Saturday, May 30, 2015

On Needing God's Kneading

Archimandrite Aimilianos in a lecture entitled “On The State That Jesus Confers” says that the basic human problem is that we do not see God.  In fact, most people cannot see God, but can only seek Him.  This is because our eyes (both physical and the eyes of our souls) are earthly, they are trained to see, to think about and to contemplate only physical things and what can be deduced from physically perceptible things or what directly affects how we feel, that is, the emotional realities that are at work within us—although some people work hard to ignore even theses. 

If, however, we want to see God, where do we begin?  Archimandrite Aimilianos says that we must begin with what we can do.  We can seek; we can come to God with longing.  In other words, if you want to see God, you have to want to see God.  I’m not being redundant.  There is wanting, and then there is wanting.  I can want to become a doctor, for example; but if I don’t want to become a doctor more than I want to play video games, more than I want to hang out with my friends and more than just about anything else, I will never become a doctor.  There is wanting, and then there is really wanting: wanting so much that it is pretty much all I want.  And so we might say that if you want to see God, you have to want to see God more than just about anything else.

Now I may be stating the obvious here, but I should probably make clear that the word “see” is a metaphor.  Archimandrite Aimilianos is not talking about physical sight, neither is he talking about some sort of inner vision or soul sight within our imagination.  Rather, by seeing God, he is referring to a knowing of and encounter with God that is so real that it is like seeing.  He is saying that one can know and encounter God with such clarity and force that “seeing” is the only adequate word to describe the experience.  Just as we say that we know something to be the case, to be true, if we see it ourselves, test it, feel it, try it and in many physical ways experience it, so also Archimandrite Aimilianos tells us we can encounter and experience and know God in ways that involve so much surety that this knowledge of God is more real to us than the evidence of our physical senses.  In fact, he would say, that this knowledge of God is indeed more real than the whole world perceptible through my senses and my logic, more real because the God whom we can come to know is not merely real, but is the source and ground of all reality.  All that is immediately perceptible through the physical senses or through logic or even human feeling are only contingent realities, realities contingent on the One, on the unperceptible God whom we can, nonetheless, come to perceive if we seek for Him.

And yet seeking God is not like seeking things that I can physically or logically see because in seeking for God, we cannot find God.  God is not to be found.  But, you might ask, if God is not to be found by seeking, why seek Him?  Actually the answer is quite simple.  God cannot be found, regardless of how diligently we seek Him, God cannot be found, but God does reveal Himself.  But when God reveals Himself, if we are not seeking Him, we will not see Him or know him.  There is a passage in the Prophet Jeremiah (17:6-8) in which the prophet compares those whose hearts are not turned toward the Lord to a shrub in the desert that doesn’t even know when the rain comes.  That is, when we are not seeking God, when we are not longing to see or be touched by God, then when God does come, when God does reveal Himself to us, we don’t see it, we don’t perceive it.  

And so if we want to see God, we must seek Him, but in seeking Him we will not find Him; but rather, by seeking Him, we prepare ourselves to see Him when He reveals Himself to us.  Someone once explained it this way, “You can do absolutely nothing to make the sun rise, but you can be awake when it rises.”

Similarly, we can be awake, we can be watching, looking, seeking God so that when God  reveals Himself we can perceive it.  However, it is not as though God is one minute revealing Himself and the next minute not, as though God were playing hide and seek with us.  God is continually revealing Himself to us, speaking to us and making Himself known to us in ways that can only be perceived as we allow our minds to be changed—or to use the biblical word—as we learn to repent.  To repent means to change your mind, to think and perceive differently.  In other words, God is only perceived by us as we change, or rather, as we allow ourselves to be changed.  And the very seeking of God changes us because wanting one thing more than anything changes everything.

When we begin to seek God, according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, we ask God to satisfy our desires; and when He doesn’t, we think that He is ignoring us.  We ask God to realize our hopes, and we are dismayed because they are not fulfilled.  We ask God to let us feel His nearness, and God seems to stay far away.  God does not answer these prayers because they are all, in a sense, requests to stay were we are, requests for God to strengthen what we already think, already envision, what we desire now.  In fact, Archimandrite Aimilianos goes so far as to say that God does not answer these prayers because we are asking God to strengthen the very things that God, through repentance, wants to lead us out of.  

And so we experience a kind of tribulation, a separating of the wheat from the chaff, a kind of suffering that takes us through what feels like a desert of God’s absence.  But God is not absent.  God is as near as He has ever been.  God is near and is helping us change our minds, helping us to let go of inappropriate or immature ways of thinking about God and ourselves, helping us to let go of ways of knowing and feeling the nearness of God that rely primarily on our more shallow feelings or external serendipitous events that confirm our expectations, our hopes and our desires.  God is forcing us to go deeper into ourselves so that we can come to know God more deeply.  God is taking away what is familiar so that we can reach out to perceive and know God more as God is and thus to grow ourselves. 

