Thursday, September 27, 2007

How it All Happened

A woman from across the street (Gambetta Street), whose balcony is directly opposite ours, struck up a conversation with Demetrios yesterday. After only a few words, it turned out she was the same person Demetrios remembers as a little girl, Maria, who lived in the same place! We even have a photograph of her at about age 6. It’s an interesting story, so I’ll tell it.

Demetrios grew up in the nearby town of Kilkis. (I’ll add a placemark to that map of Greece; Kilkis is almost due north of Thessaloniki.) His father had been executed by the Communist insurgents as a spy (which he was) when Demetrios was only four years old. The result was, his family was dirt poor, literally never sure where the next day’s food would come from. However, when Demetrios was ten years old, he won the national lottery. The ticket his grandmother had bought him came in first place. The prize was a bag full of gold coins, Swiss francs.

Demetrios’ mother thought long and hard how to make best use of this money. Finally she hit upon what I consider an ingenious plan. It would benefit Demetrios directly (as was only fair) but the whole family indirectly. The money must be used to move to Thessaloniki, where the university was, and the boy, being exceptionally bright, must be educated there. He must become a doctor and earn enough money to make the whole family secure forever after.

So it came about that when he was in high school, Demetrios and his family moved here. The gold coins, plus what they had received from the sale of their house in Kilkis, was almost enough money for the house they purchased here. They only had to borrow a little. Demetrios went to the Aristotelian University and became a doctor, although he would have preferred to be a professor of humanities.

And that is how he met many of his best friends, the people with whom we hang out to this day. And that is how Demetrios came to America (where he had to repeat most of his medical training) and how I eventually met him, and, in short, that is what made his life what it has been and still is -- including why he is rather poor, as doctors go; he did faithfully support his family and still does to this day.

It was a house his mother bought, not a condominium, a traditional Greek house. Then in the ‘Sixties, the developers came around. They wanted to build big buildings. They promised Demetrios’ family two apartments, each larger than the house, if they could tear the house down and put an apartment building in its place. So that is what the family did, and the family next door. This building occupies the spot where those two houses once stood. And that is why we have a place in Greece to come to when we are able, a place we feel able to leave for months or years at a time if we like (which would not be the case with a regular house at ground level). All because Demetrios won the lottery and because his mother used the money wisely.

Maria’s house, across the street, suffered the same fate, with the same deal. Thus, she still lives on that corner, but in a condo on one storey of it. It was not until years later people realized how this kind of "development", with plain, rather ugly, modern buildings, had spoiled their fair city.

And by the way, medicine, specifically psychiatry, turned out to be Demetrios’ true calling after all, as is evidenced by the near-miraculous cures he achieves. This year, he worked at the hospital from January through mid-September. He had 20 patients at a time, all long-term, “hopeless” cases. He had to work until midnight for the two weeks before we came here to write all their discharge summaries. Turns out there were 14 of them! He still didn’t finish one of them, and has brought it with him to finish up at some point while we’re here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Lazy Day

We walked the six blocks from our house to the waterfront today. We had taken books, thinking we might sit in the late afternoon sunshine and read them, but then were too lazy even to do that. We just took a seat at a little outdoor spot where they served a hot chocolate (for me) and an espresso (for Demetrios) and we watched the freighters coming in and out of the harbor.

A flock of pigeons landed near us, so Demetrios tossed them some of the dry cat food I always carry in my purse, and it was gone in an Augenblick – the blink of an eye. We especially enjoyed one pure white bird with black eyes and a yellow beak. He had fluffy feathers all the way down his legs to his ankles and looked like somebody’s lost fancy racing pigeon.

After a while we got up and walked along the promenade about a third of the way to the White Tower, then turned back and walked home through the city streets, for a change of pace.

Came home and read, lying down! Demetrios is reading The Israel Lobby, a most enlightening book, from the passages he has read me aloud! It’s an eye opener every American ought to read. We are such an ill-informed nation! I’m reading The Life in Christ of St. Nicholas Cabasilas.

We turned the TV on for the first time since we got here. After the news, guess what showed? Zorro! With Greek subtitles. Anybody remember that, from about 1959? We watched it just for fun. Now, as an adult, I can see that the theme is, “Those nasty, mean, stupid Spanish v. the reasonable, sane, good, oppressed Americans in Spanish California, championed by Zorro, the single good Spaniard.” Sigh…

I cooked us a little dinner, first cooking I’ve done since we arrived here, which we ate on our balcony. We watched a woman in the park below introduce her new puppy to some of the neighborhood children. It appears to be a Beagle, but with all-white head and ears; the brown and black are only on its saddle.

Here is a picture (from the Internet) of the White Tower.

Anmerican to Greek: “What form of government does Greece have?”
Greek: “An hereditary democracy.”
American: “Oh, same as we!”

Two Old Fogeys

Demetrios says he feels “normal” today, but I still don’t.

Yesterday we were pretty pathetic. We went to the central bus terminal to catch an inter-city bus to Katerini, where Christos lives, and we were so tired and so dull-witted we sat right there and watched while our bus pulled away without us. That’s the sort of thing that makes me want to crawl back into bed and just stay there, more or less permanently.

We caught the next bus, which I am grateful to say left within the next half-hour, so no harm done.

Christos mortgaged his condo (across the hall from ours, occupying the other half of this floor) and used the money to build himself a home in the seaside resort of Katerini, meanwhile renting his condo to pay the mortgage. The house is unfinished, but looks very nice so far. It has a sunken living room with black marble flooring, a corner fireplace, 3 bedrooms, an unfinished upstairs.

The first thing we did upon arriving was lie down and fall asleep! At least I did; they stayed up and drank coffee and talked.

Christos was full of stories of his latest visit to Venice. His daughter lives and works there and he himself also studied architecture there. He says he visited the palace of the Doge, and saw rooms full of glorious paintings. “There was one scene of the Nativity, another of the Resurrection – and on the opposite wall, a huge portrait of Venus! With assorted other uncovered bottoms. And the pope had commissioned all of these.” He shook his head. “I just don’t understand. How does one mix these things?”

But the fresco that impressed him the most, a picture, he said, “As big as from here to Stelios’ house,” was of the Last Judgment. It showed all of humanity coming before God one by one, and right there, at Christ’s side, was the pope, pointing out to Him which people were to be saved, and which condemned. We howled at that! I asked, “Which pope, of the many there have been, gets the honor of helping God judge us all?” Christos shrugged and said he supposed each pope got to do it for the people who had died during his pontificate. “But do they really think God needs help in choosing? I mean, you hear these things, but that doesn’t make such a big impression as when you see all laid out graphically.”

In the late afternoon, we drove 4 miles (or was it 4 kilometers?) to Paraleia, the neighboring town that really is, literally, seaside. We went to our favorite sitting place, the Hotel Panorama, where we took a table overlooking the water, and we sat there nibbling treats and drinking coffee (or water, in my case) and just watching the gentle waves, and a flock of small gulls bobbing in the water. The waves are not big here, as they are on the Atlantic Coast. They’re just little ups and downs, as if the sea were breathing.

I had brought my swimsuit and towel, but nobody else was in the water, and I decided not to go in, either. The water would certainly have been warm enough, but there was a distinct chill in the air. Anyway, it was peaceful, soul-soothing, just to sit there while the sky turned pink and then dark blue.

We caught the 8:30 bus back to Thessaloniki and got home by 9:45 or so, stopping on our way at our favorite fruit and vegetable stand to greet Thanasis and his wife, Vasiliki, who greeted us warmly.

A CAT-scan has revealed “cracks” in Dad’s pelvis from his fall the other day. Last update I got, he was in the emergency room at the hospital, waiting for a room assignment. A broken hip is usually the beginning of the end, for the elderly.

It upsets me so much to think of him lying there in his bathroom for heaven only knows how long, hours perhaps, with nobody coming to rescue him – despite the fact that an alarm would have been sounding the whole time. It sounds whenever he gets out of bed, but nobody ever comes in response. How many times have I emphasized to the staff that the MAIN reason Dad was there was to prevent a fall. And this facility has such a wonderful reputation, is supposed to be so elite! If I had known the truth, I wouldn’t have entrusted my cat to them! It’s called Renaissance Gardens, and it’s a part of a larger complex known as Greenspring. Greenspring is great, but R. Gardens is a snake pit. So if any of you readers live in Northern Virginia, do NOT let your parent(s) go there!

