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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Praying with Icons: Saint Nicholas of Myra

Pray for us, St. Nicholas, that we might
be generous with the poor, gentle with
the children and bring God's holy light
to the people of God as they seek with
holy zeal to know the Lord more fully.

Pray for us, Wonder-worker, that God's
grace protect us from the fire of heresy,
from the famine of departing the Lord's
presence by grave sins, and from softly
drowning in self-centered pridefulness.

Pray for us, Defender of the Faith, that
we might emulate your study of Sacred
Scripture, your steadfast heart while at
prayer to the glorious Holy Trinity, and
your commitment to the truth of Christ.



Note:  The above is a picture I took of an icon of Saint Nicholas which I purchased for a friend from bostonmonks.com, the website of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Love it to Death: The Fast of Love

I ate very little this morning.  In retrospect, it felt very much like a fast.  And I did a 60-minute workout before getting a small meal for lunch.  The time I gained from spending less time eating was very valuable, because I was able to spend more time praying.

There are many reasons to fast.  We might fast as a form of protest against injustice, for example.  Or we might fast to lose weight because we have previously indulged in immoderate consumption.  Alternatively, we might fast because we suffer from a condition like anorexia which keeps us from recognizing our healthy bodies and drives us to starve ourselves.

There are also religious reasons to fast.  We might fast as a penance for wrongs committed.  We might fast simply because it's a religious obligation tied to a season like Lent in Christianity or Ramadan in Islam.  We might fast to save money in order to give to the poor.  We might even fast simply because the practice of self-denial helps us to become more selfless and loving.

Recently, I took a trip to Colorado to visit my god-daughter and the whole family.  I found myself fasting a lot while I was with them, not because I couldn't have gone and gotten food.  It wasn't a penance, or a season of fasting.  I wasn't trying to lose weight, nor was I protesting anything.

I fasted, and not intentionally, simply because I was experiencing the love of the family life and enjoying the time spent with them and the time spent in prayer.  I probably spent as much time praying the Rosary as I spent eating on that trip, and it was wonderful.

I spent a lot of time reading the Bible as a child and into my teenage years (and more time studying it as an adult).  One thing I noticed is that fasting is a common occurrence in Sacred Scripture, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

For example, the Gospel of Mark begins with the story of John the Baptist, and it mentions that he spent much of his time in the wilderness.  It also mentions that his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey, that he wore clothing made of camel's hair, and that he preached repentance.

Shortly thereafter, it tells of Jesus going into the wilderness for forty days.  It is during this time that Jesus also fasted and resisted the temptations of Satan.  He did this for several reasons: so that we might have an example of fasting to emulate, so that it could be clear that the temptations of the evil ones are to conquered with fasting and knowledge of Scripture, and ultimately so that we might be saved.

Jesus didn't fast because he really needed to learn what it was like to be hungry.  He would have already known hunger from normal life in 1st-century Judea.  God sent His only-begotten Son to become man, to live a life that was a holy example, and then die in our place so that we might share in the gift of eternal life.  Jesus's life, death, and resurrection were all the acts of Love Himself.

In short, He fasted because He loved us.  The First Lent was also the Fast of Love.

It is the fast of Love which we should emulate when we fast.  It is good to fast as a penance, and yet this fast of penance should also be undertaken because we love God so much that we want to separate ourselves from our sins by penitential acts and thereby draw closer to Love Himself.

It is good to fast to strengthen ourselves against the selfishness that so often leads us to succumb to the temptations to do evil, to do anything which is not an expression of radical love for God and our neighbor.  This fast of self-denial should always be undertaken for the sake of making ourselves more  loving, more like Christ who is the Son of Love Himself.

It is even good to fast out of obedience to the Church, the Bride of Christ who is sanctified by Christ the Bridegroom and ever seeks to lead us into ever deeper communion with Christ.  Not only should we undertake the fasts of the Church because we ought to obey Her, and because we love Her, but also because we love Jesus Christ who established the Church out of His love for us.

In this way, each fast we undertake is a fast of love, and we follow in the narrow way of the Son of God who loved us unto death.  It is in following in this narrow way of the Fast of Love that we love to death our sinfulness which keeps us separated from God.

It is the Fast of Love which helps us to love to death our selfishness that keeps us from fully participating in the self-emptying and eternally self-giving love of God shown to us in all glory and power through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of our Lord.

It is in the Fast of Love that we love to death our overweening pride that keeps us from heeding the words of Love Himself, "If ye love me, keep my commandments."




Note:  The above is a picture I took of a silver-plated icon of John the Baptist that I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com as a gift for my brother.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Fair Questions: What's the difference between ancient and modern ecclesiology?

A friend asked me recently to articulate what I believe to be the primary difference between ancient and modern Christianity, which I argue is the matter of what it means to be the Church.  By the Church, I mean the mystical and visible Body of Christ, the understanding of which is the pursuit of ecclesiology as a field of study.

All analogies have limits, and I propose the following analogy with that in mind.  I use it to illustrate an important set of distinctions, not to create a new ecclesiology based on an analogy that's moderately useful.  That's how too many people get into the barren and boring fields of heresy with Trinitarian doctrines, after all.

It occurs to me that the key differences between the ancient and modern Christian understandings of ecclesiology are similar to the key differences between ancient Christian and modern secular understandings of marriage.

One of the differences between the ancient Christian understanding of marriage and the modern secular understanding of marriage is that the ancient Christians understood marriage as being truly an exclusive matter.  There was one person who was truly a person's spouse, and that fact didn't change because one of them left and took another lover and they were recognized as married by the local officials.

In the same way, the ancient Christian understanding of the Church was that there is one true Church which is exclusive.  Just as you're either in a marriage to someone or you're not, they believed that you were either in the Church or not.  Large numbers of people saying that they too believed the Apostles' Creed, all the while teaching what was heretical, did not dissuade them from their belief.

This does not mean that they lacked nuance in their thinking about who might be in the Church, but it does mean that they didn't reduce it to a matter of superficial doctrinal agreement alone, or a matter of mystical participation alone, or a Neo-Pelagian sort of insistence that people who act virtuously in the classical sense are somehow in the Church by virtue of those virtues.

And there is another, related difference between the ancient and modern ecclesiology, at least in a fair number of cases (albeit not in all cases).  It too has an analogous situation in the modern understanding of marriage.

Let's consider an example.  Let's suppose that two people get married, and then get divorced.  They both then marry different people, and after a while divorce their respective 2nd spouses.  And then they marry one another again.  This does happen on a rare occasion, at least in the United States.

And it can happen because the modern conception of marriage is that it is something that can be dissolved, and then a new marriage can arise in its place, and then that can be dissolved as well, and then the old marriage can be re-established.  Marriage is no longer understood as a lifetime commitment by common cultural definition, though it may be an aspiration for some.

In much the same way, the modern conception of the Church is no longer one of a lifetime commitment.  The modern ecclesiology does not insist that we need to remain faithful to the one true Church (whatever we believe it is) throughout our lives, but rather that we need to find a church community that suits our preferences, and that we can leave and move to another one as we find it convenient to leave or find it appealing to go to the one we prefer more.

There is a third difference between the ancient and modern ecclesiology that I want to mention, and the marriage analogy can also work to explain it.

The ancient understanding of marriage was that it was explicitly hierarchical.  Whether that hierarchy was based on clan, rank, or gender, there was generally some sort of explicit hierarchy in marriage, just as there were generally explicit hierarchies in most areas of life in the ancient world.

