Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 17

Posted: February 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 17

47. Sin first enticed Adam and tricked him into breaking the commandment; and by giving substance to sensual pleasure and by attaching itself through such pleasure to the very root of nature, it brought the sentence of death on all nature, since through man it impels all created things towards death. All this was contrived by the devil, that spawn of sin and father of iniquity who through pride expelled himself from divine glory, and through envy of us and of God expelled Adam from paradise (cf. Wisd. 2:24), in order to destroy the works of God and dissolve what had been brought into existence.

Man was not created perfect and immortal. I often hear descriptions of creation in my Christian circles that sound like the point of the Incarnation was to restore man to a former condition. You find little sense of that anywhere in the first millenium of Christian faith and practice. Rather, the consistent sense is that man was created immature, almost like a child, with potential toward God and life or destruction and death and the freedom to grow. But in the creation narrative, humanity never really does anything but sin.

It’s not that we were immortal and God punished us with death for violating his rules. Who would want to worship a God like that? The goals of the devil and all he represents are destruction and annihilation. When we turned from our only source of life — something the story tells us we did immediately — we should have ceased to exist. God, who begrudges existence to none of his creation, extended the period of our physical death and preserved some remnant of our being in that shadowy half-existence the ancient Hebrews called Sheol.

I think a lot of people misunderstand the problem and thus perceive God and the work of Jesus in a strange light.


The Jesus Prayer – Introduction

Posted: February 11th, 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.

In her introduction to the book, Frederica Mathewes-Green is careful to state that she is no expert in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. In fact, like most of us, she tends to often live as though she could “pull down a window shade” between God and herself. It’s something most of us do. We don’t pray constantly because we don’t live with a constant sense of the presence of God. If you pause and consider the way we live, it’s a bit ridiculous. In many ways we’re like the small child who hides her eyes and believes we can’t see her because she can’t see us. It’s endearing in a toddler, but we would look askance at an adult who still lived as though that were true. Yet, there is no place we can go where God is not.

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from they presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! (Ps. 139:7-8)

Indeed, since God is the source of life and sustains all that is, if we could escape God’s presence, we would immediately cease to exist.

The Jesus Prayer is a means by which we learn to experience God directly. Our problem is that we do not perceive reality truly. I was listening to a lecture and I was struck by something said about the Transfiguration of our Lord. Jesus did not change during the transfiguration. He was always God — always filled with the divine uncreated light. Rather, people — including his disciples — were not able to see him truly. And in the Transfiguration they were granted the grace to experience the full reality of Jesus. We still have the same problem today. All creation is filled with the glory of God and we do not have eyes to see it.

Khouria Frederica mentions the nous in her introduction. I’ve written about it before, but I like the way she describes it. The cogitative part of our mind, the intellect, is not the nous. Rather, the nous is the receptive part of our mind. It’s the part that experiences, that understands. The Jesus Prayer helps us still our noisy intellect so we can perceive and hear God. That strikes me as an especially good description.

There is an aspect of learning to still the mind in forms of meditation that I’ve practiced in the past. I’ve always had a sense that some aspect of that was needed in Christian practice even before the Jesus Prayer came to me. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalter exhorts, but the truth is that we do not know how to be still. Our minds never stop whirling.

When Christians pray the Jesus Prayer, we are trying to still our mind in order to open our nous to God. It’s a very specific goal and we call on Jesus as Lord to have mercy on us and help us. As someone who is now a Christian looking back on some of those other forms of meditation I’ve practiced I see the danger that I didn’t see then. We do not wish to open ourselves, our nous, to receive anything or any experience. That is unwise. Rather we seek to hear and experience the one we call Lord.

I found this book a good, practical guide to the Jesus Prayer. This is the prayer that came to me some years before I even knew it was a tradition. I thank God constantly for that grace. And I look forward to reflecting on it once more.


Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife

Posted: February 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

For those who found my series on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) interesting, I wanted to provide a link to an article on Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife According to the Bible that I read this past week. The article goes into more detail on some topics than I did in my series, especially when it comes to the different ways Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna were often translated to fit the preconceptions of English translators. I agree with the author that it would have been better to have simply transliterated each since they are, after all, what we would consider proper names. That would have been less misleading and ultimately clearer.

There are also details I didn’t know. The section on the “burning stone” (sulfur) and the way it was seen and thus named was new to me, though it fits perfectly with everything I already knew of the ancient cultures involved. The often heard English phrase “fire and brimstone” would thus be better translated “divine fire” which makes a lot more sense. And, of course, since light and fire were inseparable concepts before the advent of electrical lights, it could also be understood as “divine light.”

The history of Origen is more complicated than the author of the article takes time to explore. Unlike most heretics, he was not condemned until well after his death and it’s unclear if his followers took his teachings farther than he ever intended. Also, I think it’s important to speak clearly on one matter. The Church condemned the assertion that everyone would ultimately be saved as heresy. As far as I can tell, the incredulity expressed by those like St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian that the love of God would not eventually win over the even the most twisted and cold human heart is not rejected out of hand. Pious hope and prayer for all human beings is allowed.

