21 December 2007
As for Christmas memories...
Well, I don't have anything that remotely compares to Don's, but what I do have are certain feelings about Christmas that were informed from early memories. When was a very young, Christmas Eve was a whirlwind; I remember that breathless anticipation, and the equally breathless exhaustion, of making both sets of grandparents' houses, as well as both my mom and my dad's grandmothes' houses, on the same night. These were 12 hours of gifts, foods, and fun times. We'd start for lunch at my mom's parents' house, and have sandwiches and deli chips (a tradition that is still upheld on Christmas Eve, although now that some of us are Orthodox, and still in the Fast, there is soy cheese and Light n' Life bologna on some of the trays), and we'd exchange gifts there. Then we'd all load up and go to my grandmother's mother's house, where my mom's family had their major get-together (her first cousins--all 7 of them, and their families), where we had the big, celebratory feasting dinner, followed by more gifts. Then, our family ducked out early to hit the tail-end of the big, celebratory feasting dinner at my dad's mother's mother's house, where, of course, we were obliged to eat again, so as not to hurt any feelings. Then, after the gift exhange there (the highlight being the year that all the kids under 16 were given LazerTag guns and target vests!), we went to my dad's parents to exchange gifts with them, and my aunts and uncles (none of whom had any children of their own until very recently). Afterward, we'd go home, where after putting us (my siblings and me) to bed, often well after midnight, my parents would begin setting out Santa gifts, assembling things as necessary. In retrospect, there were many Christmas Days where mom and dad hadn't slept in close to two days--God love them!
Christmas, as you can guess, has always been a time of excess for me; although, thinking about it, excess doesn't seem like quite the right word. Perhaps largess might more appropriately describe the feeling. I suppose I was a spoiled child, although I don't recall ever expecting gifts; I've always been prone to magical thinking, so I suppose I just took gifts given to me with the understanding that all people, everywhere, gave liberally and fully. I realize now, as an adult, that this was, likely, not always the spirit wherein my gifts were given...but the simple wonder of childhood is that you can believe the best in people, judging their actions to come from better impulses than they may have had. Oh, Blessed! How much we have to unlearn as cold, jaded adults! How much do I wish that I could again see the world as I did as a child...a place of vast and substantial love, filling in all the cracks between us.
This is the important lesson of Christmas, I think, and one that is particularly meaningful to me, especially now that this isn't the rhythm of life for the celebration of the holiday. Since mom's grandmother's death (may her memory be eternal), we now get together with her family two weeks before Christmas itself; since dad's grandmother's death (may her memory be eternal), we no longer speak or have contact with any of his aunts, uncles, or cousins (bad family blood ensued). We still go to my mom's mother's on Christmas Eve for lunch, but now mom and I (and this year, dad also!) go to Church for Royal Matins that evening. Our Christmas meal and gift-exchange at dad's parents' house is never at a fixed date, but is decided by common consensus at the Thanksgiving meal; this year, we're going to be there for a late lunch on Sunday, after mom, dad, and I leave Liturgy.
The world seems a smaller place, now that I know that the magic wasn't really magic at all, but just my perceptions of the world. But in the proportion that my own little princedom has decreased, so has the larger world increased. Now, while I miss, on occasion, my misty-eyed, child-like wonder at Christmastide, I contemplate the truly cosmic implications of the fact that God has become Man, and he did this so that I could become like him. Truly, he has taught this man who worshipped the stars to adore him, the Sun of Righteousness.
I suppose all that is left to be said is:
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Incidentally, I'm tagging Karen, Katie, Petra, and Jacob.
13 December 2007
When I was floundering about in Western mysticism (I'll need to talk about that more at a later date), I dismissed such people; after all, if they weren't looking for the Transcendent Divine Will, and actually were concerned for the body! then they clearly were not on the same spiritual plane that I was--and therefore, not worth my time. Well, this is insanely arrogant, but that's what I thought.
Notice, though, that I believed, essentially, the same thing they did. The body and the spirit are separated; and, while postmoderns want to toss out the mind and/or spirit (we're not sure which we're talking about) in favor of the body only--and, Orthodox Christians take note, when a postmodern talks about "reclaiming the body" they mean giving in wholesale to the passions of the flesh--I had taken the opposite approach and disregarded the body in favor of the mind/spirit. What Orthodoxy taught me, however, is that this is the same error, just a different expression.
The beauty of Orthodox theology is wrapped up in a simple phrase that you'll often hear Orthodox people say to those who inquire about the Church: Come and See. This is a variation of the theme of Psalm 33 (LXX), that says "Taste and see that the Lord is good; his praise shall continually be in my mouth." Come and see--taste and see. We tell people that the best way to experience God is to taste him. This sensual remark is totally out of place in Western Christianity, where it would at best be seen as a metaphor. In the East, we literally mean that the best way to get to know God is to eat him, which we have the opportunity to do at every divine liturgy.
The Lord is good, because he came to save our bodies as well as our souls. He came to restore material creation to the beauty that God intended for it, not to annihilate it in favor of some "pure" disincarnate reality. The Transcendent God has become incarnate; God has a physical, material body in the person of Jesus Christ. The unknowable God has willing chosen to partake in our nature, so that our humanity might be deified! How does this not excite you? How can this self-revelation of God fail to incite you to want to tell everyone: Come! Taste, touch, smell, see, and hear the Word of God made flesh for our sake!
This understanding of who God is, and how we come to know him, is Orthodoxy's cure for the dangerous disease of modernity (and her child, postmodernity).
10 December 2007
This 'heady richness' in Orthodoxy makes for some interesting times for those not acquainted with it, at least at first. Like a man who had been starved for the first 22 year of his life, I came to the Orthodox banquet (to change metaphors mid-post; my apologies) and saw dishes of types and varieties that I never so much as dreamed of existing, much less ever thought would be spread out in front of me for the trying. So, being prone to gluttony (God forgive me!), instead of doing what you ought to do in such situations and just focusing on the two of three dishes nearest to you, I decided to take a spoon to all of them at once. (Incidentally, I did this also during my first Bright Week; I went as overboard with the feasting as I did with the fasting, and ended up putting my intestines into shock and spent an overnight in the hospital. Good convert lessons, these are.)
