The Shape of Power

And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority  …  (Luke 9:1)

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?   (1 Corinthians 5:6)

The shape of power is always the same: it is infinite, it is complex, it is forever branching. While it is alive like a tree, it is growing; while it contains itself, it is a multitude. Its directions are unpredictable; it obeys its own laws.

No one can observe the acorn and extrapolate each vein in each leaf of the oak crown. The closer you look, the more various it becomes. However complex you think it is, it is more complex than that.  (Naomi Alderman, The Power, Kindle Location 4686-4689)

When reading a book, I often appreciate the author’s choice of words in describing something.  Power is a human concept, but has meaning only in the fact that we are relational beings living in a world that is always changing.  Power is not a branch in a tree but the branching of the tree – growing, extending, reaching out.  We cannot always predict what power will do in a group, in a nation, among a people.  It is a force that causes interactions, the results of which are not completely predictable. Like electrons crashing into each other, we cannot know their location, speed and direction at the same time.  Power moves just like that, transferring its energies in unpredictable ways, and yet its shape is recognizable.

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Christian Spirituality

“Christian spirituality is centered in God; in fact, its very goal is communion with God, which is attainable through the accomplishment of His will. To be what God wants us to be and to do what God want us to do is the sole meaning of our human existence. The fulfillment of the prayer “Thy will be done” is the heart and soul of all spiritual effort and activity.”

(Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, Vol. 4 Spirituality, p. 16)

Pentecost: What It is to Be Human

About 3000 years ago, a man named David, King of Israel, was laying in a field at night, gazing at the stars.  He was awed by how vast the night sky was – more stars than he could count.  Yet, what came to his mind is that God’s love for humans exceeded God’s love for the vast expanse of the heavens.   However awesome the nighttime heavens are, God is more concerned about  humans than the infinite space of the cosmos.  David found the heavens awesome, God apparently finds humans more awesome than the cosmic universe.  Humans, tiny and frail and sinful were still God’s focus and God’s first love.  David sang:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which You have established; what is a human that You are mindful of him, and mortals that You care for them?

Yet You made him little less than God, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!   (Psalms 8:3-9)

What is a human?

3000 years ago, King David was humans as beings created to know and worship God, and to be crowned by God with glory and honor.  Humans were created to be faithful stewards of God’s creation, to work with God to co-create the world into God’s kingdom.

Humans were created to have continual communion with God.  We were meant to be God’s continual point of contact with all of creation. God was to live in our hearts (Deuteronomy 30:14).  We were created to have this inner spiritual lives – in our hearts (Luke 17:21, Romans 7:22) so that the entire creation would be blessed by God through us.  Humans are awesome to God, for humans were created with a heart large enough to be a home for God to dwell on earth.

It is this inner spiritual life –  the heart which is meant to be heaven – which makes us human, which makes us unique among all God’s creatures, which makes us unique in all the universe.  Our hearts were meant to be a temple for the Holy Spirit.

And because our hearts are capable of being such a vast expanse we often feel an emptiness in our hearts which we try to fill with things other than God.  But it doesn’t work and so our cravings create problems for us as we look in all the wrong places to find something to fill our hearts.   Some fill their hearts with everything or perhaps anything except God – with food, alcohol,  pornography, mindless entertainment, politics, internet debates, voyeuristic news about celebrities.  All those things we can’t seem to get enough of come to displace God in our hearts.  And then we wonder why we are spiritually ill!

If we want the Holy Spirit to abide in our hearts, we have to make room in our hearts for the Holy Spirit.  We have to push out all these other things that compete in our hearts for space.  Sometimes the waste is so deep we need a  shovel to dig out even a little room for God’s Spirit

Our hearts are capable of being a temple for the Holy Spirit, which God readily gives to us.  As we celebrate Pentecost we realize God is offering completely of Himself to us – to abide in our hearts so that we can each make God present in our lives for the good of the entire cosmos.

And in the Acts of the Apostles, which we read for the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11), we see God’s Spirit comes upon the apostles in the forms of fiery tongues. A flame which kindles divine illumination in us – a Light capable of driving out all darkness from our hearts.

