A Christian Response

A Christian Response to Extremist Ideologies and Terrorist Attacks

1) To pray for the world, to be a people of right worship, and to turn to God first in all situations and for all things.

2) To see the image of God in all people, to love but not facilitate enemies, to desire the welfare and salvation of all races and cultures, and to affirm the Church and protect civilization.

3) To be lights shining in the darkness, to be examples of true religion, to be a culture of life, to prohibit and prevent actions which are destructive or deadly to human life, and to refute falsehood wherever we find it.

4) To maintain our religious beliefs and civilized values with absolutely no resignation to terrorism as inevitable or as something that unites us and makes us strong.

5) To love children, to prioritize the protection of children from terrorist violence as well as from extremist brainwashing, pornography, kidnappings, and slavery.

6) To hold elected officials accountable by voting, sending letters and e-mails, and through social media.

7) To define current multicultural tolerance as oppressive to a free society, subversive to democracy, and as anti-Christianity, anti-Western civilization, and anti-American.

8) To become aware of multiculturalism instruction and tendencies in the public school system, to read our children’s textbooks and monitor their homework, and to voice any concerns to teachers and principals.

9) To align with other cultures and religions which uphold values similar to ours.

10) To find ways to support the families and loved ones of terrorist victims and to support first-responders.

11) To report any suspicious person or activity to authorities — if you see something, say something.

12) To denounce those who misinterpret the Bible to support submission to immoral leadership or inhumane policies, or who misinterpret the Psalms to justify personal vengeance.

Children as Targets

The title of this essay could have been, “The Vulnerable and Innocent as Targets of the Self-Righteous and Envious.” It has always seemed to me that terrorists are essentially self-righteous at the core of their character and as a basis for social cohesion. They are good and right and you are bad and wrong and therefore you are offensive and must be dominated or annihilated. That is their sense of logic. Intimately woven into pervasive self-righteousness is an envy of anyone with real accomplishments, particularly people and nations which do not share in their extremist value system.

We might say that the quality of innocence is also offensive to the radical agenda. Children are to be brainwashed and forced to continue the ideology into the next generation. That is to say, their children. Our children, however, are to be killed in order to terrorize and demoralize us into non-resistance if not total submission. The targets of terrorist violence have always been weak or vulnerable, but to target young people is utilitarian at a depraved level. The youngest person killed in Manchester, U.K., was an eight-year old girl. Just a little girl who had gone to a concert with her mother and sister, not knowing how offensive her favorite music was to the self-righteous and envious. Twelve of those killed were under the age of sixteen.

If the targeting of children continues, there will be woe many times over. There will be funeral after funeral. Families will be forever altered. Classmates will be devastated. Commentators will continue to analyze an extremist culture which simply does not think or act in normal ways. Let us hope that a strategy  will be developed to end terrorism — hope, and hold our elected officials accountable. Let us pray that all children, theirs and ours, will be spared from brainwashing, violence and slaughter. We must protect childhood according to humanitarian standards. We must not passively accept a world in which the killing of children is the new and inevitable normal, and in which multiculturalism makes excuses for terrorists and protects their so-called rights.

Unworthy Servants

People were meant to work, to do something, to focus their energy into fruitfulness. Even prayer is an activity inasmuch as it involves a concentration of one’s vitality into worship and intercession. Yet, the Bible tells us that, despite our efforts and achievements, we are unworthy servants. We have only done what God has called us to do and enabled us to do.

The verse related to this is from Luke 17: 10.

So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ [RSV]

So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.” [The Jerusalem Bible-1966]

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all these things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. [KJV]

In an effort to understand this verse, I jotted down some ideas and notes.

  • We are undeserving of tribute or awards, for we only did the work we were called to do. Our work is vital, but it does  not make us special or any better than others who are also working. Everyone works according to their gifts and talents, and according to the claim of God upon their life.
  • We are undeserving to do His work, even though we have been called to do it. That is, called forth from our falleness and into His love and unity. Rather than coveting acclamation, our attitude should be one of thanksgiving for the chance to share in and to be a vital member of the whole.
  • Our work should be inspired by love of God, Church, and mankind. A servant does what he is paid to do, and a slave does what he is forced to do. A disciple of Christ does what he is called to do, and this work or activity is in itself a source of happiness and fulfillment.
  • Our work does not make us superior. We cannot do anything without God and we are dependent upon Him no matter how much we accomplish. We are unworthy in a sense of self-idolatry, letting others put us on a pedestal, judging those who seem to have done less, and resting on our laurels.
  • “Our Lord showed his disciples their need of deep humility. The Lord has such a property right in every creature, as no man can have in another; he cannot be in debt to them for their services, nor do they deserve any return from him.” Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, p. 965.
  • With faith as a grain of mustard seed, we could move mountains.

The word unworthy is not a description of our work or service, but of the status of Christians who have only done what we were supposed to do. Nonetheless, God has deemed us worthy though unworthy to do His work. But to expect exaltation would be presumptuous on our part. The strange thing is not that we are unworthy, but that God has given us something to do and thereby filled our lives with purpose, meaning, direction and completion. He has entrusted us to serve the Church and build up the Kingdom.

Our performance of these duties is not in the detached manner of a paid servant or an abused slave, but we are involved and invested as His children and heirs. It is astounding that God allows us to work, and that with a little faith we could move mountains; and it is shocking that we react with pride rather than humility. God does not owe us anything, and we are not doing Him a favor by believing in Him. We answer God’s calling because life has no significance outside Him, and we do whatever glorifies Him because He alone is worthy and because in this we find our only true happiness.

The Little Country Maid, by Camille Pissarro

Taking Up the Cross

To deny oneself and to take up one’s cross is essential to following Christ in true discipleship.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.”

Matthew 16: 24-27 [RSV]

Taking up the cross might involve conditions such as: being misjudged by the world, coping with social exclusion, relinquishing some goals and plans, not insisting on certain ideas or opinions, not resting on past achievements, not coveting what others have, and perhaps actually suffering persecution from schoolmates, colleagues, or the government. In other words, “…not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26: 39). One’s decisions and actions must be in alignment with the Church and in cooperation with the will of God.

This is not a glamorization or self-infliction of suffering for its own sake, but a loving imitation and witnessing of Christ under all circumstances — particularly expressed in the forgiveness of those who trespass against us. It is to be in the world but not of the world — and this has many ramifications which are often unavoidable, beyond our control, and even to be expected. Everything is grist in the process of denying, taking up, and following.

To deny oneself is to reject all forms of self-centeredness such as: self-gratification, self-indulgence, self-justification, self-promotion, self-infatuation, and perhaps likewise any neurotic self-judgment — leaving all judgment to God. It does  not mean to deny the distinctive self that we were created to be or called to be, or the image of God in which we are made. Denial of self pertains to the renunciation of our fallen and corrupted state of self-centeredness. We deny, renounce, and triumph over impurity through Christ. In this sense, self-denial is an affirmation of holiness.

The genuine self is realized by taking up the cross and following Christ — by becoming Christ-like, by living a life pleasing to God, by forgiving others and enduring to the end. The cross is not oppressive or gruesome, but life-giving and victorious. For some people, it may involve sacrificing some of the good things in life in order to more fully embrace the ways of God — but what we have given up will be replenished a hundredfold (Mark 10: 31).

Perhaps the most emotionally disturbing and mentally confusing thing is to carry the cross among one’s own kind: within one’s own church or religion, or inside one’s circle of friends. Perhaps the most spiritually unbalancing thing is to carry the cross before religious authorities and experts. Yet, Christ did all of the above and in the extreme, relying  on God the Father to direct and sustain Him. The saints and martyrs were sometimes criticized, falsely accused, and banished by other Christians — by bishops, priests, monks, as well as by civil authorities and pagans. If we really follow Christ, then we enter into a divine journey of total trust and unceasing prayer as we fulfill God’s purpose in all kinds of places and at all times — and, for each one of us, these will be the most spiritual places and times.

Bearing the Marks

Some people think St. Paul ruined Christianity. Anyway, I have come across postmodernists who view Paul’s epistles as inconsistent with Christ’s teachings, and they conveniently omit that part of the Bible from their beliefs. But then, Paul seems always to have had certain challenges to his apostleship, even to the point of defending himself in frustration.

Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

Galatians 6: 17 [RSV]

Paul literally bore marks on His body, for he suffered physical harm as he performed his evangelistic duties. There are persecuted Christians today who likewise bear the marks of Christ on their bodies, as well as suffering damages to their homes and churches. Even in America, there are instances of church arson and shootings, mainly in the southern states. Most of us are more likely to suffer mental and emotional abuses from colleagues or classmates.

However, there are possibly other ways in which we can bear the marks of Christ, conscientiously or proactively. That is, there are ways in which we can demonstrate His love and be recognized as His followers in our everyday relationships and encounters and also in our goals and efforts. To elaborate on this, I am going to connect Paul’s statement with three verses from the Gospels [RSV].

