Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 18

Posted: February 28th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

46.  God, full beyond all fullness, brought creatures into being not because He had need of anything, but so that they might participate in Him in proportion to their capacity and that He Himself might rejoice in His works (Ps. 104:31), through seeing them joyful and ever filled to overflowing with His inexhaustible gifts.

The Christian God has always existed as a perfect communion of love between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The image of dance has sometimes been used in an effort to convey the image with each eternally yielding to the other two in such perfect union that the language of a single essence or being must be used, yet each remaining a distinct person.

Obviously our language and our imagination fail at the task of describing that which transcends us, but a key point is that God did not create because God lacked anything. Rather creation is the overflow of that dance of love. We were created to be loved and to participate to the extent we are able in that dance of love.


The Jesus Prayer 25 – Forgiveness

Posted: June 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 25 – Forgiveness

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

Last week I briefly posted on love of enemies, one of the most difficult aspects of Christianity. Today, Khouria Frederica answers a question on the topic. How can I forgive someone if I’m afraid they’ll do it again? She notes that people often confuse forgiveness with vulnerability, but they are very different things. When we forgive, we let go of our desire for vengeance, which we often call justice. We may have been genuinely wronged and the one who wronged us owes us a debt. We release them from that debt. That frees us more than it frees them. We are the ones keeping track of the wrongs. Often the one who wronged us is not. We are expending energy, not them.

But that does not necessarily mean that we continue to make ourselves vulnerable to that person in the future. If they have acted in a dehumanizing way toward us in the past and we reasonably believe they will continue to do so in the future, it is not loving to allow someone to dehumanize themselves and us.

You are never required to allow someone to hurt or abuse you, physically or emotionally, and in a case like that, permitting abuse could make you an enabler and partner in that sin.

Someone also asked Frederica how we can love an enemy who wishes to kill us and destroy our country. She responds much as Fr. Stephen did in the podcast I linked in my post last week. She also includes a long quote from St. Nikolai Velimirovic (AD 1881-1956). I’m going to include the entire quote. I found it helpful. Given recent events, it could easily be applied to someone like bin Laden.

He is a man; do not rejoice in his fall. He is your brother; let not your heart leap for joy when he stumbles. God created him for life, and God does not rejoice in his fall. And you also, do not rejoice at that which grieves God. When a man falls, God loses; do you rejoice in the loss of your Creator, of your Parent? When the angels weep, do you rejoice?

When your enemy falls, pray to God for him, that God will save him; and give thanks to God that you did not fall in the same manner. You are of the same material, both you and he, like two vessels from the hand of the potter. If one vessel breaks, should the other smile and rejoice? Behold, the small stone that broke that vessel only waits for someone’s hand to raise it to destroy this vessel also. Both vessels are of the same material, and a small stone can destroy a hundred vessels.

When one sheep is lost, should the rest of the flock rejoice? No, they should not. For behold, the shepherd leaves his flock and, being concerned, goes to seek the lost sheep. The shepherd’s loss is the flock’s loss too. Therefore, do not rejoice when your enemy falls, for your Shepherd and his Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, does not rejoice in his fall.

O Lord Jesus Christ, Thou Good Shepherd, remove malicious joy from our hearts, and in its place plant compassion and brotherly love. To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.

I do not pretend there is anything easy about forgiveness and love of enemies. People hurt us. They often hurt us deeply. I have been hurt and I’m sure I’ve hurt others. I do not pretend that I’m any good at forgiveness and love. But I can perceive their beauty, even if dimly. Ultimately, if anything draws me to Christ, it’s this. On my better days, I want to love. But even on my worst days, I want to want to love. And I think that’s at least a start.


Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Greene on the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Khouria Frederica has been giving a number of lectures on the Jesus Prayer recently. I wanted to share this lecture at Oberlin College in particular. In this talk, she provides a shorter version of her own personal journey, she explains the concept of nous, and she describes how some of the Western ideas about God look from an Eastern Christian perspective, especially to those who have been raised within an Eastern context.

