Who Am I?

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 21

Posted: August 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 21

57.  There are virtues of the body and virtues of the soul. Those of the body include fasting, vigils, sleeping on the ground, ministering to people’s needs, working with one’s hands so as not to be a burden or in order to give to others (cf. 1 Thess. 2:9, Ephes. 4:28). Those of the soul include love, long-suffering, gentleness, self-control and prayer (cf. Gal, 5:22). If as a result of some constraint or bodily condition, such as illness or the like, we find we cannot practice the bodily virtues mentioned above, we are forgiven by the Lord because He knows the reasons. But if we fail to practice the virtues of the soul, we shall not have a single excuse, for it is always within our power to practice them.

Personally, I find the sorts of things St. Maximos describes as virtues of the body much easier than the ones he describes as virtues of the soul. And yet, if we do not fast, how will ever learn self-control? If we do not minister to people, how can we ever love them? And if we never perform vigils, will we learn to pray — much less pray without ceasing? They are interconnected and intertwined. As a rule, when we act in an outward way through the powers and abilities our bodies provide us, we also act inwardly such that, if it is our will to become a different sort of person, over time we will.

God does not abandon us to that struggle. Indeed, he gives us himself. Nevertheless, it is our struggle, for we struggle ultimately with our own will. It’s the perennial question, what sort of person do we choose to be?


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 18

Posted: July 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 18

48. When a man’s intellect is constantly with God, his desire grows beyond all measure into an intense longing for God and his incensiveness is completely transformed into divine love. For by continual participation in the divine radiance his intellect becomes totally filled with light; and when it has reintegrated its passible aspect, it redirects this aspect towards God, as we have said, filling it with an incomprehensible and intense longing for Him and with unceasing love, thus drawing it entirely away from worldly things to the divine.

There’s  a little story from the sayings of the desert fathers that has found a home in my heart for several years now. I’m not sure I can explain, even to myself, what about the story captivates me, but it was the first thing that sprang to my mind as I reflected on this particular text. Here’s the story.

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Our God is called light in the text of our Scriptures. Of course, that’s not to say that he is made up of photons, but rather to say there is no darkness, no lies, no evil found within him. It’s easy for us in our modern world to forget that for most of human history, we could not create light apart from fire. One of the images of our God is a consuming fire. There are no shadows, nothing hidden, in the heart of the fire. When we think of divine love, we must not forget that aspect.

Perhaps the image of becoming all flame speaks to that part of me which has lived in darkness. We speak as human beings of being drawn to light and trapped in darkness. There is something within us all that perceives reality in terms of light and darkness. Do I want my shadows illumined?

We are all drawn to the fire, but do we want to assume the nature of the fire?


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 16

Posted: July 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 16

46.  The sensible man, taking into account the remedial effect of the divine prescriptions, gladly bears the sufferings which they bring upon him, since he is aware that they have no cause other than his own sin. But when the fool, ignorant of the supreme wisdom of God’s providence, sins and is corrected, he regards either God or men as responsible for the hardships he suffers.

St. Maximos’ point in this text is, I think, easy to misunderstand. It’s not his point that we are being punished by suffering for our crimes. That’s a distorted view of both sin and reality. Rather, there is a sense that human beings are created communal and designed for communion in the image of God. As such, our sin goes beyond the results we can directly perceive and contributes to the disordering of creation. Moreover, we are meant to be our brother’s keeper and, as such, we share in the “sin” (conceived as missing the mark) of all humanity.

Therefore, when the Christian experiences suffering, we don’t blame it on God or man. We seek healing, change, and growth through it. Or, if we cannot do that, we simply bear it and pray for mercy. The moment we blame, we repeat the actions of the archetypal man and woman in the Genesis story. Who among us does not instantly recognize the impulse that drove them to respond the way they did? We all share that impulse. We have all done the same.