Modern marriage, on the other hand, is increasingly without any explicit hierarchy.  That doesn't mean that there are no hierarchies in practice, or that implicit hierarchies don't form anyway based on power imbalances in the relationship, of course.  It just means that there's no common recognition of a particular hierarchy as culturally normative.  And often that's because there's a contemporary cultural imperative to eschew hierarchies.

In the same way, modern ecclesiology attempts to eschew (or at least minimize) hierarchies.  Many newer Christian communities are run democratically by the members in some form or another.  Pastors sometimes even dress down relative to the formal standards of attire, de-emphasizing their powerful role in the hierarchy that's inescapably implied by having a pastor in the first place.

As with marriage, this don't actually eliminate the hierarchies.  It simply neglects to formalize them while allowing the pretense of a non-hierarchical relationship between those who take on the role of shepherd and the rest of the flock.

Of course, the ancient ecclesiology has an explicitly defined formal hierarchy.  There are bishops who are the shepherds, and they delegate to priests, who must then faithfully implement the bishop's instructions for the parish.  And there is a Pope who functions as the primus inter pares (first among equals) for the college of bishops.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I point out these differences not in a triumphalist way, but rather in a philosophical way.  Though I'm a Roman Catholic and I adhere to the ancient ecclesiology, I'm well aware that many other (and some newer) Christian groups also agree with the ecclesiology I described, either in whole or in part.

Some have an ecclesiology that is almost the same as mine (e.g. Eastern Orthodox), others have an ecclesiology that has some strong similarities, but also important differences (e.g. Anglican Continuum), and yet others only have a small though important part of the ancient ecclesiology.

Regardless of these distinctions, and their importance as a barrier to unity among all Christians, I still pray after the example of Christ and Pope John Paul II that we may all be one.
.


By User:Julian Mendez - User:Julian Mendez, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2547972

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Anthropomorphosis of Science

A number of atheists I've dialogued with or whose debates I've observed in the past have pointed out that it's not fair to give credit to God for the events we like and not blame God for the events we don't like.  Which is odd, because plenty of people do blame God for events that they don't like.  Most theists have probably been angry at God for precisely that reason at some point in life.

Some of the more philosophically sophisticated atheists chose to point out instead that it wasn't fair to give credit to God for what one's surgeon had done to save one's life.  Instead of giving credit to the proximate cause of our healing (a good surgeon with good tools), we superstitious theists would invoke the ultimate cause of the universe that we called God, anthropomorphizing distant forces that we didn't actually understand.

It is with this background that I've observed the rhetoric around the recent March for Science.  Undoubtedly, plenty of those who are part of the March for Science are theists.  Many theists are scientific realists right along with most atheists.  I certainly was.

But it is not just theists who engage in anthropomorphizing abstract causes which are not proximate to the outcome.  Exhibit A from the March for Science coverage is an article in Salon which is entitled, "Science saved my life" and contains a genuinely touching description of how science kept her from going down a dangerous path of addiction and an unfulfilling life.

It's not very different from the AA or NA testimonies I've read or heard in person.  But instead of finding God being the cause of her ability to relinquish her addiction, it was finding science.

Except, it wasn't science in an abstract sense that she found.  She had an encounter with methodical, practical learning, the pursuit of knowledge which gradually drew her out of her reliance on old addictions as coping mechanisms.  And she fell in love with this kind of learning, the grand unveiling of the mysteries of the universe insofar as we tiny-brained hominids can unveil them.

Like most people who found something more enticing than an addiction to alcohol, or marijuana, or prescription painkillers, or various other and more profoundly mind-altering substances, our erstwhile convert to scientific realism attributes her transformation to the system of ideas abstracted into one concept rather than just owning that she found something healthier than her old addictions to shape her life.

Just as my grandfather attributed his abandonment of his old addictions to his finding religion, the author attributes her abandonment of those same old addictions to finding science.  This is, of course, not a bad thing to find something healthier to replace our addictions.  Even if the replacement is just as addictive and we are overly attached to it, it may nonetheless be far less damaging than our old addictions.

This should indeed be celebrated rather than being mourned.  I'm genuinely glad that she found science and that it allowed her to be freed of those old addictions to transient pleasures.

At the same time, I can't ignore that this is part of a broader trend.  The popular conception of science, like the popular conception of God, has become reductively abstracted and oddly anthropomorphic.

Science is now treated more frequently as a causal explanation ("It's science!" a la Bill Nye and memes) rather than a body of methodologies that gradually allow us to uncover our numerous errors about the world and our experience of it.

Science is no longer that unpopular but necessary discipline for discovery and innovation that codifies the best of human learning heuristics into a broad field of study, it's become a popular invocation of epistemological authority.  We can see this in a variety of other popular memes.

As someone who is very pro-science, who wants to support science education, scientific research, and political decision-making more informed by science, this trend is a troubling one.  When religion becomes a tool used to make claims unthinkingly (and simultaneously authoritatively) such that it's difficult to question it, that's a serious problem for free inquiry.

And what I see today is science being used the same way religion has been by people who have a poor and popular understanding of it, so I worry that scientific inquiry may be compromised by a popular perception of it completely at odds with the free inquiry it ought to manifest and indeed fulfill.

This is why I'm generally opposed to the anthropomorphosis of science.

Related:  The Benefit of Doubt: The Question of Science



Note:  The above is a picture I took of part of one of my science fair trophies.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Orthodoxy: The Voyeur

This past year, I read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton after many years of my friends recommending it to me.  My reading list is rather lengthy, both in terms of the actual word count of the books and the number of books on my list to read at some point.  Fortunately, Orthodoxy is a fairly short book of only 154 pages in the edition I purchased, and the font size is not tiny as it would be if the publisher were trying to cram more words into fewer pages.

In the chapter entitled "The Suicide of Thought" which follows "The Maniac", Chesterton expands on his previous themes, one of which is the mind sharpened to a single, painful point.

"The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good.  It is full of wild and wasted virtues.  When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose.  The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage.  But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.  The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.  The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.  Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless.  Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful."

Chesterton observes that virtues untethered from the ground of the divine life of love are prone to err recklessly.  Virtues, when adhered to closely without being balanced by other important virtues, become terrible and tyrannical.  They overwhelm the moral sense of an individual, allowing him to carry out horrible acts of extremism with the best of intentions.  The rationalist can easily reason his way to genocide when no other virtues than rationality get in his way.

The scientist can easily experiment indifferently on the poor and vulnerable when the automobile of the pursuit of knowledge has no moral brakes on it, when finding the truth is the only virtue and no room is left for the movement of the heart to shift him away from hurting those who need the most healing.

"For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity.  He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive.  Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions.  For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy.  He really is the enemy of the human race--because he is so human.  As the other extreme, we may take the acrid realist, who has deliberately killed in himself all human pleasure in happy tales or in the healing of the heart.  Torquemada tortured people physically for the sake of moral truth.  Zola tortured people morally for the sake of physical truth.  But in Torquemada's time there was at least a system that could to some extent make righteousness and peace kiss each other.  Now they do not even bow."

Even the virtue of charity, the virtue divine, the virtue par excellence, becomes a terrible shadow of itself when detached from other virtues which keep it in balance.  Mercy, rather than being the virtue of pardoning the sinner, when out of balance becomes the vice of failing to recognize when we have sinned.  Charity, rather than being the virtue that allows one to love one's neighbor as oneself, when out of balance becomes the vice of making excuses for one's neighbor as one makes excuses for one's self.

Chesterton's next example is about what happens when a virtue gets misplaced, not in the sense of being lost from us, but rather when we use an important virtue outside of the context in which it is truly valuable.

