Saturday, April 18, 2015

We Must Not Must

“What must I do to be saved?”  This is a natural question when we reach the stage of our spiritual journey at which we begin to realize that something is wrong, something is wrong between me and God.  It is a natural question, but it is the wrong question, at least according to Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra (monastery on Mt. Athos).  Archimandrite Aimilianos says the following in a lecture called “The Progression of the Soul” that has been transcribed and translated into English and can be found in the book, The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on the Life in God. 

“Thus the first element we need in order to embark on our path is the feeling of exile”   

Archimandrite Aimilianos concedes a little later that words like “feeling” are inaccurate and perhaps misleading because they are words that we usually use to describe a huge range of passions and sensations: I feel hungry, I feel sad, I feel a pebble in my shoe.  However, he is intentional in using such words as “feeling” because he wants to emphasize the actual experience of the spiritual life as opposed to a metaphysical or philosophical speculation about the spiritual life.  He likens the spiritual journey to a walk to the corner store.  You know what you will encounter along the way to the store because you have actually experienced it before:  you have seen, heard, smelled and felt it.  Archimandrite Aimilianos says that it is the same way on the spiritual journey except you don’t experience it with physical senses, but you experience it inwardly.  And because one does indeed experience the spiritual life, “feeling” is an adequate word to use to begin to describe the experiences of the spiritual life.

And this initial experience, or at least the one that gets us moving with intention on the spiritual journey, this “first element” as Archimandrite Aimilianos calls it, is the feeling of exile, this feeling that all is not right between me and God, that there is somehow a barrier, a wall between me and God.

"Before us now is the shaken soul, the cast-away soul, closed in by four walls and unable to see a thing.  This same soul, however, is thinking about breaching the barrier, about breaking down the walls within which it has come to live, and to live instead with God.  How must it proceed?”

Archimandrite Aimilianos asks the question using the word “must,” and then he immediately makes the following statement:

"Here we need to know that, contrary to our expectations there is no “must.”  Such a word does not exist within the Christian life.  The idea that something “must” be, or “must” take place, is a product of the intellect; it is something that I arrive at as a logical conclusion, a deduction based on something in the Gospels, or which Christ taught in his parables, or with respect to His ethical teachings to do this or that.  But the word “must” has never moved anyone to do anything.  On the contrary, it makes you feel like a slave and discourages you from moving forward.  The force of “must” moves neither God, nor the [human] heart.  It pertains only to the logic of human deliberation, to the endurance of human determination, which as we all know is something that unravels and comes apart very easily."

Because “must” is a product of human deliberation and determination, it can never work in the spiritual realm because the human heart is so weak.  What I am convinced of today and determined with all of my heart to do can change in a moment.  New information, different circumstances, changing relationships, all this and more effect our hearts and minds.  Archimandrite Aimilianos puts it this way:

"The most fragile thing in the world is the human heart, along with all of its deliberations and determinations.  The things about you that I love, I may later come to hate.  And the things about you that I now hate may later cause me to fall in love with you.  I may condemn you, and on the same grounds proclaim that you’re the best person in the world.  I can exalt you to the skies, and at the same time wish you were in hell.  I may decide to become a saint, and at the very moment become a devil."

Now I realize that some of my readers may not be aware that their heart is this fickle.  Some of you may be saying to yourselves, “Well, I know of some other people who are that fickle, who don’t stick to their commitments, who lack the inner strength or will power to determine what must be done and to stick to it.  But I am not like that.”  For those who are thinking this thought let me tell you something that my spiritual father once told me.  He said that every sin I see in others I am able to see because the same sin exists in me.  I may not express the sin in the same way, I may not have had, as the detectives on TV say, the same “means, motive and opportunity” as others to commit in bolder, more external ways the sins that also ensnare my heart.  But the sins are nonetheless there, and if I am willing to ask God to show me the sins in my heart, in this case the fickleness of my heart, mind and will, God will likely be gracious enough to show me.  The hymns of the Church teach us that it is a spiritually dangerous thing to say along with the Pharisee, “I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11).

But for Archimandrite Aimilianos, fickleness or changeability are characteristics of every human heart and mind which is why, for him, words such as “must” do not exist in Christian life.  Whatever I determine based on my understanding about the ways or principles or “laws” of the spiritual life cannot be applied in any categorical way.  Not to myself, and not to others.  This does not mean that we do not discover principles or laws or guidelines for the spiritual life, nor that these cannot be shared with others.  What it means is that they cannot be applied, either to myself or to others, as constraints, as “musts” that bind or enslave us.  When one attempts to make progress in the spiritual life constrained by “musts,” according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, “it makes you feel like a slave and discourages you from moving forward.”     

So if there is no “must” in the Christian life, then what do we have?  How do we teach and guide one another along the spiritual path?  Well I think Archimandrite Aimilianos would say, first, very humbly, carefully and based on our own actual experience.  To use his metaphor, it is like giving directions to the corner market.  If I myself have never been to that market, then certainly, I had best keep my mouth shut about how to get there—even if I have studied all the maps.  And if I feel I must speak, then I need to speak carefully, tentatively, realizing that much of what a person actually experiences along the journey will not be communicated by any map.  And even if I have made that journey myself a hundred times, great care is called for in giving the directions, for what is to me an obvious landmark along the way may be completely missed by someone else walking that exact same path.  Guiding someone along the way of their spiritual path to God is very similar.  The landmarks of my experience with God that stand out in my mind as most significant, may not be exactly the same landmarks that another encounters or finds significant.

