Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 10

Posted: August 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 10

18. If ‘love is long-suffering and kind’ (1 Cor. 13:4), a man who is fainthearted in the face of his afflictions and who therefore behaves wickedly towards those who have offended him, and stops loving them, surely lapses from the purpose of divine providence.

Indeed. Yet love is hard, especially toward those who are afflicting you. Of course, I’ve often seen people confuse love with allowing others to abuse you when there are other options. That’s not love. If you study the ancient Christian martyrs, you’ll encounter many places where, if they had an available option, they act to escape. In no small part, it was out of love for their persecutors. These were not people who feared death, but they also did not seek it. They loved life. Moreover, they did not want another human being bearing the burden of the evil of murder. So we do not allow others to abuse us. But we should not respond in like manner when they do. I can’t claim to have such restraint, sadly. But that’s not a reason to stop trying.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 9

Posted: August 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 9

17.  The aim of divine providence is to unite by means of true faith and spiritual love those separated in various ways by vice. Indeed, the Savior endured His sufferings so that ‘He should gather together into one the scattered children of God’ (John 11: 52). Thus, he who does not resolutely bear trouble, endure affliction, and patiently sustain hardship, has strayed from the path of divine love and from the purpose of providence.

On the one hand, I lived so much of my early life on the edge of crisis that most of the time I’m pretty good at getting through rough times. I can compartmentalize and focus on what needs to be done immediately. But I’m not sure that bear, endure, or patience describe me much at all.


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.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 38

Posted: May 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 38

77.  A man endures suffering either for the love of God, or for hope of reward, or for fear of punishment, or for fear of men, or because of his nature, or for pleasure, or for gain, or out of self-esteem, or from necessity.

The mere fact that we suffer means little. It’s important to know why we endure suffering and it’s rarely from our love of God. St. Maximos the Confessor suffered a great deal for his faithfulness and love of God. He was banished and imprisoned. He had his tongue removed so he could not speak against the ruling heresy. He had his right hand cut off so he could not write against it. And he died without ever seeing the fruit of his faithfulness through suffering.

I’ve endured the suffering of poverty and hard, manual labor for little pay — but that was from necessity. I’ve endured the suffering of a childhood that was not always the easiest, again from necessity. I endured the suffering of Army basic training, but that was for gain, out of self-esteem, and perhaps from some fear of men (drill instructors cultivate a fearsome image). For my own self-esteem, I’ve endured at different points in my life the suffering of strenuous exercise and training. When I am injured, it tends to be my nature to endure that suffering stoically and fight through it. (That last frustrates my wife no end.)

But have I endured suffering for the love of God? Not that I can recall. Would I even be willing to endure suffering for the love of God? I find I don’t know the answer to that question.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 20

Posted: February 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 20

51. God is the limitless, eternal and infinite abode of those who attain salvation. He is all things to all men according to their degree of righteousness; or, rather, He has given Himself to each man according to the measure in which each man, in the light of spiritual knowledge, has endured suffering in this life for the sake of righteousness. Thus He resembles the soul that reveals its activity in the members of the body according to the actual capacity of each member, and that itself keeps the members in being and sustains their life. This being the case, ‘where will the ungodly and the sinner appear’ (1 Pet. 4:18) if he is deprived of such grace? For if a man cannot receive the active presence of God on which his well-being depends, and so fails to attain the divine life that is beyond age, time and place, where will he be?

This text refines and expands on the question from the previous text. If God is the one who is the source of our life, where will those of us who do not want that life be? It’s really an important question. The answer cannot be in some place apart from God since there is no such place. Nothing can exist apart from God. Personally, I like the time St. Maximos takes to properly develop the question. It’s a most serious one.


The Problem of Evil?

Posted: February 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I definitely recommend the lectures series on Eastern Orthodoxy and Mysticism: The Transformation of the Senses given by Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg. The lectures are excellent, but I actually found the manner in which he handled the Q&A sessions following each one and some of the answers he gave on the spot in response to questions even more impressive.

As I was listening to the lectures a second time, something in the third lecture that I had overlooked the first time through caught my attention and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think it captures much of my instinctive response to the particular shape the discussion of “The Problem of Evil” often takes today, but which I could never quite find words to properly express.

Father Irenei, in the part of the lecture in which he is discussing the limits of what we can say and know, makes the point that it’s a misnomer to describe evil as a problem. A problem has a solution. We may not know or have discovered the solution, but it’s reasonable to believe that a solution exists. He uses the illustration of a complex math problem. It might be hard. It might be beyond our present ability to solve. But it’s reasonable to believe it can be solved. By calling evil a problem, we imply there is a solution — that the gordian knot can be undone.

