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Archive for November, 2007

Prayer

I want to thank every one who has commented on previous posts or emailed me regarding the present end to my PhD pursuits. Your words have been an encouragement beyond the simple need.

I have been particularly mindful of the comments that an online radio host, whom I greatly respect, has left, as they have paralleled words from another counselor and my own self-reflections. I have been thinking of things like vocation, this Protestant notion of “call,” the will of God and prudential wisdom in our choicemaking, but most especially of prayer.

Things changed for me in a very radical way the day of my chrismation. I experienced a reorientation that has drastically altered my understanding of, to borrow a phrase, “our life in Christ.” Although that reorientation was conceptually anticipated (you can see evidence of the wrestling and anticipation in the various posts of this blog in the months preceding our chrismation). I am ashamed to admit, that, at forty years old, my basic prayer practice has been almost wholly oriented around instrumentality. To paraphrase the late Richard Rorty, “prayer is what we use to get what we want.” Lord, forgive me.

Most of what I knew prayer to be was praise, requests, and thanksgiving. Praise, of course, was primarily utilitarian. Not usually, or, rather, not consciously, a verbal pre-payment for expected service, but it at least was to get the pray-er in the right frame of mind to ask for his or her requests properly. Then there were the requests. We were to submit all our requests to God, as Scripture indicated, but, being a Restoration Movement Christian, I was always concerned about whether or not my requests were proper. After all, God would not grant a request that violated his own will, but one could rationalize a lot of that for which one asked. And of course thanksgiving was the final installment in the payment for the requests granted.

I’m hyperbolizing quite a bit, of course, to make a point. But it is not an exagerration to say that my prayer life was primarily about asking God for things. Among the difficulties of this view—not the least of which was that this perspective turns God into an idol of one’s own making, and, more blasphemously, that one could, by prayer, “manipulate” “God” into blessing one’s own will and desires—was that one’s faith and relationship to God began to be predicated on how many successful withdrawals one can make from the heavenly ATM. Getting one’s requests indicated a “successful” prayer life and put one at some “stature” as a “mature” and “praying” Christian. After all, the more of one’s requests God answered, had to indicate God’s favor. Right?

This was all I knew regarding prayer for nearly all these past four decades. But, on my chrismation, I learned directly that prayer is much more than a bunch of checkmarks in the yes column of one’s prayer request list. (An excellent resource is the two part interview with Abbot Jonah: part 1 and part 2 [both are mp3 files]). The wonder of it all, of course, is that God does condescend to us in our gross sinfulness and out of love does answer our needs and requests. Even when we turn God into the idol of a heavenly ATM, even when, may we be forgiven, we attempt to turn God into a divine Pavlovian dog.

What sort of utterly mysterious and deeply loving God is this who stoops to our level out of no other reason than that he loves us? What mouth-stopping wonder that even though it risks confirming us in our utilitarian immaturity in prayer, God still embraces us with his unbounded love and grants us our needs and requests!

But on the day of my chrismation, my prayer idol was thrown down. I learned that prayer is not anything like what I once knew. Conceptually, of course, I could pay service to these notions, yet it was like teaching my daughter to say “entelecheia.” Her voice and lips could properly repeat the word, but she would not then be an Aristotelian and would still have no idea what it meant. I could repeat the concept of the experience of God in prayer, and maybe even sound as though I knew something. But I was nothing so great as flatulence in a windswept desert. Then, in the Sacraments, Christ gave me Himself. Then was when my education in prayer began. Then I realized I knew nothing of prayer.

In the past, when I prayed for my own needs and those of others, I exerted quite some energy in detailing my request. I knew God knew it all, but still somehow felt compelled to dot i’s and cross t’s. It was, of course, more of this programmatic “God” idol.

But it has dawned on me, event though I’ve used the little red Antiochian prayerbook for years, that the Church gives me the words “be mindful of . . .” persons in various stations and circumstances. “Be mindful, O Lord, of those who travel by land, by sea and by air” (and I will usually insert the first names of those I know to be traveling). That’s all. No, “and make sure they can leave on time, and make sure they are kept safe, and make sure they arrive on time, and . . . and . . .” Just, “be mindful, O Lord, of them.” Keep them in mind. Hold them in your thought.

What more does one need than that?

I am reminded of a citation from Nicholas Cabasilas I posted more than a year ago (had the concept, didn’t know a thing):

[W]hy is it that, whereas the priest asks them to pray for so many different things, the faithful in fact ask for one thing only–mercy? Why is this the sole cry they send forth to God?

