Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Halo is Not Just an Artistic Device

My friend, Father Deacon Leonid Mickle, of St. John's Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (ROCOR) sent me these photos of HIS good friend, Fr. Makary, a priest in Russia.

Click on the pictures of the coffin to see more clearly what is happening.

Left is a formal portrait of Fr. Makary as a young man; right is taken two hours before his death. Nothing strange about those.

But now look below at pictures from his funeral. Note the coffin glowing with brilliant, white light.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Meme

Pr. Hall has tagged me to play a meme. The rules are:

Pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more. (No cheating!)
Find Page 123.
Find the first 5 sentences.
Post the next 3 sentences.
Tag 5 people.

Okay, the nearest book of that length turns out to be Winnie-the-Pooh, because Deb had posted something about it back in December, I think, as a result of which I pulled if off my shelf and have been reading it. And sometimes I read a story from it to my sister, Barbara, when she calls at bedtime. My volume is actually two Pooh books in one, and I've finished the first book and am beginning the second, The House at Pooh Corner.

Page 123 is taken up mostly by an illustration of Piglet looking out onto the flood surrounding his tree. Skipping 5 sentences, then, we come to:

Then he put the paper in the bottle, and he corked the bottle up as tightly as he could, and he leant out of his window as far as he could lean without falling in, and he threw the bottle as far as he could throw -- splash! -- and in a little while it bobbed up again on the water; and he watched it floating slowly away in the distance, until his eyes ached with looking, and sometimes he thought it was the bottle, and sometiems he thought it was just a ripple on the water which he was following, and then suddenly he knew that he would never see it again and that he had done all he could do to save himself.

"So now," he thought, "somebody else will have to do something, and I hope they will do it soon, because if they don't I shall have to swim, which I can't, so I hope they do it soon." And then he gave a very long sigh and said, "I wish Pooh were here. It's so much more friendly with two."

I tag Deb, Bill Weedon, Ezekiel, Elizabeth, and -c.

And Now, for a Complete Change of Pace...


This is a very old joke, which I have loved for a long time. I get it out from where it is filed about every 5 years or so, and enjoy it all over again.

Dear Sir:

I am writing in response to your request for additional information to Block #3 of the Accident Reporting Form. I put “poor planning” as the cause of my accident. You said in your letter that I should explain more fully and I trust that the following details will be sufficient.

I am a bricklayer by trade. On the day of the accident, I was working alone on the roof of a new, six-story building. When I completed my work, I discovered that I had about 500 pounds of bricks left over. Rather than carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley, which, fortunately, was attached to the side of the building at the sixth floor.

Securing the rope at ground level, I went up to the roof, swing the barrel out and loaded the bricks into it. Then I went back to the ground and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 500 pounds of bricks. You will note in Block #11 of the Accident Reporting Form that my weight is 155 pounds.

Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say I proceeded at a rather rapid rate up the side of the building.

In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel, which was now proceeding in a downward direction at an equally impressive rate of speed. This explains the fractured skull, minor abrasions, and the broken collar-bone as listed in Section III of the Accident Reporting Form.

Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent, not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulley I mentioned in Paragraph #2 of this correspondence.

Fortunately, by this time, I had regained my presence of mind and was able to hold tightly to the rope in spite of the excruciating pain I was now beginning to experience.

At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground, and the bottom fell out of the barrel. Now empty, the barrel weighed approximately 50 pounds.

I refer you again to my weight in Block #11. As you might imagine, I began a rapid descent down the side of the building.

In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles, broken tooth, and the severe lacerations of my legs and lower body.

Here my luck began to change slightly. The encounter with the barrel seemed to slow me enough to lessen my injuries when I fell into the pile of bricks and fortunately only three vertebra were cracked.

I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the pile of bricks in pain, unable to move and watching the empty barrel six stories above me, I again lost my composure and presence of mind and let go of the rope.

Policy # XYZ23456789

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

For Emily, as Promised, Very Belatedly


Here’s Madonna and Child with Saints by Girolamo dai Libri (1474-1555). We received it one year as a Christmas card, and it provoked, besides laugher, quite a few thoughts from Demetrios and me.

I'm sorry you cannot see it in large enough scale really to appreciate it, but you can find an enlarged version (along with an alternate interpretation) here. Click on the thumbnail to see the largest view.

Demetrios yelped, “Come look at this! Only the Italians!”

“Oh, well,” I said as he handed it to me, “it doesn’t leave anything to the imagination, does it? Look at that Child’s posture. He’s sticking his belly out just as all those statues of saints do, that we saw in Rome. All he has to learn is to exaggerate it a bit more.”

“Look at the bishop with the hostile expression.”

I said it was probably the bishop who commissioned the work, and the artist had to include him but obviously didn’t like him. I cited the tree growing behind him, dead and with a peacock symbolizing pride. All of its branches are cut off, in contrast to the luxuriant, verdant tree behind the Madonna and Child. “I’d say that’s a deliberate commentary upon the bishop.”

“I’d say he’d better move out of range of that peacock before he gets a kind of blessing he didn’t expect!” said Demetrios.

What I want to know is, why is everybody looking as if disaster has just struck? Even the Madonna doesn’t look as if she is particularly enjoying this little interlude. If those are palm branches the saints are holding (look very closely!), they certainly aren’t being waved with any enthusiasm. The women look downright nauseated. Maybe they find the bishop disgusting; note how they turn away from him.

Then there’s the priest-monk, holding an instrument of torture. No, he doesn’t intend to use it! Rather, it symbolizes his own suffering and/or martyrdom. He is sumptuously dressed but embroidered upon the front of his robe is – St. John the Baptist, wearing animal skins!

Nobody, with the possible exception of the middle angel, is paying the slightest attention to the Christ-Child! Even the peacock isn’t interested. Everybody is casting strange, sidelong glances. The only one who looks us straight in the eye is the surly bishop. This makes him, in a way, the psychological centerpiece of the work. The Divine genitals, of course, are the visual center – come to think of it, maybe that’s why everyone is looking away.

So in this painting we have: a hostile-looking bishop, sanctimonious saints, naked Jesus, silly pet-like little angels, no human interaction (much less Divine), no love, and no joy.

But the main thing that strikes us is that this is a Renaissance painting; in other words, humanistic. It portrays religious figures, but they are seen in a thoroughly secular way. The Madonna and Child are passing an idle, sunny afternoon with a few of the chosen. Musical entertainment is being provided by the performing angels. Their music is not of the celestial variety, either, but earthly. You can tell because the angels are using a man-made instrument and instead of attending to “the music of the spheres” they depend upon sheet music for this gig, just as people would.

Everything is suffused with sensuality: the music, the rich attire, the picturesque countryside, the shimmering Alps, the sunshine, the shade tree, the saints who seem unacquainted with any form of asceticism, certainly not fasting, the warm, sexy bodies and delicate faces, even the carnation (not lily) being held by the Infant Jesus. The painting revels in the beauty of the good earth and shows nothing of spiritual beauties. (Here, perhaps, the embroidered image of St. John the Baptist provides even more satire than the artist intended.)

Now look at a real icon. It is visual theology. (So, of course, is Girolamo’s work, but I mean an icon expresses Christian theology.) The scenes are confabulated here in a way impossible in normal time and space; we thus know immediately that these are being transcended. Furthermore, the purpose and effect of these anachronisms are very different from the Italian ones.

Nobody here is involved with worldly pleasures. Instead, each scene of this treasure-map shows us something spiritually precious.

1.) God, the Highest in the Highest, is born into a lowly cave. The Light of the World lies in a dark grotto. The Uncontainable is contained in a body; the true God is true Man. Even the animals, unlike the peacock, seem to recognize their Creator, come to redeem not only mankind, but His whole created order, hallowing it by becoming Himself a part of it.

2.) The angels, dignified ones, are adoring and glorifying God, not entertaining Him, and stand in awe of what He has done for us humans, whose glory and destiny are now greater than theirs.

