with holy things, holy prayers, and holy places. We are careful with one another. I can’t treat my brothers and sisters any way I like, any way that feels loving to me at the moment. I must be careful. I have to pay attention, use wisdom, and learn to love the way God loves. Because God does love us and because we can know this love, actually experience it, we can grow and learn. Healthy fear doesn’t freeze us.  

This distinction between healthy and unhealthy fear may not be very helpful (it may not even be very accurate), but it does come close to how I understand the matter. I’m growing and changing. Perhaps in twenty years I will see more clearly, perhaps I’m still in the early morning of my relationship with God and my mind is as foggy as my mirrors.    

Christian life is a life of paradox. Love and fear live in the same heart. Heaven and hell are separated by a thin membrane, a flexible, moving membrane that is sometimes hard to see right away. And yet in all of this, God is merciful. God is loving. And God is saving us in and through and despite the messy and often painful realities we experience.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Love and Fear and Love

For even true and genuine sons, ten parts of love should be mixed with five parts of fear.”  
St. Isaac the Syrian

The world is an unequal place. Some are born, as they say, with a silver spoon in their mouths; some are born into a world of need and instability. Some are born slaves, St. Isaac says, and some are born free; some are born into circumstances conducive to the flourishing of life, some struggle with death from the beginning. The world is an unequal place.

Saints such as St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom devote a great deal of their writing and sermonizing to this matter of inequity in the world and how Christians and Christian societies are to respond to it. St. John, in several homilies, argues that God allows inequity to continue even in the Church so that the faithful can acquire virtue (Christlikeness) by giving and receiving. The poor learn thankfulness and humility while the rich learn generosity and humility, thus the body of Christ lacks no virtue as all of the virtues are manifest in its care for itself.

St. Isaac the Syrian, on the other hand, reflects on this inequity from the perspective of theoria. That is, he reflects on what happens when human beings think deeply and spiritually about the inequity they experience in the world. Men and women see that this mortal life has so much random inequity, and they are led to contemplate the judgements of God and God Himself. Death is the only constant in this variable world, and death awakens in the hearts of men and women the awareness of judgement.  However, how people think about judgement and God varies too, because of the dissimilar ways of thinking and different conditions of human hearts because of the inequity in the world.

Some are driven by despair to doubt the love of God. Others, out of the self confidence that has come over them due to their success or prosperity in some area, poison themselves with deadly sins not expecting any significant consequences, not thinking of death and thus not considering the judgement. Therefore, St. Isaac concludes, that love must be mixed with fear in our relationship with God. “For even true and genuine sons,” St. Isaac says, “ten parts of love should be mixed with five parts of fear.”

Archimandrite Sophrony, disciple of St. Silouan, says in one of his letters that one of the characteristics of Christian dogma is that it always involves a paradox. God is one and three. Christ is God and man. Death has been conquered, yet we must all pass through death. I guess if the Christian teaching about reality were self evident, we wouldn’t need dogma. 

That love and fear must be together is certainly paradoxical. It is not easy and it may not feel natural to some to experience both love and fear toward someone, toward God. Yet St. Isaac says fear is necessary lest we be poisoned by self confidence.  

Ten parts love to five parts fear. That’s St. Isaac’s formula.  Fear need never overcome us. Our experience of God’s love is twice as strong. Ten parts love. Nevertheless, for the sake of our salvation in this variable world, so that we do not become over confident or puffed up due to our occasional experiences of success or prosperity, five parts fear is also necessary. Love and fear and Love. Love and fear and Love. Love and fear and Love. Like a heart beat.  And so we come to know God and reality as it really is. And so we are saved.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Stretching Out Our Hands In Mercy

In this season of repentance, let us stretch out our hands in works of mercy; and then the ascetic struggles of the fast will bring us to eternal life. For nothing saves the soul so much as generosity to those in need, and alms giving combined with fasting will deliver a man from death. Let us do all of this with gladness, for there is no better way, and it will bring salvation to our souls. 
Thursday Apostica of the second week of the Great Fast. 

As we struggle with the weakness, busyness and distractions that always accompany Great Lent, it is easy to wonder if we are really accomplishing anything at all.  The hymns of the Church remind us that when works of mercy accompany fasting, this is actually saving our souls, delivering us from death.  Why is this?  It is because when we show mercy, we are being and becoming more like God Himself who is merciful.  

We fast to restrain ourselves.  This is the negative aspect of the Fast.  Fasting from foods (kinds of food and amount of food) is only an outward and easily controllable manifestation, sign or vanguard of the real work of self control inside us.  This inner fasting is the really hard work, but it is the work that diminishes the power of sin in our lives.  It is the work of saying no to ourselves, and thus saying no to lusts and passions, greed and manipulation of others,  it is this work that retards the growth of sin and manifest to God our desire to be completely free from sin.

However, there is also a positive aspect to the Fast.  It is alms giving, acts of mercy; here we actually become more like God.  Here is transformation, here is the Light of Tabor manifest.  Certainly some holy men and women see with their own eyes the Uncreated Light of Tabor, but acts of mercy also shine with this same Light--even if our eyes are too dull to see it.  Even the blind can show mercy.  Even the weak can participate in the Life and Light and Grace of God.  How?  Through alms giving: works of mercy.

In a dark night, a very small light shines brightly.  Those of us in the dark night of the world should not despair that our Light seems so small.  We are in a dark world: even a little light shines brightly.  Do not despair, but hope in God.  The Day is coming when all the sins we fast to deny will be taken from us.  The Day is coming when our little bitty Light will be joined to the Search Light of God's Love and Mercy and Grace.  The Day is coming when all that is hidden will come into the Light.

In the mean time, we fast.  We pray.  We show mercy and have compassion.  In the darkness we yearn toward Light and toward Love; and so we are transformed, bit by bit, into that very Light and Love we long for.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What is Essential in the Spiritual Life

The book of Genesis tells us that human beings were created in the image and after the likeness of God.  Many of the Fathers of the Church understand this to mean that “in the image” refers to that which is given to us in creation and “after the likeness” refers to our human potential to become like Christ, like God in as much as is possible in human nature.  

