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Archive for July, 2008

Praise You in This Storm

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Words of wisdom:

Lucky Day: In a way, each of us has an El Guapo to face. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo. For us, El Guapo is a big, dangerous man who wants to kill us. But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people of Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo, who also happens to be *the actual* El Guapo!

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On God’s Providence

Question. My thought suggests to me that my material resources are tight and that i cannot feed myself or my household, and this causes me sorrow. What does this mean?

Response by Abba John

This sorrow is human; if we had hope in God, He would provide for us as he wants. “Therefore, cast your concern upon the Lord” (I Pet. 5.7), and he is able to take care of you and your own without sorrow and affliction. Say to him: ” Your will be done” (Mt. 6.10 and 26.42), and he will not allow you to grieve or be afflicted. May the Lord have mercy upon you and protect you with his right hand. Amen.- Letters from the Desert: Barsanuphius and John

From: Mind in the Heart

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Facing the Giants

I recently watched the film Facing the Giants, that little underdog of a movie put out by Sherwood Baptist Church down in Albany, Georgia. For a 100G outlay it made 10 mil. It’s got all the pluses and minuses of such films, but I enjoyed it. I will always love that straightforward, ya-need-Jeezus-as-yer-Savior preachin’ that is all over the film.

Some things it brought home to me are:

  • Football is a divinely ordained sport
  • Smalltown high school football is the purest form of football
  • If the Desert Fathers had known of high school football, it would be all over the Philokalia
  • The “Death Crawl” is a forgotten asketical discipline recovered just in time for the making of the film (see clip below)
  • There’s just something deeply satisfying about that sound of the smack of shoulderpads and helmets, the screaming of coaches, the gruntin’ and the trashtalkin’, the familiar catchphrases–mmm, yeah, breathe it in.
  • Generally speaking, Smalltown USA is where it’s at
  • Sometimes religious cliches are deeper than they appear
  • Music is powerful–which is why the first things I “memorized” in Orthodoxy were the hymns sung every Sunday
  • God answers prayer–and prayer changes us
  • Scripture really is meant to be quoted in the midst of everyday life–even if the application is a bit stretched
  • Psalm 17:1-3 [18:1-3] rocks
  • In life, it’s all about praising God when you win and praising God when you lose
  • One-sentence sermonettes belong in the midst of everyday life
  • Sometimes God will go ahead and honor reckless, shameless faith–which is why sometimes football teams win games
  • The power of prayer is in a humble cry
  • I think more Christians should feel more led more often to say something for the Lord to their fellow Christians: and the story about the farmers and the rain is always a good one
  • Nothing is impossible with God
  • God has a redneck accent

Don’t quit and it’s all heart:

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On Thanksgiving

Labor to acquire thanksgiving toward God for everything, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and then you will find peace.

–Answer 348 in Guidance Twoard Spiritual Life 2e, tr. by Father Seraphim Rose (St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood 2002)

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On Ataraxia

There were two brothers who shared a cell and their humility and patience was praised by many of the fathers. A certain holy man, hearing of this, wanted to test them and see if they possessed true and perfect humility. So he came to visit them. They received him with joy, and all together they said their prayers and their psalms, as usual. Then the visitor went outside the cell and saw their little vegetable garden. Seizing his stick, he rushed in with all his might and began to destroy every plant in sight so that soon there was nothing left at all. Seeing him, the two brothers said not one word. They did not even show sad or troubled faces. Coming back into the cell they finished their prayers for Vespers, and paid him honor, saying, “Abba, if you like, we can get one of the cabbages that is left, and cook it and eat it, for it is now time to eat.” Then the elder fell down before them, saying, “I give thanks to my God, for I see that the Holy Spirit rests on you.”

[from here]

And:

A layman who had a son came to see Abba Sisoes on Abba Anthony’s mountain. On the way, it happened that his son died. He was not troubled by this but brought him with confidence to the old man and bowed down with his son, as though making prostration, so that he would be blessed by the old man. Then the father stood up, left the child at the old man’s feet and went outside. The old man, thinking that the boy was bowing to him said, “Get up, go outside.” For he did not know that he was dead. Immediately the boy stood up and went out. When he saw it, his father was filled with amazement and went back inside. He bowed before the old man and told him the whole story. When he heard it the old man was filled with regret, for he had not intended that to happen. So the disciple asked the father of the child not to speak of it to anyone before the old man’s death.

