Tuesday, March 03, 2015

When Apples Are Sometimes Oranges

One of my big confusions during the first few years of my journey as an Orthodox Christian was caused by an assumption I had that words used by different Orthodox spiritual writers would refer to the same thing.  There may be a philosophical name for this way of thinking about words and reality (other than ignorance), but I don’t know what it is.  It took me a few years and abundant consternation to finally figure out that, for example, the words soul, or prayer, or nous (sometimes translated intellect) did not necessarily have the same meaning when used by St. Paul, the Desert Fathers, St. Gregory of Palamas or St. Theophan the Recluse.  In fact, even within the writings of one Holy Father, sometimes words take on slightly different meanings in one context then they have in another.  Figuring this out the hard way cost me several years of head ache wondering why apples sometimes looked more like oranges.

St. Isaac the Syrian addresses this problem directly in homily twenty-three as he tries to address some misunderstandings about the nature of “spiritual prayer.”  For St. Isaac, “prayer” refers to an act of the human will (manifested in various forms, or what he calls “modes”) by which a person “give[s] his attention to God, and he yearns for and awaits mercy from Him.”  The highest form of prayer for St. Isaac is what he calls “pure prayer,” that is, prayer without distraction—a state that St. Isaac points out is exceedingly rare, especially as a sustained experience.  Spiritual prayer, for St. Isaac is a state beyond pure prayer that is no longer prayer.  It is no longer prayer because the human will is no longer leading or making the prayer happen, but rather the Spirit now leads and the will and mind now just go along for the ride.  St. Isaac cites St. Paul’s experience in 2 Corinthians 12, “whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know” as an example of this spiritual prayer.

But then St. Isaac anticipates a question: If spiritual prayer is not prayer, why is it still called prayer?  St. Isaac begins by explaining that “The Fathers were wont to call every good motion of the spiritual activity by the name of prayer.”  Prayer, for the Fathers, is a general term that can refer to any motion (that means thought or action) that points one to God or by which one draws near to God.  This is why you will often hear holy people say that almost anything can be prayer, if it directs your attention to God.  All sorts of activity, everything from a walk in the woods (even perhaps a walk around a golf course) to a midnight vigil, from the practice of inner silence to the building of houses for the needy, all of these in some ways and for some people can be called prayer, if indeed the motion (the thoughts and activities) direct one’s attention to God in a way that the person “yearns for [God] and awaits mercy from Him.”  

But then St. Isaac goes on to point out that what is sometimes called spiritual prayer is other times or by other people called theoria, or knowledge, or noetic vision.  “Do you see,” St. Isaac says, “how the Fathers interchange appellations for spiritual things?”  And why, you may ask do they do this.  He goes on to explain: 
“For the exactitude of designations holds valid for things here, while there is no perfect or true name whatever for things of the age to come, but a simple [state of] knowing only, surpassing every appellation, every rudimentary element, form, colour, shape, and compound name.”  
When it comes to things of this world, yes, we can define and label them.  Type 316L stainless steel is, well, type 316L stainless steel.  It is defined and the definition is agreed upon.  It can be counted and measured and weighed so that when an engineer calls for type 316L stainless steel, the manufacturer knows exactly what she means.  But spiritual realities are not “rudimentary elements.”  They cannot be measured, weighed or counted.  Spiritual realities are just known.

Of course this causes problems for those of us raised and educated in the world of Einstein and matrix coding, a world in which we have been taught to quantify even the most intimate aspects of our experience.  It seems we have come to believe that nothing really exists if it cannot be defined and reduced to numbers that can be compared to other numbers.  The world of the spiritual Father is so far from us.  It seems absurd to us to take the word of a holy man or woman about a matter that we ourselves have not personally seen, tasted or touched, that at least someone has not counted, defined and numbered, it seem quite irresponsible, even foolish to us that we would take the word of a holy man or woman about a spiritual reality just because, well, just because they are holy and they themselves have known it.  What make this even more difficult for us is the fact that the transfer of such knowledge is deeply personal.  It cannot be objectified into words which, if transposed into a different context, will have the same meaning.  

Holy people use different words to describe the same experience, words that will help the hearer, the specific one(s) that the holy person is speaking to.  There is no attempt (because it would be impossible) to objectify the language.  The goal is not analysis, but the goal is to help the hearer also enter the experience and him or herself to acquire the direct knowledge of the spiritual experience or reality that the holy person is speaking of.  St. Isaac puts it this way:

For this reason, once the soul’s knowledge is raised out of the visible world, the Fathers employ whatever appellations they please to indicate that [state of] knowing, since no one knows its name with exactness.  But to make the soul’s deliberations steadfast therein, the Fathers resort to appellations and parables, according to Saint Dionysius, who writes, “we use parables, and syllables, and permissible names, and words, on account of our senses; but when our soul is moved by the operation of the Spirit toward those divine things, then both our senses and their operations are superfluous when the soul has become like unto the Godhead by an incomprehensible union, and is illuminated in her movements by the ray of the sublime Light.”

What does he mean?  He means that there are no right words, there are no definitions for this experience of knowing that which is “out of this visible world” because, as St. Isaac says, “no one knows its name with exactness.”  Nevertheless, “on account of the senses,” that is, because the saints are still in the body and still have mouths and minds and a reasoning faculty, because of this and in order to help others and to help themselves “remain steadfast” in what their souls are deliberating or knowing or thinking about as and after they have been “raised out of this visible world,” because of this very experience of illumination in the “sublime Light” and the soul’s transformation into the likeness of the the Godhead, because this happens while the saints are still in the body, they find that they are compelled in some contexts to talk about it.  Some things they cannot speak of, as St. Paul tells us, there are “inexpressible words that are unlawful for a human being to utter.”  However, there are some aspects of their spiritual experience that they can and apparently are compelled to talk about.

However, when they talk, they do not use words the way an engineer or scientist does.  They use “parables and syllables,” that is, they use the tools of this visible world to try to point to the reality of the world unseen.  It’s kind of like using a wrench to model and explain open heart surgery.  It is clearly not the right tool, but if you grasp the intentions of your teacher and follow closely his or her motions and if you already have at least a little familiarity with the experience of surgery and the human anatomy, you might just learn something new.  And whether the teacher is holding an wrench or a screwdriver in his hand as he does his demonstration really makes no difference whatsoever.  The wrench is just a parable.  It stands in for a reality that for whatever reason cannot be exactly represented.  And this is also how it is with words when one is reading or listening to holy men and women speak of spiritual realities.  The goal is not to understand the exact meaning of the words.  The goal is to experience, or at least begin to experience, the spiritual realities to which those words point.

