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

Friday, December 30, 2016

Love it to Death: Scarred Icons

Today, I accidentally knocked an icon of the Nativity off of the nail it was hanging from.  The wood it was mounted on chipped a bit at the corner and left a scar, though not on the icon itself.  This is similar to what has happened when I have accidentally damaged other icons.  The icon itself is intact, but there are still scars on the surface of the wood.

I find that I'm instinctively very sad when I cause even superficial damage to the mounting of an icon.  I realize that the mounting is not an icon itself, and that icons are images of the Saints who are images of Christ; it is not as if, even if I dropped an icon of Christ, I had somehow done any real harm to Christ or the Saints.  And yet I don't want to damage even superficially these pieces of wood upon which these icons are mounted.

I want to help make it whole again.  I began to wonder at this profound movement of my heart at the sight of a scarred icon, at the sight of it fallen to the floor.  Does my heart move with compassion so profoundly at the sight of the scars on the bodies of my least brothers and sisters?  Does my heart move me with a strong desire to help them heal when I see they have fallen spiritually?

When I was younger, the answer to that question was often, "No."  I didn't generally have a heart for the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable.  When the bodies of others were scarred, I was rarely moved to truly understand their suffering.  And without that understanding, I wasn't prompted to seek their healing, to help make them whole again.

As I've grown older, I find that my heart is moved with compassion much more frequently, probably because I understand suffering much more clearly.  I know more deeply what it is to fall, to be scarred as a result, and to need help in becoming whole.

I understand now that I am an icon of Love Himself, my soul having been made in the image and likeness of God.  And that all of my brothers and sisters of the human race are also icons of Love; they are each an imago dei worthy of the utmost respect and love.

In that moment when they fall and are scarred as a result, I should always have compassion on them, for I am also a scarred icon of the living God.  We are all scarred icons of the living God, our constant falling into sin chipping away at the perfect beauty of the imago dei which is intended for us to have, which we finally have in finding holiness.

Christ came down in His divine compassion to offer us the chance to be made whole again by His help.  He was scarred quite badly, the Icon of Love, Himself falling under the weight of the cross which He asked us to take up after Him.  He too was mounted on wood and held up with nails, the ultimate example of a scarred icon.

It is by His scars that we are healed; His hands, feet, side, and head were all pierced violently.  He loved us unto death, even death on the cross.  The wounds were all healed at the Resurrection, and yet the profound scars remained.  We who are also icons of the living God retain our scars even after we have been healed.  Christ has shown us that it is not the scars which detract from divine beauty.

It is the gaping wounds, left unhealed because of our pride that keeps us from seeking the help of the divine physician, that lessen the beauty of Love in us.  But when we seek the divine physician, He will help us to heal with the medicine of discipline and the cauterization of confession.  Though the scars remain, the wounds will not fester and cause further harm.

As we show the same compassion to others which Christ showed to us, helping them to heal their wounds after a fall, we gradually love to death our attachments to our own wounds, allowing Christ to heal us as well through our participation in the sufferings of others as we follow Him who participated in all our sufferings so that we might be healed.

He wants us to be healed because of His great compassion; Christ knows what it is to be a wounded and scarred icon, and reaches out to help make us whole again.  We may be scarred icons, just as He is, but our scars which are the signs of healed wounds make us yet more clear and beautiful icons of the living God.

Note:  The above is a picture of an icon of St. Basil the Great which I accidentally dropped and which was subsequently scarred.

Catena Aurea: The Curse of Jeconiah

The Catena Aurea is a work of Biblical commentary compiled by St. Thomas Aquinas.  It contains the verses of the Gospels immediately followed by the most relevant commentaries of the Church Fathers upon that subject and/or that specific verse.  As I read the English translation commissioned by Cardinal John Henry Newman, I will be providing information about what the Catena Aurea contains regarding certain questions that are generally controversial or interesting to me.

*     *     *

The Curse of Jeconiah is a phrase commonly used to refer to the events described in the Book of Jeremiah the Prophet, Chapter 22.  In it, Jeremiah the Prophet proclaims God's judgment upon the wicked King.

The King is variously named Coniah, Jeconiah, Jechonias, Jeconias, or Jehoiachin, et cetera.  What he is called seems to depend on the translators and the era in which they did the translating.  Regardless, the important event here is the curse that is placed on him, and I am providing the relevant passage in context below as follows:

24 As I live, says the Lord, even if King Coniah son of Jehoiakim of Judah were the signet ring on my right hand, even from there I would tear you off 25 and give you into the hands of those who seek your life, into the hands of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and into the hands of the Chaldeans. 26 I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. 27 But they shall not return to the land to which they long to return.
28 Is this man Coniah a despised broken pot,
    a vessel no one wants?
Why are he and his offspring hurled out
    and cast away in a land that they do not know?
29 O land, land, land,
    hear the word of the Lord!
30 Thus says the Lord:
Record this man as childless,
    a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed
    in sitting on the throne of David,
    and ruling again in Judah.

As we can see, this is quite a serious curse for a King.  Not only will he be exiled from the land he should be ruling, but it is prophesied that none of his descendants would end up seated on the Davidic throne inherited from the great King David that was at the Jewish seat of government in Jerusalem.

Many years, ago, I was reading debates between Orthodox Jews and Messianic Jews regarding the Curse of Jeconiah and its implications for the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah the Jews were waiting for per the prophecies of the Tanakh.

Understandably, Orthodox Jews (or Jews today belonging to Conservative or Reform temples, for that matter) would see the curse placed on Jeconiah as a serious problem for Christian claims that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, given that the Messiah was to fulfill the Davidic Kingdom, and the genealogy provided in the Gospel of Matthew (written to be read by a Jewish audience) provides the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph's ancestors, one of whom is the accursed Jeconiah.

The relevant portion of the genealogy listed in Matthew verses 12-16 is written in the Catena Aurea as follows:

And after they were brought to Babylon,  Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel; and Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; and Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; and Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob.  And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

The problem here can be stated simply: the Messiah must sit on the throne of Jerusalem, descendants of Jeconiah are barred by God from sitting on that throne, Jesus of Nazareth is a descendant of Jeconiah who was cursed by God, and therefore he cannot be the Messiah promised to the Jews by God.

There are a variety of answers to this problem, and they are readily available online on various Christian apologetics sites.  One of the answers commonly given is that the curse was lifted in the Book of Haggai (Chapter 2) when Jeconiah's grandson (listed above as Zorobabel) is chosen by God as part of the plan of salvation for the Jews.  Alternatively, if the curse applied to ALL of the descendants of Jeconiah rather than just his immediate offspring, why would God later choose Jeconiah's grandson to fulfill His divine plan?

Another answer commonly given is that while Joseph was indeed of the lineage of David through Jeconiah, he did not actually beget Jesus, but rather adopted Jesus because he was wed to Mary (who was also of the lineage of David through Nathan).  Thus, the Curse of Jeconiah would not have applied to Jesus because he was not the offspring of Jeconiah by birth, only by law.

In the Catena Aurea, St. Augustine of Hippo is quoted on this subject:

Also, the line of descent ought to be brought down to Joseph, that in wedlock no wrong might be done to the male sex, as the more worthy, provided only nothing was taken away from the truth; because Mary was of the seed of David.

