Good Zeal and Life Together

Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting. This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love. Thus they should anticipate one another in honor; most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another–no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another; tender the charity of brotherhood chastely; fear God in love; love their abbot with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!
The Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 72, On that Good Zeal which Monks Ought to Have

M. Scott Peck has said, “Marriage is a monastery of two,” and the genius of the Rule of St. Benedict is that it is a layman’s rule for monks, which in so many ways translates so readily–or so it seems to me–to life lived non-monastically, that is to say, “in the world” (as opposed to “the desert”). One example of this felicitous translation is the above, chapter seventy-two of the rule.

The exhortations of the chapter–honoring another before oneself, patiently enduring another’s infirmities, considering what is good for and helpful to another before oneself (that gift of mutual obedience, etymologically, to listen to or hear from another), chaste love for another, the loving fear of God, and the preference for nothing else ahead of Christ–all are simply put the Gospel. The last shall be first. Forgive your brother seventy-times-seven, each time he repents. Serve rather than be served. Take up your cross and follow me. And so forth.

What is interesting, to me, however, is that these exhortations are by way of preserving good zeal, the zeal which rids us of our vices (infirmities of body and soul), and which unites us to God (life everlasting), the zeal which we are to practice with fervent love. (I do not have the Latin near to hand, but note how often love and charity occur in this short chapter.) That is to say, it is not that we have zeal and then fulfill these exhortations. Rather, these exhortations engender that good zeal within us.

This is how it has always been in classic Christianity. We do before (or even if we do not) feel. We do before we know. Classical Christianity knew little of what we think of today when we speak of “authenticity.” In today’s world, led by romanticism, feelings “authenticate” actions, and hypocrisy is a lack of feeling more than it is anything else. But for Christians authenticity has little if indeed anything to do with feelings. Words are authenticated by actions. That is classical authenticity. Feelings are more often than not a temptation rather than a blessing.

In the ancient Church, catechumens went through the initiatory rites of the Church–Baptism, Chrismation and then Holy Communion–and then had these mysteries explained to them. During their catechumenate–traditionally lasting for three years–they were schooled in the basics, but were not given classes in theology and the history of the Liturgy. Their paedagogy was moral: practice the virtues, avoid the vices, fast, say the Lord’s prayer at the three (or five) hours of prayer, hear the Scriptures (they did not have their own personal copies, you understand) and so on. They did not–if you’ll pardon the anachronisms–read St. Gregory Palamas, the Philokalia and the Ladder of Divine Ascent, or contemplate the energy/essences distinction. Doing first. Understanding later.

So, too, with zeal. Consider others before yourself–what is useful to them, what maintains fidelity and loyalty to them, patiently loving them with all their weaknesses and failures. This what makes a good marriage. It is what makes for good friendships. It is what makes for a good parish. It is, of course, simply the constitution of the practical life of the Kingdom. It is what Christians do.

May God enable us to do these things, and in his mercy provide the zeal to carry us forward in these very same things, and into greater union with him, and so also with one another.

Holy Father Saint Benedict, pray for us.

Reflections on St. Gregory’s Dialogue VII

[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]

These reflections seem on one level a farce. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me about these things, whether intellectually or ascetically. But I do want to struggle with these things for my own understanding, such that it can be. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.