Twenty years ago, I would say I had no concept of sin in any Christian sense. As such, it has been particularly strange for me to begin to recognize that I am the worst of sinners. It’s still a bumpy journey. But I do now see the reality that when I say anything that anything else is true, then I walk in the footsteps of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable; I stand in the shoes of Cain.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 6

Posted: June 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 6

10.  If there are some men you hate and some you neither love nor hate, and others you love strongly and others again you love but moderately, recognize from this inequality that you are far from perfect love. For perfect love presupposes that you love all men equally.

Of course, this is exactly how I know that I’m still far from the sort of love Jesus commands. It’s hard for me to even imagine what it would be like to love all men equally. So I try to love as best I can and pray for mercy for all the times I don’t love well or at all.


What is the source of our oneness?

Posted: June 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Once again, I would appreciate any thoughts, comments, or reactions my words spur in anyone who happens to read this. Incorporating and responding to the thoughts of others is one of the ways I process thoughts, and the thoughts in this post are certainly less than complete. I’ll start with the paragraph from 1 Corinthians 10 that lies at the center of my thoughts.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

The above is from the NKJV, which is generally the English translation I prefer. Before I continue with the threads of my thoughts on the above, though, I think I need to discuss the Greek word, koinonia, especially as Christians have traditionally used it (including the tradition of its usage in the Holy Scriptures). The NKJV usually translates koinonia as communion, the best English word for the sort of intimate fellowship or rapport that the text seems to be trying to convey.

Other English translations most often translate koinonia using other words like fellowship (without qualifying it with intimate or another similar adjective), participation, or sharing. I can only speculate on the reason. In some cases, it could be as simple as a belief on the part of the translator that our level of literacy as a people has declined so much that those reading won’t have any understanding of the text unless a simpler word is used. If that’s the case, I would say it is better for a text not to be understood at all than to have its depth and richness stripped from it.

While it might be possible to translate Shakespeare into “simpler” language, you could not do it and preserve the integrity of his writing. Nuance, richness, depth, and poetry — the very things that make Shakespeare’s works great — would all be lost. If I would not treat a great literary work in that manner, why would I do that to a text that, as a Christian, I consider holy and sacred?

It’s also possible that the modern, Western emphasis on individualism has increasingly led translators to shy away from the scriptural language of oneness and union — both with God and with our fellow human beings. If we use weaker language, we get to control the boundaries of that union. We can wade in the shallows and call it swimming.

I also note that much of the modern, English speaking Christian world consists of sects most heavily influenced by Zwingli. They have almost completely conceded to the modern secular perspective. With them the matter of this world is ordinary and while it might represent something sacred or spiritual the idea that the physical might actually participate in the divine is almost verboten. It’s possible that translators approaching the text from that perspective might, consciously or otherwise, wish to weaken the scriptural language of communion. (And to be honest, Calvin was also more on the side of Zwingli than he was on the Cranmer and Luther side of the Protestant Reformation divide. He refused to take things quite as far as Zwingli did, but he’s certainly closer to Zwingli than anyone else.)

It could be any of those reasons, a combination of them, or something else that has not occurred to me at all. I don’t know. But I do know that most of the translations use words that lack the particular oomph of the English word communion. I’ll provide an illustration of that point by providing the NIV translation of the same passage I quoted above.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

It’s not that the translation is wrong, per se. It’s just weaker than the NKJV. It does not convey the same sense of intimate union.

How then are we to understand this intimate union, this communion, this koinonia? I think one image is that of John 15. We are all branches of one vine — the vine of Jesus. It’s a union that allows no independent or separate life — either from Jesus or from each other. We are all part of a single plant in that image. Does a branch participate in the life of the vine? I suppose it does, but is that really the language we would use to describe that relationship? I don’t think so.

Of course, the ultimate image, I think, comes from John 17 when Jesus prays that we be one with each other as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. And he prays we have that degree of communion so that we might then be one with God. In other words, the image of koinonia given to us is the koinonia of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That image is beyond my ability to grasp, but the edges of it tantalize and fascinate me. It’s been pulling me ever deeper into Christian faith for more than fifteen years now. And I have a feeling it goes well beyond the sort of thing we use the word fellowship to describe. I have fellowship to some degree with my guildmates in World of Warcraft. Fellowship describes the relationship in fraternal orders and bowling leagues. It’s the language of voluntary association.