I particularly appreciated some of the things Khouria Frederica said about Western atonement theories. She jumps to the heart of the matter and identifies their central problem. The Western theories describe a God who cannot forgive, but who must, instead, be paid. At one point, she says it’s almost like eating in a restaurant and being told that your bill has been paid. The owner of the restaurant was still paid. He didn’t really forgive your debt; he was just paid by someone else. I have actually heard people use exactly that metaphor to describe Christ’s work. And long before I knew anything about Orthodoxy, I apparently reacted it to it in an essentially Orthodox manner. The Western view of the atonement turns the parable of the prodigal son on its head. Instead of the Father embracing his prodigal son in love and forgiveness, it’s as though he tells his younger son that his offense is unforgivable. However, his older brother has never done anything wrong and has obeyed his father, so if he killed him instead, the father could accept that death as payment and allow the younger son to return.

Khouria Frederica uses an example in English to illustrate the language of sacrifice and substitution in Scripture. If a soldier were killed in battle, we might say that he paid for our freedom with his life or a similarly phrased statement. If someone was not a native English speaker, he might ask who was paid? But, of course, that’s not what we mean at all. In the same way, the language of payment or substitution in the Holy Scriptures does not describe an act where the Son pays our debt to the Father (as if we needed to be rescued from God), but rather the act of rescuing us from the grip of the evil one who used the power of sin and death to keep us in bondage.

I also really enjoyed one of her statements about the work of prayer and other disciplines. “Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.” Yep. I’m confused when people act as though Christianity ought to be easy. How can anything as complex as the reality of our lives and relationships be easy? Orthodox Christianity does not try to hide the difficulty and struggle of our faith. Yes, God loves us. Unconditionally. Unending. Unchanging love. But most of the time, we don’t even really want God. At least, that’s true of me.


The Jesus Prayer 2 – Prayer of the Heart

Posted: February 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 2 – Prayer of the Heart

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

If you read or listen to almost anything about the Jesus Prayer, you will also often encounter the phrase, prayer of the heart. They sometimes seem to be used almost interchangeably, but they are not actually the same thing. I like the approach Khouria Frederica takes in distinguishing them.

The Jesus Prayer refers to the actual words of the prayer. By an act of volition or will, we choose to say those words. It can be somewhat mechanistic at first. The Jesus Prayer is a distinct discipline marked by act of repeating those words and it can be used to discuss the history of that specific discipline.

Prayer of the heart refers to the action of the Prayer, something that may occur, by God’s grace, within a person who diligently practices the Prayer.

The prayer “descends into heart” when, instead of simple mental repetition as an act of will, the prayer becomes effortless and spontaneous, flowing from your innermost being.

You discover that the Holy Spirit has been there, praying, all along. Then heart and soul, body and mind, memory and will, the very breath of life itself, everything that you have and are unites in gratitude and joy, tuned like a violin string to the name of Jesus.

Prayer of the heart is gift of the Spirit, not something we can control or force. I hesitate to say that I have experienced it, though I have experienced moments that sound similar to some of the descriptions. I’m a poor practitioner, though, and am well aware of my own capacity for self-delusion. I would never present myself as an example for anyone else to follow.

I do, however, have no doubts about the Jesus Prayer itself. In part, I think, that’s because it came to me before I had any intellectual understanding or knowledge of it. I discovered the Jesus Prayer was an ancient and enduring prayer tradition long after I discovered the Jesus Prayer. Unlike any other practice or discipline I have developed or tried over the years, this is not one I developed first in my intellect.

When I accepted the idea of breath prayers as a general concept from Bro. Lawrence and determined to attempt this discipline, this specific prayer immediately welled up from within me. It almost demanded that I pray it. I would try other prayers and find myself praying this one. And it never felt like something new. I’m not sure I can explain it, but it has always felt like the Jesus Prayer was consciously expressing the prayer within me of which I had not previously been consciously aware.