St. Jerome is quoted answering those who question why Matthew would bother providing the genealogy of Joseph the adopted father of Jesus, if he wasn't the biological father:

The attentive reader may ask, Seeing Joseph was not the father of the Lord and Saviour, how does this genealogy traced down to him on order pertain to the Lord?  We will answer, first, that it is not the practice of Scripture to follow the female line in its genealogies; secondly, that Joseph and Mary were of the same tribe, and that he was thence compelled to take her to wife as a kinsman, and they were enrolled together at Bethlehem, as being of one stock.

As we can see, both law and birth were very important when considering parentage in the culture of the Jews and were legitimate topics to bring up, but the Curse of Jeconiah would not have applied to anyone who was his descendant by law only, goes the reasoning.  And this would especially be true when he was the descendant of David through the maternal line that did not contain Jeconiah.

In the Catena Aurea, there is another interesting point made by St. Ambrose of Milan:

Of whom Jeremiah speaks.  Write this man dethroned; for there shall not spring of his seed one sitting on the throne of David.  How is this said of the Prophet, that none of the seed of Jeconias should reign?  For if Christ reigned, and Christ was of the seed of Jeconiah, then has the Prophet spoken falsely.  But it is not there declared that there shall be none of the seed of Jeconiah, and so Christ is of his seed; and that Christ did reign, is not in contradiction to the prophecy; for he did not reign with worldly honors, as He said, My Kingdom is not of this world.

Here St. Ambrose makes the point that Jesus reigns in the heavenly Jerusalem rather than the earthly Jerusalem, and thus never sat on the throne of David referred to in Jeremiah's prophecy.  I'm not sure I agree with his argument, but it stood out to me for its uniqueness.

At any rate, there are a variety of good reasons to think, from a Christian perspective and perhaps even from a Jewish perspective, that the Curse of Jeconiah does not invalidate claims that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah awaited by the People Israel.

This doesn't settle, by itself, the question of whether or not Jesus was the Messiah.  I'm sure that the debate between Christians and Jews on that point will continue regardless.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to read the Church Fathers answering the exact same points 1500+ years ago that are still being brought up today.

Jeconiah may have lost the throne of David, but he has certainly not been lost to history thanks to these perennial religious debates.  Sadly, he lives on in history because he was cursed to lose everything that mattered to him. I'm not sure if that makes the curse better or worse.

Note:  The above is a picture of my copy of the Catena Aurea (Volume 1: St. Matthew).

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Praying with Icons: The Ladder of Divine Ascent

O how I long to see Your face in the Beatific Vision,
great Lord of Hosts!  And yet in my weakness, I can
hardly take up my cross for a day before falling into
sin again, though I take up my cross each time anew.

Grant me by Your grace, Lord, that I might climb up
the ladder to Heaven, ascending by divine assistance
as I confess my sins, eat Thy flesh, and drink the cup
of Your blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins.

O how the Evil One longs to yank me from the rungs
of the ladder of divine ascent! And yet the archangels
watch over me, the successors of Your Holy Apostles
shepherding me along with all Your Saints and angels.

Grant me by Your grace, Lord, that I might behold an
endless vision of the heavenly household; Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit in the glory of the life of Love divine,
in perfect communion, the undivided God who is One.

Note:  The above is an image of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is a replica of an icon at Mount Sinai where Abba John Climacus lived and worked with his fellow monks to ascend the ladder to Heaven.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Praying with Icons: The Eternal Bloom

In the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
bloomed and bore fruit, taken by Eve at the serpent's soft urging.
"Take and eat," the serpent said, and she gave it to her husband,
both of them eating unto their own deaths against His command.

In the stable in Bethlehem, Mary was in full bloom; she bore a
son, the firstborn of the font of all life, seed of the Holy Spirit.
"Be not afraid," an angel had said to Mary, and later in a dream
to Joseph; they obeyed the Lord's life-giving command to them.

She is the Eternal Bloom which bore the Eternal One, the fruit of
Mary's womb, Jesus Christ, the Son of God who has mercy on us.
Just as the Eternal Son is the unfading firstfruit who lives forever,
His Mother is the unfading bloom who lives forever through Him.

Mother of God, pray for us sinners, that we might take and eat of
the flesh of the Lamb, the Vine from which the fruit of life grows.
O sweet Virgin Mary, we long to see the life-giving Son you bore,
and we seek to obey His commandments because we so love Him.

Note:  The above is a picture I took of a Russian icon depicting Mary the Unfading Bloom (also known as Mary the Eternal Bloom).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Fair Questions: What is the relationship between faith and evidence?

In my last post regarding the relationship between faith and confirmation bias, I was responding to a common idea in contemporary skeptic circles that faith is a matter of accepting a proposition (or a set of propositions) without any evidence.  One of my readers pointed out that this definition of faith didn't make much sense, and I agreed that it doesn't make much sense, though for somewhat different reasons related to the evidence of human belief formation.

It's important to note that not every contemporary skeptic agrees with this definition; some have proposed that faith is a matter of accepting a proposition (or a set of propositions) based on insufficient evidence rather than doing so without any evidence.  This is certainly a better way of expressing it, for reasons we will see shortly.

Most people who believe claims that we generally think of as faith claims are doing so based on some sort of evidence.  Even if that evidence is just the word of their parents or friends, or the evidence is their own intuitions about the significance of a powerful experience they had, it's still a kind of evidence.  I suspect that most of those who view faith as being without evidence do so because their standard of evidence only admits the kind of evidence we get from a laboratory and excludes a priori the evidence we get from our life experiences or from the wisdom of others.

The reason that is sometimes given for this is that the aforementioned forms of evidence are exclusively subjective rather than objective.  And sometimes contemporary atheists characterize this belief in the conclusions one has drawn from subjective experiences rather than objective evidence as being a delusion.  This way of understanding faith has some interesting implications.

For example, on this view of the use of exclusively subjective evidence to come to conclusions about what is objectively true, most transgender individuals are by definition engaging in a delusion when they conclude based on their subjective experience that, though they were born in a male body, they are actually a woman.  Some atheists might be totally fine with the implication that transgender individuals are engaging in a self-delusion akin to religious faith, but many contemporary atheists would not be fine with that implication.

Even for those who would be willing to accept that implication, the society we live in seems to offer yet another difficulty to them in the form of the mental health profession, which apparently does count subjective experiences as evidence on a regular basis.  Even when those subjective experiences lead to the conclusion that a person is laboring under a delusion, we admit them as evidence of an objective truth, as we can see from considering a generic case of mental illness.

Let's suppose, for example, that we have someone who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.  This person hears voices that seem very real to him advising him that his family is trying to poison him.  He hears voices that seem very real to him advising him that he should kill them.  When he relates these subjective experiences to a psychiatrist or a psychologist, they are part of the evidence the psychiatrist or psychologist uses to diagnose him.  Even though the patient may be wrong about the existence of the voices anywhere other than outside his head, his subjective experiences are at the very least important empirical evidence for us to consider when diagnosing his condition and evaluating his treatment.

This is a fairly clear case of basing claims about objective truth on subjective experiences, both because the schizophrenic patient and the psychiatrist or psychologist are basing their beliefs about the the objective reality of the situation on their subjective experiences of the patient.  The difference here is that a psychiatrist or psychologist would infer from the patient's subject experiences not that the voices were somehow objectively real, but rather that the patient's subjective experiences were only evidence of a subjective experience and they needed treatment for the diagnosed condition that is objectively the cause of their symptoms.