Archimandrite Aimilianos gives us a helpful image to understand how we begin to see God when we are seeking Him.  He says that we do not begin by seeing God’s face or even his back, but we begin by first seeing God’s hands.  We see God’s hands as God kneads us like dough.  As our seeking brings us to Church, to the Tradition, to the people of God where we hope to find God, our expectations are thwarted in many ways, not the least of which are our expectations about what we expect from the Church.  Instead of the Glory of God, a lot of what we see at first are jars of clay, broken, cracked and misshapen.  We look to the place where God’s Glory dwells, and much of what we see in the beginning is the brokenness of others: foolishness, selfishness and hypocrisy—not greater than our own, mind you, if we are honest with ourselves.  But still, we had hoped to find something different, we had hoped that people here would be different.  And this very disappointment, for many, is the beginning of the kneading.

Disappointment leads to contemplation.  We begin to think more deeply, and consequently, we begin to look more deeply, to seek more deeply, and through this contemplation, our eyes are adjusted, we begin to see things differently, we begin, first of all, to see ourselves as we hadn’t seen ourselves before, and thus we begin for the first time to see God, we see God’s hands pushing and pulling and pressing us, kneading us, changing us.  Archimandrite Aimilianos puts it this way:

You contemplate the depths of your soul being kneaded by grace, like dough being kneaded into bread.  Your soul is now a malleable lump kneaded by the hands of God.  You see our soul being worked on, passing through His fingers…. All you see is His hand, as we see it in certain icons, emerging from a cloud in order to bless the saint standing below it.  And now you are standing next to God, watching His hand as it kneads your soul.

And this is the real beginning of the spiritual life, of a life with God.  Most of our spiritual journey is seeking, seeking and not finding much until we begin to see God: we see God’s hand.  We see God’s hand opposing us, pushing us, kneading us, making us into bread.  And when we can indeed begin to see God’s hand in all that we do not expect, in every disappointment, in every vicissitude of life, every uncomfortable change and unexpected outcome, when we see God’s fingerprints in everything that humbles us, everything that forces us to trust only in the mercy of God, when we see God’s hand here, we are now, according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, we are now beginning to see God, we are beginning to see the hand of God. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Of Course There Are Many Inconsistencies

St. Theophan the Recluse is today one of the most popular spiritual writers of 19th century Russia. In many ways his great gift is that he was able to summarize the whole Orthodox teaching on inner growth and spiritual life and apply it to the very specific context of 19th century Russia, especially 19th century Russian monasticism. Like his near contemporary, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, St. Theophan recognized that the monastic institutions of his time were broken in many ways but were nonetheless 
“springs of sweetness…by which the soul is filled!—the Word of God, and daily church services, and the reading, and the fasting, and the guidance of the elders, and God’s enlightenments, both secret and open warnings, the ceaseless state of prayer from which come all goodness and [spiritual] gain.”  
And while all of this is what is wonderful, or potentially wonderful, about a monastic life, about a life intensely focused on the inner life with God, while it is this that draws us to the monastery or to a disciplined ascetic life in the world, the reality of our lived experience, whether in the monastery or as a pious Orthodox Christian in the world, the reality of our experience is that much of the time, most of the time, the “springs of sweetness,” as St. Theophan calls them, seem to be hard to find and separated by long dry stretches.  

The book, Kindling the Divine Spark: Teaching on How to Preserve Spiritual Zeal, is a collection of talks, letters mostly, given by St. Theophan to women monastics. In one of his talks, in the talk that I quote above, St. Theophan speaks of the glories of life in a monastery and then he makes a the following statement: 
“Of course, many inconsistencies occur here, too…”  
Ah, there’s the rub. There’s the bit that throws us off, “many inconsistencies occur here, too.” And the saint says, “of course,” as though we should have never expected things to be consistent. But we do. We do expect things to be consistent and we are offended when they are not.

Part of the spiritual journey of our life with God is the work of uniting the mind and the heart. This is a dominant theme in St. Theophan’s various writings. This is an aspect or teaching of the spiritual life that I have found is relatively popular. People like to talk about bringing their mind into their heart. It’s an inner spiritual practice that takes a certain amount of attention and discipline, but with a little practice it often quickly brings peace, and (more to the point I want to talk about today) it is something I can do by myself, in my own private, little inner world.  However, another aspect of the spiritual life, an aspect we touched on a little while ago when we spoke of Abbess Thasia’s struggles at the beginning of her monastic journey, another essential aspect of spiritual life is inner crucifixion, or as St. Isaac put it, the unseen martyrdom.

We each of us want to have a certain amount of control over our life and circumstances. We want to understand what is happening to us. We want to see how what we are experiencing right now fits into what we call God’s plan for our lives, but what often turns out to be our own version or vision of what we think or want God’s plan for our lives to be. And we know this is so, we know that it really isn’t God’s plan for our life that we are concerned about by the very fact that we are so disturbed by the inconsistencies—or as St. Theophan puts it, “Of course, [the] many inconsistencies.”

