Who Am I?

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 28

Posted: March 31st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 28

60. With the help of hope, faith perfects our love for God. By making us keep the commandments, a clear conscience gives substance to our love for our neighbor. For a clear conscience cannot be charged with the breaking of a commandment. Only those who seek true salvation believe in their hearts in these three things, faith, hope and love.

When I read this text, I immediately think, “And the greatest of these is love.” But love does not stand in a vacuum. Indeed, love is perhaps the hardest thing to do. Jesus says that if we love him, we obey his commands. And what is his command? Love. If it’s to be anything more than a mental exercise, Christianity must be a life lived. The Orthodox speak of our life in Christ for anything else is delusion. And when we are indeed in Christ, we will act from self-sacrificing love, for how could we do any different? Our problem is often that we seek to find our life everywhere it is not.

The Jesus Prayer 14 – Imagination

Posted: March 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 14 – Imagination

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

There are books and other writings on Christian prayer today that encourage the use of our imagination during prayer. Orthodox tradition is adamant on this point; do not picture anything in your mind and do not use your imagination.

In the Jesus Prayer, we are trying to remain in direct contact with God, and such images can lure us instead into thinking about God.

Until I encountered this in Orthodoxy, the use of imagination in prayer had seemed natural to me. But once I began to think about it, I realized how odd it truly is to act that way. If I sat down with a friend for a conversation, but then proceeded to imagine my friend doing or saying various things, and began responding to the words and actions I had imagined, everyone would think I was crazy. And yet that is often precisely what we do with God.

Since it is possible to encounter God in reality, there is no need for fantasy.

And that’s really the crux of the matter. Do we believe God is real and do we believe we can truly encounter him? Our practices reveal our actual beliefs.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 27

Posted: March 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 27

59. There is after the union a distinction in Christ between the nature of His flesh and that of His divinity, for divinity and flesh are never identical in their essence. Hence the union of the two elements, divine and human, which have come together has generated not a single nature, but a single person. With regard to this person, there is no distinction in Christ of any kind whatsoever, for as a person the Logos is identical with His own flesh. Had there been such a distinction in Christ, He could not be one person in every way. Where the person of Christ is concerned, His oneness does not admit of any kind of distinction whatsoever, and in every way it is, and is affirmed to be, a unity for all eternity.

The Logos is now identical with his flesh in one person within whom there is no distinction or division while retaining the nature of all that it means to be uncreated God and created man in perfect unity. In that truth lies our salvation. Christ became man so that man might become God. Our salvation is union with Christ in the life of God.

The Jesus Prayer 13 – How to Pray

Posted: March 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 13 – How to Pray

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

Khouria Frederica next answers some basic questions about the mechanics of praying the Jesus Prayer. And one of those questions deals with how long to pray. Obviously the goal is to move toward learning to pray constantly, but the only way to begin moving in that direction is to have a specific rule that we can develop as a habit. Clocks and wristwatches (and cell phones!) have only become common fairly recently, so the traditional approach has been to measure the practice of the Jesus Prayer by its number of repetitions, typically in groups of one hundred. Beyond that, advice and practices have a wide range.

Personally, I’ve tried to incorporate fifty to a hundred repetitions of the Jesus Prayer in my morning prayer rule. Lately, my ability to consistently keep a regular prayer rule of any sort seems even poorer and more sporadic than it has often been. For me, the practice of stopping periodically throughout the day and praying ten to twenty Jesus Prayers has always been more important than a single lengthy period. I constantly need to redirect my will and attention. Some days, especially when I am under particular sorts of stress, I find the Jesus Prayer welling up into my conscious mind. I pause and pray and it generally alters the course of my thinking and behavior.

Khouria Frederica also mentions a prayer rope, an ancient traditional means for counting repetitions. I don’t have one personally, but have considered obtaining one. I have prayed the rosary and understand the benefits and order a tactile anchor can bring to prayer. She does mention that proper prayer ropes are fashioned while the one making them constantly prays the Jesus Prayer. And if their attention strays, they undo the knots and start over. I find it a beautiful thought that I might use an item over which so much prayer has been poured in my own prayers.