I am rapidly losing my point, as I tend to do, so I'm going to cut through here a bit and try to just make it; part of the 'drunk off incense' phenomenon is the sensory overload of Orthodoxy. Orthodox aesthetics appeal to me in great ways. The icons, Russian-style lampadas, deep-stained wooden altars...all of which I incorporated into my first icon wall (at mom and dad's house). I built the altar myself, stained it, mounted a cast iron cross on the front of it, made tons of print icons that I arranged in stacked, Russian style, used rich fabrics for altar cloths, etc. It is a very nice icon corner, if I do say so myself. But, since I've moved to my own place now, and am just getting things together for myself, my new icon corner (which I set up yesterday...it didn't feel like home until I got it up, which again is interesting how quickly icons have become the norm for me) was sort of assembled out of pieces of furniture I had. An old table from mom and dad's, a spare floating shelf from my old room in Lexington, a hanging lamp I bought on clearance from World Market, some candlesticks I bought at a second-hand shop, and just a handful of icons (my Pantocrator-and-Theotokos diptych, the Archangel Gabriel that Eric and April brought be back from Greece, my St. Jusinian that my godparents gave me at my Chrismation, and St. Anthony that I got at the Greek Festival this year), and a small silver-plated crucifix I bought on ebay, and an incense box I bought at a big box retail store, are all that make up the corner at present.
So, last night I did my evening prayers there, hoping to establish it as the place where I'll be doing my prayer rule now; I'll swear to you, I felt what people talk about feeling in their prayer rules for the first time. Although 'feeling' is misleading; I knew Christ was there, the way I encounter him at the Chalice in Divine Liturgy, the way I encounter him at Vespers service when we sing the Evening Prokeimenon. There is an ineffable wonder at this, which cannot truly be conveyed to those who do not know it themselves. These hidden things, these mysteries of the Incarnate God, are found in the simplest expressions of Orthodoxy, as well as in the rich and full ones. You'd think I'd know this, attending a mission that borrows space to meet each week, but sometimes, Christ needs to poke us with a needle to get our attention, because we would hardly notice the sword we expect to stab us.
St. John Chrysostom would be proud, I think, that I'm re-learning the value of simplicity. Learning to integrate simplicity into the practice of living Orthodoxy (which, btw, the indigenous Orthodox don't seem to have much trouble with--the problem is with the overthinking, overzealous converts) is a challenge I'm glad to take up.
06 December 2007
On the other hand, I'm glad that's a tradition that didn't catch on.
Enjoy the Feast Day everyone!
05 December 2007
The Holy Hieromartyr Justinian of Ramsey Island, originally from a Breton Celtic family, was the confessor and spiritual father of Saint David of Wales. Ramsey Island was the site of Justinian's hermitage, and lies just off the extreme southwest of Wales, near the city of St Davids. His feast day is celebrated on December 5.
Saint Justinian was martyred by three of his servants who had been possessed by demons. The servants were driven mad and refused to obey their master, who was entreating them to work and not to lead an idle life. The servants then threw him to the ground and cut off his head. The murderers of the saint were struck with leprosy, and recognized that this was God's vengeance on them. They lived by a rock still called "lepers' rock", and after loading their bodies with heavy penances were counted worthy of forgiveness through the prayers of St. Justinian.
St. Justinian's decapitated body rose and took the head in its arms and descended to the sea shore. Walking across the water, it came to the port named after the saint, which is today a lifeboat station, and to the church now dedicated in his name: Llanstinian, near Fishguard. The saint's relics are now contained in a shrine behind the high altar of St. David's Cathedral (St. David's, Wales), along with those of Saint David.
04 December 2007
20:7 Thou hast deceived me, O Lord, and I have been deceived: thou hast been strong, and has prevailed: I am become a laughing-stock, I am continually mocked every day.
20:8 For I will laugh with my bitter speech, I will call upon rebellion and misery: for the word of the Lord is become a reproach to me and a mockery all my days.
20:9 Then I said, I will by no means name the name of the Lord, and I will no more at all speak in his name. But it was a burning fire flaming in my bones, and I am utterly weakened on all sides, and cannot bear [up].
Some days, you just know what Jeremiah felt. When people you care about reject the Word of Truth, and you feel as if you can't bear to talk about it anymore because their hearts are hardened against it; it feels like the Lord is making a mockery of you, not giving you any rest from the arguments, nor making any apparent change in the heart of those with whom you are arguing. And when in my strong willed moments, I decide to clamp my mouth shut and say no more, I feel almost about to burst if I don't express the experience of the living Christ who is our God. What are we to do? We are not martyred for our faith, neither are all of us called to the white martyrdom on monastic life, yet we find ourselves often at a crux--at cross purposes between the desire to be silent when we know that our words will not be filled with the necessary humility, and the desire to shout from the rooftops of the joy and fulfillment we find in the path toward union with the unknowable God, through His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. What are we to do?
Most holy Theotokos, pray to your Son and our God, that we who are distressed in our hearts because of our own lack of wisdom are granted the knowledge to do His will, and that the law of Love that He has written upon our hearts will be made manifest to all those with whom we speak. Let us not presume to instruct, nor to crusade; let us instead be filled with the grace of the all-holy, pure, and life-creating Spirit, yea, even the Spirit of Truth, that we may know when to sow seed upon the ground of another's heart, rather than casting pearls among the swine. +Amen.
+Through the prays of our holy fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, especially of St. Anthony the Great, St. John of Shanghai and San Fransisco, and of the blessed Fr. Seraphim of Platina, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.+Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of Blessings and giver of Life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls O Good One.
+Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
+Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
+Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
+Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages, Amen.
Our Father, who art in the heavens, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One.
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy
+Most holy Theotokos, save us!
More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, thou who without defilement gave birth to God the Word, True Theotokos, thee do we magnify.
O God of spirits and of all flesh, Who has trampled down Death and overthrown the Devil, and given life unto Thy world, give, we beseech Thee, eternal rest to the soul of Jared Rhea, in a place of brightness, in a place of verdure, in a place of repose, from whence all pain, sorrow, and sighing, have fled away.
Pardon, we beseech Thee, every transgression which may have been committed by him, whether by word or deed or thought. For there is no man who lives and does not commit a sin. Thou only are without sin, Thy righteousness is everlasting, and Thy word is the Truth.
For Thou art the Resurrection, and the Life, and the repose of Thy child, Jared Rhea, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with eternal the +Father, and Thy Most Holy, and Good, and Life-giving +Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. +Amen
May our gracious and merciful Lord, who rose from the dead, Christ, our True God, through the intercessions of His Holy Mother and of all the Saints, establish the soul of His departed child, Jared Rhea, in the mansions of the righteous; give him rest in the bosom of Abraham, and number his soul among the just, and have mercy upon us and save us, for as much as Thou art good and love mankind.Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy
+Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, especially of St. Anthony the Great, St. John of Shanghai and San Fransisco, and of blessed Fr. Seraphim of Platina, have mercy on us and save us, for as much as Thou art good and love mankind. Amen.
