Life

What does it mean for a human being to “live?”

From the Old Testament:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Genesis 1.26-28

From the New Testament:

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. Romans 8.28-30

God fashioned human beings in such a way as to need the indwelling of God’s life to live – “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Therefore, God’s life is the life with which all humanity is designed to be filled. We have no life apart from the indwelling life of God.

There is nothing greater or more desirable than for someone to become like God. There is nothing greater because this exceeds all the laws of nature. There is nothing more desirable because it raises man to the highest degree of ultimate and fullest happiness. All of the other dignities the inhabitants of the earth are able to enjoy – even if they are wonderful and great – still lack the greatest good and impart only partial happiness, and therefore they are not as great and desirable as becoming like God. This dignity is so excellent and grants such perfect happiness that every rational creature is set ablaze with desire and love for it. First of all, when Lucifer was in heaven, he was so consumed with desire for this dignity that he imagined he could exalt his throne above the stars and become like the Most High: I will go up to heaven, I will set my throne above the stars of heaven, I will sit on a lofty mount, … I will be like the Most High (Is. 14.13-14). Secondly, when Adam was on earth, he was overcome by the same desire and wanted to become like God, and so heeded the counsel of the serpent: You will be like gods, knowing good and evil Gen. 3.5). And from Adam onward, many … have attempted over and over again to claim this lofty title for themselves and proclaim … that they are like God. The Orthodox Word, pg. 165-166 [from a discourse entitled “A Discourse in Praise of the Archpriesthood,” by St. Nikodemus of Mount Athos]

As St. Nikodemus articulates it, then, the essence of the fall is the attempt – unsuccessful and tragic – to be who truly are and have “life” in any way that is outside God’s design, no matter how right (reasonable and apparently fruitful) it may sound. We have chosen to attempt to fill ourselves with life other than the life of God. We have chosen to be like God (have the life of God) without having to be filled with God’s life. By Holy Baptism and the participation in the fullness of the Holy Tradition, the living God once again comes to live within us as well as among us as His Body. This is the meaning of God sharing His life with us. It is not God slicing off a part of His life and placing it in you and me. It is the living God permeating all who receive Him with His ONE and only life. Therefore, “my” life is a shared life not an individualistic life (life of my own apart from the life of others). It is not “mine.” Therefore, neither is our life “our” life. It is not “ours.” I/we are united with God and with one another in God’s life, “without separation and without confusion.”

Let us seek to comprehend the radical meaning of God’s gift of human life and live in harmony with it.

Fr. Thomas

Christ the King — Theory or Practical Reality

Every feast and fast of the Church’s life is intended to be an occasion of transformation in Christ. As we place ourselves in the dynamic context of the feast or fast, it represents our active co-operation with the Holy Spirit in the integration in our everyday life of the particular aspect of the person of Christ that the season or event offers. Today, in the Western Church, we celebrate the feast of “Christ the King.” How would the Holy Spirit desire to integrate the authentic Kingship/Lordship of Christ Jesus in our life? Where, according to the revelation of the Holy Spirit, is Christ Jesus king in theory but not reigning pragmatically? How might He? What does that require of you and me?

Perhaps it would be fruitful for us to reflect on the gospel readings in the Western Church for the feast. In doing so  let us more deeply listen for the voice and instruction of the Holy Spirit regarding how Christ Jesus can effectively reign in our life. Here, then, are the reflections of two members of the great cloud of witnesses regarding the Kingship of Christ Jesus

Gospel readings  in the Western Church – Matthew 25.31-46; Mark 11.1-11; Luke 19.29-38; Luke 23.35-43; and John 18:33-37

First, is the reflection of Bless Charles de Foucauld. Speak Lord, for your servants listen with a readiness for your word, ready to obey in humble gratitude.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld, a trappist monk of the 20th century confronted and co-operated with the Holy Spirit in ruthlessly answer the question posed above. The result was life changing for him. A biographical sketch of his life can be read here.

“To be as Christ is in the lives of others”
O my Lord Jesus, how quickly will a person become poor who, loving you with all his heart, is unable to bear being more wealthy than his Beloved. How speedily will he become poor who, reflecting that all that is done to one of these little ones is done to you and that all that is not done to them is not done to you (Mt 25.40,45), brings comfort to all the neediness within his power. How quickly will he become poor who receives your words in faith: ‘If you would be perfect, sell what you have and give to the poor. Blessed are the poor. Everyone who has given up his possessions for my sake will receive a hundred times more and in heaven, eternal life’ (Mt 19.21,29; 5.3) and so much more.

