The Blessedness of Mary

Jesus replied:  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  (Matthew 12:48-50)

The great Orthodox poet and hymnographer St. Ephraim the Syrian in one of his beautiful poems has the Virgin Mother talking to her child, Jesus about jealousy.  Mary is often aware in Orthodox hymns of the theology of her child – she understands Him to be the incarnate God and Lord of the universe.  Knowing Him to be Lord of all, is she jealous that everyone has a relationship to Him, not just her?   Does she regret that she will always have to share His love, attention and affection with every single human on the planet – and so will she?  Mary shows her humanity in reflecting on the passion of jealousy, but also how she rises above human passion, pathos, sin and hubris – which is why she was chosen by God to be Theotokos.  She rises above the limits of her own humanity to share in the common humanity of all people.  Her role in human history is unique, yet it is what connects her to all humans who will ever live.  God could see her love for all which reflects God’s own love for the world.

I shall not be jealous, my Son,

that You are with me, and also with all people. 

Be God to the one that confesses You,

and be Lord to the one that serves You,

and be Brother to the one that loves You,

that You may gain all!  

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3100-3102)

The hymns reflect an idea that Mary is Jesus’ mother not just because she physically gave birth to Him, but because she embodied God’s love for all humanity.  God chooses Mary not for her body but because of her soul and heart.  It is not only her womb which was heaven and able to contain the uncontainable.  Jesus Himself reflects this thought in response to something a woman once shouted at Him.

A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  (Luke 11:27-28)

Image result for icon Theotokos nursing

Jesus recognizes in His Mother that is her having heard God’s word and kept it when enabled her to be Theotokos.  Her role in salvation is both physical and spiritual – she indeed is a bridge between these worlds.  As is sung in the Akathist to the Theotokos:

Rejoice, initiate of ineffable counsel;
Rejoice, faith of silent beseechers.
Rejoice, introduction to Christ’s miracles;
Rejoice, consummation of his doctrinal articles.
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down;
Rejoice, bridge leading those from earth to I heaven.

Rejoice, marvel greatly renowned among the Angels;
Rejoice, wound bitterly lamented by demons.
Rejoice, for you gave birth to the light ineffably;
Rejoice, for the “how” you taught to no one.
Rejoice, surpassing the knowledge of scholars;
Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of believers.
Rejoice, O Bride unwedded.

The words and the Word of God

Though for many Christians today “the Word of God” means a book of Scriptures or the Bible, in the Bible itself the Word of God is associated with a spoken word or a word we hear but not a written word.  Or, as early Christians would come to understand it “the Word of God” means the Second Person of the Holy Trinity especially obvious in chapter 1 of John’s Gospel but also in the Old Testament prophets when the Word of the Lord comes too them and speaks to them.  The Word of God has power to act and enact while the written word bears witness to the Word of God which is heard and obeyed.

Just read the Acts of the Apostles to get a sense of this.   The Word of God is spoken (4:31, 13:46), preached (6:2),  received (8:14, 11:1), proclaimed (13:5), sought (13:7), heard (13:44), glorified (13:48) and taught (18:11).  The Word of God both increases (6:7) as well as  grows & multiplies (12:24).  Clearly the Word of God is not a book but something more.  As it says in Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  There is a relationship between the written letters on a page and the Word of God, but the Word of God is living, is a spiritual force.  For Christians the Word of God is Jesus Christ, the God who becomes incarnate as a human (John 1:14).

Look at 2 Chronicles 34:21-

“Go, inquire of the LORD for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

King Josiah sees the writings in the book that the priest reads to him, not as the Word of the Lord but rather the written word in the book is what the Word of the Lord commanded.  Or, perhaps, the written word is simply what needed to be done to show that people listened to the Word of God and obeyed.  But the written word is not equivalent to the Word of God.  Rather the written word bears witness to the Word of God.  We see a similar thing in the New Testament when Jesus says to Satan:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”    (Matthew 4:4)

What is written is not the Word of God but rather only the commandments related to how people should live.  The written word bears witness to the Word of God.   Which is what Jesus teaches in John 5:39-46 –

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.

As Jesus understands Torah, Torah is about Jesus.  Moses in writing the books of the Law was really writing about Jesus.  Moses is a prophet who bears witness to Jesus more than a historian writing the narration of human history.