So next time you are reading a holy Father and are baffled by his words, don’t fret yourself very much.  The words point to realities that have, as St. Isaac says, “no perfect or true name.”  Nevertheless, through prayer, inner quietness, and contemplation (which, by the way, may all refer to the same thing), through these and with longing and desire to know the realities to which our holy Fathers and Mothers point, it is possible (at least in some small ways) ourselves to have our souls “raised out of the visible world” and to be ourselves illuminated by a small ray of the divine Light.

Monday, March 02, 2015

A Christ-like Response To ISIS

One cannot help being deeply troubled by the latest wave of persecution against Christians perpetrated by the ISIS movement. It is a terrible situation that demands from Christians everywhere some sort of response. To do nothing seems intolerable. We feel we must respond, but how?  From many different quarters I am hearing and reading the thoughts of Christians about what the appropriate response should be to such brutality against our brothers and sisters. It seems just about everyone has an opinion. But to tell the truth, I do not yet have an opinion. I feel very upset, angry even, but my experience has taught me that when I feel upset and angry about something, that is specifically not the time to be deciding what to do about something. I have always regretted words I have spoken and decisions I have made when I was angry and upset.

When I am angry and upset I am blind to the obvious—or rather, what seems so obviously the right thing to do or say when I am angry and upset is almost always (actually, is always in my personal experience) not life-giving, helpful or in any way actually salvific. When I speak or act while anger is still bubbling inside me, when I haven’t been able to return to peace in myself, and I speak or act with this disturbance still churning inside me, I have always just made things worse. But isn’t this also what St. James tells us when he says “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1: 20)?  I have found, however, that writing about my thoughts, does often help me clarify things. So who knows, maybe by the time were done here today, I will have found an opinion I can get behind.

There are many possible Christian responses to ISIS. In fact, basically any way a Christian responds is a Christian response to ISIS. Some Christians are more sophisticated than others in providing a biblical or theological or historical defence for their response, but basically, how any Christian responds to ISIS is a Christian response to ISIS. So I think this category of “a Christian response” in many ways is not very helpful. A different category, a category that I am finding more helpful as I am trying to think about my response to these very disturbing matters is not, “what is a Christian response,” but “what is a Christ-like response?”

I think a good example of a Christ-like response to ISIS is the official response of the Coptic Church to the martyrdom of twenty-one Coptic Orthodox Christian men working Libya. These men were given the opportunity to convert to Islam, and having refused were decapitated for their faith in Christ. How has the Coptic Church responded? It immediately canonized these saints, giving them a day on the Coptic Christian calendar to be annually venerated.  The Coptic Church glorified these men, setting them up as examples for all of the faithful. I think this is not only a Christian response to ISIS, it is a Christ-like Christian response.

Another Christ-like Christian response to ISIS is found in the words of a brother of two of the men who were murdered for their faith. Here I will quote my source directly:

In an interview with Christian channel SAT-7 ARABIC on Wednesday, Beshir Kamel, brother of two of the Coptic martyrs, even thanked the Islamic State for including their declaration of faith in the videos before killing them.
“ISIS gave us more than we asked when they didn’t edit out the part where they declared their faith and called upon Jesus Christ. ISIS helped us strengthen our faith,” he said.
Beshir said that he was proud of his brothers Bishoy and Samuel, saying that their martyrdom was “a badge of honor to Christianity.”

But even more than Beshir’s response, I think the response of Beshir’s mother is the most Christ-like Christian response I have encountered so far.  

When asked what his reaction would be if he saw an Islamic State militant, Kamel recalled his mother’s response.
"My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven,” Beshir said.

Basher’s mother seems to me to be the most Christ-like in her response. Loving one’s enemies, doing good to those who despitefully use and persecuted you—these are the ways Jesus told us to respond to violence.

You might ask me then, based on what I have said so far, “Is there never a time when Christians should use violence to stop evil? Are you a pacifist?” No, I am not. I am not a pacifist. I do indeed think there are times when in our fallenness we can see no other appropriate way to respond to evil other than with violence. Sometimes, it seems, that violence is the least sinful way we can respond in a situation. However, if we feel we must use violence, then at least we should acknowledge that this is not the way Christ showed us. Christ, our pattern, our type, our guide, never killed any one. He rather let Himself be killed. It is true that once Christ did forcefully drive money-changers out of the Temple—causing a few bruises and minor lacerations perhaps, but not killing anyone. And Christ did once tell his disciples to acquire swords (Luke 22:36), but then he rebuked the disciple who used a sword (John 18:11). And so we have these two ambiguous instances in the Gospel that suggest that violence may sometimes be appropriate; but against these two we have Christ’s behaviour before Pontius Pilate and his words, “My kingdom is not of this world, otherwise my followers would fight” (John 18: 36), and then there is the whole content of Jesus’ moral teaching (“if someone strikes on one cheek, turn to him the other,” etc.).

It seems that if we are going to look exclusively at what Jesus did and said as our example, then a pacifist certainly does match more closely the example of what Jesus did and said than does almost any Christian military response that I can think of through out history. But this should not surprise us, Christians have never been very good at following Christ. I certainly am not. But then what human being doesn't fall woefully short of his or her ideals?  

And of course, Christians don’t simply follow the example and teaching of Christ as it seems best to them. They follow the example and teaching of Christ as it has been interpreted for them through the Church, through the Apostles and their successors the Bishops. And this is a very good thing. Sure, sometimes I chaff at this, sometimes I wonder if all of this interpretive tradition is really a good idea. I wonder this especially when in my self-righteousness I think that my interpretation of what Jesus said and did is better than everyone else’s.  (Ah, yes, the ultimate experience of self-righteous delusion: if everyone would just see things my way and do what I say, the world would be such a better place.) No, it is really a good idea that we have and respect the holy tradition we have been giving.

Yet even in the Holy Orthodox Tradition, there is ambiguity. There are warrior saints, on the one hand; but on the other hand, most of these these same warriors lay down their arms and submit peacefully to martyrdom or leave military service altogether to spend the rest of their life in prayer.  Yes, on the one hand the Church gives us prayers for weapons and prayers for soldiers about to go off to war, and then on the other hand, the Church imposes a severe penance on soldiers who have killed in battle (it’s a ten-year excommunication, I think). On the one hand, the Church teaches us to honour the emperor (an archetype of a military despot) and on the other hand, a priest is not allowed to carry a weapon and is laicized if he kills, even accidentally. And so within the tradition of the Holy Orthodox faith, we have a certain ambiguity about war and killing. Yes it is, at times, allowed; but no it is never good.