"But a much stronger case than these two of truth and pity can be found in the remarkable case of the dislocation of humility.
It is only with one aspect of humility that we are here concerned.  Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man.  He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs.  His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys.  By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise.  Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small.  Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility.  Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility.  Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility.  For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we.  All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble.  It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything--even pride."

Chesterton rightly explains that humility is a virtue that helps keep our egos in check so that we can mitigate our destructive self-assurance.  Also, that humility is a necessary ingredient for wonder and the building of things which are wondrous precisely because we are humbled by them.

"But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place.  Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition.  Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be.  A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.  Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert--himself.  The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt--the Divine Reason.  
Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature.  But the new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn.  Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time.  The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic.  The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on.  For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder.  But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether."

Chesterton mentions Nietzsche a fair amount later in this chapter, and this is fitting given that Nietzsche's critique of a worthless skepticism has some important things in common with Chesterton's critique of the same.

"We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.  We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.  Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.  The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance."

Both Chesterton and Nietzsche see that the modern skeptic so easily falls into an unwillingness to risk, to commit, to let his "Yes!" mean "Yes!"  and "No!" mean "No!"  The modern skeptic timidly slouches his way beyond sensible epistemological humility and refrains politely from having strong opinions on important matters (at least ostensibly).  His mind remains so open that he never manages to get anything worth having into it for any length of time, so open that it may as well be closed.

 After all, the open-minded skeptic who never settles on any truths is no better off intellectually than the close-minded bigot who never allows his mind to be infiltrated by truths previously unknown to him.  Both are effectively cut off from any growth of the mind because they refuse to let anything be planted there long enough to sprout.

"To sum up our contention so far, we may say that the most characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania, but a touch of suicidal mania.  The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it.  This is what makes so futile the warnings of the orthodox and the boasts of the advanced about the dangerous boyhood of free thought.  What we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought; it is the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought.  It is vain for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things will happen if wild scepticism runs its course.  It has run its course.  It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin.  We have seen it end.
It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself.  You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.  You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world.  It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretense that modern England is Christian.  But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow.  Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one.  
Free thought has exhausted its own freedom.  It is weary of its own success.  If any eager freethinker now hails philosophic freedom as the dawn, he is only like the man in Mark Twain who came out wrapped in blankets to see the sun rise and was just in time to see it set."

Both Nietzsche and Chesterton agree that this dead and worthless skepticism is not life-giving, and indeed may be well be deadly for the mind, the soul, and even the body.  It is, in short, suicidal for free thought to take as its axiom (or its conclusion) that thought has no telos, no chance of reaching a truth upon which our minds might settle.

Where Chesterton parts ways with Nietzsche is on the pre-eminent importance of the will, and he critiques Nietzsche on that point:

"All the will-worshippers, from Nietzsche to Mr. Davidson, are really quite empty of volition.  They cannot will, they can hardly wish.  And if any one wants a proof of this, it can be found quite easily.  It can be found in this fact: that they always talk of will as something that expands and breaks out.  But it is quite the opposite.  Every act of will is an act of self-limitation.  To desire action is to desire limitation.  In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice.  When you choose anything, you reject everything else.
That objection, which men of this school used to make to the act of marriage, is really an objection to every act.  Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion.  Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses.  If you become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in Brompton.  If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive life in Wimbledon.  It is the existence of this negative or limiting side of will that makes most of the talk of the anarchic will-worshippers little better than nonsense.  For instance, Mr. John Davidson tells us to have nothing to do with "Thou shalt not"; but it is surely obvious that "Thou shalt not" is only one of the necessary corollaries of "I will.""

But he agrees with Nietzsche on the importance of a robust intellectual life.  Clearly, Chesterton was an intellectual and valued the rational work of the mind, and yet he recognizes that while it may be necessary for many people, it is not sufficient to live the life of greatness.

He draws on the life of a well-known and controversial Saint to use in an illustrative comparison:

"Joan of Arc was not stuck at the crossroads, either by rejecting all paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche.  She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt.  Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them.  I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back.  Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret.
And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time.  I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms.  Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought.  We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.  Tolstoy only praised that peasant; she was the peasant.  Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior.
She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other.  Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing."

Joan of Arc was many things, but she was no mere voyeur, no wild speculator who is constantly exhorting others to take the great actions she was not willing to take.  She acted decisively and changed the world.  She risked big, won big, and lost big too.

The sexual voyeur is the man who gazes hungrily, longing to satisfy his hunger while focused on the object of his desires.  But he isn't willing to take the risk of the pursuit, the risk of committing to that which he desires, perhaps because it might make demands on him.  After all, to commit to actualizing his desires requires giving up many others.

Most of us know to avoid being entangled with a voyeur, because a fulfilling relationship with the voyeur is not an option with one who only wants to watch.  But we may not know to avoid his cousin, the intellectual voyeur.

Chesterton warns us against the intellectual voyeur, the constant skeptic, the man who is willing to look hungrily at all sorts of beliefs, longing to satisfy his hunger for truth, but who is unwilling to risk committing himself to live those beliefs with boldness, and perhaps because it would make too many demands on him.  He would indeed have to give up many other beliefs to do so, and this is an onerous burden to one who is comfortable just examining them at a distance.

Just as we avoid being entangled with the voyeur, we ought to keep ourselves from becoming the voyeur.  May we all follow the path of greatness, boldly committing ourselves to believe hard and work hard for those beliefs, never to become comfortable with just watching.

I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy. -- G.K. Chesterton



Note: The above is an image I captured of the cover of my copy of the book being reviewed here.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Praying with Icons: St. Kevin of Glendalough

Pray for us, St. Kevin, that like you
we might settle in a lush green glen
where our spirits rest in a God who
provides us all we have been given
and asks only our little love in turn.

Pray for us, holy hermit and lover
of God, that we would be granted
a holy death like your own, honor
God by our lives, and seek to find
peace as we pray in quiet solitude.

Lord, may we too discover a land
between two lakes where sanctity
can be cultivated, virtue sheltered,
and a holy community in the unity
of Truth will be firmly established.



Note:  The above is a picture I took of an icon I purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Praying with Icons: Christ Heals the Faithful Woman

Lord, how we long to touch You
and be healed of our dire illness
of missing the mark of Your true
and divinely mysterious justice.

Lord have mercy on us, we who
sought the healing offered to us
by the powers of the world, who
found that only Christ saves us.

Lord, we pray that we be given
true faith in You by Your grace
which rains down from Heaven
upon us who seek Your embrace.

Grant this, O Lord, that we may
be healed by drawing near Your
Holy Body and Blood, and pray
boldly for mercy at death's door.




Note:  The above is a picture I took of an icon of the Gospel story of Jesus healing a woman suffering from a condition that caused her much bleeding.  This icon was purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Fair Questions: What are the implications of God's presence to all Christians?

Recently, it was pointed out to me that God is not limited to a specific group of Christians, and that God moves very powerfully even among those who may be, shall we say, doctrinally off-base.

Whoever one thinks that doctrinally off-base group of Christians is, the ancient Church, modern Post-Reformation denominations, or just everyone who isn't in our tiny house church down the lane, most Christians would agree that God is not limited to moving in the hearts of only orthodox Christians.

Indeed, I think we would all agree that the Good Shepherd seeks out all the lost sheep so that they might be healed and returned to His flock.  One implication of this is that there is indeed a flock to which we ought to return with Christ.

