Who Am I?

The Jesus Prayer 17 – Fear

Posted: April 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 17 – Fear

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

In addition to awe, Khouria Frederica discusses an interesting question.

But haven’t we progressed beyond fear of God? It sounds so negative.

It’s an interesting question. Fear of God leads to  sense of penitence. That’s been true over the course of Christian history and it’s not clear that many of the disciplines and practices produce spiritual healing absent a penitent heart. She has a long quote from St. Theophan which I think speaks to the heart of this question. I wanted to share it.

The most important thing in prayer is to stand before God in reverence and fear, with the mind in the heart, for this sobers and disperses every folly and plants contrition before God in the heart. These feelings of fear and sorrow in the sight of God, the broken and contrite heart, are the principal features of true inner prayer, and the test of every prayer, by which we can tell whether or not our prayer is performed as it should be. If they are present, prayer is in order. When they are absent, prayer is not in its true course and must be brought back to its proper condition.

If we lack this sense of sorrow and contrition, then sweetness and warmth may breed self-conceit; and that is spiritual pride, and will lead to pernicious illusion. Then the sweetness and warmth will vanish, leaving only their memory, but the soul will imagine that it has them. Of this you should afraid, and so you must increasingly kindle in your heart the fear of God, lowliness, contrite prostration before him, walking always in his presence.

An absence of proper fear, then, will often lead to spiritual pride. I think that’s a true observation. For those who still find an emphasis on fear and penitence off-putting, Khouria Frederica has a thought which strikes me as wise.

You cannot choose the thing that will change you, The thing that will change you may well look strange from the outside. My advice is to accept the ancient spiritual disciplines as a complete, integrated healing program, rather than picking and choosing to fit.

Tell the truth. If you pick the disciplines and practices that suit you, will you pick ones that will actually change you? I’m not at all sure I would. I probably wouldn’t.


The Jesus Prayer 15 – Mercy

Posted: April 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 15 – Mercy

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 addresses a question that would never have occurred to me — that constantly praying “have mercy on me” might be disturbing to some modern Americans. For some reason, I hadn’t realized that when a person lives fully within the law court metaphor and sees God essentially as a judge delivering a sentence, that the prayer could be perceived as a prisoner groveling before the judge begging to be released rather than condemned. I see how that could happen, but it still feels foreign to me.

When we have mercy on someone, we offer them our help, our compassion, and even our love. That’s the predominant meaning even in English. We pray for the Lord Jesus Christ to help us and heal us as the Samaritan helped the man who was set upon by robbers. Often we do need forgiveness as well, but God overflows with forgiveness. Our more dominant, ongoing need is for healing.

Khouria Frederica points out something I didn’t know. The Greek for mercy, eleos, sound similar to the Greek for olive oil, elaion. And in the ancient world, one of the many uses of olive oil was as ointment or medicine for healing. Those hearing the liturgy in Greek would have heard a resonance between the two words.

She also notes that a lot of the people to whom she speaks today don’t particularly feel any need for repentance. And that’s true even among most Christians.

In the contemporary West, repentance is now considered an introductory activity to life in Christ (if it’s considered at all); in the East, repentance lasts a lifetime. Salvation means healing from the sickness of sin, and we are always seeking to confront the sin that infects us, and to be healed at ever deeper levels.


The Jesus Prayer 11 – Relationship

Posted: March 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

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

This Eastern Christian path is not particularly concerned with morality or good behavior, surprisingly enough; it is concerned with a relationship. The Pharisees achieved high levels of good behavior, but if that was enough, Jesus would have chosen his apostles from their ranks. No, they were pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside, like “whitewashed tombs” (Mt. 23:27). Jesus consistently put the emphasis on the state of the inner person. …

It’s that transformed heart and nous he’s looking for. After that healing, good behavior flows out naturally. So this approach does not disregard morality; Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48), and “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). But moral behavior is worthless without a transformed mind and heart.

