Finishing the Race

 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.  (Ecclesiastes 7:8)

But he who endures to the end will be saved.   (Matthew 24:13)

Jerome said:

‘Christians will not be asked how they began but rather how they finished. St. Paul began badly but finished well. Judas’s beginning was praiseworthy but his end was despicable.”

‘Many start the climb but few reach the summit.’

Gregory said:

‘The value of good work depends on perseverance.

‘You live a good life in vain if you do not continue it until you die.’

Isadore said:
‘Our behavior is only acceptable to God if we have the strength of purpose to complete any work we have undertaken.

‘Virtue is not a matter of starting well but of carrying on to the very end.

‘The reward is not promised to the one who begins, but rather to the one who perseveres.’”

(Defensor Grammaticus, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, p. 171)

The Seven Jars of Gold

A barber was passing under a haunted tree when he heard a voice say, ‘Would you like to have the seven jars of gold?’  He looked around and saw no one.  But his greed was aroused, so he shouted eagerly, ‘Yes, I certainly would.’  ‘Then go home at once,’ said the voice.  ‘You will find them there.’

The barber ran all the way home.  Sure enough, there were the seven jars–all full of gold, except for one that was only half full.  Now the barber could not bear the thought of having a half-filled jar.  He felt a violent urge to fill it or he simply would not be happy.

So he had all the jewelry of his family melted into coins and poured them into the half-filled jar.  But the jar remained as half-filled as before.  This was exasperating! He saved and skimped and starved himself and his family.  To no avail.  No matter how much gold he put into the jar it remained half-filled.

So one day he begged the king to increase his salary.  His salary was doubled.  Again the fight to fill the jar was on.  He even took to begging.  The jar devoured every gold coin thrown into it but remained stubbornly half filled.

The king now noticed how starved the barber looked.  ‘What is wrong with you?’ he asked.  ‘You were so happy and contented when your salary was smaller.  Now it has been doubled and you are so worn out and dejected.  Can it be that you have the seven jars of gold with you?’

The barber was astonished, ‘Who told you this, Your Majesty?’ he asked.

The king laughed.  ‘But these are the obvious symptoms of the person to whom the ghost has given the seven jars.  He once offered them to me.  When I asked if this money could be spent or was merely to be hoarded he vanished without a word.  That money cannot be spent.  It only brings with it the compulsion to hoard.  Go and give it back to the ghost this minute and you will be happy again.’ 

(Anthony De Mello, THE SONG OF THE BIRD, pp 134-135)

The Purpose of Theology: To Become Wise

There is in Orthodox Tradition a sense that correct belief leads to a correct way of life or that correct thinking leads to correct living.  Conversely, a wrong way of living – sinning – can often be traced to a wrong set of beliefs.  Confession and repentance in this thinking are efforts to get to the root cause of one’s sinful behavior and to aim to correct the thinking or beliefs that have allowed one to choose wrong behavior.  Correct theology then is not just a set of intellectual premises which we affirm through rational logic, but rather is the healing antidote to what ails humanity and leads us astray from God.  Correct theology is both the light that shows us the right path and the proper path itself.   As Jesus Himself said:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”   (John 14:6)

“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”   (John 8:12)

Protestant Theologian Jeremy S. Begbie writes:

By “the gospel” I mean the announcement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Triune Creator, the God of Israel, has acted decisively to reconcile the world to himself. Here is theology’s raison d’etre and its lodestar – theology is not free-floating speculation, but it is disciplined by this gospel and seeks to interpret the whole of reality from this center. Just because it is so motivated, the theologian is ultimately responsible to a living God: the God of the gospel is not an inert presence but personally active, continuously at work to transform his creatures and his creation. Hence learning about God is undertaken in the context of learning from God, as God relates to us and we to God. This means, in turn, that theology is inseparable (though distinct) from prayer and worship – thinking appropriately about God means regularly engaging with God. . . .  Precisely because it relates to the whole of us and concerns the energetic, life-transforming God of the gospel, theology has a practical orientation.

One of the best ways to express this is to speak of theology fostering wisdom. In the so-called Wisdom literature of the Bible (for example, the book of Proverbs), gaining wisdom concerns much more than amassing data for the mind’s scrutiny. It is practically geared. To be wise means being able to discern what is going on in specific, down-to-earth situations and to judge what it is right to say and do in those situations in a way that is faithful and true to God. We become wise in order to live well. As “lived knowledge,” wisdom is directed toward a lifestyle thoroughly “in tune” with God – godly living – that resonates aptly with the Creator’s intentions for us and his world.