3.) The Good News is being announced first to the poor and simple, the shepherds – or to you and me, if we are poor and simple of heart. The Son of God has become the Son of David, the Shepherd-King.

4.) The Good News is about to dawn even upon the Gentiles (us). Those who worshipped the stars are being led by a star to worship the true and unsetting Sun. (“Wise men seek Him still.”) Shepherds and kings alike rejoice, for Christ, the Good Shepherd and King, makes the simple wise, the wise simple, and all His followers royal.

5.) St. Joseph is still wrestling with his doubts. How can He who is begotten from before all time without a mother now be born in flesh without a father? In some icons, the devil is standing before him, dressed as a beggar, arguing perhaps the principles of embryonic science or instrumental causality or the impossibility of “the Absolute” becoming relative. He is certainly slandering the Theotokos, who looks on mournfully while at the same time “pondering all these things in her heart.”

6.) The servant women are preparing to bathe the Baby in what looks just like a baptismal font, prefiguring His Baptism and ours, with all the many, rich layers of meaning baptism entails. To mention but one, it is in baptism that Christ is born in us, “For as many as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ.”

Each of these miracles of love, pondered long enough and with faith, will lead us to awe, wonder, gratitude, joy, worship, tears. Each is an adornment bestowed by God upon the impoverished human heart, to be worn by it as a bride wears her jewels.

How different from the languid little concert in the Italian countryside. But I think the difference is highly instructive. It’s emblematic of the entire human situation. We have all been preoccupied with what delights the senses often to the exclusion of what frees, nourishes, heals and overjoys the soul. The trivial distracts us form the monumental. The merely charming seduces us away from the ultimately meaningful; the temporal and earth-bound, from transcendent Love. Instead of engaging that Mystery of unwavering Love, we have a perverse tendency, every day, to settle for smelling the roses.

The one work ignores everything spiritual and shows us ephemeral, material pleasures intended to delight the viewer’s eye (even while failing to delight the participants of the scene). The other depicts, great, inner, and everlasting joys. The one shows us who we probably resemble – the peacock – while the other shows us who we might be: wise men, simple of heart, worshippers, wrestlers against doubts and demons, servants, kings, god-bearers.

P.S. According to the review I've linked above, Demetrios and I were wrong about the bishop and the peacock. Its author thinks the peacock represents immortality and the bishop is none other than St. Augustine! But I am inclined to stick to my own view. Perhaps the artist called it St. Augustine, but gave the Saint the face of a bishop he knew. The reliability of the other review is somewhat lessened for me by its assertion that the priest is St. Leonard. If so, why is he shown here with, presumably, an instrument of torture? St. Leonard died "a happy death." Maybe they are some sort of chains, with which the Saint is sometimes represnted?? (The women saints, it says, are St. Catherine and St. Apollonia, both of Alexandria.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

What is Knowledge of the Holy Spirit?

Orthodox Christians, all things being equal and normal, do experience the presence of the Holy Spirit; as St. Paul says, He is "shed abroad in our hearts." But the Holy Spirit is not known by the senses, hence, not by the mind. That makes it extremely difficult (probably impossible) to convey in words what that knowledge is, for words are artifacts and expressions of the mind. You can employ the mind to try to make cognitive meaning of it, but that cognitive meaning will be like looking into a dim mirror; the unspeakable, but perfectly well-known meaning will be far deeper than the words or thoughts you use. Apophatic language, therefore, will probably suit the purpose best, saying what experience of the Holy Spirit is not instead of what it ineffably is.

So then, besides not being a sensory experience, not an experience of the mind, the visitation by the Holy Spirit is also not an emotional experience. I do not mean it will leave the emotions unaffected, but to focus upon the accompanying emotions at all is to descend from the heights, is to turn it into something ugly, a consumer experience. Emotions in themselves, like thoughts in themselves, are carnal. The Holy Spirit will engage us at a much deeper, noetic level, not involving, for example, clapping, stomping, and swaying. There is a certain, marked sobriety about Orthodox encounters with the Holy Spirit.

We do not experience the Holy Spirit primarily as in "my heart" and "your heart" although He is that, too, and we recognize Him in one another as well as in ourselves. But do we not know His presence most keenly when we are together, and especially when we are worshipping Him, and most of all during the Divine Liturgy?

This does not mean that when we are in a group, we experience the Holy Spirit as another member of the group, as One among many. He is never "One among many" not only because He is absolutely unique but because He does not reveal Himself as a discreet entity.

So does He reveal Himself as the collectivity of all of, then? No, He is infinitely more than all of us put together.

Is He the love between us, when we feel it flowing most intensely? Wellll... Love He indeed is, for God is Love. Yet He Himself is a Person, and it would be very wrong to think of Him, as the filioquists do, as a function of other persons, as in the love between them. He is a Person and NOT a function! (Not a function at all, not even a function who is also a Person -- an idea, that like this cube, is an impossibility except on paper, or in words.)

The experience of the Holy Spirit is not a form of mass hysteria or a product of group psychology. We encounter something, or rather Someone, far above anything like that.

It would also be wrong to suppose He is mere love such as any pagan group can share. The Divine Love is sui generis, a class by itself, completely different from any other Love.

Furthermore, we often become aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit before we start sensing the love, as such, in the room.

So what the experience of the Holy Spirit exactly is, perhaps no one can say. (Or perhaps someone has of whom I am ignorant?)

Let's compare notes.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Assurance of Salvation

Here are some further thoughts about assurance of salvation that came to me on my way to Northern Virginia, to visit my parents and (tomorrow) Barbara, because I don't think I made my meaning very clear some earlier entries.

The question of whether you or I will end up in heaven cannot be totally objectified. Non-Orthodox people may try, citing all that Jesus did to save us, and citing God's grace as applied to us in the sacraments. Yet we are taught that these things work their effect in us through faith.

There are only three ways I can think of to deal with the issue of faith. One is to ignore it. But that totally sabotages any objective assurance. Another is to have an incredible amount of faith in my faith, which arrogance would not be an encouraging sign. A third way is to try to objectivize my faith. That means --gulp! -- measuring it by my works. And that way most often leads either to despair (if one is brave and honest about it) or to self-deception, as in the people Jesus described in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats who even worked miracles in His name, but without any faith at all.

That's why such assurance as we have of our salvation cannot be had objectively. And the attempt to have it objectively is misguided. As St. Paul observed, the pledge and token of our salvation is the Holy Spirit in our hearts, to Whom "objective" and "subjective" do not apply.

Robins, Bluebirds, Chimney Swifts, and Bats

There is a whole flock of robins in my yard, at least two dozen of them. There are six bluebirds next door in Frances' yard.

No, they are not harbingers of Spring, unfortunately. They never go away at all, at least not in Virginia. They flock together and hide out in wooded areas. The way you know Spring is near is when they pair off and each pair claims your yard, or a portion of it, for its own breeding territory.

NOW is the time to have a wire mesh cap put over your chimney if you want to prevent chimney swifts from nesting in it. They fly most of the way down the chimney and build a mud nest that sticks to the bricks. You will definitely know if you get 'em, because the babies have a loud, raucous cry that many people can't stand. And it lasts for some weeks and goes on from dawn to dusk, every few minutes.

It's illegal to tamper with a chimney swift nest that contains babies. The birds are protected by state law, federal law, and international treaties. Treaties? Yes, because chimney swifts, having in this respect more sense than we, spend every winter in Peru.

We rehabbers get in a dozen or so every year, and we don't usually report the offenders, but that doesn't mean all rehabbers are like our group here. And baby chimney swifts are a pain to raise, not only because they are so noisy, but because they do not open their mouths like some baby birds. They poke at their mother's mouth until she regurgitates their food for them. We have to train them to poke at our hands and then we squirt their food down their throats with a syringe.

So please cap your chimneys now.

