Get Out of Hell Free

The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday among the Orthodox, and they celebrate Christ raising him from the dead just prior to His entrance into Jerusalem (gospel of John). It is a feast that offers something of a preview of Christ’s resurrection, and a foretaste of the General Resurrection at the End of the Age. Some years back I sat in a cave that is purported to be the grave of Lazarus. I could not help but think of him – but of him in Hades rather than the tomb. It is said in the Fathers that when Christ raised him from the dead, it was necessary for Him to say, “Lazarus, come forth!” For had He only said, “Come forth!” all of the dead would have risen before their time. It’s a thought that I like a lot.

 It is also, however, a thought that has occurred to Hades itself, at least in the hymnody of the Church:

 I implore you, Lazarus, said Hell, Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.

 Why do you delay, Lazarus? cried Hell. Your Friend stands calling to you: ‘Come out.’ Go, then, and I too shall feel relief. For since I swallowed you, all other food is loathsome to me.

 O Lazarus, why do you not rise up swiftly? cried Hell below, lamenting. Why do you not run immediately from this place? Lest Christ take prisoner the others, after raising you. (From the Canon of Lazarus Saturday)

 It is as if when Christ says, “Come forth!” Hell cries, “Get out!”

 Most of the Orthodox hymns surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection (and Lazarus’ as well) center on the notion of the “Harrowing of Hell.” The object of the Cross is not the wrath of God, but the death and confinement of man. It is the virtual non-existence that holds us in death that is trampled down by the death of Christ.

The punishment theories of the atonement have a way of mixing moral themes into Christ’s death and resurrection. They are about Christ’s payment for the moral debt of our sins. Somehow, something is terribly askew in such meditations. The utter graciousness and even gratuitous character of Christ’s victory is overlooked.

I am aware of the Biblical passages that speak of the resurrection to damnation as well as the coming judgment. But I always have the sense that those who dwell on such things are somehow afraid that Christ might accidentally forgive someone who should not have been forgiven. Be careful! Someone might get away with something!

When I ponder the atonement, the work accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, I tend to think of the imagery of a prison break – a really BIG prison break. When the doors are opened every fellow-prisoner is your friend. You make a run for it because it’s your chance and the sudden generosity that has found you is likely to spill over to everyone and everything. It is like the childhood cry that ends the game of Hide and Seek: “Olly, Olly, Oxen free!”

In truth, despite all of our responsibility for sin, we are largely its victims. We do not begin our lives in Paradise, but in a world in which everyone is broken and distorted. Those who carry out crimes are most likely to have been victims first. We do to others what has been done to us. And sometimes it goes to horrendous extremes. We are psychopaths and sociopaths, addicts and sinners, the children of a world gone wrong.

And though there is help, even salvation for us in this life, many never seem to find it, or being found by it, fail to understand its significance. And now they lie among the dead, bound in their sins, brought down to Hades for their crimes.

It is this fellowship of criminals and sinners that the good bishop, Melito of Sardis, seems to have had in mind when he penned a Paschal homily around the year 160 ad. It is wonderfully primitive in its vision, speaking with a concern that continues to echo in the language of the Orthodox faith. It is hopeful and bold, though perhaps discouraging for those who fear that someone might get off too lightly. He says of Christ in Hades:

[Christ] rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: “Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent?”

“I,” He says, “am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven.

“I,” he says, “am the Christ.”

“Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness. I am the passover of your salvation. I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you. I am your ransom. I am your light. I am your saviour. I am your resurrection. I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.”

This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human through the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.

Amen. Indeed.

 

 

 

 

Let’s Get Out of This Place

The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday among the Orthodox, and they celebrate Christ raising him from the dead just prior to His entrance into Jerusalem (gospel of John). It is a feast that offers something of a preview of Christ’s resurrection, and a foretaste of the General Resurrection at the End of the Age. Some years back I sat in a cave that is purported to be the grave of Lazarus. I could not help but think of him – but of him in Hades rather than the tomb. It is said in the Fathers that when Christ raised him from the dead, it was necessary for Him to say, “Lazarus, come forth!” For had He only said, “Come forth!” all of the dead would have risen before their time. It’s a thought that I like a lot.

 It is also, however, a thought that has occurred to Hades itself, at least in the hymnody of the Church:

 I implore you, Lazarus, said Hell, Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.

 Why do you delay, Lazarus? cried Hell. Your Friend stands calling to you: ‘Come out.’ Go, then, and I too shall feel relief. For since I swallowed you, all other food is loathsome to me.

 O Lazarus, why do you not rise up swiftly? cried Hell below, lamenting. Why do you not run immediately from this place? Lest Christ take prisoner the others, after raising you. (From the Canon of Lazarus Saturday)

 It is as if when Christ says, “Come forth!” Hell cries, “Get out!”

 Most of the Orthodox hymns surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection (and Lazarus’ as well) center on the notion of the “Harrowing of Hell.” The object of the Cross is not the wrath of God, but the death and confinement of man. It is the virtual non-existence that holds us in death that is trampled down by the death of Christ.

The punishment theories of the atonement have a way of mixing moral themes into Christ’s death and resurrection. They are about Christ’s payment for the moral debt of our sins. Somehow, something is terribly askew in such meditations. The utter graciousness and even gratuitous character of Christ’s victory is overlooked.

I am aware of the Biblical passages that speak of the resurrection to damnation as well as the coming judgment. But I always have the sense that those who dwell on such things are somehow afraid that Christ might accidentally forgive someone who should not have been forgiven. Be careful! Someone might get away with something!

When I ponder the atonement, the work accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, I tend to think of the imagery of a prison break – a really BIG prison break. When the doors are opened every fellow-prisoner is your friend. You make a run for it because it’s your chance and the sudden generosity that has found you is likely to spill over to everyone and everything. It is like the childhood cry that ends the game of Hide and Seek: “Olly, Olly, Oxen free!”

In truth, despite all of our responsibility for sin, we are largely its victims. We do not begin our lives in Paradise, but in a world in which everyone is broken and distorted. Those who carry out crimes are most likely to have been victims first. We do to others what has been done to us. And sometimes it goes to horrendous extremes. We are psychopaths and sociopaths, addicts and sinners, the children of a world gone wrong.

And though there is help, even salvation for us in this life, many never seem to find it, or being found by it, fail to understand its significance. And now they lie among the dead, bound in their sins, brought down to Hades for their crimes.

It is this fellowship of criminals and sinners that the good bishop, Melito of Sardis, seems to have had in mind when he penned a Paschal homily around the year 160 ad. It is wonderfully primitive in its vision, speaking with a concern that continues to echo in the language of the Orthodox faith. It is hopeful and bold, though perhaps discouraging for those who fear that someone might get off too lightly. He says of Christ in Hades:

[Christ] rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: “Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent?”

“I,” He says, “am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven.

“I,” he says, “am the Christ.”

“Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness. I am the passover of your salvation. I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you. I am your ransom. I am your light. I am your saviour. I am your resurrection. I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.”

This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human through the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.

Amen. Indeed.

 

 

 

 

Let’s Get Out Of This Place

The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday among the Orthodox, and they celebrate Christ raising him from the dead just prior to His entrance into Jerusalem (gospel of John). It is a feast that offers something of a preview of Christ’s resurrection, and a foretaste of the General Resurrection at the End of the Age. Some years back I sat in a cave that is purported to be the grave of Lazarus. I could not help but think of him – but of him in Hades rather than the tomb. It is said in the Fathers that when Christ raised him from the dead, it was necessary for Him to say, “Lazarus, come forth!” For had He only said, “Come forth!” all of the dead would have risen before their time. It’s a thought that I like a lot.

 It is also, however, a thought that has occurred to Hades itself, at least in the hymnody of the Church:

 I implore you, Lazarus, said Hell, Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.

 Why do you delay, Lazarus? cried Hell. Your Friend stands calling to you: ‘Come out.’ Go, then, and I too shall feel relief. For since I swallowed you, all other food is loathsome to me.

 O Lazarus, why do you not rise up swiftly? cried Hell below, lamenting. Why do you not run immediately from this place? Lest Christ take prisoner the others, after raising you. (From the Canon of Lazarus Saturday)

 It is as if when Christ says, “Come forth!” Hell cries, “Get out!”

 Most of the Orthodox hymns surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection (and Lazarus’ as well) center on the notion of the “Harrowing of Hell.” The object of the Cross is not the wrath of God, but the death and confinement of man. It is the virtual non-existence that holds us in death that is trampled down by the death of Christ.

The punishment theories of the atonement have a way of mixing moral themes into Christ’s death and resurrection. They are about Christ’s payment for the moral debt of our sins. Somehow, something is terribly askew in such meditations. The utter graciousness and even gratuitous character of Christ’s victory is overlooked.

I am aware of the Biblical passages that speak of the resurrection to damnation as well as the coming judgment. But I always have the sense that those who dwell on such things are somehow afraid that Christ might accidentally forgive someone who should not have been forgiven. Be careful! Someone might get away with something!

When I ponder the atonement, the work accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, I tend to think of the imagery of a prison break – a really BIG prison break. When the doors are opened every fellow-prisoner is your friend. You make a run for it because it’s your chance and the sudden generosity that has found you is likely to spill over to everyone and everything. It is like the childhood cry that ends the game of Hide and Seek: “Olly, Olly, Oxen free!”

In truth, despite all of our responsibility for sin, we are largely its victims. We do not begin our lives in Paradise, but in a world in which everyone is broken and distorted. Those who carry out crimes are most likely to have been victims first. We do to others what has been done to us. And sometimes it goes to horrendous extremes. We are psychopaths and sociopaths, addicts and sinners, the children of a world gone wrong.

And though there is help, even salvation for us in this life, many never seem to find it, or being found by it, fail to understand its significance. And now they lie among the dead, bound in their sins, brought down to Hades for their crimes.

It is this fellowship of criminals and sinners that the good bishop, Melito of Sardis, seems to have had in mind when he penned a Paschal homily around the year 160 ad. It is wonderfully primitive in its vision, speaking with a concern that continues to echo in the language of the Orthodox faith. It is hopeful and bold, though perhaps discouraging for those who fear that someone might get off too lightly. He says of Christ in Hades:

[Christ] rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: “Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent?”

“I,” He says, “am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven.

“I,” he says, “am the Christ.”

“Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness. I am the passover of your salvation. I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you. I am your ransom. I am your light. I am your saviour. I am your resurrection. I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.”

This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human through the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.

Amen. Indeed.

 

 

 

 

Get Real for Lent

 

According to St. Basil, God is the “only truly Existing.” Our own existence is a gift from God who is our Creator. None of us has “self-existing” life. We exist because God sustains us in existence – in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Sin is the rejection of this gift of God – a movement away from true existence.

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Much of our attention in the modern world is engaged seemingly with things that have no “true existence.” We engage with illusions, with digital constructs. Our economy allows us to escape the normal necessities such as seasonal scarcity or other mundane concerns. We are increasingly removed from the very environment in which we naturally live.

It is said that astronauts, after spending a prolonged time in space, have lingering effects of zero-gravity. Our bodies are made for gravity and require its constant pull for everything from muscle tone to bone density. But we now live in situations in which many forms of natural “gravity” have been reduced or removed. What effect does the long-term ability to have almost any food at any time of year have on the human body? As someone who has spent the better part of my life at a desk, I can attest to the effect of a sedentary existence. My lower back, my range of motion, the flexibility of my joints are all consistent with the modern white-collar worker.

What effect do such things have on the soul? For the soul requires “gravity” as well. Plato stated in his Republic, that all children should learn to play a musical instrument because music was required for the right development of the soul. We give far too little thought to such things, assuming that no matter what environment we live in, our inherent freedom of choice remains unscathed and we can always decide to do something different, or be something different.

I could decide to run a marathon tomorrow, but I know that the first quarter-mile would leave me gasping for breath and exhausted. You cannot go from 40 years at a desk to the demands of a marathon – just because you choose to do so.

And so we come to Great Lent.

Some see this season of the year as a spiritual marathon. They rise from their sedentary spiritual lives, set off in a sprint and fail before the first week is out. The failure comes in anger, self-recrimination, even despondency.

The first year that I “chose” to fast in the Orthodox manner (it was 4 years before I was received into the Church), the priest I discussed the fast with said, “You can’t keep the fast.” I argued with him until I realized his wisdom.

“Do something easier,” he told me. “Just give up red meat.”

“What about chicken?” I asked.

“Nope. Eat chicken. Eat everything except beef and pork. And pray a little more.”

And so I returned to my Anglican life, a little disappointed that my zeal had made such a poor impression. But my family accepted the proposal and we ate no red meat for Lent. It was, in hindsight, the best Lent my family had ever had. No longer were we musing over “what to give up for Lent,” and instead accepted a discipline that was given to us.

In subsequent years that same priest (who is now my godfather) increased the discipline. And we were ready for it. It is interesting to me, however, that my first experience of an Orthodox fast was being told not to be so strict. The “strict” part was learning to do what I was told. That is sometimes the most difficult fast of all.

Lent is a time to “get real.” Not eating some things is actually normal. In our modern world we have to embrace a natural “gravity” that we could easily leave behind – at least, we have to do this if we want to avoid an atrophy of the soul.

In 2000, the average American ate 180 pounds of meat a year (and 15 pounds of fish and shellfish). That was roughly a third more than in 1959. Scarcity is not an issue in our diet. Our abundance is simply “not real,” and the environment frequently shows the marks of the artificial nature of our food supply. But we have no way of studying what is going on with our souls. What I know to be true is that – as goes the body – so goes the soul. Those who engage the world as consumer are being consumed by the world to an equal measure.

And so we get real.

Getting real means accepting limits and boundaries. Our culture is a bubble of make-believe. It rests on an economy of over-consumption. The crash of 2008 came close to a much greater disaster and could have easily gone into free-fall. Many fail to understand just how fragile our lives truly are. In the season of Lent (and on all the fasting days of the year) we embrace the fragility of our lives. We allow the world to say “no” and take on extra burdens and duties. It is worth keeping in mind that such things do not make us spiritual heroes, first they have to make us human.

Hell, Justice and the Heart of Prayer – Thinking Like a Slave

In the third kneeling prayer of Pentecost, there is a boldness in which the Church pleads for the souls in Hell (Hades). It is a boldness that can stun the one who prays, easily wondering, “Are we allowed to ask for these things?” In general, all my life I have heard a rehearsal of the boundaries of hell. I have heard about who goes there, why they must stay there, why it is testimony to God’s justice that they be tormented there. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man will be retold, with special care to note that “there is a gulf fixed between them and us, and they cannot come here and we cannot go there.” And then there are the kneeling prayers of Pentecost.

I am deeply aware that many minds are troubled by voices of universalism (I hear these things tossed about regularly). I am told that people are not taking sin seriously, or that they are ignoring the tradition, and many such things. I have no arguments in that debate and cannot stake out a position on something I do not know. However, I am troubled that a conversation that is very much worth having gets swept aside by the almost knee-jerk reaction to the topic (frankly, from almost every side). That conversation is an examination of our hearts in the light of hell. For what is tested there is not God’s justice, but our mercy.

In Genesis 18, we read the story of the Hospitality of Abraham. “Three angels” come to visit him as they make their way to Sodom and Gomorrah to make a personal inspection regarding the reported sins of those wicked cities. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is clearly on the agenda. That destruction (fire and brimstone) should be seen as an icon of the Judgment. What we see manifest in Abraham, however, is an argument with the justice of God. God proposes to destroy the cities, and Abraham questions Him. “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” he asks. And then begins the amazingly bold argument of Abraham, increasingly importuning God with his pleas for mercy.

As it is, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed for the lack of six. God agreed to spare the city if but ten righteous could be found there. As it was, only Lot, his wife, and his two daughters escaped.

I will play the role of Abraham for a moment. What if, instead of Lot and his family, Christ Himself dwelt in Sodom and Gomorrah? Would the presence of that single example of righteousness cause the cities to be spared?

I believe that the role of Abraham is the only right role for a Christian believer. He is the example of a righteous heart in the matter of God’s judgment. There are many other roles that can be played. We can be (and often are) the Analysts of Judgment (arguing with Abraham that his suggestions bear too little merit and that the demands of justice outweigh them).

I can do nothing about the mechanics or metaphysics of hell (nor can anyone else). All that is variable within that reality is the heart. That said, if you are angry or in despair, or glibly satisfied with the whole thing, then you have likely lost your heart and become a victim of the fantasies that populate and haunt our minds.

Modern social theories have majored in grand explanations for human suffering. Economics, politics, war, historical movements and the like have all been tasked with the role of justifying “things as they are.” Those justifications are frequently used as the building blocks of various modern schemes to build a better world and eliminate the suffering. We have become somewhat numbed by such concepts. More numbing still, is the simple phenomenon of first-world life. Though suffering touches everyone, the mythology of first-world consciousness tends to view itself as somehow exempt, as the fixer rather than the victim. And so, we theorize rather than empathize.

We cannot imagine ourselves as slaves. But let’s try. We have all been taken captive or were born in captivity. We are abused, and, in turn, we abuse others (and ourselves). Some have chosen to work with their masters in a slave’s version of the Stockholm Syndrome. There are good slaves and bad slaves, kind slaves and cruel. But we are slaves. There is certainly free-will, and choices that are made day-by-day. But the general context of slavery is not a choice and no separate action of the will occurs outside the context of that slavery.

Whose fault is the slavery? And what possible use is an answer to that question? Sit and explain to the slave the meaning of his slavery and its causes and you still have a slave. Perhaps he can start a discussion group.

This is not a first-world scenario. However, it is profoundly the scenario of Scripture. The liberation of Israel from Egypt, the great primal story of Passover, is a slave narrative. This same point-of-view is the context of the New Testament as well. Christ came to “set at liberty those who are held captive,” and to “seek and save those who are lost.” St. Paul describes us specifically as “slaves to sin.” The patristic and liturgical treatment of Pascha is almost exclusively that of setting captives free.

Perhaps the greatest sea-change in the Christian mindset has been the shift from slave to management. The contemporary first-world views itself as management, despite the fact that it is as much slave as the world has ever been. It is possible to say that repentance begins by renouncing ourselves as managers and acknowledging ourselves as slaves. Only in that manner can Christ set us free. Managers, as such, cannot be saved.

And this brings us back to hell, justice and the heart of prayer. Only a slave knows how to pray for freedom. Only a slave can show mercy to fellow slaves, no matter how much they have come to resemble their oppressors. For our sake, Christ became a slave that He might free us all.

This is the heart of Abraham, who dared pray for the foolish and wicked slaves of Sodom and Gomorrah. We should enter that same heart whenever we pray. It is only the humble and contrite heart that moves the heart of God (or that moves with it). Think like a slave in order to think as free.

 

Getting Your Mind Right

cool-hand-luke-egg-sceneIn the classic movie, Cool Hand Luke (1967), the lead character struggles in a Deep South prison chain-gang setting. Very cool towards authority, he is finally, at the Warden’s direction, beaten by the guards. There is a memorable bit of dialog:

Luke (lying in a grave he’s been forced to dig): Oh God! Oh God! I pray to God you don’t hit me anymore. I’ll do anything you say, but I can’t take anymore.

Workboss: You got your mind right, Luke?

Luke: Yeah, I got it right. Oh, I got it right, Boss.

Workboss: Suppose you was to backslide on us? Suppose you was to back-sass?

Luke is in a hostile universe whose only reason to exist is to produce docile cooperation in the cheap labor of the chain gang. Some tiny modicum of peace (though no dignity) is promised, if only you get your mind right. In the end, Luke cannot do what is asked of him.

The character is one of the classic anti-heroes, typical of its decade.  After a time of seeming docility, Luke makes a break for it and even runs the dogs to death! Of course, he dies. Shot unnecessarily in order to make the warden’s point.

Luke is something of a Christ figure, a symbol of a truly free mind to those who remain imprisoned . “He was a world beater!” one of the men declares.

“Getting your mind right,” has remained a very active image for me over the years. It is the abiding threat of a world that promises rewards to those who no longer mind. “Going along with things” is bad enough. However, to “go along” because you have actually yielded your heart and your will is soul crushing. Something properly human is lost.

In a strange way, I see this at work within the ranks of many Christians. And here I do not refer to getting your mind right and agreeing with the world. Instead, I mean getting your mind right and agreeing that God and His justice is the author of our worst fears.

When God meets with Moses on the Holy Mount, the people become distracted and demand that a golden calf be created so they can worship it. God becomes angry and says to Moses:

“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses begged the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people.

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'”

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. (Exo 32:9-14)

Of course, this is a very strange passage and has perplexed generations. “The Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do…” But, rather than getting lost in idle speculation, the text points to something absolutely essential. Moses does not “get his mind right” and agree to go along with the wholesale destruction of the people of Israel. He pleads their case before God.

Moses is not alone is such actions. Abraham famously does something similar when the Lord tells him of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But we are all too lacking in the likes of Moses and Abraham.

What I see, all too frequently, is a willingness both to argue why it is right for God to destroy His people or to eliminate whole cities from the globe. Some go so far as to assert that it is not only right but actually necessary. “God is a holy God. He cannot deny His justice,” they say.

I think I understand the nature of the argument. There is a concern that something within the Scriptures might be violated. There is a concern that gainsaying the punishments of God is just one more effort of modernity to set aside the teaching of the faith. But what is not seen, I think, is just what is happening to the heart of a Christian when he gets his mind right and makes peace with the “punishments” of God.

First, he parts ways with Moses and Abraham. It is not only Moses and Abraham who are lost, but the whole heart of the Orthodox tradition. For that heart is clearly heard in the words of Moses and Abraham. They do not argue theology with God. But neither do they stand aside and say, “My heart must be wrong.” They do not get their minds right.

I believe that God didn’t want them to get their minds right. In the merciful pleading of Abraham and the rebuke of Moses, God heard the echo of His own heart. He can say of Abraham, “This is a man after my own heart.” Moses is the “friend of God.”

When such a heart is absent, we simply become functionaries, explaining to others why things must be as they are. We become apologists for the very thing that Moses and Abraham resisted.

In modern conversations, the topic of God’s punishments seems to turn on what is necessary or right and wrong. Those are interesting questions, but they are beside the true point. The point is found in the heart of the matter. Will we plead for God’s mercy for all? Will we argue with Him and take the side of those who deserve punishment? Will we beg for another year’s mercy for the fig tree so that it may be tended and cared for yet again?

I have written before that the story of Christ’s Pascha is the central core of the Christian faith and the reality that must shape all of our understanding. The position of Moses and Abraham is paschal in nature. Moses stands over an idolatrous people, deserving of destruction and pleads for them. He is Christ-like, descending into a desert Hades to lead his people out…even if he has to rebuke God in order to do so. Abraham delays the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as he argues with God.

Christ came for the unrighteous. He seemed to go looking for harlots and tax collectors. Christ is the revelation of the heart of God. It is a heart that “broods” over Jerusalem like a mother hen gathering her chicks. He rebukes the disciples when they eagerly ask to call down fire from heaven to consume an entire village.

There are mistakes of the heart to be made in the other direction, as well. It is possible to substitute some interpretive position that all will be well, in such a way that the argument and the rebuke disappear. In this, there is no Moses, no Abraham, just the universe going about its way while we blissfully go about ours.

St. Silouan said, “My brother is my life,” and then he prayed as though he believed it. There certainly is a judgment, and there certainly is a hell. Many suffer, both just and unjust. We have not been appointed to construct a metaphysics that we find pleasing or satisfying. We must never “get our minds right.”

To use the imagery of the movie (which are highly paschal), the world and its present arrangement are a road prison. Our job is never to become apologists for the Warden and the guards. The “justice” of their world is no justice at all. We await, not a new, just Warden, but the abolition of the prison itself. We dare not justify the sufferings of this life, much less extend them into the age to come. We have been appointed to intercede for the world, to argue and to rebuke. The martyrs in heaven beneath the throne of God complain. The widow importunes the judge. The Samaritan woman begs for her son’s life like a little doggie at the master’s table. And it is there that we find our true heart and become the friends of God.

 

 

Get Real for Lent

broom makers sepiaAccording to St. Basil, God is the “only truly Existing.” Our own existence is a gift from God who is our Creator. None of us has “self-existing” life. We exist because God sustains us in existence – in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Sin is the rejection of this gift of God – a movement away from true existence.

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Much of our attention in the modern world is engaged seemingly with things that have no “true existence.” We engage with illusions, with digital constructs. Our economy allows us to escape the normal necessities such as seasonal scarcity or other mundane concerns. We are increasingly removed from the very environment in which we naturally live.

It is said that astronauts, after spending a prolonged time in space, have lingering effects of zero-gravity. Our bodies are made for gravity and require its constant pull for everything from muscle tone to bone density. But we now live in situations in which many forms of natural “gravity” have been reduced or removed. What effect does the long-term ability to have almost any food at any time of year have on the human body? As someone who has spent the better part of my life at a desk, I can attest to the effect of a sedentary existence. My lower back, my range of motion, the flexibility of my joints are all consistent with the modern white-collar worker.

What effect do such things have on the soul? For the soul requires “gravity” as well. Plato stated in his Republic, that all children should learn to play a musical instrument because music was required for the right development of the soul. We give far too little thought to such things, assuming that no matter what environment we live in, our inherent freedom of choice remains unscathed and we can always decide to do something different, or be something different.

I could decide to run a marathon tomorrow, but I know that the first quarter-mile would leave me gasping for breath and exhausted. You cannot go from 40 years at a desk to the demands of a marathon – just because you choose to do so.

And so we come to Great Lent.

Some see this season of the year as a spiritual marathon. They rise from their sedentary spiritual lives, set off in a sprint and fail before the first week is out. The failure comes in anger, self-recrimination, even despondency.

The first year that I “chose” to fast in the Orthodox manner (it was 4 years before I was received into the Church), the priest I discussed the fast with said, “You can’t keep the fast.” I argued with him until I realized his wisdom.

“Do something easier,” he told me. “Just give up red meat.”

“What about chicken?” I asked.

“Nope. Eat chicken. Eat everything except beef and pork. And pray a little more.”

And so I returned to my Anglican life, a little disappointed that my zeal had made such a poor impression. But my family accepted the proposal and we ate no red meat for Lent. It was, in hindsight, the best Lent my family had ever had. No longer were we musing over “what to give up for Lent,” and instead accepted a discipline that was given to us.

In subsequent years that same priest (who is now my godfather) increased the discipline. And we were ready for it. It is interesting to me, however, that my first experience of an Orthodox fast was being told not to be so strict. The “strict” part was learning to do what I was told. That is sometimes the most difficult fast of all.

Lent is a time to “get real.” Not eating some things is actually normal. In our modern world we have to embrace a natural “gravity” that we could easily leave behind – at least, we have to do this if we want to avoid an atrophy of the soul.

In 2000, the average American ate 180 pounds of meat a year (and 15 pounds of fish and shellfish). That was roughly a third more than in 1959. Scarcity is not an issue in our diet. Our abundance is simply “not real,” and the environment frequently shows the marks of the artificial nature of our food supply. But we have no way of studying what is going on with our souls. What I know to be true is that – as goes the body – so goes the soul. Those who engage the world as consumer are being consumed by the world to an equal measure.

And so we get real.

Getting real means accepting limits and boundaries. Our culture is a bubble of make-believe. It rests on an economy of over-consumption. The crash of 2008 came close to a much greater disaster and could have easily gone into free-fall. Many fail to understand just how fragile our lives truly are. In the season of Lent (and on all the fasting days of the year) we embrace the fragility of our lives. We allow the world to say “no” and take on extra burdens and duties. It is worth keeping in mind that such things do not make us spiritual heroes, first they have to make us human.

Orthodoxy and the Christ-Haunted Culture of the South

I continue my short series in honor of Vladyko DMITRI of the South. This wonderful talk was given by the priest, Paul Yerger, of Clinton Mississippi, a true gentleman. Archbishop DMITRI was deeply sensitive of the unique culture in parts of the South and of the proper role that Orthodox mission should play. His own Southern roots taught a generation of priest how to serve as missionaries with him. The piece follows as originally run. Though longer than my usual posts – it is well worth the read.

One of my favorite priests in the Diocese of the South is Fr. Paul Yerger who serves Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi. His gentle demeanor and kind words are what I have always associated with the South, though it is rarely witnessed today. I had a chance to visit with him this week at the Diocesan Assembly in Miami. Three years ago he was our keynote speaker at our assembly in Dallas. His talk has become a classic for me – both as a lover of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and of the South she loved so dearly. With his permission I reprint his copywrited article.

 

 

Address to the Twenty-sixth Annual Assembly of the Diocese of the South
Dallas, July 22, 2004
by Father Paul Yerger

parkers-backI was asked to speak on evangelizing the South, but I don’t feel adequate to the assigned title. Archbishop Dmitri has planted in us the vision of an Orthodox South, and by his own life and work has shown us how to carry it out. That’s why so many of us sit here tonight.

I’d like to speak to a particular limited aspect of that vision. We have made much progress, but it seems to me we haven’t much engaged the culture of the South. Orthodox missionaries of the past lifted up to God what they could of the culture they found. We have many Southern converts who have attempted to leave their own culture behind and embrace some other one. What do we find in the culture of the South that is somehow seeking Orthodox Christianity?

Vladyko speaks positively of his Baptist upbringing – in some respects Southern Protestants laid a good foundation, and we reap where they labored. More than most places the South still cherishes basic Christian values: marriage, family, community. Many of our Southern converts were attracted to the stability of the Orthodox Church for this reason.

It’s deeper than that: go up in one of these gleaming glass towers in Dallas, realms of high technology and global enterprise. Look at the computer screens where these workers ply their trade. When one of them leaves his desk and the screen saver comes up, as likely as not it says, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God…” or “For God so loved the world…” – or stuck around the edge of the screen may be a prayer or a Psalm verse. Scratch many an urban Southern technocrat, and not far under the skin are Bible stories and characters, memories of altar calls on hot summer nights, addictive hymn tunes, images of heaven and hell (especially the latter).

I’d like to introduce an old friend of mine, the writer Flannery O’Connor, who reposed in 1964. I did not know her in the flesh but have read her so long I call her a friend. She was a Georgia girl, a devout Roman Catholic whose short life included much physical suffering, who had a particular gift for capturing in words the spiritual warfare raging in many rural Southern souls. I recommend to you her two volumes of short stories and two short novels, as well as her letters and essays.

When asked once why the South had produced so many writers and artists, without hesitation she said, “Because we lost the War.” That’s part of who we are in the South. A culture, or a person, that has never lost doesn’t understand a big part of human experience. Here in Texas it’s the Alamo that’s remembered, not San Jacinto. Many things are somehow connected with this: a deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, an affinity for the underdog, for some an adulation of heroes and glory, whether in wars, athletics, or automobile races; and for some a yearning for a past that never was, another life that might have been. Unfortunately it’s easy for some Southern Orthodox just to substitute another lost empire, the Byzantine or the Russian, as the place to escape to instead of the Old South.

Flannery O’Connor described the South as “Christ haunted.” I want to tell you about one of her characters, O. E. Parker, in her last story, Parker’s Back.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot. Except for his loins which were girded with a panther hide, the man’s skin was patterned in what seemed from Parker’s distance-he was near the back of the tent, standing on a bench-a single intricate design of brilliant color. The man, who was small and sturdy, moved about on the platform, flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. He was a boy whose mouth habitually hung open. He was heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. When the show was over, he had remained standing on the bench, staring where the tattooed man had been, until the tent was almost empty.

Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.

He had his first tattoo some time after-the eagle perched on the cannon. It was done by a local artist. It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing. This was peculiar too for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing…

Shortly after this he quit school “because he could” and joined the Navy.

…Everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos.

He had stopped having lifeless ones like anchors and crossed rifles. He had a tiger and a panther on each shoulder, a cobra coiled about a torch on his chest, hawks on his thighs, Elizabeth II and Philip over where his stomach and liver were respectively. He did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful; on his abdomen he had a few obscenities but only because that seemed the proper place for them. Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up. The front of Parker was almost completely covered but there were no tattoos on his back. He had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself. As the space on the front of him for tattoos decreased, his dissatisfaction grew and became general.

After one of his furloughs, he didn’t go back to the navy but remained away without official leave, drunk, in a rooming house in a city he did not know. His dissatisfaction, from being chronic and latent, had suddenly become acute and raged in him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a raging warfare.

Eventually Parker married a woman named Sarah Ruth Cates. Her father was a Straight Gospel preacher, but he was away, “spreading it in Florida.” She was a plain severe thin girl who “was always sniffing up sin. She did not smoke or dip, drink whiskey, use bad language or paint her face, and God knew some paint would have improved it, Parker thought.” She was the only woman he had met who was not fascinated by his tattoos. She refused to look at them and called them “vanity of vanities.

“Parker could not understand why he stayed with her. He “did nothing much when he was home but listen to what the judgement seat of God would be like for him if he didn’t change his ways.”

…Dissatisfaction began to grow so great in Parker that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo. It had to be his back. There was no help for it. A dim half-formed inspiration began to work in his mind. He visualized having a tattoo put there that Sarah Ruth would not be able to resist-a religious subject. He thought of an open book with HOLY BIBLE tattooed under it and an actual verse printed on the page. This seemed just the thing for a while; then he began to hear her say, “Ain’t I already got a real Bible? What you think I want to read the same verse over and over for when I can read it all?” He needed something better even than the Bible! He thought about it so much that he began to lose sleep.

At this time Parker had an apocalyptic experience. Daydreaming, he drove a tractor into a tree and it burst into flames. Thrown to the ground, he looked up to see his own shoes, which he had somehow come out of, burning in the wreckage. Immediately as if fleeing something he drove furiously into the city and burst into the tattoo artist’s studio.

 …”Let me see the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” Parker said breathlessly. “The religious one.”

. . .The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”

“God,” Parker said.

“Father, Son or Spirit?”

“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”

The artist returned with a book. He moved some papers off another table and put the book down on it and told Parker to sit down and see what he liked. “The up-to-date ones are in the back,” he said.

Parker sat down with the book and wet his thumb. He began to go through it, beginning at the back where the up-to-date pictures were. Some of them he recognized-The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. One showed a gaunt green dead face streaked with blood. One was yellow with sagging purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it appeared to be roaring inside him like a great generator. He flipped the pages quickly, feeling that when he reached the one ordained, a sign would come. He continued to flip through until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart too appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK.

Parker returned to the picture-the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.

“You found what you want?” the artist asked.

Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture.

“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said. “You don’t want all those little blocks though, just the outline and some better features.”

“Just like it is,” Parker said, “just like it is or nothing.”

When he sees the tattoo with the aid of mirrors, Parker “turned white and moved away. The eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him – still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence. … The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed.”

He drove through the night to show his gift to his wife. “It seemed to him that all along that was what he wanted, to please her.” He arrived just before dawn to find himself locked out of his house. He knocked on the door.

“Who’s there?”

“Me,” Parker said, “O.E.”

… “I don’t know no O.E.”

When they first met, Sarah Ruth had extracted from him his real name, which he had previously revealed to no one.. . .

…”Who’s there?” the voice from inside said and there a quality about it now that seemed final. The knob rattled and the voice said peremptorily, “Who’s there, I ast you?”

Parker bent down and put his mouth near the stuffed keyhole. “Obadiah,” he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.

“Obadiah Elihue!” he whispered.

The door opened and he stumbled in. Sarah Ruth loomed there, hands on her hips. . . .Trembling, Parker set about lighting the kerosene lamp.

“What’s the matter with you, wasting that kerosene this near daylight?” she demanded. “I ain’t got to look at you.

“A yellow glow enveloped them. Parker put the match down and began to unbutton his shirt.

“And you ain’t going to have none of me this near morning,” she said.”Shut your mouth, he said quietly. “Look at this and then I don’t want to hear no more out of you.” He removed the shirt and turned his back to her.

“Another picture,” Sarah Ruth growled. “I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”

Parker’s knees went hollow under him. He wheeled around and cried, “Look at it! Don’t just say that! Look at it!”

“I done looked,” she said.

“Don’t you know who it is?” he cried in anguish.

“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It ain’t anybody I know.”

“It’s him,” Parker said.

“Him who?”

“God!” Parker cried.

“God? God don’t look like that!”

“What do you know how he looks?” Parker moaned. “You ain’t seen him.”

“He don’t look,” Sarah Ruth said. “He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.”

“Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolater in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.

Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.

She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was-who called himself Obadiah Elihue-leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.

Christ-haunted — Southern Christianity is split down the middle, head and heart divided asunder. There is head religion: some tincture of Calvin, all about law and judgement, righteousness and sin, the fearful grace of the sovereign God tamed by respectability. Then there is heart religion: Pentecost, revivals, Jesus and the Holy Ghost called forth on demand to save souls and soothe the heartaches of life. And there are redneck existentialists, too, who want nothing of either, like Hazel Motes in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, who preaches the Church Without Christ: it ain’t got no Jesus to die for you and make you feel guilty about it.

Such is O.E. Parker when we first meet him: he says he doesn’t see what there is to be saved from. But something attracts him to Sarah Ruth; he is hungry for something: to love something greater than himself, to partake of beauty and glory and mystery, like the tattooed man he saw at the fair. But when he tries in his own way to put on Christ, to give her his whole self, his whole body, his back that he could not see, he is rejected. The deepest longings of his heart find no place in her religion.

Orthodoxy is the only Church that puts it all together: the mind in the heart, the body and the spirit, the word and the image, grace and freedom, the good God who loves mankind. This is the “evangel”: the Good News for the South. Her deepest longings are met here. As Vladyko has taught us, all that is good and true in Southern Protestantism is here. Jesus and the Holy Ghost are here: the real Jesus confessed as Lord and God and Saviour, risen from the dead. We are steeped in the Bible and love to hear its cadences. We also know that deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, that yearning for something lost. The writers of the Bible knew this yearning well: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. This yearning is really a yearning for the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

Let us not make of Orthodoxy another law to be obeyed, another head religion to feel proud of, another emotional trip, another escape to some other world. Let us proclaim it as the Good News that the people of the South and every land are hungry for.

Quotations from Parker’s Back in Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, New York, Farrar, Strauss, 1993.

Jerusalem – Heaven and Hell

I am taking the day off from the pilgrimage (my wife and others are in the vicinity of Jericho today). I have stayed behind to allow my back and some swollen feet to mend – they are already better after much needed sleep – and I wanted to use some free time to offer a reflection or so on my pilgrimage to date).

There has been at least one profound moment in each day of the pilgrimage – but yesterday and the early hours of this morning (Jerusalem time) were events almost beyond description.

We began the day in Bet Sahour – the “Shepherd’s Fields” near Bethlehem. The parish is a newly-built Orthodox Church with wonderful iconography. Beside it are the archeological digs on a series of Churches going back to the early 4th century.

Later we were in Bethlehem. Despite the onslaught of vendors whenever you leave the confines of the Church, the experience was profound. We have had tremendous freedom of access to sites (the presence of Met. Kallistos has likely opened doors for us). I have been able to enter the sanctuary and venerate the altar of every Church we have visited.

The shrine of Christ’s Nativity is that strange mix of knowing where you are and how important it is and yet also being aware of crowds and the crush of pilgrims. But there were many moments of especial significance.

In the late afternoon we were at the Monastery of St. John (Moscow Patriarchate) for the Vigil for the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner (everything is Old Calendar over here). To our great surprise and delight, after the Metropolitan entered the altar, a priest came out and invited the three OCA priests in our party to enter the altar. Nuns in the sacristry provided vestments and we shared in the Vigil, taking part particularly in the Polieley. The choir of nuns were utter ethereal in their beauty – the service in Slavonic perfection. It is very hard to describe the sense of arriving at a holy place and suddenly being extended such hospitality. It was like the welcome of the Prodigal Son.

After a light supper and brief nap, we walked across Jerusalem (after midnight), arriving at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were expected. Met. Kallistos concelebrated with Archbishop Aristarchos, one of the members of the Holy Synod in Jerusalem and an old acquaintance of the Metropolitan. Again, the hospitality and access granted to us was overwhelming. I was able to enter the Holy Sepulchre of Christ, as were many of our group, kneel by the priest who was performing the Proskomide (the preparation of the gifts) and give him the names of all those I wanted remembered in the Liturgy.

There is a very small chapel at the entrance to the Sepulchre with an altar. At the Little Entrance, the Bishops and clergy processed into that chapel and the Liturgy continued from inside the structure that surrounds the Holy Sepulchre itself. The clergy, both those in our group as well as priests of other pilgrim groups, were able to enter the small altar area and receive communion. The inner experience of this unimagined privilege is beyond my words.

We shared refreshments with the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre after Liturgy and were shown the room containing the holy relics – which is beyond description. Several of us found our way up to the chapel of Golgotha and were able to venerate the rock beneath the altar that marks the spot where the Cross of Christ stood. I can only describe the evening as a Pascha. For though every Liturgy everywhere is always a Pascha, it is also inescapably and palpably so to receive communion at the tomb of Christ. It will doubtless be an image that will feed my heart for a long time to come.

My wife and I, finally returning to our residence at St. George’s College at 5 a.m., reflected together on the day. It was a journey from Christmas to Pascha, Bethlehem to the Holy Sepulchre, with an utterly heavenly visit to the Monastery of St. John, which marks both the birthplace of the Holy Forerunner, as well as the site of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (all of which are very special in our family). It was a day that neither of us could fathom and only gave us the reminder that the past 10 years of our lives (the years we have been Orthodox) have been blessed beyond anything we every dreamed when we began this journey.

Our focus has not been on our own “experience” of the places we visit, but rather on the prayers we are carrying with us. And yet continual unexpected joys meet us with a kindness and hospitality I would never dream of demanding.

One of our party last night commented as we left the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that we had been blessed indeed. He recalled the experience of St. Mary of Egypt who had not been able to cross the threshhold of that holy place because of her sins. The hand of God held her back. It became the occasion of her conversion.

“We actually crossed the threshhold!” he commented, recognizing in that simple act the mercy of a good God towards sinners such as ourselves.

The wonder of this land is very much like the wonder of the world everywhere. The Holy is given to us constantly, even though we find ourselves surrounded in tragedy and confusion that seems insolvable. Everywhere you look the political reality of this troubled place is evident, and yet the places most Holy on this earth are here. It truly is like the human heart – where the treasuries of everything are to be found – both of evil – and of paradise itself. The struggle for everyone in this place – as the struggle for everyone, everywhere – is to enter paradise rather than to make of their life and this world a living hell. May God have mercy on us all.

What Do You See Outside Your Window – Evil in a One-Storey Universe

bethel.jpg

A question was put several days back about what would be said about “evil in a one-storey universe?” Of course, as I’ve thought about the question, my simplest conclusion is to wonder how one would give an account of evil in a two-storey universe. For it seems that those who have imagined the universe as a two-storey affair have largely confined evil here and proposed that the second-floor has been swept clean. Heaven above and earth below, and a basement yet to come where the evil will at least be confined in everlasting flames. Of course the multi-storey version of good and evil do nothing to solve the problem and do much to create a secular no-man’s land, increasingly populated with those who cannot believe in either a second-storey nor a basement and frequently see believers among the evil in this world (if only to complicate matters).

Of course, the two Biblical books that treat the imagery of spiritual warfare with the evil one in the most literal fashion, have Satan standing before God and holding converse about the long-suffering Job (in the book of the same name) and engaged in a “war in heaven” with St. Michael and the angels in the other (the Revelation of St. John). In neither account is the location of great significance, for the center of action in both books in not “heaven” but rather earth – with St. Job’s sufferings in the one, and the various plagues and misfortunes befalling the earth in the other. Indeed, if the drama of either book is examined, the “heavenly” scenes, are rather more like ante-rooms than an upper-storey.

But the question remains – what account do we give of evil if we speak of the universe in the language of a single storey? I am a believer and as such generally find the source of evil in the abuse of free will, whether of human beings or on the part of heavenly beings (the demonic). Nor do I see that account as different than the theological account to be found in the Fathers. What I bear witness to as a believer, however, is less an account of the origin of evil than to my faith that our universe, though caught in the throes of death and decay, has nevertheless been entered by its Creator, who having taken flesh of the Virgin, has entered into the very depths of death and decay – themselves the result of evil – and defeated them. And thus I see this one-storey world in which I live as the active stage upon which that same victory is being manifest. I cannot say in the least that I see that victory increasingly manifest – for the Christian account of the world is not an account of progress towards the Kingdom of God, but a witness to the fact that the Kingdom of God has entered our world and there is nothing we can do about it. We can, of course, repent, believe the Gospel, and by God’s grace come to know that Kingdom within our selves and within the world in which we live (all of which is the gift of God) but we will also know that Kingdom in the midst of this same storey, which continues to lie in darkness and to endure the presence and work of evil.

Of course, there is much conversation about the metaphysics of evil and the nature of hell and eternal punishment – and though I have recommended articles on the same that I find of value – I think that a large amount of Christian energy is wasted on such matters. For it is not the mastery of the metaphysics of the universe that makes any difference, but rather the embrace of the Gospel of Christ and obedience to His commandments. Those who point to the plenitude of evil around us will get little argument from me, other than to say that what appears to be a plenitude is a “kingdom” that cannot stand, and that it’s end will come. I received a post that got lost in the spam yesterday complaining of the evil within the world, and wondering how I could speak of “heaven on earth.” I cannot think of anywhere else to speak of it, since all I know of heaven its what came forth from the tomb at Pascha. That same resurrected Christ is now Head of His body, the Church, and I cannot know of how to speak of that Body if it is not heaven on earth (despite all that we sinners may drag within her) but all the sickness that enters the doors of a hospital do not make it less a place a healing – I cannot do other with the Body of Christ but bear witness to the very fact that it exists for nothing other than healing. The only weakness within the Church is when we “patients” forget why we came in its doors in the first place, and begin to imagine either that we are already healed, or worse, that someone has turned us into the medical staff.

But though the one-storey world as we know it is itself a cosmic war zone, I cannot lose hope when I know that the end of the battle has already been accomplished in the coming of Christ. I wait for its manifestation – but having known the risen Lord – I wait with hope and run the race with patience. What else are we supposed to do?

Orthodoxy and the Christ-Haunted Culture of the South

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One of my favorite priests in the Diocese of the South is Fr. Paul Yerger who serves Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi. His gentle demeanor and kind words are what I have always associated with the South, though it is rarely witnessed today. I had a chance to visit with him this week at the Diocesan Assembly in Miami. Three years ago he was our keynote speaker at our assembly in Dallas. His talk has become a classic for me – both as a lover of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and of the South she loved so dearly. With his permission I reprint his copywrited article.

Address to the Twenty-sixth Annual Assembly of the Diocese of the South
Dallas, July 22, 2004
by Father Paul Yerger

I was asked to speak on evangelizing the South, but I don’t feel adequate to the assigned title. Archbishop Dmitri has planted in us the vision of an Orthodox South, and by his own life and work has shown us how to carry it out. That’s why so many of us sit here tonight.

I’d like to speak to a particular limited aspect of that vision. We have made much progress, but it seems to me we haven’t much engaged the culture of the South. Orthodox missionaries of the past lifted up to God what they could of the culture they found. We have many Southern converts who have attempted to leave their own culture behind and embrace some other one. What do we find in the culture of the South that is somehow seeking Orthodox Christianity?

