The Desert Struggle

One of the best-known sayings to have come from the Desert Fathers is: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” To a large degree the saying extols the virtue of stability. Moving from place to place never removes the problem – it only postpones the inevitable. Somewhere, sometime we have to face the heart of our struggle and by the grace of God overcome. Of course, not everyone is entirely successful in such struggles in the course of this life. How our healing is completed beyond this life is left to the mystery of grace.

There is nothing secular about the desert, the arena of our spiritual struggle. The early monastics who fled to the desert for prayer did not think that they were avoiding problems by seeking out such solitude. St. Athanasius, in the 4th century, had written the Life of St. Antony, one of the first and greatest of all hermits. That book, in a time before printing presses and book agents, still became a “best-seller.” It was read by many and propelled literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women into the monastic life. Modern Christians are overwhelmed when they hear the estimates of the number of monastics by the 5th century. It is hard to believe that the desert could sustain so many.

But that book on the life of St. Antony, held no romanticism for the desert life. Antony’s life of prayer is also a life of struggle against demons. They literally toss him about and beat him up. If anything, such a novel should have made generations afraid to go near the desert.

In the 6th chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul had written:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (11-12).

St. Paul’s observation that the struggle was against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (literally the “heavenlies”) clearly did not dissuade the hordes of hermits from invading the deserts of Africa and the Mideast or the islands and caves of Gaul and the British Isles. One simple reason was that the “heavenlies” was not a description of a two-storey (or more) universe, but simply a description of the nature of the struggle. Those “heavenly places” were as much the territory of the human heart as anything. St. Macarius, a desert dweller, would write:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

The heavenly cities are not to be found in contemplating some second storey of the universe, but are to be found within the terrible (in the classic sense of the word) confines of the human heart. This was the great promise of the desert: that in solitude and quiet, through prayer and fasting, a man could enter the depths of his heart and there do the warfare that had been given to us to do. Some few became great saints. Others found only madness. Orthodox Christianity received something of a handbook on warfare in that land of the heart in such writings as the Lives of the Fathers, the PhilokaliaThe Ladder of Divine Ascent, and other similar works. They have remained staples of the spiritual life ever since.

The struggle in the desert does not ignore relationships with other human beings. But it recognizes that the trouble in those relationships does not lie in other human beings, but within my own heart. Christ did not suffer from trouble in His relationships with humanity. He was at peace with all. We cannot do more than be like Christ, who Himself began His ministry in the desert, defeating the enemy.

Later Orthodox reflection has widened the desert and recognized that it includes all territory. There is no place we go where the struggle can be differently defined. In the city, in a factory, an office or in school, the battlefield of our spiritual life remains within our own heart. Solitude is only a tool in learning to recognize that fact and to focus our attention on where our attention needs to be.

Obviously, most of us do not leave the company of other human beings in our journey to salvation. But we should draw proper conclusions from the men and women who first entered the deserts and left us the records of their struggles. We do not labor in a secular land beneath the watchful eye of second-storey perfection. We labor in the land where heavenly wickedness does its battle: the human heart. And if our hearts are where the arena is to be found, then we should recognize as well that it is in that very arena that the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is to be found as well. The vast array of saints described by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews who, having completed the course of their warfare, now surround us as spectators in the arena of our warfare, should themselves not be relegated to some distant second-storey where they watch us from afar. Thus it is not a strange thing that those who do spiritual warfare best also have many friends among the saints, and learn to call on them for aid. For though it may seem like “my” struggle, it is the struggle of all who name Christ as Lord. The saints do not surround us like a great cloud of witnesses in idle curiosity. They surround us to strengthen and aid us, to encourage us, and even, if need be, to fight along side us. Such is our heavenly warfare of the heart.

To spend time with someone who has learned well the battle of the heart is to sit at the gate of paradise. On some few occasions I have had opportunity to meet such warriors. The peace that is theirs, the complete lack of self-consciousness are signals that you have come to a new country. Such living witnesses are the loudest proclamation of the gospel known on earth. For in their heart, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. These are the dwelling places of the New Jerusalem and the living promises of God. Their hearts point us to the place where we should be engaging the struggle and remind us that with God all things are possible.