. . . .

Abba Sisoes said, “Let yourself be despised, cast your own will behind your back, and you will be free from care and at peace.”

[from here]

Ataraxia is the ancient Greek term for the soul which is in equilibrium, at peace, still. Sometimes translated “quietude of soul,” it was the primary focus of life for such diverse ancient philosophical schools as that of Epicurus, the Skeptics and the Stoics. But this stillness should not be read as inactive. One of Aristotle’s contributions to metaphysics was his neologism, energeia–a term that as Dr. David Bradshaw points out (a summary essay is here in Word document, [see also here, again in Word]), had deep ramifications for the global unity of Christians–which conceptualizes that being and essence aren’t static realities but dynamic and active realities. So ataraxia is a stillness of soul that is active and dynamic, even and especially while it is equilibrium. Unless I’m mistaken, St. Gregory Palamas and the hesychasts explicate this quite well.

I offer further comments with the obvious disclaimer that I’m feeling my way forward on this matter, and that admittedly my understanding derives first from my philosophical background and reading, hopefully formed and corrected by my reading in the Scriptures and the Fathers, and my understanding of the Liturgies, and all of it filtered through very limited and fallen personal experience.

It seems to me, then, that ataraxia, stillness of soul, is not, precisely, inactivity or motionlessness, but, rather, more a state of integration. Rather than the soul being fragmented along lines of competing allegiances and various inclinations, a quieted soul is channeled and reordered, the pieces, if you will, are reassembled and the soul is uni-directed. As Father Patrick pointed out in his sermons on St. Elijah the Prophet, appropriating Kierkegaard’s purity of heart is to will one thing, for Christians, purity of heart is to think one thought. According to Fr. Athony Coniaris, citing a research study done by the University of Minnesota, we have about 4000 distinct thoughts in a sixteen hour day (Confronting and Controlling Thoughts According to the Fathers of the Philokalia, [Light and Life, 2004] p. 36). If this is true, then I do not think we must have less distinct thoughts, but, rather, that our thoughts (which instantiate our allegiances and inclinations) are pointed in one direction, their collective energies moving the soul in a singular direction. This is not to say, I do not think, that one may not have sub-allegiances, or multiple inclincations, but, rather that all allegiances and all inclinations are filtered and directed toward one end or goal.

If I’m right about this, then, it seems to me that the work of attaining ataraxia–stillness, quietude, integration, indeed, wholeness–is a matter of eliminating those allegiances and inclincations, those energies, that pull the soul away from its end or goal in the Kingdom of God, the Person of Christ. Christ uses the metaphor of pruning. That is to say, I wonder if it is the case that we don’t attain stillness by willing ourself into stillness so much as we get rid of that which agitates and disquiets the soul. If one wants quiet, one eliminates noise.

From that point, then I am certain, on my reading and experience, that the ridding ourselves of disquiet is going to involve is suffering. One must be willing to suffer all, and not simply willing to suffer all, but to understand, and to accept, that this is normative for us. As St. Paul says, “We must hrough many tribulations enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). That word “must” is dei, it is necessary. And the tribulations are the thlipses, that pressing of the soul, that straitening of ourselves which does not permit us to enter the narrow way with any entanglements. We lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us, to run the race through the straits.

This is a divine, and a painful, mystery. I for one do not like it one bit. Perhaps there are others who join me in that sentiment. Even if I know that Christ himself endured the Cross and despised its shame, it is unutterably hard to follow in his steps. Even knowing that he was nailed to the Cross in light of the joy set before him, even supposing there is a joy set before me of which I have no earthly idea, when the soul is pressed, when there is pain, no teleology, no instrumentality suffices to calm the heart. It is a paradox then that the soul must be disturbed before it can be at rest, it must know the pain of excision and cutting and wounding before it can know the balm of healing. The soul that desires such integration must first submit to disintegration. There is, apparently, no other way to the Resurrection than through Calvary.

