Heavenly Conversation

A well respected monk once traveled a great distance from his home monastery to visit Abba Poemen,  having heard of Poemen’s spiritual life, eager to gain benefit from the Abba’s renowned wisdom.  The visitor arrived at Poemen’s desert monastery where he met first with the monk who had originally told him about Poemen.  This monk introduced the visitor to the Abba.

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“Abba Poemen received him with gladness, and having saluted each other, they sat down.  Then the stranger began to converse with Abba Poemen from the Scriptures concerning spiritual and heavenly things, but Abba Poemen turned away his face and returned no answer whatsoever.  And when he saw that Abba Poemen would not speak with him, he was grieved and went outside, and said to the brother who had brought him to Poemen, ‘In my opinion I have toiled in vain in coming all this long journey to see the old man, for behold, he refuses to speak to me.’ 

Now when the brother went into the old man Poemen, he said to him, ‘Father, this great man, who is so greatly praised in his own country, came on your account.  Why did you not speak with him?’  

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Poemen said, ‘He speaks about the things which are above and concerning heavenly matters, but I can only talk about things which are below and about the things of earth.  Had he spoken to me about the passions of the soul I would have given him an answer, but since he talked about spiritual things, I know nothing about them.’

Then that brother went back to the visiting monk and said to him, ‘The old man is not  one of those who wishes a man to talk to them from the Scriptures, but if you will converse with him about the passions of the soul  he will engage in conversation with you.

Straightaway the monk repented and came to the old man and said to him, ‘Father, what shall I do so that I may bring into subjection the passions of the body?’

Then the old man looked upon him gladly and said to him, “Now you are welcome!  ‘Open now your mouth on such matters as these, and I will fill it with good things‘ (Psalm 81:10).”  And the monk having been greatly helped and having gained benefit, said, ‘In very truth this is the way of truth.’  He went back to his country, giving thanks to God that he had been held worthy of such conversation with the holy man.”  (adapted fromTHE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS  Vol II,  pp 188-189)

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Abba Poemen displays humility – despite being a great teacher, he knew some conversations are more edifying than others.  It can be fun and exciting to talk about theology, about heaven, the eschaton, Revelation.  But showing off how much you know isn’t the way to walk with others to the kingdom.

“‘Knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him.  (1 Corinthians 8:1-3)

As we enter into Great Lent there are many spiritual conversations we can have.  One conversation which however is necessary is with our father confessor.  It is talking about our own sins.

The Importance of Poverty at the Last Judgment

On the Sunday of the Last Judgment, we read Christ’s parable of the Judgment from Matthew 25:31-46.

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“At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, how many bows and prostrations I made [in the practice of prayer].  I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners.  That is all I shall be asked.  About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: “I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison‘.  To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need.  . . .   I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews.  It fills me with awe.”  (St Maria Skobtsova, PEARL OF GREAT PRICE: THE LIFE OF MARIA SKOBTSOVA, pp 29-30)

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Christ claims to feel hungry and thirsty everyone time a poor or needy person feels hungry and thirsty.   The poor are Christ’s Body.  He experiences sickness, sighing, sorrow and suffering in and through each of them.  That is what we have to understand when we are aware of such suffering and ignore it – we choose to ignore the Lord and let Him wallow in His suffering.   The Gospel for the Sunday of the Last Judgment, as it turns out, isn’t simply describing events that will happen at the end of the world.  It is telling us how our life, attitude and decisions now affect Christ.  We will have to answer at the Judgment for how we treat Christ during our own life time.  How we treat the poor and needy is how we treat Christ.  It is not just the Sanhedrin and Pilate who crucify Christ.  We do it too when we cause Him to suffer in and through the lives of the poor and needy.

Last Judgment: A Call to Do Good Not a Threat of Retribution

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“The Last Judgment begins in the earthly life of the person and takes place every moment when one chooses or neglects to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit those in prison, or share with those in need.  Christ’s words about the Last Judgement [Matthew 25:31-46] are not a threat of retribution, but a call to do good.  This is how the Orthodox Church understands this parable, addressing the following words to its members on the Sunday of the Last Judgement:

Having understood the Lord’s commandments, let us live in accordance with them: let us feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give rest to strangers, visit the sick and those in prisons, so that he who will come to judge the entire world will say to us: come, blessed ones of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you. (The Lenten Triodion)