Comments

  1. Randi McAllister says

    I am feeling my own desert struggle this Lent, unlike in the past. It is hard to face those animals that live in the desert of my own heart. Thank God for God! And for those, like you, Fr. Stephen, who help show us the way!
    Randi

  2. Philip Jude says

    Father,

    You wrote, “Christ did not suffer from trouble in His relationships with humanity. He was at peace with all.”

    I wonder what exactly you mean. Was Jesus at peace with the moneychangers when He overturned their tables? Was He at peace with the scribes and pharisees, of whom He said “ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” and “ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell”?

    It seems the Lord spoke the truth no matter what the cost; that He challenged and admonished and, when necessary, condemned; that He had a fiery, even fearsome, dimension to His personality. He is the Lamb, yes, but also the Lion of Judah.

    “I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?”

  3. says

    Thank you for this beautiful and profound homily, Father. May I request your permission to excerpt the last 4 paragraphs in my church’s (free) newsletter, with full attribution and URL, of course?

  4. George Engelhard says

    In my heart, Holy Trinity, with the heavenly host, I exalt You; I promote You; I magnify You.
    In my heart, Holy Trinity, with the heavenly host, I abase myself before You; I fall on my face before You; I give You my talents, my authorities, and my satisfactions.
    In my heart, Holy Trinity, with the heavenly host, I worship You; I venerate You; I adore You.
    In my heart, Holy Trinity, with the heavenly host, I praise You; I glorify You; I laud and honor You.
    In my heart, Holy Trinity, with the heavenly host, I love You; I cherish You; I desire You and I want You.
    In my heart, Holy Trinity, with the heavenly host, I give you thanks; I give You appreciation; I give You recognition.
    In my heart, Holy Trinity, withthe heavenly host, I petiton You; I appeal to You; I beseech You have mercy on Your creation and heal it.

  5. says

    PJ,
    I would suggest that you infer things concerning Christ that are perhaps mistaken. That Christ is at peace with all is a given. God is at peace with all. It is we who are not at peace with God. All that Christ does, including the fire that He brings, is His peace and our salvation. There is a line from an old Anglican hymn:

    “The peace of God it is no peace,
    But strife closed in the sod;
    Yet Christians pray for but one thing,
    The marvelous peace of God.”

  6. Philip Jude says

    Father,

    I don’t think it is a “given” that God is “at peace with all.” The God of Scripture is not a Platonic deity. He is wrathful. He is jealous. He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. He rained plagues and catastrophes upon Egypt. He destroyed many pagan clans through the proxy of Israel. He killed Korah and his ilk.

    Such acts are precisely what offended the educated pagans in antiquity. Drunk on Plato, they looked at the God of the Scripture and found Him petty and capricious.

    As I see it, you offer in your various posts a similar critique. It seems the only way one could accept your picture of God is to simultaneously de-historicize and allegorize Scripture, trading the Hebrew worldview for the Greek worldview.

    If what you propose is true, the plain reading of Scripture offers a vision of the divine that is radically faulty. For instance, every time Holy Writ says that God is offended by X or Y, it is misleading. I cannot accept that.

    You might consider reading Lactantius’s “On the Anger of God,” the entire point of which is to debunk the pagan philosophers who argue that anger, jealousy, and wrath are “below” God.

    http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0703.htm

    For instance, Epicurus wrote, “For the nature of gods must ever in itself of necessity enjoy immortality together with supreme repose, far removed and withdrawn from our concerns; since, exempt from every pain, exempt from all dangers, strong in its own resources, not wanting anything of us, it is neither gained by favours nor moved by anger.”

    Lactantius dimisses such pagan foolery. “These are the opinions entertained by the philosophers respecting God. But if we have discovered that these things which have been spoken are false, there remains that one last resource, in which alone the truth can be found, which has never been embraced by philosophers, nor at any time defended: that it follows that God is angry, since He is moved by kindness. This opinion is to be maintained and asserted by us; for this is the sum and turning-point on which the whole of piety and religion depend: and no honour can be due to God, if He affords nothing to His worshippers; and no fear, if He is not angry with him who does not worship Him.”