It has happened to me several times in the context of a conversation with my spiritual father or some other wise person or in reading a book by a spiritual writer that I have had the “aha” moment when I realized that I have indeed had a certain inner experience that at the time I did not consider significant.  But when I hear or read someone else talk about the significance of what seems to be the same experience in his or her journey, then I begin to reflect on my own experience and begin to realize that there was indeed much more significance in that experience than I had previously realized.  I just didn’t see it, or notice its importance at the time.  Like walking to the corner store, even if everyone walks exactly the same route, everyone is likely to notice different landmarks and appreciate different sights and smells and sounds along the way.  This is why “must” is such a dangerous word in our spiritual vocabulary.

I’d like to end today by pointing out that “must” can be communicated in many forms without actually saying the word “must.”  Generally speaking, the word “should,” especially in the context of spiritual guidance, carries the same force as “must,” “have to,” or “ought.”  It has become a kind of red flag for me, this word “should.”  As soon as I hear the words “you should” forming in my mind, either to myself or to others, I take it as a sign that I have probably stopped having any real spiritual insight or helpful guidance, and I am probably just relying on my own rational analysis, my own deductions and conclusions.  When I start to hear the word “should” in my mind, I like to say to myself, “Speaking of “should,” you should probably shut up now.  Shut up and pray.”  


I don’t always. In fact, I don’t shut up nearly as often or as quickly as I would like.  Sometimes rational analysis is all I have, or all I seem to have.  And when that’s the case and the circumstances are such that I feel compelled to say something, then I try my best to couch my words in as much freedom as possible.  I don’t want my spiritual child or whoever it is who comes to me for advice to feel trapped, to feel enslaved, to feel as though they must do what I tell them; because if they do feel trapped and enslaved, then, according to Archimandrite Aimilianos, they will not move forward, they will remain stuck where they are.  Progress in the spiritual life, in the Christian life with God, is made only in freedom, only as we learn “to act and move forward on the basis of…a kind of vision, that is, on the basis of [the soul’s] inner perception and feeling for things.”  When we act this way, there are no “musts.”  There are only land marks noted by those who have gone before and bits of advice from seasoned travellers, those whom we call our spiritual fathers and mothers. 

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Least I Can Do

One of the perennial struggles I have in the spiritual life comes from a form of pride that is lodged fast in me and manifests itself in an "all or nothing" attitude toward spiritual life and other life disciplines. It can take various forms in different arenas of my life, but it always follows a similar pattern. The pattern goes like this: I set a goal or rule or ideal for myself, one that I could easily achieve if I only apply myself a little. This goal could be a goal for work or for prayer; it could be a rule for conduct (such as how much computer time I will allow myself or how much and what I will or will not eat or drink); or it could be an ideal such as what a priest should look or act like. Any such goal or rule or ideal I set for myself I tell myself is reasonable and attainable if I only push a little, if I only apply myself.

However, what I don’t tell myself, what my mind never reveals to me in this process of creating “shoulds” for myself, what is so obvious but what I never see, is that my mind accepts these goals and rules and ideals for myself assuming a very idealized view of myself, of my abilities and my circumstances. That is, on a good day, on a day when I have had enough sleep, no recent crises, no interruptions to my schedule, no meltdowns in the people or things I depend, on such a day, such a perfect day that only rarely comes along, on such a day—if I only apply myself a little—I can indeed do most of the “shoulds.” On such a day I can indeed attain my goal, follow my rule and live up to my ideal. But such days are very rare. And then what? What do I do on the other days? Well often, I do nothing. I give up. I tell myself things like this:
“If I can’t do my rule this morning, then I might as well just stay in bed.” 
“ Since I’ve already broken the fast, I might as well eat the whole thing.”
“If I can’t be as kind as I should be, then people will just have to get used to me being grumpy.”
Since I’ve already sinned by watching or listening to something I shouldn’t, then I might as well continue doing it.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?  

I have, however, over the years discovered a strategy, a sort of trick I play on myself, that has helped me a great deal on most days, on days that are less than ideal. I discovered this trick when I was coming to terms with the fact that much of my despondency is rooted in pride, rooted in an idealized view I had of myself. I become angry with myself when I don’t live up to this, frankly, unrealistic self image I have. It is unrealistic because it only exists in my mind, not in the actual way I live my life. This was a frightening realization and I suspect is for everyone who experiences it. 'Will God love us?', we wonder.  Can we really come to God in the condition that the brokenness of our lives reveals to us—rather than in the idealized image of ourselves that exists only in our minds? Can we, unlike Adam and Eve, step out of the bushes without covering ourselves with the fig leaves of our idealized image of ourselves? Can we say to God, I am naked and I cannot clothe myself?

Of course, God already knows we are naked. God already knows that we fall miserably short of our goals and ideals for ourselves. God already knows: we are the ones who have to come to accept it. Jesus said of the Holy Spirit that when He comes, He would “convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement.” I wonder if this realization of our miserable inadequacy is not actually the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of God, who already knows we are naked, the work of the Holy Spirit in us, convicting us of the idealized, worldly ways we think about ourselves and revealing to us the painful truth. The painful truth is that we are indeed the Laodiceans spoken of in the book of Revelation. We have not known that we are “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.” Rather, we have struggled to ignore the cracks in the walls of our ego; we keep busy; we reassure ourselves that we are alright, or at least that we are not as bad off, not as broken, as some others. But the Grace of God is persistent. Like a dog owner house training a puppy: God keeps rubbing our nose in it.  God won’t let us go. God will not let us easily live in our own idealized view of ourselves.  

You know I have noticed something about the size of God, about the greatness or smallness of my view of God and His love and care for mankind. When I see myself in my idealized form, when I don’t seem so bad, when I’m pretty good, when I’m basically on the right track, God seems relatively small: it’s not hard to imagine that God could love me. However, when by God’s Grace I see my sins, when I see my failings and my brokenness, when I am forced by circumstances and experience to see, Oh so painfully, that I am much more miserable, blind, stupid and selfish than I realized --when I see myself as I really am, then God is huge, God’s love is amazing. God’s love must be amazing if God could love even me. And if God can love even me as naked, blind and wretched as I am, then it’s not so hard to see how God could love everyone. And if God loves everyone, then God must love me too. (I know this is a circular argument, but logic is just another ideal I try to put on myself. In reality my mind is seldom logical). 

