Dostoevsky’s The Demons tells the story of a revolution within the context of a small village and a handful of personalities. The strange mix of philosophy and neurosis, crowd psychology and fashionable disdain for tradition all come together in the madness of a bloodbath. It is a 19th century Helter Skelter that presciently predicted the century to come. Our own version of the same sickness plays out with less bloodshed though with similar passion. This article attempts to describe that passion. I have termed it the “sin of democracy,” the notion that the universe is devoid of hierarchy and that all things, ourselves included, are rightly described as equal. This is the third appearance [with editing] of this article which indicates that my mind is frequently drawn back to its observations. It bears repeating.
Jesus’ encounter with the Roman Centurion is one of the least modern experiences in all of Scripture. Of all the stories in the New Testament, this one would be the most difficult to repeat in our culture. In our world, we ourselves are our only authority – we are neither over anyone else nor subject to any. We are filled with the spirit of democracy, and, as such, despise the Kingdom of God.
The world of kings and rulers began to collapse at the very time that nation-states began their rise. In 1534, Henry VIII of England repudiated any authority greater than himself with regard to the Church of England. A little over a century later, Parliament followed his example and overthrew the King himself and beheaded him. The same fate met the king of France 150 years later. The march of modern progress has meant death to tyrants.
Except that it has not. When Henry refused to recognize the Pope’s authority, he made himself a “Pope.” With every advance and repudiation of authority, authority itself does not disappear – it simply becomes more universalized. Today, in contemporary Christianity, it is said that “every man is a Pope.” Whereas a few generations ago, people asserted that the Bible alone had authority, today, that, too, has been overthrown. Each person is his own authority. And I will add, that if every person is his own authority, then there is no authority.
This is perhaps stated in an extreme way. We do have bosses in the work place, teachers in the classroom and other authorities. But as anyone in “authority” can confirm, such positions are under increasing pressure and scrutiny. They often have authority, only because they have coercive power. Authority that rests naturally with a person or position has virtually disappeared from our world.
I am fully sympathetic with the political place of democracy. It evolved as a means of addressing tyranny – though it is often quite ineffective in confronting modern leaders who tyrannize in the name of democracy (or the tyrannies of various “democracies” as they vanquish their foes at the ballot box). But I offer no political suggestions in this article and have no interest in a conversation on the topic.
I am, however, deeply interested in the spiritual disease that accompanies the interiorizing of the democratic project. We have not only structured our political world in a “democratic” manner, we have spiritualized the concept and made of it a description for how the world truly is and how it should be. The assumptions of democracy have become the assumptions of modern morality and the matrix of our worldview. It is this interiorization of democracy that makes the Centurion impossible in our time.
People of the modern world have a sense of inherent equality, and often resent any assertion of authority. Of course, equality is true in a certain manner, and utterly false in another. It is true that all people have equal worth – no one life is more valuable than another. But by almost any other measure, we are not equal, because we are not commensurate. I am of equal worth, but I am not as smart as another. I am of equal worth but I am not as talented, or handsome, or wealthy, or wise, etc. Apparently, intelligence, talent, beauty, wealth and the like are not the proper standards of comparison when we speak of equality. But our interior sense of equality often makes us assert equality where none exists.
This is particularly true in the spiritual life. I am sometimes told, “I do not need to confess my sins to a priest. I can pray directly to God.” A young man said this to me recently and added, “The Bible says we should only confess to God.” I pointed out to him that he was actually incorrect, that in its only mention of confession, the Bible says we should confess our sins “to one another.” He was surprised and dismayed.
The Scriptures also speak of elders and leaders and obedience and respect and many other things that have no place within the spirit of democracy. The young man’s mistake was to think that the Bible affirmed his democratic world-view. But the Scriptures belong to the world of the Roman Centurion.
Much of what today passes for Protestantism is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is a thinly veiled cloak for the democratic spirit at “prayer.” “Salvation by grace through faith” is a slogan for individualism, a Christianity “by right.” There are no works, no requirements, only a “grace-filled” entitlement. For the ultimate form of democracy is the person who needs no one else: no Church, no priest, no sacrament, only the God of my understanding who saves me by grace and guarantees that I can do it alone.
Our outward forms of Christianity are morphing as quickly as the market can imagine them. Even the “New Atheist” Sunday meetings differ little from many Christian gatherings. God Himself may not be necessary to the spirituality of our democracy. Where does God fit in a world of equals?
The classical world of Orthodox Christianity is profoundly undemocratic. It holds that the universe and everything that exists is hierarchical. This teaching is not an artifact of an older patriarchy (a typical democratic critique), but an essential part of the Christian gospel. For if Jesus is Lord, then the universe has a Lord. Democratic spirituality distrusts all hierarchy – anything that challenges the myth of equality is experienced as a threat. “Jesus never said anything about…”
The veneration of saints, the honoring of icons and relics, the place held by the Mother of God are deeply offensive to modern democracy. The complaints heard by those who reject such things are quite telling. It is rarely the classical protest of true iconoclasts that are heard. Rather, it is the modern declaration, “I don’t need anyone between myself and God.” It is the universal access to God, without interference, without mediation, without hierarchy, without sacrament, ultimately without any need for others that is offended by the hierarchical shape of classical Christianity.
A spiritual life without canon, without custom, without tradition, without rules, is the ultimate democratic freedom. But it unleashes the tyranny of the individual imagination. For with no mediating tradition, the modern believer is subject only to his own whim. The effect is to have no Lord but the God of his own imagination. Even his appeal to Scripture is without effect – for it is his own interpretation that has mastery over the word of God. If we will have no hierarchy, we will not have Christ as Lord. We cannot invent our own model of the universe and demand that God conform.
It is a great spiritual accomplishment to not be “conformed to this world.” The ideas and assumptions of modern consumer democracies permeate almost every aspect of our culture. They become an unavoidable part of our inner landscape. Only by examining such assumptions in the light of the larger Christian tradition can we hope to remain faithful to Christ in the truth. Those who insist on the absence of spiritual authority, or demand that nothing mediate grace will discover that their lives serve the most cruel master of all – the spirit of the age.
A “God of our own understanding” seems to work with addicted folks in AA and other 12 step groups. I’ve seen more deliverance and miracles than any of the 3 major branches of Christianity. There is little hierarchy in AA and the Mennonites and Quakers and they have always stood for freedom for the American slaves and a strong piece ethic from authors Stan Hauerwas and Yoder.
This puts me in mind of something in the Old Testament. The sin of Jeroboam the Son of Nebat, each man doing what was right in his own eyes…
Excellent piece Father.
Consumerism mandates that we satisfy our passions, under the lie that making choices is freedom and equality. Poverty in the United States (as opposed to sub-Sahara Africa) is seen as the inability to satisfy one’s passions. Wealth disparity is a modern secular “sin” because it does not allow everyone to wallow in self-indulgence. A friend of mine asked me to define excess, be it excess of wealth, or clothing, or food. I merely said that excess is to have what one does not need to survive, paraphrasing an early Church Father. If one has two jackets but only needs one, the other is excess. This is the perspective of a Christian and 99% of us fail to live this way. We justify our excess by comparing ourselves to those who have even more excess. What a sad metric. We justify our excess by using modern theories, as in going on vacation as a necessary component of a “healthy” life, and while we are on vacation we satisfy our passions. Again my friend asked me: What’s wrong with taking a vacation? I suggested that there is nothing wrong with taking time off and away from the burden of the secular world. But, maybe one’s vacation might be a family retreat, or visiting an elderly family member, or working in a church sponsored event for the poor, etc.
Democracy as you’ve described it comes awfully close to the devil’s assertion, “I will not serve!”
Bob, I understand your point – and have experienced its truth, especially when it comes to AA (12 Step groups) – and even in the Mennonite Church. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure you would also agree that there are ‘old timers’ in AA groups, the ones who have been servant-leaders for years, who, by virtue of their experience, are invested with a type of authority. It is the authority of one who has experienced healing.