St. Basil says that “you come to be according to the likeness [of God] by undertaking kindness.”  He says further, “Take on yourself a heart of compassion and kindness, that you may put on Christ. For through those things by which you undertake sympathy you put on Christ, and drawing near to Him is drawing near to God.”

There is a faculty in us that St. Basil calls “good will."  This is the faculty by which we recognize and cooperate with the Grace of God through sympathy, compassion and kindness.  And it is through sympathy, compassion and kindness that we become like God, participating in the life of God, doing the works of God (doing what God is doing).

So often I forget that my spiritual life is not so much about my inner state, my relative level of tranquility or distraction.  Sure these are important matters, but not essential, at least not according to St. Basil.  What is essential is that I weep with those who weep.  What is essential is that I speak and act kindly.  What is essential is that I have compassion, suffering with those who suffer.  What is essential is good will.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Math Of The Heart

St. Isaac says that lower spiritual beings and realities cannot see higher ones: “Every thing that is above another is concealed from that which is beneath it.”  This principal applies pretty consistently across all nonphysical reality.  

Take mathematics for example.  I know there is such a thing as calculus, but calculus is only squiggles on a page to me--I barely made it through second year algebra.  The lower cannot see the higher.  Or take a virtue like loyalty.  Someone who has only known selfishness cannot see or even conceive that someone else might serve, care for or protect another for no selfish reason, for no reason other than loyalty.

In our spiritual life, humility is the central virtue not only because God Himself is the most humble, but also because we cannot see where we are going, or better, where we are growing.  “It has not yet been revealed what we shall be,” the Apostle says.  The lower things will always make more sense to us because we know them already.  To ascend to the higher things, we must be led, be taught, be enlightened.

And patience is also necessary.  Patience with ourselves, when we just don’t see it.  And faith in those who do. In a sense growth in our relationship with God is a great deal like junior high school math class--at least my experience in junior high math.  I had to have faith in my teacher, faith that the concept she was presenting did indeed make sense--if I could only just “get it.”  I had to trust and keep looking at it and following the awkward external rubrics.  The smart kids in class (like the saints) would get it first, giving me hope that indeed there was something to get--the teacher was not just tormenting us.  I would continue working the rubrics, doing by rote what I was told to do.  Again and again I would work the problems, trying not to be frustrated, paying attention, looking, working and waiting.  And then a light.  Usually not a bright one.  I would see a little.  It would make a little sense.  Then as I paid attention working more problems, connections formed, the light got brighter.  “Now I get it….”

And just about the time I got it, we were moving on to something new.  So it is in our life with God.  We are being led to a higher reality, a higher knowledge, a higher way of knowing.  The rubrics, often awkward, are the prayers and rites and traditions.  These help us, help us get it.  Or really, help us get Him, Him who has been there all along, leading us out of the darkness of a merely mechanical, physical existence, into the Light of the knowledge of God.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Troublemakers Anonymous

Even if your are not a peacemaker, at least do not be a troublemaker.

Even if you cannot eradicate evil from your heart, do not let it out of your mouth.

St. Isaac the Syrian

We are all weak and broken in various ways. Yet we do not have to let our brokenness become an excuse to sin more, to create more brokenness. We may not be able to heal a broken relationship, but we don't have to make it worse by picking at it, talking about it in disparaging ways, or by blaming, accusing and fault finding. We may not be able to stop vain or unworthy thoughts from entering our minds, but we do not have to let them out of our mouths. Telling the truth is not saying what I think (which is often merely stupidity). Honesty is saying what is true, good and beautiful, even if my mind does not grasp it fully. Speaking the truth is remaining silent when when I have nothing edifying to say. Speaking the truth is to say what is true in Christ even if that reality has not yet been manifest.

Love bears all things, believes [in spite of] all things, hopes [in God despite] all things, endures all things, St. Paul says to the Corinthians. We too, who have the young plants of love planted in our hearts, must learn to love. That is, the love in our hearts must pass into our words and actions. Or you might say that we must learn to turn the noun of love in our hearts into the verb of love in our deeds. But this is something we learn. Our hearts not only have little seedlings of love. Sin has also planted poisonous plants in the garden of our heart. The spiritual labor of prayer, holy reading and silence helps us to discern the plants in our garden. We nurture the good and turn away from the evil.  

As we make our way through the broken world, we can become precious vessels of the Holy Spirit, peacemakers, bearers of Light and doers of Good. But this does not happen automatically. We have both nourishing and poisonous plants in the garden of our hearts.  We must learn to discern, learn to be quiet, learn to "seek peace and pursue it." This often requires us beginners to speak less, and sometimes not at all. When our words stir up and agitate the situation, we should keep them to ourselves--no matter how "true" they seem to be: for only a little bit of arsenic in a lot of good soup will kill those who eat it. Peace is our guide; "Blessed are the peacemakers."  And, of course, even if we cannot make peace, as St. Isaac says, at least we can be quiet and keep from becoming trouble makers.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Where To Look For Consolation

St. Isaac the Syrian in his twenty-fifth homily warns us: "Beware of despair. You do not serve a tyrant, but your service is to a kind Lord."  

If, you may ask, we serve a kind Lord, then why is my experience in this world so despairing? We see the mess the world is in, we see the mess we have made of our own lives, we see the mess others are making of their lives. We want out of the mess. We want God to fix it, to stop the pain, to somehow make everyone be good. And there's the rub. Once God starts "making" people do anything, He becomes a tyrant.

God is not a tyrant, so we have freedom; but freedom comes with responsibility, with consequences. And these consequences are not just individual, they are cosmic. The bullets I shoot in the air in celebration fall on some else's house: the seemingly harmless sins and indulgences I allow myself have unintended but very real consequences on others. So perhaps, we wonder, maybe freedom isn't such a good thing; and thus begins the train of thought that has created ten thousand years of human tyrants. We each want freedom, but we want to limit the freedom of others. We want to celebrate as we like, but we don't want bullets falling on our houses. We want freedom, but we don't want responsibility and painful, hurtful consequences. We are stuck.

And yet, there is more to the story. The cosmos is not a closed system. Despite the suffering and stupidity and pain, there is nonetheless beauty.  There is something more, something transcendent. However, beauty does not reveal itself to us on our terms. We can only look for it and recognize it when we see it. And when we see it, we garner hope: hope because flowers grow from dung heaps, hope because even severe brutality does not extinguish the possibility of kindness, hope because persecutors, thieves, prostitutes and even religious hypocrites can repent, can change, can become new.