    He concludes, “For it cannot fail to be, that he who is just and good is displeased with things which are bad, and that he who is displeased with evil is moved when he sees it practised. Therefore we arise to take vengeance, not because we have been injured, but that discipline may be preserved, morals may be corrected, and licentiousness be suppressed. This is just anger; and as it is necessary in man for the correction of wickedness, so manifestly is it necessary in God, from whom an example comes to man. For as we ought to restrain those who are subject to our power, so also ought God to restrain the offenses of all. And in order that He may do this, He must be angry; because it is natural for one who is good to be moved and incited at the fault of another. Therefore they ought to have given this definition: Anger is an emotion of the mind arousing itself for the restraining of faults. For the definition given by Cicero, Anger is the desire of taking vengeance, does not differ much from those already mentioned. But that anger which we may call either fury or rage ought not to exist even in man, because it is altogether vicious; but the anger which relates to the correction of vices ought not to be taken away from man; nor can it be taken away from God, because it is both serviceable for the affairs of men, and necessary.”

    I especially enjoy one of the closing lines, “We all are bound both to love Him, because He is our Father; and to reverence Him, because He is our Lord: both to pay Him honour, because He is bounteous; and to fear Him, because He is severe: each character in Him is worthy of reverence.”

    God is severe. This truth must never leave our minds. Furthermore, we should let these holy words instill the fear of the Lord’s terribly justice in our hearts:

    “6 Wail, for the day of the Lord is near! It will come as destruction from the Almighty. 7 Therefore all hands will fall limp, And every man’s heart will melt. 8 And they will be terrified, Pains and anguish will take hold of them; They will writhe like a woman in labor, They will look at one another in astonishment, their faces aflame. 9 Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; And He will exterminate its sinners from it. 10 For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, And the moon will not shed its light. 11 Thus I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud, and abase the haughtiness of the ruthless. 12 I will make mortal man scarcer than pure gold, And mankind than the gold of Ophir. 13 Therefore I shall make the heavens tremble, And the earth will be shaken from its place at the fury of the Lord of hosts In the day of His burning anger. 14 And it will be that like a hunted gazelle, Or like sheep with none to gather them, they will each turn to his own people, And each one flee to his own land. 15 Anyone who is found will be thrust through, and anyone who is captured will fall by the sword. 16 Their little ones also will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; Their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished (Isaiah 13:6-16).

  7. says

    PJ,
    Good points and well made.

    What I would offer in defense (or explanation) is that I do not advocate any philosophical point of view. The observations I make are not drawn from an ideology, but from the ascetical life of the Church. God is certainly wrathful, angry, severe, etc. It is the inner meaning of those words I would question. Lactantius, it seems to me, fails to grasp (or know) anything of that inner meaning.

    It is possible to read the fathers and think about the ideas of the Christian faith, but not to pray and repent like the fathers, or the best of them. I advocate reading the fathers and the Tradition through the lives and teachings of the Hesychast fathers (for lack of a better collective term). The teaching of the Church can only be appropriated from within, both within the Church and within the heart. It is there in the heart that we come to know the “severity” of God. It is not a philosophical concept (not even Lactantius’ philosophical concept). The severity of God is a reality known only in the heart where that severity crushes sin and the logismoi that seek to enslave us. To read Isaiah 13 in a manner that applies it literally is simply foolish and lacking in understanding. “Pains and anguish will take hold of them; they will writhe like a woman in labor.” Does God delight Himself in such torture? What possible use would such literal infliction of torment hold? It does not produce true repentance or change of heart. These words, however, are profound when rightly understood. They apply to the soul and the inner life of the believer. If you do not know this yet, then you have not begun to pray.

    Your observation: As I see it, you offer in your various posts a similar critique. It seems the only way one could accept your picture of God is to simultaneously de-historicize and allegorize Scripture, trading the Hebrew worldview for the Greek worldview.