30 November 2007
27 November 2007
I will say that I am only recently Chrismated, although my study of Orthodoxy goes back at least 3 years, and I suspect that my casual contact with Byzantium (which later developed into full-on love) began exerting its inexorable pull a little earlier than that; as such, I am not really trained in theology, and even going by the Orthodox maxim that "a theologian is one who prays," I am not especially qualified to speak on matters of theology. For me, as for all converts (and, I suspect, for many 'cradles' who were born in the West), the major problem I face is getting this head-and-book knowledge, this theory of what Orthodox doctrine and faith are, out of the head and into the heart (or nous), out of the abundance of which my mouth can then speak. In the meanwhile, while it would probably be best to be silent, I find that I get asked rather a lot some variation on "but what makes Orthodoxy different?" So...here goes:
Prayer. I grew up Protestant and apostatized from Christianity for a bit before coming back to, at least nominal, Protestantism, and from thence to Orthodoxy. As such, prayer tended to fall into either of two categories: "just telling God how I feel" or "Jesus, please help me with X" where X stands for problem of the day. I thought I could pray pretty well; people seemed to enjoy listening to me, and as someone who once thought that the vocation of poet would be awesome, I can wax eloquent on occasion. But this isn't what prayer is at all. Orthodoxy teaches that prayer is primarily how we worship God. It is how we call to remembrance all that he has already done for us ('the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, and the second and glorious coming'), and provides the framework around which we structure our lives as Christians. It's not about asking for pink Cadillacs, or even for God to heal us of an illness; while we may certainly pray to be healed of illness, or for the illnesses of other to be healed, this is a secondary part of what prayer is. Prayer is primarily, first and foremost, about creating communion--with God and with others. When we pray, just as when we are in the Divine Liturgy, we are not in chronos (that is, normal, everyday, linear wrist-watch time), but in kairos...that is, the Eternal Time, God's time, where everything is the eternal Present. When we pray the prayers of the Trisagion before morning and evening prayer (or, actually, any time that any Orthodox prayers are said or services are conducted), we invite the Holy Spirit to "come and abide in us," uniting us to God through the indwelling in us of His Spirit, and to all other Christians through Him. This leads me to point two:
Salvation = community. For years, I abhorred the Protestant focus on "my personal walk with Jesus." What I knew as a Protestant, that all I needed was me, my Bible, and Jesus (and, I hate to say it, it was often in that order of priority), left me lost, alone, confused, and unable to determine who this Jesus fellow even was. The problem of the infallibility of the scriptures is what initially killed my faith as a teen. If it is infallible, and the meaning is self-evident to any Bible reader--then why the deuce is there no consensus among Christians about what it means. You see, I look back now and understand that even as a kid, I abhorred relativism. The Protestant milieu, though, absolutely depends on a relativistic understanding of the world; few denominations are willing to make the claim that they alone are correct, so, of necessity, most Protestants will reduce what 'being a Christian' means to its lowest common denominator: belief that Jesus once existed and that his crucifixion somehow brings about your salvation. The specifics of this are debatable, under this mindset, but as long as you hold onto this thought in your memory, you are set. This is profoundly not what being a Christian means to the Orthodox. The scriptures are indeed infallible, to the Orthodox, but the only infallible interpreter of them is The Church. The Church, though, is not just the invisible connecting thread between all people who believe something about Jesus--it is the continually existing institution founded by Christ, flowered on the day of Pentecost, and over whom the gates of Hell have never prevailed to destroy. And what I have discovered is, the Church teaches something very interesting: "we go to heaven together, we go to hell on our own." St. Augustine, whom we in the East have an iffy relationship with, even teaches that "the solo Christian is no Christian." Orthodox life is an attempt to get outside the selfish, me-centered universe that the fallen world glories in--because it is through living for others that we become truly Christ-like. But, that isn't all of it, which leads me to my third (and final) point:
Holy Communion. I grew up where Holy Communion was crackers and grape juice served in disposable cups, and was offered once a month, on the first Sunday. For years, I didn't partake every month because doing so "makes it feel too automatic." You see, I wanted it to feel special to me, because my thoughts and feelings about the remembrance were what mattered. This is prfoundly different for me now. I come to the Chalice in fear and dread, as well as love, every week. But my feelings about it aren't stemming from my psyche, where I try to make it mean something to me; it comes from the reality of what this stuff is. We're talking about consuming the flesh and blood of God Himself! If that doesn't inspire pure terror in you, on at least some level, you aren't doing it right. :) The love comes from knowing that this is done willingly, for our salvation, and that this bread and wine which is also the body and blood of our Lord, is "the medicine of immortality, and the antidote of Death." It is, literally, the fruit of the Tree of Life. And, once again, we do not partake alone, in individual cups, but we all partake of one Cup, one Loaf, because we are that body that we are taking into ourselves. You see, for the Orthodox, you really are what you eat; you become the body of Christ by partaking, literally eating, his body. Christ himself testifies to this saying "Unless you eat my flesh, and drink my blood, you have no life in you." By partaking in his unconquerable Life, we partake in the victory over death which is his resurrection, and thus into our salvation from the ancient curse placed upon us at the Fall.
All of this is to say that, when I say I "know God" now, I am not saying that I merely think about him, or about theology, or about what he can do for me if I ask--I know him because I meet him (ideally every day, but, at least when I approach the Chalice and accept what he has offered me, which is nothing less than his flesh and blood!). I do not know him perfectly--no one can, because we cannot know his Essence, we can only know him through his Energies, through which he reveals himself to us. But I no longer look on that revelation as something, primarily, to be worked out in the psyche. It transcends my lowly, human psyche; the experience of Christ goes beyond my psychological process...my thoughts, my feelings, my emotions...it is an experience of reality as it is, not reality as I perceive it. It is the ultimate universal experience, that all Orthodox Christians have. Life on this side of Chrismation is unfathomably different, in all kinds of little ways as well; I can't go on and on here, but those little ways are often what find their way onto my blog (which, yes, I haven't posted on in a while--personal life gets fussy, and 'net time takes a backseat).
Now that I'm reading back over this, it sounds incredibly haughty. Forgive me, for I am a sinner. If this strikes you as arrogant, please account that to my folly and over-zealousness, and not what the Church is all about. I'm sure that if I were farther along the spiritual path that leads to salvation, I could say these things in a much more humble, much less defensive/combative way.
14 November 2007
Blessed was your reign by almighty God;
By your tireless labours
Radiant churches were established;
Driven by a desire for unity
You attempted great feats of reconciliation.
Therefore we laud your accomplishments
And ask you to pray to Christ our God
That he will save our souls.
