Wednesday, October 08, 2014

On Rowing Boats And Farming Our Souls

“The Word of God…judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4: 12)

“There are good thoughts, and good volitions; there are evil thoughts and an evil heart” (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 6).

One of the themes in St. Isaac’s homilies is the changeableness of our experience.  Even the greatest and holiest monk experiences change against his or her will.  We live in a dying body, a body constantly changing, a body that influences our mood, our thoughts and feelings.  And although we can discipline the body and train it to a certain extent to be our servant, still we cannot completely conform our bodies to our wills.  For example, one cannot will not to get sick; and once sick, one cannot will oneself to have the energy to do what you would like to do (what you will to do) if your body does not have the energy to to it.  Similarly, you cannot attend to God in prayer with a migraine headache, when pain fills your entire consciousness and you can’t even think to will anything.  

And this changeability goes beyond the matter of sickness, it extends to matters of our chemical and hormonal makeup.  Depression is often triggered in us by imbalances in our chemistry.  Not enough sleep, too much or too little of certain foods, political or tragic events we hear about, all such things change our bodies and effect our minds in ways that change us and make it difficult for us to live, act and relate to God according to our volition.  Thoughts often come to us inspired by environmental triggers (things we hear, see, smell, etc.), triggers that we have no direct control over.  Memories of past sins—perpetrated by us or against us—appear in our minds without warning.  These memories rush upon us again suddenly and with all of the images, arguments and emotions that we thought we had dealt with long ago.  At the very moment of prayer, when you feel that you are finally praying or acting in some way in your relationship with God or with others according your good intentions, according to how you will to express your love and faithfulness to God, in that very moment of apparent success, suddenly thoughts and their attendant emotions overwhelm you.  In that moment, it seems, it feels like, all is lost.  You cannot fight off the thoughts—or your attempts to fight off the thoughts completely distract you from prayer or from whatever other good you had been attending to at that moment.

And then there are the concrete circumstances of our lives: who we live with, how much wealth or other resources we have at our disposal and our social standing (at work, in the church, in broader society) all play a part in limiting and influencing to what degree we can and cannot act on and fulfill the good volitions of our heart.  A job that demands long hours and is physically exhausting limits the amount of time one can spend in hidden prayer and meditation on Holy Scripture.  No matter how much one’s heart longs to rise early to pray, one may not be able to do so if he or she is caring for small children day and night.  Life is changeable.  It is a rough sea that we must row across, knowing that sometimes the wind or the waves will be against us and other times the sea will be calm, and sometimes, circumstances will work even in our favour.  What is important is that we row, that our intention stays fixed in repentance, in following Christ, in striving to bring every thought captive to obedience to Christ—even when the wind is blowing and the sea is raging and we cannot seem to capture any thought whatsoever, but rather we seem to be completely caught by unwanted and unruly thoughts.

It is good to know that even great saints like St. Isaac experienced changeability in their pursuit of God.  St. Isaac is writing his homilies for hermit monks, men and women who have completely devoted their lives to God in prayer in the desert—as far away from distraction as possible.  And yet St. Isaac says to these hermits, “The soul does not have rest from the movement of changing thoughts.”  Not until we shed this body of death and are clothed only with Christ will we be able to bring our thoughts fully under the control of our hearts.  And although a hermit may find some relief in “the still air of freedom which gathers the mind for a long span of time by forgetting all earthly things,”  those of us who are “newly come forth from the intricate bonds of the passions by repentance” are like young birds whose feathers have not yet formed, who cannot yet take flight, and who “hop upon the face of the earth where the serpent slithers.”  

For most of my readers, I am not telling you anything new.  If you have tried with any fervour and for any length of time to follow Christ with your whole heart then you know: try as you might, your thoughts and feelings, moods and emotions just do not follow your heart as well as you want, as you would will it, according to your volition.  So why am I telling you this?  Why does St. Isaac tell the hermits these things?  I believe St. Isaac says these things to us because we forget.  In seasons when things are easy, we forget.  When it is relatively easy to do the good that the good intention of our hearts is guiding us to do, then we can develop a kind of pride.  We can think that doing good is merely a matter of our willing to do good.  The test for whether or not this is a species of pride comes when things get hard again.  When I can’t keep my eyes open in prayer, when I find myself yelling in anger when I meant only to speak kindly, when I cannot give to God what I want to give Him, what is His due.  At that moment, do I feel that I have somehow lost God’s favour?  Do I think that God loves me less?  Am I afraid that God has rejected me?  Such thoughts often come from wounded pride. 

St. Isaac says that it’s “in proportion to the extent of [our good intention or volition]—and not according to the movement of the thoughts—the recompense for good and evil is meted out.”  God knows our circumstances. God knows the weakness of our bodies and the craziness of the world we live in and the web of relationships we are tied to.  God knows.  God knows our thoughts and God also knows our intentions, our volition.  And God rewards us according to that, according to what we are striving to do and be, not according to the mess we often actually turn out to be.  The test of the farmer is not that he labours in the field when the weather is agreeable, but that he labours in all weather.  Similarly, in our life in Christ we must labour to know Him, to love Him and to love those God has brought into our lives even when—especially when—it is hard to do so.  The results are in God’s hands.  The farmer cannot make the sun shine or the rain fall or the crops grow.  The farmer can only labour to prepare the soil, pull the weeds and plant the seed, getting things ready for when God is ready.  

God sees our hearts.  He knows our intentions.  And God’s love for us never changes.  When we appear to succeed in our spiritual life, God loves us.  When we appear to fail, God loves us.  “He knows our frame and considers that we are but dust,” as the psalmist says.  We may be a mess, but we are God’s mess.  And He loves us.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Growing Up In God

One of the difficult transitions or junctures of the spiritual life is the movement between what St. Isaac the Syrian calls the second and third degrees of knowledge.  Keep in mind that the language of degrees is metaphorical.  It describes spiritual experience and ways of encountering and knowing God.  

Many of us have gone through seasons of our life in which we have striven with great intention and zeal to do and be what we thought and/or were taught was obedient to God.  We attended church regularly—maybe whenever the door was open.  We said our prayers.  We were scrupulous about activities: what we ate and didn’t eat, who we spent our time with, how we dressed, where we went, what we did or didn’t do, etc.  However, with this fervour of righteous activity and focus came a certain expectation.  Some have gone through such a season with an expectation that they would see a miracle.  Others have expected that they would become more spiritual (in a way that they would perceive and recognize).  Others have expected that they would experience Grace in a form that would erase doubt from their minds or make some difficult aspect of their life easier to bear.  Others have expected that such effort would save them from calamity or failure in school, business or relationships.  

However, what often happens is that our expectations go unfulfilled.  There is no miracle—at least not the miracle we wanted.  We do not seem to be more spiritual—we struggle more than ever with temptations and weaknesses.  Doubt increases; calamity strikes; businesses and relationships fail.  What is going on?  Why does God seem to abandon us when we have tried so hard to follow Him?

