Quotation

He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, March 28, 2016

Love it to Death: The Resurrection of Love

The love in my heart has died many times.  It has been crushed by the boulder of my pride, preventing me from loving by ensuring that I never saw the needs of another, tending only to my own desires which so filled my vision.  My fear has suffocated it, preventing me from reaching out in love to others who most needed my strength and courage, pulling out of me all that is truly alive, stopping the breath of love that fuels each beat of a loving heart.

Over and over, I have missed the mark of divine love, whether because of my wrath, my sloth, my envy, my gluttony, my greed, or my lust.  Over and over again, my love has been wounded, scourged on its way to death by my sins which separate me from divine love.  Over and over again, my heart has been emptied of love as it was shoveled out by the efforts of pleasure-seeking, the work of my slavery to the ego from which I long to be free.

And yet each time my love has died, no matter how wounded or battered I have left it, love has risen again in my heart, called forth from the tomb into the garden of life.  While I was trapped in the darkness of my sins, a great light has shown me the path to love.  Though I descended to hell on earth where divine love is locked out by my refusal of His invitation, Love opened the door to my hardened heart and stretched out His hand to me, asking me to embrace Him once again and let my heart of stone be softened by love alone.

The love in my heart, like Lazarus, comes forth from the tomb when I heed the Master's voice and do not resign myself to the ultimate death of a life without Love.  If I but obey His commands, I can rise to love again, resurrected by the power of Love whose Kingdom is not of this world and therefore is unbound by the laws of this world.  My love is resurrected by the one who loved us unto death, descended to Hades and broke its doors in two so that the righteous dead might rise again, those who were asleep awakened to a new life with the resurrected Love.

The resurrection of Christ which we celebrate at Pascha (known as Easter in English) is the resurrection of Love Himself, the glorious return of the builder of the world to the garden of life, and He does not return alone.  He invites with Him the children of Adam and Eve who were asleep in Hades, restoring them to the paradise of love for which they were made.  The Lamb of God who was slain for our sins returns as the Good Shepherd to lay us down in great pastures, to lead us by the Living Water from which we gain eternal life, our souls restored by the Cup of Love poured out for us.

He loved to death the sting of death by bearing our sins upon the cross, showing us that we too must follow Him in loving to death the sting of death in our lives which is called sin, taking up our cross daily and falling under its weight so that one day we might rise again with Him.  Love showed us that the only way to resurrection is through the tomb, that we must love to death all that would keep us from rising again to new life.

He showed us by His life that we must accept His invitation to resurrect the love in our hearts if we would be resurrected in body and mind, that before we can rise with Him we must fully love God with all of our strength and our neighbor as ourselves, keeping the law of Love which fulfills the Law of Moses.  He calls us to love to death all that separates us from the Love who is not bound by the laws of this world, to love Him by keeping the Law he gives to us, the Law of Love which frees us from the slavery of sin when we practice it diligently by teaching us to hit the mark of divine love.

He showed us that to way to love sin to death is by a life dedicated to service to the poor and vulnerable, mercy and a call to repentance for the condemned, and love for the enemies who hate us.  He showed us that by loving to death all that is not of divine love in our life, we have hope for the resurrection of all those who love Him in the Resurrection of Love.

Let us resurrect the divine love of Love in our hearts each day so that we may share it with others and help them to accept His invitation to leave the life of slavery to sin so as to share in the Resurrection of Christ who is Love, drawn by His hand out of the tomb of death and into the garden of life.


By Surgun100 - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8724640

Note: This icon depicting the resurrection of Christ shows us that as He was resurrected from the grave, so too does he lift us up from the grave, trampling down death by death.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Praying with the Gospels: Carrying the Cross

Lord, as I go about my business, journeying to the Holy Land where
Your chosen people dwell, I am told that I must share the burden of
another, one who has been cast out into the darkness outside by their
judgment that it is better that one should be killed than that many of
the people should be slaughtered like fattened calves offered to You.

Please help me by Your grace to ever provide help to You through a
sharing of the burdens carried by Your least brothers and sisters, that
I may not begrudge them the help they require of me in carrying the
cross they have taken up, the cross under which they have fallen at
times as they struggle to walk the via dolorosa walked first by You.

Christ my God, let me remember that as You fell carrying the cross,
so too will I fall carrying my cross and ask another to help me bear
it with me, carrying the cross under which I have fallen by my sins
many times only to stand and walk at Your word again without fear,
trusting that as You rose to glory I may also rise to glory with You.


5 Andrea di Bartolo. Way to Calvary. c. 1400, Thissen-Bornhemisza coll. Madrid.jpg
By Andrea di Bartolo - http://www.phombo.com/miscellaneous/european-paintings-and-sculpture-from-12th-to-mid-19th-centuries/775454/full/popular/ 2010-10-05, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15367980


Note:  The man who carried Jesus' cross to the mount of execution was Simon of Cyrene, and this event is one of the Stations of the Cross.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Love it to Death: The Icons of Love

This past Sunday I was at the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy at the local Orthodox parish.  As he often does, the pastor provided a brief explanation of the origins of the feast, which was the end of the power of the Iconoclast heretics and the restoration of icons to the churches by the Regent Theodora.   The Iconoclasts had gained their power by the fact that the emperor Leo III had agreed with them and had been willing to use Byzantine imperial power to enforce his views by banning the use of icons.

When an underwater volcano wreaked havoc upon parts of the empire, many people, including (it seems) Leo III, believed that this was a sign of God's wrath, and then inferred that what had caused God's wrath was the use of religious images.  Interestingly, common superstition lead to a concern with idolatry, and this then lead to violence as those who believed that the images were idols (iconoclasts) and those who thought them worthy of veneration (iconodules) clashed over the issue.  Because the Emperor at the time agreed with the iconoclasts, many icons were destroyed, and this is in large part why there are so few Byzantine icons remaining from the era prior to the first Imperial spasm of iconoclasm.

The priest of the Orthodox parish helpfully explained the reason for our continued veneration of icons despite the prohibition of graven images in the Ten Commandments.  He pointed out that until God was incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ, there was no God in the world which could be represented by the use of images.  Because God Himself had not showed the Israelites an icon of Himself, God could not be depicted as an icon.  That is, until God became incarnate, sending His only begotten Son in human form, God clothed in the image and likeness of God.

We know from Sacred Scripture, specifically Genesis, that from the beginning we have been made in the image of God and bear His likeness.  For those of us in the Latin tradition, this is often referred to as imago dei, a concept I've referenced before.  For those in the Greek tradition, the term is eikōn, rendered as icon in English.  This term is used in the Septuagint in the passage which explains that we are made in the image of God.  According to Sacred Scripture, we are all icons of the living God, made by Him in His image and bearing His likeness.  God created us as icons, so we know that icons are good, which may be why we keep so many of those we love.

The pictures I have in my apartment of my family, friends, and godchildren are very much images of people I love, icons of those created in God's image just as the Saints are, but no one suspects me of worshiping them.  And though my Protestant grandmother's house is so thoroughly lined with pictures as to be reminiscent of the way Orthodox and Catholic churches are covered in images, no one would ever suspect her of worshiping them no matter how often she has filled her house with prayer and worship.  And if she were to kiss an image of my grandfather who has passed away and hope in her heart that he could see her and pray for her from Heaven, many would think it a touching testament to her love for him.

