“In the Image and Likeness of God – The Human Person in Orthodox Spirituality” a Lecture by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)

MILWAUKEE–This week I had the privilege to attend a lecture at Marquette University by one of the most preeminent authors, scholars, and theologians of our generation: His Eminence, the Most Reverend Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, MA, D.Phil, titular metropolitan of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Great Britain.

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With his bishop’s hat, flowing robes, scraggly white beard, and distinctive British accent, this esteemed professor emeritus at Oxford could surely be mistaken for a Defense-Against-the-Dark-Arts instructor at Hogwarts. (To see what I mean, check out this interview with Metropolitan Kallistos on the Philokalia.)

A prolific theologian, many would count him a worthy candidate for eventual sainthood, possibly even of the kind called Equal-to-the-Apostles.

Like every Orthodox bishop I have ever met, his warmth, grace, and above all, humility was most noticeable. He’s very down to earth. What brought him to Milwaukee? Word has it His Eminence was drawn to view the collection housed at Marquette of the original manuscripts and writings of his esteemed Oxford predecessor, J.R.R. Tolkien. Thanks to Marquette for that! The Metropolitan gave us much to think about and mediate upon, particularly as we are about to embark upon our inner journey through Lent.

Given the state of the world “out there” today, our collective prayerful journey through the Lenten desert “in here” in 2016 may well be one of the most crucial, or perhaps most meaningful, of our lives. May our prayers bear much fruit.

Lenten Meditation: In the Image and Likeness of God

In Orthodoxy, we learn to hold our hand in a very specific way to make the sign of the Cross. Join together index, middle finger and thumb, to represent the holy Trinity. Fourth finger and pinkie, folded down into the palm, represents the dual nature of Christ as both fully God and fully human.

 

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Meditate upon this: three fingers together represent the Trinity, two fingers represent Christ’s dual nature, fully man and fully God–and our own true nature as well.

This theological symbol we make using our own hand could summarize Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s lecture.

Paradoxical Duality

Like Christ’s paradox of being both fully human and fully God, Kallistos pointed out how we human beings, too, are full of paradoxical duality. Humankind embodies both hope and disappointment, frailty and strength, beauty and ugliness, “Godlike apprehension and the quintessence of dust,” he said. We are both earthly and heavenly, temporal and immortal, spirit and flesh. In theological terms, we know from Genesis that we are made “in the image and likeness of God,” while formed out of dust. Grounded in the earth, “our personhood reaches out into infinity and into eternity.”  This paradoxical duality causes us human beings to be a mystery–to our very selves.

Even though we may know we are “‘made in the image and likeness of God,’ we understand only a very small part of our personhood,” said Kallistos. “We don’t understand ultimate fulfillment. We don’t yet know what we will be. And so we ask ‘Who am I? What am I?’” Perennially, in every generation.

Human beings are born with a sense of needing something. We are driven to find it. It is like we’re born as a puzzle with a missing piece. There is always a sense of something missing, which drives us to go out and seek for something: a yearning for fulfillment.

Kallistos’ comment parallels a core teaching in  A Course in Miracles, how there is really only one problem in life –separation from God–we often go looking in the wrong places to find the solution. It might be relationships. It might be material wealth. It might be adventure, a good time, a sense of wonder. It might be creating a life of comfort around us, in which we feel physically safe—which we do by accumulating wealth or power. Or it might be investing our lives in something more than ourselves—raising our children, or contributing to a cause.

Yet none of these truly, deeply satisfy. When we chase things and power—we always seem to need more. When we seek fulfillment in others, they all seem to leave us, eventually: if they don’t let us down, they grow up and move way, or they die. When we seek wealth and power, we find it never lasts: the more we have, the less safe and more vulnerable we feel, and we never can take it with us. And though we may devote our lives to a “cause,” often that cause is never truly fixed, but continues on past our time here.

The only way to find that missing piece of the puzzle—to fully know ourselves—is through getting to know God.

“We have within us a God-shaped hole,” Kallistos said. “Only when it is filled can we become fully human.

‘You see, the two questions, ‘what is God?’ and ‘what is man?’ are intimately connected. It is only when we look into the depths of our hearts: it is there that we find God, reflected back to us. Self-knowledge and God-knowledge are utterly co-dependent. If you know yourself, you will know God. And if you know God, you will know yourself.”

In the image of God is the image of the Trinity, and the image of Christ, Kallistos explained. Quoting Charles Williams, he said: “It is not good for God to be alone.” God is three persons in relationship, loving one another, in an interpersonal way:  “not just a unit, but a union,” he said. God is communion. God is a relational being. God is social and dialogic. God is self-giving: sharing, reciprocal, responsive, and in solidarity.

We are formed in this same image and likeness. We, too, are social, relational beings, sharing, reciprocal, responsive, and in solidarity. Dialogic means two persons in communication with one another. “It means ‘I need you in order to be myself.’”