We see an interesting relationship between the Word of God and a written word in Exodus.  “Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.”  (Exodus 24:3-4)    Moses comes to the people and tells them the words of the Lord – God’s word is spoken and to be heard.  Only after all the people hear the words and agree to obey them does Moses write them down.  They are not put into a written form until the people agree to do them.  The covenant will involve a written agreement, but the Word of God must first be heard and willingly accepted as that which is to be obeyed; Only then is it put into writing.   After this, the written covenant is accepted again this time in ritual worship – it is sanctified as the people once more agree to it: “Then Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”  (Exodus 24:7-8)

It is the same for us today, for in the Liturgy again we have the Blood of Christ and the spoken Word proclaimed and we agree to God’s new covenant.  And interestingly the very next thing that happens in Exodus is a meal eaten before God:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)

It is only after Moses spoke God’s words to the people and the people agreed to obey that the covenant was confirmed in liturgical ritual that involved blood. Only after all of this does God speak about putting His words into writing.  In Exodus 24:12, we read:  The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”  But even then another 40 days will pass before it happens (Exodus 24:18).

Only in Exodus 31 does God finally write the words which Moses proclaimed to the people and wrote down for the people.  But first God tells Moses he must once again proclaim (verbally) these words of the perpetual covenant.  Only then do we read in Exodus 31:18 – And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

In Deuteronomy 9:10-11 we read another version of this same narrative:

And the LORD gave me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And at the end of forty days and forty nights the LORD gave me the two tables of stone, the tables of the covenant.

God’s Word is first spoken, it was written down by God on the stone tablets only after the people agreed to the terms of the covenant.  Moses was to smash God’s written words, the stone tablets,  when the people disobeyed God even before Moses could bring the written word to them.  But even tablets of stone written by  God’s own hand were not permanent and cannot be equated with God’s word.  For as it says in  1 Peter 1:24 -25 – ‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.That word is the good news which was preached to you.”

God’s Word cannot be equated with a written form.  God’s Word is not coterminous with the scriptures for the scriptures bear witness to God’s Word.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ.

Faith as Synergy

 

The saints frequently describe the life of faith as a synergy between the human and God.  Each has their part to do which is part of the mystery of faith in an omnipotent God who grants free will to His creatures.  God does not do for us what we must choose to do for ourselves.  God warned Noah about the flood but did not build him the ark.  On the other side of that, we need so many things from God which we constantly seek, such as God’s mercy.  Our best efforts will fall short if we don’t connect with God.   I think the Virgin Mary expresses it well in her hymn in Luke 1:46-50 where though she is fulfilling the heights of being human she recognizes this is God’s wish and will for the world and not just for her life.  If there is no “God with us” our greatest miracles will be no more than a temporary delay of the universal decline into entropy.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”

This cooperation between the Creator and human creatures is readily found in Orthodox spiritual writings.

St John Chrysostom says: ‘A man’s readiness and commitment are not enough if he does not enjoy help from above as well; equally help from above is no benefit to us unless there is also commitment and readiness on our part. These two facts are proved by Judas and Peter. For although Judas enjoyed much help, it was of no benefit to him, since he had no desire for it and contributed nothing from himself. But Peter, although willing and ready, fell because he enjoyed no help from above. So holiness is woven of these two strands. Thus I entreat you neither to entrust everything to God and then fall asleep, nor to think, when you are striving diligently, that you will achieve everything by your own efforts.”  (St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 11142-51)

An important point for us – even being a chosen apostle does not guarantee synergy or communion with God.  Being Apostles was no advantage to either Judas or Peter  over us in terms of cooperating with God for salvation.  If we think faithfulness is hard and would be made easier if Jesus did a bit more, we might remember it didn’t help Judas to be one of the Twelve Chosen and to walk with Jesus daily.  Faith is the willingness to cooperate with God to accomplish God’s will.  It doesn’t guarantee that were won’t be struggle or loss or sorrow or setback.  It does mean believing despite all these struggles.  It means being judged in our current circumstance, not in some better time.   “For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not” (2 Corinthians 8:12).  We are not told to do our best in perfect circumstances, rather we are told to be perfect in the circumstances we find ourselves.  Which means in the end we need God’s mercy.