On the Signification of the Divine Names

XL. [Orthodox] That great Basil, however, has often said that “it is clear lunacy to claim that there is not a specific signification underlying each divine name.” [Against Eunomius I,8] And because he has been accused of introducing polytheism, on account of these words, by Eunomius with his false doctrines—just as we have been accused, and for the same reason, by those Eunomians who have only newly appeared on the scene—he says, for his defense as well as for ours: “Even if all the proper names of God on account of their own signification are many and various, and sometimes also admit of different reasonings, nevertheless for Him to whom they refer and to whom they belong, i.e., God, they are of equal honor one with another. For each of them does not lead the mind to different gods but the person who uses those terms indicates one God by all of them.” [Letters 189] And in the text after this, teaching how God is one around Whom are all the things which are signified by those terms, he says: “He is one according to essence, because He who underlies all those terms is one according to the essence.” [Against Eunomius I,7] For, he says, “just as grain is one thing according to its substance, it changes its names in relation to the various properties which are seen in it and it becomes seed and fruit and food and it gets as many names as the forms it takes, so it is approximately with the Lord; for He is in Himself whatever He is according to His nature, but when He is called after His various activities, He has not one name in all those cases, but He receives His name in accordance with each concept which arises in us from the activity.” [Against Eunomius I,6-7] . . . For mind is also each of the sciences and the human mind is judge and takes care of the weaker people. But according to essence it underlies all those activities since it is one according to that essence. Our mind, however, possesses thinking as an acquired characteristic by learning from experience or by instruction; that is the same as suffering, when the mind becomes thinking. But God does not get His characteristics from suffering for He does not acquire anything. However, since He is always so, He manifests Himself as such to us through His activities. Not only the Father, but the Son and the Holy Spirit as well. For all the things which the Father has also belong to the Son because He has the same things and He exists apart from the characteristics which belong to Him according to His substance; the same (is true) for the Spirit. And just as our mind, invisible for our perception and incorporeal because it does not undergo any addition or dimunition by those things, is not therefore composed, so God, being good and wise and foreseeing everything from eternity and not undergoing any change by those things, cannot be called composed on account of them.
–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XL (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).

This text brings together two seemingly utterly incompatible experiences of God: God as incomposite and one in essence, and yet plural and ineffably distinct in his activities and names. We do not have here the philosopher’s god which takes in hand only one end of the stick and attempts to deny the other end. It is the philosopher’s god which attempts to answer the vexing human question of theodicy, but in answering creates a god no one can worship or love. This is the god of the question: if god is good and loving, how can he tolerate evil? And so we move on to this god’s lack of composition (parts), and how his attributes are his essence, and so forth. But this brings out the conundrum that a loving god allows evil.

The saint’s answer, and the answer of classic Christianity, is that God is simple, but not absolutely simple. God’s simplicity is iconographic: it is real, but complex. To say that God is Creator is true, and is essential to God’s being, but not in a way that is absolute. If it were absolute, God would have no freedom, but would be necessitated to create. And if he were necessitated to create, he could not create in love, because love is freely willed. The fundamental reality of God, then, if God is not absolutely simple, is not God’s essence, but his Person. And it is the foundational teaching of Christianity that God is a Trinity of Persons. God’s simplicity is irreducibly complex. God the Father in eternity begets the Son, and God the Son is eternally begotten, and is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. God the Father in eternity spirates the Spirit, and God the Spirit is eternally spirated. The nature of the Godhead derives from the Father, and thus the Persons of the Godhead are one nature, but they are three distinct Persons.

For the philsophers, a god who was one in essence but a triunity of Persons is simple nonsense. The only way the philosophers could reconcile the dichotomy is to assert that the Persons are modes of God’s being, and thus we move to modalist Sabellianism. In our specific context here, however, we are more properly referring to the attributes of God: God is love, God is merciful, and so on. If the philosopher’s god can only be conceived of in modalist terms, then these several (and infinite) attributes of God must ultimately be self-identical: God’s love is his mercy is his justice is his wrath. This soon degenerates into chaos: A god whose love and wrath are self-identical and yet who sends some souls to heaven and some souls to hell. How can the same self-identical attribute of god lead to different actions on god’s part? These impasses lead naturally, then, to nominalism: God’s love is not love simpliciter, but only the name we give for certain of God’s activities.

But we should not assume that St. Gregory is advocating nominalism here; note his appeal to Basil: “it is clear lunacy to claim that there is not a specific signification underlying each divine name” and “Even if all the proper names of God on account of their own signification are many and various, and sometimes also admit of different reasonings [logoi], nevertheless for Him to whom they refer and to whom they belong, i.e., God, they are of equal honor one with another. For each of them does not lead the mind to different gods but the person who uses those terms indicates one God by all of them.” In other words, on the classical Christian view, God’s attributes, his activities (in technical terminology, his energeiai, or energies) are in fact distinct from one another, but, being God’s activities are not separate from God (God has no parts), and therefore are ineffably his essence. That is to say, in ways similar to the fact that as the Persons of the Trinity are one in essence, so, too, the energies of God, though distinct, are one in essence. They are not self-identical to God’s essence—which is how God’s love and God’s omniscience are ineffably distinct from one another—and yet they participate in, indeed, are that essence in ways that are inseparable.