Vladyko speaks positively of his Baptist upbringing – in some respects Southern Protestants laid a good foundation, and we reap where they labored. More than most places the South still cherishes basic Christian values: marriage, family, community. Many of our Southern converts were attracted to the stability of the Orthodox Church for this reason.

It’s deeper than that: go up in one of these gleaming glass towers in Dallas, realms of high technology and global enterprise. Look at the computer screens where these workers ply their trade. When one of them leaves his desk and the screen saver comes up, as likely as not it says, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God…” or “For God so loved the world…” – or stuck around the edge of the screen may be a prayer or a Psalm verse. Scratch many an urban Southern technocrat, and not far under the skin are Bible stories and characters, memories of altar calls on hot summer nights, addictive hymn tunes, images of heaven and hell (especially the latter).

I’d like to introduce an old friend of mine, the writer Flannery O’Connor, who reposed in 1964. I did not know her in the flesh but have read her so long I call her a friend. She was a Georgia girl, a devout Roman Catholic whose short life included much physical suffering, who had a particular gift for capturing in words the spiritual warfare raging in many rural Southern souls. I recommend to you her two volumes of short stories and two short novels, as well as her letters and essays.

When asked once why the South had produced so many writers and artists, without hesitation she said, “Because we lost the War.” That’s part of who we are in the South. A culture, or a person, that has never lost doesn’t understand a big part of human experience. Here in Texas it’s the Alamo that’s remembered, not San Jacinto. Many things are somehow connected with this: a deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, an affinity for the underdog, for some an adulation of heroes and glory, whether in wars, athletics, or automobile races; and for some a yearning for a past that never was, another life that might have been. Unfortunately it’s easy for some Southern Orthodox just to substitute another lost empire, the Byzantine or the Russian, as the place to escape to instead of the Old South.

Flannery O’Connor described the South as “Christ haunted.” I want to tell you about one of her characters, O. E. Parker, in her last story, Parker’s Back.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot. Except for his loins which were girded with a panther hide, the man’s skin was patterned in what seemed from Parker’s distance-he was near the back of the tent, standing on a bench-a single intricate design of brilliant color. The man, who was small and sturdy, moved about on the platform, flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. He was a boy whose mouth habitually hung open. He was heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. When the show was over, he had remained standing on the bench, staring where the tattooed man had been, until the tent was almost empty.

Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.

He had his first tattoo some time after-the eagle perched on the cannon. It was done by a local artist. It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing. This was peculiar too for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing…

Shortly after this he quit school “because he could” and joined the Navy.

…Everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos.

He had stopped having lifeless ones like anchors and crossed rifles. He had a tiger and a panther on each shoulder, a cobra coiled about a torch on his chest, hawks on his thighs, Elizabeth II and Philip over where his stomach and liver were respectively. He did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful; on his abdomen he had a few obscenities but only because that seemed the proper place for them. Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up. The front of Parker was almost completely covered but there were no tattoos on his back. He had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself. As the space on the front of him for tattoos decreased, his dissatisfaction grew and became general.

After one of his furloughs, he didn’t go back to the navy but remained away without official leave, drunk, in a rooming house in a city he did not know. His dissatisfaction, from being chronic and latent, had suddenly become acute and raged in him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a raging warfare.

Eventually Parker married a woman named Sarah Ruth Cates. Her father was a Straight Gospel preacher, but he was away, “spreading it in Florida.” She was a plain severe thin girl who “was always sniffing up sin. She did not smoke or dip, drink whiskey, use bad language or paint her face, and God knew some paint would have improved it, Parker thought.” She was the only woman he had met who was not fascinated by his tattoos. She refused to look at them and called them “vanity of vanities.

“Parker could not understand why he stayed with her. He “did nothing much when he was home but listen to what the judgement seat of God would be like for him if he didn’t change his ways.”

…Dissatisfaction began to grow so great in Parker that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo. It had to be his back. There was no help for it. A dim half-formed inspiration began to work in his mind. He visualized having a tattoo put there that Sarah Ruth would not be able to resist-a religious subject. He thought of an open book with HOLY BIBLE tattooed under it and an actual verse printed on the page. This seemed just the thing for a while; then he began to hear her say, “Ain’t I already got a real Bible? What you think I want to read the same verse over and over for when I can read it all?” He needed something better even than the Bible! He thought about it so much that he began to lose sleep.

At this time Parker had an apocalyptic experience. Daydreaming, he drove a tractor into a tree and it burst into flames. Thrown to the ground, he looked up to see his own shoes, which he had somehow come out of, burning in the wreckage. Immediately as if fleeing something he drove furiously into the city and burst into the tattoo artist’s studio.

 …”Let me see the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” Parker said breathlessly. “The religious one.”

. . .The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”

“God,” Parker said.

“Father, Son or Spirit?”

“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”

The artist returned with a book. He moved some papers off another table and put the book down on it and told Parker to sit down and see what he liked. “The up-to-date ones are in the back,” he said.

Parker sat down with the book and wet his thumb. He began to go through it, beginning at the back where the up-to-date pictures were. Some of them he recognized-The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. One showed a gaunt green dead face streaked with blood. One was yellow with sagging purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it appeared to be roaring inside him like a great generator. He flipped the pages quickly, feeling that when he reached the one ordained, a sign would come. He continued to flip through until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart too appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK.

Parker returned to the picture-the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.

“You found what you want?” the artist asked.

Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture.

“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said. “You don’t want all those little blocks though, just the outline and some better features.”

“Just like it is,” Parker said, “just like it is or nothing.”

When he sees the tattoo with the aid of mirrors, Parker “turned white and moved away. The eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him – still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence. … The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed.”

He drove through the night to show his gift to his wife. “It seemed to him that all along that was what he wanted, to please her.” He arrived just before dawn to find himself locked out of his house. He knocked on the door.

“Who’s there?”

“Me,” Parker said, “O.E.”

… “I don’t know no O.E.”

When they first met, Sarah Ruth had extracted from him his real name, which he had previously revealed to no one.. . .

…”Who’s there?” the voice from inside said and there a quality about it now that seemed final. The knob rattled and the voice said peremptorily, “Who’s there, I ast you?”

Parker bent down and put his mouth near the stuffed keyhole. “Obadiah,” he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.

“Obadiah Elihue!” he whispered.

The door opened and he stumbled in. Sarah Ruth loomed there, hands on her hips. . . .Trembling, Parker set about lighting the kerosene lamp.

“What’s the matter with you, wasting that kerosene this near daylight?” she demanded. “I ain’t got to look at you.

“A yellow glow enveloped them. Parker put the match down and began to unbutton his shirt.

“And you ain’t going to have none of me this near morning,” she said.”Shut your mouth, he said quietly. “Look at this and then I don’t want to hear no more out of you.” He removed the shirt and turned his back to her.

“Another picture,” Sarah Ruth growled. “I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”

Parker’s knees went hollow under him. He wheeled around and cried, “Look at it! Don’t just say that! Look at it!”

“I done looked,” she said.

“Don’t you know who it is?” he cried in anguish.

“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It ain’t anybody I know.”

“It’s him,” Parker said.

“Him who?”

“God!” Parker cried.

“God? God don’t look like that!”

“What do you know how he looks?” Parker moaned. “You ain’t seen him.”

“He don’t look,” Sarah Ruth said. “He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.”

“Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolater in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.

Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.

She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was-who called himself Obadiah Elihue-leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.

Christ-haunted — Southern Christianity is split down the middle, head and heart divided asunder. There is head religion: some tincture of Calvin, all about law and judgement, righteousness and sin, the fearful grace of the sovereign God tamed by respectability. Then there is heart religion: Pentecost, revivals, Jesus and the Holy Ghost called forth on demand to save souls and soothe the heartaches of life. And there are redneck existentialists, too, who want nothing of either, like Hazel Motes in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, who preaches the Church Without Christ: it ain’t got no Jesus to die for you and make you feel guilty about it.

Such is O.E. Parker when we first meet him: he says he doesn’t see what there is to be saved from. But something attracts him to Sarah Ruth; he is hungry for something: to love something greater than himself, to partake of beauty and glory and mystery, like the tattooed man he saw at the fair. But when he tries in his own way to put on Christ, to give her his whole self, his whole body, his back that he could not see, he is rejected. The deepest longings of his heart find no place in her religion.

Orthodoxy is the only Church that puts it all together: the mind in the heart, the body and the spirit, the word and the image, grace and freedom, the good God who loves mankind. This is the “evangel”: the Good News for the South. Her deepest longings are met here. As Vladyko has taught us, all that is good and true in Southern Protestantism is here. Jesus and the Holy Ghost are here: the real Jesus confessed as Lord and God and Saviour, risen from the dead. We are steeped in the Bible and love to hear its cadences. We also know that deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, that yearning for something lost. The writers of the Bible knew this yearning well: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. This yearning is really a yearning for the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

Let us not make of Orthodoxy another law to be obeyed, another head religion to feel proud of, another emotional trip, another escape to some other world. Let us proclaim it as the Good News that the people of the South and every land are hungry for.

Quotations from Parker’s Back in Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, New York, Farrar, Strauss, 1993.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Moral Improvement

The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, is dedicated to St. John Climacus, the author of the ancient work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is a classic work describing “steps” within the life of the struggling ascetic. There is an icon associated with this work, picturing monastics climbing the rungs of a ladder to heaven, battling demons who are trying to pull them off. However, ladders are dangerous things to put in the hands of a modern Christian.

Modernity likes ladders. We like the idea of upward mobility, of continuing improvement, of moral progress. We speak of “career ladders” and the “ladder of success.”  It is the myth of personal power. Modernity is a cultural phenomenon created by the theology of the Reformation and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Freed from the constraints of inherited tradition (such as the Catholic Church) and the royal state (hurrah for democracy), modernity is a story told to individuals that they can now become whatever they want. Freedom and personal industry are the twin rails supporting the rungs of progress. As a philosophy, this idea and its associated notions are the bedrock of free-market capitalism.  As theology, it is the foundation for self-help Christianity and the positive, motivational preaching of contemporary religion. “Be all that you can be, and Jesus can help!”

Nurtured in this culture, contemporary Orthodox believers are not immune to its allure, particularly if the images appear in the guise of desert monasticism and Byzantine/Russian-style striving. More than once I have heard the sad confession, “I don’t feel like I’m a very good Orthodox Christian.” Implied in this statement is that Orthodox Christians should, somehow, be better than other Christians. Some foolish people even call us the “marines” of the spiritual life.

Of course, all of this, particularly when applied to writings such as St. John’s Ladder, is pure distortion and delusion. Its most subtle and seductive version is that of moral progress. I wrote a series of articles last year denouncing the concept of moral progress, identifying it as largely a modern notion and not consistent with the mind of the fathers. Here, I reaffirm that without equivocation.

We simply are not saved by getting better. It is a false image and a false goal. Of course, critics will charge that I’m being defeatist and suggesting a path devoid of moral effort. I am doing nothing of the sort. Everyone should, at all times, struggle against sin. But measuring, even watching for improvement can be not only self-defeating but sinful in itself. The Ladder points to a very different path:

“You cannot escape shame except by shame,” St. John says (4.62).

We do not gradually improve and thereby leave our shame behind us. The way down is the way up. The ladder of divine ascent is actually a ladder of divine descent. The path to union with God is only found in making the descent with Him. “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8). St. Gregory the Theologian says, “If He descends into hell, go with Him” (Oration 45).

The path of modernity carries no humility. It breeds pride, and frequently contempt. Failure is its nemesis. We blame ourselves for laziness and sloth, certain that a little more effort will make the difference. Like a child given a bad grade, we plead that we’ll try harder. Confession is seen as the Second Chance, the opportunity to pull up our grades. “Loser!” is the taunt of the modern world (a word spawned in the pit of hell).

But St. John points us towards our shame. He does not describe a path of moral improvement. His path follows the Cross, which is the descent into Hades. My failure, not sought for its own sake (we do not sin in order to gain grace), is always and immediately the gate of Hades and the gate of Paradise. When I acknowledge my failure and refuse to hide from its shame, we can call out for Christ to comfort us. “I did not turn my face from the shame and the spitting” (Is. 50:6). He will meet us in our shame, and takes it upon Himself. My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in the paradox that is at the very heart of our salvation. God became what we are, that we might become what He is. God does not meet us in the middle. He meets us at the bottom and asks us to meet Him there as well.

It is within that place that true humility is born. Judgment ceases. If I accept my shame in union with Christ, how can I judge another? Indeed, it is largely my efforts to avoid my shame that makes me judge my brother. We can only avoid judging if we “see our own transgressions” (as we are taught in the Prayer of St. Ephrem).

Modernity loves excellence. The moral improvement pitches of the motivational preachers love the drive for excellence. Our bosses and the owners demand that we strive for excellence. God is not our boss, nor does He place us in His debt (“freely you have received”). The constant nagging voice demanding improvement and excellence is not the voice of God. It is often nothing more than the neurotic echo of modernity sounding in our brains. It drives us with the threat of shame. However, Christ has trampled down shame by shame and invites us to do the same thing. “You cannot escape shame except by shame.”

Become a Christian who follows Christ. We do not seek to please Him with our excellence. We seek to imitate Him by going where He has gone.

 

 

The Singular Goodness of God

It has long seemed to me that it is one thing to believe that God exists and quite another to believe that He is good. Indeed, to believe that God exists simply begs the question. That question is: Who is God, and what can be said of Him? Is He good? This goes to the heart of the proclamation of the Christian faith. We believe that God has revealed Himself definitively in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, and preeminently in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Years ago, a friend of mine was speaking with an Orthodox priest about certain matters of conscience. In the course of the conversation, my friend mentioned concerns with the judgment of God, expressing a certain dread. The priest responded by turning around a small icon of Christ that was on his desk so that my friend could see it. It was the icon of Christ, “Extreme Humility,” that pictures Him in the depth of His humiliation and suffering. “Which God are we talking about?” was the priest’s question. My friend’s concerns were answered in that moment. Whatever our concerns might be, the goodness of God is revealed in that icon without qualification.

It is possible to use the entire Jesus story as a way of proving the existence of God, only to then proceed to think of God in terms that are somehow removed from Christ Himself. I’m not sure whether we imagine this “God” to be the “Father” or something else. These conversations (and thoughts) are often expressed in terms of, “I believe that God…” and on from there. I think of this as the God of the blackboard. Jesus is used in order to prove the blackboard but then we begin to fill in that large, blank wall with our own imaginings (or various passages of Scripture that we might use as a counterweight to the story of Jesus).

Sometimes those imaginings are extrapolations from Scripture (this story or that). Sometimes they are the productions of opinion. Many times our imaginings were handed down to us or written in our minds long before we ever thought about the matter.

If the stories of Scripture “prior” to Christ were sufficient for the knowledge of God, Christ would not have spoken in correction of the conclusions falsely drawn from them. There is a Greek word for an interpretation of the Scriptures: exegesis. It is most informative to note that St. John (in the Greek) says:

The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has exegeted Him. (Joh 1:18)

Christ is how we “read” God. We cannot get behind Christ to speak about God as though we knew anything of God apart from Christ. We do not know God “prior” to Christ. When Christ declares that He is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” and that “no one comes to the Father except by Me,” He is not merely describing the path of salvation, He is making it clear that it is through Him alone that we know God. This is also affirmed in St. Matthew’s gospel:

All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Matt. 11:27 NKJ)

Christ not only reveals God, but He reveals the goodness of God. He is what goodness looks like. Throughout His ministry, every word and action is a revelation of goodness. That goodness is supremely made manifest in His voluntary self-emptying on the Cross. This revelation is definitive and must be always borne in mind when we consider who God is and what kind of God He is. He is the kind of God who empties Himself for our sake, unites Himself to our shame and suffering, and endures all things that He might reconcile us to Himself and lead us into the fullness of life in Him.

This is the proper “exegesis” of the Scriptures. Anything that imagines God in a manner that is not consistent with this presentation is a deviant reading (for a Christian). This calls for an inner discipline. When reading even the most disturbing imprecatory passages within the Scriptures, we should search for the image of the Crucified Christ within them. There are frequent paradoxes in such an approach. This is particularly true in the language of hell (and its synonyms).

God has no need for punishment. He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He cannot will our destruction and punishment while at the same time not willing that we should perish. Even the language of the fires of hell as a self-inflicted reality can be misleading. We know by experience that we are capable of inflicting great suffering on ourselves and we can easily imagine that stretching into eternity. What is being described, however, are the inner dynamics of a relationship with Divine Love: compassionate, forgiving, gentle, self-emptying in the extreme. The language and imagery of Scripture can be graphic, at times repulsive, particularly in the confusion of modern literalism.

These matters must be read within the heart (for that is where they were written). The singular commitment of the heart must be grounded in the goodness of God. We are not asked to look at something that is repugnant or horrible and say that it is good. That would do damage to the soul. What we know in Christ tells us that God is good. It is this that we look for as we search the depths of our world for understanding.

An element of God’s goodness that is frequently overlooked is found in our freedom (even when we misuse it). Nothing else in all creation is given the freedom that marks human existence. Everything else around us expresses its nature. A dog always acts as a dog. Human beings have the capacity in our freedom to act contrary to our nature. Sometimes our own sanity is insane. Some of the Fathers describe this capacity as “godlike.” We have been given a freedom that transcends our nature. It is this freedom that, potentially, finds expression in the fullness of personal existence.

We are created with the capacity to see God “face-to-face,” to interact as an equal, regardless of how absurd that might seem. It is an existence that is not confined to nature or circumstance but finally is above both. It is an existence that is constituted solely by love. I have seen this freedom exercised as love, even within the depths of protracted, life-long suffering. The goodness manifested in such examples is staggering.

I do not think there is a calculus that can be brought into this reality. Is the freedom we are given worth the price? No calculus is possible because we cannot measure the things involved. I cannot measure the suffering of an innocent child (as did Ivan Karamazov) just as I cannot measure the full joy of the freedom of love. What we have in Christ, however, is an example of both.

Here, we profess, is the most Innocent of the innocent, who, “for the joy that was set before Him, endured the Cross, disregarding the shame” (Heb. 12:2). The “joy that was set before Him,” is not some sort of private bliss. It is the joy of love, in freeing those who are held in bondage so that they might see Him face-to-face (as an equal) in all of the fullness of a true personal existence.

I cannot imagine this, nor measure this. But I can say that I see this. I see One who is utterly good, compassionate and self-emptying, walking the path of the unimaginable because He is good and thinks we are worth it. My faith (trust, loyalty) says, “I want to walk that path – help me!” I take His death and resurrection as the revelation of God and of the world as well.

 

 

A Single Moment

Grushenka, a character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, relates a now-famous fable about an old woman:

Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it, and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.

It reminds me of a small scene in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Angels are trying to help a soul make the journey from hell to heaven. One, a woman, seems mostly to a grumbler. Lewis’ soul has this conversation with his own guide:

‘I am troubled, Sir,’ said I, ‘because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would due her all right.’ ‘That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.’ ‘I should have thought there was no doubt about that!’ ‘Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman— even the least trace of one— still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.’

Both stories have in common a tiny, insignificant thing: an onion, a grumble. There is in Scripture a similar “tiny thing,” a single moment that serves as a hinge in a human life. The exchange between the “Good Thief” and Christ on the Cross is hymned during Holy Week with the words, “The Wise Thief entered Paradise in a single moment…” It is a remembrance of the extreme measure of God’s grace.

The human life can be terribly complicated. We rarely make decisions that are straightforward. We are filled with contradictions. The gospel is frequently presented as a matter of choice and decision, a very dangerous categorization in a consumerist culture. We are the subjects of massive propaganda and advertising, the goal of which is to guide our consumption, not only of goods and services but of ideas and allegiances. In a world that celebrates freedom, we are made the subjects of marketing so all-pervasive that freedom itself is suppressed and distorted. Worse than this, I think, is the fact that our culture nurtures the “character” of consumption within the soul. We think and reason as consumers and “decide” in that same manner. This is not the same thing as the “will,” or freedom as understood in the teaching of the faith. We rarely actually engage our will, substituting, instead, the passions of consumption.

When I consider the reality of our lives, I think of St. Paul’s cry for help, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And I take comfort in the single moments.

The story of the Old Woman and the Onion is a parable stated in the extreme manner of absurdity. I was first drawn to it by the simple fact of its willingness to ascribe such mercy to God. A single, rotten onion, given as charity would be sufficient to get you out of hell! It was the imaginative force of such a thing that shook my soul when I first read it. In my childhood, there could never have been such a Christian mercy. Hell is hell is hell.

I have also had the unfortunate experience of meeting “Mrs. Grumbles,” or various versions of her. These are personalities that have almost disappeared behind a consuming passion or fixation (a memory, an injury). There is a deep sense that their freedom could come if but for a moment they could set aside this besetting thing.

But I have seen, more than once, the favorable outcome of a soul whose deepest hunger has, in an unguarded moment, been exposed to the light of the gospel. I know the case of a woman who found God when a priest called her by name unexpectedly. Just her name. The mercy of God is wonderfully opportunistic. I have often thought, “Give Him an inch and He’ll take your life!”

However, we generally labor along in the struggles of the life of faith, unaware of such moments, with a sense that it is hard, even wondering if God is involved at all. We are like the Elder Brother of the Prodigal Son. The younger, foolish son seems to have found an amazing moment, filled with hugs, rings, robes and fatted calves. The Elder Brother felt he had received nothing. But in that moment, he is told, “All that I have is yours.”

The moment (“all that I have”) is so large and continuous, it is overlooked. On a cloudless day, the sky ceases to interest us. But we breathe it, swim in it – as it nurtures the life of everything around us.

I ran across a sermon of Fr. Pavel Florensky (who died in Stalin’s Camps). This small quote underlines the beauty of what lies within, and perhaps suggests how it is that God treasures even a single moment:

Oh brothers, if you could only realise how beautiful you all are! Does not the priest swing the censer to the Holy Spirit Who lives in you, when he turns to you with the incense? Is it not the altar of the internal temple that he envelops with clouds of incense? And is not man – also the self-same ikon of God? For, as in the ikon beyond the paints and the wood, the grace of the Lord is present, so behind the flesh of man, beyond it and the sinful soul, dwells in the innermost temple, in the many-eyed conscience – the Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

Not a Single Individual Will Be Saved

Perhaps the most striking thing about human beings is that we don’t actually come into existence by ourselves. There are parents (two of them when the laws of biology are allowed to work). The parents themselves are points of contact to a much larger world of the family and the culture itself. Human beings do not come without cultures. In a relatively short time, we acquire language and a host of other things from this culture around us. Concepts, beliefs, understandings will all be engaged only in a cultural context. There is something individual about us, but mostly in the abstract. It is not just other humans that we need: we cannot exist without bacteria. We have more of them in our gut than the number of cells in our bodies. We do not exist alone. In the story of our creation, we were told, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” And so we are “male and female.” How is it that our lives exist only in such a shared manner and yet many want to image that our salvation is entirely individual?

No one is saved as an individual.

There is no historical account of a Christianity that is not also the Church. Christianity must be the Church because that alone truly reflects the truth of our humanity. Jesus never taught a salvation that was individualized. Instead, He prays:

“That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us…”(Joh 17:21)

The “one” that we are to become is not a property that can belong to an individual. Alone, we are not one. Alone, we are not yet anything.

The language we use with regard to God bears a similar understanding. Christ reveals the Father by a name that can have no meaning by itself. “Father” is always “Father of…” The same is true of the name “Son.” “Spirit” is always “Spirit of” (particularly in the original languages). God makes Himself known to us in the mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Nothing is more bothersome in our existence than the existence of others. Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people,” (indicating that you would not want to invite him to a party). Both love and hate require other people. We do nothing alone. We might imagine ourselves to be doing something alone, but within us are the presence of many others. The voice in our head speaks a language, learned only from others. When we speak, they speak as well. Our existence is never truly individual.

And so, our salvation is never truly individual. The modern world caters to an imaginary individual, something invented by its own mythology. It speaks of liberty without responsibility and freedom without communion. Various contemporary Christianities have unintentionally become purveyors of this concept, and have created an account of salvation that isolates the believer, who is told that they can have Christ without sacrament and without the Church. They offer something that Christ Himself never offered.

God has united Himself to our humanity and become a partaker of our history and our culture. There is no Jesus of Nazareth who is not a Jew, who does not speak Aramaic, who was not born of Mary. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity enters time at the word of an angel to the Virgin. Not until God enters her womb (taking flesh of the Virgin) can we say His name is “Jesus.” That name is now exalted because it is now the name of the Son of God. But the Son of God now remains and abides fully human as well as fully God. To be fully human is to have a context.

Christ is not some sort of “transcendent man,” incarnate in all places, times and cultures. To know Him is also to know a Jew, a male, a Galilean. All those things (as do all things human) have a shared characteristic within them and have no meaning except in reference to other humans.

The human life is always a corporate life. Though each person has some measure of freedom, we remain dependent upon others. That someone should become a hermit and have no more contact with others does not erase the fact that their existence remains dependent. We are not self-creating nor self-sustaining.

The interdependent reality of our lives has traditionally been expressed in the communion of saints within the historic Christian Church. We cannot speak of Christ’s humanity apart from the Virgin Mary, and so (as a representative of us all) she is always honored in the life of the Church (just as she is honored within the gospels).

The unchurched, non-sacramental evolution of contemporary Christianity follows the track of modern culture’s portrayal of human beings as atomistic individuals. Catholics and Orthodox frequently hear others assert, “I don’t need a priest. I can go straight to God.” Of course, neither Catholics nor Orthodox say that you cannot “go straight” to God. However, they both know that no one goes alone. We are assisted by the heavenly hosts, our guardian angels, the saints, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and, yes, the sacramental priesthood of the Church who exist in the line of the Apostles. That is the universe and the faith as God gave them to us. Modernity imagines that everything can be improved, including God.

This, however, is anti-human, a re-imagining of our nature and a re-configuration of salvation. Letters written to Churches are taken as personal mail from God. In ignorance, contemporary readers remove the Scriptures from the Church, from history and from the tradition that produced them and turn them into texts that justify modernity and every bizarre turn of the culture.

The gospel is not the story of individual salvation. It is, above all, the “gathering together into one all things in Christ Jesus.” The drive towards independence and the diminishment of our common life is a drive that is moving in a direction opposite from the “mystery of [God’s] will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Eph 1:9).

Modernity is on a collision course with the universe. My money is on the universe.

The Translation of the Faith

There is an Italian proverb: Traduttore, traditore. It means, “translator, traitor.” It is the observation that no matter how hard one might try, the translation of one language into another is never more than approximate: there can be no “literal” translation.

Every language is, within itself, a universe of relationships between words. There are shades of meaning and associations that simply cannot be moved into another language. When we study a new language, we learn vocabulary, but with the immediate betrayal of the words we want to learn. For, most often, we are given one, or two meanings in our own language to use in understanding. But the meaning(s) of our word can never be an exact rendering of a word in another language.

Imagine trying to translate a pun.

I came up with my first Russian pun recently. The Russian word for theologian is “bogoslov” (Bog=God, and Slov=word, or logos). The pun was to refer to myself as a “Blogoslov.” Russians sitting around in our coffee hour thought it was hilarious. The Americans didn’t really get it.

I love languages. I studied Greek, Latin, German and Russian when I was in college and added Hebrew when I was in seminary. The only thing I can approach having a conversation in, however, is German. And even then, it’s touch and go.

Most Christians live in a world of translation (we can’t all be Greeks). It is interesting that much of the New Testament is not written in very polished Greek. I know this as a second-hand fact. For, although I majored in the language and can read the New Testament pretty fluently, my reading is really not broad enough and deep enough to say, “This is less than polished Greek.” That is the sort of thing any English reader could quickly say about something written in English – even if they couldn’t tell you how they knew that.

And this last point is among the least translatable realities: a child has a “feel” for their native language that only the most fluent second-language speakers can have (and, even then, quite rarely). Those who learn a second language to the level of true fluency sometimes report a strange phenomenon: feeling like they are someone else when they speak the other language, or, a different version of themselves. The gestalt of a language is an inherent part of all that we call personality. Thus, the “other” personality is perhaps not surprising.

There is an even deeper reality about language: it is something we know by communion. At least, that’s the best term I can think of to describe that seamless aspect of our lives. We think with words; we feel with words. And though there are occasions in which our thoughts and emotions seem to lack words, we experience this as a great difficulty and words must be found.

Language is a very useful experience for thinking about true communion. We do not experience language as one thing and ourselves as another. It is part of us. My halting German cannot serve as a vehicle for communion. Flying to Greece recently, we picked up a load of Germans in Munich who were making their way South. In the seat in front of me was a three-year old girl, who quickly unbuckled and turned around to talk to this old man. I realized that my German was somewhere below that of a three-year old, though we laughed and she made fun of my “langer Bart” (“long beard”). My efforts were awkward and clipped. There was me, and there was the child, and my lack of vocabulary stood as an impenetrable wall.

Our faith is expressed in words (among other things). For some, though their own native tongue might be employed, theology and Scripture are a foreign tongue. For the words of the faith belong to a world and a reality that is not a universal experience. It is available to all, but only known by some.

There is a modern phenomenon described as “contextualizing the gospel.” It means paying attention to cultural patterns and to shape the gospel in a manner that can be understood in those terms. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea, and to be consonant with the ancient practice of the Church. But this concept is hampered in that it is employed by modernists. In the modern understanding, culture is neutral and all cultures are equal. In Orthodox practice, local culture has always been respected. It is frankly the reason behind “Greek,” “Russian,” “Romanian,” or “American,” Orthodoxy. Its most obvious application has been the practice of translating the Scriptures and the services into the language of a people. This has always been the Orthodox practice (versus the ancient practice of Rome requiring everything to be in Latin).

But there has always been a subtle “Hellenization” of every culture in which the Orthodox have successfully established the Church. Russians do not become Greeks, but Russian culture cannot be properly understood without seeing its roots in Christian Hellenism. The language of Scripture is Greek (and even the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT is seen as authoritative). All of the major doctrines of the Christian faith were articulated and explained in Greek. This is not a mere cultural artifact: it is normative for all Christianity.

If you are familiar with Orthodox Christianity and its many cultural expressions, then there is no denying the wide variety that can be found. But the core of what is similar can be seen for its Hellenism. As such, there can be no “modern” expression of the Christian faith, at least not in the sense that its terms and concepts will be those of modernity. Modernity represents an alien philosophy, or, rightly understood, a Christian heresy.

The faith not only has a language (with a decidedly Greek accent), but also offers the possibility of “fluency.” We sometimes speak of an Orthodox phronema (or “mind”). That phronema includes a fluency in the grammar of the faith. Not all will have the same sized vocabulary, but all will have one and the same “grammar.”

The translation of the gospel into a new culture (or a non-Orthodox culture), does not consist in changing the gospel to make it understandable. It consists in the more difficult task of embodying one and the same gospel in the flesh of a new language (and the fullness of its expression). With modern cultures, the task is made more difficult by the fact that modernity is post-Christian. It has many essential words drawn from Christian tradition, but it has changed their meaning to enflesh its own heterodox concepts. Thus there will be continuous battles over words in the work of re-evangelizing the modern world.

A number of key words occur to me that mean one thing in classical Christianity and another in modernity:

Freedom
Person
Power
Self
Mind
Communion
Relationship
Image
Prosperity
Gender
Tradition
Atonement

Of course, the full list is much longer. It is more than words – it is the very grammar of Christianity that must be embraced. Ultimately, the question will become, “Who is speaking whom?”

Humble and Meek and Middle-Class Morality

 

“He Will Exalt the Humble and Meek”

There is an interesting historical pattern that has been repeated any number of times across the centuries. A group of the dispossessed and the poor come together within a religious movement. What begins with great enthusiasm succeeds. As it succeeds, those who were once poor and dispossessed manage to gather themselves into some sort of order. They learn to work hard, to avoid disaster, to become better, more moral people. Often this change takes place as those within the community sacrifice to make the same transition possible for others. And then success takes over.

Those who once were poor are now prosperous. Association with the poor now feels risky, almost a step backwards. The rewards of morality create a new class of Christians who feel distinctly uncomfortable around the very sort of people who once constituted their membership. In economic terms, it is a movement from poverty towards some form of propertied stability. With the new stability comes a whole new worldview.

The shift in worldview is significant. Morality (good behavior) has a way of self-justification. The morally competent all-too-frequently see themselves as the products of their own self-discipline and inner character. They fail to see that they are doing little more than conforming to the social morality of their class.

I was born to the middle class (lower). Along with that came a deep sense of right and wrong, of work and responsibility. My parents came from poor circumstances – my father was the son of a sharecropper, my mother, the daughter of a farmer (100 acres). We had little to mark us out as “middle class.” What I actually received was a deeply internalized sense that the middle class was where we belonged.

My mother would occasionally inveigh a shameful imprecation on us. Words or actions would bring this ringing rebuke: “They will think you’re some of Uncle Pick’s people!” I never knew who “Uncle Pick” was, or what his people had done. However, it sounded like the worst possible thing.

As an adult, I eventually queried my mother, expecting to hear the tale of some terrible faux pas, an out-of-wedlock child or such. Instead, I heard something very different. “They never wanted to better themselves.” This was her dismissal of these ne’er-do-well scions of our family tree. It didn’t matter how poor you were so long as you didn’t act like it. Indeed, being middle class requires a consciousness of not being something else.

Christ’s most damning words were reserved for the Pharisees. He uses the term “hypocrites” 14 times in referring to them. He does not fault their “morality.”

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. (Mat 23:2-3)

He consistently makes a distinction between their outer actions and the inner disposition of their hearts:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Mat 23:27-28)

The Pharisees were religiously and morally successful. Their children were likely the same. And yet, inwardly, they were failing. I recently saw a description of my writing in which it was characterized as marked by “existential despair” and “moral futility.” This assessment (which makes me sound like Dostoevsky!) seemed to have been occasioned by my treatment of certain notions of “morality.”  Cf. My series on the “Unmoral Christian.”

I have never suggested that anyone should be immoral or amoral. Readers here will know that my commitment to the Church’s teaching is unequivocal. However, I share the concern found in Christ’s approach to the Pharisees. The nature of sin can be easily overlooked in a “merely” moral approach to the Christian life. The “dead men’s bones” that lie beneath the moral surface were obvious to Christ. “We do not have a legal problem,” I have written, “We have a death problem.” “Dead men’s bones” are the result of the ontological corruption that is the very heart of sin. And the deepest and most corrupt sinners among us can also appear to be the most moral. If the morality of your life does not reach beneath the surface and into the depths of the corruption that is at work there, then your life is indeed an expression of moral futility.

An equally great tragedy rises from this untended inner corruption. The assurance of moral rectitude is fortified by the unwillingness to rightly acknowledge and bear the inward shame of sin. This dries up the well of compassion that should mark the soul. A gulf grows between the “morally” competent and those who are clearly and visibly broken by sin. True compassion would require the recognition of a kinship of shame.

A particular point in the criticisms I’ve received is worth noting. Some have said that I teach that there is no moral progress in this life – that we cannot get better. That is close to something that I have indeed said. I should acknowledge that this a hyperbole on my part. Obviously, the saints are living examples of people who have gone from the worst to the greatest. It is possible to imagine that others can do something similar. I have observed (and said) that it is rare. What is common, I think, is an improvement of behavior, a greater conformity to rules (and this is not a bad thing). But it just as often leaves unattended the “dead men’s bones” of ontological corruption and shame.

If, for example, anger is a common element in your life, then it is pretty much the case that there are areas of unattended shame. It is also true that these same wounds will continue to provide the fuel for a host of sins across a lifetime. One thing that separates the traditional middle class in our culture from the lower classes is the adherence to a standard of public behavior. Those in the poorer classes are more likely to misbehave publicly in an embarrassing manner (yelling, cursing, etc.). But the nice banker walking down the street is no less angry. His anger remains unexpressed (except at home in more private places). We can say that the banker is more “moral” than the poor man, but he is just as sick and broken.

My writing has an intention of addressing this hidden brokenness. There are already plenty of people who write and pontificate about what constitutes morally correct behavior. I want to attend to what actually causes the corruption in our life. When you strip away the veneer of public morality, you reveal a world of moral futility. If anyone doubts this to be the case I beg them to pay attention to the world in which they live. The chaos and evil that we see belongs to hearts that are just like mine and yours. If everyone in the world were as good as me, then, I fear, we would see nothing that we do not already see.

This is the cry of a mature Apostle, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21)

It is only when the veneer is peeled back and we dare to peer into the depths of shame that the Light can begin to overcome the darkness. The darkness cannot be managed – what it hides must be transformed. This deep inner world is the furnace in which the holiness of saints is forged. It is the place of true repentance.

In the meantime – and here I must be emphatic – we must be kind and gentle and exceedingly patient with one another. The true spiritual battle in the depths of the soul cannot be forced or browbeat into existence. It requires a trusting confidence and divine empathy to enter such a place. My writing, in its efforts to reveal our moral futility, is undertaken to create for many, a faith that it is possible to find grace and forgiveness with God and support in the struggle towards salvation. God is not our enemy. He entered the depths of hell (moral futility writ large) to free us. He came so that no darkness would be immune to His light.

I suspect that anyone who has “stared into the abyss” (to use the Elder Sophrony’s words) would not lightly inveigh on the benefits of morality. My mother worried that we would be taken for “Uncle Pick’s People.” I suspect that it is only when we see that we are all “Uncle Pick’s People” that the light of Christ can work the transfiguration that is the life of grace.

We can grow and we can change. But the change is constituted by becoming light, not by becoming well-behaved darkness.

Note: I do not expect this article to change the assessment of my work.

A Priest’s Thoughts on Depression, Anxiety, the Soul, Your Body and Your Brain

I was 19 years old the first time I had a panic attack. I was trying to go to sleep in my dorm room, when suddenly my heart began racing, my mind speeding forward, with what seemed like crazy, desperate thoughts. That was in the early 70’s and the phrase “panic attack” had not been invented. What I did not know was that this was the beginning of a syndrome that would stay with me over the next 40 years. At times, it limited my life in terrible, embarrassing ways. I began a typical pattern of adjustment, in which I avoided various things that felt like “triggers.” Sometimes it felt like everything and nothing was a trigger. It was also the beginning of a journey of self-education, driven both by repeated treatment failures as well as eventual success and freedom. I have been panic-free for about five years, though I do not assume that it cannot return.

Panic is not in your head. It is not a set of thoughts, even though it sets certain thoughts racing. My dog has panic attacks during thunderstorms (he’s in the middle of one right now). He does not have a “set of thoughts.” Panic is physical. It is, essentially, an “adrenalin storm,” a cascade of chemicals that the body produces quite normally when it perceives immediate danger (the “fight or flight” syndrome). In that sense, panic is a gift from God. In the wrong situation (like trying to go to sleep), it feels like a gift from hell.

Though the advent of panic is unknown, people who suffer from anxiety and depression are far more vulnerable. Indeed, it is treated as a subset of anxiety. It can be the result of trauma or a delayed result from stress or other such things. The first attack, most often, just seems to come out of nowhere.

Panic is not your fault. Telling someone, “But there’s nothing to be afraid of,” is useless. The thoughts come after the attack has begun. It is more accurate to describe the “thoughts” accompanying panic as something other than “thoughts.” They are not the result of reasoning or beliefs. They are the noise your brain makes when it has been hit with an adrenalin bath.

The same thing is generally true about depression and anxiety. These mental experiences are also clearly physical states that can be described, measured and diagnosed. They are, however, physical states that involve the neurobiological system. As such, they produce thoughts, affect our emotions, and create other psycho/physical symptoms.

Somewhat problematic, I think, is the not infrequent distinction made between anxiety and depression as physical/medical problems and as so-called “spiritual” problems. There is no such distinction. We do not have “spiritual” problems that are not also physical problems, simply because we do not exist as some sort of divisible creatures. We could say that the whole thing is spiritual (including medicine). We do not have a “spiritual” life that is not connected with our body. We are human beings. Among the most torturous things I endured in my first year of suffering was having a group of well-meaning Christians gathered around me to cast out the demons, some of them convinced that there was some “unconfessed sin” in my life. I’m fortunate that my belief in God survived.

That said, healthy spiritual disciplines are an important part of the healing and recovery from these problems. If you search patristic material you may wonder where the references to depression and anxiety are. They are hidden in a word that is quite common: acedia (sometimes spelled “accidie”). It is described as the most difficult of all the passions and garnered the nickname “the noonday devil.” Here is a brief description from St. John Cassian:

He looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness.

Gabriel Bunge, the Orthodox hermit and scholar on the works of Evagrius, offers this understanding of what he terms “despondency:”

Acedia manifests itself, then, as a type of slackening of the natural powers of the soul. Evagrius defines it in exactly the same way: Spiritual despondency is a slackness (atonia) of the soul, namely a limpness of the soul, which does not possess what is appropriate to its nature.

It interests me that modern discussions of anxiety and depression tend to alternate between a very physical account (“you have a chemical imbalance”) to very a psychological/emotional account (as in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). The truth is that it is both/and. We do not have moods, thoughts and emotions that have no basis in the electrical chemical components of our brain. Our thinking and feeling is not detached from our body. However, our bodies are not unresponsive to our thoughts. The complex of our existence means that we can and should deal with our health in a manner that involves the whole person.

The fathers of the desert had no psychotropic medication. Their insights were drawn from what they did have. It must be borne in mind that suicide was not unknown among them (there are any number of stories that recall such things). It would be a mistake, therefore, to assume that they knew everything there was to know on the subject or that following their lead is always and entirely sufficient. It is not.

But they knew a lot. Much that they knew is buried beneath and within the terminology of desert asceticism. Just as acedia is largely the equivalent of anxiety and depression, so, many of the remedies are equally disguised. Humility is frequently described as important in overcoming acedia. Modern readers are left puzzled. How is being humble useful with depression? The humility they describe, of course, is deeply rooted in the discipline of confession. It is, in fact, the practice of “bearing a little shame.”

Modern research in Affect Theory has identified shame as the “master emotion,” and as a primary root of anxiety and depression. Of course, we live in a culture that, though riddled with shame, often treats it as a taboo topic. This is especially true for men. A book I read several years ago on male depression was aptly named, The Problem Men Never Discuss. If depression is taboo, shame is more so. The desert fathers attacked the Noonday Devil at its very roots, discovering that the “way up is the way down.” Following the path of Christ in His voluntary acceptance of the shame of the Cross, they discovered the freedom that comes when the very deepest of all wounds is healed. In that healing, they found true peace, the ability to love and forgive, and the place of the deep heart.

I recently watched an interview with Fr. Zacharias of Essex in which he said, “Only the work we do to find the deep heart remains with us beyond the grave.” That is knowledge that only comes from experience.

Again, there are many who continue with a false distinction between psychological/emotional/physical/spiritual matters. This, I think, is a product of an inadequate understanding of our human makeup. The crippling pain of depression and anxiety are often helped greatly by current medications (SSRI’s and the like). Sometimes they are life-savers. They are not, however, a “treatment” for depression and anxiety. They do not address its cause or provide healing. They simply make it bearable – and that’s nothing to be despised.

The book, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, recounts the life and teachings of the Elder Thaddeus of V., a contemporary Serbian monastic. He battled with anxiety issues for many years, suffering two nervous breakdowns. He tried medications to no avail (of course it was at a time well before the current protocols). His story describes certain profound spiritual conclusions, including the radical acceptance of the providence of God, that eventually gave him peace. It is worth a read by anyone who struggles with these things – at the very least for an example of holiness in the midst of this terrible form of inner struggle.

A contemporary elder of Mt. Athos makes this observation:

The image which we can use to describe the relationship of soul and brain is the violin with the violinist. Just as even the best musician cannot make good music if the violin is broken or unstrung, in the same manner a man’s behavior will not be whole (see 2 Tim 3:17) if his brain presents a certain disturbance, in which case the soul cannot be expressed correctly. It is precisely this disturbance of the brain that certain medicines help correct and so aid the soul in expressing itself correctly. (Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos)

It is interesting that men in contemporary culture are so shame-averse. It is, of course painful to everyone at all times. However, the fear to go there requires courage – something our culture tends to praise. I have often been struck with astonishment at the courage of some very broken people, people whom others would consider “losers,” who found a way to enter the darkest places, bear the unbearable, and return with a measure of wholeness. They are my heroes.

We are all Christians in the desert – and the desert is the landscape of our souls. The fathers of the desert found what everyone would find if they dared enter that place for the simple fact that they were humans in the same manner that we are. They did not enter the desert in order to “get away from things.” They entered the desert in order to do battle with the deepest of things and the greatest of demons. They went there in order to avoid any distraction that might draw them away from the battle.

Our culture is full of distractions. However, the noonday devil has made his way into the cities and every corner of our culture. In some segments of American society, as many as 50 percent take some form of anxiety/depression medication. Again, this is not a cure. But it points to how widespread the battle has become.

St. Seraphim of Sarov famously said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” This is a work of courage in our day and time, one that requires wisdom and patience. Easy quips from the sidelines only belong to those who have never been there, or are afraid to admit it. I shudder when I hear someone describe medication as a “crutch.” I’ve heard the same thing said of religion. Given how crippled we are, it makes little sense to despise crutches.

It is important to move beyond the stop-gap measures that simply “keep us going.” There is a serious work of the heart to which the gospel calls us. St. Macarius observed:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

 

 

 

 

The Work that Saves

“Do not be careless. Pray as much as you can – more frequently and more fervently. Prod yourself – force yourself to do so, for the Kingdom of God is taken by force. You will never attain it without forcing yourself.”

~ Saint Innocent of Alaska

Do we cooperate in our salvation? Do our efforts make a difference?

These questions lie at the heart of a centuries-old religious debate in Christianity. Classically, the Protestant reformers said “No” to these questions, arguing that we are saved solely and utterly by God’s grace, His unmerited favor. The Catholic Church replied that “faith without works” is dead and that faith alone is insufficient.

This debate, with various twists and turns, has continued down through the centuries of Christian culture. At one point, there were complaints of “cheap grace,” where the exaltation of pure grace over works led to a very complacent and lazy Christianity. There were also periods of extreme reaction, with guilt-driven excesses of devotion.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a late-comer to this debate, but it is not a stranger. Contemporary Orthodox are quick to latch on to the doctrine of “synergy” and take sides against the cheap grace of Protestant Evangelicalism. Classically, Orthodox thought holds both that we are saved through the action of God (grace), but that we necessarily cooperate in that work (synergy=cooperation). For many converts, this balance has seemed attractive and a needed corrective to the feel-good theology of contemporary Christian culture. But it has a dark side.

That dark side is found in the echoes of the guilt-ridden specters of works-righteousness. How much cooperation is enough? For it is obvious that we do not pray as we should or give as we should – or do anything as we should. If our cooperation is required, are we failing? For many in our culture the answer they hear within themselves is inevitably, “Yes.” They never do enough, anywhere at any time. Their lives are haunted with disapproval and shame, well-worn paths that rarely let them venture into joy.

But it is a mistake to embrace synergy as part of the classical Protestant/Catholic debate. Synergy was an answer to a question asked in a very different context and in centuries that long-predated the modern conversation. Synergy is not a talking-point within the grace-versus-works debate.

Synergy is certainly an affirmation of the human role in salvation. Its most famous example is found in the ‘yes’ of the Mother of God in the Incarnation of Christ. Her acceptance and embrace of the heavenly announcement are seen as necessary components in God-becoming-man. God does not impose Himself upon human freedom. Our free response is required for the life of true Personhood that is the hallmark of salvation.