I suppose I would say the Jesus Prayer can unite our mind and heart, our intellect and nous, together in the Spirit. It’s a gift of God for our salvation.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 15

Posted: February 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 15

42.  The Lord revealed His wisdom by the way in which He healed man, becoming man without the slightest change or mutation. He demonstrated the equity of justice when in His self-abasement He submitted deliberately to the sentence to which what is passible in human nature is subject, and made that sentence a weapon for the destruction of sin and of the death which comes through sin – that is, for the destruction of pleasure and of the pain which pleasure engenders. It was in this pleasure-pain syndrome that the dominion of sin and death lay: the tyranny of sin committed in pursuit of pleasure, and the lordship of the painful death consequent upon sin. For the dominion of pleasure and pain clearly applies to what is passible in human nature. And we seek how to alleviate through pleasure the penalty of pain, thus in the nature of things increasing the penalty. For in our desire to escape pain we seek refuge in pleasure, and so try to bring relief to our nature, hard pressed as it is by the torment of pain. But through trying in this way to blunt pain with pleasure, we but increase our sum of debts, for we cannot enjoy pleasure that does not lead to pain and suffering.

This text restates the wonder and importance in Jesus becoming fully human in every way, “without the slightest change or mutation.” He didn’t take on the mere appearance of humanity. He wasn’t mostly human. He became sarx or flesh wholly and fully while also, in a great mystery, also containing the fullness of the godhead. Nothing less could have healed us. And then we see St. Maximos once again describe the way Jesus turned death into a weapon destroying death. The fullness of the glory of God was displayed to all creation, made manifest to all mankind, on the Cross.


Of Love And Evil

Posted: February 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

Anne Rice’s latest novel, Of Love And Evil, continues the story of Toby O’Dare, the unlikely hero of Angel Time. I enjoyed Angel Time, but I was captivated by Of Love And Evil. I read it last week between Austin and Dallas on the first leg of my trip to DC. Toby comes alive in this novel and so do all those around him. Even the angels are simultaneously wholly other and entirely engaging.

It’s not a long book and I don’t wish to reveal the plot. Instead, I want to focus on a single event in the book. In his mission this time, Toby encounters a demon who tries to tempt him at a moment when he is grief-stricken and vulnerable. Toby mistakes the demon for an angel at first, which I found fitting. In the tradition of the Church, demons often masquerade as angels to gain a hearing.

The particular shape the temptation took was especially compelling to me for it drove right to the core of things I have believed and which Toby himself has considered in his past. The demon invoked the idea of an immortal soul that transmigrates from one physical body to another attempting to develop and mature.  The demon circled through that frame of reference attempting to get Toby to reject the existence of a personal Maker. The transcendent permeates everything but is not God in the intimately personal Christian sense. Toby acknowledges that system has a coherence and a sort of beauty, but that he had already rejected it. The reason for his rejection flowed on the page in words that could have been uttered by my heart.

I know because deep in my soul, I know there is a God. There is someone I love whom I call God. That someone has emotions. That someone is Love. And I sense the presence of this God in the very fabric of the world in which I live. I know with a deep conviction that this God exists. That He would send angels to His children has an elegance to it that I can’t deny. I’ve studied your ideas, your system, as it were, and I find it barren and finally unconvincing, and cold. Finally it’s dreadfully cold. It’s without the personality of God and it’s cold.

Later, on the demon’s charge that there is no justice, only pain and grief and meaningless attachment, Toby’s prayer again echoes my own.

There is mercy. … And there is justice, and there is One who witnesses everything. And above all, there is love.

And finally, Toby understands he is in the school of love.

I saw a vision of love; I saw that it was no one thing, but a great commingling of things both light and dark and fierce and tender, and my heart broke as the questions broke from my lips.

Christian faith is the poetry of love or it’s worth nothing.


Thirsting for God 15 – Liturgy

Posted: January 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 15 – Liturgy

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

One of the things that quickly struck me as I gave Christianity another and deeper look was the anachronism of worship in the Southern Baptist context to which I turned. It’s not uniquely Baptist, of course. It’s shared throughout the non-liturgical denominations and non-denominations. There’s nothing inherently wrong or evil in that worship style. Rather, the voice in the back of my head almost immediately complained that nobody in any culture in the ancient world would have ever considered that to be worship. I spent years trying to decide if that fact really mattered and trying to see if I could uncover even the slightest shred of historical basis for that modern worship style.

After living embedded in a non-liturgical worship context for a decade and a half, I’ve reached the conclusion that it does matter. Even in that period of time, I’ve seen the act and method of worship change, though subtly. It’s obvious to me how subject to whim and preference it is and how, as a result, it shifts with the wind of culture and preference.

