The Miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem

In an online article, Niels Christian Hvidt writes:

“The Miracle of the Holy Fire” by Christians from the Orthodox Churches is known as “The greatest of all Christian miracles”. It takes place every single year, on the same time, in the same manner, and on the same spot. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and for such an extensive period of time; one can read about it in sources as old as from the eighth Century AD. The miracle happens in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, to millions of believers the holiest place on earth. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself is an enigmatic place. Theologians, historians and archaeologists consider the church to contain both Golgatha, the little hill on which Jesus Christ was crucified, as well as the “new tomb” close to Golgatha that received his dead body, as one reads in the Gospels. It is on this same spot that Christians believe he rose from the dead.

. . .

In order to find out, I travelled to Jerusalem to be present at the ceremony in which the Miracle of the Holy Fire occurs, and I can testify that it did not only happen in the ancient Church and throughout the Middle Ages but also on the 18th of April, 1998. The Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodorus I, is the man who every year enters the tomb to receive the Holy Fire. He has been the Patriarch of Jerusalem since 1982 and thereby is the key-witness to the miracle. Prior to the ceremony of this year the Patriarch received us in private audience, where I had the opportunity to speak with him about the miracle in order to know exactly what happens in the tomb and what the miracle means for him personally in his spiritual life. Furthermore I was through his intervention admitted to the balconies in the dome of the Holy Sepulchre Church, from where I had a fine view over the masses that had gathered around the tomb in anticipation of the “Great Miracle of the Holy Fire”.

But what exactly happens in the Holy Sepulchre Church on Easter Saturday? Why does it have such an impact on the Orthodox Tradition? Why does it seem as if nobody has heard anything about the miracle in the Protestant and Catholic countries?

Read the rest of the article at the link above.

A Comment on the Trinity: from Archpriest Patrick Reardon

In a former Touchstone article (now reprinted and online at Novae Militiae), rather pedestrianly entitled, “Women Priests – History and Theology,” Fr. Reardon explores the historical, linguistic, iconographic and liturgical history of women’s ordination. Caution: meaty thought ahead. But rather than deal specifically with women’s ordination–since I’m likely to alienate almost everyone who reads these pages (oops! forgot. I’ve already done that.), I wanted to touch on God-talk, under the impetus of what’s going on in some of the comments on Laura’s Magdalen News.

I excerpt from the Reardon article the following:

Prior to becoming a male in the human race, the eternal Word was already God’s Son, not just his offspring. The fatherhood and the sonship in the Holy Trinity are not simply cultural names. Even if there were no such things as men and women, God could still be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Male headship in the Church and in the Christian family, then, is not an arbitrary arrangement. It has to do with the very being of the God of Christians. Change it and you start to alter that most patriarchal of dogmas: the doctrine of the Trinity.

I hasten to add that sex may not be read back into the Being of God as Father. I simply want to insist that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not something else. If it is erroneous to read sex back into God, then it is at least as wrong to read androgyny or gender-neutrality back into God . . . . The theology . . . goes out of its way to portray an androgynous divinity by concentrated and intentional recourse to gender-neutral, feminine, and even animist metaphors with a view to “balancing” the biblical names “Father and Son,” while these latter are only sparsely employed. [These] are shocking examples of a modem reluctance to voice the two proclamations given us by the Holy Spirit: “Abba, Father” and “Jesus is Lord.”

A Follow Up on the Christian Understandings of Male and Female Relationships

Some links I thought you might enjoy vis a vis Christian views of men and women.

