Who Am I?

For the Life of the World 29

Posted: January 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 29

The series continues in section 2 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

Before death, however, there is dying: the growth of death in us by physical decay and illness. … For the modern secular world, health is the only normal state of man; disease therefore is to be fought, and the modern world fights it very well indeed. … Yet health has a limit, and it is death. … As long as a man is alive everything is to be done to keep him alive, and even if his case is hopeless, it must not be revealed to him. Death must never be a part of life.

In some ways, the above  is even more true today, as even aging itself seems to terrify our culture. People do more and more to hide, remove, delay, or change the normal signs of growing older. We do, perhaps, deal with end of life issues slightly better than we did when Fr. Schmemann wrote the above. But if so, it’s not really by all that much. We are obsessed as a culture with an almost pathological passion for denying our own mortality — at least as evidenced in the aging of our bodies.

This year I’ll turn forty-five.  That’s just about as “middle-aged” as you get. And even absent the effects of illness and disease such as celiac, I know my body has changed. I do not recover energy as quickly. Things ache and creak and pop now that never did before — not badly, but just enough that I can tell the difference. And I know that’s a taste of the future. I will continue to age. And that doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind the gray in my beard. I’ve earned it. I don’t mind the crow’s feet in the corners of my eyes. I just hope they reflect smiles rather than frowns. I’m not sure how our cultural obsession with the appearance of youth missed me, but I’m glad it did.

Our doctors are better than ever, but they still all have a 100% patient mortality rate. That’s a truth we would rather deny than face.

The religious outlook considers disease rather than health to be the “normal” state of man. In this world of mortal and changing matter suffering, sickness and sorrow are the normal conditions of life. … Health and healing are always thought of as the mercy of God, from the religious point of view, and real healing is “miraculous.” And this miracle is performed by God, again not because health is good, but because it “proves” the power of God and brings men back to God.

Remember that Fr. Schmemann is using “secular” and “religious” as two opposing poles, neither of which is actually “Christian.” The above is not only a description of the sort of “religion” into which Christianity has often degenerated. It is actually a perspective that manifests in different ways in many different religions. Whether the wheel of Samsara or the cycle of death and rebirth in much of dualistic neo-paganism, death (and often suffering) are natural or “normal.”

In their ultimate implications these two approaches are incompatible, and nothing reveals better the confusion of Christians on this issue than the fact that today Christians accept both as equally valid and true.

I had not really ever consciously recognized the above, but realized its truth as soon as I read it. Think about the sort of language used not only at funerals, but at times of sickness, injury, and disease.

But is this the Christian approach — and if it not, are we simply to return to the old — the “religious” one? The answer is no, it is not; but we are not simply to “return.” We must discover the unchanging, yet always contemporary, sacramental vision of man’s life, and therefore of his suffering and disease — the vision that has been the Church’s, even if we Christians have forgotten or misunderstood it.

And that’s the real trick. There’s a reason Christianity has spoken so deeply to so many millions over the past two millenia. And there’s a reason modern, Western Christianity is diminishing. I would say a large part of the reason for the latter is that we forgotten the former.

The Church considers healing as a sacrament. But such was its misunderstanding during the long centuries of the total identification of the Church with “religion” (a misunderstanding from which all sacraments suffered, and the whole doctrine of sacraments) that the sacrament of oil became in fact the sacrament of death, one of the “last rites” opening to man a more or less safe passage into eternity.

On some level, I knew the sacrament of “last rites” was connected somehow to healing. Unction, of course, is the act of anointing most often associated with healing rituals. We see this sacrament in Scripture, for example, in James 5. And yet, I still associated it with a deathbed rite and somehow missed its true nature. In Orthodoxy, the sacrament of healing never became narrowly focused as a final unction the way it did in the West.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the Roman Catholic version of the sacrament. Apparently Vatican II restored this sacrament to its original, broader meaning. And, in 1972, it was renamed from Extreme (or final) Unction to Anointing of the Sick. Further, it began to shift from a private ceremony back to a communal one. This, like many developments in Roman Catholicism this century, actually marks a restoration of the more ancient understanding. And yet the cultural image of “last rites” is a tough one to shake. I went to a Catholic school from 1976-1979, after both Vatican II and the formal name change, and I didn’t realize until I specifically researched it that the RCC had restored the original sense of the sacrament.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to comment that the sacrament of healing is also not simply a “useful” complement to modern medicine. Thinking of it in merely those terms misses its sacramental nature.