I wonder if the Church’s view of the use of military force couldn’t be perhaps likened to its view of divorce. The Church teaches that divorce is never good. In the Orthodox teaching, one man and one woman are married—joined by God—not only for life, not only “until death do you part” (as in the western wedding service); rather the Orthodox Church teaches that not even death breaks the marriage bond: “Whom God has joined together, let not man break asunder,” Jesus said. Nonetheless, the Church recognizes that in our sin and brokenness sometimes marriages fail, and sometimes people are not able to remain continent after the death of a spouse. And when that happens, after a season of healing and repentance, the Church does allow a second and even a third marriage. But this is a condescension to human weakness. This is not the teaching of the Church on marriage. The church never encourages divorce and remarriage even if it does recognize that it is sometimes the least sinful response to an already very broken situation.  

And if I am not too far off the mark in comparing the Church’s blessing of the use of military force with it’s blessing of second marriages, then I think the Church must always lead with the message of peace, the message that military responses to violence—fighting fire with fire—is not how God would have us respond to violence. Martyrdom is preferable to violence. This, it seems to me, should be the message that the world hears from the Church in times of persecution, as we have indeed heard from the Coptic Church in its response to the twenty-one martyrs killed in Libya. If our political and military leaders, those of whom St. Paul said they “do not bear the sword in vain,” if these decide to respond to violence with violence, then I think the church reluctantly should bless even this. The Church should bless not as though saying that the Church advocates or encourages violence as a response to violence, but because the political and military leaders have made their decision, and the Church needs to bring its blessing even into very broken places.

Well, I have rambled on enough about this. I still do not know what is right. I pray daily for the peace of the whole world and still people are killing each other every day. I marry people all of the time, and still some get divorced.  But in as much as I do not teach that divorce is an option for married couples (even though some will divorce), so also I think that as far as what the Church teaches in the face of violence, the Coptic Church has got it about right. We teach that martyrdom is the way to heaven, even if we know that many Christians would rather fight than accept martyrdom.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Giving Birth To Prayer

Now that we are well into Great Lent and have, I hope, pushed ourselves a little in fasting and prayer, it’s probably time to take stock of what is really happening.  I imagine most of us are failing miserably.  Even if we have managed to keep a strict diet, obeying to the best of our ability the outer guidelines of the fast and even if we have attended most of the extra services, still I’m pretty sure most of the people reading this are frustrated or disappointed with their actual performance on a spiritual level, that is, their actual ability to draw near to God in the Fast.  And so, what I am about to say may seem pretty depressing, but stay with me, it gets encouraging toward the end.

St. Isaac the Syrian, in his homily twenty-three, speaks of prayer, what prayer is, what pure prayer is and what is even beyond pure prayer. Most of what he says in this long homily has no application whatsoever to my life at this point, or to the life of anyone I know living in the world.  He speaks of pure prayer leading to a state of being swallowed up by the Spirit so that one no longer prays but merely dwells “with awestruck wonder” “in that gladdening glory.” Most of us never dwell anywhere near such a place. Most of us consider ourselves immensely blessed if we can experience just a brief moment of pure prayer now and then, that is, prayer without distraction. As to what holy Saints experience beyond pure prayer, I just have to take St. Isaac’s word for it. I have never experienced it. When I pray, I certainly do not dwell in a place of awestruck wonder in gladdening glory.

But despite the fact that most of what St. Isaac says in this homily is way out of my league, one thing he says does indeed comfort me quite a bit. It comforts me in that he tells me that I am not unusual in my struggle to pray. It comforts me in that he lets me know that my experience of distracting thoughts and wandering mind in prayer is indeed the beginning  of genuine prayer—in fact, it is itself genuine prayer. There are many ways to pray. We pray in Church, we pray at home. We pray chanting and reading, bowing and prostrating. We pray while reading spiritual books and with inarticulate sighs and cries. We pray with petitions and with praises and by reciting the mighty acts of God in history. All of these and more are ways of prayer.  And all of these ways of prayer, according to St. Isaac, are controlled by the authority of our free will. We decide if we will pray and, often, how we will pray (although here it seems we have less freedom: we don’t so much pray however we like, as we pray however we can, however we are able). We pray because we want to pray—or better yet, because something in us wants to pray.

And here’s the rub. Something in us wants to pray, but much in us doesn’t. But that’s not even it. It is more a matter that so much is running around in our mind unattached and uncontrolled, random and scattered. We don’t even know where it all comes from. When we want to pray, we must create a bit of quiet in ourselves and into this quiet floods all of the things I had forgotten to remember; random and petty thoughts, judgements, accusations; memories I hadn’t thought about for years; and a seeming limitless supply of filth, anger, resentment and envy. It all shows up when I start to pray.  

And so, St. Isaac says, prayer is a matter of the free will. It is something one has to choose, and having chosen to pray, one must continue to choose to pray all throughout the prayer. Prayer is a choice one makes and keeps making; and for this reason, St. Isaac says, “there is a struggle in prayer.” This struggle in prayer, or this struggle to pray when you’re saying prayers, is, according to St. Isaac, the norm. In fact, one of the elders that St. Isaac himself consulted on this matter told him (back in homily twenty-one), “Reckon every prayer, wherein the body does not toil and the heart is not afflicted, to be a miscarriage, for it has no soul.”  

This is, I know, sort of back-handed encouragement, but it does encourage me. By this elder’s standard, my prayer has lots of soul. My feet and back and sometimes my head often ache in prayer. My heart is often afflicted by its struggle with distracting and impure thoughts in prayer. In fact I sometimes wonder if I have wasted my time, if I have just done nothing for an hour while others were doing the actual praying. Or if my little prayer rule at home was just a joke because nothing seemed to happen—nothing more than me spending the whole time trying to pull my mind back into the prayers I am saying with my mouth. I wonder, “Is this really prayer?”  

Well according to St. Isaac, it is really prayer. In fact, according to one of St. Isaac’s spiritual fathers, this very struggle means that the prayer is alive, that it has a soul. That very struggle is the pain of childbirth—of prayer-birth.  We give birth to prayer.  

There is, St. Isaac tells us, prayer beyond struggle. He calls this pure prayer, prayer that does not wander, where no foreign thought enters. But St. Isaac also tells us that this pure prayer is the regular experience of only one in thousands (not one in a thousand, but one in thousands).  The point he seems to make is that only through regular and disciplined struggle to pray as an act of the free will is one able eventually to train one’s thoughts in obedience and as a gift of Grace (for all progress in the spiritual life is a gift of Grace) one is able to be at one with his or her prayers.  That is, one is able to attain pure prayer. But this is not the common experience of prayer. Far from it. Most of us experience prayer as struggle, as something we must choose and continue to choose.

