The Jesus Prayer 4 – Spirituality

Posted: February 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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 then tries to summarize some of the differences between the modern forms of Eastern and Western Christianity. (To the Orthodox eye, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism often seem to be two sides of the same coin. They are cut from the same cloth.) The cultural and linguistic differences between what we often call the Latin West and the Greek East began developing from an early time. Language shapes culture and culture forms the lens through which we understand reality. St. Augustine made some of his errors, for instance in his doctrine of original sin, because he didn’t read Greek and relied on a Latin translation that in a few key places was simply wrong. Moreover, since he wrote in Latin, his work received little notice or attention among the Greek fathers of the time, so it was never really critiqued or corrected (though St. John Cassian did make some effort in that regard). I use that as an example to illustrate that this is an ancient and deep divergence.

I don’t mean to imply the divergence was in any way necessary or inevitable. It wasn’t. We can see that clearly in all the many languages and cultures (not least the Slavic) in which a more unified Christian mind has been preserved. There were many factors, often political, behind the gradual divergence over centuries between the East and the West. Nevertheless, it’s an important present-day reality with which we have to somehow cope.

Khouria Frederica points out that within Orthodox contexts, the word “spirituality” is not much used.

The reason is the everything is “spirituality.” Christian Orthodoxy is itself a spiritual path, rather than an institution or set of propositions. … From the outside Orthodoxy must look exuberantly chaotic, but from the inside it is a closely coordinated collection of wisdom (some elders term it a “science”) about how to pursue theosis. … Nor does Eastern Orthodoxy have the range of devotional practices seen in the West. There is not an array of monastic orders, each with its own emphasis or mission. There is really only one “program” of spiritual healing, and within it the Jesus Prayer holds a unique role.

The basis for whether or not a practice is included and passed along to subsequent generations is effectiveness. It has to actually work. This unified form of spirituality across Orthodoxy (even other ancient churches not presently in communion with each other because of ancient disputes) is all aimed at the goal of theosis. Body and soul, the goal of salvation is union with Christ — oneness or communion with God.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 11

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

31.  The passions lying hidden in the soul provide the demons with the means of arousing impassioned droughts in us. Then, fighting the intellect through these thoughts, they force it to give its assent to sin. When it has been overcome, they lead it to sin in the mind; and when this has been done they induce it, captive as it is, to commit the sin in action. Having thus desolated the soul by means of these thoughts, the demons then retreat, taking the thoughts with them, and only the specter or idol of sin remains in the intellect. Referring to this our Lord says, ‘When you see the abominable idol of desolation standing in the holy place (let him who reads understand) . . .’ (Matt. 24:15). For man’s intellect is a holy place and a temple of God in which the demons, having desolated the soul by means of impassioned thoughts, set up the idol of sin. That these things have already taken place in history no one, I think who has read Josephus will doubt; though some say that they will also come to pass in the time of the Antichrist.

The first part of this text illustrates the way the demons can use our own passions against us. When we are ruled by our passions, we are enslaved and in bondage, not free. Christ brings freedom, but true freedom requires that we be healed and our passions mastered. And that’s a process that requires time and our active participation.

Then St. Maximos does something that I often find the Fathers doing. He applies and interprets a quote from the Holy Scriptures in a way I had never considered, but which makes perfect sense when I read it. (Or at least which makes sense after I read it five or six times and reflect on it.) And then, in the same train of thought, he makes a historical reference I do understand, but would never have connected to his previous thought.

I find I enjoy the extra work reading texts like these requires on my part. And even when I don’t fully understand (which is more often true than not), I find meditating on the words of the Fathers of the Church leaves me with a deepened and richer faith.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 3 – Unraveling the Caricature

Posted: June 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 3 – Unraveling the Caricature

There are many threads one can use to begin unraveling the somewhat common modern caricature of the Christian perspective on reality I described in the last post. I want to start with the affirmation of the very basic Christian belief that God is not somewhere else. The Christian God is everywhere present and filling all things. As Paul said to the Areopagus of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being.” Again, as the Seraphim sing in Isaiah 6, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” And as Paul writes about Jesus in Colossians, “He is before all things, and in him all things consist.”

God is not off in some “place” called heaven that is separate or distinct from the earth. I often hear people assert that heaven is an actual place and heaven is thus “real”. It may be that they are trying to push back against the various forms of materialism with that statement. It’s actually unclear to me what their purpose or goal is, but the assertion does seem to be a response “against” something. However, by making heaven into a place that is separate from earth, they actually enable and express a secular perspective of reality.

Heaven and earth are instead overlapping and interlocking dimensions of our one, unified reality. They are not separate “places” in any sense that we understand “place”. Heaven and God are not any distance at all from us. Heaven is never more than a step away. God is the air we breathe. There is presently a veil between heaven and earth, a veil that appears to be part of the grace of God for our healing and salvation. But even before I was Christian, I recall having a sense of what I’ve since learned the Celtic Christians called “thin places.” In certain places and at certain times, that veil can be thin indeed.

The proper Christian division of reality, then, is not between the earthly and the heavenly, the material and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, but between the created and the uncreated. That’s not to say that other categories do not ever have value. They may certainly have situational or contingent value. But the fundamental divide is between the uncreated, which in the Christian view is God in three persons alone, and the created, which is everything else that exists.

When we begin to grasp that perspective, we can properly see heaven and earth as united aspects of God’s one creation. It’s from this perspective we draw the traditional eschatological vision of a time when the present veil between the two will be no more. Heaven and earth together and everything in them (except God, of course) are creation.