Jesus use a vert different image in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost (John 7:37-52, 8:12) – not fire but water.  He speaks about a spring of living water that wells up in the heart.  This is flowing water, moving with vigor and vitality bringing life and power to all it touches.  Christ’s imagery brings to mind a passage from the Holy Prophet Ezekiel:

Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate, that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side. Going on eastward with a line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the loins. Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through. And he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?” Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I went back, I saw upon the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other.  . . .   And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”    (Ezekiel 47:1-12)

For Ezekiel, the spiritual water to which Christ refers begins flowing at the altar and flows out of the temple and away from the temple.  And the further Ezekiel gets away from the temple, the deeper the waters become.  And for us there is an image of the Holy Spirit moving through time and space, away from the original outpouring at Pentecost.   Low and behold the outpouring gets greater, deeper the further we move away from the temple and that original pouring forth of the Holy Spirit.

Almost  in every generation leaders have complained that things are worse now than in previous generations.  You can see that in almost every century Christians write that the earlier  Christians in previous centuries were more devout and faithful.  Yet the Church continues to grow, and Ezekiel’s vision is that instead of the water trickling down to nothing, it is getting ever deeper.  And these deep waters of the outpouring of God’s Spirit are giving life up and down the banks of the river.   Things aren’t getting worse – they are changing without a doubt, but the spiritual spring flowing from Christ is increasing not decreasing.

And it is we Christians who have to make our hearts capable of bearing this outpouring of the Holy Spirit so that we can bring the divine life to all of creation.  We have a God-given role to fill in creation – we have a God-given obligation to fulfill our role.  The entire creation, not only all of the people of the world, but the entire created world and cosmos are waiting on us to make it possible for them to participate in God.

Praying in the Spirit

“The Holy Spirit exists and dwells in those who receive Him, and He does so to such an excellent extent and with such transforming power, that “such a person no longer lives according to the flesh, but is led by the Spirit of God. He is called a son of God, because he is conformed to the image of the Son of God; we call him a spiritual man.

This is an extraordinary statement. It means that the Holy Spirit, received initially through baptism and chrismation, actually transforms our very being, our “essence” or “form,” to the point that we are “conformed to the image” of Christ. We become “spiritual beings,” oriented and directed no longer according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit, who is God Himself.

At the close of this same chapter, St. Basil alludes to a passage from the apostle Paul: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Basil concludes, “If you remain outside the Spirit, you cannot worship at all, and if you are in Him you cannot separate Him from God. Light cannot be separated from what it makes visible, and it is impossible for you to recognize Christ, the Image of the invisible God, unless the Spirit enlightens you.”

This means first of all that authentic worship is possible only through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Yet beyond that, it implies that true prayer is not a human endeavor at all. It is the work of God within us. In prayer, God speaks to God; the Spirit addresses the Father within the temple of the heart. Through that divine work, the Spirit illumines for us and within us the “Face,” the image and glory of the Son. Bated in the radiant light of that divine Image, we recognize Christ for who He is: we behold Him as Lord and Savior, the Crucified and Risen One. And that Image in turn reveals to us the Face of the Father.”   (John Breck, Longing for God, p. 171)

Send Your Spirit That We May Know Your Love

O Lord, Thou dost love Thy creature;

and who can fathom Thy love, or delight in it,

if he be not taught of Thee Thyself

by Thy Holy Spirit?

I pray Thee, O Lord, send down on Thy peoples

the grace of the Holy Spirit, that they may know Thy love.

Warm their sorrowing hearts, that

forgetful of the afflictions of this earth

they may glorify Thee in joy.

O gracious Comforter, weeping I beseech Thee,

Comfort the afflicted hearts of Thy peoples.

Let the nations hear the sweet sound of Thy voice

Saying unto them, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Yea, O Lord, it is in Thy power to perform miracles,

and there is no greater miracle.

than to love the sinner in his fall.

A saint is easy to love: he is worthy of love.

Yea, Lord, hearken to our prayer.

All the peoples of the world suffer in distress.

All are cast down by sin.

All are bereft of Thy grace, and live in darkness.

(Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 345-346)

Theophany 2018

St. Ephrem the Syrian composed the following poetry as he reflected on the meaning of the Feast of Theophany.  He focuses on part of the prayer of the Feast for the Blessing of Water in which we ask the Holy Spirit to come upon the water and be present in it just as the Spirit was present at the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River.

The Spirit descended from the heights

and sanctified the water as She hovered.

When John baptized Jesus

She left all others and settled on one,

but now She has come down and settled

upon all who are reborn in water of baptism.

