Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 44

Posted: May 31st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 44

91.  You will find it hard to check the resentment of an envious person, for what he envies in you he considers his own misfortune. You cannot check his envy except by hiding from him the thing that arouses his passion. If this thing benefits many but fills him with resentment, which side will you take? You have to help the majority but without, as far as possible, disregarding him, and without being seduced by the cunning of the passion itself, for you are defending not the passion but the sufferer. You must in humility consider him superior to yourself, and always, everywhere and in every matter put his interest above yours. As for your own envy, you will be able to check it if you rejoice with the man whom you envy whenever he rejoices, and grieve whenever he grieves, thus fulfilling St Paul’s words, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep’ (Rom. 12:15).

Envy is a form of resentment that is particularly insidious. When envy is at work, recovery can be long and difficult as St. Maximos outlines above. I often find it difficult to truly believe some of the people with whom I interact are superior to myself. Even when I’m able to perceive it, which is difficult in and of itself, acting on that perception is never easy.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 41

Posted: May 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 41

87.  Humility consists in constant prayer combined with tears and suffering. For this ceaseless calling upon God for help prevents us from foolishly growing confident in our own strength and wisdom, and from putting ourselves above others. These are dangerous diseases of the passion of pride.

We constantly “put ourselves above others.” It hardly even matters what group we are or are not in. In every human social context, we define those who are in our group over and usually against those who are not. And if we are capable within that context, we more easily fall victim to pride. But we also don’t perceive ourselves accurately and can be prideful when an outside observer might believe that pride unwarranted. Humility is a hard thing. We have difficulty humbling ourselves, but it is painful when we are humiliated by external forces. It strikes me as a dangerous thing to pray for humility. God, after all, might answer that prayer and grant our request.


The Jesus Prayer 12 – Getting Started

Posted: March 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 12 – Getting Started

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica begins the large question and answer section of her book with questions on how to get started with the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The first question deals with preparations. You have to at least want to cut out major, ongoing sin in your life. Look for a spiritual father or mother. Be part of a worshiping community and receive the sacraments regularly. Pray, fast, and give alms. Avoid excessive sleeping and eating. Expect that you will suffer injustice and sorrow. Strive for humility and be wary of pride. Pride is sneaky. I do like the way she identifies anger as an identifier for pride.

One clue to pride is anger; often, when we get angry, it is because pride has been dealt a wound. Avoid anger at all costs. The Desert Fathers warn more frequently against anger than against sexual sins, because anger poisons the soul. As the saying goes, “Anger is an acid that destroys its container.”

The ultimate goal of the Jesus Prayer is unceasing prayer. While that’s a lofty goal, keep it in mind. We can’t start doing something all the time, so start by doing it some of the time. Set a time or times each day to pray the Jesus Prayer and then stick with them whether you feel like it or not. A number of brief prayer times during the day are often more effective than one big prayer time. Be as sincere as you are able when you pray. The Jesus Prayer is a discipline because it often requires effort. But it’s a discipline that has stood the test of time. It has proven itself for more than fifteen hundred years.

The things we lay down firmly in our memories matter. They endure. If you take the words of the Jesus Prayer and “write them on the tablet of your heart” (Prov. 3:3), on the day when you are far away on the gray sea of Alzheimer’s, the Prayer will still be there, keeping your hand clasped in the hand of the Lord.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 24

Posted: November 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 24

68.  God is the cause of created beings and of their inherent goodness. Thus he who is puffed up with his virtue and knowledge, and whose grace-given progress in virtue is not matched by a corresponding recognition of his own weakness, falls inevitably into the sin of pride. He who seeks goodness for the sake of his own reputation prefers himself to God, for he has been pierced by the nail of self-esteem. By doing or speaking what is virtuous in order to be seen by men, he sets a much higher value on the approbation of men than on that of God. In short, he is a victim of the desire to be popular. And he who immorally makes use of morality solely to deceive by his solemn display of virtue, and hides the evil disposition of his will under the outward form of piety, barters virtue for the guile of hypocrisy. He aims at something other than the cause of all things.

Pride has many ways of ruling us. Humility, by contrast, is the most difficult of virtues. For when we set our eye on our humility, it immediately becomes pride. We can only truly be humble when we do not much think of ourselves at all.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 21

Posted: November 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 21

63. Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offenses are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.