Discipline and moral behavior absent prayer, a transformed nous, and the resulting relationship with our only source of life  simply offer another path to destruction. That is the path of the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. The elder brother is also the figure in the parable directed back toward those challenging Jesus. When we come to believe that we are essentially good and moral, we lose sight of our deep interconnectedness with humanity and creation. We minimize our complicity and participation in the evil and brokenness of the world. We join hands with the Pharisee in the parable of the publican and the Pharisee.

I don’t remember where I found and watched a particular video about Orthodox monks in, I think, Romania. If I did I would post a link to it. I don’t remember a lot about it, but I vividly remember one bit of an interview with an old monk. At one point, according to the subtitles, he said, “All will be saved, and I alone will be damned.” That vision of the true depth of our shared relationship and responsibility fixed itself in my mind. We believe we live isolated, individual lives, but that’s a lie. We do not perceive the depth and breadth of the web in which we live and move. Nor do we often perceive the God who sustains our existence every moment.

The healing of our heart progresses slowly. At first it may appear that nothing much is happening. But centuries of experience of the practice of the Jesus Prayer promises us that over time we can be healed; we can experience a relationship with God; we can know peace. “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand around you will be saved.”

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.


The Jesus Prayer 10 – Repentance

Posted: March 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 10 – Repentance

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

Why does all this discussion about the receptive part of our minds matter? What does it mean that we have a darkened understanding or perception of reality and how is that different from intellectual knowledge and reasoning? In our day and in our culture, I think those are among the more natural questions to ask. Even within Christianity, many people act as though the only thing that really matters is that you believe the right things about God. And that’s a trap. It’s a trap when it comes to God and it’s a trap when it comes to prayer. It’s very easy to think, write, and discuss prayer while hardly ever actually praying. And it’s possible to think and teach about God, to intellectually believe something about God, and yet not do any of the things Jesus commanded us to do.

In order to break free from that trap, we need humility. But humility is very hard. Everything in us fights against it. We need to learn to see ourselves more as we actually are, and perceive God as he is. Khouria Frederica employs the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate this point. The younger son does not need to repent in order to gain forgiveness. The father had already forgiven him and was always waiting for him. “While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion” (Lk. 15:20).

God loves us like that; he isn’t waiting for us to coax him into forgiving us. But, like the son, we have to recognize the truth about our wounded condition. We must recognize that we need the father’s love. The darkened nous doesn’t readily grasp this. We see that something is wrong with the world, but don’t perceive that the wrongness is tangled up with, and enabled by, our own thoughts, words, and deeds. Realizing the truth about ourselves, our complicity in the world’s brokenness, is the first step of healing.

In Christian terms, we call that moment of awareness when we perceive our reality and recognize our need to reorient our lives repentance or metanoia. It’s not a one time thing, but a process we must continually pursue. The younger son had one such moment in the mud with the pigs. All such moments are not as dramatic, but it’s essential that we see God as loving and near or we will never have the strength to face and endure the truth about ourselves.

A God who is remote and scary and judgmental, taking offense at things that (we think) have nothing to do with him, is hard to love. The natural reaction is instead to deny the sins, or rationalize them away, or compare yourself to someone else whose behavior is worse. A barrier of mistrust lies between a person and this kind of God.

Unfortunately that’s the sort of God too often proclaimed in modern Christianity. The Jesus Prayer can help us see ourselves truly and perceive God as he is, a loving father who will not force us to return his love.


The Jesus Prayer 9 – A Darkened Nous

Posted: March 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 9 – A Darkened Nous

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

While the nous is our “little radio,” our faculty for hearing and encountering God, it doesn’t much want to listen to God. Our nous is often described as damaged or darkened.  Our nous craves stimulation constantly. Our thoughts constantly leap from one topic to another, rarely settling down.

A contemporary elder said that the nous is like a dog that wants to run around all the time.

Does that describe your mind? It certainly describes mine. Our nous needs to be healed for us to clearly perceive and understand reality. And, as Khouria Frederica puts it, reality is God’s home address.

The Jesus Prayer functions, in part, by “opening a little space between you and your automatic thoughts, so that you can scrutinize them before you let them in.”

