We often approach the task of discerning God’s will quite dialectically: either this, or that. If we have free will–as I believe we do–we use that will to take one or another course, each of which is in opposition to the other. Some in fact predicate the concept of free will precisely on this dialectic of opposition. For about five years now, I have come to see that free will is not necessitated on such a dialectic, and comments from my priest yesterday gave me an opportunity to think through this less philosophically and more pragmatically.
Archive for the ‘Prayer’ Category
Make known Your ways to me, O Lord, and teach me Your paths (Psalm 24 [25 in Hebrew])
This noontime prayer is a noble one, and one of whose effects we largely pray in ignorance. And thank God for that ignorance. We do not pray these words and expect then to follow them with “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you fall into various trials” (James 1:2). And yet, unless I am greatly mistaken, this is the methodology by which we learn God’s ways.
This is so because the knowledge for which we pray is not the knowledge of reason. God is not an accumulation of a number of angles subject to geometric proof. God is a Person–Three Persons, actually–and thus is known by that organ which knows persons, the heart. The heart is that mysterious place in the human body and soul in which is centered the will, the emotions, the desires, and, yes, the intellect. And the knowledge it acquires and promotes is not that of the syllogism or the scale.
Because God is a Person, by asking to know his ways, we are asking to come into deeper engagement with Someone who is at once familiar and utterly unfamiliar; whom we recognize and the stranger who terrifies. He is the Lover of the Soul, as in the Song of Solomon, and the Warrior King of the Exodus. He is the Potter of Jeremiah, and the abandoned Wife of Hosea. God is spoken of throughout Scripture by way of poetry and metaphor, because these are the ways language connects our hearts together, the pathways that open knowledge of one another to one another. These are the heart-syllogisms by which we collect knowledge of God.
But God is not bereft of other methods to make known to us his ways. The way of testing and discipline demonstrates his love for us, as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear. Our Lord himself, having just been called the Father’s beloved Son, in whom the Father was well-pleased, was driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert. There, weakened by fasting, alone, he was tested by the Accuser. “Oh, really? God’s beloved Son, eh? Bet you’re hungry.” And on the Cross, the Accuser taunts him again by way of willing accomplices, “Oh, really? God’s Son, are you? Why don’t you come on down and prove it?”
That we will suffer pain and abandonment is unbearably hard to accept. That such an experience is the signal of God’s love is at times impossible to comprehend. What angle is there that will give us the leverage of understanding here? What principle is there that we may stake down to give us purchase to climb the mystery further? We are holding on by one hand, dangling out over the abyss. Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?
We are left with nothing else than the geometry of the heart. The child in the medical office, who feels now the pain she did not expect, looks wide-eyed and tearful into the eyes of her father and seeks there the answer to this puzzle. And then the embrace, the cries, the tears, but knowing this: in her father’s arms is the place she wants to be. And so our Lord bows his head, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit” and breathes his last.
None of this computes. Reason takes offense. This does not fit the grid. It is a non sequitur. And yet it is knowledge as sure and as certain as any deduction.
The heart knows in fits and starts. It knows by meandering. Our lives do not unfold before us like a glove compartment map. We each explore our uncharted West, plotting our geometrical heart patterns as we go. We may be blessed by being able to take a sighting and head in a direction from that sighting for days. In the gale, our light extinguished, we may only feel our way along step by slippery step. We will take wrong turns, and have to double back. But this is the way of the heart. And this is how his way is made known to us. We must keep our hearts open and humble. The chances of chasing a mirage are great. And yet, deep calls to deep, and God knows our hearts. And he will make known to us his ways.
“Keep your heart with all watchfulness” (Proverbs 4:22).
On Friday last, my grandmother, Lola Thompson, departed this life. I was able to travel back home to Kansas to be there for the funeral. I’m grateful it was possible for me to do so. It was, if one may say it, a soul-enriching occasion.
I was not able, I am sad to say, to spend much time with Grandma so as to pray. I drove in about midnight the night before the funeral. Slept, and then got up to go to the funeral. By the time I arrived at the church, there was no occasion for private family viewing. All that was granted me was the opportunity to make the sign of the cross and to venerate the Holy Spirit of which her mortal body is the temple. I kissed her hand. And then I had to move along for the remainder of the guests in line.
