The Way of Love is the Way of Co-suffering

Nicholas Kotar in his book, The Song of the Sirin (Raven Son Book 1), has one of his characters ask a thought provoking question – a thought experiment about human creativity.  We are capable of creativity and of making things beautiful, but we come into a world not of our making, and so we interact with that world.  Humans have a synergy with creation and with God.

“Tell me, Voran. What is the most beautiful thing a man can mold and form, though it is not of his own creation?”

Voran had already contemplated this question for a long time, and thoughtfully gives a reply which immediately suggests to  him a follow up question.

How many times had he pondered the same question while sitting half-frozen on the banks of their river of a morning?

“His own life,” he said.

The most beautiful thing that we can form which we did not create is our self!  This is why Christianity is not mostly about learning information, but it is about formation.  We are each in the process of forming our soul, our self.  We cooperate with God in creating our self – true synergy.

“His own life,” he said. “To make his own life beautiful, what must he do?”

It came to him like floodwaters, overwhelming.

The answer to this question is one which Orthodox Christianity has embraced, contemplated and attempted to live in its spirituality.  God has imbued us with the gifts necessary for and capable of making things beautiful.  It is truly a good that we can add to creation.

To love as God loves is to love to the point that one suffers with the other, for the other and even because of the other.

“A human being can only become truly human if he lives for others.  That way, the way of love, is by necessity the way of pain. Shared pain. Co-suffering.”  (page 82).

The way for us to become truly human – to make ourselves good and beautiful is the way of love, the self emptying love which God revealed in the incarnation.  For God to become human, God emptied himself.  For us to become fully human is to become as God is, which means we too must empty ourselves.

“The kind of co-suffering we are talking about is …  precisely in the ability to understand man, fathom the good qualities he possesses, and to appreciate him, freeing him from the admixture of falsehood.  What is required for this– in addition to humble love– are a power and broadness of mind.  Thus, co-suffering is the ability to come to an inner self-identification with a person, a joyous blending with all that is good in him, and sorrow about all that is negative.  This is precisely where a ‘fisher of men’ is revealed.  Such people somehow manage to penetrate a person completely, to appropriate all his thoughts, to become linked to his very heart and soul, to raise his whole being to truth and love.  All this requires spiritual knowledge, sincere love and the ability to know the innermost thoughts of a person without reacting in a negative manner.

Hieromartyr Gorazd of Prague

The prerequisite of this influence of one will upon another may be stated thus: By humbling oneself, loving and learning about people, a human being ascends or returns to a primordial mysterious union with everyone and, in pouring the holy content (acquired through communion with God) of his soul into the soul of his neighbor, he transfigures the inner nature of the latter in such a way that merely by the consent of his will, the difficult path of his rebirth is almost accomplished.”  (Anthony KhrapovitskyDOSTOYEVESKY’S CONCEPT OF REBIRTH, pp 37-38)

Advertisements

Vicious Gossip vs. The Vivifying Gospel

Jesus said:  A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  (John 13:34)

Anyone who has worked to love another, knows how much energy this requires.  It is easy for us to say that we love someone, but life shows us how much love can demand from us.  Spouses realize over a lifetime of marriage that love requires a great deal from them – demands things they never imagined would be required if you truly desire to love someone.  Parents bring their children into the world, and desire to love them, but again learn that love demands much of us in ways we cannot even imagine.   Just on a daily level, even when things are going well in our family, we realize that loving, forgiving, apologizing, overlooking faults, dealing with personalities drains a lot of energy, and yet this is what love requires.

Wrestling with love occurs in our lives as Christians as well.  Desiring to be a Christian while living in the world tests the limits of our love.  This was also the experience of monks who left everything to follow Christ.  It is easy to imagine that going to a monastery – where one naively believes “everyone is committed to Christ and Christ’s love just like I am” – will be the perfect world to work out one’s salvation.  But in the monastery too, love puts its demands on us – to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ.