Finally, Khouria Frederica advises we have a particular place set aside for prayer. In Orthodox practice, that place is often one’s icon corner as icons also are an integral part of Orthodox prayer. I do agree that place is important and, as with any rule, consistency matters.

The book offers some solid, concrete guidance in these sections and clearly tries not to assume that the reader already knows and understands the objects and practices mentioned. I think that’s one of the things that makes this such a useful and practical book. All the theory in the world concerning prayer doesn’t mean a thing unless we actually pray.

Weekend Update – 03-26-2011

Posted: March 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Weekend Update | Comments Off on Weekend Update – 03-26-2011

AT&T wants to buy T-Mobile. While I’m a Sprint customer myself, I notice that such a merger would not only produce the single largest US cell carrier, but would also give AT&T a GSM monolopy in the United States. I’m not optimistic that our government will regulate it in any meaningful or effective way, so we’ll probably see the natural trend of laissez-faire capitalism toward oligopoly and monopoly continue. None of that is good for us, of course, but our government seems to have ceased even the semblance of being a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and has returned to the 19th century ideals of the Railroad Barons, big banks, and other lords of capitalism.

Hey, I’m a deficit hawk too! Big deficits are bad. Make somebody else pay for eliminating them!

No, I’m not optimistic that there’s anyone out there who will challenge the Republican craziness on this or any other issue. But it’s a nice column.

When I read about efforts to twist and erase history like those of Maine Governor LePage, I feel echoes of Orwell’s 1984.

Most people either favor the health care law or wish it were more liberal. Not exactly the way you hear the poll results characterized in most places, but if you actually go through them, it’s what they actually reveal.

We’ll happily try ideas that have already failed elsewhere in the world. It’s pretty clear by now that, as a country, we are collectively incapable from learning from history or from the experience of others. Nor do we seem to care much about facts or even simple arithmetic. Here in Texas, the GOP is determined to kill some 355,000 jobs. Of course, once they manage to kill our state’s economy, that will likely be just the tip of the iceberg.

Finally, Jon Stewart explores the way the relationship between the new Republican governors and their states has gone from Mom’s cool new boyfriend to psychotic stepdad.

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Posted: March 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The brouhaha over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, has continued to percolate in the back of my mind. Last week I expressed my frustration over the more modern and truncated understanding of “hell” that many were calling the traditional or historical view and tried to share perspectives that are at least as traditional and historical, if not more so. But even underlying that, I’ve been bemused by those tossing around the idea of an orthodox or heterodox view.

By and large, the individuals using those words have been Protestants of one sort or another. For that part of my life in which I’ve been Christian, I’ve only ever been Protestant, but I’ve still never really understood the basis on which a Protestant calls their own belief orthodox or that of another heterodox. The traditional meaning of heresy flows from the idea that those who hold and promote a particular idea have chosen their own, different faith in practice or belief. Any particular heterodox teaching or understanding is always contrasted to the right worship or belief according to the common tradition of practice and interpretation in the church.

By that definition, it seems to me that to one degree or another, every Protestant is, of necessity, a heretic. One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism, at least as I’ve understood and experienced it, is that every individual determines or chooses for himself or herself the truth of any given practice, belief, or interpretation. The fact that the thousands of groups of Protestants share some superficial similarities perhaps disguises that underlying reality and what are actually some pretty deep differences. Even when the same words are used, they are often defined and understood differently within different groups.

There is much in that particular Protestant perspective on faith that appeals to me. After all, my formation was more deeply pluralistic and even relativistic than that of most modern, conservative Protestants and that perspective is deeply relativistic. I’m not even sure how I could ever stop deconstructing propositions and choosing what I believe and practice. It happens that I’ve discovered that much of what I’ve come to believe about God (or in many cases had always believed about God) actually coincides with Orthodox teaching. But that doesn’t even vaguely make me Orthodox. I see the distinction even if it’s not as clear to others.

One of the largest groups of Bell’s critics seem to lie among the Neo-Calvinists or those with Calvinistic leanings. I try not to pick on Calvinists too much, but they have been very vocal in their evangel of Hell, and they do have a well-articulated theology that describes a very different God and a very different humanity from that described by most of Christianity. I’ve also noticed that group seems particularly quick to use the orthodox and heterodox labels.