This healing is a lifelong process, and your self-serving thoughts, in particular, are adept at disguising themselves; they may escape detection for many long years. But over time you will discover that some very old automatic thoughts are just plain wrong, and you don’t have to think them anymore. As the nous is gradually healed, its perceptions become more accurate, less agitated. You begin to acquire “the nous of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). “Be transformed by the renewal of your nous,” said St. Paul (Rom. 12:2).

The Jesus Prayer will send you into the “jungle of your own psyche.” I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a pretty frightening place. Jesus is both the compass and the goal of that journey. This is one of the reasons Orthodoxy places so much emphasis on having a spiritual father or mother. You need someone who can guide you and wrap you in their own ardent prayers.


Once Saved, Always Saved Deconstructed

Posted: March 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I was quietly minding my own business the other day when the following thought abruptly popped, fully formed, into my conscious mind.

The dogma “once saved, always saved” is soteriological monothelitism.

Yes, the inside of my head is often a strange and sometimes frightening place. That’s just a small taste of what it’s like in there. However, as I turned the thought around and looked at it from various angles, I realized it seemed more true than not. There’s a lot of information packed into that short sentence. In this post, I’ll try to unpack it.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, “once saved, always saved” is a particular doctrine found among some modern Christian groups. I’m most familiar with it in a Southern Baptist context. Basically it’s a way of expressing the idea that once a person makes an authentic (and that’s a discussion in and of itself) commitment to Christ, you are sealed as a Christian and nothing you can subsequently will or do can change that status or your status as one of the saved.

In the history of Baptists in America, there are a number of strands which contributed to their development and formation over the years. Some of those strands were either outright Calvinistic or at least adopted some of the ideas of John Calvin, particularly the dogmas of total depravity and the perseverance of the saints. The latter is an intriguing, if misguided, dogma. It postulates a God who, for reasons known only to himself and which we can never know or understand, creates some human beings for salvation and others for eternal damnation. There’s nothing we can do to move from one category to the other one, but if we are in the group predestined for salvation, then we will be ultimately saved no matter what.

However, within this system there’s really no way to tell with which group you belong. Are you damned or are you saved? It’s within this context that the dogma of “once saved, always saved” seems to have developed over time. Basically, it holds that we’re all born damned. (Even so, most variations will give infants and small children a free pass from damnation. That free pass lasts until some uncertain age when the child is able to intellectually grasp the various doctrines and teachings about God.) Over the course of our lives, though, we always have the option to exercise our will and choose to commit ourselves to Jesus of Nazareth. Then, once we do so, we become a saint and cannot become anything else.

When you understand the context of this dogma’s development, it obviously is designed to address the uncertainty inherent in the somewhat older dogma of perseverance of the saints while retaining its preferred features. Since it first requires an exercise of will to become a saint, presumably one would know whether or not you’ve done so. In that way it removes the uncertainty. You can actually know whether you are in the damned or the saved group. (In practices, it doesn’t really work that way and very often those preaching or evangelizing will even deliberately try to instill doubt about your status.)

The dogma seems intended to provide assurance of a sort. You can actually know you are in the saved group and you can be certain that you’ll remain in that group as well. Until I understood that history, the way Baptists often talk about assurance and perceive a lack of assurance in other groups always seemed very odd to me. When you understand the context, it makes more sense.

Going back to my thought, soteriological is just the fancy English word we use for discussions about salvation. It’s really easy to talk right past each other if you assume that salvation automatically means the same thing to all people. It begs the question, what are you being saved from? And what are you being saved to? It even begs the question of what does it even mean that you are saved or are being saved? I’ve noticed that among Baptists, at least, salvation tends to be externalized. It’s something you possess rather than a process you are undergoing. In my mind, from the very beginning, I had an image of saving someone as an active process. That’s probably why I always felt like I understood the Fathers, who described the Church in various terms, but always as a vehicle for the ongoing process of salvation. The Church is an ark, rescuing us from destruction. The Church is a hospital for the healing of our souls and the restoration of our true humanity. Their metaphors describe a process you undergo rather than a thing you have.

And that conforms more to our normal experience of reality. Think about the times we might save or try to save others. If I save someone from drowning, it’s an action and a process. If I try to save someone from abuse, that implies a lengthy series of actions. If I try to save someone from an addiction that is destroying them, I’m committing myself to a long process with uncertain results. When you stop and think about it, salvation as a noun is really very odd. What’s the thing that it describes?