According to Metropolitan Nafpaktos Hierotheos, in his book “Orthodox Psychotherapy”, p. 69 “From a study of the sources, chiefly patristic literature, it seems clear that the degrees of priesthood (deacon, priest, bishop) are closely connected with the three basic degrees of the spiritual life. This means that as a man progressed in healing (purification, illumination, and deification) he ascended the spiritual ladder of priestly grace and blessing.”
He goes on to state that the qualification for the priesthood was one’s own healing (p 75). “Entry into the priesthood is thus a pure calling of God. And this calling is not simply an abstract feeling of being called by God to serve the Lord’s people but is the certitude through one’s own transformation that one is able to shepherd the people…”
Therefore, “if one has not been healed, (quoting St, Theognostos) ‘the burden is heavy indeed; for it is borne by someone unworthy, whose power it exceeds.'”
The subsequent sections of his chapter on “Prerequisites for the role of priest-therapist” – in a nutshell (and I highly recommend reading the book) is that in previous centuries – in the Orthodox Church, the priests and bishops were appointed to their positions of authority because they were much like the ‘authorities’ we have experienced in 12 Step groups: they are considered authorities – not because of their seminary degrees – but because they have experienced their own healing.
There is nothing worse, in my experience, than to be led by a highly educated priest who has not experienced his own healing. The worst priests are those who are good and moral yet lacking in an awareness of their own need to be healed. This type of priest creates disorder and unknowingly wounds people.
I ask the Good Shepherd to have mercy on them – and on me – until such time that the Church once again has a restored sense of what it means to be an authority.
Excellent article, Father. I have not so directly connect our democratic urges with our rebelliousness in Faith, but I find your observations to be spot on. I suggest that both have their roots in the same source, the Enlightenment, and the water from that source seems bitter. Thank you.
bob, the instances you mention all involve community and submission to God within the community.
One of the good things that comes out of the many Orthodox jurisdictions OCA,Greek, Antiochian it forces the priests and bishops to attend to their own healing or lose market share.
“The God of my understanding” as used in 12 step programs is quite different than how the phrase is used in the article. The “God” of AA has to actually “work” as God. Make-believe does not work. The God of my understanding that I am referencing is the “God that I like and who won’t make demands of me other than the demands I want Him to make.”
My experience with 12 step programs is that, despite the inclusive language of “the God of my understanding,” most people in long-term successful recovery, have a very traditional view of God – in which He is truly God. As one old-timer said, “The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.”
This comes at a poignant time. My wife and I have been discussing advance medical directives. Neither of us is (from what we know) anywhere near to needing such a document, but it seems that it is the policy of the medical community to encourage these things on just about every visit to the doctor.
As I read through the forms that make up the directive, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the underlying premise. There is so much of the modern, democractic ideal that is embedded in it. *I* will decide how I die. Even as I pass through the only event (other than my birth) over which I have abosultely no choice, *I* will still assert my preferences. And my preferences will have the blessing and enforcement of the civil law–the one remaining authority that we all agree to follow. Should my wife or family or church wish something different than I have directed…well that is too bad. Even on my death bed or in the coffin, I will still be asserting me.
I don’t dismiss the utility of such documents, especially in our litigious age, and I can see how medical technology has opened up questions that our forebears never had to confront. I see precedent in the scriptures (Joseph and his bones) for making requests of one’s survivors. Nevertheless, there seems something evil in the banality, the sterility, the flatness of these things as they are crafted. It is the “tyranny of the individual imagination”, as you say above, and seems to be the very opposite of placing my hope in God for “a Christian ending to our lives.”
Here, then, is the rub: even filling out an advance directive with responses that are fully submitted to the Christian tradition seems like a surrender to modernity. My “religion” has once again been reduced to “my preferences.” Yet if I do not fill out the forms, I am given over to the caprice of the modern insurance/medical/”board of ethics”-complex.
Perhaps I am over-thinking this. My wife tells me I do that sometimes. 🙂 With your perspective on modernity and especially your experiences as a hospice chaplain, do you have any thoughts on this practice and on a peaceful engagement with it?
There is nothing worse, in my experience, than to be led by a highly educated priest who has not experienced his own healing. The worst priests are those who are good and moral yet lacking in an awareness of their own need to be healed. This type of priest creates disorder and unknowingly wounds people.
I have sometimes told people who have trouble with the authority of the Church (and there are many of them within Orthodoxy) that the Priest is our authority but his authority is pastoral, not tyrannical. He commands and we obey out of love for one another.
If I may poke at you briefly Father, 1 John 1 also mentions confession in addition to the verse you pointed out to the young man. Neither of them indicates a direct confession to God, so the point stands.
Sharon, your comparing Met. Naufpatikos’s description of a priestly vocation and the qualities of experienced “servant-leaders” in AA (who are “considered authorities . . . because they HAVE EXPERIENCED their own healing”) seems qualified by this conclusion,
“The worst priests are those who are good and moral yet lacking in an awareness of their own need to be healed”
–which I might agree with if it were expressed positively, e.g., ” the reliable priests and servant-leaders are the ones who are aware of their own continual need for, and are submitting daily to the process of, being healed.”
But this applies to all of us, doesn’t it
From Paradise Lost, (Abdiel speaking to Satan):
Unjustly thou deprav’st it with the name
Of Servitude to serve whom God ordains,
Or Nature; God and Nature bid the same,
When he who rules is worthiest, and excells
Them whom he governs. This is servitude–
To serve th’ unwise, or him who hath rebelld
Against his worthier, as thine now serve thee,
Thy self not free, but to thy self enthrall’d.
Creation is inherently hierarchical. Even a pack of wolves has its “alphas” and its “betas”. essentially , creation is a hierarchy whose master is the Uncreated.
It brings to mind the ultimate prickly point today:
“[T]he head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” and elsewhere talk of “submission.”
Pray for me.
Largely agree with your article’s analysis of the legacy of sola scriptura and the utter foolishness of “me, God, and the Bible.” But, playing devil’s advocate, couldn’t a Roman C. brother or sister say the points you make in your article are an excellent apologetic for the “need” for a singular “Vicar of Christ”on the earth; one (not many) who clearly re-present Christ’s Kingship and authority, as well as His pastoral shepherding of His one flock.
Would like to hear more about how the conciliar approach of episcopal councils are not democratic in a certain final way; or why we Orthodox are taught (rightly) to always look for a consensus of the fathers on a certain topic as opposed to just following Chrysostom, Basil, et.al exclusively. I believe the synergism of the one and the many, all having the Holy Spirit but no one gift being able to say to another “I have no need of you” is truly a great mystery, and I, for one, often see through a glass darkly as to how to daily press that out. So if any readers can help enlighten me, I would much appreciate it.
Scott, what is prickly is the Cross.
In fact, if the Scriptural direction is lived in marriage, even to a mustard seed, a great blessing occurs which tends to both heal and make insignificant any prickle.
Like the Cross, it is a directive that the world thinks foolish, archaic, unecessary and/or too much to bear. Certainly “sexist” and tryannical.
Obedience is never about someone else. It is only about my love of God, my distrust in myself and daring trust in Him.
The secular world is all about “choices” made from our own will (our belief), not about love. Never about love. Mere sentiment at best especially when accompanied by crocodile tears. The reality that such “choices” fence us in and artificially limit us is never considered.
Marriage nothing more than a continually negotiated contract with sex the cherry on top.
Our freedom rests in our obedience to God in community.
Thus marriage becomes a cosmic gateway, an icon of the Kingdom.
That is one of the reasons for my hope.
Bravo Father! Outstanding!
Very good article. I would point out that Psalm 31:5 (a.k.a. 32:5) mentions confession to God and 1 John 1:9 also mentions confession of sins, though the one hearing the confession is not specified.
Who could be such a hypocrite? Who would be that stupid? Many times I could have answered “Me”, but instead I constructed my own reality about myself. I lived and still live in my own bubble unless I’m given a different perspective – the perspective given when one is capable of a sincere and raw confession.
I have done many physical sins that I am very ashamed of: stealing, adultery, ignorance, manipulation, but nothing in the process of repentance has given me more struggle than dealing with the habits of thought and feeling rooted in my pride.
Pray for me Father Stephen!
“God Himself may not be necessary to the spirituality of our democracy.”
