A Gifted Existence

0915-olsorrowYou cannot give thanks for what has not been given to you.

This simple maxim goes to the heart of the Christian life. If I steal your money and burn down your house, I cannot offer thanks for what I have done. It was not given to me from God.

Anything that is not a gift has the nature of sin.

I can give thanks to God that He meets me in the midst of my sin and saves me, but I cannot give thanks for the sin itself for God is not the author of sin.

What I am describing here are the simple parameters of a eucharistic existence. We were created to give thanks. This is the paramount vocation of human beings, the meaning of the assertion that we are “kings and priests.”

We learn in the Eucharist itself that the giving of thanks is the primary means of communion with God. Communion with God is the ground of all being. It is the true means of our existence and eternal life. The Elder Zacharias of Essex has said that worship should be understood as an “exchange.” God gives to us, and we give to God. But what can we give to God? We give Him thanks. The Scriptures refer to this as the “sacrifice of praise.”

For You are the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and to You we ascribe glory…

From the moment of our conception we are living a gift. Our biology represents an inheritance that reaches to the very beginning of life. It comes as the fruit of every story that participated in that miraculous chain. Our culture comes as inheritance. The words of our language are themselves similar to our biology. They carry a linguistic DNA that extends to the very first word ever spoken.

The Church has a simple word for this gifting: tradition. Tradition does not mean “the way things have always been done.” Rather, it means “that which has been handed down.” Existence is itself a tradition, and the most precious. We must understand that tradition is not a choice; it is a given. Indeed, it is THE given. All existence is a tradition. There can only be the grateful acceptance of the gift or the refusal to acknowledge it. But we cannot forego the gift.

Those who destroy life and parade their “power of choice,” are simply ungrateful. But they speak with words that were gifted to them and breathe air that is not their own. They eat food they did not create and enjoy the light of day while refusing others the chance to see it. They live as the anti-eucharist, and, as such, they refuse to live. They have made an alliance with the darkness of non-being and the idolatry of self. Evil has grasped their souls.

Every thought or action that is not, finally, an offering of thanksgiving, participates in the drunken and stumbling journey towards death. We are not only creatures who can give thanks, we are creatures whose sole purpose is marked by the offering of thanks.

Every act of love participates in thanksgiving. Love is the emptying of self towards the other. It is a gift of what has been given to us. When fear enters our minds we draw back from such giving, thinking that if we risk such an offering we will somehow disappear into the emptiness. But, perfect love, true and complete love, casts out fear. Fear is the voice of the void, the cry of a false existence.

The teaching of Christ consistently draws us away from fear. We are told:

Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against the love of plenty; life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luk 12:15)

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luk 6:38)

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luk 6:35 )

Such statements are not mere encouragements towards morality. They are statements about the very nature of true existence. Our lives move towards non-being when they become mired in fear and driven by acquisition. That movement is marked by death, decay and corruption.

The same fear moves us towards pride (“love of self”) and the need to dominate.

Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactors.’ But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luk 22:25-26)

The psychological drive to control is the product of fear. Every organization has witnessed such personalities. Local parishes are often terrorized by them. They stifle joy and set in motion the dance of death as fear breeds fear and violence begets violence. You cannot achieve good things through evil means. You cannot control a situation into goodness. Only giving and generosity have a share in the fruitful abundance that is the tradition of life.

If your life is riddled with fear, give something away. Perfect love casts out fear.

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. (1Jo 4:18-1)

In St. John’s words we see the true flow of tradition. We love God because He first loved us. We give because all that we have has been given to us. This is the Great Tradition without which no other action can be called “traditional.”

This Great Tradition is the hymn of the Church and the song of the universe. Live like you mean it.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

32 comments:

  1. Bravo, our friend. I really like this piece. I especially love this part, “From the moment of our conception we are living a gift. Our biology represents an inheritance that reaches to the very beginning of life. It comes as the fruit of every story that participated in that miraculous chain. Our culture comes as inheritance. The words of our language are themselves similar to our biology. They carry a linguistic DNA that extends to the very first word ever spoken.”

  2. Father, this article ties together many things that belong together, things that are always fragmented in the absence of true Christian vision. May the holy Saint and Protomartyr Stephen give us a glimpse of his vision!

    Thank you again and again for succinct, clear and life giving words.

  3. Fr Stephen,

    “Anything that is not a gift has the nature of sin.”

    Are profits a gift from God? Can I give God thanks for the profits I make?

  4. Psalm 51

    16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

    17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

    I have often wondered about the relationship between the “sacrifice of praise” and the “sacrifices of… a broken and a contrite heart” (Psalm 51: 16, 17).

    Fr. Stephen, would you respond as to how the Orthodox (you) would characterize this relationship? Many thanks.