They would probably admire my grandmother's devotion, and rightly so.  But when the Orthodox or Catholic grandmother shows devotion to an icon by kissing it or touching it, many of the same folks are much more likely to worry than to admire her devotion to the Communion of Saints.  And when those who are Orthodox and Catholic cover the house of God with the images of those He loves and those who love Him, painted and sculpted images of the members of the family of Love who have been adopted into the divine household through the Blood of Christ, some are concerned that this is idolatry.

This is, of course, understandable.  We humans are prone to worshiping other human beings, the icons of the living God, instead of worshiping God.  Many a lover has begun to worship his beloved, placing her on a pedestal in his heart, placing her above even God.  And this is indeed iconolatry, a grave sin to be avoided at great cost.  We should neither worship one another as icons of the living God nor worship painted or sculpted icons of one another.

We should go no father than dulia for the icons of the living God, venerating them for their godliness but not worshiping them as God.  And just as God did not refrain from creating icons in His image, knowing that they would sometimes worship one another, the ancient Church did not refrain from creating icons in His image though it was likely that some would fall to worship them.  Neither God nor His Church keep back from His People the good things of the world, though we may do evil with them.

And we who are icons created by the God who is Love are bound to participate in God's love which creates icons; thus it is natural and right for those who participate in God's love to also create icons, images of the living God and images of the icons he has created out of His great Love.  We are the icons of Love, and we cannot help but show our love for Him by creating icons of Love and icons of those who He loves.

How can we not create icons of Love when He sent us the very Icon of Love?  Christ is indeed both Love and the Icon of Love, God in the form of an icon.  Christ Himself tells us in the Gospels that through Him we see the Father (John 4:19).  In the Incarnation, God took to Himself an icon and became the true Image of God.  Christ is the imago dei who shows us how to be more fully an imago dei; Christ shows us the path we must walk, the via dolorosa which leads those of us who are icons of Love into being united with Love.

Christ is the very Icon of Love, and even He was destroyed on the cross; His death was the destruction of the most holy icon of all, the ultimate iconoclasm.  If even Christ, the Icon of Love, is smashed by the iconoclasts of the time who could not imagine a greater blasphemy than a man who was God in the image of God, then is it any surprise that many other icons of Love would be smashed by iconoclasts?

The holy martyrs, like us, are icons of the living God, the images of God crushed in their infirmity; like Christ, they will rise to glory. We are called to follow them, to willingly separate ourselves from anything which might keep us from being beautiful icons of Love, to divest ourselves of all that is not a reflection of the light of divine love.  Like the holy martyrs, we are called to love to death all that prevents us, we who are images of God, from being united with the one whose likeness we bear.

As we reflect the light of the Icon of Love, we become more and more the image and likeness of God, icons of ever greater beauty.  Just as those who paint icons pray while they paint in order that their icons might become holy icons, so too we are called to pray in order that we might become holy, icons who increasingly resemble the great beauty of their love He who is Love.

In imitating Christ, He who is the Icon of Love, we are gradually transformed into ever more clear and more beautiful icons of Love; by His grace we are granted to be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect.


By Anonymous - National Icon Collection (18), British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7306236


Note: The image is an icon depicting the restoration of icons to the churches under Theodora and Michael III.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Liturgy of the Minutes

In the ancient Christian churches, it's often the case that formal prayer is not just prior to meals or during Sunday worship or during meetings with other members of one's church or before bed with one's children.  Those are all wonderful times to pray, and we ought to pray at those times.  But in the Letter to the Thessalonians, we are advised to pray without ceasing, and this is where the Liturgy of the Hours comes in.

As I've mentioned before, in the liturgy we lift up our hearts in love and are lifted up in the embrace of divine love, and by this love we gradually put to death those parts of us that can not partake of divine love. In the liturgy is loving intimacy with the divine, the greatest form of prayer to the one who loved us unto death.  Because we love Him, we want to join with all those who love Him in this greatest form of prayer, the extravagance of our love for God shining forth in the forms and sounds, in the incense and the vestments, in the precious metals for the Precious Body and Precious Blood.

Because the Church desires to express the extravagance of our love for Christ our God without ceasing, She has given us the Liturgy of the Hours, which is composed of Morning Prayer, Daytime Prayer, The Office of Readings, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer.  Like many gifts of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours is rich in history and tradition spanning from pre-exilic Judaism to the desert hermits and monastics of early Christianity.  The monks and hermits built their lives around daily prayers from the Psalms and from the tradition of the early Church, passing those prayers on to all the faithful so that they too might pray from the heart of the Church.

The Church invites us to begin each day with prayer, to continue each day with prayer, to dive each day into Sacred Scripture through the Psalms, to fill each evening with prayer, and to end each day with prayer.  This is the unending sacrifice of praise offered first by the exiled Jews in the synagogue and now by the Church to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Even within the small moments of each day, when waiting for our turn in the grocery line, sitting still as a train rumbles down the tracks, or running a trail at sunset, the Church invites us back to the liturgy.  No matter how small the number of minutes we have, they can be filled by the meditation on the Gospels that is the Christocentric rosary which keeps our gaze always upon Christ and His good news of salvation.  No matter how great the number of minutes we have, they can be an unending unveiling of Jesus as man, Christ, and God through the Apocalyptic rosary.

If we choose it, our lives can be a liturgy of minutes; whether we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the Dominican rosary, the Chaplet of St. Michael, or the Franciscan Crown rosary, we can pray without ceasing, making each minute a meaningful moment of showing God our love for Him.  Each minute is an opportunity for liturgy, an opportunity to cultivate an intimate relationship with the God who loved us unto death, reciprocating His love for us by making a sacrifice of the time He has given to us by filling it with praise.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Praying with Gospels: The Eyes of the Blind

Lord, I was born blind to Your physical form in this world,
unable to see You resurrected, Your earthly glory unfurled.
I was born into a world of sin, and I have added to the sins
of the world by my most grievous fault which ever begins
again the process of separating me from Your divine love.

Send me wherever You will, and I will go there to perform
whatever task You set for me; though Your two hands form
clay over my eyes, I trust in Your providence and will walk
confidently to the baptismal pool where others might balk,
and if You but say the word, Your servant shall be healed.

Please help me by Your grace to always choose Your love
over all else so that I may no longer be sin's willing slave,
tearing away all that separates me from Your communion
of love in the eternal heavenly glory of the Beatific vision,
the very imago dei viewed by those who die in Your Love.

Christ and the pauper.jpg
By Andrey Mironov - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30520270

Note:  This prayer is inspired by the occasion of Jesus' healing of the blind man recounted in the Gospel of John, as well as the Confiteor and another liturgical prayer my fellow Roman Catholics will recognize.

Fair Questions: How did the Buddha become enlightened?

As with a long list of many other things (i.e. the Buddha's teaching on wifely submission, the Buddha's views on the economic policies of monarchs, and his placement of morality before mindfulness) I was somewhat surprised by the narrative of the Buddha's journey to enlightenment as recorded in the Pāli canon.  I had been under the impression that it was a fairly rapid process that spanned less than a year, that he sat under a tree for a short while and just waited for realization to hit him over the head, perhaps in the form of an apple.

But as I was reading the Ariyapariya Sutta, I discovered that it wasn't at all that simple.  Like the Buddha's narrative about his final birth, the Buddha's narrative about his final life in the cosmos of suffering has some unexpected elements.

The first surprise for me was the length of time it seemed to have taken.  I realized while reading that the Buddha's journey had begun long before he sat under that fateful tree and attempted to starve himself to death.  As with most journeys we take in life, the Buddha's journey began in his own mind; he was searching for something that he was not finding in his current life, a life of plenty that most people would want to have.

