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 it’s 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 daly 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.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Poop In The Brownies: Old Testament Purity Code Thinking


There is an apocryphal story that is sometimes told at Orthodox youth retreats to teach the importance of purity, especially in regard to movies and music.  Since I serve at lots of retreats and summer camps, I have heard it in various renditions several times.  In fact, there was a time in my life when I myself told a version of this story to try to teach the importance of purity.  However, over the past several years this story has begun to bother me.  And this is what I would like to write about today.  The story goes like this:

A young teenage boy wants to see a movie because “all of the kids at school are talking about it.”  However, his parents are very strict and will not let him see movies that they deem inappropriate for him.  The parents tell their son that they don’t want him seeing movies full of sex and violence.  So the boy does a little research on the movie and discovers that there is little violence and/or explicit sex in the movie, and he returns to his parents with this new information.  The parents say that they will think about it. 
That same evening, Dad makes some brownies and offers some to his son saying: “I made these brownies for you.  I used an excellent recipe, and I added only a little dog poop to it.  Do you want to eat some?”  
When the boy predictably refuses to eat the brownies, the Dad asks, “If you won’t eat brownies with just a little dog poop in them, why do you want to go see a movie with just a little inappropriate sex and violence?”

This story bothers me.  I don’t have a problem with parents deciding for and with their children what kinds of movies and music they should listen to.  Parents should always be paying attention to what their children are exposed to.  And in as much as it is in their power to do so, parents should limit what their children see and hear to material that is, in their judgement, appropriate and that they themselves have seen and/or listened to.  In fact, in my opinion, the best approach is to watch and listen to media with your children and then discuss it afterward.  So my problem with the story has nothing to do with parents limiting what their children watch or listen to.  

The problem I have with this story has to do with the purity metaphor.  The dog poop in the brownies represents a contamination to what would otherwise be completely pure brownies.  The metaphor suggests that the boy and his family are already completely pure, and that in their pure state they don’t want to become contaminated by the dog poop that they would be exposed to by watching an impure movie.  This metaphor and its application bothers me.  I don’t even think it is Christian.  

Under the Old Covenant, when something was made ritually pure, any contaminant whatsoever, even the smallest amount, would make the entire purified thing impure—kind of like a little dog poop in your brownies.  Under the Old Covenant, some people could be ritually purified through certain actions, but this ritual purity could not last very long.  Sooner or later something would happen that would make one ritually unclean again.  (See the book of Leviticus for lots of examples of what makes one ritually unclean.)  In the Gospel accounts of the accusation of Jesus by the Jewish leaders before Pontius Pilate, we discover that the reason why Pilate has to go outside to speak to the religious leaders is that they didn’t want to lose their ritual purity by entering into a ritually unclean place.  Ritual purity was very important to many of the Jews at the time of Jesus, even while they were condemning the innocent.

However, the message of Jesus and many of the Old Testament prophets interpreted the purity codes of the Pentateuch in a different way.  For Jesus, cleanness has to do with the heart, not with external matters.  Jesus likens the ritual cleanness of the religious leaders to the white-washing of a tomb, a tomb full of death and rottenness.  He said it was like cleaning only the outside of the cup or dish.  In fact, Jesus went so far as to turn the Old Testament law of cleanness and uncleanness on its head.  Using different metaphors, Jesus teaches that we are already dark, already barren and already without life—that is, we are already completely unclean, no matter what we do on the outside.  However, salvation comes to us as a small light that we allow to illumine us, as a seed that we must plant and nurture in our hearts and minds, and as a little living yeast that we must work into the whole lump of our lifeless dough.  For the Christian, it is not a little defilement that defiles the whole clean body, but a little light that enlightens the whole dark body.  For the Christian, touching the unclean thing is not about avoiding the possibility of our being contaminated by something outside us.  Touching the unclean thing refers to giving free reign to the uncleanness that is already in our heart and mind.

And so to return to the metaphor of the brownies, you might say that it is a biblically appropriate metaphor—if the prophets had never spoken and Jesus had never come.  But the prophets have spoken and Jesus has come.  We are not ritually pure beings trying to avoid uncleanness.  We are already in darkness, eating the food of pigs (to use the metaphor of the parable of the prodigal son).  We need to come to the Light.  We need to make our way to our Father’s House to eat with Him in His House.  

But how can we apply this Christian understanding of cleanness and uncleanness, darkness and light to help us decide what movies we should let our children watch?  Well to begin with, I think we need to recognize that there are no one-size-fits-all formulas.  Darkness and sin are matters of the heart.  Nevertheless, first of all, I think we have to ask ourselves some hard questions about why we do or do not watch certain movies or listen to certain music that we deem inappropriate for our children, if indeed we do this.  How is it exactly that I can “handle” a certain movie but my 15 year old son cannot?  Remember, our children will learn largely from our example, not from our words.  Next we need to think carefully about how we want our children to be exposed to secular media.  That is, sooner or later our children will be exposed to inappropriate media—whether we like it or not.  How can we help them think about and process this experience in ways that help them choose light rather than darkness?

