Our hearts long for “Jerusalem,” indeed. But the city we long for is not the project of William Blake’s dreams. It is ironic that Blake lived in a culture that had intentionally destroyed all of its monasteries, murdering many of its monks. And then it wondered where Jerusalem had gone.
This letter should become a classic of Orthodox writing and witness to the faith that sustained so many and is today being resurrected in so many places. The triumph of the Resurrection so transcends his prison cell it’s a wonder that the walls remained.
Morality (good behavior) has a way of self-justification. The morally competent all-too-frequently see themselves as the products of their own self-discipline and inner character. They fail to see that they are doing little more than conforming to the social morality of their class.
Somewhat problematic, I think, is the not infrequent distinction made between anxiety and depression as physical/medical problems and as so-called “spiritual” problems. There is no such distinction. We do not have “spiritual” problems that are not also physical problems, simply because we do not exist as some sort of divisible creatures.
The cycle of prayers assaulting Hades reaches a climax on the day of Pentecost. On the evening of that Sunday, the faithful gather for Vespers. During that service, they kneel for the first time since Pascha. And in that kneeling, the Church teaches them the boldness of prayer, the cry of human hearts for God’s solace and relief.
In both Latin and Greek, the word translated as “person,” actually refers to the face, or a mask (as a depiction of the face). The face is not only our primary presentation to the world, and our primary means of relationship, it is also, somehow, that which is most definitively identified with our existence as persons.
The adherents of modernity not only feel certain of the correctness of their worldview; they believe that it should be utterly obvious to any reasonable person. Resistance is reactionary, the product of ignorance or evil intent. But from within classical Christianity, this is pure heresy, and perhaps the most dangerous threat that humanity has ever faced.
We live in an age where the passions are carefully studied and used as the objects of marketing. Those things that are sold to us (even those that supposedly appeal to our intellect) are marketed to our passions. Apple computer famously researches the “feel” of its packaging, presenting a sensual experience that is associated with quality, precision and value. It is a successful strategy across the whole of our culture.
A Christian must say that there is a natural spiritual compass within every human being, inasmuch as we are created in the image of God. Some would say that the spiritual compass is distorted by the world and its many noises. I think this is mistaken. What is missing in any human life is not the compass itself, but the willingness of drawing near to read it.
A modern or contemporary Christian would generally see this as a quaint ceremony, perhaps going so far as to think that the Gospel book is being used to “symbolize” the hand of God (meaning nothing more than a psychological notion). But in no way would a contemporary believer think that God’s hand is actually in the Gospel Book.
Our exchanges point to an inescapable aspect of reality: it is filled with contradictions or at least something that we perceive as contradictions. Reason, as it is commonly used, is quite abstract. Syllogisms step back from reality and speak in terms that are actually quite removed.
Everything you do, all your work, can contribute towards your salvation. It depends on you, on the way you do it. History is replete with monks who became great saints while working in the kitchen or washing sheets. The way of salvation consists in working without passion, in prayer….
If there is a true normal, it is deeply spiritual. It moves between transcendent good and a frightful evil. And the movement is not between people or classes or political persuasions, but within each human heart. We should not ignore what is going on around us. However, when we ignore the inner life of the heart, we remain unhealed and in the darkness.
At every turn, the source of our hope is simply what we have seen accomplished in Christ. We have His promises: I go to prepare a place for you, and if I prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. (Joh 14:3) The fullness of the life of the Church teaches us how to hope and how to pray. It does not teach us what has not been given us to know.
The monastics in the British Isles, like the monastics across the Christian world of Late Antiquity, became a primary force within the whole of Church life. They were missionaries. They were librarians. They were copyists. They were authors. They were hymnographers. They were a hedge against the power of the state. They were protectors of Orthodox teaching.
In Orthodoxy, this imagery is the coin of the realm in the hymns surrounding Pascha. All of Holy Week is predicated on the notion of Christ descent into hell and radical actions of destroying death and setting free those held in captivity. St. John Chrysostom’s great Paschal Homily, read in every Orthodox Church on the night of Pascha, is an “alley, alley, in come free!” of salvation.
The apex of the year for Orthodox Christians is easily Holy Week and Pascha. I had the opportunity in 2008 to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. To receive communion in the tomb of Christ, or to stand at Golgotha is no little thing. And yet, the services of Holy Week within one’s own parish are a greater thing.
As a young priest, I fancied myself to be a “problem solver.” A good parish, I thought, was a happy parish. Conflict and crisis were things to be managed. I even took a number of courses in seminary that were focused on “management.” And this, I believe, was the secular option, the breeding ground of despair and unbelief.
To recognize that the world is wonderful and larger than you know, is to begin to understand your place within it. You do not control it, nor can you ever. It is too frequently the case that people speak of God as though they knew very well what (who) they were talking about.
The directness of Christ’s commandments (“forgive your enemies”) and the consequences of ignoring them (“if you do not forgive others neither will your heavenly Father forgive you”) can easily make forgiveness into a heavy, soul-crushing burden of spiritual failure. Understanding the true nature of forgiveness, however, carries us into the very mystery of our existence and reveals why such importance is given to its practice.
Orthodox Christians make a beginning of their Lenten discipline with the forgiving of everyone for everything (theoretically). The ritual expression of forgiveness can easily and often be little more than a ritual. It reminds us of the need to forgive, but does not, on its own, achieve what it expresses. This should not be surprising – forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult spiritual undertaking.
No spiritual activity permeates Orthodoxy as much as veneration. For the non-Orthodox, veneration is often mistaken for worship. We kiss icons; sing hymns to saints; cry out “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” And all of this scandalizes the non-Orthodox who think we have fallen into some backwater of paganized Christianity.