Most people don't disagree in practice on the question of whether subjective experiences count as empirical evidence or not.  Where they actually disagree is on the question of what we can rationally infer from that evidence.  The patient with the delusion may believe that he can rationally infer from the evidence of his subjective experiences that real people are telling him to do terrible things.  The psychiatrist believes that we can rationally infer from the evidence of the patient's subjective experiences that the patient is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

None of this is meant to suggest that it's obvious that we should accept one instance of subjective evidence via a person's testimony as proof of the occurrence of an event or the existence of some novel creature.  While we do use eyewitnesses in our courts and we use the accounts of explorers and scientists in demonstrating the existence of new lands or new species, we check those eyewitness accounts to make sure they fit with other evidence and we prefer corroborating testimony about new lands and new species.

Nonetheless, it is clear that our beliefs are not formed without reference to the evidence of subjective experience, and I'm not sure why we would regard the subjective experience of someone who claims that they were abducted by aliens any differently than the experience of someone who claims they saw a mammal with webbed feet that lays eggs (duck-billed platypus).  We should subject both cases to the test of corroborating evidence.  If we can go see the aliens or the duck-billed platypus for ourselves, we ought to believe it.  And even if we can't, we should at least entertain the possibility that they exists and we simply weren't able to see it for some reason.

That's a consistent standard of evidence, though some would a priori rule out the possibility of extra-terrestrial life and therefore reject its existence out of hand based on their own consistent standard of evidence.  They have faith that only those propositions which can be formulated mathematically and verified by scientific standards of evidence are true propositions.

There's no particularly good evidence that their belief is true, but we all have faith in something in the sense that we all operate under working unproven assumptions, and I respect their consistent position.  Ultimately the relationship between faith and evidence is that we have no other choice but to have faith in a standard of evidence and hope that our confirmation bias isn't leading us to interpret our reality as validating our faith completely despite the evidence that runs counter to it.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Praying with Icons: The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Lord, I was not there when the magi from the east began their journey,
following the star to Your Son, yet I will strive to find my way to Him.
Lord, I was not there when Your angel announced to gentle shepherds
that their Savior was born, and yet I hope to bring many sheep to Him.
Lord, I was not there when You were born of the all-holy Virgin Mary
and laid in a humble manger, yet my life is transformed by Your birth.
Lord, I was not there after Your birth when the magi paid You homage
and gave you gifts fit for a king, and yet I bow before You as my King.

Lord, please grant me by Your grace that I may, in following Your Son
as my north star, find the way to Him in Your Eucharist and in Heaven.
Lord, please grant me by Your grace that I may, in seeking to shepherd
those of Your sheep within my power to help, bring them to His abode.
Lord, please grant me by Your grace that I may, in humbling myself as
I follow the model of Your humble birth, be born again of Holy Waters.
Lord, please grant my by Your grace that I may, in worshiping in spirit
and truth as You commanded, offer praise You with the Heavenly host.

These mercies I ask in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
that I who am Your servant may be born again of the spirit and live in You.

Note: The above is a picture I took of a Byzantine icon of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which was purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Ladder of Divine Ascent: The Blessing of Detachment

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a well-known treatise on the Christian spiritual life, at least in some circles.  Its author is sometimes named after the book, being called St. John of the Ladder rather than by the name St. John Climacus.  The book is addressed to the Abbot of the Raithu monastery, and was written at his request, so there are some portions that directly refer to the Abbot as John's father, which he means in a spiritual sense.

The second rung of the ladder described by St. John Climacus is the way of detachment, by which we ratify and put into practice our decision to renounce the comforts of the world and build our lives on a firm foundation of divine love.  Abba John begins this section of ascetic treatise with a description of one who has renounced the world and begun the process of detachment, quickly moving on to tell us how to retain our hold on renunciation:

  "2. After our call, which comes from God and not man, we have left all that is mentioned above, and it is a great disgrace for us to worry about anything that cannot help us in the hour of our need, that is to say, the hour of our death.  For as the Lord said, this means looking back and not being fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Knowing how fickle we novices are, and how easily we turn to the world through visiting, or being with, worldly people, when someone said to Him: 'Suffer me first to go and bury my father,' our Lord replied, 'Let the dead bury their dead.'
  3. After our renunciation of the world, the demons suggest to us that we should envy those living in the world who give alms and console [the needy], and be sorry for ourselves as deprived of these virtues.  The aim of our foes is, by false humility, either to make us return to the world, or, if we remain monks, to plunge us into despair.  It is possible to belittle those living in the world out of conceit; and it is also possible to disparage them behind their backs in order to avoid despair and to obtain hope.
  4. Let us listen to what the Lord said to the young man who had fulfilled nearly all the commandments: 'One thing thou lackest: sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor and become a beggar who receives alms from others.'
  5. Having resolved to run our race with ardour and fervour, let us consider carefully how the Lord gave judgment concerning all living in the world, speaking of even those who are alive as dead, when He said to someone: Leave those in the world who are dead to bury the dead in body.  His wealth did not in the least prevent the young man from being baptized.  And so it is in vain that some say that the Lord commanded him to sell what he had for the sake of baptism.  This is more than sufficient to give us the most firm assurance of the surpassing glory of our vow."

Here Abba John reiterates that we must leave everything behind in order to re-found our lives on the love of God.  The teaching of Jesus which he cites here is a very hard teaching, that we must not allow anything, even perfectly natural virtuous acts such as burying a loved one, to come before our pursuit of divine love.

The idea is not that it is evil to grieve for our parents when they die and wish to bury them properly. We are called to follow our love of God first and foremost, and let all our acts flow from that love.  As a result, we need to bury our parents not simply because we experience perfectly natural grief or because we have a virtuous desire to honor them, but first because our God wills us to honor our father and mother.  Even obviously good things should be willed primarily because God wills them, though our natural affections may prompt us to do those good things as well.

Though St. John Climacus is writing these instructions for monks who have made a radical commitment to eschew worldly comforts in a special way, he warns against becoming overly critical of and/or feeling superior to those who are not living the monastic life, because this too is a spiritual danger for monks along with the despair which denies our hope in Christ and the envy which can afflict those who have cloistered themselves away from the poorest of the poor.

The important thing about the monastic life is that it be lived not to avoid the trials of life in the world, but because our love of God draws us to live out Christ's call to take up our cross and follow Him by divesting ourselves of all worldly possessions and supporting others who have done the same by being their brothers and sisters.
  "6. It is worth investigating why those who live in the world and spend their life in vigils, fasts, labours, and hardships, when they withdraw from the world and begin the monastic life, as if at some trial or on the practising ground, no longer continue the discipline of their former spurious and sham asceticism.  I have seen how in the world they planted many different plants of the virtues, which were watered by vainglory as by an underground sewage pipe, and were hoed by ostentation, and for manure were heaped with praise.  But when transplanted to a desert soil, inaccessible to people of the world and so not manured with the foul-smelling water of vanity, they withered at once.  For water-loving plants are not such as to produce fruit in hard and arid training fields.
  7. The man who has come to hate the world has escaped sorrow.  But he who has an attachment to anything visible is not yet delivered from grief.  For how is it possible not to be sad at the loss of something we love?  We need to have great vigilance in all things.  But we must give our whole attention to this above everything else.  I have seen many people in the world, who by reason of cares, worries, occupations, and vigils, avoided the wild desires of their body.  But after entering the monastic life, and in complete freedom from anxiety, they polluted themselves in a pitiful way by the movements of the body.
  8. Let us pay close attention to ourselves so that we are not deceived into thinking that we are following the strait and narrow way, when in actual fact we are keeping to the wide and broad way.  The following will show you what the narrow way means: mortification of the stomach, all-night standing, water in moderation, short rations of bread, the purifying draught of dishonour, sneers, derision, insults, the cutting out of one's own will, patience in annoyances, unmurmuring endurance of scorn, disregard of insults, and the habit, when wronged, of bearing it sturdily; when slandered, of not being indignant; when humiliated, not to be angry; when condemned, to be humble.  Blessed are they who follow the way we have just described, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

Abba John points out to us that there is a spiritual danger in the world too, one that we accept at our peril when we imitate the Pharisees who publicly engaged in spiritual practices of self-denial, but did so for selfish reasons, to gain the honor and approval of those watching.  This is a very real spiritual danger, that we will put our lives out of order by placing the approval of other human beings above the love of God when we act on our intentions.

