At some point in our history, we began to attribute a merely mental reality to anything that was not an object and reduced the importance of objects to what they could contribute to our mental reality. We live in a sea of psychology. Things, we believe, are only what we think they are. My “relationship” with you means nothing more than the set of inner experiences and dispositions I have towards you. In many ways, a very good version of “virtual reality” is just as good as “reality” itself.
The assumptions behind this are absurd. First, we posit something called “psychological” that is somehow distinct from our bodies. But, more importantly, we ignore the most obvious forms of relationship that are biological at their very core. How I “feel” about something or someone is considered the actual definition of what takes place between us.
I have written recently about the culture of sentiment. I want to turn our attention in this article to how our sentimental psychology distorts our concept of God and what it means to be in relationship with Him. When many Christians speak about “having a relationship with Jesus,” they have in mind something psychological. It means that they think about Jesus and talk to Jesus and trust that He thinks about them and will do what He has promised. But such relationships are simply a caricature of what God intends for us and distorts the nature of the Christian life.
For example, in the single most important moment of His ministry with His disciples, Christ takes bread, blesses and breaks it saying, “Take, eat. This is my body…” This event has been the occasion for endless thought and discussion ever since. But all of the thought and discussion mean nothing unless we take and eat. For it is important to know that the “relationship” we have with Jesus is rooted in something quite concrete: We eat His flesh and drink His blood. And though being quite concrete about this essential Christian act may seem somehow too literal for some, and not “spiritual” enough, the opposite is the case. The error lies with the “imaginary” communion that has come to be the feature of modern Christianity. We do well to remember that the language of eating and drinking belongs to Christ. It is how He described the action.
I will push the envelope a bit further. The Eucharist in many Christian communities is properly equated with the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”
Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. (Heb 13:15)
Of course, in the various anti-sacramental theologies of some Protestant groups, this concept is used to trump the idea of the Eucharist as sacrifice. What we offer to God are words, ideas, thoughts and commitments. It is these psychological aspects that have come to have value while physical notions have been relegated to the category of “superstition.”
The Scriptures do not view praise and thanksgiving as psychological events:
But You are holy, You who inhabit the praises of Israel. (Psa 22:3)
God inhabits the praises of Israel. This is not the language of psychology nor a description of mere verbal and mental communication. It is the language of ontology, the language of being. It describes what is real.
The praise that we offer to God is not simply an idea. It is a sound. And sound is a physical event. Just as bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, so, too, does God inhabit our praise. We do not communicate telepathically, no matter how many might think it superior and possible. The Second Person of the Trinity is called the “Word of the Father.” The Logos [Word] is not a mental concept within the mind of the Father. He is Word. In Hebrew, He is Davar. And interestingly, the word “Davar” can mean both “word” and “action.” This notion of word is common and important in the Scriptures:
“For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, but water the earth, making it bring forth and bud, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but shall accomplish what I please, and prosper in the purpose for which I sent it. (Isa 55:10-11)
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Heb 4:12)
Our modern habits of mind immediately read such passages and translate them into the terms of mental imagination and psychological function. This is deeply contrary to the understanding of Scripture and the traditional Christian treatment. In Ancient Israel (and generally in modern Jewish practice as well), the Divine Name (YHVH) is never spoken. It may be written (clearly the concept can be thought), but the physical expression of the Name with the voice is forbidden. Instead, the word for Lord (Adonai), is voiced. This is not superstition, but a recognition of the substantial, sacramental character of the Word.
In a similar manner, our voiced praise is itself a sacrament. It is united with God – “He inhabits the praises of Israel.”
The psychologizing of relational realities is a relatively modern phenomenon. At its worst, it has created the current notion that “my reality” is “whatever I feel.” But such notions are only the most recent development in a long process of substituting psychological abstractions for true ontological realities. Recovering the true nature of reality is essential to a healthy Christian spiritual life.
It is interesting that the Scriptures put as much emphasis on truth-telling as they do. The issue is not a moral abstraction (“don’t tell lies because it’s wrong”). Rather, speaking a lie is an attempt to create a false reality, to put forward a creation that competes with the true creation of the good God. The damage of a lie is greater than its mere psychological effects. It is an “anti-sacrament,” an attempt to instantiate hell in our midst.
The Divine Liturgy is easily the most profound example of the substance of praise. The service must be understood as offering and sacrifice (for so it is self-described throughout).