We all in various ways and at various seasons of our life fall prey to the temptation to think that we know how our life is supposed to go, how important people in our life are going to behave, how we are going to, or how we are supposed to, feel when certain things happen or don’t happen in our life. We think we know, and then we are so surprised, often scandalized, sometimes even offended to the point of turning away from God in some small or large ways, when our life is inconsistent, when spiritual leaders, church leaders, holy elders of the monastery, when men and women we trusted in and hoped in, when the people and institutions we trusted in are inconsistent. But inconsistency, many inconsistencies, St. Theophan tells us, are “of course” an essential part of our spiritual journey.

Why is that? Why must people disappoint us? Why must institutions (churches, monasteries, hierarchies of various sorts and orders) why must they “of course” be inconsistent? Why is this an essential part of our growth in Christ? Well, the first and most important answer to this question is that I do not know. I do not know why it has to be this way, but I do know that it is this way. I don’t know why people fail. I don’t know why I fail. I don’t know why sometimes I can say a word that sets someone free, and two days later say a word that offends and deeply wounds someone I love and want to help. I don’t know why I can do the right thing in one situation (and be praised unworthily for it, for I really didn’t know what I was doing); and in another situation do the wrong thing and be despised or even reviled for it (though I really didn’t realize I was doing the wrong thing at the time). I don’t know why I am so inconsistent—except for the fact that I am a sinner and that I am, at a deep level, very seriously broken.  

And if I am deeply broken and that is why I am so inconsistent, perhaps that is also the reason why the men and women and the institutions that I look up to and depend on often seem to hurt and disappoint me. Maybe it’s because we are all human and for some unexplainable reason God has chosen to put His Glory in such jars of clay. Always in jars of clay, earthen vessels. There is no Glory of God in this world not hidden in a jar of clay.

In my experience I have found the question, “why do bad things happen,” in all of its various forms, is not a very helpful question. It is not helpful because it keeps our focus outside us, as though the bad things that happen are “out there,” as though the thing God really cared about was outside me, what happens to me, rather than God caring mostly—and I might even say entirely—about what my response is, what my response to what happens outside me is. That’s what God cares about—at least as far as I am concerned. Yes, God’s providential care is over all that He has created, but in as much as God’s calling for me (and for every Christian believer) is to be formed into His image, I can confidently assert that how I respond to what happens around me, how I turn to God for help in times of need, how I repent when I see my own sin (not the sins of others—that’s their business), these are the only things God cares about as far as I’m concerned.  

And once we shift our focus inward, then everything changes. Once I see the darkness inside myself, then instead of asking why bad things happen to me, I begin to wonder why it is that anything good happens to me. Because I am so inconsistent, it is amazing to me that anyone shows any consistency at all. Because I am so easily confused, so self-obsessed and so tormented by passions, it is a bonafide miracle that I experience any Grace, any comfort, any love from those around me at all. If those around me are experiencing only one quarter of the inner conflict with depression, lust, selfishness, confusion and self-exulting pride that I do, it is truly a miracle of the Grace of God that I experience any good, any blessing, any encouragement of Grace through the people and institutions God has placed in my life.

In fact, we might even say that one of the reasons why there must, “of course [be] many inconsistencies” is because it is the very inconsistency of the world around us that forces us to go deeper into ourselves. When everything is going pretty much according to plan, when everyone is behaving pretty much as I expected, then it is very easy to stay stranded in a very shallow spiritual experience, a very shallow knowledge of God and of myself. So long as our spiritual life can be managed with nothing more than the rational aspect of our minds—as though progress in the spiritual life were somewhat like progress in mathematics or progress in the management of a construction project—so long as the spiritual life is mostly about just figuring things out, so long as this is the case, we will never grow to know God or ourselves very well. As many of the Church Fathers have pointed out, and as St. Theophan himself summarizes for us very neatly in the Book The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned To It, our true knowledge of God and of ourselves takes place at a deeper level of knowing than that which can be processed rationally.  

If it weren’t for the inconsistencies of our experience, we might never learn to lay aside (or put in its place) the rational aspect of our mind to go deeper and come to know God and ourselves at that deeper level, the level that the Fathers of the Philokalia call noetic (which is sometimes misleadingly translated as “intellect”). This movement to a deeper knowledge of God seldom comes to us without our first coming to the end of our rational systems and expectations. It seems that it is only through disappointments, often experiences that seem death-like to us, experiences that seem like inner crucifixions, like a martyrdom that no one sees, it is experiences like these that create in us a crisis, a crises that forces us to become aware of something deeper in ourselves, a knowledge of God that transcends even death, even the death of disappointment, betrayal and failure. The outer pain we discover functions as birth pangs within us giving birth to a deeper, more secure, more profound relationship with God.

However, all births in this fallen world are dangerous.  Death is real, but so too is the Life that can come from death. Isn’t that what the Resurrection teaches us? Three days in the tomb can seem like an eternity to the one in the tomb, to the one in the belly of a Great Fish. But like Jonah, we cry out to God from the belly of the Great Fish, like Peter we cry out as we sink, “Help, Lord!” And in our distress we let go of our rational expectations, all that we had figured we could depend on, all of that is let go and in a kind of terror, all that is left is only God and me, only His help and my death.

