Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 47

Posted: June 12th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 47

96.  The things that distress us are not always the same as those that make us angry, the things that distress us being far more numerous than those which make us angry. For example, the fact that something has been broken, or lost, or that a certain person has died, may only distress us. But other things may both distress us and make us angry, if we lack the spirit of divine philosophy.

I think that’s a distinction we sometimes overlook. It’s not uncommon for us, in our distress, to become angry. To reduce it to a prosaic and simple level, it distresses us to lose our keys or break a dish. But those are not naturally matters of anger. We misplace stuff. Things get broken. These are the normal ebb and flow of life. How often, though, do we lose our keys and become angry that we cannot find them? Or we break a dish (much less when someone else breaks a dish) and are filled with fury? How can we combat the passion anger in those places where there is a natural connection between our distress and our anger if we are filled with anger when there is no such natural connection?


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 43

Posted: May 29th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 43

90.  If you harbor rancor against anybody, pray for him and you will prevent the passion from being aroused; for by means of prayer you will separate your resentment from the thought of the wrong he has done you. When you have become loving and compassionate towards him, you will wipe the passion completely from your soul. If somebody regards you with rancor, be pleasant to him, be humble and agreeable in his company, and you will deliver him from his passion.

This prescription for dealing with rancor in yourself or directed at you echoes the New Testament, of course, but the reality remains that as often as we hear, we still don’t do it. It’s hard to pray for those who have wronged us. And it’s hard to be pleasant, humble, and agreeable when resentment is directed at us. And yet that is the way of life. When we act as we are inclined, we destroy ourselves. And in the process, we often harm many around us.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 37

Posted: May 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 37

76.  The presence of the passion of avarice reveals itself when a person enjoys receiving but resents having to give. Such a person is not fit to fulfill the office of treasurer or bursar.

I was struck by the turn this text took. St. Maximos describes the sign of one rule by the passion of avarice, but having noted it turns to a practical matter. Once you recognize such a person, don’t put that person in charge of the money. But it’s not merely practical. St. Maximos is also telling us to protect those in the grip of a passion out of love for them. Don’t place them in a position which you know will contribute to their self-destruction. That’s a perspective we could apply in many areas of life.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 36

Posted: May 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 36

75. He who cultivates the virtues for the sake of self-esteem also seeks after spiritual knowledge for the same reason. Such a man plainly does not do anything or discuss anything for the edification of others. On the contrary, he always seeks the praise of those who see him or hear him. His passion is brought to light when some of these people censure his actions or words. This distresses him greatly, not because he has failed to edify them – for that was not his aim – but because he has been humiliated.

I wonder how often the above could be written today about those who blog their faith — even if only in part? Hopefully I don’t fall within the group St. Maximos describes. I don’t believe I do. I don’t tend to be distressed when people disagree or otherwise don’t like something I’ve written, though I do sometimes wonder if there’s a way I could better express what I’ve attempted to say. But I’m always aware that it’s hard to perceive all your own motivations. Many things drive us and we often do not see deeply into that ocean.


End of Overeating 2 – Sugar, Fat, Salt

Posted: April 18th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: End of Overeating | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on End of Overeating 2 – Sugar, Fat, Salt

End of OvereatingSo, the End of Overeating next addresses the big question — why is homeostasis under assault? And there are multiple levels to that answer.

First, it’s critical to understand the scientific concept of palatability. In our common usage, it just means that food tastes good or is pleasant. In scientific usage, it refers to the capacity of a food to stimulate the appetite, thus prompting us to eat more. And the most palatable foods, in that sense, are usually foods that contain sugar, fat, and salt. Why? In large part, that seems to be because those are relatively uncommon in natural food, yet are pretty important to our survival.

However, it’s not simply the case that we can keep piling on sugar or lard and make something palatable. We will quickly begin to interpret that sensory input in negative ways as cloying or greasy or too salty rendering the food unpalatable. No, it’s the particular combination of sugar, fat, and/or salt that makes a food highly palatable. And both human and animal research indicates that the right combination of sugar, fat, and salt creates foods that many of us will eat in excessive amounts.

Dr. Kessler provides many examples throughout his book of the ways different foods are processed and cooked to make them highly palatable. By way of illustration, I’ll quote just one such example here. It’s the Bloomin’ Onion, something I used to enjoy at Outback before I was diagnosed with celiac disease.