Of course within the church we may not be quite so open about this, telling ourselves that the democratic vote revealed the will of God by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (in my tradition anyway)
I positively “hate” that when I hear someone say it. It was quite common when I was an Episcopalian, and I hear it often enough from some within Orthodoxy viz. something as trivial as a national assembly. It is patently false, even in an Orthodox setting. Only time can reveal such a thing. Modern voting is about as silly a means of determining the divine will as anything I can imagine. In my Episcopal years, I would have pretty much assumed that anything garnering a majority of votes in the House of Bishops was either heresy, or simply the political platform of one of America’s ruling parties.
It is disheartening to see fellow Orthodox be so democratic about so called “issues.” I run the risk of sounding very partisan, but in all honestly I am not speaking of any one particular party ideology. I am speaking of our faith. For, instance, on the issues of abortion and homosexuality I wonder how an Orthodox can stand in opposition to the witness of the saints? When I converted I left behind “me, God, and the Bible.” I renounced personal authority for hierarchical Christianity. This was not a lip service. I am not free to choose, I am not my own authority. I am free only in the sense that I am healed…it is ludicrous to assert that Orthodox Christians can choose something that is outside the testimony of the saints and call that freedom. This is bondage.
American Orthodoxy is sort of a contradiction of terms, and why I believe that it is very difficult to assimilate as an American convert. I struggle.
Father, is it silly because each of us “decides” mostly from our gnomic will so the combination will be no better?
I suppose it is useless to point out that the Framers of the Constitution put zero faith in democracy and actually envisioned a pretty strong hierarchy in which they and those like them were the best examples.
What do I say to a friend of mine who is horribly distraught over the election because he thinks our choices were bad, but by far the worst one prevailed? Logic certainly does not help him.
The test for me is if I would be as vigorous in thanking God no matter who won.
Just as with the athletes who publically thank God for their victories. I have yet to see one thank God when they loose as a reflection of God’s will.
Maybe I should be more thankful if a candidate I can’t stand and reject in toto wins?
Where does the Cross fit here?
What we, in general, are not seeing, and which I am trying to point out, is that the root of the despair (for whatever reason anybody is despairing) is deeply tied up in our belief in modernity. Modernity is a religious conviction – it is the primary religious conviction in the “modern” world. We are “modern” Christians. What we believe (as modernity has taught us) is that our various private religions (our Christianities, etc.) are, at best, “moral” formation, on the basis of which we participate in the real religion – the democratic shaping and betterment of the world. That is what we believe. And we believe that we will be rewarding in the next life for having done a nice job of improving the world, according to our conscience.
That is the religion of modernity. It is not Christianity. Jesus is just a moral teacher (at best) in such a setting. And, of course, today, He’s not even a very reliable moral teacher. “Jesus never said anything about….” So, we have to sort of figure it out ourselves and do what we ourselves think is right – or “what Jesus would do” (if only He had lived and been able to express an opinion). He would indeed be one of leading “opinion makers.” He could sit in on the talk shows. We could have Jesus and Hitler discuss issues (since those are pretty much the only two “moral” leaders that the popular press recognizes).
People do not see nor understand that the modern democratic state has usurped the role of the Church and combined it with the state. But there is no true dialog in any of it. The state has usurped your conscience and said that your religion has no place in the market place of ideas (it should be separate). But it does not say that you should be separate. Indeed, it tells us that you cannot be separate, that as a citizen, you are automatically, by birth, responsible for the decisions of the nation.
And we give the state its legitimacy by agreeing that this arrangement is true and acceptable.
It is not. The modern state does not derive its authority by the consent of the governed. All authority comes from God and the state must answer to Him. What, then, is the state: Those who wield violence for the purpose of governing. The violence may only be “implicit,” but the authority of the state is “the sword,” in terms of NT understanding.
Additionally, that sword is, at best, a permissive matter. It is allowed by God in the same manner as the “garments of skin” in Genesis. It is merely a means of promoting a sort of public virtue and restraining evil – primarily restraining evil.
No monarch has ever managed to convince his population that his decisions were “their” decisions in the manner of modern democracies. We agree to a form of “ownership” in the state, even though, on a practical level, we have no more true say-so in the governance of our world than those living in older monarchies.
My interest in this vein of writing is to “unmask” the powers – particularly in their disguise as “the people.” In many ways, the actual delineation of power and loyalty was much clearer under monarchies than it is under the disguise of so-called democracies. Democracies are similar to consumerism. We are convinced that we buy things and live our lives in frenzy of consumption because we “want” to. We do not “want” to – we are driven to by our passions. We actually “will” very little at all. Most modern persons have almost no experience of their actual will. Passionate choices are not free will.
I would suggest that political “opinions” are very much the equivalent of consumerist passions.
And, finally, my point in unmasking these powers is not to bring about some different political consciousness, but simply to wake us up to the Kingdom of God and to renounce the passions. The political passions are probably even more controlling and consuming that the passions of sex and greed. We are not in charge of the outcome of history.
We are all going to die – “and then whose will these things be?”
Here’s an exercise in imagination.
Imagine that the election were taking place along very religiously explained lines. The candidates were a Mormon, a Jehovah’s Witness, and a Muslim. Who do you want to win? It’s the same thing. Democratic Capitalism is a religion. I don’t care which of its denominations wins. They are both answerable to God for their authority and their abuse. Neither can make me obey or disobey God.
Father, which translation of Dostoevsky’s “The Demons,” do you prefer?
Great post. Enjoyed.
Richard Pevear’s. Also, I tell people that it’s hard to read D. like a modern novel. It’s so 19th century and chock-full. I finally began to use commentaries to help. So, it’s more like studying him.
I have a problem with authority. There, I said it. A great deal of my problem is that I don’t trust the entities that are endowed with it. In many ways I don’t even trust myself although I do have sufficient bravado to have opinions! I’ve both seen and experienced enough abuses, that I try to avoid “encounters of that kind”.
The recent election has brought my problem into sharp focus – at least involving the Church. Hopefully giving nothing away, how can I trust the leadership of my parish when they hold views so opposite of mine? It has been a struggle.
I recalled the event of John 11 however, in which the Jewish leaders are expressing their fears concerning the Lord when Caiaphas, the high priest spoke saying that it was expedient for one man to die for the nation. John notes that he doesn’t say this of his own will but that because he was high priest, he prophesied. It seems to me that the office itself is endowed by God with a type of authority and that this authority also passes to the man who holds it. So, the fact that my priest may see things differently politically has no effect on the integrity of the liturgy he offers or on the mysteries he administers. The life of the Cup to which you referred in a prior response is not sullied. And as men, we could both be wrong.
My problem, then, is one with God from whom all authority rightly flows. Though the chaos of a broken humanity swirls around me like a tornado and injustice…no, unrighteousness is everywhere, there is one I must try to trust although reason is somewhat of a fickle friend.
I am thankful for the words given you by God to share with us. I hope to one day visit your parish, Father. Thank you for these words.
Mark, We trust in God and expect that He will hold those in authority accountable. In situations such as the Church, there are mechanisms of accountability – parish councils, bishops, other priests, etc. I’m not sure which leadership you refer to. As far as I can tell, there were no endorsements of anyone in the election by Orthodox leaders. Priests and laity might very well say things – which is probably inappropriate in Church – for many reasons, including the ones I’ve described in this article. But you should be aware (we all should be) that many passions have been deeply stirred in this last cycle (and they’re not calming down). I would not trust the authority of someone to tell you how to vote or how to “fix” America, etc. It’s not really the point or the problem. But don’t be surprised to see a priest and other laity caught up in their own struggle with the passions.
I care deeply, for example, about the cause of restoring the illegality of abortion. That is both the Church’s traditional teaching, and the traditional understanding of the civilized world – lost only in the past 60 years. It’s easy when caring so deeply to become blind to the passions and as enthralled as anyone else. I voted for neither major candidate this year on grounds of conscience. “Lesser of two evils” is still an evil. I make no pacts with the devil.
Pray for your brothers and sisters, and those in authority. Thank God, Forgiveness Sunday is coming soon.
Father, that works, but along the same lines different ideologies: a hedonist, an atheist, a communist or fascist.
The Scripture seems to indicate that no one rules except by God’s sufferance. Is that correct?