"Monks, there are these two kinds of search: the noble search and the ignoble search.  And what is the ignoble search?  Here someone being himself subject to birth seeks what is also subject to birth; being himself subject to aging, he seeks what is also subject to aging; being himself subject to sickness; being himself subject to death, he seeks what is also subject to death; being himself subject to sorrow, he seeks what is also subject to sorrow; being himself subject to defilement, he seeks what is also subject to defilement.
And what may be said to be subject to birth, aging, sickness, and death; to sorrow and defilement?  Wife and children, mean and women slaves, goats and sheep, fowl and pigs, elephants, cattle, horses, and mares, gold and silver: these acquisitions are subject to birth, aging, sickness, and death; to sorrow and defilement; and one who is tied to these things, infatuated with them, and utterly absorbed in them, being himself subject to birth...to sorrow and defilement, seeks what is also subject to birth...to sorrow and defilement."

The Buddha here explains that what most of us search for in life is not the noble search, that what we search for is not anything that will lead to any permanent state of happiness, that these things and these relationships and these powers over others will not do anything to accomplish the cessation of suffering, but instead keep us trapped in the cycle of death and rebirth.

"And what is the noble search?  Here someone being himself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeks the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to aging, having understood the danger in what is subject to aging, he seeks the unaging supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to sickness, having understood the danger in what is subject to sickness, he seeks the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to dying, having understood the danger in what is subject to dying, he seeks the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to sorrow, having understood the danger in what is subject to sorrow, he seeks the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to defilement, he seeks the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna.  This is the noble search."

By stark contrast, the Buddha advises us that the noble search is exclusively for that which is not impermanent, for that which is perfectly pure, for that which is free of suffering and death and the ravages of time.  And lest we think that the Buddha does not understand our plight, he assures us that he too has undertaken the ignoble search.

"Monks, before my enlightenment, when I was still only an unenlightened bodhisatta, I too, being myself subject to birth, sought also what is subject to birth; being myself subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, I sought what was also subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement.  Then I considered thus: 'Why, being myself subject to birth, do I seek what is also subject to birth?  Why, being myself subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, do I seek what is also subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement?  Suppose that, being myself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, I seek the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna.  Suppose that, being myself subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, I seek the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna.' 
Later, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life, though my mother and father wished otherwise and wept with tearful faces, I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the ochre robe, and went forth from the home into a life of homelessness."

The ignoble search failed to yield the permanent state of happiness so many of us seek, a state free from sorrow and suffering and death.  And so the Buddha chose, after some time, to abandon all that kept him on the path of the ignoble search; he then took up the noble search and began with the radical self-denial of living without a home and without his family.

But like most of us, he did not choose to live in complete solitude, but rather sought others who were also on the noble search.  He sought out those who, like him, we engaged in a pursuit of freedom from the powers of suffering and death.

"Having gone forth, monks, in search of what is wholesome, seeking the supreme state of sublime peace, I went to Ālāra Kālāma and said to him, 'Friend Kālāma, I want to lead the spiritual life in this Dhamma and Discipline.' Ālāra Kālāma replied: 'The venerable one may stay here.  This Dhamma is such that a wise man can soon enter upon and dwell in it, realizing for himself through direct knowledge his own teacher's doctrine.'  I soon quickly learned that Dhamma.  As far as mere lip-reciting and rehearsal of his teaching went, I could speak with knowledge and assurance, and I claimed, 'I know and see'--and there were others who did likewise.
I considered: 'It is not through mere faith alone that Ālāra Kālāma declares: "By realizing it for myself with direct knowledge, I enter upon and dwell in this Dhamma."  Certainly Ālāra Kālāma dwells knowing and seeing this Dhamma.'  Then I went to Ālāra Kālāma and asked him: 'Friend Kālāma, in what way do you declare that by realizing it for yourself with direct knowledge you enter upon and dwell in this Dhamma?' In reply he declared the base of nothingness."

The Buddha's consistent emphasis on learning by direct experience is on display here, as it is in many of his discourses.  It's quite possible that Ālāra Kālāma was the first teacher to make clear to him the necessity of realization by direct experience, but it's also possible that the Buddha was already committed to finding out the Dhamma by direct experience for himself.  Either way, we can tell that he was not satisfied with mere rote knowledge.

"I considered: 'Not only Ālāra Kālāma has faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.  Suppose I endeavor to realize the Dhamma that Ālāra Kālāma declares he enters upon and dwells in by realizing it for himself by direct knowledge?'
I soon quickly entered upon and dwelled in that Dhamma by realizing it for myself with direct knowledge.  Then I went to Ālāra Kālāma and asked him: 'Friend Kālāma, is it in this way that you declare that you enter upon and dwell in this Dhamma by realizing it for yourself with direct knowledge?'--'That is the way, friend.'--'It is in this way, friend, that I also enter upon and dwell in this Dhamma by realizing it for myself with direct knowledge.'--'It is a gain for us, friend, it is a great gain for us that we have such a venerable one for our fellow monk.  So the Dhamma that I declare I enter upon and dwell in by realizing it for myself with direct knowledge is the Dhamma that you enter upon and dwell in by realizing for yourself with direct knowledge. ... So you know the Dhamma that I know and I know the Dhamma that you know.  As I am, so are you; as you are, so am I.  Come, friend, let us now lead this community together.'
Thus Ālāra Kālāma, my teacher, placed me, his pupil, on an equal footing with himself and awarded me the highest honor.  But it occurred to me: 'This Dhamma does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna, but only to rebirth in the base of nothingness.'  Not being satisfied with that Dhamma, disappointed with it, I left."

The Buddha is also not satisfied with the teaching about the base of nothingness, which according to the translator's footnotes is referring to, "...the plane of existence called the base of nothingness, the objective counterpart of the seventh meditative attainment.  Here the lifespan is said to be 60,000 eons, but when that has elapsed one must pass away and return to a lower world.  Thus one who attains this is still not free from birth and death."

Though sincerely desiring to learn and respectful of his teacher, the yogic meditation adept who had recognized his progress on the journey of the spiritual life and offered him a place as a fellow adept, the Buddha chose to continue the noble search elsewhere.  Specifically, he sought the guidance of Uddaka Rāmaputta, another master of meditation.

"Still in search, monks, of what is wholesome, seeking the supreme state of sublime peace, I went to Uddaka Rāmaputta and said to him: 'Friend, I want to lead the spiritual life in this Dhamma and Discipline.'  Uddaka Rāmaputta replied: 'The venerable one may stay here.  This Dhamma is such that a wise man can soon enter upon and dwell in it, realizing for himself through direct knowledge his own teacher's doctrine.'  I soon quickly learned that Dhamma.  As far as mere lip-reciting and rehearsal of his teaching went, I could speak with knowledge and assurance, and I claimed, 'I know and see'--and there were others who did likewise.
I considered: 'It was not through mere faith alone that Rāma declared: "By realizing it for myself with direct knowledge, I enter upon and dwell in this Dhamma."  Certainly Rāma dwelled knowing and seeing this Dhamma.'  Then I went to Uddaka Rāmaputta and asked him: 'Friend, in what way did Rāma declare that by realizing it for himself with direct knowledge he entered upon and dwelled in this Dhamma?' In reply Uddaka Rāmaputta declared the base of neither-perception-nor-nonperception."

The Buddha is once again taught another doctrine, and hoping that it will lead to the end of suffering and death amidst the cycle of death and rebirth, he sincerely attempts to live it out.

Once again he matches the teacher, but the teacher is the son of Rāma, the 7th avatar of Vishnu.  Though he is now learning divine wisdom, will it be enough to reach the enlightenment he seeks?