St. Isaac says further in homily twenty-five that we should "never seek consolation that lies outside the heart." Most of the time, this is our problem. We despair because we want God to fix everything outside our hearts. We despair because we are only looking outwardly, at what can be seen. We despair because we will not close our eyes, even for a moment, trusting our kind Lord with all that is outside so as to look for a while at what is inside, in the heart where Christ dwells. Here is where consolation is found. Here we see with the eyes of the heart that Something More, that Transcendent Reality who brings resurrection out of death, repentance out of foolishness, consolation out of pain.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Jesus said, "be careful how you hear." I think the same principle can be applied to where we look: "be careful where you look." We have to learn to look in the heart. We have to learn to trust our kind Lord with all that is outside, while we let go of our tight grip on what we see so that we can learn to look quietly into our hearts. It takes practice, and discipline, and guidance. But even now--if you are reading this--you have probably already tasted a little of the peace, of the consolation, that abides in the heart full of Christ. The pain never really goes away, not in this life (at least not so far as I know). But by entrusting what is outside into the care of our kind Lord, entrusting what we are powerless to heal or help in any but the most minimal or symbolic ways, when we entrust all this to our kind Lord, we are able to know and experience the consolation He has provided in our hearts.

And as we are consoled, we are changed. And as we are changed, our kind Lord is able to use us (often in hidden and unseen ways) as ministers of His kindness, ourselves bringing consolation to others.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Fast God Has Chosen

During Great Lent in the Holy Orthodox Church we read the Prophet Isaiah and the book of Proverbs instead of the Epistle and Gospel on weekdays. It’s a kind of fasting.  “Fast from the Gospel?” You might ask. Yes. Sometimes it is good to shift our focus a little, to look at where we have come from and to look at the dark side of our experience as Christians. In Christ, all of the promises of God are yes and amen; but the problem is that  most of us seldom and only briefly ever actualize this yes and amen while we are still in the body. The Fathers of the Church tell us that this is because we have let ourselves become crusted over, or heavily tarnished, by the cares and passions of this life.

The Grace of God shines brightly on us. This is the word of the Gospel and the Epistles. But we don’t reflect the Glory shining on us because of the tarnish we have built up through misguided attention, through misdirected care, and through slavery to various passions.  We are like children enchanted by smooth stones strewn about the muddy ground. These draw our attention downward where we muddy ourselves picking up stones only to be increasingly weighed down by them. Our attention is drawn to the cares and values of this world and we are both tarnished (muddied) in our pursuit of worldly things and weighed down (passions) by carrying them. Most of us spend our whole lives knowing that we are a mess, but not knowing what to do about it--or worse, some of us don’t even know we are a mess.

Lent is a time when we look closely at the mess we are. We look closely at the mess we have made of ourselves and of our lives so that we can begin to shift our focus, to shift our focus from the muddy ground and its smooth but heavy stones, to the heavens and its shining stars. This is called repentance. Repentance begins and ends with the calling on God for help, for mercy. “Lord have mercy!” is the constant cry of the lenten services. But what is the content of this prayer? For what exactly are we asking God's mercy? The Lenten readings and services help us identify what exactly we are asking mercy for.  

For example, in reading Isaiah we accept as our own the condemnation of the false religion of the hypocritical Israelites: “What is the multitude of your sacrifices to me”? God asks us.  Much more important than Orthodox liturgical rites is that we wash ourselves, putting away evil and learning to do good to those who are weak or oppressed: the orphan and widow. In fact, this is exactly what the rites of the Church teach us; but we are fooling ourselves if we perform the rites exactly and fail to love our neighbor, if we fast from food and feast on envy, if we say long prayers in Church and entertain lustful or violent thoughts at home. Isaiah shows us exactly the mess we have become so that with fervor we can pray: Lord have mercy!

Asking for mercy, we long to be free from our passions, to find a way out of the mess we have made of our lives. How do we get free from this mess?  How do we find salvation?  We find salvation first of all by wanting to be saved, by wanting to be free of the heavy rocks we have been carrying (the worries and passions of this life), by wanting so badly to be free from worldly cares that we are willing to let go of them--at least for a little while so that we can give our focus to God. That’s one of the reasons why the Church offers so many services during Lent: to provide us with little spaces in which we can for an hour or two lay aside all worldly cares.  

We find salvation by trusting in God, by trusting that God cares for us and our loved ones much more and better than we are able to. This is called faith. By faith we believe that God will care for what we entrust to Him. By faith we call on the Name of Jesus, knowing that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom. By faith we relax a little the tight grip we have on everything and everyone around us; and to our great joy, in return for letting go a little, we experience a little peace.

And we find salvation through fasting, but it’s not the fasting from foods that is most important. What is important is that we fast from desires, fast from envy, fast from self-absorption, fast from anxieties, fast from all that revolves around me, myself and I. In fact, food is really only the symbol or sign of fasting. The real fast, to quote Isaiah, is to 
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil
learn to do good
seek judgement
relieve the oppressed
defend the orphan
plead for the widow

Monday, March 18, 2013

Returning To Paradise

Today is called Clean Monday in the Orthodox Church; it is the first day of Great Lent. Yesterday, the Sunday before Great Lent begins, is called Forgiveness Sunday and commemorates the expulsion of Adam from Paradise.  It may seem strange to some to call the Sunday that commemorates the expulsion of Adam from Paradise "Forgiveness Sunday," but it actually makes perfect sense.  What does forgiveness mean if one does not first understand the need for forgiveness?  The Church teaches us not to look at Adam so much as a historical person, but as every person, or more specifically, as ourself.  That is, every man and woman is Adam.  Every man and woman is deceived and driven away from Paradise, not the Paradise of a specific garden somewhere in Central Asia; but rather, every man and woman is personally alienated from the kind of relationship with God that would make all of the world--existence itself--a Paradise.  