And I never found any historical connection whatsoever. Mostly I found overtly anachronistic views which demonstrated little knowledge, for instance, of how an ancient Roman household was structured and ordered or even how worship was ordered in the Jewish synagogues within which the Apostles first preached.

Matthew has an interesting statement at the outset of this chapter. I would like to share it in full.

As someone who all my adult life was intimately involved in leading the worship experience, I know something about modern Protestant worship. What the Protestant is looking for, and what pastors and worship leaders are hoping to provide, is a worship experience that is “meaningful.” What does “meaningful” mean? First, the music needs to inspire people to feel love and devotion for God, and allow them the opportunity to express those feelings. Secondly, the sermon needs to give them something fresh and meaty to ponder — something that will inspire the congregation to follow God.

If I’m sitting in the pews, my goal is “to get something out of this” — to find godly joy and inspiration. What do I need in order for that to happen? Just what the leaders are trying to give me — good music and a good sermon.

It took me a long time to understand the above and, as a result, I sometimes had a hard time understanding some of the comments people made. Orthodox worship, by contrast, has not changed in any of its central details in some 1600 years and, just as importantly, its present form is consistent with earlier recorded forms. It’s basically the same worship fleshed out. (You can even still see the influence of first century Jewish temple and synagogue worship.) Matthew makes another excellent point.

When the primary goal of a worshiper is to gain inspiration, ritual worship may seem pointless. But when his objective is to give obedient reverence, ritual worship is the only type of worship that makes any sense. …

The Orthodox Christian worships in an environment where God Himself directs the acts of worship; the Protestant, on the other hand, must hope that God can somehow inspire people to create meaningful acts of worship. …

[In Orthodox worship] the service is always good, the worship is right, and whether I get inspired or not is entirely up to me.

In other words, the central object of worship is God. I’m sure that’s at least part of the reason that the only worship God has ever directly ordained has been liturgical, ritual worship. He knows we need to take the focus off ourselves and we need help in order to do so. Which leads us to Matthew’s final realization in this chapter.

I finally came to realize that when I was a Protestant, I judged the quality of worship by what it did for me, not what it did to exalt God.

And that pretty much sums it up.


Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

Posted: December 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

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

There is nothing reasonable about God’s love. Matthew begins by describing the closeness of his love and bond with his wife in order to make the point that God’s love transcends even that.

But in the great Mystery of Love, my bond with Alice is a pale and impoverished shadow when compared to the oneness that I can share with Christ. He illumines my soul and drives me to my unworthy knees in repentant gratitude and joy.

Of course, over the years of his life, he had experienced moments of that joy and love. If he hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have remained Christian.

The truth is, most sincere Protestants I know have had similar experiences. They recall them with unique fondness and joy. Unfortunately, what makes those times so special is the fact that they are so rare. They are not part of the everyday routine of evangelical life.

We know that the earliest Christians lived lives of such love, joy, and devotion that even as they were tortured and killed — joyfully while forgiving those who were killing them — they converted an empire. The experience of the love of Christ and union with him was not an occasional thing. It was their constant reality. In Orthodoxy, Matthew found the simple, humble, and quiet path toward an ever-deepening experience of Christ — one available to any and all.

So what does Orthodoxy have that Protestantism doesn’t? Why can’t Protestant faith consistently Christ in the way it so devoutly desires? In becoming Orthodox, I discovered the problem with my Protestant faith lay in the fact that the way it taught me to relate to God just didn’t work.

You see, the Protestant way of living in Christ is thoroughly rooted in a system of thinking known as rationalism.

Now rationalism does not mean simply thinking in a lucid, intelligent, or sensible way. Rather, rationalism is a particular system of interpreting reality.

Its essential tenet is that truth is discovered through reasoning, not through experience (that is, through observations, feelings, or actions).

While a bit over-simplified, that’s actually a pretty good summary of the heart of rationalism. It’s actually hard to convey a complex idea in simple language, so I can really appreciate the elegant simplicity of that definition. Matthew illustrates the point with a pretty good example, though rationalism infects different streams in different ways.