We also offer to You this reasonable worship: for the whole world, for the holy, catholic and apostolic Church;
For the precious gifts offered and sanctified…that our God, Who loves mankind, receiving them upon His holy, heavenly, and ideal altar as a sweet spiritual fragrance, will send down upon us in turn His divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit…
[You] alone are holy, You accept the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon You with their whole heart. Accept also the prayer of us sinners, and lead us to Your Holy Altar. Enable us to offer You gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people. Account us worthy to find grace in Your sight, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to You, and that the good Spirit of Your grace may dwell upon us and upon these gifts here offered, and upon all Your people,
Not only are the holy gifts of bread and wine offered as a “bloodless sacrifice,” but so, too, the prayers and praises are described as offerings. The incense is described as an offering as well. And with all of these we pray that God will accept them “upon His heavenly altar and send down upon us in turn the grace of His all-holy Spirit.”
It is more than proper to understand all of this in a manner far more substantive than the merely mental and imaginary notions of modernity. Our praise is not mere words. Our words are themselves a true substance, inhabited by God. And so is the whole of our spiritual sacrifice. The sacrifice is not spiritual by virtue of being mental or somehow non-material. There is pretty much nothing about a human life that is immaterial. We are material beings, embodied souls. We offer to God the spiritual sacrifice of substantive praise, the spiritual sacrifice of burning incense, the spiritual sacrifice of bread and wine, the spiritual sacrifice of our souls and bodies. And in this primary exchange, we receive again from God the reality of His grace, the Divine Energies, the Life of His all-good and life-creating Spirit.
We live in a world of true wonder, not in a world of the imagination. We give to God what He has given to us: Thine Own of thine Own.
Awesome article! Will you write more on this subject please?
Good reminders in Light of my recent Chrismation!
I’m always very fond of the classical notion of the ‘four-way exchange’ in the holy gifts. (It’s scandalous for modern day nominalism). First God gives man wheat and grapes. Second, man ‘putts himself in these’ and offers them back to God (as bread and wine). Third, God puts Himself in those and offers them back to us (as Christ’s body and blood). Fourth, man offers himself to God as a ‘christ’ – the Holy things rendering him Holy, utterly belonging to, and bearing God.
Something more to be thankful for this fine day! Many thanks, Father, and many blessings. “A sacrifice of praise” indeed!
This article reminds me of a book I read: “My Imaginary Jesus: The Spiritual Adventures of One Man.. ” by Matt Mikalatos. For those who don’t know this work, it is a fictional account of a man who “imagines” many different Jesus characters before he comes to the real one. Its a spoof with a message that I think may go hand in hand with this article. These imaginary Jesus characters seem to be the end result of delusional thinking associated with our relationships becoming “psychological” instead of ontological. If I am understanding your point correctly Father, it has connected many dots for me and colored in the picture. Thank you.
Of course, I think the key idea in this article is the ontological character of human reality (and Divine). We are not dealing with a land of make-believe. Also, the sacramental character is essential in a material world. It was God’s idea.
I could have added a note in the article that Russian thought holds that the sound of a bell is an “icon of the voice of God.”
I agree with almost everything you have written, but I take exception to your making light of microaggressions as “perceived” (scarequotes yours) slights.
I live with a significant disability that affects my daily life. Microaggressions are real. They can be anything from someone assuming you cannot do something because of your disability, someone assuming you are less capable because of it, etc. On a racial level they can be someone implying that you must not *really* be American because you aren’t white, etc.
When a person deals with such things on a daily basis, they can be exhausting.
Please don’t make light of them. Your post here could easily have been written without being dismissive of the very real challenges of marginalized people.
I go about my day dressed in cassock as an Orthodox priest. I do this in the Appalachian South. It is a constant experience of so-called “microagressions.” It’s just life. You learn to toughen up a bit and get on with it. The path of micro-agression and the culture of feelings has no possible boundaries. Thus it is not a “safe” path for anyone to walk. I would suggest that you not empower that train of thought in your life. It will be a road to death.
There’s no denying that slights of many sorts are felt. It’s also true that many if not most of them are unintentional. But we cannot live in such a sensitive manner. The way of the Cross is the only way of life. God give you grace to bear your cross and to give thanks for all things…even the slights and insults of life.
True, the challenge for the Christian is to bear those slights with grace. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to help our fellow-man learn how to treat us with the dignity we deserve, some things that can often have real effects on our lives. To not assume that the disabled person isn’t less capable. To not assume that the person with the foreign-sounding name isn’t less worthy of hiring.
That’s the nature of the protest against microaggressions. I agree it can be taken too far, but most of the time it’s simply an attempt to speak up for oneself.