While you're at it, you can close off the louvers to your attic to protect your family from bats. (Yes, many species of bats are no bigger than mice and can crawl through very tiny openings.) You do not want a colony of bats in your attic. They smell bad and about one in every 200 has rabies.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Attention Cat Lovers!

I received this tonight from my fellow wildlife rehabber, Amber. Please e-mail me if you live anywhere near Richmond, Virginia, Northern Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina and want a very nice cat.

Hey all! Need a home for a very huge lovable cat. She showed up at our bus stop one day hungry and lost. I have nursed her back to health and then some. I have tried, but I haven’t been able to find her home. I have been caring for her for a couple of months, but she cannot stay with us. She’s used to being an outside cat, but I believe she could be converted. She hates cold weather, loves large blankets to sleep on and does use a litter box faithfully. She loves kids(even my 2), but not other cats. I have 2 indoor cats already and per husband and budgets I cannot keep her. I have been housing her in my animal room, but with bird season around the corner….. Lets just say that today proved she cannot stay there.

PLEASE call me if you can give her a good home and pass this message on to anyone that might be able to help. She’d make a great single indoor cat or a barn cat. She wants attention and she loves to eat. I don’t know anything else about her except we are guessing she’s 2 years old and I believe she has been spayed. She’s gray with white feet and we’ve been calling her “Sneakers”.

On What God's Love is and is not

Fr. Stephen has another excellent blog entry (among very many!) that has provoked a lot of comment. What continues to astonish me the most, in discussions such as that one, is what great difficulty people have in actually believing, “God is love.”

There are certain prominent doctrines that simply cannot, can not, be reconciled with, “God is love.” Among those are Double Predestination, Single Predestination (which as far as I could ever see is morally, practically, and substantively identical with Double Predestination, differentiated only by verbal parlor tricks), Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and the notion that God ever sends people to hell. Leaving aside, for this post, that these doctrines also contradict God’s immutability and His infinitude and a host of other biblical teachings, I would like to focus on what God’s Love is and is not. I do this on the theory that misconceptions about divine love may be behind people’s failure or refusal to interpret the Holy Scriptures in accordance with it.


God’s Love is completely free. (Romans 9:15; Exodus 33:19) Nobody and nothing, external to Him or internal, compels Him to give it. He loves and is love because He wills so to do and so to be.

God’s Love is unconditional. It never fails. (I Corinthians 13:8; see also Psalm 36:6-7, Psalm 57:10) This means nothing we could ever do or imagine doing could affect God or His love in the least. We flatter ourselves if we imagine we are that powerful! This doesn’t mean He approves or blesses everything we do. No, He may actively oppose us and He will win, and if we persist, His victory may seemingly be to our expense – but all the while He loves us just as tenderly, keeps us as the apple of His Eye. No matter what. And His victory, even if it is a victory over us, will ultimately be in our best interest, too. (It is not good for us to keep on sinning, or to continue lying to ourselves, for dark deeds harm their perpetrators most of all.)

God’s Love is inalienable. (Romans 8:35-39) Nothing can separate us from it. Even if we do not want it or return it, even if we hate God, His goodness and (unaccepted) mercy will follow us all the days of our life, and beyond. He even loves those in hell. (And He in no sense will have sent them there! Anyone in hell will have put himself there, without any assistance from God whatsoever, and against what He would have chosen for them, had He not left the choice to them.)

God’s Love is pure, unmixed. There is no such thing as, “Yes, God is love, BUT…” Nothing dilutes God’s love, or counters it, or forms part of a dichotomy with it. God’s Justice, for example, does not contrast or contradict or oppose His Love, but, rightly understood, is a function of His Love, a subset of it, if you will. Justice and love always go together, as in Jeremiah 9:34.

God’s Love is infinite. (Jeremiah 31:1) The phrase, “His mercy endures for ever” occurs 42 times in the Old Testament.

God’s Love is universal. (Psalm 145:9) He loves each and every person with infinite, unconditional Love – even people who make themselves His enemies. He is never theirs!

God’s Love is sacrificial. (Romans 8:32) “Love does not seek her own.” God seeks nothing for Himself in return for His Love.

God’s Love is not winnable or earnable. That is because it was always ours, from before we were formed in the womb.

God’s Love is not an emotion. In fact, it is not a response of any kind; it is proactive. God doesn’t have emotions. God’s love consists of giving Himself for our highest good.

God's Love is not namby-pamby. In fact it is ferocious; it is the strongest thing there is. It has nothing to do with sentimentality. God’s mighty love does not overlook or excuse evil, but conquers it. Even when it appears weak, that is when God’s love is the strongest, as in the Crucifixion. Jesus, as He is hanging on that tree, is defeating satan by not budging an inch. He is disarming the devil by depriving him of his principal weapon, death. He is dispersing death’s darkness by shining the light of His Life and Love into the very heart of it.

No, such assertions as these are not an attempt to humanize or sanitize God, or to make Him over into our own liking. (But that accusation is very interesting in its implicit acknowledgment that such a God would indeed be more loveable.) The reverse is true: God imagined as one Whose love is less than this is the human creation. Making Him literally spiteful, vindictive, retaliatory, that is making Him all too human.

This is the Divine Love revealed in Christ Jesus, and He is the key to the Scriptures. We need to interpret them accordingly.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Forgiveness and Repentance

There is a difference we shall all do well to keep in mind between seeking repentance and merely seeking forgiveness. Merely seeking forgiveness is a self-serving attempt to assuage guilt feelings, while repentance involves a certain generosity of changing course. To repent means trying to bring forth the fruits of repentance, for the sake of Christ.

If you seek only forgiveness, just say you are sorry and receive absolution, you may achieve your objective of feeling emotionally better, but only for a short while. Your conscience, by no means deceived, will still know you have not changed your intentions; and very shortly, when the initial relief wears off, you will become aware, again, that your conscience is still paining you.

Repentance, by contrast, really works. Repentance is the only cure.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Doctrine of the Celestial Prig

God told Moses, "You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live." (Exodus 33:20) In some circles, this is interpreted to mean that God is a Celestial Prig. This Celestial Prig allegedly cannot abide even a whiff of wickedness in His all-holy presence, so if you should blunder into that Presence or be brought there, you, as a sinner, would be zapped. Of course this is total nonsense. Well, not total; it does contain a grain of truth, which I intend to point out, but first, let us debunk this unbiblical, unchristian, primitive notion of God.

Biblical examples usually given to back up the doctrine of the Celestial Prig are the stories of Uzzah, of Abihu and Nadab, of Ananias and Sapphira, all of whom were struck dead.

Uzzah’s story takes place as King David is transferring the Ark of the Covenant to the capital city. Now the Ark, besides containing holy relics, (Hebrews 9:4) was also the place where God dwelt. More specifically, the gold-covered lid of the Ark had a carving of a cherub on either side of it, and God’s glory dwelt between the cherubim. Although the general population was forbidden to touch the Ark, Uzzah arrogated to himself the privileged responsibility of steadying it during its journey. “Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the LORD was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the ark of God.” (2 Samuel 6:7)

Was it because Uzzah approached too closely to the Lord that he was struck dead, or was it not rather because he had disobeyed Him? That the latter is the case is clearly shown by the fact that the Ark, whereupon the Lord dwelt, was was then taken to the house of Obed-Edom, the Gittite, where it remained for three months. “And the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his household. Now it was told King David, saying, ‘The Lord has blessed the house of Obed-Edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God’."

Nobody in Obed-Edom’s house died from being in direct proximity to the Lord. On the contrary, they were blessed.

Moreover, afterward, human beings carried the Ark without being zapped: “So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with gladness. And so it was, when those bearing the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, that he sacrificed oxen and fatted sheep”. (2 Samuel 6:11-14)

I Chronicles 15:26 tells us specifically the men carrying the Ark were Levites.

Merely touching the Ark, then, did not kill a person; only touching it in disobedience did. Being in close proximity to the Lord was in itself neither harmful nor unsafe, but to the contrary, a blessing.

On to the next story that allegedly teaches the doctrine of the Celestial Prig.