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion on him and bound up his wounds…

Luke 10: 33-34

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13: 35

Bear fruit that befits repentance…

Matthew 3: 8

St. Paul, by El Greco

There are positive behavioral and social marks of a Christian. These marks — actions and interactions, labor and productivity, purification and transformation — should be the everyday stuff of life along with prayer, reading the Bible, and worshipping in Church. This is how other people, Christians and non-Christians, experience the image of God in us. People may or may not be impressed with domes on church buildings or with three-barred crosses, for these are symbols and not marks. The symbols are important because Christ died on a cross, but He died with marks on His body — the marks of His faithful ministry on earth which was even unto death.

If we do not have compassion like the Good Samaritan as a basic disposition, if we are not emotionally and practically attending to the wounds of the suffering, if we do not express or show love for one another in some way, if our repentance is not manifested in positive changes or outcomes, then, like the postmodernist, we are picking and choosing which parts of religion we want to uphold and which parts to discard.

St. Paul regarded himself as the first among sinners, and yet he loved Christ and was not timid in his expressions of love or in his evangelistic commitment. There was no false humility. To bear the marks of Christ makes us like Him, and like Paul who was like Him. It sets us on an affirmative course, claimed and branded by the message of Christ and not by the deceits of the world.

Creative Christians

Having devoted the past few years to serious writing, I have come to the conclusion that all creative writing is therapeutic. As writers , we seem to draw more from our troubled soul than from a pure heart — or perhaps from a combination of the two as we constantly endeavor to follow Christ through our trials and tribulations. This does not mean that such writing is not within the will of God, but only that the purpose of Christian creative writing — expression, elucidation, evangelization — seems also to include the psychological and spiritual healing of the one who writes.

This is perhaps within God’s plan for us. As we write, we heal ourselves. Rather, God is active in us, transforming emotional wounds and fulfilling a quest for knowledge. Maybe it would not be too outlandish to say that such creativity reflects the concept that we are temples of God or of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 3: 16, 6: 19). We try to write, sing, or paint from within that temple.

Christ Himself was a storyteller, using parables as a means of teaching the ways of God. This would seem to validate Christian creativity for the purpose of building the Kingdom. Different people have different gifts, and sometimes people have intersecting gifts. One might be both priest and musician, or both mother and artist, or both carpenter and poet. Let us not limit the infusing of the Holy Spirit just because we feel more comfortable with manmade rules and regulations, stereotypes and conventions, and prejudices and misconceptions.

Moreover, Christian creativity is not the same as worldly entertainment. Creative writing has the same purpose and vision as a sermon or homily, but it is put forth in a different form. For example, there are snowflakes and autumn leaves, but nobody would mistake a snowflake for a leaf even though both are true expressions of nature. Each has its place within the whole. There are sunrises and sunsets, yet there is uniqueness of arrangement even within the same basic elements or features. In other words, there is no deviation but only unlimited wonders in God’s created order.

Getting back to the soul of the writer, writing from a background of or in a current state of troubles does not nullify the content of the writing. Even though the creative process itself may be a medicine for the writer, that does not mean the writer does not have something essential to say or that the finished work is not a manifestation of Christian fruitfulness. The creative process is one of purification — it involves labor, commitment, sacrifice, and honesty with self and God. It is almost like the sacrament of confession, or perhaps the opposite of confession because we have poured out the best that we had to offer at that moment – in that poem or essay, in that song or painting, and then we move on to the next composition for as long as God calls us to serve Him in this way.

A Starting Point

Agony in the Garden, by Albrecht Durer

Upon perusing some Orthodox Church websites, I notice there is an emphasis nowadays on outreach to the non-Orthodox in the community. In fact, I came across one such website in which this evangelistic approach represented its main content, and there was no nourishment for or connection with the already converted and baptized. Nonetheless, I am pleased to encounter this approach because there was a time when those who were attracted to Orthodoxy were regarded as unfit outsiders who might contaminate the purity of the Faith.

This new evangelism often focuses on this major point: the Orthodox Church is the original and historical Church which Jesus Christ founded. Specifically, it is the historical timeline, showing the early Church and the splitting off of the Catholic and the Protestant churches, that seems to be the proof or the crux of the matter — or that which might attract a Pentecostal or Anglican or Roman Catholic to the Orthodox Church. This is possibly effective. I once knew someone who became Orthodox precisely because of the historicity issue — for my friend believed in God but was unaware of the line of events from the early Church to the present-day Orthodox Church.

Personally, I am not convinced by the timeline, even though it is true. The Church, original and historical and current, is the Body of Christ — the Son of God, the Savior of mankind Who laid down His life for us, the Good Shepherd Who gathers His sheep throughout the ages, the Light of the World Who has overcome evil and calls us out of darkness, and the Risen Lord Who offers us eternal life. Now, if someone already knew all that or had been raised in those basic beliefs, then the facts of the timeline might be the convincing point of conversion to Orthodoxy. That is, the continuity and authenticity of the Faith which has not undergone alteration since Jesus Christ (or since Pentecost).

Among converts to Orthodoxy, perhaps a starting point is necessary for an expansion to all facets of the Church: prayer, worship, icons, the Nicene Creed, the concept of theosis, the daily commemoration of saints, the monastic tradition, etc. Anyway, it prompted me to think back to my own starting point which had nothing to do with any timeline — at least, not on the surface, not as a focus, not as a reason or motivation to commit to a religion.

My introduction to Orthodoxy, which I did not recognize as an introduction at the time, occurred upon reading a biography of St. Seraphim of Sarov. It was the life of this saint that opened a desire within me for (a) relationship and oneness, (b) the life of prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer, and (c) the salvation of my soul. I do not remember if things happened in that order, or if everything happened at once, but that was my starting point. At that time, it was my impression that the Orthodox Church existed in Russia in the distant past but was not a viable Faith at present.

Yet, my attraction to the life and religion of St. Seraphim remained strong. One day, out of curiosity, I looked up Orthodox Church in the yellow pages of the telephone directory (since there were no computers or internet in those days). To my surprise and reprieve, a timeline was mercifully drawn from St. Seraphim to my eventual baptism, for there was an Orthodox Church not too far from my home. For me, the convincing point was a human example, or rather a saintly example, who especially embodied certain facets of the Church which I found attractive, or rather life-giving. Most churches are named after saints, and may those saints guide all visitors and newcomers into the True Light of the World as they set foot into an Orthodox Church edifice.

First among Sinners

It is impossible for the Church to teach untruth. But, it is possible for truths to be misunderstood or misapplied even by followers of Christ. We might wonder, then, how truth is misconstrued or why it is believed in a distorted form within the Holy Church. Well, indeed, we are all sinners, and first among sinners — which is what the Church teaches but which seems often assumed in an impossibly literal translation. Let’s review what the Apostle Paul said about himself — yes, let us try to understand why this holy man viewed himself as first among sinners, as given in I Timothy 1: 15.

This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. [KJV]

This is a faithful and trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance and approval, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost. [AMP]

How true it is, and how I long that everyone should know it, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — and I was the greatest of them all. [TLB]

Now, if Paul is to be believed, or if the New Testament is to be regarded as truth, then Paul is the first, chief, foremost and greatest sinner. Therefore, if I regard myself as first among sinners, then I have defied the truth of Scripture or I have put Paul in second place after myself. The only way I could put Paul in a different position would be to view sinners on a continuum. That is, Paul was the greatest sinner until I was born and then I lived a more sinful life and became first among sinners. Of course, this is absurd. It would be a futile exercise to compare and contrast all sinners throughout the ages.

Another problem with a literal application is that we cannot all be the first among sinners. It goes against the very definition of first. First means first, not second or third. Moreover, the score cannot be tied among sinners: with all of mankind in first place, or every human being as foremost, or each man and each woman as chief. Personally, I do not regard myself as worse than Hitler or tied with Hitler, and this is how we get distracted from true meaning — to be literally the first among sinners is irrational.

We either have to let Paul remain the first and let everyone else fall someplace behind him in terms of severity or quantity of sins, or we have to interpret a valid meaning. The quest would be not to diminish Paul’s repentance and evangelism, not to alter the truth of Scripture, but to discern what is beneath the surface so that we may take our place before God and accept responsibility for self among humankind.

It would seem that Paul put himself forth as an example and that he was called by God to show that even the most sinful can be saved — even someone who had persecuted Christians through unbelief and ignorance — even that kind of person, specifically and foremost Paul because of his horrendous actions, can receive the mercy of God and not only be forgiven but become an instrument of truth and love. In this sense, historically and spiritually, Paul is indeed the first among sinners — for to say otherwise would be to deny his calling — as well as a holy servant of Jesus Christ and the Church. To be first among sinners, therefore, is to glorify God.

If Paul’s words are faithful and worthy, then let us attempt to apply them to ourselves. If I am the first among sinners, then there must be a basis in reality for this conclusion, position, or condition. In other words, to regard myself as first is not a technique to acquire humility, not something I blindly accept despite the evidence of the atrocities of Hitler, and not something imposed upon me by an authority figure who does not know my mind and heart. It is only the reality and the facts of my life — my specific, particular, God-given life — that can show me that I have failed in ways that only I could have done because only I can live my own life and make my own choices whether for or against Jesus Christ.