Synergy is properly seen as response rather than work. The whole life of salvation is marked by grace and is gracious in all its aspects. Consider this statement in St. Paul:

Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…(Rom 4:4-5).

There is a kind of work that has no wages and does not belong to the world of debt described by St. Paul. And it is this sort of work that is encompassed in the term synergy. That work can be described as gracious response. It is worth noting two instances in which the work of our spiritual lives is described:

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (Joh 6:28-29)

and

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Th 5:16-18)

In the first case, “work” is equated with believing. It means that the work we do is to love Christ and to keep His commandments. In the second case, the “will of God” is fulfilled in giving thanks for all things. The dynamic of saving grace in our lives is marked by becoming like God. God gives graciously and freely. We receive graciously and freely by giving thanks for all things.

In this manner, our own “work” is itself marked by a kind of grace. We really cannot hear the meaning of “grace” in English. In the Greek it carries the meaning of “gift” (it’s the same word). Gifts are never given with an expectation of return – they are gracious and free. But they are only rightly received with thanksgiving. This is true of the life of grace in the believer.

There is a highly moralized version of synergy, in which God is seen to give us grace, but we must do something in our lives to make it effective. In this model we are always judging the “results” of our “cooperation” with grace, and assuming that the lousy outcomes we see are simply our fault. This experience becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and remorse. It is a distortion of grace-filled synergy.

I have written (and been criticized for it) about the “unmoral Christian.” My intention has been to unmask and disarm a false notion of synergy. We indeed are not saved through the “works” that Protestants tend to criticize. The “work” we do is largely a state of heart from which all subsequent grace-empowered actions flow. That state of heart is best described as “grateful thanksgiving.” The Eucharistic life is the true existence of the Christian. The giving of thanks is the first of all works and the sine qua non of the spiritual life. Everything that proceeds from the giving of thanks works to our salvation. That which does not proceed from the giving of thanks tends to work to our destruction. 

There has grown up a virtual cottage industry of Orthodox commentary (particularly on the internet where all of us can self-publish). This commentary (including that by some priests) is often marked by poor theological training or understanding, by argument and debate, and by an extreme lack of experience in the actual guidance of souls towards healing and salvation. That is to say – much of it is worthless and some of it is actually damaging.

This can especially be true in discussions of synergy. The wrong treatment of such pastoral matters can produce despair and distrust in naive readers whose expectations have been raised through the reading of the lives of the saints and yet whose experience is marked by the same repeated moral failures that they have always known. Well-intentioned but ignorant writers argue that what is needed is yet more moral goading. I have been criticized for possibly lightening the moral load or suggesting that all moral effort is of no use. I absolutely do not subscribe to a notion of immorality, or libertinism in any form.

One form of moral effort (the most common) is indeed of no use. It belongs to the same category as the works criticized by Protestant theology. We pray, with no understanding, laboring to complete a prayer rule that amounts to little more than “going through the motions.” We fast as though every slip were a matter of sin in need of confession. Some go so far as to carefully search through the labels on every grocery product, seeking for tale-tell signs of “milk products,” having invented for themselves a new yoke of bondage that turns Orthodox fasting into a new version of kosher. In short, there is a form of asceticism that is ill-taught and ill-practiced and produces either despairing Christians or oppressive Pharisees (sometimes in one and the same person).

The grounding of the Christian life is thanksgiving. If you cannot fast with thanksgiving, your fast will be of little use. The same extends to all Christian practices and commandments. The essential work of the Christian life is grateful thanksgiving. It is for this reason that Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”

There are very deep forms of asceticism, but even these are rightly rooted in the giving of thanks. In the 20th century, perhaps no saint is better known for his ascetical achievements than St. Silouan of Athos. He is known to have endured some 15 years of the experience of hell in his prayers. At its depth, he heard Christ say, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” His interpreter and biographer, the Elder Sophrony of Essex, however, is reported to have said, “If you will give God thanks always and for all things, you will fulfill the saying, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’”

The first duty of a spiritual father is to lead a soul into the practice of giving thanks. In this manner they will acquire the Spirit of Peace and be able to sustain the Christian life. But without thanksgiving, they will only fall into despair or delusion. Thanksgiving is the foundation of the Christian life. When this is understood and in place, other things can be properly understood.

For example, it is common to read in the spiritual writings of Orthodoxy (and to hear in the services) terms such as “self-loathing.” This is quite common, for example, in the Elder Sophrony’s work. It is very easily taken in the wrong way and those without a proper foundation will likely come away with a terrible distortion.

“Self-loathing,” in the sense that it is used, is not brought about by the contemplation of our sins (a moral condemnation and disgust with the self). It is rather brought about by the contemplation of God’s love and His fullness of being. It is only as we see ourselves in the light of God Himself, that we can “achieve” the “self-loathing” that Sophrony describes. But even this is joyful, because it takes place in the gracious presence of the grace-giving God.

Thanksgiving, as gracious gift, draws us into the very life of the Trinity. For it is that Life that is described by St. John Chrysostom in his Liturgy:

The priest prays: “…but account me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to You. For You are the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and to You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

It is this gift-giving life of the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, that we enter as we rightly give thanks always for all things. This is our work, our true synergy, without which we cannot be saved.

A Bunch of Stuff We Don’t Know

escherReading discussions about life after death, it is easy to get the impression that people actually know what they’re talking about, that perhaps they have been there, seen what goes on and therefore authoritatively opine on the nature of things. But, the truth is that we mostly don’t know. We have a few things given to us in Scripture, and even those few things are often somewhat cryptic or uncertain. I will come to what we may say with certainty later. But here at the beginning of this article, I want to say that we don’t know much.

As an Orthodox believer, I am comfortable with not knowing much. Strangely, Orthodoxy has a whole spiritual lifestyle based on not knowing much – it’s called apophaticism. But why do so many seem to (or claim to) know so many details – and to know them so well that they gladly enter into arguments on the topic? To a great degree, the answer is simple: arguments.

The greatest and longest argument in Christianity has raged between Protestants and Catholics for 500 years. Some might want to say that the split between the Orthodox and the Catholics is a longer argument. But though that split is 1,000 years old, it has not mostly been an argument. If anything, it has mostly been a case of not talking to each other. However, the rise of Protestantism must be seen as the rise of an argument. It began specifically as a critique of Roman Catholicism. One of the primary critiques of Catholicism centered around details of life after death. The notion of purgatory, the merits of the saints, heaven and hell, prayers for the dead, all came under fire in one way or another from virtually every angle of Protestantism. And Catholicism responded, particularly in the Counter-Reformation.

Arguments can have a life of their own. One aspect of an implacable target in an argument is the near impossibility of agreeing with them or ceding any ground whatsoever. Lines of thought become refined and ossified. I have an easy summary of Protestant thought about life after death: “Catholics are wrong.” Protestant thought on the afterlife is streamlined. Its scheme of salvation, of reward and punishment, is very straightforward and without wrinkles. Catholic thought, particularly as developed in response to Protestant critique, is not so straightforward, but it developed a very clear shape with definitive contours and describable rules.

Orthodoxy, on the other hand, seems sloppy, even murky. Why do the Orthodox pray for the dead? “Because it is of benefit,” comes the official answer. Exactly how it benefits is a field for speculation and theologizing, but not a field for dogma. There are interesting details, rooted in what is essentially folklore, such as the “toll houses,” a description of particular judgments and battles with demons confronting the soul on its way to heaven (if it makes it). Stories abound in Orthodoxy. A saint prays and frees a soul from hell (it’s not an uncommon story). However, there’s no explanation for how such a thing can happen. Once a year, at the Vespers of Pentecost Sunday, prayers are offered for all the souls in Hades from Adam to the present. Again, no explanation is offered. Is Adam still there? Christ is seen in the icon of the resurrection taking Adam by the hand and leading him out. But there are the prayers.

It is deeply tempting (and frequently not resisted in the least) for Orthodox Christians to seek to systematize the whole process. This offers the convenience of making arguments with Catholics and Protestants more interesting. Saying, “We don’t exactly know,” is simply not persuasive. What apparently disturbs many Christians is the notion that we don’t actually know a lot about what seems an important matter (where I’m going to go when I die, what it’s like, how do I get there, etc.). But that is the plain truth. We don’t really know very much.

But we do know certain things, and they are the things that matter. When I say we “know,” I mean that as a solid data of the received faith, the very core of Christianity, we “know” or have been given to “know” certain things. We know that Christ died and was buried. We know that He rose on the third day. We know that He “trampled down death by death,” He “led captivity captive.” The way to the resurrection has been opened by Christ. We know that “if we are Baptized into His death, we shall also be raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” And these are, generally, the sorts of things we know and can say for certain.

We are nowhere in the Scriptures, nor in the Tradition, given a roadmap complete with rules for life after death. Some like to make up rules because it makes a form of preaching sound plausible: “Unless you accept Christ as Savior, you’ll go to hell.” But, such preaching is largely based not on the Scriptures, but on the roadmaps of certainty forged in the debates of the Reformation. The Christian gospel is not based on accurate knowledge of the roadmap. The gospel is based on the certainty of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and the promise that His resurrection is the sure and certain hope of all of creation to be delivered from its bondage.

The life and practices of the Church are built around this sure and certain hope. However, our hope and our certainty are not based on a topographical tour of the afterlife. Of course, it is impossible to suggest that people not ask questions or wonder about the topic. And the Church’s life is filled with stories and practices (such as prayers for the departed) that are rightly part of the ethos of the faith. But we do well to speak the truth to ourselves and accept the humility that God seems to have assigned to this topic.

It is important, as well, to resist the pressures that come from arguments of modern Christianity. The feeling that we are supposed to have assurance or certainty about the details and mechanics of all this is not a part of the Tradition, but simply an artifact of the argumentative habits of the past 500 years. Christ did not come to reveal the metaphysics of life after death. He came to destroy death. Having done so, those who follow Him seem strangely drawn towards the creation of a new paganism in which the afterlife is central. The truth is that union with Christ, in His death and resurrection, are the only central things in our faith.

At every turn, the source of our hope is simply what we have seen accomplished in Christ. We have His promises: “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” (Joh 14:3) The fullness of the life of the Church teaches us how to hope and how to pray. It does not teach us what has not been given us to know.

I’ll close with a speculation of my own. I strongly suspect that one of the reasons we do not really know much is simply the nature of what there is that we want to know. Every version and image of life after death is inevitably nothing more than a beefed-up version of something we already know. But if, as St. Paul says, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him,” (1Co 2:9) then we might simply not know because it is beyond our knowing. It is also not unlikely that such knowledge would be a distraction – that is already evident by our wholesale abuse of our ignorance.

We know Christ, crucified and risen. He is our Pascha. Know that.

The God Who Fights For Us

christ-crushing-the-head-of-satan

I was small for my age as a child, and quite thin at that. I liked to play, but was not particularly rugged and did not enjoy sports that involved getting knocked around. I grew up with another “Steve” next door to me, who was big for his age. Inevitably, I was nicknamed “Little Steve,” and he, “Big Steve.” I confess to being glad when he moved away, at least for my name’s sake. I was born in the post-War era of the 50’s and lived near an air base. War and military exploits were the daily fare of the playground imagination. It is difficult to cultivate a warrior’s mentality if you’ve lost every fight you were ever in. I wasn’t a “wimp,” but I could have been a happy pacifist.

I often think that my childhood experience has colored my adult love of Pascha. In my years as an Anglican priest, I was always careful that my favorite hymn be sung at all the Easter services:

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
The strife is o’er, the battle done,
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun.
Alleluia!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions hath dispersed:
let shout of holy joy outburst.
Alleluia!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
The three sad days are quickly sped,
he rises glorious from the dead:
all glory to our risen Head!
Alleluia!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
He closed the yawning gates of hell,
the bars from heaven’s high portals fell;
let hymns of praise his triumphs tell!
Alleluia!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Lord! by the stripes which wounded thee,
from death’s dread sting thy servants free,
that we may live and sing to thee.
Alleluia!

It is, I think, one of the most Orthodox hymns in the Anglican tradition, both in its tone and in its content. Pascha, in Orthodox thought, is described primarily in terms of battle. Christ “tramples down death by death.” That line, part of the primary hymn of Pascha, is sung over and over in the course of the feast.

God fighting for you and smashing your enemies is particularly good news if you’ve been on the losing side most of your life. It seems to have been the “losing side” that was most drawn to Christ during His ministry. He excoriated religious leaders but was exceedingly kind to harlots, adulteresses, and turn-coat tax-collectors. It is certainly the case that the religious leaders of that time bullied the poor and the “unrighteous.”

None of that suggests that we should become harlots, and the like. It certainly suggests that we should not be bullies. But it strongly suggests that we should identify ourselves with those who lose. This can be difficult for some, particularly in a culture that so values winners. There are versions of the Christian faith that are better suited to the culture of winning. I suspect that this is part of the attraction of those groups who speak of themselves as having been “saved.” To have found out the mechanism of salvation and applied it in your life easily feels like getting the answers right on the test. And I worry as well when I hear a discussion about the wickedness of sinners and their destiny in hell.

My worry is that my years of pastoral experience have taught me just how complicated and twisted are the souls of “sinners.” I have known a number of people who simply cannot manage money. When they do work, they have no common sense about how things should be spent and how things should be saved. And their lives are always complicated with money problems. I see the same thing in many lives with certain moral issues. I see far more people do “stupid” things than “evil” things. Indeed, I see very few people who actually want to do anything truly evil. They simply don’t know how to “manage” being good.

Historically there has been a behavior described as “middle-class” or “bourgeois” morality. Sometimes used as a pejorative by radical types, it nevertheless can be very telling. It refers to a form of public behavior, typical in moderate and upper income homes, in which people have interiorized a set of rules about “how decent people should behave.” They are the rules for how to get along with others, and how to keep your head down and slowly improve your lot in life. Many people have a deep sense of satisfaction and competency that accompanies this internal ability.

In point of fact, it’s no great effort. Sometimes it is nothing more than Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” There is nothing heroic, or deeply sacrificial. It’s religion is always taken in fairly modest, acceptable directions. It is the essence of “public” morality, the least likely to cause difficulty for anyone. At its worst, it simply becomes insipid.

I’ve often wondered if such people will ever be incompetent, weak or sick enough to be saved. They are more likely to subscribe to religious views that lauds their competence and protects their vested interests. They do not need a God who fights for them. They would prefer the fight to be polite and metaphorical, at best. In New Testament terms, they are the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Puzzled by the celebration accorded to their n’er-do-well younger brother.

Christ, the God-Who-Fights-For-Us, fights for them as well, but their lives may generally lull them into thinking that they really don’t much help. They manage to stay away from battles. Their lives may not be paradise, but their hell has become comfortable enough to suit them pretty well.

Pascha is radical good news. God not only fights for us, but has won. If it seems rather ho-hum to you, look carefully at your life. You may be in a sleepy corner of hell, too comfortable to want salvation. The secular utopia, along with its modest religious forms, is the true opiate of the people.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Moral Improvement

ladder-devils

The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, is dedicated to St. John Climacus, the author of the ancient work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is a classic work describing “steps” within the life of the struggling ascetic. There is an icon associated with this work, picturing monastics climbing the rungs of a ladder to heaven, battling demons who are trying to pull them off. However, ladders are dangerous things to put in the hands of a modern Christian.

Modernity likes ladders. We like the idea of upward mobility, of continuing improvement, of moral progress. We speak of “career ladders” and the “ladder of success.”  It is the myth of personal power. Modernity is a cultural phenomenon created by the theology of the Reformation and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Freed from the constraints of inherited tradition (such as the Catholic Church) and the royal state (hurrah for democracy), modernity is a story told to individuals that they can now become whatever they want. Freedom and personal industry are the twin rails supporting the rungs of progress. As a philosophy, this idea and its associated notions are the bedrock of free-market capitalism.  As theology, it is the foundation for self-help Christianity and the positive, motivational preaching of contemporary religion. “Be all that you can be, and Jesus can help!”

Nurtured in this culture, contemporary Orthodox believers are not immune to its allure, particularly if the images appear in the guise of desert monasticism and Byzantine/Russian-style striving. More than once I have heard the sad confession, “I don’t feel like I’m a very good Orthodox Christian.” Implied in this statement is that Orthodox Christians should, somehow, be better than other Christians. Some foolish people even call us the “marines” of the spiritual life.

Of course, all of this, particularly when applied to writings such as St. John’s Ladder, is pure distortion and delusion. Its most subtle and seductive version is that of moral progress. I wrote a series of articles last year denouncing the concept of moral progress, identifying it as largely a modern notion and not consistent with the mind of the fathers. Here, I reaffirm that without equivocation.

We simply are not saved by getting better. It is a false image and a false goal. Of course, critics will charge that I’m being defeatist and suggesting a path devoid of moral effort. I am doing nothing of the sort. Everyone should, at all times, struggle against sin. But measuring, even watching for improvement can be not only self-defeating but sinful in itself. The Ladder points to a very different path:

“You cannot escape shame except by shame,” St. John says (4.62).

We do not gradually improve and thereby leave our shame behind us. The way down is the way up. The ladder of divine ascent is actually a ladder of divine descent. The path to union with God is only found in making the descent with Him. “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8). St. Gregory the Theologian says, “If He descends into hell, go with Him” (Oration 45).

The path of modernity carries no humility. It breeds pride, and frequently contempt. Failure is its nemesis. We blame ourselves for laziness and sloth, certain that a little more effort will make the difference. Like a child given a bad grade, we plead that we’ll try harder. Confession is seen as the Second Chance, the opportunity to pull up our grades. “Loser!” is the taunt of the modern world (a word spawned in the pit of hell).

But St. John points us towards our shame. He does not describe a path of moral improvement. His path follows the Cross, which is the descent into Hades. My failure, not sought for its own sake (we do not sin in order to gain grace), is always and immediately the gate of Hades and the gate of Paradise. When I acknowledge my failure and refuse to hide from its shame, we can call out for Christ to comfort us. “I did not turn my face from the shame and the spitting” (Is. 50:6). He will meet us in our shame, and takes it upon Himself. My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in the paradox that is at the very heart of our salvation. God became what we are, that we might become what He is. God does not meet us in the middle. He meets us at the bottom and asks us to meet Him there as well.

It is within that place that true humility is born. Judgment ceases. If I accept my shame in union with Christ, how can I judge another? Indeed, it is largely my efforts to avoid my shame that makes me judge my brother. We can only avoid judging if we “see our own transgressions” (as we are taught in the Prayer of St. Ephrem).

Modernity loves excellence. The moral improvement pitches of the motivational preachers love the drive for excellence. Our bosses and the owners demand that we strive for excellence. God is not our boss, nor does He place us in His debt (“freely you have received”). The constant nagging voice demanding improvement and excellence is not the voice of God. It is often nothing more than the neurotic echo of modernity sounding in our brains. It drives us with the threat of shame. However, Christ has trampled down shame by shame and invites us to do the same thing. “You cannot escape shame except by shame.”

Become a Christian who follows Christ. We do not seek to please Him with our excellence. We seek to imitate Him by going where He has gone.

 

 

You Are Not Your Sin – Part 2…the Chains that Bind

christ-the-conqueror-of-hell1

Imagine that you have been shackled with chains on your ankles. The chains are heavy, make a lot of noise, and make it impossible for you to run. You cannot successfully climb over anything or dance. The chains are heavy enough that you quickly become exhausted and are limited in the things you can do and for how long you can do them. Imagine that not only are you shackled, but so is everyone around you. Some only have light handcuffs, while others are almost immobile with the chains they bear. Some have these terrible devices on their heads that make it impossible for them to turn their heads. This, of course, makes for very great problems in the culture you live in. For one, bicycles are not very popular. Sports are extremely limited. Clothes are primarily zippered things. There are laws about the chains and devices. Recently, it has even become illegal to discuss the chains, so that no one is embarrassed. There are even discussions and academic papers about the chains. There are fads in which the chains are painted various colors, or even have bells attached to them. There are clubs.

This is an analogy for sin. We did not invent the chains. They get there in various ways. Some are even born with them. Others have more chains added by parents and neighbors, etc. Over the years, we do add some chains ourselves. Our behavior adapts to the chains – over that we have very little choice. But, please note, we are not our chains. The chains may affect us, but we do not become the chains. They may affect us so deeply that we completely organize our lives around the limitations they impose. But the limitations and the chains are still not us.

Many people like to discuss the origin of the chains. Who were the first to have them? Was it their fault? Is it our fault? In truth, it’s largely a moot point. We have the chains and many of them are clearly not our fault. It’s true that my chains slow me down and I trip over them a lot. Perhaps if I were more careful…

I wrote earlier that “you are not your sin.” Neither are you your chains. Are you responsible? Sure, in some way. Are you free? There is still mobility, but nothing like complete freedom. Try riding a bike or swimming with leg irons. Responsibility means staying off the bike and out of the water. But that’s not really the same thing as freedom, is it?

The New Testament not infrequently uses the term “bondage” to describe our sinful condition. The chains are a picture of what bondage looks like. Many people speak of sin as though it were something else, as though we were a group of people who willingly chose to act as though they had chains but are, in fact, actually free. So, all of the chain-driven behavior is really only a choice. It’s your fault…entirely.

Jesus sets us free from our bondage. That is the clear teaching and meaning of His Pascha. He descends into the origin of our bondage, the bondage capital of the universe (Hades), and binds the “strongman.” And He sets at liberty those who were in bondage:

He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended “– what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) (Eph. 4:8-10)

And

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb 2:14-15)

Also

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Rom 8:20-21)

I am not trying to develop some complete scenario of judgment, heaven and hell. However, sin as bondage and Christ as the destroyer of bonds is an essential NT image and at the very heart of the Church’s understanding of His Pascha. For those working within the metaphors and images of the legal/forensic world, Pascha is about a payment or an appeasement (propitiation) offered to the Father, freeing us from the righteous penalties of sin (which is understood as breaking the bonds of sin-debt).

Hidden within the legal/forensic image, however, is a false notion of human beings and their freedom of choice and action. The “bondage” in that imagery is a self-imposed burden that we deserve because we have broken the Law and owe a debt. We deserve it because we could have done differently. Our “chains” of entirely of our own making. It is argued, as well, that this concept of freedom and responsibility are absolutely essential to what it means to be a person.

What I think has taken place in the thoughts of many, is a transfer of the legal/forensic version of what it means to be human into the more Orthodox narrative of Pascha. It creates a very confused account that does not really make sense.

What does it mean to be a person? Most moderns assume that “personhood” is the correct way to describe the state of any individual. Each individual is a person, created in the image of God. Inherent to personhood, in this understanding, is freedom. If there is no freedom, then there is no true personhood. But, again, the modern consciousness has a false understanding of persons and presumes many things that are simply not true.

Human beings are not the utterly free agents imagined by modernity. The Tradition does not describe us as existing in a fullness of personhood. The language and understanding of what it means to be a person is rooted in the discussion and doctrine of the persons of the Holy Trinity, and the person of Christ as the God/Man. It is not rooted in what we experience and know to be the present case for human beings.

Indeed, the patristic consensus is that human beings are created according to the “image” of God, but that we fail to fulfill the “likeness.” Expressed in a variety of ways, it is understood in the Orthodox Church, that human beings, created to be fully personal in the image and likeness of Christ, are not yet fully personal and in the image and likeness. Personhood is the end for which we are created, not the place from which we all begin. And personhood is not properly defined as merely a mode of existence that entails freedom. The image according to which we were created is the Crucified Christ (the Lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world”). The Crucified Christ is the image revealed to us of the Person of Christ as self-emptying love. True Personhood does not merely exist as freedom, it is freedom as self-emptying love. It is always freedom-for-the-Other.

We live a shackled existence. Some are far more bound than others. This is not to say that we have no freedom, or that we are not responsible for what we do with the freedom we have. But our “range of motion” is greatly restricted. We are hampered such that we frequently fall and take missteps. What is shackled in our existence?

St. John of Damascus notes: For either man is an irrational being, or, if he is rational, he is master of his acts and endowed with free-will. (Exact Exposition, XXVII).

The Fathers are quite clear, however, that our nous is darkened. We do not see clearly and our reason is impaired. We do not see God or perceive Him as we ought, nor do we see the good clearly as we ought. Our reason is shackled.

In the same manner, our will is shackled. We do not hold an insane person to be responsible if they commit suicide. The daily suicide of us all is frequently just as much a matter of something beyond our responsibility. Again, we are certainly responsible, but we are also insane. There are very good reasons that we ask for forgiveness for things we have done, “both voluntary and involuntary.” That is simply the state of our present condition.

And it is this shackled existence of bondage that Christ destroys in His Pascha. It is His deliverance that forms the bulk of our hymnography within the Paschal Triduum. Of course, it is reasonable to ask why it is we still behave as we do if Christ has set us free from bondage.

The answer is simple: that victory has not yet been made manifest in its fullness. We are not yet as we shall be. We are not yet as fully free as we shall be, nor are we yet the persons that we shall be. And though the victory has begun within our lives, we “do not yet see all things under Jesus’ feet.” But for those who see Christ’s victory, the celebration has already begun, for they see the assurance of the promise that has been made to us:

“We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

 

The Work That Saves

cimabue2Do we cooperate in our salvation? Do our efforts make a difference?

These questions lie at the heart of a centuries-old religious debate in Christianity. Classically, the Protestant reformers said, “No,” to these questions, arguing that we are saved solely and utterly by God’s grace, His unmerited favor. The Catholic Church replied that “faith without works” is dead and that faith alone is insufficient.

This debate, with various twists and turns, has continued down through the centuries of Christian culture. At one point, there were complaints of “cheap grace,” where the exaltation of pure grace over works led to a very complacent and lazy Christianity. There were also periods of extreme reaction, with guilt-driven excesses of devotion.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a late-comer to this debate, but it is not a stranger. Contemporary Orthodox are quick to latch on to the doctrine of “synergy” and take sides against the cheap grace of Protestant Evangelicalism. Classically, Orthodox thought holds both that we are saved through the action of God (grace), but that we necessarily cooperated in that work (synergy=cooperation). For many converts, this balance has seemed attractive and a needed corrective to the feel-good theology of contemporary Christian culture. But it has a dark side.

That dark side is found in the echoes of the guilt-ridden specters of works-righteousness. How much cooperation is enough? For it is obvious that we do not pray as we should or give as we should – or do anything as we should. If our cooperation is required, are we failing? For many in our culture the answer is inevitably, “Yes.” They never do enough, anywhere at any time. Their lives are haunted with disapproval and shame, well-worn paths that rarely let them venture into joy.

But it is a mistake to embrace synergy as part of the classical Protestant/Catholic debate. It was an answer to a question asked in a very different context and in centuries that long-predated the modern conversation. Synergy is not a talking-point within the grace-versus-works debate.

Synergy is certainly an affirmation of the human role in salvation. Its most famous example is found in the ‘yes’ of the Mother of God in the Incarnation of Christ. Her acceptance and embrace of the heavenly announcement are seen as necessary components in God-becoming-man. God does not impose Himself upon human freedom. Our free response is required for the life of true Personhood that is the hallmark of salvation.

Synergy is properly seen as response rather than work. The whole life of salvation is marked by grace and is gracious in all its aspects. Consider this statement in St. Paul:

Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…(Rom 4:4-5).

There is a kind of work that has no wages and does not belong to the world of debt described by St. Paul. And it is this sort of work that is encompassed in the term synergy. That work can be described as gracious response. It is worth noting two instances in which the work of our spiritual lives is described:

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (Joh 6:28-29)

and

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Th 5:16-18)

In the first case, “work” is equated with believing. It means that the work we do is to love Christ and to keep His commandments. In the second case, the “will of God” is fulfilled in giving thanks for all things. The dynamic of saving grace in our lives is marked by becoming like God. God gives graciously and freely. We receive graciously and freely by giving thanks for all things.

In this manner, our own “work” is itself marked by a kind of grace. We cannot hear the meaning of grace in English, but in the Greek, it also carries the meaning of “gift” (it’s the same word). Gifts are never given with an expectation of return – they are gracious and free. But they are only rightly received with thanksgiving. This is true of the life of grace in the believer.

There is a highly moralized version of synergy, in which God is seen to give us grace, but we must do something in our lives to make it effective. In this model we are always judging the “results” of our “cooperation” with grace, and assuming that the lousy outcomes we see are simply our fault. This experience becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and remorse. It is a distortion of grace-filled synergy.

I have written (and been criticized for it) about the “unmoral Christian.” My intention has been to unmask and disarm this false notion of synergy. We indeed are not saved through the “works” that Protestants tend to criticize. The “work” we do is largely a state of heart from which all subsequent grace-empowered actions flow. That state of heart is best described as “grateful thanksgiving.” The Eucharistic life is the true existence of the Christian. The giving of thanks is the first of all works and the sine qua non of the spiritual life. Everything that proceeds from the giving of thanks works to our salvation. That which does not proceed from the giving of thanks tends to work to our destruction.

There has grown up a virtual cottage industry of Orthodox commentary (particularly on the internet where all of us can self-publish). This commentary (including that by some priests) is often marked by poor theological training or understanding, by argument and debate, and by an extreme lack of experience in the actual guidance of souls towards healing and salvation. That is to say – much of it is worthless and some of it is actually damaging.

This can especially be true in discussions of synergy. The wrong treatment of such pastoral matters can produce despair and distrust in naive readers whose expectations have been raised through the reading of the lives of the saints and yet whose experience is marked by the same repeated moral failures that they have always known. Well-intentioned but ignorant writers argue that what is needed is yet more moral goading. I have been criticized for possibly lightening the moral load or suggesting that all moral effort is of no use.

One form of moral effort (the most common) is indeed of no use. It belongs to the same category as the works criticized by Protestant theology. We pray, with no understanding, laboring to complete a prayer rule that amounts to little more than “going through the motions.” We fast as though every slip were a matter of sin in need of confession. Some go so far as to carefully search through the labels on every grocery product, seeking for tale-tell signs of “milk products,” having invented for themselves a new yoke of bondage that turns Orthodox fasting into a new version of kosher. In short, there is a form of asceticism that is ill-taught and ill-practiced and produces either despairing Christians or oppressive Pharisees (sometimes in one and the same person).

The grounding of the Christian life is thanksgiving. If you cannot fast with thanksgiving, your fast will be of little use. The same extends to all Christian practices and commandments. The essential work of the Christian life is grateful thanksgiving. It is for this reason that Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”

There are very deep forms of asceticism, but even these are rightly rooted in the giving of thanks. In the 20th century, perhaps no saint is better known for his ascetical achievements than St. Silouan of Athos. He is known to have endured some 15 years of the experience of hell in his prayers. At its depth, he heard Christ say, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” His interpreter and biographer, the Elder Sophrony of Essex, however, is reported to have said, “If you will give God thanks always and for all things, you will fulfill the saying, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’”

The first duty of a spiritual father is to lead a soul into the practice of giving thanks. In this manner they will acquire the Spirit of Peace and be able to sustain the Christian life. But without thanksgiving, they will only fall into despair or delusion. Thanksgiving is the foundation of the Christian life. When this is understood and in place, other things can be properly understood.

For example, it is common to read in the spiritual writings of Orthodoxy (and to hear in the services) terms such as “self-loathing.” This is quite common, for example, in the Elder Sophrony’s work. It is very easily taken in the wrong way and those without a proper foundation will likely come away with a terrible distortion.

“Self-loathing,” in the sense that it is used, is not brought about by the contemplation of our sins (a moral condemnation and disgust with the self). It is rather brought about by the contemplation of God’s love and His fullness of being. It is only as we see ourselves in the light of God Himself, that we can “achieve” the “self-loathing” that Sophrony describes. But even this is joyful, because it takes place in the gracious presence of the grace-giving God.

Thanksgiving, as gracious gift, draws us into the very life of the Trinity. For it is that Life that is described by St. John Chrysostom in his Liturgy:

The priest prays: “…but account me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to You. For You are the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and to You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

It is this gifting life of the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received that we enter as we rightly give thanks always for all things. This is our work, our true synergy, without which we cannot be saved.

The Church and the Scriptures

tanzaniaMy recent articles on the place of the Scriptures, their relationship with the Church, and the proper manner it which they are to be regarded have drawn more than a little comment (and some fire) including on other blogsites. In this article I want to take time to answer some specific points and to add some further observations. A Reform article, by Michael J. Kruger (Professor of NT at Reform Theological School in Charlotte), does a fairly careful treatment of my recent article There Is No Bible in the Bible.

Kruger’s first points are to take me to task for arguing that “books” themselves are late inventions and contending that the Bible was not therefore thought of as a “book.” He indeed cites some early codices from the late 2nd or early 3rd centuries – but gives examples that actually reinforce my central point. He notes examples of bound gospels and an example of bound epistles. What he cites are precisely what we would expect: liturgical items. The Orthodox still use the Scriptures in this form – the Gospels as a book (it rests on the altar), and the Epistles as a book (known as the Apostol). They are bound in such a manner for their use in the services of the Church, not as private “Bibles.” These are outstanding examples of the Scriptures organized in their liturgical format for their proper use: reading in the Church. They are Churchly items – not “The Book” of later Protestantism. They are the Scriptures of the worshipping Church.

And this is my point. The Scriptures are not “above” the Church nor the Church “above” the Scriptures. The Scriptures are “of” the Church and do not stand apart from the Church. Kruger says:

Here is where we come to the real issue with Freeman.  One might wonder:  Why is Freeman so intent on lowering the authority of Scripture?  Every argument in his article, whether historical or theological, has one simple end in mind, namely to convince the reader that the Bible is a problematic construction with less authority than people think. So, why would Freeman, an Orthodox priest, do this?

The answer is simple. He wants to lower the authority of the Bible so that he can replace it with the authority of the church.  He wants to convince Christians the Bible has problems, so that they will rely on the church instead.

It is very difficult to have a conversation with certain Protestants (such as the author of this Reform article). They have a view of the Scriptures as “Bible” rather than a more contextualized position as part of the life of the Church. Any attempt to rein in their run-away Bible agenda is seen as an attempt to diminish the Word of God or to exalt the Church to some wicked deceiver of Christians. But this is simply the tired rhetoric of the Reformation. I do not seek to convince readers that the Bible is a problematic construction – rather – Sola Scriptura Christians are problematic interpreters. The fruit of their work bears me out.

Sola Scriptura, as taught and practiced in Protestant thought, is simply wrong and an invention of the Late Medieval and Modern periods. All of the writers cited by Kruger for their “lists” of books are eventually described as the “Canon of Scripture,” are Orthodox Christians, mostly priests and bishops. They spoke and thought as the Orthodox do to this day. They never (!) saw the Bible as a book “over the Church.” These were men of a thoroughly sacramental world. The Bread and the Wine of the Eucharist was universally believed to be the very Body and Blood of Christ. These men ate God (using the language of St. Ignatius of Antioch). Yes, the Scriptures are theopneustos (“God breathed”), but so is every human soul. The God-breathed character of the Scriptures does not exalt them over us but raises them up to the same level as us. For ancient authorities (and the Orthodox faithful to this day) were Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ and were thereby united together with Him. The Church was not and is not “under” the Bible, for it cannot be. Christ is Head of the Church, part of His Body. Is Christ “under the Scriptures?” All of the “lists” that are cited in the notion of the evolution of the Canon are lists of what the Church reads. And the Church reads them in her services as the Divine Word of God, just as the Church herself is the Divine Body of Christ, just as the Liturgy is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, etc. The “Canon” of Scripture is as much a statement about the Church as it is about the Scriptures.

But all of this is lost, because for those who have reformed themselves out of communion with the historical faith and practice of Christianity, the context has been forgotten. They do not understand statements about the Church because they have forgotten the Church.

There are crucial tests that can be applied that reveal the truth of things and the errors of Sola Scriptura. The championing of the Bible as the Word of God “over the Church” is a ruse. It is and has been a means of exalting culture and private fiefdoms over the proper life of the believing community, disrupting the continuity of faith. A very grievous example can be found in the very American reform community from which Kruger criticizes my Orthodox teaching. For the very groups that exalted the Bible as Sola Scriptura, for years also exalted a Bible-based justification for the most egregious racism the world has ever seen. It has been a matter to which reformed Christians are today attending with repentance (to their credit). But by what criteria did their fathers find such racism in the Scriptures? And by what criteria do they themselves now not find it in the Scriptures? Are they not simply giving voice to various cultural winds and using the Scriptures as a convenient support? Have they not always done this? Today’s proponents of the radical sexual agenda rightly point out that these “Bible-based” teachers have always found Biblical support for their own cultural prejudices. Their history should leave them speechless.

Orthodoxy is not without its sinners. But in the 2000 year unbroken life of the Church, error has never been raised to the place of “Biblical teaching.” The Orthodox have never said that blacks do not have souls. The Orthodox have never declared one race to be inferior to another. Biblicists do well to repent of such things, but they fail to see that their own hermeneutical principles are at fault. Only a life lived with a true, genuine continuity of the tradition that is the very life of the Church can “rightly divide the word of truth.”

Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (2Th 2:15)

God promised to the Church that the gates of hell would not prevail. He declared the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of Truth. He revealed the Church to be the Bride of Christ (and I could fill pages with such statements).

This is not to exalt the Church “over” the Scriptures, but to recognize the Scriptures place within the Divine Life of the Church. The Orthodox do not exalt a bishop over the Scriptures, nor do we declare a bishop to be the head of the Church (we declare that to be error). But we acknowledge that the Scriptures cannot be rightly read outside of and apart from the life of the Church. Such decoupling of the Scriptures has only created false churches, false brethren, and false teaching. No gathering of Christians hears as much Scripture as the Orthodox do in the context of their services. The Orthodox liturgical life is the singing of Scripture in the praise of God (from beginning to end).

But in the name of “Biblical authority” contemporary Christians are today subjected to a growing and continuing phenomenon of rogue organizations built around charismatic personalities with little or no accountability (except to “the Bible” as they see it). Orthodoxy lives by the same rules (canons) that were in effect when the Scriptures were “canonized.” Those who canonized the Scriptures venerated the Mother of God, honored the saints, prayed for the departed, believed the Eucharist to be the true Body and Blood of Christ. They were the same Orthodox Church that lives and believes today. You cannot honor their “Canon of Scripture” while despising the lives and Church of those who canonized them.

While the Orthodox Church lives the same life under the same canons, reading the same Scriptures as it has always done – those who champion “God’s un-changing Word” and claim to be under the authority of the Bible cannot point to even two decades in which they have remained the same. They are a moving target. It is to be welcomed when they repent of past institutional sins – but their history reveals that they have primarily been subject to the spirit of the age, even if it’s a conservative spirit.

Christ never wrote a word. Christ never commanded his disciples to write a word (an exception being in Revelation). They were commanded to go forth, preach the gospel and to Baptize. Christ established the Church. The Church is the Scriptures and the Scriptures, rightly read, are the Church. This is the declaration of St. Paul to the Church in Corinth:

You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. (2Co 3:2-3 NKJ)

Is that epistle of less value because it is not written in ink? It is only by being the living Scriptures that the Church can and does truly read and interpret the Scriptures. There is no “Bible” in the Bible. My original article stands.

The Scope of Passover and Penal Substitution Theory

trinity-cruifixionOne of the terms used in the early fathers when interpreting the Scriptures was the “scope” of Scripture. By this they meant backing away from the detail of the text to see the larger picture, the “scope” of a broad reading. This technique was particularly valued in the so-called Antiochene School of interpretation, which is usually associated with a more historical/literal reading of Scripture. The failure to see the “scope” of the text all too easily exalts stray details to an unwarranted position. You cannot understand a tree until you see its place in the forest. This understanding of the “scope” of Scripture is particularly devastating to the penal-substitionary atonement theory.

Penal substitionary atonement argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive their sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.

I have written previously about the lack of Scriptural warrant for this teaching, as well as its creation of a false image of a wrathful God who must be satisfied in order to be reconciled to man. I will point out here that this theory falls outside the scope of the New Testament, particularly the gospels where a definitive scope can be discerned: that of Christ as our Passover.

As noted in my previous article, a central theme of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection is found associated with the feast of Passover. At Passover, the Jews celebrate and remember their deliverance from Egypt by the miraculous intervention of God.

“So you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this same day I will have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as an everlasting ordinance. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats what is leavened, that same person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread.”

Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Pick out and take lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning. For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you. And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your sons forever.” (Exo 12:17-24)

It was during this festival in Jerusalem that Christ was crucified. For the Primitive Christian community, it was clear that Christ is Himself now our Passover. He is the Passover Lamb. His blood saves us from death and hell (the destroyer). And like the earlier Passover, this miraculous intervention of God is remembered with a meal. The Eucharist is the New Passover, the New Covenant. It is not kept annually, but weekly (if not more often). And it is kept weekly on Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection.

This change in worship is a radical departure from the mainstream life of 1st century Judaism. There is mention in the book of Acts that the early community continued to go to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. But it also says:

 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and communion, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42)

The gospels reflect an understanding of Christ as the New Passover that supersedes the Old. This is so dominant that it results in a changed pattern of worship – the primacy of Sunday (now called “the Lord’s Day”) as well as the eating of a new, weekly Passover meal (the Eucharist) as the center of worship.

The Penal Substitionary model of the atonement simply has no place within this scope. The blood of the lamb applied to the doorposts of Israel is not an atoning blood. It is not an offering or sacrifice of substitution. It belongs uniquely to Israel as the people of God. Only the children of Israel may eat of the meal (the lamb) – it is a meal of belonging and communion – in which no forensic or legal imagery plays a part. Strangers in the land, in years to come, are allowed to eat of the meal, only if they submit to the law of circumcision (and thus “become” part of Israel).

The essential imagery of the Passover is of an oppressed people. Their deliverance does not hinge on how they found themselves to be in bondage. “Let my people go,” is God’s word to Egypt. In essence: “They don’t belong to you – they belong to Me.”

This same imagery is at work in the New Passover. The people of God are in bondage (to sin and death). Christ constantly intervenes in their lives, healing them, setting them free and forgiving their sins.

Matthew (9:2ff) describes Christ’s healing of a paralytic. In that action He begins by forgiving the man’s sins. When those standing around question His authority to forgive, He says to the man, “Arise, take up your bed and walk.” And He explains that He has done this in order to show that the “Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.”

In the Penal model of the atonement, we would have to ask how Christ could forgive this man since no justice has been satisfied. Is the man healed as a loan from a payment that will be made at a later point?

In the Scriptures, we do not have a legal problem. Sin is not a legal debt or an infraction demanding the satisfaction of justice. Sin is death (Romans 6:21-23). Sin is a life lived out of communion with God, the Lord and giver of life. As such, it is a spiritual entropy, a life that is collapsing. It is slavery and bondage to a growing process of nothingness.

For the gospel writers and the early Church, nothing describes this slavery better than the imagery of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. Their deliverance does not flow from a balance of accounts nor the satisfaction of divine justice. It is the love of God for His people. This imagery continues throughout the early Church, preserved especially in the Christian East. St. Basil’s Eucharistic prayer offers this summary:

Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He brought us to knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He obtained us for Himself, to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending through the Cross into Hades that He might fill all things with Himself, He destroyed the torments of death. And rising on the third day, He made a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be overcome by corruption.

This is the story of the New Exodus. Baptism is the new Red Sea. In it are destroyed all of the enemies of God’s people.

St. Basil uses the language that is often described as belonging to a “ransom theory” of the atonement. I think this overplays but a single part of the “scope” of his imagery. The “ransom” is simply a ransom “to death.” It is a counterpart to the imagery of our being “sold under sin.” The scope of St. Basil’s account is that we were held captive and God sent His only Son to come and get us. And since we were held captive by death, He entered death itself to get us out. Christ’s resurrection is indeed the New Exodus, making a “path for all flesh from the dead.” Death is the ultimate Egypt, the last bondage.

St. Basil additionally makes this statement:

He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being conformed to the body of our lowliness, that He might conform us to the image of His glory.

It is a use of Philippians 2 which Basil extends into the language of Divine solidarity. God has become what we are, that we might become what He is. In this New Passover, God Himself becomes the Lamb. God Himself enters into our bondage and death. God Himself leads us triumphantly back from the dead (through the Red Sea, etc.).

And now the meal, the feast of the Passover, is God Himself: “This is my body…this is my blood.” The first Passover was but a shadow of the second (and last). In in this account of Christ’s work, there is simply no imagery of a legal payment, a propitiation of the wrath of God. God is not the enemy of man.

A weakness of penal substitutionary theory is its inherently pagan character. The God who must be satisfied (whether we chalk this up to His justice or not) is a diminished God, rather than the Ground of All Being revealed in Christ.

All atonement theory makes use of imagery, and imagery always falls somehow short of reality. But imagery that actually distorts reality is another question. The Passover imagery of our deliverance was a long-standing theme of Jewish thought. It was and is central to Jewish identity. However, the justice-hungry God of propitiatory sacrifice actually has no history whatsoever in Jewish thought (including the OT temple sacrifices). If anything, there is material in the Old Testament in which God “despises” Israel’s sacrifices.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all its fullness. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? (Psa 50:12-13)

Another prominent set of images within the Old Testament are deeply reflected within the New Testament treatment of Christ’s suffering and death: those of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Its words are deeply familiar:

Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. (Isa 53:4-5)

This passage (and its accompanying verses) have played a prominent part in theories of Penal Substitution. But that reading, assuming the passage into a sacrificial scheme is nowhere required or indicated by the passage itself. Instead, within the New Testament context, particularly that of the gospels, it should be conflated and read together with the Passover imagery. It is, above all, part of the “ironic” character of the Passover victory of God.

That Divine Irony is especially seen in Christ’s repeated identification of His coming crucifixion with His glorification.

But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (Joh 12:23-25)

And at the very moment of His betrayal:

Having received the piece of bread, he [Judas] then went out immediately. And it was night. So, when he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him.” (Joh 13:30-31)

This Divine Irony is present in the Old Testament Passover story as well and there, too, it is described as “glorification.” The perceived weakness and helplessness of God (and His people) become the very means by which God draws His enemies into their defeat. In the Exodus account, God clearly directs Israel into an impossible position in order for the wonder (glory) of His victory over Pharoah to be seen yet more clearly. It is glorious precisely because it is revealed at the moment of most complete weakness.

The same is true in Christ’s glorification (crucifixion). He is silent before Pilate and Herod, making no defense for Himself. His quiet submission to the insults and charges leveled against Him are also tokens of His voluntary suffering.

As a sheep led to the slaughter, or a blameless lamb before His shearers is mute, so He opened not His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7).

That “we esteemed Him stricken and smitten by God” (Is. 53:4) is not a description of the Father pouring His wrath upon Him, but a reflection of the confusion voiced by the bystanders of Christ’s suffering:

He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him. (Matt. 27:43).

The envy and ignorance of those witnessing Christ’s humiliation is utterly ironic – for what Christ does – He does for them!

But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; (Isa 53:5)

The language of Isaiah meshes seamlessly with that of the Passover, adding depth and insight into the saving work of God. It is not a framework for penal imagery.