Abihu and Nadab were priests in the Tabernacle, who decided to ignore God’s commands concerning how HE wished to be worshipped, and undertook to worship Him in ways of their own devising.

Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. And Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke, saying:

'By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.'"

And Aaron was shocked. (Leviticus 10:1-4, verse 4 being from the Septuagint)

Again, was it from being in close proximity to the Lord that these men died? No, it was from disobedience. Their brothers serving in the same Tabernacle remained alive and unharmed, impure though they undoubtedly were, as all of us are.

On to the New Testament case.

Ananias and Sapphira were Christian converts. The original Christians sold all their possessions and put the proceeds into a common fund, but Ananias (no relation to Ananias the High Priest or Ananias who baptized Saul) and his wife, Sapphira, kept back part of their profit for themselves, laying the rest at the apostles’ feet.

But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God."

Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.

Now it was about three hours later when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter answered her, "Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?"

She said, "Yes, for so much."

Then Peter said to her, "How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out." Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things. (Acts 5:3-11)

In none of these stories do we see people who have died because they saw the Lord or because they were in His direct presence; on the contrary, they died because they sinned; and in sinning, they were separating themselves from Him.

So none of these stories serves to prop up the doctrine of the Celestial Prig who cannot stand being in the presence of wickedness. The doctrine of the Celestial Prig is not biblical.

In fact, the one man who did actually see God, Isaiah, was not zapped. On the contrary, he was purified. Isaiah writes:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said:

"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!"

And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.

So I said:

O wretched man that I am!
I am stunned;
for being a man and having unclean lips,
I live among a people having unclean lips,
and I have seen the King,
the Lord of Hosts, with my eyes!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said:

"Behold, this has touched your lips;
Your iniquity is taken away,
And your sin purged."
(Isaiah 6:1-7, verse 5 is Septuagint)

St. John, in two places, (John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12) assures us, “No man has seen God at any time.” What are we to make of Isaiah’s account now? Obviously, that it was a vision, not a literal, physical event. We should have known that anyway, as there is no way a burning coal could literally take away wickedness, any more than picking a rose could stop thunder; nor were Isaiah’s physical lips blistered. The coal showed the prophet’s cleansing in a symbolic way.

No man has seen God at any time. What God said to Moses, then, is not exemplified by Uzzah, by Abihu and Nadab, or by Ananias and Sapphira. None of these saw the Lord. None was in closer proximity to the Lord than others who survived. All of them were flagrantly disobedient. They died not because God is dangerous, but because sin is, although this statement needs some qualifying; keep reading.

Yet there is a sense in which Christians, at least, have indeed seen God. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Looking at Jesus, then, do we see revealed any Celestial Prig? Is that what Jesus is? If God cannot abide even the whiff of wickedness in His Presence, how is it He Himself consented to be born into this wicked world? Shouldn’t He rather have sent an angel than to have come in Person? If God cannot tolerate sin, how is it that He actually sought out sinners and ate with tax collectors and allowed a whore to weep all over His feet and anoint Him with oil and dry Him with her own hair? (As a matter of fact, Christ our God allowed Himself also to be descended from a prostitute, Rahab.) If God cannot abide sin, why did God the Son harbor Judas among His most intimate friends? Why did Pontius Pilate and Herod not drop dead when He stood before them, or they sat before Him? In fact, why did not everybody He met drop dead at the sight of Him, as Peter was afraid he might? “Depart from me, Lord,” he said, “for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus did not depart from him, and Peter lived. Even when Jesus cleansed the Temple, he only overturned the tables. He could have zapped the sinners, but you can be sure it was not long before they were right back at it. If God cannot abide sin, why did Christ allow Himself to die between two thieves and murderers? Even those who whipped Him and spat upon Him and mocked Him and drove the nails through Him who dwelt above the Ark were not zapped on the spot, due to the incomprehensible forbearance of our God. The earth shook, the Sun was darkened, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, but nobody was zapped. In fact, the opposite: graves opened, and saints arose from them. If God is a Celestial Prig Who cannot bear the presence of evil, how did He manage to descend to the very bowels of hell?

No, the doctrine of the Celestial Prig is not Christian. God is no prude. God is an adult deity. He can handle evil.

Moreoever, His nature is so entirely unlike our own that nothing we do is able to change Him in the least. He is totally independent of us. He is immutable. He is not kindly disposed toward you one moment and ready to kill you the next, or vice-versa. Instead, He always loves you, no matter how displeased He may be with your undertakings. The doctrine of the Celestial Prig is forced to teach that He must be changed in order for us to be saved. But Scripture tells us the very opposite: first, that He does not change; and secondly, that His unchanging nature is precisely why we are not zapped!

James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

Malachi 3:6 For I [am] the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.

Lamentations 3:22 [It is of] the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.

God is love, and love is infinitely stronger than evil. Love does not avenge evil but (what is infinitely better!) corrects it, heals it, abolishes it the same way knowledge abolishes ignorance.

He deals with evil by displacing it with His Goodness and also by thwarting it. In Job 5:12, we read: “He disappoints the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform [their] enterprise.” And that brings us to the grain of truth in the lie of the Celestial Prig, because the fact is, you could conceivably find yourself among the disappointed. And that’s putting it mildly. God, in His love, frustrates our evil intents and stops our evil deeds, which is always good for us, not to mention for our victims. Yes, it is always good for us to cease eroding our character, mutilating our souls, numbing our consciences – and God in His mercy may shorten our days if necessary to keep us from that. (We children of Adam were all going to die anyway, so we can’t exactly say God will kill us, but He will decide when the time is right for each of us to leave this life and enter the next.) You could conceivably find yourself among the zapped!

But it won’t be because you came too near to God, but rather because you were too far from Him, Who is your only safety. It won’t be because, like some prissy old woman needing a flask of ammonia under her nose to revive her, God is so scandalized by your sins, but because He is rescuing you from racking up any more everlasting regrets -- and/or He is delivering others from your schemes. And/or for some other good, kind, compassionate, loving, reason we may or may not be able to discern.

Sinning, not God, is hazardous to your health.

God is your only safe haven.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Faith v. Certainty (Part 3 of a series)

The Holy Scriptures everywhere assure us that we cannot be saved apart from faith in Christ and (based upon that faith) love for Him.

Do I have faith? How do I know? St. James says, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18)

Do I love God? How do I know? St. John, in his First Epistle, says repeatedly it’s by doing His commandments. St. Paul tells us without love we are nothing, no matter how much faith we have (I Corinthians 13:1-3) and even goes so far as to anathematize those who do not love Christ. (I Corinthians 16:22)

By those measures, by any practical, objective measure, my faith is laughable and my love pitiable. Perhaps some may dare to suppose with certainty they could pass these scriptural tests, but not I. And it’s much worse than merely that I have done this or failed to do that. Those are but the symptoms of underlying attitudes, and those attitudes, in turn, are reflections of my heart, of who I am. That is the problem: not even what I do or don’t do, not even the attitudes that produce those misdeeds and omissions -- but who I am!

Here then, are the paradoxes: We Orthodox see in ourselves no faith through which Grace might work to save us; yet, we know the communion of the Holy Spirit, unmistakably present, the pledge and token of our salvation. (2 Corinthians 1;22, Ephesians 1:14) Christ tells us if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move mountains; (Matthew 17:20) and we (most of us) move no mountains. Yet, we, like those first disciples, already have the joy of walking with Him. We are like the man who cried, “I believe, Lord; help Thou my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Yet, we observe that this man’s petition was granted; his son was healed. Like St. Paul, we do not dare to judge ourselves (as saved); (I Corinthians 4:13) yet, though our hearts condemn us, Christ is greater than our hearts. (I John 3:20)

Moreover, we look at the holy ones in our midst, the people who already are who we want to be, namely, “Christ with skin on” – and from them we hear that their perception of themselves and of their faith and love is the same as our perception of ourselves and our faith and love! So we see that even the objective criteria by which faith and love, in Scripture, are to be measured, are seen by our hearts only subjectively. We do not know how God sees our hearts. We do know Christ is greater than our hearts.