A sacrament — as we already know — is always a passage, a transformation. Yet it is not a “passage” into “supernature,” but into the Kingdom of God, the world to come, into the very reality of this world and its life as redeemed and restored by Christ. It is the transformation not of “nature” into “supernature,” but of the old into the new. A sacrament therefore is not a “miracle” by which God breaks, so to speak, the “laws of nature,” but the manifestation of the ultimate Truth about the world and life, man and nature, the Truth which is Christ.

And healing is a sacrament because its purpose or end is not health as such, the restoration of physical health, but the entrance of man into the life of the Kingdom, into the “joy and peace” of the Holy Spirit. In Christ everything in this world, and this means health and disease, joy and suffering, has become an ascension to, and entrance into this new, its expectation and anticipation.

In this world suffering and disease are indeed “normal,” but their very “normalcy” is abnormal. They reveal the ultimate and permanent defeat of man and of life, a defeat which no partial victories of medicine, however wonderful and truly miraculous, can ultimately overcome. But in Christ suffering is not “removed”; it is transformed into victory. The defeat itself becomes victory, a way, an entrance into the Kingdom, and this is the only true healing.

The sacrament of healing manifests our life in the Kingdom. In some ways, I am reminded of Tolkien’s High Elves. We stand simultaneously in two worlds, in two realities, and we draw our deeper strength and power from the one which, though just as real and physical, is less evident to the senses of this world.

The Church does not come to restore health in this man, simply to replace medicine when medicine has exhausted its own possibilities. The Church comes to take this man into the Love, the Light and the Life of Christ. It comes not merely to “comfort” him in his sufferings, not to “help” him, but to make him  a martyr, a witness to Christ in his very sufferings.

We don’t need help or comfort as much as we need Life.


For the Life of the World 28

Posted: January 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 28

The series continues in section 1 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

Christianity, with its message offering fullness of life, has contributed more than anything else to the liberation of man from the fears and pessimism of religion. Secularism, in this sense, is a phenomenon within the Christian world, a phenomenon impossible without Christianity. Secularism rejects Christianity insofar as Christianity has identified itself with the “old religion” and is forcing upon the world those “explanations” and “doctrines” of death and life which Christianity has itself destroyed.

Christianity offers life from and within the ultimate source of all life — God. And yet so much of it has degenerated today into little more than a discussion about what happens to the “real” you after you die. That’s the focus of traditional religion and should never be the central focus of Christianity.

It would be a great mistake, however, to think of secularism as simply an “absence of religion.” It is, in fact, itself a religion, and as such, an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an “other world” of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a “survival” about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given “value” in terms of death. Secularism is an “explanation” of death in terms of life. The only world we know is this world, the only life given to us is this life — so thinks a secularist — and it is up to us men to make it as meaningful, as rich, as happy as possible. Life ends with death. This is unpleasant, but since it is natural, since death is a universal phenomenon, the best thing man can do about it is simply to accept it as something natural. As long as he lives, however, he need not think about it, but should live as though death did not exist. … The American “funeral home” is indeed the very symbol of secularist religion, for it expresses both the quiet acceptance of death as something natural (a house among other houses with nothing typical about it) and the denial of death’s presence in life.

That actually describes the perspective of many modern Christians. On the one hand there are those who view everything in terms of the “afterlife” (which Fr. Schmemann calls the “old religion”) and on the other hand are at least as many who mostly ignore death, think in terms of the “best life now,” and when they must face death, consider it as something unpleasant, but natural. Neither perspective, though, is actually Christian in any sense that can be connected to our historical faith. And secularism is increasingly common in our culture because it works. It helps more with its life-centered approach than most religious approaches.