The first three hymns of Vespers for Forgiveness Sunday all assume that the singer and/or hearer is Adam: 

Verily, the Lord, my Creator, took dust from the earth and with life-giving breath gave me a soul and revived me, honoring me and setting me in the earth as chief of all things visible, to live like the angels. But deceiving Satan, using the serpent as an instrument, deceived me through eating, and separated me from the glory of God, delivering me by nether death to the earth. But since You are Lord and compassionate, recall me.

Lord, when I disobeyed Your divine command at the counsel of the adversary, I, wretched one, was stripped of my God-woven robe. And now I have put on the mantle of skin and fig-leaves, and have been condemned to eat in sweat the bread of hardship. The earth was cursed to bring forth thorns and husks for me. Albeit, O You who in the last days was incarnate from the Virgin, recall me and make me to enter the paradise of bliss.

O most-honoured Paradise, comeliness transcendent in splendour, the dwelling-place perfected by God, unending joy and enjoyment, the glory of the righteous, the joy of the Prophets, and the dwelling-place of the saints, beseech the Creator of all, by the tune of the rustling of Your leaves, to open for me the gates which I closed by sin, and that I be worthy to partake of the Tree of Life and joy, which I enjoyed in You of old. 

The Tree of Life that we partake of in Joy is Christ Himself in the Holy Eucharist.  Paradise has been opened again.  The struggle of Great Lent is to learn to return to Paradise, to learn to return to that relationship with God that turns all of the world into Paradise.  

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Change That Changes

I'm on my way home. Now I am being carried by a five gallon bucket of peace. Nothing has changed, and everything has changed. How is that? I change and everything changes. It is not merely that my perception has changed, for the heart of a person connects to everything. The change in me does indeed influence, even changes in some ways, the reality I encounter.

It is hard for us worldlings to accept this. We are so conditioned to work from the outside that we cannot conceive the possibility that change is also wrought from the inside, silently, through the heart. Since all matter is both created and held together by the Word of God, it is theologically self evident that the heart (or nous), the organ that perceives spiritual reality, would also be the primary organ through which we influence all reality that at heart is spiritual--well "self evident" may be too strong of an expression for someone like me who has spent more than fifty years stumbling down theological dead ends.

Working on ourselves really is work to better society, to help those who are hurting, confused, and wandering aimlessly. The paradox is that we have to let go of them, let go of those we love, those people and problems that consume so much of our mental and emotional energy. We have to let go--entrusting them into God's care--so that we can pay attention for a while on ourselves, so that we can heal ourselves.

You would think that we would get it, that we would get that what we are doing is not working, that our words are only hardening, they are having no effect, that often they are having a worsening effect. But if we can change ourselves, if we can work through the heart, from heart to heart, silently and with love; then really anything is possible.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Overcoming The World

"In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world."

It is easy sitting here peacefully at the monastery to imagine that the "world" Jesus is talking about is something "out there." I might imagine that the world refers to the people and systems and structures outside the monastery, outside the Church. But Father Abbot is quick to remind me that the world in which we have tribulation and that Christ overcomes is not "out there," but within ourselves.

Certainly people and systems and structures "out there" are to a great degree controlled by the world; but in as much as I allow myself to be caught up in worldly ways of thinking and being and doing, I too am the world. This worldliness in myself is the world that Christ must overcome--in fact it is the only worldliness that I have any real influence over.

There is a sort of schizophrenia in the Christian experience. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus was referring to when he said, "If you were of the world, the world would love you...but because you are not of the world, the world hates you." Strong feelings accompanied by compelling thoughts convince me that I am indeed depressed or lustful or rightly angry or passionate in any of the hundreds of ways human beings are worldly. Yet at the same time another reality is knocking at the door. Christ in me does not deny the fact of these worldly feelings, thoughts and passions; but Christ in me is calling me to look to Him. And in looking to Christ, somehow Christ begins to overcome the world that has such a strong hold on me.

Christ overcomes the world. I do not overcome the world by figuring it out or somehow gaining mastery over my inner life. Truly, all I can do is to turn my inner gaze from the driving, tearing and often screeching world within me to Christ. Christ overcomes the world within me. And as I gaze at Christ, as I remember or attend to the peaceful place within myself, the place where Christ dwells, as I do this, I myself am changed. What I do begins to change. How I respond to those around me begins to change. Even in the world, even "out there," where I am stuck in systems and structures that are inherently broken, still Christ is overcoming the world in me and thus through me.

I am no crusader. Perhaps because of calling or personality or maybe just hard experience, I do not expect that I will influence much the twisted, hurt and hurting systems and structures I must negotiate to survive in the world out there as it is. Nevertheless, I can be a round peg in a square hole, never quite fitting, never feeling at home in the world. I can march to the beat of a different drummer, even if that beat, that Christ-like beat I long to march to is sometimes faint within me, sometimes almost drowned out by the worldly beat, the passions screaming so loudly within me.

Attention is key. If I can attend to Christ, if I can remember the melody, or even just snatches of it when the loud tunes of the world play in my head; then it is possible. It is possible that within me the world will be overcome, that peace will reign, and that perhaps in the space of this one human heart the Kingdom of Heaven will be manifest; and as it is manifested, it will radiate out from that one heart and shine on the all that is "out there."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Universe Prays

As we were chanting the praises this morning (Psalms 148-150), it seemed to me that the whole creation was indeed praising God through these simple men. Fr. Stephen Freeman in his Ancient Faith Radio podcasts often comments that the will and voice of the universe is the human being, for human beings are nothing more than the matter of creation (dust), animated and fused with God's Spirit (breath). When human beings praise God, the whole creation is praising God in and through them. When human beings sin, the whole of creation participates in the degradation.

Yet here in the hills, in a simple, rough timber house, live three men who live for nothing else but to rise early and praise God. While we are all sleeping, they rise and begin to pray. Rising at 2:00, they wash and dress and get the fire going in the basement. Then at 3:00 they begin to recite the Jesus Prayer alone in their cells. At 4:00 matins begins, lasting to 5:30 or 6:00. Then back to their cells for spiritual reading and their personal prayer rule (I always use this time to nap, except today when I am writing this note). At 7:30 they begin one hour of Bible reading together, with occasional comments by the Abbot.