These failures might be small or large, common or outrageous, few or many. The significance, however, is that I betrayed Christ and persecuted the Church within the dynamics of my life and my time and place. I did what nobody else could do, because nobody can live another person’s life for them. I am therefore first among sinners, and I therefore repent inasmuch as I have awareness of my own sins, and I likewise trust that God will mercifully accept me as His servant and use me in some way to contribute to the building up of the Church. And perhaps this is how the Apostle Paul serves as our example.

It is reality and self-knowledge that produces genuine humility, makes us publicans and not Pharisees, and renders us prodigal sons and daughters — each according to the variables in his or her own environment and through the “perfect patience” of Jesus Christ. To be first among sinners is not condemnation but salvation if we look to the Cross and begin to fathom the unfathomable love of Christ. Then, I can say, humbly and realistically, that I am the first among sinners. The Church, then, consists of firsts among sinners who are being transformed and deified at every point of their development individually and as a whole unit.

God Willing

During the swearing-in of the new President and Vice-president of the United States on January 20, 2017, the Oath of Office concluded with “So help me God” and was administered with hand on the Holy Bible. Below is the text of the Oath of the Office of President:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.

It seems that “So help me God” is optional. In other words, those who swear any oath of public office can invoke God’s help or not. That makes room for atheists or other objectors to the format. Invoking God’s help might also assume His judgment for false promise or dereliction of duty. The current “So help me God” is apparently an abbreviation of an earlier version:

So may God help me at the judgment day if I speak true, but if I speak false, then may He withdraw His help from me.

The solemn and formal “So help me God” is somewhat similar to the more familiar “God willing.” When we form a goal or begin a project, or simply organize our chores for the day, we often say “God willing.” It expresses our desire to do as God wills and our hope that what we plan to do is, indeed, within His holy will for us.

Houses at Chatou, by Maurice de Vlaminck

Houses at Chatou, by Maurice de Vlaminck

We choose whether to live, conscientiously, with or without the help of God (for God helps and protects us even when we are not aware of it, though we should not presume or abuse His mercy). Some people are so grandiose that they never turn to God in recognition of need, and perhaps other people are so mired in corruption that they think God will turn away from them. So, they rely on their own manipulations or sheer determination to get things done.

Still another similar expression is the now commonplace “I love you.” These words used to be said privately and rather emotionally, reserved for spouses, family, and perhaps close friends. Some people never said or heard “I love you,” whether love was expressed in other ways or whether there was no love. Nowadays, “I love you” is said as a substitute for “bye-bye” or “see ya later” as we leave the home or end a telephone conversation. Even the President (the 45th and his predecessor) says “I love you” in speeches to his constituents. “I love you,” followed by “I love you, too,” has almost become obligatory.

Finally, let look at how the Apostle Paul expressed commitment, inclusion, and love:

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love undying.

Ephesians 6: 23-24 [RSV]

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.

1 Corinthians 16: 23-24 [RSV]

Language changes over time, as does cultural acceptance and expectation of certain expressions. Even the Bible undergoes constant revision. Perhaps especially for those of us who are older, some words and phrases appeal to us and some grate against our sense of etiquette or represent a deterioration of civility (particularly vulgar expressions which are now regarded as normal). Yet, the words, or the meanings, of the Apostle Paul are timeless and unchanging because they come from God and not from man. If our love is undying, no matter how we express it, then that is the main thing.

Strength, Courage, Love

We tend to preserve and explain the truths of religion, which is certainly essential, but this approach sometimes degenerates into harsh scolding of the faithful or haughty condemnation of the unfaithful. However, some people simply need a word of encouragement to practice the basic truths they already know, truths which are perhaps tested daily in the environment. The Apostle Paul, who was capable of teaching truth as well as confronting inappropriate behaviors, seemed to realize the importance of also offering support to believers.

Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

1 Corinthians 16: 13-14 [RSV]

Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. Let all things be done with charity.

1 Corinthians 16: 13-14 [KJV]

The qualities emphasized by Paul are faith, vigilance, strength, courage and love. Therefore, if someone is not fully practicing the truths of the Church, it might not be due to lack of knowledge but lack of support amid the stresses of everyday life. Sometimes, we need someone to commiserate with us and reinforce our identity and lifestyle as Christians. We need someone to make an investment in us — of time and love, getting to know us and keeping us on the straight path, and just being available to us when we are in need.

In this instance, Paul is not telling us to be humble or forgiving, but to be strong and courageous. We can only guess how many times the devil has had his way with Christians because we were not watchful in prayer, not strong in our beliefs and knowledge, not courageous in the world or among other religions, and not acting like true men and women created in the image of God. We can only surmise how satisfying it is to the devil that we do not encourage one another in daily life, but we gossip about a brother or sister who is deteriorating and we passively consent to the evil overwhelming him or her.

This essay is not meant to be a scolding but an observation as well as a report from personal experience, having lived on both sides of the issue — the one without support as well as the one who failed to give support. If you need a word of encouragement today, then perhaps these two short sentences of the Apostle Paul will guide you now and serve you throughout the days ahead. Be strong in Christ Who is our very strength even in our weaknesses, and through Whom we can accomplish all things and overcome all obstacles. And, if you have the maturity and spiritual capacity, insofar as God directs, try to uplift the suffering and do not cause further harm.

How We Process Life

Everyone has a perspective on life, whether toward the self-centered or the philosophical. This is how we try to make sense of things, both in the moment and in retrospect. We grapple with reality and try to interpret it so that we can grow or, at least, survive. Anyone who understands defense mechanisms (denial, projection, rationalization, etc.), knows that some people misinterpret reality because the truth, about oneself or about the world, is just too painful or inconvenient to acknowledge. Many of us probably use a combination of defense mechanisms and healthy coping skills, according to our level of stability and maturity.

Flowering Apple Tree, by Piet Mondrian

Flowering Apple Tree, by Piet Mondrian

My own tendency is to process things psychologically and sociologically. That is, in an attempt to resolve mental confusion and emotional pain as well as to have good relationships with people and to navigate society’s systems. I also have some tendency to look at life historically, appreciating my predecessors while viewing the world’s drama throughout the centuries. For me, it’s all about inward cohesion and outward connection to mankind. This undoubtedly influenced my career choices in psychotherapy and teaching. In fact, my first job was in a restaurant which definitely involved relating to people — feeding them and trying to make them happy whether they were sitting alone with a book or chatting with their friends.

As I have gotten older, I find myself processing life materially and bodily. Each morning, I assess my wellbeing  and my resources — if I have the wherewithal to run errands, or if I have the energy to clean house, or if I have enough food so that I can postpone going to the supermarket, or if I just want to sit in my chair and knit. But I try to accomplish two or three household tasks per day or else things get out of control by the end of the month.

Old age means that I have to be flexible and sometimes change my plans because of how I feel. This morning, for example, I had planned to go to a flea market but I just did not feel like it — as though something was holding me back. I usually obey that strange feeling, as a sort of premonition or intuition about myself or about the conditions which exist outside my kitchen door, or as an invisible protection over my wellbeing, and I look for other ways to use my day productively.

Ultimately, we have to process life spiritually. However, spiritual concepts can be misinterpreted or misapplied, or used very much like defense mechanisms. Turning the other cheek, for example, can be used as an excuse for not solving personal problems or not addressing global situations. The real message of Jesus Christ is distorted and no longer matters. What matters is relief for the individual and denial of life’s difficulties, while giving the appearance of holiness if not superiority. Unfortunately, religion has always been plagued with individuals and groups who are insistent if not aggressive in their distortions. They give religion a bad name.

One of my spiritual perspectives is derived from All Saints Sunday as celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is a day, specifically the first Sunday after Pentecost, when all saints, and therefore all types of saints, throughout time are given recognition and devotion. It is a day of inclusion and wholeness, a day to process the glory of the Kingdom and to behold ultimate victory and union.  With God’s mercy, we shall also be among the saints in a place or state where there is no longer suffering or sorrow — and likewise no defense mechanisms or distortions.

I was baptized on the eve of All Saints Sunday, after the Vespers service. That was many years ago, before I had ever really encountered divisions and separations which were unnecessary and avoidable, misunderstandings and ruptures in places where one would not expect it, and sins and lunacy which oozed out of myself and others even as we tried to worship God and respect the Church. One might assume that a perspective of All Saints was of comfort to me under those circumstances, but I never fully realized the concept or had the capacity to reap the benefits of such a wonderful gift. I did not process life according to All Saints in those days, but painfully hobbled from crisis to crisis in the events of my life and environment. There were moments when I was very aware of my distraction and neglect, and this only added to my torment.

Yet, God is merciful even to late-bloomers. And who can say with certainty that God did not arrange my baptism such that the fruits would not be harvested until the end of my life. Who can tell me that a perspective of All Saints is diminished just because of slick roads and potholes? Who can stop me from getting up each morning and assessing my wellbeing and resources according to the reality of the help and blessings of All Saints? The connection is at hand, especially marked on the first Sunday after Pentecost, and for everyone — annually and on any given day, which means Heaven welcomes us and nobody on earth can stop us from repenting. Perhaps the Sunday of All Saints shows us our only true vitality and unity — which is in Christ, and overriding any earthly dynamics which appear contrary on the surface.