But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. … If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die — and not just live — for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Indeed, we have already seen that last prediction come to fruition in the decades since Fr. Schmemann wrote it. So what then is Christianity?

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained. … Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. … In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere “help,” not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an “other world” which looks like a cemetery (“eternal rest”) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to “dispose” every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a “just society” and to be happy! — this is the fall of man. It is not the immorality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his “positive ideal” — religious or secular — and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes “awful,” the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any “other world”), it is this life (and not some “other life”) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by “transforming” them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the “end” and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.

Christ wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Christ agonized over the horror of his own impending death. That’s what Fr. Schmemann is referencing in his closing line above. Another thing I recall hearing at funerals is that a person died when God determined they should die. They are essentially making God responsible for death instead of recognizing death as the enemy. It’s little wonder that so many reject such a religion in favor of almost anything else. If it’s what I believed Christianity was, I would reject it in a heartbeat myself. No faith is better than that. Buddhism is better than that. Shintoism is better than that. Hinduism, in its many and varied forms, is better than that. If I believed in a God like that, I might as well convert to Islam. Insha’Allah.

Thanks, but no thanks.


For the Life of the World 8

Posted: November 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 8

This post looks at section 13 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. Also, if you haven’t listened to it yet, here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast over sections 9-16.

I’ll dive right into Fr. Schmemann’s words since they are better than anything I can come up with.

Up to this point the Eucharist was our ascension in Christ, our entrance in Him into the “world to come.” And now, in this eucharistic offering in Christ of all things to the One to whom they belong and in whom alone they really exist, this movement of ascension has reached its end. We are at the paschal table of the Kingdom. What we have offered — our food, our life, ourselves, and the whole world — we offered in Christ and as Christ because He Himself has assumed our life and is our life. And now all this is given back to us as the gift of new life, and therefore — necessarily — as food.

“This is my body, this is my blood. Take, eat, drink ….”

There are questions that are typically asked: What actually happens? Nothing? Something? If something does actually happen, exactly when does it happen? If something happens, how can we explain it? If nothing happens, how can we invest it with meaning?

All of those questions (and more beside) are mostly an exercise in missing the point.

But throughout our study the main point has been that the whole liturgy is sacramental, that is, one transforming act and one ascending movement. And the very goal of this movement of ascension is to take us out of “this world” and to make us partakers of the world to come. In this world — the one that condemned Christ and by doing so has condemned itself — no bread, no wine can become the body and blood of Christ. Nothing which is a part of it can be “sacralized.” But the liturgy of the church is always an anaphora, a lifting up, an ascension. The Church fulfills itself in heaven in that new eon which Christ has inaugurated in His death, resurrection and ascension, and which was given to the Church on the day of Pentecost as its life, as the “end” toward which it moves. In this world Christ is crucified, His body broken, and His blood shed. And we must go out of this world, we must ascend to heaven in Christ in order to become partakers of the world to come.

But this is not an “other” world, different from the one God has created and given to us. It is our same world, already perfected in Christ, but not yet in us. It is our same world, redeemed and restored, in which Christ “fills all things with Himself.” And since God has created the world as food for us and has given us food as means of communion with Him, of life in Him, the new food of the new life which we receive from God in His Kingdom is Christ Himself. He is our bread — because from the very beginning all our hunger was a hunger for Him and all our bread was but a symbol of Him, a symbol that had to become reality.

Or in the words of Jesus:

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”

I’m not sure I can really add anything, so I’ll close with these words from section 13.

We offered the bread in remembrance of Christ because we know that Christ is Life, and all food, therefore, must lead us to Him. And now when we receive this bread from His hands, we know that he has taken up all life, filled it with Himself, made it what it was meant to be: communion with God, sacrament of His presence and love.

It seems to me that the common Baptist and evangelical understanding of the Eucharist has already surrendered to a secular understanding of reality. It is based on a perception that material things are somehow “ordinary” and nothing could be further from the truth.