In the past (and still every now and then), when I would see myself as strong, as someone who “should” be able to do it (whatever the “it” is), when I viewed myself this way and yet at the same time I fell miserably short in an area, I would often just give up, I’d often just cave in to my weakness and do nothing.  But when I start accepting that I am naked and that God loves and has loved me knowing all along that I am naked, then I can begin to pluck up the courage to step out from behind the fig leaves of my inflated view of myself.  I can look at my failures to meet my goals, keep my rules or live up to my ideals and say to myself, “Well of course. What else would I expect from someone as messed up as I am.” 

And here is where the little trick that I mentioned above comes in. The trick goes like this: When I sense that I am failing or am about to fail again, I ask myself, “Since I cannot offer God what I should, what is the least I could do in this situation?” For example, if I can’t seem to get out of bed to say my prayer rule in the morning, then I ask myself, “What is the least I could do?” The answer I give myself might be something like, “Well, at least you can get up and say the Trisagion prayers and then get back in bed.” Or I might say something like, “Well, the least you can do is say the Jesus Prayer in bed.” Or "the least you can do is reset your alarm with just enough time to get up and light your vigil candle and say the beginning and end of your rule.” I tell myself, "well it is the least I can do."

In such circumstances, I see myself as the fellow in the parable of the talents who received only one talent. The Land Owner tells him that the least he could have done, instead of burying the talent, was to give the talent to bankers so that it could collect interest. That’s me. I’m that fellow with the one talent. I cannot do what others do. I cannot invest and double my “talent of Grace,” as the hymns of Holy Week tell us to do. But I can at least do the least. That is, if I am going to break the fast because (well, because of any reason), then the least I can do is not give in completely to my craving: At least I can eat the cheese rather than the fish, or the fish rather than the chicken or the chicken rather than the steak. What is the least I can do? At least I can do that. And I have found that when I do this, when I offer to God the least, that God graciously accepts this.  

I can imagine that some of you are screaming, or something inside you is screaming, “but we should give God our best, not our least.” And of course, you are right. But here’s the painful reality that we are not willing to accept about ourselves: often the least is our best. Best is not defined by the idealized picture we have in our head about ourselves.  Best is defined by what we really are and what we really have and are able to do and offer God in the particular circumstances and reality of our life as it is, not as it should be or as we wish it were. What we really have to offer God comes from who we really are, not who we think we should be. And when we begin to offer to God the two widow’s mites of our reality, of who we really are, then we begin to really change. Then, I think, metamorphosis really begins.  Up to this point everything has been getting us ready, ready to see ourselves as we are, ready to accept God’s love for us in our miserable condition, ready to offer to God, not what we should, but what we are.

And this experience, this movement from should to be, has been for me one of the more painful transitions of my spiritual life. And it is on going. I sometimes amaze myself at the depth of self delusion when I see anew the height of my arrogance, the breadth of my selfishness, and my unwavering good opinion of myself even in the face of daily, hourly, evidence to the contrary. Daily I have to return to myself. Daily I have to step out of the bushes naked before God. Daily I have to humble myself and offer to God the least, offer to God so very much less than what I should, so much less than I imagined I would. And yet, this is what I have and what I am. It’s not much, but at least what I have, what I am, at least this little bit I give to God.  And God receives it, in his great love for mankind. And God receives it as he received the two copper coins of the widow. And God receives it, small as it is, taking the least and making it not just enough, but making it great, because that’s what God does.  



Wednesday, April 01, 2015

St. Isaac, Gehenna and Hope

Probably the most controversial teaching of St. Isaac the Syrian is his teaching on Gehenna, or hell.  Homily 27 begins with the following statement and explanation of St. Isaac’s thoughts on sin, Gehenna and death:

Sin, Gehenna and death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects [or acts], not substances.  Sin is the fruit of the will; there was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.  Gehenna is the fruit of sin; at some point in time it received a beginning, but its end is not known.  Death, however, is a dispensation of the wisdom of the Creator; it will have power over nature only for a time; then it will be totally abolished.

For St. Isaac, all suffering and torment is therapeutic, not vengeful or requisite from the perspective of God.  God allows or causes suffering for sin so that the sinner may be healed.  Even the curse at the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden was therapeutic.  The sufferings associated with the curse were instituted not as retributive punishment, although the language of the biblical text does read that way.  Rather, read through the revelation of the Cross, all apparent retributive action on the part of God in the Old Testament is now understood as redemptive.  That is, God was not looking back at past sins to punish Adam and Eve and their descendants,  but rather God was looking forward to prepare all human beings for redemption.  God uses the painful results or consequences of sinful human actions as a means to heal the very root of sin in human beings.  The sufferings associated with the adamic curse were to turn us to God by revealing to us our finitude.  And even death itself is to be understood as the doorway into the resurrection.  For St. Isaac, the biblical injunction, “mercy triumphs over justice,” is the interpretive principle when it comes to understanding eternal judgement.  In the End, all will somehow be reconciled with God.  

Now, I understand that the fifth Ecumenical Council condemned Origin and his protology (his theory of preexisting souls) and condemned the form of universalism based on his protology.  However, a few other Church fathers also held something like a universalist understanding of salvation, but not based on the preexistence of souls.  Most notably among these is St. Gregory of Nyssa--whom (I believe it was) the second Ecumenical Council proclaimed as the Father of the Fathers.   But to be sure, those who hold such universalist-like opinions are in the minority.  And if we are going to be honest in reading St. Isaac, we have to admit that he is part of that minority.  St. Isaac is a universalist of sorts.  