And God does help, in various ways at various times, almost always unpredictably. God lets us suffer, lets us stew, lets us wallow in the mire for a while, and when the time is right, when we are ready, when we have come to our senses, when we have come to the end of ourselves, then God makes a way of escape, opens a door or provides us with another opportunity. This is the way of salvation, the narrow way, the way that few find, for it is the way of crucifixion, it is the way of transformation from the old to the new, from earth to heaven. This way of inconsistency is also a necessary part of our salvation.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Raising Snakes and Losing Mittens

Remove from me the way of unrighteousness
and with Thy law have mercy on me.
Psalm 118: 29

St. Theophan the Recluse in a wonderful commentary on Psalm 118 (119), commenting on verse 29, makes the following comment about sin:

St. Theophan’s comment:
The person who endures assaults from sin cannot but realize that he himself gave sin such power over himself; he reared the serpent in himself, and consequently suffers justly; and if justly, then where is his salvation, if not in [God’s] lovingkindness. And [the psalmist] prays in that sense: “I am guilty, and justly have to bear these attacks; but show me mercy, O Lord, according to the law of Thy lovingkindness set aside this way of unrighteousness.”

Some important and reoccurring steps in our spiritual life involve the following: A) accepting that the temptations we experience are largely self chosen and self induced; and B) that the suffering we experience, the unseen martyrdom, is itself the judgement, you might even say God’s judgement, for these sins, for this “opening of the door for the demons” as St. Isaac the Syrian puts it; and C) that I cannot of myself overcome these temptations, that they are too strong for me, that the little serpent I nurtured within myself (when I thought I was in control) has become a great viper that is poisoning me to death; and D) finally, that God’s response to my predicament is according to the law of His mercy, the law of His lovingkindness.

Many people hit a roadblock in their relationship with God when the weight of their sins catches up to them, when they realize they are trapped in a cycle of sin or habit of ungodly behaviour that they cannot control. It is a road block because now that they see and are fully convinced of their wretchedness, their complete and repeated failure in an area that they also realize they had allowed to grow and develop, once they are convinced of their fault, many people shut down in some way their relationship with God out of fear of God’s wrath, God’s judgement—as though God hasn’t known all along what you have now recently come to realize. When we become intensely aware of our shortcomings, sins and failures, we are the ones who are surprised and ashamed, not God. God has known and seen everything all along and has been waiting patiently for you to see it, for you to become aware of it.  

In fact, the very wrath of God that many fear at this point, when they come to see their own deep brokenness, is not something that God is waiting to reveal. No, it is the very pain and turmoil you are now experiencing. The wrath of God is what the Bible calls the painful consequences of our sins, the result of our own sinful wandering, the venom of the serpent we have nurtured in our heart. This is the “just judgement” St. Theophan is talking about, the just judgement that brings us to our senses—like the prodigal son suffering in the pigsty, we too come to our senses and say to ourselves, “I will return to my Father. Perhaps he will accept me as a slave.” And of course, what does the prodigal son find out? He finds out that coming to his Father, confessing his sin and having the humble willingness to be a slave, the prodigal son finds out that the Father has nothing but compassion for him, what St. Theophan calls “The Law of [God’s] lovingkindness.”

But what about wrath? What about the judgement of God?  What about the suffering that I justly deserve? I know now that I deserve God’s wrath, so now more than ever I fear it. I fear it, yet I know I deserve it. I deserve to suffer and there is a kind of pride, a kind of self-determination, that keeps me from seeking relief from God—no, not until I can do better. No, if I won’t show mercy to myself, then I will not ask God to show me mercy.

Yes, I know this experience well. I have come to this crossroad many times. This is the crossroad where we choose, where we choose either to hide our shame, to wallow in the pigsty, to creep in the shadows of the fig trees in a mixture of fear, shame, self-justification, and pride—a strange mix indeed. We chose to hide and lick our wounds by blaming others—our parents, our teachers, our siblings, our culture, perhaps even God Himself. At this crossroad we can choose to hide and blame, or we can choose to step boldly out from behind the fig leaf. We can stand naked before God (who has know along that we were naked), we can stand naked before God not hiding our shame, not making excuses for our weaknesses, for our failures, for our addictions. We can stand naked before God and say, “Father I am unworthy, I do not deserve to have you clothe me; but I am naked, please clothe me.”

It is kind of like a child losing her mittens again. But unlike our parents here on earth (who are as broken as we are), God is our heavenly Father whose law is lovingkindness. We have lost our mittens and our hands our cold. This is the judgement, the wrath (if you will), this is the suffering that comes from losing our mittens. But our heavenly Father can clothe us again, in fact He longs to clothe us, he knows the suffering of cold hands. Our God has become human, He knows what it is to suffer from the consequences of sin, to be a victim, to have his mittens taken away by the schoolyard bully and to stand with red, stinging fingers in the cold. God knows, and so God longs to clothe you.