Making the Sign of the Cross in the 12th Century

Many Orthodox are curious to know when and how our making the sign of the cross appeared and why we do it differently than Roman Catholics.  While I know that references to making the sign of the cross appear in the early centuries of Christianity, I’m not aware of the earliest sources telling us exactly how the cross was to be made.  Tertullian who dies in 225AD describes Christians tracing the sign of the cross on their foreheads but gives no further details.  St Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th Century describes making the cross over the brow of one’s head as well as over food and drink but again without giving specific directions as to the how.  St Ephrem the Syrian in the 4th Century proscribes making the sign of the cross as our first task before any endeavor but doesn’t tell us exactly how to do it.   None of these early references to the practice describe the mechanics of what exactly the person is doing to make the sign of the cross so we can’t know exactly what they were doing.  When I first came to Dayton as the priest, the local newspaper at that time had a religion column and the editor of that column heard I was going to be doing a house blessing in January.   She came out with camera in hand and told me she was trying to imagine what it meant to do a house blessing.  She envisioned me standing outside the home in winter with hands raised praying over a house – or she hoped more dramatically climbing up on the roof to to bless the house with hands upraised.  She was disappointed to see it consisting of sprinkling holy water in a house.  Without knowing the mechanics we can only imagine what they were doing in making the sign of the cross in the early centuries of Christianity, but we know it was a commonly accepted practice.

St. Peter Damaskos  actually describes making the sign of the cross as he knew the practice in the 12th Century.  He writes:

“Then we should also marvel how demons and various diseases are dispelled by the sign of the precious and life- giving Cross, which all can make without cost or effort. Who can number the panegyrics composed in its honor? The holy fathers have handed down to us the inner significance of this sign, so that we can refute heretics and unbelievers. The two fingers and single hand with which it is made represent the Lord Jesus Christ crucified, and He is thereby acknowledged to exist in two-natures and one hypostasis or person. The use of the right hand betokens His infinite power and the fact that He sits at the right hand of the Father. That the sign begins with a downward movement from above signifies His descent to us from heaven. Again, the movement of the hand from the right side to the left drives away our enemies and declares that by His invincible power the Lord overcame the devil, who is on the left side, dark and lacking strength.    ( THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 30200-30214)

While one can certainly recognize the movement of the right hand, starting at the top and moving down and then from right to left is how we Orthodox currently sign ourselves with the cross (though he does not reference touching any body parts).  So we know that at least from the 12th Century we were doing it this way.  What might be surprising to some is that for St. Peter the sign of the cross is made with two fingers not three.  Using two fingers is the older known form of making the sign of the cross.  He has a symbolic explanation for the two fingers (two natures of Christ) versus the three finger symbolism of the Trinity.  The adherents of the three fingers might be disappointed to discover that their method is not the more ancient one nor the one used by earlier generations of Orthodox.  I do not know the history of when or why Orthodox changed from two to three fingers, but it was part of the Old Believers dispute with the Russian Orthodox Church beginning in the 17th Century when Patriarch Nikon and the Russian Church insisted on changing to the practice of using 3 fingers in making the sign of the cross.  [I did hear at one point that they mistakenly thought they were reverting to the more ancient practice by going to three fingers instead of two.]

Of course, some saints pointed out that it is not the mechanics that matter – whether one uses one, two, or three fingers, spiritual power is in the cross itself not in how we make it.  Other believers dispute this and think the mechanics are essential and not making the perfect cross is itself satanic.

Personally, I think it is the cross which makes demons shutter – doesn’t matter how large it is or how it is made.  There is also the fact that very early on the Christians didn’t think of themselves as signing with the cross but with the last letter of the Jewish alphabet the tau or X  which in Judaism represented the Name of God.  This conveniently was similar  to the X the first Greek letter in ‘Christ’ – Χριστός (see Jean Danielou, THE THEOLOGY OF JEWISH CHRISTIANITY, pp 154, 330).  As Danielou points out probably at baptism the earliest Christians saw themselves as being anointed in the Name of the Lord, not with the Cross of Christ but with His Name – the X not the + .   So both how Christians made the sign and what exactly they saw themselves doing (+ or X) has changed through the centuries.  This makes me think the mechanics are not as significant as what we are invoking – God’s Name, Christ or the Cross – in our spiritual struggle against evil.

That conformity in practice helps with community identity and with the unity of community is true which may also point to the mechanics of making the sign of the cross as being practical not theological.