When we put the love of God first, we can gradually abandon our unhealthy selfish attachments to both good and evil acts alike, learning to do the right things for the right reasons and learning to avoid doing the wrong things at all.  And in this way we avoid evildoing not because we are anxiously afraid of doing the wrong thing, but more importantly because we acknowledge of Jesus Christ who told us that if we love Him, we will obey His commandments.

  "9. No one will enter the heavenly bridechamber wearing a crown unless he makes the first, second, and third renunciation.  I mean the renunciation of all concerns, and people, and parents; the cutting out of one's will; and the third renunciation, of the conceit that dogs obedience.  'Come out from among them, and be ye separate,' saith the Lord, 'and touch not the impurity of the world.'  For who amongst them has ever worked any miracles?  Who has raised the dead?  Who has driven out devils?  No one.  All these are the victorious rewards of monks, rewards which the world cannot receive; and if it could, then what is the need of asceticism or solitude?
  10. After our renunciation, when the demons inflame our hearts by reminding us of our parents and brethren, then let us arm ourselves against them with prayer, and let us inflame ourselves with the remembrance of the eternal fire, so that by reminding ourselves of this, we may quench the untimely fire of our heart."

Though it's true that it's generally the case that those whose intercession can be said to have a part to play in miraculous healings and the like are people who have made a radical commitment to self-denial for Christ's sake (whether a monastic or similar commitment for laypeople), these admonitions can read as though Abba John is arguing that the monastic life is the only way to go, that those who do not enter a monastic order are inferior to those who do.

This, however, is not what he is suggesting, as we can see in his discourse about the dangers of the monastic life.

  "11. If anyone thinks he is without attachment to some object, but is grieved at its loss, then he is completely deceiving himself.
  12. If young people who are prone to the desires of physical love and to luxurious ways wish to enter the monastic life, let them exercise themselves in all sobriety and prayer, and persuade themselves to abstain from all luxury and guile, lest their state be worse than the first.  This harbour provides safety, but also exposes one to danger.  Those who sail the spiritual seas know this.  For it is a pitiful sight to behold those who have survived perils at sea suffering shipwreck in the harbour.
  This is the second step.  Let those who run the race imitate not Lot's wife, but Lot himself, and flee."

St. John Climacus advises us that the monastic life, while it is definitely an admirable commitment to a life of Christian virtue, has unique dangers associated with it.  A ship at sea can only be boarded by those willing to brave the dangers of the sea and do the hard work of maneuvering alongside, but a ship in the harbour can be boarded easily by both those on land those coming in from sea.  In the same way, those who live in the harbour of the monastic life of stillness are easily attacked with temptations because they have nothing to distract them from whatever temptations might arise.

Unlike those of us who are in the world, the monastics can't just keep themselves so busy with the daily hustle and bustle of life that it's easy to avoid the more obvious temptations.  They are forced to be more fully detached from both the world and their selfish desires if they wish to avoid the usual spiritual dangers.  Radical detachment for them is an absolute necessity in the spiritual combat; they have no other option.  The only option is to leave everything behind in pursuit of divine love.

The blessing of detachment, whether we are laypeople or monastics, is that we can imitate those who do not turn back; they focus like a laser on the path of divine love and follow it with all their heart, all their mind, and all their strength.

Note:  The above is an image of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is a replica of an icon at Mount Sinai where Abba John Climacus lived and worked with his fellow monks to ascend the ladder to Heaven.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Praying with Icons: Mystical Supper

Lord, I was not there when Your betrayer dipped his hand into the dish,
and yet I have often betrayed You by disobeying Your commandments.
Lord, I was not there when You broke the bread and gave it to all Your
Apostles, even the one who would betray You with a kiss in the garden.
Lord, I was not there when You said to the Holy Apostles at Your table,
"This is my body, given up for you.  Do this in remembrance of me."
Lord, I was not there after supper when You took the cup of wine, saying,
"This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you."

Lord, please grant me by Your grace that I may, despite my weaknesses,
never again betray You by my disobedience, because of my love for You.
Lord, please grant me by Your grace that I may, despite my betrayals, be
admitted to the Supper of the Lamb, You who died that I might have life.
Lord, please grant me by Your grace that I may, despite my unworthiness
in how I treat my own body and the Church, receive Your Precious Body.
Lord, please grant me by Your grace that I may, despite my own failures
to pour out my life fully as You did for me, receive Your Precious Blood.

These mercies I ask in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
that I who am Your servant may be adopted into Your heavenly household.

Note: The above is a picture I took of a Byzantine icon depicting the Mystical Supper (often referred to as the Last Supper in the West).  It inspired me to write the above prayer.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Jewels of the Mālā

I recently acquired a mālā at no cost to me and (unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me) felt compelled to do additional research on them.  I was aware of the existence of what we in West generally call prayer beads within Buddhist traditions.  But that was about the extent of my knowledge.

That might seem surprising to the people who know of my strong interest in Buddhism from my writings on it and are also familiar with my series on Buddhist meditation.  That's perfectly understandable, though I have to admit that I'm hardly an expert on Buddhist spirituality in general; I've only practiced some of the meditation techniques.

I've been more regularly using prayer beads that were designed as an aid to prayer over the past year, from both Christian and Islamic stylistic traditions: the rosary and the misbaḥah, respectively.  Because of that, my interest in the mālā has increased enough to prompt me to try it and assess the similarities to and differences between the Islam, Christian, and Buddhist methods of using prayer beads.

Some of those Buddhist (and Hindu) methods, like chanting the name of a Buddha or a mantra that has special meaning to the practitioner are very similar to other uses of prayer beads.  The use of the mālā to count prostrations isn't quite so similar.  Neither is using the mālā to count one's breaths during meditation.

I tried using it to count each during meditation, and I found that it was more of a distraction from emptying my mind than anything else.  On the other hand, it is quite soothing to breath and count the beads for a while.  I could see that being a helpful practice, especially for someone who is new to meditation.  Or new to Buddhism, for that matter.

The mālā isn't just a useful tool for beginning or continuing in the Buddhist spiritual life, though it is indeed useful for that purpose.  It's also a method for Dharma transmission, though not in quite the same sense as a teacher who has a formal place in the lineage of Buddhist teachers.  While it may not be a person, the mālā can still teach us.

Each set of 27 beads is separated by a jewel, and these we can think of as symbolizing the Three Jewels of Buddhism.  In the Pāli canon, the Buddha gives an instruction to go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.  These are the Three Jewels of Buddhism, and the three refuges for the Buddhist practitioner.

It is these Three Jewels that formed the first mantra, a recitation of the refuges repeated over and over again while passing over the beads of the mālā.  In this way, the practitioner of Buddhism not only gains the soothing benefits of rhythmic breathing and chanting, but also repeatedly re-immerses himself in the light of the Buddha's teaching which shines from the Three Jewels.