The good thing is, I’m in Greece. Otherwise I’d have been there with him – not that he knows who I am anymore or would know the difference – and that’s exactly the sort of thing I’ve been doing for a year and a half now, and desperately need a break from for a while.

Not that being far away really helps; the resting is only physical. My heart is still there and still breaking.

Monday, September 24, 2007



We still haven’t yet adjusted to the time change. I think the problem comes not just from jet lag, but from the fact that until the day we came, Demetrios worked far too hard, too long, and too many hours, while I have been under enormous stress from various family situations. We still feel beat up, worn out, exhausted, sleepy, and without energy.

Yesterday morning we woke up at 9:30; church had started at 8:00, so we missed it altogether. Demetrios stayed an hour or so and then went right back to bed and slept most of the day.

We did make it to Vespers in the evening. We hopped on a bus (standing room only) downtown and went to the Church of St. Athanasios. They have some wonderful icons there, including one of my beloved St. Mary of Egypt. And one of Martyr St. Barbara. I took the opportunity of thanking my sister’s patroness for her prayers. (Not to worry, all you children of the Reformation! I did not neglect to prostrate myself before the icon of Christ before kneeling in front of St. Barbara’s. I reverenced Him in His own body as well as in hers.) I cried my way through Vespers, then sobered up for the Akathist that followed. We left after that service, although a third service of some sort had begun.

We walked to the White Tower, a fortification on the waterfront remaining from the ancient city wall. It is to Thessaloniki what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, or at least that is the comparison travel magazines make. It may be saying too much. The White Tower houses a museum now. We went to the White Tower in search of what Demetrios assured me was a well-known restaurant "across from it" with the best meatballs in town. We never found the restaurant and nobody we asked knew it, but the evening walk was pleasant.

So we caught a bus back to our neighborhood, where we had seen a restaurant in whose front window was a charcoal pit with a whole lamb roasting on the spit. That was Saturday we saw the lamb. Turns out they only serve charcoal grilled lamb Saturday nights and Sundays at lunch. Another time! What they had this time was delicious pork chops.

Passing a sweets shop on the way home, we bought a “pasta,” a confection half cake and half chocolate mousse, with crème and a cherry on the top, and took that home to share on our balcony. We sat in the dark, listening to the voices floating in the air, especially two little girls on two different balconies, across the street from each other, managing to have a game together that way.

The doves that used to roost on our balcony have not made an appearance. We miss their soft coos in the morning. Perhaps they are no longer alive, or perhaps it is the wrong season for them, although there are a few others in the neighborhood. There are no signs of them on the balcony railing, but that may be only because Christos, my brother-in-law, cleaned up before we came.

“Our” cat Oedipus Rex (“Eddy Puss Rex”), the feral cat with the broken foot the vet could not repair, has also not showed himself so far. We are still hopeful. The cat box I had placed for him in the parking lot is still there. I retrieved the blanket I had put in it a year and a half ago, and brought it home and laundered it. Somebody will use it, even if not Oedipus.

Today we thought of visiting Christos, but the thought was unappealing because of our low energy. In the event, Christos saved us the trouble by showing up here. He and Demetrios went to the phone store and came back with one land-line phone and one cell phone.

The land-line has limited minutes, so is cheap enough to keep even when we are not here. That will be a nice change from having to go through this on each and every visit to Greece, with a different phone number each time, to boot.

The cell phone is more expensive but, in a foreign country whose language I barely speak, it was imperative. New house rule: whoever is gone from the house carries the cell phone, turned on!

By tonight, our friends will all have our number and then the fun will begin in earnest!

Of course, as long as the cell phone is turned on, Big Brother will also be able to track our every move. We consider that tyranny, here as in the States, but there isn’t much we can do about it. Christos says the new identity cards in Greece also have global positioning chips in them, so the government can tell where you are at all times -- speaking of tyranny. He also says the newer televisions are rigged so that “they” can see YOU. No idea whether this is true. It would be interesting to find out. That would be pretty bad, to have to be mindful about what you wear and do while watching television.

While Demetrios and Christos were gone, I did my very favorite thing to do here, which, strangely enough, is hanging out my laundry! I don’t know what it is about pinning the laundry to the clotheslines just outside my balcony, but I just love doing it! Maybe it’s the least tourist-like thing I do; maybe it makes me feel some connection to all the other women around here who are doing the same thing. Maybe I even feel connected to the women who have been doing this here for thousands of years! (This city was founded by Alexander the Great and named after his sister – and evangelized by Sts. Paul and Barnabas.) Maybe it’s just all those white, clean things, blowing gently in the sunshine. Maybe it’s the fact that there’s an art to this chore. You have to be careful, for example, to check your sheets before pinning them out, in case you’ve got some other article caught up in side. You do not want your damp lingerie to blow into a nearby tree-top or drop on some unsuspecting pedestrian. Well, whatever the reason, I get huge satisfaction out of this housewifely activity.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Map of our Condo in Greece


Here is a map of our location in Greece. Our building is at the bottom left of the big dark area. That area consist of Baron Hirsch Street, plus a parking lot on the north edge of it, plus (look closely) a triangular park at the southwest edge of it. The park shows as slightly darker than the street. Our balcony overlooks that little park, and wraps around to the street on the west, Gambetta, the main north-south street you see near the middle of the map.

Our apartment occupies whole north half of the building. We are on the 5th floor of seven. (But in Europe, it's counted as the 4th floor, the first one being called "Ground Floor". Isogeion, in Greek, from "iso", equal to, + "geia", earth or ground.)

You will probably have to zoom out one level to see anything. (Click on the minus sign.) You can also zoom out further to see surroundings. Mediterranean Sea to the left.

View Larger Map

We Have Arrived in Greece

It was a rough trip to Greece. I had purposely scheduled us a long time at Kennedy Airport, having heard about all the delays there. But of course the delays are more getting OUT of there than getting in. The delays are caused by overuse, same as when you have gridlock on an interstate highway. At JFK at any given time, there are at least 20 planes waiting for take off – per runway! And those same runways are also shared by incoming aircraft. The result, for us, is that we were supposed to take off at 4:30 p.m., and indeed, we were all boarded and ready for an on-time departure, but it was 7:10 before we took off.

We missed our connecting flight in Athens by about 10 minutes. The next flight to Thessaloniki that had any seats left was in six hours. Two earlier ones were full. The only amusement by then was when I paid attention (for once) to the little safety spiel they always give you before taking off. You know the drill. The stuff about the oxygen masks, ect. They drop down automatically. You pull firmly down on yours, place it over your nose and mouth, fit the elastic behind your head, and breathe normally; but in Greek, they tell you to breathe “canonically.”

Then there was the question of which flight(s) our luggage had taken. However, with some help from Lost and Found, we located all our bags without too much trouble.

Christos was there to meet us, Demetrios’ brother. Kostas and Mena came, too, our dear friends. I cried as I hugged Mena. Usually do.

Mena took us home to her house and fed us a simple meal that looked and tasted like chili but was just beans, plus some salad. Then, home for a desperately needed rest.

We slept 10 or 12 hours, I suppose. Maybe more; who’s paying attention?

Today we began unpacking and cleaning. I had left this place spotless, but that was over a year ago. Furthermore, somebody has obviously been cooking in here and using the washing machine. My brother-in-law looks after the place and takes care of bills for us (out of the money we give him) and so forth, so I don’t mind his using the place when he is in town. Except for having to clean up afterwards. To give credit where it is due, he tried. He did his best.

Something black has been poured down our brand new toilet and I’m having trouble getting it out. We shall have to inquire about that.

