Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 45

Posted: June 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

92.  Our intellect lies between angel and demon, each of which works for its own ends, the one encouraging virtue and the other vice. The intellect has both the authority and the power to follow or resist whichever it wishes to.

As I’ve pointed out before, I believe the word they’ve chosen to translate “intellect” in these texts is nous, which is not an easy word to translate into English. Our nous is often disordered. It’s our receptive and experiential mind and it’s often like a radio receiver, tuning into to anything that’s broadcast. But we do have an ability to tune it and to choose what it receives. That does not imply it’s an easy task, but it is a possible task, which is something else entirely. And the fact that it is possible gives meaning to our struggle.


Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

Posted: January 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

In this chapter Matthew tackles another issue which is a common objection raised among some particular groups of Protestants, including Baptists (with whom I am most familiar). As with most of the other issues he tackles in this section, I have to confess this is one I’ve never really understood on a visceral level. The issue itself is straightforward. The non-liturgical churches largely do not use set prayers in either their corporate worship or individual discipline of prayer and consider such formal prayers a form of vain repetition. (It sometimes seems as though they believe there can exist no sort of repetition that is not somehow vain.)

Of course, there’s a bit of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more involved in that statement. In truth there is an expected structure and order to the extemporaneous prayers and it takes little time or effort to discern that structure in any church. And that, as much as anything else, reveals something about human beings which God and His Church have always known. We learn from those around us, we absorb tradition almost unconsciously at times, and we are creatures of habit — for good or ill.

There is not and never has been anything wrong with extemporaneous prayers. Prayer is one of our primary means of mystical connection with God. If we have something to say, we should say it and strive to learn to speak honestly. But prayer consists of so much more than merely talking to God. It is a means by which — both individually and corporately — we fill our lives with God. In and through prayer, we order time and days with the fullness of Christ. As we work to keep the connection of our true mind — our heart or nous —  centered in Christ, he is able to heal and transform us. If salvation is union with Christ, then true prayer is surely one of the means through which we achieve that union.

And extemporaneous prayers are not enough. They never have been. And when you look beneath the surface, those who advance in the Christian life all know it. Billy Graham mentioned in an interview I read that he works through all the Psalms and the Proverbs every month. The Psalter has always been at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition of set prayers.

I think many people are confused about the fundamental purpose of prayer. While we should intercede for others before God every day, prayer is not primarily about asking God to act or to do something specific. And yet, that seems to be a common understanding today within certain groups of Christians. We pray so that we can stand aware of the presence of God and be transformed and renewed by him. Prayer operates on levels we do not necessarily perceive. Even when we don’t feel like praying, we need to pray. In fact, it’s probably most important to pray when we don’t feel like it. And stopping to pray at set times will begin to alter our perception and experience of daily life.

It’s slow going. The reality is that I often don’t want God, not at the deepest levels of my heart. I want to order my days as I see fit. I don’t pray without ceasing because I often want to keep God at arm’s length. Set prayer slowly chips away at that wall and more than anything else, I think that’s why we all resist it.

Historically, of course, liturgical prayers for corporate worship and the practice of set prayers at set times flows straight from ancient Jewish practice into the life of Jesus and his followers as captured in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and through them into the life and practice of the Church. It’s one of the easiest historical threads to trace and permeates Christianity in all places and at all times until the modern era.

Personally, I was exposed to Roman Catholic prayers when I attended a Roman Catholic school growing up. I also practiced Hindu meditation and had some exposure to Buddhism. As an adult within Christianity, I’ve explored the tapestry and tradition of Christian prayers. And one thing I can say with certainty is that the goal of chanting or other repetition in the Eastern religions is vastly different from the purpose of set prayers in the Christian tradition.

Neither of those, though, are what Scripture have in mind when it refers to many words or vain repetitions. In many of the ancient pagan religions, flowery and grandiose language was used and often repeated in an effort to gain the god’s attention and, hopefully, favor. Even in the texts of the Holy Scriptures, examples of that specific sort of pagan prayer abound. One of the clearest examples can be seen in the story of Elijah versus the priests of Baal. The priests were chanting, dancing, and even cutting themselves in their efforts to gain Baal’s attention.

Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are different. Repetition, either in group chanting or private meditation, is intended to clear or empty your mind in order to open your consciousness. In Christian set prayers (and particularly in short, repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer), you are trying to place your heart with Christ. Connecting yourself to Christ may be many things, but it is rarely vain.

In fact, I would say that in this particular instance, Hinduism and Christianity share more similarity with each other than they do with the sorts of ancient pagan prayers that are called ‘vain repetitions.’ Hindu chanting and meditation is the shape prayer takes if there is a transcendent, panentheistic ‘God‘ who is the ground of reality, but who is not personal (for lack of a better term). We need to free ourselves from the illusion which binds us and learn to perceive the divine within ourselves and which permeates everything and everyone. (I am not and have never been a guru, so I apologize in advance for mangling the concept.) The deep tradition of Christian prayer — from the liturgical prayers to the daily personal discipline to prayers like the Jesus Prayer — is the shape prayer takes when there is a transcendent, panentheistic God who is as personal as a perfect communion of ‘persons‘ or hypostases who have created each of us to join in that divine communion. (Never forget that in God we live and move and have our being and that He is the Creator God in whom all that is created subsists every single moment. If God were to withdraw himself from any part of creation, it would simply cease to exist.

With that said, Matthew Gallatin makes some intriguing points in this chapter in ways that I had not really considered. Some of those points, however, require a deeper understanding of what Christianity calls the nous. Nous is a Greek word that does not easily translate into English. It’s the word used, for instance, in Romans 12:2. Among modern Protestants of certain stripes, it’s common to see that verse referenced as evidence that we need to think the right things about God. While it’s true that holding wrong ideas about Christ — wrong images of God — in our intellect does interfere with our ability to truly know God, that understanding does not reflect the actual Christian understanding of nous. I’m not sure I can clearly express the concept, but I will do my best.

First and foremost, our nous is the center of our being created to live in communion with God. And it is our nous which is darkened by sin. It is our nous, as the foundation of our whole selves, that was dead and to which Christ came to give life. If our nous is not healed, nothing about us can truly be healed. With that in mind, Christianity normally divides our inner being or consciousness into two levels. One is often called our intellect. It is the seat of our rational thought and emotions. It’s of the same essence as the minds of the animals, though we tend to have more capacity. We now know this function is inextricably intertwined with our physical brains. The nous, sometimes also translated as heart, is the mind we do not share with the other animals. It’s that deeper level in which we stand before God in mystical communion. Formal prayers help us descend through our intellect into our nous. When we are “conversing” and formulating our prayer as we proceed, we are necessarily bound to our intellect speaking to our mental construction of God. Extemporaneous prayers are ultimately too noisy to allow us to meet God face to face.

Matthew opens with an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters which I’ll include at the end of this post, but first I want to cover some of the other points he makes. The first is so obvious that I had never even noticed it. The same sorts of Christians who reject the set prayers and the prayer tradition of the Church think nothing of memorizing and singing hymns and choruses. Especially in corporate worship, there is a deep Christian tradition of chanting or singing prayers. While the tradition of hymns and choruses may not be as deep (though some hymns are ancient indeed), they do form a type of corporate liturgical prayer using memorized or written prayers. For surely if our songs are not ultimately prayers, what meaning can they hold?

Spontaneous prayers also tend to be an expression of self. The more passionate and heartfelt they are the more that is true. And while there is benefit in exposing ourselves to God, that benefit lies primarily in learning to see and know ourselves truly. God already knows us. We need to know God, not the other way around. Moreover, we deceive ourselves more than we care to admit. When our prayers consist merely of expressing ourselves to God, we can deceive ourselves and turn our own selfish desires into “God’s desire” for our life. When we pray the prayers of the Church, including the Psalter, those prayers lay bare our self-deceit.

Matthew relates the following, which touched me deeply, though I’m not entirely sure why. The emphasis is mine.

The holy ones who pray in silence are those who, by the grace of God, have transcended even the need for the bridge of words. These blessed ones simply dwell in the nous, beholding like the Apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration the glorious Light of God (see Matthew 17). Since I’ve become Orthodox, I’ve had the very humbling privilege of meeting some of those mystically sweet and eminently quiet souls who by the grace of Christ have entered that place. Their eyes seem as deep as the universe.

