Posts for Tag: spiritual-life

Approximating the will of God

... [M]an in his everyday life is confronted with an endless complexity of situations, and very often does not see what to do to comply with God’s will.

The man who has the love of God in his heart, prompted by this love, acts in accordance with dictates which approximate to the will of God. But they only approximate: they are not perfect. The unattainableness of perfection obliges us all continually to turn to God in prayer for understanding and help.

Not only perfect love but complete knowledge is out of our reach. An act performed, it would seem, with the very best intention often has undesirable and even evil consequences because the means employed were bad, or simply mistaken. People are often heard to justify themselves by saying that their intentions were good. But good intentions are not enough. Life abounds with mistakes of this kind. That is why the man who loves God never ceases to ask Him for understanding, and has a constant ear for the sound of His voice.

Archimandrite Sophrony, Tr. by Rosemary Edmonds. The monk of Mt. Athos: Staretz Silouan 1866-1938 (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), 51-52.

The forgotten frontier

For those of suburban Christian faith, developing the capacity for spiritual consciousness tends to be the forgotten frontier. At least that's true in the Protestant tradition in which I grew up and which I, for the most part, still inhabit. The kingdom of God belongs to the busy, to those who know how to work, to the spiritual entrepreneurs. The highest compliment to pay a young woman from the rural culture in which I was raised is: "She's a hard worker (and a good cook)." My suburban neighbors are a bit more sophisticated: "Mary is on the traveling soccer team and has the lead in the school play, and she has three hours of homework every night! Oh my God, can you believe it?"

Add to that the suburban environment of security, efficiency, and opportunities—and the overindulged self, which desperately needs all three—and spirituality morphs into activities: Bible studies, small group meetings, reading yet another best-selling book on the key to victorious Christian living, even serving at the local homeless shelter. It's the reverse, through, of what should happen. Such activities or practices should open our eyes to the larger world. Instead, they obscure it. I've always felt cheered by the comment a friend made about his prayer life: he said he didn't really like the actual act of praying much, though he loved the open space that praying created in his life for God to work.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Pulitzer prize-winning writer Annie Dillard writes that "the mind's muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness." The muddy river of suburban life cannot be stopped. It simply is. The muddy river of illusion cannot be escaped, really. There's not much use in moralizing about it, mocking it, thumbing your nose at it, treating it with light disdain—or sacrificing your way out of it (I'll drop everything and become a missionary or move to a Wisconsin cabin to live the simple life)....

You can try to slow down your life, adjust your lifestyle downward, give more, pray more. Another study group, another stint on a church committee, another year as the nursery coordinator, another mission trip to a Third World country—all good things—but not necessarily superhighways to the deeper life....

For centuries, the classic spiritual disciplines and practices enlarged the capacity of ordinary people to engage the Sacred. Spiritual practices are not really a direct route to an awakened God-consciousness. Some days, they seem stupid, quite worthless, even just one of the many activities that keep me from God. Yet over time they awaken us to a brave new world that is, ultimately, more satisfying and true to who we are than is what we encounter without them....

... [But] [d]oesn't Jesus require something more radical? Doesn't Jesus demand immediate results, fresh sacrifice, more doing?....

But more what? More sacrifice? More church activities? ... The Protestant tradition loves the heroic call to sacrifice all for the kingdom of God. But the call to sacrifice often feeds, ultimately, mostly the ego.... The kingdom of God often appears plain, ordinary, small, in the moment.

David L. Goetz, Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), 14–17.

Discerning the Messenger

Western thought frequently examines messages independently of their messengers (even insisting on the inherent value of such an "objective" approach). But in the spiritual life, discerning the identity of the Messenger is of utmost importance, regardless of any abstract merits of the message itself.

"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but not all things build up.1

I'm frequently guilty of this when interpreting Scripture. Having been trained in the methodology and tools of historical criticism, I turn to my own reason and the interpretations of the academic guild before seeking the voice of God and listening to the Church Fathers.