In the first place, as we have already said, it is because this prayer implies both gratitude and confession. Secondly, to beg God’s mercy is to ask for his kingdom, that kingdom which Christ promised to give to those who seek it, assuring them that all things else of which they have need will be added unto them [Matt. 6.33]. Because of this, this prayer is sufficient for the faithful, since its application is general.

Nicholas Cabasilas, Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, (SVS Press, 1960/2002), p. 47

This is why the Jesus Prayer is so powerful, it seems to me. It includes it all. We former Protestants are wont to think of mercy in terms of juridical forgiveness. And there is that, to be sure. But God’s mercy is simply the greatness of his love. His mercy is his love for us, a love that desires for us all that we need, all that we are created to be, and the reception of all Himself in his goodness. Being creatures, we are united to Him in His divine activities: His mercy, His compassion, His sanctification, His forgiveness, His healing, His love.

Prayer, I am only just beginning to see, is very simple: be mindful, have mercy. It is to embrace and hold Him, and to be embraced and held by Him. That effort to embrace Him in prayer is such a struggle. For our sins and passions weight our arms, distract our minds, and cause his love to be experienced as burning and pain. And yet, out of His incomprehensible love, He comforts us in the pain and with the burning, warming us, comforting us. We are at once sorrowful and joyous. At once ashamed, and driven by the boldness of love. We plead mercy, are embraced in His mercy, and plead more mercy, and are the more enfolded in His amazing and terrible and wonderful and awful compassion and tenderness.

I have no way to figure out what is going on with this PhD failure. Perhaps it has all been a big error, an idol, a grand rationalization. Or, maybe I “had it right” and yet it was only to be for a season. Or maybe the whole thing is adiaphora and it only feels so painful because I have reified my desire into “God’s will.” I don’t know. And I’m not sure, at least for now, that I should spend very much effort trying to analyze this.

It is enough for now to simply wrestle with my disappointment and sorrow. And to hold God in prayer and be held by Him, pained by this consuming fire, and yet withal warmed and comforted, too.

Lord, have mercy.

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What Now?

I can tell you, this present loss of my PhD program is unpleasant. But if I believe what I’ve said just a few posts before, this, too, is God’s Providence.

But what does that mean? And now what?

This PhD has lived in me, from the time of an idea and a desire, since I was in college, which is to say, for more than 16 years. It has been a live and going concern since acceptance in Spring 2001. It is not a path I took up lightly. I seriously considered my skills, talents, abilities (what have you). I sought counsel and feedback from friends, family and trusted mentors. I prayed about it. And all of that was positive: yes, go forward.

But now it is clear: stop. Do not go forward.

To say that my identity has been wrapped up in this thing is both saying too much and yet is speaking a truth. I have viewed myself, for this decade and a half and more, as an academic, or, perhaps less pejoratively, as a scholar, a professor. And yet, it is not as though I haven’t had a sense of self that was larger, much larger, than just this narrow concern. I have been a husband for fourteen of those sixteen years. I have been a father for four. And there is my investigation and entry into Orthodoxy for the last five to seven years. But still and all, I have seen myself as (proleptically) “Dr. Healy.”

But now I am being told (and to be clear, I am not being asked): Let go. Give it up. Put it up there on the altar. And. Walk. Away.

I suppose if I were a more spiritual man, I could derive some consolation from the fact that both my patron saints walked away from academia. Having just read, as I do each year in the fall, the biography of Fr. Seraphim Rose, I am reminded of his 1961 letter to his parents.

It’s time that I chose the academic life in the first place, because God gave me a mind to serve Him with, and the academic world is where the mind is supposed to be used. But after eight or nine years I know well enough what goes on in the universities. The mind is respected by only a few of the “old-fashioned” professors, who will soon have died out. For the rest, it’s a matter of making money, getting a secure place in life—and using the mind as a kind of toy, doing clever tricks with it and getting paid for it, like circus clowns. The love of truth has vanished from people today; those who have minds have to prostitute their talents to get along. I find this difficult to do, because I have too great a love of truth. The academic world for me is just another job; but I am not going to make myself a slave to it. If I am going to serve God in this world, and so keep from making my life a total failure, I will have to do it outside the academic world. (Letter to his parents, 14 June 1961)

But I was reading (as I do regularly) from the life of St. Benedict, and just this morning was confronted once again with this passage (which, unsurprisingly, jumped out at me):