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The Orthodox Church teaches that all people without exception will stand before the Last Judgment – Christians and pagans, believers and non-believers.  However, the thought that Christians will be judged with special strictness is present already in the Epistles: ‘Judgment must begin at the house of God’ (1 Pet 4:17), i.e. beginning with the Christian Church.  Regarding those outside the Church, St Paul writes that they will be judged in accordance with the the law of conscience written in their hearts (Rom 2:14-15).  Virtuous pagans, says Chrysostom, are astonishing because ‘they had no need of the law but fulfilled everything contained in it, having inscribed in their minds not the letter, but deeds.’ And he draws a radical conclusion: ‘If a pagan fulfills the law, nothing else will be necessary for his salvation.’  When acts committed during one’s life are evaluated, moral criteria will be applied to all people without exception, the only difference being that Jews will be judged according to the Law of Moses, Christians by the gospel, and pagans according to the law of conscience written in their hearts.  According to Basil the Great, the Last Judgment will be not so much an external as an internal event: it will take place primarily in the conscience of each person, in his mind and memory.  …

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These explanations introduce an important corrective into the understanding of the Last Judgment that is reflected, for example, in Michelangelo‘s renowned frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.  In these frescoes, the main idea is that justice is administered: each person receives according to his merits, and God’s sentence is irreversible.  But in the Orthodox understanding, the Last Judgement is not so much the moment of requital as the victory of truth.  it is the revelation of God’s mercy and love that is underscored.  God will never cease to be love and light; but, subjectively, divine love and the divine light will be perceived differently by the righteous and by sinners.”    (Metropolitan Hilarion Alveyev, THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, pp 112-113)

 

 

Remembering Loved Ones Who Have Died

Emperor Julian the Apostate (c. 331-363) once complained that Christians had ‘filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchers,’ and by their processions with and in honor of the departed they were ‘straining the eyes of all with ill-omened sights of the dead.’  Early Christians, by contrast, held that the death of believers was a cause of hope, and their bodies, far from being ill-omened, were precious links to the faith Christians had in the Resurrection of the Dead.  The Apostle Paul describes this in 1 Thess 4:16-17 as a joyous day when a loud call will sound and the Lord will come again, “and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.”  Christ himself says in Jn 5:28-29 that that ‘the day is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [the Son of Man’s] voice and will come out . . .”  These are the two readings used in the Orthodox Order for the Burial of the Dead, and they set a resurrectional tone for the whole liturgy.

The boundaries between the living and dead were first broken by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The tomb was empty because the actual, physical resurrection of Christ’s body had taken place (Mt 28:5-6, Mk 16:6, Lk 24:5) . . . This is the hope for all Christians.  Our bodies will also be resurrected, not just our souls: we will recognize each other, and the the ‘marks’ of our spiritual and physical battles will somehow be a part of us.  Our physical bodies are inseparable parts of our identity because, as Orthodox anthropology maintains, a human person is a soma, an animated body – one individual unit of sarx (body) and psyche (soul).”  (Kathryn Wehr, SVTQ Vol 55 #4 2011, pp 502-503)

What We Do Now Will Be What We Experience in Paradise

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“For Christians, Christ is both the suffering patient and also the healer, just as in the Eucharist he is both Priest and Sacrifice who offers and is offered for the healing of the entire world.  . . . Acts of mercy and healing here are leaving their footprints in eternity.

‘The works we do now will be the healing we experience there, in Paradise:

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Whoever has washed the feet of the saints will himself be cleansed in that dew;

to the hand that had stretched out to give to the poor will the fruits of the trees themselves stretch out;

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the very footsteps of him who visited the sick in their affliction do the flowers make haste to crown with blooms, jostling to see which can be the first to kiss his steps.’ (St Ephrem the Syrian)”

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(Daniel Hinshaw, SUFFERING AND THE NATURE OF HEALING, p 200)

Born into Pregnancy

 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”  (Job 1:21)

Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”   (John 3:4)

Fetus at 6 months

We are born into this world.  We tend to think death is leaving this world.  In the 3rd Century, Origen, the greatest biblical commentator of his day, offered a thought for Christians which changes our understanding of this life and death polarity (The kernel for this idea comes from Hans Urs van Bathasar, ORIGEN: SPIRIT AND FIRE, p 278).  Origen saw that we all are born naturally from our mother’s womb, but for Christians this is not our only birth.  We are born again in baptism of the Holy Spirit.  In this spiritual birth, Origen sees our embracing Christ by faith to be a new conception – this time in the womb of the Church.  We don’t return to our birthing mother’s womb, but enter into the womb of our new mother – the Church (see John 3:3-8).  Origen terms our life on earth as a ‘pregnancy’.   Life turns out to be another gestation period. Our next birth is in the Kingdom.   [Read  A Parable of Death and Life to get a similar idea from the modern world.]