The scriptural image of koinonia runs much deeper and is enormously more intimate. It’s the language of one plant, one body, and the oneness of marriage. It transcends our images of unity, yet is very different from other transcendent paths of oneness. In some forms of Hinduism, for example, the ultimate goal is to lose our personal identity in union with Brahman. In Buddhism, the goal of Nirvana also involves relinquishing personal identity. But the Christian God exists as complete union without any loss of personal identity. God is revealed in three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. Everything that can be said about the Father other than the ways he is uniquely Father can be said about the Son and the Spirit as well. And yet in that complete unity, they never lose their own unique personhood. Similarly, as we seek communion with each other and with God, it’s a union that preserves our own unique identity. Christianity is an intimately personal faith, but it is not at all an individual faith. I think many today have confused the two.

When I think of this passage from 1 Corinthians 10 in light of John 6, I find I simply don’t understand why so many Christians today accept the framework of Zwingli’s secular division of reality. Yes the bread and wine is and remains bread and wine. But when it is the cup of blessing and the bread we break, it is also the body and blood of our Lord. How else can we understand the language of communion without distancing God from our world and from ourselves?

And it is ultimately the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that is the only source of our own oneness with each other. There is a seriousness surrounding it. As Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians, some are sick or have even died because they were participating at the table in an unworthy manner.

Thus, those who seek to find ecumenical common ground by reducing the faith to its lowest common denominator and glossing over the differences in the ways we use what are sometimes even the same words will ultimately fail. Any oneness we have lies in the bread and wine, in the body and blood. But when we approach the table, we need to be approaching the same God. I find that’s what most modern Christians don’t want to admit — that they actually describe different Gods. Some are more similar than others, but they are all different. And some are so radically different from each other that there’s no way to reconcile them.

Maybe it takes a true pluralist to look at modern Christian pluralism and call it what it is. To the extent I have any role or function, maybe that’s my role. I don’t understand why other Christians don’t seem to see that truth when it’s so blindingly obvious to me. I honestly don’t get it.

If nothing else, maybe someone reading this post can explain that to me.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 3

Posted: June 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 3

7.  Whatever a man loves he inevitably clings to, and in order not to lose it he rejects everything that keeps him from it. So he who loves God cultivates pure prayer, driving out every passion that keeps him from it.

This text again brings to mind Jesus telling us that where our heart is, there our treasure is also. Do I truly love God? That’s a question that is not as easy to answer as it is to ask. I know I am entranced by this God we see in Jesus called the Christ. I know I desire to love him.

I don’t live in a neatly categorized and partitioned reality. Sometimes it seems to me that there are people who manage life by putting everything in its place. But to me, life is more an experience of where you’ve been leading to where you are with many different paths leading to where you desire to go. The person I am at any moment is a combination and intermingling of all those experiences and forces. People can’t be forced into discrete categories without caricaturing their reality.

I do understand the struggle inherent in the above. If we love God, we will work to cultivate prayer. We will work to know the one we love. But there will be other desires pulling us in different directions. And those other paths sometimes seem easier or more attractive. Jesus’ warnings seem particularly applicable when I consider that truth.

Still, as poor as it is and as badly as I keep it, I need to keep following my prayer rule as best I can. We fall and get back up. We fall and get back up. This is life.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 1

Posted: May 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 1

1.  He who truly loves God prays entirely without distraction, and he who prays entirely without distraction loves God truly. But he whose intellect is fixed on any worldly thing does not pray without distraction, and consequently he does not love God.

I’m reminded by this text of another saying: A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian. I think prayer is more important and deeper in meaning than many Christian traditions allow. I don’t think it’s merely a way to praise God or ask for intercession, however important it is to praise God and to intercede in prayer. Neither of those adequately account for the repeated emphasis the New Testament places on constant, unceasing prayer.

