Thursday, April 30, 2015

I Am Naked, Clothe Me

Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra Monastery, in the first half of a transcribed (and then translated) speech called “The Progression of the Soul” speaks of stages to the beginning of the spiritual journey.  The beginning point for him is found in rightly negotiating the second stage.  

The first stage of the spiritual journey he calls the feeling of exile, the feeling that we are far from God, that there is a wall between us.  This feeling of exile is the feeling of Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise.  It is the feeling of pain, not necessarily physical pain; in fact, physical pain is not at all what he is speaking about.  The pain he is speaking of is the pain of longing, the pain that induced Adam and Eve to listen to the serpent.  Being lords of the universe, possessing everything, Adam and Eve came to feel they didn’t have enough, that somehow God was holding out on them.  Being very rich, they thought themselves poor and thus were easily deceived by the serpent.  This is the pain Archimandrite Aimilianos seems to be speaking of, the painful feeling that something very important is missing.

And of course, something very important is indeed missing.  We are children of the fall.  We are born in pain and raised among thorns and thistles.  Everywhere we turn we are poked and prodded by needles of want, envy, fear, and desire (just to name a few).  Yet we don’t want to admit it.  We want to explain it, explain it away.  We say, "It is someone else’s fault.  I’m not really that twisted, at least not as badly mangled as some others.  And besides, I could change if I really wanted to, if I only tried harder, if I only got a break."  And so we keep busy.  We keep busy so that our focus can stay outside us, so we don’t have to feel the pain, the inner pain, the pain of exile from God, the pain that Archimandrite Aimilianos says is directly related to nakedness.

The pain that we do not want to feel is the pain of our nakedness.  Having been clothed by God in the Garden of Paradise, clothed with God’s glory the Fathers and hymns of the Church teach us, having been clothed with God’s glory we intensely feel its absence, we feel exposed and unprotected, we feel the cold wind of our existential contingency: having been called into being from the dirt by God,  what are we now that we have lost His glory?  St. Augustine spoke of a God-shaped hole in our hearts.  The experience of the orphan or of a lost sheep are metaphors pointing to this inner feeling of exile, of pain, and of nakedness.  It is this very feeling, the feeling of this pain, this knowing that we are naked, that Archimandrite Aimilianos says the first stage of the spiritual journey.

The second stage of the spiritual journey, according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, comes when we confess that we are sinners, when we know intensely that something is separating us from God, when we no longer deny our nakedness.  This, he says, is the most critical point 

because at that point one of two things will happen: either I’ll get up and get dressed or I’ll remain naked.  In other words, I’ll either present myself to God in my nakedness and say, ‘I have sinned,’ or I’ll try to hide from God like Adam and Eve.  And when God says: ‘Adam where are you?’ I’ll say: ‘Hiding because I am naked.’  And when I emerge from my hiding place, He’ll see my fig leaves.
Then Archimandrite Aimilianos asks why this is.  Why do we hide ourselves?  Why is it so hard for us to present ourselves naked and sinful before God?  The simple reason, he says, is “that it is a terrible thing for us to realize that we are nothing”:
Do you know what it means to go from thinking that you’re special and important, from being respected publicly, from thinking  that you’ve done great things, from being talented, wonderful, good-looking, charming and I don’t know what else besides, to recognizing that, on the contrary, you’re naked and of no consequence whatsoever?  It requires strength to accept that, a lot of strength.  And yet we can’t even accept the slightest blemish that we might have, or any fault, failure, error or sin that we may have committed, without covering it up with a lie, and then  cover up that lie with a second one, and then the second with a third.
A person may conceal his or her nakedness by means of an inferiority complex, by acts of aggression, by self-justification, by donning various masks, or by many other means…. Such strategies of denial also involve concealment from myself.  What does that mean?  It means that, even though I’m naked, I’ll live as though I were not, and thus live a double life.  Or I may refuse to grow and progress, as though I weren’t naked at all.  And this is something much more terrible, for it is the rejection of reality, and such a rejection can only have tragic consequences for me.  
Life is full of people like that  They know they’re sinners, they know they’re naked, and yet they go through life doing the very things which they hate, which disgust them, which they know are beneath them.  And they know that they must somehow silence the terrible cry of their conscience, which torments them.  
The soul’s alternative is to accept its situation and say: ‘I’ll do something about my nakedness.  I will declare my sin.  I will confess my sin and my nakedness.’  And naked though I be, I will nevertheless present myself to God. I’ll tell Him: ‘You clothe me.’  And that takes great strength.  To turn to God as if nothing else in the world exists requires tremendous honesty and authenticity.  