But God will not clothe you unless you ask, unless you confess, unless you are willing to come out from your hiding place, bearing the shame so that God can clothe you and take away your shame.  

And this is the crossroad we must encounter again and again. Gethsemane is not for us a one-time experience. In His mercy, God does not force us to see all of our sin at once. Yes, it often seems that we have hit bottom when we are overwhelmed by the messiness and darkness we see in ourselves. Yes, every time I come to the Garden to sweat great drops of blood, and to say again, “not my will, but yours be done,” yes, every time I submit to the Cross and experience a Resurrection, every time I think, “OK, I’m glad that’s over.” But it’s not over, not until it’s over. This world is a crucible, and we are being refined like gold. So long as we live and breathe in this world we experience what St. Isaac calls “changeableness.” We are refined and purified so that we can more clearly radiate the Light of Christ, which is indeed the very clothing with which God clothes us.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

St. Isaac, Dickens and Eating Away Gehenna

It is difficult for some of us who were raised on a theology of substitutionary atonement, those of us Protestant converts to holy Orthodoxy, it is difficult for us to accept that our final judgement will involve anything more than the forgiveness of sins. But the Church teaches us otherwise. Parables such as the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Separation of the Sheep and the Goats play a huge role in the hymnology of the Orthodox Church and in its understanding of what our judgement before God will look like. That is, judgement before God is not merely about forgiveness of sin. But rather, the judgement of the Age to Come is also about comfort and torment; or as Christ puts it in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Father Abraham speaking to the Rich Man who is in torment), “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.”

A significant aspect of the torment of the Age to Come is connected to how we have reveled in comfort while those around us have suffered. Yes, forgiveness is part of it.  Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, St. John tells us in his first Epistle (2:3), and while we might debate the role of faith or acceptance in the experience of the forgiveness of our sins, one thing is certain: the problem is not on God’s side. God has forgiven all. And yet, though we are forgiven, there there may still torment.

Certainly, some of this torment of the Age to Come—a torment that begins in this life, just as eternal Life begins in this life and continues into the Age to Come—some of this torment has to do with struggling to accept that God has forgiven us for our sins, that the abyss of our sins is not greater than the ocean of God's love. However, another aspect of the torment of the Age to Come has to do with what we have left undone: the good we could have done but didn’t, the help we could have given but held back, the good life we enjoyed (materially, socially, spiritually) refusing to reach out to and love those suffering from want of material blessings, from want of functional family or social support, or for want of a healthy church community and sound (Orthodox) teaching about the nature of God, man and the universe. Some of the suffering of the age to come will have to do with our failure to love.

One of the best depictions in English Literature of this torment over what is left undone, this refusal to care about those around us, and how it might be experienced in the Age to Come is found in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. After the ghost of Jacob Marley shakes up Ebenezer Scrooge and warns him of the three Christmas ghosts who will visit him, Marley’s ghost leads Scrooge to the window where Scrooge sees “the air…filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below on a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

The night is bitterly cold, we are told earlier in the story, and this poor woman is huddled on a doorstep with her infant trying not to freeze. And Scrooge’s departed friend, with an iron safe chained to his ankle, now wants to help, now wants to use the wealth of his resources, what is now bound to him as a burden, to help this poor woman and her baby. And this is the torment of the Age to Come. These are the flames and the gnashing of teeth and the worms that do not cease of the Age to Come. Freed from the voluntarily chosen blindness caused by sin, the old ghost in the white waste coat now feels human compassion, now loves the sister and brother whom he had for a lifetime ignored, now he cares, but now it is too late. Now he can do nothing.

And of course this torment isn’t merely about money and how it might have been better used to help others. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the torment of the Age to Come has nothing directly to do with money. It has nothing to do with money and everything to do with love. It has to do with seeing other people, seeing their pain, loving them and suffering in some small way with them, in some small way lessening your own comfort for the sake of someone else. And you don’t need to spend a dollar to do this. Who do you sit with at lunch break at school that others don’t want to sit with? Who do you hang out with at a party? Do you look for someone who would otherwise be standing alone? Who do you talk to on a bus? Are you willing to listen politely to an old man or woman who is desperate to talk to anyone? Who are you willing to see that you would rather not see? Who is hard to love whom you could try a little harder to love? You don’t have to have any money to love, to care, or to see. You just need to be willing to be a little uncomfortable, to feel a little compassion, to weep a little with those who weep.

I find it interesting that twice in the book of Revelation (chapters 7 and 21) it speaks of God wiping the tears from from every eye. In both contexts, the texts seems to be talking about saints who are already in heaven, already experiencing the blessing of the Age to Come. So here’s the question: where do these tears come from that God wipes away? I don’t know, but I wonder if those tears have something to do with this sudden awareness in the Age to Come of the people we refused to see and of the suffering in others that we did not allow ourselves to share. But as I said at the beginning, it is hard for some of us to conceive of a world to come in which one does not experience either Paradise and only Paradise or Gehenna and only Gehenna. But St. Isaac the Syrian suggests that the experience of the Age to Come may not be as segregated as we suspect.  

