The New Year

Happy New Year to everyone! (Civil calendar, that is. The Church new year is on 1 September).

We pulled back in to our home yesterday evening about 6pm. We’d split the return journey in two, stopping overnight just west of St Louis in Fenton, MO. It was a bonus: we got the honeymoon suite (complete with heart-shaped tub/jacuzzi and fireplace) for the regular room rate. Of course, with a four year old and two year old in tow, not to mention the road weariness of holiday travel, let’s just say romance was at particularly low levels.

In a tradition that started last year (because if you do it twice it’s a tradition), I attended the Divine Liturgy for the Circumcision of Christ (and St Basil the Great, whose Divine Liturgy was served). I went alone again this year as Anna stayed home with the girls who needed to be in bed and to start catching up on their normal rest and play routines. In our parish, Father serves the Divine Liturgy this night at 11:00pm, which means right about midnight the gifts are being consecrated, and in the first few minutes of the New Year we are being communed with the Holy Body and Blood of our Lord. Last year, of course, I wasn’t even a catechumen, so this was the first year that my first action of the civil New Year was to take Holy Communion. It was a tremendously joyful occasion. I went home with a goofy grin on my face.

In fact, as I recollected on the last few weeks, I was brought again to the joy I have felt since being anointed with myrrh from St Nicholas’ relics. Ironically, I have had much over which to grieve (in varying degrees): the anniversaries of the deaths of my brother-in-law and our baby (in utero), the trouble with my mom and sisters, the end of my PhD program, among other things. And yet, since that Sunday last month, I have felt such a strong and constant joy that has not left me since then. I’ll probably speak about this in another post, but this joy I have felt has crowded out many of the fears that I have had, fears which have, to some extent, paralyzed me in achieving specific personal habits and goals.

Christmas, gift-wise, for Anna and me has been much more modest, and, as far as my own gifts are concerned, much more intentionally minimal. But there are a couple of items I received or acquired during this Christmas season that I have found very pleasing.

One of the items I received was a Sandisk Sansa View, with 8G storage (music, pics and videos), voice recording and FM stereo. That led me to Maria Lectrix and Librivox, to download free recordings of such things as St Patrick’s Breastplate, Confession and Letter; St Augustine’s Enchiridion and On Catechizing the Unlearned; Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; Plato’s Apology and Euthyphro; Aristotle’s Poetics; Epictetus’ Handbook and Golden Sayings; Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing; St Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God (all Librivox); and St Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures, the Letters of St Ignatios, the Shepherd of Hermas, St Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, and Sulpitius Severus’ Life of St Martin (all Maria Lectrix).

While on a very short visit to my Dad, I stopped by Eighth Day Books, the best bookstore in the entire universe, and purchased, Archimandrite Vasileios’ Hymn of Entry, and St. Gregory Palamas’ One Hundred and Fifty Chapters. And while visiting Anna’s mom and sisters, I picked up St Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life.

I welcome this new year with great joy and anticipation. I hope you do, too. May the Lord bless you and yours.


On Fear and Joy

And Father Seraphim continued: “When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His inspiration, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever He touches. This is that joy of which the Lord speaks in His Gospel: A woman when she is in travail has sorrow, because her hour is come; but when she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. In the world you will be sorrowful; but when I see you again, your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you (Jn. 16:21-22). Yet however comforting may be this joy which you now feel in your heart, it is nothing in comparison with that of which the Lord Himself by the mouth of His Apostle said that that joy eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for them that love Him (I Cor. 2:9). Foretastes of that joy are given to us now, and if they fill our souls with such sweetness, well-being and happiness, what shall we say of that joy which has been prepared in heaven for those who weep here on earth? And you, my son, have wept enough in your life on earth; yet see with what joy the Lord consoles you even in this life! Now it is up to us, my son, to add labours to labours in order to go from strength to strength (Ps. 83:7), and to come to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13), so that the words of the Lord may be fulfilled in us: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall grow wings like eagles; and they shall run and not be weary (Is. 40:31); they will go from strength to strength, and the God of gods will appear to them in the Sion (Ps. 83:8) of realization and heavenly visions. Only then will our present joy (which now visits us little and briefly) appear in all its fullness, and no one will take it from us, for we shall be filled to overflowing with inexplicable heavenly delights.–St Seraphim’s Conversation with Nicholas Motovilov