This is the crucial point: will I accept the painful reality of my nakedness or prefer my version of the lie, my version of the fig leaf?  I think many of us are confused about the appropriate role of strength and will in our repentance.  I think many of us invest a great deal of our will power and a great deal of our effort into sewing fig leaves.  We think that is what we are supposed to do, we are supposed to get better, supposed to be better, we are supposed to make ourselves less naked.  But we can’t, so we lie to ourselves; we shift our focus, assign blame, keep busy, and above all never spend much time alone and quiet, never give ourselves an opportunity to see and feel profoundly how naked we really are.  

You know one of the most common things sincere believers confess in confession is the sin of laziness.  However, much of the time I think the person has fallen prey to this confusion of the role of strength and the will in our journey to Christlikeness.  They confess they are lazy because they have not been able to cover their nakedness sufficiently, they have not been able to fast or pray or do good works to the level they think they are supposed to be at.  But I don’t think that is what strength and will power are for.  St. Paul gives us the clue.  He says, “When I am weak, then I am strong” and “I rather glory in my weakness that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”  

Archimandrite Aimilianos tells us that strength really is about standing naked before God and before ourselves.  Faithful application of strength and the power of the will is to deny our self-justifying delusions and unlike our forefathers and foremothers to step naked out of the bushes and to present ourselves to God without excuse, without prettying ourselves up first, embracing all of our weakness, all of our shadows, all of our inability and insignificance.   This is where strength is needed.  This is where the power of the will is redeemed.  

And if, like St. Paul, we can learn to glory in our weaknesses, if we can learn to accept the reality of our brokenness, of our impotence, of our lostness, if we can find the strength to look squarely in the mirror of our conscience and not turn away, then, then we have the possibility of being clothed by God, then we have the possibility of returning in some small ways to the relationship our foreparents had with God in Paradise.  It is a long road, but at least according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, this is the real beginning.  Everything up to this point is preparation.  Preparation is important.  The Holy Spirit is active in this preparation.  But the turning point, the beginning of the actual return to Paradise is here.  It is here in the acceptance of our nakedness, in the forsaking of the various fig leaves we sew and have sewn for ourselves.  This is the beginning.

Strength is called for, “tremendous honesty and authenticity,” as Archimandrite Aimilianos puts it. Strength is called for, but not the strength to change, but the strength to accept yourself and to accept God’s love for us as we are.  That’s the beginning.

Now a final word.  Archimandrite Aimilianos points out that this first step, this beginning, is not like the beginning of a journey in a straight line.  It is a journey of transformation that is circular.  That is, we are continually having to begin, continually having to gather the courage to step out of the bushes of our self delusions to stand naked and broken and sinful before God.  And even though we have experienced God's gracious love in the past, each new beginning has its own new insecurities and fears, shame and disappointment with ourselves.  Each new beginning requires strength, strength to stand before God again and say, "O my heavenly Father, again, I am naked, please clothe me."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Fear, Doubt and Closed Doors

While the tomb was sealed, You shone forth, O Life. While the doors were closed, You came to Your Disciples, O Christ God, renewing in us through them an upright spirit, according to the greatness of Your mercy, O Resurrection of all.
Dismissal Hymn for Thomas Sunday

As I have sung this hymn over and over again for the past few days, I have begun to think about what it means for Christ to come to us through closed doors.  The disciples were in an upstairs room with the doors shut, the scripture says, “for fear of the Jews.”  Now since all of the disciples were Jews, probably it refers only to the Jewish leaders, their own leaders, the leaders of their people. They were afraid of their own leaders because the leaders had not, and in some places in the Gospels it says “could not,” see in Jesus of Nazareth what they had seen. But later on, many of these same leaders, would believe. In the ferment of the earliest days of the Church, after the Holy Spirit had come into the disciples and they had struggled through their first several weeks as a Christian community (not even yet called “Christians” but just “Followers of the Way”), once the Church had got going, then we are told that also “a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”

But at the very beginning, the Jewish leaders didn’t see, couldn’t see, what the disciples had seen. Consequently, the old persecuted the new. Those who had drunk the old wine could only say that the new wine was better. The old guard could not, at first, make room for something new.  John’s Gospel tells us that a big part of the reason why the old guard rejected Jesus was because they didn’t want the Romans to take away “their place and their nation.”  At first blush, this seems to be a selfish motivation; we read it individualistically, we read it as we ourselves perhaps would mean it if we were to say the same thing: “I don’t want to lose my place, I don’t want to lose my position of power and privilege.” However, it can be read a little more compassionately. The Jewish leaders knew very well that the uneasy peace between them and the Roman authorities could easily fall apart. There had been recent attempts at insurrection (Barabbas, who had been released instead of Jesus, was being held for murder committed during a recently attempted rebellion). And the Jewish leaders knew that the Romans would spare neither women nor children, nor distinguish between combatant and civilian. Jerusalem would be crushed if the Romans thought that rebellion of any sort was stirring.