That only one in thousands attain this state of pure prayer, according to St. Isaac, is to me quite an encouragement. I have never been a one in thousands kind of guy. I don’t win contests (unless it is a free weekend in Las Vegas—I keep seeming to win those without even entering the contest).  No, I’m no headliner. I’m always striving just to work my way up to the middle of the pack. And so for me to know that struggle in prayer is normal, that it is indeed prayer itself as I will mostly experience it, that for me is encouraging. Something isn’t wrong with me. It’s not “supposed to be” different. It’s supposed to be labour, like giving birth. My will is fighting to pray, my will is fighting to pray and this very fight according to St. Isaac is prayer.  Yes! Man, I sure pray a lot, because prayer is never easy for me.

But having said this, I want to be quick to add that even though prayer is mostly struggle, it is not and should not always a terrible struggle. In fact, if prayer is always a terrible struggle for you, you probably need to talk to your spiritual father or mother or someone whom you think might help you because you might just need to try some different ways to pray. There are means of prayer, what St. Isaac calls “modes” of prayer that work better for some people than they do for others. My wife is an iconographer.  She paints as prayer. I paint as torment. What works amazingly well for one person, can be nothing but torment for another. Some people find Life by chanting alone in the middle of the night, others pray better in a choir at church. Some pray akathists hymns, others find it works better just to say the Jesus Prayer. And then there are physical prayers such as prostrations and manual labour for the needy (including, by the way, vacuuming, washing dishes and fixing the plumbing at the Church). Some find Life in reading spiritual books, others journal as prayer. We each probably need to try lots of different modes of prayer until we find ways of praying that actually help us pray.  The Church is a storehouse full of various modes of prayer.  Don’t give up on prayer just because you can’t stay awake during the all-night vigil. There are lots of ways to pray. 

And one more thing. There is such a thing as sweetness in prayer, which is not the same as pure prayer, for the experience of sweetness in prayer occurs in the midst of our struggle to pray. Sweetness in prayer, according to St. Isaac, is that experience when a particular verse or phrase or idea stays with you and evokes a small amount of joy or wonder that captivates you for a moment in prayer. You repeat the phrase, you stay on the thought, you read or repeat the line over and over again as though you were sucking the juice out of it. As though suddenly you have come across a sweet, plump raisin in a bowl of really dry granola.  And when we have these experiences of sweetness in prayer, St. Isaac tells us that we should stop praying, or stop our outer activity of prayer and dwell for as long as we can on that sweet word or thought that has been given us, for here we have been given a gift from the One we are petitioning in prayer. Now is the time merely to receive the gift, asking is no longer necessary, the words of our prayer can, for a moment, be set aside.  

However, soon the thoughts start to wander again.  Soon my hyperactive mind is in analysis mode, trying to figure out how I can apply or interpret or explain to someone else the little treasure that was given me. And so the sweetness slips away, and I must return to the work of my prayer, my reading or whatever it was I was doing. I return to the discipline, to the exercise of my will to focus my thoughts, to pay attention, to turn away from all of the thoughts that suddenly seem so very important. I return to birth giving, to the labour of giving birth to prayer.

Monday, February 23, 2015

None Of Us Can Do Everything

In chapter 21 of the homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, the Saint gives some useful, but what may seem at first to be controversial, advice.  St. Isaac presents this advice in the context of a conversation between a younger hermit and an older, more experienced one.  The younger hermit asks the older one what he should do: 

“Many times I obtain a thing I have need of because of illness, or because of my work, or for some other reason, and without this I cannot remain in my discipline of stillness, but when I see that someone has need of this object, I am overcome by mercy and I give it to him.  Often it also occurs that being asked by someone, I give away that which I need, for I am constrained by love and by the commandment to do so.  Afterward, however, my need of the object causes me to fall into cares and turbulent thoughts, and thus my mind is distracted from solicitude for stillness.  Often I am obliged to depart from my solitude and to go in search of that thing.  But if I preserve and do not go out, I suffer much affliction and turmoil in my thoughts.  I do not know which of the two alternatives I should choose: to interrupt and disperse my stillness for my brother’s sake, or to disregard his request and continue in stillness.”

The problem that this young hermit presents is a common problem.  Although very few of us are called to the life of a hermit, all of us are called to live faithfully whatever way of life God has given us for our salvation.  That is, each of us has a way of following Christ that is appropriate to his or her own calling, gifts, and situation in life.  Obviously, for example, a father of children is not called to a life of stillness, for he has to work to support his family (although, that doesn’t mean that he can’t learn to practice inner stillness to some small extent within the parameters of his lived reality.  It’s just that he can’t give himself to it undividedly, for his calling as husband and father places other responsibilities on him).  The calling of a father and a hermit are very different, but the problem that the young hermit describes is still the same problem that a father or any faithful follower of Christ encounters.  That is, how does one faithfully follow all of the commands of Christ?  

Here’s the problem: When I strive faithfully to fulfill one of Christ’s commands, I often find that in fulfilling that one command, I of necessity cannot fulfill other of Christ’s commands.  In the case of the hermit, his calling is to fulfil the command “to abide in Christ” and “ to pray without ceasing.”  But by giving away what he needs to continue in stillness to anyone who asks of him (which is also a command of the Gospel), he finds that he cannot preserve in the inner stillness necessary to abide only in Christ and pray without ceasing.  

The older monk’s reply may seem shocking to us, but if you think about it, it makes sense.  Here is the older monk’s reply: (italics are mine for the sake of clarity and emphasis)

“May that righteousness perish, and every form of mercy, love, compassion or whatever is thought to be for God’s sake, which hinders you from the practice of stillness; which fixes your eye upon the world; draws you into cares; shakes you from the memory of God; arrests your prayers; brings your thoughts to a state of turbulence and unrest; stops you from study of the divine readings (which is a weapon that rescues a man from wandering thoughts); disperses your watchfulness; causes you to walk about freely, though formerly you were bound, and to associate with men, though formerly you lived in solitude; awakens in you the mortified passions; abolishes the abstinence of your senses; resurrects your corpse which was dead to the world; causes you to fall from the angelic husbandry, whose labour has but one concern; and places you in the portion of men who live in the world.”