“Bloomin’ Onions — the trademark Outback Steakhouse dish — are very popular, and they too provide plenty of surface area to absorb fat. Fried in batter and topped with sauce, their flavor comes from salt on sugar on fat.”

Our constant access to foods high in sugar, fat, and salt is pushing up our bodies’ settling point, the homeostatic point which your body believes is your proper weight. And once the settling point has been adjusted upwards, it’s very difficult to reset it to a lower weight. That’s one reason our weight as a population is increasing even as our obsession with diets also increases. In a way, that’s somewhat ironic.

Sugar, fat, and salt are also clearly reinforcing. In animal studies, scientists focus on two questions to determine if a substance is reinforcing.

Are they (the animals) willing to work to obtain it?

So they respond to other stimuli they’ve learned to associate with the substance?

In this section of the book, Dr. Kessler outlines many scientific studies illustrating the ways that sugar, fat, and salt — especially in combination — are reinforcing. He also details studies that show that three additional features exert a powerful influence on our desire for more.

First, quantity. Give a rat two pellets of food rather than one, give a person two scoops of ice cream rather than one, and they’ll eat more. Portion size matters.

Second is the concentration of rewarding ingredients. Adding more sugar or fat to a given portion boosts its desirability (although only up to a point; in excess, either one can lessen its appeal).

Finally, variety plays an important role.

Dr. Kessler then spends a number of chapters exploring the different ways these stimuli impact and condition our brains. He makes the studies extremely accessible to the lay reader; I learned a lot as I read this part of the book. One of the interesting things I discovered was that we become conditioned by stimuli suggesting that a rewarding food is nearby. Our brains release dopamine when we encounter such cues in order to encourage us to seek out and obtain the food. We are rewarded more for the hunt in some cases than for the actual experience of the food itself. When you think about the way things work in nature, that makes sense, of course. But it works against us in an environment full of highly palatable and highly available foods.

Emotions also help make foods memorable. If you think about meals you remember in your past, most of the time it’s not so much the food itself that makes it memorable. It’s the setting, the people, and the events associated with the meal that fixes it in our memory. And all of that leads to an emotional attachment through association. A particular food spurs a memory of emotion and we begin to link the emotion with the food. The food industry tries to tap into that sort of association in much of its advertising.

Ultimately, our brains can be rewired and a particular eating behavior habituated. I was struck while reading this section of the book how much that habituation resembles what the Christian Fathers have called a ruling passion. It’s a process where trigger leads to action without the deliberate activation of our will. We do something without thinking about it and sometimes even without awareness. Obviously, some of us are more likely to reach that point with highly palatable food than others, but as a population we are clearly susceptible.

 


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 5

Posted: January 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 5

10.  If a man loves someone, he naturally makes every effort to be of service to that person. If, then, a man loves God, he naturally strives to conform to His will. But if he loves the flesh, he panders to the flesh.

I have several thoughts. First I’m reminded by the first sentence of Dallas Willard’s definition of love: To actively will the good of the beloved. (I’ve probably mangled it, but that’s how I remember it.) It’s on that point that modern Christian patriarchy (in both its hard and soft forms) utterly fails. Under that model, the man does not serve his wife and children. Ultimately, he expects them to serve him.

The next sentence flows straight from 1 John. Heck, it flows directly from Jesus.

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. (John 8:31-36)

Today, you’ll most often see the excerpt “the truth shall make you free,” but that’s not at all what Jesus is saying. (In fact, ‘truth’ in that sense can often crush us, not make us free. Who can stand the complete and unvarnished truth about themselves at once?) Jesus has previously described himself as the truth and we see in the last part he rephrases his earlier statement to make it clear. If we love Jesus, if we abide in him, then we will truly be his followers, we will come to know him, and he will make us free.

We can instead become enamored with our mortal condition — focusing on the pleasures that flow from it rather than the pain. And we are easily enslaved so that we pander to the passions rather than loving others or God — actions which are intertwined and cannot be separated.


The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

Posted: June 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

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

I’ll conclude my series of reflections on Khouria Frederica’s book with this reflection on the path thoughts take to pull us away from prayer. The fathers identify stages such thoughts take.