The question, then, is what it means for us that God moves very powerfully among Christians, even those we think have the wrong doctrines, the wrong practices, or terrible music for worship.

But before we answer that, I think it's valuable to take a broader perspective.  Is God limited to those who explicitly profess Christ as their Lord and Savior?  Does God not move powerfully in the hearts even of non-Christians?

If your answer to that question is yes (before or after reading this atheist's conversion story and this Muslim's conversion story, not to mention the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by Phillip the Apostle), then I think we're ready to begin examining some of the implications of this.

Does God moving powerfully even in the hearts of non-Christians mean that we shouldn't bother inviting them to become Christians?  If you believe that there's no reason to ask anyone to become a Christian, or that you have no obligation to become a Christian because God moves outside Christian communities, and you also think that there's no reason to change one's beliefs as a Christian, this is a consistent position to hold.

If, on the other hand, you believe that it is important for non-Christians to become Christians even though God moves powerfully in the hearts of non-Christians, then it makes sense to also believe that it is important to be so completely a follower of Christ that our minds, hearts, bodies, and wills be fully conformed to Him.

After all, if it's important to abandon the wrong beliefs about who God is and become a Christian, why isn't it important to continue to abandon wrong beliefs about God after becoming a Christian?  If a child believes that God gives them teddy bears in exchange for being nice, do we not rightly try to get them to a more mature understanding of who God is once they can better understand Him?

If we love someone passionately, we want to know everything we can about them.  And while we never know absolutely everything about someone, we who love rightly want to know as much as we can.  We desire to know our beloved as fully as we possibly can.  We do not stop learning once we know the basics about them.

The same ought to be true of our relationship with God.  The truth of His being should be something we seek for our entire lives, growing through knowing into an appreciation for the profound mystery of God just as we grow into a deeper appreciation of the mystery of a spouse through knowing them a little bit more as we live with them in love.

One of the implications of God's presence to all Christians might be that we ought to never think that God hates them all if they don't agree with us on doctrinal matters.  Another might be that we should always pray for other Christians and treat them as if God's presence is with them...because it is.

That said, one implication I think it would be very difficult to draw from the fact that God moves powerfully in the hearts of all Christians is that we don't need to continue to abandon our wrong beliefs about God, that we can settle into our current understanding and call it good enough.

I never plan to stop abandoning my wrong beliefs about God, His revelation, and His Church.  That may mean changing my religious tradition once again, and I'm entirely willing to do that.  Indeed, I long to abandon anything that keeps me from understanding the Way, the Truth, and the Life inasmuch as I am capable of doing so.




Note: The above is an icon of Christ depicted as the Good Shepherd which I purchased as a gift from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Other Side: In Praise of Pulpit & Pen

Recently, there has been a small tempest in the teapot of a certain corner of the Christian blogosphere.  It started with Hank Hanegraaff the Bible Answer Man's conversion, specifically his decision to enter the Eastern Orthodox intercommunion by way of the Greek Orthodox church.

Jeff Maples, who writes at Pulpit & Pen, wrote some articles about his conversion and how to handle it (by evangelizing Hanegraaff to return to the Christian faith).  Maples mentions that he has received some quite negative and uncharitable feedback as a result of those articles.  Specifically, he mentioned that folks were claiming that he misrepresented the Greek Orthodox faith.

I've read his articles, and he does in fact at various points either have a poor understanding of Eastern Orthodox theology or just flat out gets it completely wrong.  Instead of apologizing and doing several years of extensive research into ancient Christian theology to alleviate his lack of understanding, he doubles down on the strategy of doing at best cursory research and making claims which are far stronger than the evidence he's gathered will support.

He visits the church Hanegraaff is now a member of for the Pascha liturgy and writes what I will charitably describe as a reflection on his experience.   As an aside, his reflections are very similar to what a writer in the Church of Christ penned for Truth magazine in an article I read a few years ago.  Except that he wrote the reflection after visiting a Roman Catholic church once.

Let's suppose that I had read a few articles, gone to the Southern Baptist Convention website and read some of their basic beliefs and position statements, and then visited a Southern Baptist worship service on a Sunday morning and wrote something similar to Maples' reflection as if I had done my due diligence and now understood the Southern Baptist faith enough to critique it effectively.

Would any Southern Baptist intellectuals take me seriously when I wrote my polemic?  No.  And rightly so.  I simply would not have a sufficient understanding of their faith to launch a broad polemical attack on their beliefs.  It would be a waste of perfectly good writing time.

All that conceded, I think we should admit that Maples gets some important things right, and so does JD Hall in his article apologizing to the Eastern Orthodox for overlooking their "grave and damning heresies" and promising to more effectively protest against their heretical cult in the future alongside their protest against the Roman Catholic Church.

This consistency of protest is, I think, something they get right.  If they protest against the Catholic communion, they ought to protest against the Eastern Orthodox intercommunion as well.  And Hall is right to apply that consistency in the terminology he uses, calling our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters an "anti-Christ" along with the usual use of this term to describe the Bishop of Rome.

This is how the Church of Christ which produces Truth magazine views the Bishop of Rome as well, and they are not shy about articulating their opposition to "Romanist" heresies.   Indeed, "Romanist" is a term necessitated by their view that heretics are not actually Christians, and so a different term that is still recognizable enough to communicate the idea arose to fill the void.

Of course, because their view is that we who belong to the ancient churches are not Christians, we are  seen as not part of the Church (in the sense of being the mystical Body of Christ) and thus not saved, which means that from their perspective we are indeed damned to Hell unless we repent of our heresies.

This idea that outside the true Church there is no salvation is a very orthodox (and Eastern Orthodox) doctrine.  In traditional Roman Catholic circles, the Latin phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus is often used to denote the teaching of the early Church that "outside the Church there is no salvation" and that consequently, we ought to draw others into the Church.

Respecting this principle means that Jeff Maples who, like all of us, believes that he has found the true faith, is correct to advocate evangelizing those of us who, like Hank Hanegraaff, have worked out our salvation in fear and trembling and studying the Bible until we ended up in the ancient churches.

I respect Maples' desire to refute the teachings of those he deems heretics, and whatever good arguments we might have about the effectiveness of his approach or the historical and Biblical evidence for his views, we ought to admire his sincere commitment to defending the truth.

Maples and JD Hall are, at the very least, not lukewarm in their faith, and that I sincerely respect.  I would rather dialogue or even debate with those committed to the truth than those who are willing to accept only a small part of the Truth, Christ who is the Truth and asks us to give all our strength, our mind, and our soul to love Him.

For this lack of lukewarm Christianity, perhaps we should take a moment to praise Pulpit & Pen, appreciating those who have a passion for the Way, the Truth, and the Life, regardless of whether or not we think them uncharitable toward those they deem heretics or sloppy in their research practices.

I will leave the particulars of the defense of the Eastern Orthodox faith to others who are eminently qualified to do so.  Alithos anesti!

*     *     *

Editorial Note: I was recently informed that JD Hall has a long history of bullying and lobbing insults in place of rational debate or dialogue, even with children.  According to the quotations from the Christian post article, he issued an apology for this adversarial behavior and suggested that he ought to have been more pastoral.

Apparently he committed to "walking away from these conflicts" in light of a teen's suicide that appears to have been at least partially motivated or influenced by Hall's bullying.  I'm not sure what conflicts he meant, whether it was social media verbal battles in general or the children of other Baptist intellectuals specifically.

Either way, I do not recommend engaging with him directly online unless you're prepared to slog through a lot of uncharitable behavior at minimum, even if you are a fellow pastor or pastor's wife.