I would like to suggest that the problem lies not with God but with us, with our expectation of what spiritual growth and Grace active in our life will look like.  Early in our spiritual life, or at a foundational stage of our spiritual life (what St. Isaac would refer to as the movement from the first to the second degree of knowledge), we begin to become aware of the reality of God through our careful observation or contemplation of the world around us (including the religious world we find ourselves in).  This awareness leads us to action motivated by what is often called the fear of God, or the awareness that God is real and that it behooves me to do what God says—in whatever ways I may understand it means in my particular circumstance or place in life.  This conformity to what I think or am taught that God says or wants of me is called striving for virtue.  

However, it is in the striving for virtue that an important but subtle shift has to take place if we are going to move from the second to the third degree of knowledge.  In the second degree of knowledge, our conceptions of what God expects of us and what we expect of God are based on our reflection on created things and result in an almost legalistic paradigm.  That is, we can come to expect that if we fulfill certain obligations (things we do or do not do), then God will bless the material aspect of our lives in certain desirable ways.  However, this is a very business-like relationship with God, a relationship like that of the older brother with his Father in the parable of the prodigal son.  Nevertheless, it does seem to be a necessary stage or degree of one's growing relationship with God, and it is certainly a step up from the complete selfishness and spiritual ignorance of living only according to one's calculating mind and animal passions.

This business-like relationship with God seems to lead to at least four possible outcomes (that I can think of).  One is pride.  If one has the wealth and the religious or societal standing to maintain an image of him or her self as successful, then one develops pride in having done the right things to please God and thus receiving His blessing.  For example, there was a time in my Christian journey when I was part of a community that taught explicitly that the reason why America was so wealthy was because God was blessing America for all of the missionaries supported by Christians in the U.S.  This may seem like an extreme example (especially to those who are not Americans), but this same arrogance and semi-intentional blindness can and does take place on family and personal levels too.  Many self-help books are saturated in this arrogance: 'just apply these seven principles to a happy family (or successful career, or well-managed wealth, or even a more fulfilling spiritual life), apply these principles and you will succeed.'  And if you do succeed, if your expectations are met, then you can become so proud as to think that you have brought this success on yourself and that you know why others are not so successful: it’s their own fault: they are too lazy or stupid or sinful to do what needs to be done.

The next three possible outcomes of the business-like relationship with God are either guilt, anger or humility.  Many of us do not have the wealth or luck or societal standing to maintain an illusion of success.  Or some of us are just plain honest.  We reject the illusions we might hide behind to accept the cold reality that despite our sincere efforts at pleasing God, the specific outcomes we had expected did not materialize.  And here we tend to have one of the three responses—or maybe all three at once as we are confused and struggle within ourselves, not knowing what to do or how to respond.  On the one hand we feel broken, on the other hand we feel betrayed.  We don’t want to blame God, so we blame ourselves or, like Job, we cannot deny that we did indeed try with all of our might—or at least most of our might—to do the right thing, to pray and fast and behave as we should.  This experience is like a crucible, a pressure cooker that renders us to the core of our being, stripping away all of the layers of falsehood and imaginations to lay bare what is really there.  It is the experience of Job.

Many of us have gone through such experiences of disappointment with God and come out of it bitter and angry.  This anger generally does not express itself as rage.  No, rather, it is like a calm determination in those who are strong, in those who have the means (intelligence, wealth or societal connections) to make their own choices, to bring about their own blessings, leaving God pretty much out of the picture all together.  In others, in those who are dependent, who do not have (or do not perceive that they have) much power to make their own choices or their own way in the world, for these, anger at God often takes the form of depression and self-destructive behaviour.  Anger, whether of the cold, determined kind or of the depressive, self-destructive kind, maintains its hold on us through a stream of endless inner chatter.  Self-talk, justifying and arguing, blaming and accusing, becomes the endless soundtrack of our mind.  Our self-talk convinces us and reassures us that we are right, that we are justified, that we are victims and that it is not our fault.  And this chorus can at times chant so loudly in our mind that we cannot listen to anyone who might suggest a different version of the story.

Some of us struggle with guilt. When life does not turn out the way we expect, we often experience an overwhelming burden of guilt.  Sometimes we can think of specific failures or areas of our life where we could have / should have / might have done better.  But guilt doesn't need any specific cause.  Just the fact that life isn't working out the way we expected causes us to assume, not only that it is our fault, but more importantly, that if we had worked harder, paid closer attention or prayed more fervently, things would have turned out better.  In a sense, guilt is a species of pride.  It comes from having a business-like relationship with God that assumes that we could have (if we had tried harder, etc.) fulfilled our end of the bargain with God. The fact that things are not turning out as we expected becomes evidence for us that we obviously failed God in some significant way.  In my experience, guilt can only be healed by humility and leaving behind a business-like relationship with God.

But, thank God, neither anger nor depression nor guilt are necessarily permanent.  They can be transformed.  They can be transformed into humility.  Sometimes, it seems, we have to rage, or pout or feel guilty for a while, before we come to our senses, before we figure out that we are only hurting ourselves and that God is silently waiting for us to return to the silence.  In silence, everything gives way to humility, the humility of a broken and contrite heart, the humility of a child who has had a good cry after not getting what she wanted, a cry in the arms of her Father.  And it is this humility that brings us into the third degree of knowledge, the love of God that swallows the fear of God.  It brings us to the knowledge of God beyond consideration of created things, the knowledge of God that can say with Job: “even if he slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15).

The Apostle Paul said that he had learned in all things to be content, whether he abounds or is abased (Phil. 4:12).  This is the movement from the second to the third degree of the knowledge of God.  In the third degree we enter the silence, the silence of abasement, the silence of not knowing, the silence of not understanding.  Here we come to know God in a different way, a way not tied to the created reality, in a way not dependent on whether or not things go my way, not dependent on whether or not my priest or bishop is as holy as he should be, not dependent on whether or not God meets my expectations of what a relationship with Him should be like.  Learning to know God in the silence is deification, it is a transfiguration that makes us shine with a light from another world, a light that makes the huts of this world seem irrelevant (c.f. Matt. 17:4).  But it is a difficult and on-going transition.  That is, throughout our lives we are continually encountering disappointment, abasement abounds, you might say.  Like Cain, sin is always crouching at the door and we must overcome it again and again (c.f. Gen. 4: 7).  