    I’m not interested in a picture of God – I’m interested in God. I agree that there is a constant movement between historical and de-historical reading, and that the principle in that movement is Christ Himself. No other principle can be substituted for Him, certainly not historicism and literalism. That is the dead-end of Protestantism (both liberal and fundamentalist). It is certainly not the hermeneutic employed by the Roman Catholic Church (which, if I’m correct, you claim to be a member). Why do you profess a Protestant, even Calvinist position, if you are a loyal son of the Church? Lactantius is not a father of major importance – he is minor even by Western measures. Why do you despise the work of the Greek fathers who gave you the Creed and all of the foundational doctrines of the faith? This is not Catholic – it’s Protestant scholasticism and rebellion.

    It also shows a lack of understanding to characterize these things as “Hebrew worldview” and “Greek worldview.” These are false choices and limit the understanding. They’re simply old Protestant canards (a tradition that has no inner life).

    The Greek fathers and the Hesychast life of the Church are not “Greek” traditions, in the sense of pagan philosophy. You impugn the saints, of whom the world was not worthy. Have you no regard for men of holy life?

    St. Isaac the Syrian is certainly as “Hebrew or Semitic” as one could ask (he’s certainly not a neo-Platonist) and yet his hermeneutic is clearly in harmony with the Greek fathers (as is St. Ephrem the Syrian’s). You throw terms around with ease – but they reveal that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Read more. Pray more and give up opinions – they’re hurting your soul.

  8. Margaret says

    Thank you so much for this reminder and encouragement!
    “We do not labor in a secular land beneath the watchful eye of second-storey perfection. We labor in the land where heavenly wickedness does its battle: the human heart. And if our hearts are where the arena is to be found, then we should recognize as well that it is in that very arena that the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is to be found as well. The vast array of saints described by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews who, having completed the course of their warfare, now surround us as spectators in the arena of our warfare, should themselves not be relegated to some distant second-storey where they watch us from afar. Thus it is not a strange thing that those who do spiritual warfare best also have many friends among the saints, and learn to call on them for aid. For though it may seem like “my” struggle, it is the struggle of all who name Christ as Lord. The saints do not surround us like a great cloud of witnesses in idle curiosity. They surround us to strengthen and aid us, to encourage us, and even, if need be, to fight along side us. Such is our heavenly warfare of the heart.”

  9. George Engelhard says

    “The severity of God is known only in the heart.”
    Father is this what you are saying in your response to Phillip Jude: God is wrathful against sin of which my heart is full. If I let God in my heart, then I feel His wrath against my sin and I am in anguish?

  10. Philip Jude says

    Father,

    You write, “I agree that there is a constant movement between historical and de-historical reading, and that the principle in that movement is Christ Himself. No other principle can be substituted for Him, certainly not historicism and literalism. That is the dead-end of Protestantism (both liberal and fundamentalist).”

    The Church proposes that Scripture possesses four dimensions: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. Thus the famous medieval couplet:

    “The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
    The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.”

    The first of these, as you can see, is the literal sense. Saint Thomas wrote, “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”

    As for the wrath and anger of God, I do not think it is a Protestant position. The Church has always affirmed such attributes. Augustine defines succinctly the ancient Catholic teaching: “When God is said to be angry, this does not mean that His mind is disturbed like the mind of a man who is angry; but His vengeance, which is nothing but His justice” (Enchiridion). Again, in his Expositions on the Psalms, he explains, “But by the ‘wrath and sore displeasure’ of the Lord God must not be understood any mental perturbation; but the might whereby He most justly avenges.”

    As I have said before, God’s wrath is an aspect of God’s justice and holiness; His anger is not an inner disturbance but the joyful and awesome vindication of His perfect righteousness. Holy Scripture constantly and consistently shows that God takes sin very personally. Yet I sometimes find in your writing a tendency to downplay this “sensitivity” (if you will) to wickedness.

    You also write, “Why do you despise the work of the Greek fathers who gave you the Creed and all of the foundational doctrines of the faith? This is not Catholic – it’s Protestant scholasticism and rebellion.”