Yes. “You could do nothing had it not been given to you from above…” That does not make God the author of their actions. We have to remind ourselves that we serve a God who has let the devil and his demons run around now since close to the beginning of creation. He has done something about them…and apparently He thinks it’s working.
May God grant me the grace, the wisdom, strength and determination to read Job. It seems to me there is a great deal there especially for we men.
I have started it innumerable times only to lay it aside destracted by the things of this world.
In a democracy we try to elect representatives and rulers who think the same as we do. In an autocracy you can only hope that the autocrat loves you. This is where God, as supreme autocrat, always wins.
I think it was Chesterton who observed that monarchy was the ultimate “democracy,” since he believes that anybody, simply by accident of birth, is capable of ruling.
Fr. Stephen, I used to protest against war. When all the other peaceniks sat down and shut up because Obama was president, I despaired. I went through a period of some years, in fact, when I actually did speak only when spoken to and then only what was absolutely necessary. Those people broke my heart. I only began to heal when I stopped smoking (because then I was no longer paying the one tax I could evade, the tobacco tax. To this day, five years later, if I crave tobacco, I think of innocents tortured by our foreign policy, and say a prayer. It works. It’s heartbreaking, but it works.)
Now I am pretty much flatly refusing to get involved again. I know the protesters will go away just as soon as a corrupt Democrat becomes president. I’m using another name than I did that day, but I am the woman who told you at the Celtic Festival what a warmonger I consider Hillary Clinton to be. I seriously, seriously despise both parties. Heck, my Daddy raised me to hate Republicans, but even when I first voted, I refused to vote for Jimmy Carter because I was just that upset about the Tellico Dam.
Anyway, I was thinking a minute ago that if I could just find a group of conservative Christians who wanted to work together to educate voters about the realities of our foreign policy, then maybe the people would be able to understand. They’d no longer be confused by the stupid spectacles lefty protesters stage. I know we’re sinners on a fallen planet, so I don’t expect peace to reign because of anything I do, but really … am I wrong to want to Do Something? To at least alleviate the suffering? I’m not Orthodox, so is that why I’m so confused here?
It is well worth reading Michael. Remember always, in all circumstance, the appropriate response to any event: Fall on your face and worship. This was my main take away from Job in how I can be as obedient as he.
What is easy to do is love mankind. What is much harder to do is to love my cranky next door neighbor. No, we can’t change the world. Christ never called us to (as Fr. Stephen has so many times pointed out). Heck, I have trouble changing myself and much less my wife of 51 years! In reality, she doesn’t need changing. I’m probably her cranky neighbor. 🙂 Micah says we are to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God. How we can truly alleviate suffering is to do it with someone close, a shut in, or helping at a food pantry, a crisis pregnancy center, etc. There’s a push now to buy local, to support sustainable ag. We can do that in bite sized (pun intended) portions. We can also reach out to our local neighbor in the same manner, Orthodox or not…though the fullness of faith has given me life and freedom I never knew before.
As a recovering Protestant/orthodox catechumen, I find this to be the issue at hand. My husband and I were very studious scholars of scripture, reading original languages, trying to achieve the most accurate doctrine, etc. which inevitably lead to us disagreeing with the confession of our church. Over time it became clear that our options were to become a schism on a schism on a schism (ad infinitum) and be our own little popes of our private kingdoms, or to join the Orthodox Church and submit ourselves to Christ and His church. Glory be to God for all his kindnesses in pushing us toward the latter.
I hope you will have the time to respond to TimOfTheNorth’s earlier comments/request regarding your thoughts on the End of Life medical directives from an Orthodox Christian point of view.
My friend recently lost her 90 year old mother. As per her written request, there were to be no heroic efforts, or life sustaining measures taken. What had not been realized was the agonizingly painful ordeal (also for my friend as she had to watch her mother die of starvation/dehydration, which lasted for 12 days, after the Directive was initiated at the hospice.
And there was absolutely nothing that could be done to alter the Directive once it had been initiated
I know this wasn’t the main point of Tims request but I share this story to point out how vital it is to fully understand exactly what you are requesting.
Thank you! for this Blog. It’s been my constant companion on my 9 year journey to Orthodoxy.
I have given medical power of attorney to next of kin who understand Orthodox principles about dying. If it comes to the point that I cannot speak for myself, they will speak. I do not, myself, care for the “advance directives” approach, since it is not flexible enough in some cases. I have also, as a priest, accepted to have medical power of attorney given to me by those who had no nearby kin and I made those decisions consistent with the Church’s teaching.
Death is never without some difficulty – and the Fathers recognize that some difficulty in death can be salutary – so I’m not interested in removing all suffering from my dying. There is a natural process of anorexia that occurs near death, in which patients refuse food – and it signals the body to produce endorphins that are not unlike opioids in the pain-killing. Withholding water strikes me as unusual. I served for 2 years as a hospice chaplain, so I saw a lot of this up close, and never saw a case of someone being denied water – certainly not over a 12 day period. Without having the particulars of the case you mention, it’s hard to know what took place, or judge it.
Agree…and I don’t really know much more, other than she was unable to swallow and the Directive, as I understand it, did not include any fluids via IV.
My friend made the point that neither had realized how specific/restricted it would be.
It’s the kind of thing that, if done, should only be done with extreme care. They’re treated far too lightly these days.
These discussions which touch upon the periphery of the current political situation are of interest to me. Mostly because I’m trying to disentangle myself from it. I’ve seen and been party to no small amount of division within my circle of friends and family on account of this election (some of that already existed). I’ve come to greatly dislike politics for that very reason, but still I find it difficult to stop looking and watching.
At the same time however, I am beginnning to understand a bit better the need to separate myself from the world. The contention is soul destroying. I copied a comment from a recent post so I could remember it. It said the following, “When it comes to the root questions of what our life consists of we must choose between agnosticism towards God or towards politics.”
The choice is obvious, but learning to live it out takes a bit more doing. I’m working at it.
My understanding, which is not authoritative, is that generally when someone is actively dying (i.e. their systems are shutting down), giving them water will prolong the dying process and possibly increase their discomfort. As the organs shut down, they cannot properly process food or water. If they cannot swallow, it may actually worsen their discomfort or kill them to eat or drink for they will aspirate or choke. If the person is conscious, moistening their lips or the inside of their mouth a little may help them be less uncomfortable. It is our natural tendency to imagine that the dying one would be comforted by being given food or drink but the body has its own process for shutting down that should be respected.
Of course, if someone is not actively dying, it is inhumane to deprive them of nourishment. It is good for families to ask questions. The dying of a loved one is usually a highly emotional time and people sometimes get more upset by not having enough information about what is happening and why.
mary, information is key and unfortunately there are more than a few doctors who won’t give information. I ran into that when my late wife was in the ICU and rapidly declining.
I don’t know if I intimidated the young doc or he had not yet dealt with a patient dying or didn’t want to admit it.
There was a least one treatment decision I would have passed on had I been given the full story.
That was 12 years ago and it still aggravates me. I was flaming angry at the time.
The ICU nurse understood and told me what he could and perhaps more than allowed but he had dealt with more dying patients than the doc.
It is a chaotic horrible time and my experience and that of my living wife is that good, solid information is hard to come by.
Sadly, this is often true. And a nurse, chaplain or social worker may be more helpful than a doctor in some cases – to interpret for the doctor. Better yet, a hospice worker if one is available. As in all professions, there are people who are horrible and others who are heroes in this difficult work of helping people die.
I’m sorry for your continued pain over this. I’ve walked with a few people through the decision to discontinue life support. I suspect that some medical professionals may be afraid of the family’s emotions and therefore avoid them once they have determined that there is no more they can do medically.
Sometimes the patient’s death may feel like a failure to them. Other times they may be (unconsciously) trying to protect themselves from the emotional overload that comes with seeing so much loss and tragedy on a daily basis. I’m not saying this to excuse unprofessional behavior, of course, but to note that people are people and do not always cope well. (And may not even know that they are not coping well.)