I do not (and would never) suggests that parents expose their children to media that they themselves deem inappropriate.  However, I do suggest that parents consider exposing their children (whenever they think their children are ready to think about such things) to whatever it is that they do consider appropriate in their presence.  That is, parents should watch movies with their children and then talk about it with them.  

Remember, it is not the movie that is unclean.  It is the human heart, even the heart of our children, that is unclean.  The passions lie in the heart not on the screen.  The reason we avoid certain media is because of our passions, because of our thoughts that we cannot control. It is not that I am pure and the sex or violence in the movie is unclean.  Rather, it is that my heart is full of violent and lustful passions already, and seeing such passions acted out on a screen only makes it more difficult for me to control them in my heart and mind.  I’m the one with the problem.  

I think talking with our children is the most important thing.  If our children feel free to talk to us when they are disturbed—rather than feeling like they will get in trouble if they reveal a breach in their expected behaviour—then we may have many opportunities to discuss inappropriate media.  Most kids, sooner or later, will hear a lewd song at school or see an inappropriate video on a friend’s smart phone.  No matter how hard we try to protect our children, sin (as God says to Cain) is crouching at the door.  Now if the child has been raised in a home that emphasizes a Old Testament style purity code (we’re pure, so don’t you go and spoil it by eating any contaminated brownies), then she might not be eager to talk about her early exposures to inappropriate media or to any other sinful behaviour or thoughts that might disturb her.  After all, she might get in trouble for eating contaminated brownies.  However, if the child is raised speaking openly with her parents about various temptations, failures and passions that she may be experiencing as she grows, then she is likely to want to talk to her parents about the disturbing video or music she was exposed to.  She will want to speak about it not because she broke a rule, but because she is disturbed in heart and mind, and because she is used to speaking to her mum and dad about things that disturb her.  


We live in a sick world.  We all want our children to grow to be as spiritually and mentally healthy as possible in the midst of (what Jesus calls) this crooked and perverse generation.  However, resorting to images and metaphors appropriate to the Old Testament purity code is not a helpful way to do this.  In fact, it is counter productive.  I have heard many confessions from children and teens who confess a sin or disturbing thought to me that they are afraid to tell their parents about.   Purity code thinking only increases darkness.  

The brownies with the dog poop metaphor certainly stumps the kids—they never have a come back, which I suspect is why priests and parents like to use it so much.  But if we want to teach our children to be Christians, perhaps we need to look a little more deeply at the way sin actually works in our hearts and in the hearts of our children and find and use metaphors that open up communication with our children rather than using metaphors that shut it down.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Paradise is Open Again



  1. Come, let us rejoice in the Lord, proclaiming the present mystery; for He has broken the middle wall of partition, and the flaming spear shall turn about, and the Cherubim shall admit all to the Tree of Life. As for me, I shall return to enjoy the bliss of paradise from which I was driven away before, by reason of iniquity; for the likeness of the Father, and the Person of His eternity, which it is impossible to change, has taken the likeness of a servant, coming from a Mother who has not known wedlock; free from transubstantiation, since He remained as He was, true God, and took what had not been, having become Man for His love of mankind. Wherefore, let us lift our voices unto Him crying: O You Who was born of the Virgin, O God, have mercy upon us. 
    Vespers of Nativity

    According to the hymns of the Orthodox Church, which proclaim the doctrine of the Church,  Christ's Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension have reopened Paradise: "The flaming spear shall turn about, and the Cherubim shall admit all to the Tree of Life."  Paradise is open and all who will may enter and eat of the Tree of Life, which is Christ Himself: the Bread of Life, the Mana that has come down from the Father.  Paradise is open for all, yet why do I not enter?

    In one sense, in a very important sense, I do enter.  I enter liturgically.  I enter Paradise and eat of the Tree of Life by regular participation in the liturgical life of the Church.  When I come to Church, when I strive to prepare myself through prayer, fasting and confession to receive the precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the holy Mysteries of the Divine Liturgy, then I do indeed enter Paradise and eat of the Tree of Life.  I eat of Christ, and yet, I am often distracted (by the crying children, by cares and responsibilities, and by base distractions of all sorts).  I prepare, or at least I mean to prepare, I always intend to prepare—but even if I say all of the pre-Communion prayers and fast and confess regularly, still I don't feel prepared.  I only perceive in the slightest ways that I am coming before the Judge of all, the Judge who knows everything and still loves completely, the Judge who rejects no one but rather desires that all come to Him in repentance.  