  5. Thanks Father for a very moving piece–a great help for me as i stumble towards Orthodoxy. The explanation of tradition was very helpful. It brought to mind “Help us, save us, have mercy on us and keep us Oh God by Thy grace.”

  6. Those who destroy life and parade their “power of choice,” are simply ungrateful. But they speak with words that were gifted to them and breathe air that is not their own. They eat food they did not create and enjoy the light of day while refusing others the chance to see it. They live as the anti-eucharist, and, as such, they refuse to live. They have made an alliance with the darkness of non-being and the idolatry of self. Evil has grasped their souls.
    How true these words ring. The Pro Choice movement is based in the total commitment to Self above all others. What is most striking about being a sidewalk counselor outside a clinic is the hatred that exudes from so many of the faces that enter the clinic. I cannot help but think they hate the light we represent because often we have said nothing when they begin to react. Thank you father for another good and thought provoking article.

  7. Robert, the phrase “profits I make” shows the tendency towards sin in that it focuses on me and what I do as opposed to what I have received. It’s basically like Bart Simpson’s “prayer” which went (I paraphrase), “Thanks for this food that I provided by the work of my hands–so, thanks for nothing. Amen.”

    Profits are gifts in that they extend from the gifts that God has given us in both ability and material. Be thankful not that “I” made them but that God has provided them in a life He gave us. It’s a matter of focus; do we only see ourselves or do we see the interconnectedness of things that God has provided? I hope this helps somewhat. God bless.

  8. Sharon,
    Good question. A “broken and contrite heart” describes the true state of the heart when it is not being held hostage to sin. Many people think of these things as a kind of sadness about what we have done wrong. But I would point out that God Himself is humble. The Mother of God, we Orthodox believe to be free from sin, but she was humble and broken before God, saying, “Be it done to me according to your word.”

    That state of the heart is the same state that recognizes all things as a gift and gives thanks. To give thanks, always and for all things is the surest path to sanctity.

  9. Fr Stephen/Byron,

    Thank you. I thought that in light of the previous post (“Understanding Evil and Doing Good”) and the exchange in the comments there, profits (and giving thanks for them!) would be seen as problematic.

  10. Sharon,

    The relationship of those two (“sacrifice of praise” and “sacrifice of a broken and a contrite heart” is a very pertinent one. This really is a most vital subject in the spiritual life.
    The ‘broken and contrite heart’ is just on the other side of ‘sacrifice of praise’ on the same coin. It becomes clearer when we consider that the greater one’s (healthy) awareness of their unworthiness, the greater their gratitude for everything, including [the relatively lesser-than-what-they-believe-they-deserve] troubles that might befall them; the more intense their understanding of the dependency of their being to God, the more powerful the Eucharistic sense of the giftedness of everything becomes for them.

  11. Father, what do we make of things like disease—God made (as microorganisms) but entities which destroy us, take our freedom, and steal life? I’m not looking for a theodicy, but I have honest difficulty understanding the role of such created things.

  12. Dana,
    Shy of a theodicy, they exist to live just as we do. Sometimes they eat us, sometimes we eat them. As for many disease, not caused by micro-organisms, they are simply death, which is with us until the End. But Christ has trampled down death by death and made it not a defeat for us, but the door to greater life.

    My Father-in-law walked in the reality of giving thanks for all things, about as completely as I’ve ever heard. I died giving thanks for the cancer that was killing him. He did it, he said, because God is good, and he trusted Him. I think if we learn to look at God, we can see such things. The Three Young Men are a great example (and one of my Father-in-Law’s favorites). “No this, O King. Our God is able to deliver us! But if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down to your idol.”

    My Father-in-law said that their “nevertheless” was among the most important words in the Scriptures.

  13. Dino, I have heard also in regard to Sharon’s question that giving thanks to God leads a person into contrition of heart and tears. As we cannot simply give enough worthy thanks to God, thanksgiving can be an inexhaustible source of contrition and tears

  14. Father,

    What was the Fall? Was this the origin of death? Do you believe that God would still have clothed Himself in flesh even if there had been no Fall?

  15. Wordsmyth,
    Well, that’s some serious speculation. But yes I do think God would have become flesh regardless. It was always His intention. But there can be no question of “if there had been no fall.” That’s asking about a world we do not live in. God always saw the Fall. He was not surprised. He didn’t cause it, but He knew it.

    The origin of death is not really clear. That we became subject to death is clear. The Cappadocians actually held to a notion of us falling “into this world” and place Paradise more or less outside of this world. It’s actually in St. Basil’s Liturgy. They didn’t make a big deal of it, but that’s how they did it. It makes the Fall something that is somewhat “outside of our space and time.” So that all of the historical character of the Fall that many get tied in knots about becomes somewhat irrelevant.

    When God made the world “subject to futility,” was that a proleptic action? I think it was. The world has always behaved in its present manner – but it has always been in view of the Fall.