O my God, I cannot believe some souls are able to see you poor and yet choose to remain rich, to see themselves as so much greater than their lord, their Beloved, and not want to be like you in everything insofar as it depends on them, especially in your humiliations… In my view, anyway, I cannot think of love without a pressing need for conformity, for likeness and, above all, for sharing all the pains and difficulties, all the hardships of life. To be rich, at ease, living comfortably off my possessions when you were poor, afflicted and living painfully off a hard labor – no, I cannot, my God; I cannot love like that.

It isn’t right that ‘the slave should be greater than his master’ (Jn 13.16), nor that the bride should be rich when the Bridegroom is poor… As for me, it seems impossible to me to comprehend love without a seeking for likeness…, without a need to share in every cross. Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), hermit and missionary in the Sahara, excerpt from a retreat made at Nazareth, 1897

Second, the counsel of St. Cyril of Alexandria. Quoting now from The Orthodox Faith, Volume III, by Fr. Thomas Hopko.

At the beginning of the fifth century when Alexandria and Constantinople were feuding over their respective positions in the Church and in the empire, Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople, made known his refusal to honor Mary, Christ’s mother, with the traditional title of Theotokos. He claimed that the one born from Mary is merely the “man” in whom the eternal Logos of God came to dwell, but not the Logos Himself. Thus, Mary could not properly be called Theotokos, which means the one who gave birth to God.

Saint Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria (d.444), forcefully rejected the teaching of Nestorius, claiming that it is proper to call Mary Theotokos since the one born from her, “according to the flesh,” is none other than the divine Logos of God. The only-begotten Son of God was “begotten of the Father before all ages” coming down from Heaven for man’s salvation, being born in the flesh, and becoming man from the Virgin. Thus, the Son of God and the Son of Mary is one and the same Son… Nestorius and his followers refused to yield to Saint Cyril’s appeals for repentance. Thus, in 431, in the city of Ephesus, a small group of bishops under Saint Cyril’s direct control held a council to affirm the Alexandrian doctrine and to reject that of Nestorius. The decisions of this meeting were formally recognized in 433 by the Eastern bishops who had not been present. The Council of 431 subsequently became known as the Third Ecumenical Council.

St. Cyril makes it clear that seeking to understand and apply (with the heart and the head) the Incarnation is crucial to living the Christian life. He says,

Father, glorify me with the glory which I had with you before the world was made. Notice that Christ does not ask for a new begin­ning in glory, but a restoration of the glory which he had of old, and also that he speaks these words as a man. Again, the fact that he became a man is the reason why all things are said to have been given to the Son. We who are eager for knowledge will gather wisdom from every source in seeking to understand this. But nothing will teach us better than that awe-inspiring vision of Daniel, in which the Prophet says he saw him whose days are without beginning seated in majesty, with thousands upon thou­sands and myriads upon myriads there to serve and attend him. He continues: And behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a man, who approached him whose days have no beginning and was presented to him. And to him was given the dominion and glory of the kingdom, so that all people, the nations of all tongues, should serve him.

Do you see how in these words we have an accurate portrayal of the whole mystery of the incarnation? In telling us how the Son received the kingdom from the Father, the Prophet refers not merely to the Son, but to one who appeared as a man. For he humbled himself,as it is written, by taking the form of a man for our sake, so that in ascending first to the kingdom he might open up the way for us to follow him to the kingdom of glory. And just as he is by nature life, so it was for our sake that he came down to die in the flesh for all humanity, to set us free from death and corrup­tion. By his likeness to ourselves he could as it were mingle his own nature with ours, and make us to be partakers of eternal life. So although as God he is the Lord of glory, yet he takes on the form of our low estate in order to raise human nature also to royal honour.

For he came to take precedence in all things, as Paul says. He is the way, the door, the first fruits of our blessings; he leads us from death to life, from corruption to incorruption, from weakness to strength, from slavery to adoption as children of God, and from all the obscurity of our low estate to kingly honour and glory. St Cyril of Alexandria, In Ioannis Evangelium II, 35 (PG 73:283-286); Word in Season VIII.

Nothing like the voice of the Holy Spirit atriculated through His saints to propel us forward into a deeper integration of the true faith. Wow, I think that about covers it ! !