No Other

As a writer, I have only recently noticed that I have, at various points in my life, tried to write the ending to my own life or to the chapters of my life. I used to think if this happened or if that happened, then it would be a logical solution to the problems I was experiencing or a fitting completion of that phase of my journey. Somehow, I thought that God thought the way that I thought, or that my wishes were within His care for me and an appropriate recompense for my sufferings. I was always bewildered when life did not turn out according to the novel that I seemed to be writing about myself and in my own head.

However, life is not fiction, although fiction might resemble life. If we confuse the two, even with good intentions or heartfelt longings, it is because we do not discern that God’s ways are mysterious and because we cannot foresee His sacred ending to our life or the conclusion of any of its phases. We form plans and goals, make choices and decisions, and yet we are not in total control of life itself. There are unexpected obstacles as well as opportunities. There are complications within some situations such that love cannot be expressed in a way which is personally satisfying, but our love becomes sacrificial or even anonymous.

There is no other way to love except within the way of Christ, for Christ Himself is the Way. It is discipleship in Christ which must always direct everything we say and do as well as our reactions to dissatisfaction, loss, defeat, alteration, waste, hardship, failure, want and need. His life is our life, and our non-fictional components might be the very keys to living in Him. There is no other completely accessible love except the love of Christ, for His love resists factors such as finances, health, location, politics, education, status, race and ethnicity. Christ is immune to the limitations and impurities of our earthly striving and preconceptions.

This is a hard lesson to learn, for we crave something more concrete — something, perhaps, that does not require faith. But without faith, life has no ultimate significance. Without faith, we would start writing our own novels or engage in the partial giving and taking of love, for such is the way of the world — perhaps not totally insignificant, but also not glorious and not untainted by the seeking and expressing of certain unmet wishes which can only be met or overcome through Christ Himself. Let us listen to the Apostle Paul.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4: 16-18 [RSV]

Indeed, some of our dissatisfaction and complications are temporary and outward, confined to this earth whether for a few days or many years. Meanwhile, inwardly, we can develop the ability to love purely and everlastingly, and become pleasing to God. It is unseen, hidden in Christ, and yet expressed through prayer and charity. I am not saying that love cannot or should not be reciprocal, but even reciprocal love must be centered in Christ and those individuals must be called into those relationships or situations. When love is not reciprocal — because of individual shortcomings or complicated circumstances — we are called nonetheless to love with Christ-like love and to let Him write the ending to our life.

Unconquerable Sunday

There is much in religion that serves as a blockade to true spirituality, and yet, Sunday after Sunday — each Sunday a Day of the Resurrection of Christ — people go to church, or perhaps they climb a sycamore tree in order to see Christ despite the blockades of deviation or simply being unwelcome inside the church doors. Even so, yes, the desire is to see Christ — Himself, risen, in others, transformed, in oneself, abiding, and to know that all the blockades have been conquered, including one’s own blindness which may have burdened a neighbor. Today, on Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, we all see the True Light that enlightens the world. So, yes, let me say “Christ is Risen” to the church-goers and the true worshippers, to those in the sycamore trees, to those who were once blind but now they see, to those whom I love and whom I failed to love, and to the whole universe — because it is an indisputable and invincible truth that He is Risen.

The Resurrection of Christ, by Jacopo Tintoretto

The Resurrection of Christ, by Jacopo Tintoretto

Lazarus Saturday

The only religious tradition I follow, other than decorating the interior of my home for Christmas, is a day of housecleaning on Lazarus Saturday. This is a custom that I learned long ago within a community of Eastern Orthodox Christians, and I have maintained it ever since in my private life. I did not know how the custom developed or even what it signified, but it became a habit into which I put my own purpose. Lazarus Saturday and Holy Thursday are my favorite Lenten celebrations, as one precedes the other in sequence, and as both prepare me for and introduce me to the Resurrection of Christ in all its meaning for the struggles of mankind.

This year, it seemed like the whole of Lent was a long Lazarus Saturday, for there was a lot of cleaning and organizing to do — including a task which did not exist during my younger Lazarus Saturdays, and that was the deleting and organizing of files and folders on my computers (because the personal computer had yet to be invented). I rejuvenated two laptops for daily use, got rid of an obsolete one, and bought a new one with updated features. Setting up a new computer — the way that I like it — is an enormous task.

Perhaps my attraction to the Lazarus Saturday tradition is that it gives me permission to be Martha and to attend to the practicalities of running a household as well as to plan future writing projects. It is a protected day for bringing order to my home and mind, so as not to be preoccupied during Holy Week. It enables me to make the transition from Martha to Mary, to come forth from my dark cavern of blindness, and to awake on Palm Sunday in anticipation of total victory over the tribulations of this world.

Today, April 23, 2016, Lazarus Saturday coincides with the Feast of St. George. I always notice things like that — the intersecting or overlapping of events, the spiritual connecting of persons in life’s drama, the various meanings that can be gleaned for direction on the journey. Help is available; triumph is near and is already here. Christ is mingling with His people, preparing each individual to behold His trampling down of death and His rising with love for mankind so that all can worship Him eternally. Therefore, Lazarus had to be brought back to life, and St. George could become a martyr and Victory-bearer, and even a writer can delete and organize files and folders on her computer and write an essay on this marvelous day.

Grow Old, but Not Alone

People talk about growing old together, and what a beautiful commitment and comforting expectation! Regarding marital partners, however, it assumes that there will be no divorce and that one will not die years ahead of the other. As you approach your sixties and seventies, you might find yourself growing old with a brother or sister, or with your dog, or perhaps with your new friends at the assisted-living facility. Robert Browning wrote a poem about growing old, and I will quote the first and last stanzas.

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in his hand
Who saith, “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

So, take, and use thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!

Rabbi Ben Ezra, by Robert Browning

Life as we know it on this earth will end, whether we grow old together or alone. In fact, it is not a tragedy if there is nobody to grow old with us. The crux of old age is to trust God during the last phase of life, to be not afraid of the future or of death, and to finish our remaining years in repentance and fruitfulness according to His will. This is also true of youth, except that the aged are much closer to completion and judgment. The Apostle Paul offers a similar kind of promise in terms of earthly time, or perhaps transcendence of time, and heavenly eternity:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.

Hebrews 13: 8 [RSV]

If Christ is the only faithful companion we have — because others died before us, or betrayed us, or drifted away in leaky rowboats sure to sink — then we can find solace, yea our very breath and being, in His unwavering and unchanging love for us. Let us grow old with Christ Who offers salvation in the broadest sense of the word. He saves us from the total condition of sin, including isolation and loneliness in our senior years. There is no greater friend than the One Who lays down His life for us, searches for us, and prepares a place for us in the Kingdom of Heaven.

So grow old, because you have no choice. Grow old, and use it as an opportunity to renounce the past while fulfilling everything you were meant to be. Grow old, for you are to glorify the God Who brought you to this point and continues to guide you forward and upward. Grow old, but not alone, not without nourishment, not into oblivion, not dependent on anyone for happiness except Christ and yet not ungrateful for whatever blessings He mercifully sends you in your last days. Grow old, like a poem that only increases in meaning each time it is read.

Twilight, by Hale Woodruff

Twilight, by Hale Woodruff

Rejoice, Even If in Retrospect

How many times have I heard that we Christians are to rejoice when persecuted because our reward will be great in Heaven? Numerous times. I have always believed it, perhaps did not really understand the connection between suffering and reward (why it had to be that way), but never fully lived my life according to my belief. In between my morning and evening prayers, the day sometimes proceeded in a discordant direction.

Even if I had experienced a state of true rejoicing, I am not sure that I would have known how to express it. If rejoicing means to be excited and animated — then, no, I have never felt that way. If rejoicing means to be contemplative and hidden in Christ — then, yes, I have had my moments. Perhaps rejoicing is not one-dimensional, but is expressed in various ways according to personality and temperament as well as talents and gifts. If rejoicing is expressed through the cycle of Church feasts, then there is a poetic and orderly quality to rejoicing. Perhaps liturgical music instills within us a state of rejoicing which we would find difficult to acquire or appropriately express without participation within that structure.

When treated badly for my religious beliefs, it was never my response to give thanks or to glorify God for it. I felt the emotional pain. Sometimes, I was overpowered by the stress and did not cope well. Yet, God never forsook me. God knew what He was getting when He got me, and He made the commitment anyway — this is something I have concluded after many years of struggles. I cannot accept that God brought me this far only to condemn me, now, in my old age, because of my storehouse of mistakes. It is my belief, or rather the evidence of my entire life, that rejoicing coincides with my senior years and in retrospection on God’s outpouring of guidance and forgiveness throughout everything.

If it is possible to rejoice in hindsight, to give thanks for all that happened in the past because of the way it turned out in the present, to glorify God for His untold patience and astounding fidelity, then it is never too late for any of us. It might have been more holy to rejoice in the here and now, without knowing how things would eventually fit together, and I regret that I did not have that depth of trust during past crises. However, I think it is also a matter of developing certain instincts and reactions as Christians: to turn to God first in everything, and not to internalize the attitudes and habits of an environment which actively opposes us (and sometimes other Christians are included in that environment).