The Jewels of the Mālā are the touchstones we use to keep ourselves on the path to the other shore of the River of Sorrow which is this life, the seeds which can grow into the flower of insight which floats gently upon the river, and the beautiful prisms through which we can glimpse the lighthouse standing firm on the other shore to guide us to enlightenment.

Note:  The above is a picture I took of my traditional 108-bead mālā.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Ladder of Divine Ascent: Renunciation of the World

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a well-known treatise on the Christian spiritual life, at least in some circles.  Its author is sometimes named after the book, being called St. John of the Ladder rather than by the name St. John Climacus.  The book is addressed to the Abbot of the Raithu monastery, and was written at his request, so there are some portions that directly refer to the Abbot as John's father, which he means in a spiritual sense.

The first rung of the ladder described by St. John Climacus is the renunciation of the world, by which he does not mean a sort of reckless rejection of Creation, but rather an intentional separation from the passions of this life which can easily become addictions and lead us into sins against both Creation and the Creator.  Abba John begins his ascetic treatise with an acknowledgement of the Creator:

  "1. Our God and King is good, transcendently good and all-good (it is best to begin with God in writing to the servants of God).  Of the rational beings created by him and honoured with the dignity of free will, some are His friends, others are His true servants, some are worthless, some are completely estranged from God, and others, though feeble creatures, are His opponents.  By friends of God, dear and holy father, we simple people mean, properly speaking, those noetic and incorporeal beings which surround God.  By true servants of God we mean all those who tirelessly and unremittingly do and have done His will.  By worthless servants we mean those who think of themselves as having been granted baptism, but have not faithfully kept the vows they made to God.  By those estranged from God and alienated from Him, we mean those who are unbelievers or heretics.  Finally, the enemies of God are those who have not only evaded and rejected the Lord's commandment themselves, but who also wage bitter war on those who are fulfilling it.
  2. Each of the classes mentioned above might well have a special treatise devoted to it.  But for simple folk like us it would not be profitable at this point to enter into such lengthy investigations.  Come then, in unquestioning obedience let us stretch out our unworthy hand to the servants of the true God, who devoutly compel us and in their faith constrain us by their commands.  Let us write this treatise with a pen taken from their knowledge and dipped in the ink of humility which is both dark yet radiant.  Then let us apply it to the smooth white paper of their hearts, or rather rest it on the tablets of the spirit, and let us inscribe the divine words (or rather sow the seeds).  And let us begin like this."

The classes described by Abba John for our edification deserve some self-reflection.  Are we persecuting those who seek to obey God's commandments?  Are we keeping our baptismal promises, or are we worthless servants?  Are we stubborn heretics who place our own frail intellects above the divinely revealed truth about God and His love for us?  Are there times when we fall into each of these categories and other times when we avoid these spiritual pitfalls?

In order to effectively renounce the world, we need to understand how very attached we are to it and how our attachments to the comforts of this present life take up so much of our time and energy that we have too little time for God and reciprocating His great love for us.

  "3. God belongs to all free beings.  He is the life of all, the salvation of all -- faithful and unfaithful, just and unjust, pious and impious, passionate and dispassionate, monks and laymen, wise and simple, healthy and sick, young and old -- just as the effusion of light, the sight of the sun, and the changes of the seasons are for all alike, 'for there is no respect of persons with God.'
  4. ... A monk is a mourning soul that both asleep and awake is unceasingly occupied with the remembrance of death.  Withdrawal from the world is voluntary hatred of vaunted material things and denial of nature for the attainment of what is above nature.
  5. All who have willingly left the things of the world, have certainly done so for the sake of the future Kingdom, or because of the multitude of their sins, or for love of God.  If they were not moved by any of these reasons, their withdrawal from the world was unreasonable.  But God who sets our contests waits to see what the end of our course will be.
  6. The man who has withdrawn from the world in order to shake off the burden of his own sins should imitate those who sit outside the city among the tombs, and should not cease from his hot and fiery streams of tears and voiceless heartfelt groanings until he, too, sees that Jesus has come to him and rolled away the stone of hardness from his heart, and loosed Lazarus, that is to say, our mind, from the bands of sin, and ordered His attendant angels: Loose him from passions, and let him go to blessed dispassion.  Otherwise he will have gained nothing."
Abba John reminds us that God's grace rains upon the just and the unjust alike, that he does not play favorites in a capricious manner, instead shining His love upon all in the hope that they will be drawn to Him.  This means, of course, being drawn away from our attachments to the comforts of this world, increasingly focused on seeing the light of His face in the Beatific Vision at the end of our days in this world.

Like St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, St. John Climacus asks those of us who would renounce the world to keep our deaths ever before our eyes.  This sounds morbid to many people, but my experience is that it simply helps me maintain perspective.  It reminds me that today's sufferings are not the end, and helps me focus on preparing to meet the end of my life in this world in a state of grace.

  "8. Those who aim at ascending with the body to Heaven, indeed need violence and constant suffering, especially in the early stages of their renunciation, until our pleasure-loving dispositions and unfeeling hearts attain to love of God and chastity by manifest sorrow.  This is a great toil, very great indeed, with much unseen suffering, especially for those who live carelessly, until by simplicity, deep angerlessness, and diligence, we make our mind, which is a greedy kitchen dog addicted to barking, a lover of chastity and watchfulness.  But let us who are weak and passionate have the courage to offer our infirmity and natural weakness to Christ with unhesitating faith, and confess it to him; and we shall be certain to obtain His help, even beyond our worth, if only we continually plunge to the depth of humility.
  9. All who enter upon the good fight, which is hard and close, but also easy, must realize that they must leap into the fire, if they really expect the celestial fire to dwell in them.  But, let everyone examine himself, and so let him eat the bread of it with its bitter herbs, and let him drink the cup of it with its tears, lest his service lead to his own judgment.  If everyone who has been baptized has not been saved -- I shall be silent about what follows [for monks].
  10. Those who enter this contest must renounce all things, despise all things, deride all things, and shake off all things, that they may lay a firm foundation.  A good foundation of three layers and three pillars is innocence, fasting, and temperance.  Let all babes in Christ begin with these virtues, taking as their model the natural babes.  For you never find in them anything sly or deceitful.  They have no insatiate appetite, no insatiable stomach, no body on fire, or raging like a beast; but perhaps as they grow, in proportion as they take more food, their natural passions increase."

The teaching of Abba John is very challenging; it invites us to embrace suffering, though our instinct is to flee from suffering and seek comfort in transient pleasures.  This may seem like a radical denial of the goodness of the world at first, but it becomes clear later that this is not so.  We do not abandon the pleasures of the world because the world is evil or because we detest life.

Rather, we abandon the pleasures of the world, burning them away in our embrace of the painful purifying fire of suffering, because we need to begin anew.  In order to begin anew, to be born again, as it were, we must put away all those things of this world to which we are attached.  We must burn down the house of transient pleasures so that we can build a new foundation upon our love of God.

Once our lives are re-founded on the love of God, the pleasures of the world no longer control our lives and we are free from our addictions.  We become again like small children, delighting in the wonders of the world, and eating and drinking as needed rather than according to the spirit of gluttony which leads us to consume more than we need.