And that brings us to the last word in my thought, monothelitism. Monothelitism was the heresy that was finally resolved in the sixth ecumenical council. St. Maximos the Confessor, the one who wrote the texts of love I’ve been working through on my blog, was the great champion of that council, even though he did not survive to see it. He suffered greatly for the faith when it seemed all the powers stood against him. He had his tongue cut out so he could not speak and he had his hand cut off so he could not write. Nothing stopped him from teaching the truth about Christ, though, and his work kept the truth of Christianity alive from the ground up. Monothelitism is the teaching that Christ had only one will, the divine will. Basically, the divine will destroyed or overpowered his human will and guided him throughout his life without effort or opposition.

The problem with this view is that it makes Christ something other than fully human. If he had no human will that he had to align with the divine will, then he was not really like us. We have to struggle, and often fail, to align our will with God’s. If Christ did not share in that struggle, even though he never failed, then he cannot heal our own wills. It turns the Incarnation from something glorious and incredibly risky on God’s part into a sham.

Once saved, always saved” turns monothelitism on its head and applies it to us instead. Basically, it says that whenever we once commit to Christ, the divine will for all practical purposes obliterates our human will. Sure, we can still perform individual acts of evil, but we no longer have a will with which we can reject God. And whatever we may then be, I wouldn’t call such a creature human, much less capable of love. Moreover, if God simply wanted to turn us into subhuman creatures, what’s the point of the whole charade of history. He could have overtaken our will from the outset if such a thing were in his nature. Why would he wait until we had actually taken a step toward him to treat us so brutally?

No, I have to reject the idea that our wills mean nothing. God is truly not willing that any should perish, which means that it’s our wills that oppose his efforts. And it’s not God’s nature — it’s not the nature of love — to contravene or force the will of another, much less wipe it from existence. My struggle is to turn my will to God, who has already done everything necessary to save us all. I need to want God. It’s certain that he wants me.

But I retain always the power to turn my will away from God. It’s for that reason we pray for help, for mercy, which God offers in overflowing abundance.


The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

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

It’s not possible to delve very far into Orthodoxy without encountering the concepts of essence and energies. The development of that language goes all the way back to at least the fourth century, though in truth we see elements of it in the texts of the Holy Scriptures themselves. This language for describing God is an attempt to describe the indescribable in a way that helps us understand how we can be one with God (and each other) as the Father and the Son are one. Thus the concepts are ultimately rooted in the Incarnation. Many of the major disputes over the course of the first millenium of Christianity were specifically focused on the Incarnation itself. The great heresies either made Christ less than God or other than fully human.

His [Christ’s] entry into human life began the healing and restoration of that life. What’s more, if God could take on human form, our bodies are capable of bearing God’s presence in return. An ordinary human body can literally become a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). That can sound alarming — wouldn’t God’s presence destroy my feeble frame? — but Eastern Christians frequently draw an analogy to the burning bush. Just as Moses saw that the bush burned with God’s fire but was not consumed, so God’s presence can fill us while preserving — even completing — our embodied personhood.

As always, we have to remember that God is always everywhere present and filling all things. All creation is filled with the fire of the glory of God. It’s that light which sustains it. And just as Christ became man and remained God, we can be infused with the Spirit in our bodies without being destroyed.

Oddly enough, the word energy occurs frequently in St. Paul’s letters; he says, for example, “God is energon [energizing] in you, both to will and to energein [energize] for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Energy is a word we imported into English directly from the Greek. But there was not equivalent for this word in Latin, so in his masterful translation of the Bible, St. Jerome (AD 347-420) used operare, that is, “operate” or “work.” When the Bible began to be published in English, its translators stood at the end of a thousand years of devout reading, preaching, and studying the Bible in Latin translation. Our English Bibles refer to God “working,” not “energizing,” but isn’t there a difference? If we hear that God’s energy is within us, then union with him becomes more imaginable.

