Spiritual Training: Overcome Evil

God cares for man’s freedom as the most precious principle that he possesses, and so in humility draws the soul to His love. But on the path to this love man comes up against the violator, the devil. The Lord allows that it should be so. God trains man’s soul, not by removing evil from his path by giving him the strength necessary to overcome all evil.

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 220)

The Salvation of the Body

This glory of the body, however, does not belong only to the End but is foreshadowed at various moments throughout salvation history. Before the fall the bodies of Adam and Eve shone with light in Paradise , and they were “covered with God’s glory in place of clothing” (Homilies 12:8).

Once they had fallen into sin, this robe of glory was taken away from them and they were left naked (cf. Genesis 3:7). Then at Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, after the giving of the Law, the final restoration of our bodily glory was briefly anticipated when his face shone so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil (cf. Exodus 34:29–35): “He went up as a mere man; he descended, carrying God with him….The Word of God was his food and he had a glory shining on his countenance” (H. 12:14). A far more significant foretaste of the eschatological glory came at Christ’s own transfiguration: “As the body of the Lord was glorified when he climbed the mount and was transfigured into the divine glory and into infinite light, so also the bodies of the saints are glorified and shine like lightning” (H. 15:38). What happened then to the Savior will happen to all true Christians in the age to come.

In so far as anyone, through faith and zeal, has been deemed worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, to that degree his body also will be glorified in that day. What the soul now stores up within shall then be revealed as a treasure and displayed externally in the body…. The glory of the Holy Spirit rises up from within, covering and warming the bodies of the saints. This is the glory they interiorly had before, hidden in their souls. For what they now have, that same then pours out externally into the body (H. 5:8–9).

(Kallistos Ware, from Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, p. XVI-XV)

What is Sin?

The essence of sin consists not in the infringement of ethical standards but in a falling away from the eternal Divine life for which man was created and to which, by his very nature, he is called.

Sin is committed first of all in the secret depths of the human spirit but its consequences involve the individual as a whole. A sin will reflect on a man’s psychological and physical condition, on his outward appearance, on his personal destiny. Sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s individual life, to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.”

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 31)

Sin as Mud Washed Away

“God has imprinted the image of the good things of His own nature on creation. But sin, in spreading out over the divine likeness, has caused this good to disappear, covering it with shameful garments. But if, by a life rightly led, you wash away the mud that has been put on your heart, then godlike (theoeides) beauty will again shine out in you. And so it is that he who is pure of heart merits to be called blessed, since in looking at his own beauty, he sees in it its model.

Just as he who looks at the sun in a mirror, even if he does not fix his eyes on the sky itself, nevertheless sees the sun in the mirror’s brightness, so you also even if you eyes could not bear the light, possess within yourselves what you desire, if you return to the grace of the image that was placed in you from the beginning. (Gregory of Nyssa, from Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit of the New Testament and the Fathers, pp. 365-366)

Numerous Fathers accept the image of sin as being a mud which has sullied us but has not become part of who we are.  Sin can be washed away by tears of repentance, by baptism, by living a godly life, by allowing the Light of God to enter into one’s life.  Sin at worst is a parasite living on us, but we never lose our connection to God, the image of God imprinted on our hearts.    These Fathers reject any idea of the total depravity of humanity or that humans are nothing but sin deserving God’s eternal damnation.   Humans are loved by God and Christ comes to us as a healer, to take away our sins, to restore us to full health, to make us human again.  The Hope diamond caked with layers of dried mud would look like a dirty rock.  Yet, beneath the layers of mud the diamond is as valuable as ever.  This is the situation of humans in the world and why God loves us and works so hard to save us.  God sees through the mud and knows the worth of every human person.

Racism, Prejudice and the Good Samaritan

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“Orthodoxy condemns in an irrevocable manner the inhuman system of racial discrimination and the sacrilegious affirmation whereby such systems claim to be an in agreement with Christian ideals. When asked “who is my neighbor?”, Christ answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Thus, He taught us to demolish all barriers of enmity and prejudice. Orthodoxy confesses that each human being – independently of color, religion, race, nationality or language – is a bearer of the image of God, is our brother or sister, an equal member of the human family.”  (from The 1986 Chambesy statement, found in For the Peace from Above, p. 82)  

See also my post Feeling the Sting of the Good Samaritan Parable

To Be Human Is To Be Like God

We can begin to expand on this by looking at what it means to say humanity is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6), a metaphor that is scarce in Scripture but that has come to play a huge part in Christian discussions of the uniqueness of human beings. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image’” (Gen. 1:26). Today there is fairly widespread agreement that, as used in Genesis at least, image does not refer to a possession or endowment (like mind, reason, free will) but is a relational term. That is, it makes no sense without considering our relation to God – as God’s unique “counterpart” or covenant partner (we can know and love God in return) – and because of that, to other creatures, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate.