The Jewish leaders—in their blindness, for sure—may have been sincerely looking to what they thought was the best and safest way to move forward to protect their people from the vicious Roman authority. As Caiaphas says, “it is expedient…that one should die…and not the whole nation perish.” After the fact, we find out that he is unintentionally prophesying, but at the time, he may have indeed been expressing sincere concern for the safety of the entire Jewish nation. And so, after the resurrection, like mad men trying frantically to stop one leak after another in the wall of a dyke, the Jewish leaders persecute the followers of Jesus, trying to save their nation from what they fear the Romans might do. And that’s why the disciples are hiding, they are hiding because of fear, and Christ comes to them.

As I have thought about my own spiritual journey in the light of this early Christian narrative, I have come to wonder if this story of misunderstanding and persecution of the new by the old doesn’t represent a common, even perennial Christian experience, maybe even a perennial human experience. The old guard just doesn’t see what the new kids see. And because those in authority have the ability to do so, they persecute or belittle or shun or just don’t take seriously the ideas, concerns and insights brought by the younger, the less educated or the socially less important.  

Sure, it may be because those in positions of authority and power don’t want to let any of their authority go—I know that is what I have generally thought whenever I was the junior team member and I felt my voice wasn’t taken seriously. However, it may be that there is a kind of blindness, a kind of deafness, an inability to conceive of a different scenario without it suggesting danger to the health of the community or institution that those who are in charge feel responsible for. That is, those with authority may indeed have in mind what they sincerely think is best for the whole when they shut down and shut out the minority voice, the new kid on the block.

But to those of us who have been or who are shut out, those of us who are persecuted or who are forced to conform to patterns that don’t make sense to us, to rules and regulations that seem to us to cause more harm than good, for those of us who are hurt or offended or just squashed by the heavy hand of those who are in authority (be they priest or politician; parent, police or principal), those of us who are hurt may be likened somewhat to the disciples hiding in an upstairs room with the doors tightly shut.  

We don’t want to be hurt again. We are afraid we will be misunderstood again, we will be belittled and persecuted again. We don’t want to be told yet again to shut up because we don’t know what we are talking about. It hurts too much, and we are afraid it will happen again; so we close the doors, the doors to keep out the Jewish leaders (whomever they may represent in our lives). But when we shut the doors, we start to push everyone away because when we live in fear of being hurt, just about everyone can be a potential abuser.

But no door can keep out Jesus. No fear can keep Christ from coming and speaking peace to us. This is certainly one of the points John is making for us when he tells us this story. And yet it is one of the ironies of life that the persecuted is also sometimes a persecutor.

Now that I am an older man, a priest and a grandparent, now that I have almost a whole lifetime of experience and experiences to back me and often too, too settled opinions about life and how best to embrace it, now that I am often the one in authority, the one with responsibility, it seem that I regularly find myself in the position of the one who is feared, the one who misunderstands, the one who persecutes. I’m the Jewish leader that the disciples feared.  

And whether I am actually fearsome or not matters little.  Those hiding in upper rooms out of fear only have to see that I look like or sound like or have the same position of authority as someone else who has hurt them in the past to keep their doors tightly shut against me. Someone, for example, who has a few bad experiences with teachers in elementary school will find it very difficult to trust and engage whole-heartedly any teacher for many years to come, perhaps for a lifetime. One bad experience with a religious leader or an overly zealous relative can cause a person to hide for the rest of his or her life in an upstairs room with all the doors shut anytime a priest or pastor comes near.  

My wife’s paternal grandfather, for example, was quite a foul-mouthed man who hated anything to do with religion.  However, he loved his granddaughter, even though he regularly, and with the language of a sailor, lamented her religious inclinations. They loved to spend time together on weekends working around his avocado and citrus farm and doing art projects together. When she was a little girl, my wife asked her grandfather why he didn’t love God, and he told her this story:  When he was about 14 years old, he had to walk many miles somewhere and along the way a preacher offered him a ride on his buggy (automobiles hadn’t yet made it to California at that time). Once he got up with him on the buggy, the preacher went on and on about how sinful and wicked he was and how he need to repent and go to church. After a while, her young grandfather couldn’t take it any more and hopped off the buggy cursing the preacher and swearing that he would never be set foot in a church again. And he kept his word, not even for a wedding or funeral. The doors of his upstairs room were shut tight. He wasn’t going to let himself be verbally abused by a religionist again.  

And here’s the question I keep asking myself: Can Christ even appear there, in my wife’s grandfather’s upper room, with the doors all shut from fear?  Can Christ come into the heart and mind of anyone who has been hurt, who is afraid, who has shut the doors tight for fear of being misunderstood, hurt and rejected again? Can Christ come to the fearful and the doubting and show them the wounds in his hands and side, and invite even the ones afraid, even the ones who don’t want to be deceived or lied to or hurt again, can Christ even invite these to touch and see and know that despite the fear, despite the misunderstanding and persecution and lies and even abuse, despite it all, Christ carries our wounds in His own body?