You bring up an interesting side point I think about often when you wrote, “we don’t communicate telepathically…”
Could you speak more to how this intersects with how we pray, with words and without? Is this to suggest we *can’t* pray in our minds rather than vocalize them? Or just that it carries a risk of this psychologizing tendency?
One of the psalms of the First Hour says, “in the morning Thou shalt shall hear my voice,” and I completely take your point about not over-psychologizing our experience, but I also read and hear of many examples of prayer in the lives of monks and saints as a silent experience, or at least an inner one. I can’t think of the reference now, but I aslo seem to recall psalms about God knowing the inner thoughts of Man…
Would you care to elaborate more on that aspect?
Well. It’s been taken too far. People are losing their jobs over this and a false mindset is being fostered. It is not the way of Christ.
It is interesting that prayers are encouraged to be out loud. In the Divine Liturgy, many of the prayers a priest prays are “mystical” meaning, not heard by the people. And I’ve seen priests say them in their heads. But this is incorrect. The words of the service should be spoken, even if they are not spoken audibly. The instructions given for the Jesus Prayer indeed call for it to be aloud. There is a silence (wordless) beyond what most know as prayer. But that’s not the same thing as talking in your head.
I’m not saying that talking in your head is wrong. But it’s not much encouraged in the tradition. I think if we understood what is actually taking place in prayer better, this would make sense. The psychologizing of our lives has not been good.
Ryan, if I may say, I think the “micro-aggression” you and others encounter is–at its root–a result of someone not viewing others as in the image of God, with all that implies. It is a deep misunderstanding of humanity.
As a side note, I just returned from seeing the movie “Black Mass” with a friend. The people portrayed in this movie are so horrible that I find it difficult to see them as anything other than demonic. One could say that the mere thought of them brings out “micro-aggression” in me–I react viscerally at just the sight/thought of them. My immediate thoughts at the end of the movie revolved around how to honestly pray for such people? How to view myself as the “worst of sinners” when their lives are as they are (were, in some cases)?
I think the answer to this quandary is to remember that they are also created in the image of God and deserve the respect of that in spite of what they have chosen to do with the lives gifted to them. It is actually a difficult process for me to come to that understanding and resolve to live it. It requires that I stop focusing on the “micro-aggressions” that I feel and experience and focus instead on God and His creation and purpose (the salvation of all). Lord have mercy.
Father, i dont understand. please explain. you say that the real meanings of words themselves are more important than what people perceive them to mean, but surely you know, a compliment can be given out of spite OR kindness. you can rebuke out of concern OR cruelty. you can fast pridefully OR humbly. you can do somthing or say somthing outwardly, but your intentions can make that thing completely different, and yeild much different consequences.
“And interestingly, the word “Davar” can mean both “word” and “action.”
And interestingly enough, my late grandmother, whose name I bear – for it is a tradition in some parts of Macedonia to name babies after their grandparents – used the imperative of the verb say (‘рече’ – ‘речи’ [reche – rechi]; the noun is ‘реч’ [rech], a bit archaic and synonymous to слово [slovo], which means ‘word’), to express a command, or instruction. So from her mouth it was usually ‘say it’ instead of ‘do it’. This has always been fascinating to me. Thank you very much.
And one more thing. The Hebrew ‘Davar’ reminds me – at least in the way it is transcribed – to the Macedonian ‘дава’ [dava], meaning ‘give’. So, this is it, say it, do it, give it, to the Word; ‘It’ being ‘ourselves, each other, and our entire lives’. Glory to God for all things +
Perception is one thing and words are another. It is certainly possible to use words in order to lie. To use kind words in order to express spite is to create a lie, etc.
Perceptions are another thing. For example, if someone uses kind words to speak spitefully, and I perceive it, I have perceived the truth. If however, my own soul is disordered and in delusion, then my perceptions will be distorted and are not trustworthy.
Thus the teaching of the gospel is to speak the truth, and to live towards purity of heart. The pure in heart can see God.
Thank you for sharing this bit of language. Words reveal so much and are frequently neglected these days. On the Hebrew Davar, there are a host of related words in Hebrew that reveal an amazing array of meanings and understandings.
Words indeed have power and form part of who we are. Christ says we’ll be judged by our words. It’s been said that attentive listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to another. With true listening their words enter into us and even mold and change us in the process. I don’t remember the name of the Christian cardiologist. But I listened a while back to him on A F R. His talk was fascinating. He mentioned that when true friends sit together, even without words, that their hearts begin to beat in rhythm…just one of his highly interesting points. Reminded me that we too can sit silently in God’s presence, without a word, and have our hearts beat as one. Thank you again for this yet another wonderful post.
Thank you for this enlightening essay.