And while moving from anger or depression or guilt to humility is never easy, with practice it does, nonetheless, become more predictable.  With practice, you begin to notice the signs in yourself, the unhealthy self-talk, the cooling of your love, the intentional ignoring of God.  You recognize the signs and you take a deep breath.  OK.  I know what’s happening.  Lord have mercy.  And then you struggle to enter the rest, to return to the silence, to the place where can you let go of disappointment and let go of expectation.  There are generally tears along the way, which are sometimes preceded by a Job-like argument with God.  But in the end, we know the drill.  We have been to Gethsemane before, although each time is unique, each struggle breaks a different part of our hard, stubborn hearts.  But if we return and wait, wait until all false hopes wither, there is peace.  There is the knowledge of the love and nearness of God.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Lukewarm Christians

In my last blog post, I spoke about the middle way, the way of spiritual discipline that does not err to the left (too lax) or to the right (too strict).  Barbara, one of my regular commenters, asked me to speak a little about this in the light of the warning in the book of Revelation not to be “lukewarm” lest God spit us out (3:15-17).  I can see how one can easily be confused by this warning in the light of the teaching of the Holy Fathers and Mothers that we pursue Christ by avoiding extremes to the left and to the right.

To begin with, I think one’s spiritual temperature has less to do with the specific disciplines and activities or virtues one practices than it has to do with one’s attitude when one practices them.  In the text from Revelation, Christ tells the Laodicean Christians (the lukewarm ones) the reason why he says they are lukewarm.  Let’s look at the passage:

And to the angel [or pastor/bishop] of the church of the Laodiceans write, “These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: ‘I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I could wish that your were [either] cold or hot.  So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked”’.

The lukewarmness of the Laodiceans does not have to do with any specific “work” that the Laodiceans are or are not doing—“I know your works,” the Amen says to them.  The problem isn’t the works, it’s the attitude:  They think that they or their works are sufficient.  They think they have more than enough of all they need.  And they do not realize how poor, sick, blind and wretched they really are.  This is what it means to be lukewarm: to think that you have enough, that your are all right, or that you have things pretty much under control spiritually speaking.  

Someone suffering from this malady of lukewarmness might be very diligent in certain pious practices and spiritual disciplines, or she might not be disciplined at all.  The sickness is not necessarily manifest in any specific outwardly identifiable behaviour.  It is the sickness that many of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church call “self-esteem.”  

We live in a culture in which self-esteem is considered a good thing and to have low self esteem is to be in need of psychological help.  While low self-esteem is not an issue addressed by the Fathers or Mothers of the Church (at least not that I know of), I do concede that it is nonetheless a genuine malady suffered by some—especially by those who have been psychologically damaged by severe physical and emotional abuse.  However, genuine low self-esteem is very uncommon in my experience (and I have been around a lot of abused people—I myself was raised in foster homes and institutions).  In my experience, anger expressed in passive-aggressive behaviour is a much more common malady among those who have been abused than is genuine low self-esteem.

But even then, even defining self-esteem is difficult.  The problem with defining self-esteem is that we live in a culture that considers self promotion, self praise, and fighting to get ahead to be normal, healthy expressions of personhood.  Any man, woman or child who does not push to be first or rush to assert her opinion, or fight to defend his turf is judged by the social and psychological gurus of our age to suffer from low self-esteem.  However, from the perspective of the Church Fathers and Mothers, these are manifestations  of a spiritual disease, a disease that they often refer to as “self-esteem.”  

This, I think, was the problem of the Laodiceans, this is what I think made them lukewarm: they had (too much) self-esteem.  They were full (of themselves).  They were rich (on their own—the same problem St. Paul points to in his letter to the Corinthians [4:8] “You have reigned as kings without us”).  In fact, this is the same problem revealed in the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve wanted to become gods apart from God. 

 Most people suffer from way too much self-esteem.  We generally think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (c.f. Rom. 12:3).  Generally, we don’t think we have much or anything at all to repent of.  Most people, even believes, and especially this believer, sometimes, live as though God did not exist, as though God were irrelevant, as though whatever may happen next in my life will or will not happen because of what I do or do not do.  Again, generally speaking, we don’t see ourselves as dependent creatures.  We don’t see ourselves in constant need of God’s ever-present protection.  We don’t weigh every thought, word and deed as though we will give an account at the fearsome Judgement Seat of God.  And what’s more, we generally don’t care.  This is what it means to be lukewarm.

I wish it were easy to discern whether or not, or to what degree I am lukewarm.  It is not easy at all to discern.  However, I think one principle may help us:  In as much as I am sure that I am lukewarm, I am probably not; and in as much as I am sure that I am not lukewarm, I probably am.  When we know we are sick, we seek the Physician;  when we think we are well, we do not.  And this brings us back to my last post: how do we seek the Physician, how do we find healing in a way that is effective?  The Fathers and Mothers of the Church encourage us to seek spiritual health through the practice of virtue and spiritual disciplines in a way that is neither too strict nor too lax.

How do we know the difference?  St. Isaac suggests some guideposts.  On the one hand, if you find yourself falling into lustful temptations, it may be because your discipline is too lax.  On the other hand, if you find yourself falling into despondency, then it may be that your rule is too strict.  But who can diagnose herself?  We need spiritual fathers and mothers, wise physicians of the soul to help us discern these things.  And for those of us who don’t think we need a spiritual guide, perhaps our Lord’s words to the Laodiceans apply.  We are all sick, blind, naked and wretched.  It is only the lukewarm who don’t think they are.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Error To The Right

The Spiritual Life is Not a Race

The Fathers and Mothers of the Church often speak of two ways we err in our pursuit of godliness: to the left and to the right.  Error to the left is the error of casting off restraint, of giving in to temptation, of letting go of all discipline.  It is what St. Isaac calls in one place, “the freedom that precedes slavery.”  We can easily err in our pursuit of the Christian life by being too easy on ourselves, by not disciplining and controlling our thoughts, words and actions.  However, this way of err is pretty well known.  Many of us have been warned repeatedly of the dangers of relaxing our discipline—we have been warned so much that we may have even developed a fear of letting up, a fear that we might loose everything if we relax in one area or another.

But this overemphasis on discipline and the fear of erring to the left has pushed many (Yours Truly included) to err to the right.  Erring to the right refers to becoming too righteous.  Consider the words of Ecclesiastes 7:16: “Do not be overly righteous, Nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself?”  This warning from the Bible is echoed throughout the spiritual writings of the Church fathers and Mothers.  

St. Isaac the Syrian also warns against “immoderate activity.”  One of the themes in St. Isaac’s homilies, a theme that he picks up from St. Macarious the Great (whom St. Isaac often quotes), is that so long as we are in the body, we are subject to change.  This change St. Isaac blames on the “humours,” following the medical understanding of his time.  Today we might speak of hormonal changes, changes in stages or circumstances of life, or changes in body chemistry (e.g. diabetes, diet induced changes, or stress induced changes).  St. Macarious likens the changes we endure to the atmosphere: just as we have no control over the weather, we have very little control (and often no direct control) over changes in mood, attitude and feelings within us.  Until our death (that is, so long as we are joined to what St. Paul calls “this body of death”) we will have to endure changes.  For this reason, we must be both disciplined and moderate in our spiritual pursuits.