I think so. I think Christ comes even to those hiding in upstairs rooms and who shut the doors tight for fear of the religious leaders.  

So what’s my takeaway? What have I realized through this refection on the dismissal hymn of Thomas Sunday? Two things: first, I am in the position of the Jewish leaders.  Even without realizing it, even thinking I am doing the right thing, doing my best to guard the faith and institutions entrusted to my care, I can be the one ignoring or belittling or even persecuting the disciples of the very One who has saved and called both them and me. Care is called for.  Gentleness is called for. Humility is called for.

Second, I have realized through this reflection that my friends and loved ones who seem completely locked up, who have been so hurt or offended or lied to or betrayed by religious leaders, so offended that they are mentally hiding in an upstairs room with the doors shut for fear of it happening again, that even these are not beyond the loving and peaceful power and presence of Christ. Those who doubt, those who fear, those who hide and shut the doors are not cut off from the One who appears in rooms with closed door, they are not hidden from the one who comes to those in fear, they are not beyond the touch of the One who invites those who doubt to touch and feel and see for themselves.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

We Must Not Must

“What must I do to be saved?”  This is a natural question when we reach the stage of our spiritual journey at which we begin to realize that something is wrong, something is wrong between me and God.  It is a natural question, but it is the wrong question, at least according to Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra (monastery on Mt. Athos).  Archimandrite Aimilianos says the following in a lecture called “The Progression of the Soul” that has been transcribed and translated into English and can be found in the book, The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on the Life in God. 

“Thus the first element we need in order to embark on our path is the feeling of exile”   

Archimandrite Aimilianos concedes a little later that words like “feeling” are inaccurate and perhaps misleading because they are words that we usually use to describe a huge range of passions and sensations: I feel hungry, I feel sad, I feel a pebble in my shoe.  However, he is intentional in using such words as “feeling” because he wants to emphasize the actual experience of the spiritual life as opposed to a metaphysical or philosophical speculation about the spiritual life.  He likens the spiritual journey to a walk to the corner store.  You know what you will encounter along the way to the store because you have actually experienced it before:  you have seen, heard, smelled and felt it.  Archimandrite Aimilianos says that it is the same way on the spiritual journey except you don’t experience it with physical senses, but you experience it inwardly.  And because one does indeed experience the spiritual life, “feeling” is an adequate word to use to begin to describe the experiences of the spiritual life.

And this initial experience, or at least the one that gets us moving with intention on the spiritual journey, this “first element” as Archimandrite Aimilianos calls it, is the feeling of exile, this feeling that all is not right between me and God, that there is somehow a barrier, a wall between me and God.

"Before us now is the shaken soul, the cast-away soul, closed in by four walls and unable to see a thing.  This same soul, however, is thinking about breaching the barrier, about breaking down the walls within which it has come to live, and to live instead with God.  How must it proceed?”

Archimandrite Aimilianos asks the question using the word “must,” and then he immediately makes the following statement:

"Here we need to know that, contrary to our expectations there is no “must.”  Such a word does not exist within the Christian life.  The idea that something “must” be, or “must” take place, is a product of the intellect; it is something that I arrive at as a logical conclusion, a deduction based on something in the Gospels, or which Christ taught in his parables, or with respect to His ethical teachings to do this or that.  But the word “must” has never moved anyone to do anything.  On the contrary, it makes you feel like a slave and discourages you from moving forward.  The force of “must” moves neither God, nor the [human] heart.  It pertains only to the logic of human deliberation, to the endurance of human determination, which as we all know is something that unravels and comes apart very easily."

Because “must” is a product of human deliberation and determination, it can never work in the spiritual realm because the human heart is so weak.  What I am convinced of today and determined with all of my heart to do can change in a moment.  New information, different circumstances, changing relationships, all this and more effect our hearts and minds.  Archimandrite Aimilianos puts it this way:

"The most fragile thing in the world is the human heart, along with all of its deliberations and determinations.  The things about you that I love, I may later come to hate.  And the things about you that I now hate may later cause me to fall in love with you.  I may condemn you, and on the same grounds proclaim that you’re the best person in the world.  I can exalt you to the skies, and at the same time wish you were in hell.  I may decide to become a saint, and at the very moment become a devil."

Now I realize that some of my readers may not be aware that their heart is this fickle.  Some of you may be saying to yourselves, “Well, I know of some other people who are that fickle, who don’t stick to their commitments, who lack the inner strength or will power to determine what must be done and to stick to it.  But I am not like that.”  For those who are thinking this thought let me tell you something that my spiritual father once told me.  He said that every sin I see in others I am able to see because the same sin exists in me.  I may not express the sin in the same way, I may not have had, as the detectives on TV say, the same “means, motive and opportunity” as others to commit in bolder, more external ways the sins that also ensnare my heart.  But the sins are nonetheless there, and if I am willing to ask God to show me the sins in my heart, in this case the fickleness of my heart, mind and will, God will likely be gracious enough to show me.  The hymns of the Church teach us that it is a spiritually dangerous thing to say along with the Pharisee, “I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11).