Life is Hard

But as you know, everything good in us does not take place easily, but with labor, force, and effort: “The kingdom of heaven is taken by force, and those who exert effort gain it” (Matt. 11:12). Therefore, let us not be discouraged by the difficulty of this feat, but rather let us look for the means to accomplish it.

(St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc 1181-1183)

Virtues: An Extensive List

Lest after reading the Extensive List of Passions  of St Peter of Damaskos one wonders, ‘did he have nothing better to do than list sins?’, he also provided a list of everything he considered to be a virtue, though he acknowledges the list is not exhaustive.   Peter says he derived his list of passions from the Scriptures and the list of virtues from the fathers  – those earlier generations of monks and teachers of the church, many considered to be saints.  While he came up with 298 passions, he only listed 228 virtues but admits the list is not complete.   If you are wondering what virtue you should work on next in your spiritual life, here are some virtues you can consider.

It is from the fathers that I myself have learned about the virtues, and I will give a list of them, so far as I can, even though it is not complete because of my lack of knowledge. The virtues are:

moral judgment, self-restraint, courage, justice, faith, hope, love, fear, religious devotion, spiritual knowledge, resolution, strength, understanding, wisdom, contrition, grief, gentleness, searching the Scriptures, acts of charity, purity of heart, peace, patient endurance, self-control, perseverance, probity of intention, purposiveness, sensitivity, heedfulness, godlike stability, warmth, alertness, the fervor of the Spirit, meditation, diligence, watchfulness, mindfulness, reflection, reverence, shame, respect, penitence, refraining from evil, repentance, return to God, allegiance to Christ, rejection of the devil,

keeping of the commandments, guarding of the soul, purity of conscience, remembrance of death, tribulation of soul, the doing of good actions, effort, toil, an austere life, fasting, vigils, hunger, thirst, frugality, self-sufficiency, orderliness, gracefulness, modesty, reserve, disdain of money, unacquisitiveness, renunciation of worldly things, submissiveness, obedience, compliance, poverty, possessionlessness, withdrawal from the world, eradication of self-will, denial of self, counsel, magnanimity, devotion to God, stillness, discipline, sleeping on a hard bed, abstinence from washing oneself, service, struggle, attentiveness, the eating of uncooked food, nakedness, the wasting of one’s body, solitude, quietude, calmness, cheerfulness, fortitude, boldness, godlike zeal, fervency, progress, folly for Christ, watchfulness over the intellect, moral integrity, holiness, virginity, sanctification, purity of body, chasteness of soul, reading for Christ’s sake, concern for God, comprehension, friendliness, truthfulness, uninquisitiveness, uncensoriousness, forgiveness of debts, good management, skilfulness, acuity, fairness, the right use of things,

cognitive insight, good-naturedness, experience, psalmody, prayer, thanksgiving, acknowledgment, entreaty, kneeling, supplication, intercession, petition, appeal, hymnody, doxology, confession, solicitude, mourning, affliction, pain, distress, lamentation, sighs of sorrow, weeping, heart-rending tears, compunction, silence, the search for God, cries of anguish, lack of anxiety about all things, forbearance, lack of self-esteem, disinterest in glory, simplicity of soul, sympathy, self-retirement, goodness of disposition, activities that accord with nature, activities exceeding one’s natural capacity, brotherly love, concord, communion in God, sweetness, a spiritual disposition, mildness, rectitude, innocence, kindliness, guilelessness, simplicity, good repute, speaking well of others, good works, preference of one’s neighbor, godlike tenderness, a virtuous character, consistency, nobility, gratitude, humility, detachment, dignity, forbearance, long-suffering, kindness, goodness,

discrimination, accessibility, courtesy, tranquility, contemplation, guidance, reliability, clearsightedness, dispassion, spiritual joy, sureness, tears of understanding, tears of soul, a loving desire for God, pity, mercy, compassion, purity of soul, purity of intellect, prescience, pure prayer, passion-free thoughts, steadfastness, fitness of soul and body, illumination, the recovery of one’s soul, hatred of life, proper teaching, a healthy longing for death, childlikeness in Christ, rootedness, admonition and encouragement, both moderate and forcible, a praiseworthy ability to change, ecstasy towards God, perfection in Christ, true enlightenment, an intense longing for God, rapture of intellect, the indwelling of God, love of God, love of inner wisdom, theology, a true confession of faith, disdain of death, saintliness, successful accomplishment, perfect health of soul, virtue, praise from God, grace, kingship, adoption to sonship

– altogether 228 virtues. To acquire all of them is possible only through the grace of Him who grants us victory over the passions.”

(THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 29993-30050)

The Cosmos as Scripture

In the wondrous blending of sounds, it is your call we hear. In the harmony of many voices, in the sublime beauty of music, in the glory of the works of great composers, you lead us to the threshold of paradise to come, and to the choirs of angels.

All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards you and make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The breath of your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists.

The power of your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of your laws, who reveal the depths of your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of you.

How great are you in your creation! How great are you in man! Glory to You, showing your unsurpassable power in the laws of the universe.

Glory to You, for all nature is filled with your laws. Glory to You for what you have revealed to us in your mercy.

Glory to You for what you have hidden from us in your wisdom.

Glory to You for the inventiveness of the human mind. Glory to You for the dignity of man’s labor.

Glory to You for the tongues of fire that bring inspiration. Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

(Akathist: “Glory to God for All Things”, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle Loc. 2642-54)

The Passions: An Extensive List

For those who are afraid that perhaps they have some hidden sin or passion to which they are blind, St Peter of Damaskos has conveniently provided an extensive list of all the passions he could find in the Scriptures.  Or perhaps you think of yourself as being a good person and mostly sin free, St. Peter will help disabuse you of that blindness.

His list might also give comfort to those who are afraid that someone, somehow might get into heaven who didn’t deserve it.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  Or, maybe you are wondering what to say in your next confession – St Peter helps those who love lists.

On the other hand,  rather than looking for every sin someone might commit, it might be better if we just held on to a proper understanding of repentance and trust in the mercy of God.   These are all the things we need God to blot out of our lives and the book He keeps about us.

In any case here is his list:

“The passions are:

harshness, trickery, malice, perversity, mindlessness, licentiousness, enticement, dullness, lack of understanding, idleness, sluggishness, stupidity, flattery, silliness, idiocy, madness, derangement, coarseness, rashness, cowardice, lethargy, dearth of good actions, moral errors, greed, over-frugality, ignorance, folly, spurious knowledge, forgetfulness, lack of discrimination, obduracy, injustice, evil intention, a conscienceless soul, slothfulness, idle chatter, breaking of faith, wrongdoing, sinfulness, lawlessness, criminality, passion, seduction, assent to evil, mindless coupling, demonic provocation, dallying, bodily comfort beyond what is required, vice, stumbling, sickness of soul, enervation, weakness of intellect, negligence, laziness, a reprehensible despondency, disdain of God, aberration, transgression, unbelief, lack of faith, wrong belief, poverty of faith, heresy, fellowship in heresy, polytheism, idolatry, ignorance of God, impiety, magic, astrology, divination, sorcery, denial of God, the love of idols, dissipation,

profligacy, loquacity, indolence, self-love, inattentiveness, lack of progress, deceit, delusion, audacity, witchcraft, defilement, the eating of unclean food, soft living, dissoluteness, voracity, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listless-ness, self-esteem, pride, presumption, self-elation, boastfulness, infatuation, foulness, satiety, doltishness, torpor, sensuality, overeating, gluttony, insatiability, secret eating, hoggishness, solitary eating, indifference, fickleness, self-will, thoughtlessness, self-satisfaction, love of popularity, ignorance of beauty, uncouthness, gaucherie, lightmindedness, boorishness, rudeness, contentiousness, quarrelsomeness, abusiveness, shouting, brawling, fighting, rage, mindless desire, gall, exasperation, giving offence, enmity, meddlesomeness, chicanery, asperity, slander, censure, calumny, condemnation, accusation, hatred, railing, insolence, dishonor, ferocity, frenzy, severity, aggressiveness, forswearing oneself, oathtaking, lack of compassion, hatred of one’s brothers, partiality, patricide, matricide, breaking fasts, laxity, acceptance of bribes, theft, rapine, jealousy, strife, envy, indecency, jesting, vilification, mockery, derision, exploitation, oppression, disdain of one’s neighbor, flogging, making sport of others, hanging, throttling, heartlessness, implacability, covenant-breaking, bewitchment, harshness, shamelessness, impudence, obfuscation of thoughts, obtuseness, mental blindness, attraction to what is fleeting, impassionedness, frivolity, disobedience, dullwittedness, drowsiness of soul, excessive sleep, fantasy, heavy drinking, drunkenness, uselessness, slackness, mindless enjoyment, self-indulgence, venery, using foul language, effeminacy, unbridled desire, burning lust, masturbation, pimping, adultery, sodomy, bestiality, defilement, wantonness, a stained soul, incest,