I considered: 'Not only Rāma has faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. I too have faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.  Suppose I endeavor to realize the Dhamma that Rāma declared he entered upon and dwelled in by realizing it for himself by direct knowledge.'
I soon quickly entered upon and dwelled in that Dhamma by realizing it for myself with direct knowledge.  Then I went to Uddaka Rāmaputta and asked him: 'Friend, was it in this way that Rāma declared he entered upon and dwelled in by realizing it for himself by direct knowledge?'--'That is the way, friend.'--'It is in this way, friend, that I also enter upon and dwell in this Dhamma by realizing it for myself with direct knowledge.'--'It is a gain for us, friend, it is a great gain for us that we have such a venerable one for our fellow monk.  So the Dhamma that Rāma declared he entered upon and dwelled in by realizing it for himself with direct knowledge is the Dhamma that you enter upon and dwell in by realizing for yourself with direct knowledge. ... So you know the Dhamma that Rāma knew and Rāma knew the Dhamma that you know.  As Rāma was, so are you; as you are, so was Rāma.  Come, friend, now lead this community.'
Thus Uddaka Rāmaputta, my fellow monk, placed me in the position of a teacher and accorded me the highest honor.  But it occurred to me: 'This Dhamma does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna, but only to rebirth in the base of neither-perception-nor-nonperception.'  Not being satisfied with that Dhamma, disappointed with it, I left.

Here we find out that the Buddha is also not satisfied with the teaching about the base of neither-perception-nor-nonperception, and according to the translator's footnotes, "This is the fourth and highest attainment.  It should be noted that Uddaka Rāmaputta is Rāma's son, not  Rāma himself. ... The attainment of this base leads to rebirth in the base of neither-perception-nor-nonperception, the highest plane of rebirth in the saṃsāra.  The lifespan there is said to be 84,000 eons, but being conditioned and impermanent, it is still ultimately unsatisfactory."

Not being satisfied with his becoming a skilled meditator of great talent, character, and understanding of the Dhamma under the teachings of the existing religious figures, respected and saintly though they may have been, the Buddha continued his noble search.

"Still in search, monks, of what is wholesome, seeking the supreme state of sublime peace, I wandered by stages through the Magadhan country until eventually I arrived at Uruvelā near Senānigama.  There I saw an agreeable piece of ground, a delightful grove with a clear-flowing river with pleasant, smooth banks and nearby a village for alms resort.  I considered: 'This is an agreeable piece of ground, a delightful grove with a clear-flowing river with pleasant, smooth banks and nearby a village for alms resort.  This will serve for the striving of a clansman intent on striving.'  And I sat down there thinking: 'This will server for striving.'
Then, monks, being myself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeking the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being myself subject to aging, having understood the danger in what is subject to aging, seeking the unaging supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the unaging supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being myself subject to sickness, having understood the danger in what is subject to sickness, seeking the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being myself subject to death, having understood the danger in what is subject to death, seeking the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being myself subject to sorrow, having understood the danger in what is subject to sorrow, seeking the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the sorrowless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being myself subject to defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to defilement, seeking the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna, I attained the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna.  The knowledge and vision arose in me: 'My liberation is unshakable.  This is my last birth.  Now there is no more renewed existence.'"

The end of the Buddha's noble search begins in a grove of trees next to a flowing river where he chose to remain until he reached enlightenment, practicing radical self-denial until he found it.  His last birth (and a glorious birth it was according to his disciple's recitation) had now culminated in enlightenment and his last death.

Though we tend to focus on his last birth and death, the Buddha consistently claimed that after his enlightenment he remembered each of his past lives in detail, including his name and where he was born, and that there were a great multitude of such lives.  The Buddha presents us with a noble search that takes many lives to complete, many deaths and rebirths, and many sorrows and sufferings during those lives.

Enlightenment is not something the Buddha reached in a few days sitting under a tree practicing asceticism and meditation one time, but rather something he grew into over many lifetimes.  And even in his final lifetime, he put in a great deal of consistent effort into practicing and learning from others to reach enlightenment, sacrificing all that he had along the way.

In the end, enlightenment is attained only with great difficulty, and though the Buddha may have shown us the path to liberation, we have a long way to go on the journey to reach our destination on the other shore where the Buddha stands, the Perfectly Enlightened One who burned himself up to be a shining lighthouse so that we can cross safely.

drawing of Buddha in lotus position with followers in woods by stream
By myself - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=805982


Note: For those who are interested, you can find more information about the anthology I'm using on my Sources page.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Fair Questions: What is the role of the Sangha in Buddhism?

One of the things that initially surprised me when I began studying Buddhism more seriously is that the Buddha put morality before mindfulness.  Another was that he had an infancy narrative in the Pāli canon, which by the way is fascinating and well worth reading.  Yet another surprise was the Buddha's teachings on the duties of women in the household.  But these were certainly not the only surprises I encountered when reading the Pāli canon.

But before I get to the source of my surprise, what is the Pāli canon?  It's the oldest extant collection of the Buddha's teachings, transmitted by oral tradition by the monks who were his disciples to later generations, eventually recorded in written form.  As is the case with many religious traditions, the texts used by the adherents of Buddhism were not written until later and were written based on the oral tradition of the early Buddhist community.

The early Buddhist community was probably not a unified whole in which every member of the Sangha agreed on every point with every other member of the Sangha, but the first documented splitting of the community into different schools occurred between the time of the second Buddhist council and the third Buddhist council.  The Pāli canon was probably the work of this early Buddhist community in much the same way that the New Testament writings were the work of the early Christian community (though the Pāli canon is older than any of the the New Testament canons by several hundred years).

When I refer to the Sangha above, I mean the assembly of Buddhist monks and nuns, though there are understandings of the Sangha which are broader in scope.  It was these monks and nuns who preserved the Buddha's teachings, a process we might think of as dharma transmission, the passing on of the truths the Buddha revealed to us about morality, the cosmic order, and transcendence.  Without the Sangha, we would not have any writings to refer to when we sought refuge in the Buddha and his teachings.

And even more importantly, without the Sangha there is no lived experience of Buddhism to be handed on to those who want to become Buddhists.  As Joanna Piacenza has pointed out, many people who are interested in Buddhism in the West don't have any contact with this lived experience of Buddhism and simply engage in a reductive sort of mindfulness meditation without the benefit of the Sangha's ability to transmit to them the full experience of Buddhism.

This leads them to be what she calls "buddhist Meditators" because they meditate regularly but have no authentic connection to Buddhism proper.  As someone who used to be a buddhist Meditator, I can attest that her description of this phenomenon is quite accurate.  Fortunately, I was able to move past that point and study Buddhism more deeply.  This was largely thanks to the work of the Sangha, and I am grateful for their help.

The Buddha himself does not mince words when describing the importance of the Sangha, but let's begin with the words of his student who learned a valuable lesson and was grateful for it:

"Magnificent, venerable sir!  Magnificent, venerable sir!  The Blessed One has made the Dhamma clear in many ways, as if he were turning upright what had been overthrown, revealing what was hidden, showing the way to one who was lost, or holding up a lamp in the darkness so those with good eyesight can see forms.  We now go for refuge to the Blessed One, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks.  Let the Blessed One accept us as lay followers who have gone for refuge from today until life's end."

Kālāmas, who is learning from the Buddha how to avoid unreliable means of gaining knowledge, presents us with a pretty standard line about going to the Buddha for refuge, because for many the Buddha's teachings are a place where we are free of the dangers of the false views which are ubiquitous in the world.  He goes to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha for refuge from these false views.  This is a set of three that I've seen many times in the Pāli canon, reminiscent of the triple munera of Christianity.