We went around to the supermarket for a few toiletry items. We usually try to avoid the supermarket in favor of the mom-and-pop stores, but you can’t get everything in those. After the supermarket, on to our favorite neighborhood grocery store, where we got hugs and greetings from Nikoletta and Stelios, proprietors. We bought some of Nikoletta’s homemade eggplant salad, delicious, and some cheese and olives and tarama (Greek caviar). Plus some of my favorite yogurt, made with sheep’s milk. I eat it for breakfast with honey. We also bought sultanas, a white grape that is in season, the sweetest, most tender grape in the world.

On the way back, we met Zesis, our downstairs neighbor. Next thing we knew, his wife, Thomai, was up here with hugs and kisses and exclamations. What a love!

After lunch on our balcony, we had long naps.

In the early evening, took a walk around the neighborhood, being careful first to tuck a baggie full of dry cat food into my purse. Sure enough, we encountered a whole host of scrawny, feline friends.

We walked to a fast food place where I had souvlaki and Demetrios had gyro. Then, on to the waterfront park. We just stood there for a while admiring the sea and the sky and the ships, all lit up for the night. Back home past a sweets shop, where we got ice cream cones, lemon for me, fig for him. Yup, fig ice cream!

WORST news of the day: Dad has had another fall. This time he is hurt, although with no broken bones, thanks be to God. The nurses’ aide came to fetch him to the dining room for supper last night and found him on his bathroom floor, unable to get up. Of course the alarm would have been sounding, as it always does when he gets out of bed, but nobody ever responds. The staff just do not care and are quite rude when their duty is pointed out to them.

BEST news of the day, of the year: My sister, Barbara reports that her full-body PET-scan shows she is tumor-free! Alleluia! Nothing, not even Dad’s fall, can take away the joy of that! Glory to God!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Mother Teresa and the Darkness

"I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (John 8:12)

The Time article about the published letters of Mother Teresa that has provoked the recent brouhaha over her has a psychoanalyst saying she struggled with pride. “Rather than simply giving all credit to God, Gottlieb observes, she agonizes incessantly that ‘any taking credit for her accomplishments — if only internally — is sinful…’" To say this sort of agonizing went on unceasingly her whole life long is to imply she was not winning that struggle with pride.

The very title of the book containing her letters seems to corroborate this idea. It is Come be My Light. That is what Mother Teresa thought she heard Jesus saying to her, “Come be My light.” Now it is true that Jesus said, “Ye are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), but do you know any saint (any Orthodox saint, that is) who ever thought of himself that way? Quite the opposite.

Mother Teresa’s statement of her ambition was, “I want to love Jesus as He has never been loved before.” What? You really think you are going to outdo St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John, or His own mother? Perhaps it is telling that her sense of God’s absence began at very time she set out to accomplish this ambition. The Time article says, “The more success Teresa had … the worse she felt.”

If the portrait of pride in this book is anywhere near accurate – and the article in Time, perhaps unwittingly, cites several other apparent examples – it would indeed account for all the data. Most of us have experienced that pride is one of the strongest motivators in the world; it sneaks into us under humble-sounding words; it loves to be pious; and it will drive out the sense of God’s presence faster than anything else. “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)

The book should raise a question among Catholics whether she ought to be canonized. Although anyone who is honest has wrestled with doubt, and although the Orthodox, too, sometimes undergo a “dark night,” we have not known it to be permanent unless something is very much amiss. Is a soul that feels herself permanently bereft of faith and love, out of touch with God, and filled with darkness, loneliness, and “torment” (her word) a condition to which other Christians ought to aspire, much less a paragon of deification?

She herself thought it was. According to one of her confessors, she eagerly accepted his opinion that “the night of her heart was the special share she had in Jesus' passion” and this gratifying thought became, in the words of the psychoanalyst, “the organizing center of her personality.” In 1962 she wrote, "If I ever become a Saint — I will surely be one of 'darkness.' I will continually be absent from Heaven — to [light] the light of those in darkness on earth.” As the article notes, “Theologically, this is a bit odd.” It is actually more than a bit odd.

The larger question this raises for all of us is: what is the difference between a “dark night of the soul” and real, if subtle, wandering away from God? If we don’t know it, or if our spiritual fathers cannot discern it for us, we’re all in real danger.

The book’s very existence raises a smaller question, too: how do these letters come to be published? Mother Teresa had written them to her confessors and confidants and had requested they be destroyed. (Her remarkable thinking was, “If the letters became public, people will think more of me — less of Jesus.") I don’t care if these letters weren’t technically “under the seal” of confession; that is a mere technicality, to insist upon which would be fatuous. The letters most certainly should have been treated as confessions, honoring her request. If you say she likely didn’t mean it about destroying them and secretly hoped they would be published some day, so it’s okay, no, it is not okay. All the more, in such a case, should she have been protected from their publication.

Bad enough that the Vatican should ever even have been made aware of the existence of these letters; worse that Rome apparently approved or instigated this breach of confidentiality, this stripping of a soul before the whole world, this comfort for atheists, this scandal for some, and this diminishing of her reputation among others.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An Evangelical Makes a List

My goddaughter, while she was still an Evangelical, upon first encountering Orthodoxy, made a list of thirteen things Orthodoxy had which her denomination did not. Fully cognizant of the fact that her denomination is only one among many and not necessarily typical of anything, I here reproduce the list she made.

1.) Beauty
2.) Liturgy
3.) Sacraments
4.) Theosis (union with God in Christ)
5.) Understanding spiritual, practical implications of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity
6.) Understanding and spiritual, practical implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation
7.) “Elegant theology” – I do not know what she meant, but intend to ask.
8.) Depth and breadth
9.) “Answers to questions I’ve always had.” Ditto to that from me!
10.) Services chalk full of prayer, praise, Scripture, “and content!”
11.) Being relatively heresy proof. The Church has already addressed all the heresies and there are no genuinely new ones. Moreover, there are safeguards in place.
12.) Awareness of pre-Reformation church history
13.) Recognition of the value of spiritual guidance

P.S. Tomorrow morning (Thursday) we are leaving for Greece. There will therefore be a hiatus on this blog. Whenever I DO get hooked up to the Internet again, probably what I will post mostly will be my adventures over there. (And the trip is absolutely guaranteed to be an adventure! Greece is a perpetual adventure in progress. To participate in it, all you have to do is be there!)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


The story of the Prodigal Son used to make me quite angry on behalf of the elder brother. Not that I faulted the father for killing the fatted calf, but to do that after never even having offered the “good son” so much as a kid to make merry with his friends! I thought the elder brother had an excellent point.

Demetrios, of course, set me straight on all that. He reminded me that the older son is the type of the Pharisee, outwardly good but with a rotten attitude. Instead of focusing upon external things like partying with his friends, he should have been enjoying his father’s love.

“No, that’s not the point!” I said, hotly. “It’s that the outward things do also matter! They betoken the inward. How come his father, who supposedly loved him so much, never even gave him a kid? Maybe he can deal with that, but then the fatted calf gets killed for his no-good younger brother; that’s too, too much! What is he supposed to think of that?”

“He is supposed to trust his father’s love. He could have had a kid or even the fatted calf any time he wanted; he had only to ask. But being outwardly focused, he wasn’t tuned in to that love. Neither did he love his father. You cannot love someone you do not trust. Had he loved his father, he would have gladly shared his father’s joy.”


Then we had a discussion about Pharisaism. I wondered aloud where I had learned to be such a Pharisee. And the startling answer, which presented itself almost immediately, was – in church! “Because in other churches,” I said, “they don’t teach you the inner stuff. They don’t know it. They teach you that you should love, but not how to cultivate love. They teach you to pray, but don’t guide you in the ways of prayer. They encourage you to do good, but have little to say about how to BE good, inside. You won’t learn in most churches HOW to hope, to believe, to be patient, to forgive, or how you should combat specific temptations, or what to do when you fall. I remember that was one of N.’s major complaints about Christianity; she said it lacked a method.”

“But that is not true. There are centuries of accumulated wisdom on all this, as well as living examples.”