I, fortunately, did not have to deal with the issue of life support. I know the doc was scared, especially when I asked him point blank if my wife was going to die. I have no respect for the man. He was far more afraid my wife dying than I was. He was not the attending. He was a kidney specialist called in to consult. Kidney failure was the proximate cause of Pamela’s death. I could see he knew but just could not say it.
I think the doc’s cowardice is what got me the most. Contrasted to the calm courage and empathy of the ICU nurse and our friends from my parish it was marked.
My priest and several fellow parishoners were with my son and I when my wife reposed. Praying for hours.
God sent an angel to guide Pamela as she died, my son and I both saw him but did not share that with each other for a couple of years.
A dear friend took an important step to becoming Orthodox that night because of the grace present as my wife died. It was really remarkable.
The doc in question was no where to be seen. I wonder what he missed? Had not thought of that before. Maybe now I can forgive.
Unless we face the temporary reality of death, how are we to know the joy of the Resurection?
Lord have mercy.
Having been present at hundreds of deaths, I have a bit of perspective. One of those is the personality of doctors. Many are good at what they do, but fail as pastors, as nurses, or as comforting presence. Nothing is more upsetting than the death of someone we love – which means that any family member you speak to might very well be an emotional wreck – and therefore very emotionally overwhelming – or, at least, emotionally very tricky to deal with. I’ve seen family utterly destroy funeral directors who were simply trying to do a job and make a living.
Nurses tend to have much more patient and family experience, are often very compassionate presences. I have, over the years, stopped expecting my doctor to be my priest, my nurse, my friend. I like a straight answer when I ask one – but there often are not straight answers. It’s not surprising for a doctor to not be good at death. They get almost no training in it.
May God give us grace.
Yes Father. I need to forgive instead of remembering the wrong. Coming up on the anniversary of Pamela’s death in March but this month is always when stuff comes up.
I ask your prayers, my lovely wife Merry also lost her husband on the same day 3 years later.
It can be a tough time.
I will pray too, Michael, for you and Merry as you enter your season of grief.
As Fr. Stephen said, many doctors can be very good at what they do from a technical perspective but have little skill or training at dealing with the emotions of human suffering and loss. This seems paradoxical – but I have heard from my patients that some of the finest heart surgeons, for example, are the hardest to relate to on a human level.
You are quite right, that the doctor attending Pamela missed something extraordinary. Fear is one of our enemy’s greatest weapons – it keeps us from so many things that might transform us. If only we dare step into what the enemy tells us is dangerous, we may indeed find the Cross – but also the glory that follows.
I’m reminded of this art piece on a hospital façade showing what appears to be the man from the N.I.C.E. logo fending off the Grim Reaper with his hand and a caduceus. It’s the medical equivalent to advertising for those bad self-defence courses where you just learn to inflict some alleged ultimate knife-attacker-stopping move on a stationary, cooperating target without any real context.
There are many levels of shame involved with being forced to face inevitable failure (whether too late or never avoidable at all) that many professional regulatory bodies and professional cultures make significantly more unbearable with well-intentioned attempts at – and thoroughly Modern attitudes about – quality control.
When I was a hospice chaplain, our medical director, an oncologist, was asked to speak at a patient’s funeral. He freaked out. He certainly felt ashamed that he had not been able to save his patient. But the family really liked him and wanted him to speak. I found a suitable Psalm for him to read. He was a good doctor. Indeed, I thought to myself, “This guy doesn’t like to lose a patient…” Which made me think that if I ever had a medical battle, I’d like him on my side. Most patient care is carried out by nurses and others. Doctors have a very minimal contact with patients. They are resident experts, but the least “patient-oriented” within the profession. I’ve learned to lower my pastoral expectations of them.
I note, with a bit of humor, how awkward my young doctors now seem around me. Many of them are put off by my priesthood – or even the level of conversation (they don’t know history or theology either). But, I need someone to interpret my blood panel for me and to remind me that I need to exercise more. I gave up sugar this past summer, leaving me with almost no standing vices other than my sedentary nature (which is a sitting vice).
To Tim O:
Given the advanced state of medical technology and the clear tendency to use all possible measures to prolong life (whether it comes from one or more of: the desire to avoid litigation or to “win” over death and disease or love for the patient and family or the desire to bill the government or insurance carrier) it is entirely foreseeable that the question of “how much treatment?” will arise later in your life. When/if your physical condition deteriorates to the point that you can’t comprehend the alternatives and express your wishes (somebody has to decide the course or termination of treatment – you, a doctor, next of kin, a civil court judge who doesn’t know you) the question is whether or not your best judgment, guided by grace and good counsel, ought to be the voice the insurance/government/scientific monolith, not to say loving but potentially overwhelmed and sentimental kinfolk listens to. How much wiser to make that judgment call when you, your loved ones and caregivers are not under the burden of sentiment, a doctor’s harried schedule, rapid deterioration, etc.
That said I value what Fr. Stephen has written and your responses and so many others. By coincidence I am just back from a ten day vacation on which I read Tolstoy’s “Confession” and some other of his religious writings. Much of his criticism of the Orthodox Church of his time flowed from the alliance between oppressive civil aristocracy and church aristocracy.
As always seems to happen in human affairs, that excess was answered by revolutions that today seem much worse than what they sought to correct. This only to say that the excesses of democracy can nudge us in the direction of a naive nostalgia for a type of benevolent hierarchy that probably seldom existed in actual fact. And perhaps the conclusion that no form of social organization will be fool proof until we figure out how to keep unhealed fools from any power.
Brenda, Mary B., Michael B. and Fr Stephen,
Thank you for your discussion and reflections about death and the medical profession. I have had similar experiences with doctors who have difficulty with death and it was indeed nurses and hospice personnel that were the most helpful.
One experience I would like to share about the medical profession and the stress they deal with comes to mind. It was after a car accident that killed both my parents and both my brother and I ended up in the hospital to recover from our injuries from this accident. I begged to be informed about the status of my parents while in the emergency room. Perhaps because I was young (17) I wasn’t told during the first hour in the hospital. When I begged the nurse who was attending me she eventually broke down and told me. And I was deeply grateful for the information and then could carry on to focus on my and my brother’s healing.
In this situation there was an exceptional medical doctor who worked on sewing me up. At the time I had the hospital’s record for the most stitches in one sitting. He had just taken care of survivors of a bus accident and then his shift was over. But he didn’t want to leave me and kept working on me until I was completely finished in the operation room –this was over several hours –in my memory I think is was really long like about 8 hours, because the process involved finding pieces of glass and metal in me. (I was conscious and helped in this process) The injuries were significant in my legs and it was thought I might not walk normally again. When I finally left the hospital, I came (walked) to his office to thank him and he cried as he said goodbye to me. In all honesty I think he was the best doctor I’ve ever had over the course of my life.
Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts and experiences in response to my question. These are hard things. I do see the usefulness of an advanced directive given the current state of our society, and the lack of anything approaching a traditionally Christian approach to death. My concern is with the impression that such directives give, at least the ones that I have seen. The implicit suggestion seems to be that, like everything in life, my death can be customized to my liking, too. I’ll keep my hand on the steering wheel until the very end. Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” is said to be one of the most popular funeral songs; the use of advanced directives seems to encourage the same attitude.
Interestingly, shortly after I posed my question here, I saw a news article regarding 3 “locked-in” ALS patients who, thanks to some technological advances, had been able to communicate for the first time since being totally paralyzed. When asked if they were happy to be alive, all three responded positively. This was fascinating, since one of the scenarios often motivating an advance directive is how to respond to similar circumstances. Is life worth living without the ability to communicate? I suspect the answers we might write down in an advanced directive may not hold up when we are facing those realities for ourselves.
If the church wants to save itself from declining into utter functional obsolescence it is going to have to do some penance and earn back the trust and respect of the people.
It sounds like you’re thinking of the “Church” in some sort of institutional sense. Do you specifically mean the Orthodox Church? Though the Church is hierarchical, the hierarchy is not the Church. The Church, which has existed from the beginning of time, is always and only an existence in repentance. That some hierarchs (and others) from time-to-time, fail to rightly live that life of repentance is unremarkable. But it does not change the Church. The life of the Church abides and continues. It is the life of Christ.