The beginning is the Buddha himself, whose friendship is invaluable.  The teaching of the Buddha is the timeless Dhamma, which leads to our liberation if we follow it diligently.  The Sangha is the preserver and protector of the Dhamma, ensuring that the path of liberation is available to all who seek it.  The common denominator here is the Dhamma which liberates; the Buddha is the expounder of the Dhamma and the Sangha safeguards the Dhamma from false views which might overtake it.

This is why the Buddha warns Ānanda, a venerable disciple of the Buddha who features in the discourses of the Pāli canon with some regularity, against anything which damages the integrity of the Sangha.

"There are, Ānanda, these six roots of disputes.  What six?  Here, Ānanda, a monk is angry and resentful.  Such a monk dwells without deference toward the Teacher, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and he does not fulfill the training.  A monk who dwells without deference toward the Teacher, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and who does not fulfill the training, creates a dispute in the Sangha, which would be for the harm and unhappiness of many, for the loss, harm, and suffering of devas and humans."

The Buddha repeats this same point six times with regard to six different types of destructive behavior to the Sangha, the community of the Buddha's disciples, which causes such grave harm to and unhappiness for many people and devas.  The Buddha takes pains to point out over and over that there are very serious consequences for both individuals and the world if the Sangha is allowed to disintegrate.

Because the Buddha understands the importance of the continuation of the Sangha, he gives them instructions for ensuring that the community of those who follow the Buddha can thrive:

Soon after Vassakāra had gone, the Blessed One said: "Ānanda, go to whatever monks there are living around Rājagaha, and summon them to the assembly hall."
"Yes, venerable sir," said Ānanda, and he did so.  Then he came to the Blessed One, saluted him, stood to one side, and said: "Venerable sir, the Sangha of monks is assembled.  Now is the the time for the Blessed One to do as he sees fit."  The the Blessed One rose from his seat, went to the assembly hall, sat down on the prepared seat, and said: "Monks, I will teach you seven things that are conducive to welfare.  Listen, pay careful attention, and I will speak."
"Yes, venerable sir," said the monks, and the Blessed One said: "As long as the monks hold regular and frequent assemblies, they may be expected to prosper and not decline.  As long as they meet in harmony, break up in harmony, and carry on their business in harmony, they may be expected to prosper and not decline.  As long as they do not authorize what has not been authorized already, and do not abolish what has been authorized, but proceed according to what has been authorized by the rules of training...; as long as they honor, respect, revere, and salute the elders of long standing who are long ordained, fathers and leaders of the order...; as long as they do not fall prey to the craving that arises in them and leads to rebirth...; as long as they are devoted to forest-lodgings...; as long as they preserve their mindfulness regarding the body, so that in future the good among their companions will come to them, and those who have already come will feel at ease with them...; as long as the monks hold to these seven things and are seen to do so, they may be expected to prosper and not decline."

The Buddha understood that human beings are notoriously prone to allowing themselves to lapse in their routine practices (such as an ascetic lifestyle marked by simple lodgings and almsrounds) which support them on the path to liberation, which leads to a lapse in right conduct (such as communal harmony, respect for those who have gone before, and mindfulness of the body), which then leads to allowing themselves to wander from the path entirely by authorizing behaviors the Buddha prohibited for their good, knowing that if they allowed themselves to engage in those behaviors that cause craving to arise and lead them to yet another rebirth and death in the cosmos of suffering.

After all, the duty of the Sangha is to preserve and protect the Dhamma so that the path to liberation might be available to all beings.  This is an extremely important duty; the Sangha acts as a bulwark against the seemingly inevitable onslaught of the endless cycle of death and rebirth.  The Sangha must remain faithful to the Dhamma the Buddha has expounded, a brake on the all too human tendency to water down the difficult truths about the effort and discipline required to walk the path to liberation and reach its end.

So how highly does the Buddha place the importance of the Sangha?

The Buddha said to Anathapindika: "In the past, householder, there was a Brahmin named Velama.  He gave such a great alms offering as this: 84,000 bowls of gold filled with silver; 84,000 bowls of silver filled with gold; 84,000 bronze bowls filled with bullion; 84,000 elephants, chariots, milch cows, maidens, and couches, many millions of fine cloths, and indescribable amounts of food, drink, ointment, and bedding.  As great as was the alms offering that Velama gave, it would be even more fruitful if one were to feed even a single person possessed of right view. ...it would be even more fruitful if one would feed the Sangha of monks headed by the Buddha and build a monastery for the sake of the Sangha of the four quarters...it would be even more fruitful if, with a trusting mind, one would go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and would undertake the five precepts: abstaining from the destruction of life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, and from the use of intoxicants.  As great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful if one would develop a mind of loving-kindness even for the time it takes to pull a cow's udder.  And as great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful still if one would develop the perception of impermanence just for the time it takes to snap one's fingers."

In the Buddha's peerless vision, the most important thing he sees is walking the path to liberation by abstaining from immoral behavior, by developing a capacity for boundless loving-kindness, and by cultivating the liberating insight into the impermanence of all things which so indelibly marks the Dhamma as the Buddha expounded it.  The second most important thing he lists is the feeding of the monks of the Sangha and building a monastery for them.

This is, of course, not because the Buddha wanted to enrich himself or his followers with fine foods and luxurious living.  His ascetic practices, to which he instructed his monks to hold firm, thoroughly reject the excesses of the acquisition of personal wealth and ease.  But the community does have a treasury of the greatest wealth to honor with all the honors which can be given in this world, and this wealth is the Dhamma which they are bound to preserve and protect so that all can find refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.

The Buddha teaches us that aside from walking the path to liberation for yourself, the best thing one can do is to support the Sangha in its mission to preserve and protect the Dhamma, ensuring that all beings will continue to be able to find the path to the final enlightenment which the Buddha explained so eloquently.  By upholding the Sangha which holds fast to the Dhamma, we pass on to those who come after us a compass which points us unerringly in the right direction on the path to liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

The ornate temples and meditation rooms in the monasteries, standing in stark contrast to the simple garb, self-denial, and poverty of the monks, point the seekers after liberation towards the path the Buddha showed us.  They show us that the path to liberation is worth every worldly honor, that its cost is like that of building the finest temples, and that those who walk the path must give up the pursuit of wealth and pleasure to reach its end.

In the end, the Sangha is the repository of the Dhamma of the Buddha which he left in the world for us; the Sangha is the Buddha's boat, the ship of the Sakyan son in which we can take refuge as we cross to the other shore surely by following always the light of the Buddha himself, he who is the lighthouse.


Bodleian MS. Burm. a. 12 Life of the Buddha 15-18.jpg
By Unknown - http://www2.odl.ox.ac.uk/gsdl/cgi-bin/library?e=d-000-00---0orient01--00-0-0-0prompt-10---4------0-1l--1-en-50---20-about---00001-001-1-1isoZz-8859Zz-1-0&a=d&cl=CL1&d=orient001-aaf.14, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41190754


Note: For those who are interested, you can find more information about the anthology I'm using on my Sources page.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Fair Questions: Why use the Pāli Canon to understand Buddhism?

Those who have been reading my many pieces on Buddhism (ranging from lengthy expositions on karma, enlightenment, and morality to explorations of its intersection with contemporary political movements such as socialism and feminism to questions of comparative religion related to Christianity and atheism) may have noticed that my constant source is the Buddha's discourses as they are recorded in the Pāli Canon.  And those who are aware that it is not the only source for the discourses of the Buddha might wonder why I choose to use it over other options.