The birthing process is messy, involves pain and yet it is the only way to new life. Imagining our Christian life in this world as part of a pregnancy – the Church’s and we are in her womb when we live on earth –  might help us understand some of the suffering we experience here – it is a necessary part of our gestation, our maturation and development.   This life is not the final stop, the goal, the destination, home.  It turns out to be a time of growth and maturation.  Somehow life in this world is a necessary part of our development in the womb in order to be born alive in the world to come.

As the embryo cannot comprehend all that is happening to it in the womb, cannot understand it all as necessary for survival beyond the womb, neither can we fully comprehend all of our life experiences.  We can, in faith, trust that they are part of God’s plan for our salvation.  The experiences of life are not unimportant – they help us mature and develop into a full human being.  And then we can remember what it meant for God to become fully human including the cross, the grave and then resurrection to eternal life.  God did not spare Himself from entering the womb of a mother or of the world.

Love and Honesty

The desert fathers used wisdom stories to teach each other how to live according to the Gospel commandments of Jesus.  The stories are sometimes humorous, sometimes challenging and often counter intuitive.  They attempt to set forth a clear Gospel imperative (such as the command to love) in a way that expands one’s understanding of the commandment.

The stories show the weakness of a constant diet a very legalistic or literal reading of Scripture.  They use human foibles and failures to reveal the depths of Christ’s teachings.  Love is not something that is quantifiable and cannot be explained through questions of how many or how often or to whom do I show love?  The question, ‘who is my neighbor?‘, results in Christ teaching the parable of the Good Samaritan and a demand that disciples are to be neighborly to all they encounter.  Here is a story from the desert fathers that focuses on the importance of love and maintaining unity among brothers and sisters by avoiding criticizing a member of the community.  The story is not about offering a pragmatic solution to the problem (they are lost and need to find their way), but rather explores what does love demand of us in difficult situations.

“On one occasion when Abba John and the brethren who were with him were traveling from Scete, their guide got lost.   The brethren said to Abba John, ‘What shall we do, father?  For this brother has lost the way and peradventure we shall die wandering about in the desert.’  Abba John said to them, ‘If you tell him he will be grieved and feel ashamed.  But, watch, I will feign to be sick, and will say that I am not able to go on any further’.  The brethren said, ‘Father, you have spoken wisely.’  And they all joined the act and decided that they should stay where they were until the morning, rather than rebuke the brother who was their guide.”  (THE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS  Vol II, p 260)

The idea of ‘lying’ in order to fulfill the commandment to love might seem ridiculous since the problem might be easily solved by honesty.   And certainly the story’s point is not that lying is ever a good.  In fact in the story it is because lying is  sin that the story is powerful.   The Abba realizes the only way to avoid offending or embarrassing the errant monk is commit a sin himself.   He is taking the blame on himself – the young monk has erred inadvertently but the abba sins by choice.  This takes the blame, shame and attention off the mistaken monk – the abba takes on himself the wrong of the situation.  And all the monks know he has done this.  Instead of embarrassing the one monk, the Abba takes the fault on himself in a creative way.  He also teaches the rest of the monks to care for the feelings of one of their own.  Being ‘correct’ is not the only value – love rules.

The story is about coming up with a clever way to preserve unity and maintain love for an erring friend.  It is not at all saying that lying is OK.  We also see this idea explored in the 2019 movie THE FAREWELL.  There an entire family decides not to let the grandmother know she is dying – and they do it out of love (however mistaken they may be).  It is seen as a kindness to the dying person – don’t let them be burdened with their impending death.  The movie portrays this as the cultural way of the Chinese – let the dying elder enjoy the remaining time of her life without worrying about dying.   The family takes on the grief of losing a beloved member including the grief the dying person might feel if they knew they were dying.   Of course one has to decide whether one is doing it for the good of the other or because it is easier for us to deal with by pretending it is not happening.

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.”  (Romans 15:1-3)

 

 

St Paul’s Interpretation of Scripture

“First, Paul’s interpretation of Scripture is always a pastoral, community-forming activity.  His readings are not merely flights of imaginative virtuosity; rather, they seek to shape the identity and actions of a community called by God to be the bearers of grace.  The conversion of the imagination that Paul seeks is not merely the spiritual enlightenment of individuals but rather the transformed consciousness of the community of the faithful.