The elders were keenly aware, from their own personal experience, of the high cost of fulfilling the commandment to love. Their reading of Scripture served to confirm this sense and to encourage them to risk loving even under extreme circumstances. It is startling, as we listen to the monks talk about the requirements of love, how literally they took the words of Scripture. Poemen’s interpretation of one Gospel text illustrates well the particular kind of demands love made upon the monks in their life in the desert, and how their reading of Scripture helped them to respond to these demands.

Abba Poemen saw the text, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13) as referring to just such a situation: “If someone hears an evil saying, that is, one which harms him, and in his turn, he wants to repeat it, he must fight in order not to say it. Or if someone is taken advantage of and he bears it, without retaliating at all, there he is giving his life for his neighbour.” Fulfilling the commandment, then, entailed having the courage to love in circumstances where one’s natural response would lead one in precisely the opposite direction.  (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 264-265)

 

Compassion & Empathy For Others

“A person who, by such love, draws near to the image and likeness of God, will rejoice in the good because of the joy of the good itself. Possessing the same feeling of patience and gentleness, he will not be angered by the faults of sinners, but rather, sympathizing with and co-suffering with their infirmities, he will ask for mercy on them. For he remembers that he was long opposed by the impulses arising from similar passions until he was saved by the mercy of the Lord.”   (St. John Cassian, found in Daniel G. Opperwall, A Layman in the Desert, p. 139)

The Sabbath is a Rest from Sin not from Love

According to Luke 13:10-17, Jesus confronted by a synagogue ruler regarding Sabbath laws, confronts the ruler with what the Sabbath is meant to be.

26716913629_ee7b2eef92_n

Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.

5399225597_15118792c0

But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound – think of it – for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

12801087703_c7917c814d

Jean Danielou notes Jesus taught a very particular understanding of Sabbath rules and rejected common ideas about the Sabbath held by Jewish leaders.

The other element in the Sabbath is the idea of rest (anapausis). Here also we find a primary typology in the Old Testament, consisting in a spiritualization of this idea of rest. In the prophets, and especially in Isaias, we find the statement repeated by the Fathers of the Church, that the true Sabbath, the true anapausis, is not to cease from physical work, but to cease from sinning. “The new moons and the Sabbaths and other festivals I will not abide, your assemblies are wicked…cease to do perversely, learn to do well…” (Is. 1:13-19). And this passage is the more important because, as we shall see presently, the teaching of Christ is its exact extension. This spiritualization of the idea of the Sabbath rest, which does not, obviously, exclude the idea of the actual practice of the Sabbath, is found again in Philo, transformed by its platonic setting, when he sees in the Sabbath the symbol of the soul “that rests in God and gives itself no more to any mortal work.”

38447036811_4af6c3d66f_n

The Jews of the time of Christ, in their exaltation of the Sabbath, thought that God Himself was subject to it. We find such an idea expressed in the Book of Jubilees (II, 16). The word of Christ formally condemns the application to God of the Sabbath rest understood as idleness. In God there is no idleness; but His activity which, as St. Clement of Alexandria says, is identical with His love, is exercised without ceasing. And this is of great importance: the idleness, otium, of the Sabbath appears henceforth as a literal and inferior notion, giving room for seeking its spiritual meaning. The Fathers of the Church used this text to condemn the Sabbath rest by showing that it is not the law of the universe and that Christianity is the reality of which this idleness is the figure. Origen, using the same text of St. John, writes: “He shows by this that God does not cease to order the world on any Sabbath of this world. The true Sabbath, in which God will rest from all His works, will, therefore be the world to come. The working of Christ is seen to be the reality which comes to replace the figurative idleness of the Sabbath.”   (The Bible and the Liturgy, pp. 224 & 227)

 

Who Can Be a Christian?

What does it take to be a Christian?  Follow the law of Love, says St. Nicholas Cabasilas:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

“The ‘law of Love’ is the basis of his spirituality as [Cabasilas] writes in the sixth book of The Life in Christ.