22 October 2007
I've been an admirer of Dr. Carlton for some time; his views on Orthodox life and culture in the American South are almost lock-step with my own. Give his recent podcast "The Christ Haunted South" a listen--you'll probably find a lot that is of value there.
18 September 2007
Then again, I grew up in a strange way. My earliest 6 years took place in the 1980s, in the rural American south, but not so rural that city life couldn't be experienced with a 15-20 minute drive. It was an odd mix. We didn't have cable tv until I was 13, so I lived off of cartoons one of my mom's great aunts recorded onto vhs tapes for me. I still have some of them. By far, my favorites involved sword-and-sorcery, heroism, and knighthood. I also grew up reading stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table...horribly disfigured, but saintly, Victorian portraits of chivalrous men acting chivalrously.
I also grew up in church. We were Methodists on both sides, though my different sets of grandparents attended different churches. I grew up memorizing scripture...and at times, snippets spring up from somewhere deep within me. I suppose that this is why, even in my darkest hours, I never totally gave up Christ. Nevertheless, these things--my fascination with swords, and my memorization of scripture--someone welded themselves into one things within me at some point in my childhood.
My parents were very young, and in her 20s, my mother was one of those dispensationalist Protestants who was looking for the end of the world and the return of the Lord. Her love of Christ, I think, can make up for any stupidity that her young zeal may have sprouted, because she certainly initiated me into a conception of God as mysterion...a conception, I might add, that led both of us home to Holy Orthodoxy eventually. But every night before I went to bed, my mother would pray over me, and recite the verses of Ephesians chapter six about putting on the "whole armor of God." Because the word of God is the "sword of the spirit," it follows that he who understands the scriptures has a magic sword--better than Excalibur, or sword of the Red-cross knight, or Narsil--to combat any evil thing in the world.
But as I got older, and examined the tradition I was brought up in (ok, in reality, the many traditions, as we church hopped a lot in my parents' 30s, as they themselves grew dissatisfied with the churches we knew), I discovered that this invincible, magical sword, was really about as useful as a glass dagger. Sure, it was sharp, and it could poke a hole through someone if you applied enough force--but, it was just as apt to shatter into a thousand pieces. It did shatter for me, under the weight of intellectual pursuit and philosophic speculation.
What I didn't realize was that I only had half the sword.
The glass dagger of the scriptures of my youth is fulfilled in my adult understand of the scriptures as a part of a living, vital tradition of the unbroken Church. It is this twofold revelation of the real nature and purpose of what had once been a child's understanding of a thing that has led me into the Kingdom, into Holy Orthodoxy. As St. Paul said, "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (1 Cor. 13:11). The Protestant understand of scripture is a childish understanding--a limited one. It denies the place of it within a historical reality, and places the individual Bible reader on the pedestal as the ultimate arbiter of doctrine. In so doing, it exalts the ego of fallen man, and the tragedy is that it does so through the very instruments that should be used for our salvation; but then, the best lies are always mingled with the most truth. But it is this understanding of scripture alone, divorced from the teachings and doctrines of the Church which wrote the scriptures, that reduces this magical sword to nothing more than a glass dagger.
19 August 2007
One of the most poignant things about this book, to me, was the confessional nature of it. Gallatin's sincerity is hard to ignore, and his devotion to Orthodoxy comes, literally, from a feeling of finally finding what he was looking for after years of trying to get it elsewhere. Gallatin's best moments come when he, in detail, describes why it is that Protestants are always looking to get back to that "first moment of discovering Jesus" experience--and why they never get there. His extended metaphor of the process of salvation (and, let's note, it is a process--a life-long struggle--not a one-time event) as a "dance" with God is one that comes back later in the podcast, but is a brilliant way of showing that the Eastern conception of salvation is a set of interactive movements that we make with God. This is contrasted with the Western understanding of "who God is" that comes primarily through thinking about God. As Gallatin points out, if you are in another room from the woman who you've been told about--and you love all that you know about her--until you step through the doorway and get to know her, all you really have is a mental picture. You can't really be in love with a mental picture. Gallatin rightly points out that it is precisely the participation in the Sacramental life of the Church where God meets us at the doorway, and invites us to participate in his very own life and existence. This is where salvation lies--not in thinking about God's goodness or his righteousness, but in joining ourselves to his life (which is, by definition, goodness and righteousness) in the way that he has proscribed.
In all, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells is a great read, and very instructive for those who are Orthodox, those inquiring into Orthodoxy, or for those who just want to understand what we Orthodox are so on about.
14 August 2007
Abba Ammonas was asked, 'What is the "narrow and hard way?" (Mt. 7.14) He replied, 'The "narrow and hard way" is this, to control your thoughts, and to strip yourself of your own will, for the sake of God. This is also the meaning of the sentence, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you." (Mt. 19.27)
11 August 2007
Now, there are (generally speaking) two schools of thought on people like me. The first, into which I imagine all my non-Orthodox readers will fall (and, I'm sure, some of the Orthodox ones), would view me to be an aberration; most of my Orthodox readers will probably say, "He must want to be a monk." Well, there's the question: do I want to be a monk? Well, no, I don't want to be a monk.
Now, you're wondering--if I don't want to be a monk, and I'm against dating, then what in the world could I possibly expect out of life?
You will notice, I think, that I'm not opposed to marriage. Of course I am not; Marriage is a blessed Mystery of the Church--just as holy as are the Eucharist, Confession, Monastic orders, Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Unction. If I am blessed enough to be married one day, I will be happy in that. But there are some things that I feel about modern attitudes toward marriage, and most of those feelings end in distaste. Marriage is a Mystery of the Church, a Sacrament. It is not a legal right, and it has nothing to do with civil law. If civil law chooses to recognize the union of two people that comes about through Marriage, fine; but there must be no talk of a right to marry...this is simply not the case. Just as those outside of the life of the Church cannot participate in the other sacraments, they cannot participate in Marriage either. Hence, what is typically thought of as "marriage" in modern times is, in fact, civil union. These may be conducted by whomever (from Protestant pastors to wiccan high priestess to members of the ruling bureaucracy). Civil recognition does not a marriage make.
Marriage is a state of askesis--a practice of the ascetic life of a Christian. It is not a socially-sanctioned (or Church sanctioned) license to have sex. It is a calling to deny the ego, deny the passions; no healthy marriage can be founded with two egotists living together, bound together by the sacrament. Neither does a healthy marriage have one partner's ego subsumed into the other's; that would not result in the health and salvation of both partners...in fact, it causes one person to participate in the sins of another, and so, both are condemned. A healthy marriage is founded on mutual love; there must be three persons in a marriage for it to be successful. There is a Trinitarian reason for this assertion, and this is why there can be no true Marriage outside of Christianity. As our example in the divine Godhead shows, there can only be unity through trinunity; we must be a model of the mutual-indwelling love as we see in the Holy Trinity. Therefore, any marriage must have the man, the woman, and the Holy Spirit. We are called to get outside of our own selfishness, being perfectly united in love to our spouses; we can only do this through the Holy Spirit, which is the gift of God to us. Christian Marriage, then, is the true restoration of man's condition in Eden, where God observed "it is not good for Man to be alone." Adam and Eve were united to each other through their mutual communion with God.