    But most Sundays, I am full of distractions and cares.  Sometimes I say only one pre-Communion prayer: "Lord Have Mercy!"  Sometimes I am so focused on what I have to do or say that it is not until after the Liturgy, sometimes after everyone has left the Church, sometimes not even until after I have gotten home and started to unwind, that I begin to sense in some small ways that I have been to Paradise, that I have eaten from the Tree of Life, but I hardly noticed it.

    Why is this?  How is it that I can return to the "Ancient Bliss," and yet still not know it, not appreciate it, not rejoice in the return to Paradise?  

    When Adam and Eve left Paradise, they were clothed in animal skins.  These animal skins, the Church Fathers tell us, refer to the animal passions, the animal-like ways of thinking, desiring and perceiving.  So long as we cling to these animal ways of thinking and experiencing, we will be trapped, trapped in a kind of prison, a kind of hell, a kind of straight jacket.  But there is a way out, a way to become free to enter Paradise and walk with God there.

    God has given us holy Fathers and Mothers who have found the way to free themselves from most of the spiritually debilitating effects of these animal skins.  This way is the way of asceticism and the continual remembrance of God.  The holy Fathers and Mothers tell us that through asceticism, by learning to say no to ourselves and yes to God and those God has brought into our lives, we begin to lessen the pull of, or the passions of, the animal skins.  But asceticism is a tricky thing.  It's not as easy as just limiting what you eat or where you go or what you do.  Asceticism involves external behaviours, but it is not about them.  Asceticism is about controlling the inner person, or what the Apostle Paul called "the old man."

    To enter more fully, or with more full awareness, into Paradise, we must learn to let die our old man (which is growing corrupt through deceitful lusts).  We must learn to put on Christ.  This involves, of course, outward actions and attitudes, but is mostly about inner attention and nurture.  It is not easy.  What is easy is to be distracted by deceitful desires, fears, and cares.  It is easy, like an animal to go with the conditioned response, the familiar fix, the fast relief.  And every time we do, we reinforce our addiction to the Pavlovian responses of our old man, the old person clothed in animal skins.  Putting on Christ is sometimes rather painful, it's inconvenient, it involves self control and suffering a long time (aka Patience).  Putting on Christ requires hope in the Resurrection, faith that death is not the end, and love for God and others that is greater than our love for ourself. 

    Paradise is opened for us as a gift from God.  The new person within us, the new man (which is created by God within us according to righteousness and holiness) is born in us also as a gift from God in Baptism.  However, what we will nurture and what we will attend to (either the new man or the old), that depends on us.  

    Paradise and hell are open to us.  And we in this life, or so it seems, may experience both.  The world and the world's ways of thinking and doing train us to think and act in hellish ways: ways of selfishness and fear, ways of lustful appetites and futile coping mechanisms.  We are so easily caught up in these hellish ways of thinking and doing that, like my dog who starts salivating and jumping in circles when she hears me shaking her food bowl, we too just jump and spin in our thoughts to places far away or to things urgent (but not necessarily important) or to matters too high for us (as the Prophet David puts it in the Psalms).  Our minds jump to stimuli that we have little control over because we have not trained ourselves to attend to "the one thing needful."

    And this brings me back to Liturgy.  One of the purposes of liturgical services is to provide us with time and space to attend to the one thing needful.  It is a less important matter that I perceive very poorly (or perhaps even not at all) the spiritual Paradise I enter in the Divine Liturgy.  My perceptions matter much less than my intentions.  When I go to Church to pray, when I go to Church to teach my children to pray (even though I know I will pray very little), I am choosing Paradise.  I am saying yes to God and no to myself.  When I eat and drink the precious Body and Blood of Christ, I am nourishing the new man within me—even if I have not trained myself to perceive it very well, or even at all.  I am forcing myself, animal skins, old man and all, to submit to the Kingdom of God, to humble itself before the dread Mysteries of God.

    The day will come when we will all shed our animal skins.  "This body of death" is one of the names St. Paul gives to the old man at work in us.  When we die, we will be free.  There is no sin after death.  After death everything will change and nothing will change.  Nothing will change in that we will still be ourselves.  What we have longed for—even if we could never actually attain it in this corrupt and corrupting age—everything we have longed for we will still long for: whether it is the corrupting passions of this age or the Paradise of God's Presence.  And in the Age to Come everything will change in that this body of death that has distracted and deceived us will be separated from us.  Everything will change in that we will have nothing distracting us from the intense Presence of God.  And what we have longed for in this life will make all of the difference for us in the next.  And even in this life, although imperfectly, often almost imperceptibly, even in this life we have a foretaste of what is to come, what St. Paul calls a fragrance of life or a fragrance of death.

