Acting Spiritually Reacting

“If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement. In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction. Something happens and we respond, someone speaks and we answer.

But when we are left without anything that stimulates us to think, speak or act, we realize that there is very little in us that will prompt us to action in any direction at all.

This is really a very dramatic discovery. We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed in from outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things. How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves.”

(Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, The Modern Spirituality Series: Metropolitan Anthony, p. 38)

An Icon of The Mother of God

A typical icon of the Theotokos:

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The usual type is that which you find in East and West – the Virgin holding the child.  This is an image of several things and not only the Mother of God as a person.  It is an image of the Incarnation, an assertion of the Incarnation and its reality.  It’s an assertion of the true and real motherhood of the Virgin.

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And, if you look attentively at the ikon, you will see that the Mother of God holding the Child never looks at the Child.  She always looks neither at you nor into the distance but her open eyes look deep inside her.  She is in contemplation.  She is not looking at things.  And her tenderness is expressed by the shyness of her hands.  She holds the Child without hugging him.  She holds the Child as one would hold something sacred that one is bringing as an offering, and all the tenderness, all the human love, is expressed by the Child, not by the mother.

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She remains the Mother of God and she treats the child, not as baby Jesus, but as the Incarnate Son of God who has become the son of the Virgin and He, being true man and true God, expresses to her all the love and tenderness of man and God both to His mother and to His  creature.

(Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, BEGINNING TO PRAY, pp 109-110)

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The Struggle to Keep the Fast

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom offers us some thoughts about how we can be a Christian even if we are imperfect.  His thinking applies to anything we do as Christians such as prayer and fasting.  We fail if we hold to a black and white, all or nothing thinking.  We can see Christ and still fall short of what we are to be – yet we can persist in following Him.  We are to thirst for righteousness even if our desire is not slaked.  

And so, there is a tension between the absoluteness of the vision–the perfect and only true Man, Christ–and the imperfect creatures that we are. In what way then can we say that we relate to Christ? I think we relate to Christ if we are open to his action; we relate to Christ if we long for him; we relate to Christ if we are in motion towards him.

And this is a very important thing. There is a passage in the writings of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, who says, we do not reach the Kingdom of God from victory to victory; more often from defeat to defeat. But, he says, it is those people–who after each defeat, instead of sitting down to bewail their misery, stand up and walk–that arrive.

And this a tension in which we all find ourselves. Unless we have a vision of the absolute, we cannot tend towards it. At the same time we must not despair of what we are, because we cannot judge our own condition; we can judge only one thing: the degree to which we long for fulfillment, the degree to which we long to be worthy of God, worthy of love, worthy of compassion–and worthy not because of any achievement of ours, but because of the longing, the hunger, and the trust that we can give to the Lord.”   (Churchianity vs. Christianity, p. 41, 43)

Welcoming the Day and Its Blessings

“This day is blessed by God, it is God’s own and now let us go into it.

You walk in this day as God’s own messenger; whoever you meet, you meet in God’s own way. You are there to be the presence of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, the presence of the Gospel – this is your function on this particular day.

God has never said that when you walk into a situation in His own Name, He will be crucified and you will be the risen one. You must be prepared to walk into situations, one after the other, in God’s name, to walk as the Son of God has done: in humiliation and humility, in truth and ready to be persecuted and so forth.

Usually what we expect when we fulfill God’s commandments is to see a marvelous result at once – we read of that at times in the lives of the saints. When, for instance, someone hits us on one cheek, we turn the other one, although we don’t expect to be hit at all, but we expect to hear the other person say ‘What, such humility’ – you get your reward and he gets the salvation of his soul. It does not work that way. You must pay the cost and very often you get hit hard. What matters is that you are prepared for that.

As to the day, if you accept that this day was blessed of God, chose by God with His own hand, then every person you meet is a gift of God, every circumstance you will meet is a gift of God, whether it is bitter or sweet, whether you like or dislike it. It is God’s own gift to you and if you take it that way, then you can face any situation. But then you must face it with the readiness that anything may happen, whether you enjoy it or not, and if you walk in the name of the Lord through a day which has come fresh and new out of His own Hands and has been blessed for you to live with it, then you can make prayer and life really like the two sides of one coin.

You act and pray in one breath, as it were, because all the situations that follow one another require God’s blessing.”  (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, pp. 46-47)

Living in the Present

“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-12)

“And the taskmasters forced them to hurry, saying, “Fulfill your work, your daily quota…”  (Exodus 5:13)

“The mistake we often make with our inner life is to imagine that if we hurry we will be in our future sooner – a little like the man who ran from the last carriage of the train to the first, hoping that the distance between London and Edinburgh would be shortened as a result. When it is that kind of example we see how absurd it is, but when we continually try to live an inch ahead of ourselves, we do not feel the absurdity of it. Yet that is what prevents us from being completely in the present moment, which I dare say is the only moment in which we can be, because even if we imagine that we are ahead of time or ahead of ourselves, we are not. The only thing is that we are in a hurry, but we are not moving more quickly for this.”  (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, p. 50)

Love; An Action Verb

“So often when we say,  

‘I love you’

we say it with a huge

I

and a small

‘you’.