The question then, is, what does this have to do with dating? The answer is, everything.
Modern notions of dating and romantic relationships are, ultimately, antithetical to this understanding of marriage. The conditions of what passes for romantic involvement in contemporary society do not train people for Marriage; what they do well, however, is train people for divorce. Openness to another person necessarily entails a great deal of mutual vulnerability; when this vulnerability is violated (through the termination of a relationship), the soul is scarred. With enough scars, over time, the ability to open up and be vulnerable is lost. At this point, you can end a relationship on a whim, and it would hurt very little (or, at least, much less than it should). Is it any wonder then, with people marrying later and later in life, after years of intense relationships that have eventually deteriorated, that people approach all relationships with a certain pragmatic cynicism? I, for one, see these as precisely the conditions necessary for a gigantic divorce rate; I see the egotrip that everyone (absolutely everyone, and in our culture, to the nth degree) is on, and that pragmatic cynicism, leading to the idea that a relationship is only as good as what I am getting out of it. It is also why people (especially women, but also some men, who have been raised by Hollywood romance-comedies) have no understanding of what a healthy relationship is; they expect to be fully and totally complete with their partner. And, of course, because we're all flawed, fallen human beings, we will inevitably let each other down. When this happens, that world we've constructed around our partner is shattered, and we can't help but toss it away, because it has become worthless to us. But if that relationship was with God, through mutual communion in the Holy Spirit, the focus of the relationship would be entirely different. It would be a relationship, not just a pale imitation.
Woody Allen once observed that "Sex without love is an empty, hollow experience. But as empty, hollow experiences go, it's one of the best." Sadly, this statement almost totally encapsulates what's wrong with dating in our society. We'll settle for emptiness, for hollowness, for meaninglessness, because having something with meaning would be too much like work.
But, this is why I absolutely will not marry someone outside of the Church. This is also why I absolutely won't engage in "dating"--three dinner dates, a movie, followed by regular sex (which is the general rule of thumb, but, I suppose, some variation occurs on an individual level). Forget it, I value relationships more than that. I refuse to have something that is a pale imitation, when I know the real thing exists. If God wills it for me, he will bring it to me in his time, when I'm ready for it. Until then, the best thing I can do to find a wife is to walk as closely as I can with God--if I'm not in total communion with him, how will I know when I find the right woman?
OK, enough of this.
Glory be to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
10 August 2007
1) Learn first of all to be at peace with the spiritual situation which has been given you, and to make the most of it. If your situation is spiritually barren, do not let this discourage you, but work all the harder at what you yourself can do for your spiritual life. It is already something very important to have access to the Sacraments and regular church services. Beyond this you should have regular morning and evening prayers with your family, and spiritual reading—all according to your strength and the possibilities afforded by your circumstances.This is great stuff. I'd comment, but that would just seem so...anticlimactic.
2) Among spiritual writings you should read especially those addressed to people living in the world, or which give the “ABC’s” of spiritual life—such as St. John of Kronstadt’s My Life in Christ, St. Nikodemos’ Unseen Warfare, the Lives of Saints in general, and Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena (this book, while addressed to novices, is suitable for laymen insofar as it gives in general the “ABC’s” of spiritual life as applied to modern times).
3) To help your spiritual growth and remind you of spiritual truths, it would be good to keep a journal (the hardbound “record” books sold in stationery stores are good), which would include excerpts from the writings of spiritual books which you find especially valuable or applicable to you, and perhaps comments of your own inspired by reading and reflection, including brief comments on your own shortcomings which you need to correct. St. John of Kronstadt found this especially valuable, as can be seen in his My Life in Christ.
4) Don’t criticize or judge other people—regard everyone else as an angel, justify their mistakes and weaknesses, and condemn only yourself as the worst sinner. This is step one in any kind of spiritual life.
06 August 2007
First, I must say I am deeply torn over how I feel about The Mountain of Silence. On the one hand, much of it is a spiritual treasure. Dr. Markides' conversations with Fr. Maximos, an Athonite monk sent to be the Abbot of the Panagia tou Kykkou monastery on Cyprus, are a joy to read--in the sense that Fr. Maximos' reflections on the history and development of Orthodox spirituality are, and there's no other word for it, wonderful. Coming from an academically trained, Western protestant background, my understanding of monastic life is impoverished, and, understandably, a little skewed. Considering this, Fr. Maximos, and his recollections of his lessons with his teacher, Elder Paisios, have been a greatly enlightening read. I found the wisdom of the Athonite monks to be a challenge to a deeper conversion--which, I believe, St. Paul calls "the circumcision of the heart."
As I learned in catechism, asceticism is required of all Orthodox believers. The extent of the askesis, however, goes far beyond participation in the Sacrament of Confession and observation of the required periods of fasting. The division between the lay Christian of the parish and the monk is not so vast as our Western captivity wishes to make it. There is one rule of Christian faith, and it applies to monks and nuns as much as it does the rest of us living in the world; after all, as St. John Chrysostom reminds us, "The only difference between the married man and the monk is that the married man has a wife."
What, then, do those of us not in the monastery or the convent make of the ascetic practices to which we are called as Orthodox Christians? The answer to that question is the focus of what Fr. Maximos attempts to unfold to Dr. Markides over the six months that he spends with the Abbot at the Panagia monastery.
I say "attempts" because that leads me to my other opinion of the book; that is, as rich as are Fr. Maximos' teachings, it is equally painful to see how Dr. Markides--a sharp, smart man--cannot "get" what the wise Abbot is trying to tell him about the spiritual life. From this perspective, The Mountain of Silence resembles nothing half so much as a spiritual Macbeth--a high tragedy of epic proportions, played out in the life of a cradle Orthodox trained as a Western sociologist. At the risk of echoing what Frederica Mathewes-Green has to say about Markides, it seems as if, in his attempt to show the error of the prevailing materialism of Modernity, he goes toward the opposite error of Post-Modernism, and attempts to reduce the lessons of Mt. Athos to a formulaic system of spiritual exercises. He does what all post-modernists do, and confuses Meaning and Means. All of this happens, sadly, as Fr. Maximos repeatedly admonishes Markides not to do precisely that.