Whatever God does with the remainder of my life, His decision will be just. But the value system of the world no longer rules my emotions, and my old storehouse has been burnt to the ground. All is ashes. And all is possibility. To rejoice in retrospect is to rejoice in the present, because we reached this point, each of us, and we have a God Who knows us and keeps us. If we are to give thanks for everything, then everything means everything — up to this day and in this day.

Not Evil, but Sources

It has been a lifelong aspiration of mine to understand suffering. Sometimes I feel that I have had more than my share of physical and emotional pain, and other times I feel that I have only lightly brushed against the misery of this world. Yet, to some extent or in some instances, suffering might be intensely personal and it might require interpretation. St. John Chrysostom distinguishes between suffering which results from evil and sin and suffering which results from disaster and disease.

There is then evil, which is really evil; fornication, adultery, covetousness, and the countless dreadful things, which are worthy of the utmost reproach and punishment. Again there is evil, which rather is not evil, but is called so, famine, pestilence, death, disease, and others of a like kind. For these would not be evils. On this account I said they are called so only. Why then? Because, were they evils, they would not have become the sources of good to us, chastening our pride, goading our sloth, and leading us on to zeal, making us more attentive.

That Demons Do Not Govern the World
by St. John Chrysostom

Suffering can become a source of good if we look at it in that way and learn something from it. I am not saying that we should be masochistic, or that we should not try to alleviate or prevent suffering. But if some suffering is unavoidable, and if it can be used as a means to draw closer to God, then indeed all things can work to our benefit. The suffering of illness, for example, is something that we have little or no control over, depending on the diagnosis and the availability of medication and treatment. When we are ill, we are going to suffer whether for 24 hours, or several days, or the rest of our life.

Still Life with Lemons on a Plate, by Vincent van Gogh

Still Life with Lemons on a Plate, by Vincent van Gogh

Illness can be used as a source of spiritual growth, if we learn certain lessons from it — perhaps humility and trust, compassion for others who are also suffering, and the hope of Heaven. I think what has held me back in understanding my own tribulations is that I did not want to associate God with pain or cruelty. However, God does not view pain (or time) the way we mortals do, and it is impossible for God to be cruel. In fact, if we really wanted to reduce our suffering, we could stop inflicting pain on ourselves and others by not committing the evils which are really evil — “the countless dreadful things” which we do every day.

Suffering, as a source, is for a purpose and we must not let anyone rob us of the resultant benefits. The worldly condemn God for allowing suffering. Their goal is to destabilize our faith in the God Who teaches, guides, purifies and heals in mysterious ways which do not appear obvious on the surface. I remember a conversation with a friend whom I thought was a friend, but who then regarded me with utter contempt after I shared my assessment of an episode of misfortune in my life. Her reaction left me feeling ashamed, ridiculous, and both childish and fanatic. That kind of emotional suffering, dreadful, felt worse than my actual misfortune and was totally devoid of benefit. How dare the worldly try to undermine legitimate suffering with dreadful suffering!

Loving God for Who He Is

The title of this essay might seem self-evident: loving God for Who He is, because nobody would suggest loving God for who He is not. That, however, is not the issue. Those who object to loving God for Who He is, object to the concept itself. It is thought to be in conflict with theosis, or union with God and partaking of God’s divine nature. “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him” (1 John 2: 9). God reveals Himself to us and allows us to know Him through these revelations, Christ being the highest revelation. The Son of God became flesh that we might become deified.

Yet, we are commanded to love God, and the way in which we love God is to keep all His commandments. The commandments of God are not just orders or instructions, but a statement on how to live and love, and on what it means to be created in God’s image. “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14: 21). That means, then, that we are to love God. However, we must question (perhaps in the manner of the Apostle Thomas) Who this God is and why He should be loved foremost for Who He is.

We Love God for Who He Is:

  • Because He is. “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3: 4).
  • Because He is perfect and holy in every way, at all times, toward all people.
  • Because we are His creation and made in His image.
  • Because we have no life or love outside of Him.
  • Because we are meant to worship Him and in this we find our true and only happiness.

In other words, God is to be loved for His essence, whether or not we fully understand Him and even if, in our frailty, we disagree with His actions or doubt His providential care. It is not necessary for us to understand all things, nor is it appropriate for us to demand answers and results. In fact, not to love God for Who He is, is to misunderstand Him, to be under mistaken notions or false teachings, or to be delusional regarding our own status and capabilities. Misunderstanding is different from not fully understanding. The former is not based in truth, while the latter produces humility and awe.

It is challenging to distinguish between Who God is and what He does, because what He does is an expression or manifestation of Who He is. God provides for us and equips us to survive in this world as well as to enjoy life. He gives us access to food and housing, education and jobs, health and wellbeing, mountains and rivers, books and computers. However, in alignment with loving God for Who He is, we are to seek His kingdom and His righteousness above all else. “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6: 33). Of course, we love God for taking care of us, but we are not to love the things He created or provided more than we love the Creator and Almighty God.

Moreover, we must also love God, or learn to expand our idea of love, during times of trouble and sorrow. If God is love, and if we are made in His image, then we are to love Him and mankind even when His provision seems to be lacking. God’s love is still there, although we might not recognize it according to what the world has told us about life and love. Nonetheless, the progression of life often consists of coping with various difficulties, complications, obstacles, hardships, and deprivation. “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16: 33). It might be precisely during times of trouble and sorrow, when we are stripped of distractions and perhaps incapacitated to meet all our responsibilities, that we perceive God for Who He is in essence.

[NOTE: Bible quotations are from the NKJV.]

God of the Color Wheel

The theme for this essay has lingered in my mind for the past month. It is one of those themes that seemed like a good idea at the time, but it never grew arms and legs, never said “Look at me,” and never really made my unconscious conscious (a Freudian term regarding repressed memories and the purpose of psychotherapy). Today’s topic takes me back to the 7th grade, back to the beginning of that long adolescent trudge through what was — in those days and for many girls — a wasteland of American education. That, however, is not the theme of my essay but only the cradle in which God gently rocked me, preparing me for adulthood while inside the boundaries of junior high school requirements.

For one of my electives, I took a beginning art class in “Color and Design,” a typical course and a basic foundation for any kind of art. It was there that I encountered a manifestation of God in an overcrowded school district that put us on half-day sessions. Although I was not cognitively aware of it at the time, there was a presence that gave me a sense of wellbeing and direction. It was the color wheel. The teacher had a large chart of the color wheel posted on a wall. It stayed there forever, throughout 7th, 8th, and 9th grade art courses, all conducted in that same classroom year after year, radiating its own eternity amid the struggles of adolescence and the turmoil of the outside world.

colorwheel

The color wheel displays the root colors of all existent colors on this earth. It is an organizational wonder from which creativity blossoms forth. There are three primary colors — red, yellow, blue. Then there are secondary and tertiary colors which are derived from the primary colors. There are classifications of cool colors and warm colors, and also complementary colors. It was visually nourishing, mentally manageable, and spiritually secured to a God Who made such a marvel possible. Even in that wasteland, God was able to tenderly guide a girl in a manner that would touch her soul and prompt her to search for purpose and meaning — at her own level of development thus far and within her own environment however unlikely a setting.

Yes, I believed in the God of the color wheel. No, I am not talking about any pagan figment, but the God of the color wheel Who is also the God of the universe. I am talking about the God Who created color with schematic relationships and with application for creative expression, the God Who can work through sorrow and find a way to keep a young teenager near Him, the God Who stayed with me into my old age and allowed me to appreciate His glory in retrospection on a theme. It was this God Who inspired me to mix colors and to understand tinting and shading, to paint flowers and birds as well as sailboats on the ocean. It was this God Who allowed me to access art books and discover life beyond junior high school, to view the great paintings of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, and to meet Ecce Homo. Yes, to behold the man, the Christ of God.

A Nurturing Christianity

There is an odd behavior which I have seen among many religious people, and it accomplishes something contrary to what is allegedly intended: it is a refusal to give you affirmation in order to make you humble. As if anyone could make someone else humble. If only it were so easy. But, they refuse to validate your character qualities or to acknowledge that you did excellent work. In other words, it overrules anything within the realm of approval, support, and encouragement. The consequence of withholding affirmation, however, is not humility but discouragement and alienation.

Without honest appraisal of our character and our work, we cannot get our bearings. The withholding of affirmation and, even worse, a stern attitude, creates a sense of failure and doom both inwardly and outwardly. We are already buffeted by the world. That which comes forth from the Church should proceed with discernment as to what kind of spiritual medicine to apply to each unique person. I am not suggesting that we flatter people, but that we relate with a certain sensitivity and that we nurture rather than deprive.

As an example, let us turn to St. John Chrysostom who wrote words of churchly encouragement to St. Olympias.

And now I am exceedingly glad and delighted to hear, not only that you have been released from you infirmity, but above all that you bear the things which befall you so bravely, calling them all but an idle tale; and, which is indeed a greater matter, that you have applied this name even to your bodily infirmity, which is an evidence of a robust spirit, rich in the fruit of courage. For not only to bear misfortunes bravely but to be actually insensible to them, to overlook them, and with such little exertion to wreath your brows with the garland prize of patience, neither laboring nor toiling, neither feeling distress nor causing it to others, but as it were leaping and dancing for joy all the while, this is indeed a proof of the most finished philosophy.