    I do not despise the Greek fathers. John Chrysostom, for example, is very dear to me. And I think he would agree with what I am saying. Consider this snippet from a homily on Romans: “‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.’ And indeed even here this often takes place in famines and pestilences and wars: for each individually and all in common are punished. What will be the new thing then? That the chastisement is greater, and common to all, and not by the same rules. For now what takes place is for correction: but then for vengeance … And now indeed to many such things usually seem to come not of the wrath from above, but of the malice of man. But then the punishment from God shall be manifest, when the Judge, sitting upon the fearful tribunal, shall command some to be dragged to the furnaces, and some to the outer darkness.”

    You accuse me of impugning the saints and other terrible acts of impiety. These are heavy charges and I do not see how I am guilty of them. I question not our forebears in the faith — just your interpretation of their work and wisdom.

    Anyway, you seem very upset: please do not take my words so personally. I am merely a seeker of knowledge, a seeker coming from a background very unlike your own. I beg you to be patient with an ignorant and sinful man.

    Thank you for your thorough response to my comment. You never fail to teach me something, even when we disagree. Thank you for your time and effort. God bless.

  11. Philip Jude says

    I should clarify one thing.

    I said, “I question not our forebears in the faith — just your interpretation of their work and wisdom.”

    I meant in this conversation. I do not deny, however, that I am of the opinion that some of the fathers relied too heavily on Hellenistic philosophy, occasionally diluting Scriptural truth with pagan learning.

    I do not think this is a controversial opinion, and certainly it is not of my own making. It is not an insult, just a concession to the reality of the power of culture.

    As for Saints Isaac and Ephrem, who do seem to have been outside the Hellenistic milieu, one can only conclude that they were wonderfully optimistic men, though their optimism may have occasionally lacked Scriptural foundation. For instance, if St. Isaac was indeed a universalist, then He was in serious error.

  12. says

    PJ,
    The quote from Augustine is quite useful. First, even he stresses that anger and wrath do not describe the “mind” of God, but His actions viz. justice and holiness. Thus far we are in a certain agreement – and you must grant that even Augustine does not accept a “literal” reading of the text but clearly embraces the Church’s Tradition with regard to reading the OT. This is not pagan platonizing on His part, but simply the Traditional manner of the Church’s reading of the OT. Your use of these passages (such as in Isaiah quote) lack the nuance present in Augustine’s quote. Do you see my point thus far?

    My further point would be to push Augustine’s notion of Justice and Holiness. There is no contradiction between God’s justice and His mercy. The justice of God is fulfilled in the Cross upon which Christ tramples down death by death. The OT understanding of a judge (shophet) is not someone who pronounces sentence according to some abstract legal measure, but someone who sets things right, as in Isaiah 61:

    1The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; 2To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; 3To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.

    Here (in a passage which Christ sees fulfilled in His ministry) is the true role of the shophet fulfilled. Even “the day of vengeance” of our God must be understood as the preaching of good news to the meek, binding the brokenhearted, liberty to captives, opening prison (Hades), etc. Not as some external smashing, breaking, torturing. Augustine’s hermeneutic does not require this – indeed it would question this.

    Why, if the mind of God is not to be understood as some mental perturbation, would you then posit a physical perturbation of creation as God’s wrath? All this would describe is a divine sociopath. God tortures us but has no perturbation. I am not so much angered by this (or personally offended) – it’s just that it is an insult to the faith and to the true teaching concerning God made known to us in Christ. It is the very perversion of Christianity that the bulk of my writing and work oppose. I believe that such a view of God is not only false, but dangerously false and would not want it taught to my children, nor do I teach it to others. The damage I have seen wrought by the mistaken understanding of God’s wrath (which it is clear that even St. Augustine does not embrace – for he does not believe in a sociopathic God) is incalculable. I have spent over 30 years of my life cleaning up the mess created in the hearts and minds of believers and non-believers by this perversion. I don’t take it personally – I take it existentially.

    God is love. This is not a statement that should be balanced. There is no “God is love,” but sometimes He hates us. “God is love,” but sometimes He tortures us. I can easily say, “God is love,” and in His love I may need to suffer hurt in order to be healed, just as I would need to suffer something in order to be cured of cancer. This is still love. There is no Divine Justice that of itself requires satisfaction. God does not need to be satisfied in any manner. God does not need, period.

