Who Am I?

Gluten Free Long Haul

Posted: January 31st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Gluten Free Long Haul

I’m closing in now on two years since my diagnosis with celiac disease. While that leaves me still a novice compared to some, I’ve noticed significant change in myself. Many of the behaviors associated with being gluten free have become automatic to me. When I look at a product in the store, the first thing I do is read the label. I don’t try samples or eat food someone else has cooked unless I’m comfortable I know what they put in it and how they prepared it. Eating out tends to take a lot of advance planning. And when I read or hear people describing their gluten-filled dishes, my initial reaction is more ‘yuck‘ than ‘yum.’ Business travel doesn’t intimidate me, though it does require more careful, detailed planning. I generally have to have a plan (and sometimes a backup plan) for every meal in place well before I leave and that often means packing some food to take with me.

But it really struck home for me recently when a long distance friend of me wife was diagnosed with celiac disease. She was in that initial, “What am I going to eat?” stage. My wife wrote to her with advice, but she also asked me to write and provide resources and advice. As bits and pieces of the knowledge, the online resources, and way of living I’ve acquired flowed through my fingers, I realized just how much I’ve internalized in a relatively short period of time.

Celiac disease is not something you can ever forget you have.

But food does not rule my life.

There’s something to be said for that.

Weekend Update 01-29-11

Posted: January 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Weekend Update | Comments Off on Weekend Update 01-29-11

I was intrigued by this article in our local paper. I sought out the blog mentioned in it and have added it to my RSS reader. The sort of childhood spiritual formation I experienced, not really any religion — but exposed to a great many things, is not one I hear or read much about. But statistically we know that starting with the baby boomers and continuing on to the present, a lot of people who raised in one particular religious tradition have stepped away from it in adulthood and to one extent or another explored other things. And though I would be among the oldest of the group raised by such parents, I know there have to be many more out there today. Hopefully, rather than simply seeking “the universal spiritual questions threading through every religion,” they will allow each religion to fully express itself to them and encounter the religion for what it actually is. I’ve never felt it’s respectful to a religion and those who follow it to take from it only what you like and treat the rest as though it did not exist or was of lesser importance. For those of us with more pluralistic formation, it’s very easy to build an understanding of religions that revolves around our personal likes and dislikes rather than a deeper grasp of the religion itself. It’s very easy for us to treat the world religions like our personal smorgasbord. And that is not true respect. As someone who has now delved somewhat deeply into Christianity, I’ll also note that the categories of Eastern and Western Christianity are a more natural division for the exploration of Christian history, belief, and practice than the categories of pre- and post-Reformation, but that’s a relatively minor quibble, I suppose. I look forward to reading the story of their journey with interest.

LaVonne Neff has an excellent post-SOTU post on American exceptionalism. Worth reading.

This column by Robert Reich is a good read. Personally, I don’t really see much difference between President Obama and mainstream Republican presidents of the past. If anything, he seems to be a little to the right of most of them in a lot of things. Of course, the modern Republican party has become so radicalized, I’m not sure Bush Sr, an Eisenhower, or even a Reagan could be nominated and elected today. If I were politically minded and in a position where such things mattered, I would tend to let the Republican newbies in the House trample roughshod in their cuts of programs and benefits the American people highly support and then present myself as coming to their rescue against those evil Congressmen. But I’m not politically minded, so I’m sure nothing like that will actually happen.

The Celiac Nurse asks the sorts of questions that immediately sprang to my mind when I read about the recent hydrolyzed wheat study for patients with celiac disease.

I wanted to share this video because she struck me as a very brave and well-spoken young woman.


The segment below from the Daily Show, rebutting O’Reilly on the use of Nazi comparisons on Fox, was hilarious and well-played. The Nazis mastered the use of propaganda in such an astonishingly thorough and evil way that they are tempting targets for comparison. I was tempted myself to call Politifact’s Lie of the Year the Republican Party’s version of the Big Lie last year. However, while I think it was despicable opportunism, and was carefully orchestrated propaganda by a political machine, it really wasn’t in the same category. Very few things are and such comparisons trivialize the evil perpetrated by the Nazis.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Bill O’Reilly Defends His Nazi Analogies
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

I am amazed, though, that Republicans can make their propaganda work when they don’t even try to hide their duplicity. After ranting about “protecting” Medicare in order to entice votes, they are of course looking to pay off the private health insurance industry that pretty much owns them body and soul. And they can do it all out in the open with virtually no political cost. Of course, given that a lot of that support came from people carrying signs like “Keep the government out of my Medicare!” I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Finally, just because I love the song and have long liked Prince, here’s an impressive guitar solo by him on an ensemble performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Thirsting for God 19 – To Be Orthodox

Posted: January 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

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

Matthew closes his book with a short chapter outlining his hope that Protestant and Orthodox believers alike will not merely believe that Orthodox theology is true, but actually learn to live an Orthodox life — to be Orthodox. I think two sentences from the chapter strike to the core of his prayer.