Of course, a lot depends on what you mean by universalist.  For St. Isaac, at least, that every creature will eventually be reconciled with God does not mean that there is no hell, nor that hell is not relatively eternal.  I say “relatively” because what we mean by “eternal” depends on what we are talking about.  Can any created thing be eternal in the same sense that God Himself is eternal?  Certainly not.  For example, in the Old Testament, God speaks of an “eternal covenant” with the biological descendants of Abraham, but St. Paul tells us (Heb. 8: 7-13) that the old covenant was faulty and was replaced by a new covenant.  Eternity is a relative thing when God is involved.

Some have said that St. Isaac’s understanding of Gehenna is somewhat like the Roman Catholic understanding of Purgatory, but with some significant differences.  Unlike the Roman Catholic understanding of Purgatory, Gehenna, according to St. Isaac, has nothing to do with retribution or payment for past sins.  Gehenna is a place of torment in which suffering as a consequence of our sins (which does not mean the same thing as a recompense for our sins) somehow changes us, somehow turns our will so that every human being, and indeed for St. Isaac every creature, can be reconciled with God.  

St. Isaac is very specific about the nature of the suffering in Gehenna.  It is not punishment in the sense that God is balancing a scale or paying people back for what they did, as though God were somehow under compulsion to a sense of justice greater than Himself, greater than Love.  Rather, St. Isaac says that “those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourges of love.”  That is, they suffer because they now know and cannot escape or distract themselves from the love of God, and the torment they experience has to do with their realization that they have sinned against this great love of God.

Gods love works in two ways in the age to come, according to St. Isaac: 

It torments those who have played the fool, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties.  Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret.  But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its delectability. 

So for St. Isaac, Heaven and Hell are not different places, but rather different experiences of the same love of God.  Those who “have played the fool,” those who have spent a lifetime turning away from God will experience torment when they are plunged into the fiery lake of the Love of God, love that they can no longer ignore or distract themselves from, love that forces them to confront themselves as they really are, not as they have spent their lifetime on earth pretending to be.  This will be torment to some.  Others, those who have turned to God, those who have seen their own wickedness, hated it, but nonetheless confessed it as their own, those who have longed to know the love of God, these will experience the same overwhelming love of God as bliss, as heaven, as the fulfillment of their longing.  

But those who experience torment will do so because of sin.  And because sin is not eternal, neither can its consequences be--or so posits St. Isaac.  St. Isaac tells us that Gehenna is the “fruit of sin” and that “at some point in time it received a beginning, but its end is not known.”  Gehenna will have an end, for when the tree dies, the fruit will eventually pass away.  But the end of Gehenna is unknown St. Isaac tells us.  The end of Gehenna is really only posited, or assumed, based on its contingent reality--or rather based on the fact that Gehenna is not actually a reality at all, but an effect, a response, or an experience derived from sin, which itself (sin) is merely an effect and has no reality in itself, no substance, no being.  Sin is merely the perversion or twisting of being.  And so if the cause (sin) is not an eternal thing, then the result (Gehenna) can neither be eternal—at least not eternal in the same sense as a being that was actually created: sin has no being, so neither has its result.

St. Isaac’s understanding of Gehenna as the “scourges of love” and his understanding of the eventual reconciliation of all creation with the Creator is a minority opinion among the Fathers of the Church.  Therefore, it would be inappropriate to say that St. Isaac’s understanding of Gehenna represents the Orthodox understanding.  It is, however, an Orthodox understanding.  I think the Orthodox teaching on Gehenna is that it is a mystery, that we do not really know much at all about it except this: there really is such a thing, or place or experience as Gehenna.  How it exists, what it does, and the exact experience of those who enter it is unknown to us--except that it is very unpleasant and that it is eternal.  

But we must be careful with words like “eternal.”  When we speak of eternal life, for example, we are not speaking of life as we know it without end.  Rather, we are talking about a different quality or kind of life, the life of the Age to Come.  “Eternal” is often a quality word in the bible and in the writing of the Fathers, not a quantity word.  And even when it is referring to duration, we must remember that time itself is a category of a certain created order.  What has no limits from the perspective of the creature within a particular age or epoch (the biological descendants of Abraham before the Incarnation of Christ, for example), may indeed be finite from God’s perspective or even from the perspective of creatures in another age--such as the saints and angels in heaven.  We just don't know what phrases like "eternal condemnation" or "eternal fire" or "the worm never ceases" actually mean in terms of duration especially from the perspective of the Creator who works according to kairos time even though chronos time as we know it will pass away.


Metropolitan Kalistos Ware says that at best the hope that all will be reconciled with God is nothing more than just that, a hope, not a dogma of the Orthodox Church.  St. Isaac could be completely missing it on this one--or we could be completely misunderstanding him.  Or, as I hope is the case, the majority of the Church Fathers could be missing it and the minority report is the correct one.  It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the Church when the majority missed the mark and only a later generation recognized the the truth in the minority report.  It has happened before, just not very often.  