Certainty is an intellectual conclusion based upon irrefutable evidence. An Orthodox Christian simply cannot, in honesty, arrive at absolute certainty (and he marvels that anybody else can speak so certainly!) regarding his ultimate destiny, because in all honesty, very realistically, he finds that the iron-clad, deductive evidence is simply not there that he has any faith in Christ or any love for Him -- or that if he has faith, he will keep it unto the end and not fall away.

Faith, by contrast, is not an intellectualization, but the lived experience of reality, such that the beginning and the end of reality are Christ, and so is everything in between. Faith is the hypostasis (here and now existence) of things otherwise only hoped for, and the actual scrutiny of things invisible: we do have communion in the Holy Spirit, we do walk in and with Christ, we have been made to sit in the heavenly places, we do receive healing. These things we do not deduce but encounter.

Faith (the lived reality) makes certainty of salvation (the intellectual conclusion) unnecessary. Faith bypasses that certainty.

Certainty about salvation also bypasses real faith, resting content with itself. (That's the whole idea behind the craving for certainty, to be able to rest content.) I'll have to ponder it some more, but I'm thinking certainty may also be incompatible with real faith.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Trusting Christ, not Faith, Part 2

I've just discovered mamajuliana's blog, Abide and Endeavor (see blogroll on left) and there found this wonderful prayer from St. Ephraim the Syrian. This prayer, by acknowledging how crummy my faith is (as measured by my deeds) and by then turning to Christ, puts into practice what I was trying to say in my previous post about having faith in Christ, and not in our faith.

…Bad habits entangle me like snares, and I rejoice at being thus bound. I sink to the very depths of evil, and this delights me. Daily the enemy gives me new shackles, for he sees how the variety of bonds pleases me.

…Although I know how dreadful these shackles are, I hide them behind a noble appearance from all who might see. I appear to be robed in the beautiful clothes of reverence, but my soul is entangled with shameful thoughts. Before all who might see, I am reverent, but inside I am filled with all manner of indecency.

How pitiful I am; and how pitiful is my daily repentance, for it has no firm foundation. Every day I lay a foundation for the building, and again with my own hands I demolish it.

My repentance has not even made a good beginning as yet; yet there is no end to my wicked negligence…

…I hope in Thy mercies, O Lord; I fall at Thy feet and beseech Thee: Grant me the spirit of repentance and lead my soul out of the dungeon of iniquity! May a ray of light shine in my mind before I go to the terrible judgement which awaits me, where there is no opportunity to repent of one’s wicked deeds.

Mamajuliana concludes, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy upon me, a sinner!"


Having Faith in Faith (Not!)

Orthodox spirituality does not allow our love of Christ to remain unexamined or unchallenged. In some other bodies of which I have been a member in the past, this is not so; a person is free to entertain a highly exaggerated notion of his faith and of his love for Christ. But when one becomes Orthodox, suddenly, he is called upon to put that faith and love into practice.

Okay, so you love Christ; can you fast with the Church, for His sake? Okay, so you can, you say, but you didn’t. You try again, with the same result, or at least a result very little better.

Okay, so you love Christ; can you control your temper, for His sake? Okay, so you think you can, but is that true? You try again, with the same result, or at least a result very little better.

Okay, so you love Christ; can you pray 30 seconds without distraction, sacrifice your money for the poor, make time in your busy schedule to visit the sick? You love Christ, so how come you sat in that traffic jam cussing for half an hour when you could have taken the opportunity to say the Jesus Prayer? You love Christ, so why are you judging your brother every day when Christ commanded you not to?

And so forth. The Orthodox Christian, after a (usually short!) while, begins to wonder whether he ever loved Christ at all, much less with the great and ardent love he had formerly imagined he harbored. He begins to wonder what became of the faith that in his fantasy was so firm, so strong, precious, so devoutly held. And if it really is anything like what he had imagined it to be, how come it keeps flunking out when put to the test, almost any test?

This may be part of the reason other communions encourage their members not to look at themselves, to “keep your eyes on Jesus.” It is frightening to behold the disease and disfigurement within ourselves, and the extent to which we are slaves to our own bodies. Yet if you don’t look, you never know yourself. You have no way of knowing whether your faith or your love is authentic. You have no way of testing your faith. “Faith” is easy to have if you blind yourself to the reality within, but when you see the dragons there, then what?

Worse, if you don’t look, you never find Christ there, within you, as He promised to be. You will remain a stranger to the Holy Spirit, who dwells within the Christian.

There never comes a time when the Orthodox Christian, if he is really following the spirituality taught by the Church, ever says to himself, “Alright, I seem to be in good shape now. I can rest secure.” Such self-satisfaction is not on the Orthodox menu! Seeing that one has made some small progress in this or that can never be grounds for pride, because advancement in Orthodox Christian spirituality clarifies a person’s vision, thereby causing him to see how small is the healing so far, compared with the disgusting enormity of the remaining disease. What one might say to himself is something like, “God seems to have granted me to fast a little better, yet I have been grumpier than before and have been mistreating everybody!”

Even St. Paul wrote,

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. (Philippians 3:12-16)

It doesn’t mean if St. Paul had dropped dead midway through writing that passage, he would not have made it to heaven. It means the object is to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength. Therefore, the question, “How much faith (or love, or obedience) do I need to be saved?” is wrong-headed and self-centered, not loving at all, and not relying upon Christ at all, either.

Instead, we seek perfect conformity to His image, Whose perfections are infinite. Christ Himself is our heaven, and the more one is conformed to Him, the more one already lives in heaven. And the Orthodox know two things. One is that we are already living and moving and breathing in that heaven. The other is, we are doing it very imperfectly; like St. Paul, we haven’t made it, yet. We live in hope, we walk by faith. But our faith is not in our faith. It is in Christ.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Warped Humor

It being a bright, glorious day, in contrast to the snow and then rain we had yesterday, Demetrios and I decided to get out into it and enjoy. So we took a drive into the country, and we ended up at Chris’ house.

Chris is a fellow wildlife rehabilitator, and a co-founder of ARK, the Area Rehabbers Klub. As I haven’t been able to do any rehabbing for a couple of seasons now, it had been a long time since we had seen her. So we sat around her kitchen table and shared memories of times good and bad.

Mostly about the time, five or six years ago, she lost her right eye. She was tired that evening, and had neglected to put on her goggles before attempting to transport a Great Blue Heron to the vet. While she was carrying the bird, one arm around its body, the other hand controlling its head, her knee buckled and she fell. The Great Blue, executing its classic, instinctual defense, jabbed her in the eye with its huge beak.

Chris lives far out in the country, so as soon as this happened, she came to live with us for a while, so we could get her to and from her many doctor appointments. I remember the other rehabbers descended upon both her house and mine, and took every wild animal away, distributing them among themselves. They told me, “You’re rehabbing Chris now.”

At first the doctors thought they could save Chris’ eye, providing massive infection didn’t set in. Massive infection did set in, though; after all, the Great Blue Heron had been eating raw, dead fish just before it gouged her eye.

Today we remembered some of our visits to the ophthalmologist. “Like the time he gave me that shot right in the eyeball!” Chris said.

“And you told him, when he had drawn the needle out, ‘You are very lucky not to be singing soprano right now!’”

"And he said he hadn’t wanted to tell me, but he pretty much knew the anesthetic he had given me wasn’t going to work, on account of the infection.”

“And then he said, ‘So the only thing to do is to get the second shot over as quickly as possible!’ And we thought he was joking, but he wasn’t.”

“And I had been bragging on us,” said Chris, "telling the doctor how we were used to gruesome things and could pick maggots out of an animal’s wound without flinching and all that –”

“—which wasn’t even true, in my case! You are the Maggot Queen…”

“…so then because of that he asked you to help him with the second shot…”

“…and I had to hold your eyelid wide open while he put that needle straight into your eyeball!”