But on what basis?

After all, Roman Catholics in the Council of Trent and in other places and the Orthodox, at least in the 17th century Council of Jerusalem, have both anathematized the core tenets of Calvinism. Taken together, that represents well over a billion Christians world-wide and two of the most ancient traditions in Christianity. Whether you agree or disagree with them, isn’t it strange for the comparatively small and relatively modern sect of Calvin to be acting like the standard-bearers for Christian orthodoxy?

Or is that just me?

As a Protestant, it seems to me we can each say that, as an individual, we either do or don’t believe something is true. And it also seems to me that’s really all we have the authority to say. Having asserted our right to define truth for ourselves, we have relinquished any credible authority to assert it over another. Oh, that obviously stops no-one from attempting to assert their will to power in various ways. And in the history of Protestantism, many of those ways have been violent. My stint as a Christian has been in the Baptist tribe and many of our martyrs were killed by Calvinists and other Protestant Christian groups.

Nevertheless, having asserted our own right to choose, we are hypocrites when we try to deny that same right to another.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 26

Posted: March 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 26

58. He who does not distinguish the two natures in Christ has no basis for affirming that the Logos became flesh without change. He does not acknowledge that after the union that which assumed and that which was assumed are preserved according to their nature in the single person of the one Christ, our God and Savior.

That which assumed was the divine Logos, the eternally begotten Son. That which was assumed was sarx or flesh — our human nature. (I will note here that there’s a section in Romans where the NIV over the course of a few sentences translates sarx as sometimes sinful human nature and sometimes flesh. It’s a good illustration of the way bias can distort translation efforts.) And both the divine nature and our full human nature are completely preserved in Christ. This is hard to wrap our heads around, but it’s important because “that which is not assumed is not healed or saved.”

She’s Leaving Home – A Reflection On Life

Posted: March 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | 2 Comments »

I grew up listening to my parents’ music. It seems like there was almost always something playing in the background at home and in the car, especially on the many long trip road trips we took. To this day I still love Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and many others, but there’s a part of me that was particularly shaped within the context of the music of the Beatles. As children, my brother and I and two others (practically family at the time) memorized almost the whole Beatles portfolio and would act like a band singing along to their albums.

For Christmas, my family bought me the Beatles stereo box set, and I’ve been immersed in their music again ever since. Several songs from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in particular, have stirred reflections on my part. The first is perhaps one of my favorite songs, She’s Leaving Home.

I still remember the intense emotional response I had to this song even as a preteen. My life growing up was … complicated. But my reaction was not that of someone who wanted to escape home. (I wouldn’t say that was true my whole life. I still remember a time staying with my biological father as a young child when I would go to sleep each night picking an earlier moment in time when I would wake up and discover my whole life since that point had been a dream.) At least when things were more on the sane side, I generally liked my parents. I enjoyed talking and doing things with them. Of course, I had the sort of parents who would hang out with us late at night watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and the Not Ready for Prime Time Players on SNL. My mother taught me to play bridge when I was nine and included me in games. (Well, they needed a fourth, but still.) My father taught me to cook and let me experiment. Even so, I remember this song pulling intensely at my heart. I think I recognized my parents’ pain and struggle and the way it bled into my mine. The words themselves are simple, but taken together the song is strangely rich and deep.

I listen to it now and along with my memories as a child, I feel my life experience with my own children, most of whom are adults now. I feel the many mistakes I made along the way even as I did the best I knew to do. In some ways the song is a postmodern deconstruction of the cycle of our experience in the small things that, as it turns out, aren’t really so small after all. I can’t point to any single aspect of the song that provokes my response, but I can’t listen to it without getting tears in my eyes.

In some ways, I suppose I felt the pain of living alone even among those who loved me. But isn’t that a pain we all feel in some way and to some degree?

I also can’t do the sometimes surreal nature of my childhood experience justice any description. And I think that’s at least one reason I’ve always been captivated by A Day in the Life.

