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.