Then we remembered a follow-up visit, a month after her eye had been removed, when a nurse asked Chris, “Has anything happened?” and I thought that was such a stupid question. Lots of things happen to everybody in a month! So I told the nurse, “She’s frightened several more children…!”

Chris was laughing so hard she couldn’t even eat. “And then they told me my new eye should be ready by about October 29th, and you asked them couldn’t they at least wait until after Halloween!”

“And that poor nurse was so scandalized.”

“Yeah, she didn’t know our sense of humor was warped. She asked me, ‘Is that a friend of yours?’ And you remember that marble you bought me, painted like an eyeball?”

“You used to pull it out of your jeans pocket and freak people out.”

“I still have it. But it gets better; you wanna know what happened at the pharmacy the other day?" (By now we were laughing so much it was hard even to talk.) "I was in there with Colleen looking at heating pads for ARK, and well, my eye got too dry and the glass eye fell out! You should’ve seen it, that thing rolling down an aisle, and me crawling around after it, and Colleen hiding her face…she who does taxidermy, all grossed out over my eye!”

It was actually a terrible, terrible time, when Chris lost her eye (and with it, her job), but the good grace and humor with which she bore it, and still bears it, is an inspiration.

Lord, have mercy!

It is the largest North American heron, with a head-to-tail length of 91–137 cm (36-54 in), a wingspan of 180 cm (71 in), and a weight of 2.2–3.6 kg (4.8-8 lbs).

Photo and description from Wikipedia.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Heretic? Who?

The word "heretic" is inflammatory, and I quite dislike the habit some ardent and otherwise correct defenders of Orthodoxy have of throwing it around loosely. It's actually a highly technical word, and most of the time, other words such as "heterodox" or "erroneous" would be both more accurate and more charitable.

In Orthodox parlance, a heretic is:

a former member of the holy Orthodox Church (for the Church judges no one outside of herself)
who not only believes,
but also teaches what is contrary to Church doctrine
defiantly (viz., after adequate admonition)
and who, as a result, has been excommunicated
and anathematized by the Church
specifically and formally (not just "in effect").

And we perhaps should add, anathematized by the Church in council. (Anathema: something declared to be set aside or put away, permanently consigned to God.)

Merely holding or teaching error does not make a person a heretic; if he was never Orthodox then he is heterodox, or if he repents when admonished, he is Orthodox. A saint's opinion or a patriarch's opinion that someone is a heretic does not make that person one; the whole Church formally and specifically identifying her wayward child a heretic does make him one.

The only "loophole" I can think of that might justify any other usage of the word, "heretic," is the fact that St. Paul has issued some more generic anathemas:

"If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema." (I Corinthians 16:22)

"But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be anathema." (Galatians 1:8)

By the first of these sayings, many and perhaps most of us stand more or less under the anathema, so let us by very chary of throwing that word around, as well.

P.S.) Declining to call someone a heretic, or his teachings heretical, does not imply his errors are any the less serious! Heterodoxy can be every bit as pernicious as heresy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

So-called Bridal Mysticism

I’m thinking people who seem to be excited about Pope Benedict’s apparent desire to re-emphasize “bridal mysticism” ought to be wary of it.

Two of its most prominent practitioners and expounders were Teresa of Avila (or “Teresa of Jesus,” as she took to calling herself) and John of the Cross. I’ve begun reading a book about them, The Dark Night of the Soul, by Gerald G. May, a psychiatrist, and have been poking around the Internet reading some of the primary material as well. And so far, darkness is about all to be found.

For starters, both of these people were panentheists, but that is for another post. What I want to point out here is how so much of what passes for spirituality with people such as these is instead a heady, and flattering, mixture of fantasy and emotion, and especially of sublimated sexuality. Perhaps the most startling illustration of this is Teresa’s famous “experience” called the “transfixion” or “transverberation” of her heart, celebrated yearly by Catholics as a feast day in August. This description is found here.

c.1559-62: Teresa experiences, perhaps several times, her famous "transfixion" or "piercing" by a cherub with a golden, fiery-tipped spear. She records this in her Life as follows:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision. . . . It was our Lord's will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful--his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. . . .I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. (Life, 29.16-17)

Here is another translation:

I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan, and the sweetness this greatest pain caused me was so superabundant that there is no desire capable of taking it away.”

Also from the same web site is a translation by Alvin Joaquin Figueroa, of Teresa’s poem, entitled, “Dilectus Meus Mihi”, or, “My Beloved is Mine”, a title obviously taken from the Song of Songs.

When the sweet Hunter shot and wounded me
My soul rested upon Love’s arms.
And regaining a new life
I have changed in such a way,
That I am my Beloved’s
And my Beloved is mine.
I have surrendered to Him
And to such a great extent
That I am my Beloved’s
And my Beloved is mine.
He wounded me with a love arrow
And my soul became one with her Creator.
I do not want any other love,
For to my God I have surrendered.
I am my Beloved’s
And my Beloved is mine.

And here is a painting (not true to Teresa’s description of a very little angel on her left side), which any honest person can recognize as depicting an erotic experience. It is quite sad to mistake such sublimation for spirituality.

John of the Cross does it, too. Here is one of his poems. To be sure, he gives each stanza an allegorical, “spiritual” interpretation; nevertheless, this is sexuality posing as mysticism.

Stanzas Of The Soul

1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

The big mistake – or one of them, at least, is that John of the Cross and Teresa both take their own souls to be the Bride of Christ. That’s flattering, but a no-go. The Bride of Christ is the Church.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Plenary Indulgence

Pope Benedict XVI is promising that if you go to Lourdes, France this year, visiting all the major religious sites and there praying devoutly, you will skip purgatory and go straight to heaven. Watch the news video here.

Update: Rats! The promise isn't necessarily to you, but only to Catholics. The rest of us -- oh, yeah, the rest of us don't believe in Purgatory anyway.

St. Paul and St. John Chrysostom on Hope

Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:5)

St. John's commentary:
Tribulations, that is, are so far from confuting these hopes, that they even prove them. For before the things to come are realized, there is a very great fruit which tribulation hath—patience; and the making of the man that is tried, experienced. And it contributes in some degree too to the things to come, for it gives hope a vigor within us, since there is nothing that so inclines a man to hope for blessings as a good conscience. Now no man that has lived an upright life is unconfiding about things to come, as of those who have been negligent there are many that, feeling the burden of a bad conscience, wish there were neither judgment nor retribution. What then? do our goods lie in hopes? Yes, in hopes—but not mere human hopes, which often slip away, and put him that hoped to shame; when some one, who was expected to patronize him, dies, or is altered though he lives. No such lot is ours: our hope is sure and unmoveable. For He Who hath made the promise ever lives, and we that are to be the enjoyers of it, even should we die, shall rise again, and there is absolutely nothing which can put us to shame, as having been elated at random, and to no purpose, upon unsound hopes. Having then sufficiently cleared them of all doubtfulness by these words of his, he does not let his discourse pause at the time present, but urges again the time to come, knowing that there were men of weaker character, who looked too for present advantages, and were not satisfied with these mentioned. And so he offers a proof for them in blessings already given. For lest any should say, But what if God be unwilling to give them to us? For that He can, and that He abides and lives, we all know: but how do we know, that He is willing, also, to do it? From the things which have been done already. “What things done?” The Love which He hath shown for us. In doing what? some may say. In giving the Holy Ghost. Wherefore after saying “hope makes not ashamed,” he goes on to the proof of this, as follows:

“Because the love of God is,” he does not say “given,” but “shed abroad in our hearts,” so showing the profusion of it. That gift then, which is the greatest possible, He hath given; not heaven and earth and sea, but what is more precious than any of these, and hath rendered us Angels from being men, yea sons of God, and brethren of Christ. But what is this gift? The Holy Spirit. Now had He not been willing to present us after our labors with great crowns, He would never have given us such mighty gifts before our labors. But now the warmth of His Love is hence made apparent, that it is not gradually and little by little that He honors us; but He hath shed abroad the full fountain of His blessings, and this too before our struggles. And so, if thou art not exceedingly worthy, despond not, since thou hast that Love of thy Judge as a mighty pleader for thee. For this is why he himself by saying, “hope makes not ashamed,” has ascribed everything not to our well-doings, but to God’s love.