Penal imagery represents one of the most serious deformations of Christian thought, a sad detour for theology. That it has now passed into fixed dogma within some circles should be of great concern to all Christians. Those who hold to this dogma would do well to return to the fathers and consider the scope of Scripture. The labyrinth of proof-texts that are often assembled to argue for the penal model are but isolates. They belong in no over-arching theme of Scripture or central story of the faith. They are foreign to the sacramental life of the Church as it lives its life in union with Christ.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.

Saving the Atonement

6a00d8341c511c53ef01127946ed5928a4-800wiI am speaking this week in Mississippi, in a place where Orthodoxy is thriving, but not a place where you would expect to find it. The parish (a former Presbyterian facility) has a sign with variable letters, where a changing “message” can be displayed. It reads something like, “Father Stephen Freeman speaking Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on Salvation, Heaven and Hell.” Those are indeed the topics, but the sign fits so well in the culture of Mississippi that it brought a smile to my face.

I spoke this evening on “Saving the Atonement.” I was not discussing how to fix a doctrine, but rather how to speak to a culture that increasingly doesn’t care about the Scriptures or even know them. I suggested that we are more like St. Paul in ancient Athens than St Paul in Jerusalem. The arguments that spoke well several generations back fall empty today.

And it may seem strange to think of Orthodoxy in such a context – a world that has become a stranger to the gospel encountering the Church that wrote the gospels. But that is precisely where I think we are. My experience of Orthodoxy has not been with a new way of arguing the same old things (though it is possible to force it into such a position). Rather, reading and praying the fathers has been a path back to something prior to all of the arguments.

I used passages from St. Athanasius to guide my thoughts tonight – and was struck particularly by something he said in On the Incarnation of the Word: “Man was in danger of disappearing.”

He was describing the existential position of the human race after the fall. Refusing communion with the only truly existing God, we began to fall back towards the nothing from which we were created. Either we are sustained by grace and flourish, or we increasingly cease to exist.

I can see that human life is almost always in such a danger. I have lived all of my life under the shadow of complete, planetary destruction. Mine was the first generation to live with such a possibility. The end of the world has never just been a cosmic theory. It has always been a clear and present danger. I have also lived during a time when Western culture has been rushing headlong towards a changing future that appears less “human” somehow, such that “man” in a primary sense is in danger of disappearing. C.S. Lewis described this as “men without chests” (an image that never quite made sense to me).

But these and other forms of disappearance have felt palpable and real for me. And as I age, the same disappearance becomes quite personal. I can see rather clearly a personal end that I once only imagined. It is not frightening nor morbid, but sobering and concrete. The existence which matters for me cannot be those things that once mattered to a younger man: my job, my family, my place in the community, my writing. And now I’ve learned that my ego itself is not so precious and that if something of me is to exist it is not the “me” I prize so deeply.

Crucified with Christ, a different me now lives, and if I am to live at all I must find that me and unite myself to Him, or disappear completely. Though I suspect that the finding of that “me” comes in finally disappearing. “For it does not yet appear what we shall be…”

And so I’ve been speaking on “saving the atonement,” finding a way to understand our reconciliation with God that is not the same set of arguments (wrath, debt, justice, etc.), working from the same set of tired, misused Bible verses. What has God done in order for us to not disappear? What does it mean to disappear? What would it mean that we should appear?

And to all of these things Orthodoxy bears a rich witness. And the richness of that witness is beautiful. For, as Pavel Florensky rightly wrote, “Beauty is the criterion of truth.” For the first tell-tale signs of disappearing come in the forms of ugliness. For our existence, from the beginning, came in the form of the image of God, the truly good and beautiful.

God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, who took upon Himself our ugliness that we should take upon ourselves His beauty. It is a tell-tale sign of my sinfulness that I would be satisfied (I lie) with an existence that is mere appearance – that I should merely not disappear. But God will not be satisfied (and this is the true satisfaction theory) with anything less than my appearance in beauty and truth, for to exist in anything less than beauty is to begin to disappear.

And knowing this is part of “saving” the atonement. For hearts everywhere cry for beauty even as they pursue something less. Something less always has the nature of idolatry (which is why the icons are not idols). Though the culture shifts and forgets its original roots in a Christian view of the world, man himself does not shift. He abides (God is merciful). And the disappearing man knows and fears that he is disappearing even as he rushes headlong towards it.

His knowledge and his fear are gifts from God, echoes and memories of paradise. Saving the atonement is changing idols into icons. Just as Christ the Pantokrator saved Zeus, and the Theotokos saved a thousand variations of the Mother with her child.

It is the greatest irony that God made Him to be sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of Christ. And richer irony that even the shape of our sin never completely obscures Christ Himself for He Himself has entered sin that He might reshape us. Strange wonder, the Atonement saving the atonement.

It Is Not Good to be Alone

AlienatedAdamOne of the greatest tragedies of the modern world is the continuing collapse of social systems. The most prominent and important of these is the family itself – but many other social systems, including the Church, are equally in collapse. Our consumer culture seeks to maximize our individuality (individuals buy more than groups) and false ideologies of freedom stress the priority of individual over group demands (with the exception of groups chosen for political privilege). A result is increased alienation for all people. In a sea of choice, every small boat flounders.

The Christian vision is embodied in God’s first observation of “not good.” Each act of creation is declared to be “good,” until God observes the aloneness of Adam: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” we are told. The joy of communion expressed in the fashioning of woman (“this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”) is crushed in the isolation of sin. The forbidden fruit is made as a choice in isolation – isolation from God and isolation from Adam. The new community entered into by Adam taking the fruit from Eve is a mutual suicide pact – a community of death.

Throughout most of human history, community has nonetheless been the hallmark of human existence. We need one another. Human children have perhaps the longest childhood of all mammals (nursing for over two-years in most natural settings). The earliest evidence of human habitation is tribal – we have never lived in an isolated fashion.

Almost no one in the modern world thinks of themselves as opposed to community. Community is a positive word in almost all settings (apologies to Ayn Rand). Its destruction in the modern world is thus inadvertent – a result of our being unaware of the consequences of our actions – or overconfident about our ability to adapt.

Changing divorce laws are cited by some as contributors to the instability of the family. Mobile societies, in which people (in America) move once each five years on average, are also culprits. After a while, the instability itself becomes a cause of increased instability. Your children may come from a stable home, but for how many of their classmates is this true?

A result is estranged individuals. The natural communities of families are disappearing – leaving all of us as dilettantes in the social world. It is a difficulty experienced by many of the convert communities in the New World: how can you be formed in the Tradition of Orthodoxy if everyone in the parish is first-generation? But almost everyone, everywhere, in everything is first generation (except for American political families). China has the bizarre phenomenon created by the one-child-per-family mandate where the relationships of aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters, are a thing of the past. It is not Huxley’s Brave New World, but it’s still a new world.

The parish thus becomes increasingly similar to a monastery. Monasteries are not composed of blood relations – they are communities of choice (and obedience). Those within the monastery have renounced family and marriage as a way of life. They may also point towards a mode of spiritual survival for those of us living in the ruins of the modern world.

Parish life was once a multi-generational, family (almost tribal) matter. Today parishes have large contingents of singles or broken families (broken from various causes), and plenty of people who, though living in families, experience life in a highly individualized manner. In such a context, love (in the fullness of its original sense) is exceedingly difficult.

The monastic life illustrates, however, that love is not impossible. But there are structures within the monastic setting that make this possible. Life within a rule, the blessedness of a holy structure, allows individuals to grow into personhood: a relational existence.

The declaration “it is not good for man to be alone,” is equally a declaration that human existence is relational at its deepest core. We are not individuals who have relationships – we are persons whose very being is only revealed in the context of relations.

Within the monastic setting, the rule has certain classic hallmarks: poverty, chastity, obedience, stability. The monastic form of these practices cannot be the same in a parish setting, but they are still proper foundations when understood properly. The Jerusalem Church in the book of Acts practiced a form of communal wealth, holding all things in common. This model did not survive into subsequent ages, but did not, and should not disappear. The common welfare is still a proper measure within parish life. It is the pressure and context of a consumer culture, where private wealth is seen as a necessity, that make the common welfare seem passe. However, I have witnessed sacrificial examples of the common welfare practiced within parishes from time to time – frequently by those who could “least afford it.” Extended family was once a traditional means of the common welfare. Its absence demands that Christians reconsider how they view their private wealth.

Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need (Eph. 4:28).

Chastity and obedience have very different meanings within a non-monastic setting. However, both point away from contemporary individualized existence. Chastity places our physical desires within the context of relationship and mutual submission. Proper sexual behavior extends beyond moral bounds and into the realm of the rightness of our being. The other is never to be the means of my private satisfaction. The chastity of the marriage bond becomes a larger foundation of the common life.

Parish life is not lived in an obedience similar to that of a monastery. Though some priests seem to want such obedience, it is not considered normative or healthy in a parish (it can frequently be a means of spiritual abuse). But there is a mutual obedience within a healthy parish – an obedience to the gospel and the one faith that excludes the market place of individual opinions and power-driven relationships from dominance within parish life. If this common hallmark of parish existence ceases to be present, the community quickly degenerates into one more contemporary social setting in which individuals exploit each other for various ego-driven purposes, creating yet another hell on earth.

Stability is extremely rare in contemporary society. We not only change jobs, move locations, dissolve families, we also go from parish to parish (not in a natural manner), but driven often by the passions of the ego and the failure of community. This is perhaps the only bearable solution on occasion, but is far more common than is generally healthy. We are a consumer culture. When we grow tired of one thing or find it less than ideal, we shop.

It is said that most Protestant denominations the average clergy person remains in a parish for no more than five years. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, thought this such a good idea that he instituted assignments lasting only four years. Some Orthodox jurisdictions have a similar track record. The stories of parishes (factions, etc) who grow tired or unhappy with their priest and insist that he be replaced are so common-place as to be almost de rigueur. Causes for this culture of instability can be quite varied, but the result has to be questioned.

A fascinating read (perhaps made even more interesting due to its non-Orthodox authorship) is the story of the transformation of an ancient Metropolis in modern Greece – Beauty for Ashes: the Spiritual Transformation of a Modern Greek Community. It is a case in point where an authentic spiritual life (monastic in this instance) is used to transform an entire metropolis, devastated by repeated scandals. Such authentic structures cannot entirely be mandated from above – community is ultimately the work of community. But it is important to recognize that there are concrete models of modern transformation.

It’s not good to be alone – but it’s hard to be together. It is the work of God.

Are We Connected?

bluechurchHow connected are we? Do your actions, thoughts, feelings, have an effect on me even if I am unaware (or on the other side of the world)? Is my existence bound within the existence of other human beings, or are we simply sharing the same planet for a period of time?

Connections between people, particularly of a spiritual nature, were declared to be mere superstitions in the march of modern rationalism. To believe in connections between people came to be seen as flawed – similar to a belief in an outer space filled with the “heavenly ether.” The rise of the mechanical universe displaced all ideas of true connections between people (or between people and things). Individuals became discrete, separate entities. The only possible effects that were allowed in such a universe were direct physical effects (which would include sound and the various forms of light), or psychological effects (how I react within myself to outside stimuli). Cause and effect were thus severely limited.

There have been some attempts within the modern world to suggest connections beyond this mechanical/psychological model. Depth Psychology (Jungian), has argued for a shared, collective unconscious, a common mind in which we all participate. The judgment of mainstream science is that such ideas are simply “kooky.”

But, the question remains: are we connected? Is our relationship to one another nothing more than the figments of our own neuroses and the violence of others’ actions?

The New Testament clearly contradicts the assumptions of the modern model:

But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

The word rendered “composed” (συνεκέρασεν) in St. Paul’s thoughts on the body of Christ has a more accurate meaning of “mixed together.” “Composed” is not an incorrect translation, but our own weak reading of the word fails to capture the word’s original sense. St. Paul is making the point that God’s creation of the human body is precisely an interconnected/mixed entity. It is this “mixed” entity that most fits the Apostle’s thoughts on the nature of our life as the Church. The hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you,” for far greater reasons than simple cooperation. The “members” (“parts”) of the body do not exist in a strictly distinct manner: they have something of a “mixed” existence. So, too, are Christians (and humanity as a whole – for the Church is not other than human, but the display of what it properly means to be human).

Today’s increased “wholistic” practice of medicine has renewed an emphasis on the interconnectedness of the systems within the human body. It is only convenience that makes medical science label something as one system or another – for the body is a single whole.

St. Paul takes this “wholistic” or “mixed” understanding and applies it to our human existence: “If one member suffers, we all suffer…” This same understanding, in varying forms, is common in the teachings of the spiritual fathers of the Church. The Elder Thaddeus offers this observation:

Everything, both good and evil, comes from our thoughts. Our thoughts become reality. Even today we can see that all of creation, everything that exists on the earth and in the cosmos, is nothing but Divine thought made material in time and space. We humans were created in the image of God. Mankind was given a great gift, but we hardly understand that. God’s energy and life is in us, but we do not realize it. Neither do we understand that we greatly influence others with our thoughts. We can be very good or very evil, depending on the kind of thoughts and desires we breed. If our thoughts are kind, peaceful, and quiet, turned only toward good, then we also influence ourselves and radiate peace all around us—in our family, in the whole country, everywhere. This is true not only here on earth, but in the cosmos as well. When we labor in the fields of the Lord, we create harmony. Divine harmony, peace, and quiet spread everywhere. However, when we breed negative thoughts, that is a great evil. When there is evil in us, we radiate it among our family members and wherever we go. So you see, we can be very good or very evil. If that’s the way it is, it is certainly better to choose good! Destructive thoughts destroy the stillness within, and then we have no peace. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: the Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica (Kindle Locations 615-623). St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. Kindle Edition.

The Elder is not suggesting that our thoughts have a profound psychological effect on those around us. He is rooted in St. Paul’s understanding of συνεκέρασεν – our connectedness. We are not each a separate world, but all part of one world. Just as it has become popular to acknowledge the so-called “butterfly effect” discussed in chaos theory (a hurricane’s beginning is effected even by the flutter of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the earth), so we should recognize that the whole of our lives – physical, spiritual, mental, etc. – is equally part of a whole.

Our cultural assumptions make us insensitive to the connections of our lives. The modern model of discrete existence supports the fantasy of a highly individualized freedom that is a foundational notion of modern consumer economies. We imagine that there are “victimless” crimes or “privatized actions.” We say to ourselves that certain behaviors are without consequence and effect no one but ourselves. This same fantasy makes it very difficult for us to understand the limitations of freedom and the inherent responsibilities of human existence. The results are a culture that is increasingly dysfunctional.

For Christians this individualized concept of the self undermines many of the primary realities of the faith. The Church cannot be rightly understood as a voluntary association. We are Baptized “into the Body of Christ.” The modern concept of the individual runs deeply contrary to Scriptural teaching on the nature of the Christian life. The sacraments, whose foundations rest within a world in which true communion and participation are possible, become more and more foreign to the individualized Christian experience. The sacraments are either deeply minimized (even to the point of extinction) or re-interpreted in voluntaristic terms. It is this re-interpretation of the sacraments that undergirds the modern notion of “open communion,” or “Eucharistic hospitality.” The exclusion of persons from the Cup of Christ is seen as an insult, a denial of their self-defined Christian identification. I have been told, “Who are you to say that I should not be allowed to come to communion?” “Individual communion” is an oxymoron.

The teaching of the faith regarding Personhood requires an acceptance of the connectedness of existence. Human sin tends towards fragmentation, disintegration and a radical individualism. The ultimate individual existence is the one that refuses love. The presence of the “other,” is perceived as a burden and limitation. Rebirth in Christ is an entrance into a connected existence – into existence as communion. The “other” is not a burden – it is utterly required for true existence.

In the story of human creation, Adam, alone, is described as “not good.” We were not created for aloneness. But the creation of Eve is described in terms that go further than “other.” Had “other” been the only requirement, then any of the animals whom God brought to Adam would have been fitting for the purpose. But Adam’s exclamation at Eve’s creation is in the language of connection: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” The “other” is also, somehow, my self.

The daily discovery of the “true self” that marks the path of salvation, is the fruit of love. It is the constant realization that my life is not my own, but is rather found both within and somehow outside myself. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that “outside myself” is something of a false concept. We must say “something of a false concept,” for the true self is not the loss of identity, a blending of the self with all else: it is communion.

The sacraments, then, are not discrete actions of the Church designed to enhance our spiritual experience: they are revelations of the way of life. For in every case, the sacraments are the life of communion, whether Ordination or Eucharist, Baptism, Chrismation, Matrimony, etc. It is for this reason that Patriarch Bartholomew can observe that “the whole creation is a sacrament.”

This same communion describes the means, the path and the life of salvation. Earlier discussions on the blog have ventured to suggest a communion that reaches even into the realm of hell. Communion is not a quality or an activity of life – it is the very essence of life – its sine qua non. For this reason the faithful are taught to pray for the departed, to know and share in the prayers of the saints, and to believe that we are helped by their prayers and they benefit from ours. In such things we are not being taught how to pray, we are being taught how to live.

In Genesis, when God proposes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham intercedes. “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” And he proceeds to argue for increasingly smaller numbers of the righteous for whose sake God will spare the unrighteous. It was said at one time that there were three righteous men on account of whose prayers God spared the world. It is a Biblical notion. Our connectedness is our life.

 

 

 

Therapeutic Substitutionary Atonement

ats20379_Christ1For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures… (1 Cor. 15:3-4)

No statement is more central to the Christian faith than St. Paul’s rehearsal of the Apostolic Tradition – for his words “delivered…received…” are specifically the words that describe the handing over of Tradition. His words represent what is already the received teaching of the faith – the Apostolic deposit. The Christian faith is not just that Christ died and was raised from the dead, but that He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” The death of Christ is somehow “for our sins.” This is the very heart of the Gospel – the most primitive preaching of the Church.

But it is at this most primitive point that essential questions must be asked: how is it that Christ’s death is “for our sins?” How is it that His death and resurrection is “according to the Scriptures?” For though Christ clearly taught the disciples that He would be crucified and would rise on the third day, this was not understood by them. It was not understood because it was not a part of the received Jewish expectation of the Messiah. That Christ died for our sins and according to the Scriptures is an article of the faith that was made known only after the resurrection: it is not a derived Tradition, but a teaching of the risen Lord Himself.

This is a place where disagreement has begun to manifest itself in recent years. For some, Christ’s death on the Cross represents the payment for a debt owed to God, the debt of Adam’s sin. In another account, Christ’s death on the Cross is a blood sacrifice to appease the wrath of God, incurred through Adam’s sin. For still others, Christ’s death is the destruction of Hades and death itself, the healing of the corruption of sin. There are yet other views, but the disagreement has largely been between advocates of one version or another of these accounts.

The first two accounts generally fall into a category of “forensic” models. In these, there is a debt or a divine consequence (wrath) that must be paid or turned aside. In various ways it is noted that only a perfect Man could pay the debt (or appease the wrath). Since all men sin, only God could meet the requirements. Thus God became man, so that God, as man, could accomplish what man alone could not.

In the second model, sin and death are more or less synonymous. Rather than being forensic (legal) in character, they are ontological (a matter of being and existence). Sin is the disease of corruption, the movement from true existence toward non-being. The destructive chaos that it leaves in its wake is more like “symptoms” than legal problems. God in His mercy becomes man, and as the God/Man enters the depths of death and Hades, the depths of ontological corruption and destroys them. In His resurrection (which is a necessary aspect of this model – unlike the others), our ontological corruption is destroyed or rather “put to death” and we receive new life – the eternal life of the resurrection (which is a quality and not merely longevity). In this model, there is a participation and communion. Christ becomes sin, that we might become righteous. He dies that we might live. He takes on our death, that we might take on His life.

In both models, there is a reality of substitution – Christ assumes the place of man. But the nature of that substitution, and therefore the nature of salvation itself, is quite different. In the forensic models, Christ accepts the punishment that was incurred by man: Christ is punished instead of man. It is certainly a demonstration of the love of God, though the debt owed or the wrath appeased belong to God as well. Christ’s acceptance of man’s due consequences instead of man, goes to the very heart of the forensic model – at least to the heart of what makes it most distinctive from the ontological accounts.

Christ’s substitution in the forensic models removes man from redeeming action. Man is not punished but forgiven. The wrath of God is appeased and man is not condemned to hell. Christ accepts these things on man’s behalf. Justification is extrinsic – it happens outside of man and apart from man. By faith, man acknowledges Christ’s gift on his behalf and accepts the gift of forgiveness that could not have been his in any other way.

The substitution in the second (ontological) model is different in character. Christ steps into the life and situation of man (the human race), but does not remove man from the equation. The Cross is not foreign to man – it is the fullness of the consequence of human sin. The substitution of Christ in the ontological models is not a replacement, but a union. Christ unites Himself with man (the Incarnation) and in so doing takes upon Himself, and into Himself the fullness of our humanity (excepting sin – which is foreign to our nature). Importantly, however, just as Christ takes upon Himself our humanity, so He also unites Himself to us, we take on His divinity. As God and man Christ enters death, Hades, the full consequence of our separation from God. As God and as man, Christ destroys death and unites man victoriously to His resurrection. He is the true mediator, having restored us to the union with God for which we were created.

It would be possible to argue that this second model is not a true substitution. I agree, if the term, substitution, is meant as “replacement.” But the problems within the notion of substitution are found in the idea of Christ as “replacement.” Christ as replacement creates a “theology of absence.” If Christ simply “takes our place,” then salvation is merely forensic (legal) and something which happens outside of us. If God simply declares us to be “just,” “forgiven,” or “made whole,” then the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection become something of an abstraction. Their “necessity,” would only exist within God Himself, who might otherwise have “declared” us to be righteous without all the bother. Indeed, there can be no necessity within God, whether it is predicated of His justice, or anything else. God is free and has no necessity.

However, there is a necessity which exists within us. We are indeed broken, unrighteous, sinful, in need of healing and subject to death and corruption. If our healing required only a word, then why not speak the word long before?

The necessity within salvation lies within us. Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection are acts of freedom. It is with complete freedom and cooperation that He is Incarnate of the Virgin. His death is a “voluntary” death: “No one takes my life from me….” (John 10:18). Nor does our salvation violate our freedom. We must freely accept the gift of God given to us in Christ. The synergy of salvation is God’s respect for the freedom which allows us to exist as persons. It is this same freedom that lies at the heart of the mystery of the “fullness of time.” Christ entered history at the critical moment of man’s freedom.

Christ’s “substitution” is not a replacement. Christ does not “replace” our humanity, but “assumes” it. In Christ, every man is on the Cross. The Second Adam “recapitulates” the First Adam and the whole of humanity. There is in the Cross (and whole economy of salvation) an exchange, a coinherence, a perichoresis (περιχώρησις). The term “perichoresis” was used by St. Gregory the Theologian to describe the relationship between the Divine and Human natures in Christ. It is this same relationship (or one that can be similarly described) that is manifest in our salvation. Christ dies on the Cross. We die on the Cross.

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

St. Paul is not describing an “ethical” or “moral” transaction, but a mystical and true exchange in which the life of Christ and our lives coinhere. His life, death and resurrection become our life, death and resurrection.

Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God (Romans 6:3-10).

A substitution which represents our absence on the Cross does violence to passages such as this. We would need to go back and edit St. Paul, inserting the words “would be as if” repeatedly into the text:

Do you not know that our Baptism makes it such that it would be as if we had been crucified with Christ? etc.

Such violence disrupts the realism of our salvation and turns the Christian life into a moral abstraction. The sacraments become empty mental exercises.

There are additional weaknesses within the forensic models, but I leave them for now. The Lenten journey is not an annual community remembrance of a legal event. Rather it is the mystical embrace of the true life which coinheres in every believer. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we journey to the common ground of our Golgotha. There we suffer and die with Christ, having shared in His fast and preparation. Dying with Him, we rejoice in His/our victory over death and Hades and join in the festal shout as death is trampled down by what is now our common death.

This is the great mystery of our faith. Those who eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Crucified and Risen Christ, abide in Him as He abides in them and become partakers (those who have a true share) in all that is His. This is the great exchange, that God became what we are that we might become what He is.

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures..

 

 

 

Notes from the Underground

I have recently been reading in a classic work, Nicholas Berdyaev’s Dostoevsky. Berdyaev was a twentieth-century Russian philosopher (existentialist) and deeply sympathetic to Dostoevsky’s works. I find some of his treatment to be tremendously satisfying and “on the mark.” I offer an extended quote and some thoughts…

Berdyaev quotes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground:

I shall not be a bit surprised, if in the midst of the Universal Reason [referring to various utopian schemes popular in the 19th century] that is to be, there will appear, all of a sudden and unexpectedly, some common-faced, or rather cynical and sneering, gentleman who with his arms akimbo will say to us: ‘Now then, you fellows, what about smashing all this Reason to bits, sending their logarithms to the devil, and living as we like according to our own silly will?’ That might not be much, but the annoying thing is that he would immediately get plenty of followers – men are made like that. And the cause of all this is so absurd that it would scarcely seem worth speaking of : man, whoever he is and wherever he is to be found, prefers to act as he wills rather than as reason and interest dictate. One may will against one’s own interest – sometimes one has to. Scope for free choice, personal caprice, however extravagant, the matter of fancies – those are what man is after, quintessential objects that you can’t classify and in exchange for which all systems and theories can go to hell. Where then have all these wiseacres found that man’s will should primarily be normal and virtuous? Why have they imagined that man needs a will directed towards reason and his own benefit? All he needs is an independent will, whatever it may cost him and wherever it may lead him … In only one single case does man consciously and deliberately want something absurd, and that is the silliest thing of all, namely, to have the right to want the absurd and not to be bound by the necessity of wanting only what is reasonable.

Berdyaev offers his own analysis:

To the very end [Dostoevsky] refused to rationalize human society and repudiated all attempts to exalt happiness, reason, and well-being above liberty; he would have nothing to do with the Great Exhibition [held in London in 1851, to demonstrate that technology was the way to a better future] or any anticipated harmony based on the ruins of human personality. Instead he wanted to take men along the ways of wildest self-will and revolt in order to show them that they lead to the extinction of liberty and to self-annihilation. This road of liberty can only end either in the deification of man or in the discovery of God; in the one case, he is lost and done for; in the other, he finds salvation and the definitive confirmation of himself as God’s earthly image. For man does not exist unless there be a God and unless he be the image and likeness of God; if there be no God, then man deifies himself, ceases to be man, and his own image perishes. The only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ.

I have written on a number of occasions of modernity’s misguided admiration for reason. The Enlightenment (18th century) witnessed the birth of the modern fascination with reason – and to a degree – all things mathematical. Its ideas continue in many varieties (even as it began with many varieties). There is a continual hope in various “brave new worlds,” from Camelot (progressive America) to the Worker’s Paradise. Today everything from cybernetics and genetics to chaos and anarchy are offered as utopian solutions to the problems of the world – or necessities on the road of progress.

Berdyaev correctly analyzes the theme of liberty in Dostoevsky’s thought. He lived and wrote during a period in which Reason and its various advocates had yet to place their dreams into completed action but stood at that very precipice. Dostoevsky’s essentially Christian voice seemed like the voice of madness to some, or an empty effort to defend tradition, etc. His age not only clamored for Reason but for a new and Reasonable Christ (were there to be one at all). Dostoevsky in a developing string of novels explores the consequences of the various forces of his age. He ultimately ends with Christ – but not the Christ of man’s imagination. The Christ He sees is the Christ of the Gospels, the Christ of the Fathers, the Christ of the living Tradition of the Orthodox faith.

He embraces the irrational claims of the gospel – every man is guilty of the sins of all…we must forgive everyone for everything…. His characters introduce such ideas into the midst of a rationalizing culture and the novels move towards their resolution in the dynamic of that conflict.

Our present age is deeply shattered. We cannot point to one modernity – but to a plurality of modernities. Christianity is itself fragmented (with fragmentations within each fragment). The temptations offered to believers are as manifold as could possibly be imagined.

The Christian faith has its own champions of Enlightenment – those who are certain that various schemes will result in a better world, or hasten the coming of Christ, or create a better Christian. Orthodoxy itself is not immune to such champions: those who believe that a new Byzantine Empire (or Holy Russia) or even Orthodox America are very vulnerable to the utilitarian temptations of our age. “It is good; we want it to happen; let’s make it happen.”

I personally long for a united, single Orthodox Church on American soil – but such a miraculous leap forward in the practice of ecclesiology will not serve as a solution for America or for the Orthodox who live here. It will correct our failures to properly observe canon law, but it will still only yield the Church – the arena of our struggle and the Golgotha for the Cross we have each promised to take up.

Reason and rationality (when left to themselves) can never lead to the promises of God: they are too small, too limited, unable to imagine the wonder that is man in Christ. By the same token, Reason finally has as its ultimate weapon the use of force – for those who refuse Reason stand in the way of a better world. In the liberty in which Dostoevsky dares believe – there can only be love – for liberty can have no compulsion. Those who resort to force have abandoned liberty as surely as they have abandoned love.

Berdyaev offers a correct conclusion: the only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ. I would amend this statement to bring it in line with Scripture: the only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. It is the love of God in the last extremity of crucifixion that solves the problem of man. For the paradox is clear – the liberty of love along with its renunciation of compulsion – leads, it would seem, only to the triumph of evil. Love is conquered by death. But the Christian faith transcends reason. Death is reasonable and reason’s end. Christ is the Logos, the only true image of man, capable of sustaining man in his true image – with the freedom that can only come in Christ. For He has constituted the world in freedom (the freedom of love) and offers us this gift without compulsion. By His resurrection we forgive everyone for everything and find our true life in the very place where others would fear to go.

The great truth of this matter is that it is not an ethical sidebar to the larger matter of Christianity – but is its very heart – a heart that when missing, misses the Kingdom of God. For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

Life in a Sacramental World

At the ordination of a priest, the consecrated Body of Christ is placed in his hands. He is told to “Guard this!” until the coming of Christ. It is a very solemn moment – the beginning of a lifetime in which a man’s relationship to bread will never be the same. It is also something of a conversion – a movement from the secular inert character of matter towards a world of sacrament, mystery and icon. This same movement should not be restricted to the ordained priesthood – for it is the most essential element of the Christian life. All of us live in a world that is sacrament – the priesthood of the Church exists for a ministry within the Church – but humanity itself was created for a priesthood of all creation. The words directed to a priest at his ordination apply to all of us: “Guard this!”

Protestant teaching early on isolated the text in 1 Peter 2 that describes believers as a “royal priesthood,” and interpreted it in a polemical manner that negated the special character of the ordained priesthood. Many Christians today have no sense of priesthood, whether it be the priesthood of Christ or of themselves. “Priest” has ceased to have much modern meaning.

Orthodoxy holds that Christ is the one, true priest. The priesthood exercised within the Church is a participation in Christ’s priesthood. But what do we mean by priesthood in the first place? How is Christ our priest?

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins (Heb. 5:1).

The most essential act of priesthood is offering. The priest presents our offerings to God on our behalf. He gives us the blessing of God on God’s behalf. Christ’s self-offering both to the Father and to humanity is the very definition of priesthood. The focus on Christ’s sacrifice as “payment,” as well as other images, have tended to weaken the sense of offering inherent in His death. Offering, for a variety of historical reasons, has been deeply diminished from the religious consciousness of many. The inner dynamic of the Eucharist is an offering. To live the sacramental life is to live a eucharistic life, a life of offering.

For most, the word “offering” immediately invokes the image of “money.” This is not incorrect, even if it is limited. Money can certainly be an “offering,” but our thoughts on the subject probably miss the point. Money indeed has a sacramental character (as does all of creation). In  a modern culture, money is something of a sacrament of all of our activity. As Christ Himself noted, it remains the primary means by which we may know the heart (Matt 6:21). Interest in spiritual things by those who do not practice “tithing” (returning to God a tenth of what we receive) can easily become an exercise in vanity. The failure to give alms generously (as in the tithe) can reduce spiritual activity to the level of a hobby. In this matter, the Orthodox differ in no wise from the non-Orthodox. Our culture is deeply enslaved by Mammon. Moderns are deeply suspicious of all things having to do with money. We see greed everywhere around us (except within ourselves). Non-believers think of Churches as rich and despise them. The myth of Church wealth is largely just that – myth. (The place of ancient land-holdings and State support of the Church, in lands such as Greece, is a separate topic).

Generosity is more fundamental than fasting (people seem to pay great attention to the latter and little to no attention to the former). I have occasionally been told that modern welfare states have made tithing a thing of the past because our taxes now support the poor, etc. Taxes, no matter how well spent, are never a matter of offering, they are not eucharistic in nature. They are the object of coercion: no one voluntarily pays more than they forced to. What Caesar does with what belongs to Caesar is of no spiritual consequence to us. It is what is offered to God that constitutes a priestly existence.

Generosity is fundamental – but it only lays a foundation. St. Maximus the Confessor taught that “man is a microcosm”: we are the entire universe gathered into personal form. If the physicists are correct, the largest number of elements within our bodies were formed in the furnace of the stars. In the words of pop-singer, Joni Mitchell, “We are stardust.”

At the same time, we are the universe gathered into conscious form. In human beings, the universe has self-understanding and can speak. Our ability to speak is perhaps the most profoundly human thing we do. The universe exists as a gift – there is no necessity in its existence – it is created out of nothing. But in the words and volition of human beings, the gifted universe can freely offer itself back to the Giver. It is this cycle of Giver-Gift-Giving that is the heart of all priestly existence (and the true heart of the Christian faith). In Chrysostom’s liturgy the priest prays:

Therefore, I entreat Thee Who alone art good and ready to listen: Look down on me, a sinner, Thine unprofitable servant; and cleanse my soul and heart from an evil conscience; and by the power of the Holy Spirit enable me, who am endowed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this, Thy holy table, and perform the sacred mystery of Thy holy and pure Body and precious Blood. For I draw near to Thee, and bowing my neck I implore Thee: Turn not Thy face away from me, nor cast me out from among Thy children; but make me, Thy sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to Thee. For Thou art the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

…”The Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received…” This is the very depths of the Eucharist. Read through the Eucharistic liturgy and note the use of the word “offer” and its various iterations. It is an exercise in truly hearing what is being said.

To live the sacramental life is to live the life of offering.  We offer has been offered to the Receiver and the Received. To behold the Received (and the Offered) in every element and moment of creation is to see the world in its truth. This is not an exercise in the imagination or a mere interpretation of the world. The fathers teach that the pure in heart actually perceive the “Logos-ness” of creation. The relationship between Logos and His creation is true, real and substantial, not merely referential.

Modern Christians are profoundly non-sacramental. The simple statement, “We use things,” says it all. The world around us consists of things and is not perceived in its Christic relation. That this is so is only a comment on the frailty of our sinful state. That we are willing to think that this frailty is an actual description of the truth of things, however, is a comment on our perversity.

Secularism is the life of the anti-sacrament. Priesthood ceases to be a life of Offerer and Offered, Receiver and Received. In the secularized world the priest becomes something of a civil servant, a functionary. Priests are hired and fired, compared and judged. They are measured by worldly standards of effectiveness or the simple whims of parish politics. If this is the case of the ordained priesthood, then it is worse still for the priesthood of all believers. Rather than bearing the dignity of the Microcosm, the anti-sacrament modern man reduces himself to Thing and User. Users and Things cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.

Chrysostom again gives us words:

O Lord God almighty, Who alone art holy, Who accepts the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon Thee with their whole heart, accept also the prayer of us sinners, and bear it to Thy holy altar, enabling us to offer unto Thee gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people. Make us worthy to find grace in Thy sight, that our sacrifice may be acceptable unto Thee, and that the good spirit of Thy grace may dwell upon us and upon these Gifts here offered, and upon all Thy people. Through the compassion of Thine only-begotten Son, with Whom Thou art blessed, together with Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Preaching to the Dead

The Orthodox mark Holy Saturday (the day before Christ’s Resurrection) as the day in which He descends to the dead and preaches to the departed spirits (1 Peter 3:18-19). There is a long history of wonderful sermons on this topic.
St. Cyril of Alexandria (early 5th century) says: “For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, Christ left the devil there abandoned and lonely” (7th Paschal Homily 2, PG 77, 552 A).
St. Ephipanius of Cyprus offers these thoughts on the day:
Something strange is happening … there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendents I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.For your sake I, your God, become your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I recieved in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

All of which is better than standing there abandoned and lonely.

Notes from the Underground And Man’s True Heart

I have recently been reading in a classic work, Nicholas Berdyaev’s Dostoevsky. Berdyaev was a twentieth-century Russian philosopher (existentialist) and deeply sympathetic to Dostoevsky’s works. I find some of his treatment to be tremendously satisfying and “on the mark.” I offer an extended quote and some thoughts…

Berdyaev quotes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground:

I shall not be a bit surprised, if in the midst of the Universal Reason [referring to various utopian schemes popular in the 19th century] that is to be, there will appear, all of a sudden and unexpectedly, some common-faced, or rather cynical and sneering, gentleman who with his arms akimbo will say to us: ‘Now then, you fellows, what about smashing all this Reason to bits, sending their logarithms to the devil, and living as we like according to our own silly will?’ That might not be much, but the annoying thing is that he would immediately get plenty of followers – men are made like that. And the cause of all this is so absurd that it would scarcely seem worth speaking of : man, whoever he is and wherever he is to be found, prefers to act as he wills rather than as reason and interest dictate. One may will against one’s own interest – sometimes one has to. Scope for free choice, personal caprice, however extravagant, the matter of fancies – those are what man is after, quintessential objects that you can’t classify and in exchange for which all systems and theories can go to hell. Where then have all these wiseacres found that man’s will should primarily be normal and virtuous? Why have they imagined that man needs a will directed towards reason and his own benefit? All he needs is an independent will, whatever it may cost him and wherever it may lead him … In only one single case does man consciously and deliberately want something absurd, and that is the silliest thing of all, namely, to have the right to want the absurd and not to be bound by the necessity of wanting only what is reasonable.

Berdyaev offers his own analysis:

To the very end [Dostoevsky] refused to rationalize human society and repudiated all attempts to exalt happiness, reason, and well-being above liberty; he would have nothing to do with the Great Exhibition [held in London in 1851, to demonstrate that technology was the way to a better future] or any anticipated harmony based on the ruins of human personality. Instead he wanted to take men along the ways of wildest self-will and revolt in order to show them that they lead to the extinction of liberty and to self-annihilation. This road of liberty can only end either in the deification of man or in the discovery of God; in the one case, he is lost and done for; in the other, he finds salvation and the definitive confirmation of himself as God’s earthly image. For man does not exist unless there be a God and unless he be the image and likeness of God; if there be no God, then man deifies himself, ceases to be man, and his own image perishes. The only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ.

I have written on a number of occasions of modernity’s misguided admiration for reason. The Enlightenment (18th century) witnessed the birth of the modern fascination with reason – and to a degree – all things mathematical. Its ideas continue in many varieties (even as it began with many varieties). There is a continual hope in various “brave new worlds,” from Camelot (progressive America) to the Worker’s Paradise. Today everything from cybernetics and genetics to chaos and anarchy are offered as utopian solutions to the problems of the world – or necessities on the road of progress.

Berdyaev correctly analyzes the theme of liberty in Dostoevsky’s thought. He lived and wrote during a period in which Reason and its various advocates had yet to place their dreams into completed action but stood at that very precipice. Dostoevsky’s essentially Christian voice seemed like the voice of madness to some, or an empty effort to defend tradition, etc. His age not only clamored for Reason but for a new and Reasonable Christ (were there to be one at all). Dostoevsky in a developing string of novels explores the consequences of the various forces of his age. He ultimately ends with Christ – but not the Christ of man’s imagination. The Christ He sees is the Christ of the Gospels, the Christ of the Fathers, the Christ of the living Tradition of the Orthodox faith.

He embraces the irrational claims of the gospel – every man is guilty of the sins of all…we must forgive everyone for everything…. His characters introduce such ideas into the midst of a rationalizing culture and the novels move towards their resolution in the dynamic of that conflict.

Our present age is deeply shattered. We cannot point to one modernity – but to a plurality of modernities. Christianity is itself fragmented (with fragmentations within each fragment). The temptations offered to believers are as manifold as could possibly be imagined.

The Christian faith has its own champions of Enlightenment – those who are certain that various schemes will result in a better world, or hasten the coming of Christ, or create a better Christian. Orthodoxy itself is not immune to such champions: those who believe that a new Byzantine Empire (or Holy Russia) or even Orthodox America are very vulnerable to the utilitarian temptations of our age. “It is good; we want it to happen; let’s make it happen.”

I personally long for a united, single Orthodox Church on American soil – but such a miraculous leap forward in the practice of ecclesiology will not serve as a solution for America or for the Orthodox who live here. It will correct our failures to properly observe canon law, but it will still only yield the Church – the arena of our struggle and the Golgotha for the Cross we have each promised to take up.

Reason and rationality (when left to themselves) can never lead to the promises of God: they are too small, too limited, unable to imagine the wonder that is man in Christ. By the same token, Reason finally has as its ultimate weapon the use of force – for those who refuse Reason stand in the way of a better world. In the liberty in which Dostoevsky dares believe – there can only be love – for liberty can have no compulsion. Those who resort to force have abandoned liberty as surely as they have abandoned love.

Berdyaev offers a correct conclusion: the only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ. I would amend this statement to bring it in line with Scripture: the only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. It is the love of God in the last extremity of crucifixion that solves the problem of man. For the paradox is clear – the liberty of love along with its renunciation of compulsion – leads, it would seem, only to the triumph of evil. Love is conquered by death. But the Christian faith transcends reason. Death is reasonable and reason’s end. Christ is the Logos, the only true image of man, capable of sustaining man in his true image – with the freedom that can only come in Christ. For He has constituted the world in freedom (the freedom of love) and offers us this gift without compulsion. By His resurrection we forgive everyone for everything and find our true life in the very place where others would fear to go.

The great truth of this matter is that it is not an ethical sidebar to the larger matter of Christianity – but is its very heart – a heart that when missing, misses the Kingdom of God. For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

The Mystery of Pascha – Expanded

I have, on occasion, edited and reissued a post – though not as quickly as this one. My post from earlier this week seemed to want a few more words – something to draw the reader closer to the mystery itself. I offer this small addition and pray it is of some use.

In his Revelation, St. John describes Christ as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (13:8). It is one of many interesting statements within that book of images and wonders. However, his description of Christ has much to say about the mystery ofPascha (Christ’s resurrection).

First, it is clear that Pascha is more than a historical event. It is certainly includes the historical death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But statements such as St. John’s point to the fact that Pascha is also an event in which that which is outside of time intersects time. For this reason the celebration of Pascha is never simply a celebration of something that happened long ago. The event that happened long ago is also the event that happened before there was a creation and the event that will be the culmination of everything in the End.

This is the very heart of the Orthodox Christian understanding of the life of the Church. Christ’s Pascha is our very life. It is present to us at every moment and is the source of our life and the truth of our existence. We believe that especially when the Church gathers together for worship, we stand in Christ’s Pascha. Heaven and earth meet and we are united with God in the feast of His Body and Blood. Heaven and earth meet; present, past and future meet with that which is beyond time. The created meets the Uncreated.

Within the Pascha of Christ is the meaning and fulfillment of all things. Much of modern Christianity has married itself to the secular world’s linear view of history. In such a context, Pascha begins to fade into a memorial of the past, or, worse still, an annual culture event.

Of course, it is impossible for such a festival not to have a cultural context – human beings produce cultures. However, we should understand that it is not the culture that gives meaning to Pascha – but Pascha which gives meaning to a culture.

In the 12th Chapter of Exodus, Passover or Pascha, is described as an “eternal festival.” The statement can be taken simply to mean that it is a feast that should always be observed. But it can also be taken to mean that the feast that is Pascha is an eternal matter, that its celebration is more than historical remembrance – it is a participation in the eternal Pascha of Christ.

St. Paul hints at this aspect of Christ’s Pascha:

For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthian 5:7-8)

Here St. Paul is not speaking of a particular feast day, but of the entire Christian life as the Pascha of Christ. Christ has become our Pascha – our way into life out of the bondage of death. Therefore, he says, we should keep this feast of the Christian life not with malice and wickedness – which St. Paul compares to “old leaven” or “old yeast” – meaning our old way of life. Rather, he says that our daily Christian Pascha should be with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Truth plays a very important role in the life of our daily Pascha. Part of the nature of the life given to us in Christ – is that it is truelife. To live a false life, or to speak in a way that is not true – is to have turned ourselves away from Christ, who is the Truth, and from His life, which is our true, authentic existence.

Speaking the truth is a manifestation of Pascha on our lips.

The same can be said of sincerity. To be truly who we are with others – not to lead a life of dissimulation or deceit – such things are the very nature of true life. The deceitfulness of modern existence is a denial of true existence. It raises that which is not to the level of that which is. Life becomes a living hell. Pascha has come to set us free from all of that.

At the End of all things only the truth will remain. Things that were part of the deceit of this world will have passed away. At the End of things there is Pascha. Everything and everyone will find its meaning there – which is fitting since Pascha was before all things.

The Grace of Repentance

From Archimandrite Sophrony’s On Prayer

There, on the Holy Mountain, my life found its right track. Almost every day after the Liturgy I knew a feeling of Easter joy.And strange as it may seem, my constant prayer like some volcanic eruption proceeded from the profound despair that ahd taken over my heart. Two seemingly totally incompatible states met together in me. I am recording facts. I did not understand myself what was happeing to me. Outwardly I was no less fortunate than most people.

Later, things became clear to me: The Lord had granted me the grace of repentance. Tes, it was a grace. The moment despair slackened, prayer cooled off and death would invade my heart. Through repentance, my being expanded until in spirit I touch upon both hell and the Kingdom…

The heart is such a strange thing – well revealed by the great Elder’s writings. To be both in a place of despair and yet in a place of prayer. It is why “technique” has so little place in the spiritual life. There are things we can do, and yet all that we do is and must be in relation to God. God is not an object or any such thing. He cannot be found by technique. Christ offers the simple formula: ‘ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).

The answer to the human heart is to be found in a relationship that is personal, a relationship that is marked by freedom and love. Strangely, we cannot change the heart by our own actions, but only by the gift of God. Thus we pray and thus we wait – ’til He have mercy.

In this sense the goal of the human life is a state of constant repentance – again, not that we can repent as an action of our own. Repentance is the state of the heart when it is in communion with God. This is the reason that Orthodox spiritual writings place such great store in the “gift of tears,” and similar attitudes of heart. It is, in my opinion, why Orthodox spiritual writings are not overwhelmingly concerned with issues of social justice and the like. One ought to do justice, with this there is no disagreement. But it may also be the case that the difficulties one encounters in life is itself are the very occasions in which repentance is born. It is a recognition that were every “wrong” set “right” the primary issue of our existence would still be unaddressed.

Nothing could bear witness to this better than the life of modern man. We enjoy a better “quality” of life than any generation previous to us, and yet that “quality” is somehow not the meaning of our life.

Thus asceticism, in which voluntarily make our lives more difficult, is seen as an utterly necessary part of our spiritual being. It may not necessarily be the “hell” which Archimandrite Sophrony writes about, but there is still the reality of true asceticism. There can be no Christian life that does not embrace the Cross, and by this is meant as well a life that is shaped by the taking up of the Cross.

