Being Taught by God

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

God promised that the day would come in which He would write His law upon our hearts.   That internalizing of the Word has several possible meanings but one thing it seems to imply is that there will be no need of some kind of intermediary between God and people.  We won’t need Scriptures, nor will we need teachers to interpret the Word for us.  This isn’t even a matter of memorizing scripture verses, for even that falls far short of what God has in mind for us.  God will place His Word directly on our hearts and we will know that Word from within ourselves.  We won’t even have to call the Word to mind, for we will be one with the Word.  We will no longer forget or be ignorant, for God’s Word will abide in us and we will always be aware of the Lord.   Would that that day would come.  For still today many know neither God’s Word nor God’s presence.  And even many of us who believe the Word and know the Word, still at times forget it, or ignore it, or avoid it or deny it.   And so we struggle while living in the world with temptation, sin, ignorance, confusion, doubt and all human foibles, failures and hubris.

Christ Teaching – 4th Century Roman

St Gregory of  Sinai (d. 1346AD) was particularly mindful of God’s promises and prophecies to be with His people.  He especially found Isaiah‘s words, which the Apostle John quotes, to be significantly important to us.

It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.   (John 6:45)

St Gregory says we have to move beyond the words printed in Scripture to understand what the Spirit is saying, and in so doing we come into union with God.  In this way the Scriptures cease to be external to us for they unite us to God.

The physical eye perceives the outward or literal sense of things and from it derives sensory images. The intellect, once purified and reestablished in its pristine state, perceives God and from Him derives divine images. Instead of a book the intellect has the Spirit; instead of a pen, mind and tongue – ‘my tongue is a pen‘, says the Psalmist (cf. Ps. 45:1); and instead of ink, light. So plunging the mind into the light that it becomes light, the intellect, guided by the Spirit, inscribes the inner meaning of things in the pure hearts of those who listen. Then it grasps the significance of the statement that the faithful ‘shall be taught by God‘ (cf. Isa. 54:13; John 6:45), and that through the Spirit God ‘teaches man knowledge’ (Ps. 94:l0).     (St Gregory of Sinai,  THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 40928-40948)

In this process we move beyond simply reading the words of Scripture to having them transferred to our hearts, but they don’t remain as words still needing to be interpreted, for we grasp their meaning, and they grasp our hearts and minds, so that we live the Word, rather than merely reading it, memorizing it, or interpreting it.  Now the Word abides in us and we know God rather than simply know about God.  We experience God in our hearts as the Prophet Jeremiah promised.

St Gregory of Sinai goes on:

“As the great teacher St John Chrysostom states, we should be in a position to say that we need no help from the Scriptures, no assistance from other people, but are instructed by God; for ‘all will be taught by God‘ (Isa. 54:13; John 6:45), in such a way that we learn from Him and through Him what we ought to know. And this applies not only to those of us who are monks but to each and every one of the faithful: we are all of us called to carry the law of the Spirit written on the tablets of our hearts (cf. 2 Cor. 3:3), and to attain like the Cherubim the supreme privilege of conversing through pure prayer in the heart directly with Jesus.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 42158-42168)

St Gregory says this is what every Christian should experience.  We cease looking for God “out there” somewhere in a distant heaven or at the end of time, for God enters our hearts here and now, and makes our heart heaven, makes us the temple of the Spirit, makes us realize that God is with us and within us.  This in turn helps us get through each day in good cheer  even with all the trials and tribulations that might assail us.  Christianity is not a “die and go to heaven” religion for the Kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21)

 

 

 

Prayer is God

7342515708_983ca96522_mThe purpose of prayer is to enable our union with God.  It’s purpose is not to make all our wants, needs, desires, hopes and wishes known to God.  God already knows all of those things.  We can reduce prayer to a list of wants and needs, but then we miss the very purpose of prayer.  St Gregory of Sinai leads us into an ever deeper understand of what prayer is because it becomes obvious that for the Christian prayer is everything.  St Gregory writes:

Or again, prayer is

the preaching of the Apostles, an action of faith or, rather, faith itself, ‘that makes real for us the things for which we hope‘ (Heb. 11:1),

active love, angelic impulse,

the power of the bodiless spirits, their work and delight,

the Gospel of God, the heart’s assurance,

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hope of salvation, a sign of purity, a

token of holiness, knowledge of God,

baptism made manifest, purification in the water of regeneration,

a pledge of the Holy Spirit, the exultation of Jesus,

the soul’s delight, God’s mercy,

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a sign of reconciliation, the seal of Christ,

a ray of the noetic sun, the heart’s dawn-star,

the confirmation of the Christian faith,

the disclosure of reconciliation with God, God’s grace,

God’s wisdom or, rather, the origin of true and absolute Wisdom;

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the revelation of God,

the work of monks, the life of hesychasts, the source of stillness, and expression of the angelic state.