It has to do with hoping for the right thing: for final salvation, justice, and the triumph of truth and beauty and goodness and Love. It has to do with placing our hopes in the right Person, not ourselves, but God. It has to do with God already having given us the greatest gift of all: Himself. It has to do with what else you wanted after that.


Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:5)

Tribulations, that is, are so far from confuting these hopes, that they even prove them. For before the things to come are realized, there is a very great fruit which tribulation hath—patience; and the making of the man that is tried, experienced. And it contributes in some degree too to the things to come, for it gives hope a vigor within us, since there is nothing that so inclines a man to hope for blessings as a good conscience. Now no man that has lived an upright life is unconfiding about things to come, as of those who have been negligent there are many that, feeling the burden of a bad conscience, wish there were neither judgment nor retribution. What then? do our goods lie in hopes? Yes, in hopes—but not mere human hopes, which often slip away, and put him that hoped to shame; when some one, who was expected to patronize him, dies, or is altered though he lives. No such lot is ours: our hope is sure and unmoveable. For He Who hath made the promise ever lives, and we that are to be the enjoyers of it, even should we die, shall rise again, and there is absolutely nothing which can put us to shame, as having been elated at random, and to no purpose, upon unsound hopes. Having then sufficiently cleared them of all doubtfulness by these words of his, he does not let his discourse pause at the time present, but urges again the time to come, knowing that there were men of weaker character, who looked too for present advantages, and were not satisfied with these mentioned. And so he offers a proof for them in blessings already given. For lest any should say, But what if God be unwilling to give them to us? For that He can, and that He abides and lives, we all know: but how do we know, that He is willing, also, to do it? From the things which have been done already. “What things done?” The Love which He hath shown for us. In doing what? some may say. In giving the Holy Ghost. Wherefore after saying “hope makes not ashamed,” he goes on to the proof of this, as follows:
“Because the love of God is,” he does not say “given,” but “shed abroad in our hearts,” so showing the profusion of it. That gift then, which is the greatest possible, He hath given; not heaven and earth and sea, but what is more precious than any of these, and hath rendered us Angels from being men, yea sons of God, and brethren of Christ. But what is this gift? The Holy Spirit. Now had He not been willing to present us after our labors with great crowns, He would never have given us such mighty gifts before our labors. But now the warmth of His Love is hence made apparent, that it is not gradually and little by little that He honors us; but He hath shed abroad the full fountain of His blessings, and this too before our struggles. And so, if thou art not exceedingly worthy, despond not, since thou hast that Love of thy Judge as a mighty pleader for thee. For this is why he himself by saying, “hope makes not ashamed,” has ascribed everything not to our well-doings, but to God’s love.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Happier Times -- or not?

I've been going through a LOT of family photographs lately, having received custody of all my parents' albums. I'm trying to scan everything and put it on CD.

In the process, I found these, and can't resist posting them.

Here is Dad when he was younger and healthy, and Barbara in high school, being a model -- in all her 6'4" glory, same height as Dad. And she has hair -- lots of hair, long hair!

And here's a letter she wrote much earlier, when she was in grade school and Dad was in Vietnam.

Justified by Faith -- with or without Works?


But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, (Romans 4:5)

You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. (James 2:24)

If a person believes that these two passages of Scripture contradict one another, then one has to decide which one to accept and which one to reject. If, however, you are a sola scripturist, and even if you are not, rejecting either passage is unacceptable, since both are inspired by the Holy Spirit, who does not contradict Himself.

If we are not Orthodox, what often happens in such cases is, we acknowledge that these Scriptural sayings cannot really be contradictory. Yet only one or the other passage really makes sense to us and we are unable to explain how they fit together – or perhaps we have an explanation, but not a very satisfactory one. One or the other of these verses will not fit very well with our theology. We will work with the passage that does and will largely ignore the other. That is a de facto rejection of the virtually ignored Scripture.

In this case, though, the answer to the apparent dilemma is very easy: St. Paul is not making a contrast between faith and works in general, but specifically between faith and lawkeeping. St. Paul, after all, is the Apostle to the Gentiles! He spends chapter after chapter telling them, contra the Judaizers, that they do not have to be Jews to be Christians, they do not have to be circumcised, they need not and must not rely upon the Law of Moses for salvation. St. Paul emphasizes this point all the more because the idea scandalizes his Jewish-Christian readers – and frightens them, since this is the Law God Himself has ordained. They must have felt approximately the way a Catholic might if you tried to persuade him there is salvation apart from the pope. Salvation apart from the Law of Moses was very difficult for them even to imagine.

Salvation, says St. Paul, is by grace through faith, apart from the Law of Moses. You do not have to enter into the Old Covenant, do not have to keep kosher, do not have to offer sacrifice in the Temple, indeed must not offer it (and a good thing, too, as within a couple of decades the Temple and the nation of Israel were destroyed, and with them, the ability to keep huge portions of the Law of Moses).

The Apostle does not specify each and every time that works of the Law of Moses are what he is contrasting to faith, but he does specify it enough times to let his readers know that this is what he means, e.g., Romans 3:28, 9:32, Galatians 2:16, 3:2, 5, 10. Even the verses such as the one under consideration here (Romans 4:5), in which St. Paul does not add “of the Law”, are set within the context of discussion of the Mosaic Law’s place in the scheme of things. Read all of Romans 3 and 4 to see what I mean.

You do not need to keep the Law of Moses to be saved. In fact, if you rely upon that instead of upon Christ, you have negated the Christian faith. That is what St. Paul is saying. He is contrasting faith with the works of the Law, and by extension, with with any kind of “dead works,” that is, works outside of faith -- but not at all with faith's own works!

Faith’s works, prompted not by Moses but by the Holy Spirit, not by obligation but by love, done not by us but by Christ through our flesh and our effort, faith's works are the very soul of faith, says St. James; they are what animates faith and makes it to be faith. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:26)

Even the repentant thief crucified beside Jesus, the moment of his repentance, began to live and die according to faith, that is, unto God, instead of according to whatever had been his impetus before. Faith instantly made good works of his thoughts and words, of his breathing and sweating, of his living and suffering, and even of his dying.

This is how, in the thief, in Abraham, in all the saints, “faith collaborated with works, and by works faith was made perfect.” (James 2:22)

And the works of faith, making it faith, are those to which St. James refers when he says we are justified (made righeous) by them, and not by “faith” alone.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Old-Age Hilarity

Remember Calendar Girls, that movie in which old women posed scantily clad to raise funds? Well, the ladies at my mother's retirement community have done the same. Wanna see some Nekkid Ladies, average age 80-something, tastefully photographed?
Go here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What "Faith Alone" Looks Like


Here's another Escher drawing of impossible objects.

Below, two more, not his but inspired by him.

These are what "faith alone" looks like. I mean faith considered apart from works. You can't consider it apart from its works, because, as all Christians acknowledge (so far as I know), it doesn't exist that way, except on paper, or in the human imagination. As it doesn't exist, God doesn't do anything with it, because of it, or about it. Except eventually to expose the illusion for what it is.

And here, with multiple impossibilities, is what a theology ends up like if it contains too many absurdities. (You have to look very closely, as also at some theologies, to see the impossibilities, but the most obvious ones here are 4. I'm told there are several more; have fun.)

Faith as Righteousness

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

In Christianity, righteousness is not a matter of fulfilling the Law (of Moses) and never was. It is true that, if you could fulfill the Law, you would be righteous. Yet you would not be righteous because you had fulfilled the Law, but the other way around: you would have fulfilled it, as Christ did, because you were already righteous.