St. Maximos ties love of God to undistracted prayer. And I think it’s safe to assume he meant constant, undistracted prayer. I find his words describe me accurately. My love of God is always wavering. I have to keep returning to love of God just as I have to keep returning to prayer. Sometimes it’s all I can to do to pray for mercy.

In his centuries of love, St. Maximos peels back the lies we tell ourselves as though they were layers of an onion. It’s uncomfortable at times, but we can only love God in Spirit and Truth.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 22

Posted: May 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

79.  Almsgiving heals the soul’s incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings. For the Lord has given us commandments which correspond to the powers of the soul.

This text is interesting to me on several levels. For those who don’t often engage with any aspect of the Christian ascetic disciplines, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer lie at their foundation. These are the disciplines discussed (and assumed considering his Jewish audience) by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. These are the disciplines encountered again and again in the rest of the New Testament and in the writings of the Church. The earliest document of Christian liturgical practice that we have, the Didache, discusses these three disciplines.

In this text, St. Maximos is linking the disciplines to the effect they have, if practiced properly, on our soul. Almsgiving soothes and heals our soul’s inflammatory nature. It is true that wealth and the accumulation of material goods tends to excite and provoke us. We then tend to defend what we have and the means we employ to acquire more. Jesus spoke a great deal about the chains with which material wealth can bind us. It does follow then, that almsgiving, the practice of giving our money away, would begin to heal us. I had never really considered it in that light.

The goal of fasting is to give us mastery over our stomachs, and through that mastery, free us from domination by all the desires of our senses. Fasting has always made more sense to me in its Christian form than many of the other practices and disciplines.

I’m not sure I understand his statement about prayer. I grasp that prayer is our mystical connection with God and thus is the only true route for studying anything about God. So it makes sense, I guess, that as we turn our minds toward communion with God in constant prayer, that our intellect would be purified. Prayer to God cannot inhabit a mind that is turned from God. As we turn toward sin in our minds, we stop praying. As we start praying, we turn from sin.

I’m not sure what he means about preparing us for contemplation of created beings. Perhaps he means that a mind of prayer is prepared to see the created order as it actually is. A very interesting text, indeed.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 19

Posted: May 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

70. You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters – for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person.

We can always find a reason to hate. In fact, hatred is probably the easiest place for us to rest our heart. It’s sad that Christians in the US today are generally better known for who they hate than for who they love. It doesn’t really matter what justification we use — and we have little difficulty justifying hatred — when we hate instead of love, we are not ‘Christian‘ in any discernible way.

There is nothing ‘Christian’ about loving those who are like us or who do good to us and hating our enemies and those unlike us. We are only ‘Christian’ when we love our enemies, when we do good to those who want to hurt us, when we care for the least of these, and when we pray for those who wrong us.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 17

Posted: May 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

61.  ‘But I say to you,’ says the Lord, ‘love your enemies … do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you’ (Matt. 5:44). Why did He command this? To free you from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor, and to make you worthy of the supreme gift of perfect love. And you cannot attain such love if you do not imitate God and love all men equally. For God loves all men equally and wishes them ‘to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2:4).

I’ve come to realize over the years that not all Christians really believe that God loves all men equally and is ‘not willing that any should perish.’ I don’t mean they would necessarily come out and say that God doesn’t love everyone equally (though possibly some of them would). But when, for example, something like two-thirds of evangelical Christians in America believe that torture is sometimes justified, that says as much about the particular God they proclaim as it does about them.

I’m not claiming that I manage to love my enemies or those who hurt me. Most days I’ve done well if I can avoid actively wishing them harm. I’m certainly not free from irritation, anger and rancor. But I’m deeply aware that’s because I’ve not yet attained the love that Jesus showed us. I do try to find a way to pray for those who might have hurt me at least a little each day. I strive not to respond in anger. I strive to love. And I pray for mercy.