“I need you in order to be myself.”

I understand this idea very well. I was born into a wonderful, loving, kind, generous–yet flawed–family. Like so many families, mine suffered some kind of breakdown in structure long before I was born, leaving it bereft of stable emotional support structures. Emoting was just not safe. Love was conditional: fail to behave properly, and love was withheld.

For many years I suffered the consequences of conditional love: self-loathing, low esteem, self-harm, depression, suicidal thoughts. Thank God, my one attempt at suicide was very lame and I failed.

Psychologist Frank Dance described growth in human communication from birth on to traverse a spiral shape like a helix. At birth we are the center of our universe: there is only us and our needs. We cry, and God in the form of our mother meets our needs. We think we cause everything. As we start to move higher and see farther, we realize we share this world and live in the context of others: family, parents, siblings, cousins, extended family, neighborhood, city, state, planet. We circle back around, reflecting upon our past experiences while moving forward, higher up in an ever-enlarging circle. We learn that are NOT the center, we are not alone, who we are affects others, they affect us, and so forth.

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With each passing experience, our circle of experience grows bigger and we rise higher. Only by interacting with others do we see ourselves: our gifts, our talents, our abilities, within a context of a social structure. As we come around to higher levels we develop the ability to empathize: to imagine ourselves in someone elses’ shoes, feel what they feel. We develop perspective, empathy, and compassion.

But for some of us who grow up with conditional love, movement forward along the growth track can feel like an electric shock. Perhaps because of abuse, neglect, or addiction, we stop moving forward. We recoil. We put on thick gloves and shields. We build a wall. We, in essence, get stuck at a developmental stage of feeling like we are at the center of the universe. The world “out there” is going to harm us, and we have to defend ourselves, put up walls.

That was the kind of family I grew up in, emotionally. Lots of walls.

Then I had the transformative experience Metropolitan Kallistos described:  “I need you in order to become myself.”

I distinctly recall the moment. I was in my mid-20s, newly married, deeply in love with my new husband. We spent a lot of time gazing into each other’s eyes, sharing our stories. And then it happened. I saw myself as he saw me: I saw what he loved in me, in myself.  Unconditional agape love: so strong and pure, no matter what I  did, how I behaved, what mistakes I made, it forgives and endures forever. I will never forget the uplifting sensation of the opening of my heart, when I was first experienced seeing my own value, my own worth, reflected in the eyes of another. To clarify: it was not that I was validated by him. My husband did not validate me. My husband was simply the mirror–not the source. What I saw was who I REALLY am–love itself. I saw the I AM that is love, that is God–reflected in his eyes. I AM, HE IS, WE ALL ARE, that LOVE. There is only One.

God’s love. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”—John 4:16   There is no love but God’s love, says A Course in Miracles.

That sensation of opening, of seeing that love, felt uplifting, as a revolution completed in the helical journey. I was up at the next level, looking back, and a whole new vista appeared. I experienced level of compassion for my own broken family that I had never been able to perceive or conceive of before. They simply were stuck back there, and did not know about this kind of love! How sad! (I won’t get into the years spent trying to share it with them. That’s a whole ‘nother discussion!)

Our society today is stuck, like I was, in a conditional love. Society needs to move along the path of growth. We have all suffered so much hurt, so much abuse, so much pain, many of us frozen in fear, are afraid to love, afraid to move on, afraid to trust, afraid to fall, afraid to let go.

A wonderful anthem for this generation:  Let It Go!  Good Lord: help us let it go! (Queue up Disney.)

Here is the point: as tightly as we cling to our fears, that does not stop the unconditional love from being there, right here, right now, right before our eyes. Love is eternal. It has and always will exists. Remember: death was overcome! John 8:51. Why hold on to fear? What is needed is to open our eyes, to simply be able to perceive God which is love. In order to perceive it, we must seek mirrors — those who reflect that love back to us. We must become mirrors ourselves: we must look deeply and with love into the eyes of anyone and everyone with whom we interact, and reflect that love to them, and act upon our love.

An inner work

People make mistakes all the time, every day of the week. Whether surrounded by unloving people, terrorists, or conditional love, many in this broken world go through life alone, with conditional love. We withdraw our love for them, put them in prison, and leave them to suffer alone.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem.

“One human being in solitude is no human being,” Kallistos said.

We are not being fully human when we are like abused children, hiding alone in the closet. We all need to come out of the closet.

The answer, of course, is that we are never actually alone in the closet at all. So long as one child hides in a closet, we need to rescue them, get them out, look into their eyes, reassure them of the truth: What is real is Christ God within us, complete man and complete God, a relational being–that’s Who is real. He is right here, inside our hearts, ready for us to find him. He promised and he keeps his promises. A heart that seeks Him, finds Him.