 

Of all those that John baptized

the Spirit dwelt on one alone,

but now She has flown down

to dwell upon many.

Rushing to meet the Foremost who went up first from the Jordan,

She embraced him and dwelt upon Him.

It is a wonder that the Purifier of all

should have gone down to the water to be baptized.

The seas declared that river blessed,

in which You, Lord, were baptized.

The waters, too, that are above the heavens

were envious that they had not been held worthy to wash You.

Thus we pray to make the water that of Jordan.

It is a wonder, Lord, now as well

that, though the springs are full of water,

only the baptismal font

can wash clean:

the seas may be mighty with all their water,

but they have not the power to wash.

(“Hymns on Epiphany,” Treasure-house of Mysteries, pp. 249-250)

Make Holiness Perfect (2 Cor 7:1)

For I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.  (Leviticus 11:44)

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In any English translation of the New Testament, a host of English words are necessary to capture the full range of basically one Greek word – agios.    We need all of these English words to encompass the various uses of agios in Greek:  holy, holiness, saint, sanctify and sanctification.   In the New Testament, the basic Greek word for holy is used about 260 times.  About 90 times it is used in conjunction with God’s Spirit – the Holy Spirit.  It is used about 120 times to refer in one way or another to humans, God’s people, individuals, prophets, believers.  It is also used in reference to Jesus, God, the temple, a place/city, angels, a kiss, the Law, Scripture and the covenant.   If we take away all of the references to the Holy Spirit, we see that holiness in the New Testament is most often used about people, the believers, the Church members.   Almost never in the New Testament is it used about things – Holy Water, Holy Icon, Holy Chalice, Holy Vestments, etc.   We have the Sunday of All Saints, which is all the people who are holy.  This Sunday follows Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit.   Holiness is about us and our way of life more than about miracles and magic taking hold of things and making them holy.

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Holiness in the New Testament is far more a state of being for humans and also the way we live.  The New Testament does not focus on holy things and doesn’t tell believers to do so either.  Holiness is more dynamic and puts us in relationship with God.  Holiness courses through our lives and is expanding the Church in baptism, the Eucharist, our growing in faith and love.   Theosis is our participation in God’s holiness.

Holiness does not get concentrated in things which we stand around to reverence or feel some closeness to God.  In the New Testament we don’t look to things to experience holiness, for holiness is to be present in our daily lives.

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We can look at a few passages from the New Testament and we get this sense that holiness is much more about us and what we are and what we are to do.  In each passage below the holiness word is emphasized.

Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth.  (john 17:7)

But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:11)

May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:23)

Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  (Heb 12:14)

and make holiness perfect in the fear of God. (2 Cor 7:1)

While God sanctifies us (makes us holy), obviously holiness is also something we can strive and something we can make perfect.  Holiness is not merely something God bestows on us, it is also something we can shape and develop in our own lives.  Holiness is thus a force in our lives, which is both given to us by God and shaped by our own lives and how we follow Christ.  God commands us to be holy!  It is something within our power to do.

Holiness as such is not some magic which makes “things” holy, but rather the very force in our lives which unites us to God.  Holiness is active in our hearts and minds – in our spirit, soul and body.  Holiness is not just for the soul, but it is for our entire being as humans and is to be present in every aspect of our humanity.  We show holiness in our lives not only in worship or in participating in the sacraments but also in stewardship, tithing, generosity, loving, forgiving, asking forgiveness, obeying Christ, being charitable, merciful, peacemakers and in all the ways we practice our discipleship.

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Orthodox often flock to where they believe holiness is – in an icon, in a monastery, in a church, in the Holy Fire.  The New Testament on the other hand points out that holiness is not so much to be sought out in things, but is to be lived in our hearts, souls, minds and bodies.  We can’t make holiness perfect in things – Holy Icons or Holy Fire – we can only perfect it in ourselves.

Being Orthodox: Spirituality and Membership

“For the Orthodox, spirituality is about moving more and more closely into communion with the source of life, with God, who has been revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the life of that relationship, which can be lived fully only in the context of the Church. The Holy Spirit was given to the Church as a whole, not to a set of individuals, and it is when the Church gathers that the fullness of Christ’s presence among us can be realized. The self becomes what it truly is only in relationship; this teaching is at the heart of Orthodox trinitarian theology.