Instead of seeing the Orthodox spiritual tradition as the Fathers describe it (in the high patristic age, "the True philosophy"--but in our age, we might well say "the True Spiritual Enlightenment"), he engages in thinly veiled and barely contained syncretism that tries to equate the Athonite elders with the yogis and masters of Oriental religions. Also disturbing is Markides' openly acknowledged sympathies for the beliefs of Origen, which have been condemned by the Church since the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Markides objects to the anathemas placed on Origen and those who subscribe to his beliefs, because the condemnation of Origen's teachings happened over a century after his death, thus he was unable to provide a defense for himself. This smacks of post-modernist theories of "reclaiming" elements from a tradition to bring it into conformity with contemporary biases. In short, it is a dangerous game that, most likely, should not be played.
So, when I ask myself if I would recommend The Mountain of Silence, I can only say that I'm not sure it would be suitable for inquirers into the faith (and I'm terrified that this may be some people's first exposure to Orthodoxy), and catechumens should probably leave this book alone just because it may confuse them about the nature of the teachings of the Church and what is and is not acceptable in terms of theological opinion. Actually, I wish that I hadn't read it before getting some input from my Spiritual Father, just because it caused me to raise some questions that are better left for the classroom and out of the spiritual life. Separating the wheat from the chaff is definitely necessary with this one, and it requires a great deal of patience and prayer to do.
03 August 2007
"We are not retreating - we are advancing in another direction."
So, in my continuing thoughts on monasticism, askesis, and the ascetic struggle in the life of ordinary lay Christians (like myself), I ran across this quote. Now, I know it is supposed to be a pithy, ego-aggrandizement from one of the most ego-centric figures of the 20th century. But, I think this is, very likely, a motto for monastics.
Monks and nuns are often accused of retreating from the world. As a matter of fact, they are not retreating at all; they are advancing in another [opposite] direction. They are advancing toward union with God; is it any wonder, then, to those of us still living in the world (and, most often, those of us still of the world) look at them and see their efforts as them trying to get away from the rest of us? We forget, so easily, that their eyes are no longer on us, but have been refocused on the experience of the living God. They are advancing, in every sense. It is, rather, we who are in a negative condition--especially those of us still of the world, those of us still stuck in the mire of unredeemed passions, those of us still desperately churning in the throes of logismoi that we both love and abhor (and are, somehow, not quite willing to deny).
The monastics are there for the rest of us; their purpose is to show us an example of how to love God fully, how to unite fully to him, in the flesh.
Pray for us, holy saints, that He will save our souls! Amen.
Troparion (Tone 7)
- You were Transfigured on the Mount, O Christ God,
- Revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
- Let Your everlasting Light shine upon us sinners!
- Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to You!
Kontakion (Tone 7)
- On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
- And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
- So that when they would behold You crucified,
- They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
- And would proclaim to the world,
- That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!
This is the revelation of the Transfiguration--and it was this glory, the glory of the Uncreated Light of God, showing through and in his human flesh. Is it any wonder that, seeing Jesus in this way, and Moses and Elijah on either side of him, that Peter, James, and John wanted to build tabernacles for each of them on the spot? Seeing him in his majesty, the mystery of the God-man was revealed, and the assurance of our Redemption was made manifest.
01 August 2007
St. Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, was born there of good parentage in the early years of the tenth century; d. 1 Aug., 984. After a youth spent at the court of King Athelstan, Ethelwold placed himself underElphege the Bald, Bishop of Winchester, who gave him the tonsure and ordained him priest along with Dunstan. At Glastonbury, where he was dean under Saint Dunstan, he was a mirror of perfection. In 955 he became Abbot of Abingdon; and 29 November, 963, was consecrated Bishop of Winchester by Dunstan, with whom and Oswald of Worcester he worked zealously in combating the general corruption occasioned by the Danish inroads. At Winchester, both in the old and in his new minster (see SWITHIN, SAINT), he replaced the evil-living seculars with monks and refounded the ancient nunnery. His labours extended to Chertsey, Milton (Dorsetshire), Ely, Peterborough, and Thorney; expelling the unworthy, rebuilding and restoring; to the rebellious "terrible as a lion", to the meek "gentler than a dove". The epithets "father of monks" and "benevolent bishop" summarize Ethelwold's character as reformer and friend of Christ's poor. Though he suffered much from ill-health, his life as scholar, teacher, prelate, and royal counsellor was ever austere. He was buried in Winchester cathedral, his body being translated later by Elphege, his successor. Abingdon monastery in the twelfth century had relics of Ethelwold. He is said to have written a treatise on the circle and to have translated the "Regularis Concordia". His feast is kept on 1 August.
31 July 2007
The Noble Joseph
having taken your Most Pure Body down from the Cross,
wrapped it in a clean shroud
and anointed it with fragrant spices
and laid it in a new tomb. But on the third day You arose, O Lord,
granting the world great mercy.
St. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin (the rulers of the Jews during the time of Christ). He was a secret believer who came to Jesus by night with Nicodemus (St. John 3). The two of them removed Christ's body from the Cross and laid it in Joseph's new tomb (Matt. 27:57; John 19:38). For his compassion for the Lord, the Jews bound and imprisoned him. The resurrected Christ appeared to him in his captivity to confirm and encourage his faith. The Jews eventually released Joseph, but banished him from the province of Judea. St. Joseph traveled to the extreme end of the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel. He spent some time with Apostle Philip in Europe, then he went to Britain, where, upon setting foot at the site of the now-ruined Glastonbury Abbey the staff he leaned on took root and began to bloom. This famous plant, known as the Christmas Thorn, survives to this day. St. Joseph, an exile forsaken by his people, was the first to bring the message of Christianity to the shores of Britain, beginning the tradition of faith there that lasted for centuries.
30 July 2007
Why is that? I assure you it isn't an ego trip; I'm not worthy of union with God. If I ever make it, it'll be entirely on His Grace and His Mercy, because I am a wicked, terribly sinful man. Nevertheless, the theology of theosis is one of the things about Orthodoxy that sealed the deal for me. Union with the Divine has to be the ultimate goal of any spiritual belief; Orthodoxy, quite simply and bluntly, provides human beings with the correct way of achieving this reality. It tells you what you have to do; it speaks with authority--the authority of holy elders, men and women, who have lived it, who have achieved theosis in this life. In other words, there are Saints.
But, the Saints aren't just people who've been dead a while; the Orthodox Church has living Saints (capital S is required). People like Elder Paisios (who is but recently reposed) have worked miracles and wrought wonders by the Grace of God. You can find people like that, who perform miracles because the Grace of the Holy Spirit works so completely in them, alive and well in Orthodox monasteries--particularly on Mt. Athos, but not just there. This was such an important thing for me...this was the evidence that my poor, beleaguered, rational mind needed to make sense of the claim of the Orthodox (believing firmly the doctrine of St. Irenaeus of Lyon) that "God became man so that man could become god."