From the egalitarian perspective:
Christians for Biblical Equality

From the complementarian perspective:
The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Some online articles:

Christianity Today’s Headship with a Heart (more traditional)

Christianity Today’s Nuptial Agreements (examines both viewpoints)

The Touchstone Article in my earlier blog: Neanderthals Aren’t Cool (more traditional)

And here’s Touchstone’s TNIV Page, which examines the legitimacy of “gender-neutral” translation. (both sides are represented, though the magazine’s policy on the matter is clear)


The Tether of Reason

Reason is an incredibly powerful tool. Aristotle, in his spare eloquence, noted that the highest form of human thinking, theoria, was akin to the divine. For Plotinus, our access to the divine One was through the intellect, the Nous. Christ himself was called Logos, the Word. But not even a millennium and a half of Hebrew language and history, in which the Word (dabar,) was, in part, a deed accomplished, could completely deplete Logos from its content of Hellenic rationality.

Furthermore, the Church’s foremost first-century missionary, the Apostle Paul, though of Jewish descent and upbringing, freely utilized the tools of Hellenic philosophy when it suited his evangelistic aims. And though there’s no evidence that the author of the epistle to the Hebrews had Plato’s Republic in mind, still the first chapter of that New Testament epistle resonates with something like Platonic ideas. By the middle and end of the second century, Christians were espousing Hellenic philosophy as a precursor, for the Gentiles, to the Gospel. But most clearly of all, in the great golden epoch of the patristic era, the fourth century, the Church explicitly made use of the terms and tools of Greek thought to grasp and guard the full implications of the Gospel which had given Her being.

However, concomitantly with this positive espousal of the best in human thought, came warnings of its dangers. Paul himself characterized the Gospel message as “foolishness” to the Greeks and reveled in the power of the Gospel to demolish arguments and take the strongholds arrayed against it. At the same time that Clement of Alexandria was idealizing his Christian “Gnostic,” Tertullian was asking what Jerusalem had to do with Athens. Alexandria, the intellectual center of the world of late antiquity, after all bred a certain Arius who developed the Christian world’s first rationalist theology, and in so doing almost destroyed both the Gospel and the Church. Some thirteen centuries later, Kant’s critical project could emphatically declare that God’s existence could neither be proven nor experienced. The faith for which Kant was making room was a purely rational one, in which God was a rational supposition, an ethical idea, no more. Little wonder that Nietzsche had Zarathustra proclaim, “God is dead.”

Part of the problem faced in this high regard for reason is its absolutization.

In the Platonic chariot of the soul, reason is the charioteer who takes the reins, guiding appetite and spiritedness to the divine knowledge of what most truly is. This, of course, is not an entirely worthless paradigm. Ours is an age of appetite, Plato’s licentious democratic society. We could do with some of reason’s application of the reins.

But in Christian understanding, there is, one might say, a fourth element: the heart. In Christian terms, the heart is a robust and complex entity, nothing like (or not much like, anyway) the anemic emotionalist smarminess we see everywhere from Valentine’s Day cards, reality shows, popular music, to Oprah. It is possible, it seems to me, to suppose in Christian terms that while Plato’s reason pulls the reins on flesh and will, it is the heart that encompasses these players. For Christians, the heart is where thoughts, emotions and will all interact, and it is the heart that shapes and forms these interactions. When our passions and desires, our stubbornness, or our rational workings jump the circle of our heart, our interior harmony is broken and we become enslaved with that which breaks free. We must exert ourselves, it seems to me, and encompass these aspects of our inner being by the heart.

But this is not something we may do on our own. After all, the heart is deceitful above all things. It is desperately wicked; who can know it? Only a purified heart can keep all things properly circumscribed. Only a heart filled by faith with grace, a heart in which dwells the Spirit of God, a heart which knows obedience, a heart which follows after Christ in discipleship, can know this accomplishment.

Many of us have our particular weaknesses and imbalances of heart. For some it is willfulness, the assertion of myself as myself over against another, the instinct for psychical survival; an instinct which exerts itself against even the longings of emotion and the dictates of reason. For others it is the emotions and the appetites, the sense of emptiness and longing which seeks filling, even seeking longing and emptiness for their own sake, allowing one’s self to be deafened to the calm of rationality and to submit one’s self to any and all experience even as far as fighting against one’s own self-assertion. For yet others it is the seduction of rationality, a rationality which takes the will and the emotions out of the arena of shared human existence into the airless ether of pure thought. Untethered, reason seeks its freedom from all things. Even the mighty physical force of gravity reason harnesses for its own ends and slings humans out from the earth into the void. Even moral principles fall prey to reason’s cunning, and reason can argue the wanton killing of the innocent for the convenience of the guilty.