I put it: “spend time with Grandma.” I did so quite intentionally. We are not, as one popular music artist puts it, “spirits in the material world.” We are, body and soul, persons in the image of God. No UFO-cult doctrines for us: the body is not a container of the soul which we throw away. Christians have, from the beginning, always and everywhere believed that we are persons of body and soul. If the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, then we do not burn down God’s house. We reverently and devoutly handle this temple, knowing that the separation is a temporary one, only until the resurrection. And so my mother carefully did Grandma’s hair, and my sister lovingly painted her nails (which she so enjoyed in her last days), to reflect, however imperfectly and through mortality, the beauty of the person I knew (and know) as Grandma.
But it is no less true that Grandma’s departure in soul is, as St Paul puts it, a departure to be with Christ. This is a great mystery that has no need of resolution, only veneration. And so the service was deeply evangelical in the root meaning of that word. Grandma’s departure was and is a loving and beautiful testimony to the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. We saw, or, rather, were reminded of, eighty-seven years spent in devotion to Christ. We did not speak of Grandma’s perfection, for we are all sinners and marked by the consequences of our sins. But a life lived in such service to Christ, however, much struggle and adversity we face, cannot be without its transfiguration. Such a transfiguration shines forth a wonderful luminosity. Grandma was beautiful: from the time she was a young woman, until her last days in this mortal life. Even in the mortality that weakened her greatly in her final days, she was a beautiful woman. She is a beautiful woman.
I did not have a chance to speak much with Grandpa, which is understandable. But God gave me a wonderful and amazing gift nonetheless. When I first saw Grandpa, I offered my prayers and sympathies. And almost immediately he began to tell me a gentle and loving moment he had with Grandma. In her last days, as she became more aware of her impending departure, Grandpa asked her if she were afraid. She admitted she was afraid. Grandpa spoke to her to comfort her. A day or so later, Grandpa asked her again. Again, she admitted her fear. And Grandpa, in love, exhorted her to remember the Gospel, to remember her hope in the Lord, to trust in his mercy. He was, in a true act of love from more than sixty years of marriage, assisting Grandma in her final journey to meet her Lord and Savior.
From there the family traveled a couple of hours to the gravesite. By the time we arrived, it was terribly cold. I was given the privilege to be among those who bore Grandma’s body to its final resting place until the resurrection. After the minister spoke and guests could greet family, I kissed the casket and stood for a few brief moments to offer a farewell. I prayed the de Profundis (Psalm 129 [130 in the Masoretic canon]).
Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. If Thou shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, O Lord, who shall stand? For with Thee there is forgiveness. For Thy name’s sake have I patiently waited for Thee, O Lord; my soul hath waited patiently for Thy word, my soul hath hoped in the Lord. From the morning watch until night, from the morning watch let Israel hope in the Lord. For with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption; and He shall redeem Israel out of all his iniquities.
May God grant repose of soul to my grandmother. And may he cause her memory to be eternal.
Here are two pieces from my priest and pastor, Father Patrick Henry Reardon, on the prayer of the publican:
The Prayer of the Publican [OrthodoxyToday.net] (This is a more simple devotional reflection on the Gospel passage.)
The Prayer of the Publican [Touchstone Magazine] (This is a more scholarly article, with generous footnotes, tracing the Jesus Prayer back to the New Testament.)
John Maddex has done yeoman’s work to get the mp3 audio of the funeral vigil for Archbishop JOB up on the AFR site. I saw John literally only a handful of hours ago (as of this post) at the conclusion of the vigil, and when I got up this morning, the podcast was ready for download. Thank you, John. +JOB was John’s own father in God and influential in the lives of his family and their coming to the Orthodox faith.
I went to the vigil, which also happened to be my first Orthodox funeral, and I cannot tell you how moving and uplifting it was. Several bishops from all over were there, including Metropolitan JONAH, chief hierarch of the OCA, and our own father in God, Bishop MARK, not to mention priests and deacons, vested and in cassock, from everywhere as well. The white vestments of Pascha (Easter) made the place shine. Holy Trinity Cathedral, +JOB’s see, is a smallish place, so it was packed, literally standing room only–people even standing in the vestibule (though no one outside I do not think), some up in the balcony.