  "11. To lag in the fight at the very outset of the struggle and thereby to furnish a token of our coming slaughter is a very hateful and dangerous thing.  A firm beginning will certainly be useful for us when we later grow slack.  A soul that is strong at first, but then relaxes, is spurred on by the memory of its former zeal.  And in this way new wings are often obtained.
  12. When the soul betrays itself and loses the blessed and longed-for fervour, let it carefully investigate the reason for losing it.  And let it arm itself with all its longing and its zeal against whatever has caused this. For the former fervour can return only through the same door through which it was lost.
  13. The man who renounces the world from fear is like burning incense, that begins with fragrance but ends in smoke.  He who leaves the world through hope of reward is like a millstone, that always moves in the same way.  But he who withdraws from the world out of love for God has obtained fire at the very outset; and, like fire set to fuel, it soon kindles a larger fire."

This passage rings true to me from my experience.  I have learned through my own journey in the spiritual life that when my zeal for that journey abates, I need to stop and reflect, taking stock of where I am and where it was that I left the path of love for God.

Unless we maintain our focus on that extraordinary motivation for climbing the ladder to Heaven, we quickly falter and fall back down to the bottom where our self-centeredness keeps us as long we cling to it.  Fortunately, Love Himself calls us back to the climb so that we can begin our ascent anew.

  "15.  Let us eagerly run our course as men called by our God and King, lest, since our time is short, we be found in the day of our death without fruit and perish of hunger.  Let us please the Lord as soldiers please their king; because we are required to give an exact account of our service after the campaign.  Let us fear the Lord not less than we fear beasts.  For I have seen men who were going to steal and were not afraid of God, but, hearing the barking of dogs, they at once turned back; and what the fear of God could not achieve was done by the fear of animals.  Let us love God at least as much as we respect our friends.  For I have often seen people who had offended God and were not in the least perturbed about it.  And I have seen how those same people provoked their friends in some trifling matter, and then employed every artifice, every device, every sacrifice, every apology, both personally and through friends and relatives, not sparing gifts, in order to regain their former love.
  16. In the very beginning of our renunciation, it is certainly with labour and grief that we practise the virtues.  But when we have made progress in them, we no longer feel sorrow, or we feel little sorrow.  But as soon as our mortal mind is consumed and mastered by our zeal, we practise them with all joy and eagerness, with love and with divine fire."

The words of Abba John remind us that human love shows us much of how we ought to love God.  Our devotion to family and friends, in all its depth and power, propels us to reconcile with them quickly when we have offended them, to draw ever closer to them in love, and to serve them diligently.  Though we must make difficult sacrifices to reconcile with them, cultivating those relationships and growing in them is so worth it to us.

This is the beginning of how we ought to love the God who loved us unto death, the one whose Son ascended into Heaven and showed us by His life how we too might ascend.  This beginning is a renunciation of the world so that we might learn to love the Creator of the world more fully, a Creator who then grants us the grace to love the world He has created more fully as we put our lives in right order.

Love begets love, and so we must be born again from Love's power in order to love the world as God loves the world.

Note:  The above is an image of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is a replica of an icon at Mount Sinai where Abba John Climacus lived and worked with his fellow monks to ascend the ladder to Heaven.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Love it to Death: The Annunciation of Love

Love doesn't sneak up on us, hovering over us creepily.  The one who harbors the deepest love does not pine after us without taking the risk of expressing that love to we who are beloved.  Love lived out fully always announces itself to the beloved, whether quietly and slowly or loudly and quickly.

We know this from our personal and cultural experience.  When we first meet someone and feel the spark of love, we feel an urge to speak to them of our love for them.  Even when we are reluctant to speak, or experience great anxiety about speaking to them of our love, or clam up completely because we are so afraid of rejection, love nonetheless creates in us a strong urge to announce the powerful feelings of love welling up within us.

We may announce our love by asking them to spend time with us, by offering them gifts, by complimenting their many fine qualities and virtuous behaviors, by helping them with their daily tasks, or holding their hand.  We can announce our love in many ways other than simply declaring our love to them boldly and courageously, though our beloved may by joyful indeed when we announce our love so boldly.

Public, formal announcements of love require this sort of boldness and courage, and they are rightly the most celebrated announcements of love.  Married love is announced beforehand in the form of betrothal or engagement or promise rings.  The love of one who is joining a monastic religious community is announced by way of their temporary vows (made before permanent vows) and by their submission to the disciplines of the order.

Later, married love is announced publicly in the form of wedding vows in full view of friends and family.  Permanent vows for a religious order are also witnessed by loved ones.  These are the fullest expressions of love when they are committed to and kept for life as they are intended, not solely because that radical commitment to brothers, sisters, or spouse profoundly shapes us in such a way that we become more loving as we shed our selfish desires for their sake (though that's true).

It's also because these forms of love are announced with boldness, because the beloved knows from our vows that love is on the way, that love will grow and be fruitful, that love will live and die for and with the beloved.

This is precisely how God announces His Love for us.  As recorded in the Old Testament, He sent priests, prophets, and kings to announce His covenant with Israel over and over again.  And in the New Testament, he sent the angel Gabriel to announce to Mary the entrance of Love Himself into her womb and into the world.  She reciprocated His great gift of love with a gift of her own, her wish that it be done unto her as God willed it.  This was the Annunciation of Love.

We commemorate these gifts and the Annunciation of Love at the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the announcement of God's renewed commitment to love us now and forever.  We celebrate it with the same sincerity with which we celebrate the engagements of our dearest friends who plan to get married, because they are both bold statements of a commitment to love.

At the Feast of the Annunciation, we remember God's annunciation of His divine Love sent down for us, we who are all too human, we who are nonetheless made in the divine image.  At the celebration of the Annunciation, we proclaim our love for Him who poured out His love upon us so generously in the form of His only begotten Son.  During the Annunciation liturgy, we announce yet again His great love for us as we adore and receive the Eucharist, His ultimate gift of love to us.

During each liturgy, we announce our love for God when we we make the sign of the cross, when we sing His praises, and when we pray the Our Father together.  We announce our love for God each time we confess our sins, each time we proclaim our assent to the Creed, and each time we prepare Him room in our hearts before we receive His Precious Body and His Precious Blood.

We are called to announce our love for God with the boldness and courage of one who commits to a spouse for life, in joy and in sorrow, in pleasant times and unpleasant times.  We are called to announce God's love to our neighbor by showing them His love through our actions and speaking to our neighbor of His love in our words of kindness and mercy.

We are called to make our lives an annunciation of God's love for the world, boldly and courageously proclaiming our commitment to love to death all that separates us from the divine love He has announced by His life, death, and resurrection.

Note:  The above is an image of a silk screen and gold foil icon of the Annunciation which I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com recently.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Fair Questions: Is Islam a Christian heresy?

There is a view among some Christians with at least a fair amount of historical background that Islam is a Christian heresy.  This is a proposition that could be offensive to many people and provoke a cessation of critical thought as a result.

Understandably, our Muslim brothers and sisters who believe in the uniqueness and truth of Islam might be offended at the suggestion that their religious tradition is reducible to an incorrect Christian belief.  Others might be offended not because they see Islam as unique in its practices or truth claims, but because they see religions as roughly equally good or bad, and thus for them the concept of heresy is either meaningless or laughable because in their view religious truth claims are either all true or all false.

As someone who counts faithful Muslims and cultural Muslims among his friends, and someone who has studied Islam and read an English translation of the Qur'an, as well as someone who has prayed with Muslims, I would like to explore the question of whether or not Islam is a Christian heresy in an honest way which is not accusatory or derisive.  Unlike the folks who believe that religions are all basically the same (for good or ill), I recognize that Islam makes some unique truth claims in sometimes unique ways.  I believe that we should respect Islam by treating it with the seriousness it deserves, because if it is true, then we must change our lives or face horrible consequences.