This message is arguably the most profound truth in all of human history. This message represented a re-setting of our reality as human beings: an entirely new paradigm. It was so profound, back in the day, that it reset our consensus calendar to begin retroactively with Christ’s birth. Look at the calendar we all share. We are in the Year of Our Lord, 2016.

“Christ’s birth,” Metropolitan Kallistos said, “was the birthday of the whole human race. Not until then were the full dimensions of human personhood revealed.”

“Theology is actually a branch of Christology,” Kallistos said, not the other way around. Above all else, “we are to be faithful imitators of Jesus Christ.”

Kallistos issued a challenge to all Christians: we must go beyond simply imitating Christ. “We will greatly err unless we take it further.”

“Let us not forget Hamlet, who reminded us: ‘I have bad dreams,’” he said. “Human beings reside midway between majesty and lowliness. While we are flawed icons, always remember: Christ is our constant companion until the end of days.”

Freedom, Self-Knowledge, Creativity, Growth and Cosmic Dominion or Priesthood

Metropolitan Kallistos encouraged us to consider five points: freedom, self-knowledge, creativity, growth, and cosmic dominion or priesthood.

With regards to freedom, he challenged us to recognize that God’s freedom is absolute and unlimited, while human freedom is limited. It is within our limitations that our freedom is to be found. Don’t worry about shackles and injustice and prison bars. They mean nothing.”You must change your mind about the purpose of the world, if you would find escape,”as A Course In Miracles so eloquently states.

Self-knowledge

Knowledge of self arises out of knowledge of God. What is He always telling us? “God says: become your true self,” Kallistos said. That’s it. Everyone can become their true self. Everyone. “Recognize that nobody is dispensable, unnecessary, or useless. It is tragic that anyone ever feel that no one would notice if they died.”

Creativity

It is in our own creativity that we “bless the Lord….for in wisdom hast thou made them all.” (Psalm 103-104)  All of us are made in His wisdom.

Recognize that we humans are sub-creators, as Tolkien said. “God creates out of nothing, we create out of what God has given us.”  It is in offering what we make of the world, and giving it back to God, that we become truly ourselves. We transfigure, revealing in glory, what was hidden.

For example, God gives us wheat which we transform into bread and give back to him. Likewise, He gives us the gift of the vine, we transform it into wine, and give it back to him. He receives our offering, transforms both, and gives them back to us in the Eucharist. He told us to do this to re-call him back to us. Western Christianity translates it “do this in memory of me,” but the correct translation from the Greek is “do this to call me back.” It is in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, prayerfully made by our own hands, in a circle of giving, that He comes back into us: his sacrifice was not just on the Cross. His sacrifice continues every week Divine Liturgy–a Eucharistic mystical supper of his body and blood transformed mystically–to keep us alive, spiritually.

Of course, Kallistos pointed out, human beings are not the only creatures to whom God loves and gives his fruits and seeds.

“Squirrels collect nuts,” Kallistos said, “but they don’t transform them into liqueur!” Only human beings can transform, transfigure, and transmute what God gives us into something else.

Growth

“To be human,” Kallistos said concerning growth, “is to be a pilgrim, a journey from the image to the likeness.” The image is essentially our equipment, whereas the likeness is holiness. The journey is “the act of reaching forward,” or as I describe, moving along that path of growth, in an ever widening spiral, higher up, seeing more.

And through all of eternity, Kallistos assured us, “God will always remain a God of surprises.”

Cosmic Dominion and Priesthood

Regarding cosmic dominion and priesthood, “dominion does not meant domination,” Kallistos said. It is always to good to “remember the gentle service of Christ washing the feet of his disciples.

“Christ said ‘I am the One who serves.’ We in modern times have forgotten this.”

“Reflect on the contemporary ecological disaster. To say ‘environmental crisis’ is not strictly accurate. The crisis is not ‘out there,’ but in the human heart. The ecological disaster is a spiritual problem. We have lost sight of our true relationship to the world God has given us. Our human image is grievously distorted. What we need is an ecological change of mind.”

It is important, he said, to bear in mind the distinction between the king, the steward, and the priest. The concept of a king is not popular and is widely misunderstood today.

Many Christian ecologists, Kallistos said, call upon us to be “stewards,” for the world belongs to God, not us. But there is a disadvantage in that view. By taking on a managerial or utilitarian point of view, our egos inflate and we succumb to the temptation to elevate ourselves above creation. How do we prevent this?

“See nature not as an ‘it’ but as a ‘thou,’” he said. “Act as priests of the Creation. We are ordained, through the laying on of hands, to a natural, intrinsic priesthood, that is both eucharistic and doxological. How we become our true selves is to be who we are: Man the Offerer.”

“We must turn the world itself into a eucharistic offering—requiring, on the one hand, sacrifice, and on the other, love,” said Kallistos. “Love is at the heart of the Trinity.”

A commandment of God not written down, Kallistos said, is:  “Love the trees.”