But for Archimandrite Aimilianos, fickleness or changeability are characteristics of every human heart and mind which is why, for him, words such as “must” do not exist in Christian life.  Whatever I determine based on my understanding about the ways or principles or “laws” of the spiritual life cannot be applied in any categorical way.  Not to myself, and not to others.  This does not mean that we do not discover principles or laws or guidelines for the spiritual life, nor that these cannot be shared with others.  What it means is that they cannot be applied, either to myself or to others, as constraints, as “musts” that bind or enslave us.  When one attempts to make progress in the spiritual life constrained by “musts,” according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, “it makes you feel like a slave and discourages you from moving forward.”     

So if there is no “must” in the Christian life, then what do we have?  How do we teach and guide one another along the spiritual path?  Well I think Archimandrite Aimilianos would say, first, very humbly, carefully and based on our own actual experience.  To use his metaphor, it is like giving directions to the corner market.  If I myself have never been to that market, then certainly, I had best keep my mouth shut about how to get there—even if I have studied all the maps.  And if I feel I must speak, then I need to speak carefully, tentatively, realizing that much of what a person actually experiences along the journey will not be communicated by any map.  And even if I have made that journey myself a hundred times, great care is called for in giving the directions, for what is to me an obvious landmark along the way may be completely missed by someone else walking that exact same path.  Guiding someone along the way of their spiritual path to God is very similar.  The landmarks of my experience with God that stand out in my mind as most significant, may not be exactly the same landmarks that another encounters or finds significant.

It has happened to me several times in the context of a conversation with my spiritual father or some other wise person or in reading a book by a spiritual writer that I have had the “aha” moment when I realized that I have indeed had a certain inner experience that at the time I did not consider significant.  But when I hear or read someone else talk about the significance of what seems to be the same experience in his or her journey, then I begin to reflect on my own experience and begin to realize that there was indeed much more significance in that experience than I had previously realized.  I just didn’t see it, or notice its importance at the time.  Like walking to the corner store, even if everyone walks exactly the same route, everyone is likely to notice different landmarks and appreciate different sights and smells and sounds along the way.  This is why “must” is such a dangerous word in our spiritual vocabulary.

I’d like to end today by pointing out that “must” can be communicated in many forms without actually saying the word “must.”  Generally speaking, the word “should,” especially in the context of spiritual guidance, carries the same force as “must,” “have to,” or “ought.”  It has become a kind of red flag for me, this word “should.”  As soon as I hear the words “you should” forming in my mind, either to myself or to others, I take it as a sign that I have probably stopped having any real spiritual insight or helpful guidance, and I am probably just relying on my own rational analysis, my own deductions and conclusions.  When I start to hear the word “should” in my mind, I like to say to myself, “Speaking of “should,” you should probably shut up now.  Shut up and pray.”  

I don’t always. In fact, I don’t shut up nearly as often or as quickly as I would like.  Sometimes rational analysis is all I have, or all I seem to have.  And when that’s the case and the circumstances are such that I feel compelled to say something, then I try my best to couch my words in as much freedom as possible.  I don’t want my spiritual child or whoever it is who comes to me for advice to feel trapped, to feel enslaved, to feel as though they must do what I tell them; because if they do feel trapped and enslaved, then, according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, they will not move forward, they will remain stuck where they are.  Progress in the spiritual life, in the Christian life with God, is made only in freedom, only as we learn “to act and move forward on the basis of…a kind of vision, that is, on the basis of [the soul’s] inner perception and feeling for things.”  When we act this way, there are no “musts.”  There are only land marks noted by those who have gone before and bits of advice from seasoned travellers, those whom we call our spiritual fathers and mothers. 

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Least I Can Do

One of the perennial struggles I have in the spiritual life comes from a form of pride that is lodged fast in me and manifests itself in an "all or nothing" attitude toward spiritual life and other life disciplines. It can take various forms in different arenas of my life, but it always follows a similar pattern. The pattern goes like this: I set a goal or rule or ideal for myself, one that I could easily achieve if I only apply myself a little. This goal could be a goal for work or for prayer; it could be a rule for conduct (such as how much computer time I will allow myself or how much and what I will or will not eat or drink); or it could be an ideal such as what a priest should look or act like. Any such goal or rule or ideal I set for myself I tell myself is reasonable and attainable if I only push a little, if I only apply myself.