I struggle with even the simplest rule of prayer. I cannot imagine my meager efforts ever approaching such a point. But I recognize my heart’s desire in the description above.

And finally, I’ll close with the words Matthew quotes from old Screwtape. (For those who are unfamiliar with the book, Screwtape is an older demon writing advice to his nephew, a younger demon with his first charge.) I’ll include the emphasis Matthew adds. I find it strange that so many evangelicals today love C.S. Lewis. He writes a great many things that must be uncomfortable for them to hear.

The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently reconverted to the Enemy’s party [ by “Enemy,” of course, the demon means God], like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised … in which real concentration of will and intelligence  have no part … That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 25

Posted: December 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 25

71. A person pursuing the spiritual way is perhaps quicker to recognize the other demons, and so he more easily escapes the harm that they do, but in the case of the demons that appear to cooperate with the progress of virtue and pretend they want to help in building a temple to the Lord, surely no intellect is so sublime as to recognize them without the assistance of the active and living Logos who pervades all things and pierces ‘even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit’ (Heb. 4:12) – who discerns, in other words, which acts or conceptual images pertain to the soul, that is, are natural forms or expressions of virtue, and which are spiritual, that is, are supranatural and characteristic of God, but bestowed on nature by grace. It is only the Logos who knows whether  ‘the joints and marrow’, that is, the qualities of virtue and spiritual principles, have been united harmoniously or not, and who judges the intentions and thoughts of the heart (ibid.), that is, judges from what is said the invisible underlying disposition and the motives hidden in -the soul. For to Him nothing in us is unseen: however we think we may escape notice, to Him ‘all things are naked and open’ (Heb. 4:13), not only what we do or think, but even what we will do or will think.

We have a natural capacity for virtue. And the more subtle of the demons will cooperate and aid, rather than hinder, that natural capacity for the purpose of creating and stirring pride within our heart. Only the living Word can divide and truly reveal to us our own inward state. Of course, I’m so far from the point of recognizing and breaking free from the normal passions, that I’m a long way from these more subtle dangers. But I do recognize the danger of pride — the way it so easily and quickly turns us from the publican in the parable to the pharisee.


Reality

Posted: November 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reality

Sometimes it seems to me that a great many Christians in our present culture and age have surrendered the reality of our faith. That manifests in a host of different ways and crosses both the modern “liberal” and “conservative” Christian divides. I’ll try to explore some of those ways in this post, but I’m not trying to be comprehensive. Rather, I’m trying to peel back the layers and at least make an effort to reveal what lies underneath.

Some ways this happens are obvious. For instance, there are many who deny the historical reality of our faith. They reject the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other facets of our faith yet often want to maintain some connection or identification with it. While our faith is not merely historical, it collapses if God did not in fact become one of us — fully and in every way — confronting the powers and ultimately defeating them. An euvangelion is a particular sort of “good news.” It’s the good news of a victorious king who has defeated the enemies that assail his people, and who has thereby made his people safe. Either that’s what Jesus accomplished or as far as I can tell, there’s no reason to be Christian.

Perhaps I see the demarcation more clearly than some who have been raised and formed within some sort of Christian context. I have been other things and I have worshiped other gods. Whatever similarities you can find between them, they say fundamentally different things about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being. That’s why in some contexts (ancient and modern) Christianity is said to be the end of religion. God has intruded into history and in Jesus, the eternal Son and Word became one of us in every way. Jesus makes God known to us. Jesus reveals God to us. And Jesus provides the path through which we can know God and be one with God. If Christianity is true, we aren’t guessing about reality any more. But that’s only the case if Jesus of Nazareth truly forms the center of human history.

Sometimes this disconnect from reality happens in other ways. For instance, I’ve never been able to grasp what Christians who assert that the cosmos are only a few thousand years old are trying to achieve. That’s so clearly and demonstrably false across virtually every discipline of knowledge that it comes across more as a denial of reality than anything else.