    If God does not need these things, why should we posit that He does? Particularly when such things contradict love. There is no need to establish a “balance” in God.

  13. Philip Jude says

    Father,

    You write, “Why, if the mind of God is not to be understood as some mental perturbation, would you then posit a physical perturbation of creation as God’s wrath? All this would describe is a divine sociopath. God tortures us but has no perturbation.”

    I have two very simple question, the answers of which I think will get to the heart of our disagreement:

    1. Do you believe that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah; that He slew Korah and his followers; that He rained catastrophe upon Egypt?

    2. Do you believe that God afflicts mankind with pestilences, wars, and plagues?

  14. Philip Jude says

    I am interested in the specific application of your hermeneutic, Father.

    Consider this line of Scripture: “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11).

    If I understand your paradigm, you would interpret this verse something along the lines of: “Man is angry with God every day.” Is that correct?

    If so, I don’t understand why the inspired authors of Scripture were so “backwards,” speaking of God’s enmity toward sinners rather than sinners’ enmity toward God.

  15. St Nikolai Velimirovich says

    The unbelievers have girded for war against the Lord of heaven and earth — like dry leaves against the mountain wind! As long as the wind is soundless, one hears the rustling of the leaves. But once the wind begins to howl, it will scatter the leaves over the marshes and roadways, and left there, leaf upon leaf, they will perish like rumors and will be blinded with mud.

    For an unbeliever feels strong in a crowd and makes noise. In solitude fear and weakness devour him. But when a believer is in a crowd, he shares the weakness of the crowd, while in solitude he shares power with You; therefore solitude is his strength and his song.

    Against whom do you wage war, you lunatics? Is it against the One who kindles suns with His thought, and goads His flocks of suns and stars with His staff? Truly, it would be a less ridiculous war for the willows to declare war on the thunder, or for the bach fish to carry out a war against the awesome condors.

    You have forged weapons, with which you crush one another, and so you have risen up to battle against Him with the same weaponry. But behold, He can walk over your swords like soft moss. Nor is he intimidated by your fortresses any more than He is by your graves.

    You have concocted petty words, with which you insult and humiliate one another, and so you think that with your petty words you will humiliate the One who alone knows what a word is and whence it comes? Indeed, He created your vocal cords in your throat, and expanded your lungs beneath those cords, and cut open your mouth and attached your tongue in your mouth. Truly, it would be less ridiculous for a shepherd’s flute in a shop to rebel against its master craftsman, or for the strings on a harp to rebel against the hand that plucks them.

    You have declared war not against God but against yourselves, and God watches your suicide with compassion. Dry leaves are declaring war on wheels of iron!

    The more seriously you war against Him, the more unimpededly is He drawn out of you. The Lord withdraws His strength out of you, as well as His beauty, His health, His wisdom and His blessedness. This is the way the Most High Lord wars with His adversaries.

    What remains of you, embattled battlers, once the Lord has drawn out from you what is His? Does anything remain other than weakness, ugliness, sickness, madness and wretchedness? The Lord will not take from you anything of what is yours. And what is yours is weakness. And once He takes away His power, which you are abusing, He will leave you with your own sepulchral weakness, which can be neither used nor abused.

    The Lord will pull His health out of you, and your blood will be transformed into sweat, and your odor will be pleasing to worms, an odor that will cause cities to close their gates.

    The Lord will return His wisdom to Himself, and in your madness you will run through the groves, and quarrel with caves.

    The Lord will retract His blessedness and His peace to Himself, and even the springs will be frightened by your anxiety and will flee; and the vines in the hills will wither from your wretchedness, and the earth in the fields will return its fertility back to the earth.

    This is the way the Most High Lord wars with His adversaries.

    Like a child, He is powerless to do evil. He does not return evil for evil, for He is destitute when it comes to evil. Instead He merely gathers His good gifts and walks off with them, away from the one who gnashes his teeth at Him. And the Lord leaves the unbelievers to be by themselves. And they disintegrate like worm-eaten wood, from which the moisture has evaporated and throughout which worms wend their way for food, as through a deserted home.

    Thus does it also happen with a people, that declares war on the Life-Giver.