It’s a good example of the way language can deeply influence understanding and practice. Latin also lacked a word for the Greek concept often rendered in English as “repent.” So it was rendered as “do penance.” Over time, that had a profound effect on the belief and practice in the West.  It’s the same thing here. The idea of God “working” or “operating” made it seem more external and eventually led to the idea that these operations were not God himself, but creations of God we could experience. I’m not an expert, but I think this was part of the root behind the idea of created grace and similar Western concepts.

Instead, the energies of God are uncreated and just as much God as our hands and mouth and eyes are part of our being. When we experience the grace of God, we experience God himself — directly and unmediated by any created thing. It is true we can never know the essence of God. God transcends us. But in truth, we can’t truly and directly know the essence — the core being — of any other person either, even though they are finite, created beings. Instead we know them through their actions, words, expressed emotions — through their bodies. But we would never say that we do not know or experience other human beings as a result. In a similar way (God, of course transcends any direct statement), we truly know God through his energies. We can directly encounter him.

The Jesus Prayer is a way to help us toward that true encounter.


The Jesus Prayer 4 – Spirituality

Posted: February 25th, 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.

Khouria Frederica then tries to summarize some of the differences between the modern forms of Eastern and Western Christianity. (To the Orthodox eye, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism often seem to be two sides of the same coin. They are cut from the same cloth.) The cultural and linguistic differences between what we often call the Latin West and the Greek East began developing from an early time. Language shapes culture and culture forms the lens through which we understand reality. St. Augustine made some of his errors, for instance in his doctrine of original sin, because he didn’t read Greek and relied on a Latin translation that in a few key places was simply wrong. Moreover, since he wrote in Latin, his work received little notice or attention among the Greek fathers of the time, so it was never really critiqued or corrected (though St. John Cassian did make some effort in that regard). I use that as an example to illustrate that this is an ancient and deep divergence.

I don’t mean to imply the divergence was in any way necessary or inevitable. It wasn’t. We can see that clearly in all the many languages and cultures (not least the Slavic) in which a more unified Christian mind has been preserved. There were many factors, often political, behind the gradual divergence over centuries between the East and the West. Nevertheless, it’s an important present-day reality with which we have to somehow cope.

Khouria Frederica points out that within Orthodox contexts, the word “spirituality” is not much used.

The reason is the everything is “spirituality.” Christian Orthodoxy is itself a spiritual path, rather than an institution or set of propositions. … From the outside Orthodoxy must look exuberantly chaotic, but from the inside it is a closely coordinated collection of wisdom (some elders term it a “science”) about how to pursue theosis. … Nor does Eastern Orthodoxy have the range of devotional practices seen in the West. There is not an array of monastic orders, each with its own emphasis or mission. There is really only one “program” of spiritual healing, and within it the Jesus Prayer holds a unique role.

The basis for whether or not a practice is included and passed along to subsequent generations is effectiveness. It has to actually work. This unified form of spirituality across Orthodoxy (even other ancient churches not presently in communion with each other because of ancient disputes) is all aimed at the goal of theosis. Body and soul, the goal of salvation is union with Christ — oneness or communion with God.


Prayer, Evil, and the Nature of Things

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A post about prayer on the blog, Permission to Live, kicked the wheels of my mind into gear and started it whirling. As my mind peeled back layer upon layer, I quickly realized I couldn’t really say anything meaningful in a comment. But in this case I also realized I did want to write something on the topic. The post in question actually touched on a number of areas, but I’ll primarily focus my thoughts on the purpose of prayer and the deeper question of why God does not prevent evil things from happening to people who do not deserve it and allows good things to happen to the wicked. Obviously, those are topics that can’t possibly be addressed in a blog post. The Library of Congress would not suffice.

When I try to express thoughts in areas like these I particularly feel the need to state up front that the things I say will of necessity be incomplete. I have to discuss God, but God is greater than me in such a way that no analogy, no description, no words could ever truly describe him. My mind and imagination are insufficient to the task, but they are the tools I have. So the reality is always far greater than anything I can understand or say. Please keep that in mind and try to work with my imagery rather than against it — at least for the short time that you are reading this post.