It is true that as Christians we do not share the same understanding of reality as materialists who hold there is nothing beyond the sensible realm (though things like quantum mechanics stretch what we mean by sensible realm). But we should not deny the clear evidence of our senses. Where a materialist, for example, would perceive nothing but the physical mechanics of, for instance, the processes of evolution, a Christian would (or at least should) see a process infused by the particular sort of God who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. But the evidence for that view is in the Incarnation, not in anything we can learn through our study of nature.

How do you perceive a God who is sustaining and filling everything from moment to moment? How do you see the God who is maintaining the existence of both the observer and the observed? If we had the capacity to know God on our own, the Incarnation would not have been necessary. Everything we learn or know has the capacity to draw us to God or away from God. The result is really up to us. But we aren’t going to be able to somehow distill and separate God from his creation. Yes, God certainly transcends creation. That’s why he had to become human — to empty himself — in order for us to know him. But he’s not a separate aspect or element in creation. The smallest particle, the least bit of energy, the smallest fragment of a wave are all sustained moment by moment in and through Christ. There is nothing that has any independent existence. Only God is self-existent and eternal. Everything else is created and depends on God. Fortunately our God does not begrudge existence to any of his creation. It would be a frightening thing for existence to depend on the whim of the capricious God so many imagine.

Reality itself is thus fundamentally sacramental or a mystery of God. And our role within it is to act as priests — to minister God to creation and offer creation back as thanksgiving to God. If you can perceive reality through that lens, it makes a mockery of Zwingli’s musings. His idea that anything could merely represent God or, as is often said today, could be purely symbolic could only be true if there were, in fact, some sort of division between God and creation. His ideas require two thing that are altogether missing in the Christian perspective of reality — distance and self-existence. If water is never merely water then how can it become merely water when it is used sacramentally? It can, perhaps, become even more truly water, but it cannot become less. The same is true of oil and incense and bread and wine. They become even more real, not less.

I’m also confused about how modern Christians perceive reality when I see how many of them treat variation in Christian belief and practice almost as matters of personal taste and preference. Even after fifteen years, it makes no sense to me and it seems to be a pretty modern occurrence. As recently as two hundred years ago, though there were many differences among Christians, they all believed those differences really and truly mattered. Now? Not so much. But our perception of God defines our understanding of reality. If, for instance, Calvin accurately described God, then reality is very different than it would be if, for contrast, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s description is more correct. One of them could be right. They could both be wrong. But they cannot both be right. They offer divergent and often completely contradictory images of God. Athanasius and Anselm both wrote on the Incarnation and they do not say the same thing. God is the fundamental ground of reality and how we understand him is vitally important, not a secondary concern. To the extent we misapprehend God, we misapprehend reality.

While we do have some limited capacity to shape reality within the sphere of our personal power and will, to a large degree reality is simply what it is and lies beyond our ability to mold. And we certainly can’t change God just by imagining him to be a certain way. There is a name for that space between reality and our perception of it. It’s called delusion. Personally, I would prefer to be as free from delusion as I can be. I know I can’t do that on my own. Christianity proclaims that I don’t have to. The Word became flesh and gives us the grace, which is to say himself, to know God. Christianity tells us that, if we are willing, we can see reality as it is.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 14

Posted: October 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 14

38. Scripture says that seven spirits will rest upon the Lord: the spirit of wisdom, the spirit of understanding, the spirit of spiritual knowledge, the spirit of cognitive insight, the spirit of counsel, the spirit of strength, and the spirit of the fear of God (cf. Isa. 11:2). The effects produced by these spiritual gifts are as follows: by fear, abstention from evil; by strength, the practice of goodness; by counsel, discrimination with respect to the demons; by cognitive insight, a clear perception of what one has to do; by spiritual knowledge, the active grasping of the divine principles inherent in the virtues; by understanding, the soul’s total empathy with the things that it has come to know; and by wisdom, an indivisible union with God, whereby the saints attain the actual enjoyment of the things for which they long. He who shares in wisdom becomes god by participation and, immersed in the ever-flowing, secret outpouring of God’s mysteries, he imparts to those who long for it a knowledge of divine blessedness.