However, what I don’t tell myself, what my mind never reveals to me in this process of creating “shoulds” for myself, what is so obvious but what I never see, is that my mind accepts these goals and rules and ideals for myself assuming a very idealized view of myself, of my abilities and my circumstances. That is, on a good day, on a day when I have had enough sleep, no recent crises, no interruptions to my schedule, no meltdowns in the people or things I depend, on such a day, such a perfect day that only rarely comes along, on such a day—if I only apply myself a little—I can indeed do most of the “shoulds.” On such a day I can indeed attain my goal, follow my rule and live up to my ideal. But such days are very rare. And then what? What do I do on the other days? Well often, I do nothing. I give up. I tell myself things like this:
“If I can’t do my rule this morning, then I might as well just stay in bed.” 
“ Since I’ve already broken the fast, I might as well eat the whole thing.”
“If I can’t be as kind as I should be, then people will just have to get used to me being grumpy.”
Since I’ve already sinned by watching or listening to something I shouldn’t, then I might as well continue doing it.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?  

I have, however, over the years discovered a strategy, a sort of trick I play on myself, that has helped me a great deal on most days, on days that are less than ideal. I discovered this trick when I was coming to terms with the fact that much of my despondency is rooted in pride, rooted in an idealized view I had of myself. I become angry with myself when I don’t live up to this, frankly, unrealistic self image I have. It is unrealistic because it only exists in my mind, not in the actual way I live my life. This was a frightening realization and I suspect is for everyone who experiences it. 'Will God love us?', we wonder.  Can we really come to God in the condition that the brokenness of our lives reveals to us—rather than in the idealized image of ourselves that exists only in our minds? Can we, unlike Adam and Eve, step out of the bushes without covering ourselves with the fig leaves of our idealized image of ourselves? Can we say to God, I am naked and I cannot clothe myself?

Of course, God already knows we are naked. God already knows that we fall miserably short of our goals and ideals for ourselves. God already knows: we are the ones who have to come to accept it. Jesus said of the Holy Spirit that when He comes, He would “convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement.” I wonder if this realization of our miserable inadequacy is not actually the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of God, who already knows we are naked, the work of the Holy Spirit in us, convicting us of the idealized, worldly ways we think about ourselves and revealing to us the painful truth. The painful truth is that we are indeed the Laodiceans spoken of in the book of Revelation. We have not known that we are “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.” Rather, we have struggled to ignore the cracks in the walls of our ego; we keep busy; we reassure ourselves that we are alright, or at least that we are not as bad off, not as broken, as some others. But the Grace of God is persistent. Like a dog owner house training a puppy: God keeps rubbing our nose in it.  God won’t let us go. God will not let us easily live in our own idealized view of ourselves.  

You know I have noticed something about the size of God, about the greatness or smallness of my view of God and His love and care for mankind. When I see myself in my idealized form, when I don’t seem so bad, when I’m pretty good, when I’m basically on the right track, God seems relatively small: it’s not hard to imagine that God could love me. However, when by God’s Grace I see my sins, when I see my failings and my brokenness, when I am forced by circumstances and experience to see, Oh so painfully, that I am much more miserable, blind, stupid and selfish than I realized --when I see myself as I really am, then God is huge, God’s love is amazing. God’s love must be amazing if God could love even me. And if God can love even me as naked, blind and wretched as I am, then it’s not so hard to see how God could love everyone. And if God loves everyone, then God must love me too. (I know this is a circular argument, but logic is just another ideal I try to put on myself. In reality my mind is seldom logical). 

In the past (and still every now and then), when I would see myself as strong, as someone who “should” be able to do it (whatever the “it” is), when I viewed myself this way and yet at the same time I fell miserably short in an area, I would often just give up, I’d often just cave in to my weakness and do nothing.  But when I start accepting that I am naked and that God loves and has loved me knowing all along that I am naked, then I can begin to pluck up the courage to step out from behind the fig leaves of my inflated view of myself.  I can look at my failures to meet my goals, keep my rules or live up to my ideals and say to myself, “Well of course. What else would I expect from someone as messed up as I am.” 

And here is where the little trick that I mentioned above comes in. The trick goes like this: When I sense that I am failing or am about to fail again, I ask myself, “Since I cannot offer God what I should, what is the least I could do in this situation?” For example, if I can’t seem to get out of bed to say my prayer rule in the morning, then I ask myself, “What is the least I could do?” The answer I give myself might be something like, “Well, at least you can get up and say the Trisagion prayers and then get back in bed.” Or I might say something like, “Well, the least you can do is say the Jesus Prayer in bed.” Or "the least you can do is reset your alarm with just enough time to get up and light your vigil candle and say the beginning and end of your rule.” I tell myself, "well it is the least I can do."