    Paradise is open for all.  Those of us like Lazarus' sister Mary, those of us who have learnt to attend to the one thing needful, these perceive Paradise most clearly now and often sit in peace at the feet of Jesus.  However, we Marthas, those of us distracted by much serving, distracted by the cares and deceitful desires of this world, we Marthas still come to Jesus.  We come like Martha with questions and objections, very seldom at peace. We come in a flurry of mind and activity, distracted and inattentive.  But we come.  And our Master receives us and feeds us His heavenly Food—even if we as infants do not realize what we are eating.  We come to Jesus distracted and sinful and often oblivious; we come to Jesus and He receives us.  We come to open Paradise, even though we barely perceive it.  And yet we have hope that in the Age to come we will all perceive Paradise fully, even as the Marys among us perceive partially it now.




Friday, December 12, 2014

Whose Got Talent?

What is a talent?  Generally speaking a talent refers to a special ability someone has.  This meaning of talent developed from the ancient meaning of the word which had to do with weighing, scales and money.  In biblical times, a tenant did not refer to someone’s ability, it referred to a certain weight of gold or silver (the exact weight varied over time and by culture, but it was a large amount, 50 -75 pounds).  It is easy to see how, as a natural extension of the meaning of talent as a large quantity of gold or silver, talent came also to refer to the deposit of one’s natural abilities.  Just as wealth is something people have in varying degrees and in varying commodities (cash, land, livestock, investments, minerals, etc.) all of which must be managed and wisely invested to be beneficial, so also each person has abilities, strengths and desirable qualities that need to be developed and used in order for those ‘talents’ to bring about the greatest benefit.  

According to some etymological dictionaries, one of the reasons why the word ‘talent’ came to take on the meaning of personal ability has to do with the fact that the word ‘talent’ is used in the parable of the talents recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  The popular interpretation of the parable of the talents has largely focused on the natural “God-given” gifts and abilities that each person has and for which each person will give an account to God on the Day of Judgement.  While I wouldn’t say that this is a wrong interpretation of this parable, I will say it is an interpretation that has, in my experience, created more guilt and excused more pride than it has actually helped people to enter into and experience the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  This parable is, after all, a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, not a parable of capitalist economics.  Christ is certainly not teaching us that we please God by getting the most out of life, the most out of our investments, and the most out of your natural abilities.  And yet this is how many of us have come to understand this parable because this is how the parable is generally taught—if not explicitly, certainly implicitly.  

And thus, natural abilities have more and more come to be associated with this word, ‘talent,’ to the extent that one cannot read this parable without thinking that the talents mentioned by Jesus refer to natural abilities, not units of money.  And even if we have bothered to read the notes in our bible telling us that the word ‘talent’ refers to a unit of money, still we do not stop to consider that this large amount of money referred to in the parable might refer to anything other than one’s “God-given,” that is, natural abilities.   

But how does the Church teach us to interpret this parable?  One of the themes of the services of Holy Tuesday is this very parable.  The following is a verse from the Presanctified Liturgy of that day:

Come, O Faithful,Let us work zealously for the Master,For He distributes wealth to His servants.Let each of us according to his ability Increase his talent of Grace:Let one be adorned in wisdom through good works;Let another celebrate a service in splendour;The one distributes his wealth to the poor;The other communicates the Word to those untaught.Thus we shall increase what has been entrusted to us,And, as faithful stewards of Grace,We shall be accounted worthy of the Master’s Joy.Make us worthy of this, O Christ our God,In Your love for mankind.
From the Holy Myrrh  Bearers translation of the Lenten Triodion 

Note that in these verses, and elsewhere not only in this particular service but in other hymns of the Church, the Church interprets the talents in this parable to be referring to Grace.  The wealth of the Kingdom of Heaven is Grace.  God distributes to His servants Grace according to their ability, or to quote 1Corinthians 12:11, the Holy Spirit “distributes to each one individually as He wills.”  Grace is God’s, it is not our own.  It is given to us.  Grace is, indeed, God Himself, God the Holy Spirit, as He comes to us, as He gives Himself to us and abides in us: to quote the parable in Matthew, “to each according to his own ability.”  

I like to use the image of three glasses of water to illustrate this idea of “to each according to his own ability.”  Imagine a shot glass, an orange juice glass, and a one-pint beer glass.  If all the glasses are full of water, we can say that each is full, even though the capacity of each is different.  In the same way, we can say that each Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit, or even full of Grace, although the capacity of each person differs.  

But unlike glasses of water, the human capacity to be filled with the Holy Spirit is not static.  As in the parable, the ones who received two and five talents and “traded” with them (literally, in Greek, ergzomai: “worked” with them), they increased their talents; so we also, if we work with or cooperate with the Grace of God given to us, we too increase our capacity for Grace.  God gives Himself to us freely.  We cannot earn the Grace of God.  We can, however, increase our capacity for the Grace of God.  We can also, if we are not attentive, lose the Grace of God—perhaps not completely, but certainly practically.  