    I have told my people — remember: such is the victory of the Life-Giver, and such is the defeat of the godless.

    (from “Prayers by the Lake”, LXXXII)

  16. says

    PJ,
    Your questions do get at a difference and reveal much.
    1. You confuse the literal with historical. The question, “Do you believe that God destroyed…” is a historical question (more or less – at least that’s what I think you are asking). As a matter of history, it doesn’t matter what I believe. That is not an item of the faith. There are some things within Scripture, the historical nature of which do matter (such as the resurrection), but not everything.

    The literal, as used by the fathers, does not mean historical. It means, “What does the text say.” For instance, there is a literal level in the parables, though the parables are just stories, not historical events. In the parable of the prodigal son, it is important to understand that it is the younger son and what he does, and the elder son and what he does, etc. That’s simply grasping the literal level of the text. That’s why it is incorrect to place an icon of the parable out in the Church for veneration on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. We don’t venerate parables.

    Then the question becomes, what is the meaning of the parable. That raises the moral, allegorical and anagogical questions of meaning. The literal is not the meaning, it is the text. The text always comes first. But that does not mean that the historical comes first. If literal equals historical and it is to be a matter of “belief,” then only the young-earthers are believers. If you are a young earther, we have nothing to discuss.

    As to the question do I believe that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. I believe that is what the story says (that’s the literal). I have no way to know whether there was a historical Sodom and Gomorrah, and neither do you. That’s the nature of history. You can tell me that you believe it because it’s in the book, but that is Islam, not Christianity. And I can point to many things, I suspect, that you do not necessarily believe to be historically true. Do you believe that light did not refract through water (rainbow) before an event of a universal flood? Do you believe that 2 of every kind of animal on earth were in a boat of measurable proportions? Even the fathers did not require such a thing.

    The historical that you confuse with the literal is one aspect of modernism. I am not a modernist (with as much strength as I can muster). The modern angst is something that arose in response to the Enlightenment and the questions of historical-critical method. The new test of believers became, “Do you believe in the historical record of Scripture.” Then the test became, “How much of the history of Scripture do you believe.” This is a test within modernism, but not the deposit of the faith. It certainly is not what is professed in the RC Church today. If you disagree, then talk to Pope Benedict.

    I accept the teaching of the fathers viz. Sodom and Gomorrah and what it instructs. But questions like “history” is simply nonsense, a modernist distraction from the faith.

    Of course, there are things that happen (happened) that have importance in their historical aspect. The resurrection is one that I cited. And it is correct to say, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead,” or “who rose from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures” (meaning in accordance with the interpretation of Scripture). I believe that, but cannot prove it (nor can you). There are good reasons for believing it (trusting testimony I believe to be reliable and trusting the lives of those who have lived their lives based on their faith that this is true). There is also my own experience of the risen Christ (on some level). I have been to His tomb. It is, indeed, empty. But as far as historical research in the matter – that’s as far as you can get.

    Thus, if my Christian faith is determined by an acceptance of the Bible’s account of every “historical” event it records, then I will not and do not pass the test (as is true of many of the fathers). I accept the authority of Scripture, but do not think the “historical” account is what that authority is about. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah reveal the truth of God and man, if read through the lens of Christ. Without Christ you cannot arrive at the allegorical, tropological, or anagogical interpretations. BTW, the 4 ways of reading are useful shorthand, but not exhaustive.

    The historical method (of conservative Protestants) is to read as though the account is history, and to draw lessons and inferences from that fact. Thus you draw conclusions about the activity of God (and thus His nature) from these things. This is error, I believe. It is one of many Protestant errors. If you insist on pushing it back into the RC Church, then it is a RC error. But I think Rome does not profess this (maybe some version of internet Rome does – but not the Magisterium).

    As to your second question: I believe all things are sent from God. “Afflict” begs the question. I do not think God afflicts mankind with pestilences, wars and plagues. If that leaves you confused, then I have made some progress in our conversation.