You see what the older hermit is saying to the younger hermit is that in order for him to fulfill his calling in Christ, he has to limit or be very careful which commands of Christ he attempts to fulfill and how he tries to do so.  If the hermit ceases to be what God has called him to be, then the commandment that he thought he was fulfilling, he was not.  Or to put it another way, we cannot all do everything.  Let me repeat: we cannot all do everything. The older hermit goes on to explain later that people who live and work in the world have a responsibility to care for others in the world: He says, “For the fulfilling of the duty of love with respect to providing for physical well-being is the work of men in the world.”  We each have our place, we each have our calling in this life, we each have our bit to do, but none us can do everything.

But even in caring for the needs of those in the world, we all have limitations: limitations in our abilities and limitations caused by our weaknesses.  When I was a young married man, I was very zealous to be an evangelist.  I was constantly, and I’m afraid often annoyingly, on the look out for anyone who would listen to me present to them the Gospel (or at least the Gospel as I was taught to understand it at that point in my life).  However, I soon realized that in sharing the Gospel with certain attractive young women, I often found my mind wandering down paths of unfaithfulness, paths I didn’t want to go down (either in my mind or in any other way).  This problem became so disturbing for me, that it developed into a crisis for my inner life: “what if they never hear the Gospel”, the thought would occur to me.  “Will they go to hell because I cannot control my libido?”   At that time, my theology was not clear enough to challenge such a thought, so in my own mind I was stuck—like the young hermit—in choosing between, on the one hand, sharing the Gospel  with attractive young women while I struggled with inappropriate thoughts, or, on the other hand, keeping relative peace in my mind by not sharing the Gospel with women whom I found attractive and trusting God that He was able to bring someone else along (probably another women) to share the Gospel with that person whom, I, in my weakness,  could not.  I was beginning to realize that, sometimes, attempting to obey one command of Christ opened the door to disobeying others.

And still now, even though I am at a different place in life and have different struggles and different conundrums, still there is so much that I just can’t do.  There are so many commands of Christ that I cannot try too hard to fulfill without at the same time ceasing to fulfill others.  I am weak.  I am limited. I thank God that there are holy fathers and mothers who preserve in stillness and prayer, even if in doing so they are not able to care for the temporal needs of the poor and sick and suffering of the world.  The Church is a body.  We each provide for what is lacking in the other. The hermits preserve in stillness and pray in ways I cannot, yet I benefit from their prayer.  In a very real sense, their prayers are my prayers.  Similarly, acts of love and mercy that I may be able to perform in my station, in my calling in life, these acts of love and mercy belong not to me, but to the whole Church, the whole body of Christ.  Your works and words of love and encouragement, your prayer and fasting, your gifts and sacrifices, these are not yours alone, they are ours, all of ours, for we each give and serve and love as we are able and where we are as parts of the one Body, which is Christ’s Body, the Church.

You know, what got me to thinking about this today is a conversation I had earlier with a friend about what is important to emphasize in Great Lent.  It is easy, I find, to put a lot of emphasis on the external works and particularly Orthodox aspects of keeping Great Lent.  It is easy to develop the misguided thought that what God rewards is how strictly we keep Great Lent, how Orthodox we are (that is, how well we follow the particularly Orthodox injunctions and prescriptions of Lent).  However, when we think this way, we have fallen into the trap of mistaking the means for the end, of mistaking the road for the destination.  The goal of Great Lent is not to fast well, but to become more like Jesus.  The goal of Great Lent is not to attend more services, but to become more like Jesus.  The fasting and the prayer services will help, they are part of the means, of the way; but they are not the goal.  Furthermore, how helpful each person will find the particular practices the Church enjoins on us and the particular opportunities to pray that the Church offers us during the Great Fast will differ according to the strength of each, the calling of each and the circumstances of life of each of us.

And just as the young hermit learned, so we too must learn: No one of us can do everything.  How each of us becomes more like Christ will be slightly different.  Some of us will excel in prayers, some of us in fasting.  Some of us will excel in chanting and public prayer, some of will excel in the prayer of stillness.  Some of us will excel in love expressed in concrete actions, some of us will excel in words of encouragement.  But all of us will do whatever it is we do within the Church, within the One Body of Christ.  Or to use St. Paul’s metaphor, one of us will look more like Christ as he or she looks more like a foot, while another will look more like Christ as he or she looks more like a hand.  But whether hand or foot, or mouth or ear, it is only together that we make the Body of Christ.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Where's The Love?

In a recent post on the struggles of Abbess Thaisia I wrote of a young nun's struggle to find peace in her calling when there seemed to be no love in those around her.  The following comment was left on that post, and I would like to respond to it now.  Here's the comment:

I am struggling with much of the same issue in your excerpt posted from Thaisia in regards to discouragement with those in church leadership and a lack of love by those in the church. My thoughts often drift to the same place as her's... If no sincere love is seen and experienced, then there must not be any salvation. Perhaps in the future you might speak to this point, as I know many of the younger generation feel similarly.

Well Dear Anonymous, I think this is a pretty common experience.  Anyone who has spent more than a little time in the Orthodox Church (or, for this matter, in any group calling itself church) quickly notices that the saints are in the minority, a very small minority, and that those who seem to be desiring to live a Christ-like life—while they may be found here and there—seem to keep themselves well hidden. In fact, sometimes it seems as though the nonreligious people in our life are more compassionate, more like Christ, than many of the religious people we know.  This is a common experience.

To understand what's going on, I think we have to keep several things in mind.  First, we have to keep in mind that this is very much how Jesus experienced the religious world into which he was born and raised.  The religious leaders of Jesus' day were largely corrupted, selfish and lacking in basic compassion.  Jesus constantly refers to them as vipers and hypocrites.  But not all of religious leaders of His day were that way.  There is the Lawyer to whom Jesus says, "You are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven" (Mark 12:34).  Jesus also meets secretly with Nicodemos, "a ruler of the Jews" and explains His mission to him ("Light has come into the world, but men prefer darkness rather than Light... John 3).  This same Nicodemos tries to defend Jesus before the other Pharisees (John 7:50) and in the end joins Joseph of Arimathea (a rich and "prominent council member," Mark 15: 43 and John 19: 38-42) in enabling and burying Jesus' Body.  It says of Joseph that he is a secret follower of Christ "for fear of the Jews," yet he nonetheless boldly asks Pontius Pilate for Jesus's body.