Until I read this text by St. Maximos I had only thought of confession in the latter form he describes. It makes perfect sense that giving thanks for blessings received is a form of confession. We acknowledge that all good things come from God and we humble ourselves just as we do when we confess wrongs we have committed. It’s all too easy to convince ourselves that we have earned whatever blessings we have received and that can be a fatal trap.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 8

Posted: September 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 8

16.  The arrogant intellect is justly made the object of wrath, that is to say, it is abandoned by God, as I have already described, and the demons are permitted to plague it during contemplation. This happens so that it may become aware of its own natural weakness and recognize the grace and divine power which shields it and which accomplishes every blessing; and so that it may also learn humility, utterly discarding its alien and unnatural pride. If this indeed happens, then the other form of wrath – the withdrawal of graces previously given – will not visit it, because it has already been humbled and is now conscious of Him who provides all blessings.

Humility is hard.

Honestly, I don’t know any other way to say it. For even when we begin to be truly humble, we tend to observe our own humility and that very observation, perversely, tends to inspire pride. We divide into categories and tend to place ourselves in the better category. I’ve observed that even when I hear Christians truthfully say that God loves Muslims or God loves homosexuals, the very way it is phrased others those groups. The sense becomes one of God even loves them though the more accurate expression of reality would be to say that God loves them and God even loves us.

Other categories are little better. When we say that we are the saved and they are the lost, that is a statement of pride. I’m reminded again of the aged Romanian monk I heard (on video) say simply, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” When uttered honestly and from deep awareness of our own love for God, that strikes me as the truth of humility.

It is so easy to judge others as worse than ourselves. But when we do, we lose our consciousness of God, who provides all blessings.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 14

Posted: May 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 14

48. The person who fears the Lord has humility as his constant companion and, through the thoughts which humility inspires, reaches a state of divine love and thankfulness. For he recalls his former worldly way of life, the various sins he has committed and the temptations which have befallen him since his youth; and he recalls, too, how the Lord delivered him from all this, and how He led him away from a passion-dominated life to a life ruled by God. Then, together with fear, he also receives love, and in deep humility continually gives thanks to the Benefactor and Helmsman of our lives.

Several threads of thought have bounced around my head as I’ve meditated on this text. The first thought is that the “buddy Jesus” so common today in Western evangelical Christianity is largely useless to me. I can look at the history of the fierce, angry, and autocratic God that was (and I suppose still is in places) proclaimed in so much of recent Western Christianity and I can understand why people felt the need to emphasize and even over-emphasize his love and accessibility. And don’t get me wrong, a God of love who is rescuing and seeking union with his creation is a marvelous and wonderful thing. I’m not particularly interested in trying to placate an angry God. And there is much that is deeply compelling about a personal and loving God that is lacking in most monist perspectives of reality. (When I was pursuing and following other religions, I tended to bounce between monism and polytheistic perspectives. Maybe that’s one reason I found Hinduism so attractive.)

But Jesus and I are not and cannot be equals. Yes, he emptied himself in the mystery of the Incarnation and joined with us, experiencing all that we experience, and opening the door for us to union with God. He “became man so that man might become God.” But just as much as Jesus is human, he is also the uncreated Word, the speech-act of God, the Son of the Most High. Moreover, he has ascended to the throne at the right hand of the Father as the Lord of creation. Ascension does not mean flying or floating in the air in this context. It’s the language of a king coming into the fullness of his power and authority. Jesus is the Lord over all creation.

If you have ever been helpless and vulnerable in the face of evil, you will know that we need a powerful Lord. “Buddy Jesus” might be a great guy with whom to hang out and have some fun, but is he the mighty God who has made the powers his footstool? God is absolutely a God of love, but that love is also a consuming fire. Who can stand in its light? If you begin to recognize who Jesus is, then respect, awe, and in that context, fear must necessarily follow. Not the sort of fear one has for the tyrant, but the fear one feels before the mighty and benevolent king.

If you see Jesus for who he is, then humility naturally follows. And it is only from within fear and humility that we can truly receive and be filled with love. Pride is as natural to us as breathing, but pride is the enemy of love. Pride also tends to flow from our need to order the world around us and make it safe. When we release that load and in humility trust the one who actually has the power to order reality, we can enter a better reality of love.

Moreover, when we begin to do that, we begin to be able to see ourselves as we truly are. We are able to see our lives through different eyes and recognize not only that we have “sinned” (which means to miss the mark), but how and why our passion-dominated life did miss the mark. Until we are freed, we sometimes don’t even realize we were captive.