“Yes, but for most churches what I said IS true. Somehow they aren’t aware of all that Tradition. So they are reduced to encouraging good behavior without knowing very much about attitude adjustment, as if it were just going to happen automatically or something. But good behavior with a rotten attitude, that’s Pharisaism. So because they don’t know this stuff, these churches are inadvertently encouraging Pharisaism. That’s why you often hear people say a saint would be hard to live with. They’re confusing a saint with a Pharisee.”

(A genuine saint, of course, is the easiest person in the world to live with. To live with a saint, like living with Jesus, would be the most wonderful, precious, life-giving, glorious and enviable experience of a lifetime. Even just to meet a saint is all that! Because a saint is “Christ with skin on.”)

It still baffles me how so many Christians are just unaware of the vast wisdom on all these things passed down by saints and heroes of Christ: the detailed spiritual advice, the practical how-to. When and how did this ignorance happen?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Beyond Naïve Belief

I read with some fascination Beyond Naïve Belief: The Bible and Adult Catholic Faith, by Paul E. Dinter, a former Catholic priest. What first got my attention about this book was a quotation from it in an Orthodox publication:

A literal understanding of the virgin birth that requires believers to accept the physical virginity of Mary in conceiving Jesus (hence, that there were no male chromosomes coming from Joseph) violates both the principle of instrumental causality as well as the laws of embryonic science. (p. 288)

Violates? Violates “instrumental causality”? Does God have to bow to Aristotle? Or to the current state of embryonic science? For that matter, did the “impossibility” of a virgin birth appear only in modern times, or did not the ancients, even with their embryonic science, already realize it as surely as we? Yet, are not all things possible with God?

That somebody may not believe literally in the virgin birth I can well understand, and I can respect his opinion, too – but not on those grounds! Surely, I said to myself, this author will make better sense, or at least some sense, in context.

Puzzled, therefore, and vexed, I bought the book and guess what? The context did not exonerate the author at all! At least the intellectual context didn’t. But two pages later, we find out the other, the true context:

What is at stake today in the literal understanding of the virgin birth as a biological miracle is…the entire complex of sexual and anthropological views that the Catholic hierarchy associates with the natural law and positive divine law. These are understood in absolutist fashion, impervious to any evolutionary development, supposedly written on the heart so that, if people follow sexual inclinations or sexual mores other than those defined as normative, they are guilty if not of sin then of deformations of an order that God is said to have declared must never be broken.

Ah. So it isn’t really about Aristotelian mental constructs after all, or embryonic science, either. It’s the indulgence of sexual passion in any form without guilt. Finally, at the end of the book, Dr. Dinter drops the masquerade. The pope and God, inadequately distinguished, are both alike unwelcome in his sex life. He tries to chase them both away by tinkering with doctrine – an undertaking unlikely to influence either of them.

Interestingly, despite the book’s subtitle, the other three doctrines the author mainly attacks are extra-biblical: papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception and the Catholic version of the Assumption. All these Roman doctrines, of course, also have implications for his sexual agenda.
Now it all clicks.

And that is quite a relief for me, because now I think I understand several other pieces of scholarly nonsense that used to puzzle me sorely. Whenever a smart person writes something stupid, implausible, or manifestly false, there is actually a reason for it, and a very strong one at that. The reason, however, will have nothing to do with an honest search for truth; it’s rather the opposite of dispassionate scholarship. Why did I never catch on to this before? Well, well! Quite a revelation to me, speaking of Naïve Belief!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Things I've Discovered Along the Way

1.) There are some sins in me that I cannot do a single thing about.

I cannot even repent. All I can do is to confess them and ask God to help me somehow with them, to bring me to the point of repentance. He does. Eventually. Something unexpected will happen, an external event perhaps, that begins to break up the inner glacier. You begin to feel the thawing, and then all the ice melts into tears and you’re healed.

2.) Even a little spiritual exertion pays big dividends.

God will honor even a small effort if it is all we can make. And the growth and the grace that flower from obedience (from giving grace more “operating space” within us) are all out of proportion to the small effort we made.

3.) If you take the medicine your spiritual father prescribes, it works!

Father N. sounds just like any other doctor when he says something like, “You try this, and if it doesn’t help, let me know right away, and we’ll do something else.” Then, unlike a secular doctor, he will add, “Because this is dangerous to you and must be stopped quickly.” Well, it does work! Every time. Not only is one able more easily to overcome a particular temptation, but the temptation itself occurs less often. It’s absolutely amazing. One might expect an elder, a staretz, to have acquired the wisdom of years, to have become a good amateur psychologist from long experience, but some of my spiritual fathers have been quite young. And yet, this unerring Wisdom! It is definitely the Holy Spirit at work.

4.) Every moment I am not repenting I am sliding backward.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Scholarly Ignorance

My dear friend Anita went to the National Gallery and in the gift shop bought me a beautiful little book entitled The Art of the Icon. It’s a treasure, full of gorgeous full-color plates. But the text is a gem of distortion, disinformation, and misunderstanding.

The term ‘icon’ … is loosely applied to the devotional panel paintings that were produced under the auspices of the Eastern Church. As in the West, the primary function of these pictures was to convey the main points of the liturgy to a largely illiterate congregation.

In the first place, why, in a book copyrighted in 1994, is the Orthodox church always referred to in the past tense?

What does “under the auspices of the Eastern Church” mean? The fact is simply that certain Christians paint icons, those who have the skill, knowledge and spirituality to do it. There are no “auspices,” there is no official oversight, there are no committees or monitors.

The primary function of these pictures it not at all “to convey the main points of the liturgy” to anybody, illiterate or educated. To the best of my knowledge, that is not the function of sacred art in the West, either, is it, “to convey the main points of the liturgy”?

Unlike their Western equivalents, however, icons were not straightforward illustrations of Biblical events. Rather they were venerated as sacred objects, as spiritual tools which allowed the faithful to commune directly with God. For this reason, their format was strictly regulated by the Church authorities.

An Orthodox Christian shakes his head in bewilderment over this passage.

Icons have no “Western equivalents.”

An icon strives to depict the inner, spiritual meaning of an event or the soul of the saint portrayed. If this is not straightforward, then we can only conclude that “straightforward” here means external or secular.

To say icons are “tools which allowed the faithful to commune directly with God” is, of course, an oxymoron. Such communing would by definition be indirect.

Again, there simply are no “Church authorities” who “regulate” anything about icons, period. Instead, there are certain techniques for portraying the spiritual instead of the carnal realities, and these techniques are known and studied by iconographers (whose first task is to be highly spiritual themselves). The people, too, know as if instinctively when an icon does or does not succeed spiritually; for devotional purposes, they will reject a mere worldly work of art, even if it is a Michelangelo.

The earliest surviving icons (sixth century) were discovered at St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai…

I have seen icons painted on the walls of the Roman catacombs that far predate the Sixth Century. They look just like icons painted ever since. (Where they “regulated by Church authorities” do you suppose?)

And so it goes, page after page. The author even speaks of saints being worshipped. I asked Demetrios, “Where do people GET all this?”

He said they observe what we do, i.e., the externals, and then make their own interpretations of what they see.

I said no, any decent scholar will at least talk to the people he’s studying before simply drawing his own conclusions.

Anybody who puts himself and his readers through so many historical, linguistic, and theological acrobatics as these is working from his own agenda, and it does not appear to be a benign one.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Feast of Exaltation of the Precious, Holy, Life-giving Cross

Pilate set up three crosses in the place of the Skull,
two for the thieves and one for the Giver of Life.
Seeing Him, hell cried to those below:
“O my ministers and powers!
Who is this that has fixed a nail in my heart?
A wooden spear has pierced me suddenly,
and I am torn apart. Inwardly I suffer;
anguish has seized my belly and my senses.
My spirit trembles,
and I am constrained to cast out Adam and his posterity.
A tree brought them to my realm,
but now the Tree of the Cross brings them back again to Paradise.
(from the Canon of the Holy Cross)

Ardently desiring to find the Cross on which our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, St. Constantine sent his mother, the pious Empress Helen (May 21), to Jerusalem, providing her with a letter to St. Macarius, Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Although the holy empress Helen was already in her declining years, she set about completing the task with enthusiasm. The empress gave orders to destroy the pagan temple and the statues in Jerusalem. Searching for the Life-Creating Cross, she made inquiry of Christians and Jews, but for a long time her search remained unsuccessful.