For the Life of the World 1

Posted: October 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 1

I’ve heard about For the Life of the World by Father Alexander Schmemann off and on for several years now. However, the convergence of several events have now led me to buy it and begin reading it myself. First, Deacon Michael Hyatt is teaching through it with his class each Sunday this fall, which is then distributed through his podcast, At the Intersection of East and West, a podcast I’ve followed since he started it. Second, I received a $10 Amazon gift certificate for participating in some survey. Third, I had to place an order for Catching Fire (the sequel to Hunger Games) for my daughter and, well, who can buy just one book at a time? 😉

So, this series will be interspersed within whatever other series I am doing more or less weekly as I intend to read through the book at the same pace as Deacon Hyatt’s class. I’ll write my posts on each chapter after reading the chapter and listening to the podcast. Today’s post is on the first chapter of the book, which describes its philosophical goals. The podcasts for this chapter spanned two weeks and I do recommend listening to them both. You’ll probably get more from Deacon Hyatt than you will from me anyway.

Fr. Schmemann opens his book by quoting the German materialist, Feuerbach, “Man is what he eats.” And he affirms that as a true statement, though not at all in the way that Feuerbach intended. Man is what he eats, but that does not reduce reality to the merely material. Rather, it points to the seamless unity of the physical and the spiritual.

In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.

Today many, especially in Western Christianity, have attempted to separate reality in the world of the religious life and the world of the profane, the ordinary, or the secular life. The problem is that such a dualism is neither Christian nor even particularly human. I must confess that I don’t understand this tendency among my fellow Protestants. I have always sought a path toward a unified reality. Now, that does not necessarily mean the fully embodied spirituality of Christianity. I was not uncomfortable with the fundamental Hindu perspective of the material reality as maya or illusion. The Christian fights or should fight to unify the totality of life, to have the fullness of life, but Fr. Schmemann asks an intriguing question:

What is the life of life itself?

Unless we answer that question properly, we will never move beyond the dichotomy that seems to haunt American Christianity. Whether trying to spiritualize our life or secularize our religion we are still approaching them as two different and separate things. They are not.

God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God.

Fr. Schmemann coins a descriptive for man. Whatever else we may be called ( e.g. homo sapiens, homo faber), we are first and foremost homo adorans.

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God — and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him.

It is only as we understand that reality that story of the Fall can even begin to make sense. The story, of course, revolves around food. That is no accident. But more than that, it is not about choosing to obey or disobey some arbitrary rule. It cuts right to the heart of who and what we were created to be.

Not given, not blessed by God, it (the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself. To love is not easy, and mankind has chosen not to return God’s love.

It is the ultimate expression of materialistic love, the love of the material in and for itself and for what it can provide me. We have done it so long and so consistently that it has come to seem normal. We don’t give thanks. We don’t bless the material creation for God. “It seems natural not to be eucharistic.” Indeed.

When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence. … For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. … For “the wages of sin is death.” The life man chose was only the appearance of life. … He ceased to be the priest of the world and became its slave.

That is, of course, the great irony. Our life is hid in Christ with God. Our life was to bless God and lift up his creation to him in thanksgiving. We have no life apart from God, so when we embrace that which is not God, we ultimately embrace death. In trying to control our world (and even ourselves) we become slaves to the world in and through our passions. I actually have a greater appreciation for Buddhism since I became Christian than I did before I was Christian. There is much truth to their teaching that our passions enslave us. There are worse things than to strive to become dispassionate, though the Christian approach is, ultimately, much different than the Buddhist path.

In our perspective, however, the “original” sin is not primarily that man has “disobeyed” God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. … The only real fall of man is his non-eucharistic life in a non-eucharistic world. The fall is not that he preferred world to God, distorted the balance between the spiritual and material, but that he made the world material, whereas he was to have transformed it into “life in God,” filled with meaning and spirit.

The above is an extremely dense idea, but if you can begin to see it, you’ll begin to perceive the richness of creation and the depth of our distortion of it. This dualism, this dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, is in and of itself the very substance of our fall. Every time we view the world through this lens, every time we act on these assumption, we participate in the fall and destruction of creation, even if what we actually do appears on the surface to be “good“. When we live and act within this dualism, we are deepening the shadow over our world. It’s into this darkness that God acted decisively: He sent light.