Of course, we never become what God is in his nature, nor do we lose ourselves in his vastness--but we become what he is by his grace, like but not identical to what he is by nature. But this bridge between humans and the divine is absolutely essential to a healthy spirituality. And it is only found in the mystical theology of Eastern Christianity.
27 July 2007
The elder said: "It is not freedom when we say to people that everything is permitted. That is slavery. To improve one must have difficulties. Let's take an example. We have a little tree. We take care of it. We place a stake and tie it with a rope. Naturally we don't tie it with wire because that way we would injure it. With their method they would not constrain the tree; and it doesn't develop properly otherwise. And look at the child. We limit his freedom from the beginning. When he is first conceived the poor thing is limited in his mother's womb and remains there nine whole months. Later he is born and immediately they swaddle him in a blanket, they tie him up, as soon as he begins to grow they set a railing, etc. All of this is necessary for him to grow. It appears to take away freedom, but without these protective measures the child will die in the first moment."Truly, the wisdom of Elder Paisios is a great treasure of contemporary Orthodoxy. This is one of the things that I love the most about Orthodoxy--the Saints aren't just holy people from long ago. We have living, breathing, holy Saints even into the modern world.
The elder said: "Freedom is good when the person can use it appropriately. Otherwise it is a disaster."
This is one of the reasons I want to visit Mt. Athos.
12 July 2007
27 June 2007
14 June 2007
"A brother asked one of the Fathers, "What shall I do? My thoughts are always turned to lust without allowing me an hour's respite, and my soul is tormented by it." He said to him, "Every time the demons suggest these thoughts to you, do not argue with them. For the activity of demons always is to suggest, and suggestions are not sins, for they cannot compel; but it rests with you to welcome them, or not to welcome them. Do you know what the Midianites did? They adorned their daughters and presented them to the Israelites. They did not compel anyone, but those who consented, sinned with them, while the others were enraged and put them to death. It is the same with thoughts."
The brother answered the old man, "What shall I do, then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?" He said to him, "Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, 'Son of God, have mercy on me.'" - Anonymous Desert Father
11 June 2007
It must have been something, seeing the Christ walking about, teaching in his earthly ministry. Such a new and radical interpretation of the messianic vision as that taught by Jesus was certainly earthshaking; to leave one's life and livelihood, chasing after some itinerant rabbi from Nazareth...well, even to those of us who are convinced that Jesus was, in fact, the long-awaited savior of the world, this seems hard to fathom.
"As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his bother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, 'Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.' Immediately they left their nets and followed him" (St. Matt. IV:18-20).
And yet, such was the faith of these men that they did just that.
In the Beattitude verses, also part of the lectionary readings from Sunday, we hear Jesus' teachings on the mount. This episode of Christ's public ministry draws inescapable comparison to the teachings of Moses that were delivered to Israel from Mount Sinai. On the new mountain of Israel, Christ, as the new Moses, delivers the new teachings that distinguish the New Covenant from the Old. Of all of these verses, one that stands out the most, at least, when juxtaposed against the account of the calling of the disciples, is "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled" (St. Matt. V:6).
Righteousness, though, is a tricky thing. How do you know if you have it? The Fathers teach us that it is dangerous in the extreme to think that we might be righteous, because we will inevitably believe that we have been filled. Being filled in this manner, however, is not truly filling; it is like gorging on candy--it leads only to spiritual nausea, although it does leave the belly uncomfortably "full." We often feel very full from all that we "do." We attend services and do our daily prayers, we have icons in our houses, our offices, our cars. When coworkers ask why we are only having dressing-less salad for lunch, we announce with a posturing (that we hope sounds like the model of meek humility) that we are Orthodox Christians and it is a period of fasting for us. We "do things for the Church," and consider this the fullness of our experience as Christians following the True Way.
We do not stop to consider that we are, often as not, doing a very poor job of fishing for men--and settle for merely keeping the aquarium.
We go about our own lives, busying ourselves with our day-to-day concerns--temporal as well as spiritual (because we easily forget, living in the world of Western dichotomies, that this division is merely illusion, not reality)--and forget that we are called to do more than to just preserve the fullness of our ancient faith. Christ did not deliver the revelation of himself, of the fullness of our salvation, for the disciples to pass along only to those "worthy" of the revelation. Far from it! Thank God that we who are unworthy are able to be brought into the Truth! But we forget, to our great chagrin, that not all those who are seeking know where to look. It is a great sin if we make the mistake that our Protestant Evangelical neighbors make, and focus solely on our "own personal salvation" at the expense of our community.
What is truly unique, truly outstanding, and truly ministering to the soul about the Orthodox faith is that we are not out for our own salvation; the Church recognizes that we cannot be saved apart from our families, our friends, even our enemies. We are saved in the context of our actions--what might even be called the our "Web of Interactions." As such, we cannot afford not to share the Truth with those around us; as St. Paul reminds the fledgling Christian community of Ephesus, "In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'" (Acts XX:35). We must remember that it is our duty not to merely be the city on the hill that cannot be hid, but that we must carry our light out into the world--that we must show Christ glorified and lifted up, so that he may draw all men unto him.
This is the hook by which we will bait those seeking after the Truth, if what we really want is to share the revelation of our faith with those in our communities, and in our families. Otherwise, we are failing at the commission of our God, and settling for doled out pieces of fish-food to those that are swimming in the aquarium.
May the Lord Jesus Christ our God, through the prayer of his all pure Mother and of all the Saints, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
05 June 2007
I know it doesn't seem that way at first, but bear with me here.
Consider one of the dictums that I take as axiomatic in our culture: Live life to the fullest. Seems pretty life affirming, doesn't it? Enjoy life as much as you can...but notice that the unspoken subtext there is because you are going to die. All of the sudden, it doesn't seem so life-affirming, eh? Consider a popular retirement/investment commercial which exhorts its viewers to "Live your dream"...where the unspoken subtext is while you can. All of these delightful ideas put into our heads by our wonderfully enlightened, scientifically educated, liberated society--are, in fact, tenets of a death-cult. The mythology of our rational postmoderns is fundamentally that of Aztek priests cutting people's hearts out on top of vast stone pyramids (and, while I'd love to flesh out this comparison more fully, I'm going to have to leave it unstated in the interests of time). Basically, by saying, "This life is all there is, so do whatever you can while you can," we have returned to the same death-enslaved mythology that held our entire human race captive from the expulsion from the Garden until the Resurrection of Christ.