Why do they do it? It's not like they get paid to pray--like a priest in a parish who receives a salary. These brothers pray from the wee hours until daylight, and then they work to support themselves. As a hermitage, they do not generally receive visitors, so they do not receive many donations. They sew most of their own clothes, they make candles to pay the bills and buy the few grains and other food stuff that they cannot grow. They work like bees all day. Then at 5:00, they pray vespers, followed by dinner at 6:00--their one meal--usually vegan.

And here's the thing: they're happy. They're at peace. They really love each other in purity, sincerity and with self sacrifice. And no one in the world knows. The world sleeps. The world sleeps and struggles through a nightmare. Those in the world sacrifice their own integrity to gain wealth that slips through their fingers, to satisfy animal cravings and burning desires that never seem to be satisfied. They get and get, but it is never enough. They medicate themselves to hide from the pain. This is the sleep of the world.

Father Abbot was saying to me yesterday that the married life is the sacramental life, God's original plan; and that monastic life is for the odd balls, for the ones who don't fit, who can do nothing else but offer their lives in prayer. But when I rise early with these odd balls and join in their prayer, I get the distinct feeling that they are the ones holding the universe together, they are the ones who make it possible for mommies and daddies to love their children and each other with something approaching Christ-like love.

Men and women in the woods and in the desserts, the odd balls who pray, the ones who have nothing else to offer God but their lives in prayer--these are the ones who, I think, sustain the universe, through whom the universe praises God.

May God have mercy on us who live in the world, married and single, who sleep while others pray. May we be humbled by the offering of others, and each learn in our own ways and in our own stations in life also to offer our lives to God. That in some small way the universe would praise God through us too.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Wrath of God, Revisited

Arise, O Lord my God in the decree which You have commanded, and the assembly of the peoples will surround You; over it take Your seat on high.
The Lord shall judge the people; give me justice, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous, You who sound the depths of hearts and reins, O righteous God.
My righteous help is from God who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge, strong and patient, who does not make his wrath felt every day.
If you will not repent, God will whet His sword; He has bent His bow and made it ready
On it He has fitted instruments of death; He has fashioned His arrows for those who rage.
Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and brings forth lies.
He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends.
I will give tho the Lord the thanks due to His righteousness and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.
Psalm 7: 6b to end [monastery translation]

One of the matters weighing on my heart when I came to the monastery was my inability to help my Protestant friends understand what the wrath of God is and isn't. From an Orthodox perspective, God does not get angry. Of course when I say that, my Protestant friends immediately quote verses like those found in Psalm 7 above. The only compromise I have been able to find is that they will agree that God is not angry in the same way that fallen human beings are angry.

However, it dawned on me this morning that perhaps part of the confusion lies in the different ways that Orthodox and Protestant Christians have traditionally read the Bible, especially the Psalms. The Orthodox read the Psalter as a continuous prayer. They read it out loud in large sections, reading through the entire Psalter every week (and twice a week in Lent, in the traditional pattern). They read it as a sort of narrative of the soul, as actual conversation and communion with God. Protestants, on the other hand, have the tendency to read the Bible as a source of proof texts, a source of information about God to be understood and fit together like a puzzle, and sometimes even as a source of promises to be claimed. This is a huge over generalization, I know. Nevertheless, as historic tendencies, or emphases, I think my generalization is close.

This is, at least, what I experienced when I spoke to my Protestant friends last week. When I suggested that the wrath of God had nothing to do with God venting His anger, their response was to quote individual verses, as though that should have ended the discussion--unless I could respond with counter verses. But generally speaking, Orthodox Christians do not read the Bible as a collection of verses to be quoted to make theological points. Consequently, I could not engage my friends in any useful way because to attempt to challenge verse with verse would have been a kind of betrayal for me.

In this essay, I would like to take a look at Psalm 7 as the Orthodox Church encounters it as prayer--or at least as I have come to encounter it in the Church as prayer. My hope is that those who have come to understand God as angry, wrathful and even vindictive, will come to see that there is another reading of the Bible that is, I believe, more faithful to the God we have come to know in prayer. This is a reading that is traditionally Orthodox and consistent with the God we know in Jesus Christ through the Gospels.

The section I quote above begins with a resurrectional verse that is quoted in the Pascal Liturgy: Arise, O Lord my God in the decree which you have commanded, and the assembly of the peoples with surround you. From the Resurrection we move to the Ascension: Over it [the assembly] take your seat on high. Then God reveals the Judgement: The Lord shall judge the people. Judgement is the theme of the next several verses. These verses are understood eschatologically. That is, they are understood as referring to the Kingdom of God that is already and not yet; the Kingdom that will come and that we already begin to encounter.

We, with the psalmist, pray that God will judge us according to our righteousness and integrity--a righteousness that both is ours in Christ and is becoming ours in Christ--becoming ours as we cooperate with the Grace of God through repentance. We pray that the evil of the wicked will come to an end. Notice that it is not the wicked as people who must pass away, but the evil of the wicked people. And only God Himself can judge this, who sounds the depths of hearts and reins. Further, this Judgement comes out from God who is able (righteous and Strong), and who is also patient and does not make His wrath felt every day (Septuagint reading). This not making His wrath felt is then explained: If you do not repent.... Already God could allow His Wrath to be felt, but He is giving humanity time to repent--in fact, that is a large part of what time is: a reality in which change is possible. God has prepared all of the instruments of death (His sword, His bow). Yet God is waiting.

What, then, is this wrath resulting in death? Is it God finally losing control of His anger, a passionate anger like fallen human anger, and finally lashing out and killing all who offend Him? No, the next verses explain.

Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and brings forth lies. What the wicked man experiences is the fruit of what he himself has conceived. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made. Man creates his own hell. The pit of hell he falls into is the very pit he spent his life digging for himself. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends. The wrath, death in all of its forms, that falls on the head of man is the direct result of his own mischief. His violence is the recompense that descends on him.

This verse reminds me of the words of Lanza del Vasto, a Roman Catholic philosopher of the 20th century, who said something like this: If you throw rocks in the air, do not blame God for casting stones on your head. Yes, I could say that the stone that falls on my head is the wrath of God--for God created a universe in which rocks thrown in the air fall back down--but the direct cause of this wrath of God is not God, but my own stupidity. And more than this, in as much as I share in a common humanity, I also share in the common consequence of human sin. The particular suffering and death I experience is not necessary the result of my particular sins (my particular rocks thrown in the air), but may be the rocks of my ancestors and neighbours--as if some rocks like meteors in descending orbit gather together and fall in showers for no apparent reason.