Many criticize organized religion for how it causes us to have to worship God, and to believe blindly. But God does not need us to worship Him. Nor does He need us to believe in Him. He exists whether we worship or believe in Him or not.

The fact is, it is us human beings who need to worship. That is our nature. Whether we worship money and stuff, logic and science, sports figures or movie stars, political heroes or villains–the truth of the matter is, we are eschatological beings: we have a need to worship. Why? Because we are designed with that missing puzzle piece that is God; we are designed to come into union with Him. That is what worship is. Worship is about opening ourselves to Him.

The truth of the matter is, “the human person is a mystery,” Kallistos said, “an inexhaustible mystery.”

A day without prayer is a wasted day.”—Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

“Today is all that we have. Pray every day,” he said. “A day without prayer is a wasted day. Today, make a fresh start in all these things. Show compassion. Show practical help to the people around you. Then you will be a true person.”

I am so grateful I got to hear him speak, particularly now, at the beginning of Lent.

And particularly this year, this Lent, in the year of our Lord, 2016, let us all meditate upon our hand and who we really are: you and I are both made in the image and likeness of God. Fully man and fully God;  relational, dialogical beings. In our hearts we find God who is love. We find ourselves, we who are love, and we become true selves: mirrors, divine sub-creators.

May your prayer bear much fruit this Lent, and may the Good Lord have mercy on us.

Amen.

Stories and Spiritual Athletics

St. Mary of Egypt and St. Zossima

Stories are so powerful, particularly the stories of people who led exemplary or extraordinary lives. One of the uncounted things I love about Orthodoxy is it’s edifying and illustrated storytelling. As part of every service, every day of the year, we tell stories and show pictures, yes from the Bible, AND from exemplars from throughout history. Exemplars who guide from the other side. Like athletes with mentors, Orthodox are spiritual athletes who look to the blessed saints for counsel and inspiration.

I also love that we tell not only HIStory but HERstory as well–we lovingly remember and revere women’s holy stories, too.

In the lifelong pursuit of ever striving to attain Theosis, success stories are edifying. We learn ways to build our own spiritual muscles. Studying those who overcame barbs and stings and snares and hurdles of difficult life journeys–of the soul’s longing for holiness–teaches strategies to apply to win our own game.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent is set aside for the telling of the miraculous story of the Holy Mother Mary of Egypt, as recorded by eyewitness St. Zossima. Some stories are worthy of a feast, and this is one. Clearly she was a victim of child sexual abuse and suffered greatly. As Victor Frankl’s story taught, in enduring the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, the choices we make, the thoughts we think, create the meaning of life. The meaning makes life. Story is life. In every moment we have this powerful gift. No one can take from us the divine gift.

Here is her story. In reading her story, may you find edification as well.

http://www.antiochian.org/stmaryofegypt

Dark force attractions, procrastination, and the heart-brain path to God

What a headline for this post, hey? Bear with me on this one…

A friend of mine of Facebook recently posted a series of very joy-filled messages to his friends, sharing his recent Chrismation into the ancient Holy Orthodox church. He is a very kind-hearted and bright person, and received dozens and dozens of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAposts from friends congratulating him, being supportive.

This morning, on Holy Saturday, he posted a negative complaint of utter frustration with his own family, who apparently do not understand his journey, and have not been very supportive.

This is so very typical. I know that after I was Chrismated in 1999, I had a similar experience. I had been “high” on my newfound faith, my new discovery of the power of prayer, in love with God and my new church family, when I started having a series of very dark and frightening dreams, almost to the point of nightmare. Also, I suddenly experienced a major break in a relationship with a very beloved in-law family member, which threw me into a state of deep anxiety, self-doubt, anger and depression.

For my friend, for this to happen to him, now, during Holy Week, particularly, is very common. Priests, monks and laypeople engaged in dedicated spiritual practice will confirm that negativity always arises much moreso during Holy Week than at any other time. Every year on Palm Sunday, Fr. Bill reminds us of this in his sermon and shares his strategy of how to be on guard for it. He simply refuses to argue, be critical, or pass any judgment about anyone or anything during Holy Week. Period. If something negative or disturbing comes up, he uses procrastination and puts off dealing with it until Bright Week, after Pascha. He says that invariably, whatever the issue was, it dissolves into nothing by the next week.

Finally, a good use for procrastination! Maybe it could be used all the time! Any time anyone says something negative or you are tempted to get angry or pass judgment or you’re having fears or negative thoughts — just procrastinate. Put off the judgment, the fear, the worry, the concern, to next week.

I’m going to try this!