I have been to many Christian funerals, but hardly any for pastors or ministers. I have been to no funerals in which the love of the bereaved for their departed is not real and felt. But I have never had the sense of the love of all the other bishops, priests, deacons, and people of God for Archbishop JOB as I did last night. The tender regard shown for their archpastor could not but move the coldest heart. It is little wonder that already among the voices I heard there, some were talking of +JOB as though he would one day be recognized as a saint. And there is no doubt of his particular martyrdom in service to Christ for the truth.
The choir leading the singing was amazingly good, their voices clear and reverential. The service was one long perfectly balanced prayer of sorrow and hope in Christ. Even attending after a full day of work, and standing for about three or four hours all told, it was a prayer that energized one. I felt more refreshed at the end than I had felt at the beginning. And the faith in Christ for the hope of the resurrection was so palpable, I felt I could have carried it in my own hands.
Listening to the vigil will not be the same as having been there and prayed there with everyone else. But I do urge you to listen to the service. You will still likely find your faith refreshed as you join the prayers in your own heart.
While I do not believe that Faith and Reason are opposites, it is the case that Faith is a mystery to Reason. The moment we attempt to analyze faith we lose it, as though attempting to hold still in our peripheral vision that glint of light which flashes and is gone. Despite this, I’m going to attempt the foolish and distinguish between two experiences of faith. So while it seems to me that faith is a unity, and that in distinguishing between different “kinds” of faith, we do so heuristically, nonetheless, in thinking about how we exercise our faith, it seems that there are broadly speaking two ways in which we can do so. Each one challenges us in particular ways.
This from a 1987 AGAIN magazine article (link opens a Word document file) on Pastor Richard Wurmbrand’s experience in a Soviet prison, regarding an Orthodox priest and the man who tortured him, in the pastor’s own words:
When I was in jail I fell very, very ill. I had tuberculosis of the whole surface of both lungs, and four vertebrae were attacked by tuberculosis. I also had intestinal tuberculosis, diabetes, heart failure, jaundice, and other sicknesses I can’t even remember. I was near to death.
At my right hand was a priest by the name of Iscu. He was abbot of a monastery. This man, perhaps in his forties, had been so tortured he was near to death. But his face was serene. He spoke about his hope of heaven, about his love of Christ, about his faith. He radiated joy.
On my left side was the Communist torturer who had tortured this priest almost to death. He had been arrested by his own comrades. Don’t believe the newspapers when they say that the Communists only hate Christians or Jews—it’s not true. They simply hate. They hate everybody. They hate Jews, they hate Christians, they hate anti-Semites, they hate anti-Christians, they hate everybody. One Communist hates the other Communist. They quarrel among themselves, and when they quarrel one Communist with the other, they put the other one in jail and torture him just like a Christian, and they beat him.
And so it happened that the Communist torturer who had tortured this priest nearly to death had been tortured nearly to death by his comrades. And he was dying near me. His soul was in agony.
During the night he would awaken me, saying, “Pastor, please pray for me. I can’t die, I have committed such terrible crimes.”
Then I saw a miracle. I saw the agonized priest calling two other prisoners. And leaning on their shoulders, slowly, slowly he walked past my bed, sat on the bedside of this murderer, and caressed his head—I will never forget this gesture. I watched a murdered man caressing his murderer! That is love—he found a caress for him.
The priest said to the man, “You are young; you did not know what you were doing. I love you with all my heart.” But he did not just say the words. You can say “love,” and it’s just a word of four letters. But he really loved. “I love you with all my heart.”
Then he went on, “If I who am a sinner can love you so much, imagine Christ, who is Love Incarnate, how much He loves you! And all the Christians whom you have tortured, know that they forgive you, they love you, and Christ loves you. He wishes you to be saved much more than you wish to be saved. You wonder if your sins can be forgiven. He wishes to forgive your sins more than you wish your sins to be forgiven. He desires for you to be with Him in heaven much more than you wish to be in heaven with Him. He is Love. You only need to turn to Him and repent.”