It’s a very good article on balance, I think. I don’t hesitate to recommend it.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 6 – Resurrection

Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Now that I’ve discussed death and the abode of the death, it seems appropriate to interject the Christian belief in resurrection, certainly one of the most central tenets of our faith. (If you missed my post on Rob Bell’s Resurrection video, now’s a good time to pause and check it out.) Resurrection means and has always meant a physical, earthly life with a body that is in some sense continuous with our present body. There seems to be a lot of confusion on that point today. As far as I can tell, prior to Christ’s resurrection, the idea of any sort of resurrection was unique to the Jewish people. And their belief was far from universal even among themselves and markedly different in a number of key ways from what became the Christian confession in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

I’ve practiced a number of non-Christian religions and explored many more than I’ve actually practiced. I’ve also studied a bit of ancient history. I’m not aware of any religion outside Judaism and Christianity whose beliefs include resurrection. Resurrection is certainly a central part of the view of reality that drew me deeper into Christian faith and which keeps me in it. There are a few facets of the Christian confession which I know with certainty if I ceased to believe they were true, I would abandon this faith and move on to something else instead. Resurrection is one of those key facets. I’m frankly shocked that Resurrection seems more like an afterthought or something peripheral to many Christians today. It’s not. It’s right at the very center of our faith. Without resurrection nothing about Christianity is appealing or even makes sense.

In Christ’s Resurrection, which is the first fruit of our own future resurrection, death was destroyed. Humanity was in bondage to death and God had to rescue us from the vice of its relentless grip. Moreover, death was the ultimate tool that Satan and the Powers used to enslave us. And in and through that dark power, sin swirled around and within us. One of the many images used by the Christian Fathers was the image of a baited trap. Death thought it had swallowed a man in Jesus of  Nazareth and discovered too late that it had swallowed God. Sheol/Hades was burst open from the inside and death was destroyed. The icon of the harrowing of Hades speaks louder than words. The abode of the dead now stands empty with its gates burst asunder.

It was only a part of the story and purpose of the Incarnation, but in his death and resurrection Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, healed the wound of death in the nature of mankind. It is no longer our nature to die! We see that in the language of the Church. In the NT, those who have died are said to have fallen asleep in the Lord. God has accomplished all that he needed to accomplish in order to rescue us. Jesus has joined our nature with God’s and flowing from him are rivers of healing water. We are no longer subject to death and we live within the reality of the forgiveness of sins.

But God will not force himself on us. Jesus has truly done it all and offers us the power of grace, which is to say himself, in and through the Spirit for our healing. It’s in and through the mystery of the Incarnation that God can join himself with each of us. But in order to be healed, we must cooperate and participate with the Great Physician. We have to want God. Or at the least, we have to want to want God. (Sometimes that’s the best we are able to do. Not to worry, God came to us in the Incarnation and he will keep coming to us wherever we stand.) And thus we live in this interim period where the fullness of the work of Christ remains veiled.

Christianity has relatively little to say about what happens to us when we die or our “life after death.” Off-hand, I can think of only three places where it’s mentioned in the NT with virtually no detail offered. Our faith, however, has a great deal to say about resurrection, new creation, and re-creation. I like Bishop N.T. Wright’s phrase “life after life after death.” The Christian story is that we do not die. God sustains us somehow until that time when all humanity is resurrected as Christ is resurrected.

In light of that reality, perhaps it’s clear why I chose to place the post on Resurrection at this spot in the series. Sheol/Hades are no more. So where “hell” in Scripture is used to translate either of those words, it must in some sense be understood as referring to an aspect of reality that ended with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The enormity of just that one piece of Christ’s work is overwhelming to me.

Truly we can now shout, “Death, where is thy sting?


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 5 – Hades

Posted: June 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Anyone familiar with Greek Mythology will instantly recognize Hades as both the name of the Greek god of the underworld or the depths and the name of the abode of the dead over which he ruled. As such, it was the natural word for the Septuagint translators to choose for Sheol when the Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ. Moreover, it’s one of the words used in the Christian Holy Scriptures of the New Testament that is translated Hell.

In both instances, Hades should also be understood as referencing the abode of the dead or even death itself. That’s an important distinction. I would also suggest that “hell” is the appropriate english word for translating both Sheol and Hades. Hell (in various spellings) entered Old English through its Germanic influences. The words from which it came described various pagan concepts of an underworld or abode of the dead. The pre-Germanic languages may have also been influenced by Old Norse, in which Hel was both the goddess of the abode of the dead and sometimes one of the names for the abode itself (though “misty places” was its more common name).

Death holds a prominent place in the Christian understanding of reality, as I’ll explore later in this series. As such, it’s important to understand that Sheol (or Hades in Greek translation) was understood almost as a synonym for death itself. Hold that thought for the next post.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 4 – Sheol

Posted: June 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 4 – Sheol

Hell, of course, is an English word. While I’ve heard some say that it’s not necessarily helpful to examine the different words that are sometimes translated “Hell”, I’ve personally found it beneficial. So I’m going to spend several posts looking at each of those words. I’m going to start with the oldest, the Hebrew Sheol.

Sheol is the ancient Israelite name for the abode of the dead. At first it seems to have been an undifferentiated name for the abode of all the dead, but by the time of Jesus, Sheol had been divided into two parts. The “bosom of Abraham” or “paradise” described the part of Sheol that was the abode of the righteous dead. The part of Sheol set aside for the unrighteous dead was described in a variety of ways, but one such description was “the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (That phrase might ring a bell for some.)

It’s important to stress that Sheol did not in and of itself carry any connotation of a place of punishment. It was the abode of the dead and all the dead, righteous and unrighteous were in Sheol. It’s a different way of thinking and is largely lost in many modern ideas of “hell.” That’s one of the reasons I think it’s important to understand some of the concepts behind the words that were actually in use before and during the time of Jesus.

I believe a better understanding of the ancient context casts at least some of Scripture in a different light than that of many of the current, popular interpretations.