Furthermore, that same religious world that, on the one hand, seems so corrupted, was the same religious world that produced Jesus' Mother, Mary, the holiest of women, and her parents Sts. Joacim and Anna.  That apparently broken religious world also produced John the Baptist, his holy parents, Sts. Zachariah and Elizabeth.  It was the religious world that also produced the twelve Apostles (one of whom was a traitor) and the seventy lesser Apostles.  Clearly, despite the abundance of (both truly and apparently) unloving, corrupt leaders in Jesus' day, God was still able to produce from that religious world a lot of very holy people.  And this is, by the way, exactly what Abbess Thaisia found out.  In fact, it may indeed be that part of our growth in Christ must take place in such a context of seeming abandonment: abandonment by every human authority who should love and help and encourage us, abandonment that forces us to find strength in God alone, abandonment that teaches to love and forgive even those who seem to have no love and no forgiveness.

Some other things to keep in mind when we are confused and despondent about the lack of love in the Church are the parables Jesus told about what the Kingdom of Heaven would actually be like. For example, Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who sows good seed in his field, but at night an enemy comes and sows tares (weeds that look somewhat like wheat, but have no edible grain.  Matt. 13:24 ff).  This is what Jesus said the Church would look like: the real and the false growing side by side. 

And of course we are all so like the servants in the parable.  We want to rush out and separate.  We want to determine who the real Christians are and who the impostors are.  We want to make the determination.  But the master in the parable says no.  Ours is not to determine, to separate.  Ours is to just let it be.  God, we are told, will send His reapers, the angels, who will gather the wheat into barns and the tares into destruction.  Whenever we try to separate, whenever we try ourselves to determine who the false Christians are, we end up making a huge mess of it and uprooting and trampling on the very precious wheat.  Ours is not to determine the genuineness of the faith of others, ours is to discern the genuineness of our own faith.  Am I being saved?  Am I loving even those who are hard to love?  Am I forgiving others as I want God to forgive me?

A final thing I encourage people to keep in mind when they are confused and discouraged by the apparent lack of love and lack of Christ-like virtue they seem to see in those who lead the Church is that what we see with our eyes is generally only a very small part of what is actually happening.  This is particularly true when it comes to leaders in any institutional setting (and the Church is an institution—a God bearing institution, but an institution nonetheless).  Those who lead both see much more than we see and at the same time see much less.  What I mean is that even when we assume the best intentions, leaders are forced to look at the bigger picture and make decisions based on what seems to them to be best for the whole.  And at the same time, because they are looking at the big picture, often leaders do not see or appreciate the pain of specific people and specific situations.  The leaders themselves often do not realize the pain they are causing in specific situations in their desire to do what is best for the corporate good.  It's a matter of basic human weakness.  None of us sees everything.  None of us knows everything.  Even assuming the best intentions, none of us sees or knows clearly enough to encourage any good without at the same time unintentionally causing pain or misunderstanding somewhere.  That's just the nature things in our fallen world.

I was at a seminar for priests recently.  And as is usual, in the evenings we would gather in small groups in one another's rooms, drink a little (or a little too much) wine and talk about what's troubling us in our churches.  One young and zealous priest was complaining about the apathy and lack of piety among his parishioners when an older priest told him the following story.  There was an older woman in his parish who never seemed to keep the Church's fasts.  She would bring food with "only a little bit of beacon" in it to coffee hour during lent.  Her breath often smelled of coffee when she was receiving communion on Sunday mornings.  This bothered the father greatly until one day he determined that it was his duty to teach this woman the importance of fasting.  Then one Sunday, he seized the opportunity and drew the woman aside and said to her, Nellie (I think that was her name), we need to talk about the importance of fasting.  Nellie's response shocked him.

Nellie said, "Father, I have always been confused by the Church's rules on fasting.  I never knew what was allowed on which days.  It was all so very confusing to me.  So, as a young woman I made a determination:  Since I didn't know which days to fast on or what to fast from on those days, I decided to fast completely, drinking nothing but water, for the first three days of every month.  And so that is what I have been doing for the past thirty years.  What was it, Father, that you wanted to tell me about fasting?"

The Father could say nothing.  He, in his ignorance, had judged a pious woman harshly.

You see, we never know enough about a person or about a situation to judge fairly.  Often what seems to us to be unloving, harsh or unChrist-like behaviour may indeed be the most loving, kind, and Christ-like behaviour possible, if we knew the whole story.  Of course life is never just all one thing or all another.  We are seldom completely Christ-like in anything we do.  When I have a headache, my wife often asked me if I am mad at her.  Trying my best to be loving, in my weakness my best attempts at kindness sometimes sound to her like anger.  And then there is just plain carelessness. How many times have I been offended, not by what someone has said to me, but by the way he or she has said it to me or by the timing or by the context?  Sure, they could have said it in a better way, or at a better time or in a better place, but then again, who is perfect except God?

But this then brings us back to Abbess Thaisia and how God uses broken people in this broken system in this broken world to save our souls.  Jesus came to show us the way to heaven, the way of salvation.  And the way that Jesus showed us was the way of Resurrection through the Cross.  We must all die with Christ so that we can be raised with Him.  And what does this death look like? Abbess Thaisia tells us that the death is a death of our will, a death of our expectation of how things should be, a death of our plan, our agenda, our way.  It is often a death like the death of Jesus, a death that comes through the failures and weaknesses of religious leaders, that comes to us through the intentional and unintentional blows of those who should have loved and protected us.  It's a miserable death, a painful death; it is a real death.  It is a real death followed by a even more real resurrection.  

This is the Christian way, the way of the ascetics, the way of the saints, the way of everyone who would take up their cross and follow Christ.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pray For Us, Annie

I went to a celebration of a life a couple of days ago.  It was at a Protestant church.  It was nothing like a funeral, and that’s too bad because I think Annie would have liked a funeral too. But as far as celebrations of a life go, this one was pretty good.  The hymns were prayerful and the speeches respectful.  But what was most amazing to me was Annie herself and what her children and grandchildren chose to remember about her.

I had only met Annie a couple of times. She is the grandmother of one of my parishioners. I really didn’t know Annie at all, but by the time her celebration of life was over, I knew her well enough. Here are some of the things that her children and grandchildren remembered about her.  
Annie read her Bible and knew a lot of it by heart.  When she was eight years old, she memorized 500 verses in order to go to summer camp.  Annie loved God and always loved whomever she was around.  Her children used to bring friends and even strangers home and Annie would care for them, talk to them, feed them and help them as she was able.  One of the children remembered the time on a rainy Christmas Eve, coming home from Church that they stopped to pick up a hitch hiker.  And that hitch hiker became their guest at their family Christmas celebration over the next few days.  