It is within the context of these thoughts that Fr. Schmemann makes a statement about Christianity not being a religion in the traditional sense of the word in a way that actually made sense to me. (I’ve heard similar statements in the past in a Protestant context, but I could never get them to add up.) I’ll draw a number of his phrases together here, but to really grasp what he’s saying, you probably need to read the entirety of the chapter.

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. … Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. … He (Christ) has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. It was this freedom of the early church from “religion” in the usual, traditional sense of this word that led the pagans to accuse Christians of atheism. … And in Him (Christ) was the end of “religion,” because He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man — and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion — was restored to man.

Within that context he discusses the story of the Samaritan woman at the well and the discussion about temple that she had with Jesus. Jesus affirmed that the Jews at that time knew the truth and worshiped in the right location. But he told her that time was coming to an end. Christians and Christianity have never been tied to a particular place, to a particular time, to a particular building in our worship. We sacramentalize all of creation.

Now, that is not to say that there is anything wrong with building places, even beautiful places, with ornate liturgy, or with any of the rest of a fully embodied spirituality. There is not and never has been. Contrary to the beliefs of many of my fellow Baptists, Christianity has no history of congregational, non-liturgical worship until they created it from their own imaginations in the wake of what is called the Great Reformation. Their imagined first century church never existed historically in the manner many of them envision.

But as Christians, we are not tied to any one place, any one nation, any one ethnicity, or any one language in our worship. All creation is our temple as we offer it back to God in thanksgiving.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 8

Posted: May 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 8

If God is not any of those images of God from my last post in this series, then what sort of God is he? Why does it matter that he is not a God who sends illness and disease? The answer to both of those questions is the same: Jesus of Nazareth.

It seems to me that many in the modern era, whether they profess belief in the Christian God or not, profoundly misunderstand the so-called “miracles” of Jesus. I hear the miracles believed (and disbelieved) as these interventions into the natural order that Jesus did in order to prove that he was divine. The secular division between things that are natural or normal or mundane and things that are of God and holy is accepted almost universally except by those who believe the second category entirely unnecessary. The first category seems everywhere assumed.

The Incarnation itself gives the lie to these ideas. It is less an external intervention into creation than the ultimate coming alongside or joining of the creator and his created. God reveals himself within his creation not as its powerful sustainer on whom it is all contingent from moment to moment (though God is certainly that), but as one with his eikon, man. He joins his nature with ours. He shares in all we are. He participates with us in the most intimate manner possible.

The miracles are never about Jesus proving anything. God had nothing to prove. He was giving up his natural honor and becoming the servant of all. The things we call miracles, excepting the special and unique nature of the Resurrection, always are presented as what happens when God joins his nature to ours, when creation begins to be healed.

Jesus commands the elements. Man was created to rule creation and reflect God into it. We were meant to be the steward of all and lovingly order and care for creation. Of course, the storm bows before the true and faithful man.

Jesus feeds the people. This is what God has always done. From the garden to the desert, God provided food for his eikon. Now, in Jesus, he has come that we might consume God himself and receive life. Of course Jesus fed the people. Where else would we find life?

The demons and invisible powers bow before him and flee his presence. They have long ruled mankind through deceit and the power of death. But their tools are useless against the undeceived man, against the God-man who has come to break the power of death over us all. They have no power over Jesus and they see him as he truly is. I would suggest they see him as he was glimpsed by his followers during the transfiguration. Of course they flee the uncreated light of his glory. His simple presence must have burned them with the knowledge of what they had made themselves to be.