The last verse of the Psalm offers God thanks for His righteousness. And this is what we give thanks for: even in judgement, God is righteous. God has so structured the universe that humanity reaps what it sows. God knows the heart; God even withholds the consequences of sin, what we call His wrath. God withholds His wrath out of love. God gives us time to repent, to turn to Him and be radiant so that our faces will not be ashamed, as it says in another Psalm. God shines on those who turn to Him, and this radiance is experienced as Glory. But God's light cannot be hid, and those who cling to empty vanity experience that same radiance as torment, as wrath, because the empty things that they have loved are shown to be just that: empty.

Monday, March 11, 2013

I'm off to spend four nights at the Hermitage. I had planned to take the bus and train, but the Brothers needed me to pick up five gallons of tahini. Really. Five gallons of tahini weighs about 40 pounds. With my own bag and a bag of candle stubs and misc. other things for the brothers (cheese for cheesefare week), I decided to have Bonnie drop me off at the ferry.

Going to the Hermitage has become a habit for me. I think I average about three retreats a year. It is always very peaceful, and the little talks are edifying. I seldom have a profound mystical experience. I experience joy and love and quiet. About the time for me to go home, the quiet starts to seep into my brian. Bonnie says that I always come home happy. The profound part (at least as far as I can perceive it) isn't so much what happens at the hermitage; the profundity grows gradually in me as I think about the conversations and thoughts I had. How I see, what I see, slowly changes.

I don't have an agenda for this trip, though I do travel with a heavy heart. There is so much hurting, so much alienation that I don't know how to heal. So I carry it to the Hermitage with me. It's heavier than a five gallon bucket of tahini.

May God hear all of our prayers and speak peace and love into all of our hearts.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

What Is Worship?

I was invited to speak to a class of  Charismatic/Pentecostal Protestants last night on Orthodox Spirituality. The talk went extremely well, for the most part, but we got stuck toward the end on the definition of worship.  The word itself became a problem in our conversation because what I meant by the word and what they meant were not the same.

What they meant by worship was much along the lines of what the Orthodox Tradition might call attention.  That is, what they described as worship was an awareness of the nearness of God and the ability to seemingly talk to God directly and hear from God in their hearts.  This experience for them happens most often while singing "worship" songs or dancing to these songs in Church.  I responded that while attending to the presence of God in one's heart is very important, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, that is not worship.

In Orthodox Christianity, worship refers to the offering to God ourselves, each other and our whole lives through specific prayers and rites that have been handed down to us as the worship of the Church.  We don't choose worship, we are given the worship that we return to God.  This is like the Old Testament worship.  Not anybody and not in any way could one worship God under the Old Covenant--in fact, several people experienced some pretty harsh consequences for not respecting the Tradition of worship that had been handed down to them.  Sure, David danced before the Ark of God and sang songs that he created to God in the mountains with the sheep.  But that was not worship.  That was dancing and singing before God--which in some contexts can be a very good thing.  But this should not be confused with worship.

Worship is a liturgical act of the people of God.  It does not belong to anyone, for it is of the whole Church.  It is what God has given us to manifest the giving of our lives to Him and at the same time to receive His Life in return.  It is a manifestation in time and space of the eternal heavenly worship of God.  How I feel about it or whether or not it makes me feel near to God on any given day is irrelevant.  It is what God has given us to make spiritual realities manifest in as much as it is possible in time and space.

Although how I feel about the Liturgy of the Church does not influence the Liturgy of the Church, how I feel about it does influence me.  One has to learn to attend to the presence of God in one's heart during the divine services, especially the Divine Liturgy.  The Liturgy helps us learn to attend to the nearness of God.  And having learned to attend to the nearness of God in the worship God has given us, we can more easily attend to God's nearness in all of our life.  In this sense, our whole life can become worship.

So why then shouldn't we call the singing of and dancing to songs about Jesus worship?  From an Orthodox Christian perspective, one of the biggest problems with this is the feelings or passions aroused by emotional songs.  Even if God is indeed speaking to someone in their heart while he or she sings and dances, the singing and dancing itself appeals to the emotions.  Consequently, what one is experiencing as the presence of God is most probably a mixture of all sorts of thoughts, images, emotions, feelings, urges, dreams and imaginings.  I can grant that God may indeed be present, but discerning what is God from what are my own good feelings and imaginings is very difficult.  The discernment becomes even more difficult when I attempt it in the midst of emotionally stirring songs.  This is one of the reasons why the Orthodox Tradition has shied away from music and art that stirs the emotions.

This matter of discerning our thoughts, what many Church Fathers have called spiritual warfare, is a struggle for all Christians--Orthodox or heterodox.  What I was trying to get across to my audience last night (with little success I'm afraid) was that the singing of and dancing to emotionally stirring songs about Jesus makes this work of discernment almost impossible.  This is especially true when the songs change regularly and the theology of the songs is less important than how the songs make people feel when they sing them.  In Orthodox Christian worship, we know where the words of our Liturgy come from, even if a lifetime is not enough time to fully understand them.  We do not create our worship; we receive it and it forms us.  We don't change the worship to be relevant to us.  The worship changes us to become more like Christ.

It's a huge jump from emotionally stirring "worship" songs to the Divine Liturgy,  the worship of the Church for two thousand years.  I encouraged my audience last night to experience Orthodox worship--not just once, but six or seven services in a row.  It has to wash over you.  It has to soak into you before you start to get it.  True, some people get it right away; but many seem to require a soaking.  Six or seven Liturgies seem about right.  Then when they return to whatever they were doing before, they recognize the difference immediately.

Worship is work.  It takes time and practice to learn to attend to the Presence of God, to discern God from all of the other noise inside us.  However, by learning to attend to the Presence of God in the Liturgy, one becomes more and more able to attend to the Presence of God in all of life.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Saying 'No' With Compassion

Anonymous asked: Father, could you speak a bit more about HOW to be compassionate without enabling like you said? Are we not also called to correct our brethren in love as well? Where is this balance and where is the line between a loving and prideful correction?