Therefore I rejoice, and leap for joy, I am in a flutter of delight, I am insensible to my present loneliness, and the other troubles which surround me, being cheered, and brightened, and not a little proud on account of your greatness of soul, and the repeated victories which you have won, and this, not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of that large and populous city, where you are like a tower, a haven, and a wall of defence, speaking in the eloquent voice of example, and through your sufferings instructing either sex to strip readily for these contests, and descend into the lists with all courage, and cheerfully bear the toils which such contests involve. And the wonder is that without thrusting yourself into the forum, or occupying the public centres of the city, but sitting all the while in a small house and confined chamber you serve and anoint the combatants for the contest…

Letters to Olympias
by St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom describes St. Olympias as having “greatness of soul” for the way in which she endured her sufferings and set an example for others. He did not withhold his validation, or even his admiration, but strengthened her development with nurturing words and sentiments. Lest we are tempted to think that St. John Chrysostom was partial toward St. Olympias, let us look at what he wrote to a group of catechumens.

How delightful and lovable is our band of young brethren! for brethren I call you, even now before you have been brought forth, and before your birth I welcome this relationship with you: For I know, I know clearly, to how great an honour you are about to be led, and to how great a dignity; and those who are about to receive dignity, all are wont to honour, even before the dignity is conferred, laying up for themselves beforehand by their attention good will for the future.

Instructions to Catechumens
by St. John Chrysostom

These catechumens — people seeking baptism into the Church — were not regarded with suspicion — as though only a weirdo would be attracted to truth, beauty, purity — but they were valued and welcomed. St. John Chrysostom did not try to manipulate them, as though he could bring them out of any supposed or potential vanity and into humility by deliberately denying them affirmation of their status or validation of their pursuit of genuine spirituality. On the contrary, he energized them with sound direction. Really, it is as though he could not contain his joy at the prospect of their salvation.

This is not to go against any monastic tradition of self-abnegation. However, monasticism is a voluntary choice (or rather a calling or vocation) and not something that other people impose upon you supposedly for your own good. If I think back to the times in my life when I felt humbled, it was (A) upon my own realization that I had made a mistake, or (B) upon someone having given me a chance or done something nice for me. To see oneself from every angle or to be the recipient of kindness is truly humbling.

To Arrive at Truth

If Christianity is built on truth, then it might seem that the validity of Christ and the Church could be recognized externally, on the surface, with an open and inquiring mind. That is, through an accurate assessment of reality — the way things are and always have been, at least from the beginning of the creation of earth or from the birth of Christ. There is, for example, a concise account of creation, Christ, and the Church in the Epistle to the Colossians:

He is the image of the unseen God
and the first-born of all creation,
for in him were created
all things in heaven and on earth:
everything visible and everything invisible,
Thrones, Dominions, Sovereignties, Powers —
all things were created through him and for him.

Before anything was created, he existed,
and he holds all things in unity.
Now the Church is his body,
he is its head.

As he is the Beginning,
he was first to be born from the dead,
so that he should be first in every way;
because God wanted all perfection
to be found in him
and all things to be reconciled through him and for him,
everything in heaven and everything on earth,
when he made peace
by his death on the cross.

Colossians 1: 15-20 [The Jerusalem Bible-1966]

If the passage from Colossians were read conscientiously, there would seem to be no further need for evangelism. Everyone would have access to the correct explanation of life. Seekers of truth would be satisfied upon encountering Chapter 1 of Colossians. Yet, this obviously is not the way mankind has proceeded since Christ was born in Bethlehem or since the availability of the New Testament.

The quest for truth leads to Christ Himself, Who is, in fact, our only ultimate fulfillment. Many of us, however, are motivated by our mental confusion and emotional suffering — and we are not capable of total objectivity or pure love in this state of obscurity and agitation, and perhaps with a tendency to be reactive (or over-reactive). We pursue meaning and wholeness, although our vision of possibilities ranges from slightly discolored to severely distorted. Yet, the solution withstands — the Person of Christ and the Body of the Church — as written by St. Paul to the Colossians.

viewasylum

View of the Asylum and Chapel of Saint-Remy, by Vincent van Gogh

St. Paul could deliver such beautiful words because he was illuminated by God. That is, truth is revealed. Perhaps we proceed via personal struggle, but to arrive at truth is to receive divine grace. We are reconciled in Christ and, while our confusion and pain might be resolved or lifted, our growth in spirituality continues as we acquire all holiness in Christ. Truth, divine truth, ultimate truth, involves more than an evaluation of a text or a comparative study of systems or versions. It involves all the faculties with which mankind has been endowed, the whole self, including the soul. Truth is a Person. Truth is something, or rather Someone, to be united with.

A Freedom to Write

Freedom involves responsibility. When translated into the arts, this sense of responsibility means to express truth about life and the world in our own unique style. Particularly, if we are Christian, then any personal or spiritual awareness of life and the world must align with the teachings of the Holy Church in order to further interpret or develop truth. Regarding written expression, this would apply not only to theological works but also to creative writing. As writers, we do not alter Scripture: neither adding anything new to it nor subtracting anything from it. If any view of life and the world diverges from Scripture and true theology, then that writer is uninformed or mistaken, perhaps mentally imbalanced, or a false teacher.

A priest of the Orthodox Church, Fr. George Mastrantonis, describes this process as follows:

In the Orthodox Church, the harmonious interpretation of the Revealed Word is necessary to present the faithful with a united, sound conviction. This does not mean that individuals, both clergy and laity, lack freedom to express their own spiritual insights, but the validity of these insights depends upon acceptance by other Fathers of the Church, without which it is wisest to keep silent and avoid being in opposition. Thus, the theologian of the Orthodox Church has the freedom to present the same truths of the Scriptures in a new expression in order to contend with contemporary ideals and challenges of society.

[…] The Church leaves teachers and thinkers of theology free to constantly study and present the existing truths of the revealed Word to cope with human needs and circumstances. Orthodox theologians are free to further study various subjects in greater depths, achieving a greater perspective from which to interpret the truths of the Church for the steadfastness of the faithful. These findings of the theologians are not new truths, but the same truths interpreted with greater simplicity and clarity. The gradual unfolding of a revealed truth is the result of devoted research and profound clarity in faith and practice which should not be isolated from the entire body of revealed truths. This freedom of inquiry in the Orthodox Church characterizes its nature of “authority with freedom.”

The Fundamental Teachings of the Orthodox Church
by Rev. George Mastrantonis
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Theology is genuine in content and also responsive to the times, and not oppressive or abusive in an ultra-authoritarian sense. That is, if we distinguish between proper authority and the authoritarian or cultic personality — the latter including the constricted doctrinaire as well as the ethnic supremacist. If we utilize our freedom within the loving arms of the Holy Church, and if we express our spiritual discernment of life and the world with humility and clarity, then we fulfill our calling to share with our contemporaries while remaining connected to the fathers who came before us — who also shared their explanations of the sacred. We confess, creatively through our written words, the Faith which we hold to be true and as we have encountered its activity in our personal lives.

Hate vs. Opinion vs. Truth

Hate speech certainly is not within a Christian way of life and should not be sanctioned by any civilized society. However, the accusation of hate speech, when unfounded or misdiagnosed, is also detrimental to debate and problem-solving. What some regard as hate speech may only be an opinion or idea, and what some regard as an opinion may actually be truth or fact. Moreover, what might seem like hate speech on the surface may be a symptom of underlying anxiety, fear, anger, distrust, and a feeling of helplessness.

If we turn to a standard dictionary, we could give our terms some basic definitions.

  • Hate: a strong aversion, an intense dislike, a prejudice.
  • Opinion: a view or judgment, an estimation of the worth of something, advice from an expert.
  • Truth: that which is in accordance with fact or reality; genuine, real, accurate, exact, actual, aligned.

Hate speech is more severe than hateful feelings, because not all people who hate engage in hateful speech or activities. What makes hate speech especially dangerous is that it is designed to intimidate and threaten, and to instigate listeners to take action against others based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or other characteristics. Hate speech can also be used to silence opposing opinions or to stifle truth.

View of Saintes Maries with Cemetery, by Vincent van Gogh

View of Saintes Maries with Cemetery, by Vincent van Gogh

Although hate speech is to be taken seriously, let us not overlook the insidious and powerful influence of old-fashioned propaganda and indoctrination. Hate speech is out there: loud and bombastic;  but propaganda and indoctrination are in here: getting into our government and schools like vapor seeping under the doors or smoke obscuring the windows, poisoning citizens and children.

  • Indoctrination: teaching people to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.
  • Propaganda: using biased or deceptive information to support a political cause or platform.

That which is true does not have to be forced, although it might be hated. That which is false has to undermine and eliminate truth and then take the place of truth. However, we cannot solve problems by becoming symptomatic or by developing a lung capacity to inhale noxious fumes. It also does not help to make accusations without first discerning the differences among hate, opinion, and truth.