(Resounding Truth, p. 20)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.   (Colossians 3:16-17)

Maintaining the Unity of the Community


“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”   (Isaiah 55:6-9)

The rise of desert monasticism occurred because some Christians hoped they could live a communal life based solely on the Gospel commandments of Christ rather than on the wisdom and power of the world.   They rejected the success of imperial Rome and the “Roman Peace” based in worldly power and might.  They understood the ways of the world could be more efficient but they believed the means must be consistent with the end rather than that the ends justified the means.  They were not willing to sacrifice their morality based in the Gospel commands to achieve their desired goal.  Or rather, they saw living in this world according to the Gospel commandments as the goal, not the means to the end.  They were not trying to earn their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, rather they were trying to live the up-side-down values of the Kingdom of Heaven while on earth.  As they prayed – as in heaven, so on earth – so they tried to live.

These Christians developed an entire literary genre firmly based in these values of the Kingdom – the apophthegm, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers.  These sayings are part of a wisdom literature of the people of God.  They are not rules and rubrics, but wisdom based in experience.  Sometimes they are simply stories  which show how they tried to live together with the only rules being those of the Gospel.  What we see in these stories is sometimes even humorous.  Today, we might look at them and say how ridiculously impractical for we can see easy solutions to their problems – correct the mistakes and move on.  They however wanted to live in the unity of love, and believed they must never ever break that bond of mutual concord.  So for example we read this sagacious aphorism:

Once when Abba John was going up from Scete with other brothers, their guide lost his way and it was night. The brothers said to Abba John: “What shall we do, abba, for the brother has lost his way; maybe we will wander off and die?” The elder said to them: “If we tell him he will be grieved and ashamed. But look here: I will pretend to be sick and will say: ‘I cannot travel [further] so I am staying here until dawn,’” and so he did. The rest of them said: “Neither are we going on; we are staying with you.” They stayed [there] until dawn and did not offend the brother. (John Colobos, Give Me a Word, p. 135)

Our pragmatism would smile and say, “just tell the guide he is going the wrong way.”   Their dilemma is that they must not break the unity of love between themselves, and so rather than point out the fault or failure of the guide, the one elder feigns illness to stop the guide from going further astray, rather than embarrass the guide by pointing out his fault.  They looked not for the most straightforward and pragmatic solution to their “problem” –  that they are lost.  For them, the real problem was: knowing they are lost, how do they stop the guide from making everything worse without shaming him.

“Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.”   (1 Peter 4:8)

The values of the Kingdom must be lived, and so without ever pointing out the guide’s error, they found a way to stop and wait for daylight to see where they were.  The Light of Christ would shine on them, but they had to find the way to get to that point without offending the guide.  And in this story, everybody else except the guide knew they were lost.  It isn’t majority rule in the Kingdom, it is majority love.

Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.   (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

Seeing One’s Own Sins

Love and wisdom are two energies that are to guide us Christians in our decisions and behavior.  Neither can be learned from a book of rules.  Both require the help of the Holy Spirit to know when, how, where and to what degree we are to actor speak.

An Elder was asked by a brother, “If I see the sin of my brother am I to despise him?” And the old man said, “If we hide the fault of our brother God will also hide our faults; and if we expose our brother’s faults, God will also expose ours.”

An old man was wont to say, “There was a brother whose name was Timothy, and he used to lead a life of silent contemplation in a religious house; and a temptation came upon one of the brethren of that house, and the head of the house asked Timothy, saying, “What shall I do to this brother?” Timothy said unto him, “Expel him.” When he had expelled the brother, the temptation of that brother was sent upon Timothy, and he cried out to God, saying, “I have sinned, O my Lord, have mercy upon me.”

He passed the whole night in a grave of dead men, crying out and saying, “I have sinned, O my Lord, forgive me.”  The temptation was upon him until he was greatly exhausted. And a voice came to him saying, “Timothy, do not imagine that these things have happened to you for any other reason than because you offended your neighbor in the time of his trial.”