However, here it is necessary to say something about the mysterious nature of what ‘membership’ means, when we speak of someone as a ‘member’ of the Church. Membership in a merely social sense is hardly the point. To live truly as an Orthodox means prayer, ascetic struggle, spiritual direction, and liturgical participation. And the participation must involve the whole of self: before we recite the Creed we say, ‘Let us love one another so that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit…’ Without love and reconciliation, the rest is meaningless.” (John Garvey, Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox, pp. 76-77)

Signs of the Holy Spirit

St Gregory of  Sinai (d. 1346) writes about how the Holy Spirit manifests Himself differently in each person.

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“There are several signs that the energy of the Holy Spirit is beginning to be active in those who genuinely aspire for this to happen . . .

In some it appears as awe arising in the heart,

in others as a tremulous sense of jubilation,

in others as joy,

in others as joy mingled with awe,

or as tremulousness mingled with joy,

and sometimes it manifests itself as tears and awe.

For the soul is joyous at God’s visitation and mercy, but at the same time is in awe and trepidation at His presence because it is guilty of so many sins. Again, in some the soul at the outset experiences an unutterable sense of contrition and an indescribable pain, like the woman in Scripture who labors to give birth (cf. Rev. 12:2). For the living and active Logos – that is to say, Jesus – penetrates, as the apostle says, to the point at which soul separates from body, joints from marrow (cf. Heb. 4:12), so as to expel by force every trace of passion from both soul and body.

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In others it is manifest as an unconquerable love and peace, shown towards all, or as a joyousness that the fathers have often called exultation – a spiritual force and an impulsion of the living heart that is also described as a vibration and sighing of the Spirit who makes wordless intercession for us to God (cf. Rom. 8:26). Isaiah has also called this the ‘waves’ of God’s righteousness (cf. Isa. 48:18), while the great Ephrem calls it ‘spurring’. The Lord Himself describes it as ‘a spring of water welling up for eternal life’ (John 4:14) – He refers to the Spirit as water – a source that leaps up in the heart and erupts through the ebullience of its power.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 44476-44502)

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Not everyone experiences the same thing when the Holy Spirit comes in their life, nor should one judge another’s experience.  As St. Gregory says, some will experience repentance and contrition when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and convicts them of their sins.  But not everyone will experience that.  Others experience love and peace for all or even an overwhelming joy.  One experience is not better than the other, one is not more preferred than the other.  The Spirit moves where it will (John 3:8), and He moves each person as He chooses for the salvation of the world.  Rather than seeking a particular experience of the Holy Spirit, we should allow ourselves to be open to what the Spirit wants to reveal to us.  Whatever experience the Spirit bestows on us, we can give thanks that God comes and abides in us.

The Holy Spirit at Work in Us

“Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10;  emphases not in the original text)

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Every baptized Orthodox Christian receives the Holy Spirit in and through the sacraments of baptism, chrismation and the Eucharist.  How do we show that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives?

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Each Orthodox Christian is called to be part of the holy priesthood.  Priests in general consecrate things – to make them into an offering to God.  In the Church, Bishops consecrate Chrism and men to serve as priests and deacons in the church.  Priest in turn consecrate believers in baptism and also bread and wine to be shown to be the Body and Blood of Christ.   But all believers share in a priesthood in which we each are to consecrate the things in our life – our homes, families, children, jobs, hobbies, meals, friendships, thoughts, words, feelings – everything great and little can be consecrated.  We can make everything we do into a holy offering to God.  The meals we cook, the things we build, or memorize, or sing, or think about – all can be consecrated, offered to God.  If we think we can’t offer it to God, perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it.  But what we choose to do, all of these things we should offer to God, consecrate them to God and for God’s own use so that God will deify them.

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Everything we have is a gift from God including our lives, our possessions, our blessings, our talents, knowledge, wisdom, the work of our hands.  So what can we offer to God that is truly our own?  What is truly ours are our wills and our decisions.  We can freely opt to co-operate with God.  We can present ourselves to God  in order to serve Him.  Our free wills belong to us and we can work in synergy with God to accomplish God’s will.  Thus every decision, the countless ones we make in our daily lives are each an opportunity for us to serve God – to offer that moment in our lives to God, to direct our energy toward God.  Our choices are a true offering to God –  not something God predetermines in our lives, but what we can freely offer to God.  Our love is something we can choose to offer to God.  It is something God truly values in us and from us.