Maybe so-called “micro aggressions” are causing such a tizzy in the protestantized and secularized West because it is these cultures that have historically denied the Orthodox concept of the incarnation. They are “iconoclast,” if you will, which essentially denies the full ramifications of the incarnation.
But I agree, this micro aggression business is going too far. It’s the latest social fad. God, Christ, and His Church should constitute our “safe spaces.” Any earthly-conceived “safe space” is a delusion.
Thank you for this Father Stephen. There is much here which assists in living in reality.
I was particularly struck by your description of a lie as “anti-sacrament”. To turn this idea around is it correct thus to say that it is the physicality of spoken confession which gives it is great significance in terms of healing, for it is truthful speech and thus in accord with that which Is, rather than that which is Not??
Forgive me if I don’t express myself too well here
This is a wonderful explanation of how to apply this one-storey thinking(!) onto the specifics of the Liturgy. My throat is still a bit sore from trying to figure out what you meant in your comment on the other post about the Jesus Prayer, but I think I’m starting to see it (though I find myself constantly trying to frame it as a somatic psychological effect – old habits die hard).
And thank you Dino too for making that four-way exchange explicit…
As for this side issue…
Seems the most Christian thing to do is to bear the microaggressions with grace and forgiveness for they do not know what they do (frankly, if they knew then either they wouldn’t do it or they’d be hitting us with some kind of real aggression), while trying to minimize our own to the extent reasonable.
Which, I suppose, brings up the problem of what “reasonable” is, but that can be said for all sorts of human interactions. Looking at this collection I’d suggest: “what are you” is unreasonable to avoid, while backhandedly racist compliments like “you’re [some normatively positive trait] not like the other ___” are reasonable, as well as insistences that one must ~surely~ conform to ___ stereotype; #10 on that list isn’t even a microaggression, it’s just overtly racist boorishness, as opposed to avoidable carelessness (the backhanded compliment) or unavoidable slips that might not even be unconsciously racist (“Garcia”) the latter of which is definitely particularly soul-destroying to be constantly judging (not that inability to forgive the other slights is harmless either).
But that kind of discernment is very much a thing of this world, at best a garment of skin to help us along (and possibly a missionary precaution to avoid immediately alienating someone) and at worst… as Father Stephen said, a neurosis.
Father, could you please elaborate on this quote you made above: “I think if we understood what is actually taking place in prayer better, this would make sense”
Matt, Byron you are giving too much creedance to the reality of micro-agressions. They are fabricated as part of the demonuc lay inspired effort to jero us in a constant state of fear and anger and hate. In that state the demogogs that want to rule us have easy pickings. People don’t see other people as real.
The Christian response to real slights and real agression is to see teal people, have empathy and forgive giving glory to God.
This is neither pacifism or quietism because the action that follows forgiveness is always a teaching out to offer kindness and love.
Byron you are giving too much creedance to the reality of micro-agressions.
Forgive me, Michael! The point I was trying to make (and obviously did so very poorly) was that if we focus on God, the “micro-aggressions” we are reacting to go away. They are a facet of our focus on ourselves as opposed to seeking God first and viewing others in His image. My apologies for not being clearer in that regard.
Byron, that I get. Sometimes I am obtuse.
Long ago I came to the conclusion that one of the most important actions God has called us to learn to do, is to forgive. At least in my life, He seems to give me multiple opportunities. In the Lord’s prayer which Jesus gives us, we say “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” One day I finally realized that God was not going to forgive my many blunders if I didn’t forgive those who hurt me. The bottom line was that I yearned to be forgiven. And only doing it God’s way would suffice.
I am 90% sure that the Ryan in this thread is one and the same as someone who will very likely identify as my fellow parishioner very soon. It seems appropriate therefore that I try to address this concern (or at least that this concern be addressed) in a way that can be heard.
So, without at all disagreeing with your conclusion: there is something on which microaggression theory is founded that is true and can be helpful in informing one’s etiquette (think twice before you give people compliments that turn out to be backhanded insults to their race, etc.). It is a tiny, very quickly swimming baby tadpole in a tub of some very murky bathwater, but it’s still there.
That said, I’m reading this thread now because I was reminded of it by a blog post elsewhere:
Despite the author being one of the most earnest and sincere die-hard atheists whose work I’ve ever followed (I have deliberately omitted a link lest some well-intentioned lurker post something reckless), the last bit of what I just quoted seems to be right in line with Fr. Stephen’s warnings about there being no possible boundaries to this sort of thing.
I have noticed the same effect Byron has, provided that one does not approach this with a theology that holds that attention to such things is needed to help one’s brother (because, you know, “social justice”).