St. Isaac emphasizes that there is no middle place between Paradise and Gehenna, there is no Limbo or “lesser heaven” or “higher hell.” However, for St. Isaac, both heaven and hell, Paradise and Gehenna, can be experienced in the human heart, in the same human heart. For St. Isaac, and some, perhaps many, Church Fathers, hell or heaven are referred to as places only metaphorically, in a way that makes sense in this current age of time and space as we know it. However, more precisely heaven and hell refer to experiences, or better, they refer to how one experiences continued existence in the Age to Come. The great gulf fixed between the Rich Man and Lazarus spoken of in the parable does not refer to a literal amount of space (as though it could be measured with a long-enough ruler).  What it exactly refers to we do not know, for it is part of the mystery of the Age to Come. However, I suspect that the great gulf has something to do with the life lived and that is now over, a lifetime on earth that cannot be changed for it has been lived, it is what it is and it’s over, just as I cannot change yesterday for it is gone: a great gulf is fixed.

But so long as I continue to live in this world, change is possible. I cannot do anything about yesterday, but I can love today, right now. I can open my eyes now and see the Lazarus at my gates, the poor, the lonely, the stranger, the hard to love. And St. Isaac says (in Homily 32), that one who suffers to love others, as one is “chastised” or suffers in his or her struggle to love God and neighbor and to avoid sin, as one suffers now for righteousness sake, for the sake of mercy and love, St. Isaac says, “He who is chastised here eats away his own Gehenna.” For St. Isaac, there is no contradiction between the experience of heavenly rest and the experience of punishment for pleasures that we allow ourselves through sinful and selfish licentiousness. These are experienced by each of us now, in time and space as we know it, generally sequentially: “Every rest is followed by hardship, and every hardship endured for God is followed by rest.”  

How hardship and rest, Gehenna and Paradise, may be experienced in the Age to Come, we don’t know; but St. Isaac assures us that the rest (or perhaps what we would more likely call peace) that we experience as a gift from God now is only an earning that “does not eat away its own capital.” That is, when God grants us peace, comfort and encouragement now in this age, it takes nothing away from the peace, comfort and encouragement of the heavenly reward. It’s just a foretaste, a bit of interest paid out that in no way diminishes the capital of the heavenly blessing God has stored up for those who love Him. But suffering for Christ’s sake, suffering to avoid sin or to love our neighbour, suffering for righteousness sake is actually a gift of God’s “rich mercies” because suffering now “eats away” the Gehenna, the suffering that may await us in the Age to Come, especially those of us like me who love God with only part of my heart, part of my soul, part of my mind and part of my strength. 

This is not a theology of works righteousness, not exactly.  Past sins cannot be undone. Only God forgives sin.  However, that I recognize that I have sinned against God and my neighbor (which, by the way, is the same thing) and that I attempt to do something about it to the extent that I willingly suffer somewhat for love, for righteousness sake, this is a great gift to my own conscience.   

As I have said before, some of what St. Isaac writes is controversial, mostly because he is not a systematic theologian. He is a mystical theologian who speaks of what he has experienced and known in his relationship with God, who speaks in a way that has for more than a thousand years helped millions of holy men and women (mostly Orthodox monastics) grow in prayer and the knowledge of God. St. Isaac did not write to be systematized, he wrote to help men and women meet God. He writes in paradox and parable about the actual experience of a life in God, what the Orthodox Church often calls theology, but nothing like the rational explanations you find in academic books, what popularly passes for theology. Therefore, it would be a mistake to hear anything I write as I reflect on St. Isaac’s homilies as a challenge to Orthodox dogma. Everything St. Isaac says assumes Orthodox dogma. Everything he says fits squarely in the teaching of the Orthodox faith—even if sometimes it is a fit that cannot be rationally squared. It is a mystical fit, a fit that mystically resonates in the hearts of millions of holy men and women who have come to actually know God within the Orthodox Church.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Unseen Martyrdom

“This is the fiercest struggle, the struggle that resists a man unto blood, wherein free will is tested as to the singleness of his love for the virtues….It is here that we manifest our patience, my beloved brethren, our struggle and our zeal.  For this is the time of unseen martyrdom…”

What is this struggle that St. Isaac speaks of and how can it be overcome? Is it some dread mysterious experience that only the very holy or only monastics or only spiritually advanced strugglers experience? No, not at all. St. Isaac names two specific areas or perhaps better, arenas, in which this fiercest of struggles attacks believers, all believers, the young and the old, the spiritually advanced and the spiritually negligent, the married and the monastic. These two areas are, first, the struggle to maintain chastity and, second, the struggle with the feeling of abandonment.  Let’s take a closer look at these two areas of struggle and St. Isaac’s advice on how not to be overcome by them.