If one compares Orthodoxy with other forms of Christianity, one is frequently taken with the manifest dearth of, what one might call after St. John of the Cross, the “dark night of the soul.” It is true that there are a few accounts of Orthodox saints who have experienced this sort of spiritual phenomenon (indeed, the only examples that presently come to my mind are not canonized saints, but Fr Gerasim of Spruce Island, a friend of St Herman’s Monastery in Platina, and Lynette (Katherine) Hoppe [mp3 link].). But, for the most part, the Orthodox experience is one of light (e.g., the uncreated light of Tabor) and of joy. Indeed, the quality of the darkness of the uncreated light about which such luminaries as St. Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius write seems, to me, different than that of St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila. Perhaps it is the Orthodox emphasis on the Resurrection and deification. That said, I’m not qualified to speak authoritatively on this matter.

Nonetheless, I think it is true, that the Christian experience is, at its core, whatever its attendant phases, one of ineffable joy. This has been infiltrating my conscious awareness in these last days as, without bidding, I have thought of the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov. I think the paragraph from his conversation with Motovilov is emblematic of the Orthodox life of joy.

I have been confronting several areas of personal fears of late. I don’t mean that to sound overly melodramatic. These are mere phantoms of the mind, spiritual delusions, which, for various reasons, have lodged in my thinking. When I encounter stresses to these particular areas, my reaction is one of fear and anxiety. This is not, it seems to me, a very Christian form of response. This is not to say there is no place for fear in the Christian life (though again, this is something about which I have no authority to speak), but, rather, it is to say, that it is dawning on me that the areas in particular in which I react with fear to certain stresses are things about which such fears are wholly misplaced.

The fears are misplaced because they have crowded out the very thing that is to form the core of the Christian life: faith in Christ. I can do the mental experiment: replace faith in Christ at the center of these anxious areas and all of them are qualitatively changed. More to the point, my present day and this very moment is changed. I do not have perfect love, of course, but Christ does. And if I embrace his perfect love for his Church (and for me) in just these fields of worry, I find that the fear is, indeed, cast out.  “All these things will be added to you as well.”

This realization has, to a degree, brought me back to my first days after my chrismation, when the experience of God was so objectively real and heart-warming. This joy is strengthening, too. I find myself better able to confront these passions against which we fight. It is as though once one illusion falls, so, too, fall the illusions which surround our passions and by which they ensnare our wills. These soulish disciplines enacted by the body do not seem drudgery, but, indeed, life-giving and light.

What a blessed realization this is. Perhaps the myrrh streaming from St. Nicholas’ relics not only completed the healing process of my body, but brought to me a further spiritual healing as well.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What more does one need than that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, have mercy.

What Now?

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

But what does that mean? And now what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows? At this point it is idle speculation.

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

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

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

And That’s That

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

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

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

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

The Coincidences of Providence (or the Providence of Coincidences)

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

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

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

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

But I’ve digressed.

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Vocation . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Pain of Heart

In the patristic writings, “pain of heart” generally refers to an elemental inward suffering, the bearing of an interior cross while following Jesus Christ, and a spirit broken in contrition. “Suffering,” Fr. Seraphim stated, “is the reality of the human condition and the beginning of the true spiritual life.” From Archbishop John, who had utterly crucified himself in this life, Fr. Seraphim had learned how to endure this suffering in thankfulness to God, and from him he had learned its fruits. If used in the right way, suffering can purify the heart, and the pure in heart . . . shall see God (Matt. 5:8). “The right approach,” wrote Fr. Seraphim, “is found in the heart which tries to humble itself and simply knows that it is suffering, and that there somehow exists a higher truth which can not only help this suffering, but can bring it into a totally different dimension.” According to St. Mark the ascetic (fifth century), “Remembrance of God is pain of heart enduring in the spirit of devotion. But he who forgets God becomes self-indulgent and insensitive.” And in the words of St. Barsanuphius the Great of Egypt, whose counsels Fr. Seraphim translated into English, “Every gift is received through pain of heart.”

Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, p. 471

Besides its general meaning, “pain of heart” has a literal meaning in the writings of the Fathers, for when the heart is concentrated in fervent prayer to Christ, it may actually be pained. As Fr. Seraphim noted, in Patristic terminology, the “heart” does not mean mere “feeling,” but “something much deeper–the organ that knows God.” The heart is both spiritual and physical: spiritually, it is the center of man’s being, identified with his nous (spirit); physically, it is the organ where the nous finds its secret dwelling place. Concentrated within the physical heart, the nous cries out to the Saviour, and such a heart-cry–born in pain and desperation, yet hoping in God–calls down Divine grace. This is seen especially in the Orthodox practice of the Jesus Prayer. When we approach the Jesus Prayer simply, says Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (1994), “we will be able to repeat it many times, and our heart will feel a sweet pain and then Christ Himself will shed His sweet consolation inside our heart.”

Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, pp. 471-472

“The Patristic teaching on pain of heart,” Fr. Seraphim wrote, “is one of the most important teaching for our days when ‘head-knowledge’ is so over-emphasized at the expense of the proper development of emotional and spiritual life. . . . The lack of this essential experience is what above all is responsible for the dilettantism, the triviality, the want of seriousness in the ordinary study of the Holy Fathers today; without it , one cannot apply the teachings of the Holy Fathers to one’s own life. One may attain to the very highest level of understanding with the mind of the teaching of the Holy Fathers, may have ‘at one’s fingertips’ quotes from the Holy Fathers on every conceivable subject, may have ‘spiritual experiences’ which seem to be those described in the Patristic books, may even know perfectly all the pitfalls into which it is possible to fall in spiritual life–and still, without pain of heart, one can be a barren fig tree, a boring ‘know-it-all’ who is always ‘correct,’ or an adept in all the present-day ‘charismatic’ experiences, who does not know and cannot convey the true spirit of the Holy Fathers.”

Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, p. 472
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Wrestling with Academia

When it comes to my academic life, I have, over the past year, entered the disgruntled zone. Im sure one can come up with a handful of good explanations: the fact that Ive not been formally enrolled for over a year now; the fact that my dissertation proposal is stalled; which fact is predicated on the fact that I have been pulling very long work days with a plurality of jobs for well over a year; which fact is itself predicated on the need for enough income to provide for my family; which cumulative facts leave me precious little time for my family, let alone for research and study. I suppose you could cite my disappointment in failing to receive funding (itself a left over problem from the previous university president who gutted the financial reserves of the department). There are a whole host of reasons, I suppose. Part of it has come about through teaching about a couple of dozen classes in the last few years, and needing to heed all the bureaucracy. Part of it has come with wrestling with justice issues related to how adjuncts are utilized in academia–a very existential question with which I’ve wrestled together with another parishioner (who has his earned PhD).

My friend, Gabe, has at least once, offered his own disgruntlement over the state of academia at his law school.

One faces all this, and asks: Is it really worth it? It’s an especially tough question as I am now experiencing the sort of disproportionate economics of working in the corporate non-profit world versus working as an academic. Or to say it bluntly: the pay is a hell of a lot better.

But all that said, most of the impetus for my wrestling has come about through my reflections on philosophia, from last summer. It is clearer to me now than ever before that the sort of philosophy I have always sought to do, the sort of philosophical discipline practiced by the men I studySocrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurusis not the philosophy practiced today. A case in point: I just received the program for the American Philosophical Associations Eastern Division meeting at the end of the year. One of the topics, among the many, that will be discussed is the integration of philosophy into the K-12 curriculum. Note that: the integration of philosophy into a school curriculum.

This is philosophy as an intellectual subject. Not classical philosophy. Nor, in my opinion, true philosophy.

One of my patrons, Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim, wrestled with similar concerns. He famously had his decisive moment regarding his academic career, which he expressed in a letter to his parents.

It’s time that I chose the academic life in the first place, because God gave me a mind to serve Him with, and the academic world is where the mind is supposed to be used. But after eight or nine years I know well enough what goes on in universities. The mind is respected by only a few of the “old-fashioned” professors, who will soon have died out. For the rest, it’s a matter of making money, getting a secure place in lifeand using the mind as a kind of toy, doing clever tricks with it and getting paid for it, like a circus clown. The love of truth has vanished from people today; those who have minds have to prostitute their talents to get along. I find this difficult to do, because I have too great a love of truth. . . . If I am going to serve God in this world, and so keep from making my life a total failure, I will have to do it outside the academic world. . . .