God Bless,

Fr. Thomas

The Divine Liturgy — Eden Redux but not Revision — Enter the City

Meditatio:

The Divine Liturgy as a redux of the encounter between Adam and Eve and the Lord in the garden in which He says that they may eat of every tree in the garden but not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Divine Liturgy is a rehearsal of how the Lord intended for that encounter to have developed. Be blessed by the parallels. Don’t forget to include in your consideration the record of the Last Supper, Gethsemane, Emmaus, St. Paul’s warnings about how to approach the sacrament, the vision of the City of God and its activities in Revelation, etc., etc…. Our salvation involves an actual (real) revisitation of the event not for the purpose of rewriting the story but for the purpose of redeeming the story by means of the very same action. (No room for the merely symbolic here. Nothing of the shallow meaning of the word remembrance.) That opportunity does not lead us back but leads us forward. Salvation is not circular nor is it simply linear. It is a spiral. We revisit in order to move forward. It is, therefore, for your further consideration, a real participation in the beatific feast or the Kingdom consummated spoken of by our Lord.

God Bless,

Fr. Thomas

Chanting a P.S.

Bill Livingston, of Immersion Strategies offered the following comment on my previous post regarding the power of chanting:

This reminds me of what Stephen Lawhead describes in his Pendragon series as the bards sang the stories of old.

Stephen Lawhead

Thanks, Bill, for that insight. As a matter of fact, it is so insightful that I would like to reflect further on it.

The ancient Celtic tradition offers an extremely dramatic reminder of the extraordinary power of chant in the life of a culture. Stephen Lawhead does a masterful job of portraying this dynamic reality in the among the ancient Celts. It was the powerful position of the Druid priest/bard that St. Patrick and others like him used as an effective way to speak of the truth bearing offices of prophets priest, and king in the Judeo-Christian tradition as viewed in the Scriptural witness. These saintly men and women testified to the fact that all truth no matter what culture it makes its appearance in, points to Christ Jesus. They understood the Celtic Druid, in a fragmentary, inauthentic, and definitely penultimate fashion, portraying aspects of the offices of prophet, priest, and king in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  They offered to the Celtic people the person of Christ Jesus as the fulfillment of all of these offices in the Judeo-Christian tradition and of every ancient tradition.Stephen Lawhead is only one example of a compelling presentations of the power of chant/song in and through the plot of his novels. There are many works of great literature that touch on the power of chanted/sung narrative to change the lives of those who come within the reach of it and transport them to the realm of adventurous fulfillment of their identity and destiny as men and women created in the image of God.

Another is the series created by J.R.R.Tolkien. Let me quote from the beginning of The Hobbit in which Tolkien also masterfully portrays the Judeo-Christian tradition of the power of chant/song not via the image of the druid priest (although Gandalf comes pretty close to Merlin in the Celtic tradition) but by the dwarves:

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained-well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end…

Then comes Gandalf. The dangerous Gandalf. The Gandalf who seeks to confront Biblo’s Baggins hiding place, touch his Took heritage and bring it forth.

By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed) Gandalf came by. Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale. Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion…

Then come the dwarfs. And, in the midst of their visit, it is the chant/song of “Over the Misty Mountains Cold” that is used to break through Bilbo’s protective defenses – his Baggins-ness  – and brings forth his Took-ness – the adventurer.

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up – probably somebody lighting a wood-fire – and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again. He got up trembling. He had less than half a mind to fetch the lamp, and more than half a mind to pretend to, and go and hide behind the beer barrels in the cellar, and not come out again until all the dwarves had gone away… Then Mr. Baggins turned the handle and went in. The Took side had won.

Chant communicates the power of the narrative to confront, undo, and transform its hearer. Even hobbits who like the safety of their homes and Shire like me, and perhaps, you. Are you a Baggins or a Took?!

Fr. Thomas

Chanting My Way To Transformation

Chanting is powerful. The various religions of the world testify to this fact. These religious traditions testify to the transformative power of it. As a Christian, I believe that chanting is an essential aspect of our design as humans created in the image of God and an overlooked tool for our transformation in by the Holy Spirit. It is a consistent part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is the language of the Kingdom of God as far as I am concerned. Also, as far as I am concerned, the universe was chanted into being. (Both of these convictions are personal ones and represent just that, my convictions.)

By means of chanting, we are enabled to become worshippers “in spirit and truth” and not only be transformed by the mystical power of the Holy Spirit in and through it, but to become ambassadors of the transformative power of God the Holy Spirit. You and I are, therefore, to be the chanted love of God the Father, which is the Word, via the breath of the Holy Spirit in the world. Chanting allows us to become an be who we truly are in Christ to greater and great degrees of fullness. Be the joyful noise of the Lord by making a joyful noise unto the Lord for the entire universe to hear. Rejoice and be glad. Here is a wonderful reflection on this mystery by one of the foremost mystics.