The Poor in Spirit

Russian_PeasantFew passages of Scripture are more familiar in the Orthodox Church than the Beatitudes – Christ’s sayings from the Sermon on the Mount which begin, “Blessed are….” With familiarity comes the occasional lack of attention, in which we forget to ask, “What does that mean?” I think this is particularly the case with the saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

There is no particular help to be found by going back to its original language – for it is a pretty literal rendering (in English). “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is exactly the same statement in the Greek. Oddly, there is a more paraphrastic rendering in the New English Bible that I find helpful – “Blessed are they who know their need of God.” It is not literal – but, I believe, it captures the sense and meaning of the statement.

The poor in spirit are those who know their need of God. And this is a very profound thing.

Sometime in this past year I had a short exchange on one of the blog posts on the topic of “necessity” or “need.” The point was made (not by me) that to need anyone or anything was the utter destruction of freedom. A relationship that had “need” at its core was dysfunctional and “co-dependent.” I continue to maintain that Freud is not among the fathers – and thus do not give much concern for psychological treatments of theology. But there is a point that is valuable and worth noting in the sentiment expressed: need can be the destruction of freedom. I come back to this point.

But I want to think first about the question of need – our necessity. “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”

The truth is – we are born into necessity. We are contingent beings – creatures and not gods. We cannot live utterly independent lives. We are born helpless and totally dependent. Our species has among the weakness of all newborns. And though our dependency weakens and changes as we grow – it does not cease. Indeed, as we age, our necessity often comes back with a vengeance.

Necessity is a difficult thing. There is an aspect of our need that plays a part in what it means to love – but it can also be a part of what it means to be a slave. Those who have suffered the extremes of modern prison camps know what it is to be reduced to utter necessity. That reduction is an effort to destroy the humanity of a prisoner – to remove any sense of freedom whatsoever. That it sometimes fails is a remarkable testimony for the grace of God at work in us. Our necessity can be the weakest and most vulnerable aspect of our lives as creatures.

This “weakness” becomes an important theme in the writings of St. Paul.

Necessity is a difficult thing. It can be part of what it means to love – but it can also be part of what it means to be a slave. It is, perhaps, the “weakest” thing about being a creature. St. Paul, confronted with an affliction (unknown to us) described by him as a “messenger of Satan sent to buffet me in the flesh,” says that he “besought the Lord three times” that the affliction might be taken away. He was told in response: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” The apostle adds: “Therefore I will most gladly prefer to boast of my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The revelation given to St. Paul is profound. Our weakness is precisely a point of necessity. We cannot handle our weaknesses by ourselves. Our weaknesses reveal the fact that we are not self-sufficient. They frequently leave us feeling vulnerable.

And this weakness, St. Paul says (quoting God), is the very place where God’s strength is made most perfect.

In truth, I need God because I cannot manage my life alone; I cannot solve my own problems; I am captive to sin and death – even my strengths often lead to alienation and estrangement; I cannot raise myself from the dead; I cannot see the world correctly (I am blind); I cannot rightly love even the most obvious things and people.

But, of course, the experience of necessity can also be the experience of slavery. It is not unusual for people to live in relationships of mutual slavery – with very little (if any) true freedom. Necessity, emotional or otherwise, drives them into such relationships and makes their existence into an image of hell.

How do we avoid this with God?

First off, God will not allow us to have a true relationship with Him that is destructive. People have imaginary relationships with God that become destructive. But the imaginary part of it is precisely the problem.

St. Paul writes in another place: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Our relationship with God is always a relationship of freedom. Without freedom the relationship would have no possibility of love. Thus we find that even if we curse God and deny His existence, we do not cease to exist. Though our very existence is dependent upon Him from moment to moment, He does not take it from us. Our “necessity” is not forced upon us within the context of our relationship with God. We may acknowledge it in freedom and take it up in an act of love, or ignore it precisely because God has given us such a frightful freedom.

Thus our necessity, our weakness, does not force us into relationship with God. I am free to deny Him, and to deny my weakness. But it remains true, that “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” For our sake, God himself, entered into the human world of necessity.

In becoming man, God freely became subject to necessity. His birth, His nurture, His education, His vulnerability within our world were freely taken on in His act of “self-emptying” (Philippians 2:5-11). The God Who lives beyond necessity hung lifeless on the cross without even a grave to call His own. He gave Himself to us in weakness – others had to remove the nails in order to free His most pure body from the cross.

The same way of the cross, freedom-in-necessity, is the invitation that is daily extended to us in our relationship with God – and one another. For those who love God, who will in return for His act of self-emptying, give themselves in weakness – he will not helpless. He will not use our weakness to crus us but will lovingly take us down from the cross on which we die daily, wrap us in fine linen, and place us in His own new tomb.

And there we will trample down death by death, and discover that in our weakness, God’s strength is made perfect.

-from a recent sermon

The River of Fire – Kalomiros

The River of Fire Copyright 1980 St. Nectarios Press

THE RIVER OF FIRE
by
ALEXANDRE KALOMIROS

As presented at the
1980 ORTHODOX CONFERENCE
sponsored by St. Nectarios American Orthodox Church
Seattle, Washington

A reply to the questions: (1) Is God really good? (2) Did God create hell?

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Reverend fathers, dear brothers and sisters:

    There is no doubt that we are living in the age of apostasy predicted for the last days. In practice, most people are atheists, although many of them theoretically still believe. Indifference and the spirit of this world prevail everywhere.

    What is the reason for this state?

    The reason is the cooling of love. Love for God no more burns in human hearts, and in consequence, love between us is dead, too.

    What is the cause of this waning of men’s love for God? The answer, certainly, is sin. Sin is the dark cloud which does not permit God’s light to reach our eyes.

    But sin always did exist. So how did we arrive at the point of not simply ignoring God, but of actually hating Him? Man’s attitude toward God today is not really ignorance, or really indifference. If you examine men carefully you will notice that their ignorance or indifference is tainted by a deep hate. But nobody hates anything that does not exist.

    I have the suspicion that men today believe in God more than at any other time in human history. Men know the gospel, the teaching of the Church, and God’s creation better than at any other time. They have a profound consciousness of His existence. Their atheism is not a real disbelief. It is rather an aversion toward somebody we know very well but whom we hate with all our heart, exactly as the demons do.

    We hate God, that is why we ignore Him, overlooking Him as if we did not see Him, and pretending to be atheists. In reality we consider Him our enemy par excellence. Our negation is our vengeance, our atheism is our revenge.

    But why do men hate God? They hate Him not only because their deeds are dark while God is light, but also because they consider Him as a menace, as an imminent and eternal danger, as an adversary in court, as an opponent at law, as a public prosecutor and an eternal persecutor. To them, God is no more the almighty physician who came to save them from illness and death, but rather a cruel judge and a vengeful inquisitor.

    You see, the devil managed to make men believe that God does not really love us, that He really only loves Himself, and that He accepts us only if we behave as He wants us to behave; that He hates us if we do not behave as He ordered us to behave, and is offended by our insubordination to such a degree that we must pay for it by eternal tortures, created by Him for that purpose.

    Who can love a torturer? Even those who try hard to save themselves from the wrath of God cannot really love Him. They love only themselves, trying to escape God’s vengeance and to achieve eternal bliss by managing to please this fearsome and extremely dangerous Creator.

    Do you perceive the devil’s slander of our all loving, all kind, and absolutely good God? That is why in Greek the devil was given the name DIABOLOS, “the slanderer”.

II

    But what was the instrument of the devil’s slandering of God? What means did he use in order to convince humanity, in order to pervert human thought?

    He used “theology”. He first introduced a slight alteration in theology which, once it was accepted, he managed to increase more and more to the degree that Christianity became completely unrecognizable. This is what we call “Western theology”.

    Did you ever try to pinpoint what is the principal characteristic of Western theology? Well, its principal characteristic is that it considers God as the real cause of all evil.

    What is evil? Is it not the estrangement from God Who is Life? 1 Is it not death? What does Western theology teach about death? All Roman Catholics and most Protestants consider death as a punishment from God. God considered all men guilty of Adam’s sin and punished them by death, that is by cutting them away from Himself; depriving them of His live giving energy, and so killing them spiritually at first and later bodily, by some sort of spiritual starvation. Augustine interprets the passage in Genesis “If you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will die the death” as “If you eat of the fruit of this tree, I will kill you”.

    Some Protestants consider death not as a punishment but as something natural. But. is not God the creator of all natural things? So in both cases, God — for them — is the real cause of death.

    And this is true not only for the death of the body. It is equally true for the death of the soul. Do not Western theologians consider hell, the eternal spiritual death of man, as a punishment from God? And do they not consider the devil as a minister of God for the eternal punishment of men in hell?

    The “God” of the West is an offended and angry God, full of wrath for the disobedience of men, who desires in His destructive passion to torment all humanity unto eternity for their sins, unless He receives an infinite satisfaction for His offended pride.

    What is the Western dogma of salvation? Did not God kill God in order to satisfy His pride, which the Westerners euphemistically call justice? And is it not by this infinite satisfaction that He deigns to accept the salvation of some of us?

    What is salvation for Western theology? Is it not salvation from the wrath of God? 2

    Do you see, then, that Western theology teaches that our real danger and our real enemy is our Creator and God? Salvation, for Westerners, is to be saved from the hands of God!

    How can one love such a God? How can we have faith in someone we detest? Faith in its deeper essence is a product of love, therefore, it would be our desire that one who threatens us not even exist, especially when this threat is eternal.

    Even if there exists a means of escaping the eternal wrath of this omnipotent but wicked Being (the death of His Son in our stead), it would be much better if this Being did not exist. This was the most logical conclusion of the mind and of the heart of the Western peoples, because even eternal Paradise would be abhorrent with such a cruel God. Thus was atheisrn born, and this is why the West was its birthplace. Atheism was unknown in Eastern Christianity until Western theology was introduced there, too. Atheism is the consequence of Western theology. 3 Atheism is the denial, the negation of an evil God. Men became atheists in order to be saved from God, hiding their head and closing their eyes like an ostrich. Atheism, my brothers, is the negation of the Roman Catholic and Protestant God. Atheism is not our real enemy. The real enemy is that falsified and distorted “Christianity”.

III    Westerners speak frequently of the “Good God”(E.g., in France le bon dieu is almost always used when speaking of God.). Western Europe and America, however, were never convinced that such a Good God existed. On the contrary, they were calling God good in the way Greeks called the curse and malediction of smallpox, EULOGIA , that is, a blessing, a benediction, in order to exorcise it and charm it away. For the same reason, the Black Sea was called Eu xeinoV PontoV — the hospitable sea — although it was, in fact, a dreadful and treacherous sea. Deep inside the Western soul, God was felt to be the wicked Judge, Who never forgot even the smallest offense done to Him in our transgressions of His laws.

    This juridical conception of God, this completely distorted interpretation of God’s justice, was nothing else than the projection of human passions on theology. It was a return to the pagan process of humanizing God and deifying man. Men are vexed and angered when not taken seriously and consider it a humiliation which only vengeance can remove, whether it is by crime or by duel. This was the worldly, passionate conception of justice prevailing in the minds of a so-called “Christian” society.

    Western Christians thought about God’s justice in the same way also; God, the infinite Being, was infinitely insulted by Adam’s disobedience. He decided that the guilt of Adam’s disobedience descended equally to all His children, and that all were to be sentenced to death for Adam’s sin, which they did not commit. God’s justice for Westerners operated like a vendetta. Not only the man who insulted you, but also all his family must die. And what was tragic for men, to the point of hopelessness, was that no man, nor even all humanity, could appease God’s insulted dignity, even if all men in history were to be sacrificed. God’s dignity could be saved only if He could punish someone of the same dignity as He. So in order to save both God’s dignity and mankind, there was no other solution than the incarnation of His Son, so that a man of godly dignity could be sacrificed to save God’s honor.

IV

    This paganistic conception of God’s justice which demands infinite sacrifices in order to be appeased clearly makes God our real enemy and the cause of all our misfortunes. Moreover, it is a justice which is not at all just since it punishes and demands satisfaction from persons which were not at all responsible for the sin of their forefathers 4 In other words, what Westerners call justice ought rather to be called resentment and vengeance of the worst kind. Even Christ’s love and sacrifice loses its significance and logic in this schizoid notion of a God who kills God in order to satisfy the so-called justice of God.

    Does this conception of justice have anything to do with the justice that God revealed to us? Does the phrase “justice of God” have this meaning in the Old and New Testaments?

    Perhaps the beginning of the mistaken interpretation of the word justice in the Holy Scriptures was its translation by the Greek word DIKAIWSUNH. Not that it is a mistaken translation, but because this word, being a word of the pagan, humanistic, Greek civilization, was charged with human notions which could easily lead to misunderstandings.

    First of all, the wordDIKAIWSUNHbrings to mind an equal distribution. This is why it is represented by a balance. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished by human society in a fair way. This is human justice, the one which takes place in court.

    Is this the meaning of God’s justice, however?

    The word DIKAIWSUNH,“justice”, is a translation of the Hebraic word tsedaka. This word means “the divine energy which accomplishes man’s salvation”. It is parallel and almost synonymous to the other Hebraic word, hesed which means “mercy”, “compassion”, “love”, and to the word, emeth which means “fidelity”, “truth”. This, as you see, gives a completely other dimension to what we usually conceive as justice.5 This is how the Church understood God’s justice. This is what the Fathers of the Church taught of it. “How can you call God just”, writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, “when you read the passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong; I will give unto this last even as unto thee who worked for me from the first hour. Is thine eye evil, because I am good?'” “How can a man call God just”, continues Saint Isaac, “when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son, who wasted his wealth in riotous living, and yet only for the contrition which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck, and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him lest we doubt it, and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we were sinners, Christ died for us!” 6

    So we see that God is not just, with the human meaning of this word, but we see that His justice means His goodness and love, which are given in an unjust manner, that is, God always gives without taking anything in return, and He gives to persons like us who are not worthy of receiving. That is why Saint Isaac teaches us: “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and impious'”.7

    God is good, loving, and kind toward those who disregard, disobey, and ignore Him.8 He never returns evil for evil, He never takes vengeance. 9 His punishments are loving means of correction, as long as anything can be corrected and healed in this life.10 They never extend to eternity. He created everything good.11 The wild beasts recognize as their master the Christian who through humility has gained the likeness of God. They draw near to him, not with fear, but with joy, in grateful and loving submission; they wag their heads and lick his hands and serve him with gratitude. The irrational beasts know that their Master and God is not evil and wicked and vengeful, but rather full of love. (See also St. Isaac of Syria, SWZOMENA ASKHTIKA [Athens, 1871], pp. 95-96.) He protected and saved us when we fell. The eternally evil has nothing to do with God. It comes rather from the will of His free, logical creatures, and this will He respects. 12

    Death was not inflicted upon us by God 13 We fell into it by our revolt. God is Life and Life is God. We revolted against God, we closed our gates to His life-giving grace. 14 “For as much as he departed from life”, wrote Saint Basil, “by so much did he draw nearer to death. For God is Life, deprivation of life is death”. 15 “God did not create death”, continues Saint Basil, “but we brought it upon ourselves”. “Not at all, however, did He hinder the dissolution… so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us”. 16 As Saint Irenaeus puts it: “Separation from God is death, separation from light is darkness… and it is not the light which brings upon them the punishment of blindness”. 17

    “Death”, says Saint Maximus the Confessor, “is principally the separation from God, from which followed necessarily the death of the body. Life is principally He who said, ‘I am the Life'”.18 And why did death come upon the whole of humanity? Why did those who did not sin with Adam die as did Adam? Here is the reply of Saint Anastasius the Sinaite: “We became the inheritors of the curse in Adam. We were not punished as if we had disobeyed that divine commandment along with Adam; but because Adam became mortal, he transmitted sin to his posterity. We became mortal since we were born from a mortal”.19  And Saint Gregory Palamas makes this point: “[God] did not say to Adam: return to whence thou wast taken; but He said to him: Earth thou art and unto the earth thou shall return…. He did not say: ‘in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, die!’ but, ‘in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, ye shall surely die.’ Nor did He afterwards say: ‘return now unto the earth,’ but He said, ‘thou shalt return,’ in this manner forewarning, justly permitting and not obstructing what shall come to pass”. 20 We see that death did not come at the behest of God but as a consequence of Adam’s severing his relations with the source of Life, by his disobedience; and God in His kindness did only warn him of it.

    “The tree of knowledge itself,” says Theophilus of Antic, “was good, and its fruit was good. For it was not the tree, as some think, that had death in it, but the disobedience which had death in it; for there was nothing else in the fruit but knowledge alone, and knowledge is good when one uses it properly.” 21  The Fathers teach us that the prohibition to taste the tree of knowledge was not absolute but temporary. Adam was a spiritual infant. Not all foods are good for infants. Some foods may even kill them although adults would find them wholesome. The tree of knowledge was planted by God for man. It was good and nourishing. But it was solid food, while Adam was able to digest only milk.

V

    So in the language of the Holy Scriptures, “just” means good and loving. We speak of the just men of the Old Testament. That does not mean that they were good judges but that they were kind and God-loving people. When we say that God is just, we do not mean that He is a good judge Who knows how to punish men equitably according to the gravity of their crimes, but on the contrary, we mean that He is kind and loving, forgiving all transgressions and disobediences, and that He wants to save us by all means, and never requites evil for evil. 22  In the first volume of the Philokalia there is a magnificent text of Saint Anthony which I must read to you here:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.23  [Chap. 150]

VI    You see now, I hope, how God was slandered by Western theology. Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas and all their pupils contributed to this “theological” calumny. And they are the foundations of Western theology, whether Papist or Protestant. Certainly these theologians do not say expressly and clearly that God is a wicked and passionate being. They rather consider God as being chained by a superior force, by a gloomy and implacable Necessity like the one which governed the pagan gods. This Necessity obliges Him to return evil for evil and does not permit Him to pardon and to forget the evil done against His will, unless an infinite satisfaction is offered to Him.

    We open here the great question of pagan, Greek influence on Christianity.

    The pagan mentality was in the foundation of all heresies. It was very strong in the East, because the East was the crossroad of all philosophical and religious currents. But as we read in the New Testament, “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”. So when heresies flourished, Orthodoxy flourished also, and although it was persecuted by the mighty of this world, it always survived victorious. In the West, on the contrary, the pagan Greek mentality entered in unobtrusively, without taking the aspect of heresy. It entered in through the multitude of Latin texts dictated by Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Saint John Cassian who was living then in the West understood the poison that was in Augustine’s teachings, and fought against it. But the fact that Augustine’s books were written in Latin and the fact that they were extremely lengthy did not permit their study by the other Fathers of the Church, and so they were never condemned as Origen’s works were condemned in the East. This fact permitted them to exercise a strong influence later in Western thought and theology. In the West, little by little knowledge of the Greek language vanished, and Augustine’s texts were the only books available dating from ancient times in a language understood there. So the West received as Christian a teaching which was in many of its aspects pagan. Caesaro-papist developments in Rome did not permit any healthy reaction to this state of affairs, and so the West was drowned in the humanistic, pagan thought which prevails to this day.24

    So we have the East on the one side which, speaking and writing Greek, remained essentially the New Israel with Israelitic thought and sacred tradition, and the West on the other side which having forgotten the Greek language and having been cut off from the Eastern state, inherited pagan Greek thought and its mentality, and formed with it an adulterated Christian teaching.

    In reality, the opposition between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity is nothing else but the perpetuation of the opposition between Israel and Hellas.

    We must never forget that the Fathers of the Church considered themselves to be the true spiritual children of Abraham, that the Church considered itself to be the New Israel, and that the Orthodox peoples, whether Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian, etc., were conscious of being like Nathaniel, true Israelites, the People of God. And while this was the real consciousness of Eastern Christianity, the West became more and more a child of pagan, humanistic Greece and Rome.

VII    What were the principal characteristics of this difference of thought between Israel and paganism? I call your attention to this very important matter.

    Israel believes in God.

    Paganism believes in creation. That is to say, in paganism creation is deified. For the pagans, God and creation are one and the same thing. God is impersonal, personified in a multitude of gods.

    Israel (and when we speak of Israel we mean the true Israel, the spiritual sons of Abraham, those who have the faith given by God to His chosen people, not those who have abandoned this faith, The real sons of Abraham are the Church of Christ, and not those carnal descendants, the Jewish race), Israel knows that God and creation are two radically different kinds of existence. God is self existent, personal, eternal, immortal, Life and the Source of life, Existence and the Source of existence; God is the only real Existence: O WN, the Existing, the Only Existing; this is the meaning of the article ‘O. 25

    Creation, on the contrary, has no self-existence. It is totally dependent on the will of God. It exists only so long as God wants it to exist. It is not eternal. It had no existence. It was null, it was completely nothing. It was created out of nothingness. 26  By itself it has no force of existence; it is kept in existence by God’s Energy. If this loving Energy of God ever stops, creation and all created beings, intellectual or non-intellectual, rational or irrational will vanish into non-existence. We know that God’s love for His creation is eternal. We know from Him that He will never let us fall into non-existence, from which He brought us into being. This is our hope and God is true in His promises. We, created beings, angels, and men, will live in eternity, not because we have in us the power of eternity, but because this is the will of God Who loves us. By ourselves we are nothing. We have not the least energy of life and of existence in our nature; that which we have comes entirely from God; nothing is ours. We are dirt of the earth, and when we forgot it, God in His mercy permitted that we return to what we are, in order that we remain humble and have exact knowledge of our nothingness. 27  “God,” says Saint John Damascene elsewhere, “can do all that He wills, even though He does not will all things that He can do — for He can destroy creation, but He does not will to do so. (Ibid. I, 14) 28

In the Great Euchologion (Venice, 1862), a fundamental liturgical book of the Church, we read:

“O God, the great and most high, Thou Who alone hast immortality”

[7th prayer of Vespers, p. 15]

“Thou Who alone art life-giving by nature… O only immortal”

[Ode 5, Funeral Canon for Laymen, p. 410]

“Thou art the only immortal” [p.  410]“The only One Who is immortal because of His godly nature”

[Ode 1, Funeral Canon for Laymen, p. 471]

    This is the faith of Israel.

    What is the teaching of paganism? Paganism is the consequence of the loss of contact with God. The multitude of the sins of humanity made men incapable of receiving the divine light and of having any union with the Living God. The consequence was to consider as something divine the creation which they saw before them every day.

    Paganism considers creation as being something self-existent and immortal, something that always existed and will always exist. In paganism the gods are part of creation. They did not create it from nothingness, they only formed the existing matter. Matter can take different forms. Forms come into existence and vanish, but matter itself is eternal. Angels, demons, and the souls of men are the real gods. Eternal by their nature, as is matter itself, they are, however, higher than matter. They might take different material forms in a sequence of material existences but they remain essentially spiritual.

    So in paganism we see two fundamental characteristics: (1) An attributing of the characteristics of godhood to the whole of creation, that is: eternity, immortality, self-existence. (2) A distinction between the spiritual and the material and an antagonism between the two as between something higher and something lower.

    Paganism and humanism are one and the same thing. In paganism, man is god because he is eternal by nature. This is why paganism is always haughty. It is narcissism. It is self-adoration. In Greece, the gods had human characteristics. Greek religion was the pagan adoration of man. The soul of man was considered his real being, and was immortal by nature.

    So we see that in paganism the devil succeeded in creating a universal belief that men were gods and so did not need God. This is why pride was so high in Greece and why humility was inconceivable. In his work The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes the following words: “Not to resent offenses is the mark of a base and slavish man.” The man who is convinced by the devil to believe in the error that his soul is eternal by nature, can never be humble and can never really believe in God, because he does not need God, being God himself, as his error makes him believe.

    This is why, from the very first, the Fathers of the Church, understanding the danger of this stupid error, warned the Christians of the fact that, as Saint Irenaeus puts it: “The teaching that the human soul is naturally immortal is from the devil” (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, III, 20. 1). We find the same warning in Saint Justin (Dialogue with Trypho 6. 1-2), in Theophilus of Antioch (To Autolycus 2. 97), in Tatian (To the Greeks 13), etc.

    Saint Justin explains the fundamental atheism which exists in the belief of the natural eternity and immortality of the human soul. He writes: “There are some others who, having supposed that the soul is immortal and immaterial, believe though they have committed evil they will not suffer punishment (for that which is immaterial is also insensible), and that the soul, in consequence of its immorality needs nothing from God” (Dialogue with Trypho 1).

    Paganism is ignorance of the true God, an erroneous belief that His creation is divine, really a god. This god, however, who is Nature, is impersonal, a blind force, above all personal gods, and is called Necessity (anagkhç). In reality, this Necessity is the projection of human reason, as a mathematical necessity governing the world, It is a projection of rationalism upon nature. This rationalistic Necessity is the true, supreme blind god of the pagans. The pagan gods are parts of the world, and they are immortal because of the immortality of nature which is their essence. In this pagan mentality, man is also god like the others, because for the pagans the real man is only his soul, 29 and they believe that man’s soul is immortal in itself, since it is part of the essence of the universe, which is considered immortal in itself and self-existent. So man also is god and a measure of all things.

    But the gods are not free. They are governed by Necessity which is impersonal.

VIII

    It is this pagan way of thought that was mixed with the Christian teaching by the various heresies. This is what happened in the West, too. They began to distinguish not between God and His creation, but between spirit and matter. 30 They began to think of the soul of man as of something eternal in itself, and began to consider the condition of man after death not as a sleep in the hands of God, but as the real life of man, 31  to which the resurrection of the dead had nothing to add and even the need of the resurrection was doubtful. The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, which is the culmination of all feasts in Orthodoxy, began to fall into second place, because its need was as incomprehensible to the Western Christians as it was to the Athenians who heard the sermon of the Apostle Paul.

    But what is more important for our subject, they began to feel that God was subject to Necessity, to this rationalistic Necessity which was nothing else but human logic. They declared Him incapable of coming into contact with inferior beings like men, because their rationalistic, philosophical conceptions did not permit it, and it was this belief which was the foundation of the hesychast disputes; it had already begun with Augustine who taught that it was not God Who spoke to Moses but an angel instead.

    It is in this context of Necessity, which even gods obey, that we must understand the Western juridical conception of God’s justice. It was necessary for God to punish man’s disobedience. It was impossible for Him to pardon; a superior Necessity demanded vengeance. Even if God was in reality good and loving, He was not able to act lovingly. He was obliged to act contrary to His love; the only thing He could do, in order to save humanity, was to punish His Son in the place of men, and by this means was Necessity satisfied.

IX

    This is the triumph of Hellenistic thought in Christianity. As a Hellenist, Origen had arrived at the same conclusions. God was a judge by necessity. He was obliged to punish, to avenge, to send people to hell. Hell was God’s creation. It was a punishment demanded by justice. This demand of justice was a necessity. God was obliged to submit to it. He was not permitted to forgive. There was a superior force, a Necessity which did not permit Him to love unconditionally.

    However, Origen was also a Christian and he knew that God was full of love. How is it possible to acknowledge a loving God Who keeps people in torment eternally? If God is the cause of hell, by necessity then there must be an end to it, otherwise we cannot concede that God is good and loving. This juridical conception of God as a instrument of a superior, impersonal force or deity named Necessity, leads logically to apokatastasis, “the restoration of all things and the destruction of hell,” otherwise we must admit that God is cruel.

    The pagan Greek mentality could not comprehend that the cause of hell was not God but His logical creatures. If God was not really free, since He was governed by Necessity, how could His creatures be free? God could not give something which He did not possess Himself. Moreover, the pagan Greek mentality could not conceive of disinterested love. Freedom, however, is the highest gift that God could give to a creature, because freedom makes the logical creatures like God. This was an inconceivable gift for pagan Greeks. They could not imagine a creature which could say “no” to an almighty God. If God was almighty, creatures could not say “no” to Him. So if God gave men His grace, men could not reject it. Otherwise God would not be almighty. If we admit that God is almighty, then His grace must be irresistible. Men cannot escape from it. That means that those men who are deprived of God’s grace are deprived because God did not give His grace to them. So the loss of God s grace, which is eternal, spiritual death, in other words, hell, is in reality an act totally dependent on God. It is God Who is punishing these people by depriving them of His grace, by not permitting it to shine upon them. So God is the cause of the eternal, spiritual death of those who are damned. Damnation is an act of God, an act of God’s justice, an act of necessity or cruelty. As a result, Origen thought that if we are to remain Christians, if we are to continue to believe that God is really good, we must believe that hell is not eternal, but will have an end, in spite of all that is written in the Holy Scriptures and of what the Church believes. This is the fatal, perfectly logical conclusion. If God is the cause of hell, hell must have an end, or else God is an evil God.

X

    Origen, and all rationalists who are like him, was not able to understand that the acceptance or the rejection of God’s grace depends entirely on the rational creatures; that God, like the sun, never stops shining on good or wicked alike; that rational creatures are, however, entirely free to accept or reject this grace and love; and that God in His genuine love does not force His creatures to accept Him, but respects absolutely their free decision. 32  He does not withdraw His grace and love, but the attitude of the logical creatures toward this unceasing grace and love is the difference between paradise and hell. Those who love God are happy with Him, those who hate Him are extremely miserable by being obliged to live in His presence, and there is no place where one can escape the loving omnipresence of God.

    Paradise or hell depends on how we will accept God’s love. Will we return love for love, or will we respond to His love with hate? This is the critical difference. And this difference depends entirely on us, on our freedom, on our innermost free choice, on a perfectly free attitude which is not influenced by external conditions or internal factors of our material and psychological nature, because it is not an external act but an interior attitude coming from the bottom of our heart, conditioning not our sins, but the way we think about our sins, as it is clearly seen in the case of the publican and the Pharisee and in the case of the two robbers crucified with Christ. This freedom, this choice, this inner attitude toward our Creator is the innermost core of our eternal personality, it is the most profound of our characteristics, it is what makes us that which we are, it is our eternal face — bright or dark, loving or hating.

    No, my brothers, unhappily for us, paradise or hell does not depend on God. If it depended on God, we would have nothing to fear. We have nothing to fear from Love. But it does not depend on God. It depends entirely upon us, and this is the whole tragedy. God wants us to be in His image, eternally free. He respects us absolutely. This is love. Without respect, we cannot speak of love. We are men because we are free. If we were not free, we would be clever animals, not men. God will never take back this gift of freedom which renders us what we are. This means that we will always be what we want to be, friends or enemies of God, and there is no changing in this our deepest self. In this life, there are profound or superficial changes in our life, in our character, in our beliefs, but all these changes are only the expression in time of our deepest eternal self. This deep eternal self is eternal, with all the meaning of the word. This is why paradise and hell are also eternal. There is no changing in what we really are. Our temporal characteristics and our history in life depend on many superficial things ‘which vanish with death, but our real personality is not superficial and does not depend on changing and vanishing things. It is our real self. It remains with us when we sleep in the grave, and will be our real face in the resurrection. It is eternal.

XI

    Saint John of the Ladder says somewhere in his work that “before our fall the demons say to us that God is a friend of man; but after our fall, they say that He is inexorable.” This is the cunning lie of the devil: to convince us that any harm in our life has as its cause God s disposition; that it is God Who will forgive us or Who will punish us. Wishing to throw us into sin and then to make us lose any hope of freeing ourselves from it, they seek to present God as sometimes forgiving all sins, and sometimes as inexorable. Most Christians, even Orthodox Christians, have fallen into this pit. They consider God responsible for our being pardoned or our being punished. This, my brothers, is a terrible falsehood which makes most men lose eternal life, principally because in considering God s love, they convince themselves that God, in His love, will pardon them. God is always loving, He is always pardoning, He is always a friend of man. However, that which never pardons, that which never is a friend of man, is sin, and we never think of it as we ought to. Sin destroys our soul independently of the love of God, because sin is precisely the road which leads away from God, because sin erects a wall which separates us from God, because sin destroys our spiritual eyes and makes us unable to see God’s light. The demons want to make us always think of our salvation or our eternal spiritual death in juridical terms. They want us to think that either salvation or eternal death is a question of God’s decision. No, my brothers, we must awaken in order not to be lost. Our salvation or our eternal death is not a question of God s decision, but it is a question of our decision, it is a question of the decision of our free will which God respects absolutely. Let us not fool ourselves with confidence in God’s love. The danger does not come from God; it comes from our own self.

XII    Many will say: “Does not Holy Scripture itself often speak about the anger of God? Is it not God Himself who says that He will punish us or that He will pardon us? Is it not written that ‘He is a rewarded of them that diligently seek Him’ (Heb. 11:6)? 33  Does He not say that vengeance is His and that He will requite the wickedness done to us? Is it not written that it is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God?” 34

    In his discourse entitled That God is not the Cause of Evil, Saint Basil the Great writes the following: “But one may say, if God is not responsible for evil things, why is it said in the book of Esaias, ‘I am He that prepared light and Who formed darkness, Who makes peace and Who creates evils’ (45:7).” And again, “There came down evils from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem” (Mich. 1:12). And, “Shall there be evil in the city which the Lord hath not wrought?” (Amos 3:6). And in the great Ode of Moses, “Behold, I am and there is no god beside Me. I will slay, and I will make to live; I will smite, and I will heal” (Deut. 32:39). But none of these citations, to him who understands the deeper meaning of the Holy Scriptures, casts any blame on God, as if He were the cause of evils and their creator, for He Who said, “I am the One Who makes light and darkness,” shows Himself as the Creator of the universe, not that He is the creator of any evil…. “He creates evils,” that means, “He fashions them again and brings them to a betterment, so that they leave their evilness, to take on the nature of good.” 35

    As Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense… those who have a mind understand this” (Homily 83, p. 317).

    Saint Basil in the same discourse 36 gives the explanation of these expressions of the Holy Scriptures: “It is because fear,” says he, “edifies simpler people,” and this is true not only for simple people but for all of us. After our fall, we need fear in order to do any profitable thing and any good to ourselves or to others. In order to understand the Holy Scriptures, say the Fathers, we must have in mind their purpose which is to save us, and to bring us little by little to an understanding of our Creator God and of our wretched condition.

    But the same Holy Scriptures in other places explain to us more accurately who is the real cause of our evils. In Jeremias 2:17, 19 we read: “Hath not thy forsaking Me brought these things upon thee? saith the Lord thy God…. Thine apostasy shall chastise thee and thy wickedness shall reprove thee; know then, and see that thy forsaking Me hath been bitter to thee, saith the Lord thy God.”

    The Holy Scriptures speak our language, the language which we understand in our fallen state. As Saint Gregory the Theologian says, “For according to our own comprehension, we have given names from our own attributes to those of God.” 37 And Saint John Damascene explains further that what in the Holy Scriptures “is said of God as if He had a body, is said symbolically… [it contains] some hidden meaning, which through things corresponding to our nature, teaches us things which exceed our nature.” 38

XIII

    However, there are punishments imposed upon us by God, or rather evils done to us by the devil and permitted by God. But these punishments are what we call pedagogical punishments. They have as their aim our correction in this life, or at least the correction of others who would take a lesson from our example and correct themselves by fear. There are also punishments which do not have the purpose of correcting anybody but simply put an end to evil by putting an end to those who are propagating it, so that the earth may be saved from perpetual corruption and total destruction; such was the case in the flood during Noe’s time, and in Sodom’s destruction.39

    All these punishments operate and have their purpose in this corrupted state of things; they do not extend beyond this corrupted life. Their purpose is to correct what can be corrected, and to change things toward a better condition, while things can still change in this changing world. After the Common Resurrection no change whatever can take place. Eternity and incorruptibility are the state of unchangeable things; no alterations whatever happen then, only developments in the state chosen by free personalities; eternal and infinite developments but no changing, no alteration of direction, no going back. The changing world we see around us is changing because it is corruptible. The eternal New Heavens and New Earth which God will bring about in His Second Coming are incorruptible, that means, not changing. So in this New World there can be no correction whatever; therefore, pedagogical punishments are no longer necessary. Any punishment from God in this New World of Resurrection would be clearly and without a doubt a revengeful act, inappropriate and motivated by hate, without any good intention or purpose.

    If we consider hell as a punishment from God, we must admit that it is a senseless punishment, unless we admit that God is an infinitely wicked being.

    As Saint Isaac the Syrian says: “He who applies pedagogical punishments in order to give health, is punishing with love, but he who is looking for vengeance, is devoid of love. God punishes with love, not defending Himself — far be it — but He wants to heal His image, and He does not keep His wrath for long. This way of love is the way of uprightness, and it does not change with passion to a defense. A man who is just and wise is like God because he never chastises a man in revenge for wickedness, but only in order to correct him or that others be afraid” (Homily 73).

    So we see that God punishes as long as there is hope for correction. After the Common Resurrection there is no question of any punishment from God. Hell is not a punishment from God but a self condemnation. As Saint Basil the Great says, “The evils in hell do not have God as their cause, but ourselves.” 40

XIV

    One could insist, however, that the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers always speak of God as the Great Judge who will reward those who were obedient to Him and will punish those who were disobedient, in the day of the Great Judgment (II Tim. 4:6-8). How are we to understand this judgment if we are to understand the divine words not in a human but in a divine manner’? What is God’s judgment?

    God is Truth and Light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The “books” will be opened. What are these “books”? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.

    So that which will differentiate between one man and another will not be a decision of God, a reward or a punishment from Him, but that which was in each one’s heart; what was there during all our life will be revealed in the Day of Judgment. If there is a reward and a punishment in this revelation — and there really is — it does not come from God but from the love or hate which reigns in our heart. Love has bliss in it, hatred has despair, bitterness, grief, affliction, wickedness, agitation, confusion, darkness, and all the other interior conditions which compose hell (I Cor. 4:6).

    The Light of Truth, God’s Energy, God’s grace which will fall on men unhindered by corrupt conditions in the Day of Judgment, will be the same to all men. There will be no distinction whatever. All the difference lies in those who receive, not in Him Who gives. The sun shines on healthy and diseased eyes alike, without any distinction. Healthy eyes enjoy light and because of it see clearly the beauty which surrounds them. Diseased eyes feel pain, they hurt, suffer, and want to hide from this same light which brings such great happiness to those who have healthy eyes.

    But alas, there is no longer any possibility of escaping God’s light. During this life there was. In the New Creation of the Resurrection, God will be everywhere and in everything. His light and love will embrace all. There will be no place hidden from God, as was the case during our corrupt life in the kingdom of the prince of this world. 41 The devil’s kingdom will be despoiled by the Common Resurrection and God will take possession again of His creation. 42 Love will enrobe everything with its sacred Fire which will flow like a river from the throne of God and will irrigate paradise. But this same river of Love — for those who have hate in their hearts — will suffocate and burn.

    “For our God is a consuming fire”, (Heb. 12:29). The very fire which purifies gold, also consumes wood. Precious metals shine in it like the sun, rubbish burns with black smoke. All are in the same fire of Love. Some shine and others become black and dark. In the same furnace steel shines like the sun, whereas clay turns dark and is hardened like stone. The difference is in man, not in God.

    The difference is conditioned by the free choice of man, which God respects absolutely. God’s judgment is the revelation of the reality which is in man.

XV

    Thus Saint Macarius writes, “And as the kingdom of darkness, and sin, are hidden in the soul until the Day of Resurrection, when the bodies also of sinners shall be covered with the darkness that is now hidden in the soul, so also the Kingdom of Light, and the Heavenly Image, Jesus Christ, now mystically enlighten the soul, and reign in the soul of the saints, but are hidden from the eyes of men… until the Day of Resurrection; but then the body also shall be covered and glorified with the Light of the Lord, which is now in the man’s soul [from this earthly life], that the body also may reign with the soul which from now receives the Kingdom of Christ and rests and is enlightened with eternal light” (Homily 2).

    Saint Symeon the New Theologian says that it is not what man does which counts in eternal life but what he is, whether he is like Jesus Christ our Lord, or whether he is different and unlike Him. He says, “In the future life the Christian is not examined if he has renounced the whole world for Christ’s love, or if he has distributed his riches to the poor or if he fasted or kept vigil or prayed, or if he wept and lamented for his sins, or if he has done any other good in this life, but he is examined attentively if he has any similitude with Christ, as a son does with his father.”

XVI

    Saint Peter the Damascene writes: “We all receive God’s blessings equally. But some of us, receiving God’s fire, that is, His word, become soft like beeswax, while the others like clay become hard as stone. And if we do not want Him, He does not force any of us, but like the sun He sends His rays and illuminates the whole world, and he who wants to see Him, sees Him, whereas the one who does not want to see Him, is not forced by Him. And no one is responsible for this privation of light except the one who does not want to have it. God created the sun and the eye. Man is free to receive the sun’s light or not. The same is true here. God sends the light of knowledge like rays to all, but He also gave us faith like an eye. The one who wants to receive knowledge through faith, keeps it by his works, and so God gives him more willingness, knowledge, and power” (Philokalia, vol. 3, p. 8).

XVII

    I think that by now we have reached the point of understanding correctly what eternal hell and eternal paradise really are, and who is in reality responsible for the difference.

    In the icon of the Last Judgment we see Our Lord Jesus Christ seated on a throne. On His right we see His friends, the blessed men and women who lived by His love. On His left we see His enemies, all those who passed their life hating Him, even if they appeared to be pious and reverent. And there, in the midst of the two, springing from Christ’s throne, we see a river of fire coming toward us. What is this river of fire? Is it an instrument of torture? Is it an energy of vengeance coming out from God in order to vanquish His enemies?

    No, nothing of the sort. This river of fire is the river which “came out from Eden to water the paradise” of old (Gen. 2:10). It is the river of the grace of God which irrigated God’s saints from the beginning. In a word, it is the out-pouring of God’s love for His creatures. Love is fire. Anyone who loves knows this. God is Love, so God is Fire. And fire consumes all those who are not fire themselves, and renders bright and shining all those who are fire themselves (Heb. 12:29).

    God many times appeared as fire: To Abraham, to Moses in the burning bush, to the people of Israel showing them the way in the desert as a column of fire by night and as a shining cloud by day when He covered the tabernacle with His glory (Exod. 40:28, 32), and when He rained fire on the summit of Mount Sinai. God was revealed as fire on the mountain of Transfiguration, and He said that He came “to put fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49), that is to say, love, because as Saint John of the Ladder says, “Love is the source of fire” (Step 30, 18).

    The Greek writer, Fotis Kontoglou said somewhere that “Faith is fire, and gives warmth to the heart. The Holy Spirit came down upon the heads of the apostles in the form of tongues of fire. The two disciples, when the Lord was revealed to them, said ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us in the way?’ Christ compares faith to a ‘burning candle.’ Saint John the Forerunner said in his sermons that Christ will baptize men ‘in the Holy Spirit and fire.’ And truly, the Lord said, ‘I am come to send fire on the earth and what will I if it be already kindled? Well, the most tangible characteristic of faith is warmth; this is why they speak about ‘warm faith,’ or ‘faith provoking warmth.’ And even as the distinctive mark of faith is warmth, the sure mark of unbelief is coldness.

    “Do you want to know how to understand if a man has faith or unbelief? If you feel warmth coming out of him — from his eyes, from his words, from his manners — be certain that he has faith in his heart. If again you feel cold coming out of his whole being, that means that he has not faith, whatever he may say. He may kneel down, he may bend his head humbly, he may utter all sorts of moral teachings with a humble voice, but all these will breathe forth a chilling breath which falls upon you to numb you with cold.”  43 Saint Isaac the Syrian says that “Paradise is the love of God, in which the bliss of all the beatitudes is contained,” and that “the tree of life is the love of God” (Homily 72).

    “Do not deceive yourself,” says Saint Symeon the New Theologian, “God is fire and when He came into the world, and became man, He sent fire on the earth, as He Himself says; this fire turns about searching to find material — that is a disposition and an intention that is good — to fall into and to kindle; and for those in whom this fire will ignite, it becomes a great flame, which reaches Heaven…. this flame at first purifies us from the pollution of passions and then it becomes in us food and drink and light and joy, and renders us light ourselves because we participate in His light” (Discourse 78).

    God is a loving fire, and He is a loving fire for all: good or bad. There is, however, a great difference in the way people receive this loving fire of God. Saint Basil says that “the sword of fire was placed at the gate of paradise to guard the approach to the tree of life; it was terrible and burning toward infidels, but kindly accessible toward the faithful, bringing to them the light of day.” 44 The same loving fire brings the day to those who respond to love with love, and burns those who respond to love with hatred.

    Paradise and hell are one and the same River of God, a loving fire which embraces and covers all with the same beneficial will, without any difference or discrimination. The same vivifying water is life eternal for the faithful and death eternal for the infidels; for the first it is their element of life, for the second it is the instrument of their eternal suffocation; paradise for the one is hell for the other. Do not consider this strange. The son who loves his father will feel happy in his father’s arms, but if he does not love him, his father’s loving embrace will be a torment to him. This also is why when we love the man who hates us, it is likened to pouring lighted coals and hot embers on his head.

    “I say,” writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, “that those who are suffering in hell, are suffering in being scourged by love…. It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it” (Homily 84).

    God is love. If we really believe this truth, we know that God never hates, never punishes, never takes vengeance. As Abba Ammonas says, “Love never hates anyone, never reproves anyone, never condemns anyone, never grieves anyone, never abhors anyone, neither faithful nor infidel nor stranger nor sinner nor fornicator, nor anyone impure, but instead it is precisely sinners, and weak and negligent souls that it loves more, and feels pain for them and grieves and laments, and it feels sympathy for the wicked and sinners, more than for the good, imitating Christ Who called sinners, and ate and drank with them. For this reason, showing what real love is, He taught saying, ‘Become good and merciful like your Father in Heaven,’ and as He rains on bad and good and makes the sun to rise on just and unjust alike, so also is the one who has real love, and has compassion, and prays for all.”  45

XVIII    Now if anyone is perplexed and does not understand how it is possible for God’s love to render anyone pitifully wretched and miserable and even burning as it were in flames, let him consider the elder brother of the prodigal son. Was he not in his father’s estate? Did not everything in it belong to him? Did he not have his father’s love? Did his father not come himself to entreat and beseech him to come and take part in the joyous banquet? What rendered him miserable and burned him with inner bitterness and hate? Who refused him anything? Why was he not joyous at his brother’s return? Why did he not have love either toward his father or toward his brother? Was it not because of his wicked, inner disposition? Did he not remain in hell because of that? And what was this hell? Was it any separate place? Were there any instruments of torture? Did he not continue to live in his father’s house? What separated him from all the joyous people in the house if not his own hate and his own bitterness? Did his father, or even his brother, stop loving him? Was it not precisely this very love which hardened his heart more and more? Was it not the joy that made him sad? Was not hatred burning in his heart, hatred for his father and his brother, hatred for the love of his father toward his brother and for the love of his brother toward his father? This is hell: the negation of love; the return of hate for love; bitterness at seeing innocent joy; to be surrounded by love and to have hate in one’s heart. This is the eternal condition of all the damned. They are all dearly loved. They are all invited to the joyous banquet. They are all living in God’s Kingdom, in the New Earth and the New Heavens. No one expels them. Even if they wanted to go away they could not flee from God’s New Creation, nor hide from God’s tenderly loving omnipresence. Their only alternative would be, perhaps, to go away from their brothers and search for a bitter isolation from them, but they could never depart from God and His love. And what is more terrible is that in this eternal life, in this New Creation, God is everything to His creatures. As Saint Gregory of Nyssa says, “In the present life the things we have relations with are numerous, for instance: time, air, locality, food and drink, clothing, sunlight, lamplight, and other necessities of life, none of which, many though they be, are God; that blessed state which we hope for is in need of none of these things, but the Divine Being will become all, and in the stead of all to us, distributing Himself proportionately to every need of that existence. It is plain, too, from the Holy Scriptures that God becomes to those who deserve it, locality and home and clothing and food and drink and light and riches and kingdom, and everything that can be thought of and named that goes to make our life happy” (On the Soul and the Resurrection). 46

    In the new eternal life, God will be everything to His creatures, not only to the good but also to the wicked, not only to those who love Him, but likewise to those who hate Him. But how will those who hate Him endure to have everything from the hands of Him Whom they detest? Oh, what an eternal torment is this, what an eternal fire, what a gnashing of teeth!