Note:  The above is a picture of a Greek Orthodox cross icon I acquired recently.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Continuum of Anglican Prayer Beads

I was completely wrong in my assumptions about the origin of Anglican prayer beads.

My best guess, in the absence of having done the relevant research, was that the Anglican tradition had held on to the practice of using Catholic rosaries in prayer and had simply altered the prayers to suit Protestant theology after the fact.

It turns out that the advent of Anglican prayer beads was much more recent.  Only a few years before my birth, in fact, which stunned me when I learned of it.  Though it probably shouldn't have stunned me.

I've been aware for quite a while of a tendency among post-Reformation Christian groups to suddenly discover ancient traditions of the Catholic Church and incorporate them into their lives.  And the existence of Anglican prayer beads (which have been adopted by some other post-Reformation Christians and subsequently been called Protestant prayer beads), seem to fall under that general rubric.

Just as there are many different ways to pray the Catholic Rosary, there are many different ways to pray using the Anglican prayer beads invented in the later part of the 1900s.  I prayed a couple of those ways with some Irish Anglican prayer beads, and I generally found them to good ways of praying.  That said, the Julian of Norwich version wasn't one I was fond of.

Along the continuum of contemplative prayer using Anglican prayer beads, that's where I lost interest. I'm sure that there are folks who would really love it.  I just wasn't one of them.  It struck me as a bit too modern and sentimental.

But to be fair, the whole thing is apparently a quite recent development out of an Episcopal diocese in Texas, of all places.  Instead of returning to the tradition of wool prayer ropes or rosaries with 5 decades (segments of 10 beads), Anglican prayer beads have 4 weeks (segments of 7 beads).

And all references to Mary are omitted in the Anglican ways of praying with the weeks, which is not surprising given the strong tendency of American post-Reformation Christianity to avoid anything that seems vaguely Marian.

One of the limitations of having 4 weeks rather than 5 decades and shorter prayers seems to be that it's more difficult to stay in a mode of contemplative prayer for the same length of time as a Catholic rosary. This could of course easily be remedied by doing what is often done with the Komboskini (prayer rope) used in Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox circles: simply keep repeating the same cycle of prayers over and over.

This continuation of contemplative prayer is a valuable tradition, and I'm glad to see it being restored in part within the Anglican communities.  I'm not sure if the Anglican Continuum (those who hold fast to what they see as authentic Anglican tradition against the modernizations in the last few decades) would want to take up a decidedly non-traditional practice like Anglican prayer beads.

I will be watching with interest to see if the Continuing Anglican movement consistently finds value in the more ancient aspects of the continuum of Anglican prayer beads.




Note:  The above is a picture I took of Anglican rosary beads which I purchased from cordbands.com as a gift.  I highly recommend their rosaries to anyone who wants one that will last.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Praying with Icons: Michael the Archangel

Pray for us, St. Michael, that we might
ask with pure astonishment a question,
of which your name is indeed the right
and most glorious heavenly expression,
"Who is like God?" No one is like God.

O captain of the hosts of Heaven above
who is called upon to battle evil forces,
defend us on behalf of the Son of Love
against the force of the demonic curses
oft spoken against the children of God.

Mighty Archangel, prophesied to fight
for the impassible, immutable, eternal,
divinely simple, wholly transcendent
and yet truly immanent, all-powerful
God on the Last Day, slay the Dragon!



Note: The above is an icon of Michael the Archangel which I purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift for a dear friend.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Praying with Icons: Saint Monica

Saint Monica, pray for us, that we might endure
these trials of loving others in spite of their most
grievous faults. Which cause them to reject Your
grace and hurt those who care for them the most
next to You, God, Lord of all who seek the truth.

Holy Mother of Augustine, pray for us, that our
tears and our pleadings before God would be an
offering of our little sufferings for the holy hour
of the conversion of those we love, our lives an
ever faithful sign of the fullness of God's grace.




Note: The above is a picture I took of an icon of St. Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo, which I purchased as a gift from legacyicons.com.

Praying with Icons: The Wedding at Cana

Lord, at the behest of Your mother Mary,
the finest wine was brought forth within
alabaster jars of water; may Your mercy
bring forth divine love from deep within
our hearts of stone, filled by Your grace.

Lord, may this wine of divine love You
poured out for us on the Cross rain upon
us the graces of the heavenly home You
have prepared for we who love the Son
of our Father in Heaven more than life.

Lord, grant that like old wineskins, our
old lives of sin be unable to hold a new
wine of divine love, and that at the hour
of death we may be made new by You,
becoming wineskins full of divine love.



Note:  The above is a picture of an icon which I purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift for recently married friends.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Praying with Icons: The Last Judgment

Lord, let me remember Your words
about the Last Judgment, when the
sheep and the goats, bowing heads
before the King of Heaven, see the
Good Shepherd who tended them.

Lord, let my heart be open to gaze
upon all of Your least brothers and
sisters with tenderness in my eyes
just as You do, and offer my hand
to help them on Your narrow way.

Lord, let Your mercy be on all of
us who were made to be the sons
daughters of the great God above
in Heaven, He who takes the sins
of the world away, judging justly.




Note:  The above is an icon of the Last Judgment which I purchased from legacyicons.com as a gift.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fair Questions: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?

Previously, I addressed the question asked by Michael Shermer: What would it take to prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?

I did not think it was actually a very useful question, and so I would like to ask a better question that actually gets at the root of the issue: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?

There's no particular reason that Shermer and other materialists and/or physicalists can't just assume that there's a natural, material explanation for someone rising from the dead and wandering around.  After all, that's what they assume about many scientifically unexplained events.

So it's not necessary for so many of them to reflexively deny that someone rose from the dead.  What is necessary for the materialist who believes that all things have a natural cause to deny is any claim that some phenomenon (or all phenomena) has a supernatural cause.

And this is, I think, precisely why they object to religions which claim that there are supernatural causes, whether for specific events, or as a first cause of all things.  It would also explain why, when I have asked them specifically what sort of evidence they would accept for claims about the existence of a deity, the responses have been...interesting.

One example from a dialogue I had many years ago with a very bright agnostic atheist.  I asked him what sort of evidence would be sufficient for believing in extraordinary claims.  He proposed video evidence (presumably with audio as well).

So, with some new additional details to make the story a bit more fully-fleshed, I described something very similar to the following scenario as a hypothetical example of an extraordinary claim with video evidence of it:

A woman's mother was dying from a very aggressive cancer, and all the doctors in the United States whom she had been diagnosed by said that there was nothing to be done except make her as comfortable as possible for the last few months of her life.
She found a clinic in Mumbai that was willing to try a new treatment on her mother, and so she and her mother booked a flight to India and got a ride to the clinic in Mumbai.  Because the patients were part of a study which was testing the efficacy of the new treatment, there were video cameras in the rooms.
After they had spoken with the nurses and doctor who was primarily responsible, her mother was placed in one of the rooms, where she would be prepared for treatment.  The day before the treatment was to begin, while the woman was there with her mother in the room, there was a flash of light which temporarily overwhelmed the video camera.
After the light faded, the video recorded a blue-skinned, four-armed figure dressed very strangely who had suddenly appeared in the room.  The figure identifies himself as Vishnu, tells the woman's mother that she is healed, refers to himself as the divine preserver and sustainer of the cosmos, and leaves with her a gold trinket in the shape of a lotus blossom.
There is another flash of light, and then the blue-skinned, four-armed figure is gone again.  The doctor is concerned when the woman tells him of these events that were captured on video, and he has the video checked.  He also has her re-checked for the cancer, and can't find any cancer remaining.
When the woman and her mother return to the United States, none of the doctors they've seen before can find any cancer either.  The woman dies peacefully many years later in her sleep.