Here is a great reflection on the theme:

Sunday of the Thirty-Third Week in Ordinary Time Year II
A READING FROM THE LETTER TO THE PRELATES OF MAINZ BY ST HILDEGARD OF BINGEN. A Word in Season VIII.

I heard a voice from the living light tell of the diverse kinds of praises, of which David says in the psalms: Praise him in the call of the trumpet, praise him on psaltery and lute, praise him on the tambour and in dancing, praise him on strings and on organ, praise him on resonant cymbals, praise him on cymbals of jubilation – let every spirit praise the Lord!

In these words outer realities teach us about inner ones – namely how, in accordance with the material composition and quality of instruments, we can best transform and shape the performance of our inner being toward praises of the Creator. If we strive for this lovingly, we recall how man sought the voice of the living spirit, which Adam lost through disobedience – he who, still innocent before his fault, had no little kinship with the sounds of the angels’ praises.

But in order that mankind should recall that divine sweetness and praise by which, with the angels, Adam was made jubilant in God before he fell, instead of recalling Adam in his banishment, and that mankind too might be stirred to that sweet praise, the holy Prophets – taught by the same spirit, which they had received – not only composed psalms and canticles, to be sung to kindle the devotion of listeners, but also they invented musical instruments of diverse kinds with this in view, by which the song could be expressed in multitudinous sounds, so that listeners, aroused and made adept outwardly, might be nurtured within by the forms and qualities of the instruments, as by the meaning of the words performed with them.

Eager and wise men imitated the holy Prophets, inventing human kinds of harmonised melody by their art, so that they could sing in the delight of their soul; and they adapted their singing to the notation indicated by the bending of the finger joints, as it were, recalling that Adam was formed by the finger of God, which is the Holy Spirit, and that in Adam’s voice before he fell there was the sound of every harmony and the sweetness of the whole art of music. And if Adam had remained in the condition in which he was formed, human frailty could never endure the power and the resonance of that voice. But when his deceiver, the devil, heard that man had begun to sing through divine inspiration, and that he would be transformed through this to remembering the sweetness of the songs in the heavenly land, seeing the machinations of his cunning going awry, he became so terrified that he has not ceased to trouble or destroy the affirmation and beauty and sweetness of divine praise and of the hymns of the spirit.

And because at times, when hearing some melody, a human being often sighs and moans, recalling the nature of the heavenly harmony, the Prophet David, subtly contemplating the profound nature of the spirit, and knowing that the human soul is sym­phonic, exhorts us in his psalm to proclaim the Lord on the lute and play for him on the ten-stringed psaltery.

A wonderful video that offers the opportunity for the theme to more practically intersect our life can be found here.

Hey, I am a rank beginner in this. I am just beginning, after 17 years of attempting it with widely varying degrees of success, to make progress in learning the ins and outs of chanting and its power in my own life. And, that is really my point. The invitation, promise, and challenge offered to me by the Holy Spirit in and through consistently embracing chant has and does present me with the opportunity to confront my own insecurities regarding perfection and, as a result of doing so with consistency, more perfectly manifest Christ. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

God Bless,

Fr. Thomas

Heresy

Icons come in lots of forms. The icons of my childhood include two, through whom the Holy Spirit taught me one of the most important characteristics of authentic humanity. Here are pictures of them.

Heresy is any belief that leads to living an inauthentic human life. I have not come across the specific articulation of it but it is my firm conviction that one of the fundamental heresies the Church has had to combat is one that has several facets. I am not sure what word to use to name it, but here are its characteristics:

No sense of humor; the unwillingness to laugh at oneself; and taking oneself too seriously

Fr. Thomas

Apophatic and Cataphatic

Apophatic and cataphatic. You may have never heard those words. They represent a concept that attempts to address the questions that inevitably arise for us regarding our capacity to experientially know God; speak of the God we know; and experience genuine transformation in the context of this relationship of mutual knowledge. It is kind of like combining a question mark and an exclamation point… Sort of… The question is really not one of order but of mystical union. We can get caught up in the chicken and egg thing or we can live the mystery. In light of this, I realized soon after my ordination, that these concepts were fundamental to the Christian life. Among the great saints I have encountered as I sought to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in my own transformation and that of others is St. Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), of Mount Athos in Greece and later the Archbishop of Thessaloniki. More on that in due course.