  17. says

    Please, no caricature. I would understand that God is angry with the wicked every day. I don’t think (as Augustine agrees) that this statement tells me that God is perturbed with me (a wicked sinner) every day. However, my experience tells me that my life (and my inner life) run contrary to God’s work and will every day and that it is like trying to swim upstream. “God resists the proud,” thus I experience His wrath. He resists me in many ways, some of which are not very pretty. But I understand that I will continue to be spiritually exhausted and frustrated and that my life will be unmanageable if I continue to live in a wicked manner. This is God’s mercy. His anger and His mercy are not two things.

  18. Philip Jude says

    Father,

    Thank you for your very detailed and gracious response. Your words have been quite helpful. You never fail to provide interesting answers to tough questions. I will chew on this for a while. Have a good day and God bless.

  19. dee says

    Reading through this riveting conversation, it has once again become clear that the most perfectly constructed arguments based on readings and reasonings cannot ever compare to the experience of prayer…

    Father Stephen hit the nail on the head with these words:
    “The observations I make are not drawn from an ideology, but from the ascetical life of the Church.”

    “It is possible to read the fathers and think about the ideas of the Christian faith, but not to pray and repent like the fathers”

    “The teaching of the Church can only be appropriated from within, both within the Church and within the heart. It is there in the heart that we come to know the “severity” of God. It is not a philosophical concept”
    “If you do not know this yet, then you have not begun to pray”

    I repeat: perfectly constructed syllogisms based on readings and reasonings cannot ever stand against first-hand experience.

    PhilipJude,
    This is a most crucial point made time and again by Saint Silouan the Athonite, someone who met and KNEW God, someone who along with Saint John could speak with authority the words: “God is love” (not someone who read, synthesized and speculated ABOUT God)

  20. says

    Glory to Jesus Christ!

    Dear Philip Jude;
    I have enjoyed reading your very thoughtful comments, and have enjoyed Fr Stephen’s responses.

    For Great Lent I am re-reading “The Mystery of Christ: Life in death” by Fr John Behr. I highly recommend this little book to you. It clearly outlines how Orthodox Christians read the Holy Scriptures- particularly how the first Christians discovered the Apostolic Christ in the (O.T.) Scriptures.

    Really the entire book is a thorough response to your very thoughtful challenges to Fr Stephen’s theses.

    I see in Fr Stephen’s reading of Holy Scripture the beautiful image of a King.

    Love;
    -Mark Basil

  21. Philip Jude says

    If nothing else, when I feel my heart hardening, I will come to this blog and, in short order, its stony edges are softened by the intelligent and mild-mannered thoughts of Father Stephen. I cannot honestly say that I agree with him on all points, but if nothing else he offers up a welcome critique of lifeless, loveless mainstream western Christianity. I hope you are all having a good Lent.

  22. MichaelPatrick says

    I think the best way to know about the Father’s motives is to experience his Fatherhood by being his child wrapped in Christ and his church. I fail at this but keep trying and, fortunately, one result is that my former Protestant judgement-centered soteriology had to be recontextualized. In this light, some aspects of it have even disappeared because they always were mere phantoms to begin with. Convincing, but unreal nonetheless.

  23. says

    I love, Father, that you bring up the nature of this struggle: It *is* warfare. We have been so brainwashed in this society to think of Christianity as a religion of “peace” that we forget two things: It is the religion of the peace of Christ, not of this world (as our Lord pointed out), and, Christianity is a religion of war, because “spiritual warfare is warfare to the last breath.” I like that you don’t shy away from these things.

  24. María says

    Dear father,

    You said: “the peace that is theirs, the complete lack of self-consciousness are signals that you have come to a new country”…

    I need much help and guidance on this. I struggle with the seemingly paradox of becoming less self-conscious while fighting and paying attention to one’s inner life.

  25. Philip Jude says

    Father,

    I know you are very busy, but if you could contact me privately I would very much appreciate it.

    email hidden; JavaScript is required

  26. Rhonda says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Extremely well done with this topic & the comments. A wonderful help for Great Lent. Thank you.

  27. Andrew C says

    Excellent, thoughtful, intelligent, courteous and edifiying exchange of views: thank you to both Fr Stephen and to Philip Jude. Let him who is blessed be a blessing!