St. Isaac puts it this way (and here I am summarizing):  If we err to the left by being too relaxed with ourselves, by not guarding attentively what we think, say and do, or by not keeping disciplined in our life of prayer and virtue; if we err in this way, we will find ourselves falling into confusion leading to temptation by lusts.  If, on the other hand, we err to the right by being too hard on ourselves, by being immoderate in our righteous works (including both external works and private prayer life), then we will also fall into confusion leading to despondency and despair: “Righteous works with moderation and…perseverance are beyond price; slackening in them increases lust, but excess, on the other hand, increases confusion.”

Moderation with perseverance are the key.  

Let me tell you a story.  A certain friend of mine has found a great deal of peace in praying the Jesus Prayer.  He has developed a friendship with a monk at a nearby monastery, and over the years, this monk has become his confessor.  My friend was afraid to ask his monk confessor for a prayer rule because he knows the monk prays (it seems to him) unceasingly.  Particularly, he was afraid to ask for a specific rule regarding the Jesus Prayer.  The monks in this monastery pray the Jesus Prayer exclusively for an hour each day and then continually throughout the day.  He was afraid that if he asked for a rule, the monk would give him something too big for him to do regularly.  After several years of relationship, my friend finally got up the courage to ask his confessor for a rule.  And you know the rule the monk gave him?  Not 100, not 300, not 500, but 50.  Fifty Jesus Prayers anytime during the day that he could fit it in—even while driving to work!

“Fifty Jesus prayers”, my friend told the monk, “that’s easy.  It takes less than ten minutes.”  And then the monk told him the same advice St. Isaac is telling us today:  “The secret to developing a prayer life is to begin very small and to stay consistent: you can always pray more if you want, but you don’t have to.”  

Prayer rules are funny things, in my experience.  (Not “ha ha” funny, but ironic funny.)  A small, easy to keep, regular prayer rule—even if it is only the Our Father muttered sincerely from your heart before you get out of bed in the morning—even such a small prayer rule, does more real, long-term good in our lives with God than do longer, more strenuous rules that we either continually fail to complete or (worse case scenario) we complete with frustration in our hearts.  Prayer requires discipline, but it is a life-giving discipline.  Disciplines that leave us depressed and confused are almost always manifestations of error: error to the right.

I think for many people, and this has been the case in my life, it often comes down to humilityor lack thereof.  I have wanted to think of myself as someone who is sincere and fairly mature in my Life in Christ, and whenever I have let this thought abide in my mind, it has resulted in my biting off more than I can chew.  I commit myself to habits of prayer that I cannot keep over the long haul, I commit myself to good works that I just don’t have the energy to do (not without sacrificing my family or some other responsibility that I already have), I commit myself to behaviour (righteous habits) that have more to do with what I think I ought to be like than they have to do with any genuine desire to love God and neighbour.  And when I fail in these commitments, as I always do, I return to humility (humiliation is often a doorway to humility).  

The advice of St. Isaac and St. Macarius can save us, can lead us to humility another way.  If we can observe and accept the reality in ourselves of our changeability, of our feebleness and our brokenness, then we can make a beginning with something small.  Since I know, for example, that cold rains are common here where I live, I’d be a fool to begin a long walk without rain gear—even if the sun is shining right now.  Similarly, since I know that I am spiritually weak and my inner world is subject to storms and snows and blustery days, it is foolish of me to begin any righteous endeavour without taking precautions for these realities, this changeableness that I know exist in myself—even if today I feel like I can climb Mt. Tabor to be transfigured with Christ.  The reality is that tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day, I won’t.  I stand a much better chance of actually climbing the mountain of holiness if I just get used to camping about the base for a long while.  The air is very thin on top of the mountain, and I get winded just walking about its base.  

It’s a good thing that our spiritual life is not a competition.  I think St. Paul’s metaphor of spiritual life as a competition may have made much more sense before the era of capitalism.  Nowadays, we have a terrible fear of losing.  We have a fear that if we don’t try hard enough, God will abandon us.  We fear that we will miss out, be left in the dust, or just somehow fail to make the grade if we don’t burn ourselves out climbing mountains too steep for us, doing righteous deeds that are too hard for us.  We don’t really trust in God.  We don’t really believe that God loves us, that we already have everything in Christ, and that any work we do is just so that we can better appreciate and perceive all that God has already given us.  We don’t realize that we misunderstand God and His calling in our lives just as easily by trying too hard as by not trying at all.

The Christian way is the middle way, the way of humility and life-giving discipline.  It is the way of trusting in God—it is not about trusting in my ability to please God.  

Friday, September 05, 2014

Advice On Distracting Thoughts In Prayer

I just received the newsletter from St. Barbara’s Monastery, in Santa Paula, CA.  I consider the Abbess there, Abbess Victoria, my first spiritual father.  Or as I sometimes say, “my first spiritual father was a mother.”  In this newsletter, Abbess Victoria gives excellent advice on what to do with worries and other distracting thoughts in prayer.  I can think of nothing more edifying than to share with you than what she has written.  She writes:

The advice of our Holy Fathers and Mothers is simple and direct, but probably too difficult for us to use all at once without practice.  They remind us that worries are temptations and that, when beset by worries and troubles of all kinds, we should as Christians give them over to the Lord and do this as quickly as possible.  How?  Not by some extraordinary feat of concentration whereby we might herd our thoughts into a box and seal them away!  Not at all!  Rather, when we cannot simply turn away from them, we do this by making our worries the very subject of our prayers.  The only sure way to put our worries to rest is to ask the Lord—not neglecting to employ the intercession of His saints—to resolve whatever is troubling us in whatever way He deems best, thus surrendering the outcome into His hands.  Our Holy Fathers and Mothers lived their daily lives on this exalted and most simple plane.  Not only do such prayers resolve the difficulties themselves causing our worry.  They bring peace of heart, purify, correct and illumine our thoughts, and lead us to repentance and pure prayer—the prayer that is beyond words.

However, to repeat what was said above, to live and pray this way takes practice.  As with anything else, at first one must remind oneself that there is a way to be rid of the burden of worry, and the way is Christ.  Then, one must make the effort to turn to Him, to pour out one’s worries and troubles to Him, and to give the burden of them to Him.  Over time, one finds oneself referring to this pattern more and more readily in the face of whatever comes until it is simply second nature.

I have to say that this is about the best, simply-presented advice on overcoming distracting thoughts in prayer that I have ever come across.  Yes, it’s not easy—it takes practice.  But it is very simple advice.  We have to give what is causing us worry to God in prayer trusting Him with the outcome.  In this way, any distracting thought can become prayer.  Even shameful or sinful thoughts.