And what would happen if, in one of my classes at the university, I would one day tell my students that all the learning of this world is of no importance beside the duty of worshiping God, accepting the God-man who died for our sins, and preparing for the life of the world to come? They would probably laugh at me, and the university officials, if they found out, would fire mefor it is against the law to preach the Truth in our universities. We say that we live in a Christian society, but we do not; we live in a society that is more pagan, more Christ-hating, than the society into which Christ was born. [Letter to his parents dated 14 June 1961] in Seraphim Rose: The True Story and Private Letters 165, 166]

He wrote later, in a draft of a chapter of a book he was working on (which was later published separately):

The academic worldand these words are neither lightly nor easily spokenhas become today, in large part, a source of corruption. It is corrupting to hear or read the words of men who do not believe in truth. It is yet more corrupting to receive, in place of truth, more learning and scholarship which, if they are presented as ends in themselves, are no more than parodies of the truth they were meant to serve, no more than a facade behind which there is no substance. It is, tragically, corrupting even to be exposed to the primary virtue still left to the academic world, the integrity of the best of its representativesif this integrity serves, not the truth, but skeptical scholarship, and so seduces men all the more effectively to the gospel of subjectivism and unbelief this scholarship conceals. It is corrupting, finally, simply to live and work in an atmosphere totally permeated by a false conception of truth, wherein Christian Truth is seen as irrelevant to the central academic concerns, wherein even those who still believe this Truth can only sporadically make their voices heard above the skepticism promoted by the academic system. The evil, of course, lies primarily in the system itself, which is founded upon untruth, and only incidentally in the many professor whom this system permits and encourages to preach it. [Nihilism, 32-33]

I can guess two possible reactions to all this. There are those, themselves in or aspiring to be in academia who look at this and think, Ah, the petulant whining of a man who is not cut out for academia. And that may very well be the case. I certainly have thus far been able to do the formal work. And I think I can do the dissertation level research and writing as well (though admittedly this assertion is to date unproven). But the follow-up question is: Should one want to cut it in academia? Not much has changed since Blessed Seraphim wrote his words, more than thirty years ago. I suspect it would not be inaccurate to say that the situation is likely worse today than it was then at the end of the Fifties and beginning of the Sixties. Would one want to cut it in such an atmosphere, at the cost of what it may well do to ones soul (a construct not even accepted by most academics)?

And then there are those who argue that it is precisely because academia is what it is that faithful souls need to enter academia, so as to save some. No one fancies, and certainly I dont, that a single professor can turn the godless tide of the university. But the influence of one professor in the life of one student can have not only eternal impact in one life, but in the lives of all whom that person will love and care for. I have had glimpses of just this sort of thing, even as recent as last semesters class on philosophical anthropology. But these are rare and infrequent. And even worse is the whole sort of diploma mill mentality of the overwhelming majority of students who have been trained by the university system itself into thinking of classes in pragmatic and economic terms. They have paid their tuition, they deserve their A, so that they can get their diploma, so that they can make a higher salary upon graduation. Rare is the student who asks me for more reading on a philosopher or a philosophical topic.

And I have never, not once, ever had a student ask me what it might mean to live the life of philosophia.

In fact, the present life of a philosophy professor is, in many ways, fundamentally prohibitive of a life of philosophy. To live like a philosopher is something that one would have to do in ones spare time, as ones occupation as an academic would require endless loads of administrivia, the galling ball and chain of mindless pluralism for pluralisms sake, and the hubristic pursuit of notoriety instead of sagacity.

Believe me, this reflection should not be taken as an indication Im going to jump ship on academia. I am certainly not abandoning my degree program. Come hell or high water I will see this dissertation through, however long it takes. But although I am currently enjoying my present run in my new job as a contact center manager for a non-profit organization, I also have never seen anyone retire at 65 from being a contact center manager. This is not my vocation, it is an accidental occupation.

Still, Im wondering if it would be best for my own soul, my wife and my daughters if, degree notwithstanding, I seek the philosophers life as Socrates did, among the hoi polloi, and outside the ivory tower.

In Honor of My Grandfather, Everett Daniel Thompson

I have in past months included posts expressing appreciation for my late paternal grandfather, Clifton F. Healy. There are many reasons for having posted thoughts on my grandfather. I am his namesake. His strength of character showed through the imperfections he, as all of us, had. His Midwestern rural values inform my own present ones, especially since such values are in bold contrast to those of the city where I currently dwell. I love Grandpa Healy, and miss him.

But one should not get the impression from my relative silence about my maternal grandfather, Everett D. Thompson, that I love or respect him less. I am also Grandpa Thompson’s namesake, sharing my middle name, Daniel, with him. His character strengths are different, in some respects, than Grandpa Healy’s, but they are no less important. Nor do they any less inform my own present values.
Continue reading “In Honor of My Grandfather, Everett Daniel Thompson”