Our spiritual life, our life with God, is given to us freely; but it is not static.  This is why the word ‘gift’ is so troublesome when we are talking about God’s Grace.  The problem with the word ‘gift’ used to translate the word charima in the New Testament (especially in 1 Corinthians 12) is that it just doesn’t mean in English what it means in Greek.  There are two word groups in the Greek New Testament that are translated into English as ‘gift’ and these two Greek word groups have very different emphases.  

The Greek words doron or dorea translate very nicely as our English word ‘gift.’  A gift (in English) as doron or dorea (in Greek), refers to a fixed thing that is given or received.  Charisma, on the other hand, refers to Grace, ‘a bit of Grace’ or ‘some Grace.’  It can be manifest in concrete actions, things or experiences, but charisma is not about the action, thing or experience—as it would be if it were a doran  (gift proper) or even a dorea  (a free gift)but rather the word charisma draws attention to the Grace that causes or manifests the action, thing or experience.  The very word itself is just a form of the word Grace (charis = Grace; charisma = some Grace, an endowment of Grace, or perhaps even a “graciation”).

When God gives us His Grace, God gives us Himself.  This is the teaching of Orthodox Church.  [If this is a new idea to you, I suggest you take a look at a transcript of Fr. Peter Alban Heers podcast, Post Cards From Greece, entitled “The uncreated Grace that is God.”]  Grace is nothing less than God Himself coming to us by his divine energies or workings.  

The sun makes an excellent metaphor of this reality.  We actually experience the sun itself when we experience it’s warmth and light—for the heat and light of the sun is nothing else but the sun itself as it radiates outward.  However, although we do truly experience the sun itself, we do not experience the sun in its essence, in its inner reality.  All we know about the inner reality of the sun is based on scientific speculation, not actual experience.  We both experience and don’t experience the sun.  Similarly, we both know and do not know God.

We know God, in that intimate, biblical sense of the word ‘know,’ in as much as God comes to us, as God reveals Himself to us, as God the Holy Spirit fills us.  We do (or at least can) certainly know God.  However, God is also unknowable.  God in His essence, in His “Godness,” in Himself, as God knows Himself—this is completely unknowable to us.  We are creatures.  God is Creator.  That’s it.  

And yet, God has created human beings “in His image and after His likeness.”  God has created human beings to walk with God—as did Adam and Eve in the Garden before the fall.  God has created human beings to participate in His divine Light, and even to some extent in His divine Nature, so St. Peter tells us (2 Peter 1:4).  God has created us to know Him, love Him and have Him even abide (or dwell) in us (see John chapters 6 and 15 and 1 John 2:14). This is Grace, this is God coming to us, walking with us, transforming us, abiding in us and loving us and the world through us.

And so, to return to the parable of the talents, when we read this parable, we must realize that the Master is none other than God and the talents that he gives are nothing less than God’s wealth: God Himself, God’s Grace, God in His energies or workings, God as He comes to us.  This parable is not really at all about external things, our natural abilities or what we normally call talents in English. And when we interpret this parable in this merely external way, I believe it causes more harm than good.

I actually know people who have been burdened with guilt for years because, for example, they used to play piano well and now they no longer play much.  They are full of guilt because they have been taught that the meaning of this parable is that God will judge us if we do not develop and keep growing in our natural abilities.  I have also hear sports figures, even fighters, boast of and justify their pursuit of an athletic career by claiming that they are just being faithful to the "talent" God has given them.  

Now, I am not saying that there is anything better or worse about pursuing an athletic career (certainly nothing worse than pursing a career in politics, law, finance or, dare I say it, writing blog posts on spirituality).  But what I am saying is that to refer to a proclivity and/or ability in any field of endeavour as the talent one has been given by God and for which God will judge them if they do not attend to it, this is just not true.  It is not the message of Jesus.  Yes, God will certainly judge us, but not concerning whether or not we continue to play piano or play football or stay in politics (or whatever other activity we may be good at).   No, God will judge us according to His Grace: according to what have we done with the Grace God has given us.  


Now certainly, Grace manifests itself in our life in concrete ways.  There are manifestations of the Spirit and fruits of the Spirit.  There are ministries and activities and experiences of all sorts that are the outworking of the Grace of God in us (which is the same thing as the Holy Spirit in us, which is God abiding in us).  Like Mary (the sister of Lazarus), we need to attend to the One Thing Needful.  Attending to the One Thing Needful, we may also wash dishes, play the piano, change a baby’s diaper, and yes, even play football; but the most important thing is the Grace in our hearts imbuing us, compelling us, and guiding us.  This is what the Church means when it teaches us to keep our mind in our heart.  