In this prison cell in which there was no possibility of privacy, I overheard the confession of the murderer to the murdered. Life is more thrilling than a novel—no novelist has ever written such a thing. The murdered—near to death—received the confession of the murderer. The murdered gave absolution to his murderer.
They prayed together, embraced each other, and the priest went back to his bed. Both men died that same night. It was a Christmas Eve. But it was not a Christmas Eve in which we simply remembered that two thousand years ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It was a Christmas Eve during which Jesus was born in the heart of a Communist murderer.
These are things which I have seen with my own eyes.
From St. Benedict’s Rule:
The third kind of monks, a detestable kind, are the sarabaites. These, not having been tested, as gold in the furnace, by any rule or by the lessons of experience, are as soft as lead. In their works they still keep faith with the world, so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God. They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s. Their law is the desire for self-gratification: whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; what they dislike, they regard as unlawful.
–Chapter 1: On the Kinds of Monks
Sarabaites live in small groups without a leader and without a rule to guide them. Remember, St Benedict distinguishes the sarabaites from the coenobites (the monks who live according to a rule in community under an abbot); the gyrovagues (who, like the sarabaites are slaves to their own wills and appetites, but differ in that they are always on the move, always guests, never anchored); and the anchorites or hermits (who after long testing in the monastery live their lives in solitude and prayer).
St Benedict reserves his harshest approbation for these sarabaites. They are essentially religious consumers, monastics in name only who seek experiences which conform to their preferences. Although they are not like the gyrovagues in their unstable restless wanderings, the sarabaites are as unstable in their spiritual lives not being grounded in a community under a common discipline and godly leadership. They lack any check on their sinful inclinations and habits, their blindnesses and prejudices. Their asketical zeal is unchecked by the wise moderation of the Rule. Their asketical laxity is reinforced by the absence of any external motivation. Theirs is a life wholly contained within themselves. They are the measure of all things. But because they have the outward form of a monastic appearance, they deceive the undiscerning. The gyrovagues are here and gone. Perhaps they will attract one or another to run after them, but they do not linger long in any one place to form attachments. The sarabaites however, appear to be what they claim to be. And therein lies the danger. One of the tools for good works in the Rule is not to be called holy before one is truly holy.
The life in the coenobium, the monastic community, is not an exciting one. It is a regular round of work, prayer and study. Every day the office is prayed, every week the same psalms are sung round again. There is discipline to be endured when one steps outside the way of life ordered by the Rule. Mutual submission and poverty and chastity are not exciting things. Duty is far less comforting than following one’s own inclinations.
But, as the Benedictine way of life demonstrates, it is precisely this sort of ordered constraints on ourselves that we need. Few of us lack the strength of character to hold ourselves to an ordered way of life. And those who do have the strength for such often lack the wisdom. Very few of us would seek out hermitage for ourselves. Some of us may find a life of vagrancy somehow appealing. But given the chance, most of us would choose the sarabaites over the Benedictines, having all the appearance of religiousness under the guise of self-centeredness. But these third kind of monks serve as a warning to us. They are empty vessels caught up wholly within themselves.
The better life is in an ordered community under godly leadership, one of mutual submission, generosity and fidelity.
The sad songs are often the sweetest. The richest joys are often the ones seasoned with the saline of our tears. There is something about the human condition which makes pain and sorrow inevitable. Tears are the grace and mercy of the loving God, who himself became a man acquainted with sorrow, who poured out his own tears before his Father in heaven, and who sings for joy over his creation. These are the truths we must front before we can go further.
This post is not going to be anything like a Christian theodicy. For one thing, to write about theodicy is to take a living existential reality and pin it dead and lifeless to a board. For another, the discussion of theodicy is often engaged within technical philosophical boundaries, which are derived from convictions Christians cannot share (e.g., the framing of the question within dialectical oppositions, resulting in a “god of the philosophers” as distinct from the Trinitarian God of Christianity). What it will be, however, is a very simple contemplation about the transfiguration of suffering, and the role of thanksgiving in that transfiguration.