Still, in the mean time, I think I would rather err on the side of hope, on the side that hopes that no suffering whatsoever, not even the suffering of Gehenna is vendictive punishment on God’s part, but rather that the God who came and suffered both with and for us has himself entered all suffering and redeemed it so that nothing is lost, nothing is wasted, no one is thrown away.  This is my hope, because, like Moses, I don’t think I could bear to enter the promised land without all the people.  But who am I to know anything about such mysteries.  I only hope in the Love of God.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Follow up on Coptic Martyrs

National Geographic has done a small piece on the families of the 21 Coptic martyrs.  Please check it out here.
Fr. Michael

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Two Kinds of Confidence

Seeing Through A Glass Darkly

In Homily 27, St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of two kinds of confidence. The first kind of confidence is what we generally mean when we say someone is confident. That is, the person is sure about what he or she is doing or saying.  St. Isaac tells us that this kind of confidence is spiritually dangerous. It is dangerous because we live in an age of changeability, or “ununiformity” as it is translated in the Holy Transfiguration edition of St. Isaac’s text. This ununiformity refers to the mutability or inconstancy we experience in this world.  Things and people don't stay the same.

On a basic biological level, human beings change. Not only do our bodies change with age, but even on a moment by moment basis, our moods and our ability to think clearly are easily altered by what we have eaten, how much sleep we have had or how we feel about what is happening around us. (Excitement or fear release adrenaline, for example.  Other chemicals such as endorphin, dopamine, and oxytocin are also influenced by the foods we eat and external stimuli, dramatically affecting our moods, our ability to think clearly and how we feel about what we think or experience—thus further influencing our body’s chemistry).

If this changeability truly occurs on a merely biological level, it is even more certainly occurs, according to St. Isaac, on the intellectual and even the spiritual level. St. Isaac says, 
“The different states of men’s hearts and the dissimilar ways of thinking that are usually born of them…are greatly assisted by the ununiformity of the theoria that arises in men’s minds concerning God’s judgements.”  
That is, people don’t think the same way about God, about God’s judgements (about what God is doing in the world and in their lives). As you probably know already, two people can have what seems to be exactly the same experience, but draw very different conclusions based on that same experience. Two people can hear the same lecture, for example, but go away with very different conceptions of what the lecture was about. Two people can read the exact same prayer or bible verse and one be profoundly touched, encouraged and motivated by it while the other person seems to get nothing at all out of it. Even the same person can one day find profound comfort and encouragement in a particular thought or reflection, but two days later see nothing at all profound about the same thought. 

Modern western culture wants to deny, or at least seem to limit or control, this mental changeability. Culturally speaking, it seems that in the west science provides the mirage by which we are trained not to attend to this changeability. We tell ourselves that science is about the careful observation of measurable and repeatable phenomena, and thus we comfort ourselves that consistency in thought is possible, that there is indeed a foundation on which to base our confidence. However, as anyone who has spent much time in the world of the academy knows, scientists are not very good at listening to one another, despite the facts; not very good at putting aside their egos, even in the face of observed phenomena; not very good at acknowledging the whole truth—especially the bits that don’t fit well into their theory. Scientists are, basically, just like everyone else: struggling to make a living and a name for themselves within a structure that is generally agreed upon, a structure in which certain incongruences are politely overlooked while others are focused on.

Then suddenly, every now and then, a conceptual revolution or profound paradigm shift takes place, and how scientists see the universe deeply changes.  But this change, this (we might say) evidence of changeability, does not produce humility in the mass of us scientifically-minded, university-trained thinkers—although it does seem sometimes to produce humility in a few of the most gifted and best trained scientific thinkers—but for most of us, a change in paradigm (such as the development of quantum physics) only increases our confidence as we arrogantly exult in our new found bit of insight and lament how misguided the previous generations were.

We do not stop to think that if the foundational paradigms of science have been changing throughout history, then certainly they will continue to change. Humility is called for. Confidence, as St. Isaac suggests, must always be tamed by fear. And this is the beginning of wisdom, as the scripture say, “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” It is the beginning of wisdom because, according to St. Isaac (and as I have said previously), it is our awareness of the changeability that we encounter within ourselves, among ourselves and in our interaction with the universe, that begins to save us, that begins to humble us so that we can be enlightened by the Grace of the Holy Spirit to start to see what is behind what is seen. This seeing what is behind or beyond what is seen takes place through what is called contemplation or theoria. And of course what people perceive through contemplation differs greatly: to quote again St. Isaac: “different states of men’s heats and the dissimilar ways of thinking that are usually born of them” come from the “ununiformity of the theoria that arises in men’s minds.”  

This reality of “dissimilar ways of thinking” and “different states of men’s hearts” when it comes to the understanding of God, is for many, one of the most disturbing aspects of their growing knowledge of God. As well-trained western thinkers we assume along with Immanuel Kant that anything that is really true will be perceived as true in the same way by all well-informed and clear-thinking people. But, as seducing as such a philosophy seems to be, just a casual glance at the turmoil of the world today (and since its creation, for that matter), should be sufficient evidence to prove that Immanuel Kant was wrong. Nonetheless, facts have never hindered philosophy. Like the clear-thinking makers of foreign policy among the western nations, we just assume that everybody is basically just like us; and where we differ, it is only a matter of training: if we educate others and train them to think clearly, they will certainly come to see things our way. That's how most of us inheritors of the western philosophic tradition think about almost everything unless we intentionally and with great effort try to think differently.

And we in our spiritual lives seem to have this same incorrect philosophical assumption. We assume that true spiritual insight will be the same for everyone. That spiritual truth will be seen and understood the same by everyone who really encounters it. But St. Isaac tells us that “The ununiformity of theoria, which in one soul changes and varies, is [caused by] the incomprehensibility of God’s eternal mind.” He goes on to warn us that “if nature, which is inclined to aberration, should receive here the real truth, it would die by reason of the impetuosity of aberration.” That is, so long as we are in this world, so long as we are subject to changeability, “the real truth,” or the revelation of God as God, would kill us because we are broken and cannot take it, not in its full form. 

Our capacity to know and encounter truth, especially spiritual truth, is kind of like a pipe that is designed to carry so many litres of water per minute. If that same pipe gets twisted and turned and shrunk and kinked, then the amount of water it can carry is dramatically diminished. And, in fact, if you try to put too much water through that perverted pipe too fast, you will burst the pipe (btw, the word “perverted” just means “twisted’).  