I’m not sure “where” you are speaking of the Church. In the US? In some places of the world (I think of the nation of Georgia) the Church is consistently the most trusted thing in society (quite deservedly so, there, I think).
Orthodoxy in America is a mixed bag, but I have not found it untrustworthy or not deserving of respect. As for the non-Orthodox, their institutions are all “over the map” and can hardly be spoken of in a sentence in which they were one thing.
I didn’t get a notice of your reply otherwise I would have responded sooner. In fact, I forgot that I had posted here…
By “the Church” I mean Christianity (Christendom). Of course, Orthodoxy in many ways draws a hard line of demarcation between itself and the rest of Christendom. I feel like Orthodoxy would protest being lumped together with the heretics. We live in a world where conscience and even the value of life itself has been betrayed by Christianity (religion in general) and by governments. Criticizing the individualism of the West without reference to the abuses of authority that drives the desire to be free of authority seems disingenuous. Just because the ancient world in which Jesus lived was highly authoritarian doesn’t mean that authoritarianism is better than individualism. Romans own slaves. Should we? Romans did a lot of things. Why should that matter. This to me is the paragraph I think that struck me the most:
“The veneration of saints, the honoring of icons and relics, the place held by the Mother of God are deeply offensive to modern democracy. The complaints heard by those who reject such things are quite telling. It is rarely the classical protest of true iconoclasts that are heard. Rather, it is the modern declaration, “I don’t need anyone between myself and God.” It is the universal access to God, without interference, without mediation, without hierarchy, without sacrament, ultimately without any need for others that is offended by the hierarchical shape of classical Christianity.”
What is wrong with that protest? It isn’t obvious to me that there should be a mediator between myself and God, or between God and anyone else. If it isn’t obvious to someone else, then I’m not surprised. Frankly, it isn’t obvious to me at all that we need a hierarchy and mediation. Maybe it is more obvious in a world where kings ruled as gods and people were regarded as little more than chattel. In the good old days of unrivaled monarchy the king didn’t bother with hearing the pleas of the peasants and common-folk: “None of the dirty peasants may approach me. If they have requests let them speak to Sally in human resources.” But, since that isn’t the world we live in, what reason would someone have for believing that they need an intermediaries? And perhaps that’s the tell. It isn’t that the need for hierarchy is logically obvious. It is just a consequent of the time period.
From the perspective of the betrayed, religion looks like one more effort to build a well around a spring that God intended for people to drink from freely: “No. no, no! You cannot drink from the spring directly. Not at all! You must come to us and we will use our ladle and ration it out to you–and only if you are qualified.” More ground might be gained if more sympathy for the post-modern condition was shown.
There are about 30,000 versions of the Christianity you are describing as an improvement. It’s called Protestantism.
The thoughts here in the article are not touting one culture over another, they simply posit that there is a hierarchical structure to reality itself (kind of having a God at all implies that). What the marvelously decentralized version yields is not the Church, but only individuals with individual Gods (called “conscience”).
It avoids the danger of the abuse of authority or power. However, it does not eliminate evil. Individuals do all the things you might accuse an authority of doing, and they always have. It is probably not wise to use a particular wound to re-design the world (or the Church).
I wish to say first that I always appreciate what I might call a ‘contrarian’ view in a commenter’s submission because it helps to tease out further the meanings within Fr Stephen’s writing. And that’s why I appreciate your elaboration on your earlier comment.
The word that pops out in your comment to me is the word ‘betrayed’ which hints of a particular, perhaps hurtful, experience that you or someone you know might have experienced within a Christian church. If so, l can relate to that. My mother was Seminole and was spiritual and believed herself to be Christian. But within the context of the Protestant churches we attended early in my childhood she experienced predudice and was ostracized. Her concepts were far too different, although there were Seminole churches where her views might not have been seen as so different.
The upshot of these early experiences was that I shunned all churches and all Christianity. Science held far more attraction to me and that’s where I eventually excelled. But getting back to the notion of hierarchy, there is hierarchy inherent in nature. Hierarchy in itself isn’t inherently evil but gives structure to nature. But it is another place where people engage and act within structure and hierarchy that evil presents itself (–as it might in any human activity).
In the culture of the west (specifically in the US) there is an inordinate amount of destructive hubris. Everyone is entitled. Through such thinking the lands upon which indigenous peoples lived, became the ‘property’ of others who “bought” it in one way or another. Often those who speak “equality” mean it in substance for themselves at the expense of such substance to or for others. Since childhood I have held suspicion against those who held power yet talked the talk of equality and “liberation”.
When I eventually came into an Orthodox Church, I had no interest in being seen, nor did I have any interest in coming to the cup. I definitely felt ‘apart and removed’ from the action of the liturgy. But this was the way I wanted it. Now that I have converted to Christianity through the Orthodox Church, the Liturgy, Tradition, the clergy are all part of the entire process of my receiving the cup. It is part of the ontological reality that enabled me to come to the cup. Because this was the manner of how this happened, it becomes difficult for me to envision how to set up a different system, in order to settle the objections of those who might envision themselves to be entitled to something that they would like to have for themselves in that same structure. Furthermore it seems as though if people cannot have what they want, then they believe they are entitled to destroy that structure. Or at least remove the people who occupy that place and structure.
As a scientist and researcher, I have “mediated” data to the greater society. The skill set of a researcher can take a decade to develop. And the credential should only be given to a scientist after demonstrating that they had the capacity to do such work. Nothing That would be capacity which was developed within an hierarchal framework. However I do notice, with some chagrin, that there are those who give out (in the internet among other places) their “personal take” of “data” and yet lack any credentials that might qualify them. And much of this society would hold such view as on par with someone who had the proverbial credentials, and who might say something different. But I do understand that one reason society might be so inclined is because the scientist might be engaged in political activity, and their presentation of data might well serve power rather than truth.
Sorry last paragraph, third sentence should read: ‘ And that capacity was only developed within an hierarchal frame work’
I’m writing on an iPad and can’t scroll easily over what I’ve written– my apologies for the usual typos.
It isn’t obvious to me that there should be a mediator between myself and God, or between God and anyone else.
I would only add that you seem to be defining a “mediator” as someone of authority above you (i.e. “between myself and God”) in the sense of an “entity of power” who acts primarily as a controlling agent. My understanding, and my experience, is that mediation, sacrament, and hierachy are not impediments or blocks between us and God; rather, they are intercessors and enablers to guide us towards communion with God (in all our stumbling, inability and, all too often, unwillingness to go to Him). God reveals Himself in them; they do not obstruct Him from us. The fullness of worship is revealed in the communal lives and actions of our priests, our spiritual fathers and mothers, and the life of the Church. It is not impeded by it. The authority of the Church is always rooted in the exercise of love, not in the exercise of power.
@Dee of St. Hermans
“But I do understand that one reason society might be so inclined is because the scientist might be engaged in political activity, and their presentation of data might well serve power rather than truth.”
Amen to that.
Dee of St. Hermans,
First, I am never discussing Orthodoxy when I say church, religion, etc. I am discussing a very broad almost abstract domain.
Second, as someone who is earning his PhD in Genome Science and Technology I am well aware of the difference between the authority of the data and the “authority” of the researcher. The researcher only has as much prerogative as the data justifies. The mantra I have learned is “Humility before the evidence” which is NOT “Humility before the researcher.” The democritization of science revovles around the centrality of evidence. When Western thinkers who are raised in a secularized society who have been introduced to this ethic encounter the church what they encounter appears primitive, archaiac, and authoritarian. That isn’t a judgment of the church, religion, etc. It is merely a statement of fact about the post-modern mind.
Dee of St. Hermans,
One last thing. You observe that:
“In order to settle the objections of those who might envision themselves to be entitled to something that they would like to have for themselves in that same structure. Furthermore it seems as though if people cannot have what they want, then they believe they are entitled to destroy that structure. Or at least remove the people who occupy that place and structure.”
I’m going to assume that particular comment is not directed towards me.
But, since you brought it up, I have also resigned myself to worshiping from the margins of Orthodoxy. One, I do it out of respect for the Church because I perceive a yawning chasm between myself and the Orthodox church. However, I would never seek to tear the Church down. I actually have a lot of respect for the insights that I have gleaned from Orthodox thinkers and I respect the “expectations” of the church enough to restrict myself to worshiping from the sidelines.