We attend to Christ in our hearts.  Christ in our hearts: this is the gift of Grace.  From there, from the heart full of Grace, all sorts of various ministries and works will be manifest.  But the works, even the works that we are naturally good at, are not the ‘talent.’  The talent is the Grace.  It is the Grace that we must increase as we “work with it,” as we attend to it, as we cooperate with it, as we co-labour with God.  This is the talent that God has given us, to be filled with His Grace (each according to our own capacity) and to work with that Grace until, as it says in Ephesians, we reach “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Speaking About Spiritual Things


He who is pure of soul and chaste in life always speaks the words of the Spirit discreetly, and in accord with his own measure he speaks of the things of God and of the things that are within him.  But when a man’s heart is crushed by the passions, his tongue is moved by them; and even though he speak of spiritual matters, yet he discourses passionately, to the end that he might be victorious….
St. Isaac the Syrian 


One of the mistakes I have often made in speaking of spiritual things is to speak about them in a worldly way.  St. Isaac points out that how one speaks of spiritual things is perhaps more important than the spiritual matters themselves.  

St. Isaac gives us some guidance to help us discern our actual inner state when we speak of spiritual things.   He is not providing us with a prescription for how we should speak.  Rather he his providing a diagnostic tool to help us understand when we are speaking of spiritual matters inappropriately, or according to our passions.  As a person interested in developing a deeper relationship with God and as one conversant in “spiritual matters”—especially as a priest who is almost constantly speaking about spiritual matters—I am concerned that it is all too easy for me to deceive myself into thinking that I am indeed living by and experiencing in my own inner life the spiritual realities and principles that I talk about, when in reality I am, as St. Isaac says, “crushed by the passions”. 

St. Isaac in the quote above seems to be offering us two pointers to help us discern our inner state.  The first has to do with speaking discreetly, which I will talk about in a moment; and the second has to do with speaking of things that our within ourselves.  This is a point made often by St. Isaac and many other spiritual writers: When we speak of spiritual things, we need to limit ourselves to what we ourselves actually experience.  

It is very tempting to give advice on spiritual matters about experiences, states, conditions and disciplines that I myself have not actually experienced and do not actually practice.  I’ve read a lot.  I have read about holy men and women who have experienced great heights in their relationship with God, men and women who have shone with the Uncreated Light, who have been caught up in prayer, seen visions; who have fasted, prayed and kept vigil with great perseverance; who have born the fruit of a God-filled life.  But I have personally experienced very, very little of this.  

My experience has been basically a continual trying and failing, a never-ending exercise in falling and getting back up again.  I have come to realize that I am a one-talent Christian, doing my best just to keep my one talent in the bank (the Church) where at least it will earn interest (rather than buried in self-pity, by pulling away and not even trying, again and again).  I appreciate—more than appreciate—I am amazed by those who have been given two or even five talents of Grace, who have taken the Grace given to them and “traded” with it, who have earned five talents more through their diligent application and attention to the Grace given them.  

These Holy Ones amaze me.  They inspire me.  But when it comes to my giving advice to others, I need to speak “in accord with my own measure.”  Yes, I can and should speak of what the Saints have achieved, the advice they give based on their actual experience with God.  But I must be very careful not to speak in such a way that might give the impression that I personally know and live and experience what I am talking about.  The passions are tricky things.  It is especially difficult to notice that we are speaking passionately about spiritual things when others are asking us for advice.  We must be very careful.  I must be very careful.  

According to St. Isaac, one way to know that we are speaking passionately about spiritual matters is to notice if we are speaking in accord with our own measure, of things that are actually in ourselves.  Truly, I think we deceive ourselves when we speak beyond ourselves about spiritual things.  We deceive ourselves because we think speaking of spiritual matters is just like speaking of airplanes or philosophical principles.  The spiritual life does not work that way.  When we speak of spiritual things, we communicate much more by who we are than by what we say.  And if these two do not line up relatively well, those to whom we speak will know.  The effect of our words will not be life-giving, but will rather be just more information, and that’s in the best case scenario.  In the worst case scenario, our passionate words on spiritual matters will communicate not life but death, not help but condemnation, and not encouragement but guilt.  When speaking on spiritual matters, less is generally more.

So, one of the ways St. Isaac give us to discern our spiritual state when speaking about spiritual matters has to do with staying within the limits of ourselves: our own actual experience of the spiritual life.  When we find ourselves speaking or tempted to speak beyond ourselves in spiritual matters, then we know it is time to shut up.  We are speaking passionately, and even if the words we speak are true on some level, to speak them with passions is to betray the very words we speak.

The other pointer St. Isaac gives us to discern whether or not we are speaking of speaking passionately of spiritual matters is tied to the word “discreet.”  
discreet |disˈkrēt|
adjective (discreeter, discreetest)
careful and circumspect in one's speech or actions, especially in order to avoid causing offense or to gain an advantage: we made some discreet inquiries.
  • intentionally unobtrusive: a discreet cough.