I realize now that it’s also almost postmodern as well in its deconstruction of simple life events and the disconnect we feel with the news of the world around us. I didn’t grasp that as a child, but it captured the way my own life sometimes felt to me. Even as I lived it, my life sometimes felt surreal to me. And yet, even in the midst of life’s craziness, you get up, comb your hair, go where you need to go, and do the things you need to do.

Finally, I’ve mentioned elsewhere the influence Hinduism had in my childhood spiritual formation. That’s probably one reason I’ve always loved Within You Without You.

Life flows on within you and without you. The space between us all is really an illusion. Even now when I listen to the song, I empathize with that manner of perceiving reality. There is some sense in which the deeply mysterious inter-connectedness of human beings also reflects the true Christian perspective, though that can be hard to see in the highly individualistic context of much of modern Christianity. I would not identify as even somewhat Hindu today and I could tell you intellectually why that’s the case. But I’m not sure we ever completely cease being, at least in part, the sum of the people we have been, the people we have loved, and that which we have worshiped.

If that last sentence makes no sense to you, I apologize, but I couldn’t think of any other way to express it.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 25

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 25

57. With regard to Christ, we do not speak of a distinction of persons, because the Trinity remained a Trinity after the incarnation of the Logos. A fourth person was not added to the Holy Trinity as a result of the incarnation. We speak of a distinction of natures to avoid asserting that the flesh is coessential in its nature with the Logos.

This text and the next several following become very technical and precise and the effort to translate them into English while preserving their meaning leaves them a little stilted. But I want to include them because they are some of the clearest statements not only on the Trinity, but on the way the Incarnation fits into our understanding. If you have studied the history of the Church, you will hear echoes of lessons learned from past heresies in these texts by St. Maximos.

Christ is not two persons. He was one person, the Son, before the Incarnation and he remains one person. The Trinity is still a Trinity. However, as embodied human beings, we are not of the same essence or nature as God. So the flesh Christ assumed was our nature and that nature retains its distinct human essence. It is not overwhelmed by the divine essence nor does it mingle with it. Monophysitism had held that Christ had one nature. While it was expressed in different ways, the primary expression was that the divine nature had absorbed the human nature, so that only the divine nature remained. This concept is hard to grasp and it’s made harder because we don’t really have the words in English that precisely correlate with the Greek words actually used. Nestorius, in an earlier heresy, had emphasized the disunion between the human and the divine nature to the extent that he described two persons, a human Jesus and a divine Christ.

The actual Christian understanding of Christ has always been found between those two poles and in these texts we see that understanding articulated.

The Jesus Prayer 12 – Getting Started

Posted: March 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 12 – Getting Started

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

Khouria Frederica begins the large question and answer section of her book with questions on how to get started with the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The first question deals with preparations. You have to at least want to cut out major, ongoing sin in your life. Look for a spiritual father or mother. Be part of a worshiping community and receive the sacraments regularly. Pray, fast, and give alms. Avoid excessive sleeping and eating. Expect that you will suffer injustice and sorrow. Strive for humility and be wary of pride. Pride is sneaky. I do like the way she identifies anger as an identifier for pride.

One clue to pride is anger; often, when we get angry, it is because pride has been dealt a wound. Avoid anger at all costs. The Desert Fathers warn more frequently against anger than against sexual sins, because anger poisons the soul. As the saying goes, “Anger is an acid that destroys its container.”

The ultimate goal of the Jesus Prayer is unceasing prayer. While that’s a lofty goal, keep it in mind. We can’t start doing something all the time, so start by doing it some of the time. Set a time or times each day to pray the Jesus Prayer and then stick with them whether you feel like it or not. A number of brief prayer times during the day are often more effective than one big prayer time. Be as sincere as you are able when you pray. The Jesus Prayer is a discipline because it often requires effort. But it’s a discipline that has stood the test of time. It has proven itself for more than fifteen hundred years.

The things we lay down firmly in our memories matter. They endure. If you take the words of the Jesus Prayer and “write them on the tablet of your heart” (Prov. 3:3), on the day when you are far away on the gray sea of Alzheimer’s, the Prayer will still be there, keeping your hand clasped in the hand of the Lord.