Of course this is fiction – but it is fiction based on how many Christians think of their spiritual lives. Christ is the physician of our souls. The Church, the Fathers say, is a hospital for sinners. So why do we think like Bob and his doctor? Why do we think that who we are and how we are doing can be described by how well we adhere to rules?
A deep failure of modernity is its jettisoning of soul stories. Contemporary music is simply insufficient for the soul. The result can be a struggle for the life of the soul – to exist without being swallowed whole by the consumption that surrounds us. “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
The most difficult part of my Orthodox experience to discuss with the non-Orthodox is the place and role of the Mother of God in the Church and in my life. It is, on the one hand, deeply theological and even essential to a right understanding of the Orthodox faith, while, on the other hand, being intensely personal beyond the bounds of conversation. I am convinced, as well, that the Orthodox approach to Mary is part of the apostolic deposit, and not a later accretion.
First, the Orthodox Church is not better than some other Church. If you declare such a thing to be true, then you have actually denied the truth of Orthodoxy. We believe the Church to be One. We believe the Church is One because God is One. And, as in the case of God, it is One of which there is not two. If Orthodoxy is The Church, then it’s not the better Church. It is not something that can be compared to anything else.
The soul is our life and is the proper anchor of our existence. The consumer-self is ill-equipped for true existence. The loss of choices and its incipient narcissism plunge the consumer-self into despair. People in the modern world often shop in order to treat their depression.But the soul is our true life. It is only in the soul the the inherent suffering of the world makes sense. The consumer-self cannot bear suffering and supports every false hope that promises relief from suffering.
For many, the idea that we are somehow responsible for the sins of others, or can repent on their behalf is counter-intuitive and deeply troubling. It is distinctly non individualistic. However, it is a cornerstone of Orthodox devotion. Dostoevsky presented a very popular version of this teaching in the words of the fictitious character, the Elder Zosima, in his The Brothers Karamozov.
The most essential proposition within this philosophy is that reality itself is a “social construct,” that is, our experience of the world is formed, not by the world itself, but by the social interactions and agreements by which we agree to name and describe the world. The world is what we think it to be.
On one of the roads leading into my small city a billboard has recently appeared. It is part of a larger campaign by a nationally known evangelist who is to have a revival in Knoxville. The sign is simple. In very large bright yellow letters (all caps), the sign says: HELL IS REAL. In small letters beneath it, in white, that can be read as your car nears the sign is the statement: so is heaven.
What do we mean when we speak of the personality? Do we mean a certain set of memories? A collection of experiences and preferences? Is it our set of skills and techniques? How many of these would we have to lose for the personality and personhood to disappear?
As the day draws near for the US Supreme Court to insist on nationwide approval for gay marriage, a watershed in modern thought has been reached. For although the Supreme Court is not the arbiter of morality, its decisions generally signal a deep level of cultural acceptance.
There is an abiding discomfort for many with my assertion that we generally do not see moral progress in our lives. That discomfort comes from many directions. Perhaps the most serious is the question that asks, “Then why bother? If we are not making progress in our battles with the passions, why make the effort?”
The key in these surveys was to determine precisely what gifts and talents someone had, match them with the right ministry, and fit them all together. The end product would be more effective ministry for the parish and happier parishioners. What priest wouldn’t want such a thing?
The human relationship with time is a strange thing. The upright stones of neo-lithic human communities stand as silent reminders of our long interest in seasons and the movement of the heavens. Today our light-polluted skies shield many of us from the brilliant display of the night sky and rob us of the stars.
“Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” This is perhaps the most famous quote of the great Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov. Many of his icons have this saying on them. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like it. On the other hand, I think there are many who do not understand it. And understanding what he meant can take you to the very heart of Orthodoxy.
Modern thought, including modern Protestant thought, tends to think of “reality” as consisting of only one kind of thing. And this is the way the word is used whether it is referring to green dragons, God, heaven, hell, what I ate last week, etc. My goal is to help readers, on a popular level, understand better the Orthodox teaching on the nature of things – on the world as sacrament – on the character of truth and reality – and thus the nature of our salvation.
The phrase, “behind closed doors,” has become synonymous in English with things being done in secret – generally of an unsavory or nefarious sort. Institutions speak of an “open door policy,” and promise “transparency” to those from the outside. Closed doors have always had a sense of secrecy about them. Sometimes the secrecy hides the darkness of evil, other times it protects us from the wonder of the holy.
In the feast of the Holy Cross, the hymnography at one point makes the statment, “The Tree heals the Tree.” It is one of the marvelous commentaries on the life of grace and its relationship to the human predicament. It refers to the relationship between the Cross of Christ and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Though we commonly use the word “mystery” (for example), popular speech never uses it in the manner of the Church. I cannot remember using the word “fullness,” or even “fulfilled,” in normal speech. More contemporary words have come to replace these expressions. This doesn’t mean that an English speaker has no idea of what the words mean—but, again, they do not understand these words in the manner of the Church. There is a reality to which words such as mystery and fullness refer—a reality that carries the very heart of the Orthodox understanding of the world and its relation to God.
It is a rhythm. Our modern world has lost most of its natural rhythm. The sun rises and sets but causes little fanfare in a world powered and lit by other sources. In America, virtually everything is always in season, even though the chemicals used to preserve this wonderful cornucopia are probably slowly poisoning our bodies.
The verse in John implies just the opposite – hell (condemnation) is what it is – only because we want it so. As a priest this portrayal of condemnation has been by far the most helpful approach in dealing pastorally with people. It is not the threat of what someone (God) may do to them, but the existential reality of what you are doing to yourself – even now.