My first serious spiritual conversation with a holy person was with an abbess.  More than any particular thing she said at that time, what has stayed with me over the years has been how she spoke.  She was not only tentative in what she said (This might be, Have you considered this, You could try to…), she was very quick to back down and admit that she might not at all know what the best or right thing to do in this situation was.  As soon as I challenged something she said, she would respond, “Perhaps you are right.”  In order to get anything out of her I had to shut up and just humbly listen.  Mother Abbess was very discreet.  

St. Isaac tells us that a passionate person, one “crushed by the passions,” speaks of spiritual things “to the end that he might be victorious.” It seems to me to be a pretty sure sign that I am speaking passionately about spiritual things when I find myself angling to be right, trying to prove my point, or showing how the other person is wrong.  When I am not speaking discreetly about spiritual things but am intruding where I am not invited, causing offence or gaining advantage, when I am intent on showing that my position, idea, advice or observation is right, then (if I notice it in time) I know it is time for me to stop talking.  Spiritual advice must be given and received in a spiritual, holy, manner.  We are not talking about worldly matters, so we cannot speak in a worldly way.  It just doesn’t work.  You end up communicating many things you never intended to communicate and little of what you intended to communicate.  Here I am speaking from personal experience.  

It seems as though it is always best to say nothing at all.  “Silence,” St. Isaac tells us, “is the language of heaven.”  And yet, love compels us to speak.  With all of the dangers and possibilities for misunderstanding, still we feel we must speak because we love.  And so we speak about spiritual things, we speak in words that which can only be rightly communicated in silence.  We speak in words because in our fallen and broken and not-yet-healed state it is all we have to encourage and instruct, to help and to aid one another.  But we speak carefully, discreetly, and about that which is within us, careful not to imply that we too experience the same spiritual heights as those holy Fathers and Mothers we read of.  

Because, in the end, I know that I cannot help anyone.  God is the One who helps.  “Salvation is of the Lord,” we are told repeatedly in the scriptures and hymns of the Church.  I am merely a helper.  We might even say an unnecessary helper in that God doesn’t need anyone’s help to save.  And yet, God has made us necessary.  God has invited us (each of us in our own little ways) to be helpers in bringing about the salvation of those around us, the salvation that He alone effects.  And God brings us to this work of love even before we are perfected, even while we are still sinners and broken and screwing up every time we open our mouths, God uses even us as we are now.   God has invited us to love with Him, to give what we have (not pretending that we have more), to share what has been giving us, even if what has been given us is much less than what has been given to others.  

It’s OK to be a one-talent Christian—even to be a one-talent priest.  Like the widow who gave her two mites (all that she had to live on), so we too give in love to each other the little that we have.  The power to save lies not in the size or effectiveness of the words or gifts or actions we give to one another, but the power to save lies in the One who has invited us into His labour of love.


Friday, November 28, 2014

A Charismatic Learns To Take Up Her Cross


I am rereading a book that I read on my way to becoming Orthodox almost twenty years ago.  The book is Abbess Thaisia: An Autobiography.  It is published by St. Herman Brotherhood Press.  When the Charismatic Protestant community that I was a part of first discovered Holy Orthodoxy, our only contact with the the Orthodox Church was through the books published by the St. Herman Brotherhood—who at that time published books mainly by Fr. Seraphim Rose and by or about pre-Revolutionary Russian monastics.  We were so starved for information about the Holy Orthodox Church that we ordered and read every book they published.  This was our introduction to the Holy Orthodox faith, and for us, it was a pretty good introduction.

Of course we were profoundly ignorant.  We thought, since these books (on or about Russian monastics) were the only exposure we had to the Orthodox faith, we even thought for a while that our whole community would have to become monastic in order to become Orthodox.  Thank God, we finally encountered the Church Herself and, to paraphrase the book of Acts, we were taught the way more perfectly.  Not only did we not have to become celibate to be Orthodox, but we could even be ordained to Holy Orders and stay married: There was great rejoicing in the land.

Abbess Thaisia’s autobiography was one of the first books we read on our way to the Holy Orthodox Church.  It was a particularly helpful book for us because Abbess Thaisia experienced dreams and visions, something we Charismatics thought highly of.  As a community we were used to God “speaking” to us and guiding us both individually and as a community through dreams and visions.  Needless to say, we had a lot to learn about how such phenomena were handled in the Orthodox Church, ways that focus on humility, discernment and repentance rather than on the celebration of the experience.  But that was to come.  For the time being, it was enough of an encouragement for us that within the Holy Orthodox Church, people were seeing visions and having prophetic dreams.  

However, as I am rereading Abbess Thaisia’s autobiography almost twenty years later, I am struck by different things.  I am about a third of the way through the book, and I have been struck  this time by the amount of suffering, caused primarily by misunderstanding, that Mary endured on her way to becoming a nun and in her early years in the monastery.   (Abbess Thaisia’s name in the world was Mary).  Mary, and then later the nun Thaisia, suffered terribly from false accusations due not only to misunderstanding and envy but also due to the misplaced love of her mother.  