How can this be?  When a shameful thought comes to my mind in prayer, if I can’t immediately turn away from it, I then “show” it to God or His Mother in my mind as further evidence of my poverty and need for help and mercy.  Of course, I am not really showing God anything He doesn’t already know about, but the intentional act of mentally pointing out to God the filth or frivolity that happens to be tormenting my mind at that moment shifts my focus from the distracting thought to a certain shame and humiliation I feel knowing that God and even His Holy Mother take pity on me and still come to me despite the pig muck that sometimes tenaciously sticks to me.  Those feelings of shame and humiliation reduce my prayer to nothing but a heartfelt “You see what a mess I am, please save me.”  This is a prayer that, in my experience, God always answers.  

I have found that feeling ashamed and humiliated before God and the Saints is very beneficial, salvific even.  Of course, one has to have correct theology or else shame can be destructive.  If one wrongly assumes that God’s love is based on our performance or our righteousness, then shame only produces guilt and a sense of hopelessness.  If one wrongly thinks that one has to clean him or her self up before they come to God in prayer, then they will quickly give up on prayer.  However, if we liken prayer to the Prodigal Son’s coming to his senses and beginning his walk home (with big clods of pig muck hanging from his clothes, mashed in his hair and clinging to his bare feet), then we too—regardless of what ugly swinish thoughts may be bombarding our mind—we too can come to God in prayer.  Like the Prodigal, we come stinky and covered with muck (our filthy thoughts), but like the Father in the parable, God runs out to meet us.  And it is this encounter with God (when He clothes us) that cleans us up.

Prayer, when I struggle with unclean thoughts, is sort of like a filthy child coming to Mum and saying, “I need a bath.”  Yes, it is embarrassing.  Yes, it is humbling.  And yes, Mum loves me and will not reject me; she will clean me up.

We had a young family over for dinner last week who have a two year old boy (Samuel) they are potty training.  I was amazed by the love and trust this little boy had in his parent’s love.  With his wet pants he came to his mum and dad, not really ashamed at all, almost wondering where these wet trousers came from.  Dad rushed him to the toilet. Mum ran out to the car to find the bag with the extra clothes.  Baby sang songs on the toilet.  Mum set a timer to set him on the toilet again later.  Baby played happily in his new clean pants until the timer went off about an hour later, and led to the toilet he peed, accompanied by parental shouts of joy.

I want to be like little Samuel in my relationship with God.  I am a spiritual two year old and God and His Mother and my guardian angel and all of the saints (its a big family) are training my little two year old spiritual mind to stay out of the gutter of empty or unclean thoughts.  Like little Samuel, I sometimes get it, but I often don’t.  But even when I fail miserably, I do not doubt my family’s love.  I do not doubt that mum will change my pants.  I do not doubt that God will come to my aid.

Of course, I would rather think of myself as a more spiritually sophisticated person than that.  But maybe that’s my big problem in the first place.   I am not always calling out to God for help.  I am not always keeping disciplines, like timers set to help me remember when to pray and how to avoid spiritual “accidents.”  I think I am beyond such things.  I think I am ready for school when I’m still not quite ready to be out of diapers.  But regardless of my maturity or lack thereof, God’s love is a constant.  And assured of God’s love no matter what, I can bring any “mess” I find in my mind to God in prayer—which I often do.  

St. Paul asks us, “Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?”  Nothing.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God—not even my mental ugliness, confusion and distraction.  All of this can become prayer because none of it changes God’s love for us.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Church Camp, Blackberries and Thorns

Berries in my back yard

“Until we find love, our labour is in the land of thorns.”

Last week I drove from Langley, British Columbia to Gull Lake, Alberta, which is about a 750 mile drive over the Canadian Rockies, each way.  St. Philip Church in Edmonton was sponsoring the first ever Antiochian Orthodox youth camp in Western Canada.  The camp was, it seemed to me, quite successful.  We had 23 children ages 7 to 17.  The camp facilities were excellent and the program went smoothly.  The daily services were prayerful and the kids stayed mostly awake during the teaching times, and there was continual running and laughing and jumping and screaming and hugging during the activity times.  By the end of the camp, all of the campers and staff were like old friends, each already looking forward to next year’s camp.

But camps are a lot of work—a lot of work, especially if there isn’t already a tradition to follow and every activity and exigency must be anticipated and provided for in advance.  And once camp begins there is a lot of work and very little sleep—especially for the cabin counsellors and the camp directors.  For clergy, it is pretty easy.  All I was responsible for was to teach once a day and lead prayers and liturgical services.  I could catch a nap in the afternoon and slip off to bed early if I wanted to.  But I seldom went to bed early because often the most fruitful conversations I have with older campers and with the staff is late at night.  Worn out by the day, teens and young adults often open up late at night in ways they wouldn’t normally open up in the day time.  They ask questions late at night that they might never ask in the busyness of the day.  And even if they don’t ask any questions, just hanging out with the young people earns credibility with them.  They begin to see that I actually like being with them.  Later, when they are ready to talk, they feel that they can approach me.

I think it is a good idea for kids to go to Church camp.  I still remember a YMCA church camp I went to after sixth grade (and I remember very little else from that period of my life).  A good church camp experience lasts a lifetime, it helps the kids know that they are not the only Orthodox Christian young people in the world.  It give them opportunity to make friendships that can last a lifetime.  It gives them an opportunity to experience an Orthodox lifestyle that includes daily morning and evening prayer and to experience teachers and other authority figures who are gentle and kind.  It gives them a chance to experience their faith in a new environment and to begin to make it their own.  When my children were young, I was hesitant to send them to camp (I was not a very trusting parent when it came to my children), so I volunteered to work at the camp.  That’s how I initially got started in Orthodox camp ministry.  This week too, we had a few parents volunteering.  It think that’s a good way for parents (like me) to let their kids have a good camp experience but still be close enough to keep an eye on things.  Plus, there is always work to be done and more hands make the work a little easier.  Also, the parents may just get as addicted to camp as the kids do and turn out to be great supporters of the camping ministry in the future.

Just after I got back from the camp, I was speaking to a recent convert to Holy Orthodoxy about the camp, and he wanted to know what exactly I thought made the camp “successful.”  In his previous church camp experience, success was measured in how many children made “decisions for Christ,” and the whole camp experience was seen as auxiliary to that one main goal.  I explained to this person that Orthodox youth camping experiences are very different from that.  At an Orthodox youth camp, the total experience is what is important.  It is important that the campers have a fun, prayerful, educational and love-filled experience.  The goal is that the children experience God’s love in the community of the Church.  Everything is about experiencing God’s love, not just the services or the explicitly religious parts.  And while it is certainly our hope that this experience of God’s love in the community of the Church stays with the Children all year long (and all life long), we do not look for any specific response from them except whatever comes naturally from them—most generally in the form of smiles, giggles and expressions of friendship.  