The reason excess negativity arises during Holy Week, and after blessed events like a Chrismation when we’re most prayerful, filled with light and love and hope, is because the enemy is attracted to the light. Yes, folks, there is an an enemy. He’s been very crafty this past century, getting people to think he’s a myth. What a great strategy for an enemy, hey? The fact is, the enemy is real, he lives in the dark, he has since the very beginning, and he’s always wanting more company, down there in the dark. Maybe the darkness is like a vacuum. This world is in darkness, we were born into. We’ve been mucking around in it our whole lives. And when we finally step out, into the light, maybe we pull some of that darkness along with us. Or the hole we leave behind gets filled and explodes out after us. And it does seem to have a certain kind of magnetism, that wants to drag us back into  the depths of anger, depression, anxiety, uncertainty, fear and other muck that is the darkness. That makes sense to me, as to how it works.

It is said in our faith that the Sacraments are the best way to cleanse us of these negative energies, and I have experienced that to be true.

I, too, have many dear friends and relatives who are hardcore atheists, or claim to be Christian but follow an avowed anti-Christian leader (Ayn Rand), or who are in the space in which I used to be. For decades I harbored grievances against organized religion for centuries of abuse and injustice to innocent men, women and children. I was particularly upset about the genocide of indigenous peoples–the wonton destruction of entire cultures which were peaceful and innocent. Today, a lot of people are very upset by the revelation of years of sexual abuse of children within the structure of one of the world’s major religions. It is completely understandable, and a good thing, to be outraged about that!

What I didn’t understand before I stepped out of the darkness and into the light is that God didn’t do these terrible things to man, through religion. Man did this to man. Religion is like anything – it can be wielded for good, or for evil. To condemn religion is like forbidding the use of cars because people die on the freeway in accidents. Or forbidding people from going swimming because some people drown. Or saying we should have no more corporations because some harm people. (I do draw the line on this analogy to guns. This does not apply because guns are designed for no other purpose than to kill or harm. If guns were built with auto-correction to NOT be lethal, but to only hit extremities, and with safeties that identified the trained user and would be disabled if say, a child picked it up–then I’d reconsider.)

Religion is not the problem. Mankind’s behavior is the problem. In fact, God’s been trying to help us out of this for millennia. He’s sent umpteen saints and messengers. He came down himself to teach us. He dictated an entire Course In Miracles for us to get it.  And still many of us are not getting it!

This culture we are in is ruled by dark side in a multitude of ways, primarily by false egoic identification with form. We’ve come to identify with *things*, losing sight of who we really are, made in the image and likeness of God. Our culture doesn’t support that teaching anymore; on the contrary, it teaches us that we are weak and vulnerable and need to live in fear. That stokes the ego big time.

What I’ve come to realize is that for people to turn, to see the light, what is needed is an experience of something bigger than them, that touches their hearts. Be it a near-death experience, the birth of a child, or something breathtakingly beautiful in nature that God created. Something that diminishes the ego enough for it to get out of the way, and allow the heart to see and to hear, with that inner vision.

That is what what I always pray for people, is for God to touch their hearts that they may see Him. When talking to such friends, I try to get them to just consider the possibility of having an experience like that. For example, musicians can hear harmonies and tones and chords that others cannot, because their ears have been trained. For those with untrained ears, they cannot hear those things; yet that does not mean they do not exist, simply because the untrained ear cannot hear it. If you start to study music, your perceptions change. You perceive sound in new ways. You perceive things you never could perceive before. This is how it is to find God. It is all about, as Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain said, tuning yourself to the channel of God, like dialing in a radio station. This is why A Course In Miracles includes 365 daily lessons on perception.

God is not an irrational blind belief, which is how many atheists perceive us who are pious. God exists whether we believe in him or not. He does not need us to believe in Him. He does not even need us to worship him. He simply loves us and wants us to find our way home. The worship is for our benefit, not his. Religous practice never was and is not now supposed to be forced on anyone. One of our greatest gifts, which He could have but has never taken back, is our free will. The only way to find our way home is to adjust our perceptions, to tune our hearts, to His frequency, because we want to. This is what ascetical practice is for. This is what the church and its traditions of fasting, prayer and the sacraments are all about — helping us get tuned properly.

Science is just now discovering that the heart contains neurological tissue on par with the brain.The heart is not just a pump–it is a sensory organ and a brain, processing information it receives from the world. This is good news, because God can only be experienced through the heart-brain, not the head-brain. More and more people, through the pursuit of science, will begin to experience His presence. I believe that to be true. To hear, feel, see, and get to know God, it takes training and practice, just like anything else. The Orthodox have preserved, in Christianity, the ascetical practices the best.

The Orthodox have also retained the translation of Christ’s teaching, at the last supper. To paraphrase the Greek, for which there is no English equivalent, partaking of the sacrament of the bread and wine, of the Eurcharist Supper, is the way He told us to “call him back” to us. It is much more than simply “remembering” him.  This is why the Eucharist in the Divine Liturgy every Sunday is the highlight of an Orthodox Christian’s life, and why every Divine Liturgy is like a little Holy Week and Pascha, or Easter service. He actually comes into the bread and wine, he becomes, again, a sacrifice, so that we may be healed or our negative afflictions, and live in the light.