I personally feel like I am in the best position to help another when I fully understand their perspective and am confident I am not engaging a straw man of my own making…which i am guilty of from time to time.
I agree with everything that you said.
Often when I write, what I don’t make clear is that the “the opinions expressed are not necessarily those of my own.” They represent the divided world in which i live and which LIVES IN me. Until I can fully internalize the dis-integration and alienation of the world to the point where its pain is MY pain and it sense of being “skinned and thrown about” is MY sense of abandonment. If I cannot bring myself to do identify with the lost, then how can I bring healing to a world that I cannot bring to myself. If we cannot sympathize with how the Western mind perceives religion, then the discussion will always be in terms of “we godly Orthodox” and the “those spoiled Protestants.”
I really resonate with the words of Thomas Merton:
“If we want to bring together what is divided, we can not do so by imposing one division upon the other or absorbing one division into the other. But if we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.”
Please forgive me David, in my experience going through the ranks of chemistry as a woman with a heritage lacking upper social class, it has never been my opinion that science has been democratized. Even research in the healing sciences appears to serve the interests of upper classes and the objectives of power.
We agree together with Bryon. Personally, I’m too much of a realist to be swayed by abstractions concerning the church. One factor that initially left me with uncertainty about what I saw (meaning within the confines of my limited experience) in the Orthodox Church I attended for awhile, was the lack of people of ‘color’.
It does give me comfort, however, that there are Alaska Native priests and Saints. And there are Orthodox Churches near enough, that have a rather significant membership of Native Peoples.
Dee, yes, thank God for the Native Americans in Alaska and their priests. I’ve traveled quite a bit in the West and Southwest. Don’t think I’ve ever seen an Orthodox church on a reservation. I know it is a convoluted history, but our treatment of Native Americans was shameful. I believe that even today they are among some of the most marginalized and poor. I recently came across a video of Russell Means from about 25 years back. While not agreeing with much of his political rhetoric, he was worth listening to, gleaning some nuggets of truth.
You mentioned how the wisdom of the Church protects monks on Mt. Athos. I have seen the same protection by our Gerontissa of the nuns under her care. She is very careful to never have younger men working close to the younger nuns (old codgers like me are excepted!). She even prefers having married, middle aged priests serving liturgy, when necessary, over young, single priests. To some it may seem over-protective. I don’t believe it is.
Thanks for the clarification(s), David! Much appreciated.
I only disagree with the Thomas Merton quote on one thing. Instead of “We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.”, I would say that we must, above our own internal and external divisions, seek communion with Christ, who has gathered all things into Himself and sanctifies them. Just my thoughts. Blessings to you, my friend.
Dee, you might check out the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black started by anold friend mine Fr. Moses Berry.
We need to be more welcoming and open in our life today, but the Church has a significant number of pigmented saints and members starting with the Ethiopian eunach. The Church is far more than Lebanese ( not exactly unpigmented), Greeks and Slavs.
Just a thought
The Ethiopian Tewahedo Oriental Orthodox Church is huge, having between 40-46 million members. They are in communion with the Egyptian Coptic Church.
We have a chapter at our Parish of Saint Moses the Black. It is a tragedy that we don’t have more people of African descent in our parishes but I am praying that will change. Christianity is, after all, an African Faith. BTW, the fastest growing Church in Africa today is the Orthodox Church. Glory to God.
Well, I suspect that if we learn to stop looking at folks through the lens created by Western Euopean colonialists that is everyone not just the lessor pigmented among us it will get easier.
Actually, we are all Africans by descent and the difference between us is minimal. We all came from one mother and are creatures of the same God and His creation
Indeed, we all have the same skin pigmentation (melanin). Some just have more or less than others. We’re all shades of the same thing. Racism is extremely deep-seated in our consciousness. I take it very seriously for myself. I grew up in the Jim Crow South, I was taught shameful things, actually within the context of Church. I was taught race theory only in the context of the Church (Baptist) and nowhere else. I would say that the lessons were also taught and reinforced by shame. And having said that, anyone who claims they grew up during that time but is not a racist is, I think, deluding themselves about the shame they harbor in their souls. I know what lurks there in mine and I voluntarily resist it and repent of it. But I see it all the time.
I am intrigued! Would you mind elaborating on these comments of yours: “I would say that we must, above our own internal and external divisions, seek communion with Christ, who has gathered all things into Himself and sanctifies them.” Could you be more explicit about what that means? How is is this different from what Merton said?
I did not grow up in a Jim Crow state but right next door. Mother worked diligently to counter the cultural norms. She was a dancer and brought in adance troop of Afro-Americans and Dominicans, Africans too.. She had to put them up in private homes. Inculding ours.
Great experience for me. To meet and converse with real artists. Men of deep dignity. My mother covered their shame. She taught me to do the same.
When I first saw the Blacks Only signs not long after they had been made illegal (at a gas station in Tennessee) I was ashamed.
When I saw my friend, then Karl Berry, yelled at on a street in inner city Detroit by a fellow black man for following the “white man’s religion” . I felt shame. When I see that shame in the eyes of a recently illumined Afro-American friend and the anger it induces, I am ashamed. He is tired of being on the fore front of breaking into the white world.
He does not come much an I miss him dearly.
God forgive us.
I grew up as a military dependent and as such racial issues were very submerged and I had many friends of many ethnicities. Skin color never seemed to be an issue until we were moving from Turkey to Colorado in 1959 and we were travelling cross country. I saw my first “Whites Only” sign in Virginia at Natural Bridge. It actually made me angry because it was so unfair.
What is even more interesting is that in the original inception of racism in the Virginia Colony after Bacon’s rebellion I would not be considered white because I have Irish ancestry. Oh the foolishness of man’s inventions.
David, I was trying – and perhaps not doing a very good job – to differentiate between our efforts and our communion with God. Thomas Merton’s “We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ” struck me as saying something akin to, “we must make the effort ourselves, but Christ will give us the strength”. It almost sounds a bit triumphal in the sense of “WE’RE going to do this mighty deed and God will give us the strength!” Or perhaps it just struck me that way.
I tend to think in terms of seeking communion with Christ, in spite of my own divided heart. He has gathered all things to Himself in the Cross; I strive for communion with Him there.
I see. So, in Orthodoxy isn’t there a sense in which Christians do things by the strength God gives? For example, the struggle against the passions? I appreciate what you’re saying: Seek communion with Christ where the reconciliation of God to the alienation and dis-integration of the world is already achieved. But, I would imagine that, like the passions, there are many things that will not be overcome if we do not put forth the effort.
Just a note: I had a long conversation with my friend and we committed to each other to be battle buddies in facing the shame of racial fear and hatred together. Please pray for us. His name is Fred (Cornelius).
David, correct but the effort is not of the same type as what the world thinks. Sometimes the effort is just showing up. The first step for my friend and me to deal with the shame we both feel in the racial fear and hatred is to show up together and worship the Holy Trinity together. Partake of the sacrament together-visibly. To let others see our friendship.
The other effort is in getting back up when we fall. No matter how often we fall. Engaging in the basic disiplines of the Church with out expectation:. Pray, worship, give alms with a merciful heart, fast, confess and forgive not seeking a reward.
To be friends simply for friendship’s sake.
Be obedient giving thanks to God at all times.
Seems like a lot of effort in all that. But it is by His Grace that any of it is fruitful.
Richard Foster (Society of Friends) wrote in his book, Celebration of Discipline, that discipline puts in the path of God’s grace and helps create a receptive heart.
Watch, pray, listen give thanks.
Christ is Risen!
I appreciate and respect everything that you have said. Especially, this “discipline puts in the path of God’s grace and helps create a receptive heart.” Receptivity of heart, humility of heart. I could not agree more. In my level best understanding it is all about the heart: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
God give us grace and mercy, brother.
So, in Orthodoxy isn’t there a sense in which Christians do things by the strength God gives? For example, the struggle against the passions?