uncleanliness, pollution, sordidness, feigned affection, laughter, jokes, immodest dancing, clapping, improper songs, revelry, fluteplaying, license of tongue, excessive love of order, insubordination, disorderliness, reprehensible collusion, conspiracy, warfare, killing, brigandry, sacrilege, illicit gains, usury, wiliness, grave-robbing, hardness of heart, obloquy, complaining, blasphemy, fault-finding, ingratitude, malevolence, contemptuousness, pettiness, confusion, lying, verbosity, empty words, mindless joy, day- dreaming, mindless friendship, bad habits, nonsensicality, silly talk, garrulity, niggardliness, depravity, intolerance, irritability, affluence, rancor, misuse, ill-temper, clinging to life, ostentation, affectation, love of power, dissimulation, irony, treachery, frivolous talk, pusillanimity, satanic love, curiosity, contumely, lack of the fear of God, unteachability, senselessness, haughtiness, self- vaunting, self- inflation, scorn for one’s neighbor, mercilessness, insensitivity, hopelessness, spiritual paralysis, hatred of God, despair, suicide, a falling away from God in all things, utter destruction – altogether 298 passions. These, then, are the passions which I have found named in the Holy Scriptures.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 30052-110)

It’s Not All or Nothing

For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not.   (2 Corinthians 8:12)

One temptation in the spiritual life is to understand perfection to mean you do everything perfectly right and then to decide that anything less than perfect is utter failure.  This “all or nothing” spirituality shows itself in people who start out to keep Great Lent perfectly, but then falter along the way and give up on the whole enterprise thinking if I can’t keep it all, why try to do anything?  The same thing happens with people who set up for themselves a demanding spiritual discipline or prayer life and soon cannot keep to their high standards and so decide to abandon the spiritual life altogether.

Additionally, it is not the one who begins the race but who never finishes it who wins the prize.  So beginning any spiritual endeavor with zeal and the mind toward perfection but then abandoning the effort  because of a failure along the way is worse than beginning the race with only moderate effort but then persevering to the end.

Between everything and nothing there is a lot of middle ground, and there are many stories and lessons in the lives of the Fathers to support that point.  The desert fathers knew that Jesus commanded us to practice charity and hospitality.  Yet some of the monks struggled in subsistence level conditions and had little to give to others.   Rather than advocating all or nothing, the spiritual advice is to keep at the spiritual life and do the best you can, fulfilling as much of the Gospel as you can, but not worrying about what you can’t do.  Here are two from monastic fathers, adpated from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2) :

“And if you art unable to give alms of your work at least supply all your needs by your own hands.”  (Kindle Loc. 3156-57)

If you can’t earn enough to be able to give charity, at least earn enough so you don’t have to beg from others.  There is a wisdom here to help the struggling Christian who may feel the demands of the Faith are more than he or she can do daily.  The wisdom response is do what you can.  A second example on the same theme of charity:

A brother asked Abba Joseph, saying, “What shall I do? For I cannot be disgraced, and I cannot work, and I have nothing from which to give alms.”  The old man said unto him, ” If you can not do these things, keep your conscience from your neighbor, and guard yourself carefully against evil of every kind, and you shall live; for God desires that the soul shall be without sin.”   (Kindle Loc. 1465-68)

As with many of the desert father stories, they are short and so leave out some details.  In the story above it appears that the one monk is ill or injured and so cannot work and thus cannot give alms.  Should he quit being a monk?  No, he is advised to continue on doing the things he can do – be a good neighbor, not nosey, not a gossip, and don’t do any evil yourself.   Even if you cannot practice charity because you haven’t anything to give, you can still be a Christian by following other teachings of Christ.  All or nothing doesn’t work.  There is no one shoe size for all.  Each of us has to work out our own salvation.  Do you know how Christ loves you?  Then love others as you have been loved.

… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…  (Philippians 2:12-16)

What Does God Ask of us?