Those of you who read this blog or know me well know that one of the most important things a person can do in their growth in Christ is to die to the need to be original. This conviction is based on my experience of the sin of pride (the need to be spectacular and admired) in my own life.

I find, as I read the words of others, an opportunity to confront this passion. Others have so very often (more than I am comfortable admitting – praise God) articulated a concept or approach in a manner that communicates more effectively than I ever could. In that case, I believe, the most helpful thing to do is facilitate the comprehension and application of the truth in the lives of others by providing an environment in which they can access and struggle with the concept using the words of those who have, over the course of history, articulated it most effectively. The ministry of Upward Call is not to fashion new words  but communicate to others the original Word of the Holy Spirit as it has been effectively spoken through others, “provid(ing) individuals, congregations, and other Christian organizations with resources, training, and life-to-life ministry opportunities that are reflective of and consistent with the historical faith and practice of the one, Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. Upward Call seeks to facilitate a practical connection and application of the faith and practice of the Church ‘once for all’ delivered and administered by the Holy Spirit in the life of the disciple…”

So, in an effort to be true to my calling and resist the temptation to spout a lot of words that might or might not communicate anything helpful about this very important subject, I would like to both point you in the direction of those who can articulate it in a much more sophisticated and effective manner; and actually post some quotes from several sources.

Let’s start by hearing what Fr. Stephen Freeman has to say on the subject. He has several very helpful posts on his blog site, “Glory to God for All Things.” Just type in the word “apophatic” in the search bar on the right of the main page. You will be directed to some really wonderful reflections.

Next we hear from Elder Sophrony (1896-1993). He was and is, perhaps, best known as the disciple and biographer of St. Silouan the Athonite. He was also the founder of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England. On Prayer, is a book containing Elder Sophrony’s writings on prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer, which was published after his repose. The following excerpt establishes the truth that our knowledge/experience of God in Christ in and through His death and resurrection is the very means of our own transformation. The way we know and speak of God is also the way we must live in order to truly LIVE… (Very efficient on God’s part don’t you think?!) Sophrony says,

The struggle for prayer is not an easy one. The spirit fluctuates – sometimes prayer flows in us like a might river, sometimes the heart dries up… To pray not infrequently means telling God of our disastrous state: of our weakness and despondency, our doubts and fears, the melancholy, the despair – in brief, everything connected with our condition. To pour it all out, not seeking to express it elegantly or even in logical sequence. Often this method of approach to God turns out to be the beginning of prayer as communion.

Sometimes we shall lie afloat in a sea of Divine love, which in our imagination we interpret one-sidely, as our love for Him… I did not dare think that it was He Himself praying in me… So that we may become acquainted with His gifts, God, after being with us, leaves us for a while. This abandonment by God makes a strange impression… But when God departs, He leaves a sort of blank space in the core of my being, and I do not know whether He will ever come again. He is other – different from me. He has withdrawn and I am left empty; and I feel my emptiness like a death. His coming had brought something splendid and dear to my heart that exceeded my most audacious imagining. And lo, I find myself once more in my old state which used to seem normal and satisfactory but which now appals me. I had been introduced into the house of the great King – I was His kindred – but now again I am no more than a homeless beggar.

These alternating states teach us the difference between our natural gifts and those that we receive from on High… He changes the manner of His coming. Thus I am constantly being enriched by knowledge on the plane of the Spirit: now in suffering, now through joy, but I grow. My ability to remain for longer periods in the previously unknown sphere increases.

Keep your mind firmly fixed on God, and the moment will come when the Immortal Spirit touches the heart. Oh this touch of the Holy of holies! There is naught on earth to compare with it – it sweeps the spirit into the realm of uncreated Being. It pierces the heart with a love unlike that which is generally understood by the word. Its light streams down on all creation, on the whole human world in its millenary manifestation. Though this love is sensed by the physical heart, by its nature it is spiritual…

The life-giving Divine Spirit visits us when we continue humbly open to Him… When we open our heart to Him we have an irresistible feeling that He is our ‘kin’, and the soul melts in worship.