Humanity's interpretative choice

This is an ancient problem that precedes East and West. It goes back to the foundations of humanity:

And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying, "You shall eat for food of every tree that is in the orchard, but of the tree for knowing good and evil, of it you shall not eat; on the day that you eat of it, you shall die by death...."

And the snake said to the woman, "Why is it that God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree that is in the orchard'?" And the woman said to the snake, "We shall eat of the fruit of the tree of the orchard, but of the fruit that is in the middle of the orchard, God said, 'You shall not eat of it nor shall you even touch it, lest you die.'" And the snake said to the woman, "You will not die by death, for God knew that on the day you eat of it, your eyes would be opened, and you would be like gods knowing good and evil." And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasing for the eyes to look at and it was beautiful to contemplate, and when she had taken of its fruits she ate, and she also gave some to her husband with her, and they ate.2

Dr. Mary Ford offers a great perspective on Eve's decision:

In this account, Eve is faced with two interpretations of reality.... One interpretation of this fruit and why it was forbidden was given by God, Who created Eve and everything else, and another one was given by the serpent, a fellow creature....

Eve, we could say, at this point decides that all that matters is the "text" alone—the two interpretations or statements made—along with how things look on the surface to her own eyes, which is only the superficial, physical reality. Apparently she doesn't stop to consider who it is giving each interpretation, and what her relationship is with each interpreter. Like many modern-day commentators, she thinks that interpretation can be impersonal, "objective." "Don't ask God about this," the serpent implies; "He is not trustworthy. He doesn't really love you. He doesn't really want the best for you." Then he implies, "And don't ask Adam, either. Judge for yourself—you don't need others to help you discern the truth."

The fruit really is beautiful. It looks good to Eve, and what the serpent says seems reasonable to her "unaided reason," so she decides to accept the interpretation he offers, and to act on his statement—an action which the serpent implies she can make completely independently. However, Eve doesn't realize that in choosing the serpent's interpretation, and in acting with her supposed autonomy, she in fact chooses communion with the serpent over, and instead of, communion with God and her husband.3

Dr. Ford goes on to quote St. Gregory the Theologian:

...[T]he tree of knowledge was not planted originally with any evil intent, nor was it forbidden in a spirit of jealousy. Let not the enemies of God make any such suggestion or think to imitate the serpent. On the contrary, it was good if eaten at the right time; for as I understand it, the fruit was contemplation, which is only safely attempted by those who have attained a more perfect state. But it was not good for those at a lower stage of development, ... just as mature food is not profitable for those of tender years who still need milk.4

She then notes:

...[I]t was entirely right for Eve to want to be godlike—that was God's plan all along. What was wrong was wanting this apart from God, and on her own terms and timetable.5

Humanity chose the creation over the Creator, independently evaluating the interpretation of the snake without considering our relationship with the interpreters.

A short story

     Faysal had never experienced a vision from God, but he believed such things were possible. He found it perplexing that his friend Roya claimed to have had one. She seemed so confident the vision was from God, but Faysal wondered if she was mentally ill or otherwise being deceived. His pastor had never dealt with this before, but encouraged Faysal to practice discernment by comparing the message of the vision to the Bible. But the message seemed so personal and didn't really conflict with any Bible verses Faysal could find.
     He knew of an old hermit at a local monastery who daily sought God in prayer and decided to ask him for help the following morning. Perhaps he might have some guidance, Faysal hoped.
     The next morning, Faysal went to visit the hermit, and asked how he could discern whether his friend's vision was from God or not. He explained how he had looked up various Bible verses related to the message of the vision but wasn't sure if any of it applied. After patiently listening to Faysal's concerns, the hermit asked him, "Does Roya know God?"
     "Well sure, she's gone to church her whole life," Faysal replied.
     The hermit smiled and said, "It seems you've been focusing solely on the contents of the vision, rather than on the identity of the messenger. If the vision is from God, then there is no reason for concern."
     Faysal objected, "Well, surely some messages would clearly conflict with God's Word and be evidence of deception."
     The hermit paused for a moment. Then he asked, "Do you have any children, Faysal?"
     "Yes, a son," he answered.
     "If God spoke to you in a vision, and in that vision told you to murder your son, would you say that vision is not from God?"
     Faysal shot back, "Of course that vision wouldn't be from from God! It violates God's commandment not to murder!"
     "And yet," the hermit replied gently, "Abraham obeyed God's voice when given this very message as a test, and God blessed him because of his faith and obedience." He continued, "Wouldn't you agree that the messenger, and the recipient's relationship with him, is of utmost importance?"6