The words of St. Isaac speak to me when I think of all that went into camp and the joy that seemed to flow from all of those who worked so hard: “Until we find love, our labour is in the land of thorns.”  When we love God and love others, the thorns of hard work seem to melt away.  Even my long drive to and from camp seemed blessed.  I got to listen to a recording of a new book on the Septuagint (“When God Spoke Greek” by Timothy Law), which was interesting enough to keep my attention during the boring parts of the drive, but boring enough to be ignored during the stunning parts of the drive through the Rockies.  I got to pray and chant psalms along with the chanters of St. Andrew Church (in Riverside, CA) which I had recorded on my phone.  The whole experience was a blessing—a lot of work, yes; but a blessing more.  Love makes the difference.

Now that I am back home (in the rain) and getting back to my normal routine, I find myself thinking about the campers and staff, praying for them, and feeling joy in my heart concerning the whole experience.  Life goes on, and I work to do at home too.  There are thorns enough here.  But to tell you the truth, I don’t generally notice them.  It’s kind of like picking blackberries.  The thorns are huge and sharp and plentiful (and you do have to be careful), but the berries are fat and juicy and delicious, and when you see them, you hardly notice the thorns at all.  It is not until the end of the day, when your bucket is full and your mouth and fingers are dark purple, that you notice the scratches on your arms and rips in your clothes and little trickle of blood from that one that got you as your reached for some particularly plump berries.  Yes, the thorns were there, but you hardly noticed them.  May God help us to love the berries in our life and hardly notice the thorns.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What Does God Look Like?

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!  That the mountains might shake at your presence.  (Isa. 64:1)

A common question people ask a priest goes something like this: “If God is real, why isn’t it obvious to everyone?”

One way I begin to answer such questions is by saying something like this: God is obvious to everyone—as obvious as the air we breathe. But just as we easily take for granted and no longer notice the air we breathe (unless there are some unusual pollutants in the air or we are having trouble breathing), so too we easily ignore the obvious reality of God. The only exception to this tendency to ignore the obvious, is when we intentionally pay attention. When I intentionally pay attention to my breathing, I notice the air.   Similarly, unless I work at paying attention to God, I can easily ignore Him.

Many of us, however, would rather that God’s presence be less easy to ignore. Like Isaiah, we want God to tear open the heavens so that no one can deny the reality of the Creator. But this is the very thing God does not want to do.  Archimandrite Vasileios says that “He exists as if He did not exist. He intervenes as if He were absent, out of respect for His creature.” God respects His creation so much that He treats the creation as He Himself would be treated: with freedom. God does not come to us in any way that would overwhelm us, that would strip us of freedom and force or coerce us to obey and love him. In fact, once obedience is forced, it ceases to be obedience—not the obedience of relationship, the obedience that a mother wants from her child or a lover expects from his beloved. Forced obedience is mere conformity to outer criteria. God does not want that, for it is no foundation for genuine relationship.

Neither does God want a forced love, a necessary love, a love that must be because there is not choice. The only love God wants is that love that is freely given. The freedom God gives us is the freedom befitting God Himself.  As I said above, God treats us as He would be treated. Were God to manifest His power, we would be overwhelmed. We would not understand it. We would be much like the children of Israel, who shuddered at the foot of Mount Sinai while the mountain itself quaked, but before forty days were passed, they had already begun to worship a calf made of gold. We would be in awe of the power, not the Person. We would tremble at the manifestation, but be unable to apprehend the Person behind the manifestation.  

God comes to us with humility. God comes as a still, small voice. God comes as an infant in a manger. God humbles Himself and becomes a human being so that we can come to know Who He is, His personality, what God is like. Archimandrite Vasileios puts it this way: “I—the [One who is] beyond-being, come down, I empty myself, I approach you, I become one with you in order to make you my own; in order to save you by teaching you things untaught. By saying to you through my conduct that ultimately, what is great, unapproachable and terrible in me is not the power, the inconceivable magnitude, but the ineffable love, the kindness of beauty and the condescension of humility that is manifest in the way I behave.”

The manner in which I exist is the kenotic mode of love and sacrifice. Do not be afraid of my power, then. You should be afraid of my ineffable goodness and humility. You should be afraid, not because I threaten you, but because I respect you more than you deserve or understand.” [The Thunderbolt of Ever-Living Fire, p. 50]

God teaches us about Himself by his conduct, by the way He behaves. God respects us. God grants us the freedom worthy of gods. And this, not God’s might, is what we should fear. God lets me have what I want.  

You might object: “No He doesn’t! I seldom get what I want.”

That is because you want what is not possible. You want corn without planting. You want flowers without gardening. You want love without sacrifice and self control. You want to sow folly but reap wisdom. You want reality to be something different from what it is. No, this is not possible, not for creatures. God gives us freedom, and we build houses on flood planes. God gives us freedom, and we build houses without basements in tornado country. God gives us freedom and we give guns to boys and fill their minds with hatred. God gives us freedom and then we call the consequences of our exercise of that freedom “the wrath of God.”

But even this suffering, this experience of what is called the wrath of God, even this—and perhaps especially this—reveals God to us, the God who became man and suffered. In our suffering we can, if we are willing, come to know the God who also suffered, the God who suffered all of the consequence of sin, all of what we call the wrath of God. God suffered as a human being, willingly, to show us the way, to show us the way of love, the way of freedom, the way through death to resurrection. And in showing us the way, God has revealed Himself to us.  

What does God look like? God looks like Jesus. And so when God does come down, He does not rend the heavens; rather, He allows himself to be torn. God comes down and the mountains do not quake, but the gates and bars of death and hades are destroyed. God comes down and the angels of heaven sing, but only a few shepherds are listening. God comes down and only a few wise men from afar notice the Star. God comes down and enters the Temple of His people and only an old man and prophetess recognize Him. God comes down in such humility and meekness that only those who are looking for Him see Him.  And in coming this way, God has torn the false heavens and shaken the lying mountains that have told us that God is proud and angry and full of vengeance toward us.  It is only this false notion of who God is that has been torn and shaken.  

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Coming To Confession

What do we confess in confession?

The most important thing that we say in confession has little to do with what we say.  The most important thing is what is in our heart, or the condition of our heart in confession.  When we come to confession, many words are not necessary.  In fact, many words generally only muddy the water and reveal a mind that is not settled, but is rather still self-justifying, still trying to “get a handle on it” as though you could actually fix this problem yourself if you could only just figure it out.

The most important thing to bring to confession is a broken and humble heart.  A broken and humbled heart God does not despise, the Psalms tell us.  A broken and humbled heart expresses itself in simplicity, with few words: few words with much meaning.  

There is no figuring it out in confession, but there can be revelation.  In fact, so long as we continue trying to figure ourselves out, we will run in circles.  As dogs chase their tails, human beings chase their thoughts.  Around and around and around.  The same arguments, the same frustrations, the same dead ends.  Around and around and around.  We have to stop running.  We have to stop chasing.  We have to admit, we have to confess, that we will never catch it, we will never figure it out—and even if we did, even if we did figure out why we sin in the many broken ways we do, still then, there would be nothing we could do about it.  Catching her tail, the dog only bites herself.