Divine love, which is the intrinsic essence of eternity, in this world cannot avoid suffering. Mellowed through ascetic striving and the visitation of grace, the heart is allowed to behold – obscurely perhaps – Christ’s love embracing the whole of creation in infinite compassion for all that exists. Now I am God’s, Christ’s prisoner. I recognize that I have been called out of nothing – by his nature man is nothingness. Yet is spite of this we expect compassion and respect from God. And suddenly the Almighty reveals Himself in His indescribable humility. This vision moves the soul, astonishes the mind. Involuntarily we bow before Him. And however much we try to become like Him in humility, we do not attain to Him…

Any vision of God places man before the necessity of self-determination in relation to Him. In essence our every action inevitably either approaches us to God or, on the contrary, distances us from Him… The heart grieves, wearied and oppressed to see herself so destitute. We do not understand immediately that this very phenomenon signals the start of an advance towards God… When the opposition of the Christian spirit to the spirit of this world reaches it peak, life for the follower of Christ becomes a crucifixion, however invisible the cross. It is a terrible and at the same time salutary period: through inner suffering, often linked with physical or material distress, the passions are conquered. The power of this world over us, even death itself, is defeated. We start to become like Christ crucified. (pg. 12-19)

God Who is humble ‘resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.’ (1 Peter 5.5) Grace is God’s life and He gives His life to them who strive for likeness to Him. ‘He that shall humble himself shall be exalted.’ (Matthew 23.12) Because of this, belittling oneself to the infinitesimal is the principle of our form of asceticism, not any pretentious straining for self-aggrandizement. Our way is the way of apophatic effort through self-emptying – kenotic love – after the example of Christ Who ‘humbled himself, and become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ (cf. Philippians 2.5-9) The more thoroughly we ‘make ourselves of no reputation,’ the more radically shall we be cleansed from the consequences of the prideful fall of our forefather Adam. And when our heart becomes ‘pure,’ (Matthew 5.8) then the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit come to dwell in us, and we are led into the ‘kingdom which cannot be moved’ (Hebrews 12.28) where infinite majesty merges with infinite humility and meekness.  (pg. 24-25)

…the Father’s gift has to be acquired at the cost of much labour, much suffering. This is an extraordinarily profound theme – who is capable of explaining it to people of varying levels of knowledge and understanding?… (pg.26)

Yes, the longing to resemble Christ is natural to the Christian. But ‘strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto [this divine] life. (Matthew 7.14) To discard the skin that it no longer needs, the snake wriggles through narrow crevices. So the man who would be saved  must go through very ‘straitgates’ in order to rid himself of the ‘coats of skins’ with which he was clothed after the Fall. (cf. Genesis 3.21) (pg. 29)

Rob Des Cotes of Imago Dei Ministries, offers us yet another way of getting a handle on the transformative character of the apophatic and kataphatic dimensions of our knowledge of God. In a reflection dated September 18, 2008, he says,

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry…. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.   Col. 3:5-9

As we give our lives more and more over to God’s initiative, we eventually come to the classic “to be or not to be” question.  How much do I do, and how much does God do?  In spiritual theology this represents the distinction between the kataphatic and apophatic aspects of the spiritual life.  Kataphatic refers to those initiatives of our spiritual life that depend on us—our actions, reason, understanding, memory and will—whereas apophatic refers to that which depends solely on God.  Paul’s exhortation here is clearly of the former kind: to “put away whatever belongs to your earthly nature.”  And, to the extent that we are called to participate in this work of “ridding ourselves of all such things,” it is important to be able to assess our effectiveness.

In seeking to rid ourselves of sinful aspects of our lives we are in the good company of many saints, notably Ignatius of Loyola for whom purity of soul was paramount.  Ignatius’ teachings regarding spiritual growth are very kataphaticas they enlist our reason, our understanding and our will for the task.  In his “Daily Particular Examination of Conscience,” for instance, Ignatius stresses the importance of carefully monitoring our progress as we seek transformation in our inordinate behaviours.  We are to grow in attentiveness to the changes we seek in ourselves by taking time each day to review and document how we are doing.

Ignatius suggests that we choose only one need at a time, and put all the focus of our day towards the transformation we seek in that area. “In the morning, immediately on rising, one should resolve to guard carefully against the particular sin or defect with regard to which he seeks to correct or improve himself. (S.E 24)”

We then ask God to help us recall, hour by hour, how often we fall into that particular sin.  Each time we note it, we are to pray again for help in overcoming this behaviour.  By focusing on one area at a time, we have opportunity to morespecifically examine ourselves and to more accurately monitor our progress.  Ignatius recommends thatwe keep a written record, a mark or check, each time we commit this particular sin.  He also suggests a physical mnemonic as a way of acknowledging our errant behaviour.  He writes, “Every time one falls into the particular sin or fault, let him place his hand upon his breast and express his sorrow for having fallen again. (S.E. 27.1)”

Physical gestures are helpful as they give concrete expression to the strategy rather than it being merely a mental exercise.