And Jesus healed. What are disease and sickness but the fruit of death at work in our bodies? Our bodies sicken and die because we, collectively as mankind, choose non-existence over life. We make that choice every time we turn from God and in some timeless manner we make creation what it is. There is no singular fall of mankind, some distant past event in which I share no responsibility or culpability. I don’t get to blame some faceless, distant ancestor. Every time I face the void and choose that which is not God, I share in the fall of man, I participate in the ruin of creation. In the Incarnation, God wed his nature to ours in order to enter death and break its power over us. This is the mystery of the Resurrection. Death swallowed a man on the Cross and found it had swallowed God instead. How can disease and illness and death, simultaneously the physical symptom and cause of sin (they are so inextricably intertwined) not flee from the very fount of life itself? Jesus heals sin and heals disease, often together and at the same time. This is part and parcel of the renewal of creation and a foretaste of the ultimate defeat of death.

Now, that is not to say that we get sick because we sin. It’s bigger than that, less individually focused. It is true that we can certainly damage our bodies through our thoughts and actions. But most illness and disease are simply part and parcel of a disordered creation. Did Jesus get sick in the Incarnation when he fully assumed the human nature? It seems likely to me that he did. We know he so fully assumed our nature that he was able to die. And could he have experienced all that we experience, could he have been tempted in every way we are tempted if he was never tempted to blame God for an illness? It’s one of the oldest temptations. I recall what Job’s wife said to Job when he was sitting in dung covered with boils. “Curse God and die!” Would a Jesus never so tempted ever even understand, much less have been faithful through, so basic a human temptation?

No, God did not give me celiac disease. That would be an almost blasphemous claim. But perhaps he did work to prepare me for this disease. Let’s explore that idea next in this series.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 2

Posted: May 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 2

Before I continue in the direction I pointed at the end of my first post in this series, I want to spend a little more time on the intertwined, interlocking, and interpenetrating nature of our body, mind, and spirit. I know it is often a foreign idea to those shaped within our American culture, but the concept is central not only to this series, but to the formative thoughts behind this entire blog. I think the common attitude of our culture is captured by a statement like this:

Celiac is an autoimmune disease. It’s a medical condition and the medical prescription is a gluten free diet. It’s purely physical (or some might say secular or natural). What does a disease or medical condition have to do with anything spiritual?

Such is the nature of our age. Even if we’ve never read Plato and never studied philosophy, we have absorbed from the cultural air we breathe and within which we live something of his deep dualism between the material and the spiritual. We see the two as separate categories. And thus we talk about a person’s body or a person’s spirit as though they were separate things and had little to do with each other. But that does not describe reality. Change the chemistry of my brain and you will change my personality. Much of the life of my spirit, for good or ill, is played out in the field of my body. I am not a spirit contained in a body nor am I wholly defined by the matter which forms my body. As a human being I am the union of the spiritual and the material. I am the dust of the earth imbued with the breath of God. I am a living soul – the union (and often disunion) of body, mind, and spirit. You cannot alter or remove any of the three without changing who I am in essential ways, without changing my very being.

So yes, celiac is a medical condition, an autoimmune disease. The treatment is a strict diet that requires me to fast from anything containing gluten – an entire category of food. And a fast is always spiritual as well, for good or ill, whether or not we acknowledge it as such. As the faithfulness of my adherence to this fast will heal or harm my body and my mind, so the spiritual impact of the fast will propel me along the way of life or along the way of death (as the Didache describes the two ways).

If I ignored the spiritual dimensions of this fast, I would effectively be fasting without prayer. And the Fathers of Christian faith have many warnings about such fasts. Fasting without prayer is the ‘fast of the demons’, they say, for the demons do not eat at all because of their incorporeal nature but they also never pray. So I see already that this fast must be intertwined with and shaped by a strong rule of prayer if it is not to shrink my spirit. Interestingly, we also find that fasting without love is another fast of the demons. St. Basil the Great writes:

What is the use of our abstinence if instead of eating meat we devour our brother or sister through cruel gossip?

I do not believe it is at all wise to be careful in the physical aspects of this or any fast and ignore the spiritual dimensions. I also do not believe our actions or inactions in such things are morally neutral by default. If I do indeed follow Jesus of Nazareth, then I am saying something definite about both God and man by doing so. And I must act and live accordingly.

In the next post in this series, I’ll continue in the direction I had originally planned for the series.