Or to try a different metaphor, it is as though we are attempting to read a letter, but we can only read every seventh word. What we do read in the letter is indeed genuinely what the author wrote, it is completely true in that sense; but how each one understands the letter varies—especially if we each understand a different word among each set of seven, or if, like me, we only really understand every tenth or twentieth word. Humility is called for. 

We all, as St. Paul put it, “see through a glass darkly.” So we not only need to listen to one another, but we must also accept that we may never quite see things the way a certain holy man or woman sees them; we may never quite get out of certain spiritual disciplines or practices what other people get out of them. We have to accept that we are different and that’s OK. We are all twisted in different ways, all broken at different joints, all struggling with different handicaps. But God in His love knows this about us already. That’s why the contemplations are different: God is giving to each what he or she needs to take the next step, to straighten out one part of his or her pipe. That’s why we have to trust one another, be patient with one another, and give one another the benefit of the doubt. Basically we have to love and be patient, not only with one another, but also with ourselves.

St. Isaac tell us that our experience of changeability not only leads us to humility, it also teaches us to lift our spiritual eyes to God who is above all of this variableness.  He says, 
“But when the understanding withdraws itself from [the changeable world] and ascends solely toward the Existent One by beholding the properties of that good Nature which possesses eternal knowledge that precedes all existent things, and by beholding all His properties, then immediately fear is cast out and the mind is sustained by confidence.”  
For St. Isaac, confidence returns. No longer is it a confidence based on a presumptuous understanding of worldly things—no this confidence “breeds contempt and an impetuous way of thought,” according to St. Isaac.  Confidence in or based on anything seen only leads to arrogance, to a further twisting our our souls, making it even harder for us to perceive what is real, to perceive what is behind what is seen. However, humility based on the fear of God has the ability to “bind up” or even “bridle” to some extent impetuous aberration, or changeability, so that we can to some small extent lift our eyes to God who is beyond change. When we do this and we begin to behold in our inner mind “the properties,” what I think the Greek Fathers might call “the energies” of God, then a new kind of confidence is born in us, a confidence in God.

And this is the confidence that casts out fear. It is the confidence of the martyrs, the saints, and the holy men and women who have manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives amid what St. Paul calls “this crooked and perverse generation.” This is the confidence we all long for, but we cannot attain—at least not until we let go of our confidence in what is seen, confidence in what we think we know, confidence in that knowledge which St. Paul says "puffs up."  

But it is a fearsome thing to let go. That’s why all of the evidence in the world does not persuade us that we really do not know, that we really are dependent creatures, that we cannot figure things out nor can we actually keep all of the balls in the air. We have to move to dependence, to humility, to the fear of God. This is the only path to the confidence that cannot be shaken, to the confidence based not on what is seen, but on what is not seen. This is the only path to the confidence that casts out fear.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Fighting Boredom and Despondency


I read the bible through the first time when I was in high school.  I was part of a youth group that made it a project.  We made a big chart with all of the books of the bible in columns on it with everyone’s names at the side and each Sunday we would check off whatever books (or parts of books) we had read during that week.  Since my main social reality in high school was with my Church friends and not my school friends, it worked well for me to read my bible during my lunch break at school most days.  And although at that time I had the rather competitive atmosphere of my youth group providing most of my motivation to read the bible diligently, I also thought it was a good idea.  After all, if I was going to be a Christian, I figured, then I should read the Christian holy book through at least once in my lifetime.

However, there was also another, deeper motivation.  I wanted to know God better and I wanted to be able to help others know God too.  At some deep level, this also was my motivation--even though I experienced it faintly at that time and perhaps I couldn’t even identify that as a motivation at the beginning.  However, as time went on, as I kept reading the bible, my awareness of that deeper motivation continued to grow.  But it took time.  And that is what I want to talk about today.  In those early days of diligent bible reading, I discovered that often verses or ideas I had encountered several months earlier in my reading would suddenly take on life for me as I read other passages or as I encountered new situations in my life. 

When I say diligent bible reading, I am distinguishing it from either casual bible reading (reading a little here or there when I felt like it) or crisis bible reading (opening the bible hoping to be divinely guided to a verse that spoke directly to a crises I was experiencing in my life at that moment).  There is nothing wrong, I think, with reading the bible casually or in a crisis; but if we are really going to grow, not only in our knowledge of the bible as a text, but also to grow in our knowledge of God through the holy text, then we have to devote ourselves to diligence in reading.  And while a casual reader might often find something interesting or beautiful to think about whenever she picked up the bible; and while, in His mercy, God usually provide some help, guidance or comfort to anyone who looks to Him for help by picking up and reading a bible in a time of crisis, yet reading the bible diligently does not usually produce immediate results.  

As those who have read the bible diligently know, especially in the early years, you can go for months at a time reading faithfully and not encountering anything that strikes you as particularly beautiful, interesting, or divinely inspired.  Unlike casual reading and crisis reading, the desired results are not so immediate, but they are longer lasting.  And this makes sense, even on a purely literary level.  To really appreciate a very well written novel, for example, you often have to read it twice or more.   The first time I read the Karamozov Brothers by Dostoyevsky, I appreciated some bits, but I had no idea what was going on.  Ten years later, when I reread it, I got the plot and saw some of the spiritual aspects of the novel thus appreciating the novel so much more.  Ten years after that, on my third reading (now in my forties), I  saw Dostoyevsky’s profound grasp of human psychology and was in awe of his ability portray with accurate detail and compassion (and mostly it is the compassion that awed me) the inner lives of the several very different characters in the novel.  Now I am sure that I was able to see these things in my forties because of my own life experience, but if I had not already been familiar with the novel, I almost certainly would not have been able to have gained so much from reading it at that point in my life.