So, if you’re having a great day, don’t be surpised when seeming “bad things happen.” Stay in the light, don’t get sucked in, by simply procrastinating on it. And remember that the path God is through the heart, not the head.

Was that too convoluted?

 

A Human Need: The Purpose, Benefit and Value of Worship

Of all the differences between people, belief in God is one area in which we are almost all in accord. Contrary to widespread perception, only 1.6% of Americans self-identify as atheists, and only 2.4% as agnostics. The remainder, 96%, believe in the existence of a higher power in some fashion or another. A full 78% self-identify as Christian. Belief in God is “absolutely certain” for 71%, religion is “very important” for 56%, and frequent participation in religious services–weekly worship–happens for 39%. (This all according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.)

Could it be that human beings have an intrinsic and enduring need for God, much like they need companionship, food, clothing, and meaningful work? For a field that has not been studied or promoted in public schools for over 50 years, clearly the subject matter of divinity remains important and relevant for the vast majority of Americans.

Yet in the diverse marketplace of religions available to Americans today, many remain dissatisfied: 28% of adults report having made a major change of religious affiliation since childhood, such as moving from atheism to Christianity or vice versa. Within the ranks of Christianity itself, a full 44% have jumped ship from the faith in which they were raised. What is triggering all this movement? Clearly some needs are unfulfilled. Is there an inherently correct way to worship that best fills the need, and incorrect ways that do not?

At Death to the World is an excellent piece entitled In Spirit and Truth which answers these vexing existential questions succinctly, by going back all the way to the common beginning shared by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. In today’s fast-moving society where the cycle of human technological obsolescence grows increasingly shorter, seeking guidance from old ways seems oddly counter-intuitive.  Particularly to those whose religious focus has been on more modern religious practices, checking in with ancient history seems foolish, awkward, and irrelevant, the author writes.

“This seems like death to those who love toe-tapping worship, but in fact the Life of God is hidden in these ancient forms and they very much need to be brought back in our day.”

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Ancient hagiography depicting one of the earliest recorded accounts of human worship behavior, that of Cain and Abel.

Speaking from personal experience, having been one of those dissatisfied seekers who searched far and wide over several decades for spiritual truth, embracing ancient ways has lead to fulfillment far exceeding anything I thought possible.

In exploring the story of Cain and Abel, as recorded by Moses in the book of Genesis, we see that the earliest humans understood that to worship is to give away something of value to God. Similarly, Indigenous Native Americans practice the Giveaway Ceremony, and the Potlatch Ceremony (from which our tradition of potluck dinners hails.) Giving things away brings us closer to a fulfilling our need for relationship with God.

But in the story of these two brothers, the first generation after entering the world to begin the long lesson of learning from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, one brother’s worship practice of giving away is done correctly, and other’s is not.

“If we understand that true worship is as much a correction of the worshipper as anything else, then what we see in this story is that Cain was not willing to be corrected. He stubbornly wanted God to accept what he thought was good enough, rather than to learn from God what would constitute true worship. Cain was therefore a false worshipper.

“Throughout the history of Israel, we see God being very specific about true worship, not only in terms of what makes a true offering, the construction of the altar it should be offered upon, the Temple in which it should be offered, but even right down to the details of which incense to burn before Him. Once again, these instructions are given for man’s benefit, not for God’s. He who owns the cattle on a thousand hills does not need the blood of bulls and calves to be offered to Him. But man needed to offer them in order to humble himself before God, recognize his own sinfulness, and to glorify God as the Maker of all things and man’s only Redeemer.”

Many thanks to Archpriest Micheal Reagan for this excellent homily exploring these questions, as well as to the monks who have recently given one of my favorite sites a new makeover. Death to the World began as an extraordinary print publication in the early 1990s.  A  lifesaving vehicle produced with great loving care using traditional paste-up, then photocopied and hand-distributed person-to-person throughout the Christian punk rock underground, its circulation amazingly reached a pinnacle of tens of thousands. It is truly a blessing to find Death to the World given new life today, online. I encourage all Truthseekers to explore it in depth.

In reading and study, may the Holy Spirit of Truth touch your heart. And may Death to the World continue helping bring about the precise type of death that is necessary in order to find true spiritual life and fulfillment.

http://deathtotheworld.com/articles/zine-articles/in-spirit-and-truth-issue-13/

Blessed are the poor in spirit

A girl and her puppy

“The poor” have become a topic of wide discussion lately, publicly and online.  In a recent email exchange with a church-going Protestant conservative friend, he speculated about God’s proclamation in the Beautitudes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

“Why would God single out the poor for special attention? This thought has always puzzled me,” he wrote. He listed 8 possible reasons why God would show special favor to a class of people identified by their lack of material wealth, concluding that the poor are basically those who are desperate.