For instance, in one of the first sermons I can remember, the preacher held his Bible high over his head, waved it for emphasis, and cried, “When it comes to your faith in God, you can’t trust in your eyes. You can’t trust in your ears. You can’t trust in your feelings. All you can trust in is what you know from the Word of God!”

He relates other examples. For instance, at one point some of his pastor friends were considering taking courses in logic and critical reasoning. The felt that when most people struggled spiritually, the problem lay in their thinking, so they thought such courses would help them in their pastoral duties. The list of the ways such attitudes permeate Protestantism is endless. Faith is approached primarily as a matter for study.

Matthew came to realize what was glaringly obvious to me from the beginning and which I’ve heard others, such as Conversion Diary, mention in their journey toward faith. The standard mode of Protestant practice and experience through bible study has no connection to the early life of the Church. Those believers initially had limited access to the books that eventually became the New Testament. They also had limited access to what we now call the Old Testament. Moreover, the Old Testament scriptures had been radically reinterpreted by the apostles in the light of Christ. Scrolls (and later the earliest books) were extremely expensive. And many people were functionally illiterate anyway. The Protestant approach to Christian faith is highly anachronistic. It doesn’t fit in the context of the ancient world and you can’t make it fit.

But instead, the Church held to a sacramental view of Christian life. Sacramentalism is the belief that truth is discovered by experiencing the living Presence of Christ, by participating with Him in specific acts of worship that He Himself ordains.

It’s important to note that feelings and actions are still considered to be important within Protestantism. Some strands emphasize them more and some less. But most of Protestantism would agree that right actions and right feels have to start with right understanding. The problem is that, even in the context of Scripture, that’s simply not how God works. It also leads to the problem of how you get from theological knowledge of God in your head to love for God.

Well, a Protestant takes it for granted that knowledge somehow becomes love. What’s in the heart must first be in the head. That’s rationalism, pure and simple.

….

You see, anyone who will stop for a moment and simply consider what love is will realize that turning knowledge into love is an impossible endeavor. Head knowledge cannot become heart knowledge! Knowledge cannot produce love. It may direct us toward love. But it is not the same as love, nor can it serve as a substitute.

St. Paul is so clear about this fact that I don’t know why I didn’t see it long ago. I’ve discovered, though, that my modern mindset often kept me from seeing the obvious. St. Paul tells his spiritual children that the love we experience with Christ “passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19). The word “passes” is the Greek word that means “to transcend, surpass, or excel.”

Matthew illustrates that point with a thought exercise. He imagines that his wife and he have been separated by a door their entire lives. At some point, someone tells him about the lovely creature on the other side of the door and he becomes enamored with the idea of that person. He acquires knowledge about her and constructs a mental image of her. Even if he develops a completely accurate picture of her over time, he can’t be said to have a love relationship with her.

The simple fact is that I can’t have a real loving relationship with a mental image of someone I have not actually experienced — no matter how accurate that image may be. True love requires a live encounter with another person. It demands an interaction with that person that encompasses heart, soul, mind, and body.

I must open the door and embrace Christ as a Person, not as an object of my theological imagination.

Matthew Gallatin points out that it’s that desire that leaves many Protestants constantly seeking revival, seeking the next experience, seeking to be “fed” (a strange term I’ve heard that took me a while to understand), and essentially subsisting from one experience of Christ to another with long dry spells in between. Of course, God is not trying to hide. He is seeking to be known. Jesus has joined his nature wholly and completely to ours so that we might know him and have union with him. We construct the door that keeps him out, but he is always trying to get through it to us. As a result, anyone honestly seeking God will have some experience of him.

It’s at this point that Protestantism typically stalls. Those experiences remain occasional. And people get stuck trying to relate through a door to their own mental image of Jesus. It didn’t surprise me at all when Willow Creek discovered that the most dissatisfied among their membership were the most “mature” Christians (by typical Protestant measures). Reason can only get you so far.


Saturday Evening Blog Post – October Edition

Posted: November 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post – October Edition

For this month’s edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I selected the first post in my ongoing Reflections on Resurrection series. I almost selected the unplanned post, 15 Authors, that I threw together after being tagged on Halloween. I enjoyed putting that one together quite a bit. But the things I’m trying to say about resurrection (the Christian narrative) as opposed to the many competing narratives about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being are closer to my heart.


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.