Crucial also is the notion of representation: as God’s counterparts, human beings are God’s earthly representatives, his vice-regents, in the way that an ancient monarch was seen to represent a god or a physical image to represent a king. Bound up with this is the idea of resemblance or similarity: as God’s partners, humans are in some sense like God (hence the pairing of image with likeness). In short, to say that we are created in God’s image is to say that we are created as God’s unique counterparts and hence God’s representatives on earth, embodying, as creatures and alongside other creatures, the action and presence of God in and to the word.”

(Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth, p. 202)

Tomorrow You May Die is Never True

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.

The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”  (Luke 16:19-31)

See also my blog Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Twenty-five years ago there was an article in NEWSWEEK magazine entitled, “Our Fear of Dying”, 4 October 1993.  The author, Daniel Callahan made several comments that still seem true today:

“As a health obsessed society, we do not know what to do with death, other than to try to control it.”

Callahan mentioned the American medical enterprise invests heavily in trying to overcome diseases that lead to death – a veritable war on death.  He noted that in the medical enterprise in America there is

“… the potent assumption that death is essentially an accident, correctable with enough money, will and scientific ingenuity…”

If America put enough of its wealth and entrepreneurial spirit into it, medical science would make death itself a thing of the past.   Callahan wrote that other modern cultures around the world were much more at peace with human mortality.  America perhaps was in a great deal of denial about what it is to be human.  About the time that he wrote that article, I was a speaker at a continuing education event for doctors at a local university, speaking about end of life issues.  I remember clearly how the surgeons in the group were almost never ready to admit that there was an end to treatment for patients and almost all felt there was always one more thing that could be tried.  The family practice doctors on the other hand seemed to have a clearer sense that there was a point where you have to admit there is nothing more you can do medically for a patient.  Callahan argues that we

“… should seek to educate physicians to see death not as an accident that medicine has failed to eliminate, but as a permanent part of the human condition that requires medicine’s good care, a fitting and inevitable final goal of the entire enterprise.”

Our fear of death drove us to denial about its reality, leading to our throwing money into an effort to defeat death, and yet Americans like all humans continue to die daily.  We may increase life expectancy, but we  should expect death as well.  We dream that medical science can eventually conquer all the causes of death, that there really is absolutely nothing to limit our human ingenuity and drive.

Perhaps we should read again the Genesis account of the tower of Babel.  Those folks too believed nothing could limit them.  But that Is another story.

The Bible reminds us that death has a spiritual cause.  We cannot eliminate death by using only medical means.  Death is related to sin, and has something to do with our own spiritual lives and our relationship to God.  Or, more accurately our loss of a relationship to God.

Everything in this world comes to an end, everything has a  limit – a great basketball game, a wonderful symphony, the beauty of autumn, an exquisite gourmet meal, a spirited dance, a football winning streak.

Death can only be cheated through our own repentance, our establishing a right relationship with God.  Godliness sees us through the experience of death into the realm of eternal life.

Some years ago I saw a poem written during the Byzantine Empire.  It said:

Eat, Drink, be merry for tomorrow

You may die.

But you never do.

You never die tomorrow, for the day of your death is always this day you are in, and there is no tomorrow for the one who has died today.  The poem points out to us a fallacy in our thinking which makes us believe we will live forever since tomorrow never comes.  Today, however, is the day.

Some ask the question, why do we die at all?  Why is there death.  We Christians might respond by saying that is the wrong question.  The real question is  “why is their life?”  Why does anything exist at all?

It all exists because of God and God’s love.  Death brings this life to an end, but death cannot change the purpose of life, which is to love God and be in communion with God.  Death cannot separate us from the love of God.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.   (Romans 8:35-39)

Many people wonder what happens to us when we die and it is a common question asked in churches.  All kinds of speculations exist and descriptions of life after death, even in Orthodoxy, toll house theories and the like.  Read the Gospel lesson above (Luke 16:19-31), it too gives a description of life after death, albeit in a parable, so it is not trying to give an accurate portrayal of life beyond the grave.  But in the parable ultimately the rich man now in his life-after-death situation wants to try to reach back to the people he left behind in the world.  There is this irony –  We in the world are all wondering about life after death, and he in the afterlife is worried about those living in the world!  And basically the parable is not teaching us about what happens to us after death, but a warning to us to pay attention to how we live while on earth.  The afterlife cannot help us live properly on earth and living correctly on earth is far more important to our Lord Jesus than the life after death. He who proclaimed His kingdom is not of this world spends very little time talking about life after death.

