Posts for Tag: spiritual-life

The miracle of human clay bearing divine fire

... Orthodoxy is expected to do something. It's not just a matter of having the right theology, or the right ecclesiastical institution (though I believe it does have those things). It's that there is an innate dynamism. This faith is expected to accomplish something—to enable a person to grow in union with God....

The Eastern Christian Way includes the elements we'd associate with any spiritual path—prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and so forth—and they fit together organically, like the parts of a diet-and-exercise program. Somebody who doesn't actually do the work and put it into practice won't see any benefit (another way it's like a diet-and-exercise program). But for those who do, transformation takes place. It happens in ways that are notable and recognizable, and even, in some cases, miraculous....

Wherever the faith is taken, this Way takes root and bears fruit....

The goal of this healing path is union with God. This is called theosis, which is usually translated "deification" or "divinization...." We can dismantle the Greek word and see that it is composed of theos, which means "God," and the suffix –osis, which indicates a process. As red dye saturates a white cloth by the process of osmosis, so humans can be saturated with God's presence by the process of theosis....

We can see this transformation in the Gospel story of Christ's Transfiguration. He took Peter, James, and John aside and led them up a high mountain. "And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as light.... A bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.' When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, 'Rise and have no fear'" (Matt. 17:1–8).

This was not a change in Jesus; he had always been filled with glory. It was a change in the disciples' ability to perceive.... The Orthodox hymn for the Transfiguration says that Christ revealed his glory "as far as they [the disciples] could bear it...."

The light of the Transfiguration is not ordinary earthly light, but the light of God's glory, the light that was before the universe was made, called the "Uncreated Light" in Orthodoxy. God made us like himself ("image and likeness") so that we could take on this light as a lump of coal takes on fire. This is the destiny we were created for: participation in the light and glory of God. This expectation is the catalyst of Orthodox spirituality….

The miracle of human clay bearing divine fire is foreshadowed in the burning bush (Exod. 3:1–6). God's presence wholly irradiates a dry desert shrub, but does not destroy it. Miraculously, the bush remains intact, remains itself. God's presence doesn't obliterate or replace us, but helps us to become ourselves—each of us the real self he has always intended us to be....

Theosis is not something we achieve by trying really hard. We require a more radical kind of surgery; in fact, we must die. As we die to self and get out of the way, Christ's life can fill us. "You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).

Frederica Mathewes-Green, Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), 67–71.

The work of "making it so" is always an act of violence

We can indeed make things happen, and, in a limited way, control their outcome. But we soon discover (and have proven it time and again) that our ability to control is quite limited. Many, many unforeseeable consequences flow from every action. If I am working in a very, self-contained environment, then the illusion of total control can be maintained for a very long time. If, say, I am building a watch, my actions and their results can remain on a desktop. However, when the scale of action begins to increase, the lack of true control begins to manifest itself. Actions on the level of an entire society or culture are beyond our ability to manage. A culture is not a very large watch.

But we think it is. That delusion lies at the very heart of the philosophy of modernity....

The work of "making it so," is always an act of violence. We take what is not so and force it to be otherwise. Whether it is the violence of a plow making a field suitable for planting, or the violence of creating a parking lot, human beings have formed and shaped their world by "making it so," throughout our existence. The field and the parking lot, as innocuous and innocent as they may be, also create consequences that were not part of the plan. The only means of dealing with these consequences are to employ more violence to alter things yet again (requiring yet more violence, ad infinitum), or to treat the consequences as an acceptable change.

In this sense, to be an active part of the world is to employ violence....

This picture of the modern world can, in the modern Christian mind, provoke an immediate response of wondering what can be done to change it. The difficult answer is to quit living as though modernity were true. Quit validating modernity’s questions. Do not ask, "How can we fix the world?" Instead, ask, "How should Christians live?" and give the outcome of history back to God.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, "The Violence of Modernity." Glory to God for All Things blog. June 1, 2020. https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2020/06/01/the-violence-of-modernity/

The transmutation of faith into some surrogate

... [T]he modern demand for total, factual, and impersonal objectivity presents serious difficulties for one whose object of study is the faith in which one puts one’s trust and to which one has dedicated one’s life....