These are our temptations. But all too often we do not face these testings full on. For their implications disturb us, and we prefer the illusion these things offer. In following willfulness to its own end we find that we have lost the very self we sought to assert, for the end of willfulness is the negation of the other. But in negating the other we lose ourselves and our will, for there no longer remains anything against which we may assert ourselves, let alone anything which may strengthen us in our despair. We cry, “I!” Into a depthless void which does not hear us nor care, and which swallows our cry–and us–wholly.

In our longing for the other, in our assertion of our emptiness, in the seeking of feeling and pleasure, we find that we lose ourselves not by asserting ourselves but by giving ourselves away; in being filled by the other we become that which fills us, whether sex or infatuation or taste. But this filling ultimately eludes us for it is a kind of suicide in reverse. We do not cast ourselves into the void, but assert in us a kind of void; a void that, in being filled, does not assume our true shape, but rather gives us the shape of that content with which we fill ourselves, and in so doing mars and destroys us.

In our attempts at rational mastery, at describing and controlling, the further we advance into reason’s center, the further we distance ourselves from the understanding we seek. Reason frames our experience, analyzes it, but can only do so by virtue of its own terms, its own structures. What it fails to recognize is that these structures themselves do not and cannot give us the content, the understanding we seek. Confronted with these anomalies, reason brackets them, places them in a corner and says, “Not reason.” And slowly reason empties our world of love, freedom, immortality, of God.

The heart’s energies in fighting these imbalances are not inveighed against them equally. When aided by reason and will, the powers of desire and emotion are somewhat readily seen as illusory. When the heart tries to fight these by the will alone, the will may be somewhat weakened and may begin to believe their ferocity to be something real. If it is a strong will, this mastery may not be so dearly bought. But even a weak will, the heart may strengthen by reason.

The recalcitrance of the will is a more bitter battle. The flesh asserts itself, aided by passion and emotion. The heart must call in the aid of reason in ever greater measure. Almost always this battle requires an external obedience for resolution and victory. Heart and mind pull the will into subjection to a spiritual authority, the Church.

But the most painful struggle of all, at least for me, is that of disordered reason. The first two battles of the heart are mostly ones of force. The battle of reason is one of subtlety and despair. The self-annihilation of stubbornness and passion are none too difficult to see. That of reason is much, much more difficult to discern. Reason, that great gift, promises so much, and can deliver almost as much. But ultimately it cannot deliver in full that which it proffers. It promises knowledge but left to itself gives vanity. That is to say, it guarantees contact with being but delivers emptiness. Unity brings exclusion. Knowledge leads to solipsism. Peace gives way to power. Love metastasized and becomes domination. Unfettered reason is a liar. “See,” reason says, “I give you humanity.” But when the curtain is drawn, we see that pluriform creature which is a patchwork of cadavers, the walking dead, the soulless living.

This is the great contradiction of reason: to truly know, to deliver on its promise, it must be tethered, it must surrender its structures to that which is greater than itself. This tethering of reason is finally the job of the heart. The Queen of the South went up to hear reason speak its wisdom. But behold one greater than reason has come and is in our midst.

The heart corrals these three great gifts of God, disordered though they are by sin, and offers them at the foot of the cross. These gifts–we ourselves–are then taken up, in the resurrection, into the divine energies. There will is fully itself, desire is filled, and reason at last knows. There the heart loves. And there is for us life and peace.

Where the Anchor Holds

Short of sleep by one hour, I hauled myself down to the bustop Sunday morning. I wanted very much to catch the 6:40 bus so I could get to the church in plenty of time. I had plenty of repenting to do.