Like many in our culture, I am also deeply individualistic. “I am the Master of my fate, I am the Captain of my soul.” That is our battle cry and our ideal. But it is also delusion. We exist as human beings in a deeply interwoven web of interconnections. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we depend on each other and our fates are intertwined. Jesus the Christ, our one true Lord, can make us free, but he will not force freedom on us. If you consider it, you realize the idea itself is absurd. If I am coerced, even by God, then I am not free and any freedom offered is a lie. Jesus provides the door, the gate, the way, and the power of true freedom to all who will take up their cross and follow him.

But we have to decide that we want to be free.


Original Sin 20 – Job 14:4-5

Posted: March 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 20 – Job 14:4-5

I left for last an examination of the texts from Scriptures used by St. Augustine to support his idea of original sin as the inherited guilt of all mankind. It has always seemed to me that St. Augustine developed his framework from the other sources and for the reasons I’ve examined in this series and then found texts he could use to connect those ideas to the Holy Scriptures. St. Augustine uses just five texts to support his idea of original sin, so we’ll look at each of them in turn. I will note that St. Augustine wrote and read in Latin and appears to have either been uncomfortable with Greek or outright disliked it. A couple of the verses on which he relies are actually mistranslated in the Latin text on which he relied.

The first text we’ll examine is Job 14:4-5. This also seems to be the first mistranslated text. It appears that the Latin version St. Augustine used was translated to read (in part) as follows.

Who is clean from sin? Not even a child whose life on earth is of one day.

I will note that the LXX (which is the traditional Christian Old Testament) and the Hebrew Masoretic text differ somewhat on this text. However, neither reads like the above. I’ll start with the LXX (quoting in full from the OSB).

For who shall be pure from uncleanness? No one. Even if his life is but one day upon the earth, his months are numbered by You. You appointed a time for him, and he cannot exceed it.

Within the context of Job’s prayer to God, he is saying that we are bound by mortality and with just a day amid the struggles of this life, even the most righteous would sin. St. John Chrysostom had the following to say on the passage.

You see Job taking refuge again in his nature, because it is impossible, he says, to be pure. [He implores God] not only because of our weakness or our ephemeral nature or the disheartening that fills our life, but because it is also impossible to be pure. … Job expresses again the ephemeral, miserable, and unhappy character of life. … Then Job demonstrates that human beings are the unhappiest of all, more than trees, rivers and the sea.

The Hebrew Masoretic text is translated as follows in the NKJV.

Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one! Since his days are determined, The number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass.

The gist of verse five, looking at both texts, is clearly the idea that our days are numbered. We are limited. St. Gregory the Great writes the following.

God sets bounds to our spiritual attainments. We learn humility by the things we are unable to master, that we may not be exalted by those things we have the power to do.

With this text, it seems obvious to me that it does not say anything like what St. Augustine thought it said. His exegesis of this text was led astray by a flawed translation. That leaves four more texts to examine.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

Posted: February 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

The fourth chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Prayer: Random or Discipline?, is devoted to his encounter with the Christian discipline of corporate set prayers that began when he returned to the University of Illinois for graduate studies. He began attending the daily Office of Evening Prayer at a small chapel across the street. He describes the building and makes the insightful comment that all buildings are icons. Indeed they are. In fact, I would say that everything we make, to one degree or another, is an icon of something. It seems wired into our being. That, of course, is the doom of every effort we might make at iconoclasm, even if iconoclasm were not itself a denial of the Incarnation. Howard points out again the essentially Buddhist or Manichaean nature of iconoclasm in general and its Christian manifestations in particular. There is also a false dichotomy and an improper perspective of creation that is manifested when beauty is pitted against faith or against “works” or against humility and simplicity.

Before I continue with my thoughts on Howard’s writing, if anyone is looking for something to read on prayer written by an evangelical, there are two books I would recommend (and they are the only two evangelical books on prayer I’ve read that I would recommend). The first is Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight. The second is The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. (Obviously, the latter is on the spiritual disciplines in general and not focused solely on prayer, but it does cover the discipline of prayer well.)

Howard, flowing straight from the criticism of set prayer normally found in evangelicalism, immediately addresses the accusation that such repetition must become routine, bleak, and dead. I found myself nodded at the parallel he chose.

Yes, indeed it does dry up and die, if there is no taproot of life irrigating it. Just as the utter sameness of marriage dries up and dies if love departs, so will any routine. To the libertine accustomed to woman after woman, the man who returns day after day, year after year, to the same spouse, with no variety, appears unfortunate in the extreme. We must ask the man himself how things are. He will tell us that routine is the very diagram of peace and freedom …

Indeed. Interesting is a good term for describing far too much of my life. So much so that even when I was young I understood intuitively and immediately that the wish, May you live in interesting times!, first was a curse and then why it was a curse. This year my wife and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. I’ve found tremendous “shelter from the storm” in the peace and freedom and safety of our marriage.