So, I asked, in this hypothetical scenario, is the video of these events sufficient evidence to believe that a deity named Vishnu healed the woman of her cancer?

The answer I was given was a resounding, "No."  I was advised that the more plausible explanation is that an extraterrestrial intelligent and super-humanly competent life form had healed her.  Personally, I would accept such evidence as described in the above scenario as evidence of the existence of Vishnu, in the same way that I would accept similar kinds of evidence for other phenomena.

But given the assumptions of a person who believes that all things have natural causes, this is a perfectly understandable response.  It's quite coherent with that worldview.  And it shows us something important about the consequence of that belief: there is no room for any supernatural cause as an explanation for anything if one holds to materialist metaphysics.

For someone who believes that everything has a material/natural cause, there is no possible evidence that is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause.  They are simply not open, at least intellectually, to belief in supernatural beings or supernatural phenomena.

Even if such a person witnesses, at the end of the age, a bearded Jewish carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth coming with the clouds from Heaven and surrounded by angels with flaming swords, they would have to conclude only that they were suffering from a vivid hallucination, or perhaps that these were just extra-terrestrial life-forms whose origin is purely a natural process of evolution on other planets.

On the other hand, for those of us who have a common-sense standard of evidence, we actually have the ability to be open to evidence of both natural and supernatural causes of phenomena.  And I think that open-mindedness is valuable so long as we have critical thinking processes to help us mitigate our quite powerful and perfectly normal human confirmation bias.




Note: The above is a picture I took of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com which is depicting Michael the Archangel in Heaven.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Fair Questions: What could prove that Jesus rose from the dead?

In the April 2017 issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer asks a pointed question just before the celebration of Easter.  What would it take to prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this question is just a distraction.  Why?  I'm so glad you asked for a lengthy explanation.

Let's start by thinking about other medically unexplainable phenomena.  There have been plenty of medically anomalous healings in human history.  Sometimes there was a plausible natural explanation.  Sometimes there was no plausible natural explanation.

In cases of healings and recoveries without a plausible natural explanation, people choose to believe one of two general options based on the assumptions that under-gird their worldviews.

  1. There was a natural cause and we just don't know what it was.
  2. There was a supernatural cause of some kind (generally one that fits their existing beliefs about the supernatural).

These are also two options taken with regard to belief in the death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  There are others, of course.  Some propose that Jesus didn't really exist at all.  Or they propose that the Gospel account of his death and resurrection were all lies.

To be fair, that's much easier than being honest and just observing that documentation of eyewitness accounts by people who were risking death by publicly professing Christianity and rejecting the imperial religion of Rome is indeed evidence for his life, death, and resurrection.

Some skeptics seem to think that accepting the Gospels as evidence is proof of the resurrection (and thus they want to claim that the Gospels don't count as evidence at all). But I don't think that's actually the case, which we can see if we carefully consider how evidence works to support a belief.

Let's take as an example the claim that the Earth is round as opposed to a flat plane.  I've seen ships suddenly appear on the horizon, which gives me an intuitive sense that the Earth is not a perfectly flat plane.  I have read written accounts of astronauts journeying to space and looking at the Earth, and I've seen pictures of the Earth looking awfully round from the perspective of one who is orbiting it or moving far away from it.  I've read physicists' accounts of the observational evidence.  Et cetera.

Of course, it's possible that the photos are doctored to give a false impression, that the written accounts are government propaganda, and that my intuition about the ships is wrong and their sudden appearance on the horizon is simply due to my poor eyesight.

I could be wrong about the earth being round, and I'm not sure I would say that it has been proven to be round given that the evidence I have is not the direct evidence of the experience of seeing it for myself.  Nonetheless, the preponderance of evidence I have available to me strongly suggests that the earth is round, and I believe that it is.

We can see from this example that evidence, even what we might think of as strong evidence, is not the same thing as a deductive proof (from geometry, for example).  A correctly-written proof cannot possibly be wrong, given the axioms of geometry.  This is not the case with the wider world.  It can be described in geometric terms, but this would be a paltry description of only a small portion of phenomena.

It would be wrong by being overly simplistic, not because geometry isn't quite valuable.  All this is to say that while we can't straightforwardly prove things in the wider world in the same way that we can in the confines of geometry or other formal logico-mathematical systems, it makes little sense to say that the kinds of things we generally count as evidence are suddenly not evidence at all when we find the claim implausible based on our experience and philosophical assumptions.

That makes about as much sense as many religious folks suddenly lowering the standard of evidence for belief when something strikes them as plausible given their philosophical assumptions and life experience.  After all, the benefit of having a consistent standard of evidence is that it allows us to check our beliefs even when our life experience and philosophical assumptions lead us astray.

But having a consistent standard of evidence cannot serve us well in that regard if we conveniently modify our standard of evidence when it suits our desire to maintain our existing worldviews.  I'm not aware of any public intellectual who applies the same epistemic standards to events they deem extraordinary that they apply to events that seem ordinary to them.

But that's not a crazy thing to do.  It's probably the only way we can defeat our confirmation bias.  At the very least, altering our standard of evidence immediately upon encountering something that seems implausible is just giving confirmation bias an opportunity to work its magic, and it's a terrible way to do science as well.

So when I read of the principle of proportionality which Shermer invokes with regard to the ethics of belief, though I recognize that it's intuitively appealing as an axiom, I suspect that it just helps us confirm whatever we already believe by ignoring evidence we would rather not acknowledge.

Such is the nature of confirmation bias, a bias which Shermer has studied at some length among other cognitive biases.  Perhaps for this reason, he might be sympathetic to my concerns about suddenly changing our standards of evidence with regard to claims we believe are highly implausible.

So if we can't really prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in the way that we prove other things,  rather than cooking up another standard of evidence that will be more difficult to meet, I think that we should use the standard of evidence that we use for evaluating other claims.

Depending on what precisely that standard of evidence is, we may end up believing that Jesus rose from the dead or we may not believe it.  But at least we would be intellectually consistent because we used the same standard.

All this is to say that there's no particular reason for anti-religion folks to try to claim that the Gospels don't count as evidence (because counting it as evidence doesn't mean one needs to be a Christian), and there's no reason to think that one could prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth inductively by way of textual evidence.  Or anything else, for that matter.

The real question at issue here is not one of proving that a specific event took place.  After all, we can just assume that the Gospel accounts are correct that Jesus was walking around after having been seen dying and dead by many eyewitnesses, and still account for that event by stating that it must have had natural causes (i.e. concocted illusions, eyewitnesses being drugged, et cetera).

The real question at issue here is the question of what sort of evidence could possibly be sufficient to justify belief in a supernatural cause.

Related: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?




Note:  The above is a picture I took of an icon of the Resurrection I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com a while ago.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Praying with Icons: St. Edward the Martyr

Pray for us, St. Edward, that we may emulate you
in striving for holiness from a young age, pouring
out our lives for Christ and His Holy Church who
support the souls who are ever zealously seeking
to rebuild the Church militant for the King's sake.

Pray for us, holy Martyr, that we may be granted
a holy death, the best defense before the dreadful
judgment seat of Christ, following a life suffused
with the grace of Love Himself, a more powerful
weapon than those wielded by an assassin's hand.