Before we can move to a discussion of prayer on a topic this deep, we have to begin with the nature of things from a Christian perspective. The fundamental division of reality lies between the uncreated and the created. Only the Father, the Son, and the Spirit can be placed in the category of uncreated. Everything else that exists is a creation of God. Moreover, God created all things good. Nothing was created evil. (Elizabeth Esther actually just posted on the innate goodness of human beings.) It’s important to grasp this fundamental Christian tenet since it runs directly counter to the narrative of some religions — both ancient religions and present day ones.

When we acknowledge that truth, something should immediately stand out. There is no place in those divisions for evil. This is one of the thoughts behind my recent post on evil as mystery. Evil is not uncreated; the only uncreated is God. Moreover, all created things are created by God and are created good. Part of the mystery of evil is that it cannot be said to have the same sort of existence as created things. In fact, it almost has to said to have no existence in the sense that creation exists. Yet evil is palpably real. So what then is evil? That’s the question to which we have to turn.

One of the aspects of creation is its freedom. There is a randomness woven into the fabric of created things that seems to provide the framework within which, for example, human freedom can exist. While that provides the basis from which we can exercise our free will and creative abilities and thus have the potential of truly being in the likeness of God, it’s not limited to humanity. That element of freedom is woven into the fabric of created things by a God of overflowing love. And that freedom is, as part of creation, also an innately good thing.

Such freedom does introduce a certain wildness into creation — even absent the influence of man. I think people often particularly misread the second creation narrative in Genesis. The garden cannot represent some idyllic, perfect unfallen reality. There was already a wilderness outside the garden into which the man and the woman could be banished. I tend to think of the image of the garden in terms of a nursery. It was a place of few challenges in which the man and the woman could learn to fulfill their created function.

And what was that function? At least part of it was to order the wildness and randomness of creation. Some of that can be seen in the act of naming (though that bit also has other meanings) since names are powerful. It’s also seen in God’s command to them. A part of our natural function is also to act as priests in creation, offering it back to God in Thanksgiving. In this sense, Jesus commanding the storm, healing the sick, and feeding the many displays his true humanity at least as much as his divinity. Yet, the story of the garden illustrates that even in the safest possible nursery environment with only a single ascetic challenge, we still do nothing but turn away and hide from God. Read the story. Man accomplishes nothing in the garden but sin. From the time we were able to lift our heads above the animals, we have turned away from God.

And that provides our first clue into the nature of evil. Evil is an aberration, a distortion, of that which was created good. It flows from the freedom instilled in creation when that freedom is turned against God. (It wouldn’t be freedom if that capacity did not exist. And if it exists, it happens.) We could ask why God then created such freedom, but that strikes me as a futile question. Any such reality we could imagine would be incredibly diminished. Beauty flows from that freedom. Love flows from it. I don’t see how a God of overflowing love could have created anything less.

Yes, I’m sure God knew from the beginning that evil would flow from the fabric of such a creation. That’s why we have the apocalyptic image of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. God knew and was planning to rescue and complete his creation from the start. In that respect, creation is not simply something that happened in the past. Creation continues to happen every time the darkness is pushed back even a little, every time evil is transformed into good, every time love conquers. Creation is the ongoing process of renewing all things.

So what then is prayer? It seems to me that many Christians today reduce prayer to little more than intercessions. While that’s an aspect, I don’t believe it’s the central purpose of prayer at all. What is our truly human created role and responsibility in creation? Humanity was created to be the ruling, royal priesthood of our world. We were to order creation and offer it back in thanksgiving to God. (There is much that could be pursued from the Eucharist beginning as bread and wine rather than wheat and grapes, but I’ll set that aside for now.) First and foremost, prayer is our direct connection to God. And it’s in and through our communion with God that we order time and the rest of creation.We are created for communion with God and prayer is an expression of that communion.

Of course, even most of us who are Christian do not live in constant, unceasing prayer. I don’t think most of us regularly or ever recognize the extent of our culpability in the evil of the world. We are not isolated individuals. We were created not only for communion with God, but for communion with each other. As such, we share a common nature and bond with each other and with the created world we are intended to rule. It’s through that shared nature that the work of Jesus is efficacious. He became one of us in every way, sharing the fullness of our common nature, and by doing so he redeemed us and defeated death on our behalf. And by healing the human nature Jesus also completed all that was necessary to heal and redeem the whole created order.

