A very fine essay by Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA on essential practices of the spiritual life can be found among the abbatial essays on the website of the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. It is worth the read – even worth printing out and saving…
…One of the things which is so difficult to come to terms with is the reality that when we bear anger and resentment and bitterness in our hearts, we erect barriers to God’s grace within ourselves. It’s not that God stops giving us His grace. It’s that we say, “No. I don’t want it.” What is His grace? It is His love, His mercy, His compassion, His activity in our lives. The holy Fathers tell us that each and every human person who has ever beenborn on this earth bears the image of God undistorted within themselves. In our Tradition there is no such thing as fallen nature. There are fallen persons, but not fallen nature. The implication of this truth is that we have no excuses for our sins. We are responsible for our sins, for the choices we make. We are responsible for our actions, and our reactions. “The devil made me do it” is no excuse, because the devil has no more power over us than we give him. This is hard to accept, because it is really convenient to blame the devil. It is also really convenient to blame the other person, or our past. But, it is also a lie. Our choices are our own.
On an even deeper level, this spiritual principle – do not react – teaches us that we need to learn to not react to thoughts. One of the fundamental aspects of this is inner watchfulness. This might seem like a daunting task, considering how many thoughts we have. However, our watchfulness does not need to be focused on our thoughts. Our watchfulness needs to be focused on God. We need to maintain the conscious awareness of God’s presence. If we can maintain the conscious awareness of His presence, our thoughts will have no power over us. We can, to paraphrase St. Benedict, dash our thoughts against the presence of God. This is a very ancient patristic teaching. We focus our attention on the remembrance of God. If we can do that, we will begin to control our troubling thoughts. Our reactions are about our thoughts. After all, if someone says something nasty to us, how are we reacting? We react first through our thinking, our thoughts. Perhaps we’re habitually accustomed to just lashing out after taking offense with some kind of nasty response of our own. But keeping watch over our minds so that we maintain that living communion with God leaves no room for distracting thoughts. It leaves plenty of room if we decide we need to think something through intentionally in the presence of God. But as soon as we engage in something hateful, we close God out. And the converse is true – as long as we maintain our connection to God, we won’t be capable of engaging in something hateful. We won’t react…
A question I have always wondered about is if a person dies before he becomes a fallen person, for instance a child in the womb, is he or she in need of God;s mercy and if so why?
Everyone is in need of God’s mercy – which is the equivalent of saying we are in need of God’s love. We exist by the mercy and grace of God (our existence is a gift). Even without sin we are not yet what we were created to be. In that sense, even the child in the womb is fallen. But this mostly has significance if you are thinking of sin as a legal burden – and sin is not legal – it is a disordered existence (or something like that). We need God’s mercy and grace because we are not what we shall be – utterly conformed to the image of His beloved Son. And when we are that image, we will be sustained as such by the mercy and grace of God.
Thanks Father, that was a good explaination, I see it very much like you described.
Metropolitan chrysologus. Thanks.
There are fallen persons, but not fallen nature. The implication of this truth is that we have no excuses for our sins.
I find that way of putting the matter radically muddled. It logically implies that are no factors mitigating anybody’s culpability for objectively sinful acts, and that we as persons are responsible for any and every state of spiritual disorder which needs healing and transformation in Christ. Since both of those consequences are false, Metropolitan Jonah should rephrase the quoted statement.
i find the statement to be true. i find it easy for us, including myself, to continue sinning instead of truly changing, and making excuses and finding justifications. i believe we have consequences for a reason–hopefully to see our sins for what they are. for example, an addiction will finally kill us if we don’t change our behavior. we are our own worst enemy!! our choices are our own–a very wise statement.
Michael, all of which would be true if Met. Jonah were thinking in forensic terms, which he is not. As an existential matter, culpability doesn’t make a difference. I don’t really care about culpability – it’s the junk (consequences, etc.) that I’m living with that matter. If it’s killing me, it’s still killing me.
(forgive me) I think of Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’:
“Up here next to me in this lonely room,
lives a man who says he’s not to blame.
All day long I hear him cry so loud,
Calling out that he’s been framed.”
Indeed, the mystical theology of many of the fathers in Orthodoxy would push matters even further. Dostoevsky’s Fr. Zossima (very much in line with tradition) says that “Each man is guilty of the sins of the whole world.” This makes no sense in a forensic approach – but makes complete sense in an existential or ontological account (which is the more common Eastern approach).
It’s radical, but it’s not muddled. It’s really the truth of things.