The corollary to this is that faith is not some temporarily acceptable substitute for true righteousness. It is not as if God said, “Okay, so since true righteousness is impossible for you, I’ll tell you what. I’ll graciously settle for faith and count you as righteous if only you have faith.” On the contrary, faith always was the true righteousness. The Law of Moses, which St. Paul says was “added because of transgressions” until Christ should come, was to show faithless men who did not love God roughly what faith and love would look like. The Law was our “custodian” to keep us in line until then, and to be a preliminary revelation of God’s will. The Law, then, was the temporary arrangement, but it was no substitute for faith. In fact, fulfilling it was impossible without faith, and attempts to carry it out even to the minutest letter were unacceptable without love of God, and such love is impossible without faith.

Faith, then, is and always was the true righteousness.

What, then, is faith? Almost all Christians know it is not mere belief. Some say it is belief plus trust, but faith in the Christian sense is much more even than that. It is trust such as becomes the premise, the foundation, the working principle, of our lives. If we were computers, faith would be our operating system. Now a working principle that does no work is what? An absurdity. A logical contradiction, nothing real at all, except on paper, like an Escher drawing.

That is why the greatest chapter in the Bible on faith, Hebrews 11, is also the greatest catalog of heroic deeds.

To acquire true, Christian faith means — by definition! — that the foundation of your life shifts. It shifts, specifically, from whatever it was (“self-fulfillment” usually, or self-preservation) to Christ. Note carefully: not from self-fulfillment via secular means to self-fulfillment through Christ! but to Christ in His own right, for His own sake. Christian faith, then, is a new identity. It means you have faith in Christ such that He becomes the new principle of your existence.

Now to seek self-fulfillment, or self-preservation, ironically, is ultimately self-destructive. (Matthew 16:235, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, Luke 17:33) This is because it is a selfish enterprise, and accomplished at the expense of others. It is the opposite of love and the opposite of true personhood, for which the human being was created. Faith means giving that up in favor of Christ, in the confidence that He, Who is the meaning of your life, will do with it whatever is best. Faith means donating your life to Him.

When you have done that, you have become righteous. And God recognizes this new relationship with Him as righteousness. This is what He really wants from you, has always wanted, not because He is power-hungry, not because to be believed in flatters Him in any way, nor yet because, like some human lover, He yearns for his love to be gratified by being returned. Rather He wants faith and love from you because it is the only way of saving you from yourself. If He is said to guard His prerogatives jealously, it is never in a self-seeking sense, for love never seeks her own. It is all for us.

When you have donated your life to God in Christ, you have become righteous, and God recognizes you as righteous. Yet, things aren’t that simple. There’s much more to the story than that, because this is only an incipient faith and an incipient righteousness. "He who does righteousness is righteous," as St. Peter tells us. When you first acquire the righteousness of faith, it is like a tiny mustard seed, “which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32) The large tree is the goal, mature faith, perfect righteousness.

How does faith/righteousness grow? The same way a child does. By living, acting, practicing, learning, struggling; see previous post. As St. James puts it, faith is made perfect by [its] works. (James 2:22) The more you love (actively! not just in your imagination), the more you enlarge your capacity to love. The more you act on faith, the greater it grows. Obedience in small things makes possible (and easier!) obedience in larger things, until one day, you reach the goal (Romans 8:28) of being made like Christ and perfectly one with Him.

Are not the perfections of Christ infinite? How can you attain to all of His infinite perfection in one short lifetime? You cannot. Whoever told you that was necessary before God would accept you misunderstood. The truth is, if you are a person of faith (and love, without which we are nothing at all), you have already entered Paradise, have been made to sit with the saints in the heavenly places, and death will not disrupt that. Death will merely let you see it more clearly, no longer dimly, as in a clouded mirror, but now unveiled to you in all its glory. Or rather, in all His glory, for Christ Himself is our Paradise.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Righteousness -- How?

No declaration by God can make a person righteous. It’s like saying headache can be made to stop hurting by applying a bandage to your elbow, or it’s like thinking to give penicillin for osteoporosis, or building a dam by sucking a lollipop. The two just don’t have anything in common. The one is unable to have any effect upon the other. Declarations and righteousness simply belong to completely different categories, different spheres of operation.

It would seem, at first, more logical to argue that a declaration by God means God now regards a person as righteous. But that would be to assert that God, Who sees us keep on sinning, denies the truth, Who is Truth. So that doesn’t work any better. It’s not as though (as I read in some other blog yesterday) He shoots a perfect round of golf and then hands me His scorecard and lets me, a terrible golfer, falsify it by signing my name to it. There is no trickery with God, no sleight of hand, no falsity, no gamesmanship. He doesn't scam Himself. He does not pretend Christ's righteousness is mine or that my sins are Christ's. He knows better.

Righteousness doesn’t come to us sacramentally, either. Healing does, healing of our wounded, sick, sinful human nature. That is why we receive the sacraments frequently. They give us strength. They are concrete forms of God’s grace. Christ washes us, takes us with Him through death to life, anoints us, allows Himself to be ingested by us, enters into our bones and sinews, gradually sanctifying and deifying us. Yet we continue to sin daily, hourly. We continue unrighteous.

And God, Who is no fool, knows it.

Moreover, we want Him to know it, which is why we go to confession, because unless He is aware of our sins and burdens, how shall He help us with them? How shall He forgive them or heal us or give us the strength or wisdom to do better next time?

No, righteousness comes from trying hard, in communion with Christ, to do righteousness. That's what nobody much wants to do, try hard. A declaration would be sweeter, or so at least we imagine. “Be not deceived,” writes St. Peter, “he who does righteousness is righteous.” Righteousness comes from struggling for it.

At every point, the struggle is God’s work. We get no credit for it at all. (And even if we did get any credit, we could not exchange it for anything; it would be worthless as Monopoly money. This is because God cannot be bought or bribed with anything whatsoever.)

Yet that does not mean He does it all for us while we sit on our fat bottoms doing nothing. All the work is God’s, yes; and all the effort is ours. We call it synergy, and it is what St. Paul perfectly describes when he urges us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God in us, both willing and working. All the work is God’s, all the effort is our own. And much effort is required.

No, this struggle for righteousness does not earn us any merit or any brownie points, does not in the least put God in our debt or oblige Him to save us if we succeed. Righteousness does not entitle us to salvation -- or to anything else.

Instead, righteousness IS salvation. After all, to the extent you have become righteous, you have been saved from committing any more sins. That is what you wanted, isn’t it? Not really? It should have been. But oh, well, then, hold on, there’s more. To the extent you have become righteous, you have become Christlike! Still not terribly motivating? You love Him less than you thought, then, but never mind, because here’s the best part of all. To the extent you have become righteous, you are letting Christ live His own Life in and through your flesh, and there is no greater intimacy with another person than that. THAT is what union with Him means in its deepest sense. He is living His righteous life in you. That is how you acquire His righteousness. And remember that He, in turn, is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, so through Him, you have this ultimate intimacy of a shared life with the Holy Trinity, Whose life is immortal, too.

Can you achieve perfect union with Christ in this life? No. But if, by faith, you honestly struggle for it, God, in His mercy, will make up the difference in the end and perfect you. In and by your death, He will separate you from your remaining sins.

Or if you don’t struggle to do the right, to stop sinning, to become like Christ, to live in perfect union with Him -- in short, if you don't do the works of faith -- then you don’t actually have faith, which of course makes the whole issue moot.

More on Feel-Goodism

This is by no means one of Matthew Gallatin's best podcasts, but I liked the blurb: "If our choice of churches is based on how they make us feel, are we really interested in worship?"

And I liked these words, which I transcribed:

Unlike "personal fulfillment", true worship has no subjective element. It is a purely objective act. To worship Christ is to deny everything that I am. In the light of His overwhelming glory, I ignore myself. [In worship,] I am forgotten. He is the only life that I acknowledge.