1. Provocation. Provoking thoughts can arise from our subconscious or whispered by other powers. They can appear blasphemous, evil, or even noble and good. If blasphemous, we might wonder how we could think such a thing, which is always a good indication that it may not be your own thought. The fathers consistently advise us to ignore provoking thoughts. Don’t try to argue with them or agree with them. Keep praying.

2. Interaction. Of course, we don’t usually do that. Instead, we engage the thought. Our nous turns from God and begins to consider the thought instead. The thought has a foot in the door. The fathers advise crying out to God for help. Wrap your nous in the Jesus Prayer.

3. Consent. “At this point, the nous has become intoxicated with the thought and embraces it. A sign of this stage is that the nous becomes absorbed in gazing at an image or playing out a fantasy.” It’s at this point, when we have consented to an image or fantasy, that we become responsible for sin as Jesus warns, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

4. Captivity. With consent, the ability to resist the thought begins to crumble. At some point, it will be put into action.

5. Passion. After repeatedly consenting, we no longer have the ability to use our will to resist. The thought appears and we act without resistance. It has become something we suffer, similar to a compulsion or addiction. We are ruled by it. Jesus came to heal us and set us free. Without spiritual healing, we are helpless.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.


Do You Love Me?

Posted: February 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »
 






Musicals were part of the air I breathed growing up. Stage, television, movies — and the albums from musicals often playing at home. I still remember the songs. They punctuate my life and my perception of the world around me. Fiddler on the Roof captures many of the things that make us human. Even when I was no more than 7 or 8 years old, I remember the song above was one of my favorites.

Do you love me?

Is that not the question we all ask? Is that not the deep yearning of our heart? We want to love and we want to be loved, but what does love look like? Oh, for a season it can look and feel like the following.

The feelings in those moments can be overwhelming — almost like a drug. Sometimes, when I see so many people leaping from one relationship to another, I wonder if they have become addicted to that feeling and are constantly chasing a new rush. Love does not use another to meet your own needs, so if that is so then what they are feeling is no longer love. It’s the natural emotions of love twisted into a passion.

The love Tevye and Golde describe grows over time through shared lives. You don’t really see it happening as you struggle to survive and fight your way through the crises life throws your way. One day you look at this other person and you realize they have become the story of your life. Two separate lives have become one shared life. Oh, there are still individual strands and unique threads, but the core around which they are all woven has become one.

And when you do perceive that reality, you see that love is not ultimately the grand drama of Romeo & Juliet. Rather, love is that text on a weekend morning.

Coffee on please. Thx.

Love is not the violent wind that tears down mountains — though it does knock down our delusions of self-sufficiency.

Love is not the earthquake that knocks us off our feet — it’s the stable ground on which we learn how to stand.

Love is not the raging fire destroying life — it’s the fire of the hearth.

Love is the still, small voice.

May we have ears to hear.


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) 22

Posted: November 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 22

64.  The passion of pride arises from two kinds of ignorance, and when these two kinds of ignorance unite together they form a single confused state of mind. For a man is proud only if he is ignorant both of divine help and of human weakness. Therefore pride is a lack of knowledge both in the divine and in the human spheres. For the denial of two true premises results in a single false affirmation.

This truth flows directly from the text on the two sorts of confession. When we fail to confess by giving thanks for blessings we bind ourselves in ignorance of the divine help we receive. And when we do not learn to speak the truth about our weakness to ourselves and others (and, of course, God) we will think ourselves stronger than we are. And when that happens, we suffer the rule of pride over our lives.

Pride is a passion that very easily binds us in our modern American culture. We are collectively so wealthy that it is easy for us to be ignorant of the divine help and blessings we receive. Even when we profess a thanks of sorts, it tends to be tinged with a sense of entitlement. Our Holy Scriptures warn us at great length about the perils of wealth. Wealth deceives us into believing we are self-sufficient.

At the same time, our culture is such that weakness or sin is often perceived as strength instead. I’m still trying to understand that Christian word – sin. Fundamentally, it means to miss the mark. And that mark, of course, is Christ. When I look at Jesus, I understand also that the mark we miss is love. All sin is a failure to love fully and truly. But pure, unadulterated love is also a hard thing to grasp — and a dangerous thing as well. We can see what it brought Jesus. Moreover, we lie to ourselves about our love — or lack thereof — more than any other thing.

We need to confess truly to escape our bondage to ignorance and pride.