It is only the classical Christian understanding of God’s essence and energies, as exemplified here by St. Gregory, that enables us to preserve the revelation that God is both just and justifier. It is also this classical understanding that paves the way for comprehending the experience of God, and how it is that we can, as St. Peter says in his second epistle, become partakers of God’s nature, without also becoming self-identical with God (as many Gnostic and New Age advocates espouse). It is how we can be brought to full union with God in Christ (as Jesus himself prayed, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me”). In an iconographic way, it is how a man and a woman are made one flesh in the mystery of marriage.

It is this image of marriage, I think that helps us get at what the saint is saying with regard to God and the signification of names. A husband and wife are one flesh, not merely in name only, but in the children born into the home, each child bearing some of the essence of each parent, without being self-identical with either parent. So, too, when we call on God’s name as Father, or invoke his mercy, or appeal to his longsuffering, we are not naming fictions, but are, in fact, calling on God. God’s Fatherhood is not a mere metaphor by which he adjusts himself to our understanding. Rather, his Fatherhood is a reality that, when we name, brings us not simply sweet consolation but the almighty God himself. We do not ask for a sweet huggable daddy who beams magnamimously at us. No, when we name God the Father and invoke him, we invoke the eternal reality of all Fatherhood, the heavenly Father whose earthly image of sternness cannot touch the soul-shaking awe which sends us bowed to the ground in humility, the heavenly Father whom the earthly image of love and acceptance cannot approximate the utter silence engendered in us by such soul-searing embrace. We do not lightly invoke any of the names of God: Comforter, Prince of Peace, Creator, without invoking the universe-grounding reality that those names signify. And, similarly, we cannot casually jettison these revealed names, without also cutting ourselves off from that same reality. Do we invoke his wrath? God help us, for its fire will purge us in ways we cannot grasp, even as we direct it toward our enemies. Do we, tears streaming, invoke his mercy? No human experience can come near the effervescent joy which warms the heart with painful fire, and yet welcome and warming. Do we reject his Fatherhood? Then we reject the very fount of the Godhead, because he is eternally Father in the begetting of his Son, and this not mere metaphorical nominalism but a reality at once dreadful and happy.

These technical distinctions, while a part of the discipline of theological discussion, are not and cannot be divorced from the human experience, which is to say, cannot be divorced from prayer, for it is this God at once simple and irreducibly complex, whose name is joined ineffably and inseparably with his essence, and yet not reducible to that essence, this God who loves and warms and purges and cleanses and provides all good and perfect things for our joy and salvation, this God with whom we have to do, and in whom we live and move and have our being.

The Struggle of Faith

A year and a half ago I was received into the Orthodox Church via chrismation and immediately began to look around for primers on what it meant to be Orthodox. I had spent nearly all of my Protestant education and personal efforts in studying doctrine and theology. These were not, of course, divorced from daily living, but all my life the emphasis was nearly completely on the rational understanding of various truths of the faith. This, of course, carried over into my journey to Orthodoxy, such that for some time I spent much effort on understanding. Thankfully, through God’s providential ordering of my marriage and our attendance at All Saint’s parish, I was made to slow down and at least learn that I needed to, if I did not quickly learn how to, live the Faith in the small ways.

Not surprisingly then, for the last year and a half I’ve read very little, comparatively speaking, doctrine and theology. I did not find the primers I was first looking for (when and how to fast, prayer disciplines, Scripture meditating and so forth), at least not the kind I thought I was looking for. I found, instead, and very quickly knew them to be that which I sought: the lives of Christians who’ve gone before us in the struggle of living the faith day to day. This has become increasingly true in the last ten months: and so I’ve read the books on Fr. Arseny, on Elder Porphyrios, Elder Sophrony, many elders of Mount Athos, the life of the Theotokos, and, more and more, a reading of Scripture for the lives of those depicted in them rather than for the doctrinal content I had for so long been taught and trained to seek above all else.