(adapted from  The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, p. 225)

Caring for the Sinner

 

by Robert Morris (1989)

“When we want to correct someone usefully and show him he is wrong, we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view, and we must admit this, but show him the point of view from which it is wrong. This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question.”  (Blaise Pascal, in Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 39)

Robert Morris’s painting, Private Silence/ Public Violence, which I saw some years ago at  the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, is certainly timely.  The many recent reports of sexual misconduct by famous people shows how people keeping silence enables public violations/ violence to take place.  The #Me Too Moment has blossomed, rightfully disgracing some while empowering others.  Pascal writing in the 17th Century points how change can take place – by showing people from what point of view their behavior is wrong.

Figure It Out Yourself

One of the multitude said to Jesus, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But Jesus said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”   (Luke 12:13-15)

Christ the Wisdom of God

Wisdom is as an essential element of our Scriptures and Tradition as is any set of rules or rubrics that have been offered to the faithful.  And yet, Wisdom is often given a secondary place in the pedagogy of the Church as many in leadership roles prefer to lay down the law of God rather than to wrestle with Wisdom.  In the early Church they relied on the Book of Proverbs as a manual for instructing catechumens, to prepare them for baptism and living the life in Christ.  To this day the Orthodox continue to read Proverbs during Great Lent as a source for wisdom in living in a fallen world.

Besides the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, there also emerged in the early centuries of the Church’s history the Wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers – not lives of the saints but wise sayings designed to make us think about how to live the Gospel.  This wisdom literature is related to the parables that Jesus taught in which He did not give law, but rather offered  instruction for all believers to ponder.  The parables like the wisdom sayings often have a hidden, deeper meaning to them.

The following story from the desert fathers gives us a sense in which wisdom was understood to be different from the Law.  Law involves a more black and white thinking while wisdom considers how and when to apply the law or when it is correct to vary it.   For example, a stop sign is the law.  But that stop sign can never tell the driver when to go – to take that action requires wisdom.  In this story a monk wants to know what to do with an inheritance he has received.  Perhaps he was trying to avoid deciding himself what to do so he wouldn’t make the wrong choice.  He wants the monastery abbot to decide for him – not to give  him a word, but give him a rule.  Abba Poemen wants the monk to learn to live the Gospel himself.  Poemen offers an answer to the monk in terms of wisdom: he tells the monk what to do by not telling him what to do.

A brother asked Abba Poemen: “A legacy has been left to me; what shall I do with it?” The elder said to him: “Go away and come in three days then I will tell you.” He came as he had directed him and the elder said to him: “What am I to say to you, brother? If I say to you: ‘Give it to a church,’ they will have banquets there; if I say: ‘Give it to your relative,’ there is no reward for you; but if I tell you: ‘Give it to the poor,’ you will have no worries. Do whatever you like; this is not my business.” (Give me a Word, p. 233) 

Poemen shows the monk he has actually considered his request about the inheritance.  Giving the money to the church is a good thing, but he realizes it will cause the church community to celebrate and waste some of the money by benefiting no one but themselves.  He could simply give the money away to relatives and be free of it himself, a noble thing, but of no spiritual benefit to the monk.  Or, the monk could give the money to the poor and not worry about it any more, though humanly speaking people might fear the poor wouldn’t use the money wisely.  Any of the actions could be proper for a monk because the monk is freeing himself from the cares of wealth.  Each possibility could be good and each has a downside.  Poemen is telling the monk to free himself of the inheritance, but refuses to give the monk a rule about it.  The monk is going to have to decide for himself how to fulfill the Gospel commands.  There may not be just one right answer, only one choice pleasing to God.  Poemen, however, refuses to burden himself with the inheritance!

Intuitions from the Desert

  • A brother came to see Abba Poemen and while several of them were sitting round, he praised a brother for hating evil. Abba Poemen said to the one who had spoken, ‘What does it mean to hate evil?’ The brother was surprised and found nothing to say in reply. Getting up, he made a prostration before the old man, and said, ‘Tell me what hatred of evil is?’ The old man said to him, ‘Hatred of evil is to hate one’s thoughts and to praise one’s neighbor.

  • A brother went to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘What ought I to do?’ The old man said to him, ‘Go and join one who says “What do I want?” and you will have peace.’