But therein lies the rub. The evil we do spreads to others and to the world in ways we do not always directly perceive. As we particularly see in Romans 8, creation itself groans beneath that weight. When we turn away from God, we turn energies shared in the human nature to evil. By our own acts, we have contributed to the evil others experience and to the evil others do. I rarely hear of a crime or evil act and think to pray for the way my sin contributed to it. We deny our interconnectedness or we embrace only the positive and personally beneficial aspects of it. But to the extent we have each done evil, we have contributed to the evil of humanity and the world.

Finally, we are also instructed to pray for intercession, especially for others. And God sometimes intercedes. God miraculously heals a person. God protects an innocent in desperate need in a manner that offers no easy explanation. And yet many other people die despite many intercessions. Children suffer. Not everyone is healed. Not everyone is protected. All of this is true. And sometimes Christian attempts to explain this truth away do more harm than good, I think, especially when they try to call evil something sent by God or something that was really somehow “good.” Evil is evil and it is not of God. Our hearts look on evil and cry out, “Why?”

This is where I try to remember that God is not willing that any perish, that God is actively working for the salvation of all. I remember that God is constantly turning evil into good. I think of Joseph, who is certainly a type of Christ. Great evil was done to him again and again and God did not stop it. But Joseph did not despair. Joseph did not curse God.  And ultimately he could tell his brothers that God had taken their unquestionably evil act and turned it into a tremendous good. That’s the gospel of Christ prefigured. Jesus suffered in every way we suffer. He endured torture and execution under supremely unjust and evil conditions. Jesus absorbed the worst that evil could do and defeated evil and death on behalf of us all.

I believe God perceives all possible outcomes of every decision and every interaction. Reality is not static, so there is no single path. I tend to think of a bubbling stew, though that’s a weak analogy. It has states of being that are fluid and change. And the freedom of creation, especially our freedom, has immense value. Even in those times when God has blocked a human action, he has not blocked the intent or the effort to perform the act. God does not make human beings less than they were created to be. (Though it must be said we tend to do that ourselves.) And from all the stories I’ve read throughout Christian history, it’s rare even for God to so physically restrain someone from acting.

God is always working for our salvation — the salvation of every human being. And God is always working to transform evil into good. But he does not reach into our being and restrain our hearts from working evil. I believe God intercedes or doesn’t according to those goals and more. Other influences are the prayers of the communion of the saints. As the evil we do works its tendrils into the fabric of reality in ways we can’t perceive, so our prayers permeate creation. Either the things we do accomplish something or there is no point doing them.

It’s not an answer that explains. As one who has suffered evil and seen those I love suffer evil, I don’t think it’s something that can be explained. But I trust reality is at least somewhat like what I’ve described. We can’t avoid choosing a narrative framework and a perspective on reality. Of all the ones I’ve explored or held over my life, the Christian narrative offers the best lens through which to understand the nature of things. I’ve encountered this strange God, but even if I hadn’t I would want to believe this framework over the alternatives.

We cry, “Lord have mercy!” And he does.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 14

Posted: February 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 14

40.  The Lord is wise, just and mighty by nature. Because He is wise, He could not be ignorant of the way in which to heal human nature. Because He is just, He could not save man, whose will was in the grip of sin, in a tyrannical fashion. Because He is almighty, He could not prove unequal to the task of completing His healing mission.

The above, of course, succinctly dismantles the core foundation of Calvinism. God knew how to heal human nature, which is common to all humanity. At the same time he is just (and his justice is love and mercy), by which St. Maximos means he could not force ‘salvation‘ on anyone. Calvinism, by contrast, holds that God unilaterally saves some and damns others and their individual wills are ultimately overwhelmed by the divine will. In some ways it’s Nestorianism or monothelitism applied to salvation instead of the nature of Christ. The last sentence reveals the Cross itself as the glory of Christ. That was the supreme task that revealed him as God. The Cross becomes the tree which heals the tree.