This is the 6th and final post in this blog series meditating on Psalm 51 and the nature of repentance.  The previous post is The Prayer of Manasseh .

So, what repentance looks like is for humans to be what God intended for us from the beginning.  It is not so much remorse and contrition or thinking of one’s self as a worm wallowing in mire.   Rather, it is recognizing God as Lord, and giving thanks for that truth to God.  The change of heart and mind in repentance is making the effort to be the human that God wants us to be.  We are to accept that God is the Lord, which means I am not.  It means accepting my role and place in God’s creation, rather than trying to establish my role as I see fit.  It means being a creature of thanksgiving for blessings received.

There is another prayer of repentance frequently used in Orthodoxy which expresses this same sense that what is asked of us is to stand before God and acknowledge who God and who we are.  That prayer begins:

Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us;
for laying aside all excuse, we sinners offer to You,
as to our Master, this supplication: have mercy on us.

It is a prayer which makes it clear that we understand God is merciful and for this reason alone we approach God in prayer seeking God’s mercy.  We acknowledge our sins and sinfulness and take full responsibility for them.  We don’t give excuse for our sinfulness – bad genes, bad parents, poverty, the fallen world, suffering, lack of education, poor opportunities, fears, peers, enemies, abuse, mistakes, misfortune.  We lay all that aside and admit we do sin.  And we own our sin because we also know God is love, God is merciful, and we trust God to be God.  The prayer then goes on:

O Lord, have mercy on us, for in You have we put our trust.
Do not be angry with us, nor remember our iniquities,
but look down on us even now, since You are compassionate,
and deliver us from our enemies. For You are our God,
and we are Your people; we are all the work of Your hands,
and we call upon Your Name.

It is much in the spirit of Psalm 51.  We recognize we need God to be God for that is our only hope in God’s creation.  It is a mystical vision which all humans are capable of having.

In this mystical vision of humanity, it turns out we humans are the place where God dwells on earth.  The mystical vision is not looking for heaven out there or trying to figure out how to get to heaven.   We ourselves are to be the “holy of holies” for God to dwell in so that the rest of the cosmos can also have its proper relationship to God.  God created the cosmos to be God’s temple, but created humans to be the place within the temple where God completely interfaces with creation.  God became human so that we humans might become god.   God’s plan is and always was to abide in us.  God is not trying to establish something outside the human to dwell in – a temple, a bible, a shrine.  Those things are merely shadows of God’s intention which is to dwell in us.   We are the ones who create all these religious sites to keep God at a distance.

And this vision of being human is for everyone, not just for monks, mystics or ascetics.  It is for moms and dads and grandparents and children, friends and neighbors.  No need to go to a monastery to find it, nor on a pilgrimage to a holy place, for the Kingdom of heaven is within each of us.  The Lord Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”  (Luke 17:20-21).

We all are to live up to our God-given potential as beings created by God to be in God’s image and likeness.  We do find this simple vision in the Bible, for example in Deuteronomy 10:12-22, which some consider a summary of Torah –

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good?”

Repentance means getting back to doing this very thing that God commanded.  It requires humility – recognition that God is the Lord and we are God’s creatures and servants.  Repentance isn’t sorrowing for our failures, but deciding to live up to what God wants for us and from us.  It is the way that Christ describes to us:  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”  (Matthew 11:28-30).   We can uncomplicate our lives by following the way of repentance.   It is the notion of “what you see is what you get” – no lies, deception, hiding, excuses, blaming.  It is the freedom of being able to stand in God’s presence knowing who I am and who God is.  The Deuteronomist continues:

“Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; yet the LORD set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day.”

However vast and grand heaven is, God still sets His heart upon people.  Heaven may be where God’s will is done, yet God still favors human beings and God’s intent is to dwell in humanity.  We are to become God’s heaven and we see this already accomplished in the Theotokos who is more glorious than heaven.  Heaven is where God dwells and God desires to dwell in us.  God created us to be heaven.

Repentance is thus nothing  more than our being human:

“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.”

Repentance leads us to giving thanks to God and praising God, because in repentance we recognize God’s lordship in our life and what we are to be.  We realize God’s will.  Repentance leads us to the Liturgy where we give thanksgiving to God for all that God intends for us, does for us, gives to us, and accomplishes with, in and for us.  Repentance leads to our showing mercy to all those around us including the stranger.  Repentance means we:

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.   (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)