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

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.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Eucharistic Rosary

The last time I wrote about the Rosary, it was to point out how effectively it reminds us over and over of our own deaths and the importance of the grace of final perseverance.  This constant reminder of death is not some morbid practice of building up a fear of death, but rather it increases our focus on what is important in life.

When we see our lives in the light of our inevitable deaths, we have perspective about what we should put first in our daily lives.  We Christians know that what we should put first is of course Christ Himself, the first-born of the dead who rose to new life at the day of His Resurrection.

When we do as St. Benedict advises in his Rule and keep death daily before our eyes, remembering both our own death and the death of Christ on the cross as we pray the Rosary, we deepen our appreciation for the great gift of eternal life which was offered to us through Christ's life, death, and resurrection to His new life in the glory of God the Father.

In contemplating the Joyful Mysteries as we pray aloud the Hail Mary, we remember that God the Father brought divine life into the world, and in contemplating the Sorrowful Mysteries we remember that the Son of God sacrificed His life by dying brutally on the cross so that we might share in the divine life of love.

In contemplating the Glorious Mysteries as we pray aloud the Glory Be, we remember that the Son of God descended into Hades to liberate the righteous dead and was resurrected to new life, ascending into Heaven to take His place with the God the Father and making a place there for us who do not deserve it because of His great mercy.

In contemplating the Luminous Mysteries as we pray aloud the Our Father, we remember the baptism of Christ, the wedding at Cana, His proclamation of the Kingdom of God, His Holy Transfiguration on the mount, and finally His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper with the twelve Apostles, the Eucharist from which we receive our daily bread.  At the end of the Luminous Mysteries, we contemplate the source and summit of the Christian life, the totality of Christ's sacrifice of love.

This contemplating of the profound gift of His Eucharist is a preparation for receiving the Holy Body and Holy Blood because it reminds us of His great love for us and our great love for Him who has given us all.  After we have received His great gift of Himself, this contemplation of the Eucharist along with the rest of his life revealed to us in the Gospels helps us to give praise and thanks for such a gift which is so great that it is the ultimate mystery to us.

His holy life, His holy death, and His resurrection are all parts of the one gift of God's love to the world, and they all flow inevitably toward His glory in Heaven; this glory is shown to us in the humble offering of bread and wine as we obey His command to do this in remembrance of Him.  In the Eucharist, all the Mysteries we contemplate in praying the Holy Rosary are summed up, the fullness of His sacrifice of love present to us unto ages of ages.

It is both right and just that we pray the Holy Rosary as we adore Him in the Eucharist, contemplating both our inevitable death and the great hope of eternal life given to us by Christ who died so that we might have the eternal life He so desires for us because of His great love.

We are called to accept our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in the Eucharist, so that we sinners might experience His mercy and have life within us, so that we might not perish, but have everlasting life in the divine household of the Father.

As we pray the Rosary, may we not forget that our death is ever near to us and that Christ our hope for eternal life is never far from us, His Precious Body and Precious Blood given up for us in death so that we might have His life within us.

Note:  The image directly above is of my memento mori rosary, which is named after the Latin phrase, "Remember your death" because the rosary has skulls marking off the decades that are intended to help us keep St. Benedict's rule to keep death daily before our eyes.

The image at the beginning of the article is what I call my Celtic Blood rosary.  For more information on these rosaries, see the related article:  Why do I have skull beads on my rosaries?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Fair Questions: Should Catholic schools fire people in same-sex marriages?

Today I came across an article in America magazine, the premier Jesuit publication in my country.  The article asks: how should the Catholic Church respond when one of their employees gets a civil marriage to their same-sex partner?

This question is being asked for a few important reasons:
  1. Catholic schools and other Catholic organizations have, on a rare occasion, fired people for violating the morality clauses in their contracts.
  2. While the reason has not always been that the employee contracted a same-sex civil marriage, that's the one grabbing headlines recently.
  3. Progressive politicians and citizens have been pushing for legal protections against discrimination toward same-sex couples that infringe on the ability of private religious organizations to enforce their religious moral codes.
Some people may find it concerning because they don't believe that private organizations should be able to fire people for their sexual choices in general.  That's a principled stand to take, and I understand why people believe that, but it's not my perspective.  My perspective is also not the perspective of the politically progressive members of the America magazine staff.

While I agree with them about our need to reach out to the marginalized and meet people where they are in a merciful way, I no longer share the heterodox positions of some Jesuits on the ordination of women (you can read why I change my mind on that issue here), and I also don't share the views of some of our clergy that homosexual sex acts are good or acceptable within a Christian moral framework (and you can read my reasons for that here).

So what are my concerns?  One of the immediate dangers of this situation is that the Catholic Church in the U.S. may lose its ability to enforce the morality clauses in contracts in general.  I am concerned about this for a couple of reasons.
  1. I firmly believe in upholding our civil liberties in general and our Constitution in particular, primarily because without robust civil liberties we cannot work for justice and peace. 
  2. I firmly believe that contracts should be honored by all parties and that private organizations should enforce their contracts, and also that, no matter what the industry, employees should conduct themselves in a way that doesn't conflict with the core values of their employer.
I certainly had to do this when I was working in the corporate world.  One of their values was a studious neutrality on the topics of politics and religion by their management staff, and I was willing to abide by that even though it wasn't always convenient for me and required constant vigilance and self-awareness.

And obviously, I'm not in fact neutral on topics of politics or religion, so it wasn't easy to refrain from doing what I was inclined to do and avoid conducting rational dialogue on those topics on a regular basis.

But these issues of legality aren't my foundational concern.  That has to do with Church teaching and the integrity of the Church.  Because I'm a devout Catholic, those are my primary concerns.

This is not a question to be considered in isolation, as the authors of the article point out.  The Church's teaching on marriage isn't just that marriage is for a man and woman, but also that it is permanent (for life).  And also that the couple should be open to life (e.g. not use artificial contraceptives for selfish reasons).  And also that a couple should not engage in sex outside the bonds of marriage.

If the Church were to consistently enforce Her teachings on marriage by firing those who openly violated them, employees who are married and use contraception, but never mention to their co-workers that they are doing so because they want the money for an expensive car or jewelry for themselves might avoid getting fired.  But plenty of divorced and remarried employees, not to mention many employees who are known to be having sex outside of marriage with a boyfriend or girlfriend, would rightly be fired for violating their contracts.

If the Church were to consistently enforce Her teachings on marriage by firing them, then it would look much less like the unjust discrimination referenced in America magazine (which in turn was referencing the Catechism's admonition not to unjustly discriminate against people who have and/or act on their same-sex attractions) when Catholic schools fire teachers who contract civil marriages with their same-sex partners.

The Church has two options if She wants to act with integrity and in such a way that it is clear that there will be no unjust discrimination.

  1. Enforce the Church's teachings on marriage consistently by firing both heterosexual and homosexual couples who flagrantly violate those teachings.
  2. Remove the morality clause from the contracts and rely on civil protections that allow employers to fire employees at will for misconduct as specified under relevant employment law.

The Church could also take Archbishop Joseph Tobin's suggestion which was referenced in the article, looking at these cases on an individual basis.  But this requires that these individualized decisions be based on clear and transparent standards that are consistently applied to these individual cases in order to avoid unjust discrimination.

I'm perfectly fine with the Church going in any of those 3 directions, provided that it is done with integrity and as much consistency as human beings can muster.  The important thing isn't that one side or another gains a Pyrrhic victory in the culture wars, but rather that the Church gives witness to the integrity of the faith.

Integrity is more important than winning a fleeting temporal victory.  Keeping the Church standing firm on Her teachings is more important than a false mercy.

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