(And I just noticed that Fr. Stephen’s comment about the Jesus Prayer was on this post, not “Living in the Real World”…)
Dillon, Fr. Stephen,
I was interested in the comment about speaking things out loud vs. in your head. I was doing a lesson on confession awhile ago and noticed this progression.
1. Something (idea or emotion) is introduced to your thoughts through one way or another. At that point you aren’t necessarily the source of it. Also at this point it doesn’t have much substance or reality.
2. You entertain the thought. You don’t necessarily agree with it or own it yet; you’re simply willing to listen. And doing so gives the thought just a bit more reality.
3. You adopt the thought and start to develop it, assimilate it. It becomes more real again.
4. You start speaking words in your head concerning this thought. It becomes a little more real yet.
5. You speak these words and thoughts out loud, most likely to yourself or where no one can hear you. Again it takes on more reality but it seems that at this point it has crossed a boundary between the spiritual and physical worlds. It now has a physical reality.
6. You speak about it to others. Now it is born or at least confirmed inside them as well and reality increases once more.
7. Finally this thought and these words lead you to some kind of action, the ultimate fulfillment of them to give them the greatest possibility reality that you as a human being can bestow on something.
Not everything goes through all the stages but this seems to be the path things generally take to become real through us. Pertinent to the idea of the spoken word, this is why it important to verbally speak confessions out loud – and to another human being. If there is any penitence involved it should simply be an action (Step 7) resulting from the verbalizing of the confessional reality to another person (Step 6).
There is much more that could be said about the practice of confession of course. I’m just making the point that speaking things out loud gives them a reality they didn’t possess before. And in the case of confession you are simply working through the process of waking yourself up to the reality that already exists, i.e. I really did steal that money or abuse that person or spend the last month living in a destructive way.
hope this helps, drewster
This article was in my mind as Divine Liturgy began yesterday. It began a bit of transformation in myself as Liturgy progressed. Last year, while discussing Liturgy, music and the progression of the Liturgy with a visiting choir director, he commented, “Get your head out of the book and be in the Liturgy.” I didn’t know what he meant. I do now. Glory to God for all things.
Wow. I was having approach avoidance with this column. Now I know why. Lots going on here. Much to ponder.
I, too, enjoyed this essay, but I am so frustrated with the idea that micro aggressions are only perceived, and as you further stated, absurd. Ryan said it quite well in describing the reality of being on the receiving end of this aggression, and other than adding my own countless experiences as a Black woman who has been the recipient of countless acts of prejudice and racism, I can pretty much agree with his point of view.
To be completely blunt, it is upsetting and a little fearful to see respected clergy throw these small passive aggressive tidbits into otherwise uplifting and wise blog posts. (This is not the first time I’ve seen this, obviously.) Salvation in Christ is indeed enough to bear the brunt of ways of the evil one, whether it comes via terrorists outright killing someone or via the extremely real experience of being denied the humanity that our Lord has given to me and other people of color (or anyone who deals with micro aggressions). But goodness, the burden gets heavy sometimes, and even heavier when someone tells you that your life isn’t real!
If I may echo what Ryan said, please do not do this. Please do not deny what some people go through simply because it is not part of your journey to salvation. It makes it difficult when we do struggle and are looking for spiritual guidance to come to our respected Orthodox priests, deacons, etc. knowing that we’ll get what amounts to a headpat and a denial of our realities.
I have removed the reference to micro-agressions. I see that it is too easy for it to destract from the point of the article.
Racism is real and all-pervasive in our culture. And I wouldn’t dream of dismissing it. The present cultural discussion of “microagressions” extends far beyond racism. I think it might even endanger genuine conversation and learning. Sadly, the various aggressions of our culture will not disappear. People do not and will not ever understand other people. We do stupid things, repeatedly. We can either rail against the stupidity in what becomes its own reactive aggression, or we have to do something else. I utterly support legislation for justice. I was born under the Jim Crow laws of the South and have seen the very ugliest face of America. And I know how deeply racial judgments are embedded in white thought. I only have to look in my own sinful mind. It is a terrible Cross to bear, but it’s not going away.
I am making a distinction between the current fashion of micro-aggression awareness and protest and the actual problem of racism and sin. One has quickly become a campus fad, and will fade soon enough after it has damaged enough souls. The other will abide and require the ongoing deep work of repentance.
I take your point.