Second, Paul’s reading of Scripture are poetic in character.  He finds in Scripture a rich source of image and metaphor that enables him to declare with power what God is doing in the world in his own time.  He reads the Bible neither as a historian nor as a systematic theologian but as a poetic preacher who discerns analogical correspondences between the scriptural story and the gospel that he proclaims.

Third, as the previous observation suggests, Paul reads Scripture narratively.  It is not for  him merely a repository of isolated proof texts; rather, it is the saga of God’s election, judgment, and redemption of a people through time.  Paul sees the church that has come into being in his own day as the heir of that vast ancient story and as the remarkable of fulfillment of the promises made to Israel.

Fourth, the fulfillment of those promises has take an entirely unexpected turn because of the world-shattering apocalyptic event of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.  When he rereads Israel’s Scripture retrospectively, Paul finds numerous prefigurations of this revelatory event – which nevertheless came as a total surprise to Israel and continues to function as a stumbling block for those who do not believe.    Once the Scriptures are grasped in light of this hermeneutical key, their pervasively eschatological character comes into focus; therefore, Paul seeks to teach his readers to read Scripture eschatologically, mindful of God’s final judgment of every human thought and action, while also looking forward in hope to God’s final reconciliation of all things to himself.

Finally, Paul reads Scripture trustingly.  He believes the Scripture discloses a God who loves us and can be trusted, in his righteousness, to keep his promises and to save us.  Thus, he always comes to the reading of Israel’s Scripture with the expectation that what he will find there is a word of deep grace.”  (Richard Hays, THE CONVERSION OF THE IMAGINATION, pp xv-xvi)

People Pleasing or Purity of Heart?

Syncletica (2)Amma Sarah said, ‘If I prayed God that all people should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, but I shall rather pray that my heart may be pure toward all.’

Amma Sarah did not seek the approval of others; likewise, she remained nonjudgmental in her attitude toward others and their own journeys toward God.  As in any other time in church history, there were strong personalities in Sarah’s day, but she did not follow fads.  She sought to remain true to her own simple path toward God.”  (Laura Swan, THE FORGOTTEN DESERT MOTHERS, p 39)

Amma Sarah reminds us that substance is far more important than appearance.  But we sometimes are more worried about what people think of us than we are about doing the right thing.  As Amma Sarah notes though if we want to live based on getting constant approval from everyone for our good behavior, we will end up also having to ask forgiveness from everyone when we can’t always live up to the task of getting their approval.  From her comment, it is far more Christian to simply work on purity of heart and not worry about what others think of me.  Her wisdom is expressed well in the prayer known as the “Litany of Humility” which in part reads:

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Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being loved
Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled
Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being honored
Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being praised
Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others
Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted
Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being approved
Deliver me, O Jesus.

The Prodigal is Edified

Commenting on the parable of The Prodigal Son, Archimandrite Zacharias says:

32090123173_001743df9e_nMost of us live outside our heart, and our mind is in a constant state of confusion.  Some good thoughts may surface from time to time, but the majority will be harmful, and this destructive condition will prevail for as long as we continue to ignore our heart.  But in the end the pain is too much to bear and we begin to seek the way back.  Remembering his father’s house, the prodigal son comes to himself and says, ‘How many hired servants of my father’s house have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!‘ We all have buried memories of our Father’s house, for our soul will forever retain traces of the grace of being clothed with Christ in Holy Baptism.  Moreover, each time we partake of the Holy Mysteries, our being is indelibly marked with God’s goodness.  In the heart of the prodigal, now, another humble thought surfaces: ‘I will arise and go to my father…‘  The process of inner regeneration has now begun, for he has resolved to rise from his fall.  Having seen the reality of his perdition, he now returns within himself and towards God.  His dynamic increase in God has begun.  He is ready to be enlightened and cleansed, for he has begun to speak truthfully with God from the depth of his heart.  The prayers of a fragmented mind have neither clarity nor depth, but a mind that is reunited with the heart overflows with humble prayer and has such strength that it reaches the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.  ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee.‘ 

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Man then discovers the power of humility, and sees that the only right attitude is to render all glory and honor to God, and to himself ‘the shame of face‘ (Dan 9:7, LXX) because of his sins.  He now puts all his trust in the Father’s mercy, and no longer in his own corrupt self, and this disposition of heart leads to true repentance.  As we read in one of the great ‘kneeling prayers’ at Pentecost: ‘Against Thee we have sinned, but Thee only do we worship.’  We are sinful and unworthy of His mercy, but we have full confidence in Him Whom we worship.  This ‘but’ cannot be said without faith, and this faith is the rock upon which we build our spiritual life.”  (REMEMBER THY FIRST LOVE, pp 130-131)

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