So, when I ran across the words of Elder Sophrony in his account of the life of St. Silouan, I resonated very deeply with the words:

Often remarked in Christians is the desire–an entirely natural desire–for visible tokens of our faith. Otherwise hope falters and accounts of miracles in days of long ago take on the nature of myth. This is why the recurrence of comparable testimony is so important; why this new witness is so dear to us, in whom we can see the most precious manifestation of our faith. We know that only a few will believe in him, just as not many believed in the witness of previous fathers; and this not because the testimony is false but because faith entails ascetic striving.
–Elder Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, (SVS Press, 1991), pp 1-2

I have wanted to know that God is not a God far off but a God nearby, on our right and on our left. I have wanted to know that prayer is not simply about feeling good afterwards, or even about getting what I want, but that there really is some actual connection to the heavenly realm, that heaven moves when Christians pray. Not because God is some genie in heaven doing our three wishes, or a Santa Claus fulfilling our Christmas list of requests, but because God has always desired, and accomplished in Christ, to be in deep communion with us, to breathe with us, to walk with us in the cool of the evening, to give his love and receive ours. To know these things not as some emotional uplift, but to know them in an ineffable way deep into one’s bones and flesh and heart.

But these primers have taught me not simply that my desire can and will be met–this deepest of desires to know that God is real and knows me and loves me and moves with me every moment–but that it will only be met within my struggle: faith entails ascetic striving.

Feelings come and go and are a horrible barometer of reality. The sun shines brightly, and we feel depressed. The monthly outgo exceeds the monthly income, and yet we are happy in the embraces of our children. But faith . . . faith is not feelings. Feelings will never authenticate faith. Faith can only be authenticated by our striving. Do we feel God’s nearness? No matter. It’s when we light the vigil lamp, cross ourselves and chant, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” that our faith is realized. Do we grit our teeth when we ask, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive us our trespasses”? well, we have said it, and we must do the actions which are forgiveness. If we are still angry and snarl, we do not the less forgive when we simply mention their name before God.

Given my analytical bent, and my long paedogogy in critical thought, faith is not something that comes easily to me. I cannot summon it up. Surely I am no different than anyone else in that I can cry out in sorrow and pain. But to have the confidence that my cries are heard is another level of trust I must struggle, and struggle greatly, toward. Still, there is at least the faith to call out to the one in whom faith is rightly placed. It is only a beginning, but it is a beginning.

And while from time to time the loss of heart is the cross of the moment, I am at least heartened by this: the Christian primers, those saints lives, I’ve been reading, help me to understand that the struggle of faith is, to lift a phrase, a long obedience in the same direction. It is not that I have not yet attained to the level of faith that moves mountains, which, after all, is only the size of mustard seed. It is, rather, that my struggle keeps me moving in that direction, that I may one day attain to mustard seed faith.

Holy father Silouan, pray for us.

Vocation and the Pilgrimage of the Here and Now

I have not done it every year, but nearly every year, since I first saw it while a youth minister during Bible college, I have watched Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In the December issue of Touchstone, Anthony Esolen writes about the lessons of the film. Let me quote his second paragraph:

Our lives seldom attain to any glory, not here. Only a few men can be war heroes, like Harry Bailey, or business magnates, like Sam Wainwright. The rest of us, just about everybody, will face the choice that the protagonist, George Bailey, faced all his life. We may recognize the duties that bind us to this spouse, these children, these neighbors, this family history, this utterly ordinary place called Bedford Falls, or we may go our own way, and pursue those objects of appetite that we commonly call “our dreams.”

Like most folks, especially young folks, I grew up with a notion of my life as one of “doing great things.” I would, in the words of my junior high English teacher, “write the great American novel.” Or, when I set my aspirations on ministry (with the romance of Elisabeth Elliot’s Gates of Splendor), I would either give my life for Christ or build some sort of huge ministry. But later, even as the years progressed and none of these things came true, and I’d set my sights on academia, those grandiose notions did not die away, after all, as a philosophy professor I’d write that ground-breaking study or publish that controversial book, and so on. And our society and culture promotes that wanderlust–for such it is–at every turn.