But “poor in spirit” does not refer to people who lack material wealth. “Poor is spirit” refers to those who attain an attitude of humility,  a way of walking with the recognition that all things come from God and not from self.  It is an attitude of emptiness of material concern, being devoid of all pride and reliance on own’s own ideas, opinions and desires. It is attaining a deliberate lack of trust in one’s own individual spirit. It is diminishing one’s ego, getting one’s self out of the way, and becoming an empty vessel. It is only by being empty of worldly, material spirits that one can then be filled with God’s divine spirit.

As it says in Jeremiah 23:17 and Romans 1:21, to be poor in spirit is to be liberated from “vain imaginations” of one’s own heart.

The violation of this spiritual attitude is in fact original sin, and the source of all sorrow. We Orthodox uphold and honor as the best model of poverty in spirit the Theotokos, the bearer of God, as the most perfect human being to have ever lived.  For her choice, her attitude of poverty, emptying herself and becoming a living and loving chamber of God incarnate, she redeemed all mankind. By giving away her self, Christ was able to manifest on earth, and ultimately die to set free from death Adam and Eve and all of us.

And, of course, Jesus himself was poor in spirit, as well as physically. As He said:

“If anyone loves this world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (I John 2:15-17)

This is why the monastic life is so vital. The monastics give up this world, empty themselves and become filled with God’s spirit. The life of a monastic is very very difficult; yet the holy elders acknowledge the even more difficult is the life of a worldly person, with a family, who can attain such spiritual poverty and become filled with God’s spirit.  Saints, whether monastic or in the world, link us to the heavenly realm for our benefit. Whereas our distracted prayers are like raindrops and trickles of water in a dry desert, their prayers are like firehoses.

Fr. John Hainsworth gives insight into the original Greek that has been translated into “the poor.”  It is common to envision “the poor” as a beggar, as my friend has done.  But more accurate is the image of a child.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit”

From the beginning of the beatitudes, we have a challenging claim. Sometimes this beatitude is read as meaning that we will be blessed and truly full of joy if we are fully aware of how insignificant we are, how truly meaningless our state is before God, if we cower in our state of spiritual poverty. But is this so?

The word used for poor is ptokos, and it describes an emphatic state of poverty: not that of a low-income wage earner, but that of someone who is without a wage at all, and indeed must ask for everything he receives. Commentators often use the image of a beggar to describe ptokos, but this is misleading. Disciples of Christ are not beggars; they are children, and beloved children as well, ones sought out by God even to death on the Cross. The more appropriate image of one “poor in spirit” is a child.

My little daughters are utterly dependent on me for everything. If I did not feed them, they would starve; if I did not clothe them, they would freeze; if I did not give them a house to live in, they would be totally exposed to the elements. A child, at least in circumstance, is ptokos. An adult is too, at every level of his or her existence. We forget our total dependence on God, the degree to which God permeates our reality. We forget this, or we just don’t know it. So, if we want to understand what poverty truly means, the first beatitude demands that we acknowledge from the beginning God as Creator of heaven and earth.

So, to inherit God’s kingdom, be like a child or like a beloved dog, who depend upon us, who look to us with humility, submission, and unconditional love. Our beloved children and pets remind us of the way that we are to look to God, and to find Him.

Christianity and Politics

FOR DECADES, the GOP has claimed to have the high moral ground, waving the Bible and painting itself the party of God. Their message in a nutshell:

WE are the party of Christianity and Judaism. WE are the “moral majority.”  All others not with us are to be feared and despised as immoral, evil, Godless baby-killers, not to be listened to, trusted, or heeded. WE are perfect, righteous, never in the wrong, and must take all power away from them; that is the only way America can be restored to its moral decency–decency which has been lost, all because of THEM.

Let’s look to the book so frequently cited to justify the GOP’s claim to moral superiority. In St. Paul’s second letter to the young church at Corinth, which in those early days was not getting it quite right and needed correction, Paul identifies seven “marks” or “signs” of true apostles of Christ. Let’s examine these seven qualities and see which party today most closely mirrors the ideals set forth by St. Paul, who himself met the risen Christ, personally, on the road to Damascus.

The first sign of a true apostle is the ability to endure discomfort gracefully. A rare but beautiful quality, true leaders embrace persecution, even “take pleasure” and “rejoice” when reproached, persecuted, and thrust into need for the sake of God or for others, St. Paul writes. For they know God lives within them. The lure of comfort is very powerful. That’s why Christ said it is difficult for the wealthy to get into heaven; it is rare for a rich person to part with his comforts. Mr. Romney, with his 7,000 square foot home and riches beyond comprehension, holds to his luxuries so tightly he cannot even bring himself to endure the discomfort of public scrutiny of his tax records. By contrast, Mr. Obama has faced public humiliation by the GOP,  disrespectful boo’ing and hissing and spreading of lies about him. He has been falsely accused of everything from forging his birth certificate to plotting to turn the U.S. into a communist state to being a Muslim.  His achievements have been met with criticism and disdain, credit withheld for anything done right. Yet he has remained, for the most part, gracious and humble, not returning the personal attacks, and, as best he could, laughing them off.