    That’s something different to chew on…if you will.

  16. Father,

    that’s one of the most brilliantly pithy clarifications of the relationship of death and the fall…

  17. I have often thought about the verses in Genesis when God is speaking to Adam about Death. I wonder Father, would you comment on the following explanation that I have arrived at through reading, prayer and study.
    I learned Greek in Seminary and I began to see that perhaps there is a viable explanation for what Death is in Scripture and what causes it. My thought was further clarified by realizing the fullness of what the Lord was saying in John 6:46: “No one has ever seen the Father except He who is from God…”
    From my lessons in Greek I learned that Greek has two words for life βίος and ζωὴ. The first, βίος is biological in nature and refers to the biochemical process we mistake for true life. The Holy Spirit is called the Zwopoio.n the maker or doer of life and ζωὴ which is spiritual life. This is true life.
    The Lord said: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and the word is Scripture for Life is ζωὴ. As Adam saw God then it is reasonable to assume he was seeing the Son as Lossky says that the Son is uniquely of the Trinity the One that Creatures can see. Adam chose to disobey and cut himself off from the Life and thereby died spiritually.
    As such, true Death, the Death of the spirit, occurred in man as a self inflicted wound through disobedience much as if one picked up a lit table lamp and tried to walk beyond the reach of the cord. The results are sure, the plug is pulled from the source of power/life and the light dies. So we, through disobedience, have walked away from the Way, the Truth and the Life and only by repentance and forgiveness through confession can we return.
    It also explains how the Lord can speak of those who will never die and yet their bodies died. He was speaking of spiritual not physical death. By rising from the Dead as Man, He also destroyed Death because Her removed the power of spiritual death over Man.

  18. An excellent piece that again reminds me how practical our faith is. “If your life is riddled with fear, give something away.” Orthodoxy is the manual to the human being; if only on those grounds alone it shows its empirical superiority to its purported alternatives.

  19. A number of your posts have led me to wonder if you could elaborate on something Fr. Hopko, of blessed memory, included in his 55 maxims: Be an ordinary person. So much of the modern project seems to be saying that doing the “ordinary” (accepting your body as it was given to you; having children, etc) is not enough. Lake Wobegon’s children who are all above average comes to mind.

    So, there is much angst about becoming fulfilled through career or being creatively unique. People seem to have lost the ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary–a child’s smile, a cloud, etc. The Glory and poetry in all things becomes invisible in our desperate quest to be different from everyone else.

    The other theme that comes to mind is the beauty of the animal world’s acceptance of themselves. That sounds a bit silly. However, there are so many people who say that animals are equal to or better than humans–without actually pondering the gift they could give us: accepting, as gift, who they are. In a strange twist, I suspect that much of the current fashion to “re-make” ourselves (gender, sexuality, etc) could actually be attributed to a kind of hate of our bodies–as given. In the guise of choice and love of our bodies–is this great level of hate. There’s a big disconnect here between the adulation of animals–and an unwillingness to see that their “way” is a model, in some sense, of how we are to be as well. The difference is that they have no choice–but, we increasingly do. Like a huge mall of choices to make–we consume ourselves into total confusion and despair, blaming our dissatisfaction on everyone else.

  20. This struck me: “Those who destroy life and parade their “power of choice,” are simply ungrateful. But they speak with words that were gifted to them and breathe air that is not their own. They eat food they did not create and enjoy the light of day while refusing others the chance to see it. They live as the anti-eucharist, and, as such, they refuse to live. They have made an alliance with the darkness of non-being and the idolatry of self. Evil has grasped their souls.”

    A few weeks ago when the Shout your Abortion thing was going around, I read the story of the woman who coined the phrase. It was on Salon. I was left with the conclusion that this woman doesn’t understand what she is missing and that she is a prisoner to her own sense of freedom. I don’t think I could have seen that without having a child myself. Our daughter is 4 months old and will need open heart surgery next week. She has Down’s Syndrome and this is one of the complications. She also has mild hearing loss already. If my wife and I would have decided to abort when we learned she had Down’s (which some statistics say happen 90%+ of the time), we could be “free” of her heart surgery and “free” of the concerns for her hearing and other health complications that may arise. But what a hollow existence that would be. She has brought us so much joy; and so much to our parish. I wouldn’t trade that to be “free” of the perceived difficulty that comes with navigating the health complications she has. Those who think they are free because they’ve had an abortion have no clue what they’re not experiencing. And that is tragic.

  21. Napoleonsays,
    I had not heard about the “shout out your abortion” when I wrote this, and learn of it now with great sorrow. The priests of abortion (feminist clergy are very much in the lead) are leading others into a very great darkness. May God have mercy on them, and meet them in their hell. We must go there,too, in order to show them the way back to the Light.