Saint Benedict was born in the town of Nursia, a small city in the Italian province of Umbria, but he was sent to Rome to study the worldly sciences of his time. Yet, perceiving a multitude of profligates in the pagan schools he attended, and how they lived according to their lustful passions, he departed thence, fearing lest on account of a little book-learning he destroy the great understanding of his soul, and lest, having debauched himself with wanton people, he fall headlong into the abyss of sin. Thus, he left school an unlettered wised man and a wise fool, and disdained superficial philosophy so as to preserve his inner chastity. [St. Dmitri’s life of Saint Benedict (tr by Isaac E. Lambertson) from The Menology of St. Dmitri of Rostov, vol. VII (March)]

Of course, both my patrons found their salvation to lead them to the monastic desert where, as St. Benedict’s life relates, he lived for three years unknown to anyone, and, in the case of Fr Seraphim, he lived with his co-struggler, Abbot Herman, for about three or four years also, in a similar state of anonymity. Since I am a married father of two, I will not soon be seeking the monastic desert, to say the least.

But given that these are my patrons, I suppose my question should be what can I take of their examples for my struggle for salvation?

For Fr Seraphim, there was a clear discernment that the academy no longer trades in truth, except for individuals or small groups. If that was true 46 years ago, how much more true has it become today? But it wasn’t simply an intellectual exercise that Fr Seraphim was after, this was a matter of service to God. How was Fr Seraphim to struggle for his salvation? What would that look like?

For St Benedict, it was a clear discernment that the life of the academy was given over to the passions. Similarly, if that was true some 1500 years ago, how much more true has it become today with the academy’s accommodation to all forms of passionate behavior (and a similar resistance to ascetical living), particularly that of pride and arrogance, hatred, anger, sexual sins, and the rejection of all authority (except for the threat of power). And again, the point was, for St. Benedict, what was he going to do to save his soul? He was going to have to leave the academy.

It is difficult to accept that, for whatever reason, even if I was correct to head to the academy, right now, by providence, I must leave the academy so as to save my soul. This is a mystery to me. If I could save my soul within the academy for a season, how is it that the salvation of my soul now leads out of the academy? I do not know. I am puzzled.

Of course there are many ways to come to some possible explanations. Perhaps this has only been a preparation for what is next to come, and I have now all the preparation God wants me to have. Perhaps in the multitudinous synergy of human choices and acts, it is now the case that some future event or set of circumstances is going to require what having a life of the academy would prohibit or truncate. Maybe there is a coming opportunity I might otherwise miss or turn down if I were “distracted” by completing my program.

Who knows? At this point it is idle speculation.

What does now linger in the remains of this day is to face head on this loss, without shirking or avoiding it. To accept this as God’s providential will. And to trust him in all things for my salvation.

I have taken to praying the following prayer every morning in the last seven days. It is a challenging one, to be sure.

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon thy holy will. In every hour of the day reveal thy will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with firm conviction that thy will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by thee. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray thou thyself in me. Amen. [from A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers (SVS Press, 1983), p. 20]

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And That’s That

As anticipated, the leave of absence was only a long shot to cover the last two academic years (not including the present), with the expectation that I would achieve reinstatement by this spring (i.e., January).  That last is not going to happen.  So the first becomes a moot point.

Fifty-one hours of PhD studies, on the verge of proposing a dissertation project.  And it’s gone.

Clearly I wasn’t ready to call it quits last week.  I’m no more ready today.  But there it is, whether I like it or not.

I don’t know what it means to think of myself as an ex-academic.  I’ve carried my dissertation topic for three years, including my directed readings.  I don’t know what it is to not have that in my consciousness.

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This past week I was quite saddened by what appears to be the end of my pursuit of a PhD. (I say “appears” because the graduate program director encouraged me to seek out official leave status, which will keep the financial problems at bay. But that may well be a long shot and/or the delay of the inevitable).

1sr12.jpgOn the very day I sent the email to the graduate program director, I received in the mail the icon of Fr Seraphim I had ordered (pictured to the right, the jpeg link takes you to the supplier whence I purchased the icon). What a consolation. I did not take it to mean either that my PhD pursuits might be resurrected or that they are dead and done, but simply that Fr Seraphim could well understand my plight and was signaling to me his prayers on my behalf. The next morning I prayed the akathist to Fr Seraphim in thanksgiving for this blessing.

I no longer meet these coincidences with quite the same skepticism that I used to. I have found them to be so a propos of the time so as not to be all that, well, coincidental. I came by the skepticism quite naturally, of course, since the Restoration Movement churches themselves were heavily formed from Enlightenment empiricism (particularly of the Lockean kind), which functioned as a kind of reductionism that led, in many cases, to a denial of the miraculous after the time of the Apostles (on a entirely eisegetical reading of 1 Corinthians 13). And I have very little doubt that I have missed much of God’s fatherly care and love for us as “coincidences.” But over the years I have learned that God’s providence is always too precisely timed and too well-suited to our needs to be mere coincidence. Especially when surrounded by gobs and gobs of prayer.