Having gotten off the connecting bus, I walked to the church. Passing by the parsonage, I was almost to the front steps when Fr. Patrick emerged from the parsonage and called my name. We greeted one another and I updated him on the health of my brother-in-law, Delane. Once inside, I went downstairs, doffed my jacket, made out the check for the offering, and headed back upstairs.

One of the fist things I did was to stand before the icon of Christ to offer my repentance. I had come with a whole litany of prayers I was going to pray. In the end, however, all I could do was muster enough to say the Jesus Prayer three times with a prostration with each petition. I stood for awhile, with nothing much to pray, feeling only my remorse. I made a final prostration. Then I stood before the icon of the Theotokos. I could do nothing but monosyllabically ask her intercessions.

Feeling wretched, I sat back down in my seat. I attempted to pray and meditate some more. The silence was broken by Fr. Patrick’s invitation. Since he and I were the only ones present just then, he invited me to join him in the sanctuary behind the iconostasis, to observe the Prothesis (or Proskomede). Given the quiet setting this morning, he thought I’d be interested in observing a service I normally wouldn’t get to see (except through the spaces on the iconostasis), this time by quite literally looking over his shoulder.

The Prothesis is a short service in which the bread and wine are prepared to be placed on the altar, and later to be consecrated during the Divine Liturgy. Fr. Patrick began by saying three times, “O God be gracious to me a sinner, and have mercy upon me.” He then prayed, “Thou has redeemed us from the curse of the law by thy precious Blood: nailed to the Cross and pierced by the spear, thou hast poured forth immortality upon mankind. O our Savior, glory to thee.”

He then took the circular loaf of bread (one of three), on which the Seal representing Christ had been baked. This and the other loaves had all been baked by various parishioners. Fr. Patrick took the bread in his left hand and the knife in his right and with the knife made the sign of the Cross over the Seal in the bread. “In remembrance of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

He then cut along the right side of the Seal. “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.” Then the left. “And as a spotless lamb is dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth.” Then he cut along the upper side of the Seal. “In his humiliation his judgment was taken away.” And the bottom. “And for his generation, who shall declare it.” Then he lifted the Lamb (the portion which had been cut away) and placed it on the Diskarion (or paten). “For his life is taken away from the earth.”

Turning the Lamb over so the Seal was on the bottom, he made a cross-wise cut in the bread, but not cutting all the way through to the Seal. “Sacrificed is the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world, for the life of the world and its salvation.” Then he took the Spear, a long, golden, knife-like object with a triangular point on the end, and turning the Lamb back upright, he inserted the Spear into the right side of the Lamb. “One of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side–” He then took the vials of wine and water– “–and immediately there came forth blood and water–” –and poured them into the Chalice. “–and he that saw it bare witness, and his witness is true.” Since this is Lent, a second Lamb was likewise cut from one of the remaining loaves, to be consecrated with the first Lamb during the Liturgy, and then brought forth later in the week for the Presanctified Liturgy.

Then a triangular portion of one of the loaves was cut out and placed on the Diskarion next to the Lamb, symbolizing the Mother of God. Smaller triangles were cut for the angels, saints, and martyrs, as well as living bishops, priests and deacons. Smaller pieces are pinched off for every member of the parish and for the living and the dead for whom prayers are sought.

Then Subdeacon Andrew brought the censer and Fr. Patrick censed the elements. He brought out the Asterisk (something like a small golden frame which is placed over the elements and over which a veil is later placed), and placed it on the Diskarion over the bread. “And the star came and stood over the place where the young Child was.” More prayers and censing followed. But soon it was finished and I returned to me seat to pray Matins (or Orthros).