“Racism is real and all-pervasive in our culture….And I know how deeply racial judgments are embedded in white thought. …”
I am just now getting around to reading this article and comments. I was born in 1969, in a southern city (on the smaller side) and raised there. I am quite familiar with a casual, unthinking racism (and sexism, which actually in my estimation was actually more pervasive and damaging on a “macro” level) from my childhood and teen years. It’s dead and buried. Nothing get’s you in more trouble socially and legally than being even perceived (just a tiny little bit) as “racist” today. The cultural revolution (civil rights movement, etc.) around race was and is an amazingly successful thing (perhaps as this thread shows too successful).
On another Orthodox website, an article was published this past summer where it was argued that a person who is white is racist simply because they are white (i.e. we are racist *by nature*). Actually, the person who wrote the article was really just falling back on an unexamined neo-Freudianian worldview so in was incoherent to begin with.
I categorically reject the idea that I have “white thought” (simply for being white) and that in said thought is something “racist”. Or are you saying I am simply a victim of ancestral sin and that this is a kind of ontological scar on my very being, and that I am *by nature* racist?
Racism properly defined as an unthinking belief that someone of another race is inferior simply because of their race is a product of ignorance and the divisions brought about by sin. It has no place in the mind or heart of any Christian.
However the complimentary belief that someone of another race is automatically racist is fundamentally the same.
There are deeply racist attitudes that persist in many otherwise fine people of all races.
There is no such thing as white thought. That is a racist concept.
There is ignorant, hateful and prejudiced thought. There are particular manifestations of ignorance that are culturally based but I guarantee you that in a slave based culture if the dominant race where black, the subservient race white, the attitudes would be largely reversed.
My up bringing blessed me in many ways not the least of which was being exposed directly to a number of dance artists who happened to be black-American, Haitian, African, Caribbean. They were all incredibly dynamic, intelligent people. Some I did not like, others were friends.
My parents, especially my mother work quit hard on a local level to challenge and defeat the stupidity.
I have also seen hate, suspicion and massive ignorance from both white and black people. It both angers me and saddens me as it diminishes the humanity of everyone.
I know I would not deal well with the stupidity of racism directed at me and I marvel at those who are able to. I also know several people who have done so, but never easily and at a price. They all happen to be Orthodox.
The Orthodox Church has a unique opportunity to enter into the wounds of slavery and racism and bring healing through Christ. The plethora of black saints we have as well as the contemporary witness in Africa and the still young work of Fr. Moses Berry through his many offerings centered in Ash Grove Missouri both in the parish he pastors and in the continuation of his family legacy of mercy, kindness and steadfast refusal to be cowed by or submit to the ugliness and hate.
If we truly want to be an American Orthodox Church that work will have to broaden and deepen. However none of us is well served by simply accepting at any level the ideological platitudes and categories of the modern race didialogs.
It does show how deeply they are ingrained that a man as wise as Fr. Stephen normally is seems to fall into those categories. They are as much a part of the modern project as many other things he decries.
May our Lord have mercy
I clearly carry a deeper wound in my soul than you, having been born in ’53 and seen Jim Crow in full bloom. The stories are too shameful to relate. I think that whites in America (as well as Blacks) have an awareness of each other than is laced with our history. I don’t think that this can be easily erased, any more than wrong sexual thoughts are erased from our minds. It’s not the same, but it’s there. The legacy of several centuries of white culture that believed to its very core that blacks were biologically inferior doesn’t just disappear because of a few laws. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Now I was actually taught this in my Church as a child (Southern Baptist). It would have been hard to find a white adult in my childhood who didn’t believe there was some sort of inferiority involved.
It’s wrong and it was evil. There are many ways such thoughts linger in a culture. I believe it’s changing. Frankly the commonplace marriage between black and white goes a long way. I see “white” grandparents with “black” grandchildren (even the typing by color is racist).
Of course there is a politicization of victimhood that many find irritating. But the problem is real. People frequently do not treat blacks in the same way they do whites. I will add as a white Appalachian that they don’t treat Appalachians in the same way either. I was taught to lose my dialect as a child, lest I be thought stupid. Of course, my dialect was a fine, old Scots-Irish Appalachian. It’s quite common and thick here in East TN. But it is definitely associated with being stupid.
If you want better service in a restaurant (as a white) then dress in an upper middle class manner. You’ll be treated much better. I’ve seen and experienced these things.
Again, if we major in them or let them offend us, it becomes a problem. But the problem is not make-believe and I daresay it’s a burden, sometimes a very heavy burden.