Finally, they directed her to a certain elderly Hebrew by the name of Jude who stated that the Cross was buried where the temple of Venus stood. They demolished the pagan temple and, after praying, they began to excavate the ground. Soon the Tomb of the Lord was uncovered. Not far from it were three crosses, a board with the inscription ordered by Pilate, and four nails which had pierced the Lord's Body (March 6).

In order to discern on which of the three crosses the Savior was crucified, Patriarch Macarius alternately touched the crosses to a corpse. When the Cross of the Lord touched the dead one, he came to life. Having beheld the raising of the dead man, everyone was convinced that the Life-Creating Cross was found.

Christians came in a huge throng to venerate the Holy Cross, beseeching St. Macarius to elevate the Cross, so that even those far off might reverently contemplate it. Then the Patriarch and other spiritual leaders raised up the Holy Cross, and the people, saying "Lord have mercy," reverently prostrated before the Venerable Wood. This solemn event occurred in the year 326.

During the discovery of the Life-Creating Cross another miracle took place: a grievously sick woman, beneath the shadow of the Holy Cross, was healed instantly. The elder Jude and other Jews there believed in Christ and accepted Holy Baptism. Jude received the name Cyriacus and afterwards was consecrated Bishop of Jerusalem.

During the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363) he accepted a martyr's death for Christ (see October 28). The holy empress Helen journeyed to the holy places connected with the earthly life of the Savior, building more than 80 churches, at Bethlehem the birthplace of Christ, and on the Mount of Olives where the Lord ascended to Heaven, and at Gethsemane where the Savior prayed before His sufferings and where the Mother of God was buried after her death.

St. Helen took part of the Life-Creating Wood and nails with her to Constantinople. The holy emperor Constantine gave orders to build at Jerusalem a majestic and spacious church in honor of the Resurrection of Christ, also including under its roof the Life-Giving Tomb of the Lord and Golgotha. The temple was constructed in about ten years. St. Helen did not survive until the dedication of the temple, she died in the year 327. The church was consecrated on September 13, 335. On the following day, September 14, the festal celebration of the Exaltation of the Venerable and Life-Creating Cross was established.

Another event connected to the Cross of the Lord is remembered also on this day: its return to Jerusalem from Persia after a fourteen year captivity. During the reign of the Byzantine emperor Phocas (602-610) the Persian emperor Khozroes II in a war against the Greeks defeated the Greek army, plundered Jerusalem and captured both the Life-Creating Cross of the Lord and the Holy Patriarch Zachariah (609-633).

The Cross remained in Persia for fourteen years and only under the emperor Heraclius (610-641), who with the help of God defeated Khozroes and concluded peace with his successor and son Syroes, was the Cross of the Lord returned to the Christians.

With great solemnity the Life-creating Cross was transferred to Jerusalem. Emperor Heraclius in imperial crown and royal purple carried the Cross of Christ into the temple of the Resurrection. With the emperor went Patriarch Zacharios. At the gates by which they ascended Golgotha, the emperor suddenly stopped and was not able to proceed farther. The holy Patriarch explained to the emperor that an angel of the Lord was blocking his way. The emperor was told to remove his royal trappings and to walk barefoot, since He Who bore the Cross for the salvation of the world from sin had made His way to Golgotha in all humility. Then Heraclius donned plain garb, and without further hindrance, carried the Cross of Christ into the church.

In a sermon on the Exaltation of the Cross, St Andrew of Crete (July 4) says: "The Cross is exalted, and everything true gathers together, the Cross is exalted, and the city makes solemn, and the people celebrate the feast".

Before Thy Cross, we bow down, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hostility and Penal Substitutionary Atonement

(Part 2 of 2)

People who by inflicting punishment upon themselves feel temporary relief from guilt and who mistake that for atonement, also tend to feel others must be punished for the same reason. For them, justice means feeling better, and I feel better when my neighbor endures sufferings commensurate with the pain he has caused others, especially me.

Evangelicals perhaps would come along and say, “But you don’t have to punish your neighbor yourself! Look, God has done it for you. He has punished everyone vicariously in Christ. You can afford to be good and kind both to your neighbor and to your enemy, and in fact you must be. Otherwise, if you deny that God has already taken care of his punishment, you are denying God has already taken care of your own.”

In this system, if my enemy repents, that means he has seen the error of his ways and I get the satisfaction of knowing there is still punishment, albeit vicarious. If he doesn’t repent, he still will see the error of his ways eventually, and in addition to what Christ suffered for him, he will receive direct punishment. Either way, he’s going to be very sorry for what he did to me, and the gratification this gives me is thought, euphemistically, to be justice. (The tip-off that this is not justice is that if he suffers more pain than he had caused me, that’s fine, too. All the better!)

If God did not punish each and every sin, one person told me, there would be no moral foundation for the Universe. But of course the foundation of the Universe, for a Christian, isn’t exactly morality in the Old Testament sense; it’s Jesus Christ.

There is such a thing as punishment. Sin all by itself punishes the sinner very grievously, far more than we normally perceive; not only does every evil that befalls us come directly from the sin in us and in the world, but even greater unseen, spiritual consequences afflict and destroy us. It is not as though anybody ever just got away with anything, even when it appears that way.

There is punishment, but to hope my neighbor will be punished in any way, even vicariously in Christ, is hardly forgiveness! In fact, there is only one attitude that ever hopes another will suffer and it is hostility, the very opposite of forgiveness. That sense of gratification when I see someone who has done wrong getting what I think he deserves is a gratification specifically of my hostility. If a person were to cling to the comfort of his neighbor getting his come-uppance vicariously in Jesus, that would be nothing but hostility trying to seem pious. Well, I take back the “nothing but”, since fear may also play a role, fear of what could happen to me if there is no deterrent. Either way, the doctrine of vicarious punishment amounts to my relying upon God the Father to punish my “enemies”, directly and/or in Christ. My hostility toward my enemies is what Christ works out in His passion. Perish the thought!

If I love my enemies enough, then I will not need there to be any vicarious punishment of them. Why is this? It is because perfect love would mean I had already given everything away; and having given away all, would have nothing more to lose. That is why “perfect love casts out fear”: there is nothing left to fear losing. All I have to lose if my enemy is forgiven is the gratification of my sinful hostility. But insofar as I love, I have already given up that hostility. “Love seeks not her own.”

Christ instructed us to forgive one another specifically in order to be like our Father in heaven, Who makes His sun to shine upon the just and the unjust, Who blesses the just and the unjust alike with His rain. If we fail to forgive, then, we remain unlike God, incompatible with Him and separate from Him.

We must all find, if we haven’t already, how to overcome this hope in the existence of any kind of punishment of others. This is an urgent matter, because Christ said, if you do not forgive your brother from the heart, God will not forgive you; that is, His forgiveness toward you, although it is eternal, will be unable to take effect in your unforgiving heart. “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has done no mercy, and mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) So we must at all costs give up the demand that there be at least vicarious punishment, and let forgiveness like a mighty river roll. It’s the only spiritually healthy and mentally healthy way.

Christ also said, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice.’”

Guilt and Penal Substitutionary Atonement

(Part 1 of 2)

When people are suffering from “the terrors of the conscience” (to appropriate a Lutheran phrase), they can sometimes temporarily soothe their guilt feelings by suffering. Apparently, their theory (more of a feeling, really, I suppose) is that suffering is what I deserve; therefore, if I suffer enough to balance out my guilt, that makes things okay again. I have been paid back. (I, not God.) There’s a monk in the book, The Da Vinci Code, who is always whipping himself to expiate his guilt. There is a whole ascetical phenomenon among Roman Catholics based upon punishing oneself for ones sins.

The trouble with such an approach is that it doesn’t work, or at least not for very long. No matter how cleansed a person may feel he has become by his suffering, or even how virtuous he may feel for having endured it, before long the wolves are back at the door. The bad conscience soon re-asserts itself.