Have mercy on us, O Lord of Lords, that we may
be granted the strength to die nobly for Your sake
so that we might be borne up to Heaven, adopted
as sons and daughters of God the Father, granted
then the final gift of the glorious Beatific Vision.




Note:  The above is a picture of an icon of St. Edward the Martyr which I purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift for a friend.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Love it to Death: Nothing Shall I Want

This past weekend, I was on a retreat at a Franciscan ashram.  From the fact that it's called an ashram, you might suspect that it's the home of friars from India, and that's true.  Like all Franciscans, they know how to have a good time enjoying nature and eating good food.

One of the exercises we performed on the retreat was putting a label on a candle so that it might continue the act of prayer for our intention.  We were told to write an intention that reflected something we wanted to gain from the retreat.

I was, because of my own mistake, without a pen with which to write out an intention.  And it occurred to me that this was very appropriate, that I was not able to write on it, that I was left to ask for nothing that I wanted.

After all, what I have been struggling with so much with is that I am goal-oriented.  I'm always wanting to achieve something.  This is, for the most part, a very good thing in my life.

It's good for my fitness level, my nutrition, my general work performance, the consistency of my prayer life, and many other things.  But like all good things, it can become an obstacle in our spiritual life if we rely too heavily on it.  This happens because at a certain point it takes an unhealthy precedence with regard to our relationship with God.

This may be because we genuinely place our own goals ahead of the ultimate goal of full communion with Love Himself, or because we rely too heavily on our own techniques for achieving goals and leave little room for the role of God's grace, which is ever being showered upon us.

As we hear it in the liturgy, the Psalmist says that when "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want."  This is indeed a very difficult thing to live, and yet it is so necessary to the Christian spiritual life.

Christ further explains this in the Gospel of Matthew:

Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;  and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

He exhorts us not to worry about anything, and to want for nothing, simply accepting what is given by God.  And the reason for this is that God will care for us in ways that we do not understand from our limited human perspective.

When we want nothing, it is then that we begin to realize that we already have everything that is important.  When we want nothing, we leave our hands and hearts open to receive everything that God generously gives to us.

It is in wanting nothing that we love to death our egotistical desires which keep us clinging to our possessions and fearing their loss.  It is in wanting nothing that we abandon the fear of death and enter into the divine life of love.

It is when we want nothing, instead practicing gratitude in all circumstances, that our souls are disposed to hear and know the voice of the Good Shepherd, speaking gently to us of the gifts of love which await us in the heavenly household, so full of all that is good, true, and beautiful.

Thus it is that in the end, when the Lord is my shepherd, nothing shall I want.




Note:  The above is an icon I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com as a gift.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Praying with Icons: Christ the King

Grant this, O Lord, that in your stately, humble
entrance to the city of Jerusalem we will see an
eternal procession of the Son from His eternal
Father whose heavenly household has mansion
after mansion prepared for those who love Him.

Grant this, O Lord, that we might gaze on Thy
crown of thorns and weep for You, anointed in
Your own precious blood, High Priest who by
the authority of God makes the sacrifice upon
the humble wooden altar for the sins of many.

Grant this, O Lord, that in venerating a Cross,
the honor I give to it shall pass to You who are
deserving of all my love, who taught that loss
of our lives for Your sake will save us, Savior
and fulfillment of both Law and the Prophets.

To thee, O Lord, we lift up our hearts, minds,
and strength, just as Your Son commanded us
that we love God and neighbor fully, loving
also our enemies, as He did, Christ the King.

IESVS·NAZARENVS·REX·IVDÆORVM



Note:  The above icon is one I purchased from easterngiftshop.com as a gift.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Bhagavad Gita: The Meditation of Krishna

Listen to the embedded podcast version of this post or read the written version below.



Previously, in The Wisdom of Krishna, I examined what Krishna taught Arjuna about the nature and practice of wisdom.  Shortly after the teachings on wisdom referenced previously, Krishna goes on to teach Arjuna about the practice of meditation.  What we generally think of as meditation in the West is related to, but not quite the same as the meditation spoken of by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.

As I've mentioned before, the Bhagavad Gita is a discourse that strikes at the heart of spiritual matters, and it is a discourse that takes place on a great battlefield at the climax of the great epic known as the Mahabharata.  The battle is about to be joined by great warriors, and it is at this time of calm before the storm that Krishna helps Arjuna to understand his place in this life and the nature of spiritual fulfillment.

After Krishna has answered his question about how to live wisely, he speaks further about unity with Brahman and the nature of Brahman.  And later he moves on to the practice of meditation, which he recommends to all spiritual aspirants.

"It is not those who lack energy or refrain from action, but those who work without expectation of reward who attain the goal of meditation.  Theirs is the true renunciation.  Therefore, Arjuna, you should understand that renunciation and the performance of selfless service are the same.  Those who cannot renounce attachment to the results of their work are far from the path.
For aspirants who want to climb the mountain of spiritual awareness, the path is selfless work; for those who have ascended to yoga the path is stillness and peace.  When you have freed yourself from attachment to the results of work, and from desires for the enjoyment of sense objects, you will ascend to the unitive state.
Reshape yourself through the power of your will; never let yourself be degraded by self-will.  The will is the only friend of the Self, and the will is the only enemy of the Self.
To those who have conquered themselves, the will is a friend.  But it is the enemy of those who have not found the Self within them."

After reiterating previous points about the contemplative life and the active life both being paths to union with the divine life, Krishna comes back to another familiar concept: Ātman.  This is the word being translated as "the Self" as distinct from one's self in the sense of the ego.  Unlike the self of the ego, that incorrigible pursuer of transient desires, Ātman is the most true and most real self, the enduring consciousness which can partake in the divine life.

The fullness of the ego and the fullness of Ātman are not compatible with one another.  We can see this clearly in the lives of those who have given themselves over to their addictions.  They become shadows of the true Self we know can shine forth from within them; the addict is lost to us, not because they have suffered physical death, but because they have pushed out the potential for the glory of human flourishing in favor of the next temporary high which does not ultimately satisfy.

Union with the divine means that our enslavement to the ego's constant call to the next pleasure, the next worry about what will happen to us, or the next attempt to avoid any small pain must be abolished.  Only our wills can be made strong enough to free us of the chains of desire which bind the ego, and only the consistent weakening of our wills can leave us trapped in addictions.

Strengthening our will in selfless service allows us to fight the ego's control more effectively, and as we release more of the ego's control over our lives, we can see more clearly the true Self, Ātman.  This helps us to meditate because it increasingly liberates us from our daily worries, and the meditation in turn helps us to overthrow more of the ego's control so that we can seek union with the divine.

"The supreme Reality stands revealed in the consciousness of those who have conquered themselves.  They live in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame.
They are completely fulfilled by spiritual wisdom and Self-realization.  Having conquered their senses, they have climbed to the summit of human consciousness.  To such people a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same.  They are equally disposed to family, enemies, and friends, to those who support them and those who are hostile, to the good and the evil alike.  Because they are impartial, they rise to great heights.
Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation.  With body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one-pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions."

Krishna teaches us that this conquering of the ego results in being able to transcend our previous constant focus on concerns about the material world, about the pursuit of possessions and wealth or social standing and prestige.  Paradoxically, it is precisely this detachment which leads people to become well-respected by many.

It is the person who participates in the divine life who can deal with people as they truly are, both recognizing their strengths and weaknesses and wondrous inherent value without performing those cold calculations made by the ego to determine whether our actions directly benefit us or not.  It is the conquering of the selfish instinct that leads us to be more like the divine sustainer of all that is: Vishnu.