The only true wisdom lies in union and communion with God. That strikes me personally as the most important point of all. There is, however, a clear progression toward that true wisdom and the first step is to begin to choose to abstain from evil. Unfortunately, it seems to me that many modern Christian groups get stuck in that first step (perhaps with brief forays into the second — the practice of goodness). To grow in union with God it is important to learn to stop doing evil and start doing good. Moreover, we have to learn to desire what is good over what is evil. But that’s just the starting point, not the destination or goal. It’s important not to lose sight of that point.


Health Care in the US

Posted: September 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

As a rule, I don’t tend to post on political issues, mostly because I don’t tend to write about or otherwise wrestle with such matters at any significant level. I do stay generally informed, and I also find that much of what passes for political discourse in our country is pretty abysmal.

Health care, however, is one issue which does concern me a great deal, especially since at least two of my children have inherited celiac disease from me. Personally, my wife and I are somewhat insulated and secure from the worst of what has happened to health care in the US over the past decades. I’m a federal employee and as such we are covered under the FEHB. Twenty years ago, the FEHB offered pretty average employer insurance plan with low to average benefits and costs. Over the past couple of decades, I have watched our health care coverage become better and less expensive than that of almost everyone else I know.

And my health care plan has not significantly changed.

Let me say that again. Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen my health care plan go from, at best, a middle of the road plan, to one that seems to be better than that of most of the people I know without changing. I have watched the overall level of health care access and coverage dramatically decline for almost everyone else around me.

That’s not to say they aren’t constantly tweaking and adjusting my health care plan each year. Some years we pay a bit more in deductibles and other copayments. Some years we pay a bit less. Premium costs have pretty much risen every year, but at a less dramatic pace than that of many people I know. They did add a PPO network in the nineties, and reduced coverage for care received by non-participating medical practitioners and facilities. But the plan’s PPO network is so large, that’s been a non-issue. I don’t think there’s ever been a doctor or facility we wanted to use that was not a preferred provider on our plan.

As a result, my wife and I have been somewhat insulated from the abuses in health care coverage in this country and it’s less likely to ever be a critical issue for us personally. However, at least two of our children inherited celiac disease from me — that is they’ve been tested and positively diagnosed with active celiac disease. Thus, they already have one strike for a pre-existing condition and it’s a condition which can manifest in a huge variety of ways. They also have a family history for a variety of other conditions they could develop over the course of their lives. So from a personal perspective, the issue of health care does strike close to home.

However, that statement is true for every single one of us. The odds that we or someone we love will face some sort of serious, life-threatening, and individually unaffordable (unless you happen to be a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet) health crisis at some point in our lives approach certainty. And within the context of the privatized, for-profit system we allowed to balloon over the course of the past two decades, the odds were unacceptably high that during that almost inevitable health crisis, we would not have access to the level of care we might expect and our family would be crippled by debt for the care we did manage to receive. This is clearly the sort of problem that can only be mitigated by sharing the risk, responsibility, and cost as a society. It’s for reasons like this that we group together as a society and a country. There are many things we can do together that we simply can’t do alone.

Of course, it’s a scientifically demonstrated fact that the way our minds function leaves us remarkably poor at evaluating and acting on those sorts of risks. Even when we know the odds, we tend to have irrational optimism that we can beat the odds in some situations. (That’s one reason why, in every flood here, there are usually people who get in trouble and even die from driving around barriers and into flooded low water crossings.) Conversely, we tend to inflate threats that seem riskier, but which actually have a comparatively lower and often even minimal chance of impacting us. The biggest risk many of us personally encounter on any given day is the risk of simply driving to work, school, or the grocery store. But if you ask people to list or rank risky activities, that rarely makes the list at all.

In this instance, managing health care at the societal level in some way is the common sense thing to do from a self-oriented, pragmatic perspective. Ironically, it’s also the only thing you can do if you claim to love your neighbor. In this country, we have organized ourselves as a form of representative democracy. One of the things that means is that we all share in the responsibility of ruling our country. As Christians, that has particular implications. It means we face, though perhaps on a more distributed scale, exactly the same sort of dilemmas that Christian emperors and other rulers have faced throughout history. We are the powers and authorities who will be held accountable by Jesus for the way we have exercised that power. We cannot escape that responsibility and we cannot abdicate it. There are no easy answers to the proper use of that power. There never have been.

Unfortunately, there is no easy button.