So why do I use the Pāli Canon almost exclusively when trying to understand Buddhism?  For many of the same reasons that others do, as it turns out.  It is the earliest record we have of the Buddha's discourses in writing and staggeringly comprehensive.  Judging by the length of the canonical texts as a whole (which far outstrips even the longest canon of the texts of the Bible), the Buddha would have had to have lived for quite a long time and done quite a lot of public speaking in order for the Buddha and his disciples to produce that many discourses.

It's important to note that the relative age of a text is no guarantee of perfect fidelity to a speaker's message.  I have no illusions about that.  I do, however, have a sense that the more removed a text is from the speaker (whether by culture, language, or time) the more likely it is to be even less faithful to the speaker's message.  And in fairness, the Pāli Canon wasn't recorded until several hundred years after the Buddha's passing on, which is pretty far removed compared to the Gospels of Christianity that were written decades after Jesus' death.

We might reasonably suspect that the Pāli Canon could well be less faithful to the Buddha's teachings than the canonical Gospels are to Christ's teachings, but I tend to give the Pāli Canon the benefit of the doubt since it's the best textual evidence I have.  I also tend to give it the benefit of the doubt because it is remarkably coherent both in style and substance.  The kinds of repetition recurring across many discourses, both of phrases and themes, suggests that the content of the message is coming from a single speaker or perhaps a group of people very much trying to remain faithful to the words of a single author.

Many people might find it unbelievable that the oral tradition preserved by monks could ever remain faithful to the Buddha's teachings over the course of 400+ years, but there's actually good scientific evidence that human beings are quite capable of preserving accurate information by oral tradition for many thousands of years and then communicating it effectively in a new language.  Which is good for assessments of the authenticity of the Pāli Canon, because it's not exactly written in a language that's widely used by native speakers today.

So what language is it written in, and why is that important?  I'll cite the translator of the anthology of the canon I've been using for my studies of it in order to explain.

"...the Pāli Canon has special importance for us, and that is so for at least three reasons.  
First, it is a complete collection all belonging to a single school.  Even though we can detect clear signs of historical development between different portions of the canon, this alignment with a single school gives the texts a certain degree of uniformity.  Among the texts stemming from the same period, we can even speak of a homogeneity of contents, a single flavor underlying the manifold expressions of the doctrine.  This homogeneity is most evident in the four Nikāyas and the older parts of the fifth Nikāya and gives us reason to believe that with these texts--allowing for the qualifications expressed above, that they have counterparts in other Buddhist schools--we have reached the most ancient stratum of Buddhist literature discoverable.
Second, the entire collection has been preserved in a Middle Indo-Aryan language, one closely related to the language (or, more likely, the various regional dialects) that the Buddha himself spoke.  We call this language Pāli, but the name for the language actually arose through a misunderstanding.  The word pāli properly means 'text,' that is, the canonical text as distinct from the commentaries.  The commentators refer to the language in which the texts are preserved as pālibhāsā, 'the language of the texts'.  At some point, the term was misunderstood to mean 'the Pāli language,' and once the misconception arose, it took root and has been with us ever since.  Scholars regard this language as a hybrid showing features of several Prakrit dialects used around the 3rd century B.C.E., subjected to a partial process of Sanskritization.  While the language is not identical with any the Buddha himself would have spoken, it belongs to the same broad linguistic family as those he might have used and originates from the same conceptual matrix.  This language thus reflects the thought-world that the Buddha inherited from the wider Indian culture into which he was born, so that its words capture the subtle nuances of that thought-world without the intrusion of alien influences inevitable in even the best and most scrupulous translations.  This contrasts with Chinese, Tibetan, or English translations of the texts, which reverberate with the connotations of the words chosen from the target languages."

The point that it's useful to have religious teachings in a language that would share the same conceptual matrix is one I've made myself in discussions about what language is best for studying other religious texts.  It's certainly true, in my experience, that a shared conceptual matrix makes a big difference in the ease of understanding a teaching in a particular language.

It is much more difficult, for example, for me to understand anything in Japanese than it is for me to understand most things in Spanish or French.  I actually have more education in Japanese than in French, but the extent of the shared conceptual ground that lies between French and English is much greater than the shared conceptual ground between Japanese and English.

But language is not the only concern, or even my primary concern.  I strive to understand religions much more deeply than I can by force of linguistics, which brings me back to citing the translator.

"The third reason the Pāli Canon has special importance is that this collection is authoritative for a contemporary Buddhist school.  Unlike the textual collections of the extinct schools of Early Buddhism, which are purely of academic interest, this collection still brims with life.  It inspires the faith of millions of Buddhists from the villages and monasteries of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Southeast Asia to the cities and meditation centers of Europe and the Americas.  It shapes their understanding, guides them in the face of difficult ethical choices, informs their meditative practices, and offers them the keys to liberating insight."

This is an important point for me, because I am striving to understand Buddhism not just as a set of propositions to be systematized and understood, but also as a living religious tradition in which many of my fellow human beings participate.  With any religion, it's important to gain a visceral understanding of it and be connected to it as it is actually experienced and practiced by those who are members of that tradition.

I even go so far as to seek out a translator who is also deeply committed to the practice of the religion I study.  While this does mean that the translator will have biases in favor of the religion and maybe a specific school within it, the translator's bias as a practitioner is part of the lived experience of the religion which I am seeking to understand.  My advice to any seeker after the truth is to start with the textual evidence, but certainly not to stop with the textual evidence.

Those who only seek to understand the words being used in a religion's texts will never understand the religion; they will only understand the words, and the words are just one important part of a whole with many important parts.

Tipitaka scripture.jpg
CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=190448

Note: For those who are interested, you can find more information about the anthology I'm using on my Sources page.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Praying with the Gospels: Your Disciple's Denial

Lord, the weight of my fears presses upon me each time
I am asked to proclaim You in front of those who do not
believe in You, those who strive to trample Your name
in the mud churned by false prophets, and those who yet
attack those who seek to follow You on the road of love.

Jesus, I have denied You in their presence not just once,
not only twice, but even three times, with harsh epithets
and the quiet insistence of one who knows what he once
might have stated proudly will now have ultimate costs,
that he would die if he were to speak of Your great love.

Please grant that I may find the courage to proclaim all
that You have done for me so that the very stones need
not cry out in the absence of my voice, and meanwhile
have mercy upon me, I who have trembled and denied
You, and forgive Your disciple's denial in eternal love.

Gerard van Honthorst - The Denial of St Peter - WGA11661.jpg
By Gerard van Honthorst - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15462297


Note: As with many portions of the Gospel narratives, there is a wealth of artwork depicting the denial of Peter, which is what this prayer is based on.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Protestant Intuition: Church and Empire

Recently, a friend shared an article from the National Catholic Reporter with me, wanting my thoughts on it.  I'm sure that my orthodox Catholic friends already have their suspicions about the contents of the article, given that the National Catholic Reporter tends to heavily feature heterodox views.

But what I found when I read the article is that it articulated fairly well what I have called previously a Protestant Intuition.  By that I mean something that Protestants often take for granted, and more specifically something I have taken for granted because I was once a Protestant.  I really value my Protestant upbringing; I have many wonderful and loving Protestant family members.  At this point, I just no longer agree with some of the intuitions I once had about the world and religion that were inculcated in me by that upbringing.