Another physical mnemonic that some have adopted is that of using a bracelet as an aid in heightening their awareness of a fault they are trying to correct.  In order to encourage change in a particular aspect of life, a person wears a bracelet on their wrist to represent this behaviour.  During the day, each time you catch yourself in that infraction, you switch the bracelet to your other wrist.  It is a way of growing in attentiveness to the behaviour you wish to see changed.  As you monitor the recurrences of your infraction each day, the goal is to end up having to move the bracelet less and less.  As with the “daily examen of conscience” this represents a kataphatic approach to spirituality—what  St. John of the Cross calls our “active work of purification.”

There are many ways to go about changing behaviour but they all depend on our ability to stay focussed on the task.  The effectiveness of one particular method over another might be different from person to person.  But, if they help us in any way to be more aware of the “idols” that would otherwise persist by escaping our notice, they are certainly worth exploring.

The Patristic Vigil Readings from the Two Year Lectionary for Ordinary Time, Weeks 18-34: Year 2, gives us the opportunity to hear from Denys the Areopagite (late 5th and early 6th century) on the subject. In his work, “The Divine Names,” he says,

We must ask how we can know God, since he cannot be understood by our minds or perceived by our senses, and belongs in no way to the category of existent things. Perhaps it is true to say, then, that we do not know God from his own nature (for this is unknown and surpasses all our powers of thought and percep­tion); but from the regulation of all existent things, since this emanates from himself and contains images and likenesses of the patterns of his own divine reality. Thus step by step to the best of our ability we rise to what surpasses all in the negation of all things and the supremacy over all things, and by the cause of all things.

Therefore God is known both in everything and apart from everything; and God is known through knowledge and through ignorance, and although there is thought and speech of him, and there is knowledge, contact, sense, opinion, imagination, naming and all the rest, he is also neither thought nor spoken of or named; nor is he anything existent, or known in anything existent; but he is all in all, and nothing in nothing, and known by all things to all people, and by nothing to no one; for indeed we say this rightly about God, and he is praised because of all existent things and the resemblance of all to their creator.

And again the most divine knowledge of God is that which is known through ignorance, by a union which transcends the mind, when the mind withdraws from all existent things and then lets go even of itself, and is made one with rays of transcendent light, where it is illuminated in the unfathomable depth of wisdom.

Yet, as I said, wisdom must also be known from all things; for according to Scripture wisdom is productive of all things and constantly joining all, and is the cause of the indestructible union and order of all things, and eternally uniting the ends of earlier things to the beginnings of later, and making a single beautiful concord and harmony of the whole.

And finally, I offer this reflection of St. Hilary (c.315-367), Bishop of Poitiers, from On the Trinity, 12, 52-53, with reference to the text, “’Is he not the carpenter’s son?’… And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.” (Matthew 13.54-58)

So long as I enjoy that breath of life granted to me by you, Holy Father, Almighty God, I will proclaim you as God eternal, but also as Father eternal. Never will I set myself up as judge of your almighty power and mysteries; never will I set my limited understanding before the true appreciation of your infinity; never will I claim you to have existed beforehand without your Wisdom, Power and Word, God the Only-Begotten, my Lord Jesus Christ. For even though human language is weak and imperfect when it speaks of you, this will not inhibit my mind to the point of reducing my faith to silence for lack of words able to express the mystery of your being…

Already, among the realities of nature, there are many things of whose cause we have no knowledge without, nevertheless, being ignorant of their effects. And when, where our nature is concerned, we have no idea what to say about them, our faith is embued with adoration. If I behold the movement of the stars…, the ebb and flow of the sea…, the life-force hidden in the tiniest seed…, my ignorance helps me to contemplate you. For if I do not understand the nature placed at my service, I discern your goodness from the mere fact that it is there to serve me. I perceive that I do not even understand myself, but I wonder at you all the more… You have given me intellect, life and human feeling, the source of so many joys, yet I do not begin to understand how I began to be…

So it is through failing to understand what surrounds me that I grasp what you are, and it is through perceiving what you are that I come to adore you. That is why, in what concerns your mysteries, my incomprehension lessens not a bit my faith in your omnipotence… Your eternal Son’s birth exceeds even the idea of eternity; it is prior to the times everlasting. Before any other thing that exists, he was Son proceeding from you, O God and Father. He is true God… You have never existed without him… Before ever time was, you are the eternal Father of your Sole Begotten One.