Howard then notes a fact that has long confused me. In their rejection of set prayers, evangelicals are rejecting the very practice of Jesus, the disciples, and the church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. As I delved into Christian belief and practice, I never was able to understand how they did so.

Evangelicalism, encouraging a spirit of individual responsibility before the Bible, had made it possible for me to discount centuries of Christian practice.

Basically, if an interpretation of the Scripture of the New Testament that shows the practice of set prayers is not obvious to an individual’s own interpretation (or that of their interpreter of choice), set prayer can be disregarded, even if that particular interpretation is at odds with the overwhelming majority of historical Christian teaching and practice. (Apparently, the practice in the Old Testament or even what Jesus himself practiced makes no difference since that’s “judaism” and as such has been abolished.) I have to confess that I still don’t really grasp the nature of the mental gymnastics required for that particular chain of reasoning. I do grasp that an overriding focus on individualism seems to be the culprit.

As Howard practiced a daily office, he came to a realization that is perfectly consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian practice.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that once a day, far from being too often for devotion, was not enough.

Indeed. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Lawrence myself.

Howard next reflects on the way the discipline of prayer (a rule of prayer as it is often called) actually enables a person to pray consistently. The structure and order of the rule frees us to pray. Inevitably, if we approach it as an individual practice, it becomes subject to our moods and whims. Almost all of us will not always feel like praying. And even if we try to make ourselves pray, we’ll find we have nothing to say. Making prayer a rule using set prayers does not ensure that we will pray. But it does not place the burden entirely on our own mood and ability. It helps us make prayer a habit rather than something we struggle to do.

Howard notes that some people can pray freely every day of their life. Some people truly can be consistent with a daily free form quiet time. He even says that as far as he knows, his own father was such a man. But, Howard says, “He was an extraordinary man.” Most of us are not so extraordinary. It’s not just Howard and me. I’ve listened to youth and adults both describe their difficulties praying regularly and consistently over the long haul. This is a problem that permeates evangelicalism and other “enthusiastic” movements. And we do people no favors when we keep prescribing the same solution — an approach that has already failed them multiple times. Instead, we place a crushing load on them.

Howard describes in some detail a particular order of prayer. It’s worth reading, but there are many prayer books available. The first thing is to begin to pray using some sort of prayer book. You’ll still slip in and out of the habit of prayer. The merciful Lord knows I constantly fall away from my own rule of prayer. It’s not some sort of magical panacea. Consistent prayer is hard. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s called a discipline. It requires much effort to pray when you’re tired, when you’re irritated, when you feel distant from God, when you’re angry at God, when life grows hectic, or in a host of other life situations. Set prayer does not make prayer easy. Rather, it makes prayer possible.

I am thankful to the ancient Church for its wise and earthy awareness that we Christians need all the help we can get and for supplying us with so much in its Office and in its other forms of set prayer.


For the Life of the World 25

Posted: January 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The series now moves to section 4 of the fifth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter five.

Fr. Schmemann takes what, for me at least, was an unexpected turn in this last section of a chapter on marriage and love when he focuses on priesthood. His point, of course, is that any true Christian priesthood is rooted in love. And that makes sense to me when I think about it. If God is love, then it follows that those who serve the people of God do so in the context of love. Here’s how Fr. Schmemann introduces the idea.

Nowhere is the truly universal, truly cosmic significance of the sacrament of matrimony as the sacrament of love, expressed better than in its liturgical similitude with the liturgy of ordination, the sacrament of priesthood. Through it is revealed the identity of the Reality to which both sacraments refer, of which both are the manifestation.

Fr. Schmemann follows with some harsh words for what he terms “clericalism,” a process or attitude that makes “the priest or minister beings apart, with a unique and specifically “sacred” vocation in the Church.” Vocations that are not “sacred” become “profane” even if that precise language is not used. Fr. Schmemann notes that this is hardly something that happens only in the so-called “liturgical” churches. Every modern church that has specially designated or “ordained” ministers of any sort tends to fall into the same trap. It’s the modern distinction that made room for what we call “secularism” and in some sense made its rise inevitable. His words made me think of a friend who, from the stories he tells, at one point in his life was so heavily invested in his “ministerial” or “sacred” vocation that it became almost a destructive force. By the grace of God, he saw the danger and made some significant changes before it consumed him and those he loved. Others, however, are not so fortunate. “Clericalism” is indeed a path away from life and toward death. (And yes, I’m thinking of the “two ways” in the Didache — and in much of Jesus’ teaching — when I say that.) That’s true in the Orthodox Church. And it’s true in the SBC. Clericalism may not have exactly the same outward appearance when it grows from those two different soils, but it shares the same heart and is just as deadly.

