Fools for Christ – Remembering What Matters

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I have been viewing the movie, Ostrov, which I reviewed here, simply because watching it feeds me where watching something else would not. I think I have been particularly fed by mediatating on the actions of the character of Fr. Anatoly, who is something of a “fool for Christ.” He is not the most learned (not learned at all particularly) but he knows what a man must know: God. In that, he is a point of salvation and healing for those around him.

I think (some days more than others) about what I am doing as a priest – whether it is in my parish – in some of the diocesan or national responsibilities I’ve been given, and with this ministry of Glory to God for All Things, which, some days feeds me greatly. I like to write. But it is also good to stop and remember what I am doing lest I forget myself, or lest someone else think I am trying to do something I am not.

I am not the source of all the best Orthodox answers (many, many priests know far more than me). I can help point someone to such sources. My thoughts and writings, when confined to what feeds my soul, and what I myself know to be true through my own Christian life, have the possibility of feeding others. I fled, and still seek to flee, sites of great controversy, partly because (even though matters of great importance are discussed) I find there to be little light shed in such locations. I believe that in prayer, in studying Scripture, and in frequenting the sacraments of confession and communion, most hard questions will find their answers because the answer to all things is God. There can be no substitute for God.

Thus I think the most effective ministries always have something of the “fool” about them. The “fool” in the since that one is pointing beyond oneself and towards Christ. St. John the Baptist spoke correctly when he said, “He [Christ] must increase and I must decrease.” That answers most things. Within my first weeks of writing on this site I offered a short piece, “What matters.” I am reprinting it here (as our readership has increased more people – including me – need to read it or reread it). By your prayers, I will continue to write – daily as possible – about what matters. I usually write at the end of the day, because it is when my head seems most to clear. It is easier to pray and to think – and to write. May God bless all who visit the site with the apprehension in your own heart of what matters.

What Matters – first posted on October 19, 2006

God matters and what matters to God matters. I know that sounds very redundant, but I’m not sure how else I want to say it. There are many things that do not matter – because they do not matter to God. Knowing the difference between the two – what matters to God and what does not requires that we know God.

And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.

Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.

Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He is person. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.

It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

The Orthodox way of life is only about knowing God. Everything we do, whether it is prayer, communion, confession, forgiveness, fasting – all of it is about knowing God. If it is about something else, then it is delusion and a distraction from our life’s only purpose.

Knowing God is not a distraction from knowing other persons, nor is knowing other persons a distraction from knowing God. But, like God, knowing other persons is not the same thing as thinking about them, much less is it objectifying them.

Knowing others is so far from being a distraction from knowing God, that it is actually essential to knowing God. We cannot say we love God, whom we have not seen, and hate our brother whom we do see, St. John tells us. We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies (1 John 4:7-8).

And this matters.

This blog does not matter – except that I may share something that makes it possible for someone to know God or someone may share something that allows themselves to be known. This matters.

16 comments:

  1. Fr. you say “Knowing others is so far from being a distraction from knowing God, that it is actually essential to knowing God. We cannot say we love God, whom we have not seen, and hate our brother whom we do see, St. John tells us. We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies (1 John 4:7-8).”

    I am beginning to suspect that my friends and my enemies are the same people. What makes an enemy? Is it not that their sin impacts me in a way that I feel is negative or that they do not do what I want when I want it? Are my “friends” any less sinful? It is possible that my own sin created my enemies. (Please though this cannot be extrapolated onto the geo-political stage in case anyone is tempted to do so).

    I have long noticed that I do all that I can to keep people as far from as as possible from me even though I call them friends. Because of my fear of death, betrayal, disappointment and pure selfishness, it is only a matter of a degree between a friend and and enemy.

    It struck me one Sunday when my priest came out and said “Forgive those who love me and those who hate me” that I have done both or am capable of doing both at the same time. He was talking to me about me.

    As I have continued allowing this minor ephiphany to sink in, I have found it much easier to pray for those who have done me harm or my friends harm. I also keep remembering the part of Psalm 50 that says, “…Against thee only have I sinned and done evil in Thy sight…” That seems to suggest that no one has sinned against me so who am I to hold a grudge, that just ties me to that sin and foments the same sin or worse in my own heart.

    Forgiveness comes from and through the Cross: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” applies equally to all of us.

  2. The confusion in our hearts (they are not pure) frequently makes little distinction between friend and enemy – even God can feel like both. We both love Him and are drawn to Him, and we also hate Him and flee from before His face. His patience towards us and His mercy alone make it possible for us to exist before Him, I am sure.

  3. “The Orthodox way of life is only about knowing God. Everything we do, whether it is prayer, communion, confession, forgiveness, fasting – all of it is about knowing God.”

    To be honest, I think I’m “punching air” most of the time when it comes to “knowing God”. I have to say, with a snicker of course, that when I asked you to write about experiencing God that the last thing I wanted to hear was ascesis because I stink at it so bad.

    In our former delusions many claimed to “know God”, and there was an element of circumscribability to their words. Since Orthodoxy approaches this in an uncircumscribable way…. let me ask you some impossible questions: What is it to know God as “person”? What is the “content” of such “knowledge”? Since there is more than one person in God, is there any relation between knowing God as person and the fact that there are multiple persons in the Trinity, or am I just confusing categories? How does one know that they are not in self-delusion when they actually think they are getting to know God?