Throughout history, certain groups have been singled out as targets of hate, such as Jews and African Americans. Whether or not that is currently happening to any group in America or Europe is still questionable, because the political and social dynamics are different. Some say we are facing an apocalyptic war: maybe that is just hate speech and fear-mongering, or maybe it is a problematic truth.

Extra Love

One of my best friends during my middle-age, who happened to be a talented writer of detective stories, used to describe some people as having “extra love.” It was an apt but unusual coining of words, and I have always remembered it. What she meant was that some people are capable of loving others in large numbers or loving those who seem difficult to love. I think my friend was especially keen at recognizing this style of love, because she herself had often been used as a disposable object. When someone was nice to her, it was one of those exceptional beings who had extra love to give.

People with extra love are uncommon but they are scattered among us. It may be a teacher who nurtures each student’s potential, or a doctor who heals not only with medicine but with loving-kindness, or a husband and wife who gratefully adopt unwanted children. I clearly remember two tour guides, from my long-ago vacations, who showed extra love to mere sightseers on a typical tour bus. These guides passionately loved their country, and they wanted each visitor to see and understand both its attractiveness and complexities. We were not just another herd of tourists, but respected guests to be honored with knowledge as well as a genuine relationship with a caring person.

However, let me question if extra love is Christ-like love or pure love. On the one hand, extra love is all-inclusive yet specifically directed. It stems from the particular interests of the lover who is perhaps a bit obsessed or whose sense of self is a tad skewed. Extra love might be viewed as a personality trait, or as something along the lines of conviction and responsibility. On the other hand, extra love is beyond natural bonds and mutual reciprocity, specifically channeled yet extensive in its reach and profound in its depth. Those who have received it would not be the same without it. In other words, it is transformative and inspirational and, as such, belongs to the realm of purity and rebirth.

No Christian Jihad

This is not an anti-war statement, but only an attempt to show that there can be no such thing as violent Christian jihad (that is, jihad in the manner of violent or extremist Islamic jihad). I am going to assemble some thoughts, or propositions, around the incident in which one of the disciples (identified as Peter in John 18: 10) drew his sword and cut off the ear of an opponent. This incident occurred after Christ had prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and just after the betrayal of Judas.

And when those who were about him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this.” And he touched his ear and healed him.

Luke 22: 49-51 [RSV]

Bust of the Apostle Peter, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

Bust of the Apostle Peter, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

The usual interpretation is that the disciple acted on his own and according to the flesh, rather than in obedience to Christ (or perhaps the disciple misunderstood the purpose of the sword). The lesson is that we should seek God’s guidance before we do something, as well as defer to God for the vindication of any wrongs. The incident also shows that Christ loved His enemies, because He healed the man who had been struck. This is appropriate to the teachings of Christianity.

However, I want to propose a meaning specific to the influx of terrorism as we have experienced it in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Looking at the incident within the narrow confines of terrorist jihad, it would appear that there can never be jihad in the Church or in true religion. Again, let me emphasize that I am removing the incident from any Christian justification for war or self-defense, and looking at it strictly from a perspective of religious conversion and establishment. Christ did not permit the use of violence on behalf of His ministry or in security of His person.

To believe in and to follow Christ must always be voluntary, coming from the heart and mind of the individual. It is not the goal of the Church to dominate, but to save and to unify. Christ Himself restored the man whose ear had been cut off, perhaps symbolically assuring that he had two good ears to hear the message of salvation. The man, an actual slave of a high priest, encountered holiness in Christ. Those who are ignorant of or in disagreement with the Church are not forced into submission, but are given opportunities to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It might be construed that it was jihadistic to cut off the man’s ear in the name of religion (and I am separating this from self-defense).

Christ Carrying the Cross, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

Christ Carrying the Cross, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

Yet, Christ is Pantocrator, or Ruler of All or Just Judge. This would seem to imply domination. But the Lordship of Christ is a matter of truth, reality and fact, whether or not all people perceive or accept Christ as Lord and Master. Truth does not dominate, but it enlightens or illuminates. Christ is a King Who forgives, heals, reconciles, and gives life more abundantly. However, to refuse this opportunity is to incur certain consequences — not as a matter of force from the King, but as the inevitable and self-inflicted result of the misuse of free will and the preference for falsehood. In other words: the love of the ways of the flesh over the love of the ways of the spirit.

Let me further propose that the Apostle Peter especially demonstrated that fleshly ways, which would include fanaticism and violence, are ineffective for the purpose of true religion. While Christ prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, the apostles slept. They were not able to keep watch. Soon after Peter had cut off the ear of the slave, he denied Christ three times. He was not able to maintain his conviction. It was not jihad or any of the ways of the flesh that accomplished Christianity, but only the Crucifixion of Christ on the Cross. Hence, Peter could indeed become the rock of the Church through the sacrifice of Christ. The Church, therefore, is not a matter of ideological supremacy enforced by coercion or brutality, but it is the Body of Christ which mercifully beckons mankind to repentance.

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

John 4: 24 [RSV]

Suffering with the Terrorized

It would be irresponsible, perhaps cowardly, not to address the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France. I have not intentionally avoided it, but simply did not know what else to add to what was already being said by others, or how to put into words what the images on television showed so vividly in homes around the world. Nonetheless, we have seen these images before. We have heard the commentary before. We have coped with our grief, felt the patriotism, joined together in humanitarianism, and gone back to normal life — several times before.

Yet, the problem gets worse. The attacks are more frequent, more widespread, and more difficult to describe when the words have already been used over and over. No place is safe. Not a shopping mall, not a restaurant or museum, not a concert hall or stadium, not any place where everyday people — moms and dads, teachers and students, old men and women, local employees and tourists — conduct their everyday activities. Step out your door today, and you might not return home.

Why are some politicians only just now beginning to take this seriously? They say they underestimated the threat of ISIS. But I say they were in denial because it suited their ideology and hubris. Their personal agenda matters more than your life. This is a dreadful combination: terrorism across the continents and government incompetence in the homeland. I am stopping short of naming names because we all know the names. I have named names before. I just cannot help looking at the sins of politicians. I weighed the facts inasmuch as I had access to information and I told the truth insofar as I am capable of perceiving reality.

Especially since September 11, 2001, we have suffered. That is, those of us who allowed ourselves to feel that suffering and did not tumble down into defense mechanisms or outright lies regarding terrorism. We have suffered directly, and we have suffered with others who were directly affected. Since the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, I have felt uneasy. Go ahead and call me a kook, but I felt instinctively that we were living on borrowed time and that it was only a sign of things to come. If it could happen once, it could happen again. The logic is easy.

Given my age, there seems to be nothing more I can do to counteract terrorism. I have written about it before, and there is nothing else for me to say. I voted for presidential candidates and they lost. I went back to life as normal, and still Paris was attacked on November 13, 2015. There is perhaps only one thing I can do, and that is to conscientiously suffer with the terrorized. I am not going back to normal this time, but becoming more empathic and spiritual. I refuse to passively view the horrific images as commonplace, refuse to stop caring, refuse to forsake civilization, refuse to stop looking squarely at the era in which I am living, and refuse to be ungrateful for the past 22 years of life since the 1993 attack (almost the total lifetime of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year old American college student killed in the Paris attack).

Until I am also killed in an unsafe place or die of natural causes, I will pray for our suffering country and world, for the suffering survivors of terrorism, and for the suffering families of the victims. It is not over.

[NOTE: To read my past essays on terrorism, go to my old blog, “Wave of Consciousness,” and read the section on Terrorism.]

Tuesday and Other Days

Bergere rentrant des moutons, by Camille Pissarro

Bergere rentrant des moutons, by Camille Pissarro

One of the peculiarities of retirement is the disorientation to worldly time. Since I no longer go to my job, where I saw certain patients on certain days and at certain times, I tend to forget what day it is. I might wake up and think it is Thursday, but really it is Wednesday. I seem to get ahead of myself. In my way of thinking, however, that means I gained an extra day that week. It poses no problem except that I have, on occasion, forgotten to take out the garbage can. My garbage is picked up every Tuesday and Friday. I need that twice-per-week pick-up because here in the desert the garbage starts to stink when the summer temperature averages 120 degrees.

But maybe it is time itself, rather than my age and unemployment status, which is peculiar. I mean, the way we organize time on a calendar and how we schedule tasks and celebrate events. As an Orthodox Christian, I was taught that each day begins in the evening, around 6:00 pm., with Vespers. So, Monday evening is actually already Tuesday. I was taught to celebrate the Church New Year on September 1st instead of the civil New Year on January 1st. I was also taught to celebrate my Name Day (the feast of the saint whose name I bear in baptism) instead of my birthday. This was part of my orientation to a spiritually structured life. Yet, it put me in a minority of Orthodox who lived according to Churchly time instead of or in addition to worldly time. In fact, I cannot recall anyone who celebrated their Name Day rather than their birthday.