It brought home to me ever more forcefully the central meaning of the Eucharist, both its historicity and its mystery. Here I was, dead and lifeless, offering my best repentence. But nonetheless I felt quite distant from God. But so that I might remember his grace and mercy, which is unbounded by any standard of perfectly performed repentance, he invited me behind the iconostasis into the holy of holies. I had intended a radiant and complex metanoia. All that came forth was a half-articulate handful of prostrations. I had sought solace and comfort. I sat still burdened and troubled. But God did not want my feelings to be the basis for my spiritual struggle, so I was taken behind the veil, where, the Epistle read later in the service told me, my anchor holds. And a great grace was shown this unworthy sinner.

An Unlikely Conversation?

(With acknowledgment for the inspiration and use of Paul V. Mankowski’s “A Fig Leaf for the Creed” in Creed and Culture, ed. by James M Kushiner, ISI Books, 2003)

A small chapel, where several non-gender-specific persons are gathered for prayer.

First male speaker: (Praying) “. . . Who for us men and for our salvation, was . . .”
First female Speaker: “And women”!
First male speaker: I’m sorry?
First female speaker: “Who for us men and women and for our salvation . . .”
First male speaker: Well, yes, of course. (Resumes praying) “Who for us men and for our salvation–”
First female speaker: “And women”! Women need to be included, too.
First male speaker: (Slightly irritated) Of course. May we continue?
First female speaker: Certainly
First male speaker: (Praying) ” . . . Who for us men and for our salvation–”
First female speaker: Christ came to save me, too!
First male speaker: I know.
First female speaker: Then why didn’t you say that?
First male speaker: I did.
First female speaker: No, you didn’t.
First male speaker: I most certainly did. Everyone was included.
First female speaker: I wasn’t.
Second female speaker: Neither was I.
First male speaker: (Puzzled and exasperated) How is it that I did not, as you accuse, include you . . . both?
Second female speaker: You said, “for us men.”
First male speaker: Right. “Men.” We’re all included.
First female speaker: All you men.
Second female speaker: I’m a woman.
First female speaker: Me, too.
First male speaker: Of course you both are.
Second female speaker: So why didn’t you include us?
First male speaker: I did.
Second female speaker: We’re women.
First male speaker: Yes, I know.
First female speaker: So you didn’t include us. Men aren’t women. When you said, “for us men,” you left us out.
First male speaker: No I didn’t. You were included. Women are also men.
Second female speaker: You’re crazy.
First male speaker: No. Look it up. Webster’s Ninth Collegiate: “man: 1. a. a human being; esp. an adult male human, b. the human race, c. a bipedal primate mammal . . .”, etc.
First female speaker: Ah ha! See! “Especially an adult male human.” I’m an adult female woman. You left me out.
First male speaker: Did either of you have English grammar.
Second female speaker: Of course! Are you trying to insult us?
First male speaker: Not at all. I just thought this might have been a misunderstanding based on ignorance. But since you’ve had grammar, you know what the issue is. So, since I presume you’re now done pulling my leg . . . (Resumes prayer) “Who for us men–”
Second female speaker: Oooh! You are such an idiot! Why do you keep excluding us?
First male speaker: I’m not.
First female speaker: You are, too.
First male speaker: Then you must have forgotten your grammar about marked and unmarked nouns.
First female speaker: Marked nouns?
First male speaker: (Knowingly) Ah, yes. I see the confusion. You’ve forgotten that “man” is both “a human being” and “an adult male human.” The latter is marked, or specific; the former is unmarked, or generic. So, clearly, when I’m saying “for us men” I’m including everyone.
First female speaker: Not me.
Second female speaker: Me neither.
First male speaker: But that’s what “man” here means. It’s merely a matter of linguistic principles and usage. “Man” means you, you, me . . . all of us.
Second female speaker: It doesn’t mean that to me.
First male speaker: (Exasperated) This is silly! (Stops himself) All right, then, what do you propose?
First female speaker: Say: “who for us men and women”
Second female speaker: That’s right.
First male speaker: But then you’ve made it “an adult male human” when it originally meant “a human being.” That changes the meaning of “man” in the text.
First female speaker: That’s right. No more patriarchy.