In such circumstances, I see myself as the fellow in the parable of the talents who received only one talent. The Land Owner tells him that the least he could have done, instead of burying the talent, was to give the talent to bankers so that it could collect interest. That’s me. I’m that fellow with the one talent. I cannot do what others do. I cannot invest and double my “talent of Grace,” as the hymns of Holy Week tell us to do. But I can at least do the least. That is, if I am going to break the fast because (well, because of any reason), then the least I can do is not give in completely to my craving: At least I can eat the cheese rather than the fish, or the fish rather than the chicken or the chicken rather than the steak. What is the least I can do? At least I can do that. And I have found that when I do this, when I offer to God the least, that God graciously accepts this.  

I can imagine that some of you are screaming, or something inside you is screaming, “but we should give God our best, not our least.” And of course, you are right. But here’s the painful reality that we are not willing to accept about ourselves: often the least is our best. Best is not defined by the idealized picture we have in our head about ourselves.  Best is defined by what we really are and what we really have and are able to do and offer God in the particular circumstances and reality of our life as it is, not as it should be or as we wish it were. What we really have to offer God comes from who we really are, not who we think we should be. And when we begin to offer to God the two widow’s mites of our reality, of who we really are, then we begin to really change. Then, I think, metamorphosis really begins.  Up to this point everything has been getting us ready, ready to see ourselves as we are, ready to accept God’s love for us in our miserable condition, ready to offer to God, not what we should, but what we are.

And this experience, this movement from should to be, has been for me one of the more painful transitions of my spiritual life. And it is on going. I sometimes amaze myself at the depth of self delusion when I see anew the height of my arrogance, the breadth of my selfishness, and my unwavering good opinion of myself even in the face of daily, hourly, evidence to the contrary. Daily I have to return to myself. Daily I have to step out of the bushes naked before God. Daily I have to humble myself and offer to God the least, offer to God so very much less than what I should, so much less than I imagined I would. And yet, this is what I have and what I am. It’s not much, but at least what I have, what I am, at least this little bit I give to God.  And God receives it, in his great love for mankind. And God receives it as he received the two copper coins of the widow. And God receives it, small as it is, taking the least and making it not just enough, but making it great, because that’s what God does.  

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

St. Isaac, Gehenna and Hope

Probably the most controversial teaching of St. Isaac the Syrian is his teaching on Gehenna, or hell.  Homily 27 begins with the following statement and explanation of St. Isaac’s thoughts on sin, Gehenna and death:

Sin, Gehenna and death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects [or acts], not substances.  Sin is the fruit of the will; there was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.  Gehenna is the fruit of sin; at some point in time it received a beginning, but its end is not known.  Death, however, is a dispensation of the wisdom of the Creator; it will have power over nature only for a time; then it will be totally abolished.

For St. Isaac, all suffering and torment is therapeutic, not vengeful or requisite from the perspective of God.  God allows or causes suffering for sin so that the sinner may be healed.  Even the curse at the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden was therapeutic.  The sufferings associated with the curse were instituted not as retributive punishment, although the language of the biblical text does read that way.  Rather, read through the revelation of the Cross, all apparent retributive action on the part of God in the Old Testament is now understood as redemptive.  That is, God was not looking back at past sins to punish Adam and Eve and their descendants,  but rather God was looking forward to prepare all human beings for redemption.  God uses the painful results or consequences of sinful human actions as a means to heal the very root of sin in human beings.  The sufferings associated with the adamic curse were to turn us to God by revealing to us our finitude.  And even death itself is to be understood as the doorway into the resurrection.  For St. Isaac, the biblical injunction, “mercy triumphs over justice,” is the interpretive principle when it comes to understanding eternal judgement.  In the End, all will somehow be reconciled with God.  

Now, I understand that the fifth Ecumenical Council condemned Origin and his protology (his theory of preexisting souls) and condemned the form of universalism based on his protology.  However, a few other Church fathers also held something like a universalist understanding of salvation, but not based on the preexistence of souls.  Most notably among these is St. Gregory of Nyssa--whom (I believe it was) the second Ecumenical Council proclaimed as the Father of the Fathers.   But to be sure, those who hold such universalist-like opinions are in the minority.  And if we are going to be honest in reading St. Isaac, we have to admit that he is part of that minority.  St. Isaac is a universalist of sorts.  

Of course, a lot depends on what you mean by universalist.  For St. Isaac, at least, that every creature will eventually be reconciled with God does not mean that there is no hell, nor that hell is not relatively eternal.  I say “relatively” because what we mean by “eternal” depends on what we are talking about.  Can any created thing be eternal in the same sense that God Himself is eternal?  Certainly not.  For example, in the Old Testament, God speaks of an “eternal covenant” with the biological descendants of Abraham, but St. Paul tells us (Heb. 8: 7-13) that the old covenant was faulty and was replaced by a new covenant.  Eternity is a relative thing when God is involved.