So what are our options? I’ve studied what other countries do to some extent and it seems to me that most employ variations of one of three different general approaches. (Yes, I know there are a lot of ideas out there, but most countries seem to actually end up doing one of three things.) It also seems to me that part of our problem is that we are trying to use them all in a disorganized and hodge-podge manner rather than selecting one approach for everyone in our country. If we are going to truly share the risk, responsibility, and cost, it doesn’t seem effective to me to take that approach, especially if, as you’ll see, we segregate pools of those with higher risks and costs from those with lower risks and costs.

So what are these options?

  1. Government run health care. In this system, the government owns the hospitals. Most doctors and other health care practitioners work for the government in those institutions. And basically, health care is delivered directly by the government. England is one example of a system like this. There are many variations and permutations.
  2. Single payer health care. In this system, the doctors and other practitioners largely do not work for the government, nor does the government own or directly operate most of the hospitals and other facilities. Instead, the government is the single payer for health care services. They negotiate payments and they usually distribute the costs to some degree across the populations based on your ability to pay. Canada is one example of a system like this. Again, there are a lot of different ways to do it, but they do share the same common characteristics.
  3. Government regulated health care insurance exchange. Here, the government does not directly pay most health care costs. Instead, it establishes and regulates an insurance exchange and mandates the participation of all citizens in order to spread the risk across the population. Such a system typically must include subsidies for groups like the poor. Switzerland’s system is generally the model for a system like this.

Those are the basic, widely used options. And here’s where the arguments of those who seem to oppose almost anything that is proposed turn irrational. Why? Because we employ all of the above approaches in our country and have for a very long time. Yes, I know there has been widespread demagoguery over government taking over health care or socialized medicine, but though it has been noisy, it’s had no basis in reality. I don’t personally have any strong preference for one system over another. But my life has been such that I prefer to maintain some connection to the world as it actually is rather than my fantasy about it.

Let’s start at the top of my list. Because we are so large as a country, we actually have a government run health care system that rivals that of some smaller countries. It’s called the Veteran’s Administration. While the VA operates many programs on behalf of veterans, one of the largest is certainly the network of doctors, hospitals, and clinics it runs. We hear about it in the news when there is a problem with a VA hospital, but they mostly do pretty amazing work — especially when you consider that we usually choose to underfund them. If a government-run health care system is good enough for those who have served us in our military, tell me again why it wouldn’t be good enough for all of us? Be careful how you answer that question. Though I’m not eligible for care through the VA, I am a veteran.

Or let’s move to the next item on my list. Our government-operated single payer system is the largest single health care system in our country and is much larger, I believe, than Canada’s entire health care system. Our single payer system, of course, is called Medicare. In the debates over health care, both Republicans and Democrats publicly defended Medicare. I remember some of my older relatives, especially the ones with serious illnesses and inadequate coverage, anxiously waiting to reach the Medicare enrollment age. It has problems, of course, because of the way we’ve chosen to structure and fund it over the years, but as a system it works well enough that threats to take it away seems to raise the ire of those who have it.

Finally, even before the recent Act, we had government-regulated insurance exchange option available. It’s the one that has covered my family and me for most of my life, the Federal Employee Health Benefit (FEHB) program. OPM has regulated the program pretty well over the years and overall it’s worked pretty effectively.

The recently passed health care reform act requires that similar exchanges be established at the state level (or the state can opt into a national exchange), but the only population of those exchanges will be those who do not have health care coverage through their employer and who do not participate in any of the above health care systems. (And yes, I know I left Medicaid off my list, but it’s similar to Medicare in the way it functions.) That’s certainly an improvement over our current situation, but it means the pool will be a lot smaller which isn’t very good for sharing the cost and risk across the population.

Personally, I believe we need to move toward some single system. As I said, I don’t have any strong feelings about any particular system. Since I’ve participated in the FEHB for twenty-five years, I probably have a slight preference for expanding it to be the single exchange for all United States citizens. That’s not necessarily easy. In order to fund it and make it affordable, we would probably have to mandate that large businesses pay at least the same portion of the premium for their employees that the Federal Government does for its employees. And then we would need to develop appropriate subsidies for individuals and people in various categories such as the poor and the elderly. And it would obviously require a larger regulatory body than OPM currently has in place. But it could work if we had the will to make it work. Switzerland has proven that it’s possible.