Now, we circle back around to St. Gregory Palamas. Henry Karlson says, in an article dated March 7, 2009, on the “Vox Nova” website,

One of the foundations of (St Gregory) Palamas’ thought is apophatic: the vast difference between humanity and God shows us why the human mind cannot comprehend God. That is to say, God is not bound by human understanding, and God’s nature cannot be discerned by human reason alone. When left by itself, human reason can guess at God’s characteristics, but it will find itself at an impasse in knowing whether or not those guesses are correct. We could know that God is, but we would not know who God is, unless God reveals himself to us. This is the fundamental theme of Eastern mystical theology, especially as it is presented by Pseudo-Dionysius, who says our knowledge of God is an unknowing, “Since the unknowing of what is beyond being it something above and beyond human speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of the sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor. For, if we may trust the superlative wisdom and truth of scripture, the things of God are revealed to each mind in proportion to its capacities; and the divine goodness is such that, out of concern for our salvation, it deals out the immeasurable and infinite in limited measures.” (Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 49.)

I close with two things. First a reiteration. Apophatic and cataphatic is not a mathematics problem. It is an invitation, promise, and challenge. “The question is really not one of order but of mystical union. We can get caught up in the chicken and egg thing or we can live the mystery.” And second, the quote that Fr. Stephen used in a couple of his blogposts on this subject by Fr. Thomas Hopko. He says, “You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.”

God Bless,

Fr. Thomas

Identity and Action

As a struggling (and perseverning) pilgrim on The Way, I am mysteriously used by the Lord in the realm of Divine/human identity, vision, discernment, and the action that conforms to it. They all go together. And, I would add, it is no small matter HOW they relate to one another. Now, the formation in Christ that I have received from my spiritual fathers and mothers contemporary and ancient has taught me to follow the pattern that I was taught (see 2 Timothy 1.13). That pattern says identity, vision, discernment, and then action. However, in the course of the ministry I perform I quite often encounter men and women who have been formed to approach the Christian life in the opposite fashion. Namely, action, discernment, vision, and identity. (There is, often, variation in the order of the middle two.)

In other words, does identity govern action or does action govern identity?? (Of course I know that action clarifies identity and vision. That is not my point. What is the point of origin?? That is my question.)

The following Scriptural passages and a reflection by Rob Des Cotes, will, I hope, clarify the tradition that has formed my understanding of the Gospel and its implications for our everyday life.

Proverbs 29.18
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. (And, least we journey down the path toward the opening to the pit of hell, let us hear and heed what Jesus indicates in no uncertain terms. The law is summed up in this – love…)

Matthew 15.1-14
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, `Honor your father and your mother,’ and, `He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.’ But you say, `If any one tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.’ So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: `This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'” And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

Isaiah 42:61
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.

Imago Dei: Blindness and the Faithful Guide
November 1st, 2012

I used to live with a friend who was blind, white cane and all.  But whenever we would go out together he would always leave his cane behind.  I took it as a vote of confidence that he felt he didn’t need to have it when he was out with me.   He evidently trusted me to be his guide.

As we walked along the city streets, he would talk non-stop, and I knew he was doing this to assure himself that I was still near him.   Sometimes, I could feel his hand brushing up against me just to be doubly sure.  His main focus was fully on my proximity to him.  He was confident that if he just stayed close to me, I would steer him clear of any obstacles in our path.

I have often thought of the faith it must require for a blind person to trust someone with their safety like this.  But this one focus can also simplify things as well.  The only attentiveness needed is towards the person who is guiding you.  If you trust them, then keeping track of their movements and proximity is all you need to feel confident that you will be led through all the obstacles in your way.  You can probably guess where I’m going with this meditation.

In our supposedly sighted life, we are in fact much more blind than we often care to admit.  We never know for sure where we’re going, or what obstacles lie ahead.  But even if we do accept our blindness, we still usually opt for our white canes—whatever aids we feel will help offset our lack of foresight.  We grope our way through life, doing our best to second-guess the terrain ahead of us.

But we also have the same alternative option that my blind friend had.  We too can leave our white canes behind and choose instead to simply hold onto Jesus’ garment, perhaps brushing our hands up against Him at times just to make sure He is near.  Maybe that’s why we are told so often to bring our concerns to Jesus in prayer.  Among other things it certainly reassures us that He is close by.  (Rob Des Cotes)

I hope this has served to shed light on your path. I am grateful to the men and women who have labored patiently to offer me a context — “pattern” — of transformation by their loving words and example.

Fr. Thomas