We might remember that according to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve in the garden of Paradise, after they sin, they try to hide from God.

Notice how different our Lord Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane, in His deepest prayer He desires to be with God and not be left alone.

Both were facing death, but for Adam and Eve death meant separation from God and they chose death and that separation from God.  For Christ, death could not separate Him from His father.  Death is no friend for Jesus.  Christ sees beyond death to eternal life and an unending loving relationship with God our Father.  Christ chooses eternal life.

Humans were created for immortality, death is a disintegration of the human.  But our battle with death is a spiritual battle which cannot be fought by medicine alone.  The medical enterprise will not bring an end to death.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, shall live.” (John 11:25)

Jesus Opens Heaven to Us

The way by which the man Jesus ascended – from earth to heaven, from humanity to Divinity – is opened up to everyone after his resurrection. Deification is perceived dynamically, as an ascent of the human being, together with the whole created world, to divine glory, holiness and light.

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, p. 57)

Christ Jesus – The Epitome of Human Beauty

“In continuity with the Old Testament passage in which “the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you’” (Gen 12:1), Jesus encourages His disciples to seek detachment. Following Him implies a reversal of our values. It means going in a direction other than the way of the world, which advocates the acquisition of every kind of possession: money, power, possessions and property, with every sort of passion they entail: ambition, greed, envy and hard-heartedness. In a world where wealth is idolized, Jesus warns against laying up treasures for oneself (Mt 6:19). Instead, He preaches dispossession, abnegation and sharing: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). It is well worth reading the passage of the temptation in the desert (Mt. 4:1-11), in which the Prince of this world appeals to a possessive instinct which Jesus strongly condemns. If we realize that every form of greed stems fundamentally from a mental condition, it becomes easier to understand the efforts of the great ascetics, which consist in focusing their minds on their repentant hearts.

In the same way that our disorders, loss of inner harmony and personal disintegration can lead to similar conditions in the world around us, those who are truly “in Christ” can shape and nourish science, culture and humanity as a whole.

The audience for whom the following words of Dostoevsky‘s were intended seems to be growing day by day:

You who deny God and Christ have not even considered that without Christ, everything in the world would be impure and corrupt. You judge Christ and you dismiss God; but what sort of example do you yourselves offer? You are petty, debauched, greedy and arrogant! By eliminating Christ, you remove from humanity the epitome of beauty and goodness, you make Him inaccessible. For Christ came precisely for this reason: that humanity might know and recognize that a true human spirit can appear in this heavenly condition, in the flesh and not merely in a dream or in theory – that it is indeed both natural and possible.

Christ’s disciples proclaimed His radiant flesh to be divine. Through the cruelest of tortures they confessed the blessing of bearing this flesh within themselves, of imitating His perfection, and of believing in Christ in the flesh (Carnets des Demons, Belov An VI, 281, 155).”

(Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, pp. 229-230)

Although some Christians deny that humans descended from the apes, Christianity’s real message is that humanity’s true origins and fulfillment come in the God-man Jesus Christ.  The Fathers didn’t deny that humans live an animal life – one according to biology, the flesh – rather they admitted and lamented it.

“Therefore, if we want to know why we, since we were created for honor and placed in Paradise, became finally ‘compared to the beasts that possess no understanding and were made like to them’ (Ps 99:12, 20), having fallen from the pristine glory, know that we, by transgression, became slaves of carnal passions.”  (4th Century monk Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES AND THE GREAT LETTER, p 160)

However, we were created in God’s image and we find our destiny in Christ, in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Each human is created capable of bearing the radiant beauty of the divine.  We don’t deny our animal nature, our claim is that God grants us the potential to rise above a merely animal nature, to share the divine life.  As Jesus Himself said of humanity:  “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?”   (John 10:34)  The true human condition – the one for which we humans were created by God to have – is to share in the heavenly glory.   Whatever our relationship to other animals, to an animal ancestry, God created us with the ability to rise above all animal limitations and to realize our full potential which is in God.  We are not predestined by our biology, rather we are destined by God to attain our full potential which is to rise above any genetic or biological predetermination.  God Himself became incarnate, took on our animal nature, and united flesh and blood to the divine.

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God…    (1 John 4:2)