What is chastity and how do we maintain it? Chastity refers to moral purity generally, but specifically to sexual purity.  It does not necessarily refer to sexual abstinence. The hymns of the Church refer to Sts. Joachim and Anna as “chaste” even though they were evidently sexual active: they are the parents of our Mother Mary, God’s Birthgiver.  Rather, chastity, when it is referring specifically to sexual activity, is referring to properly ordered sexuality. The struggle with chastity is the struggle with disordered passion. Disordered sexual passion is desire that is inappropriate, untimely or perversely directed. And keep in mind that the word “perverse” doesn’t mean “bad,” but rather means “twisted,” diverted from its appropriate use and purpose. So when we speak of perverted sexual desires, we do not mean bad sexual desire, for sexual desire of itself is good as God created it. We are talking about sexual desire wrongly guided or directed, sexual desire that is uncontrolled.

Every human being, in my experience, struggles or has struggled with maintaining chastity. Tolstoy in the beginning of Anna Karenina says, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think something similar can be said about chastity. We all know, at least approximately, what chastity looks like, but each one of us struggles to maintain it in his or her own way. Our struggles to maintain chastity are intensely personal, as personal as our own story, our childhood experiences and traumas, our secret indulgences and the bad habits of thought and action and the degree to which we have or have not resisted them. Each person struggles to maintain chastity resisting his or her own perversions.

But it’s not that sexual perversions are that unique. There is nothing new under the sun. It is rather that each person experiences his or her struggle uniquely, the particular form of the twisting or perversion he or she suffers from being influenced by a myriad of factors from DNA to social conditioning, from childhood experiences to the availability and kinds of pornography or other models of immorality.  All of these influence the exact sorts of perverse desires any one of us may experience and how each of us then struggles to maintain chastity. However, and this is very important, everyone struggles or has struggled to maintain chastity—you are not the only one.  Your struggle almost certainly is in secret, the unseen martyrdom as St. Isaac says, but your struggle in this area one of the common human struggles.

The second arena St. Isaac points out as giving us the fiercest spiritual struggle is when we feel abandoned, abandoned by people, but most importantly, abandoned by God. Sometimes this feeling of abandonment is manifest as despondency or depression and is accompanied by a strong urge to give up, to just sit and do nothing, or not to get out of the bed in the morning. However, sometimes the feeling of abandonment manifests itself as an urge to cast off restraint, to give oneself over to wine, women and song; to eat, drink and be merry. And while both of these symptoms or manifestations of the feeling of abandonment are dangerous, the most dangerous in my opinion is when the feeling of abandonment leads to cynicism. A depressed Christian or an unrestrained Christian are both spiritually ill, but they are both usually aware of their sickness and, if they are willing, are relatively easy to help. I say relatively easy because even though both depression and licentiousness can have many possible causes and take a long time to understand and overcome, people who have the spiritual disease of cynicism often do not even realize that they are sick.  

A Christian who is cynical may consider him or herself to be in many ways a model Christian, a leader, someone who sees clearly and knows the dark side of every Christian leader, institution or tradition. Cynicism is very difficult to heal because it is very difficult for the cynical Christian to admit that he or she is very sick. But once recognized as a spiritual illness, cynicism can be healed. Keep in mind that the root of cynicism, very often, is the feeling of abandonment. Christians, Orthodox Christians, become cynical often because the people or institutions they had relied on failed them in some serious ways. They then become cynical because God seems to have abandoned them, God seems far away, God does not seem to come to their aid, does not help them in the ways they thought He would. But because they do not want to give up faith completely, because they perhaps cannot give up faith, they cope with their pain and the incongruities of their religious experience through cynicism.  

And so the cynical Christian is stuck in a kind of eddy at the side of the River Life. He or she moves in little circles, making what she or he considers to be insightful, cynical comments on the River as it passes by. But the cynic is stuck, not going anywhere out of fear, fear which can be seen only as they are willing to look deeply into themselves. The Christian cynic fears that the shadows he or she has focused on for so long are all that exist, that the Light has abandoned them.  

So what do we do then? How do we keep from being overcome by these struggles, these, “fiercest struggles” of the Christian journey, whether they be struggles to maintain chastity (in all of its various and possible forms) or struggles with abandonment issues (again, in any of its various forms or manifestations)? According to St. Isaac, all of these struggles are won or lost through thoughts and habits, and it is the struggle not to give in to our perverse sexual thoughts and the thoughts generated by (and generating) feelings of abandonment that he calls "the unseen martyrdom.”  But how do we control our thoughts and habits?

St. Isaac compares vice, be it sexual perversion or the depression, lack of restraint or cynicism that come from feelings of abandonment, to a potted plant or tree that one waters regularly. If you want the tree to die, you have to stop watering it. The more you water it by thinking about it, actively remembering it and doing it (in your mind, with your body or with your words), the stronger the tree becomes. The stronger the tree becomes, the harder it is to kill it. That is, the more you give in to thoughts that lead to sexual perversion, depression, lack of self control or cynicism, the more you associate that vice with yourself, the more you associate that vice with who you really are, who you think you really are. Often when people say to me, “That’s just the way I am,” I am tempted to say back, “No, that just the way you have become.” Actually, I seldom say that because the person I am talking to is not yet at a place where he or she can hear it, but it is true nonetheless.  