But the one story that seemed to me to draw the most striking picture of who this woman is took place the last few months of her life. At about ninety, Annie was getting very frail and forgetful and so had to be placed in a residential care hospital. What bothered Annie most about this was that she could no longer help anyone. She couldn’t cook. She couldn't clean. There was nothing helpful that she could do. Until one day she figured it out. She figured out what she could do to help people. You see despite her weakness, Annie was still pretty flexible and she could bend over and pick up things off the floor. Many of the patients in the facility where she lived were in wheel chairs or used walkers and could not pick things up off the floor. Annie had found her ministry.  Every day, Annie would wander around her facility, looking for people who needed help picking something off the floor. And this Annie did every day until she herself could no longer get out of bed.

Annie was not an Orthodox Christian—she was some sort of Mennonite, I guess. Nonetheless, when I told this story over the phone to my spiritual father—an old Orthodox hermit living in the mountains—do you know what he said? He said, “May the servant of God, Annie, pray for us.”

In Matthew Chapter 19, at the end of the chapter, Jesus tells his disciples that in the Regeneration, on the Last Day, that they will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. From the context of the passage, it seems to me that what Jesus is saying is that they will not judge by making decisions about others, nor by determining anything. Rather, they will judge just by existing. How is that?  In verse 21 Jesus invites the rich young ruler to leave all and follow Jesus. He does not, but Peter points out that they (the 12) had. They had done it. They had left all and followed Jesus, and thus Jesus said they were the judges, they are the criterion, the standard. On the Day of Judgement, no one will be able to say that it was impossible to follow Christ completely for there will be twelve judges—all merely human, human beings who cooperated with the Grace of God that had been given them, human beings who did leave all and follow.

Now we know that numbers in the Bible are generally symbolic, that twelve represents fullness, that the twelve disciples represents the fullness of the disciples or all of the true disciples of Christ. The twelve judges represents all of the judges, all of those who followed Christ completely and are thus the criteria by which all of us will be compared.  And the twelve tribes of Israel (those of us to be judged) represent all of those who will be judged.  

And I think about Annie. A woman who did not have the full Light of the Orthodox teaching, who did not have access to the abundant spiritual and liturgical and theological Tradition of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I think about Annie and her Bible and her hymns and her rather bare Mennonite tradition. She didn’t have much. But she gave herself completely to God through what she did have, what she did know, and she let God change her. She let herself be molded and shaped into a Christ-like lover of mankind by the God whom she loved with all of her heart, with all of her soul, with all of her mind and with all of her strength.  

I wonder if on the Day of Judgement how many like Annie will be sitting on thrones with the Apostles. How many Annies are there who just did it, who just left all to follow God wherever they were, in whatever context they found themselves and with whatever shreds of the True Faith they had, how many Annies gave everything to God and were transformed by Him?  

And what about us? We who have the True Faith, who worship the Undivided Trinity, who swim in the wealth of the Holy Orthodox Faith. Where will we stand on the Last Day?  How will we compare next to Annie? Maybe it is a good idea that we too, along with the holy monk in the mountains, ask Annie to pray to God for us.

Now that Great Lent has come, let’s not revel in the greatness of our struggle nor the wealth of our spiritual, liturgical and theological Tradition. Rather, let’s remember Annie: A women with very little of the Church’s wealth who devoted herself completely to what she did know of the Truth and was made like Christ as a result.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Sinner, Yet Not Sinning

St. John of Kronstadt Press has recently published a translation of St. Theophan the Recluse’s commentary on Psalm 118 (119 in most English Bibles).  Like most of St. Theophan’s writings, this commentary is full of citations from the Scripture and from the Holy Fathers.  St. Theophan, as do most Orthodox spiritual writers, never saw himself as an original thinker, but rather as someone who breathed in the insight and teaching of holy men and women before him and having incorporated and assimilated this insight and teaching into his own life, then exhales.  He exhales not strictly memorized recitations of what was said before, but life-filled words appropriate to the specific context and audience he is speaking to.  This is the Orthodox way.  We don’t merely recite those who have gone before us.  We imbibe what has been passed down to us—the example and teaching of our holy fathers and mothers—and having brought this teaching to life in ourselves, we then share the wisdom we have received in life-giving actions and words.  St. Theophan’s commentary on Psalm 118 is full of such a life-giving words.

One of the life-giving insights that has helped me in St. Theophan’s commentary on Psalm 118 has to do with the paradox of being a sinner yet not sinning.  Beginning with a quotation from St. Macarios of Egypt, St. Theophan explains both this paradox and how it can best be understood so as to help us grow in humility in our relationship with God.  St. Macarios says that the Holy Apostles could not sin because they were filled with the Grace of God in such a way that they did not will to (or want to) sin.  However, quoting Blessed Augustine, St. Theophan asks how this is possible since St. John in his first epistle says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”?  After all, we believe the saints (and especially the Apostles), walked in the ways of the Lord, therefore they have not worked iniquity (Psalm 118: 3), yet “no one lives and does not sin” according to the Divine Liturgy of the Church.  How do we understand this paradox?

To explain this paradox, St. Theophan (following Blessed Augustine) points us to chapter seven of the book of Romans where St. Paul says, “It is not I who do it, but sin which dwells in me.”  That is, the sin that St. Paul finds working in his members (in his body and mind) is, on the one hand, his sin because it does not belong to another, it is experienced in his own body; but on the other hand, the sin he experiences in his members is not his because he does not choose it and in as far as he is able, he does not act upon it or let it dwell in his mind.  St. Paul says, “I do what I would not, and it is no more I that do it” (Romans 7:20).  St. Theophan explains, “When the sin inside us acts in us, then we are not doing it, as long as our will does not agree with it and keeps the members of our body from obeying it; for what can sin do in us, without us, except to invite and induce us to what is forbidden?  If no consent from our will follows, then although there is a motion of passion, it has no effect on us.”

What does this mean?  It means that sin does indeed dwell in our body and mind in a way that, in one sense is indeed us (because it is not someone else) and in another sense is not us because we do not choose it (if indeed we do not choose it—Ah, but there’s the rub, as Hamlet would say).  Within me there is a deeper me steering the ship, you might say.  Let’s take a look at a physical example to help us understand this spiritual reality.  If you touch a wire and get a small electric shock, the natural impulse of your body is to pull your hand away.  However, this natural impulse, this “working of your members” can with attention and practice be overcome.  That is, I can hold on to the wire if I want to even though my “members” experience an impulse to let go.  Certainly, holding on to a wire with a small current flowing through it takes intention, focus and practice, but it is possible.  You don’t have to let go of the wire every time you feel the electric shock just because that is your initial impulse.  