But if we let go of the convolutions, if we stop chasing the thoughts and give up, if we just sit down and cry, then something begins to melt in our hearts.  Then we feel the pain of our brokenness, the deep sadness of a broken heart, a heart that we cannot control very well, a heart that lusts after what we don’t want and hates what we long for, a heart that is broken.  This is the beginning of self knowledge.  It has absolutely nothing to do with figuring out.  It has very little to do with psychology.  It has almost everything to do with seeing, admitting and accepting that you are indeed broken.  This is the beginning, this is the beginning of humility.  And humility is the beginning of becoming like God.

When God revealed Himself to mankind, He revealed humility.  This is what God showed us about himself when He revealed Himself to mankind, this is the quality that most defines God for us: love revealed by humility.  This is how God reveals Himself: Not by power.  Not through justice.  But in Humility.  God, who is whole, took on himself that which is contingent to teach us the way, to teach us that in accepting our contingency, dependence, inability, and brokenness we begin to imitate God.  We begin to find salvation.  

But we don’t want to be contingent.  We don’t want to be broken.  Like Eve in the Garden, we want to take for ourselves that which will make us what we want to be (wise, beautiful, well-provided for).  Apart from God, we want to become like gods.  We want to do it ourselves, our way, the way we like it; but in the end (and we have experienced this time and time again, this is not just philosophy or ancient mythology it is our daily experience), in the end we are merely driven by forces beyond our control: serpents and passions, culture and circumstance, need and opportunity.  Like Eve in the Garden we are deceived, and we don’t want to admit it.  We don’t want to admit it: we want to explain it: It’s her fault, it’s his fault, it’s not my fault. 

We are stuck on fault, on guilt, yet fault is not the issue.  Like a sick child who has caught a cold playing in the rain.  Figuring out how he caught the cold does not help heal the cold.  But to heal the cold, we have to first acknowledge that we are sick, that we are sick and cannot heal ourselves.  This is why we come to confession.  We come to confession to say that we are sick, that our body and mind is out of control, that we need a physician.  And just this act, this act of contrition, this act of humbling ourselves, and saying out loud: “I am badly broken and I cannot fix myself,” this act begins to heal us.  Why?  It begins to heal us because we have already begun to see reality, to see who we really are, and to find the place where God meets us.  

God saves the poor and needy, but for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is almost impossible.  The way a rich man can enter the Kingdom is by seeing his poverty.  It is the broken and humbled heart God does not despise.  When in a few words, with simplicity, we can admit our failings, our brokenness, our faults, then the pain in our heart speaks.  This pain is called compunction.  And when compunction speaks, few words are needed, simplicity is everything, explanations are the meaningless.  

When we come to confession, we come to God, as to a Physician, a Physician who listens more to our heart than to our words.  Preparation for confession has much less to do with scribbling down lists of mistakes and sins as it has to do with allowing your reflection on your sins to break your heart—or rather letting yourself feel the brokenness that is already there.  When we come to confession with compunction, with pain in our heart, then we confess everything with few words, few words and much meaning.  When we come to confession with compunction and humility then we already have begun to be healed, we have already begun to reach out our hands to our loving and humble Father, to the Physician who heals our soul.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Like Jonah In The Whale

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”
Thomas Merton

I am reading Jim Forest’s biography of Thomas Merton: “Living With Wisdom.” I have never read any of Thomas Merton’s work. It seems my journey has led me through communities that were not Merton readers. I knew people who read Merton, but they always seemed to be people who were on a path quite different from mine. Consequently, I early on developed a distrust for Merton (having never read him myself). There is, for me, a stinging irony in this, for I developed this distrust for Merton during a period of my life in which I somewhat prided myself in not rejecting an idea before I understood it. During that period of my life I read a great deal of what is called “theology” from perspectives as far ranging as Evangelical to liberation and “God is Dead,” and from feminist and gay perspectives to the Institutes of Calvin. But Thomas Merton I didn’t bother reading. What a pity.

I am only halfway through the biography. Merton has now become a Cistercian monk and become successful in his writing (about 1949). Throughout the book, Jim Forest highlights interesting quotations in the margins that give a flavour of Merton’s reflections on or during the season of his life that is being discussed in the main text. One of the quotes sent me into a reverie, and I felt I had to write about it. This quote seems perfectly to capture how I and perhaps many of us experience our inner life. The quote is this: “I find myself traveling to my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

This metaphor of Jonah is quite fitting for my experience. I resist God thinking that I know better, thinking that things should be reasonable, make sense, should  line up. It is as if reason and a sense of “how things ought to be” is the ship on which I flee God’s ridiculous (in my eyes) calling. It is not so much that I know God wants me to do a certain thing like “go preach to Niniveh” and I don’t want to do it (although that can sometimes be the case). Rather, most often, it is that I cannot be at peace with where I am right now and with how things are right now. I can’t accept that God is present right now in this mess and that it is here that He has called me to trust Him. It doesn’t make sense to me. I want to be on the ship where everything makes sense, where everything fits into a plan that I understand. However, instead, I have been thrown into the sea and swallowed by Paradox as by a great fish.  

I am trapped amid many paradoxes, as in the belly of a sea monster. I am a priest and the father of a community, yet I am also married and have a wife and family of my own. I am looked to as a spiritual father, yet I am an infant when it comes to spiritual things. I am surrounded by great pain and great beauty at the same time. I say one word and it sets someone free, and to someone else my words are only annoying—and I seldom can tell the difference. I strive to live as an ascetic and friend of the poor, but I reside in a million dollar house. I love to rise early and pray, but I also like to stay up late to watch football. I am trapped in the belly of a monster called Paradox.

In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the sea monster plays a significant role. It is the theme of the sixth of the nine odes that are always sung at matins. And particularly, Jonah’s prayer (2:3-10), is read every Friday morning (in monastic contexts): “I cried aloud in mine affliction unto the Lord my God, and He hearkened unto me; out of the womb of Hades You heard my cry and my voice.” When we are swallowed by a sea monster (literally or figuratively), we find ourselves in the womb or the belly of Hades. I imagine that I am not the only person who can relate to this.

Another important liturgical aspect of Jonah’s experience in the sea monster is that it is a type of Christ’s descent into Hades and resurrection on the third day. On Holy Saturday, we read the entire book of Jonah along with other Old Testament passages during the vesperal Liturgy while the baptisms are taking place. We descend into the water of baptism and are swallowed by the deep—just as Jonah was swallowed by the sea monster. And then three times we rise again in the Resurrection of Christ—just as Jonah was spat forth from the sea monster “like a babe from the womb,” or so the Paschal canon puts it. We die and rise with Christ in Baptism, but our Baptism is not the end of the story. Like much in the Orthodox liturgical tradition, things repeated thrice signify a pattern of life. Baptism is an initiation into a life of dying and rising, a life of finding oneself enclosed in the depths of Hades, in the belly of Paradox, only to cry out to God there, from the midst of the monster, from the depths of Hades. We cry out to God in the midst of the pain and the paradoxes that make up our life.  