You see, the Eastern Church pretty clearly teaches that human beings sin because we are going to die. This prevailing mindset of maximizing any form of pleasure you can because you're going to rot in the ground eventually is, almost exactly, the textbook definition that the Church Fathers give for sin. Moreover, it is precisely the enslavement to death that Christ came to overcome. As the Resurrection Troparion proclaims, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by Death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!" It is that he defeated Death by himself submitting to Death. He has risen from the Dead, and broken the power of death--and has promised this also to those who love him and are partakers of his body and blood, to those in the mystical communion with him through the Church. Therefore, we have no need to fear death, those of us in Christ, and so are set free from the burdens of sin. We forget this, of course, and so still fall to temptations...but that doesn't change the reality of the promise.
The post-modern world, then, isn't so very different from the pre-Christian pagan world. The only difference is, it has denuded the already diminished witness of the Western Church and reduced it to irrelevancy--because, sadly, the broken churches of the West have forgotten the tenets of the ancient faith...and have forgotten what it means that Christ was victorious over Death itself.
04 June 2007
"Forsaking thy noble inheritance, and shunning all the crooked ways of this sin-loving world, thou didst apply thine obedient feet to the straight and narrow path of Christ, eagerly hastening throughout thy life toward the heavenly Sion, where with all the saints and the bodiless hosts thou criest aloud in ecstasy: Let every breath praise the Lord!"
Technically, St. Kevin is commemorated on 3 June, but since I was too busy to post yesterday, I decided I'd just do it today. St. Kevin was an Irish Celt, and a saint of the Church who lived to be 120 years old. He could communicate with birds and beasts, and he worked many, many miracles in his life.
The title of the post is a link to the OrthodoxWiki article on him. You never know, you may be enlightened or edified by it.
01 June 2007
31 May 2007
Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this; 'I find myself in peace, without an enemy,' he said. The old man said to him, 'Go beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.' So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, 'Lord, give me strength for the fight.'
30 May 2007
This Psalm is one of the most frequently used in the services of the Orthodox Church, mostly due to its penitential character; it is prayed during the service of Compline, as well as in the Order of Confession. It is also present as part of my daily rule of prayer.
According to tradition, this psalm was written by King David after his affair with Bathsheba. There is no doubt that his heart was torn by the weight of his sin and the guilt he felt over what he had done; no one with a heart who reads these words can possibly come away thinking that David was not truly penitent, truly and deeply sorrowful over his sins.
Have mercy on me, O God
according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy
blot out my trangressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
From the opening lines, the character of this psalm is evident. The imploring of God to take away the stain of our sins...notice, that David does not begin by justifying himself or placing the blame elsewhere. He comes to God fully aware of his own failures, and literally throws himself on the mercy of God in earnest repentance. It is God's steadfast love and his abundant mercy that David counts on; not on his own ability to "do better next time,"--he makes no promises to God to somehow try to balance the scales. He has come to the realization that we all must come to...we in ourselves are worthless, and we must come to God in true humility, true contrition of heart, in order to be cleansed and healed.
For I know my transgressions
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
and blameless in thy judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Notice that the first person David blames is himself; his own conscience convicts him of having done evil in the sight of the Lord. And more than this, he does not say "I am basically a good man, but I have done this one thing..." or some variation thereof; no, indeed, he tells God how he knows that the urge to sin is something deep within him, the perversion of the world that he was born into. Therefore, it is not God's fault--and here is the admission of this psalm that rends the heart of me--to be able to so freely say "thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment." To be able to say so freely to God, "I am a wretched, debauched human being and you have every right to blast me into oblivion with fire from heaven"--and to mean every word of it! Not to say it with any sense of "We know what I'm saying is true, but I can say it because I know you won't." Wow. Just wow. This is why I pray that God will teach me to repent more fully.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean;
wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou has broken rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out my iniquities.
This may be my favorite part of this psalm. God desires nothing half so much as for us to understand, truly, who we are in our inward being. However, we cover over our true personhood with the mask of individuality...which is the foolish lie of our corrupted wills. The recognition that without God to help up, we cannot become the clean, pure, good people we want to be. And then comes the kicker, "Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice." In effect, David is saying, "Punish me, O Lord, and let me do more than endure it, but to rejoice in knowing that my suffering is your will...and I'd rather do your will than seek my own comfort!" I pray that I will one day be able to pray that in earnest; truly, this is God using what is foolish in the eyes of the world to confound the wise. Only when we can embrace this can we truly be called repentant.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
This, of course, is further recognition of the fact that we are incapable of achieving our own salvation. Self justification is not possible, and if we want to be truly righteous (not merely self-righteous), then we must pray, as David does, for God to uphold us and help us effect the changes in ourselves that we wish to make, so that we may be in communion with him.
Then I will teach transgressors thy ways,
and sinners will return to thee.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
thou God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance.
Truly, David is saying to us, if God can effect this change in someone as sinful and wanton as I am, he can bring anyone to repentance and salvation. Lord, let this be true for me, thy unprofitable servant, also. Is there any greater joy, any greater reason to sing aloud, than the the mercy of God being poured out upon us--than our deliverance from the corruption of the grave that follows from our broken communion with God?
O Lord, open thou my lips,
and my mouth will show forth thy praise.
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
were I to give a burnt offering
thou wouldst not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
thou wilt not despise.
Again, amazing is the fact that this psalm, so focused at the outset on very human self-loathing and the need for repentance, turns now at the end to utter and complete praise of our God--the God of our salvation--who desires from us not the burnt flesh of animals upon the altar of the law...not the juridical understanding of salvation as the price paid to balance the scales---but the healing that comes from true repentance, the broken and contrite heart that truly desires that communion with God restored. That is what God desires from us, his fallen creatures; and praised and glorified forever is Jesus, the Christ, the Lamb of God who takest away the sin of the world!
Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure;
Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on thy altar.
The pslam ends in recognition of the need for community. "Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure" means that the community of the faithful, the old Isreal of history (and the spiritual Isreal of the New Covenant--the Church), is necessary for the right and proper relationship to God. It is through the good pleasure of God that he has brought us to him through his Church, and in it we are meant to come to the rebuilding of the Kingdom--not from stone and mortar, but through the eternal love and mercy of Christ, the stone the builders rejected that has become the head of the corner. Then and only then can we understand the sacrificial nature of our repentance; only then will be be able to offer the right sacrifices unto God, because then we will be doing it not out of blind, strict obedience to a law that demands restiution y for sin x, but offering our sacrifices out of a willing heart, a willingness to praise God as fully as we can--not merely in words, but in deeds as well.