But if this principle of diligence bearing fruit is true at a merely literary level, it is even more profoundly true on a spiritual level.  In homily 25 of St. Isaac the Syrian’s Ascetical Homilies, the saint talks about this very experience in the spiritual life as it applies to prayer.  St. Isaac says:

“It is a sign of the beginning of a man’s recovery from his [spiritual] illness when he desires hidden [i.e. spiritual] things.  There is, however, a delay until he witnesses true health.”  

When a person begins to be healed of spiritual illness, when he or she begins to actually repent and draw near to God; then the sign that this is really taking place, according to St. Isaac, is that the person will also begin to desire spiritual, or hidden, things.  This desire for hidden things is then the motivation that empowers one to diligently pursue a spiritual life.  This pursuit of the spiritual life can take various forms depending on one’s personality, calling and circumstances in life.  In my case, as a young man in a Protestant context, this pursuit of God took the form of bible reading.  In contrast, my wife, or the young woman who would become my wife, who was in the same high school youth group, diligently sought God in ways that worked well for her. Although she also did her fair share of bible reading, that wasn’t where she found life in her pursuit of God.  Bonnie is an artist, and since there was very little room for artistic expression in the frigid iconoclastic air of the Protestant context we found ourselves in, Bonnie found life in the diligent pursuit of God through music: playing the guitar and writing songs that were really more like prayers than songs.

And just as I had to slog through Leviticus and the prophecy of Habakuk, getting very little immediate edification for my effort, Bonnie had to slog through music theory (“the circle of fifths,” I think, is what she called her tedium).  Discipline and diligence are necessary if one is going to pursue God whether it is through prayer or reading or painting or music.  The hidden things in our heart, the spiritual treasures of a relationship with God, do not reveal themselves to the lazy.  St. Isaac names the two enemies that keep us from acquiring the spiritual treasure we seek.  These are “tedium” and “despondency.”  “Tedium” refers to what we might nowadays call the “boring” nature of what we are doing.  Let’s face it, until you know something about the history of Israel and the spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament, most of the the Old Testament is just plain boring.  But the only way to learn is to begin to read.  You have to pass through the boredom to the life.  The same thing is true with beginning a prayer rule or learning music theory or basic drawing and brush strokes.  You have to be faithful through the tedium before you can start to enjoy the fruit of life in what you are doing.

“Despondency” refers to my own downward spirals, my own inability to motivate myself, my own struggle with bad days or weeks or months.  When I am despondent, I just cannot motivate myself to do what I need to do, nor even, sometimes, what I want to do.  When I struggle with despondency, it seems like it takes a herculean effort for me just to get my bible open and to read the same few verses over and over again, as though my mind has been greased and every word slides right off.  Or I have to force myself with all my might just to light the vigil lamp in my icon corner, open my prayer book and stand there just whimpering for a few minutes.  In times like these when I struggle with despondency, a saying from my days of athletic training has helped me a great deal:  “Something is always better than nothing.”  To open my bible is itself a prayer.  To read the same verses over and over again making no sense out of it: this too is prayer.  To light a vigil lamp is a prayer.  To stand before an icon and just whimper, that too is prayer.  Something is always better than nothing.  

St. Isaac advises us that when we find ourselves confronting either tedium or despondency, we need to call to mind why we are doing what we are doing.  Why do I pray?  Why do I read my bible?  Why do I do any spiritual discipline that I do?  I do it because I desire the hidden, spiritual realities.  I desire to know God.  St. Isaac tells us that we must allow this desire to generate expectation in us: expectation that God will come to my aid, expectation that soon something hidden will indeed be revealed to me; expectation that this simple act of being diligent and hanging in there will indeed bear fruit.  


Jesus loved agricultural metaphors.  He sure used a lot of them.  A sower sows, farmer plants and the crop grows.  The farmer labors in hope, in expectation.  Even though there is nothing he can do to hurry the crop along, the farmer knows that if he keeps at it, eventually he will have more fruit than he will know what to do with it all.  But he has to hang in there.  There is a delay, as St. Isaac tells us, between the beginning of our efforts in spiritual growth, between our desire to enter into the hidden things of our heart, and the time when we do actually begin to enjoy the fruit of our labor, what St. Isaac calls the witness of true spiritual health.  And the meat, you might say, that we have to sustain us during this long growing seasons, through the tedium of weeding and through the droughts of despondency, the food that will sustain us during these sometimes dry and sometimes boring times, this food is expectation, expectation that we will indeed, if we do not give up, come to see and know the hidden things of our hearts, the hidden things of God and His kingdom.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Humility By Accident

In homily 24, St. Isaac points out a fundamental law of discernment: 
“Everything that can be perceived by the senses, whether an action or a word, is a  manifestation of something hidden within.”  
This principle of discernment is not given to us so that we can spy into the hearts of others by trying to surmise what is hidden in their hearts by scrutinizing their words and actions.  No, if we apply this principle to others then it ceases to be about discernment, and is rather about judgement, something none of us are called to do.  Of course, in certain contexts and in certain roles in the world (teacher, parent, police officer, judge, etc.) we may be called upon to make distinctions and decisions based on other people’s words and actions.  Even in the Church—actually, very often in the Church—we must make such distinctions and decisions based on people’s words and actions, yet we are never called upon to speculate about what may or may not be hidden in the hearts of others motivating their action. Only God and perhaps the person him or herself knows what is hidden in the heart.