We have no clean life or straight path to offer God, nothing reasonable or neat. We have to pray here, where we are now. We cannot wait to pray. We cannot wait until things are better, until we better ourselves. We have tried and we know that we cannot fix ourselves, much less can we fix the craziness of the network of relationships and responsibilities we find ourselves in, the paradoxes that have swallowed us. Like Jonah, we can only cry out from the belly of the sea monster, the womb of Hades, and wait, wait for God to save us.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos said famously, “Keep your mind in Hell, and despair not.” I think one of the Hells (or perhaps a better way to put it is one aspect of Hell) that he is referring to is the monster of the life that has swallowed us, a life full of pain and paradox. The Hell of our life is real. We cannot pretend it is not a mess. But the Resurrection is real too. God is real. Prayer is real—even, perhaps especially, from the belly of a sea monster. “How long O Lord, how long?” This is the prayer of the Psalmist and the Prophets, and it is the prayer of the saints in the book of Revelation: How long O Lord?  

The scripture says that a day with the Lord is as a thousand years. We cannot put God on our time schedule. What does three days in Hades feel like? How long does it last? How long,O Lord?  Ours is to pray and wait: to pray and wait and hope. And hope is often nothing more than a stubborn refusal to give in to despair. And yet there is mercy.  There is beauty amid the ashes.  There are moments when hope even buds into something that looks strangely like faith.  God is good, even in tragedy.  Mercy is present, even in suffering.  Jesus descended into Hell so that we would know that there is no place where His presence is absent: not even in the belly of a sea monster, not even in a life full of pain, not even in a life full of paradox.  In fact, as with Jonah, it is this very sea monster that we find ourselves trapped in that is carrying us to the place God wants us to be.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Surviving The Valleys

Homily 70

One of the realities of created life in this fallen world is variableness, according to St. Isaac the Syrian.  Variableness is the reality of change, both good and bad. In a sense, you can say that this variableness of life is what mankind chose (and continues to choose) in the Garden of Eden by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Life as we know it is a varying experience of both good and evil, pleasure and pain, joy and sadness.  Even in our relationship with God, we experience mountain tops and valleys, or what some of the Fathers refer to as the abundance of Grace and the withdrawal of Grace.  

Of course, in a very important sense, abundance and withdrawal of Grace refer our experience. Our experience of abundance and withdrawal of Grace does not mean that God is any less present in our lives. God is present in the abundance of Grace and in the withdrawal. Nonetheless, the mountain tops and valleys of our spiritual life are often quite troubling. Each new valley brings us again to our knees as we wonder if we have made any progress whatsoever in our spiritual life, if we have taken even one step nearer to God. When we are on the mountain top we think we have finally made it, that we have finally acquired a bit of the Grace of God. When we are on the mountain top we rejoice in the ease of prayer, the nearness of peace, and we marvel at the sense of compassion for the whole creation (and even our enemies) that seems to flow through us. That’s the mountain top. 

On the mountain top we don’t want to remember that the valley is coming. We don’t want to remember that everything that seems so easy and the Grace that seems so near now will change. In a little while prayer will be difficult again and Grace will not seem so near. Variation: this is St. Isaac’s word for it. And St. Isaac tells us that variation will be with us until the grave. It is the way of salvation for us in this fallen world. When we don’t realize this, valleys can seem unbearably low—largely because we don’t think we should have to pass through them, because we think something is wrong, because we wrongly thought we had things pretty much figured out, back on the last mountain top (so many months or years ago).   

However, there is a way to level out our experience of the mountains and valleys, the good and the evil of this life.  For St. Isaac, it is called repentance. Repentance keeps us from assuming too much on the mountain tops and from losing prayer and the nearness of God in the valleys.  Repentance for St. Isaac does not refer to a change of behaviour, as we generally think of it. For St. Isaac repentance refers to prayer itself: “continual, intense…prayer filled with compunction.” We repent when we remain in (or return to) prayer.  

Prayer is a habit born of effort (you really do have to make yourself do it) and a continual awareness of the nearness of God (whether you feel it or not) coupled with a continual awareness of your own frailty, or changeability, or variability—what I often refer to as brokenness. Like a broken cup, I cannot hold the Grace God gives me. Like a broken wheel, I cannot continue straight in the path God has set for me. Like a broken record, I can’t stop repeating in my mind what I should have forgotten long ago. And like a spoiled child, I cannot stop thinking about myself: what I like and what will make me happy. My body is continually slipping out of my control, my eyes and ears and appetites wandering where they should not be. My brokenness is so obvious, yet I continually forget that I am broken. I forget that I am broken and so I forget to pray. And in my forgetfulness I think I have things pretty well under control, and my attention wanders everywhere: everything is important and interesting to me except the One Thing Needful. 

This knowledge of my own brokenness is the source of compunction. Compunction literally means “with piercing.”  Compunction is a pain, sometimes literal, or nearly literal, in our heart or mind caused by our awareness of our brokenness—both our own personal brokenness and the brokenness we share with all humanity and that is manifest in the pain and suffering of the world. Compunction with the awareness of the nearness of God (felt or not) leads to intensity of prayer, or what St. Isaac simply calls repentance.  

Repentance, or this way of continual, intense and compunction-filled prayer, is something we need “throughout the twenty-four hours of the night and day” according to St. Isaac. It is prayer that can be expressed in all sorts of prayers. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can be expressed in the Jesus Prayer or some similar prayer as we call out to Christ in our hearts even while we must also be doing other things with our minds and bodies. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can be expressed through akathist hymns or daily prayers. It can be expressed through prayerful attention in matins or vespers and especially in the Divine Liturgy. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can even (and perhaps sometimes best) be expressed through the silent cry of the heart for help and the silent longing of the heart for wholeness, salvation, and deliverance for ourselves and for those we love and for the whole world.  

When we pray with compunction, with the knowledge of our brokenness and the awareness of our changeability, when we pray this way all of the time, then it is easier to stay a little longer on the mountain top without our mind constructing false structures of permanence (like St. Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration trying to make permanent that which was meant to be only a taste, a glimpse into the Age to Come). And when we pray with compunction the valleys are never quite so low, because the comfort promised to those who mourn is near at hand. And the suffering is somehow lessened because the valleys become more familiar to us because we know we have walked this way before and will walk this way again, because the tears of repentance and the pain of compunction no longer surprise us, but are our old friends, our companions on the journey through this transient age and into the Age to Come, into the Age in which all sickness, sorrow and sighing will flee away.