In the interim, the health care act has some excellent features. The changes to prohibit denial of coverage of preexisting conditions and the end of the evil practice of rescission alone are very worthwhile. The extension of coverage under parental plans until the age of twenty-six means I will be able to keep my younger two children (both with celiac disease) on my insurance for as long as should be necessary. The insurance reform requiring that a minimum of 85% of premiums be used to cover medical loss is a great first step. I still remember when the typical medical loss by our mostly non-profit insurance companies was 95%, so I’m not impressed by the 85% number. Still, it’s better than the current 70%-80% medical loss. 85% is at least less egregious than the current situation. There are others, but those were the ones that I found particularly relevant.

Nevertheless, it’s a patchwork law that really doesn’t do enough. That doesn’t upset me terribly. That’s how things usually work with us. The health care reform act was a good start. Now we just have to keep making it better while trying not to take any steps backwards.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 12

Posted: July 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 12

32. There are three things that impel us towards what is holy: natural instincts, angelic powers and probity of intention. Natural instincts impel us when, for example, we do to others what we would wish them to do to us (cf. Luke 6:31), or when we see someone suffering deprivation or in need and naturally feel compassion. Angelic powers impel us when, being ourselves impelled to something worthwhile, we find we are providentially helped and guided. We are impelled by probity of intention when, discriminating between good and evil, we choose the good.

33. There are also three things that impel us towards evil: passions, demons and sinfulness of intention. Passions impel us when, for example, we desire something beyond what is reasonable, such as food which is unnecessary or untimely, or a woman who is not our wife or for a purpose other than procreation, or else when we are excessively angered or irritated by, for instance, someone who has dishonored or injured us. Demons impel us when, for example, they catch us off our guard and suddenly launch a violent attack upon us, stirring up the passions already mentioned and others of a similar nature. We are impelled by sinfulness of intention when, knowing the good, we choose evil instead.

I wanted to highlight the above two texts together. The number three had a sacred meaning in ancient Judaism and, considered in light of the three Persons of the Trinity, took on even greater significance in Christianity. In these texts, St. Maximos draws parallels between the forces which move us toward good and those which move us toward evil in groups of three.

Our natural instincts, as creatures in the image of God impel us toward good, while our unbridled passions impel us toward evil and seek to rule us. Angels seek to help us and guide us toward good while demons seek to fuel our passions. But the most important of all, I think, are those cusps where we know the difference between good and evil and willfully and deliberately choose the one or the other. Every such choice, large or small, is important for those choices shape our will. The more we choose evil, the easier we find it to will evil and the harder we find it to will good. And the reverse is true as well.

Our wills need to be healed, but they can only be healed through choosing good. And at every such point at which we can exercise our will for good, an evil alternative is always available and may often seem more attractive.

Healing our wills is also essential in our overall salvation. This is why the determination that Jesus had both a human and divine will in the sixth ecumenical council is so important to our faith. If Jesus did not have a human will or if his human will was wholly subsumed in his divine will, then our wills are not healed in Christ and we have no hope of true healing. Our human will can be healed because Jesus assumed a human will and willfully remained the faithful and good man at every point of intention and decision in the face of every temptation to do otherwise. He truly became one of us and in him we are healed.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 13

Posted: April 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

46.  He who has been granted divine knowledge and has through love acquired its illumination will never be swept hither and thither by the demon of self-esteem. But he who has not yet been granted such knowledge will readily succumb to this demon. However, if in all that he does he keeps his gaze fixed on God, doing everything for His sake, he will with God’s help soon escape.

I mentioned earlier that the Fathers don’t tend to have our modern perspective on the issue of self-esteem. This text, where self-esteem is viewed as a demon, is a good illustration of that perspective. Reality is not such that a high self-esteem is good and a low self-esteem is bad as we often consider it today. Rather both high and low self-esteem, to the extent that we are focused on and esteeming ourselves, will ensnare us.

We need to respect ourselves as the good creation and image-bearer of God. But if we follow Christ, we will not esteem ourselves, but rather empty ourselves in and through love. Love is always the key that unlocks the Christian perspective of reality.