    I read these monks of the Church, guys who have spent decades continually in prayer and have even seen the uncreated Light, and these guys are just undone and remorseful about how slothful they were in their approach to this very subject. It makes me wonder if there is hope for an overburdened layman like myself.

  4. Ostrov is indeed a wonderful movie: and much profit coems from it.

    “Knowing others is so far from being a distraction from knowing God, that it is actually essential to knowing God” — Amen; it is something I need to take to heart. May God help us all.

  5. Don, I too feel as you often, if not most of the time. I am brought up short from such self-defeating rumminations by the very words that ended my last post. “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”

    We pray for His mercy not becasue He is hard, but because we are. The more we do so with as much honesty as we can muster, the better off we will be when we finally get our chance to meet Him face to face.

    Ultimately we must all rest in the fact that God forgives and trust in that so that we will not turn away from Him in fear.

  6. Well Michael, it’s comforting to know I’m not alone. So far, the following is what I know about “knowing God”:

    A. I don’t know Him.

    B. Knowledge of God is extremely rare. I could count on the fingers of one hand those that are pulling this off. Everybody acknowledges its importance, but that is as far as they go. They then move to the end and claim they have it, thereby deluding themselves, because they don’t want to admit they don’t know God and don’t want to put forth the effort that it takes.

    C. Ascesis is the starting point. I suspect the reason is that it is to get “me” out of the way. Anybody who wants to substitute something else for ascesis you should run from. If you’re actually serious about ascesis; duck, because temptation, despair, and a whole host of other obstacles are coming your way. I would include sacraments as a subset of ascesis, at least when it comes to the topic of knowing God; frequent Confession and Communion heading the list.

    D. I need to know myself to have a shot at this thing. At some point I would recognize “God in me” in coming to know God.

    E. I can “see” God in others…… my relation to others is essential in this process.

    F. Pick a person that you think knows God the most. If you went to that person and told them you think they know God better than anybody you happen to know; they would call you crazy. I think this proves that humility is essential to this enterprise. In Matthew 25, the goats all thought they had it made, and the sheep were shocked to find they had it all along.

    G. This is hard. It takes EVERYTHING.

    H. As Fr. Stephen says above, knowing God comes by grace: meaning, it is not a result of mechanical process but God condescending to reveal Himself.

    Such is my limited knowledge in knowing God. I feel like a mountainclimber looking up from the bottom of a mountain larger than Everest. The way up the mountain starts with ascesis, and I can’t get past my own laziness. I want an easier way, but I know such ways lead to delusion.

  7. Don,
    Amen. It is by grace. Along with you I fear anything that treats knowing God as a mechanical process – it would mean God had been objectified and was to be experienced in some manner that would mean He is not a personal God.
    Ascesis and the sacraments (and the “Golden” Way) of forgiving everyone, are the ways pointed to for us. My own limited experience says that we start small (starting big is just a ticket to failing quicker). And when we fail even at small things, we get up and keep going.
    The importance is, as you noted, the Scriptures themselves say its important, equating eternal life itself with knowledge of the true God. And it is taught as the heart of Orthodox teaching and life (cf. St. Gregory Palamas).
    It has the good effect of directing our Orthodox attention where it should be (God) and of teaching us humility as we inevitably fall down repeatedly. The little book by Tito Colinader, which can be found serialized on the net, is probably the shortest best summary I’ve every read. I’ll post the link here shortly. The book is the Way of the Ascetics.

  8. Don, on the details you ask – which I’d suggest coliander’s book rather than me…I think we go slow, we pray, we fail, we pray and fast, and fail, etc., perhaps learning humility as we go. The Scriptures say that we know that we know God in that we love the brethren (to which I might add also that we love our enemies) it is the fruit of knowing God.

    We know Him as person, but not at all in a shallow way that is frequently spoken of in many American religious circles. The likelihood and even normative knowledge of God, is a knowledge that itself goes beyond words. But the knowledge of God changes us.

    It is slow and the work of a lifetime, day by day, and, indeed as you say, we come to know ourselves, which includes that indeed we are the chief of sinners, etc. But indeed, not doing this, is to make of Orthodoxy something it is not and is delusional itself. The hard slow work of ascesis helps defeat delusion precisely because we are so bad at it. Thus, it’s a lot harder to kid ourselves.

  9. Oh noooooo!!!!!!

    Tito begins by saying, “……..arise from your lethargy”. I’m doomed! 🙂

    Looks like a good read.

  10. I take great comfort in the story of paralytic whose friends brought him to Christ. We need the prayers of others–one of the reason being in the Church is so important.

    We haven’t failed until we stop trying.

  11. I should add, that though there are a number of other resources on the site with Coliander’s book, I cannot endorse everything there and do not mean to. But Coliander’s work is SVS Press last time I checked.

  12. The motif of the “fool for Christ” is one that I’ve struggled to understand for quite some time. It’s become even more important in recent years as we’ve struggled to be parents to a child with autism and to show hospitality to other families with similar trials. In a way, living with disability (and in a household with a disabled child) is its own ascesis. I hope and pray that it is a way for us to know God.

    I especially like the way Peter Bouteneff concludes his essay “What Kind of Fool am I?” in the festschrift for Bp KALLISTOS:

    “Don’t be a iurodivy [fool], the Church says, but like him be a prophet. Be intellectually pure and humble. Be a person of prayer. Check your conformity, shun ideologies, and tell the truth.”

    We deeply appreciate your truth-telling. Please remember us in your prayers.

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