Footnotes

1 1 Corinthians 10:23.

2 Genesis 2:16–17; 3:1b–6, NETS (LXX).

3 Mary S. Ford, The Soul's Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (Waymart, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon's Monastery Press, 2015), 50–51.

4 Oration 45:8 on Easter; excerpt given by Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1987), 204; as quoted in Ford, 51.

5 Ford, 51.

6 This story was inspired by Ford, especially the above-quoted paragraphs and pp. 53–55. Full disclosure: I don't write fiction. I apologize for the wooden dialogue.

The paradigm is the problem

The economic paradigm of human organization doesn’t care. About life. Yours, mine, our grandkids, our planet’s. In any of it’s three aspects: not it’s potential, nor it’s possibility, nor it’s reality—life a beautiful and universal quest for self-realization. It’s sole end is maximizing immediate income. It doesn’t care if you’re happy or miserable, if you’re fulfilled or hollow, if you’re humane and gentle and wise or cruel and brutish and spiteful, if you flourish or wither as a human being, if the oceans dry up and die or teem joyously, if the skies turn to ash, if if you, me, our grandkids, or the planet, dies young or old, or if any of us live or die at all, in fact. It just doesn’t care. It wasn’t designed to. Thus, all that possibility, all that potential, is never realized: it’s used up to maximize immediate income. More and more, maximizing immediate income minimizes life’s potential....

Climate change happens when the planet’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. Stagnation happens when people’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. Inequality happens when a society’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. And extremism is a result of all that ripping yesterday’s stable and prosperous social contracts to shreds. Today’s great global problems are just surface manifestations of the same underlying breakdown — a badly, fatally, irreparably broken paradigm of human organization.

The paradigm is the problem. A solely, paradigmatically, one-dimensional economic approach to human organization. That old, rusting, busted, industrial-age, economic paradigm is what’s created the Massive Existential Threats the world faces today. The single-minded pursuit of maximizing short-term income (versus, for example, optimizing long-run well-being) is what’s ignited inequality, stagnation, climate change, and extremism—and the later problems that are likely to stem from them.

And so—it’s no coincidence—here we are. Desperately clutching the controls in a nose dive of human possibility. But the controls don’t seem to work anymore, do they?

Umair Haque, "The Story: Life, the World, Now, You, and Me" (Eudaimonia & Co. blog, Sep. 14, 2017), retrieved from https://eand.co/the-story-eea04d97062b.

Jesus didn't hold on to any rights

"We carefully respect your choices, so we work within your systems even while we seek to free you from them.... Creation has been taken down a very different path than we desired. In your world the value of the individual is constantly weighed against the survival of the system, whether political, economic, social, or religious—any system, actually. First one person, then a few, and finally even many are easily sacrificed for the good and ongoing existence of that system. In one form or another this lies behind every struggle for power, every prejudice, every war, and every abuse of relationship. The 'will to power and independence' has become so ubiquitous that it is now considered normal...."

" ... Jesus didn't hold on to any rights. He willingly became a servant and lives out of his relationship to Papa. He gave up everything, so that by his dependent life he opened a door that would allow you to live free enough to give up your rights."

Wm. Paul Young, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), 125-6, 139.