  22. It is something we do primarily in prayer. We make ourselves responsible for their sins before God, and there we pray for His mercy. We must not deny the solidarity we have as human beings simply because of someone’s sin. Christ “became sin” that we might become His righteousness. And we are invited to do the same. We cannot stand aloof.

  23. Sharon,
    Metropolitan Anthony Bloom had this pertinent word on the connection of the sense of thankfulness and the sense of contrition in one of his homilies:

    Can we truly say that we do consider ourselves the worst of all sinners? John of Kronstadt in his “Diary” makes a point which I believe is very important; he says that he also asks himself this very question, and he can answer it in all honesty, because, he says, if others had been given so much love, so much grace, so much Divine revelation as was given to him, they would have borne fruit which he proved unable to bear…

    … Yes, we all are aware of being sinners, more or less; but are we aware of how much we have received from God and how little fruit we have borne? It is only if we see vividly, clearly, the contrast between all that was possible, indeed – all that is possible, and all that we are, that we can honestly say such words…

    … passing judgement on ourselves, we can say truly, “God, o God! How much you have given me, and how little fruit I have borne! If anyone had been given what you gave me, he would already be a Saint of God”. Amen.

  24. Dino,

    Those comments by Metropolitan Bloom seem to presuppose a *power* that we simply do not have. I can not make more of His gifts because I *am* a sinner, and don’t have the power to overcome this sin myself, and this power is not present in my life from Him.

    Sometimes I think our acestical tradition switches back and forth between our responsibility and what is given very very quickly – I can’t keep up…it has not been given to me… 😉

  25. Christopher,

    Living in the world, we tend to struggle to find even a little time to get to that plane of being described, indeed. And we might even blame our circumstances forgetting that there are always saints who excelled in similar and similar-but-harder than our circumstances…
    The combination of thankfulness and contrition however is our objective, it has a single word in the Greek tradition which all Orhtodox are fond of: ‘Χαρμολύπη’ (joyousadness)

    Whether we arrive at the objective of that compunctionate joy this way or that way however, what matters is that we get there. It’s depths are immeasurable… As long as we use everything at hand for the sake of humility -and not desperation- then we can use this awareness of our utter wretchedness fittingly. If not however, the adversary will turn it into a slander of God promptly!

    But the real depths of our wretchedness only start being revealed once we are near the outskirts of ‘stopping sinning’. After we shed our (unknowingly idolized) thoughts first, the healing of our estrangement from the eternal life begins and our well-concealed perversion within our ‘virtues’ is then revealed in all its profundity, as just as repugnant, and even more so than our gravest, sins, even if they exceed St Mary’s of Egypt. Our real egoism goes unsuspected until we enter the very depths of our heart, guided by the Spirit of God, Whose unconditional love of us –in all of this wretchedness- makes our contrition ache all the more.
    As St John Kronstadt and others say, it is the contrast of God’s love and His gifts against our condition that creates this. We use both oars, even though some movement can happen through using the one ‘oar’ too…
    But such awareness demands –as far as each of us can- a disentanglement from material things and agitated cares for the sake of constant communing with God. What is far more vital though is our relentless war with our self-centeredness in everything, big and ‘small.

    While still enmeshed in sin and anger, we don’t dare shamelessly reach out for knowledge of divine things (Evagrius the solitary often states this), but ask to reach repentant joyful compunction.
    It is as if everything has already been given to us at baptism, and its cultivation from us is required and can help reveal it because it is deep in our heart and the wicked spirits cluster round on the outside of it, but our tumultuous state too (which we, ourselves often nurture) forever obstruct it again.
    The ascetic experience explains it with that beautiful story of the water, which shows us nothing while it is turbulent. Once we stay in stillness and it stops quavering we start discerning the reflection of our face and see the God-given human beauty, as well as the fact that our face needs cleaning.

  26. Fr. Stephen,

    I was reflecting on your response to Dana about micro-organisms. I think the difficulty is that we still look at death as, not only the enemy but also the end. We still cling too tightly to this life – and the illusion that we have control over it.

    If in fact God is in control, and He ordains cancer for me, then blessed be the name of the Lord. This declaration doesn’t mean I won’t choose chemo or radiation, but rather that my decision to do so would not be based on the seductive lie that I am in control.

    Because of Christ, death is no longer our enemy. Yes many times it still makes sad and even mad, but when I come to my senses I remember that surely the universe (and my life) is unfolding as it should and that I need to put myself back into His hands.

    Because of Christ, death is no longer the end. Instead it/he becomes our gateway to life eternal. Even in this life when I am willing to die to my own will in a particular situation, I find my life rising from the ashes. I find new growth rising up out of ruin. It doesn’t happen for me as nearly as often as it should, but when it does I once again remember why I’m here and where real life comes from.

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