I’ll add to Michael’s post that I think it is a matter of focus. Our struggle against the passions is to lay them at the foot of the Cross with thanksgiving, not to overcome them. As you noted very well, we seek “humility of heart”. I think our focus is not to “do things by His strength” as much as to humble ourselves and allow God to do as He will.
Father has written quite a bit on this. One recent example is here: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2017/02/12/providence-guarded-heart/
That seems…unrealistic. I sometimes wage a real battle in prayer to pull myself away from a course that is going awry. I hear you saying that all the effort I have exerted is misdirected or misspent. Which is fine to say. But, how would I do it differently??
Prayer is laying your struggle at the foot of the cross
Forgive me for seeming *contrary* but how does that work. I’m hearing you say “Bring it to God in prayer. Lay it at the foot of the cross. Leave it there. And then forget about it.” My experience is that the passions are more tenacious than that…
Michael you have described the way that others helped me to come into Liturgy as a participant. –by standing with me. There was a woman who saw me attempting to leave unnoticed. She stopped me in a somewhat shy way and invited me to coffee hour. After a little resistance she encouraged further and said I didn’t need to stay long and she would introduce me to the priest. I accepted but asked that she stay with me until I left, and she did.
After a few more visits to this church, she introduced me to another very gentle non-boisterous woman, who didn’t say much ( for which I was grateful– in ‘real’ life I’m not that talkative and prefer not talking– unless I’m nervous, then I talk up a storm) who just sat with me.
After the Gospel reading during Matins (Orthros), the first woman came back to me and her friend where we were sitting (at the back of the church) and asked if I would like to go up to the Cross to venerate it. I think this took bravery on her part. I wasn’t sure, but she added again that the both of them would go up with me, one in front and one behind. For some unexplainable reason this comforted me. The one who would walk in front would tell the priest that this was the first time I’ve come to venerate the Cross.
As I came to the Cross I noticed with dismay that she kissed the Cross and the priest’s hand. The kissing of the priest’s hand threw me into a panic. Then she told him this was the first time for me to come forward. When I came up, the priest said amiably “kiss the Cross, Dee. –that I was able to do and did. And I was grateful in that moment that I wasn’t asked to do more than I was able to do.
When it came time for my baptism I asked the first shy woman, who stopped me the first time I visited as I tried to slip out, to be my sponsor. Her shy and somewhat reserved and humble ways broke down enormous walls.
I sometimes wage a real battle in prayer to pull myself away from a course that is going awry. I hear you saying that all the effort I have exerted is misdirected or misspent. Which is fine to say. But, how would I do it differently??
I would not say your effort is misdirected or misspent. The distinction I would point to is that it is directed towards seeking God, not towards another goal (something like “my betterment”). It is not a lack of effort that is needed but a proper direction for that effort. I think this is a form of, as Nicholas noted, “laying your stuggle at the foot of the cross.”
Our prayer should be self-emptying in that regard; we give ourselves and our passions over to God. There’s a wonderful statement on the grounds of a hospital in Africa that says, “We Treat, God Heals”. The same idea applies here, I believe. We make the effort with a recognition of its limits (we give), not with the idea of the empowerment God may give it.
God heals us; we simply cannot do so on our own. As Dee pointed out so beautifully, our healing can assist in the healing of others but only if it is a response towards God in humility. Just my thoughts or course; there are many here who can discuss this far better than I.
I think you might be splitting hairs, which is fine. I don’t have anything against that.
BUT, the scripture does say things like “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” and “[You] work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Almost everything I do, I do for my improvement. Why am I interested in religion at all? Because of the promise of seeing God, the promise of having life that is indeed life. I am learning humility. I am learning devotion. I am learning to pray. But, I would be really surprised if God said “Well, I sure would love to help David with those passions, but because he is more preoccupied with being a better person than with my glory, then my hands are tied…he’s on his own.”
Whatever it is I’m doing, I just do it. I do it to the best of my ability. I do it with little restraint. I just do and then leave everything else in God’s hands–even my motivations.
My apologies, David. I am not always good at explaining the intricacies of these things (and they can be very difficult).
Whatever it is I’m doing, I just do it. I do it to the best of my ability. I do it with little restraint. I just do and then leave everything else in God’s hands–even my motivations.
I think this is an excellent way to go. Do as you can; leave it in God’s hands.
I would recommend going throught the archives here as you have time; Father has written extensively on this particular topic and there are some very good conversations in the comments as well. Blessings to you, my friend!
Just to interject a thought. You said: But, I would be really surprised if God said “Well, I sure would love to help David with those passions, but because he is more preoccupied with being a better person than with my glory, then my hands are tied…he’s on his own.”
This is make-believe, or hypothetical thinking. Why not just say that God could say, “Why don’t I just fix David right now and get rid of all his pesky passions. I don’t really need anything from him in this…”
But, obviously, God does not do that. It’s not because He’s not good, nor that he doesn’t love us, etc. But, in some manner, His hands are indeed tied. How so?
We’re not snap-the-fingers and presto sorts of beings. We are free. And our consequences are real. Including when the consequences of our free actions impact other free lives. Could God snap the fingers and fix everything? Yes, but then it would not be this creation and we would be something other than what we are created to be. We are created with our own sovereignty, after a fashion. To live in true union with God (as “gods” the fathers would say), we cannot be treated in such a manner.
God does not heal us in such a manner. His power is made manifest in the Cross. The Cross is the most absolute renunciation of the kind of snap-the-fingers power possible. God Himself enters into and accepts the consequences of our sin: death. And He heals it from the inside. And, as persons, we are invited to do it in the same way. We heal death by death. We heal our death by His death, and by participating in His death.
To heal the passions, for example, they are not mastered and overcome. They are not trained out of existence. They are not simply resisted until they go away. They are healed by dying to them. And this is a very different thing. We cannot heal the passions with the passions.
In the words of the Elder Sophrony, “The way up is the way down.” The details of that are too fine in any given life and situation to simply describe here with a broad brush.
It’s good to do what we do and leave it in God’s hands as you’ve described it. But in asking for God, in asking for healing, we are asking for the Cross. There is no other instrument of healing.
The hypothetical was simply a way of expressing what seemed like an absurdity to me: God not helping because we aren’t doing it right. Am I mistaken in thinking that even if my intentions are “wrong” (as in I’m trying to be a better person) God would have the grace to work with that until I am mature enough to intend differently??
I really appreciate these words:
“God does not heal us in such a manner. His power is made manifest in the Cross. The Cross is the most absolute renunciation of the kind of snap-the-fingers power possible. God Himself enters into and accepts the consequences of our sin: death. And He heals it from the inside. And, as persons, we are invited to do it in the same way. We heal death by death. We heal our death by His death, and by participating in His death.”
David, prayer is a hard work. It is quite layered. For the great saints like St. Silouan they seem to take prayer all the way onto the Cross. Their prayer is their life on the Cross.
Father Stephen said recently that when you reach the limits of what you can easily say thanks for, you have reached the foot of the Cross.
Thanksgiving is an offering up of ourselves, each other and all our lives to God in joy.
I have known deep joy on only a few occasions: when I have wed, when my son was born, when I was Chrismated, and the Pascha about six weeks after the repose of my late wife.
Prayer in it’s highest form IMO is simply taking oneself, life and fellow human beings into the presence of God, giving Him glory, staying there as long as possible and then going on about one’s activities without worry.
I have never been there. But no matter, in all of its levels there is communion with God.
Sometimes it is given to us as a gift to another person.
Often there are frustrations, distractions, and tears. It can be contentious in nature as Jacob contending with the angel or Abraham for Sodom. Or contending with the darkness.
It is not often nice. Never easy. Even the simple Lord have mercy. The Jesus Prayer too.
Even my attempt at prayer reveals to me where my treasure is. Usually it is not in heaven.
Sometimes it is a bit like going into a batting cage or onto a driving range or singing scales. Seems boring, repetitive and unfruitful. But each attempt helps.
Our passions are tenacious and our prayers need to be more so. The struggle is fierce and often lasts our entire lives. There is no easy way, no single prayer that solves all issues. It is a life of struggle but, the struggle is fought through unceasing prayer. There is no short cut or easy answer.
I went back and re-read this post today. The last two paragraphs are nothing less than pure gold! Thank you Father!