But evil isn’t like that. It’s truly a mystery that in some ways transcends our understanding. We don’t ultimately solve the question of evil. We never fully understand it in all its ramifications. We are invited instead to trust the God who also transcends our understanding — the God who has made himself immediately and personally accessible to us all by assuming our own nature. We are invited into a communion of love beyond our understanding. We are told that God has overcome evil and defeated death on our behalf. We can place our confidence in that particular God or not, but either way, we still can’t solve or resolve the problem of evil.

Evil is a mystery. We can see its impact, its effects. We sometimes know when it’s at work around us. But it’s often beyond our understanding.

None of which means we should give up or succumb to evil. We are to fight it in our lives. And we are to offer pastoral care to all those suffering evil. God gives us the grace, the power, to do both if we choose to avail ourselves of him. But those actions form a way of life, not an intellectual understanding of evil nor are our efforts necessarily effective at reducing evil on some large scale. We are to offer our efforts nonetheless. That act in creation is part of our reasonable worship. It’s part of our eucharistic function as priests in creation.

But we need to resist evil, not solve it. If we focus on the latter, I think we make ourselves vulnerable.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 13

Posted: February 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 13

39.  After the fall the generation of every man was by nature impassioned and preceded by pleasure. From this rule no one was exempt. On the contrary, as if discharging a natural debt, all underwent sufferings and the death that comes from them. None could find the way to freedom, for all were under the tyranny of ill-gotten pleasure, and so subject to justly deserved sufferings and the still more justly deserved death which they engender. Because of this, another kind of suffering and death had to be conceived, first to destroy the ill-gotten pleasure and the justly deserved sufferings consequent on it – sufferings which have pitiably brought about man’s disintegration, since his life originates in the corruption that comes from his generation through pleasure and ends in the corruption that comes through death; and, second, to restore suffering human nature. This other kind of suffering and death was both unjust and undeserved: undeserved because it was in no way generated by preceding pleasure, and unjust because it was not the consequence of any passion-dominated life. This other kind of suffering and death, however, had to be devised so that, intervening between ill-gotten pleasure and justly deserved suffering and death, it could completely abolish the pleasure-provoked origin of human life and its consequent termination in death, and thus free it from the pleasure-pain syndrome. It would then recover its original blessedness, unpolluted by any of the characteristics inherent in beings subject to generation and decay.

That is why the Logos of God, being by nature fully God, became fully man, with a nature constituted like ours of a soul endowed with intellect and a body capable of suffering; only in His case this nature was without sin, because His birth in time from a woman was not preceded by the slightest trace of that pleasure arising from the primal disobedience. In His love He deliberately accepted the painful death which, because of pleasure, terminates human life, so that by suffering unjustly He might abolish the pleasure-provoked and unjust origin by which this life is dominated. For, unlike that of everyone else, the Lord’s death was not the payment of a debt incurred because of pleasure, but was on the contrary a challenge thrown down to pleasure; and so through this death He utterly destroys that justly deserved death which ends human life. For the cause of His being was not the illicit pleasure, justly punished by death, through which death entered into human life.

This is a long and complex text. I’m still wrestling with it myself and though I commend it, I don’t think I have much in the way of reflections to add. I do want to point out that the idea of Jesus’ death as a form of payment is flatly rejected in this text. Instead, his suffering and death are characterized as a challenge thrown down to the pleasure that ruled mankind and through that challenged destroying the death which ends human life. Unlike many ideas and portrayals of Jesus seen and heard today, that’s a God in whom I can believe!


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 12

Posted: January 27th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 12

37. All suffering has as its cause some pleasure which has preceded it. Hence all suffering is a debt which those who share in human nature pay naturally in return for pleasure. For suffering naturally follows unnatural pleasure in all men whose generation has been preceded by submission to the rule of causeless pleasure. I describe the pleasure that derives from the fall as ‘causeless’ because clearly it has not come about as the result of any previous suffering.

Suffering is a debt we owe to unnatural pleasure, that is the pleasure that does not rest in God and which runs contrary to our created nature. For example, as human beings we can not only choose to eat and drink too much, but we can derive great pleasure from the act. That runs contrary to our nature and it’s something that most created animals will not do. But when we do, we will suffer. Eating and drinking can become passions that rule us. (Remember, the passions in this sense are the things we suffer.) We can suffer ill health as a result. Or, if we attempt to break free of the passion, we can experience the suffering of a restricted diet and exercise. We pay a price one way or another for all unnatural pleasure. Moreover, we are fully embodied beings and the things we do in and through our bodies shape the sort of human being we become.