... [A] Christian might stay in academe and dissimulate belief. Such people are no doubt more numerous than those who get out of academe for ascetical purpose. They remain in academe and are worn down by it. Being worn down is often imperceptible in its slowness; it usually involves a transmutation of faith into one or more surrogates such as scholarship for its own sake, ideological distractions, or some form of involvement in activist causes of a political nature. The transmutation of faith into some surrogate is often accompanied, furthermore, by symptoms typical of transitions from one mode of life to another—symptoms of release, exhilaration, and freedom, a sense of new power, and feelings of having been “reborn.” The transmutation is thus easily perceived as a conversion. And so it is, for conversion is a two-way street; whichever direction one takes produces largely the same feelings in the moving subject. One often encounters students who came to a seminary seeking less ordination than faith, only to discover counseling or social action as faith surrogates. One even encounters colleagues who at some point rise, as it seems, above faith only to vanish into therapy, eastern religions, another marriage, or some new ideology. Such folks, worn down by the unmanageable welter of modern academe, and dissimulating faith all the while in order to appear respectable, finally succumb to the lure of works which occupy but do not save. As Walker Percy says, they began by blowing their minds and end by blow-drying their hair. They leave us with neither insight nor faith, but with trivia of a certain passing interest.

Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 12-13.

Bearing a little shame

It seems to me that we have acquired the spiritual habit of making our salvation into an abstraction. We speak of being “crucified with Christ,” or of being “baptized into his death,” language that holds a prominent place in the lexicon of the New Testament, but we tend to treat these as though they were happening in a manner somehow distinct from our experience. Neither crucifixion nor death should have an association with things that seem pleasant. Christ himself constantly makes reference to very unpleasant things: forgiving injustice towards the self, the loss of what is rightfully due, giving what is not deserved or merited. These are all things that we seem to instinctively loathe. The shame we encounter through such acts of self-emptying is invariably painful—but this is the Gospel.

It is in this vein that the Elder Sophrony speaks from within the Tradition saying that we must learn to “bear a little shame.” There is much that must be said in this regard. First, bearing shame can only be voluntary; involuntary shaming is always toxic and leaves very deep wounds. The experience of such wounds, which underlies and provides the vast source of pain associated with forgiveness, surrounds the entire experience of forgiveness. To be told, “You must forgive…” in such circumstances is tantamount to saying, “You must endure the shame.” This can easily be nothing more than an invitation to more toxicity. So, the “moral” use of the commandment, “You must forgive,” can inadvertently be another tool in the hands of others to drive the pain and burden of shame ever deeper....

In our communion with Christ, and in the bosom of the Church, it is possible to know the safety sufficient for forgiveness and bearing its shame, but, again, it needs to be voluntary, the acceptance of Christ’s Cross, in union with his own joyful acceptance and not through some moral compulsion. One enemy at a time, we make our way into the love of God, learning step-by-step the joyful way of Christ’s self-emptying.

St. John of the Ladder wrote, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” It is one of the great paradoxes of the faith, a paradox resolved only in the Cross of Christ.

Fr. Stephen Freeman. “Justice, Forgiveness, and Bearing a Little Shame” [podcast] (May 31, 2017). Retrieved from transcript available at Ancient Faith.

The Word isn’t a book

Growing up entrenched in a sola scriptura environment (that assumed verbal and plenary inspiration), historical criticism shattered where I looked for authority. At some point I shifted to a more empirical approach, seeking authority in experience. But in fact, I am often self-deceived and led astray by my own emotions or those of other passionate people around me. Eventually I found myself in a quixotic pursuit of the early church, at various points succumbing to (fashionable) anti-hegemony, but eventually landing at a crossroads between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism through (misguided) study of (romanticized) history. I opted to cross the Bosphorus rather than the Tiber, but I think in reality I was seeking a new authority—and there are plenty of institutions who are happy to provide that. Trusting an institution is easier; it means there is no burden on me to figure it all out.

But what am I looking for in such an authority? Something to appeal to in order to be right? Something that will make life simple again? A better fire insurance policy? A way to shirk responsibility and assuage guilt over ignoring vocational paths I’ve felt called to in the past (that offer far less safety)? Something else?

But the way, the truth, and the life in the Christian faith is a person, not a collection of texts (John 14:6). And this person is called the Word; He taught that the Scriptures point to Himself, and He invites me to come to Him to have lifenot to get answers.

“‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life’” (John 5:39–40, ESV).

Instead of pursuing creation, I am invited to pursue the Creator. And my healing (or salvation) is bound up with that of my neighbor.