Forgive me, readers, but I hate this. Perhaps others do, too. The distortion of one’s sight by tears only increases the fear, the isolation, the sense of abandonment. Again the paradox: how to abandon oneself to the God by whom one feels oneself abandoned? When the cry of “Eloi” is on one’s lips, one is challenged to find the ability to say, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” We are unable to discern that our hymn-cries are supported by the divine Eucharistic meson. We are clouded. We feel lost.

And indeed, we are losing pieces of ourselves. We are casting off sinful inclinations. We are throwing away distorted mirrors which have reflected back to us distortions of reality. We are cutting away false selves we have grafted onto our identities. All of this hurts. We bleed from such surgeries.

But only here, in what is to us little else but pain and darkness and tears and blood and loss, is the place, I think, where we are supposed to meet God. I wish I could speak with more certainty, but I am not, after all, a saint. St. Benedict and Blessed Seraphim, pray for me. Most Holy Theotokos save us. Lord have mercy.

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Please visit Dr. David Bradshaw’s homepage which contain some extremely intelligent and useful essays (particular a couple of papers on the term energeia, or, in English, “energies”).

You will not be disappointed.

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Ostrov Again

Been doing some watching of Ostrov again. I got the Film Movement copy from Netflix which has much better English subtitles. I did some more ‘net searching and found this interesting tidbit at Ostrov (film) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Pyotr Mamonov, who plays the lead character, formerly one of the few rock musicians in USSR, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the 1990s and lives now in an isolated village. Pavel Lungin said about him that “to a large extent, he played himself.” Mamonov received a blessing from his confessor for playing the character.

I would love to meet Mr. Mamanov. His portrayal of the fictional Fr. Anatoli has been powerful for me, creating some fruitful reflection.

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Dealing with Silence

First Pithless Thoughts and then through PT, Veni Vidi Credidi, I was reminded of a reality with which I am dealing more of recent days: silence.

I’m not one who has much difficulty in the way of physical silence. I don’t keep a TV running–“just for noise”–except when I’m watching it. Now, I might go through phases of too much DVD-watching, but unless I’m watching it, the TV is off. I don’t plug headphones into my ears except when I’m doing repetitive work, and when I do, I’m listening to lectures, podcasts, ancient philosophical works or Church Fathers on audio. And I don’t very often have a stereo playing in the background–almost never, actually.

But make no mistake: the internal noise level in my soul is pretty constant. My mind flits from one thought to another, from some event or another, constantly churning out mental noise. My thoughts might be far more boring and nerdy than anyone else (I’ve composed essays on various philosophical or theological topics in my head while on the el or in traffic), but they are no less noisy, and certainly no more godly, than anyone else’s.

And that’s the hard part of it. How do I get away from my addiction to mental activity, to thoughts? How do I learn to deal with silence, to really deal with silence? How do I avoid the tendency, heck, the habit, of filling the physical absence of noise by all the mental noise I can muster? How does one develop the ability to embrace the mental silence as well as the physical–to focus one’s heart and mind on a singular thought? I pray, and my mind is everwhere: Our Father–I’ve got to remember to pay that bill today–who art in heaven–can’t forget to balance the checkbook–hallowed be thy name–did I remember to enter that grocery purchase in the check book?–thy Kingdom come–out of milk, need to remember to get milk . . . and so it goes. Mental noise, noetic static.

I know what the Fathers say–fill one’s thought with the Jesus Prayer. Fill one’s thoughts with the Psalms and the Gospels. Focus on one thought to the exclusion of others. Pay attention to what one is doing in the moment, and do not be distracted.

Easy advice. Not complicated to do. But very hard to do, nonetheless.

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An interesting clip from the show ER. The scene is built on the extreme liberalism of the chaplain and the hard-wired intuitions we have regarding God, our sins and our need for forgiveness. The Niebuhrian (H. Richard not Reinhold) formula for the liberal version of Christ (a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross), and which is explicated by the chaplain, obviously does not satisfy us, even if we cannot articulate it, and even if we risk a legalistic, earn-my-way-to-heaven approach. But still the intuition is strong, and necessary.

[H/T: unfortunately, I've forgotten]

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