I recall a small film (actually a R.C. film) in which a man accidentally ran over a young girl and landed her in the hospital. He is deeply grieved but is told by the police and his lawyer that it’s not his fault. It continues to interfere with his life. His relationship with his girlfriend suffers. He cannot sleep.
He goes to see his doctor who says, “Have you thought of going to the girl and asking her forgiveness?”
In anger the man replies, “But it’s not my fault! The police and my attorneys say it’s not my fault.”
The doctor replies, “Fine. Then legally you should be able to sleep at night.”
That pretty much sums up what I think about forensic questions and sin. My life is not a legal problem. Sin is not a legal problem (culpability is a legal problem). I am entangled with the sins of everyone and everything. And until we know that this is true we will find many intractable problems in our spiritual lives.
One of Fr. Thomas Hopko’s children once sported a lapel button that read, “It’s my parent’s fault.” To which Fr. Thomas said, “Yes, it’s true. But now that you know it, it’s your problem.”
Fr. Zossima’s statement that “Each man is guilty of the sins of the whole world.” is an example to me of the great insight that Dostoyevsky had. It’s how I see my own participation in the “original sin’.
The Orthodox understanding of human nature is something that has attracted me, as an evangelical seminarian, to Orthodoxy and it is something that I am still trying to understand clearly. In a Protestant understanding of human nature we each sin because we are fallen. We are in this state from birth and ultimately would have no choice in the matter because our nature is fallen.
From what Fr. Jonah has written I understand that we each have a choice and continue to have a choice throughout our life but what is the orthodox answer to why we all tend to choose to sin. Is it the world around us that affects us and leads us initially into sin? I am wondering if because we are all born to parents who have fallen into sin we are then raised in sin? We thus learn to sin and must unlearn.
The Orthodox writings on this tend to use “nature” in the same manner it is used in Christology (the two natures of Christ, etc.). I sometimes think that the West (particularly some forms of Protestantism) used “nature” in an unguarded way.
The nature of something is the same as its “ousia” its essence. It is what makes something what it is. A man has a human nature. A cow, a cow nature. If the nature were somehow changed, it would be impossible for us to do what a human should do. Nature is what you are and what you are intended to be.
The great theologian in this, for the East, is St. Maximus the Confessor, who wrote most of what becomes the conciliar decisions for the 5th and 6th Councils.
An extremely short summary (forgive me, St. Maximus). Maximus, and thus the Church in her Councils, teaches that every nature has its “natural will,” that which we want by nature. A human being (not fallen) should naturally do what his nature wants (without decision, to a degree).
What happens in the fall, according to Maximus, is a disruption within us. There is a rupture between our nature and our person (the unique self). Maximus described this rupture as the appearance of the “gnomic will” (more or less, the opinioned will). Instead of doing what is according to nature, we broke from our nature and acted contrary to it.
What is our state at present is that this will sometimes does things according to nature and sometimes not. What is broken in us is the fundamental integrity and union that should be ours. There’s so much more to say on this – and so much more than I can speak of competently. Andrew Louth has a good book on St. Maximus – and there are others. I also recommend Meyendorff’s Christ in Eastern Christian Thought.
Our union with Christ in Baptism, etc. is the beginning of the healing of this loss of fundamental integrity. The image that is being renewed in us restores us increasingly into the wholeness that is proper to being human – and also unites us to God – which has always been God’s intention for us.
Some of this is reflected in Romans 7. “The good I want to do” (the natural will), I do not do (this is the result of the gnomic will).
Maximus treats all of this with far more subtlety than I have here – with sufficient nuance to truly reflect the interior life of a human being. The problem with the “fallen nature” theology of some strains of thought is its almost entirely forensic or legal character – failing to do justice to what it actually is like to be a human being. Everything is externalized. Even my sin is treated like an external legal problem (even if it is forgiven by grace). Whereas we do not experience sin as a legal problem – but as an existential reality (as Paul agonizingly describes in Romans 7). I do not have a legal problem. I have a problem with death (the wages of sin is death). It is death working in me – this fundamental disruption that has broken my communion with God and thus with the Lord and Giver of Life.
I hope this is a wee bit helpful. Louth, Meyendorff – they’ll be much more helpful.
I’m glad you posted this Fr. Stephen. I discovered it not long after Met. Jonah became our metropolitan. I read it several times during Great Lent this year, and it appears to become part of my regular spiritual reading, particularly before I go to Confession. I even formatted it for my Kindle…
Father – something bad has happened! Your post has appeared with Google Ads
right under it! Have never seen this kind of intrusion before on you blogsite…
I don’t see them. But I’ll be on the watch. I’ve changed passwords in hope of correcting this. Let me know if it persists, please.