The first question reminds me of a word from Elder Sophrony: "Usually people prefer to focus on the outward events, while the history of each and all depends on their inner predisposition." Compassion is an inner disposition.  Compassion means to feel the suffering of and with the other. Compassion is not a matter of technique. It is about actual inner longing and pain.  

I sure many of us have had the experience of hearing someone say something along the lines of "I'm doing this for your own good" or "because I love you," but you were nonetheless pretty sure that the words were merely to assuage the conscience of the one who spoke them. Then, I suppose, many of us have had the very different experience, an experience in which someone had to do or say something that was painful for us, yet we knew somehow (or came to know after a little reflection) that it was also very painful for the other. Words may or may not have been spoken, but they were not necessary, for compassion is seldom communicated in words, especially words that draw attention to itself.  

When we say 'no' to someone, when we set boundaries and allow painful consequences to take their course in the lives of others--even if we have the ability to mitigate some of those consequences--we may indeed be doing the most loving thing. After all, God the Father and Lover of all allows us to reap much of the trouble we sow. The "outward events," to go back to the quote above, have much less to do with the ultimate redemptive potential of any situation than does the inner disposition. And here it is essential to realize that I am not speaking merely of the inner disposition of the one who is suffering most. We are not marbles, bouncing randomly into one another according to newtonian laws (or any spiritual or moral laws for that matter). We are made in the image of God, human persons whose inner dispositions penetrate one another. The internal life of each one of us penetrates and influences all those around us.

Consequently, genuine love and compassion is felt by the other--it has its profound effect--even though it does not enable, even though it respects healthy limits and personal choice. For example in the Parable of the Lost Sons, the Father despite his intense love and compassion, does not run after the Prodigal Son. The Father waits, the Father respects the choice, the apparently necessary journey of the younger son. The Father suffers internally for his lost son, yet he does not run after him. He does not try to fix it. He waits. He waits until the Son begins to turn. But this waiting with compassion is NOT "doing nothing." This waiting with compassion penetrates the Son, even as the Son is miles away living a life of complete rejection of the Father. Nonetheless, we are not marbles. We penetrate each other; we especially penetrate those we love.  

When the Son comes to his senses, what does he remember? He remembers his Father's house. And he not only remembers this, but he knows that his Father will receive him back. How does he know this? He knows this because of his Father's compassion, his Father's inner disposition of loving co-suffering that has penetrated his own mind and heart. The son knows that if he returns, his Father will receive him (the part about being a hired servant both makes it easier on himself and manifests the humility, the change, that has been worked in the son through suffering). The son knows this because it is true, because distance and circumstance are no barrier to the actual love and co-suffering of the Father. As soon as the Father sees the returning son, the Father runs to him and rejoicing gives him the signs of their reconciled relationship.

Similarly, in our relationships with our prodigal loved ones, we too must respect choice, respect the journey of the other. And yes, part of that respecting is not to enable, not to run after the prodigal as he is running away from us, not to focus on fixing the outer appearance in order to avoid the pain of the inner reality. However, like the Father, letting go does not mean any diminution of love, rather it means an increase of pain, of co-suffering. And it is this god-like suffering that makes all of the difference. It is our genuine compassion that penetrates the hearts of our loved ones, despite distance or offense, or the burnt bridges of past mistakes. Like the Father, our genuine co-suffering love penetrates the heart of our beloved even as outwardly we must say 'no' or enforce necessary boundaries.

I think I will look at the next two questions later. 

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Parable of the Lost Sons

I have often thought that the parable of the Prodigal Son is inappropriately named. I think a more appropriate name for the parable is the parable of the Lost Sons.

It seems to me that both sons are lost in their own ways. The lostness of the younger son, the prodigal, is evident. He moves away from the Father. He leads a debauched life. The lostness of the older son is only made evident later. He leads the externally good life. His lostness consists not in leaving and losing possessions, but in his disdain for his brother.

The parable of the Lost Sons is actually the third parable in a set of parables Jesus told to the Scribes and Pharisees because they objected to Jesus' eating with those whom they disdained: tax collectors and sinners. Jesus tells them first the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one, and the parable of the widow who searches for the lost coin. These two parables emphasize the longing of the shepherd and the widow, and the lengths to which they will go to find what is lost, and the joy they experience upon finding it. Similarly, in the third parable, of the Lost Sons, we see the Father and the Prodigal and the joy of finding what was lost, but another element is now added. The additional element is the older brother, who does not partake in the joy. This Older Brother corresponds to the religious professionals, the Scribes and the Pharisees, who separate themselves and find no joy in the repentance of the fallen brother.  

What makes religious people, of whom I am chief, so inclined to the sort of lostness we see in the Older Brother? One factor may be the tendency to focus on performance and possessions. Shortly after I converted to Orthodoxy, one of my best friends, who was ordained deacon with me, went off the deep end. I don't know what snapped, but he left his wife and four young children and began leading a prodigal life and abusing prescription drugs.  I was so angry with him. I wanted to beat him up and yell at him and tell him to grow up. When the bishop met with the clergy to discuss what to do about the situation, I told him that I was very angry with this deacon. Immediately the bishop flared up and forcefully rebuked me: "You have no right to be angry.  Mercy, we pray only for mercy. Put away your anger." I was shocked. My anger had blinded me. Suddenly I realized that I only saw the terrible performance, the wasted life, and the failure. I didn't see the brokenness and the confusion. I didn't see the lostness.  Instead of letting my heart be broken, I hardened my heart with anger.

Because of my anger, I couldn't feel compassion. In the parable, as soon as the Father sees the returning Prodigal, it says that "he felt compassion." Compassion means 'to suffer with.'  Because the Father suffered with the Son, he could rejoice at his return. The Older Brother in his anger and hardness of heart could feel no compassion. He did not suffer with his lost Brother, so he could not rejoice at his return. It seems to me that there is a correlation between suffering and rejoicing. As Jesus said of the woman who washed His feet with her tears that she loved much because she was forgiven much, I think people who rejoice most are those who have most suffered. And those with compassion, those who suffer with those who suffer, rejoice much with them. But the Older Brother felt no compassion. He saw no suffering. He saw only waste.