One reason for this is that no amount of suffering a person inflicts upon himself could even begin to compare with the amount of guilt he feels he has already accrued – much less what he is still racking up.

But the more important reason punishment doesn’t still the conscience for long is that the relief from guilt which people experience by suffering is illusory. Suffering pacifies the conscience temporarily while leaving the underlying problem of guilt intact. Sufferers remain just as guilty as before, and just as guilty as non-sufferers – and they know it. There is nothing about suffering per se that purges sin or delights God. Guilt needs an altogether different antidote.

Evangelicals might tell someone who was trapped in this sick cycle, “You don’t have to flagellate yourself; Jesus was scourged for you. You don’t have to beat up on yourself, for Jesus was beat up in your place. God isn’t going to get you; He had Jesus put to death instead.”

This position is indeed an improvement. It keeps a person from doing himself bodily harm. It also provides a somewhat stronger palliative, because Christ’s suffering is said to have infinite merit, while anyone else’s will never have enough.

But the truth is, suffering itself has no merit! Perhaps we feel it has because in sinning we had sought pleasure, and suffering is felt to balance out the pleasure. Perhaps it does, but it does nothing to cure the guilt; there is no connection between the two. There is nothing inherently virtuous about suffering in itself. Instead, this is the very same unhealthy dynamic as before (punish­ment to alleviate guilt), except punishment is now displaced onto Jesus. Now He is the One who bears the punishment in my place. Even vicarious suffering is still the wrong remedy for guilt. In fact is no remedy at all, but still only a palliative.

Worse, it allows one to avoid the only true and effectual and lasting cure for a terrified conscience; namely, making a U-turn in his life, aka repentance. Stop doing the things that hurt your conscience! Some people (not all who hold to penal substitutionary atonement, of course!) would rather suffer for their guilt than give up their guilty behavior – or better still, have Christ do it for them. This hardly shows any love for Christ! If we loved Him unselfishly, it would be no more acceptable to us that God should beat up on our dear Lord than on us. In fact, it’s less acceptable. I do not want God to wallop my beloved Christ for sins I have committed! "Let Him kill me if He cannot forgive, " would be love's cry, "but leave my Christ alone!"

Jesus came preaching: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15) Repentance is the only thing that works in the long run to cure a bad conscience, repentance and faith in God’s infinite love and measureless forgiveness.

Repentance is not merely acknowledging one’s sins and asking forgiveness. It isn’t even asking forgiveness plus trusting in Christ to save me. No, not even begging for forgiveness with trust and tears and prostrations is yet repentance. Punishing myself is not repentance, either; it is pseudo-repentance. Repentance is changing course. Until I turn around and take a new direction, my conscience is going to gnaw at me no matter what, and quite rightly, too -- no matter who suffers or how much! Conversely, once I repent in faith, the guilt simply disappears which had caused me to feel the need of punishment (whether direct or vicarious) and I discover true forgiveness, which is totally free.

Does God’s forgiveness being pure gift mean there is no need for atonement? No. It means atonement does not include literal punishment – or any kind of payment to God as a precondi­tion of His forgiveness or in exchange for it or as a basis of it. Christ atoned for our guilt by His offering of perfect obedience (i.e., obedience even unto death) and atoned for the death in us by the shedding of His life-bearing blood, our Fountain of Immortality.

Is it wrong for God to forgive outright, freely? Certainly not. This is the sovereign Lord God, who can do whatever He pleases with His own. Moreover, sin all by itself has already meted out untold punishment, by killing us, by depriving us of life with God, by wrecking our world, by eroding character and bringing every kind of woe upon us, from sickness to war to famine to death. The punishment sin itself has inflicted upon us has the advantage of being given to the right person, the sinner, and in exact proportion to his sins. God does not need to worsen that punishment in order to maintain His perfect justice. Rather, Divine Justice means putting everything right again, which means getting rid of sin, which means on the one hand forgiving us and on the other hand curing us, for God is pleased not when sin is punished, but when it ceases, replaced by obedience.

Repent and believe the gospel. To require that God should punish anybody, whether directly or vicari­ously, is to deny the existence of true forgiveness. For displaced punishment is exactly that, displaced punishment, while forgiveness is remitting punishment instead of executing it, revoking the sentence instead of carrying it out, cancelling debt rather than collecting it, not exercising one's right to recompense or retaliation.

Repentance and faith and forgiveness are gifts from God, but gifts He will most assuredly give to all who ask. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.

May God open the gates of true repentance to every one of us!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Intellectual Fantasies

There are, besides sentimental religious fantasies, also intellectual religious fantasies.

One night, Demetrios and I were watching a documentary about a ceremony of the Ethiopian Church. This television documentary was intent upon showing that Coptic religion is a combination of Christianity and paganism. To that end, it was showing a “pagan” celebration, which we immediately recognized as a more or less standard Epiphany rite, very much like the one in which we participate yearly. The narrator explained, at one point, that now the Cross was going to be blessed by being dipped into the water, which of course is exactly backward; it is the water being blessed! The use of water, the narrator further explained, is a clear example of pagan influence. As if water had not been a Judeo-Christian symbol ever since Jesus was baptized in it, ever since the Israelites crossed the sea dryshod, ever since Noah’s flood, ever since the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep! You see what I mean? Here is an intellectual pretension based, ironically (or perhaps inevitably), upon an intellectual defect, namely bias or else profound ignorance.

Here’s another example. On the CBS news some years ago, a remarkable archaeological discovery was announced. In Capernaeum, in the layer dating from the time of Christ, a cross was found, clearly inscribed upon a stone. This presented a great puzzle, said the “scholars,” because crosses simply were not used during the first three centuries, since Jesus’ earliest followers were ashamed of the criminal manner of his death!

If the early Christians didn’t dare to use crosses openly, I can think of some compelling reasons, but not that. Did these researchers never read any of the Pauline epistles, in which the Apostle teaches us explicitly to glory in the cross? Did they never read Peter’s sermon in the beginning of Acts? So here we have another intellectual fantasy and again based upon either bias or a surprising degree of ignorance.

These intellectual fantasies abound, as I learned in my New Age days. Philosophers sit (or walk) around thinking noble thoughts, spinning all these theories, and after thousands of years, are still going around in circles, ever restless, never satisfied, always journeying, never arriving, never even getting any closer to whatever their goal is, though they sometimes imagine they may be. After all this time, doesn’t anybody suspect the approach may be all wrong?

Applied to Christianity, emotionalism and intellectualism are alike inadequate approaches. We know that God is not merely the Ultimate Emotional Crutch, despite the impression we might get from some denominations. On the other hand, neither is God merely the Ultimate Enigma, as we might infer from some academics. I do not think either error can be corrected by balancing it against is opposite error. God is Spirit; we worship Him not primarily “in intellect” nor “in emotion,” nor in any combination thereof, but with the whole person “in Spirit and in truth.”

Christian spiritual life involves resolving to seek nothing else than to be a servant of Christ Jesus, trying to bring one’s will into harmony with the will of God, to live as a member of Him, to be led in all things by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Emotional warm fuzzies, by contrast, and intellectual speculation alike, are consumer goods. They are this-worldly phenomena, passing, fleeting, non-eternal things. They are not per se spiritual. They are not among the gifts of the Spirit or the fruits of the Spirit, with which we principally concern ourselves. They are part of “the flesh,” to walk according to which is death. Spiritual life is lived by those who are in this world but not of it, who seek to be weaned from attachment to the ephemeral in favor of the eternal things. This is both a sober and a sobering endeavor. It may involve plenty of emotion. It leaves room for prodigious intellect. Yet it keeps both sober.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sentimental Fantasies

Some time ago, I watched a funeral on television, during which a military band played Nearer, My God, to Thee.

Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee,
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.

And with incredulity I remembered, as a teenager, singing those words many, many times with great ardor. What was I thinking? Was I mad? Or was it all a bunch of romantic-sounding words, a lot of naïve, over-eager piety?

“Where He Leads Me, I Will Follow.” Sure, I’ll follow You, dear Lord, through the Garden of Gethsemane; of course I’ll follow You to the Judgment Hall; just show me the way to Calvary. I’ll follow You to death and the grave, no problem. (Didn’t Peter say something to that effect on that Night, before the cock crowed?)