First male speaker: Patriarchy? There’s no patriarchy here. It’s language. It’s a generic word.
Second female speaker: It’s not my generic word.
First male speaker: This is supposed to be a prayer service, not a political meeting.
Child speaker: “And children”!
First male speaker: (Shakes his head)
First female speaker: That’s right. We mustn’t exclude children.
First male speaker: (With flagging energy) But children are included.
Second male speaker: Say, there, when you say “men” before “women and children,” you probably ought to add “officers,” too. God didn’t just come to save enlisted troops, you know. We officers are included, too.
Second female speaker: (Forgetting herself) But you’re military–!
Second male speaker: (Quizzically) Yes . . . ?
First female speaker: (Elbowing Second female speaker and giving her a severe look; speaking to officer, but looking at Second female speaker) Of course, officer, we don’t want to exclude anyone, do we?
First male speaker: Look, this is ridiculous. If we have to keep adding nouns to the list, we’ll never end. Let’s just keep “men,” understanding that it’s a generic usage of an unmarked noun, inclusive of everyone–which is what the text both says and means–and continue. We would have finished this prayer service by now.
First female speaker: There you go, oppressing us with your authority.
First male speaker: “Oppressing you” . . .?!
Second male speaker: Now, ladies, I’m with you here. But I think he has a point. We can’t just keep adding nouns.
Second female speaker: Why not? “For us men, women, children and officers” seems reasonable.
Second male speaker: Well, that’s all fine and all, but when you say “men” do you mean “male” men as opposed to women, or do you mean “enlisted” men as opposed to officers, ’cause “enlisted men” could be a man or a woman.
First female speaker: Good point.
Second female speaker: Hmph. More patriarchy, I say.
Second male speaker: Ma’am, the military’s trying. We got you women fighting and dying on the front lines, now, so we’re making some progress.
Second female speaker: All right. How ’bout this? “For us men, women, children, enlisted men and women, and officers.”
First female speaker: That sounds fair.
Third male speaker: I don’t know. That takes so much longer to say than just “men.” (Pauses) I know! How ’bout “for us humans”? (All smile and nod their heads excitedly, murmuring their agreement.)
First female speaker: That’s brilliant!
First male speaker: (Still trying) But “man” is “human”! Why should we change it?
Second male speaker: Well, ’cause these women here feel excluded, and as an officer, so do I.
First male speaker: (Has a thought) If you came upon a fence which had on it a sign that read, “Beware of man-eating tiger!” would you women think it perfectly safe to go inside?
Second female speaker: Of course not!
First male speaker: (Addressing Second male speaker) And would you as an officer feel that since this tiger apparently only eats enlisted troops that you, too, could safely go inside?
Second male speaker: Don’t get sarcastic!
First male speaker: Yes, well . . . So my point is, none of you would feel excluded by a “man-eating tiger” sign. (All remain silent) So why, in this context do you feel excluded?
Second female speaker: Because we women have been oppressed for centuries. When we come to pray, we should not feel excluded from God’s loving presence.
First male speaker: But who told you you were excluded?
Second female speaker: Isn’t it obvious?
First male speaker: No.
First female speaker: (To Second female apeaker) Of course not. He’s a man, as in the specific marked sense. (To First male speaker) Since you’re not a woman you wouldn’t understand.
Second male speaker: I’m not a woman.
First female speaker: (Stammering) Oh, yes, of course not. I just mean that he hasn’t had to experience the social and political struggle we women have faced, especially in terms of religion and faith.
First male speaker: (Understandingly) Ah, I see. So this is a political matter. You would change the Church’s prayer over politics?
Second female speaker: Of course not! But this is a matter of love and justice.
First male speaker: Whose?
Second female speaker: God’s, of course.
First male speaker: So it’s still politics. Just politics that uses God’s name.
First female speaker: Let’s pray it’s not in vain.
Second female speaker: Amen.
First male speaker: Indeed. (Turns to leave)
Child speaker: Hey, mister, where ya goin’? Prayer’s not over yet.
First male speaker: (Lovingly places a hand on the child’s head) I’m sorry, child. But it is.