Why say more?

Prayer is God,

who accomplishes everything in everyone (cf. 1 Cor. 12:6), for there is a single action of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, activating all things through Christ Jesus.”  

THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 41660-41675)

Can You Be Too Virtuous?

Is it possible to be excessively virtuous?  The question might seem ridiculous and yet one can find in the Church Fathers comments saying even in practicing virtue moderation is a virtue.

Humorously, the question reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon in which Dogbert asks Dilbert, “Do you think I have too much false humility?”   Which of course begs the question, can a person have too much false humility?  If it weren’t for false humility, Dogbert would have no humility at all.

St Gregory of Sinai did think there was a danger in exceeding the limits of virtue.  Virtues are lived out on a continuum or scale and one needs to know where the precise midpoint for that virtue is, for that is where the wise person will be.  He comments:

The cardinal virtues are four:

courage,

sound understanding,

self-restraint and

justice.

There are eight other moral qualities, that either go beyond or fall short of these virtues. These we regard as vices, and so we call them; but non-spiritual people regard them as virtues and that is what they call them.

Exceeding or falling short of courage are audacity and cowardice,

of sound understanding are cunning and ignorance;

of self-restraint are licentiousness and obtuseness;

of justice are excess and injustice, or taking less than one’s due.

In between, and superior to, what goes beyond or what falls short of them, lie not only the cardinal and natural virtues, but also the practical virtues. These are consolidated by resolution combined with probity of character; the others by perversion and self-conceit. That the virtues lie along the midpoint or axis of rectitude is testified to by the proverb, ‘You will attain every well- founded axis’ (Prov. 2:9. LXX).   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 41411-41423)

Wisdom Justice Divine Inspiration Truth

It is a vice in St. Gregory’s teaching not only to fall short of a virtue but also to exceed what is the midpoint of the range of behaviors associated with the virtue.  An excessive amount of courage becomes the vice of audacity, an excessive amount of understanding becomes cunningness, an excessive amount of self-restraint becomes the vice of obtuseness, and even justice can be taken to an excess which becomes injustice.  Balance in the spiritual life is needed, moderation in all things is a good spiritual rule.  As. St. Gregory also says one can even read Psalms to an excess:

In my opinion, those who do not psalmodize much act rightly, for it means that they esteem moderation – and according to the sages moderation is best in all things [emphases not in the original text].  In this way they do not expend all the energy of their soul in ascetic labor, thus making the intellect negligent and slack where prayer is concerned. On the contrary, by devoting but little time to psalmodizing, they can give most of their time to prayer. On the other hand, when the intellect is exhausted by continuous noetic invocation and intense concentration, it can be given some rest by releasing it from the straitness of silent prayer and allowing it to relax in the amplitude of psalmody. This is an excellent rule, taught by the wisest men.   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 42480-42487)

Ilias the Presbyter also writing in THE PHILOKALIA confirms the same teaching:

Neither one who falls short of virtue because of negligence nor one who out of presumption oversteps it will reach the harbor of dispassion. Indeed, no one will enjoy the blessings of righteousness who tries to attain them by means of either deficiency or excess.”  (Kindle Loc. 25349-51)

Signs of the Holy Spirit

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

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

In some it appears as awe arising in the heart,

in others as a tremulous sense of jubilation,

in others as joy,

in others as joy mingled with awe,

or as tremulousness mingled with joy,

and sometimes it manifests itself as tears and awe.

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

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

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

The Day of the Holy Spirit

“There are several signs that the energy of the Holy Spirit is beginning to be active in those who genuinely aspire for this to happen and are not just putting God to the test – for, according to the Wisdom of Solomon, ‘It is found by those who do not put it to the test, and manifests itself to those who do not distrust it’ (cf. Wisd. 1:2).

In some it appears as awe arising in the heart,

in others as a tremulous sense of jubilation,

in others as joy,

in others as joy mingled with awe, or

as tremulousness mingled with joy, and

sometimes it manifests itself as tears and awe.