My wounds around this subject all fall on the other side. I worked at a university in HR for a short while right out of college, and was a cog in the machine for that institutions “affirmative” racism program. It is a real point of shame for me, and I give thanks that is was only for a short time. Earlier, in college I was a manager at a restaurant (my parents, rightly I think, thought I should earn my way through and not come out with a mountain of dept) I was wrongly accused of making a “sexist” remark. The remark was “if you are late again I will have to write you up”. I was put through a mock trial of sorts, all of it quite theatrical and it was a lesson to me as how absurd this can all get. The political and “intellectual”/cultural grandstanding around race is obvious and needs no comment (it’s pure manipulation). I have known a handful of ideological (as opposed to that causal and unthinking southern reflex that in my experience has simply disappeared) racists – they can be counted on one hand and they had absolutely no influence whatsoever – they were treated like leapers (something I don’t entirely disagree with). Now that “sexual orientation” has been given the same status (culturally and legally) as race, the underlying basis of the whole issue really shows it’s ugly underbelly IMO. In any case, when folks start imputing what appears to be some sort of philosophical/theological necessity to who is and is not a “racist” (ironically based on race), yea I react.
I have to admit I am not interested in American Orthodoxy “broadening and deepening” on the basis of some supposed special insight into “racism”. I am essentially half Italian and half Irish by ancestry. I could list the real grievances my grandparents and great grandparents had with both America and say, the British (I see your Jim Crow and raise you with the forced and conscious genocidal famine of the Emarld Isle). Where does it end? It began in the garden, and it will end with His return – that is the only insight Christianly we have to offer I think. I do agree with you “However none of us is well served by simply accepting at any level the ideological platitudes and categories of the modern race ideologues”
Christopher and Michael,
I would like to end the thread on matters of race, etc.
Father, would you agree with this quote? “the truly Christian use of imagination is not for entertainment thru fantasy but to keep us attentive to the unseen but very real presence of God with His angels and saints in the mysteries we celebrate”
Yesterday just before my Catholic communion there was a lady who, easily heard by the entire parish, seemed to be having some sort of “vision” that sounded like an orgasmic experience. I did not see it happening but only heard it very clearly. I tried hard to block it as I myself was preparing to receive the Eucharist. The only other information I have is that an ambulance arrived after my wife and I scooted out. Of course it’s not up to me to determine which of what could be a number of circumstances led to this experience. But it did however lead me to reflect on some things I’ve read in regards to spiritual experiences/discernment/prelest etc.
In a previous inquiry into the Roman Catholic praxis of private devotion, I realize that on some level, the teachings seem to rely on the use of mental imagery and or the conjurings of the imagination to induce certain states of consciousness. For example: (Ecstatics such as St. Theresa of Avila and Angela of Foligno whose visions were amatory and erotic induced by extreme mental contemplation or concentration on parts of Christ’s physical body) or (St. Thomas a Kempis and St. Ignatius of Loyola who consciously used imaginative visualization in spiritual exercises to achieve a level of devotion).
On the other hand, generally what I’ve gathered from what is taught in Eastern Orthodox prayer practices is a focus on silence, stillness of thought , and a quieting of the imagination to achieve the prayer of heart. It does not encourage the use of mental imagery. In fact, while some of the early church fathers acknowledge an imagitive faculty in the unreasoning part of the soul, when the nous is purified, such faculty is rendered inactive and “freed from fantasy”, guarded against forming images of God. To be fair, there are more than several cautions in RC such as one found in The Cloud of the Unknowing “say to Him ‘Lord if these thoughts and images are really from you, you insist on them. But since it is more likely that I am the source of them and they are interfering with your work in me, I will continue to quietly push them aside’”.
And what about the Incarnation? Is praying with images valid to the extent that we understand deep discernment is necessary due to His incomprehensibility in our minds? Human Nature not being completely fallen is good and our senses/emotions can draw us into the mystery of God and a deeper relationship with Him? And does the fact that Jesus dwells Sensibly in us when we receive the Eucharist show us that praying with senses/images etc is not wrong?
Also, outside of prayer, the layman in the world must use his imagination at times. Or should one try to avoid using as much as possible even outside of prayer? But then how could we perceive the invisible realities that surround us? The nous? My thought is that there are three groups of things (visible, invisible, and non-existent – the first two being real), rather than two (visible and invisible -the first only being real). With that outlook is the only way I can see how the use of the imagination isn’t necessary to perceive the invisible realities around us and live a sacramental life.
You’re correct in your Orthodox reading. The use of the imagination is generally discouraged, particularly when praying and such. Imagination has its uses – but not as a tool of prayer. The RC Church, unfortunately, has very much opened the flood-gates on this, not only in the ways you mentioned, but, particularly, in the welcoming of the charismatic movement/experience. Pentecostalism is rife with imagination – creating a kind of religious experience that is prone to delusion of the worst sort. Been there, done that. Almost drove me out of the faith.