The misconception is this: Christianity is essentially a faith that one can individually interpret and apply as one pleases.

If there is one thing that must be learned by the Protestant seeking truth, and the Orthodox desiring to live the fullness of the Faith, it is this: We have no right to judge the Faith. Rather, it is the Faith that must judge us.

Me? I’m not particularly there yet. When your formation has been as relativistic and pluralistic as mine, that voice at the back of your head analyzing and critiquing every belief and every practice never really stops speaking. I’m so relieved to actually find a Christian tradition within which the things I know I believe and have experienced about God fit, but I’m not at a place where I have any desire to be Orthodox. I don’t really know why. It’s where I am at the moment. But then I also rarely feel the need to rush to any sort of resolution on things like this, so that may be part of it as well.

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.

Thirsting for God 18 – The Saints

Posted: January 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 18 – The Saints

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

Resurrection and the renewal of all things lie at the very center of the Christian faith. Christ has defeated death through his death and Resurrection and it is no longer the nature of man to die. The New Testament resounds with the proclamation of salvation through union with Christ and with the promise that those who are in Christ will never die. We will never see death. We will never taste death.

For that reason, it’s been the tradition of the Church, already established by the time the New Testament was written, to say that Christians have fallen asleep or reposed in the Lord. Paul writes that to sleep in the body is to be with Christ, which is far better. We aren’t told much about the period between the time our still mortal bodies repose and the general Resurrection of the Dead, but it is clear that we continue to live in Christ.

With that said, the attitude of many modern Protestant Christians toward those who have reposed in Christ is almost an outright refutation and denial of the core of Christian faith. Some relegate those who have reposed in the body to a sort of soul sleep which bears a closer resemblance to the ancient experience of death or to the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty than anything recognizably Christian. Others agree that those who sleep in the body are conscious and with Christ, but then proceed to place them at a far remove from us — as if Christ were someplace distant rather than with us always, even unto the end of the age. No, if those who have reposed are with Christ and if Christ is with us, then truly a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us as we are told in Hebrews. Heaven is not distant. Though presently veiled, it is as close as our next breath, overlapping and interlocking with our sensible reality.

If that is not true, then as far as I can tell, there is no reason to be Christian.

So ultimately, the difference between an Orthodox Christian and a Protestant, with regard to the saints or in any other matter, is essentially this: In all things, we Orthodox Christians see the world through Jesus’ eyes, and not our own. He sees our departed brethren as alive and joined with us in worship of Him. Thus, we must see them that way, and act toward them accordingly.

Those who have fallen asleep in the Lord can and do pray for us as much or more as those who have not. And we are certainly able to pray for all those who have reposed — even though we may not know their disposition toward God — because it is no longer in the nature of mankind to die. And it makes even more sense to honor or venerate those who were martyred for Christ or lived holy lives than it does to honor the great Christians who are still among us in the body.

Perhaps this distortion of Christian faith and practice within Protestantism is one of the reasons so many modern Christians are vulnerable to alternative ideas about reality such as reincarnation or the various practices of spiritism. I don’t know. But it would not surprise me if there were indeed a connection.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

Posted: January 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

36. Sufferings freely embraced and those that come unsought drive out pleasure and allay its impetus. But they do not destroy the capacity for pleasure which resides in human nature like a natural law. For the cultivation of virtue produces dispassion in one’s will but not in one’s nature. But when dispassion has been attained in one’s will the grace of divine pleasure becomes active in the intellect.