‘This law demands no arduous nor afflicting work, nor loss of money; it does not involve shame, nor any dishonour, nor anything worse; it puts no obstacle in the pursuit of any art or profession.

The general keeps the power to command,

the labourer can work the ground,

the artisan can carry on with his occupation. There is no reason to retire into solitude, to eat unusual food, to be inadequately clothed, or endanger one’s health, or to resort to any other special endeavour;

it suffices to give oneself wholly to meditation and to remain always within oneself without depriving the world of one’s talents.'”  (Boris Bobrinskoy, The Life in Christ, p. 290)

Christ Who Lives in Me

St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians (2:16-20) –  

We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles,  knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. “But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!  For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.  For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

“’Christification’ …is based on the words, ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.’ (Gal 2:20) The image of God, the icon of Christ, which truly is my real and authentic essence or being, is the only measure of all things, the only path or way which is given to me. Each movement of my soul, each approach to God, to other people, to the world, is determined by the suitability of that act for reflecting the image of God which is within me.” (St Maria of Paris)

Love for humanity alone or in general, while an ideal of the Enlightenment and love of the modern era, leads us into the blind alley, as she calls it of a humanism that is at once anti-Christian, impersonal, theoretical, and, in the end, not humane. But equally, as we have also seen, the flight into religiosity of various forms, the attempt to place the love for God above that for neighbor, to play Martha off against Mary, destroys love, both for God and for the neighbor.

The two loves are but one love. To attempt to “Christify” the world is not impose upon it something external, but to deal with it in its own terms – as God’s creation, out of love, as the constant object of God’s love, God’s becoming part of it, living in it, dying and rising – “for the life of the world.” To “Christify” means to be the world’s beloved, the philanthropos or “Lover of mankind,” as the Eastern Church liturgy repeatedly names God. As scripture scholar James Kugel points out, an image of God we have lost is that of a God who does not so much sit on his throne in his heavens, waiting for our obeisance, but the God who descends and walks among us, often completely unnoticed, seeking us out in love.

(Michael Plekon, The Teachings of Modern Christianity on Law Politics, & Human Nature, p. 675)

Let All You Do Be Done in Love

Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.  (1 Corinthians 16:13)

“Those who have stood in these places of the spirit may ask in dismay, ‘Where are we to look for a criterion by which to distinguish genuine communion with God from delusion?’ Blessed Staretz Silouan explicitly asserted that we have such a criterion – love for enemies. He said, ‘The Lord is meek and humble, and loves His creature. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is humble love for enemies and prayer for the whole world. And if you do not have this love, ask and the Lord Who said, “Ask, and it shall be given to you” will grant it to you’” (Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, pp. 162-163).  

Reflection on the Christian Family

While in the Orthodox Tradition, the family is often considered to be “the little church” in which we live and practice our Orthodox Faith, the family as a social unit has not gotten the attention in our spiritual tradition that one can find for monks and nuns.

Be that as it may, most of us spend at least part of our lives in families and there we do have to consider how to be Christian.  In the modern age we see some attempts to write about the family from an Orthodox perspective, including trying to emphasize married saints of the Church.  This literature though gives witness to the dearth of writings on family in the mostly monastic spirituality of Orthodoxy.  Even in the New Testament, depending on what English translation you read, the word “family” only occurs 5-20 times, and even there gives almost no instruction on what Christian family might look like.

In addition to temptations from the evil one, Starets Macarius  [19th Century, Russian] gives several other important causes for family problems. To one correspondent he writes: ‘It is this growing indifference to His Word, and our consequent refusal to examine our hearts-where we could find both the peace He bequeathed us and the insight into our lack of love of Him and of our neighbor-which brings in its wake this punishment, this disruption of the home.’  He also says that this is due to our failure to see Christ in others. He reminds us that when we mistreat others, we are in a real sense mistreating Christ. So he tells us, ‘Remember that you are pupils of Christ-of Christ who teaches us to love not only our friends but even our enemies, and to …  forgive all who trespass against us. “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses’”Matt. 6:15). What a frightful prospect!’