For those interested, I have included links to my other work on Protestant intuitions and why I no longer agree with them.  The particular intuition that I found presented in the article was not any of the above, and I thought it worth addressing because it was one of the intuitions I held onto even into my early twenties when I began gravitating away from the Catholic Church and toward Mahayana Buddhism.

Like many people in my age group, my intuition was that the relationship between religions and governments was pretty straightforward: either the religion and the government were completely separated and the religion had a chance to be pure and unchanged, or the government and religion were intertwined and the religion was inevitably changed radically for the worse.

So quite understandably in light of those assumptions, I tended to think that the relationship between the early Christian Church and the Empire of the times had made Christianity something other than what it should be, that it had messed up Christianity and that it needed to be reformed to remove the poisons administered to it by the Imperial interference in its affairs.

As I got older and studied more about Christianity and many other religions, I realized that the relationship between religions and governments were rarely so simple and straightforward as I had thought.  But at the time, I would have probably agreed with what Joseph Martos wrote in the aforementioned article at National Catholic Reporter.  He seems to know some things about the ancient world, but not enough about how people actually thought and prayed, not to mention the patristic writings.

He has a few facts which he has selectively edited to spin the narrative that people really want to hear, an old Protestant narrative I know from being raised a Protestant who belonged to a restorationist church. The narrative is that there was a loss of continuity between the Apostolic age and the next generations, that the true Church was killed and buried by the Empire, leaving it an empty shell to advance political ends while not advancing our spiritual ends. This is the typical contemporary view of religion, and many contemporary thinkers can't imagine anything else being the case, so it's easier to just pretend that it's almost always been the case.

And it certainly doesn't hurt that it's a convenient narrative for their desire to reshape the Church in their own image, the image of contemporary values which are in many cases antithetical to the Apostolic values they hold up as being the true Christian values.  This of course is exactly what the author is leading us toward in the end when he claims that, "We need to rediscover what is essential to the Christian way of life, reinvent ways to ritualize that, and reformulate what those rituals mean in terms that are faithful both to the teachings of Jesus and to the experience of living in accordance with them."

Inevitably given our current cultural tendencies and normal human confirmation bias, the "reinvention" of the sacraments instituted by God and handed down to us by the Apostles and their disciples would become just another example of man remaking God's grace into something more palatable to his personal preferences.  We would only need to reinvent the sacraments if they were susceptible to being reinvented by us, which I don't think they are.  At most, they might need to be recovered if they were truly lost during some historical period.

This is of course what Martos suggests happened earlier in his article:

"In the first two centuries of Christianity, theology was based in experience. Words that were later taken to refer to things that are outside the realm of experience were originally attempts to talk about things that the followers of Jesus were experiencing.
For example, when Paul wrote about justification by faith, he was not talking about getting right with God by believing in Christ, but getting your life straightened out by trusting that what Jesus taught is true. When the Book of Acts talks about being saved through baptism, it does not mean washing away sin by going through a ritual, but being rescued from selfishness by being immersed in a caring community."

I found myself a bit baffled by the implication that after the 1st and 2nd centuries of Christianity, theology was no longer based on experience.  From what I can tell, Christian theology remained based in experience all the way from the Apostles to the present day.  The early church writings, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, Maximos the Confessor, Pope Gregory the Great, the medieval mystics and scholastics, and even the writings of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI all show us to one degree or another show us the influence of their experiences on Christian theology.  I have to wonder: are he and I reading completely different documents?

Even Martos himself seems to show this influence of experience on Christian theology, as many contemporary theologians do.  If his experience is that the sacraments are disconnected from the lived experience of Christians (and it seems to be), then it makes sense that he would propose that sacramental theology is disconnected from that lived experience and also propose to somehow reconnect the sacraments with the lived experience of contemporary Christians.

He seems to view the sacraments in the way a non-Christian emperor would have: as rituals which have communal significance and personal significance, but don't have the theological content their participants believe in as part of the sacrament.

"Over time, the experience behind the early writings was forgotten. The writings were recognized as precious, called sacred Scriptures. Even the Didache appeared in some early lists of sacred Scriptures.
Christian intellectuals in the third century, sometimes called apologists, tried to explain their faith to people in the wider pagan world who suspected that the followers of Jesus were members of a dangerous cult. One apologist, Justin, compared the Christian community meal to a temple sacrifice, where pagans shared food in the presence of their god, to show that Christians were religious even though they did not worship in temples."

When he claims that over time, the experience behind the early writings was forgotten, I'm left to wonder what evidence there is for that.  All the evidence I'm familiar with points to a shockingly contiguous experience of the joys and experiences of the Christian life and the sacraments.

And then his suggestion that the Eucharist was just a communal meal that later had a sacrificial gloss put on it by apologists was...odd.  As far as I can tell from the recorded oral tradition about Jesus in the Gospels, Jesus himself directly tied the Last Supper to the coming sacrifice on the cross that he had been preparing the Apostles to face.  In Luke Chapter 22, this is pretty glaringly obvious:

"14 When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve[a] apostles with Him. 15 Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
17 Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I say to you,[b] I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
19 And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
20 Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you. 21 But behold, the hand of My betrayer is with Me on the table. 22 And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!”"

Can anyone really blame Justin or his predecessors for seeing the Eucharist as Jesus' sacrifice when Jesus himself presented it in precisely that way?  He refers more than once to his impending death and explicitly calls the bread his body and the cup the new covenant in his blood which will be shed for them.  Any Jew would quickly be able to connect this to the temple sacrifices; they would not have needed any other motive, including explaining their religion to the pagans, for understanding that Jesus meant that the bread and wine were his body and blood which were sacrificed on the cross.

But wait, there's more!  No Protestant narrative about the discontinuity between the early church and the church as it existed later would be complete without a nod to Emperor Constantine.

"In the fourth century, Constantine wanted to unify the Roman Empire with a single religion, so he legalized and promoted Christianity. When Christians began to travel freely throughout the empire, they discovered that people in different regions had different theologies. Instead of uniting Constantine's empire, Christians argued and divided it even further.
Constantine ordered all the bishops to his villa in Nicaea, and forced them to stay until they produced a document they could all agree on. They came up with the Nicene Creed, a statement of belief that said nothing about living like Jesus, but only about God and the church. The first removal of theology from the experience of Christian living was complete."

This is such a hilarious oversimplification that I'm not sure where to start, but let's start with the Nicene Creed.  Unsurprisingly, Christians generally agreed that we should live like Jesus, and so that wasn't the source of their disagreements.  Also unsurprisingly, they didn't address that in writing a creed to resolve the disagreements because it wasn't something they disagreed on.  I'm not sure why this is such a difficult concept to grasp, but apparently it's more challenging than I thought, because it seems to have eluded Martos.

Also, a lot of history seems to have eluded him.  It's awfully convenient to not mention that Constantine invited the bishops to a council at Nicea at the recommendation of a synod of bishops who had already convened to address the Arian heresy.  That omission allows him to present the situation purely as an Imperial act rather than an ecclesial act which requested the help of the Emperor.

Martos presents to us the same old story of the Roman Empire conquering Christianity where the historical evidence looks more like Christianity conquering the empire and then outlasting it.  For Martos, the Church was lost like a sheep in the wilderness and now we must find its skeleton buried on the hillside and try to reinvent it from the bones.

For those of us who've actually read the record of Christian experience, it looks more like the sheep has survived and thrived against all odds, and we suspect that it must be because the Good Shepherd is looking after it.

Praying with the Gospels: The Tears of a Sinner

Lord, I so often fail to show my devotion to You,
not giving you water for your feet, not greeting
You with the kiss of peace, nor anointing You
with oil upon the head which bore all suffering.