In answering the question of whether or not Islam is a Christian heresy, we need to examine two issues:

1.  Does Islam contain Christian heresy in its core beliefs?
2.  If so, then can the whole of Islam be reduced to those core beliefs?

To address the first question, I will begin with the Qur'an.  There are verses in the Qur'an which specifically address Christian theological claims, and given that the Qur'an is the authoritative teaching document for Muslims, it would seem that to be a Muslim and therefore to engage in Islam as understood in the authentic tradition of Islamic thought is to accept whatever the Qur'an teaches regarding Christian theological claims.

So what does Islam teach with regard to Christian theological claims?  Well, there are multiple verses in the Qur'an that specifically say that Jesus was not the Son of God.  And also that Christians who believe this are liable to end up in Hell (Jahannam in Arabic).  The belief that Jesus was not the Son of God, but rather a mere creature of God, a holy man sent by God, is indeed a known Christian heresy.  Arianism is the most well-known example of a Christian heresy affirming that Jesus was not the Son of God, though it's not the only one to do so.

It is also claimed in the Qur'an that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but only appeared to die on the cross.  This is a Gnostic heresy found in Gnostic texts like the Apocalypse of Peter, for example.

These are both Christian heresies, and both are found stated explicitly in the Qur'an, which is the authoritative repository of Islamic core beliefs.  So the answer to Question 1 posed above is, "Yes."  Islam contains Christian heresy in its core beliefs.

To address the second question, we need to think about what Islam is as a whole.  In order for Islam to be a Christian heresy, it must be a Christian belief system which happens to contain some serious doctrinal error to which it holds persistently.  Arianism was a Christian heresy because it was otherwise Christian in every way: in terms of liturgy, Sacred Scripture, ascetic practices, spiritual sensibility, and most doctrines.  The same was true of Pelagianism, and a variety of others.

But that simply isn't true of Islam.  According to the Qur'an and Muslims who adhere to it, what they are practicing is better than Christianity, a simpler and pure religion that avoids the corruption and perversions of Jewish and Christian doctrines which strayed from the straight path of Abraham (Ibrāhīm in Arabic).  Their religion isn't centered around the story of Christ, but rather around the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad revealed in the Qur'an and recorded in the hadith, the accounts of the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Just as Christianity isn't merely a Jewish heresy (though it certainly contains tenets that are heretical from a Jewish standpoint), Islam isn't a Christian heresy, though it certainly contains tenets that are heretical from a Christian standpoint.  So the answer to Question 2 posed above is, "No."

No matter what the teachings on Jesus are within Islam, it's not a Christian heresy for the very simple reason that it isn't Christian.  In order to be a Christian heresy, it would have to first be Christian in the sense of being centered on Christ, just as I would have to be a Christian in order to be guilty of being a Christian heretic for believing the doctrine of Arius.

To be fair to those who do believe that Islam is a Christian heresy, there is a better argument to be made that most Muslims are by definition heretics from a Christian perspective.  While Islam may not be a Christian religion, devout Muslims do have faith in Jesus to a certain extent.  They believe that he was a true Prophet sent by God (though his message was corrupted by Christians), that he was born of a virgin named Mary, that he was a holy and righteous man, that God saved him from death, and that he will return with power on the Day of Resurrection.

Is that enough for us to say that Muslims are Christians, and that therefore Muslims would be by definition guilty of heresy for believing that Jesus was not the Son of God?  It would seem strange to claim that Muslims are Christians when they generally don't believe that themselves (with perhaps a very small percentage of exceptions).

Though it's certainly true that to be a devout Muslim who believes the teachings of the Qur'an necessitates believing things that contradict the Christian faith, it's also true that Jews, Buddhists, and atheists necessarily believe things that contradict the Christian faith.  And while we would say that some of their beliefs are heretical from a Christian perspective, we don't say that Judaism, Buddhism, or atheism is a Christian heresy.  So why would we say that Islam is a Christian heresy?

I suspect that Islam is treated differently in this regard because it is the only major world religion to arise after Christianity which has explicitly recognized parts of Christianity as true and also offered explicit theological critiques of Christianity's doctrines in its own sacred text.  I understand that, for those reasons, it is tempting to put Islam in the unique position of being the only major religion to be labeled "a Christian heresy" while other religions are only described as having heretical beliefs.

I hope that those who do believe that Islam is a Christian heresy also understand my reasons for disagreeing with their position.

Related: What does the Qur'an say about unbelievers, Jews, and Christians?

The Other Side: Hilaire Belloc's Historical Argument for Islam as a Christian Heresy

Note: The above is an image of a copy of the Qur'an opened to the "Maryam" surah.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fair Questions: Who are the Liturgical Fathers?

In the ancient Christian tradition, there are lots of Fathers (and Mothers).  The Apostolic Fathers, the Greek Fathers, the Latin Fathers, the Syriac Fathers, and the Desert Fathers.  These are all fairly recognizable categories to those well-versed in ancient Christian spiritual and intellectual traditions.

I use an admittedly idiosyncratic term to describe a set of Christian Saints who were involved in establishing, profoundly shaping, or reforming the various liturgies of the Church; I call them the Liturgical Fathers.  These are Saints who are known to have an important influence on the public worship of the Church through the spoken prayers, symbolic gestures, and chanted song used in the Divine Liturgy.

I tend to think of St. James the Just (Brother of God), St. Mark the Evangelist, St. John Chrysostom (meaning Golden-tongued), St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Ambrose of Milan as being collectively the Liturgical Fathers.  James the Just, Mark the Evangelist, and John Chrysostom all have liturgies named after them because of their great influence on the liturgical forms of their respective patriarchates.

Basil the Great and Gregory the Great are both known to be effective reformers of the liturgies which existed at the time of their work in the Church.  Gregorian chant (named for Pope Gregory the Great) and Ambrosian chant (named for St. Ambrose of Milan) are known in the West especially as beautiful forms of sacred music well-suited to the praise and worship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

While the Divine Liturgy of St. James, the Divine Liturgy of St. Mark, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, the Latin Rite reformed by St. Gregory the Great, and the Ambrosian Rite named after St. Ambrose of Milan are not the only liturgies of the Church, I've chosen not to include some others in the group of Liturgical Fathers.

St. Tikhon of Moscow, for example, was a liturgical reformer who has a liturgy named after him.  I've not included him in the list of Liturgical Fathers primarily because, like Pope Paul VI, he's a modern reformer of the liturgy.  That's not necessarily a bad thing.  I have no particular objections to the reforms of either Patriarch, and I generally think they made the right decision with regard to allowing the use of English in the liturgy, for example.

As for the African RiteCeltic Rite, the Gallican Rite, and the Mozarabic Rite, I'm not aware of a clear case of a Saint causing them to exist or be reformed.  Nor are they currently practiced in the West except for a few very minor exceptions.  Those liturgical Rites seem to be more a subject of study now than a lived expression of the ancient Christian faith, for better or worse.

In the end, I tend to think of the Liturgical Fathers as the founders and reformers of liturgies and musical traditions which are still currently in use.  I'm not sure how much longer St. Ambrose's music will be used, but I can attest that it's still used now.  I'm going to be singing some of it soon at my parish, after all.

Gregorian chant is still going strong, and if anything seems more popular than ever even in secular culture.  I've attended the Divine Liturgies of St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom in this past year, and while I haven't yet attended the Divine Liturgy of St. James or the Divine Liturgy of St. Mark, I do know people who have attended them relatively recently.

It's a real testament to the strength of Christian tradition that these liturgies are still around, and that surprisingly little has changed about them.  I'm grateful to the Liturgical Fathers for the treasures they preserved and reformed.