The second mark is humility — consciousness of one’s own “nothingness,” one’s frailty and vulnerability. Humility is attained through having endured, repeatedly, deprivation, exhaustion, danger and near death experiences, which strip away self, revealing that true strength comes from God. The most humble leader in the GOP in recent years is John McCain. Draft dodging, insulated rich folks like Mr. Romney have not tested their mettle in the way of suffering. War, of course, is not the only way to suffer and possibly find God. Mr. Romney was invited by Catholic nuns to come and serve the poor with them, so he could feel what it was like. He declined. Living in and near poverty, seeing, caring for those less fortunate, and suffering intense hatred of others, as Mr. Obama has all done, is another test of humility. To truly play the blues you have live the blues. Mr. Obama has been there, done that.  Mr. Romney, not so much.

The third sign is personal constancy, tenacity, patience, and perseverance, in the face of all kinds of difficulties. Mr. Romney is one of the least constant leaders to ascend the GOP ranks in recent history. His record is one of shifting positions to suit his needs — a series of 180 degree turns in core values, from supporting and then denying support for his own state health care system, to his turn from pro- to anti-choice. Mr. Obama by contrast has been consistent in his values of caring for others throughout his career, and any compromises he made, such as with the health care industry in drafting reform legislation, were done in promotion of those values.

The fourth sign of a true apostle is a spirit of non-materialism. They work without thought of pay or reward,  “very gladly spend and care,” become “spent up” for other people.  While Mr. Romney has been generous in his tithing, his career focus and the focus in the GOP on supporting corporations and tax policies that favor profit over the health and lives of people, acquisition of vast quantities of personal rather than public wealth, evading taxes by moving accounts offshore, and love of luxury, all clearly have a materialistic spirit. In making his tax records pubic, Mr. Obama has revealed no excessive pre-occupation with materialism, and often speaks of the best things in life being the love of his family — not his possessions. Democratic initiatives have always put people above profit.

The fifth sign is sacrifice. True Christians, St. Paul said, act like parents who sacrifice, who go without in order that they may “lay up for their children.” The GOP and Mr. Romney embrace and encourage their ranks to display stubborn unwillingness to sacrifice any tax dollars, even to take care of injured war veterans, hungry children, students, or to care for the elderly and disabled. Which is not surprising since they are avowed followers of the money-worshipping, anti-Christian Ayn Rand. Their hearts are clearly with their ample treasures. This is antithetical to God’s commandments. Mr. Obama and the Democrats, by contrast, support shared sacrifice of all.

The sixth mark of a true apostle is love.  Love is the bottom line in all things, St. Paul says. You can tithe, you can heal people, you do all of the above, but without the spirit of love, it means nothing. God loves a cheerful giver. God loves those who are compassionate and desire to alleviate the suffering of others. God loves those who hate sin, but who still love the sinner no matter what. The biggest display of love, of course, is the willingness to lay down one’s life.  Draft dodging aside, for the sake of love of money over people, the GOP and Mr. Romney display no love in their willingness to harm the economy, to take our country to the brink of financial ruin, and to cut vital services to the poor even if it will result in peoples’ additional misery and even death–all for the sake of defeating the president. Mr. Obama, by contrast, has prioritized in line with St. Paul, putting peoples’ lives and health first, then livelihoods, and then wealth. For this reason, health care was reformed in a way that would not only save money, but lives. And already, the fledgling Obamacare has done so.

The seventh sign of a true apostle is edification. He leads for the sake of building up his followers, particularly their moral character. Mr. Obama, as the quintessential role model of father and husband to young men of all colors, leads by example, demonstrating all of the foregoing qualities. Unlike a “hireling,” said St. Paul, a true father “does not own the sheep,” leaving them when his shift is up, to go party. He “neither flees nor abandons the flock” but cares for them and their development. Yet the hoards of Republicans erupted into cheers of approval when Clint Eastwood told them “you own America.” Mr. Eastwood followed up saying, we all own America, including Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. But his clarifying statement was lost on the crowd, who cheered themselves silly as righteous “owners” seeking to maximize their profits.  I don’t think righteous means what they think it means.

The message repeated throughout the Bible: we are to strive to learn, act, and become like God, do as He did. We are to look upon ourselves as servants, serving others, as He did. We are not to act as owners, but as loving brothers and sisters, as He did. We are not to be owned, for we are His children, not His servants. Most important of all, we are to love each other, as He did.

By the standards of St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians, one party has lost the moral high ground. Despite its sins, which He said we are not to judge, the party today that is acting, behaving, leading and standing most clearly in league with Christ God, according to St. Paul, is President Obama and the Democratic party.