Vishnu, whose avatar at this point and time is Krishna, speaking with Arjuna before a great battle, rains the blessings of life down upon the good and evil people alike, upon friends and enemies, and upon those who are supportive and those who are hostile.  This is part and parcel of the divine life: to give selflessly, even to those who hate you and set themselves against you.

Now that Krishna has expounded a bit on the benefit of meditation, he explains to Arjuna how to go about meditating:

"Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass.  Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts.  Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified.  Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering.  With all fear dissolved in the peace of the Self and all actions dedicated to Brahman, controlling the mind and fixing it on me, sit in meditation with me as your only goal.  With senses and mind constantly controlled through meditation, united with the Self within, an aspirant attains nirvana, the state of abiding joy and peace in me.
Arjuna, those who eat too much or eat too little, who sleep too much or sleep too little, will not succeed in meditation.  But those who are temperate in eating and sleeping, work and recreation, will come to the end of sorrow through meditation.  Through constant effort they learn to withdraw the mind from selfish cravings and absorb it in the Self.  Thus they attain the state of union."

The description Krishna provides of how one ought to meditate is drawn from traditional Indian contemplative practices regarding seating and posture and one-pointedness.  But this meditation is not the meditation of contemporary mindfulness movements.  Rather than directing us to stand clear of our own minds, Krishna bids us to fill our minds with an unwavering contemplation of the divine life which is embodied in Krishna.

He warns us that the taking of ascetic practices to extremes or self-indulgence in transient pleasures will prevent us from effective meditation.  When the mind is addicted to seeking the next transient pleasure and avoiding the next feeling of pain, it cannot focus sufficiently in meditation.  And when the mind is distracted by constant hunger pangs and the pain of dehydration, it is also unable to focus sufficiently.

Effective meditation is less a matter of extremes and more a matter of finding a healthy balance.  To meditate is to walk a tightrope over the abyss of our own thoughts, and to feed our tendency for self-indulgence or unhealthy self-denial is to lose the balance necessary for perfecting the tightrope walk of the mind.

"When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place.  In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the Self reveals itself.  Beholding the Self by means of the Self, an aspirant knows the joy and peace of complete fulfillment.  Having attained that abiding joy of the senses, revealed in the stilled mind, they never swerve from the eternal truth.  They desire nothing else and cannot be shaken by the heaviest burden of sorrow.
The practice of meditation frees one from all affliction.  This is the path of yoga.  Follow it with determination and sustained enthusiasm.  Renouncing wholeheartedly all selfish desires and expectations, use your will to control the senses.  Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become stilled in the Self.
Wherever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the Self.  Abiding joy comes to those who still the mind.  Freeing themselves from the taint of self-will, with their consciousness unified, they become one with Brahman."

Krishna teaches us that the cultivation of the ability to walk on the tightrope over the abyss of the mind leads to the freedom of being able to experience one's own eternal consciousness without the impediments of the worries and cravings that constantly intrude upon our attempts to find lasting joy.  A healthy asceticism, the balanced self-denial of one who does not indulge in excessive eating or drinking before a tightrope walk and also does not starve or dehydrate himself before the tightrope walk, is what will help us to find serenity within the landscapes of the mind's eye.

This balance allows us to walk the narrow path to union with the divine, to oneness with Brahman, the creative principle which underlies and suffuses all that exists, including our own consciousness.  This union with the divine is both a fuller participation in the divine life and a fuller realization of our own life.

"The infinite joy of touching Brahman is easily attained by those who are free from the burden of evil and established within themselves.  They see the Self in every creature and all creation in the Self.  With consciousness unified through meditation, they see everything with an equal eye.
I am ever present to those who have realized me in every creature.  Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me.  They worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me.  Wherever they may live, they abide in me.
When a person responds to the sorrows and joys of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union."

Once we have begun to see the divine life in ourselves, we cannot help but see it in others, how it suffuses the whole world and brings it to the flowering of terrifying beauty.  And we cannot help but see how inextricably bound up our lives are with the lives of others, how their sorrows become our sorrows and their joys become our joys.

This is a lovely response to Arjuna's question, but he still has doubts after Krishna's exposition of the power of meditation.  Arjuna asks, "O Krishna, the stillness of divine union which you describe is beyond my comprehension.  How can the mind, which is so restless, attain lasting peace?  Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent; trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind."

Arjuna is very right here that the kind of meditation described by Krishna is extremely difficult to attain.  I know from experience that it takes great effort to gain the ability to find this kind of serenity for even a short while.  And Krishna acknowledges this:

"It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control.  But it can be conquered, Arjuna, through regular practice and detachment.  Those who lack self-control will find it difficult to progress in meditation; but those who are self-controlled, striving earnestly through the right means, will attain the goal."

This, however, does not completely assuage Arjuna's doubts.  He asks another question: "Krishna, what happens to one who has faith but who lacks self-control and wanders from the path, not attaining success in yoga?  If he becomes deluded on the spiritual path, will he lose the support of both worlds, like a cloud scattered in the sky?  Krishna, you can dispel all doubts; remove this doubt which binds me."

Arjuna recognizes that faith alone will not carry him through, at least not faith in the divine as a mere belief held in a philosophical way.  He sees instinctively that there is a grave spiritual danger in belief without having the self-control to live out that belief in the radical way described by Krishna.

Krishna exhorts him to let the belief push him forward until it is possible to gain the necessary self-control, to grow in the capacity for meditation rather than giving up because perfection in meditation cannot be acquired quickly.

"Arjuna, my son, such a person will not be destroyed.  No one who does good work will ever come to a bad end, either here or in the world to come.
When such people die, they go to other realms where the righteous live.  They dwell there for countless years and then are reborn into a home which is pure and prosperous.  Or they may be born into a family where meditation is practiced; to be born into such a family is extremely rare.  The wisdom they have acquired in previous lives will be reawakened, Arjuna, and they will strive even harder for Self-realization.  Indeed, they will be driven on by the strength of their past disciplines.  Even one who inquires after the practice of meditation rises above those who simply perform rituals.
Through constant effort over many lifetimes, a person becomes purified of all selfish desires and attains the supreme goal of life.
Meditation is superior to severe asceticism and the path of knowledge.  It is also superior to selfless service.  May you attain the goal of meditation, Arjuna!  Even among those who meditate, that man or woman who worships me with perfect faith, completely absorbed in me, is the most firmly established in yoga."

Krishna goes on to reassure Arjuna that his efforts, even if they do not lead quickly to perfection, are indeed worthwhile.  Krishna does not want Arjuna to make his reaching perfection the enemy of reaching what is good and closer to perfection than where he was before.  Krishna does not ask us to make perfection a matter of our unhealthy attachment to immediate gratification.

To indulge in our desire for immediate gratification with regard to the spiritual life defeats the purpose of the spiritual life and leaves us trapped in the cycle of reliance on transient pleasures from which Krishna is trying to help liberate us.

Though perfection in meditation takes time and consistent effort, union with the divine and fullness of life for ourselves is worth it.  And as Krishna advised Arjuna, to lose all selfishness in true and sincere worship roots us deeply in precisely this union with the divine and fullness of life.

This is the meditation of Krishna, the immersion of our consciousness into the ocean of the divine life, the strength of our faith propelling us into the depths of oneness with all that lives, buoyed up by waves of divine energy so that we might not drown in oneness, instead living fully within and inseparably from the ultimate cause of our lives.

The Yoga of Krishna - The Wisdom of Krishna - The Meditation of Krishna




Note: The above is a depiction of Krishna dancing.