We have a profound responsibility to be good stewards of the ancient liturgies (just as the Liturgical Fathers were) so that the Christians who come after us can experience their spiritual riches as well.

St. James the Just, ora pro nobis.

St. Mark the Evangelist, ora pro nobis.

St. John Chrysostom, ora pro nobis.

St. Basil the Great, ora pro nobis.

St. Gregory the Great, ora pro nobis.

St. Ambrose of Milan, ora pro nobis.

Related: What is liturgy and why does it matter?

Note:  The above images of icons are all icons I've purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com or bostonmonks.com, and I recommend their icons for those who want positive and spiritually beneficial Christian art to aid their prayer life.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Unfettered Mind: The Strength of Faith

These past few weeks, I re-read The Unfettered Mind written by Takuan Sōhō.   As I've mentioned before, I originally read it because of my interest in both martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and I find that my understanding of it now is deeper than it was when I was in my early twenties when I first read it.

After studying Theravada Buddhism more deeply over the past 5 years, I now find myself better able to understand what Takuan Sōhō was trying to convey to the master swordsman to whom he was writing.

The third part of The Unfettered Mind is entitled "Taiaki" in Japanese, and it refers to a sword named Taia.  This part of the book is in a different format than the others.  In it, Takuan Zenji provides brief thoughts in Chinese followed by explanations of those thoughts in Japanese.  I'll be centering the Chinese starting texts and marking them in bold to indicate what they are.

"Taiaki" begins in a way that will help us understand the later passages more fully, establishing a pattern of insight.

Presumably, as a martial artist, I do not fight for gain or loss, am not concerned with strength or weakness, and neither advance a step nor retreat a step.  The enemy does not see me.  I do not see the enemy.  Penetrating to a place where heaven and earth have not yet divided, where Ying and Yang have not yet arrived, I quickly and necessarily gain effect.

     Presumably indicates something I do not know for sure.
     Originally, this character was read with the meaning "lid."  For example, when a lid is put on a tier of boxes, although we do not know for sure what has been put inside, if we use our imaginations we will hit the mark six or seven times out of ten.  Here also I do not know for sure, but figure tentatively that it must be so.  Actually, this is a written form we use even about things we do not know for sure.  We do this to humble ourselves and so as not to seem to be speaking in a knowing manner.
     Martial artist is as the characters indicate.
     Not to fight for gain or loss, not to be concerned with strength or weakness means not vying for victory or worrying about defeat, and not being concerned with the functions of strength or weakness.
     Neither advance a step nor retreat a step means taking neither one step forward nor one step to the rear.  Victory is gained without stirring from where you are.

The explanation offered to us here by Takuan Zenji is begun with humility, acknowledging the limits of his understanding of martial arts.  Despite his limited understanding of martial arts, he has some valuable insights which apply to the discipline quite precisely.

He points out that when we stop striving to win, it enables us to win without striving.  I've written before about wu wei, the process of acting efficaciously without action, which is the result of effortless being.  And his description of fighting without striving very much captures the essence of those moments of my martial arts training during which I slipped into a state of wu wei, a state of mind empty of all selfishness that is all too rare an experience for me.

    The me of "the enemy does not see me" refers to my True Self.  It does not mean my perceived self.
     People can easily see the perceived self; it is rare for them to discern the True Self.  Thus I say, "The enemy does not see me."
     I do not see the enemy.  Because I do not take the personal view of the perceived self, I do not see the martial art of the enemy's perceived self.  Although I say, "I do not see the enemy," this does not mean I do not see the enemy right before my very eyes.  To be able to see one without seeing the other is a singular thing.
     Well then, the True Self is the self that existed before the division of heaven and earth and before one's father and mother were born.  This self is the self within me, the birds and the beasts, the grasses and the trees and all phenomena.  It is exactly what is called the Buddha-nature.
     This self has no shape or form, has no birth, and has no death.  It is not a self that can be seen with the aid of your present physical eye.  Only the man who has received enlightenment is able to see this.  The man who does see this is said to have seen into his own nature and become a Buddha.

Whether during combat or in the daily struggles of life, we do not see the true self of our opponent, not even at the moment of death when he might reveal his most profound nobility, deepest rage, or rank cowardice.  These things are no more the whole story of the essence of anyone's consciousness than our moments of cowardice, or rage, or nobility are the true Self we know to be within us.

Though each of those moments when we choose nobility, rage, or cowardice may shape the True Self, it nonetheless transcends such moments in an important way.  And the more we awaken to what is called in the Mahayana tradition the Buddha-nature, the more we discover that the True Self is what remains when we have been stripped of our selfishness.  Revealed in the fullest glory of its liberation from all craving, the True Self is truly selfless.

We are most true to ourselves when we are consistently selfless, recognizing that we are not separate from our opponent, that our existence is not an instance of duality but rather of unity.

     Long ago, the World Honored One went into the Snowy Mountains, and after passing six years in suffering, became enlightened.  This was the enlightenment of the True Self.  The ordinary man has no strength of faith, and does not know the persistence of even three or five years.  But those who study the Way are absolutely diligent for ten to twenty years, twenty-four hours a day.  They muster up great strength of faith, speak with those who have wisdom, and disregard adversity and suffering.  Like a parent who has lost a child, they do not retreat a scintilla from their established resolution.  They think deeply, adding inquiry to inquiry.  In the end, they arrive at the place where even Buddhist doctrine and the Buddhist Law melt away, and are naturally able to see "This."
     Penetrating to a place where heaven and earth have not yet divided, where Ying and Yang have not yet arrived, I quickly and necessarily gain effect means to set one's eye on the place that existed before heaven became heaven and earth became earth, before Ying and Yang came into being.  It is to use neither thought nor reasoning and to look straight ahead.  In this way, the time of gaining great effect will surely arrive.

Takuan Zenji tells us that six years of suffering preceded enlightenment.  The path to accomplishing the selflessness which flows from divesting ourselves of all craving is an extremely difficult one.  Suffering, if we embrace it consistently and let it strip us of our attachments to our transient selfish desires, gradually reveals the True Self.

But this takes so long to accomplish that we might wonder: who would spend years practicing meditation diligently and embracing suffering willingly?  What would motivate someone to do something so extraordinary?  It would require an extraordinary motivation, something to push us beyond the painful limits of normal achievement.

The Zen Master calls this the strength of faith, the strength that keeps us working peacefully towards selflessness for hours, weeks, years, or even decades.  Faith is generally not something that is associated with Buddhism in the mind of the average Westerner, but in the Pāli Canon, the Buddha specifically directs us to have faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma he taught, and the Sangha which has preserved it.

The Buddha recognized that faith and inquiry, even deep inquiry into the nature of inquiry itself, are not opposed.  And Takuan Zenji points out to us that it is the strength of our faith which motivates us to dive into the ocean of inquiry and swim to the other shore, seeking to learn wisdom from others along the way.

It is the strength of faith that allows us to keep swimming straight ahead, to continue the journey even while many others turn back in despair at the suffering it entails, or give up because of the humility required to consult the wisdom of those who have been long in the ocean of inquiry.

It is the strength of faith that finally brings us to the point at which the True Self within us is revealed to be the True Self within our opponent, and the strength of faith that keeps us on the path long enough to see that Heaven and Earth are a unity, not a duality.

The Immovable Wisdom - The Selfless Death - The Strength of Faith

Note:  The above is an image of the book cover of the translation of The Unfettered Mind that I used for this post.