St. Maximos sees sufferings as pain we are granted to counter the sort of pleasure that draws us away from God, which means its the sort of pleasure that draws us ultimately toward a non-existence we are powerless to achieve. The sufferings freely embraced I think describe ascetic practices. I do think this is one of the widespread problems in most of Protestantism. And to some extent it seems to have spread to the modern Catholic Church as well. The ascetic disciplines (fundamentally fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) have to a large degree been abandoned within much of Christianity. But the disciplines are part of our synergy with God. If we do not engage in them, we provide God less and less room to change and transform us. Moreover, if we do not fast, we forget how to feast properly in thanksgiving. When the Church abandons basic ascetic disciplines, it gives its members over to the passions. That’s not to say that every person should live like a monk. Most people are not called or equipped by God for such a life. However, it seems that many people today seem to think that if they are not a monastic, that means they don’t need to practice any ascetic disciplines at all. And that’s not only inconsistent with the history of the Church and the Holy Scriptures, it ignores the reality of what it means to be a human being.

Thirsting for God 17 – Mary, The Theotokos

Posted: January 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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

Hail Mary,
full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,

Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin discusses something which I’ve noticed often leads evangelicals to act and react in strange ways, the veneration of Mary, the mother of our Lord. The prayer which I’ve quoted above is one I learned when I attended Catholic school (as a non-Catholic) and it has stayed with me across the decades. It’s a prayer I remember finding myself praying even when I considered myself more Hindu than anything resembling Christian. It would spring to my mind at odd times — sometimes when meditating, at times under stress, and from time to time during other activities as well. It was never constantly running through my mind, but I never forgot it and at odd moments it would surface.

I suppose that experience, as much as anything else, made me skeptical of evangelical critiques of Mary as I encountered them. While the factors that ultimately led to the completion of my journey into something like Christian conversion are many and varied, Mary certainly deserves part of the credit. Some part of me believed the prayer above long before I accepted anything else about Christianity.

Moreover, the evangelical aversion to Mary, the Mother of God, does not strike me as entirely rational. After all, the first sentence of the prayer above pretty much comes straight from the Holy Scriptures and the second sentence is simply a humble request for intercession. Mary, herself, full of the Holy Spirit, prophesied in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed. It’s almost as though evangelicals have adopted the view that the Mother of God was nothing more than a vessel for the Incarnation and that if she had said no, any other woman would have sufficed. Such a view is actually a fresh expression of an ancient heresy, for it diminishes the humanity of Jesus. He was not merely inhabiting flesh and needed an impersonal vessel to grow that flesh. No, Jesus became fully human which means that Mary was an active agent in the Incarnation. Everything human that Jesus was and is, he drew from her.

And there is no indication anywhere in Scripture that God had a Plan B. Mary’s yes to God is poetically described in Christian tradition as healing Eve’s no. Mary is sometimes called the new Eve as Jesus is the new Adam. In this sense, then, Mary’s yes to God saves us all, for without that yes, there would have been no Incarnation and our salvation rests wholly in Jesus of Nazareth.

In a lesser sense, the same thing is true for each of us, though the magnitude and scope of our choices and their consequences are not as broad as Mary’s were. When we say no to God, he doesn’t go pick another vessel to magically replace us. If that were true, creation would not be as broken as it is.

Matthew opens with a poignant story of his brother, who died many years before.  I’m going to quote his next few paragraphs because I think they reveal a problem which has long bothered me in my Baptist circles.

Now, not one of my Protestant friends would think it strange if, while standing before that bookshelf [holding the picture of his brother], I were to pick up Barry’s photograph and give it a kiss. But what happens when I take two large strides to the right to my icon shelf, and kiss the icon of Mary, the Theotokos? Now, suddenly, I’m an idolater. What changed? What’s wrong with Mary, that she’s not worthy of the kind of love and respect I would give to my departed brother?

Or suppose I kiss the icon of my daughter’s patron saint, Vera. Just like my brother Barry, she died a violent death. Nineteen centuries ago, at the age of twelve, she was martyred for the sake of Christ, along with her mother and two younger sisters. But in Protestant eyes, showing her the kind of love I would give to my brother is a sinful thing to do.

Just what is the problem here? When I began to struggle with this issue, I saw something paradoxical in my old Protestant attitudes. On the one hand, I would condemn people who honored Mary and the saints; yet on the other hand, I saw nothing wrong with honoring respected Protestant preachers and teachers, living or dead. It was perfectly okay to sing the praises of these people, to watch videos and slide shows that recounted their deeds, and get all misty-eyed as someone performed “Thank You for Giving to the Lord.” But if I saw someone giving laud and honor to the woman who bore the Savior in her womb — why, the very act made that person’s Christianity questionable!