Yes, all that bravado, as long as one’s cross is only imaginary. But then our actual cross appears and immediately we change our tune. We don’t want it. And rightly so, for the correct attitude is obviously that of Jesus, who sweated blood as His cross approached, who prayed, “Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, Thy will be done.”

So nowadays, rather than aspire to any cross, it seems far wiser to pray, as God Himself taught us, “Lead us not into temptation,” or as some translations have it, “Put us not to the test” – lest we flunk and thereby harm our souls. That is by far the more likely outcome.

It is with the same astonishment I review a number of other hymns I used to sing all the time without batting an eyelash.

When morning gilds the skies,
My heart, awaking, cries:
“May Jesus Christ be praised!”

How blithely I used to sing that, oblivious to the fact that it was totally false! Has that ever been my heart’s awakening cry, in living memory? Here is how I would sing it if I were being honest:

When morning gilds the skies
And my alarm clock cries,
My panicked heart doth quake.
I tell my clock it’s cursed.
Yes, that’s what I do first;
Then I lie there and shake.

My feet hit the cold floor;
I wish I could sleep more!
“The bathroom,” I think next.
My nasty teeth I brush,
Put on lipstick and blush,
Still groggy, cross, and vexed.

I brush and comb my hair,
And never think of prayer,
I’m hungry, rushed, and dazed.
Not ‘til I eat and dress,
This thought can I express:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

Through all our nights and days,
Lord, help us sing Thy praise:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Then from the whole world ‘round
This ceaseless song shall sound:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

It makes me wonder if similar things might not be true for most of the people who – in all sincerity! – sing some of these hymns. Is it as untrue for them as for me, all without their quite realizing it? How many people who sing In the Garden ever really go to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses? If they do go pray in their garden first thing in the morning, do they really get this oh-so-exclusive thing going with Jesus, such as none other in the whole history of the world has ever known? Did you ever, when God was speaking to you, notice a single bird hush its singing because His voice was so sweet?

It could cause a person to wonder how much of what goes on in a Sunday service is pure sentimental fantasy.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Suffering and Rejoicing

Here is what is so absolutely astonishing: that in Christ, whether we are undergoing severe trials or whether we are in a period of respite and relief, it is all the same! As Jesus Christ is “the same, yesterday, today, and forever,” so life in Him remains the same, come hardship or ease.

How can this be? Does it mean that suffering is really insignificant? Not at all. On the contrary, we stand with awe and reverence before those who have endured sometimes unspeakable suffering for us, especially Jesus Christ Himself but also His martyrs and saints. We kiss their icons, we prostrate ourselves before the Cross. Suffering is a result of sin and Christ died to save us from sin and all its consequences. The Incarnate Word did not shed His infinitely precious blood for something insignificant.

Does it mean that in Christ we are anesthetized against pain and suffering? No, for even the Son of God truly suffered and was not spared. Anyone who succeeds in blunting his feelings diminishes his own humanity along with them. He does not imitate the Lord, who both wept and rejoiced, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Does it mean that in Christ suffering is somehow transformed? No. Certainly our understanding of it is transformed; certainly we have a new appreciation of suffering’s origins, significance, and proper spiritual use. We learn to respond to it in a new way. But suffering itself is still there and still itself.

Does it mean the Christian life exists upon some higher plane than do the joys and sorrows of this world, that while on one plane we do experience earthly ups and downs, yet on another plane somehow we transcend them, or are above the ordinary fray?

The idea appeals to pride, but it cannot be for, for our life in Christ is not schizoid. There are indeed two levels, the spiritual and the secular, God and mammon. We live in one or the other; we alternate between them. But if (and to the extent that) we live in Christ, life is fully integrated, whole, one. We bring into the life in Christ all our circumstances, our earthly joys as well as our earthly sorrows. On this side of the grave, we do not yet leave them behind.

In this very integration, this incorporation of everything into Christ, lies the secret known to every generation of Christians. Earthly joys and sufferings are real. Yes, they are a big deal. And no, there is no way to sidestep them. But Christ is more, infinitely more. Life in Him is infinitely greater than everything earthly put together.

Furthermore, life in Christ is always a life of great suffering and of far greater joy, always, regardless of any other circumstance. It is taking up one’s cross and sharing in the Resurrection. It is mourning everything in us that keeps us from fuller union with the Lord, but being more than comforted by such union as is already realized and the promise of its fulfillment. No other sorrow approaches this, and no other joy.

So when life is easy, we still grieve for our sin and for all of humanity but we swim in the infinite Ocean of Mercy. When life is hard, we still rejoice in Him, and in the strength He lends us, strength beyond our own, to endure whatever we must. As the Holy Apostle says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and, “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” That is why, in faith, our forebears were able to undergo “trial of mockings and scourgings, yes and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy.”

All our life is taken up into Christ and because He is All-Glorious we “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” They are not worthy to be compared even with the glory that has already been revealed in us – Christ Himself – and neither are the ephemeral joys and pains.

“…Indeed,” says St. Paul, “I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attains to the resurrection from the dead.”

In Christ, then, we are always truly dying and always truly living, regardless of any outward circumstance. This experience remains constant. We find everything else that befalls us utterly beside the point. No matter how terrible or how wonderful it may be, compared with gaining Christ and being found in Him, we count it rubbish.

“Whatever may happen to me, O Lord,” we cry, “so long as it may never separate me from You and Your love, let it be, let it be. Only let no one steal me out of Your hand and fold; all the rest, for me, will be equal. Whether I face trial or ease, only let me by Thine.”

“Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Feelings v. Christian Experience

But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. (I John 2:27)

The presence of the Holy Spirit in us is something perceptible; that is, not to our fleshly senses, nor yet to our emotions, but to our own spirit. That is not to say there will be no periods of doubt or of feeling out of touch with Him; every Christian experiences these things. God withdraws our awareness of his presence on purpose some­times, “to test us,” meaning, to give us opportunities to grow, to learn how to deal with doubt, to bring us even closer to him in the end. But the norm is that most practicing Orthodox Christians are at least dimly aware of the Holy Spirit, most of the time.

Here is an opinion of St. Symeon the Theologian. I neglected to note the source of the first quote, but it is likely the same as that of the second, which came from Vladimir Lossky’s book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Lossky says it’s Homily LVII, 4.

When a man who is naked in body puts on something, he has a clear awareness of the completed act and perceives the type of garment he is wearing. How then is it possible for the naked in soul not to feel anything when he puts on God? If, however, he does not in fact feel anything, then there exist two possible explanations: either God does not exist, or else the man who puts Him on is insensate, that is, dead. And I fear that those who maintain that the faithful can possess the Spirit of God within themselves, while remaining unaware of this fact, are in reality dead and naked in soul.

* * *
If anyone claims that all believers have received and possessed the Holy Spirit without having consciousness of experience of Him, he blasphemes by treating as a false­hood the words of Christ who says that the Spirit is a well of water springing up into eternal life (John 4:14), and again, He that believeth on me…out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water (John 7:38). If one spring gushes up within us, the stream which flows from it must of necessity be visible to those who have eyes to see. But if all this happens within us without our having any experience or consciousness of it, then it is certain that we shall not know the eternal life which comes thence, that we shall not see the light of the Holy Spirit; that we shall remain as dead, blind and insensible in the life of eternity as we are in this present life. Our hope will thus be vain and our life useless if we rest always in death, if we remain dead after the spirit, deprived of the knowledge of eternal life. But it is not thus in truth, it is not thus.

Despite the wording here, or perhaps the translation, St. Symeon is not talking about mere feelings. Eve was the first victim of the “If it feels good, do it!” lie and it ought to have been clear ever since that our feelings are notoriously unreliable guides.

But what St. Symeon is talking about is Christian experience. That is something very different. It occurs at a different and deeper level than emotions or fantasies or thoughts, or even words.