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

porphyrios

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

Paradise – Spiritual and Empirical

“And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:8-9)

Adam & Eve in Paradise

The Fathers of the Church were biblical literalists in the sense that they took every single word of Scripture seriously.  The words of Scripture had a plain meaning, but they also both hid and revealed a spiritual sense.  Entering into the spiritual sense or meaning of the text was an entry into Paradise.  St Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346AD) commenting on Genesis 2 in which God places the first human in Paradise:

“Paradise is twofold – sensible and spiritual: there is the paradise of Eden and the paradise of grace. The paradise of Eden is so exalted that it is said to extend to the third heaven. It has been planted by God with every kind of sweet-scented plant. It is neither entirely free from corruption nor altogether subject to it. Created between corruption and incorruption, it is always rich in fruits, ripe and unripe, and continually full of flowers.

When trees and ripe fruit rot and fall to the ground they turn into sweet-scented soil, free from the smell of decay exuded by the vegetable-matter of this world. That is because of the great richness and holiness of the grace ever abounding there.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 40797-40804)

St. Gregory of Sinai’s description makes Paradise heavenly or divine, and yet it has the characteristics of our empirical world.  For even in Paradise, according to Gregory, trees and fruit rot and fall to the ground.   The flora of Paradise shares characteristics with the flora of we know on earth.  And yet there is a spiritual difference in the empirical nature of things – for though tree and fruit eventually succumb to rot and decay, they have no smell of decay but rather contribute a sweet scent of the earth.   There are no offensive odors in Paradise for everything is sweet, lovely, filled with life and light.  It is, as Gregory describes it, a world between corruption and incorruption.  It is not yet a world of eternal life, and yet the stench of decay is not natural to it.

St. Gregory is following a tradition, understanding Paradise to have both an earthly sense and a heavenly which can also be found 600 years earlier in the writings of St John of Damascus (d. 749) who in his An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith writes about Paradise as a kingdom:

“Now when God was about to fashion man out of the visible and invisible creation in His own image and likeness to reign as king and ruler over all the earth and all that it contains, He first made for him, so to speak, a kingdom in which he should live a life of happiness and prosperity. And this is the divine paradise, planted in Eden by the hands of God, a very storehouse of joy and gladness of heart (for “Eden” means luxuriousness). Its site is higher in the East than all the earth: it is temperate and the air that surrounds it is the rarest and purest: evergreen plants are its pride, sweet fragrances abound, it is flooded with light, and in sensuous freshness and beauty it transcends imagination: in truth the place is divine, a meet home for him who was created in God’s image: no creature lacking reason made its dwelling there but man alone, the work of God’s own hands.

. . .

Thus, to my thinking, the divine Paradise is twofold, and the God-inspired Fathers handed down a true message, whether they taught this doctrine or that. Indeed, it is possible to understand by every tree the knowledge of the divine power derived from created things. In the words of the divine Apostle, For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made (Romans 1:20).  . . .

The tree of life too may be understood as that more divine thought that has its origin in the world of sense, and the ascent through that to the originating and constructive cause of all. And this was the name He gave to every tree, implying fulness and indivisibility, and conveying only participation in what is good. But by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we are to understand that sensible and pleasurable food which, sweet though it seems, in reality brings him who partakes of it into communion with evil. For God says, Of every tree in Paradise thou mayest freely eat. It is, me-thinks, as if God said, Through all My creations thou art to ascend to Me thy creator, and of all the fruits thou mayest pluck one, that is, Myself who art the true life: let every thing bear for thee the fruit of life, and let participation in Me be the support of your own being. For in this way thou wilt be immortal. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. For sensible food is by nature for the replenishing of that which gradually wastes away and it passes into the drought and perisheth: and he cannot remain incorruptible who partakes of sensible food.”

Book of the Bee

As I’ve mentioned before, the honeybee is admired by the Fathers of the Church, and used as an example and metaphor for having a good spiritual life.  We have in our Orthodox tradition prayers for bees and for their hives.

St. Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346AD) uses the bee as a model for moderation in wisely developing a virtuous life.   Unlike a body builder who might do countless reps of a single exercise to develop bulging muscles, St. Gregory teaches that we must more daintily approach the virtues, like a bee, taking a small amount from each and many virtues “what is most profitable.”   Developing virtues requires wisdom – developing them in a right quantity, extracting from each what we as an individual are capable of benefiting from, and this will not be same for each individual since each person is differently gifted by God.