What then of hell? While much of this series will actually be spent exploring that question, as it seems to be the focal point of much confusion within modern Christianity, there is one point I believe needs to be made clearly from the outset. Hell is not “real” in the same sense that heaven and earth are real. Whatever reality it has flows from a distortion of God’s good creation. Hell has substantially less innate and substantial reality than heaven and earth. I think C.S. Lewis illustrated that point well in the imagery he uses in The Great Divorce. Those visiting heaven from hell find that heaven has so much more tangible reality that even the blades of grass are like knives to them.

Christianity is not dualistic in the sense that good and evil are equal and opposing forces. Evil is the shadow of darkness that is dispelled simply by the presence of light. Evil is real, certainly. Those of us who have experienced it would never confess otherwise. The Christian perception is quite different from, for example, the Hindu concept of maya. But as “hell” does not and cannot have the same sort of reality that God’s creation — heaven and earth — has, so evil does not and cannot have the same sort of reality as good. We do not live in the universe of the yin and the yang. In Christian parlance, God and Satan are in no sense equal. In the end, the tempter and accuser is simply another creature, even if he is a powerful creature by our standards. He is still nothing next to God.

The meaning behind the way I structured the title of this series should be clear now.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 7

Posted: April 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 7

29. When you are insulted by someone or humiliated, guard against angry thoughts, lest they arouse a feeling of irritation, and so cut you off from love and place you in the realm of hatred.

I have discovered that a dangerous moment for me arises when my ideas or thoughts are attacked or put down. And I am right. And I can prove it.

As we have discussed, a passion in the patristic sense does not necessarily appear explosive, overt, or even wrong — at least at first. Rather, it is the process of taking a step down a path in response to external stimuli without the conscious intervention of our will. What often happens when that begins, at least in my experience, is that our wills can become ruled by the passion rather than the other way around.

People have often called me strong-willed, though not infrequently in less flattering terms. And, in truth, a strong will is rarely a good thing when it is ruled, marshaled, and focused by a passion rather than the other way around. Too often in my life, my irritation at the words or actions of another has been a passion which has merged my intellect and expressive talent with my will for the purpose of destroying another.

Oh, I don’t believe that’s my intent at the time. I’m just defending myself or my ideas. Certainly I don’t hate the other person or want to hurt them! But that’s a lie. And it’s even worse when I am demonstrably right and others around me see and acknowledge that I am right. For now I am justified in my passion! And that makes it even harder to break free.

I became truly and consciously aware of how dangerous and insidious this passion is, at least for me, many years ago at work. I don’t remember exactly how or why it started, but another person on our team either didn’t understand my ideas or strongly held a different idea about the direction we should take. I’m not even sure which one it was or what triggered my passion. It had to be something small at first.

However it began, I look back and see how I began to dismantle his proposals or ideas in our meetings. Oh, I was always careful to focus my discussion on the idea and never the person the way you are supposed to act in business settings. (I would note that our ideas our perhaps more closely entangled with ourselves than we might think.) And I was never directly insulting or otherwise inappropriate. Moreover, my ideas about the direction our project needed to take were actually the right ideas (and that has since been proven over time) and most of the people on the team agreed with me. That created a lot of positive reinforcement, which is not a good thing when it is feeding a passion.

Finally, some weeks or months later, I remember sitting in a meeting having a discussion on something. I was dissecting something that particular coworker had proposed. I had others joining in with me as I often did. Suddenly, as we were laughing at something somebody had said (I don’t even remember if it was something I said or not), I looked over at my coworker and had one of those thoughts that stops you cold. It felt like somebody had thrown a bucket of cold water in my face.

There’s more than one way to be a bully.

Yes, I know that as adults, especially in professional settings, that’s not a word we typically use. But I endured quite a bit growing up and that’s certainly one area where I suffered. There are many reasons that was the case. I went to a lot of different schools growing up, so I was often the “new” guy trying to find a place. I didn’t fit into easy categories. There was the part of me who was the intelligent, shy bookworm. There was another part that was the highly creative actor, writer, and performer. There was another part that loved sports, riding bikes, and exploring the world around me. So I rarely had a “group” and even the friends I thought I had sometimes flipped against me. So the thought that I might have become a “bully” myself was devastating for me.

I went back to my desk, stepped back, and looked at what I had done. Nobody on our team respected our coworker. He had become an object of ridicule and scorn. However, it didn’t end there; such things rarely do. The whole team was a mess. The dynamic between my coworker and me had become one of the dominant dynamics of the entire team.

I did the only thing I could think to do. I crafted and sent an apology to my coworker and the entire team that simply outlined the things I had done wrong. I did not justify them, though I certainly had justifications, as that would have accomplished nothing. And then I said I wasn’t going to act in those ways anymore. An apology didn’t magically fix the problem, but it at least allowed a healing process to begin, especially when I quit feeding the negative feedback loop that had engulfed us.

I’ve noticed that Christians often tend to think of being ruled by passions in terms of the dramatic passions like lust, addictions, and rage. And those are indeed extremely destructive to you and to everyone around you. But the fact that many of us can avoid or break free of such passions does not mean we are truly free. The less overt passions are all the more insidious because they are difficult for us to see. And yet anytime we are ruled by a passion, anytime a passion is able to bypass or control our will, we will think and act in destructive ways.

I think when we begin to recognize the reality of our situation, we truly begin to see how much we need grace, which is to say that we need God.

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.