St. Symeon is not necessarily talking about “experiences” (plural), either. As Bishop Kallistos points out:

Direct experience can exist without necessarily being accompanied by specific experiences. There are indeed many who have come to believe in God because of some voice or vision, such as St. Paul received on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). There are many others, however, who have never undergone particular experi­ences of this type, but they can yet affirm that, present throughout their life as a whole, there is a total experience of the living God, a convic­tion existing on a level more fundamental than all their doubts. Even though they cannot point to a precise place or moment in the way that St. Augustine, Pascal or Wesley could, they can claim with confidence: I know God personally. (Ware, Kallistos, The Orthodox Way, St. Vladimir’s Seminary press, Crestwood, New York (1990), p. 22.)

Provided we are faithful to Him, or at least take care to repent when we fail, the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence in us serves as God’s pledge and token to us of salvation. The Holy Spirit in us is, as it were, the down payment, what the King James Version calls “the earnest” of salvation.

  • Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22)
  • …you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)
  • And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30)

This could not be the case if we were unaware of His being within us. But in Holy Baptism the Holy Spirit has grafted us into Christ, making a person into an entirely new creature, and in Holy Chrismation the Holy Spirit has come to dwell deep within this new creature. He both promised to be in us and as a matter of experience is in us, facts to which the New Testament bears abundant witness (and even the Old Testament predicts); thus we can seek Him and find Him there.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Failed Defenses

I've been pondering the astonishing level of human blindness, which is to say, my own blindness. How is it we (that is, I) fail so utterly to perceive the truth about ourselves (myself)? I accuse others of not being altogether straightforward and truthful with me, and yet God Himself, in His great mercy, withholds from me the full truth about myself, because that same truth that can set you free can also kill you.

More accurately, we/I, with tightly screwed-down eyelids, withhold ourselves/myself from the truth, and God does not pry our/my eyes open – yet. The day will come when everybody is forced to see the entire truth of things. But for now, God allows us to open our eyes a little at a time, to see only as much as we are able to bear.

The devastating aspect of these revelations is that they aren’t even about individual deeds, but whole patterns of thought and behavior. The appalling question is not, did I do that, but DO I really do that?

I’ve been fascinated to observe all the defense mechanisms I immediately activate within myself.

1. The first is, “How could I not have seen it? I was so blind, I didn’t realize. And the truthful answer is, because you didn’t want to. More precisely, you DID see it all along, but you chose to put a benign interpretation upon it. You persuaded yourself that it was actually something good or necessary, unavoidable or justified in the circumstances. You didn’t understand because you were too busy serving your own desires to bother looking at other people’s needs and feelings.

2. The next is, “But I never intended…” But Truth replies, “Of course you intended. This great harm may not have been the primary thing you sought, but you knew it would be one result of your action (or inaction) and you ignored that obvious fact, for purposes of your own.”

3.) Then comes, “Maybe I haven’t succeeded, but I’ve tried. I’ve tried so hard. If God in His mercy will judge me on effort rather than result…” But in a moment, a little more honesty creeps in and laughs outright. Who are you trying to fool – God Almighty? How about all the times you said, it doesn’t matter, it won’t be noticed, it can wait, I don’t have time, I’m too tired? And when you actually were trying, what was it you were trying to do? To serve God, or your own comfort? To pray, or to titillate your fantasies? To love God, or to become god? To secure your own approval of yourself? Were you truly repenting, which, after all, implies bringing forth the fruits of repentance, or were you merely seeking forgiveness? And what about the years spent chasing after non-Christian doctrines and delusions? All that effort, not merely for nothing, but for worse than nothing.

So, “I tried” doesn’t work any better than “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t intend.”

4.) I must resort to something subtler with which to comfort myself: I’m not that much worse than anybody else. I may feel like the world’s worst sinner, but the Church teaches everybody so to regard himself. It manifestly, by definition, cannot be that each sinner is the worst. We are all sinners, we are all in the same boat, and – doesn’t this sound humble! – I am after all not some extraordinary human being, not so unlike anybody else, not special in any way, even in the level of my depravity.

But then in awful clarity comes the realization of what I’ve just done: first, felt myself as the world’s worst sinner, and then had the breathtaking arrogance to turn right around and accuse everybody else of being just as bad! If that should be true, if the whole world is as evil as I have just perceived myself to be, it ought hardly to be any comfort, but highly alarming. Furthermore, this little subterfuge is just that, a trick to distract me from the issue at hand, which is MY OWN wickedness, correcting that if possible.

This business of “I am not the worst” is moreover a lie – mixed with truth, as all the best lies are. The truth is that for practical purposes – and religion must always be practical! – I am the worst and only sinner whose sins have any relevance whatsoever to me.

So that is why the Church teaches us such prayers as, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came down from heaven to save sinners, of whom I am the chief…” (Or “the first,” depending on how you translate the Greek.) That such prayers should have been stumblingblocks to me once upon a (recent) time says it all.

5.) The last resort, as you see, is to intellectualize it all, put it on paper, analyze it. That seems to give me a little distance from it, a respite. But even this is scant comfort, for at least two reasons. One is, I have no reliable idea how far I may have corrected the sins I have seen. I do know I ought to put up a tougher struggle. The second is the thought of the sins I haven't seen so far – and instead of sorrowing over how those are still sabotaging my relationship with God, my pride wishes to know, are they perfectly obvious to everybody else? (Of course they are!)

So in the end, the only true comfort is continuous repentance and continuous, grateful, joyous receiving of God’s endless, fathomless mercy.

Friday, September 7, 2007

On Carrying One’s Cross

God gives to the Christian a cross to purify him and to bring him to Himself; therefore, that soul ought to be thankful.

None of us is worthy to carry any cross so when God grants us one, for our purification, we ought to be doubly grateful.

Some crosses cannot, without sin, be cast aside or crawled out from under.

If (to mix metaphors) you kick against the goads, you only make the suffering a thousand times worse. If you accept your cross freely and gladly for Love’s sake, the suffering is transformed into something wonderful, something healing, something precious.

To accept a cross to carry is not the same as resignation. It does not mean we should not strive to correct a bad situation. It does mean that until that correction occurs, we meet the circumstances with a certain inner tranquility, knowing that God, the only Lover of mankind, is the One in control here.

The inner tranquility is not the same as numbness. You feel the pain in full. But you also feel a joy that far outshines the hurt. The Buddha gives you a spiritual (and emotional) anesthetic; Christ gives you a way through the suffering, which Way is Himself. He lends His strength, companionship, courage.

When you think your cross is more than you can bear, it isn’t. It fits you exactly; it stretches your capacity but doesn’t break you. Do not wish to trade it for another. God knows which cross is best for you at any given time.

“The Way of the Cross Leads Home.” If God should give you your own, personal, customized way home, grab it! Embrace it! Fall on your knees with gratitude, weep for joy. Take up that cross with all due haste and head for home! And when you get there, you will see that you weren’t carrying that cross after all; it was carrying you. So treasure the instrument of your salvation.

“My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” No matter how things may appear, it is actually easier to live the Christian life (synonymous with carrying your cross) than not to. It is easier to have Christ than to feel abandoned, easier to know where you stand that to be lost and confused, easier to suffer for His sake than for your own greed, ambition and sins, easier to be His “slave" (which is to be free!) than the slave of sin. Even if we do see wicked people seeming to thrive, having it much easier than those they oppress, it is still easier to bear the pain of this world and the blessings of the next than the other way around.

I know a man who lies awake nights worrying about his job, his relationships, whose approval he has, whose he does not have. Now a real quandary has arisen for him. There are about six different people whose you-know-what he feels obliged to kiss, but to kiss any one of them will bring down the wrath of each of the other five. Having long since concluded that God had abandoned him, and having reciprocated, this man is totally bewildered, without compass or map, truly baffled. The voice of his fears is drowning out the voice of his conscience (if, indeed, his conscience is still talking) and it is pathetic to behold.

Easier to have direction, even if you are heading toward Golgotha! This man is crucified daily, tormented by his own lost soul, yet needlessly, pointlessly, with a kind of suffering that is devoid of hope, devoid of consolation, and ends in death instead of greater life. That is infinitely harder than carrying his cross would have been.