Mary only wanted to love God with all of her being, but most others could not understand that.  Consequently, her motives were generally misunderstood: even in the monastery—or perhaps I should say especially in the monastery.  The monastery, like a much more intense version of a local parish, is not only a hospital, it is a crucible.  It is a hospital that heals us sometimes through cauterization.  It is a hospital that heals us through the Cross, through our own crucifixion with Christ on the Cross.  Below is a passage from Abbess Thaisia’s autobiography where she talks about the pain and confusion she experienced during her early years at the monastery as she learned to be crucified with Christ:


The enemy, however, is unable to endure peace among men, and soon enough he made his work felt.  He induced those willing to listen to his insinuations to make venomous calumnies against me, and I, being an innocent victim, began to lose heart.  Those around me were experiencing equally great confusion….

During the time that this storm was about me, I often lost heart.  Not only was this calumny and affliction getting the best of me ([although] I had medicine to cure that: the knowledge that those who want to follow the path of the cross cannot avoid this), but a question kept confusing me: Why are those in authority so short-sighted as to be unable to discern truth from falsehood?  Why are they so quickly inclined to trample down that which, not so long ago, occasioned their tenderness and concern?  Another question also came to my mind: Where can one find the truth when it is absent even in its representatives?  My sorrow was so great that it clouded my reason, and even my ability to clearly understand that our superiors are only ordinary human beings, and that one has no right to demand of them a clairvoyance possessed only by saints.  Nor will I hide the fact [that] because of my great spiritual confusion I lost my zeal for prayer.  When I stood at my icon-corner to pray, one of two things happened: either, having crossed myself, I fell down on the floor with great sobs (at which time the state of my soul was more stifled than prayerful), or a piercing question would keep drilling on my mind—“Where is the truth?  Why does nobody defend the innocent?  Why does nobody console their tears?”  With that, trying not to give way to such despondent thoughts, I would hastily go to bed.  But how could I possibly sleep?….

Finally the storm passed…. But my soul had been profoundly shocked, and it could not be easily calmed.  In place of my former cheerful and happy manner, I became mistrustful, sorrowful, and suspicious.  I could not help but realize (having personally experienced it) that all of this love and kindness could as quickly be changed to wicked and venomous mockery as one hour follows another.  To put it briefly, my former frame of mind had left me.  I even began to avoid my companions, scorning them, while inside I was languishing, asking myself over and over, “If even in a convent there is no sincere love—the cornerstone not only of monasticism, but of Christianity in general—then there is no salvation.  And if there is no salvation, why are we on this earth?  Once, with such thoughts in my head, I fell asleep….

And when Nun Thaisia falls asleep she has a dream through which she comes to understand that unjust suffering was the necessary cross she must experience to enter into the relationship with God that she longed for.  Misunderstanding, false accusation, confusion, calumny: This is the way of the cross for many of us.  

We do not all experience the Cross the same way.  But we all must experience the Cross, we must all “take up our cross and follow Christ.”  For some, the Cross is sickness or injury.  For others, it is mental imbalance of one sort or another: depression, adult ADHD, substance abuse and addiction, codependency issues, cognitive developmental issues.  There are many ways people are challenged “just to be normal.”   And all of these challenges are our cross—the very cross we must take up, we must accept and deal with.  And not only accept and deal with, but follow Christ carrying.  The addict must follow Christ even as he continues to struggle to stay clean.  The one with depression must follow Christ, even as she continues to struggle to turn away from the darkness.  We must all take up our cross and follow Christ.  

But in taking up our Cross and following Christ, we find peacepeace after the storm.  We find a foretaste of the Resurrection to comeeven as we are still tasting the bitterness of suffering.  Some of us are even healed and delivered from a Cross.  But then the Crosses only change.  St. John Chrysostom said that when God delivers us from one Cross, it is only that we may learn to carry a heavier one.  Suffering of one kind or another is the lot of every human being.  There is no human life without suffering (How many children of wealthy parents abuse themselves, cut themselves and in other ways drug themselves because they cannot stand the pain of their life of privilege?)  No, there is no human life without suffering.  The only question is: Will you offer you suffering to Christ or not?  Will you turn to Christ in your pain and trust in Him?  Will you wait in the tomb with Christ for the Resurrection?  Or, will you blame others, as our fore-parents did in the Garden of Eden?  Will harbour resentment, nurturing with anger the growing root of bitterness?  What will you do?

That’s the question.  The question is not whether or not we will suffer.  We all suffer, sometimes more intensely, sometimes less intensely at various seasons of our life.  We all have Crosses.  We will all experience confusion and misunderstanding, pain and injustice.  The only question is whether or not we will turn to Christ and find Grace and Love even in our pain, whether or not we will join Christ on the Cross—or like the thief who would only rail against Christ, will we suffer anyway, only to die alone, far from the Grace of God?  This is the question.