You see, it’s not that such “big dreams” are somehow wrong. They’re not. But, rather, they are symptomatic of a great danger: the unwillingness to accept the here and now as God’s vocation for us. You see, we live in a society that trains us in dissatisfaction. And it is a most cruel paedogogy, for it engenders appetites that are designed never to be satisfied. This year’s iPod will be replaced by next year’s iPhone. This year’s slim fit jeans will be replaced by next year’s roomier versions. The Jenny Craig industry will get us to achieve intentionally temporary results so that we ultimately have to keep coming back. We are trained for nothing else but to desire what we don’t have and–and here’s the cruelty–which we can never have. We are trained only to hunger, and never to be satisfied.

Thus, every small dissatisfaction sits in our heart like burning acid. We fill that fiery void with that which is close to hand, only to find the hole in our heart has grown larger and larger. The more we stuff inside, the more that gets eaten away. Relationships we once took comfort in, now irritate and frustrate us. Routines that once gave us order and a sense of freedom, now arouse in us a tedium that sets our teeth on edge. And we begin to look anywhere and everywhere else to ease the pain of such emptiness.

But while it could conceivably be the case that God does have greater things in store for us, even so, the preparation of our hearts and souls for that, on biblical terms, could take much longer. In the film, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey prepares nearly his whole life for his grand National Geographic adventure. He gets to the verge of embarkation, when his father dies, and he must, because he is the only man who can, take over his father’s role in the family business, the town Savings and Loan. And while he toils away–and it is toil–in the family business, he not only loses his grasp on his dreams, others, his friend and his brother, go on to achieve theirs. Moses herded smelly sheep for forty years, while the members of Pharaoh’s household lived in luxury. And then, just when Moses was on the verge of his dream, the settling of his people in the Promised Land, he wandered the desert for forty years.

God’s providence orders our lives in ways that we often do not see until many years later–if we ever see some of it at all. What we often think of as accidents or mistakes are, in fact, upon reflection, the handiwork of God. The marriage that is not what we dreamed of on our honeymoon, the children who have not turned out the way we had hoped, the career that has stagnated for years, the home that we had so desparately wanted, but is now filled with a long list of needed repairs, and has lost its value–all these things, and many others beside, can seem to be not the mercy of God but his punishment. We feel that all that has gone wrong is an indication of God’s displeasure. And we long to escape. As Esolen points out in his article, to leave for Potterville where our unfuflilled desires will be met.

But while we may well have done that which displeases God, and while we normally do not escape the consequences of our sins and failings, it is not God’s normal pattern that we should run from all this. Our pilgrimage, our vocation, is in the here and now. Have we failed in our career because we’ve settled in and stagnated? God’s grace comes to us in that plateau. We may well find our career revitalized by renewing ourselves in it, and reentering it with intentional discipline and chosen passion. Has our marriage become something like a prison of walls and silence? God’s grace is not a new partner, but the removal of our self-imposed walls and barriers. And so it goes.

God’s grace for us is not elsewhere. It is here. It is now. We do not find it by running away. We find it by standing still.

You see, as It’s a Wonderful Life demonstrates, George Bailey’s desire to leave Bedford Falls would have done harm not only to himself, but to his brother, his friends, even the woman who was to become his wife. And that desire to leave, in theological terms, a passion, was as deceptive as it was poisonous. The desire poisoned his heart against the good of his life. He could not be thankful for that which he had–not even Zuzu’s petals–and that led, not only by way of plot but by way of the truth in Christ, quite literally to death. In the plot, God forestalled the culimnation of that death through the intervention of Clarence, Henry Travers’ bumbling angel. And it was through being shown what his absence from Bedford Falls would have meant that George Bailey was brought again to the grace that had been his. He was restored to gratitude and therefore to a right mind.

It is, unfortunately, too often the case that we must have those things we most cherish taken from us before we can see that which we have missed. We could have met God in the here and now, instead of looking for him where he wasn’t: in our imagined future. You see, the danger of our society’s cultivation of dissatisfaction as a way of life is not so much our frenzied search for things to stuff in the holes in our heart and lives, as it is that such a cultivated dis-ease turns us away from the only thing that will satisfy: God’s love. Nothing else will fill that gaping hole in us except God. And the good news is, we need go nowhere to find him. For he is always right here, right now.