Sin is at work in us the same way.  Something in my body and mind has an impulse to sin.  This is what St. Paul calls, “sin at work in my members” or in other places he calls it “this mortal body” or just “the flesh.”   Sin produces in me a “motion of passion,” that is a feeling, impulse or thought to sin, but this motion of passion is not really mine until I choose it or agree with it.  This is why St. Paul can say in another place in Romans, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies that you should obey its lusts.  Neither yield your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin” (Romans 6:12-13).  And so St. Theophan explains, “Thus, sin acts in us through sinful desires.  If we listen to them, we will act sinfully.  But if, following the Apostle, we do not listen to them, then not we, but the sin that dwells in us is acting.”  And this, then, explains the paradox: “Thus we walk in God’s ways without obeying sinful desires; yet we are not without sin because we have sinful desires within us.”

This knowledge on the one hand gives us a certain sense of relief:  I can be at peace knowing that even though filthy thoughts and unclean impulses occur within me, they do not define me.  I am not my thoughts or impulses. What I do with my thoughts and impulses determines who I am.  If I repent quickly when a wicked thought or impulse assails me, if I say to myself, “No.  That is not who I am.  That is not who I want to be.  That is not who I am becoming in Christ.”  If I say these things to myself and turn immediately to Christ in tears (whether inner or outer) of repentance and call out to Him for deliverance, then those wicked thoughts and impulses are not mine, but they come from sin acting in my members.  However, if I dally with sinful thoughts and nurture passionate impulses, then that is who I am and what I become.  Even if I do not act outwardly on those sinful impulses right away, if I willingly entertain them in my mind, then I am choosing them and thus they are mine.

One of the great gifts God has given humankind is time and space as we know it.  That is, we are able to change.  Even when we make wrong choices and go down the wrong road, we can still change.  This change is called repentance.  And just as owning the sin in our members begins as an inner choice or desire, an inner wanting to entertain or dwell on sinful thoughts and feelings; so also repentance begins as an inner desire, an inner choice or an inner wanting to be different, an inner desire to forsake our sinful ways and to turn toward Christ.  Certainly, repentance involves outer actions—because everything we do begins in some way in our heart.  

Yet outer actions are not easy to read.  In the Gospel we read about Zacchaeus who was a rich tax collector whom everyone thought was a sinner, but who in reality was a righteous man who gave half of his income to the poor and went out of his way to meet Jesus.  And there are others who outwardly appear righteous, but inwardly are full of bitterness, envy and deceit—that is they have chosen the bitterness, envy and deceit of their sinful passions but have done very well at keeping them inside, keeping up appearances on the outside but rotting on the inside, like Jesus said of some religious leaders, they are whitewashed tombs.  It is essential to remember that even when our outer sins seem few, when we seem to have our outer sins under control, we are still nonetheless sinners who need to repent because of the sinful impulses and thoughts still at work in our members, even though we do not choose them—or perhaps we just hide them very well.  And when we see others who appear to be sinners, we must be careful not to judge them because we do not know what is going on in their hearts.  Perhaps, like in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, that sinning person that we see in church or on the street or at work may secretly in their hearts be hating their sin and be seeking Christ in repentance.  Only God sees the heart.

Friday, January 23, 2015

More Thoughts on Movies, Holiness and Brownies

I received an email from someone regarding my last blog post.  What this person said what generally encouraging and helpful, but at one point, he asked why would one see a movie if a saint would not watch it.  Here is may response.

Thank you for your feed back about defiled brownies.  I agree that most saints would not at all want to see an ugly movie; however, movies, like life, are seldom completely ugly or purely beautiful.  Good movies, like Dickens’ novels or Shakespeare’s plays, can help us see the beauty hidden in ugliness or the ugliness hidden in beauty. This is why I think parents (including saintly parents) should be reading novels, watching movies, reciting poetry, listening to music, etc. with their children talking to them about it and helping them to see what is good and what is evil as it is portrayed in the movie, novel, poem, song, etc, and as it is manifest in their own hearts and in the world around them.  And parents should begin doing this right away, when children are young.  We need to talk to them about what they think and feel about the picture books they read or the Disney films they watch when they are very young (e.g. “do you think it was a nice thing when the Princess ran away from her family?”  “Why do you think she did that?”  “Could she have done something else instead of running away?”). When children grow up thinking about and discussing literature (and movies are the literary genre of our age par excellence), they learn to pay attention to what they see, what they think and what they feel.  

I imagine very holy people (saints) don’t see many movies (or read many novels, see plays, recite poetry or listen to music). But then again, very holy people also eat very little and pray several hours each night.  I think it is a huge spiritual mistake to try to incorporate into our lives one aspect of what we associate with holiness apart from other often more essential aspects of holiness.  For example, I think it is a mistake increase fasting without also increasing prayer.  Similarly, I think it is a mistake to impose on ourselves and on our children external constraints that holy people may impose on themselves when we ourselves do not in our own hearts experience the same holiness.  It may indeed be delusional to say to ourselves something like, “If Saint Seraphim of Sarov wouldn’t have watched this movie, neither should I or my children.”  Saint Seraphim of Sarov also spent a thousand days kneeling on a rock in prayer. What St. Seraphim of Sarov did he did because the holiness in his heart compelled him.  We may be greatly deceived if we think we can or should do in our outer behaviour what the saints have done when our inner life with God is very little like theirs.

But then again, my point in the previous post wasn't really about movies.  I don’t think people should read books, watch movies, see plays, recite poetry or sing and listen to songs that stir up their passions (I think I have said that as clearly as possible).  My point is that, first, we should not teach our children that anything outside us can defile us (“it is not want goes into a man that defiles him,” Jesus said).  The defilement is already in our hearts, and what we avoid, we avoid because it stirs up the disordered passions in our hearts.  I do not avoid movies that have ugliness or wickedness portrayed in them, I avoid movies that stir up my ugly and wicked passions.  This distinction is essential. And it may be that a movie or novel that one person finds insightful and beautiful, another will have to avoid because some aspects of it stir up particular passions he or she may struggle with. Each person is different. I myself have found that I cannot at all listen to secular music without it causing terrible problems in my inner life, but I can watch a movie that some might consider inappropriate and it provide fodder for prayerful thought and contemplation for many days. 

We each have to find what is appropriate for ourselves, which brings me to my second point. That is, parents must help their children discern their own thoughts. We can teach our children to attend to their hearts and to their thoughts by talking to them about the books they read and the movies they see. But we must begin doing this when our children are young, and we must talk about all sorts of literature with them. If we do not talk to our children about their thoughts and what disturbs them when they are five years old, and reading fairytale picture books, then they will certainly not feel comfortable talking to us about their thoughts and what disturbs them when they are fifteen and being exposed to pornographic and explicitly violent movies and songs.