Some have said that St. Isaac’s understanding of Gehenna is somewhat like the Roman Catholic understanding of Purgatory, but with some significant differences.  Unlike the Roman Catholic understanding of Purgatory, Gehenna, according to St. Isaac, has nothing to do with retribution or payment for past sins.  Gehenna is a place of torment in which suffering as a consequence of our sins (which does not mean the same thing as a recompense for our sins) somehow changes us, somehow turns our will so that every human being, and indeed for St. Isaac every creature, can be reconciled with God.  

St. Isaac is very specific about the nature of the suffering in Gehenna.  It is not punishment in the sense that God is balancing a scale or paying people back for what they did, as though God were somehow under compulsion to a sense of justice greater than Himself, greater than Love.  Rather, St. Isaac says that “those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourges of love.”  That is, they suffer because they now know and cannot escape or distract themselves from the love of God, and the torment they experience has to do with their realization that they have sinned against this great love of God.

Gods love works in two ways in the age to come, according to St. Isaac: 

It torments those who have played the fool, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties.  Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret.  But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability. 

So for St. Isaac, Heaven and Hell are not different places, but rather different experiences of the same love of God.  Those who “have played the fool,” those who have spent a lifetime turning away from God will experience torment when they are plunged into the fiery lake of the Love of God, love that they can no longer ignore or distract themselves from, love that forces them to confront themselves as they really are, not as they have spent their lifetime on earth pretending to be.  This will be torment to some.  Others, those who have turned to God, those who have seen their own wickedness, hated it, but nonetheless confessed it as their own, those who have longed to know the love of God, these will experience the same overwhelming love of God as bliss, as heaven, as the fulfillment of their longing.  

But those who experience torment will do so because of sin.  And because sin is not eternal, neither can its consequences be--or so posits St. Isaac.  St. Isaac tells us that Gehenna is the “fruit of sin” and that “at some point in time it received a beginning, but its end is not known.”  Gehenna will have an end, for when the tree dies, the fruit will eventually pass away.  But the end of Gehenna is unknown St. Isaac tells us.  The end of Gehenna is really only posited, or assumed, based on its contingent reality--or rather based on the fact that Gehenna is not actually a reality at all, but an effect, a response, or an experience derived from sin, which itself (sin) is merely an effect and has no reality in itself, no substance, no being.  Sin is merely the perversion or twisting of being.  And so if the cause (sin) is not an eternal thing, then the result (Gehenna) can neither be eternal—at least not eternal in the same sense as a being that was actually created: sin has no being, so neither has its result.

St. Isaac’s understanding of Gehenna as the “scourges of love” and his understanding of the eventual reconciliation of all creation with the Creator is a minority opinion among the Fathers of the Church.  Therefore, it would be inappropriate to say that St. Isaac’s understanding of Gehenna represents the Orthodox understanding.  It is, however, an Orthodox understanding.  I think the Orthodox teaching on Gehenna is that it is a mystery, that we do not really know much at all about it except this: there really is such a thing, or place or experience as Gehenna.  How it exists, what it does, and the exact experience of those who enter it is unknown to us--except that it is very unpleasant and that it is eternal.  

But we must be careful with words like “eternal.”  When we speak of eternal life, for example, we are not speaking of life as we know it without end.  Rather, we are talking about a different quality or kind of life, the life of the Age to Come.  “Eternal” is often a quality word in the bible and in the writing of the Fathers, not a quantity word.  And even when it is referring to duration, we must remember that time itself is a category of a certain created order.  What has no limits from the perspective of the creature within a particular age or epoch (the biological descendants of Abraham before the Incarnation of Christ, for example), may indeed be finite from God’s perspective or even from the perspective of creatures in another age--such as the saints and angels in heaven.  We just don't know what phrases like "eternal condemnation" or "eternal fire" or "the worm never ceases" actually mean in terms of duration especially from the perspective of the Creator who works according to kairos time even though chronos time as we know it will pass away.

Metropolitan Kalistos Ware says that at best the hope that all will be reconciled with God is nothing more than just that, a hope, not a dogma of the Orthodox Church.  St. Isaac could be completely missing it on this one--or we could be completely misunderstanding him.  Or, as I hope is the case, the majority of the Church Fathers could be missing it and the minority report is the correct one.  It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the Church when the majority missed the mark and only a later generation recognized the the truth in the minority report.  It has happened before, just not very often.  

Still, in the mean time, I think I would rather err on the side of hope, on the side that hopes that no suffering whatsoever, not even the suffering of Gehenna is vendictive punishment on God’s part, but rather that the God who came and suffered both with and for us has himself entered all suffering and redeemed it so that nothing is lost, nothing is wasted, no one is thrown away.  This is my hope, because, like Moses, I don’t think I could bear to enter the promised land without all the people.  But who am I to know anything about such mysteries.  I only hope in the Love of God.