I say perhaps the person knows what is hidden in his or her heart, but more accurately I should say seldom does a person know what is hidden in his or her heart motivating their words and actions. To know one’s own heart, many have said, is to begin to know God for the heart is the meeting place, the door, or the temple where the person meets with God. And so, the purpose of St. Isaac’s instruction that every word and action proceed from the heart is to help each of us to examine our own words and actions and begin to discern and discover what is hidden in our own hearts. It isn’t the warm fuzzy or cold prickly feelings we have inside that faithfully reveal to us what is in our hearts; rather, it is what we actually do and say that reveals what is in our hearts—often regardless of how we feel.

However, St. Isaac tells us, that some occurrences, that is some words and actions that proceed from us, are accidental. These do not come from the heart, unless they become continual or typical. These accidental words or actions, according to St. Isaac, do not necessarily come from our will or our free choice. Whether or not they are freely chosen and come from our will, thus revealing our heart, is shown primarily by the fact that they continue to occur. If they do not continue, then they are less likely to be from the heart.

For example, I might in a moment of tiredness or stress snap angrily at my grandchild. If I immediately repent and do not do it again, then we could say that it was an accidental occurrence, and St. Isaac says it is “only slightly taken into account.” This principle applies not only to bad behaviour, but also to good. If on a good day, someone catches me in a good mood and hits me up for a contribution to a good cause, I might give a hundred dollars. However, if this is not something I am continually doing, then St. Isaac says that it also is an accidental occurrence not really revealing anything in my heart. You might call this accidental generosity, but because it is not a continual action, not something I’m always doing, not something that characterizes me, this accidental generosity does not reveal a genuinely generous heart.

Why does this happen? Why is it that I can sometimes say some terribly mean things to the people I love the most.  Things that are not in my heart, things I do not want to be true. And why is it that I can suddenly be so amazingly patient or self controlled or generous in a particular unusual situation, but then immediately return to my normally impatient, intemperate and selfish self as soon as things return to normal? St. Isaac would chalk this up to human changeability, or to use his word, variableness. That is, human beings are able to change, able to repent, either for better or for worse.  

Thus, for as long as we live we need to watch ourselves carefully and never allow ourselves to pridefully boast in our mind that we have pretty much got things under control. In fact, St. Isaac tells us in homily 5 that 
“in each matter about which a man boasts himself, God permits that he change, so that he should be humbled, and learn humility.  This is why you must surrender all things to God’s foreknowledge, and not believe that there is anything in this life unchanging.”  
No matter how holy a person becomes, change for the worse is possible; similarly, no matter how sinful a person becomes, changes for the better is possible. However, with habit in either virtue or sin, change becomes more painful with time. This is why St. Isaac advises us, “While the transgression is still small and blossoming, pluck it up, before it spreads to cover the field.”

St. Isaac points out that although these accidental occurrences are not necessarily intentional on our part, neither are they random. God and our guardian angel, he says, work providentially to “pilot” these accidental occurrences, whether good or bad, so that they serve one of four functions in our lives. These four functions are (1) as incentive, (2) as a trial, (3) for training, or (4) as a recompense. St. Isaac advises us—in fact more than advises, he says we are blessed—if we compare every occurrence, that is everything we do and say, with what is really in our heart; and if it proves to be an accidental occurrence, then we should seek out its cause or function and see in it the instructing, providential hand of God.  

For example, I might stay up too late watching “just one more” episode of my favourite new series on Netflix, and the next day snap angrily at my wife, something I generally don’t do. Upon reflection I might realize that this accidental occurrence, this unusually bad behaviour on my part was a kind of recompense, a reaping of what I had sown. If I foolishly squander the time God gives me for rest, then I am more likely to change in bad ways: I am more likely to give myself permission to take my tiredness out on other people.  

Or here’s another example. Once (and only once—you will soon see why) the bishop asked me to serve vespers at a large conference. I have served vespers at least once a week for about twenty years. I know vespers. And yet, despite all of this experience, in the opening declaration of the service, I said the wrong words, which I realized right away, but it was too late, they were already loudly proclaimed for the bishop and all one thousand plus attendees to hear. And then the service went down hill from there. I must have made a dozen Jayvee mistakes in that one vespers service, all of which I noticed immediately and some of which I had been focusing very hard on immediately beforehand not to commit. But I made the dumb mistake anyway. The bishop’s one comment to me afterward was, “you need to study liturgics,” as though I were a seminarian celebrating vespers for the first time.  Here, my accidental occurrences, my liturgical mistakes, were along the line of trial. It was a large spoonful of humiliation, and I just needed to swallow it calmly and move on.

And then there are the good accidents. Most of what I know about counselling, for example, has come from good accidents. Somehow in God’s mercy, I say something or do something in counselling that works, that bears good fruit.  When this happens, St. Isaac calls it incentive. When an accidental occurrence creates or leads to something good, then we are given an opportunity to repeat it and learn it and ingrain it in our heart. I know nothing about counselling technique. Nevertheless, through trial and error, or rather through the incentive God has providentially given me through accidental occurrences producing good fruit, I have learned that I counsel best when I allow my heart to be open to the person I am talking to, to listen with an open heart and to love intensely the person or people sitting in front of me right at that moment. What begins as accidentally good behaviour on our part can be repeated and can sink into our heart making our own the character that will regularly produce this good behaviour.  


St. Isaac ends this homily by reminding us that the purpose of this changeability, these accidental occurrences, whether good or bad, is to teach us humility and self-reproach. When we know that we can always fail, in fact that we often fail even though others may not see it, then we can more easily humble ourselves before God and before our fellow human beings. St. Isaac reminds us that when we see ourselves as feeble and despicable (which, by the way, does not mean evil, it just means “to be looked down upon,” as Jesus taught us, to see others as higher than ourselves) when we see ourselves humbly, then we can know “that in very truth [we] walk on the path of God.”

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

When Apples Are Sometimes Oranges


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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