Along these same lines, he tells a correspondent that while it is good that she has a long prayer rule and often reads the Church Fathers, ‘remember that love of the neighbor is the first work you must strive for. And you do not even have to leave your house to find that neighbor: your husband is that neighbor; your mother is that neighbor; and so are your children.’ To another spiritual child, he says that the ‘poison’ in the family cannot be cast out of their home ‘unless you promptly cease condemning each other. You clearly think you are always in the right; she, of course thinks she is. You heap on her a multitude of grave or petty accusations. She does the same to you. Where will this all end?’  Then he points out that the chief things the husband accuses his wife are actually the same faults he has. The Elder concludes:

All this financial trouble between you comes of your having completely forgotten that yours is a Christian home, or should be. A home is a Christian one when all the members of the household bear each other’s burdens, and when each condemns only himself. You have forgotten this, both of you. And so every word of hers pieces you, like an arrow dipped in poison. And your words, likewise, pierce her.

Ponder the truth of Christian marriage: man and wife are one flesh! Does it not follow that they must share all their possessions? And yet you two haggle over this property! And why? Because of words!

Unless you promptly strive for and achieve a loving peace between you, it is hopeless to try to bring tidiness and fairness into your business dealings with one another. Humble yourself, not her. Love her, not yourself.”

 (David and Mary Ford, Marriage as a Path to Holiness, p. xlvi-xlvii).

Love for Another and the Effects of Sin

“…we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”  (John 4:42)

“Your own, of Your own, we offer to You, on behalf of all and for all.”

“And all mankind.”   (From the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

Anyone who does not want the same things for his fellow human beings or pass the same judgement on them as he wishes for himself, is certainly foolish, particularly as this judgement and this wish are an inherent part of our nature. For it is a natural impulse in all of us to want to be loved and well treated by others as much as by ourselves. The will to do good and to be as well disposed towards all as we are towards ourselves is therefore also inborn in us. We were all made in the image of Him who is good. Then when sin entered and multiplied, it did not extinguish our self-love, since it was not at all opposed to that, but it cooled down love for one another, the crown the virtues, changed it and rendered it useless. As a result, He who renews our nature, recalling it to the grace of His own image and putting His laws, as the prophet tells us, in our hearts (Jer. 31:33), says “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31), and “If ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? For sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:32, 34).

In this passage, He refers to those who are not called by His name and those who do not order their lives according to the gospel, as sinners, including them all in the same category, for it is of no benefit to us to be called Christians if we act no differently from the heathen. Just as the great Paul told the Jews, “Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision” (Rom 2:35), so now Christ tells us through the Gospel, “You who are Mine will find grace in My presence if you keep my Commandments, but if you do nothing more than sinners do, loving those who love you and doing good to those who do the same to you, you will have no confidence towards Me on that account.” He does not speak like this to deter people from loving or doing good or lending to those who will repay them, but He shows that such acts do not earn a reward, so they have their recompense here and now, and do not bring any grace to the soul, nor cleanse it from the ingrained defilement of sin.” (St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 355-356).

Salvation: For the Love of God

The true focus of every Christian is not their salvation, but God.  We are supposed to love God first of all, and then, secondly to love neighbor.  An obsession with one’s salvation is far more an act of self-love rather than true love.

7040304051_82022af76f_n

For true love, the love which God exhibits towards us, and which Christ commands us to do, is focused not on the self but on the other – God first, and then neighbor.   Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:

“What should we be interested in? God. Beautiful, marvelous, magnificent, splendid, glorious God Almighty. And His only begotten Son Jesus Christ, born of a virgin on earth; and the all-holy, life-creating Spirit who proceeds from God, dwells in the Son, and is breathed upon us. In God is life, reality, truth, peace, and joy. We need to be interested in the God who saves us, not in salvation as such. We need to be interested in loving God. Life is about God. The Bible is about God. Church is about God. Sacraments are about God.”  (The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 230-233)

10181888905_4da0be6399