But just as it is true that we become who we are (or we think we are) by means of accepting certain thoughts as though they were our own, we can also become who we want to be, who we really are, by rejecting thoughts, by resisting images and turning our attention away from thoughts that lead us where we don’t want to go. I cannot become you, nor you me. We can only become ourselves, our best selves, our selves in Christ. And what St. Isaac seems to be saying is that our broken selves, our selves driven to unchaste thoughts and actions, our selves suffering from and trying to cope with feelings of abandonment, our broken selves are not who we have to be. Who we have become is not who we have to be. We can change, but change does not come easily or quickly. Habits of thought and action that have taken years to develop, with also take years to overcome. St. Mary of Egypt, for example, lived a life of wantonness for seventeen years, and so we read in the story of Her life that for Her first seventeen years in the desert, she suffered greatly with a desire to drink wine and to sing lewd songs. It took a while, after she ceased her immoral behaviour, a long while, for the habit of immoral thought to change.  

So we too must struggle with thoughts. We too may find ourselves, like St. Mary of Egypt, struggling for days at a time with impure thoughts or with fears that God has rejected us. We too, for example, may be constantly tempted to make cynical comments, to think the worst of others, or to doubt whether it all makes any difference.  We may be tempted to stay in bed, not to get out of our chair, not to brush our teeth (someone once told me that, that was how he knew he was struggling with depression: he didn’t want to brush his teeth). However we personally experience this fiercest struggle of the Christian life, this unseen martyrdom, we must each through patience, through long suffering, learn to do battle in our minds, for there and only there will the battle be won.

There are two techniques that I have found helpful in this unseen martyrdom. The first is recommending by St. Isaac in homily 32: “Be on you guard against idleness.” St. Isaac goes on to point out that on the day of judgement, God will not judge us regarding our idleness, regarding what we did not accomplish (contrary to what the cultural theology of our capitalist society teaches us: God is not concerned with what we do or do not accomplish). Rather, God will judge us because by abandoning what He had given us to do to keep our minds active and busy in healthy pursuits, we have become idle thus opening “the door to the demons.” That is, the perverse thoughts and feelings of abandonment are able to enter our mind because we are not keeping our mind busy with what God has given us to do. In the case of the hermit monk (the specific person St. Isaac is addressing) this would be psalmody, prayers and handiwork. In the case of a mother or father, avoiding idleness may have more to do with caring for family members and their needs, along with personal spiritual disciplines.

You see disciplines like saying the Jesus Prayer, cleaning the house, or paying attention to your spouse and children are not only good in themselves, they are also good in that they keep our minds and hearts from being idle, thus limiting the ability of the evil one to plant perverse thoughts in our minds. And even when perverse or depressing thoughts and feelings enter our minds, we do not have to identify with them, we do not have to claim the thoughts or feelings as our own. Rather, we can say to ourselves, “Oh, that old thought again.” Or, “Oh, I know what that yucky feeling is and where it comes from.”  

And this leads me to the second helpful technique. It is something I picked up a long time ago from reading the life of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Frances used to refer to his own body as “brother ass.” For example, if he were hungry, he would sometimes say, “brother ass needs to be fed.” He also said things like (and here I don’t remember the exact quotation), we must be gentle with brother ass, but not allow him to lead us. In other words, when our mind or body is experiencing urges or feelings that we do not want, but that we cannot seem to control, it is helpful to give these thoughts or feelings a name and then to deal with the thought or feeling as though you were dealing with someone or something else, not yourself, but someone or something that has sort of hitch hiked a ride on you. If I have a cynical thought, I can say to myself, “Oh, that’s my high school science teacher talking again.” Then I can separate that thought from myself and move on to think more clearly about the matter. St. Paul uses this very technique in his epistles when he talks about the old man and the new man, the old Adam and the new Adam.  

When I am able to separate a depressing thought from myself by naming it, I am then more easily able to dismiss the thought—or at least to corral it somewhat, to put it in a box for a while so that I can ask myself more helpful questions such as, “what does Faith say?” or “What is the least I can do?” or “Is this lustful thought really loving?” or “what else could I be doing right now?” Taking the time to ask these questions often opens a door of escape, a door by which I can free myself for a moment from the thoughts that are oppressing me.

What does martyrdom look like? We all know about the martyrdom of blood, but few of us know about the unseen martyrdom, “the fiercest of struggles,” as St. Isaac calls it.  Every Christian is called to martyrdom, called to be a witness for Christ (after all, the word “martyr” comes from the Greek word that means to be a witness). Some are martyred publicly though the shedding of their bodily blood; most of us, however, are called to the unseen martyrdom, to “the struggle that resists to the shedding of blood [unseen].” Most of us take our stand for Christ in the arena of our mind, with our thoughts, and through the bloody inner struggle to learn to control them.