Too Open to “the Other”?: When Reception Is Not Tempered by Discernment

Those who have had any encounter with the Rule of St. Benedict, or with Benedictine monasticism, are well-aware of the famed hospitality for which the Order is known. Even those who are less than aware of Benedictine monasteries have heard words like these from the Rule:

In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because in them Christ is more especially received
The Rule of Saint Benedict, 53:15 (tr. and ed. by Luke Dysinger, OSB)

But this is not the only stricture our holy father Benedict gives to his monks. At the very beginning of this chapter on the receiving of guests, he writes, “[the] kiss of peace is not to be offered until prayer has first been said on account of the illusions of the devil” (53:5). This is an allusion to Paul’s words, “[F]or even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disuguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15 ESV). The Apostle John, similarly, wrote, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [i. e., of Jesus being the incarnation of God in the flesh], do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 10-11). And it was a commonplace of desert monasticism that if a radiant spirit appeared to one during prayer, that one should reject it three times, lest it be a manifestation of the devil and not a messenger of God.

There is a popular myth, along the lines of the “noble savage,” rampant in our culture, the myth of neutrality. This is the understanding that there are really three sides to this unseen warfare in which we engage: God, the devil, and innocent noncombatants. The fact of the matter, however, is that this is heresy. We all, consciously or not, have chosen sides in this conflict. We are either seeking the Kingdom of God, or fighting against it. As Romans 1:18-32 indicates, whether or not we consciously rebel against (or seek after) God or not, we rebel against (or fight for) the light we have. C S Lewis said it well:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. . . . But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. (“The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory and Other Essays, p. 18-19)

Many Christians today emphasize the virtue of hospitality. Most frequently this is based on Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 about the “least of these.” In the stranger, the “other,” it is said, we receive Christ himself. And many Christians rightly criticize, at least here in the U. S., our sinful lack of hospitality. Of course, hospitality may be extended to something other than persons. Ideas, beliefs, practices, experiments, these too we are encouraged to approach with the spirit and virtue of hospitality.

Unfortunately, all too often, this emphasis goes to a harmful extreme, and hospitality is not tempered with discernment. That is to say, we can be too open to “the other.” If we are not prayerful and discerning, “the other” may well be the demonic. And I do not mean this in the spectacular, Linda-Blair-spinning-head sense of possession. Gauging by my own life, Satan need not “possess” me for me to give way to his influence. Hate is demonic. Lust is of the devil. Gluttony is hellish. No, it isn’t the spectacular about which I need to be concerned. The dangers I face are much more domestic.

We can be too “hospitable” toward many things. We can receive the teachings of others, teachings which contradict the Gospel, though ever so subtly. Pelagius anyone? We can take on practices that are “new,” “fresh,” “innovative”–all of which mean untried. We can watch movies, read literature, listen to music–all in the much-touted spirit of “receptivity to the other”–and open our lives to the deception of the devil. The vampire legends have it right: we invite the desolation of living death, it does not enter of its own will. Satan, after all, masquerades as a gentleman. At least until he crosses the threshold of our lives. Then we experience the raging hate and destruction he unleashes on us. This is the lion that devours our entrails, the anti-Aslan.

What is the remedy for this dilemma of ours? How do we practice hospitality without becoming ensnared in the slow destruction which erodes our souls and bodies? The armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20) and prayer, of course. Daily, moment-by-moment repentance. The humility of bending our intellect and will to God. I’m sure there are other tools for discerning the other. Regrettably, I cannot teach others, not having yet adequately been taught or taught myself.

But I do know that the next time the doorbell to my life rings, I’m going to first pray . . . then tell them to go away. According to the desert monks and nuns, God won’t mind.