When such imaginative experiences become part of the bedrock of believing and questions begin to arise (as they inevitably do) – imagination crumbles quickly and completely – taking a lot of things with it. The salvaging of my faith was largely through paying careful attention to the Tradition, particularly as found within Orthodoxy.
I will also confess to a rather healthy skepticism, even when reading Orthodox sources – not about doctrine, but about reported experiences. I like sobriety, and careful reporting when it comes to experience. Many get caught up in such things – in a manner not unlike that found in the charismatic communities – and I find it unhelpful.
If there’s a claim about a saint – I tend to prefer the claims to be rather concrete and not subjective. I don’t deny the reality of certain experiences but, if they’re largely subjective in character – then they should be described in that manner and not in a quasi objective manner.
The reality of what Christ does in and for us is a matter of dogma – reliably so.
Noetic experience, I think, belongs to a category that you’ve not listed. It is a form of perception that is very difficult to describe. It is definitely not imagination (nor, even intuition).
thank you for this helpful comparison RC and OT thought on this question.
Also I’ve been taught that if an Orthodox person believes that they are experiencing such visions, dreams or experiences, they need report them in confession. Usually confession helps to sort out what’s happening, with the potential to stop the recurrence.
Here’s an additional article on ‘prelest’ which mentions the issues involved in this question and the Orthodox perspectives concerning it.
Brandon thank you for your question. Questions spur Fr Stephen’s response which are helpful for all of us to understand these issues better and more deeply.
Also Fr Stephen,
I sincerely appreciate your description of your healthy skepticism, it’s reassuring model of faith and helpful.
Father Bless!!! Happy New Year!!!
Good dialogue on this topic. Question –
Time is a topic that Orthodoxy seems to have a very ‘enlarging’ perspective about. The differences between the limits of chronology (sequence) and kairos (perhaps everlasting yet paradoxically always new). You’ve written about this extensively especially in how it is reflected in the Divine Liturgy. As you know, as we attempt to really enter into the Church calendar ; the services are very specific about topics like Nativity where we experience the birth of the Christ child as within us.
I certainly understand your very important point about the imagination. What are your suggestions about this ‘awakening’ to the kairos with imaginary abstractions I might find myself with in the services. My own experience with this has been that its important to be more open to these new ‘kairos’ possibilities rather than discount what I may not have yet experienced. How would you suggest we deal with this potential tension of between the fullness of experience that Orthodoxy offers with the Western mindset that is so quick to shut down what it cannot understand (but can experience). Your recent discussion of the ‘Entering the Mystery of Christmas’ is rich in how crucial ‘participation’ (and Grace) is to God’s revelation through a ‘knowing’ that is beyond understanding.
Perhaps, for you, this is easy. But for me, I find an imagining as being almost a necessary opening for me to get into this participation that can lead to revelation. My attachment to knowing as understanding is strong is may be some of my challenge.
So, I guess my question is how do we enter into this form of participation you’ve so eloquently described without the use of the imagination?
Father, being a contrarian, I have to ask: what is the best way of discerning between real spiritual encounters and one’s imagination? Is not simply dismissing such encounters and experiences as potentially dangerous as making too much of emotional imagination?
The one puffs up and can lead to deep spiritual delusion and the occult while rejection of the real can leave one unnecessarily dry and lifeless.
Having grown up in the height of the so-called New Age movement, I understand the caution but those nefarious occultic ideologies became attractive to many people then and do today because of the perceived lack of deep spiritual possibilities in the Church or anything Christian.
After all, some of the most powerful moments in the Bible are recountings of other worldly experiences.
We must guard our hearts, minds and tongues to be sure and never demand such events but still…
Personally I thrill at Dee’s story. The un-sought nature and utter surprise she still feels at what occurred are both compelling and moving. Indeed even thinking of it brings forth a wonder in my own heart and also a fresh remberance of my own formative encounter.
We both needed more of course. We need the Church and the continuing Life in Her to give the structure, focus and direction humility and truth required but, for my own self, it would be highly unlikely I would be Orthodox without trusting my own experience and hearing of the experiences of others. Still, you are absolutely correct in what you say. Hank Hanegraaff came to the Church in part by debunking counterfeit “experience”.
When I have had stuff happen in prayer I tell my priest. His humbling comment has always been to say, “Oh, that happens all the time”.
Wanting to know the truth and not accepting anything less than the truth which seems to demand both faith and scepticism at the same time is necessary, I think.
It is one of those antinomical realties perhaps?