A New Commandment: Love One Another

We use love as a conjunction instead of it being a verb implying action. It’s no good just gazing out into the open space hoping to see the Lord; instead we have to look closely at our neighbor, someone whom God has willed into existence, someone who God has died for. Everyone we meet has the right to exist, because he has value in himself, and we are not used to this. The acceptance of otherness is a danger to us, it threatens us. To recognize the other’s right to be himself might mean recognizing his right to kill me. But if we set a limit to his right to exist, it’s no right at all. Love is difficult. Christ was crucified because he taught a kind of love which is a terror for men, a love which demands total surrender: It spells death. If we turn to God and come face to face with him, we must be prepared to pay the cost. If we are not prepared to pay the cost, we must walk through life being a beggar, hoping someone else will pay. But if we turn to God we discover that life is deep, vast and immensely worth living.” (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, p xiv)

The Nature of Good Soil

In Luke 8:5-15 we read the parable of the sower, who sows good seed but its yield is dependent on where it is planted.  Jesus said:

“A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.”

Archbishop Anthony Bloom comments:

“The word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word ‘humus’ which means fertile ground. To me, humility is not what we often make of it: the sheepish way of trying to imagine that we are the worst of all and trying to convince others that our artificial ways of behaving show that we are aware of that. Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness despite in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed. I said to this woman ‘Learn to be like this before God; abandoned, surrendered, ready to receive anything from people and anything from God.’ ” ( Beginning to Pray, pg. 35)

An Act of Mercy in a Heartless World

Luke 18:10-14

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom writes the following about the parable:

 “I would like to remind you of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Publican comes and stands at the rear of the church. He knows that he stands condemned; he knows that in terms of justice there is no hope for him because he is an outsider to the kingdom of God, the kingdom of righteousness or the kingdom of love, because he belongs neither to the realm of righteousness nor to the realm of love. But in the cruel, the violent, the ugly life he leads, he has learnt something of which the righteous Pharisee has no idea. He has learnt that in a world of competition, in a world of predatory animals, in a world of cruelty and heartlessness, the only hope one can have is an act of mercy, an act of compassion, a completely unexpected act which is rooted neither in duty nor in natural relationships, which will suspend the action of the cruel, violent, heartless world in which we live. All he knows, for instance, from being himself an extortioner, a moneylender, a thief, and so forth, is that there are moments when for no reason, because it is not part of the world’s outlook, he will forgive a debt, because suddenly his heart has become mild and vulnerable; that on another occasion he may not get someone put into prison because a face will have reminded him of something or a voice has gone straight to his heart. There is no logic in this. It is not part of the world’s outlook nor is it a way in which he normally behaves. It is something that breaks through, which is completely nonsensical, which he cannot resist; and he knows also, probably, how often he himself was saved from final catastrophe by this intrusion of the unexpected and the impossible, mercy, compassion, forgiveness. So he stands at the rear of the church, knowing that all the realm inside the church is a realm of righteousness and divine love to which he does not belong and inot which he cannot enter. But he knows from experience also that the impossible does occur and that is why he says ‘Have mercy, break the laws of righteousness, break the laws of religion, come down in mercy to us who have no right to be either forgiven or allowed in’. And I think this is where we should probably start continuously all over again.” (Beginning to Pray, pgs. 8-9)

Prayer as Relationship with God (IV)

This is the 39th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Prayer as Relationship with God (III).

Archbishop Anthony Bloom in his writings challenges us to think deeply about what prayer is, and what we should not reduce it to.

“When we read the Gospel and the image of Christ becomes compelling, glorious, when we pray and we become aware of the greatness, the holiness of God, do we ever say ‘I am unworthy that he should  come near to me?’  Not to speak of all the occasions when we should be aware that He cannot come to us because we are not there to receive Him.  We want something from Him, not Him at all.  Is that a relationship?   Do we behave in that way with our friends? Do we aim at what friendship can give us or is it the friend whom we love?” (BEGINNING TO PRAY, p 5)

What are we seeking in prayer?  What do we want from God?   We become spiritual beings when we want a relationship with the God who created us rather than simply wanting things from Him, or for Him to do things for us.  Archbishop Bloom says:

“First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God.  …  The second very important thing is that a meeting face to face with God is always a moment of judgment for us.  We cannot meet God in prayer or in meditation or in contemplation and not be either saved or condemned.  … ‘Crisis’ comes from the Greek and means ‘judgment’.  To meet God face to face in prayer is a critical moment I our lives, and thanks be to Him that He does not always present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him, because ewe might not be able to endure such a meeting.  Remember the many passages in Scripture in which we are told how bad it is to find oneself face to face with God, because God is power, God is truth, God is purity.  Therefore, the first thought we ought to have when we do not tangibly perceive the divine presence, is a thought of gratitude.  God is merciful; He does not come in an untimely way.”  (Anthony Bloom, BEGINNING TO PRAY, pp 2-3)

Because prayer places us in a relationship with the Holy God, we in encountering His holiness are made ever more aware of our sinfulness and unworthiness.  Prayer places us in contact with divine power, so it is not something to be taken lightly.  For to come into contact with God is also to enter into judgment for we are exposed completely by One who knows our true nature and is not deceived by our efforts to hide our true selves.

God desires that we approach Him in prayer, so He calls us to this great activity, knowing we are sinners.  We in response recognize the need to be humble in his presence and we recognize our need for His great mercy.  Thus we call upon the Name of Jesus to invoke God’s own mercy.

“Delve deeply into the Jesus Prayer (Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner), with all the power that you possess.  It will draw you together, giving you a sense of strength in the Lord, and will result in your being with Him constantly whether alone or with other people, when you do housework and when you read or pray.  Only you must attribute the power of this prayer, not to the repetition of certain words, but to the turning of the mind and heart towards the Lord in these words – to the action accompanying the speech.”    (St. Theophan the Recluse, THE ART OF PRAYER, pp 90-91)

Next:  Prayer as Relationship with God (V)