  • Abba Joseph related that Abba Isaac said, ‘I was sitting with Abba Poemen one day and I saw him in ecstasy and I was on terms of great freedom of speech with him, I prostrated myself before him and begged him saying, “Tell me where you were.” He was forced to answer and he said, “My thought was with Saint Mary, the Mother of God, as she wept by the cross of the Savior. I wish I could always weep like that.”’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 187).

Jesus, the Wisdom of God

Icon of Christ the Wisdom of God

“If we proceed further into the Sacred Scriptures – not in the historical order that the books have been arranged, but in a more spiritual manner – we shall discover the name of Wisdom, which is mystically ascribed to Christ. And thus Solomon cries to the Father: Give me the Wisdom that sits by Your throne (Wis 9.4). And who sits next to God, at the right hand of the Father (cf. Heb 1.3; 10.12; 12.2), exalted above all created things, if not the Lord Jesus Christ? For He is indeed the Power and the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.24). Elsewhere Solomon says: I determined to take Wisdom to live with me, knowing that She would be a counselor for me (Wis 8.9).

Wisdom, then, is clearly a Person, and not simply an attribute. It is the Son of God, who is also God’s Word; His Wise Word, as the Fathers say. From ancient times, Solomon points beyond time, and reveals the Person of the Son, Who sits by the throne of the Father, a situation which expresses their inseparable relationship, since there can be no Father without a Son, and no Son without a Father. Each one, at all times, points to the other. In this way we have a common, mutual revelation, which is, in essence, a self-revelation.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 271-272).

Practice Hearing God

For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts behind…”  (Wisdom of Solomon 1:5)

There is a bit of wisdom that I’ve seen even on a bumper sticker which says: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think“.   One can find similar warnings in Orthodox spiritual literature where one’s constant buzz of thoughts are sometimes compared to a swarm of bees, or worse, a swarm of flies (and we know what attracts flies!).  Or this from Sirach  – “The heart of a fool is like a cart wheel, and his thoughts like a turning axle” (33:5).   Our minds are always busy – always turning, but the spiritual literature says we can learn to discern our own thoughts better by slowly, gently ignoring some of them until we are able to hear another voice – that of God.  Especially if we have allowed God’s Word to enter into our hearts and minds through attending liturgical services, reading scripture and through prayer.   Fr. Meletios Webber writes:

“For those who do not have access to spiritual direction, please allow me to attempt to describe such an exercise in staying present (and avoiding the pitfalls of ego-boosting) in spiritually neutral terms. It goes something like this:

Stop listening to your thoughts–not the thoughts you have, but the thoughts that have you. They have nothing beneficial to offer you, and besides you have heard them all before. Brush them aside, and gently continue to brush them aside. Beyond their clamor and din there is available to you a level of greater awareness–a place of love, joy, peace, and compassion. At first, it is difficult to “hear” it (since it is expressed in silence) but with practice you will start recognize its voice, and a deeper state of presence will be yours.” (“When Taking Cover Is Not Enough”, In Communion, p. 14).

Spiritual directors warn that if we only read those passages of Scripture which we like or agree with, then we aren’t listening to God but are only listening to ourselves.  If we read the Scriptures through our political bent, we shaped the Scriptures into a text that agrees with us.  It is much harder to allow the Scriptures to speak to us and far easier for us to read into them what we want them to say.  So the Lord Jesus teaches:

“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.” (John 5:39-40)

People who have memorized a text and repeat it often, sometimes don’t even notice when the written text has been changed, even when it is right in front of them.  They are not reading the text, but rather saying what their mind has already believed the text to say.   Sometimes they literally can’t even see the change in the text because their brain expects the text to say what it has memorized.   So the person has to slow down their mind, and actually pay attention to the text which is before them.  Sometimes they stumble over the words, sometimes the different words appear and they suddenly realize what they are saying is different than the text before their eyes and they feel the cognitive dissonance as they say one thing but read something different.  Sometimes they have to stop and actually read the printed words carefully and intentionally.  That is the experience that Fr Webber is describing: how it is necessary at times to slow our thinking down and filter some of the thoughts so that we can actually hear that voice from God who speaks to us but who we drown out with all the other things to which we want to pay attention.

We might consider the experience of the Holy Prophet Elijah who didn’t find God in the explosion winds, earthquake or fire, and all the thoughts that resulted from them.  Rather, only when all else had been cleared from his mind did Elijah hear the “still small voice” which was God speaking to him.

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)