As I read this text, I also reflected on the sufferings of the martyrs. It strikes me that the suffering for Christ is a very different sort of thing. It’s not a debt we owe, but a privilege and honor we are sometimes granted. At least, that seems to be how all the martyrs considered it. Like Paul, they counted it all joy and gave thanks to God for the opportunity to share, even just a little, in the suffering of Christ. I find it hard to understand, myself, but it’s one of the strongest underpinnings of the Christian witness through the ages.


Reflections on Resurrection 5 – The Physical World Is Good

Posted: November 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 5 – The Physical World Is Good

Resurrection affirms a simple truth. The physical material world around us is fundamentally a good creation of God — and that includes our bodies.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the way many American Christians perceive reality today. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of Christians perceive this body as a prison from which we need to escape. And at least some Christians see this world as something evil that God is going to one day destroy. Neither of these are accurate perceptions and are even reminiscent of some of the most ancient Christian heresies — which held (to oversimplify) that spirit was good and matter was evil.

Our bodies are not prisons we escape. Christianity does not promise a future as spirit like Plato’s happy philosophers. Rather, resurrection is the story of a renewed embodied humanity caring for a renewed physical creation. If we deny the goodness of the material creation, we deny the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. From the Christian perspective, our bodies will be ours forever and the physical, tangible actions we take in and through our bodies have eternal significance. Our actions matter.

Hinduism offers a very different and contrasting narrative. (I have to make my standard disclaimer. It’s not possible to truly reduce the Indian or Vedic religions or paths to a single convenient label. Nor is it possible to summarize without caricaturing that richly diverse and complex tapestry. So anything I write here will be vastly oversimplified. Still I think some of the underlying contrasts offer insights worth considering in this discussion.) It carries the sense that we are ruled by the illusion of a material world distinct from the spiritual reality. That illusion is personified as Maya. Now, Maya is not false or evil, just as Brahman would not be considered good or true. The illusion itself has its own reality, but we should learn to see through it truly. Spirit is the knower of the field and matter is the field. The former is superior and the latter inferior. In a sense, the material reality is illusion and through our inability to see truly, we are trapped on the wheel of suffering.

Once again, that’s so oversimplified it’s almost a caricature, but I think the contrast is helpful. What is real? In many systems, there is a division between spiritual and material. It could be the division of Platonic (or neoplatonic) systems in which the material imprisons the spiritual. Or the material could be more illusory and the underlying reality is purely spiritual. Or, in the case of materialists, all is material and the spiritual is denied.

The Christian perspective holds a different dividing lens to reality. The true division is between the created and the Uncreated — and only God is in the latter category. The created includes both the material and the spiritual. Moreover, it’s a good creation. Yes, it is marred and broken by the freedom God grants creation — the freedom to love and the freedom to despise. (It’s silly to assert that all was right with creation before some archetype of mankind sinned. We are told that even before man existed some of the spiritual beings in creation had turned against God.) It’s a freedom of response that appears woven into the fabric of creation itself. Christianity proclaims the fundamental reality and goodness of both the spiritual and the material. And resurrection is the crowning glory of its rescue and renewal.

If you are Christian, pay attention to the way your tradition speaks about creation and about our own bodies. What is the underlying thread? Is it affirmation or despite? Have we lost sight of what the Incarnation and Resurrection mean?


Jesus Creed 29 – At the Cross with Jesus

Posted: October 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 29 – At the Cross with Jesus

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Luke 23:26-49; John 18-19.

Scot explores the grotesqueness of the cross in a way that is impossible to summarize if you do not already understand it. But I love this bit:

Beginning to end, the crucifixion of Jesus is a grotesque scene, one that is far from the mind of most persons who wear crosses around their necks. No one, to use a modern analogy, has the macabre affront to wear a necklace with a guillotine or a gallows or a noose or an electric chair, or cells on death row.

Scot makes precisely a point I tried (and often failed) to explain to those who were Christian about one reason I became Christian.

In fact, the writer of the Book of Hebrews explains something many Christians miss when it comes to the cross: Jesus suffers to sympathize with our sufferings.

Jesus with us. In our worst suffering, in our darkest hour, in our most hopeless moment, Jesus is right there with us. He understands it all and weeps tears of empathy and love for us. There is no place of sorrow, no depth of abandonment, no height of unwarranted cruelty and despite where Jesus has not gone and is not walking with us. For this he is named Immanuel.

The Cross is thus also, paradoxically, the revelation of the glory of God. It is the revelation of his love and his mercy and his faithfulness to his creation.

Glory to God!