Perhaps I’m dense, Father. Karl asked, “…what is the orthodox answer to why we all tend to choose to sin. Is it the world around us that affects us and leads us initially into sin? I am wondering if because we are all born to parents who have fallen into sin we are then raised in sin? We thus learn to sin and must unlearn.” You responded to his entire question, but I still do not grasp what you would say “leads us initially into sin.”
Would you expand on that, please?
I would like to ask you something in a private email. I understand if you don’t want to give out your email. Perhaps I could give you mine?
Not a lot of secrets here.
forgive Fr. i completely ignored the title of the essay.
and on that note, the contents there in
“Do Not Resent Do Not React Keep Inner Stillness,” the essay recommended by Steve, is worth reading more than one time. In fact it is the sort of thing that would be a good primary meditation for a week long directed retreat.
Who is the person sitting with Metropolitan Jonah? I tried to find the photograph online but could not.
Met. Jonah is sitting beside His Holiness, Kyril, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia (to use his full title). It was the occasion of Met. Jonah’s first primatial visit to the Russian Church. They are in the Cathedral of Christ our Savior in Moscow. I have a set of pictures from that visit that I downloaded from the Metropolitan’s laptop last year.
Father, if you have time, would you go back to Karl’s question?
Karl asked, “…what is the orthodox answer to why we all tend to choose to sin. Is it the world around us that affects us and leads us initially into sin? I am wondering if because we are all born to parents who have fallen into sin we are then raised in sin? We thus learn to sin and must unlearn.” You responded to his entire question, but I still do not grasp what you would say “leads us initially into sin.”
You did write: “What happens in the fall, according to Maximus, is a disruption within us. There is a rupture between our nature and our person (the unique self). Maximus described this rupture as the appearance of the “gnomic will” (more or less, the opinioned will). Instead of doing what is according to nature, we broke from our nature and acted contrary to it. What is our state at present is that this will sometimes does things according to nature and sometimes not. What is broken in us is the fundamental integrity and union that should be ours.”
So that’s what happens, but how/why does that (always) happen?
Would you expand on that, please?
I very good talk on the topic is Fr. Thomas Hopko’s Sin: Primordial, Generational, Personal. For one, he illustrates the point very well that we cannot point to one thing alone that initiates sin. Certainly we are born “broken.” We are not born with a burden of inherited guilt – but are born with a dysfunctionality that makes us prone to sin. Hopko speaks about this in 3 categories. In primordial sin (Adam and the fallen world) we inherit a world of death and dying that is out of communion with God. In such a world, it is easy to sin and not sinning is a struggle. In generational sin, we can speak about the particular inheritance (both genetic and behavioral) which also makes us prone to sin. For instance, it is quite possible to inherit a propensity for alcoholism. That doesn’t mean you’ll become an alcoholic or that if you do become one that you must drink – it just means that the “hand you were dealt” contains some cards that are not in every hand and that you’ll have particular struggles in your life that have likely marked generations of your family. I also believe that this works the other way (as does Hopko) and that we can speak of “generational righteousness,” that are equally important things given to us, including environment and the grace that fills a family’s life. Hopko notes that it is not unusual for saints to occur in “clusters.” St. Basil the Great’s family is an excellent example. His parents are saints. His siblings are saints. His best friend, St. Gregory the Theologian is a saint. In early Orthodox Britain there were something like 28 canonized saints within a royal family over the course of several generations. Such examples could be multiplied.
And then there is personal sin – my own refusal to cooperate with the grace given me and instead a cooperation with the sinful propensities that surround me: primordial, generation, environmental, genetic, historic, etc.
My own meditations about sin are that what is most surprising is that we have not destroyed ourselves. Given how broken the world is, and how broken we ourselves are, we nevertheless survive and there are startling moments of sheer goodness and true sainthood. As evil as the holocaust was – it would be easy to assume that such evil would destroy all with whom it came in contact. It did untold damage. And yet, even there, saints could be found – apart from the grace of God such things cannot be accounted for (to my mind). The same could be said of the Gulags.
I am not very surprised by sin – but I am always surprised and delighted by kindness (in all its forms – from the least to greatest).
As to Maximus’ loss of fundamental integrity – this is the condition of death that is at work in us. We come into existence with this disruption. Nothing less than resurrection ultimately corrects it.
that is a great explanation, Father. Thank you.
Indeed it is a great explanation. Father, thank you for your time and insight.
Looks like the link to the full article is broken. A corrected link should be this: https://monasteryofstjohn.org/documents/abbatialessays/Do_not_react.pdf (I hope.)