It is not accidental, therefore, that the words “laity,” “layman” became little by little synonymous with a lack of something in a man, or his nonbelonging. Yet originally the words “laity,” “layman” referred to the laos — the people of God — and were not only positive in meaning, but included the “clergy.” But today one who says he is a layman in physics acknowledges his ignorance of this science, his nonbelonging to the closed circle of specialists.

As we saw in the last chapter, every member of the laos enters through baptism and chrismation. We are a royal priesthood, ordained to offer the proper thanksgiving of creation to God and live as the icon (image) of God as we were created and now are being recreated or made new. From the beginning of the church, there are those within our priesthood who are ordained to serve the laos in particular ways. But there is no “sacred” and “profane” divide. The division between “natural” and “supernatural”, “religious” and “secular”, or “divine” and “ordinary” is illusory. From the Christian perspective, those ways of ordering reality are a lie.

Our secular world “respects” clergy as it “respects” cemeteries: both are needed, both are sacred, both are out of life.

I’m not sure it even “respects” clergy that much anymore. This book was, after all, originally written in 1963 and revised and expanded in 1973. Attitudes have continued to degrade in the decades since it was written.

But what both clericalism and secularism — the former being, in fact, the natural father of the latter — have made us forget is that to be priest is from a profound point of view the most natural thing in the world. Man was created priest of the world, the one who offers the world to God in a sacrifice of love and praise and who, through this eternal eucharist, bestows the divine love upon the world.

And as Fr. Schmemann points out, Christ is the one true priest (and our high priest), because he is the one true man. Mankind failed and because of our failure “the world ceased to be the sacrament of divine love and presence and became nature.”

But Christ revealed the essence of priesthood to be love and therefore priesthood to be the essence of life. He died the last victim of the priestly religion and in His death the priestly religion died and the priestly life was inaugurated. He was killed by the priests, by the “clergy,” but His sacrifice abolished them as it abolished “religion.” … He revealed that all things, all nature have their end, their fulfillment in the Kingdom; that all things are to be made new by love.

And thus the central connection to love that this chapter explores. All things made new by love. All things made new. All things. We look into the heart of God, into the heart of creation and we find love.

If there are priests in the Church, if there is the priestly vocation in it, it is precisely in order to reveal to each vocation its priestly essence, to make the whole life of all men the liturgy of the Kingdom, to reveal the Church as the royal priesthood of the redeemed world. It is, in other terms, not a vocation “apart,” but the expression of love for man’s vocation as son of God and for the world as the sacrament of the Kingdom. … The Church is in the world but not of the world, because only by not being of the world can it reveal and manifest the “world to come,” the beyond, which alone reveals all things as old — yet new and eternal in the love of God. Therefore no vocation in this world can fulfill itself as priesthood. And thus there must be the one whose specific vocation is to have no vocation, to be all things to all men, and to reveal that the end and the meaning of all things are in Christ.

I can’t say I had ever looked at “priests” (or “ministers” if you prefer — presbyter and episcopos are the Greek words for the two orders specifically under discussion here I believe) as called to have no vocation so they could guide the laos in living out their priesthood within their various vocations. It’s a different way of looking at it. Fr. Schmemann goes on to describe how the priesthood reveals the humility of the Church and its utter dependence on Christ’s love. And it’s in that love that he finds the sacrament of ordination the same as the sacrament of matrimony. Even if the priest is also married with a family, he is in some sense also married to the Church he serves. There is (or should be) that same deep bond of love.

The final point is this: some of us are married and some are not. Some of us are called to be priests and ministers and some are not. But the sacraments of matrimony and priesthood concern all of us, because they concern our life as vocation. The meaning, the essence and the end of all vocation is the mystery of Christ and the Church. It is through the Church that each one of us finds that the vocation of all vocations is to follow Christ in the fullness of His priesthood: in His love for man and the world, His love for their ultimate fulfillment in the abundant life of the Kingdom.

The emphasis on vocation reminds me once again of N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. And certainly the common interest and concern of all with marriage and priesthood removes both from the sphere of individual concern where we so often place them today.