“Like a bee one should extract from each of the virtues what is most profitable.  In this way, by taking a small amount from all of them, one builds up from the practice of the virtues a great honeycomb overflowing with the soul-delighting honey of wisdom.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 83500)

As the honeycomb is built by the entire colony of bees receiving the nectar of a great many bees from a diversity of flowers, so too all the virtues are needed to develop the spiritual life.  One must be like a bee collecting nectar from many flowers, partaking of the different virtues to gain from each.

One can see how popular the bee was in the metaphorical thinking of the fathers in how they refer to the bee.  The Book of the Bee is a Syriac Christian Text written by the bishop, Solomon of Akhlat,  in the 13th Century.   It is a summary of basic Syriac Christian beliefs using excerpts from the books of the Bible, Christian theology and Syriac history.  The book serves as a catechism, which Solomon dedicated to the bee.  He explains:

We have called this book the ‘Book of the Bee,’ because we have gathered of the blossoms of the two Testaments and of the flowers of the holy Books, and have placed them therein for thy benefit. As the common bee with gauzy wings flies about, and flutters over and lights upon flowers of various colours, and upon blossoms of divers odours, selecting and gathering from all of them the materials which are useful for the construction of her handiwork; and having first of all collected the materials from the flowers, carries them upon her thighs,

and bringing them to her dwelling, lays a foundation for her building with a base of wax; then gathering in her mouth some of the heavenly dew which is upon the blossoms of spring, brings it and blows it into these cells; and weaves the comb and honey for the use of men and her own nourishment:

in like manner have we, the infirm, hewn the stones of corporeal words from the rocks of the Scriptures which are in the Old Testament, and have laid them down as a foundation for the edifice of the spiritual law. And as the bee carries the waxen substance upon her thighs because of its insipidity and tastelessness, and brings the honey in her mouth because of its sweetness and value; so also have we laid down the corporeal law by way of substratum and foundation, and the spiritual law for a roof and ceiling to the edifice of the spiritual tower. And as the expert gardener and orchard-keeper goes round among the gardens, and seeking out the finest sorts of fruits takes from them slips and shoots, and plants them in his own field; so also have we gone into the garden of the divine Books, and have culled therefrom branches and shoots, and have planted them in the ground of this book for thy consolation and benefit.

To approach each book of the Bible as if it were a flower full of sweet nectar, and to enjoy the blessing from God, is such wonderful imagery of what Scripture reading should be to us.  It is work, but sweet and nurturing.

And interestingly, the bee does not leave the flower untouched, for it pollinates it.  This is the synergy between the Word of God and the reader of the Word.  We interact with the Word enabling it to bear fruit.  Our hearts are the fecund soil which bear fruit to God.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  (Isaiah 55:10-12)

Prophet Elijah and Modes of Prayer

St Gregory of  Sinai (d. 1346AD) offers us commentary on different modes of prayer.  He does so by using the text of 1 Kings 19 in which the Prophet Elijah encounters God.

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

St. Gregory moves beyond any literal reading of the text to help us gain insight into how the Holy Spirit operates in different Christians in our present life.  In his comments, St. Gregory shows how the texts of the Old Testament were written for us today.  For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)  The book of Kings was not written just to record history, it was written for our instruction.  St. Gregory shows how the Church has in fact made use of the Scriptures to give us hope – to form our hearts, souls and minds and not just to inform us about past history.   We read the Scriptures to understand what God is doing in our hearts today, not just what God may have done in ancient times and civilizations.

 

St. Gregory writes:

Grace begins to operate in people during prayer in different ways, for, as the apostle says, the Spirit distributes Himself as He wills in a variety of modes, and is perceived and known correspondingly (cf. Heb. 2:4). Elijah the Tishbite serves here as an example for us (cf. 1 Kgs. 19:11-12). In some the Spirit appears as a whirlwind of awe, dissolving the mountains of the passions and shattering the rocks of our hardened hearts, so that our worldly self is transpierced and mortified. In others the Spirit appears as an earthquake, that is to say as a sense of inward jubilation or what the fathers more clearly define as a sense of exultation. In others He is manifested inwardly as a fire that is non-material yet real; for what is unreal and imaginary is also non-existent. Finally, in others – particularly in those well advanced in prayer – God produces a gentle and serene flow of light. This is when Christ comes to dwell in the heart, as St Paul says (cf. Eph. 3:17), mystically disclosing Himself through the Holy Spirit. That is why God said to Elijah on Mount Horeb that the Lord was not in this or in that – not in the particular actions He manifests Himself in to beginners – but in the gentle flow of light; for it is in this that He attests the perfection of our prayer.  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 42950-42968)