Take as a case in point my job offer for the company for which I now work. I had sent more resumes and applications out of the Chicago area than I did in the Chicago area. (And of those outside Chicago, most went to Oklahoma.) I used personal contacts (either personal acquaintances or friends and relatives of personal acquaintances) for four spots–none of which panned out. So much for networking (grin). We prayed. Our friends and family prayed. Our church prayed. And when it all came down to it, I got two interviews and one offer. And the offer was not for the position to which I seemed a perfect match. God’s providence was pretty clear. And it has been a great blessing.

But I’ve digressed.

vitapatrum.jpgSo I took the icon of Fr Seraphim, with a prayer rope Anna had brought back from the monastery for me, to be blessed on the altar today, and as it turns out, I also received the copy of Vita Patrum (translated by Fr Seraphim), from one of the members of the parish. The book is out of print, and I have checked out the library copy some three times in the last five years, so I was greatly anticipating receiving the book. The fellow parish member and I had previously agreed to the exchange a couple of months ago or more, but just had not made connections. Today ended up being the day. Yet another consolation.

But this seems to be how God works, at least some of the time. We receive that which we need at just the right time we need it. A Bible college professor, himself well acquainted with suffering and providence, used to say often: God is seldom early, never late. (I don’t know whether the proverb is original, but his was the first source from whom I’d heard it.)

Fr Seraphim’s own life is a testimony to such providential timing of God’s mercy and love. How often did the fathers of St Herman’s receive an icon or an out of print copy of a Russian text–just when it was needed or spiritually beneficial? What about the offering they received toward the drilling of a well–that was just enough to cover the costs?

Truly God is merciful and his providence is full and rich and always surrounds us.

Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim pray to God for us that our souls may be saved.

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The Little Sailing: Links

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The Ochlophobist makes two important observations which I’d never really connected before: the Orthodox are one of the few, perhaps the only ones remaining, who make their Communion bread by hand, everyone else’s is factory produced.

Our priest, commenting on our recent shortage of prosphora-bakers (since rectified), noted that if there were no prosphora, there would be no Holy Communion. The Communion bread of the Orthodox is made by the parishioners, and the making of prosphora sanctifies one’s kitchen.

Given where I’m at now, a few days shy of six months out from our chrismation, if I were exploring Orthodoxy again, this would be one of the crucial signs of authenticity and authority, of the “one true Church.” Christ gives us the seed, the earth, the sunshine and rain, we offer to Him the harvest, the sifting, the milling, the mixing and the baking with the hands and minds and bodies and senses He gives us, never once inserting a prophylactic between our very selves and our gifts, and He then offers back to us Himself, sanctifying and deifying it all. Holy things are for the holy.

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Speaking of Vocation . . .

A short while ago I wrote to my graduate program director to tell him that I would not be continuing with my PhD program.

There are a lot of complex issues involved, financial, changing life circumstances, my naivete and subsequent disappointment with academia, among other things.

I have been unfunded my entire program (being fair to middlin’ in one’s academic work gets you accepted into the program, but doesn’t open up the money truck doors at your doorstep), so I have had to depend upon our own resources, and student loans (mostly student loans).  I sought external funding and had some hopeful possibilities that didn’t pan out.  But with each passing year, graduate programs are run like for-profit businesses and less like, well, institutions of higher learning.

I have also been disappointed with the political bifurcation of the academy and the politicization of knowledge.  And I’m not talking about departmental power grabs.  That’s just a fact of life.  But this is ideological politicization. Academic speech is so calculated anymore, with few being willing to buck “consensus” for pursuit of the truth.  More and more stuff is agenda-driven, with the agenda being some political outcome rather than getting at the core of what’s real (if anyone believes that’s even possible let alone a goal).

And there are just other life-happens sort of things: a growing family, a new job, day-to-day concerns have shifted.  I’m thinking much more long term: my daughter’s college (if they desire), possible weddings, a house, and so on.

I don’t shirk the fact that all of my choices, including the pursuit of a PhD in the first place, have brought me to this point.  And all of those choices are subject to the constraints of prudential wisdom.  If done again, I sure would do things with some significant differences (and much more planning).  But we are here and now, not then and when.  And this is what I am given to decide.

It is still greatly disappointing.  And coupled with the rembrance of the events of last year with my family, and a new rawness with that memory, today is a bit of a struggle.

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