    Depart from Me, ye cursed, into the everlasting inner fire of hatred,” 47 saith the Lord, because I was thirsty for your love and you did not give it to Me, I was hungry for your blessedness and you did not offer it to Me, I was imprisoned in My human nature and you did not come to visit Me in My church; you are free to go where your wicked desire wishes, away from Me, in the torturing hatred of your hearts which is foreign to My loving heart which knows no hatred for anyone. Depart freely from love to the everlasting torture of hate, unknown and foreign to Me and to those who are with Me, but prepared by freedom for the devil, from the days I created My free, rational creatures. But wherever you go in the darkness of your hating hearts, My love will follow you like a river of fire, because no matter what your heart has chosen, you are and you will eternally continue to be, My children.

Amen.


NOTES

1 “This is evil: estrangement from God.” St. Basil the Great, That God is Not the Cause of Evils,ELLHNES PATERES THS EKKLHSIAS” [Greek Fathers of the Church) 7, 112 (hereafter cited as EPE). “As many… as stand apart in their will from God, He brings upon them separation from Himself; and separation from God is death.” St. Irenaeus Against Heresies 5. 27.2. “Men, rejecting eternal things and through the counsel of the devil turning toward the things of corruption, became the cause to themselves of the corruption in death.” St. Athanasius the Great On the Incarnation 5 (Migne, PG 25. 104-105). “For as much as he departed from life, just so much did he draw nearer to death. For life is God; deprivation of life is death. So Adam was the author of death to himself through his departure from God.” St. Basil the Great (PG 31. 945).

2  “The redemptive sacrifice… was accomplished in order to re-establish the formerly harmonious relation be-tween heaven and earth which sin had overturned, to atone for the flaunted moral law, to satisfy the affronted justice of God.” Encyclical Letter for Pascha 1980 of Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, Episkepsis (in Greek), no. 229, 15 April 1980.

3 “Truly foolish, therefore, and lacking all understanding and mind is he who says there is no God. Alongside him no less in this madness is he who says that God is the cause of evils. I consider their sins to be of equal gravity because each one similarly denies the good; the former denies that He exists at all, while the latter defines Him as not being good; for if he is the cause of evils, He is clearly not good; so from both sides there is a denial of God.” St. Basil the Great, EPE, op. cit., 7, 90.

4 “But someone will say, verily Adam fell, and by disregarding the divine commandment he was condemned to corruption and death, but how were the many made sinful on his account? What do his transgressions have to do with us? How is it that we who were not even born were condemned along with him, and yet God says, ‘The fathers shall not be put to death for the children and the sons shall not be put to death for the fathers; everyone shall die in his own sin’? (Deut. 24:18). Surely, then, that soul that sins shall die; but we became sinners through the disobedience of Adam in this way: For Adam was created for incorruption and life, and his life in the Paradise of delight was holy, his whole mind was continually caught up in divine visions, and his body was tranquil and serene, since every shameful pleasure was calmed, for there was no disturbance of intemperate emotions in him. However, since he fell under sin and sank into corruption, thence pleasures and pollutions penetrated into the nature of the flesh, and so there was planted in our members a savage law. Nature became diseased with sin through the disobedience of the one, i.e., Adam; thus the many also became sinners, not as transgressing together with Adam ? for they did not exist at all ? but as being from his nature which had fallen under the law of sin… because of disobedience, human nature in Adam became infirm with corruption, and so the passions were introduced into it….” St. Cyril of Alexandria Interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans (PG 74. 788-789). “And furthermore, if they who were born from Adam became sinners on account of his sinning, in all justice, they are not liable, for they did not become sinners of themselves; therefore the term “sinners” is used instead of “mortals” because death is the penalty of sin. Since in the first-fashioned man nature became mortal, all they who share in the nature of the forefather consequently share mortality also.” Euthymios Zigabenos, Interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans, 5:19.

5 It means something totally different from what we customarily mean by the term “justice.” This ignorance has caused us to consider as touchstones of Orthodoxy some very strange theories, most particularly the juridical conception of salvation which is based upon a justice that resembles the Necessity (ANAGKH) of the ancients, and oppresses not only man but God also, and gives a gloomy aspect to Christianity. See the relevant study of S. Lynonnett “La Soteriologie Paulienne,” Introduction a la Bible Il, (Belgium: Desclees Bc Bower), p. 840.

6 “If a man readily and joyfully accepts a loss for the sake of God, he is inwardly pure. And if he does not look down upon any man because of his defects, in very truth he is free. If a man is not pleased with someone who honors him, nor displeased with someone who dishonors him, he is dead to the world and to this life. The watchfulness of discernment is superior to every discipline of men accomplished in any way to any degree.

    “Do not hate the sinner. For we are all laden with guilt. If for the sake of God you are moved to oppose him, weep over him. Why do you hate him? Hate his sins md pray for him, that you may imitate Christ Who was not wroth with sinners, but interceded for them. Do you not see how He wept over Jerusalem? We are mocked by the devil in many instances, so why should we hate the man who is mocked by him who mocks us also? Why, O man, do you hate the sinner? Could it be because he is not so righteous as you? But where is your righteousness when you have no love? Why do you not shed tears over him? But you persecute him. In ignorance some are moved with anger, presuming themselves to be discerners of the works of sinners.

    “Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are; for although your debt to Him is so great, yet He is not seen exacting payment from you, and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright (cf. Ps. 24:8, 144:17), His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious’ (cf. Luke 6:35). How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?’ (Matt. 20:12-15). How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? (Luke 15:11 ff.). None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concern-ing Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! (cf. Rom. 5:8). But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change [i.e., as regards the state after death, which St. Isaac mentions again a little below].

    “Far be it that we should ever think such an iniquity that God could become unmerciful! For the property of Divinity does not change as do mortals. God does not acquire something which He does not have, nor lose what He has, nor supplement what He does have, as do created beings. But what God has from the beginning, He will have and has until the [uneoding] end, as the blest Cyril wrote in his commentary on Genesis. Fear God, he says, out of love for Him, and not for the austere name that He has been given. Love Him as you ought to love Him; not for what He will give you in the future, but for what we have received, and for this world alone which He has created for us. Who is the man that can repay Him? Where is His repayment to be found in our works? Who persuaded Him in the beginning to bring us into being Who intercedes for us before Him, when we shall possess no [faculty of] memory, as though we never existed? Who will awake this our body [Syriac: our corruption] for that life? Again, whence descends the notion of knowledge into dust? O the wondrous mercy of God! O the astonishment at the bounty of our God and Creator! O might for which all is possible! O the immeasurable goodness that brings our nature again, sinners though we be, to His regeneration and rest! Who is sufficient to glorify Him? He raises up the transgressor and blasphemer, he renews dust unendowed with reason, making it rational and comprehending and the scattered and insensible dust and the scattered senses He makes a rational nature worthy of thought. The sinner is unable to comprehend the grace of His resurrection. Where is gehenna, that can afflict us? Where is perdition, that terrifies us in many ways and quenches the joy of His love? And what is gehenna as compared with the grace of His resurrection, when He will raise us from Hades and cause our corruptible nature to be clad in incorruption, and raise up in glory him that has fallen into Hades?

    “Come, men of discernment, and be filled with wonder! Whose mind is sufficiently wise and marvelous to wonder worthily at the bounty of our Creator? His recompense of sinners is, that instead of a just recompense, He rewards them with resurrection, and instead of those bodies with which they trampled upon His law, He enrobes them with perfect glory and incorruption. [St. Isaac speaks here of those who have repented, as is evident from other similar passages in his book.) That grace whereby we are resurrected after we have sinned is greater than the grace which brought us into being when we were not. Glory be to Thine immeasurable grace, O Lord! Behold, Lord, the waves of Thy grace close my mouth with silence, and there is not a thought left in me before the face of Thy thanksgiving. What mouths can confess Thy praise, O good King, Thou Who lovest our life? Glory be to Thee for the two worlds which Thou hast created for our growth and delight, leading us by all things which Thou didst fashion to the knowledge of Thy glory, from now and unto the ages. Amen.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 60.

7 Ibid.

8  “‘For God so loved the world as to give His Only-begotten Son unto death for it.’ Not that He could not have redeemed us by another means, but He wished to manifest to us His boundless love, and to draw us near Him through the death of His Only-begotten Son. Indeed, if He had anything more precious than His Son, He would have given it for our sakes, in order that through it our race would be found nigh to Him. Out of His abundant love, He was not pleased to do violence to our freedom, although it was possible for Him to do so; but He let it be in order that we would draw nigh to Him with the love and volition of our own will.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 81.

9  “In times of despondency, never fail to bear in mind the Lord’s commandment to Peter, to forgive a person who sins seventy times seven, For He who gave this command to another will Himself do far more.” St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 26, (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), p. 147.

10  “A man who is just and wise is like God because he never chastises a man in revenge for wickedness, but only in order to correct him, or that others be afraid.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 73. “God granted this great benefit to man: that he not abide in sin unto eternity.” Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 2.26.

11 “And God saw all the things that He had made, and behold, they were very good.” Genesis 1,31. “[God) created everything which has good qualities, but the profligacy of the demons has made use of the productions of nature for evil purposes, and the appearance of evil which these wear is from them and not from the perfect God.” Tatian Address to the Greeks 17. “The construction of the world is good, but the life men live m it is bad.” Ibid. 19. “For nothing from the first was made evil by God, but all things good, yea, very good.” Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 2. 17. “Pour l’hebreau, le sensible n’est pas mauvais, ni fautif. Le mal ne vient pas de la matiere. Le monde est tres bon.” [ “For the Hebrew, perceptible things are not evil, nor are they deceptive (lit., erroneous). Evil does not come from matter. The world is ‘very good.'”] C. Tresmontant, Essai sur la Pensee Hebraique (Paris, 1953). “There is nothing that exists which does not partake of the beautiful and the good.” St, Dionysius the Areopagite On the Divine Names (PG 3. 704). “For even if the reasons why some things come about escapes us, let that dogma be certain in our souls, that nothing evil is done by the good.” St. BasiI the Great,EPE, 7, 112. “For it is not the part of a god to incite to things against nature…. But God, being perfectly good, is eternally doing good.” Athenagoras, Embassy, 26.

12 “The devil is evil in such wise, that he is evil in disposition, but not that his nature is opposed to good.” St. Basil the Great, EPE, 7, 112. “Since God is good, whatever He does, He does for man’s sake. But whatever man does, he does for his own sake, both what is good and what is evil.” Philokalia, vol. 1, chap. 121, St. Anthony the Great.

13 “For God made not death, neither hath He pleasure in the destruction of the living; for He created aIl things that they might have their being, and the generations of the world were healthful; and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of Hades upon the earth.” Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-14. “For God created man to be immortal and made him to be an image of His own eternity. Nevertheless, through envy of the devil came death into the world.” Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24.

14 “And so he who was made in the likeness of God, since the more powerful spirit [the Holy Spirit] is separated from him, becomes mortal.” Tatian Address to the Greeks 7.

15 “For as much as he departed from life, just so much did he draw nearer to death. For God is life; depriva-tion of life is death. So Adam was the author of death to himself through his departure from God, in accordance with the scripture which says: ‘For behold, they that remove themselves from Thee shall perish.'” Psalm 72: 27.

16 “Thus God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves out of an evil disposition. Nevertheless, He did not hinder the dissolution on account of the aforementioned causes, so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us.” St. Basil the Great (PG 31. 345).

17 “But as many as depart from God by their own choice, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness,… It is not, however, that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of darkness.” St. Irenaeus Against Heresies 5. 27:2. “But others shun the light and separate themselves from God….” Ibid., 5. 28:1.

18 Philokalia, vol. 2, p. 27 (Greek edition), St. Maximus the Confessor.

19 “We became the inheritors of the curse in Adam. Certainly we were not punished as though we had disobeyed that command along with him, but because he became mortal, he transmitted the sin to his seed; we were born mortals from a mortal.” St. Anastasius the Sinaite, 19. Vide I.N. Karmirh, SUNOYIS THS DOGMATKHS THS ORQODOXOU EKKLHSIAS, s. 38.

20 “Man’s transgression against the Creator’s righteousness brought the soul’s death sentence into effect; for when our forefathers forsook God and chose to do their own will, He abandoned them, not subjecting them to constraint. And for the reasons we have stated above, God lovingly forewarned them of this sentence. But he forbore and delayed in executing the sentence of death upon the body; and while He pronounced it, He relegated its fruition to the future in the abyss of His wisdom and the superabundance of His love for man. He did not say to Adam: ‘return to whence thou wast taken,’ but ‘earth thou art, and unto earth thou shalt return’ (Gen. 3:19). Those who hear this with understanding can also comprehend from these words that God ‘did not make death’ (Wisdom 1:13), either the soul’s or the body’s. For when He first gave the command, He did not say: ‘in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, die!,’ but ‘In whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, ye shall surely die’ (Gen. 2:17). Nor did He afterwards say: ‘return now unto earth,’ but “Thou shalt return’ (Gen. 3:19), in his manner forewarning, justly permitting and not obstructing what should come to pass.” St. Gregory Palamas Physical Theological Moral and Practical Chapters 51 (PG 1157-1160).

21 “The tree of knowledge itself was good, and its fruit was good. For it was not the tree that had death in it, as some think, but the disobedience which had death in it; for there was nothing else in the fruit but knowledge alone; but knowledge is good when one uses it properly.” Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 2. 25. “The tree did not engender death, for God did not create death; but death was the consequence of disobedience.” St. John Damascene Homily on Holy Saturday 10 (PG 96. 612a).

22 “‘And what is a merciful heart?’ It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he continually offers up tearful prayer, even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns in his heart without measure in the likeness of God.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 81.

23 “It is not God who is hostile, but we; for God is never hostile.” St. John Chrysostom (PG 61. 478).

24 Vide.I.S. RWMANIDHS, TO PROPATORIKON AMARTHMA, (Athens, 1957).

25 “Therefore, we believe in one God: one principle, without beginning, uncreated, unbegotten, indestructible and immortal, eternal, unlimited, uncircumscribed, unbounded, infinite in power, simple, uncompounded, incorporeal, unchanging, unaffected, unchangeable, inalterate, invisible, source of goodness and justice, light intellectual and inaccessible; power which no measure can give any idea of but which is measured only by His own will, for He can do all things whatsoever He pleases; Maker of all things both visible and invisible, holding together all things and conserving them, Provider for all, governing and dominating and ruling over all in unending and immortal reign; without contradiction, filling all things, contained by nothing, but Himself containing all things, being their Conserver and first Possessor; pervading all substances without being defiled, removed far beyond all things and every substance as being supersubstantial and surpassing all, super-eminently divine and good and replete; appointing all the principalities and orders, set above every principality and order, above essence and life and speech and concept; light itself and goodness and being insofar as having neither being, nor anything else that is derived from any other; the very source of being for all things that are, of life to the living, of speech to the articulate, and the cause of all good things for all; knowing all things before they begin to be; one substance, one godhead, one virtue, one will, one operation, one principality, one power, one domination, one kingdom; known in three perfect Persons and adored with one adoration, believed in and worshipped by every rational creature, united without confusion and distinct without separation, which is beyond understanding. We believe in Father and Son and Holy Spirit in Whom we have been baptized. For it is thus that the Lord enjoined the apostles: ‘Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” St. ]John Damascene Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 1. 8.

26 “He created without matter.” St, John Chrysostom (PG 59. 308).

27 St. John Damascene, op. cit. 1. 14.

28  St. John Damascene, op. cit. 1. 8.

29  “The soul without the body can do nothing, whether good or evil. The visions which some see concerning those things that are yonder are shown to them by God as a dispensation for their profit. Just as the lyre remains useless and silent if there is no one to play, so the soul and body, when they are separated, can do nothing.” St. Athanasius the Great.

30  “For each of these, after its kind, is a body, be it angel, or soul, or devil. Subtle though they are, still in substance, character, and image according to the subtlety of their respective natures they are subtle bodies.” St. Macarius the Great, Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 4, 9.

31  “Let us go and behold in the tombs that man is bare bones, food for worms and a stench.” Great Euchologion, (Venice, 1862), p. 415. “For just as the light when it sets in the evening is not lost, so man also is given over to the grave as if setting; yet he is preserved for the dawn of the resurrection.” St. John Chrysostom.

32  “He who berates the Creator for not making us sinless by nature, does naught but esteem the irrational nature above the rational.” St. Basil the Great, EPE, 7, 110.

33  Also, “Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward.” Hebrews 10:35.

34  “For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries, He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:26-31.

35  St. Basil the Great, op. cit. 7, 94-96. In this particular passage, St. Basil carefully makes a distinction between the Greek verbs ktizw and dhmiourgew, both of which are generally translated into English as “create.” However, ktizw has a long history, beginning with the Sanskrit kshi, which, as in early Greek, meant “to people a country,” “to build houses and cities,” “to colonize.” Later, in Greek, the word came to mean “to establish,” “to build up and develop,” and finally, “to produce,” “create,” “bring about.” Having in mind these other connotations of the verb ktizw, St. Basil discerned the proper implication of the word in this context and hence made a point of emphasizing this distinction.

36 Ibid. 7.98.

37 St. Gregory the Theologian Fifth Theological Oration 22 (PG 36. 15 7).

38  St. John Damascene, op. cit. 1.11.

39  “Famines and droughts and floods are common plagues of cities and nations which check the excess of evil. Therefore, just as the physician is a benefactor even if he should cause pain or suffering to the body (for he strives with the disease, and not with the sufferer), so in the same manner God is good Who administers salvation to everyone through the means of particular chastisements. But you, not only do you not speak evilly of the physician who cuts some members, cauterizes others, and excises others again completely from the body, but you even give him money and address him as savior because he confines the disease to a small area before the infirmity can claim the whole body. However, when you see a city crushing its inhabitants in an earthquake, or a ship going down at sea with all hands, you do not shrink from wagging a blasphemous tongue against the true Physician and Savior.” St. Basil the Great, op. cit. 7, 94. “And you may accept the phrase ‘I kill and I will make to live’ (Deut. 32:39) literally, if you wish, since fear edifies the more simple. ‘I will smite and I will heal’ (Deut. 32:39). It is profitable to also understand this phrase literally; for the smiting engenders fear, while the healing incites to love. It is permitted you, nonetheless, to attain to a loftier understanding of the utterance. I will slay through sin and make to live through righteousness. ‘But though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day’ (II Cor. 4:16). Therefore, He does not slay one, and give life to another, but through the means which He slays, He gives life to a man, and He heals a man with that which He smites him, according to the proverb which says, ‘For thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from death’ (Prov. 23:14). So the flesh is chastised for the soul to be healed, and sin is put to death for righteousness to live…. When you hear ‘There shall be no evil in a city which the Lord hath not wrought’ (cf. Amos 3:6), understand by the noun ‘evil’ that the word intimates the tribulation brought upon sinners for the correction of offenses. For Scripture says, ‘For I afflicted thee and straitened thee, to do good to thee’ (cf. Deut. 8:3); so too is evil terminated before it spills out unhindered, as a strong dike or wall holds back a river.

    “For these reasons, diseases of cities and nations, droughts, barrenness of the earth, and the more difficult conditions in the life of each, cut off the increase of wickedness. Thus, such evils come from God so as to uproot the true evils, for the tribulations of the body and all painful things from without have been devised for the restraining of sin. God, therefore, excises evil; never is evil from God…. The razing of cities, earthquakes and floods, the destruction of armies, shipwrecks and all catastrophes with many casualties which occur from earth or sea or air or fire or whatever cause, happen for the sobering of the survivors, because God chastises public evil with general scourges.

    “The principal evil, therefore, which is sin, and which is especially worthy of the appellation of evil, depends upon our disposition; it depends upon us either to abstain from evil or to be in misery.

    “Of the other evils, some are shown to be struggles for the proving of courage… while some are for the healing of sins… and some are for an example to make other men sober.” St. Basil the Great, op. cit. 7, 98-102.

40 Ibid. 7, 92.

41  “The devil became the ‘Prince of matter.'” Athenagoras, Embassy, 24, 25. “They [the demons] afterwards subdued the human race to themselves… and… sowed all wickedness. Whence also the poets and mythologists, not knowing that it was the angels and those demons who had been begotten by them that did these things to men, and women, and cities, and nations which they related, ascribed them to God Himself.” St. Justin Martyr Second Apology 5.

42  “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” I John 3:8.

43 Fotis Kontoglou, “EKKLHSIASTIKA HMEROLOGIA, OrqodoxoV TupoV,“Church Calendars,” Orthodoxos Typos] 131 (Athens), 1 January 1971.

44 St. Basil the Great, Homily 13. 2, Exhortation to Holy Baptism (PG 31. 428 and 95, 1272).

45BIBLIOQHKH ELLHNWN PATERWN” [Library of Greek Fathers], vol. 40, pp. 60-61.

46  “‘I am father, I am brother, I am bridegroom, I am dwelling place, I am food, I am raiment, I am root, I am foundation, all whatsoever thou willest, I am.’ ‘Be thou in need of nothing, I will be even a servant, for I came to minister, not to be ministered unto; I am friend, and member, and head, and brother, and sister, and mother; I am all; only cling thou closely to me. I was poor for thee, and a wanderer for thee, on the Cross for thee, in the tomb for thee, above I intercede for thee to the Father; on earth I am come for thy sake an ambassador from my Father. Thou art all things to me, brother, and joint heir, and friend, and member.’ What wouldest thou more?” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 76 on the Gospel of Matthew (PG 58. 700).

47  “‘The end of the world’ signifies not the annihilation of the world, but its transformation. Everything will be transformed suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye…. And the Lord will appear in glory on the clouds. Trumpets will sound, and loud, with power! They will sound in the soul and conscience! All will become clear to the human conscience. The Prophet Daniel, speaking of the Last Judgment, relates how the Ancient of Days, the Judge, sits on His throne, and before Him is a fiery stream (Dan. 7:9-10). Fire is a purifying element; it burns sins. Woe to a man if sin has become a part of his nature: then the fire will burn the man himself. This fire will be kindled within a man; seeing the Cross, some will rejoice, but others will fall into confusion, terror, and despair. Thus will men be divided instantly. The very state of a man’s soul casts him to one side or the other, to right or to left.

    “The more consciously and persistently a man strives toward God in his life, the greater will be his joy when he hears: ‘Come unto Me, ye blessed.’ And conversely: the same words will call the fire of horror and torture on those who did not desire Him, who fled and fought or blasphemed Him during their lifetime!

    “The Last Judgment knows of no witnesses or written protocols! Everything is inscribed in the souls of men and these records, these ‘books’, are opened at the Judgment. Everything becomes clear to all and to oneself.

    “And some will go to joy, while others — to horror.

    “When ‘the books are opened,’ it will become clear that the roots of all vices lie in the human soul. Here is a drunkard or a lecher: when the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and that sin was sweet to the soul, and if the soul has not repented of the sin and has not freed itself from it, it will come to the Last Judgment also with the same desire for sin. It will never satisfy that desire and in that soul there will be the suffering of hatred. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition, it will hate everyone and everything. ‘There will be gnashing of teeth’ of powerless malice and the unquenchable fire of hatred.

    “A ‘fiery gehenna’ — such is the inner fire. ‘Here there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ Such is the state of hell.” Archbishop John Maximovitch, “The Last Judgment,” Orthodox Word (November- December, 1966): 177-78.

Give Thanks In All Things

img_0531I heard this from Archimandrite Zacharius, the disciple of the Elder Sophrony:

The Elder Sophrony once said that if a man would give thanks always and for everything, he would have kept the saying which Christ gave to St. Silouan: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

I pondered this statement for a long time. For more than 30 years I had been aware of the famous dictum of St. Silouan – and though it sounded profound I never understood it. Only when thinking about this explanation reported by Archimandrite Zacharias did the saying become clear. Life brings many things to us – good and bad – joyous and calamitous. Sorrow is inescapable in this life.

But if in the midst even of sorrows (which bring their own taste of hell) we are able by grace to give thanks to God, then we will have found the way to despair not. I have in my lifetime been witness to a few great souls who gave thanks to God for all things and in all things and their witness was filled with the grace of God.

Thanksgiving is more than a day – it is the only means to the true Life.

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thess. 5:18).

I am appending an earlier article: “Grace and the Inverted Pyramid,” on the teachings of St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony, particularly in their understanding of our union with Christ in His descent into Hades. I hope it is helpful for those who may not have seen this before.

Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart

 

The teaching of St. Silouan, itself a continuation of the unbroken Tradition of the Church, was continued in the life and writings of the Elder Sophrony. Today it continues in the life and teachings of the elders and community of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England, of whom Archimandrite Zacharias is an example. His recent visits to the United States to conduct retreats have now become books which continue to expand and confirm the teaching of St. Silouan and the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Christian faith.

One of the strongest elements drawn out in both the life and teachings of St. Silouan is just this word of humility as illustrated in my opening quote. To be a follower of Christ is to accept a “downward path,” to follow Christ into the depths of His humility. This is not a new word, but echoes that of the Apostle (which itself seems to have been a hymn which the Apostle was quoting):

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:5-11).

This clear teaching of the Apostle, which only echoes the utterly consistent teaching and example of Christ, has a history of being obscured within Christianity – with Christians forgetting this essential teaching and following after a human Lordship and model of salvation.

In a wide variety of places and situations, Christians have thought to establish some image of the Kingdom of God (or even the Kingdom itself) here on earth through means other than the path of humility set forth by Christ and the faithful Tradition of the Church. The result has been varied – but has often been merely a tyranny in the name of God, which is no better than a tyranny in the name of something else.

I am reminded of a statement by Stanley Hauerwas, Protestant theologian and professor at Duke University:

The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.

in A Community of Character

In countless lectures and seminars in which I participated while a student at Duke’s Graduate School of Theology, I heard Hauerwas echo this quote with the assertion that “so soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.” This violent outcome is a complete perversion of the “downward Way” described by Archimandrite Zacharias and the Orthodox Tradition. Our goals are thus never measured by the “outcomes of history” but by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

This same contradiction, in narrative form, can be found in Dostoevsky’s classic chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor lashes out at Christ for His failure, as measured in the outcomes of history, and justifies Christians’ use of tools such as the Inquisition as an improvement over the weakness of God. The argument of that famous chapter, as well as the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” mark the high-point of Dostoevsky’s summary of the argument against God and the Orthodox Christian faith. The answer to that diatribe is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.

 

In the Image of God

In the life of the saints, “repetition” or “copying” is the most creative act: it is the mystery of the Tradition of the Holy Spirit. The way to the acquisition of this holy Tradition was first indicated by the great Apostle Paul, “Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart

I grew up as the son of an auto mechanic – who himself was the son of a mechanic. My uncle was a mechanic as well. By age 16 my older brother could do almost anything mechanically on a car – he had worked beside my father from the age of 12. I assumed, as I watched my brother from 5 years his junior, that at age 12 I would take my place beside the men and learn what the men in my family knew – auto mechanics.

Life has its own way of doing other than we imagine. By the time I was 12 my brother was heading off to college, the local economy had crashed, and the normalcy of business changed. My opportunity to apprentice beside my father came and went (which I sorely regretted).

Indeed, I never received my apprenticeship until my mid-20’s when I was in seminary and working by the side of a priest I admired. It was not my place in life to be an auto mechanic (though I like to “fiddle around” with cars). It has been in my later years that I’ve been able to look back and see the importance of apprenticeship.

Stanley Hauerwas, at Duke University, says that we learn to be virtuous people the same way a brickmason learns his trade – by watching and working side-by-side with someone who knows how to lay bricks. Virtue is formed and shaped in us by the Holy Spirit in the Holy Tradition – that is, the practiced lives of saints who have embodied the virtues of Christ through the ages.

Of course, we can’t just go out and sign ourselves up for apprenticeship with a saint. Good people are often rare and saints even rarer. But the principle of discipleship – learning by action in the Holy Spirit in the life of Holy Tradition – remains.

In some corners of Christianity (and probably some corners of Orthodox Christianity as well) discipleship has been abused – generally when someone without the proper gifts imposes obedience on others. Such gifts (such as eldership, etc.) are quite rare, even within Orthodox monasticism. My Archbishop has always been quick to instruct parish priests to avoid the monastic practice of obedience in the parish on account of its spiritual dangers in the wrong hands. Those whom I have known who do have this gift exercise it with fear and trembling.  

Nevertheless, discipleship remains the primary means of our spiritual growth. So what do we do in the absence of saints? First, we are never in the absence of saints. They are always present with us as we are, together with them, one body in Christ. We have the witness of their lives and the wisdom of their writings. We have the living Tradition of the worshipping Church in which the words of the saints bathe us with spiritual teaching.

Tito Coliander, in his little classic work, Way of the Ascetics, has this exquisite observation on obedience in our modern times:

Perhaps you ask: Whom shall I obey? The saints answer: you shall obey your leaders (Hebrews 13:17). Who are my leaders, you ask? Where shall I find any, now that it is so utterly hard to discover a genuine leader? Then the holy Fathers reply: The Church has foreseen this too. Therefore since the time of the apostles it has given us a teacher who surpasses all others and who can reach us everywhere, wherever we are and under whatever circumstances we live. Whether we be in city or country, married or single, poor or rich, the teacher is always with us and we always have the opportunity to show him obedience. Do you wish to know his name? It is holy fasting.

God does not need our fasting. He does not even need our prayer. The Perfect cannot be thought of as suffering any lack or needing anything that we, the creatures of His making, could give Him. Nor does he crave anything from us, but, says John Chrysostom, He allows us to bring Him offerings for the sake of our own salvation.

The greatest offering we can present to the Lord is our self. We cannot do this without giving up our own will. We learn to do this through obedience, and obedience we learn through practice. The best form of practice is that provided by the Church in her prescribed fast days and seasons.

Besides fasting we have other teachers to whom we can show obedience. They meet us at every step in our daily life, if only we recognize their voices. Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. Wordlessly the infant asks for care and companionship: do as it wishes as far as you can, and thus practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour.

Obedience breaks down many barriers. You achieve freedom and peace as your heart practices non-resistance. You show obedience, and thorny hedges give way before you. Then love has open space in which to move about. By obedience you crush your pride, your desire to contradict, your self-wisdom and stubbornness that imprison you within a hard shell. Inside that shell you cannot meet the God of love and freedom.

Thus, make it a habit to rejoice when an opportunity for obedience offers. It is quite unnecessary to seek one, for you may easily fall into a studied servility that leads you astray into self-righteous virtue. You may depend upon it that you are sent just as many opportunities for obedience as you need, and the very kind that are most suitable for you. But if you notice that you have let an opportunity slip by, reproach yourself; you have been like a sailor who has let a favourable wind go by unused.

For the wind it was a matter of indifference whether it was used or not. But for the sailor it was a means of reaching his destination sooner. Thus you should think of obedience, and all the means that are offered us by the Holy Trinity, in that way.

And so God provides us with guides and teaches us the practice of obedience, conforming us to His will. It is an apprenticeship of the Spirit – Who is everywhere present and filling all things.

 

Orthodoxy and the Apocalypse

And Christ said unto them, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power” (Acts 1:7)

We live in difficult times, and for some of us the times are more difficult than others. We also live in a culture of apocalypticism, in which numerous movies, made from many angles, use imagery drawn from one Christian corner or another to create excitement and horror.

We live in a time when the headlines of the media themselves seem apocalyptic. There are always “wars and rumors of wars,” unspeakable crimes against children, sometimes even perpetrated by their parents.

We live in a time when the “hearts of many have grown cold.” In some cultures the Church is not only disdained but openly hated (this has not yet manifested itself so much in America as in certain places within the world where open assaults on Christianity are more tolerated within the culture). Often this hatred is driven by the Church’s uncompromising stand on certain moral issues and its renewed witness in certain parts of the world.

And yet, all of these events added together do not make for the time of the Apocalypse. Though it is always true that every day brings the end of history nearer to us, Christians are not bidden to live as the prisoners of history. Rather, having been translated from this world “into the Kingdom of His dear Son” (Colossians 1:13), we have transcended the prison of history and live increasingly in the freedom of the age to come. Every sacrament of the Church, and the Church herself, is a participation in the age to come. Thus the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church because in Christ, we have already prevailed against those gates ourselves. Pascha cannot be undone.

Having said this, we cannot make the culture to cease its efforts to sell Christians fear and to market the Apocalypse like any other horror genre.

We are assured in Scripture that:

But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:1-9)…

Modern evangelical tradition has taken this verse as an excuse to support its morbid fascination with constant wrangling over the meaning of various Biblical prophecies, with the idea that we are not overtaken as theives in the coming of our Lord, because we have grasped some rational scheme of Biblical interpretation.

In truth, we are not overtaken as theives because we are children of the light and children of the day – that is we already to an extent live in the age to come. It is only the light of that Day that can illumine in us the reality of its coming, which is why we may arm ourselves with faith and love and the hope of salvation, being assured by the brightness of that Day which shines in our hearts that God has not appointed us to wrath.

These things are spiritually (noetically) known and are not revealed by mere rationality.

None of us should be surprised when darkness behaves as darkness – what else can it do? There is a clear teaching in Scripture that darkness becomes even more dark as that Day approaches, but it only becomes more dark because the Light of Christ is drawing near. Darkness has no “darkness” of its own, only a hatred of the Light. The wrath of God is not a punishment sent on the world, but the world’s own fomenting of anger against the light, because its deeds are dark.

Thus we are cautioned in Scripture:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:23-25).

The connection between our meeting together and the Day drawing near is clear. The gathering (synaxis) of the Church is an eschatological moment – it belongs to the age to come. Where else would we rather be as that Day draws near, than standing in that Day itself? In the Light of Christ and the mystical banquet we stand far removed from the wrath of God, but rather yield ourselves to our only sure hope. We give ourselves to the perfect love which casts out fear.

Orthodoxy would do well to avoid the temptations set before us by the marketers of fear, no matter how well meaning they may be. We are not of the darkness but of the day, and we do not need to be afraid of the dark.

What Faith Shall I Defend?

mikhail_nesterov-evening_bells_1910.jpg

Contemporary challenges to the Christian faith, whether from children’s writers such as Pullman or various scientific voices in the world of mass media, are frequently not challenges to the Christian faith but attacks on the misperceptions of the Christian faith. By the same token, many professions of the Christian faith are not professions of the faith, but professions of misperceptions of the Christian faith. To some degree, one can beget the other.

I occasionally find myself in social situations in which a conversation partner has left the Christian faith for one reason or another – or becomes curious about why I am an Orthodox Christian rather than the Anglican I once was. The conversation frequently reveals the fact that short of a full-blown catechism, including a removal of masses of misinformation, no real progress can be made in communication. What many people understand of Christianity and what I believe the faith to be are simply worlds apart.

It is for such reasons that I struggle to find language to help people re-understand the faith. The language that I have been writing about in recent months – that of a One-Storey Universe versus a Two-Storey Universe – is simply one of those efforts. God is not as many people imagine Him to be and has not revealed Himself to be as His detractors frequently claim. Indeed, God cannot be the subject of discussion in a manner similar to the discussion of some object we may have before us. God is never an object before us.

Indeed the knowledge of God is not analogous to the knowledge of anything else, for God has no true analogy. Thus conversations that are productive of an encounter with God tend to be idiosyncratic. In sharing a story, or explaining an idea, in singing a song, or sitting in silence, God is encountered. The same story, idea, song, or silence will not necessarily yield the same result (indeed it would be rare) with another human being. For God has revealed Himself to us as Person and is thus always Free. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” St. Paul says (2 Corinthians 3:17). He will not be at our beck and command or standby as our object. If we know Him, we will know Him in His freedom, just as we must approach Him in our own freedom.

There is a living witness among us that this God who revealed Himself to us in Christ is indeed the True and Living God. That living witness is His Church – itself maligned and misunderstood. To see the Church as merely a human organization or as an association of like-minded individuals is not to see the Church at all. When the Church is described in Scripture as the “Pillar and Ground of Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) or the “Fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23) it should give us pause. If the Church is such as St. Paul described it – what does he mean? How is it that the Church can be this?

Answering such questions is an inherent part of the search for God and I have no other purpose in writing than to share and encourage that search. The knowledge of the true and living God is the only faith that I care to defend. I have no interest in defending someone’s misperceptions of the faith.

My own experience is that those who want to know the truth eventually find their way – sometimes despite overwhelming odds. Even a man bent on murdering Christians can become Christianity’s greatest apostle. The wonderful truth behind all of this is that God is searching for us and always has been and will go to the depths of hell to find us. If I have not found Him, then what have I done so that I missed Him?

Christianity in a One-Storey Universe

Preliminary – Death in a Two-Storey Universe

I have written before about the two-storey universe that is part of our cultural inheritance in the modern world. I have noted that the default position of our culture is secular protestantism. I have explained that I mean not that we do not believe in God, but that in our dominant cultural metaphor the God we believe in is removed from our everyday affairs. Often what we are left with is a collection of doctrines to which, for one reason or another, we have given allegiance. But there remains the two-storey universe.

Now the primary difficulty of the two storey universe is that we live on the first floor while (our metaphor would have it) God lives on the second floor. The great unspoken fear for all on the first floor is that no one actually lives on the second floor. Everytime a board creaks we quickly rush to proclaim, “Miracle,” mostly because it finally gives us some evidence that God is moving around up there.

Rumor has it that when some one of us dies, their soul gets to move to the second-storey. If, however, they were bad, or failed to have correct theology, or a number of other factors, they have to go to the basement (this actually gives us three storeys). Our culture is certain that no one goes from the basement to the second floor (this of course is guaranteed by the reading of Luke 16:26 which speaks of a “great gulf that is fixed” between the sufferings of gehenna and the joys of Paradise).

There are those who spend a great deal of time, and money, trying to prove that there really are souls of the departed on the second floor. They make the mistake of becoming Spiritualists, and are all about “proving” there is life after death.

The full effect of all of this metaphysical architecture is that we live in ignorance. We want to believe that someone is on the second floor, but we’re not sure. Thus there can be a dogged fundamentalism with regard to certain passages of Scripture and the way they are interpreted, because it is seen as the only guarantee that we’re right about the second storey. But try as we might – it is an inherent part of life in a two-storey universe that you can never be sure and that doubt always dogs your every thought.

Thus death becomes a crisis of faith. The industry surrounding death is a large part of our culture as well. Today, we often “celebrate life” rather than speak of the second story. We simply remember how good the first floor is and say goodby to those whom we will miss.

In its proclamation of the Gospel, the Orthodox Church predates the two-storey universe. This is a distinct advantage. We do not hear hymns that are full of modern doubt, nor our own lack of confidence echoing back at us. Indeed, Orthodoxy proclaims that when we gather for worship, there are no two-storeys – that Heaven and Earth are together – that we actually eat of the marriage feast – indeed its food is nothing other than the Body and Blood of God. To the question: “Do you believe in God?” We may answer: “Believe in Him? We eat His Body and drink His blood!” I mean nothing blasphemous in the statement – but simply state the facts.

It is this presence-of-Heaven-here-and-now that is Orthodoxy’s primary assault against the mistaken notions of the two-storey universe. For that proclamation is indeed the truth. Our cultural metaphor is like the lie of the White Witch who imprisoned the children beneath the moutain and told them there was no Narnia. We pray in the beginning of almost all our prayers, “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things…” Learning to pray in such a manner and to gradually come out of the darkness of the lie and into the brightness of the truth is also leaving the two-storey universe and coming to live where there is but one storey.

William Dalrymple in his wonderful book, From the Holy Mountain, relates a wonderful one-storey account of the monks (Coptic Orthodox) of the Monastery of St. Antony in the Desert of Egypt. Only the smallest hint of a two-storeyed world has reached them and find the notion unbelievable:

The monks of St. Anthony’s remain wonderfully Dark Age in their outlook and conversation. Exorcisms, miraculous healings and ghostly apparitions of long-dead saints are to the monks what doorstep milk deliveries are to suburban Londoners – unremarkable everyday occurrences that would never warrant a passing mention if foreigners did not always seem to be so inexplicably amazed by them:

“See up there?” said Abuna Dioscorus, as I was finishing my egg. He pointed to the space between the two towers of the abbey church. “In June 1987 in the middle of the night our father St. Antony appeared there hovering on a cloud of shining light.”

“You saw this?” I asked.

“No,” said Fr. Dioscorus. “I’m short-sighted.”

He took off his spectacles to show me the thickness of the glass.

“I can barely see the abbot when I sit beside him at supper,” he said. “But many other fathers saw the apparition. On one side of St. Antony stood St. Mark the Hermit and on the other was Abuna Yustus.”

“Abuna Yustus?”

“He is one of our fathers. He used to be the sacristan.”

“So what was he doing up there?”

“He had just departed this life.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see.”

“Officially he’s not a saint yet, but I’m sure he will be soon. His canonization is up for discussion at the next Coptic synod. His relics have been the cause of many miracles: blind children have been made to see, the lame have got up from their wheelchairs…”

“All the usual sort of stuff.”

“Exactly. But you won’t believe this-”

Here Fr. Dioscorus lowered his voice into a whisper.

“You won’t believe this but we had some visitors from Europe two years ago – Christians, some sort of Protestants – who said they didn’t believe in the power of relics!”

The monk stroked his beard, wide-eyed with disbelief.

“No,” he continued. “I’m not joking. I had to take the Protestants aside and explain that we believe that St. Antony and all the fathers have not died, that they live with us, continually protecting us and looking after us. When they are needed – when we go to their graves and pray to their relics – they appear and sort out our problems.”

“Can the monks see them?”

“Who? Protestants?”

“No. These deceased fathers.”

“Abuna Yustus is always appearing,” said Fr. Dioscorus matter-of-factly. “In fact one of the fathers had a half-hour conversation with him the day before yesterday. And of course St. Antony makes fairly regular appearances – although he is very busy these days answering prayers all over the world. But even when we cannot see the departed fathers we can always feel them. And besides – there are many other indications that they are with us.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What sort of indications?”

“Well, take last week for instance. The Bedouin from the desert are always bringing their sick to us for healing. Normally it is something quite simple: we let them kiss a relic, give them an aspirin and send them on their way. But last week they brought in a small girl who was possessed by a devil. We took the girl into the church, and as it was the time for vespers one of the fathers went off to ring the bell for prayers. When he saw this the devil inside the girl began to cry: ‘Don’t ring the bell! Please don’t ring the bell!’ We asked him why not. ‘Because,’ replied the devil, ‘when you ring the bell it’s not just the living monks who come into the church: all the holy souls of the fathers join with you too, as well as great multitudes of angels and archangels. How can I remain in the church when that happens? I’m not staying in a place like that.’ At that moment the bell began to ring, the girl shrieked and the devil left her! “

Fr. Dioscorus clicked his fingers: “Just like that. So you see,” he said. “That proves it.”

Indeed, it does prove it, and those of us who do spiritual battle in a two, even three-storey universe can only marvel and say, “Pray for us!” How sad for us that we perceive ourselves to be in such a small universe, longing for more, hoping for more, arguing for more, starving for more. God give us grace and have mercy on such blindness as is ours! Come and drive away the dark demons and their lies!

Part One – What Do Words Mean in a One-Storey Universe?

It seems to me that much of our religious vocabulary, defined many times within the past 500 years, is enculturated to speak a two-storey world (see the previous post for an explanation of two-storey world). Words such as “faith,” “believe,” and their relatives belong somehow to a portion of the world that is not first-storey. They are keys to the second storey, and are therefore unconvincing to the ultimate modern one-storey folk, the atheists. The abstracted notions of “imputed righteousness,” when the meaning is something other than an actual reality within the person of whom we are speaking (imputed, as in “in the mind of God”) are tailor-made for a two-storey world. It is little wonder that much religious discourse takes place in the abstracted world of the second-storey. Much doctrinal discussion is little more than moving around air (or digital events) and not about anything that someone is actually doing.

There are plenty of hucksters on the first floor, who make false claims and boast of false gifts. Televangelists playing “baseball” with the Holy Spirit, as if God were a ball of energy to be hurled across the stage at so many bowling-pin believers. This is silliness, driven by our desperation for the marriage of the first and second storey. Such hunger will always produce false prophets. Simon Magus was only the first in a long line.

But, I believe it is equally tragic when those who claim to be teachers of the Kingdom of God, are in fact only sophists, able to manipulate words and symbols in discussions about what the floor plan or the stairs to the second storey must be like, but without anything other than theory to guide. Where is the honest teacher who says, “I don’t know?”

So for the moment I will leave a question (I do plan to return and suggest some answers): what should religious language look like if it is not the language of a two-storey universe? What do words mean in a one storey universe?

Part 2 – The Meaning of Words

I have taken this discussion of life in a “one-storey” universe to that of language, precisely because I think that much of our language (as we presently define it) presumes “two-storey” meanings. One of the places I will press language is our speaking of God’s Providence.

In the “Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina,” we have a version of a prayer that can be found in similar form by other names within Orthodoxy, but certainly a prayer that expresses a very common thought:

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will. At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will. Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee. Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone. O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take plce during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

Though the prayer states that “all is sent down from Thee” I would not necessarily describe this as “two-storey” language, though it could easily be taken that way. More to my point is the assumption of the prayer that God is indeed, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Equally that, “in Him we live and move and have our being.” There has been something of an abandonment of the concept of providence in many theological corners in modern times – probably brought on from the crisis within theodicy (the technical word for the understanding of the relationship between God and evil – or the question, “How is God just?”) Events of the 20th century, particularly the horrors of modern war and the like, have tended to push the question of God’s providential involvement with the everyday world to the outer realm of theological discourse. When I attended a modern Protestant seminary back in the 70’s, not once was the subject of Providence even discussed. It simply had no place at the table.

Of course, if we are to speak in a one-storey manner, Providence, God’s involvement with everything that is, cannot be avoided. Interestingly, it is not only not avoided by contemporary Orthodox spiritual teaching, it remains very much in the fore. The late Russian elder, Fr. Ioan Krestiankin, speaks constantly of God’s providence in his recently published letters. This language, interestingly, comes from one who spent part of his Christian life in the Soviet Gulag. Such mindless suffering seems to have had no effect on his perception of God’s providence.

However, many are appropriately nervous when they read accounts such as those of the monks at St. Antony’s monastery in Egypt (in my first posting on this topic). The hucksterism and spiritual delusion that are rampant in some Christian circles can easily and appropriately make people shy – who wants to live in delusion?

Thus, I think that as Christians we approach the abandonment of a two-storey universe slowly. Above everything we begin to move our Christian life out of the realm of abstraction and into the realm of living. We pray rather than think about prayer. We trust God rather than discussing the concept of trusting God. We act on the basis of faith rather than spending time talking about the importance of faith. We make every effort to embrace God as good and at work in all things.

