Often when I am answering questions from inquirers, I realize that I am saying (or writing) something that might be a blessing to others. When that happens, I usually ask the person I am responding to if he or she would mind if I used some of what I have written to them as the basis of a blog post and podcast. Yesterday I did my best to answer some questions from an inquirer and thought I might like to use some of what I wrote as the basis for a blog post and podcast. I heard back from this inquirer this morning and she wrote: “of course you may use this for the blog. I pray that it may be helpful for others who are also wandering around blind.”
Isn’t that how it is most of the time? Most of the time that’s how I feel: like I’m wandering around blind. It’s not as though I see nothing, it’s not as though I am absolutely blind. Rather, it is more like the blindness of the scholar who knows enough to know how much he doesn’t know. It seems as though the nearer I draw to God, the farther away I realize I am. The more I realize, the less I understand. People sometimes ask me about certainty: “How can you be certain about your faith in God?” Honestly, I gave up certainty years ago. The only thing I am certain of is my utter dependence on the mercy of God.
But back to my inquiring friend. She asked me four questions. I answered the second and third questions quickly and easily. I said, “I don’t know.” The first and fourth questions I flattered myself to think that I could say a little something about.
The first question had to do with my friend’s growing awareness of her thoughts and feelings. She says that after an immediate impulsive thought or emotion she sometimes stops herself before the thought or emotion explodes into a secondary state. She wrote, “I find myself stopping before I move on to a secondary emotional state…. I am able to pause after the impulse reaction before engaging with the secondary emotions/thoughts that usually perpetuate frustration/anger/etc. or provide distraction from what is truly being revealed.” She asked how these impulse reactions (thoughts and feelings) can be transformed.
My friend’s fourth question had to do with her own sin and “the darker aspects of the Orthodox tradition.” Here she is referring to corrupt and immoral or just plain incompetent Church leaders, Orthodox Christian political leaders who have waged war with the blessing of their bishops, and the multitude of inconsistencies, betrayals, and examples of human selfishness, greed and lack of compassion that have always been present in Orthodox Christianity—sometimes more and sometimes less, sometimes more obviously, sometimes hidden.
My friend actually does a good job of answering her own question here. She writes, “And, funnily, it is Orthodoxy that has taught me how to become tempered, patient, and open to this reality. The freedom I have experienced in the last year has chipped away at the guilt and shame from many years of religious expectations. I can only be who I am today, and I can only do what little I can do today. I recognize that there are dark places, inside and outside all religious traditions. While I could use that as reasoning to distance myself, I have seen too much light, too much beauty, too much love in the Orthodox church to turn away.” In the end, her entire fourth question, which went on for quite a while, didn’t actually include even one question mark. As is sometimes the case, our questions are implied in the confused thoughts and counter thoughts that sometimes swirl in our mind.
In my response, I pretty much lumped questions one and four together, seeing that at least on some levels they are connected. Here is what I wrote back.
I will have to answer questions #2 and #3 with, “I don’t know.” At least for now I must say I don’t know because, a) in any ultimate or universal sense, I do not know; and b) I don’t think speculating on these things will be helpful for you right now. Right now, questions #1 and #4 are pretty much right on. That is, they are helpful things to be paying attention to right now. However, I can assure you that there isn’t a single “correct” answer to these questions. Rather, the answers will grow and change with you as you journey through your life.
Beginning with question #1, noticing thoughts and feelings before they get into that secondary state is very important. When you do this, you realize that you are not your thoughts and feelings. You have those thoughts and feelings, but you decide what to do with them—if you can notice them before they take on a life of their own. As you continue the practice of noticing thoughts and feelings, and then controlling yourself and/or channelling the thoughts and feelings in a healthy way, then the Holy Spirit will teach you deeper things. The Holy Spirit will teach you about your own darkness (which is connected to your question #4) and you will learn to accept Light in those dark areas. What I mean is that you will learn to hold both your brokenness and God’s love for you in your heart at the same time. This will not be easy; or rather, this will be painful, it really doesn’t have anything to do with easy or not easy.
It will be painful because we all wish we could offer God a better offering than who we really are, but part of our salvation is realizing that we have only our broken selves to offer God—only the two widow’s mites, only the precious myrrh earned by prostitution of some sort, only the brokenness of a prodigal who has wasted all of her Father’s gifts. As we know this more deeply, two things happen.
First, the amazing extent of God’s love becomes more real to us. When I see myself as a basically good person who merely makes mistakes, then it doesn’t take a very big God to love me. But when I begin to see the depths of my darkness, then God grows exponentially in my eyes. It takes a very great God to love such a broken person as me. A corollary of this realization is that if God loves this much someone as broken as me, then God must be able to love everyone, no matter how broken they are, just as much as God loves me. Seeing and accepting both your own brokenness and God’s love for you also helps you understand and not judge the brokenness of others: especially the brokenness of those in the Church or of the sins and mistakes Church itself both today and throughout history.
The Fathers talk about three stages or aspects of our salvation: (1) purification, (2) illumination and (3) theosis. Purification has at least partly to do with your question #1. As we purify our nous by prayerfully attending to our thoughts, we put ourselves in a position in which illumination is more conducive (we are better able to notice the light of illumination because we are cleaning up the inner noise and garbage running rampant in our thoughts and feelings). And this then leads to theosis, actual transformation, becoming more like Christ. However, transformation, or theosis, is not something we can see in ourselves (as a student doesn’t realize her growing knowledge, but only how much more there is to learn than she ever imagined before—but it is her very growth in knowledge that enables her to realize how much she doesn’t know). So for most people, especially those living in the world, our experience of theosis is mostly in area #1, purification of the nous by attending to and managing thoughts and feelings through prayerful attention (often by practicing the Jesus Prayer). Then, as we do this, we have moments of awareness, #2 illumination. But what is illumined is what had been in the dark, often something we didn’t want to see, often something ugly about ourselves. Here is where the verse comes in, “Agree with your adversary quickly while you are on the way with him.” Our “adversary” here is the Holy Spirit illuminating something we don’t want to see in ourselves. But rather than trying to justify ourselves, we agree (which is, by the way, what ‘to confess’ means).
However, we can only agree if we are secure in God’s love. Remember the verse, “with the same measure you use, it will be measured to you”? When we judge others harshly, it becomes difficult for us to accept God’s love for us as we are illumined by the Holy Spirit to see how broken and dark we really are. In these cases, we either fall into depression or arrogant delusion. But if we are generous in our judgement of others, it is easier for us to accept God’s love for us when we experience moments of illumination. That is, we end up judging ourselves as harshly or as mercifully as we judge others.
The resulting fruit of this process is transformation, or (3) theosis, which we can never see in ourselves. As I said, what we mostly see is the “spiritual warfare” of the battle to be aware of and control our own thoughts.
Well, that’s what I wrote to my inquiring friend.
You know, I’m not sure that what I wrote actually answered any of my friend’s specific questions. Maybe I was writing an implied response to her implied questions. Nonetheless, since I haven’t posted anything for a while, I thought I would share this with you. Perhaps what I have written will encourage someone.