Is Mary special or isn’t she? Be careful how you answer that question, for one thing seems to me to be certain. Mary is at least as special to the one called Jesus the Christ as our own mothers are to us. But it goes even deeper than that. Mary is not called Theotokos (literally God-bearer) by chance or accident. Although the title can be traced as far back as the second century, it was affirmed in the Council of Ephesus in 431 over and against competing titles such as Anthropotokos (bearer of a man) and Christotokos (Christ-bearer). The competing views were not really about Mary, but about the nature of the child she bore in her womb. And the competing groups rejected the idea that Mary had carried and given birth to God. The affirmation of the title Theotokos was an affirmation that Jesus was fully God.

Me? I tend to believe that Mary did, in fact, pray and intercede for me, even when I didn’t really believe in her or her Son, much less believe I was a ‘sinner.’ In fact, I believe to this day she is more likely to pray for us than many of the people who tell us to our faces that they will. I do the best I can not to tell someone that I will pray for them unless I’m sure I will, but even so my record is less than stellar. I have a sense that failing is not unique to me.

Basic Etiquette

Posted: January 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Comments Off on Basic Etiquette

Though it pains me to have to explicitly write it, I do want to explain something in case anyone reading lacks a sense of the way online interaction works in social media. The fact that we exchange a few remarks in the comments section of a post on another person’s blog does not present an open invitation to attempt to continue that same conversation on some random post on my blog. If anyone wishes to make a comment on my site, it should be at least vaguely related either to the post in question or something about which I have written here. Or it could be a friend stopping by to say hi.

If your comment doesn’t at least vaguely fit within those constraints, you’re really wasting your time and energy as I’ll simply delete the comment and likely flag you for future moderation or maybe even blacklist you. It’s sad that I have to post something which should be so basic and obvious, but apparently it’s necessary.

‘Nuff said.

Weekend Update 01-22-2011

Posted: January 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Weekend Update | Comments Off on Weekend Update 01-22-2011

This podcast lecture is a particularly good holistic look at the environment and spirituality through a Christian lens. It’s well worth the time spent listening to it.

In the latest salvo surrounding their health care reform repeal stunt, the Republicans extend their war on arithmetic into a war on logic. I remind everyone this is the party responsible for Politifact’s biggest lie of 2010, so there shouldn’t be any surprise.

I found this post about a recent study that found a high incidence of non-celiac gluten sensitivity among those with ADHD, ADD, and Schizophrenia interesting.

HEB, a regional supermarket, is now publishing a list of gluten free items available at their stores.

CNN’s Eatocracy has published a couple of decent posts on gluten and, this week,  celiac disease.

This lecture, Do Not React, Do Not Resent, Keep Inner Stillness, by Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA at a Lutheran Church is extremely good. You can watch the video or download and listen to the audio. I’ve listened to it twice already and will probably listen to it a few more times. I highly recommend it.

LaVonne Neff posted her 10 wishes for a health care policy. It’s a pretty good list. I’ve listened and read a number of complaints about the health care reform act. One of the biggest complaints seems to arise from the individual mandate to buy health insurance. Truthfully, even with the requirement for an 85% medical loss ratio, I’m not thrilled by a mandate that continues to fill the trough of a now largely for profit health insurance industry. (Everyone should recognize that’s a pretty recent change in the US. Up until the early 1990s, most health insurance companies were non-profit and operated with medical loss ratios typically running about 95%.) I would prefer that we either require that health insurance companies participating in any sort of insurance exchange be non-profit or fund and operate universal health coverage through the government by means of a payroll tax as we already do with Medicare. But if we’re going to stick with a private, for-profit insurance model, I would really like the critics to explain how they plan to make it work without an individual mandate? How can you simultaneously mandate that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions and cannot rescind coverage without mandating that everyone maintain coverage? We know from many studies that we are very bad at estimating personal risks like this one. The reality is that serious illness and injury are largely unpredictable, but we tend to be overly optimistic. What do people think will happen with those who decide they can do without insurance and are then struck by catastrophic illness or injury and only purchase coverage at that point? Easy. If we’ve mandated that insurance companies can’t deny coverage, those costs will be spread among all of us, inflating our health insurance premiums. Even if we allow them to be denied coverage, we’re still going to treat them in our hospitals as we do today. Yes, we typically don’t provide enough treatment to actually allow them to survive and recover as we do for those with insurance, but we still sink tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars into inadequate care for which they can’t pay. That cost is currently being redistributed to all of us. There are times I wish our nation would grow up and abandon magical thinking. This “debate” is certainly one of those times.

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.