Grant me the grace, I pray, to humble myself in
recognizing my sinfulness so that I might honor
You by anointing Your Body by pouring upon
it the oil of the praises of a faithful worshiper.

May I in my gratitude learn to wash Your feet
as You washed the feet of the Apostles before
You were pierced with nails in hands and feet,
washing them with the gentle tears of a sinner.


Mary Magdalen anointing Christ’s feet (f. 15v) Cropped.jpg
By Unknown - This image is available from the National Library of Wales You can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44920333


Note:  The Anointing of Jesus is a well-known description of his encounter with a sinful woman.  It appears in slightly different forms in all 4 of the Gospels, but the one I used is from the Gospel of Luke.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Praying with the Gospels: Your Good and Faithful Servant

Lord, you have given me a gift of many a talent,
entrusting me with Your divine treasures while
You descend to free the righteous dead in Sheol
and rise to new life before Your heavenly ascent.

Grant by Your grace, I pray, that I have the will
to overcome my fear of disappointing You when
You return so that I do not rush to bury talent in
the ground of my ego where it feeds only my Hell.

I long to invest Your gifts wisely so that I may be
a steward of Your love who has multiplied Your
love in the hearts of all the nations so that by Your
mercy, Your good and faithful servant I will be.


Parable of talents.jpg
By Unknown - A Woodcut from Historiae celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus representatae, taken from http://www.textweek.com/art/parables.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=799591


Note: The parable of the talents from the Gospel of Matthew is the inspiration for this particular prayer, with the influence of the Apostles' Creed.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Praying with the Gospels: The Sheep and the Goats

Lord, I am so often a stubborn goat, busy chewing on anything
which might distract me from my sufferings, thereby missing
You when I see many of Your least brethren hungry or thirsty,
failing to recognize Your image in their faces worn and dirty.

Please grant by Your grace that I be transformed by the light
of Christ's love as I repent daily of my most grievous fault,
the fault which is my choice to turn away from You and run
toward my own brief pleasures, leaving Your work undone.

I ask that You strengthen my heart by the fire of compassion
so that I might visit Your beloved who are sick and in prison,
clothe those who have no cloak to sleep in, feed the hungry,
and give your Living Water to those who thirst for thy mercy.

May I who am lost be found by Your Son the Good Shepherd
who rejoices in finding the many sheep who have wandered
far from the green pastures so that He might lay me down in
the green pastures once again, a sheep in the flock of Heaven.



Fra Angelico 009.jpg
By Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=147477


Note: This passage is part of a series of teachings Jesus gave to us on the Kingdom of Heaven and the return of the Son of Man immediately following his admonition to do as the Pharisees said, but to avoid doing as the Pharisees do with their hypocrisy.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Praying with the Gospels: The Prodigal Son

Lord, please help me by Your grace, I who have demanded
an inheritance which is less than that you would give to me,
I who have squandered the blessings Your hands showered
upon me even while I was turning my back on Your home.

Please grant me one last gift from the bounty of Your love:
an understanding of how much I have lost by leaving your
household and how little I have gained by the pleasures of
the flesh which leave me always empty and wanting more.

The only gift I yet desire is to have a chance to say to You:
"Father, I have sinned against Your household in Heaven
and against You who have loved me deeply before I knew
You.  I am your servant, not worthy to be Heaven's son."


Brooklyn Museum - The Return of the Prodigal Son (Le retour de l'enfant prodigue) - James Tissot.jpg
By James Tissot - Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2006, 00.159.185_PS1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10904523

Note: The parable of the prodigal son from the Gospel has inspired not only many of us to return to God, but also many wonderful works of art, including many paintings and songs.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Apocalyptic Rosary

Previously, I have explained how I came to realize that the Rosary is a Christocentric contemplative prayer.  I also mentioned that I prefer the Dominican way of praying the Rosary for its simplicity, but that is not the only reason I prefer it; I also prefer it because it seems to me to be even more apocalyptic.

The Dominican way of praying the Rosary begins, as does the common way of praying the Rosary, with the crucifix.  As we hold the symbol of Christ crucified, we mark ourselves with the Sign of the Cross, a practice of the early church handed down to us through many centuries and a constant reminder of St. Paul's admonition that we preach Christ crucified.

At the crucifixion, the veil in the temple was torn into two pieces, revealing to us that the way to the Holy of Holies is now open; through the Sacrifice on the Cross the temple sacrifices were brought to their completion.  The final unveiling of Jesus as the Messiah is the uncovering of the Holy of Holies when the temple veil is torn.

After the sign of the cross which reminds us of the one who made straight the path to the Most High, of the end of the veiling of the mystery of God, we then return to the beginning.  The first Hail Mary is prayed, the reminder of the Incarnation which lead to the sacrifice on the cross, of the first uncovering of the God who is truly with us, the veil of the womb which, like all Christian veils, covers that which is holy.

We then pray that God will open our lips so that we might praise Him, and then we pray that He will help us in our time of need, recognizing that our time of need is always now.  We have seen that we cannot pierce the veil of His mystery by ourselves, that we need His only begotten Son, the High Priest, to pierce it for us.

What follows is known as the Glory Be in English, and in Latin is prayed as follows:

"Glória Patri, et Fílio, et Spirítui Sancto. Sicut erat in princípio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculórum. Amen."

The Glory Be reminds us of the Trinity; the revelation that God is the Triune God.  This revelation which Christ commanded us to acknowledge when he commanded those who follow him to go forth and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity is a great mystery of God which none of us understand fully; it is the mystery which is revealed to us when the old mysteries are pierced, torn down so that we can see that the mystery of God is even greater than we had dared imagine, that God is not so small a mystery as a mere unpredictable tyrant casting lightning bolts upon those who displease Him, but rather that God is a family of divine love, an eternal community in true unity who is far beyond our understanding.

After we are reminded of the great mystery of the Trinity, we then announce the first of the Mysteries (Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious) upon which we meditate as we pray.  The Mysteries are parts of the Gospel which reveal to us God's love for us in the person of Christ and His mother Mary who always points the way to Christ.  And the first thing we do after announcing the Mystery is to pray the Our Father, the prayer Christ Himself taught to those who followed Him.

Christ uncovered for us the mystery of God as a loving Father, to whom we pray as lost sons and daughters who seek to return to our Father's house, we who journey beyond the veil in search of the household of divine love.

Following the Our Father, we then petition the Mother of God to pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.  Our death is what takes us beyond the final veil, just as Christ's death tore the final veil in the temple.

And just as Mary bore Christ into the world, so too must we follow her example and bear Christ into the world by uniting ourselves to His love which was revealed to us in His suffering for our sake.  Just as Mary uncovered for us the way to love God, with tenderness and joy, so too must we reveal the way to love God by our tenderness and joy toward all those made in the image of God.

Mary is the Holy Queen who bore the King of Heaven, and by doing so in humble acceptance of God's will showed us how to be more fully an image of God, He who humbles Himself in love to save those of us who so often spurn His love.

The Hail Mary reminds us ten times over the course of each of the Mysteries that we will die, that in the end all things will be uncovered.  It is an Apocalypse, revealing to us that the Mysteries show us again and again the way to a Christian end to our lives and the way to follow in the footsteps of Christ so that He might know us at the Final Judgment as His sheep.

Thus the Rosary is apocalyptic, revealing the mystery of God and the path to eternal life by uncovering the Gospel for us over and over, an endless repetition of the unveiling of the Holy One in the Gospels so that we might be granted the grace of final perseverance and see the light of His face in the Beatific Vision.