The Older Brother was consequently envious also. I spoke with a cradle Orthodox man recently who told me how amazed he is at how zealous and knowledgable converts to Orthodoxy often are. "They go early to services, fast and pray diligently and read lots of books--it is as though the hard work of living an Orthodox life is a joy to them. Why is that?" he wondered. I suggested that it is because many converts went through years and years of wandering through spiritual deserts searching for the water they have found in Holy Orthodoxy. Many also paid a high price in the loss of family, friends and sometimes even comfortable jobs in order to convert to Holy Orthodoxy. These who have suffered much, love much. They would have been happy to be "one of the hired servants" in the house of Holy Orthodoxy, to "eat from the crumbs that fall from the table." Yet that they are received as sons and daughters is delight beyond their dreams, privilege to be savoured, and cause for eternal thankfulness. My cradle Orthodox friend got it, but unfortunately sometimes, as in the parable, the Older Brother doesn't.

The Older Brother had everything: "All that I possess is yours" the Father tells him; yet he enjoys none of it. It is only a labour, an obedience, a discipline to be good and to conform to expectations. He has lost sight of the end. The family does not exist to tend the ranch, the ranch exist to sustain the family. If he disdains his brother, then the ranch loses its meaning, its purpose. In the same way, spiritual labours and disciplines exist for a purpose. We strive to become holy so that we can better love God and neighbor. If we disdain our neighbor, then religious striving loses all meaning. Like the Older Brother, although we possess everything, we end up enjoying nothing. We hear the dancing and merry making of the Great Feast, and we stay away. We refuse to enter even Heaven itself because this one or that one who had disappointed or offended us is there. We sit outside and feel sorry for ourselves, complaining that the Father was not good enough to us.

It seems to me that compassion is key. Just as I had no understanding of what went wrong in the head of my friend and fellow deacon, so we often see those we love and care about make foolish, foolish choices. We watch helplessly as those we love self destruct, as they attack all who try to help them. We don't know what went wrong. Sometimes the pain--perhaps from self blame--is so great that we are tempted either to despair or to hardness of heart. There is, however, a third option: compassion, to suffer with. We suffer with not by co-dependency. Suffering with does not imply enabling. We suffer with by not hiding from the pain in our hearts, but rather by offering that pain to God in fervent prayer. God is the only one who saves.

My attitude changed almost immediately toward my deacon friend. In tears I carried his pain and the pain of his family in prayer. For about a year or longer this unbearable situation continued. He even stopped by my house once toward the end, when it looked like he might even pull out of it, to thank me for being publicly supportive of him and his family. He soon found a wise and compassionate priest and was able to make his confession and even receive the Holy Mysteries. Three days later he was found dead of an apparently accidental overdose of the prescription drug he had been abusing.  

Why there are Prodigals, I don't know. But I do know that those who do not wander, those who stay close to home, these are called not to condemn, but to suffer with their wandering brothers. Perhaps if we can learn how to bear the pain of our lost brothers in our hearts before God now, then we can all dance together at the Heavenly Party when the Father receives back home all His lost sons.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Turning East

I'd like to recommend to anyone who is of a philosophical bent a new book published by St. Vladimir Seminary Press entitled Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith. It is a collection of 16 essays written by 16 different--really different--contemporary philosophers who have become Orthodox Christians as adults.

Each essay shares with the reader personal and philosophical factors that influenced each particular philosopher's journey to the Ancient Christian Faith. The stories vary wildly. Atheists, doubters, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists and Buddhists. Philosophers from all sorts of religious and personal backgrounds who have found their way into the Holy Orthodox Church. However, as diverse as their personal backgrounds are, their philosophical perspectives are even more diverse.

I have to admit, this is what most surprised me. I had expected to find an obvious philosophical commonality among these converts. I expected to find reoccurring themes, a well tread philosophical path. But this is not what I found. I'd like to list here some of the different philosophical schools of thought the various authors adhere to, but I had better not. I've actually never had a class in philosophy, and I'm afraid that I would really botch it up if I tried to match the authors with the actual names of their schools of philosophy. I'm no philosopher, just a curious onlooker.

It is probably somewhat of a backhanded complement that an armchair philosopher like me would recommend this book. I'm sure real philosophers will enjoy it even more than I did--if they are willing to ride along with some philosophers whose assumptions and perspectives they may philosophically reject. My advantage here is that I am sufficiently ignorant to be in awe of all of them. I have just enough understanding to follow the gist of each story--even if I'm not sure about some of the words--but I am blissfully ignorant enough not to have an opinion of my own. Each philosopher's reasoning seems convincing to me.

If there is a unifying theme among the essays, it is not philosophical. It's experiential. In most of the essays, the philosopher recounts some significant experience(s) with mystical reality that is crucial in his or her journey. These encounters make all of the difference.

Reading these essays, I have thought a great deal about the twelve Apostles. Each Apostle is so different. Peter is brash and confident. Andrew, the quiet leader. Thomas, the dour doubter. John, the gentle mystic. Philip, the practical one. All of the Apostles encountered Jesus, and that's what made the difference. How Jesus spoke to each one, and more importantly, how each one heard Jesus, is different.  Words do not have just one meaning (which, I realize, is a specific philosophical position--even if I don't know what it is called). Jesus speaks, and each hears as he or she is able, as he or she is willing. Some, at least one of the Twelve, don't hear at all.  

Each journey to Christ is different, as different and unique as is each person. The encounter with Christ, however, is essential. At some point, we each must in some small way touch the mystical, spiritual reality of things. Some of us are pretty dull. Some of us need a sledge hammer-like encounter. For others, a gentle wind is sufficient. We each may have different reasons, different ways of talking about it; but at the end of the day, Orthodox theology is not about words or concepts or reasonings. Orthodox theology is encounter with God. Orthodox theology is experience, experience that may or may not submit to conceptualization (or even allegorization), may or may not be put into words, may or may not fit into this or that or any philosophical framework.  

The stories and reasonings of these 16 philosophers are worth reading not only for the challenging mental exercise each puts the reader through, but also for the sheer joy of seeing how the Holy Spirit calls and leads 16 very different and very smart people to Christ in the Holy Orthodox Church.