I suppose this is a return to my writing about the small things – the immediate things. But this is where we live – and it is where we are being saved. So much of the Orthodox faith has this very concrete character about it. I have come to some fairly simple practices in my life as a priest. When someone calls me at Church to ask for prayer – particularly for matters of great moment – I leave the office – go in the Church – and offer a Molieben (it’s a short service of prayer, designed particularly for just such occasions). It takes about 20 minutes – but it’s what I was asked to do – to pray.

By the same token we bring our faith into this blessed first storey (indeed probably the only storey of the universe) by doing here what we were commanded to do – pray, give, forgive, love, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc. It is in such straightforward activities rather than in the abstractions that would call us away that we will find Christ, the saints, the angels and the whole of our faith.

God is with us.

Part 3 – The Meaning of Language

Having pointed out that much of popular Christian language (and some images in sacred texts) lend themselves to the notion of a “two-storey” universe – and having noted that the second storey as the dwelling place of all things spiritual has almost insurmountable problems – how should we speak about such things?

First, it seems that it’s worth thinking about what the words we use really mean in the first place. Perhaps the most common and universally used prayer in the Christian faith is the one taught us by Christ Himself. The prayer begins, “Our Father who art in heaven…” or does it? The text in the Greek varies. In some cases it reads “in the heavens” (plural) in others simply, “in heaven.” Of course Christian theology teaches us that though we may use spatial language to speak of God, we cannot say that there is some space “up there” where God dwells. God is not a creature such that He needs a place to dwell. In that sense, the word “heaven” becomes something of a grammatical place holder, a word that allows us to speak of “where” God is – all of which is fine – unless we become literal about it and make God subject to limitations that are simply incorrect. In that sense “heaven” is as “unspatial” as God is Himself.

If you read classical theological texts such as those of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, it is quite clear that the Church has always understood that God is utterly transcendant. He is “beyond being,” in the language of St. Dionysius. The Fathers would say, in speaking of God’s Being, that in comparison to our “being,” God is not – meaning that though we speak of ourselves as having “being,” the “Being” that God has is wholly other and is not to be thought of as having an existence that is like our existence.

In the same vein, the Fathers teach us that God is completely beyond our knowing. Or as Father Thomas Hopko says, “It is impossible to know God – but you have to know Him to know that.” This, of course, plays on the understanding that the God who is beyond knowledge, who could not have been known by us, willingly made Himself known, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. Thus Christ will say that “no one knows the Father except the Son” (Matt. 11:27).

Christ’s promise to us is that “he who eats my [Christ’s] flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56). It doesn’t say that if you do this you will have visions of a second storey heaven or such things. The language is very “first storey.” Eat, drink, abide. The words are very here and now, though they change the nature of here and now. We are suddenly indwelt by Someone Whom even the universe cannot contain. That reality changes us.

This morning I was thinking on these things as I celebrated the Divine Liturgy. It is quite clear in the Liturgy that the “here and now” has something completely different about it because of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. For instance the Liturgy says:

Remembering this saving commandment [”Do this in remembrance of me, etc.”] and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious Coming.

It is fairly commonplace in Orthodoxy to note that Chrysostom’s Liturgy speaks of the Second Coming in the past tense. Not because we believe that Christ came for a second time at sometime in the past, but that because of what is happening in the Liturgy, we may speak of the Second Coming in the past tense. We are standing at the Messianic Banquet. If it is Christ who dwells in us and we in Him, then how is it possible that we are not with Him at the beginning and the end (since He Himself is the Beginning and the End)?

The coming of Christ into our world, or rather the manifestation of God to us in this world, has radically changed this world. Part of the proclamation of the Orthodox faith is the true nature of life in this world:

God is with us! Understand Ye nations and submit yourselves for God is with us!

…we sing in the service of Compline. If God is with us, then what must this world truly be? The patriarch Jacob once fell asleep and had a dream. In the dream he saw a ladder stretching “from the earth into heaven.” He saw angels ascending and descending on the ladder. When he awoke he made a very strange statement (at least from the perspective of our post-Freudian world):

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17).

Of course, Jacob made a very first-storey response: he set up a stone, poured oil on it [consecrating it] and promised to serve God and to give Him the tenth of all he had.

It is incorrect to think of the world of our faith in two-storey form. The Incarnation, at the very least, reveals that to be not the case. God is with us and has come to abide in us. That truly makes this storey the first.

Part 4 – Speaking of Christianity

Some years back, the Evangelical-convert-to-Rome, Thomas Howard, wrote a book, Splendor in the Ordinary. In it he argued for a sacramental world view and spoke of how that might effect the local home. I recall the book because it came out while I was in seminary and caused a minor stir. Some of us were interested in a more sacramental life – but we as yet had no idea either of the scope of the problem nor of the seriousness of the cure.

The creation of “ordinariness,” is itself a bit of a problem. According to the Oxford English Dictionary – the word comes into its present meaning in the 16th and 17th centuries, having had much more technical legal and ecclesiastical meanings prior to that.

(Please forgive the aside…in Anglican usage, a seminary frequently is an island unto itself, not subject to a particular Bishop – as such it is known as a Peculiar. The Dean, who heads the seminary is thus in charge of its order, as a bishop is of a diocese and is thus its Ordinary. When I was in seminary we relished the fact that our Dean was, technically, the Ordinary of the Peculiar. There was much debate as to whether he was more ordinary or peculiar but this was never settled….)

But the rise of the new meaning of “ordinary,” meaning “common” or “just the usual,” was thus a modern, or post Reformation event. Howard argued in his book that the rise of the ordinary was the mark of the fall of the sacramental. As the world became rid of sacramental presence, it became something else – the ordinary world. And, of course, with a word like ordinary or usual, it was presumed that the sacramental was thus somehow extraordinary and unusual. As goes the sacrament, so goes God. Adam and Eve had been expelled from the Garden of Eden. With the 16th and 17th century, man returned the favor.

This is another way of speaking about a two-storey universe – a world where there is ordinary and extraordinary, usual and unusual. If one adds to this the sameness of mass-produced goods, and the sameness of the Organization Man,  our modern world has little room for either man (as unique) or God. It is hardly surprising that we’re as crazy as we are.

Not until we cease to divide the world into ordinary and extraordinary, into usual and unusual, into sacred and secular, will we have either the possibility of knowing God, much less living the Christian life. What substitutes for both is a second-storey belief system that is held up either by rigid abstract dogmatics or various fundamentalisms, or by fear of the abyss of atheism and meaninglessness. The first is not necessary and the second is our own creation.

Father Alexander Schmemann is quoted as saying that when we bless something, we do not make it into something other than what it is, but reveal it to be what it has always been. This can either be viewed as “theological sleight of hand” or (by some) as somehow lessening the sacraments – making little distinction as it does between ordinary and the holy. On the other hand, when Orthodox priests go to various portions of water at Theophany – the local river, an ocean, a spring, etc., and do the service for the blessings of waters, how far does the blessing extend? Is there a three mile limit to sanctity? We call on the rivers, “the blessing of Jordan.” A similar question: how long does the blessing last? What is the half-life of holiness? We have been blessing all the waters of the world for centuries. Schmemann’s explanation is the only one that makes sense.

It is certainly the case that holy water is holy water – and yet when Christ entered the waters of the Jordan – we are not told that John prayed a blessing over the water. None was necessary. Christ is who He is, and the waters are what they are (and they are more than what many think the waters to be). The icon of the Theophany reveals the Jordan to be Hades itself, the chaos of darkness into which we had plunged ourselves. Christ enters the waters just as at the Cross He entered Hades. In the waters He “crushed the heads of the dragons” (quoting the psalm noted in the prayer of blessing), just as in Hades He crushed that old serpent, the enemy of man.

At Christ’s Baptism there is a Theophany, a revealing of God, but there is also an Epiphany, a revealing of the world in its greater meaning. Every tree, every rock, every word and action – all things have their meaning in relationship to God – not as things-in-themselves. And it is only as they are handled as having their meaning in relationship to God that they will be handled rightly. The earth itself bears the scars of man’s declaration of ordinariness. It is not a word of blessing but a curse.

My oldest daughter, Matushka Mary, was relating to me some things from the writing of a diocesan priest in the area around Krasnoyarsk, Russia (she lived there for a year). He was commenting on various Scriptural events, with an eye to its typology that was wondrously revelatory. He noted, she said, that Christ took away the curse that had been on the earth when he accepted the crown of thorns. The earth had been cursed on account of the first Adam when it was said:

…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. ” (Genesis 3:17-19)

My daughter (quoting the priest) added, “not only does he bear the thorns brought forth from the earth as in the curse, but for the sweat of man’s brow, he offers His own sweat as blood, when He does the righteous work of prayer and obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane.”

What wonderful images!

But these are images that reveal the ground to be what it now isblessed because it was the tomb of Christ’s body. The trees, blessed because upon them hung the one who suspended the universe. The rocks are blessed, because they reveal Christ, who as the Rock was cleft and water flowed to save Israel from its thirst. Everything is blessed and revealed as blessed when we know the One Who blessed it. Only in knowing Him do we see the world for what it is, and understand that the gates to Paradise have been opened to us.

Part 5 – Living a One-Storey Life

I have chosen to use language of the “first and second storey” to describe the kind of bifurcation that the modern world has experienced over the past several centuries. Its results have been to smash the religious world into “sacred” and “secular” and to make believing both harder and disbelief more natural. Thus, to many atheists their world view seems obvious, while believers try to make leaps of logic and argument that render their own thought more schizophrenic.

There is obviously a problem. I have tried to describe the problems and to suggests why such language is either to be treated as metaphor, at best, or avoided when possible. The Christian faith is that God is with us. The Christian life is lived moment by moment in union with God and in harmony with nature which God has rendered the bearer of the holy and the place of communion.

Living a one storey life can be described as simply living here and now. It is being present to God Who is present to us. It is recognizing the true nature of the created world as the arena of both our struggle and our serenity. Our argument with those who do not believe should not be about whether or not their is a second storey to our universe, but about the true nature of the universe in which we live. Whenever Christians allow the gospel to be shoved upstairs, we have allowed ourselves to be disregarded and the gospel to be marginalized. God did not become flesh and dwell among us in order to establish the truth of a second storey universe: he came to redeem the one we live in. Those who cannot recognize hell among us will also be blind to paradise as well. Christ reveals both. Our daily struggle is to live in the latter and to proclaim the gospel to those who live in the former, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Part 6 – Christian Atheism

The title for this post sounds like an oxymoron, and, of course, it is. How can one be both an atheist and a Christian? Again, I am wanting to push the understanding of the one-versus-two-storey universe. In the history of religious thought, one of the closest versions to what I am describing as a “two-storey” world-view, is that espoused by classical Deism (the philosophy espoused by a number of the American founding fathers).

They had an almost pure, two-storey worldview. God, “the Deity,” had created the universe in the beginning, setting it in motion. He had done so in such a way that the world could be described as directed by His Providence, but not in any sense interfered with after its creation. Thomas Jefferson produced a New Testament, wholly in tune with this philosophy. He expunged all reference to miracle and kept only those things he considered to have a purpose in “moral teaching.” The creator had accomplished His work: it was up to us to conform ourselves to His purposes and morality – which were pretty indistinguishable from natural law. If you read the writings of the period it’s much more common to read Providence where a Christian might put God. Many modern evangelicals mistakenly read such statements as Christian.

Functionally, other than having some notion of an original Creator, Deists were practical atheists. The God Who created had completed His work. Ethics were as much a matter of scientific discovery as any other principle of physics. They believed in something they called “God” or “Providence” but only in a very divorced sense. It would be hard to distinguish their thought from that of an atheist except that they clung to an idea of God at least as the initiator of all things.

I have here introduced the notion of “practical atheism,” meaning by it, that although a person may espouse a belief in God, it is quite possible for that belief to be so removed from everyday life, that God’s non-existence would make little difference.

Surprisingly, I would place some forms of Christian fundamentalism within this category (as I have defined it). I recall a group affiliated with some particular Church of Christ, who regularly evangelized our apartment complex when I lived in Columbia, S.C. They were also a constant presence on the campus of the local university. They were absolute inerrantists on the subject of the Holy Scriptures. They were equally adamant that all miracles had ceased with the completion of the canon of the New Testament. Christians today only relate to God through the Bible.

Such a group can be called “Biblicists,” or something, but, in the terminology I am using here, I would describe them as “practical atheists.” Though they had great, even absolutist, faith in the Holy Scriptures, they had no relationship with a God who is living and active and directly involved in their world. Had their notion of a God died, and left somebody else in charge of His heaven, it would not have made much difference so long as the rules did not change.

I realize that this is strong criticism, but it is important for us to understand what is at stake. The more the secular world is exalted as secular, that is, having an existence somehow independent of God, the more we will live as practical atheists – perhaps practical atheists who pray (but for what do we pray?). I would also suggest that the more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become. We will necessarily resort to the same tools and weapons as those who do not believe.

Christianity that has purged the Church of the sacraments, and of the sacramental, have only ideas which can be substituted – the result being the eradication of God from the world in all ways other than theoretical. Of course, since much of modern Christianity functions on this ideological level rather than the level of the God-Who-is among-us, much of Christianity functions in a mode of practical atheism. The more ideological the faith, the more likely its proponents are to expouse what amounts to a practical atheism.

Orthodox Christianity, with its wealth of dogma and Tradition, could easily be translated into this model – and I have encountered it in such a form. But it is a falsification of Orthodoxy. Sacraments must not be quasi-magical moments in which a carefully defined grace is transmitted to us – they must, instead, threaten to swallow up the whole world. The medieval limitation of sacraments to the number 7 comes far too close to removing sacraments from the world itself. Orthodoxy seems to have declared that there are 7 sacraments solely as a response to Western Reform and Catholic arguments. In some sense, everything is a sacrament – the whole world is a sacrament.

However, if we only say that the whole world is a sacrament, soon nothing will be a sacrament. Thus the sacraments recognized as such by the Church, should serve not just for pointing to themselves, but also pointing to God and to everything around us. Holy Baptism should change all water. The Cross should change all trees, etc. But Baptism gives the definition: water does not define Baptism. Neither do trees define the Cross. Nor does man define Christ. Christ defines what it is to be human, etc.

The more truly sacramental becomes the Christian life, the more thoroughly grounded it is in the God-Who-is-among-us. Such a God is indeed, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Our options are between such a God – as proclaimed in the New Testament – or a God who need be no God at all for He is removed from us anyway.

At the Divine Liturgy, before approaching the Communion Cup, Orthodox Christians pray together:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ the Son of the living God who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first. I believe also that this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood. Therefore, I pray Thee: have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, committed in knowledge or in ignorance. And make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, for the remission of my sins, and unto life everlasting. Amen.

There is not a single hint of a distance between us and God. At this point, having prepared for communion, having confessed our sins, we stand at the very center of the universe, before the God Who Is, before the God with Whom Moses conversed on Mt. Sinai, and we receive His true Body and Blood.

Such realism of a first-storey character makes bold claims about the nature of the God whom we worship and how it is that we relate to Him. It’s removal from the “end of miracles” deism of some Biblicists could not be more complete.

There is a dialog that may take place between Christians and atheists. But there is, prior to that, an even more important dialog to be had, and that is with the practical atheism of Christians who have exiled God from the world around us. Such practical atheism is a severe distortion of the Christian faith and an extremely poor substitute for the real thing.

Richard John Neuhaus has written frequently of returning the Church to the public square. I think the problem is far deeper. In many cases we have to speak about returning God to the Church. In cases where practical atheism is the faith of a goup of “believers,” their presence in the public square makes no difference. Who cares?

But within the Orthodox faith, God cannot be exiled from our world no matter how men try. He has come among us, and not at our invitation. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He is already in the Public Square as the Crucified God who is reconciling the world to Himself, whether we like it or not. The opposite of practical atheism is to do the only thing the Christianity of the first-storey can do: keep His commandments and fall down and worship – for God is with us.

Part 7 – Icons in a One Storey Universe

I’ll ask my readers to forgive me as I look at yet another aspect of the Christian life when the idea of a two-storey universe is jettisoned and we come to realize that we are living in a one-storey world: that God is with us. Readership has remained very high over the past week or so, so I will take that to mean that many people are interested in this approach and the insights it brings.

Icons are popularly referred to as “windows to heaven.” This is one of the places where language breaks down. If you are using language in a two-storey world, “heaven” is the equivalent of “upstairs.” It would thus be very peculiar to describe something as being a “window to upstairs.” The very language of the Church shows that it means something quite different.

Icons are not windows to another world, per se, but are a revelation of the truth of existence. When we paint an icon of a saint, the effort is to paint the saint in the truth of their life, not in their mere historical appearance. Thus the symbolism of the Byzantine style, points us towards the holiness of a saint. The same thing could be acheived by writing their lives – but an icon does the same with a single picture.

The same is true of icons depicting Biblical scenes. The icon of the crucifixion famously contains many elements that you would not literally have seen that day in Jerusalem – but if you knew the Truth of all that was happening – then you would know all that is shown in the icon.

This is one of the great difficulties of our one-storey world. It’s not that we live on the first floor and that’s all there is – it’s that we live on the first floor and we don’t know the half of it. We do not realize the true nature of where we are or when we are. Icons frequently show us much about the world as it truly is. This is the character of much of the lives we read about in the saints – they not only see what we see – they see much more. Indeed, we are told, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is not a reference to a notion that if you’re pure in heart, someday you will die and see the Lord. This completely misunderstands the verse.

The verse tells us that the primary organ of vision for human beings is not the eye, but the heart. Our eyes will only see what our hearts will allow. Thus we almost never see the truth of our enemies – as our language says, “We are blinded to the truth.” Anger blinds. Hatred blinds. Greed blinds. Politics blind. Many things blind.

Thus a great part of the Orthodox life is living in such a way that we will be able to see more and more clearly the truth of our own existence and of the world around us. There are those (non-Orthodox) who view the making and venerating of icons as a non-essential in Christianity. They may be willing to tolerate it, but see no necessity in it. Making and venerating icons, in the wisdom of the Church, is not only pleasant, but quite necessary. The veneration of an icon is an essential part of actually seeing it. The persons or situations that are presented to us in an icon are situations that call for humility of heart and a feeling of reverence. In some cases the reverence is so deep that we not only kiss the icon involved, we actually prostrate ourselves to the ground before it before we kiss it (this is the case in the Holy Cross and in the Burial Shroud of Christ).

We have a culture where people bow themselves before money, before food, before the flesh, before power, before almost anything but not the things of God. Our hearts are thus poisoned and our vision becomes clouded. We cannot see or judge anything correctly. We do not see or know the true God, nor do we see our neighbors for who they truly are. The only corrective is to live a life learning to rightly honor those things that should be honored. If kissing an icon seems foreign, it may be merely cultural, but, mind you, ours is a culture that has not taught us how to honor the things of God.

When someone is entering the Church through Baptism they renounce the devil and have prayers of exorcism read over them. Then they turn towards the East, towards the altar of God, and are told to worship Him. At that point they bow to the ground for the first time. They are then given the Creed to recite. There is an understanding that unless you bow down to the Lord God and worship Him, the words of the Creed will remain closed to you. You will not hear them rightly nor find them to be for your salvation.

Thus we walk through this one-storey world and pray to have our eyes opened. We make the sign of the cross frequently, almost as if we were brushing away the clouds of delusion that rise up from everything around us. We invoke the name of Christ without ceasing, begging His mercy.

Icons are windows – to heaven. But heaven is a window on this world. Christ Himself told us that the Kingdom of God is among us. Blessed be His name and may we see with pure hearts what only the Light of Christ can illumine.

The Desert – Struggling in a One-Storey Universe

One of the best-known sayings to have come from the Desert Fathers is: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” To a large degree the saying extols the virtue of stability. Moving from place to place never removes the problem – it only postpones the inevitable. Somewhere, sometime we have to face the heart of our struggle and by the grace of God overcome. Of course, not everyone is entirely successful in such struggles in the course of this life. How our healing is completed beyond this life is left to the mystery of grace.

There is nothing secular about the desert, the arena of our spiritual struggle. The early monastics who fled to the desert for prayer did not think that they were avoiding problems by seeking out such solitude. St. Athanasius, in the 4th century, had written the Life of St. Antony, one of the first and greatest of all hermits. That book, in a time before printing presses and book agents, still became a “best-seller.” It was read by many and propelled literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women into the monastic life. Modern Christians are overwhelmed when they hear the estimates of the number of monastics by the 5th century. It is hard to believe that the desert could sustain so many.

But that book on the life of St. Antony, held no romanticism for the desert life. Antony’s life of prayer is also a life of struggle against demons. They literally toss him about and beat him up. If anything, such a novel should have made generations afraid to go near the desert.

In the 6th chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul had written:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (11-12).

St. Paul’s observation that the struggle was against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (literally the “heavenlies”) clearly did not dissuade the hordes of hermits from invading the deserts of Africa and the Mideast or the islands and caves of Gaul and the British Isles. One simple reason was that the “heavenlies” was not a description of a two-storey (or more) universe, but simply a description of the nature of the struggle. Those “heavenly places” were as much the territory of the human heart as anything. St. Macarius, a desert dweller, would write:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)

 The heavenly cities are not to be found in contemplating some second storey of the universe, but are to be found within the terrible (in the classic sense of the word) confines of the human heart. This was the great promise of the desert: that in solitude and quiet, through prayer and fasting, a man could enter the depths of his heart and there do the warfare that had been given to us to do. Some few became great saints. Others found only madness. Orthodox Christianity received something of a handbook on warfare in that land of the heart in such writings as the Lives of the Fathers, the Philokalia, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and other similar works. They have remained staples of the spiritual life ever since.

The struggle in the desert does not ignore relationships with other human beings. But it recognizes that the trouble in those relationships does not lie in other human beings, but within my own heart. Christ did not suffer from trouble in His relationships with humanity. He was at peace with all. We cannot do more than be like Christ, who Himself began His ministry in the desert, defeating the enemy.

Later Orthodox reflection has widened the desert and recognized that it includes all territory. There is no place we go where the struggle can be differently defined. In the city, in a factory, an office or in school, the battlefield of our spiritual life remains within our own heart. Solitude is only a tool in learning to recognize that fact and to focus our attention on where our attention needs to be.

Obviously, most of us do not leave the company of other human beings in our journey to salvation. But we should draw proper conclusions from the men and women who first entered the deserts and left us the records of their struggles. We do not labor in a secular land beneath the watchful eye of second-storey perfection. We labor in the land where heavenly wickedness does its battle: the human heart. And if our hearts are where the arena is to be found, then we should recognize as well that it is in that very arena that the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is to be found as well. The vast array of saints described by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews who, having completed the course of their warfare, now surround us as spectators in the arena of our warfare, should themselves not be relegated to some distant second-storey where they watch us from afar. Thus it is not a strange thing that those who do spiritual warfare best also have many friends among the saints, and learn to call on them for aid. For though it may seem like “my” struggle, it is the struggle of all who name Christ as Lord. The saints do not surround us like a great cloud of witnesses in idle curiosity. They surround us to strengthen and aid us, to encourage us, and even, if need be, to fight along side us. Such is our heavenly warfare of the heart.

To spend time with someone who has learned well the battle of the heart is to sit at the gate of paradise. On some few occasions I have had opportunity to meet such warriors. The peace that is theirs, the complete lack of self-consciousness are signals that you have come to a new country. Such living witnesses are the loudest proclamation of the gospel known on earth. For in their heart, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. These are the dwelling places of the New Jerusalem and the living promises of God. Their hearts point us to the place where we should be engaging the struggle and remind us that with God all things are possible.

Icons – A Room with a View

Dreams are interesting things – our modern age either makes too little of them or too much of them – but mostly, we believe our dreams are about us and about the inside of our heads. Those who make too little of their dreams write them off to anxiety or other stresses of the day – wish fulfillment – or a variety of other mundane causes. Those who make too much of them remind me of those who are Western believers in reincarnation – they always seem to have been somebody famous – while their dreaming counterparts always try to find the meaning of the universe or something equally significant in the slightest symbol. I don’t mean to sound so jaundiced on the subject, but I once spent a week at a Jungian Conference (long ago and far away and definitely in a different galaxy). Such a week can make you afraid to go to sleep.

But dreams certainly have a signficance – and as shown in Scripture, they can indeed be sent by God. My favorite Biblical dream is that of Jacob, who sees a ladder stretching into the heavens and angels going up and coming down. His reaction upon waking was to attribute the dream to the place in which he was sleeping:”This is none other than the gate of heaven and the house of God!” And, of course, as the good patriarch that he was he erected a stone and anointed it with oil.

Years ago, some years before I became Orthodox, I had a dream in which I was in a Church. Its construction was of log-timber and it was obvious to me that it was an Orthodox Church. There were icons and lampadas, and a sizable crowd of people. What fascinated me about this dream-Church were its many rooms. Everywhere you went there were steps up and steps down and rooms here and rooms there and all of them full of people and icons and lampadas and the faint smell of incense and the low murmur of worship and prayers. I remember the dream lasting quite a while, but with nothing more significant than the many rooms – and how it felt to be there.

That feeling is what remained with me when I awoke and remains with me to this day. The description I have given is probably the best I can do, for I have no words for how it felt, other than to say it felt like an Orthodox Church – but an almost endless Orthodox Church.

Having written a week or so back about the Christian life lived in a one-storey universe, I am reminded of that Church in my dream. It was certainly a one-storey Church – and yet it constantly opened up into place after place.

This week I am studying the painting (or writing if you prefer) of icons. They are often called “windows to heaven.” In the Church of my dream, or certainly within the metaphor it has left in my heart, I also think of them as doors to another room. Each saint, each icon of Christ or of the Theotokos, opens not just to heaven, but to ever deeper rooms within the world in which we inhabit. To spend time with an icon is not to visit some other place only to return to where you were before, but is to enter another room though you never left where you were. The world is changed, enlarged. What seemed small and insignificant is suddenly expanded and filled with meaning. The finite is filled with the infinite and becomes inexhaustible.

I remember waking from my dream years ago, and aching with a hunger for something I could not name. But I know now that it was a hunger for heaven – and not for a heaven somewhere else, but for heaven on earth – which in Orthodox dogma – is indeed the Church.

What Do You See Outside Your Window? Evil in a One-Storey Universe

A question was put several days back about what would be said about “evil in a one-storey universe?” Of course, as I’ve thought about the question, my simplest conclusion is to wonder how one would give an account of evil in a two-storey universe. For it seems that those who have imagined the universe as a two-storey affair have largely confined evil here and proposed that the second-floor has been swept clean. Heaven above and earth below, and a basement yet to come where the evil will at least be confined in everlasting flames. Of course the multi-storey version of good and evil do nothing to solve the problem and do much to create a secular no-man’s land, increasingly populated with those who cannot believe in either a second-storey nor a basement and frequently see believers among the evil in this world (if only to complicate matters).

Of course, the two Biblical books that treat the imagery of spiritual warfare with the evil one in the most literal fashion, have Satan standing before God and holding converse about the long-suffering Job (in the book of the same name) and engaged in a “war in heaven” with St. Michael and the angels in the other (the Revelation of St. John). In neither account is the location of great significance, for the center of action in both books in not “heaven” but rather earth – with St. Job’s sufferings in the one, and the various plagues and misfortunes befalling the earth in the other. Indeed, if the drama of either book is examined, the “heavenly” scenes, are rather more like ante-rooms than an upper-storey.

But the question remains – what account do we give of evil if we speak of the universe in the language of a single storey? I am a believer and as such generally find the source of evil in the abuse of free will, whether of human beings or on the part of heavenly beings (the demonic). Nor do I see that account as different than the theological account to be found in the Fathers. What I bear witness to as a believer, however, is less an account of the origin of evil than to my faith that our universe, though caught in the throes of death and decay, has nevertheless been entered by its Creator, who having taken flesh of the Virgin, has entered into the very depths of death and decay – themselves the result of evil – and defeated them. And thus I see this one-storey world in which I live as the active stage upon which that same victory is being manifest. I cannot say in the least that I see that victory increasingly manifest – for the Christian account of the world is not an account of progress towards the Kingdom of God, but a witness to the fact that the Kingdom of God has entered our world and there is nothing we can do about it. We can, of course, repent, believe the Gospel, and by God’s grace come to know that Kingdom within our selves and within the world in which we live (all of which is the gift of God) but we will also know that Kingdom in the midst of this same storey, which continues to lie in darkness and to endure the presence and work of evil.

Of course, there is much conversation about the metaphysics of evil and the nature of hell and eternal punishment – and though I have recommended articles on the same that I find of value – I think that a large amount of Christian energy is wasted on such matters. For it is not the mastery of the metaphysics of the universe that makes any difference, but rather the embrace of the Gospel of Christ and obedience to His commandments. Those who point to the plenitude of evil around us will get little argument from me, other than to say that what appears to be a plenitude is a “kingdom” that cannot stand, and that it’s end will come. I received a post that got lost in the spam yesterday complaining of the evil within the world, and wondering how I could speak of “heaven on earth.” I cannot think of anywhere else to speak of it, since all I know of heaven its what came forth from the tomb at Pascha. That same resurrected Christ is now Head of His body, the Church, and I cannot know of how to speak of that Body if it is not heaven on earth (despite all that we sinners may drag within her) but all the sickness that enters the doors of a hospital do not make it less a place a healing – I cannot do other with the Body of Christ but bear witness to the very fact that it exists for nothing other than healing. The only weakness within the Church is when we “patients” forget why we came in its doors in the first place, and begin to imagine either that we are already healed, or worse, that someone has turned us into the medical staff.

But though the one-storey world as we know it is itself a cosmic war zone, I cannot lose hope when I know that the end of the battle has already been accomplished in the coming of Christ. I wait for its manifestation – but having known the risen Lord – I wait with hope and run the race with patience. What else are we supposed to do?

Time in a One-Storey Universe

It seems to me as I’ve looked over my posts on the “one-storey” world, that one thing I have not paid much attention to is time. Part of the “two-storey” construct which dominates our modern world-view, is a tendency to view time in a purely linear, historical progression. Thus for some very conservative two-storey Christians, time begins at creation, and moves along in a linear fashion. Thus the timing of Adam and the fall become critical historical problems. There are those who are thus forced to argue for a “young earth.” A museum opened this past year in which the young earth was celebrated, the dinosaurs depicted as cohabiting the world with Adam and Eve. It adds a whole new dimension to life in the Garden of Eden.

This same treatment of time may have an emphasis on the “last days,” in some cases arguing strongly that we are in just such days. The “Left Behind” series of novels celebrates this linear view. And although, properly speaking, the end of history may be referred to as the “eschaton,” the linear, two-storey version of time and life on earth, actually lacks an eschatological dimension. There is nothing about the end that is different from the rest of time with the sole factor of its timing. It is the end, because it is the last thing in a long progression. Prophecy about such an end is not about the nature of things, but simply about the progression of things. This is not Biblical eschatology.

Of course, this is a hallmark of the two-storey worldview. It is inherently secular (even when it’s religious). That which is significant and of everlasting value has been placed “off world” in a second-storey. This world simply continues until it is brought to its cataclysmic end, trucks running off the road, airplanes crashing, and all the rest of the tragic scenario of Dispensationalism (of course it’s quite possible to be a two-storey Christian without at the same time being a Dispensationalist).

However, as noted, this modernized world-view has no proper eschatology, and does not have a proper Christian view of time. Christ, we are told in Scripture, is the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 21:6). This is not simply a way of saying that He is eternal and was here when everything was created and will be here when everything ends. To view Him in such a manner, is to privilege creation in a way that sets it on a par with God, only shorter.

Scripture does not tell us that Christ was the Alpha and He will be the Omega – He is already both, always. When Christ walked among His disciples, the end of the age had come upon them. It is thus that His ministry is marked with the character of a “Jubilee” year, the 50th year in the Sabbath Cycle, in which everything is set free, and restored to its proper owner and order. Thus when St. John the Baptist sends word to ask whether Christ is the Messiah, Christ’s answer is couched in the language of the Jubilee:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me (Matt. 11:4-6).

In the same vein He announces His ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:16-19).

This passage is a traditional Jubilee passage. The Jubilee itself, though occurring every 50 years, is also a type of the eschaton, the Great Day of the Lord, when the Judge will come and all things will be set right. The healing ministry of Jesus must be seen in this light. He does what He does, because He is the Omega, and where He walks the Jubilee has come. He is the End of History tabernacling in time.

By the same token – all that is associated with Him takes on this same cast. Thus, we are no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of Heaven:

But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,21 who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:20-21).

Thus the Church, though in this world, is not of this world. Properly, the Church is an eschatological moment. It Baptizes into the death of Christ and raises in the likeness of His resurrection, thus casting time aside and treating these historical events as present, because in the presence of Christ all moments are present. The Church eats of an eschatological meal, enjoying the food of the Messianic banquet now, because in Christ that moment is already made present to the Church.

Dostoevsky’s famous Grand Inquisitor is a frontal assault on the Church acting not as eschatological community but the arbiter of history. In Dostoevsky “poem,” the Grand Inquisitor will have nothing to do with Christ other than to threaten Him for heresy and subject Him to the Inquisition. The Church will achieve what it sees God has having failed to do. There are a thousand ways to run this story – whether it is the Liberation Theology of South America, or the Swastika bedecked Churches who sought to Baptize a demoniac regeme. At points in time Christians have lost the proper identity of the Church as an eschatological moment and, through various schemes and arrangements, has either sought to prop up regemes that were judged useful to the Church’s needs, or even to have simply replaced the regeme with the Church itself. This is the ultimate triumph of secularism. To declare the Church as the Kingdom Come when it is living as nothing of the sort is to dress up a donkey and call him “Aslan.” Some may fall for it, but none of us should. It is a false eschatology.

The act of forgiveness is a true eschatological triumph. Trapped in history, modern man sees no way forward but to fight for domination: to the victor goes the spoils. Forgiveness is weakness and a good way to lose tomorrow what we gained yesterday. However, in radical obedience to the gospel of Christ, Christians behave in an eschatological manner: we forgive our enemies because we have already seen the outcome of history in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and thus do not need to force the behavior of our enemies in order to create a desired outcome. In the light of Christ’s triumph, we may forgive those who hurt us, because we know of the forgiveness that is and will be ours. The forgiveness of enemies is a proclamation of the victory of Christ – both now and forever.

The resurrection itself is the great sign of our forgiveness. Having obtained death as the outcome of our disobedience, we obtain the forgiveness of death in our resurrection. In a thousand ways in which the life of the Church is made manifest in this world – it shows forth not a linear progression through history – but an inbreaking of the Kingdom. Time has been ruptured, fulfilled, overcome.

We may live in a one-storey universe – but this one-storey universe is not a linear progression of events. It is the arena in which the Lord of time, transcends time. It is the arena in which the Cause is born in the midst of time. Thus St. Maximus can say that the “incarnation is the cause of all things.” In this one-storey universe icons become windows to heaven, doorways to the eschaton, for each portrayal in an icon is drawn in an eschatological manner. Thus we can see an icon of St. John the Baptist (with his head on his shoulders) with his head also on a charger lying at his feet. This is only possible for we are seeing all things together as we gaze through a window that shatters the boundaries of time.

It is also a reason why it is quite problematic when Orthodox Christians see themselves primarily as the keepers and conservers of the past. We do not look back and think that the 1st century was the best; or the 4th; or the 8th; or the 15th; or the 19th, etc. We are “stewards of the mysteries of God,” which no time can limit or define. We are the same Church in the 21st century as we were in the 1st century because we have always been the Church which is Christ’s eschatological bride. We are the Church of all centuries because we will be and are the Church at the end of the age.

Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Struggle of the Person

rublevtrinity.jpg

I have begun to touch on issues of the “false self” and the “true self” for which we could find other language, a number of different metaphors. Theologically all this is grounded in the proper understanding of what it means to exist as a person. Of course, it means to exist in a completely unrepeatable, unique existence. There will never be another you. It also does not mean to exist in isolation – a person always exists in a relation. Thus our existence as persons is predicated on relations to others.

Equally important are the critical aspects of love and freedom, without which the person cannot exist in its proper fulfillment. The life of the Holy Trinity is our model for what human life should be – for this is the image in which we were created.

But before we get too abstract – the Trinity has its most complete revelation to us in the Cross of Christ. It is the self-emptying love of Christ, in an act of total freedom that manifests for us both what love means and what freedom means. We do not engage in abstract speculations about the Trinity and then move to consider our life with one another. We examine the testimony of Christ and from that can speak of Trinity, and from that can see how it is that we are to live.

Overcoming the fears that each of us has – fears that laying down my life for you will mean that I will no longer be – or fears that freedom will destroy everything around us – is an essential part of the struggle to be a person.  Such fears have driven mankind to attempt any number of well-ordered societies, even uptopias. Inevitably, both freedom and love are compromised in these efforts. The self subsumed by the state is a demonic notion. Human beings in a relation that is not love is a construction point for hell.

As strangely philosophical as all these things sound, they are simply another way to describe the life we live in the Church, as we properly live it in the Church. Here we learn to love: learning to forgive frequently so that those around me are not bound by the past and by the debt they owe me, but have been set free in the loving act of forgiveness that I freely give them. We also learn freedom – not utter self-centered autonomy – but the freedom that comes from saying yes and no to God. He will not leave us or forsake us. If we say no to Him, He still says yes to us. We learn that the offering we make to God is indeed an act of freedom. I did not have to make it – I could have done otherwise.

It is like a marriage. I have said yes to my wife and to laying down my life for her and for my children. This is love and it is my freedom. I find that as I lose myself in my beloved I find myself and am renewed. Marriage is a sacrament, a mystery of the Church. All mysteries are centered in the great mystery of our salvation, our union with Christ in the fullness of ourselves as persons. I am a more whole man after 31 years of marriage. I have found a freedom greater than anything I knew before.

We struggle daily to rise to the level of person – something that is the highest form of our humanity. To live fully as a human person is to rise to the level of union with God, for to be fully human is to be fully conformed to His image. What joy awaits us each day. Each opportunity to love, to use our freedom rightly.

It is no wonder that tyrants always oppose the life of the Church. It is antithetical to their existence. May God free us from the tyranny of the false self and bring us into the glorious liberty of the Sons of Light.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev on the Descent of Christ into Hades

This article may also be read at the Website, Orthodox Europe 

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: Christ the Conqueror of Hell

The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions

A lecture delivered at St Mary’s Cathedral, Minneapolis, USA, on 5 November 2002

The Byzantine and old Russian icons of the Resurrection of Christ never depict the resurrection itself, i.e., Christ coming out of the grave. They rather depict ‘the descent of Christ into Hades’, or to be more precise, the rising of Christ out of hell. Christ, sometimes with a cross in his hand, is represented as raising Adam, Eve and other personages of the biblical history from hell. Under the Saviour’s feet is the black abyss of the nether world; against its background are castles, locks and debris of the gates which once barred the way of the dead to resurrection. Though other motifs have also been used in creating the image of the Resurrection of Christ in the last several centuries[1], the above-described iconographic type is considered to be canonical, as it reflects the traditional teaching on the descent of Christ to hell, His victory over death, His raising of the dead and delivering them from hell where they were imprisoned before His Resurrection. It is to this teaching as an integral part of the dogmatic and liturgical tradition of the Christian Church that this paper is devoted.The descent of Christ into Hades is one of the most mysterious, enigmatic and inexplicable events in New Testament history. In today’s Christian world, this event is understood differently. Liberal Western theology rejects altogether any possibility for speaking of the descent of Christ into Hades literally, arguing that the scriptural texts on this theme should be understood metaphorically. The traditional Catholic doctrine insists that after His death on the cross Christ descended to hell only to deliver the Old Testament righteous from it. A similar understanding is quite widespread among Orthodox Christians.

On the other hand, the New Testament speaks of the preaching of Christ in hell as addressed to the unrepentant sinners: ‘For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirit in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited’[2]. However, many Church Fathers and liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church repeatedly underline that having descended to hell, Christ opened the way to salvation for all people, not only the Old Testament righteous. The descent of Christ into Hades is perceived as an event of cosmic significance involving all people without exception. They also speak about the victory of Christ over death, the full devastation of hell and that after the descent of Christ into Hades there was nobody left there except for the devil and demons.

How can these two points of view be reconciled? What was the original faith of the Church? What do early Christian sources tell us about the descent into Hades? And what is the soteriological significance of the descent of Christ into Hades?

1. Eastern theological tradition

We come across references to the descent of Christ into Hades and His raising the dead in the works of Eastern Christian authors of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, such as Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch, Hermas, Justin, Melito of Sardes, Hyppolitus of Rome, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria and Origen. In the 4th century, the descent to hell was discussed by Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, as well as such Syrian authors as Jacob Aphrahat and Ephrem the Syrian. Noteworthy among later authors who wrote on this theme are Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor and John Damascene.

Let us look at the most vivid interpretations given to our theme in Eastern Christian theology.

The teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades was expounded quite fully by Clement of Alexandria in his ‘Stromateis’[3]. He argued that Christ preached in hell not only to the Old Testament righteous, but also to the Gentiles who lived outside the true faith. Commenting on 1 Pet. 3:18¾21, Clement expresses the conviction that the preaching of Christ was addressed to all those in hell who were able to believe in Christ:

Do not  [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept ‘in ward and guard’?… And, as I think, the Saviour also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe on Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend, it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved[4], although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there…[5]

Clement emphasises that there are righteous people among both those who have the true faith and the Gentiles and that it is possible to turn to God for those who did not believe in Him while living. It is their virtuous life that made them capable of accepting the preaching of Christ and the apostles in hell:

…A righteous man, then, differs not, as righteous, from another righteous man, whether he be of the Law [Jew] or a Greek. For God is not only Lord of the Jews, but of all men[6]… So I think it is demonstrated that God, being good, and the Lord powerful, save with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him, whether here or elsewhere[7].

According to Clement, righteousness is of value not only for those who live in true faith, but also for those who are outside faith. It is evident from his words that Christ preached in hell to all, but saved only those who came to believe in Him. Anyway, Clement assumes that this preaching proved salutory not for all to whom Christ preached in hell: ‘Did not the same dispensation obtain in Hades, so that even there, all the souls, on hearing the proclamation, might either exhibit repentance, or confess that their punishment was just, because they believed not?’[8] According to Clement, there were those in hell who heard the preaching of Christ but did not believe in Him and did not follow Him.

In Clement’s works we find the notion that punishments sent from God to sinners are aimed at their reformation, not at retribution, and that the souls released from their corporal shells are better able to understand the meaning of punishment[9]. In these words lies the nucleus of the teaching on the purifying and saving nature of the torment of hell developed by some later authors[10] . We will come back to the question of whether the pains of hell can be salutory when considering the teaching of Maximus the Confessor on the descent of Christ into Hades. An exhaustive discussion on this question, though, is beyond the scope of this paper.

Gregory of Nyssa entwines the theme of the descent in hell with the theory of ‘divine deception’. On the latter he builds his teaching on the Redemption. According to this theory, Christ, being God incarnate, deliberately concealed His divine nature from the devil so that he, mistaking Him for an ordinary man, would not be terrified at the sight of an overwhelming power approaching him. When Christ descended in hell, the devil supposed Him to be a human being, but this was a divine ‘hook’ disguised under a human ‘bait’ that the devil swallowed[11] . By admitting God incarnate into his domain, the devil himself signed his own death warrant: incapable of enduring the divine presence, he was overcome and defeated, and hell was destroyed.

This is precisely the idea that Gregory of Nyssa developed in one of his Easter sermons on ‘The Three-Day Period of the Resurrection of Christ’. Judging by its contents, this homily was intended for Holy Saturday[12], and in it Gregory poses the question of why Christ spent three days ‘in the heart of the earth’[13]. This period was necessary and sufficient, he argues, for Christ to ‘expose the foolishness’ (moranai) of the devil[14], i.e, to outwit, ridicule and deceive him[15]. How did Christ manage to ‘outwit’ the devil? Gregory gives the following reply to this question:

As the ruler of darkness could not approach the presence of the Light unimpeded, had he not seen in Him something of flesh, then, as soon as he saw the God-bearing flesh and saw the miracle performed through it by the Deity, he hoped that if he came to take hold of the flesh through death, then he would take hold of all the power contained in it. Therefore, having swallowed the bait of the flesh, he was pierced by the hook of the Deity and thus the dragon was transfixed by the hook.[16]

A very original approach to the theme of the descent to Hades is found in a book entitled ‘Spiritual Homilies’ which has survived under the name of Macarius of Egypt. There, the liberation of Adam by Christ, Who descended into Hades, is seen as the prototype of the mystical resurrection which the soul experiences in its encounter with the Lord:

When you hear that the Lord in the old days delivered souls from hell and prison and that He descended into hell and performed a glorious deed, do not think that all these events are far from your soul… So the Lord comes into the souls that seek Him, into the depth of the heart’s hell, and there commands death, saying: ‘Release the imprisoned souls which have sought Me and which you hold by force’. And He shatters the heavy stones weighing on the soul, opens graves, raises the true dead from death, brings the imprisoned soul from the dark prison… Is it difficult for God to enter death and, even more, into the depth of the heart and to call out dead Adam from there?… If the sun, being created, passes everywhere through windows and doors, even to the caves of lions and the holes of creeping creatures, and comes out without any harm, the more so does God and the Lord of everything enter caves and abodes in which death has settled, and also souls, and, having released Adam from there, [remains] unfettered by death. Similarly, rain coming down from the sky reaches the nethermost parts of the earth, moistens and renews the roots there and gives birth to new shoots[17].

This text is significant first of all in that the author regards the descent of Christ into Hades as a commonly accepted and undisputed dogma, which he uses as a solid foundation on which to build his mystical and typological construction. The use of the images of the sun rising over both the evil and the good, and rain sent upon both the righteous and the unrighteous[18], indicates that the author of the ‘Homilies’ perceives the descent into Hades as a reality affecting not only the Old Testament righteous, but also entire humanity. Moreover, it affects every person and inner processes which take place in the human soul. For the author of the ‘Homilies’, the doctrine of the descent into Hades is not an abstract truth, nor is it an event which occurred in the days of old  and which affected only those who lived at that time, but it is an event which has not lost its relevance. It is not just one of the fundamental Christian doctrines, not just a subject of faith and confession, but a mystery associated with the mystical life of the Christian, a mystery which one should experience in the depth of one’s heart.

The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades occupies an essential place in the works of Cyril of Alexandria. In his ‘Paschal Homilies’, he repeatedly mentions that as a consequence of the descent of Christ into Hades, the devil was left all alone, while hell was devastated: ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely’[19].

In his ‘Festive Letters’, Cyril of Alexandria elaborates on the theme of the preaching of Christ in Hades, popular in the Alexandrian tradition since Clement. He views the preaching of Christ in hell as the accomplishment of the ‘history of salvation’, which began with the Incarnation:

…He showed the way to salvation not only to us, but also to the spirits in hell; having descended, He preached to those once disobedient, as Peter says[20]. For it did not befit for love of man to be partial, but the manifestation of [this] gift should have been extended to all nature… Having preached to the spirits in hell and having said ‘go forth’ to the prisoners, and ‘show yourselves’[21] to those in prison on the third day, He resurrected His temple and again opens up to our nature the ascent to heaven, bringing Himself to the Father as the beginning of humanity, pledging to those on earth the grace of communion of the Spirit[22].

As we can see, Cyril emphasises the universality of the salvation given by Christ to humanity, perceiving the descent of Christ into Hades as salvific for the entire human race. He is not inclined to limit salvation to a particular part of humanity, such as the Old Testament righteous. Salvation is likened to rain sent by God on both the just and the unjust[23]. Putting emphasis on the universality of the saving feat of Christ, Cyril follows in the steps of other Alexandrian theologians, beginning with Clement, Origen, and Athanasius the Great[24]. The descent of Christ into Hades, according to Cyril’s teaching, signified victory over that which previously appeared unconquerable and ensured the salvation of all humanity:

Death unwilling to be defeated is defeated; corruption is transformed; unconquerable passion is destroyed. While hell, diseased with excessive insatiability and never satisfied with the dead, is taught, even if against its will, that which it could not learn previously. For it not only ceases to claim those who are still to fall [in the future], but also lets free those already captured, being subjected to splendid devastation by the power of our Saviour… Having preached to the spirits in hell, once disobedient, He came out as conqueror by resurrecting His temple like a beginning of our hope and by showing to [our] nature the manner of the raising from the dead, and giving us along with it other blessings as well[25].

Clearly, Cyril perceived the victory of Christ over hell and death as complete and definitive. According to Cyril, hell loses authority both over those who were in its power and those who are to become its prey in the future. Thus, the descent into Hades, a single and unique action, is perceived as a timeless event. The raised body of Christ becomes the guarantee of universal salvation, the beginning of way leading human nature to ultimate deification.

An elaborate teaching of the descent of Christ into Hades is found in Maximus the Confessor. In his analysis, Maximus takes as a starting point the words of St. Peter: ‘For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit’[26]. In Maximus’s view, St. Peter does not speak about the Old Testament righteous, but about those sinners who, back in their lifetime, were punished for their evil deeds:

Some say that Scriptures call ‘dead’ those who died before the coming of Christ, for instance, those who were at the time of the flood, at Babel, in Sodom, in Egypt, as well as others who in various times and in various ways received various punishments and the terrible misfortune of divine damnation. These people were punished not so much for their ignorance of God as for the offences they imposed on one another. It was to them, according to [St Peter] that the great message of salvation was preached when they were already damned as men in the flesh, that is, when they received, through life in the flesh, punishment for crimes against one another, so that they could live according to God by the spirit, that is, being in hell, they accepted the preaching of the knowledge of God, believing in the Saviour who descended into hell to save the dead. So, in order to understand [this] passage in [Holy Scriptures] let us take it in this way: the dead, damned in the human flesh, were preached to precisely for the purpose that they may live according to God by the spirit[27].

Thus, according to Maximus’s teaching, punishments suffered by sinners ‘in the human flesh’ were necessary so that they may live ‘according to God by the spirit’. Therefore, these punishments, whether troubles and misfortunes in their lifetime or pains in hell, had pedagogical and reforming significance. Moreover, Maximus stresses that in damning them, God used not so much a religious as a moral criterion, for people were punished ‘not so much for their ignorance of God as for the offences they imposed on one another’. In other words, the religious or ideological convictions of a particular person were not decisive, but his actions with regard to his neighbours.

In John Damascene we find lines which sum up the development of the theme of the descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern patristic writings of the 2nd¾8th centuries:

The soul [of Christ] when it is deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun of Righteousness rose for those upon the earth, so likewise He might bring light[28] to those who sit under the earth in darkness and the shadow of death: in order that just as he brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners, and of sight to the blind[29], and became to those who believed the Author of everlasting salvation and to those who did not believe, a denunciation of their unbelief, so He might become the same to those in Hades: That every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things in earth and things under the earth[30]. And thus after He had freed those who has been bound for ages, straightway He rose again from the dead, showing us the way of resurrection[31].

According to John Damascene, Christ preached to all those who were in hell, but His preaching did not prove salutary for all, as not all were capable of responding to it. For some it could become only ‘a denunciation of their disbelief’, not the cause of salvation. In this judgement, Damascene actually repeats the teaching on salvation articulated not long before him by Maximus the Confessor. According to Maximus, human history will be accomplished when all without exception will unite with God and God will become ‘all in all’[32]. For some, however, this unity will mean eternal bliss, while for others it will become the source of suffering and torment, as each will be united with God ‘according to the quality of his disposition’ towards God[33]. In other words, all will be united with God, but each will have his own, subjective, feeling of this unity, according to the measure of the closeness to God he has achieved. Along a similar line, John Damascene understands also the teaching on the descent to Hades: Christ opens the way to paradise to all and calls all to salvation, but the response to Christ’s call may lie in either consent to follow Him or voluntary rejection of salvation. Ultimately it depends on a person, on his free choice. God does not save anybody by force, but calls everybody to salvation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him’[34]. God knocks at the door of the human heart rather than breaks into it.

In the history of Christianity an idea has repeatedly arisen that God predestines some people for salvation and others to perdition. This idea, based as it is on the literary understanding of the words of St. Paul about predestination, calling and justification[35], became the corner-stone of the theological system of the Reformation, preached with particular consistency by John Calvin[36]. Eleven centuries before Calvin, the Eastern Christian tradition in the person of John Chrysostom expressed its view of predestination and calling. ‘Why are not all saved?’ Chrysostom asks. ‘Because… not only the call [of God] but also the will of those called is the cause of their salvation. This call is not coercive or forcible. Every one was called, but not all followed the call’[37]. Later Fathers, including Maximus and John Damascene, spoke in the same spirit. According to their teaching, it is not God who saves some while ruining others, but some people follow the call of God to salvation while others do not. It is not God who leads some from hell while leaving others behind, but some people wish while others do not wish to believe in Him.

The teaching of the Eastern Church Fathers on the descent of Christ into Hades can be summed up in the following points:

1)      the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades was commonly accepted and indisputable;

2)      the descent into Hades was perceived as an event of universal significance, though some authors limited the range of those saved by Christ to a particular category of the dead;

3)      the descent of Christ into Hades and His resurrection were viewed as the accomplishment of the ‘economy’ of Christ the Saviour, as the crown and outcome of the feat He performed for the salvation of people;

4)      the teaching on the victory of Christ over the devil, hell and death was finally articulated and asserted;

5)      the theme of the descent into Hades began to be viewed in its mystical dimension, as the prototype of the resurrection of the human soul.

2. Western theological tradition

To what degree did the approach to this theme of the Fathers and Doctors of the Western Church differ from that of the Eastern Fathers? In order to answer this question, let us look at the works of the two most significant theologians of the Christian West, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

The Augustinian teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades is expounded in the fullest way in one of his letters addressed to Evodius. This letter contains a comprehensive interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18¾21. It follows from Evodius’ questions that the teaching on the evacuation of all in hell and the complete devastation of hell by the risen Christ was widespread in his time. Augustine begins with the question of whether Christ preached only to those who perished in the days of Noah or to all the imprisoned. In answering it, Augustine begins by refuting the opinion that Christ descended to Hades in the flesh[38] and argues that this teaching contradicts scriptural testimony[39].

Augustine continues by setting forth the view that Christ led from hell all those who were there, as, indeed, among them were ‘some who are intimately known to us by their literary labours, whose eloquence and talent we admire, ¾ not only the poets and orators who in many parts of their writings have held up to contempt and ridicule these same false gods of the nations, and have even occasionally confessed the one true God…, but also those who have uttered the same, not in poetry or rhetoric, but as philosophers’[40]. The notion of the salvation of heathen poets, orators and philosophers was quite popular. In Eastern patristic tradition it was most vividly expressed by Clement of Alexandria. According to Augustine, however, any of the positive qualities of the ancient poets, orators and philosophers originated not from ‘sober and authentic devotion, but pride, vanity and [the desire] of people’s praise’. Therefore they ‘did not bring any fruit’. Thus, the idea that pagan poets, orators and philosophers could be saved, though not refuted by Augustine, still is not fully approved, since ‘human judgement’ differs from ‘the justice of the Creator’[41].

Augustine neither rejects nor accepts unconditionally the opinion concerning the salvation of all those in hell. Though very careful in his judgement, it is clear that the possibility of salvation for all in hell is blocked in his perception by his own teaching on predestination[42], as well as by his understanding of divine mercy and justice:

For the words of Scripture, that ‘the pains of hell were loosed’[43] by the death of Christ, do not establish this, seeing that this statement may be understood as referring to Himself, and meaning that he so far loosed (that is, made ineffectual) the pains of hell that He Himself was not held by them, especially since it is added that it was ‘impossible for Him to be holden of them’[44]. Or if any one [objecting to this interpretation] asks why He chose to descend into hell, where those pains were which could not possibly hold Him… the words that ‘the pains were loosed’ may be understood as referring not to the case of all, but only some whom He judged worthy of that deliverance; so that neither He supposed to have descended thither in vain, without the purpose of bringing benefit to any of those who were there held in prison, nor is it a necessary inference that divine mercy and justice granted to some must be supposed to have been granted to all[45].

While Augustine also considers the traditional teaching that Christ delivered from hell the forefather Adam, as well as Abel, Seth, Noah and his family, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob ‘and the other patriarchs and prophets’, he does not agree to it entirely, since he does not believe ‘Abraham’s bosom’ to be a part of hell. Those who were in the bosom of Abraham were not deprived of the gracious presence of the divinity of Christ, and therefore Christ, on the very day of His death immediately before descending to hell, promises to the wise thief that he will be in paradise with him[46]. ‘Most certainly, therefore, He was, before that time, both in paradise and the bosom of Abraham in His beatific wisdom (beatificante sapientia), and in hell in His condemning power (judicante potentia)’, concludes Augustine[47].

The opinion that through the death of Christ on the cross the righteous receive that promised incorruption which people are to achieve after the end of time is also refuted by Augustine. If it were so, then St. Peter would not have said about David that ‘his sepulchre is with us to this day’[48] unless David was still undisturbed in the sepulchre[49].

As for the teaching on Christ’s preaching in hell contained in 1 Pet. 3:18¾21, Augustine rejects its traditional and commonly accepted understanding. First, he is not certain that it implies those who really departed his life, but rather those that are spiritually dead and did not believe in Christ. Secondly, he offers the quite novel idea that after Christ ascended from hell His recollection did not survive there. Therefore, the descent in Hades was a ‘one-time’ event relevant only to those who were in hell at that time. Thirdly and finally, Augustine rejects altogether any possibility for those who did not believe in Christ while on earth to come to believe in him while in hell, calling this idea ‘absurd’[50].

Augustine is not inclined to see in 1 Pet. 3:18¾21 an indication of the descent into Hades. He believes that this text should be understood allegorically, i. e., ‘the spirits’ mentioned by Peter are essentially those who are clothed in body and imprisoned in ignorance. Christ did not come down to earth in the flesh in the days of Noah, but often came down to people in the spirit either to rebuke those who did not believe or to justify those who did. What happened in the days of Noah is a type of what happens today, and the flood was the precursor of baptism. Those who believe in our days are like whose who believed in the days of Noah: they are saved through baptism, just as Noah was saved through water. Those who do not believe are like those who did not believe in the days of Noah: the flood is the prototype of their destruciton[51].

Augustine is the first Latin author who gave so much close attention to the theme of the descent of Christ into Hades. However, he did not clarify the question of who was the object of Christ’s preaching in hell and whom Christ delivered from it. Augustine expressed many doubts about particular interpretations of 1 Pet. 3:18¾21, but did not offer any convincing interpretation of his own. Nevertheless, the ideas expressed by him were developed by Western Church authors of the later period. Thomas Aquinas, in particular, makes continuous references to Augustine in his chapter devoted to the descent of Christ into Hades[52]. During the Reformation, many Augustinian ideas were criticised by theologians of the Protestant tradition. The teaching that the recollection of Christ did not survive in hell after His ascent was rejected by Lutheran theologians who insisted on the reverse[53].

Thomas Aquinas was the 13th-century theologian who brought to completion the Latin teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades. In his ‘Summa Theologiae’, he divides hell into four parts: 1) purgatory (purgatorium), where sinners experience penal suffering; 2) the hell of the patriarchs (infernum patrum), the abode of the Old Testament righteous before the coming of Christ; 3) the hell of unbaptized children (infernum puerorum); and 4) the hell of the damned (infernum damnatorum). In response to the question, exactly which was the hell that Christ descended to, Thomas Aquinas admits two possibilities: Christ descended either into all parts of hell or only to that in which the righteous were imprisoned, whom He was to deliver. In the first case, ‘for going down into the hell of the lost He wrought this effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory He gave hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell solely on account of original sin (pro solo peccato originali detinebantur in inferno), He shed the light of glory everlasting’. In the second case, the soul of Christ ‘descended only to the place where the righteous were detained’ (descendit solum ad locum inferni in quo justi detinebantur), but the action of His presence there was felt in some way in the other parts of hell as well[54].

According to Thomistic teaching, Christ delivered from hell not only the Old Testament righteous who were imprisoned in hell because of original sin[55]. As far as sinners are concerned, those who were detained in ‘the hell of the lost’, since they either had no faith or had faith but no conformity with the virtue of the suffering Christ, could not be cleansed from their sins, and Christ’s descent brought them no deliverance from the pains of hell[56]. Nor were children who had died in the state of original sin delivered from hell, since only ‘by baptism children are delivered from original sin and from hell, but not by Christ’s descent into hell’, since baptism can be received only in earthly life, not after death[57]. Finally, Christ did not deliver those who were in purgatory, for their suffering was caused by personal defects (defectus personali), whereas ‘exclusion from glory’ was a common defect (defectus generalis) of all human nature after the fall. The descent of Christ into Hades recovered the glory of God to those who were excluded from it by virtue of the common defect of nature, but did not deliver anybody from the pains of purgatory caused by people’s personal defects[58].

This scholastic understanding of the descent of Christ into Hades, formulated by Thomas Aquinas, was the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries. During the Reformation, this understanding was severely criticised by Protestant theologians. Many of today’s Catholic theologians are also very sceptical about this teaching[59]. There is no need to discuss how far the teaching of Thomas Aquinas on the descent of Christ into Hades is from that of Eastern Christianity. No Father of the Eastern Church ever permitted himself to clarify who was left in hell after Christ descent; no Eastern Father ever spoke of unbaptized infants left in hell[60]. The division of hell into four parts and the teaching on purgatory are alien to Eastern patristics. Finally, this very scholastic approach whereby the most mysterious events of history are subjected to detailed analysis and rational interpretation is unacceptable for Eastern Christian theology. For the theologians, poets and mystics of the Eastern Church, the descent of Christ into Hades remained first of all a mystery which could be praised in hymns, and about which various assumptions could be made, but of which nothing definite and final could be said.

The general conclusion can now be drawn from a comparative analysis of Eastern and Western understandings of the descent into Hades. In the first three centuries of the Christian Church, there was considerable similarity between the interpretation of this doctrine by theologians in East and West. However, already by the 4th—5th centuries, substantial differences can be identified. In the West, a juridical understanding of the doctrine prevailed. It gave increasingly more weight to notions of predestination (Christ delivered from hell those who were predestined for salvation from the beginning) and original sin (salvation given by Christ was deliverance from the general original sin, not from the ‘personal’ sins of individuals). The range of those to whom the saving action of the descent into hell is extended becomes ever more narrow. First, it excludes sinners doomed to eternal torment, then those in purgatory and finally unbaptized infants. This kind of legalism was alien to the Orthodox East, where the descent into Hades continued to be perceived in the spirit in which it is expressed in the liturgical texts of Great Friday and Easter, i.e. as an event significant not only for all people, but also for the entire cosmos, for all created life.

At the same time, both Eastern and Western traditions suggest that Christ delivered from hell the Old Testament righteous led by Adam. Yet if in the West this is perceived restrictively (Christ delivered only the Old Testament righteous, while leaving all the rest in hell to eternal torment), in the East, Adam is viewed as a symbol of the entire human race leading humanity redeemed by Christ (those who followed Christ were first the Old Testament righteous led by Adam and then the rest who responded to the preaching of Christ in hell).

3. The doctrine of the descent into Hades and theodicy

Let us move now to the theological significance of the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades. This doctrine, in our view, has great significance for theodicy, the justification of God in the face of the accusing human mind[61]. Why does God permit suffering and evil? Why does He condemn people to the pains of hell? To what extent is God responsible for what happens on earth? Why in the Bible does God appear as a cruel and unmerciful Judge ‘repenting’ of His actions and punishing people for mistakes which He knew beforehand and which He could have prevented? These and other similar questions have been posed throughout history.

First of all, we should say that the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades raises the veil over the mystery that envelops the relationship between God and the devil. The history of this relationship goes back to the time of the creation. According to common church teaching, the devil was created as a good and perfect creature, but he fell away from God because of his pride. The drama of the personal relationship between God and the devil did not end here. Since his falling away, the devil began to oppose divine goodness and love by every means and to do all he can to prevent the salvation of people. The devil is not all-powerful, however; his powers are restricted by God and he can operate only within the limits permitted by God. This last affirmation is confirmed by the opening lines of the Book of Job where the devil appears as a creature having, first, personal relations with God and, secondly, being fully subjected to God.

By creating human beings and putting them in a situation where they choose between good and evil, God assumed the responsibility for their further destiny. God did not leave man face to face with the devil, but Himself entered into the struggle for humanity’s spiritual survival. To this end, He sent prophets and teachers and then He Himself became man, suffered on the cross and died, descended into Hades and was raised from the dead in order to share human fate. By descending into Hades, Christ did not destroy the devil as a personal, living creature, but ‘abolished the power of the devil’, that is, deprived the devil of authority and power stolen by him from God. When he rebelled against God, the devil set himself the task to create his own autonomous kingdom where he would be master and where he would win back from God a space where God’s presence could be in no way felt. In Old Testament understanding, this place was sheol. After Christ, sheol became a place of divine presence.

This presence is felt by all those in paradise as a source of joy and bliss, but for those in hell it is a source of suffering. Hell, after Christ, is no longer the place where the devil reigns and people suffer, but first and foremost it is the prison for the devil himself as well as for those who voluntarily decided to stay with him and share his fate. The sting of death was abolished by Christ and the walls of hell were destroyed. But ‘death even without its sting is still powerful for us… Hell with its walls destroyed and its gates abolished is still filled with those who, having left the narrow royal path of the cross leading to paradise, follow the broad way all their lives’[62] .

Christ descended into hell not as another victim of the devil, but as Conqueror. He descended in order to ‘bind up the powerful’ and to ‘plunder his vessels’. According to patristic teaching, the devil did not recognize in Christ the incarnate God. He took Him for an ordinary man and, rising to the ‘bait’ of the flesh, swallowed the ‘hook’ of the Deity (the image used by Gregory of Nyssa). However, the presence of Christ in hell constituted the poison which began gradually to ruin hell from within (this image was used by the 4th-century Syrian author Jacob Aphrahat[63]). The final destruction of hell and the ultimate victory over the devil will happen during the Second Coming of Christ when ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’, when everything will be subjected to Christ and God will become ‘all in all’[64] .

The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades is important for an understanding of God’s action in human history, as reflected in the Old Testament. The biblical account of the flood, which destroyed all humanity, is a stumbling block for many who wish to believe in a merciful God but cannot reconcile themselves with a God who ‘repents’ of his own deed. The teaching on the descent into hell, as set forth in 1 Pet. 3:18—21, however, brings an entirely new perspective into our understanding of the mystery of salvation. It turns out that the death sentence passed by God to interrupt human life does not mean that human beings are deprived of hope for salvation, because, failing to turn to God during their lifetime, people could turn to Him in the afterlife having heard Christ’s preaching in the prison of hell. While committing those He created to death, God did not destroy them, but merely transferred them to a different state in which they could hear the preaching of Christ, to believe and to follow Him.

4. The soteriological implications of the doctrine of the descent into Hades

The doctrine on the descent of Christ into Hades is an integral part of Orthodox soteriology. Its soteriological implications, however, depend in many ways on the way in which we understanding the preaching of Christ in hell and its salutory impact on people[65]. If the preaching was addressed only to the Old Testament righteous, then the soteriological implications of the doctrine is minimal, but if it was addressed to all those in hell, its significance is considerably increased. It seems that we have enough grounds to argue, following the Greek Orthodox theologian, I. Karmiris, that ‘according to the teaching of almost all the Eastern Fathers, the preaching of the Saviour was extended to all without exception and salvation was offered to all the souls who passed away from the beginning of time, whether Jews or Greek, righteous or unrighteous’[66]. At the same time, the preaching of Christ in hell was good and joyful news of deliverance and salvation, not only for the righteous but also the unrighteous. It was not the preaching ‘to condemn for unbelief and wickedness’, as it seemed to Thomas Aquinas. The entire text of the First Letter of St. Peter relating to the preaching of Christ in hell speaks against its understanding in terms of accusation and damnation’[67].

Whether all or only some responded to the call of Christ and were delivered from hell remains an open question. If we accept the point of view of those Western church writers who maintain that Christ delivered from hell only the Old Testament righteous, then Christ’s salutory action is reduced merely to the restoration of justice. The Old Testament righteous suffered in hell undeservedly, not for their personal sins but because of the general sinfulness of human nature and because their deliverance from hell was a ‘duty’ which God was obliged to undertake with respect to them. But such an act could scarcely constitute a miracle that made the angels tremble or one to be praised in church hymns.

Unlike the West, Christian consciousness in the East admits the opportunity to be saved not only for those who believe during their lifetime, but also those who were not given to believe yet pleased God with their good works. The idea that salvation was not only for those who in life confessed the right faith, not only for the Old Testament righteous, but also those heathens who distinguished themselves by a lofty morality, is developed in one of the hymns of John Damascene:

Some say that [Christ delivered from hell] only those who believed[68],
such as fathers and prophets,
judges and together with them kings, local rulers
and some others from the Hebrew people,
not numerous and known to all.
But we shall reply to those who think so
that there is nothing undeserved,
nothing miraculous and nothing strange
in that Christ should save those who believed[69],
for He remains only the fair Judge,
and every one who believes in Him will not perish.
So they all ought to have been saved
and delivered from the bonds of hell
by the descent of God and Master —
that same happened by His Disposition.
Whereas those who were saved only through [God’s] love of men
were, as I think, all those
who had the purest life
and did all kinds of good works,
living in modesty, temperance and virtue,
but the pure and divine faith
they did not conceive because they were not instructed in it
and remained altogether unlearnt.
They were those whom the Steward and Master of all
drew, captured in the divine nets
and persuaded to believe in Him,
illuminating them with the divine rays
and showing them the true light[70] .

This approach renders the descent into Hades exceptional in its soteriological implications. According to Damascene, those who were not taught the true faith during their lifetime can come to believe when in hell. By their good works, abstention and chastity they prepared themselves for the encounter with Christ. These are that same people about whom St. Paul says that having no law they ‘do by nature things contained in the law’, for ‘the work of the law is written in their hearts’[71]. Those who live by the law of natural morality but do not share the true faith can hope by virtue of their righteousness that in a face-to-face encounter with God they will recognize in Him the One they ‘ignorantly worshipped’[72] .

Has this anything to do with those who died outside Christian faith after the descent of Christ into Hades? No, if we accept the Western teaching that the descent into Hades was a ‘one-time’ event and that the recollection of Christ did not survive in hell. Yes, if we proceed from the assumption that after Christ hell was no longer like the Old Testament sheol, but it became a place of the divine presence. In addition, as Archpriest Serge Bulgakov writes, ‘all events in the life of Christ, which happen in time, have timeless, abiding significance. Therefore,

the so-called ‘preaching in hell’, which is the faith of the Church, is a revelation of Christ to those who in their earthly life could not see or know Christ. There are no grounds for limiting this event… to the Old Testament saints alone, as Catholic theology does. Rather, the power of this preaching should be extended to all time for those who during their life on earth did not and could not know Christ but meet Him in the afterlife[73].

According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, all the dead, whether believers or non-believers, appear before God. Therefore, even for those who did not believe during their lifetime, there is hope that they will recognize God as their Saviour and Redeemer if their previous life on earth led them to this recognition.

The above hymn of John Damascene clearly states that the virtuous heathens were not ‘taught’ the true faith. This is a clear allusion to the words of Christ: ‘Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’[74]; and ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but that believeth not shall be damned’[75]. The damnation is extended only to those who were taught Christian faith but did not believe. But if a person was not taught, if he in his real life did not encounter the preaching of the gospel and did not have an opportunity to respond to it, can he be damned for it? We come back to the question that had disturbed such ancient authors as Clement of Alexandria.

Is it possible at all that the fate of a person can be changed after his death? Is death that border beyond which some unchangeable static existence comes? Does the development of the human person not stop after death?

On the one hand, it is impossible for one to actively repent in hell; it is impossible to rectify the evil deeds one committed by appropriate good works. However, it may be possible for one to repent through a ‘change of heart’, a review of one’s values. One of the testimonies to this is the rich man of the Gospel we have already mentioned. He realized the gravity of his situation as soon as found himself in hell. Indeed, if in his lifetime he was focused on earthly pursuits and forgot God, once in hell he realized that his only hope for salvation was God[76] . Besides, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the fate of a person after death can be changed through the prayer of the Church. Thus, existence after death has its own dynamics. On the basis of what has been said above, we may say that after death the development of the human person does not cease, for existence after death is not a transfer from a dynamic into a static being, but rather continuation on a new level of that road which a person followed in his lifetime.

* * *

As the last stage in the divine descent (katabasis) and self-emptying (kenosis), the descent of Christ into Hades became at the same time the starting point of the ascent of humanity towards deification (theosis)[77]. Since this descent the path to paradise is opened for both the living and the dead, which was followed by those whom Christ delivered from hell.  The destination point for all humanity and every individual is the fullness of deification in which God becomes ‘all in all’[78] . It is for this deification that God first created man and then, when ‘the time had fully come’ (Gal. 4:4), Himself became man, suffered, died, descended to Hades and was raised from the dead.

We do not know if every one followed Christ when He rose from hell. Nor do we know if every one will follow Him to the eschatological Heavenly Kingdom when He will become ‘all in all’. But we do know that since the descent of Christ into Hades the way to resurrection has been opened for ‘all flesh’, salvation has been granted to every human being, and the gates of paradise have been opened for all those who wish to enter through them. This is the faith of the Early Church inherited from the first generation of Christians and cherished by Orthodox Tradition. This is the never-extinguished hope of all those who believe in Christ Who once and for all conquered death, destroyed hell and granted resurrection to the entire human race.

Translated from the Russian


[1]In particular, the image of the risen Christ coming out of the grave and holding a victory banner, borrowed from the Western tradition.

[2] 1 Pet. 3:18—21.

[3] The critical edition of ‘Stromateis’: Clemens Alexandrinus. Band II: Stromateis I—VI. Hrsg. von O. Stählin, L. Früchtel, U. Treu. Berlin—Leipzig 1960; Band III: Stromateis VII—VIII. Hrsg. von O. Stählin. GCS 17. Berlin—Leipzig, 1970. S. 3-102.

[4] That is those who came to believe while in hell.

[5] Stromateis 6, 6.

[6] Rom. 3:29; 10:12.

[7] Stromateis 6, 6.

[8] Stromateis 6, 6.

[9] Stromateis 6, 6.

[10] In the East it was developed by Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian. In the West it gradually led to the formation of the doctrine on purgatory.

[11] The Great Catechetical Oration 23¾24.

[12] The Homily on the Three-Day Period (pp. 444¾446). The text of the sermon in: Gregoriou Nyssis hapanta ta erga. T. 10. Hellenes pateres tes ekklesias 103. Thessalonike, 1990. Sel. 444—487. Since in this edition the text is not divided into chapters, we indicate page numbers.

[13] Cf. Mt. 12:40.

[14] Lit. ‘to make a fool of somebody’ (from moros—fool)

[15] The Homily on the Three-Day Period (pp. 452¾454).

[16] The Homily on the Three-Day Period (pp. 452¾454). Cf. 1 Cor. 15:26.

[17] Spiritual Homilies 11, 11¾13.

[18] Cf. Mt. 5:45.

[19] 7th Paschal Homily 2 (PG 77, 552 A).

[20] Cf. 1 Pet. 3:19¾20.

[21] Is. 49:9.

[22] 2nd Festive Letter 8, 52¾89 (SC 372, 228¾232)

[23] Cf. Mt. 5:45. See the same comparison in ‘Spiritual Homilies’ by Macarius of Egypt.

[24] See above quotations from these authors

[25] 5th Festive Letter 1, 29¾40 (SC 732, 284).

[26] 1 Pet. 4:6.

[27] Questions-answers to Thalassius 7.

[28] Is. 9:2.

[29] Lk. 4:18¾19; Cf. Is. 61:1¾2.

[30] Phil. 2:10.

[31] The Exact Exposition of Orthodox Faith 3, 29.

[32] 1 Cor. 15:28.

[33] Maximus the Confessor, Questions-answers to Thalassius 59. More on this teaching see in J. C. Larchet, La divinisation de l’homme selon Maxime le Confesseur (Paris, 1996), pp. 647¾652.

[34] Rev. 3:20.

[35] Rom. 8:29¾30.

[36] See John Calvin, Instruction in Christian Faith, V. II, Book III (‘Concerning the pre-eternal election whereby God predestined some for salvation while others for condemnation’).

[37] 16th Discourse on the Epistle to the Romans.

[38] Concerning the teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades in the flesh, see: I. N. Karmires, ‘He Christologike heterodidaskalia tou 16 aionos kai eis hadou kathodos tou Christou’, Nea Sion 30 (1935). Sel. 11—26, 65—81, 154—165. See also: S. Der Nersessian. ‘An Armenian Version of the Homilies on the Harrowing of Hell’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 8 (1954), pp. 201¾224.

[39] Letter 164, II, 3 (PL 33, 709).

[40] Letter 164, II, 3 (PL 33, 710).

[41] Letter 164, II, 3 (PL 33, 710).

[42] Cf. J. A. MacCulloch, The Harrowing of Hell (Edinburgh, 1930), p. 123.

[43] Cf. Acts 2:24.

[44] That is, the pains of hell.

[45] Letter 164, II, 5 (PL 33, 710¾711).

[46] Lk. 23:43.

[47] Letter 164, III, 7¾8 (PL 33, 710¾711).

[48] Acts 2:29.

[49] Letter 164, III, 7¾8 (PL 33, 711).

[50] Letter 164, III, 10¾13 (PL 33, 713¾714). Elsewhere Augustine describes as heresy the teaching that non-believers could come to believe in hell and that Christ led everybody out of hell: See, On Heresies 79 (PL 42, 4).

[51] Letter 164, IV, 15¾16 (PL 33, 715).

[52] See below.

[53] See details in: F. Loofs. ‘Descent to Hades’, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York, 1912), vol. IV, p. 658.

[54] Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 2 (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae. Latin text with English translation. London —New York , 1965. Vol. 54. P. 158).

[55] Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 5 (Summa theologiae. Vol. 54, pp. 166¾170).

[56] Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 6 (Summa theologiae. Vol. 54, pp. 170¾1720).

[57] Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 7 (Summa theologiae. Vol. 54, pp. 174¾176).

[58] Summa theologiae IIIa, 52, 8 (Summa theologiae. Vol. 54, pp. 176¾178).

[59] See for instance: H. U. von Balthasar et A. Grillmeier, Le mystère pascal (Paris , 1972), p. 170 (where the Thomistic understanding of the descent to Hades is described as ‘bad theology’).

[60] The teaching on the fate of unbaptized infants, contained in the work ‘Concerning Infants Who Have Died Prematurely’ by Gregory Palamas, is opposite to the teaching of Thomas Aquinas.

[61] The term ‘theodocy’ (literally ‘the justification of God’) was invented by Leibnitz in the early 18th century.

[62] Innocent, Archbishop of Cherson and Tauria, Works, vol. V (St-Petersburg—Moscow, 1870), p. 289 (Homily at Holy Saturday).

[63] Demonstration 22, 4—5 in The Homilies of Aphraates, the Persian Sage, ed. by W. Wright (London—Edinburgh, 1869), pp. 420—421.

[64] 1 Cor. 15:26—28.

[65] Cf. I. N. Karmires, He eis hadou kathodos Iesou Christou (Athenai, 1939), sel. 107.

[66] Ibid., p. 119.

[67] Bishop Gregory (Yaroshevsky), An Interpretation of the Most Difficult Passages in the First Letter of St Peter (Simferopol , 1902), p. 10.

[68] That is those who believed in their lifetime.

[69] That is those who believed during their life on earth.

[70] Concerning Those Who Died in Faith (PG 95, 257 AC).

[71] Rom. 2:14¾15.

[72] Acts 17:23.

[73] Serge Bulgakov, Agnets Bozhiy [The Lamb of God] (Moscow , 2000), p. 394.

[74] Mt. 28:19.

[75] Mk. 16:16.

[76] Lk. 16:20—31.

[77] Cf. J. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity (London , s.a.), p. 233—234.

[78] 1 Cor. 15:28.

“Do You Know Jesus?”

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I have written in numerous posts about various aspects of conversion to the Orthodox Christian faith. Oftentimes there is an unspoken agreement between myself as writer and those who read in which we assume that we understand each other – that when I say “conversion” we all know what I mean.

On reflection there are several very distinct kinds of conversions – though each has a relationship to the other.

There is a conversion that simply refers to leaving a Christian Church that is not Orthodox and being received into the Orthodox Church. Essentially, the questions that surround this conversion are ecclesiological – largely concerned with the Church, its nature and its history. It may very well be the case that the whole story of such a conversion includes coming to understand Christ or certain doctrines concerning Him in a new way. Part of the formal process of receiving the non-Orthodox into the Church may include the specific renunciations of certain heresies. It is certainly a matter of asking, “What is the truth,” but the range of that question may be somewhat narrowly defined.

There is also a conversion that would apply to any reader that I might have – whether Orthodox or not – and that is the question of our on-going conversion in relation to the Truth of Christ Himself. I am certain that should my life continue beyond this moment – I want it to go deeper into Christ than I am at this moment. I want it to be freer of sin than I am at this moment. I want to know God and be united with Him far more fully than I am at this moment. That conversion, by God’s mercy, should not stop until we stop. As one of the desert fathers said, “Prayer is struggle to a man’s dying breath.”

And then there is the larger question (or it seems larger to me somehow) of conversion to belief in Christ for someone who does not profess to be a Christian. This, it seems to me, is a very large question – one that has captured my heart repeatedly over the years.

I grew up in a city that was very well acquainted with American Christian fundamentalism (of the modern, Protestant variety). It is the home of Bob Jones University, which generally makes Liberty University (Jerry Falwell’s creation) seem like a bastion of liberalism. I can recall frequently seeing pamphlets attacking Billy Graham (for his ecumenism) during my childhood. Street preaching was alive and well, though for some reason it seems to have declined in recent years. As a teenager in the late 60’s, wearing long hair, I was a walking target for street evangelists. Somehow I have never considered St. Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians (11:14) to be a great introduction for an evangelist. My long hair was probably as much a political statement as anything – and the street preacher’s recitation of Corinthians was equally political. He should have just called me a communist and gotten it over with…

I was much more impressed by the first “Jesus freak” I met. I was working in what was popularly known as a “head shop” (merchandising for hippies) when this guy from the West coast came in. I don’t think the term “Jesus freak” had been coined as yet by the media but that’s what he was. His question to me, after looking around at some of the merchandise was, “Do you know Jesus?”

Somehow the question did not seem like an insult. (“If you were to die tonight do you know where you’d go?” – that was a common leading question and always seemed to presume that I was going to hell). My response to this visitor to the shop was, “Yes, I do.” And then we had a friendly Christian conversation – not very churchy – just friendly.

As years have gone by, the question seems to me to have stood up as genuine and important. “Do you know Jesus?”

The other questions that I grew up with, I have come to understand, were largely driven by a legal metaphor and were largely trying establish a relationship with God on that basis. Thus, asking for your legal standing with God seemed entirely proper.

The other question, that of knowing Jesus, presumes a more “mystical” basis, if I can use the term for a few moments. It presumes relationship, but does not necessarily carry any legal baggage. The metaphor can be that of knowing in a more participatory sense – which is far more at home in the language and theology of Orthodox Christianity.

Of course, asking someone if they know Jesus, and telling someone how they can know Jesus, particularly in the manner in which the word to know is used in the Gospel of John, for instance, are two very different things. My experience over the years has been that there is never a simple formula for how you can know Jesus. It is not at all the same thing as an experiential version of the Four Spiritual Laws. As I think of my own story and those of many others that I have known, the answer to the question of how can be very varied.

And yet there are common elements – elements which have a grounding in the gospels themselves. One such grounding that quickly comes to mind is Christ’s statement: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). Most often the end of that statement is quoted out of context. The entire statement makes knowledge of the truth contingent upon “continuing in my word.” Later in the same gospel Christ says much the same thing: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21). The “continue in his word” is the same as “keep my commandments.”

Matthew the Poor, the contemporary Egyptian monk, made the point in one of his books that taking a single commandment and keeping it with all the heart would take you into the kingdom of God. It sounds true to me. Thus if someone is seeking to know Christ a place to begin might include several things: prayer (seek, ask, knock), reading the gospels (they are a “verbal icon” of Christ), and keeping His commandments. If someone is in a quandary as to which of the commandments – obvious places to start are to “remember the poor” or to “forgive an enemy.” “Do good to those who dispitefully use you,” etc. Prayer and almsgiving are almost always paired in Scripture and in the writings of the Fathers.

One of the difficulties of reason and almost any mental activity is that taken alone they almost always become circular. I liken them to a “dog chasing his tail.” Every argument for something can be countered with an argument against. Every thought can be followed by another or derailed by yet another. It is the action that accompanies the thought, the reason, the prayer, that tend to nail things down and bring an impetus to our words. Thus it is that Christ tells us to keep His commandments if we are to know Him.

In my late teen years – post high school and pre-college, I chose to go to work rather than be a student. It was a detour that lasted two years. For a good portion of that time I lived with another Christian friend and then with a lot of Christian friends. What happened began with myself and my friend. After prayers one day, we decided that we should keep Christ’s commandment to give things away and follow Him. In all the zeal of youth we took the commandment as literally as we could manage. I think we each kept one change of clothes. The rest of what we had (which I have to admit wasn’t much) we gave away. As the months went by we continued to practice this commandment and eventually ended up living in a communal fashion with about 20 or so other Christians. Things changed – we were under no vows. A time came and I entered college and moved out. But the experience of prayer, coupled with action was deeply beneficial. There were things that became a part of me then that have never left me. Indeed, it was this same Christian friend with whom I began that effort who first gave me a book about Orthodox Christianity, Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. It is not the book I recommend as a first read for others – but it planted a seed that never left me and eventually bore fruit (25 years later).

“Do you know Jesus?” It is still a very good question – and the answer can be pressed as far as the heart will bear.

The Grace of Repentance

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From Archimandrite Sophrony’s On Prayer

There, on the Holy Mountain, my life found its right track. Almost every day after the Liturgy I knew a feeling of Easter joy.And strange as it may seem, my constant prayer like some volcanic eruption proceeded from the profound despair that ahd taken over my heart. Two seemingly totally incompatible states met together in me. I am recording facts. I did not understand myself what was happeing to me. Outwardly I was no less fortunate than most people.

Later, things became clear to me: The Lord had granted me the grace of repentance. Tes, it was a grace. The moment despair slackened, prayer cooled off and death would invade my heart. Through repentance, my being expanded until in spirit I touch upon both hell and the Kingdom…

The heart is such a strange thing – well revealed by the great Elder’s writings. To be both in a place of despair and yet in a place of prayer. It is why “technique” has so little place in the spiritual life. There are things we can do, and yet all that we do is and must be in relation to God. God is not an object or any such thing. He cannot be found by technique. Christ offers the simple formula: ‘ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).

The answer to the human heart is to be found in a relationship that is personal, a relationship that is marked by freedom and love. Strangely, we cannot change the heart by our own actions, but only by the gift of God. Thus we pray and thus we wait – ’til He have mercy.

In this sense the goal of the human life is a state of constant repentance – again, not that we can repent as an action of our own. Repentance is the state of the heart when it is in communion with God. This is the reason that Orthodox spiritual writings place such great store in the “gift of tears,” and similar attitudes of heart. It is, in my opinion, why Orthodox spiritual writings are not overwhelmingly concerned with issues of social justice and the like. One ought to do justice, with this there is no disagreement. But it may also be the case that the difficulties one encounters in life is itself are the very occasions in which repentance is born. It is a recognition that were every “wrong” set “right” the primary issue of our existence would still be unaddressed.

Nothing could bear witness to this better than the life of modern man. We enjoy a better “quality” of life than any generation previous to us, and yet that “quality” is somehow not the meaning of our life.

Thus asceticism, in which voluntarily make our lives more difficult, is seen as an utterly necessary part of our spiritual being. It may not necessarily be the “hell” which Archimandrite Sophrony writes about, but there is still the reality of true asceticism. There can be no Christian life that does not embrace the Cross, and by this is meant as well a life that is shaped by the taking up of the Cross.

The Problem with having a God

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I offer a little personal observation today (there is usally some everyday even when I am writing about something else). But today I am thinking about the problem of having a God.

The problem with God is not the same thing as the problem with religion. Many people have a religion but do not have a problem with God. Many people have a Church but have no problem with God. Many people have a spiritual life but have no problem with God.

In a nutshell, I would say that if you have no problem with God, chances are you do not have a God.

Imagine someone who is Lord of Heaven and Earth and He is involved in your day to day existence. How is that not a problem? It certainly doesn’t mean you get to have your own way all the time, or even much of the time.

I frequently find in discussion of the Orthodox faith with others – the final rub – the unspoken difficulty – is God. He is almost never described as the problem (very few admit to having a problem with God – and that itself, I think, is a problem).  Many people like certain aspects of Orthodoxy and would gladly add certain ones to their life or even to their Church – but the givenness of the whole thing – the take it or leave it aspect of Orthodoxy creates almost insurmountable problems. And I cannot say anything other than “take it or leave it” because of God. It’s not my Church, nor my invention. I am not free to fudge or spin. Indeed, if anything, as a priest it is my task to be sure that we do not avoid the problem with God.

God, of course, is not a problem. Sin is the problem and God is the solution. But they do not easily coexist. God will destroy sin, or sin will attempt to destroy God.

There really is a God. If that is a problem for you, then you have begun your journey of salvation. If God is not a problem for you, you may be living in delusion. Get real.

The good news about the “Problem,” is that He is God – Who finally is not a problem, but the only solution to our problem. And that is not a delusion.

“Are You Saved?”

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My life in the South has been marked by the question, “Are you saved?” As a child, street preachers from the local fundamentalist protestant college would hold forth in front of the Dollar Store (which was also the bus stop), guaranteeing something of a captive audience. The question in that context had a simple meaning:

a. you are born with the sin and guilt of Adam

b. you are thus deserving of hell.

c. only by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior can you be saved from those punishing flames.

d. Jesus is a God’s substitution who suffered the penalty which I deserved.

I know this sounds caricatured or may fail to do justice to the complete teaching of the Substitutionary Atonement, but it is as complete a version as was preached on the streets, or in the pulpits of my native South Carolina hometown.

By age 13 certain contradictions within this account of salvation became obvious to me. For one, the problem of extrinsic righteousness. I didn’t know that was the term for a righteousness that is understood solely in terms of my legal standing before God – but it was certainly what I had been taught. The problem with it is that it seemed to me to lack something.

One thing it lacked, was an actual change in me. Everyone I knew did not want to go to hell (who would), but I can’t honestly say that I knew many people who wanted to go to heaven for heaven’s sake. Heaven only seemed desireable as an alternative lifestyle. Indeed, the idea of praising God forever and ever sounded boring beyond belief.

Thus it was that at around age 13 I came to not believe in God, or, at least, not in the God I had been told about. It seemed too boring, too beside the point and even childish. I was interested in God (if there was one) but not in that one.

I could expand on this – and probably will at some time in the future. But I had arrived at a fairly precocious age where many people in our culture have reached: atheism as the rejection of a false gospel.

Today I have learned to say to atheists: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in; I may not believe in that God either.”

I’ll pick up the autobiography another time – but I will leap ahead today to a question I sometimes hear from local Protestants when they are asking me about Orthodoxy (I am not infrequently the only Orthodox Christian some people have met around here). That question is: “Do you believe in salvation by grace?”

Now this is a better question than, “Are you saved.” And it is able to be answered more easily from an Orthodox perspective. The answer is simply, “We not only believe in salvation by grace, we think that grace is what salvation itself actually is.”

This is to say: We believe that grace is nothing other than the very Life of God. What is wrong with us as human beings (sinners) is that we have cut ourselves off from this Life of God. We have rejected Him, and rather than walking in the Light of His Life, we walk in darkness and do deeds of darkness, hurting one another and distorting yet further the image of God within us. Thus salvation is turning to God and “uniting ourselves to Him.” We believe this happens in our acceptance of Him as Lord and Savior, and is sealed within us in Holy Baptism, nourished by Holy Communion, and every action of our life together as the Body of Christ. Grace is not simply how we are saved, it is the very content of our salvation.

I could draw fine points and say that this salvation by, in, with and through the Grace of God also requires our cooperation, but still this means only that we must live in relationship with God as persons, that is in relationships of love and freedom. Any other kind of relationship would be a distortion of what God has for us in union with Him.

We are saved by grace, by the very Life of God, but most obviously, this salvation is a process, or must be seen as something of a process. “Do you believe that you can lose your salvation?” Some Baptists in the area ask.

We believe that, despite the love of God, despite the steadfastness and complete commitment of God to us, we can in fact still exercise freedom to turn away from God. We not only believe this is so, the Church has seen this any number of times. “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world,” (2 Timothy 4:10), Paul writes with haunting implications. The word “Apostasy” would mean nothing if there were no possibility of “falling away.” Indeed, Scripture speaks of a “falling away” that will occur (2 Thessalonians 3:3) before the end of all things.

And yet we hope in God. But to the question, “Are you saved?” Orthodoxy is always hesitant. We would not ask the question that way, because it is not a Scriptural question. “Have you united yourself to Christ?” is the question placed at Holy Baptism.

But away from all theory – the simple reality is the grace of God, the very Life of God Himself. Do I live in union with His Life? Do I yield myself to Him at every moment? Do I understand that His Life is my life, and that my true self can only be found in Him? These are the questions of salvation questions worth asking, not only of myself, but with my closet friend, with my priest, with someone. What else in life could have such importance?

Perhaps as important as any of those questions is the fact that the Orthodox understanding of salvation presumes a change in me. Salvation is not extrinsic, but works in the inner person, transforming us and conforming us to the image of Christ.

I am aware that the West placed much of this thought into a category of “sanctification,” but this can also be to make it secondary instead of primary.

It is primary because without an inner change we remain what we are and the possibility of honest, true fellowship with God remains impaired, not to speak of honest, true fellowship with one another.

I have found it to be important that those who are living the Orthodox faith together in Church always remember that they themselves need to be changed and are not yet what they are going to become, and that those around them need to be changed and are not yet what they are going to become. With that understanding, we can practice mercy and patience towards one another, pray for one another, and labor together for our common salvation as Christ (and only Christ) transforms us from the broken persons that we are into the persons we are to become.

I will continue to post, from time to time, more thoughts on Orthodox salvation. Indeed, everything may be about Orthodox salvation if we look at it hard enough.