There is also another arrangement of time within the Orthodox daily prayers. Each day is marked by a commemoration of a saint or the life of Christ. Monday is devoted to the angels. Tuesday to St. John the Baptist. Wednesday and Friday to the Crucifixion. I have two Orthodox prayer books and they differ slightly for Thursday and Saturday. Thursday is devoted to St. Nicholas, and also to the Apostles and the Last Supper. Saturday to the departed, and also to the tomb of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and All Saints. Sunday seems to be marked by general thanksgiving and supplication to God. I do not know when this categorization of days began, but I would say it had to be after the lifetime of St. Nicholas (or else he was included at a later date into the Thursday category).

Since I never inquired about anyone’s personal prayer life, I do not know how many people observe the daily commemorations. I can, however, tell you about the time I ordered an icon of St. John the Baptist from a priest-monk. He hurried the shipment of the icon so that it would arrive on Tuesday, the day devoted to St. John the Baptist, so that it would be in my home on the commemoration day. In all fairness, I must backtrack and say that I used to know a handful of nuns who celebrated their Name Days and not their birthdays. Maybe this kind of orientation to time and Church is more monastically suited.

Truthfully, I have mixed feelings about the cycle of daily commemorations. On the one hand, it seems to border on legalism. On the other hand, it orients the individual to a Churchly perception of time and unchanging truths. Tuesday might be my garbage pick-up day, and that is necessary to my daily survival. Tuesday might be the day you attend a staff meeting on your job, or go to the supermarket and do your weekly food shopping, or have lunch with your mother-in-law, and all those things matter. But if Tuesday is primarily the day when we say a special prayer to St. John the Baptist, then we have anchored ourselves in the communion of saints and in the life of Christ. If we recognize the Church New Year, then we have begun another year of discipleship with both continuation and renewal. If we celebrate our Name Day, by giving something to others rather than receiving gifts, then we have honored the saint who constantly watches over us. If we begin the day with the setting of the sun, when we are most tired, then we have invigorated and sanctified the night with holiness.

I am not trying to tell anyone how to live their life, and I have never been an example to be followed. Moreover, I use a variety of prayer and meditation books, including non-Orthodox. I am not concerned with correctness as an attitude. I am just sharing some of what I was taught, many years ago, about structuring life within an Orthodox context. The advantage for me now is that I still have access to a flow of time and a routine of procedures and observances. And it does not require my remembering what day it is, but just putting a bookmark in my Orthodox prayer book.

When You Love the Sinner

In real life there is often no boundary between hating the sin and loving the sinner. That is, the sin is not acknowledged, or it is redefined as not a sin, and repentance is therefore not expected. This has become increasingly evident among some Christians who have a family member, friend, or co-worker who is homosexual. Christians are inundated with a delegitimization of Church teachings: you can’t tell people who to love, it’s a private matter, love is love. Since Christians love or at least have a natural attachment to their child or sibling who is homosexual, it is tempting to align with political progressivism in order to avoid conflict.

But is love always true? Aren’t some kinds of love unhealthy, distorted, or imaginary? However, let’s bypass the arguments for homosexual love. Let’s focus instead on our own obedience. As Christians we love God. And if we love God we will adhere to the teachings of the Bible (properly understood) and of the Church. Only God can join together two people in marriage, and it is impossible that God would join together two homosexuals in a same-sex marriage. Accordingly, it would be mistaken for Christians to attend a same-sex wedding.

Back in the 1990’s, I met a priest who said that we are not living in the last times but in the next-to-the-last times. He said this is the age of philadelphia or brotherly love, meaning homosexuality. Whether or not this priest was correct in his interpretation of times, his assessment of an era of homosexuality seems to have proved itself over the past 20 years. So much so, that Christians, even the elect if possible, are fooled into adjusting Church precepts to fit their own tendencies or to preserve family bonds and workplace rapport.

I have known only a few homosexuals, and I have found them to be just like everyone else except in their sexual orientation (and in their unwillingness to cease homosexual behavior). Therefore, I am not underestimating how emotionally painful it would be to differ with a loved one or part with them on religious grounds. Just recently, I heard a news report which purported the main reason Christianity is waning in America is the non-acceptance of homosexuality. However, when you love the sinner, you must light the way forward to redemption and true happiness. It is the homosexual who needs to change his or her understanding of life and love, not the Christian.

Suffering with Christ

If you are a Christian, you are going to suffer. And if you do good, you are going to suffer. That is really saying the same thing twice, because Christians are called to do good. Suffering is extremely difficult to understand, especially mental or emotional suffering. Yet, we are going to suffer whether we do good or evil, but it is better to do good since that kind of suffering is rewarded by God (1 Peter 3: 8-17). Christ suffered because of and died for mankind, in order to save us and to offer us eternal life. His suffering was not only of bodily torture on the Cross, but of anguish within His entire being due to His awareness of mankind’s ongoing evil.

Crucifixion, by Albrecht Durer

Crucifixion, by Albrecht Durer

We might say that Christ was a victim, and that would describe reality on the surface. However, the suffering of Christ was sacrificial. It was voluntary and in obedience to the Father’s divine plan of salvation. As Christians, we often suffer psychologically because of our values and standards. That is, we are rejected socially and even targeted for mental abuse by other people: perhaps at school or in the workplace, and perhaps by relatives and other Christians who are themselves unstable. We are victims. The question is whether we are victims on the surface (which is real victimization and not denied) or if our suffering is also sacrificial.

The martyrs suffered sacrificially. They gave their lives in support of Christian beliefs and in refusal to denounce Christ. The saints, too, suffered sacrificially in that they endured the impact of others’ sinful behavior and did not retaliate, but lived as role-models and witnesses of the Faith. Endurance is not the same as cowardice or passivity. Endurance means to exercise patience, to continue living in holiness, to say and do everything to the glory of God, and to leave all vindication to God Who alone knows the heart of each person. The saints suffered with Christ and for Christ, and therefore were united with Him.

The difference, then, between suffering abuse and suffering sacrificially is whether or not the suffering is endured in the Name of Christ. This distinction is essential because Christians are often advised to remain in abusive relationships or situations, without regard for the specific dynamics or the calling of God upon the individuals involved. However, to seek help is not to betray Christ but to uphold the image of God in oneself and others. To intervene is not to obstruct God’s plan, but to reinforce the Church by raising up both the abused and the abuser who are living in a state contrary to Church sacraments and morals.

We are going to suffer, but we might say that not all suffering is equal. Not all suffering is productive. Abusive relationships, for example, are detrimental not only to the victim but to the abuser and the whole family. This is not sacrificial suffering, not a consequence of Christian beliefs, not an endurance of others’ behavior in the hope of their growth and salvation and in the Name of Christ, but rather the perpetuation of depravity and destruction. To suffer with Christ is to be aware of the falleness around us, and to sacrifice ourselves through prayer, assistance, and endurance — all of which are ways of doing good.

[NOTE: Some of the content of this essay was inspired by (1) “Greek Orthodox Clergy Perspectives on Domestic Violence,” by Fr. Athanasios Demos, (2) The Jeremiah Study Bible, by Dr. David Jeremiah, (3) Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible,(4) The Orthodox Faith, Vol. IV, Spirituality, by Fr. Thomas Hopko.]

Unless Someone

Getting back to the paralytic who lay by the Pool of Bethesda, there is another possible connection of meaning in The Book of Acts. It concerns the Apostle Philip who assisted the Ethiopian eunuch in understanding his reading of the Prophet Isaiah.

But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert road.

And he rose and went. And behold, and Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

And the spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Acts 8: 26-29 [RSV]

This is what the paralytic and the Ethiopian have in common: they did not have to ask for help (and perhaps there was really nobody to be asked). Somebody was there for them eventually. Philip became aware of the Ethiopian and showed an interest in is salvation. Philip inquired about his comprehension of Scripture and responded to the need. When nobody was there to lift the paralytic into the healing water, Christ Himself intervened and responded to the need. These are the qualities which Christ and the Apostle Philip have in common: to assist, share, give, teach, intervene and support.

This means that in the Church there can be no religious separatism, no esoteric spirituality, and no ethnic supremacy. Each individual is important (if I may use that word) to the Body of Christ no matter his history or his current circumstances. Both the paralytic and the Ethiopian were seeking something, but were unable on their own to achieve the goals of wholeness (forgiveness and healing through love and mercy) and illumination (revelation or understanding of truth). Both were incomplete or inadequate, but were fulfilled or shown the way by a Christ-like person or by Christ Himself.

Let’s compare the question-and-answer interactions, first between Christ and the paralytic and next between Philip and the Ethiopian.

Q — “Do you want to be made well?”
A — “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool…

Q — “Do you understand what you are reading?”
A — “How can I, unless some one guides me?”

In both instances, there is insufficiency in and of oneself, and help is needed — someone is needed. This is true of everyone and of all life. Unless Christ taught the disciples, unless the apostles evangelized the world, unless the Church fathers fought heresy, unless our parents fed and clothed us, unless there were scholarships and student loans, unless someone lifted us out of sorrow, unless someone saw our potential, unless someone obeyed the will of God — how else could we rejoice?

The account of the Ethiopian is in Chapter 8 in The Book of Acts, and in Chapter 9 we hear of Saul who is converted directly by Christ. Herein we have examples of how people are evangelized or assisted: either by a Christ-like person or by Christ Himself. The paralytic wanted help, but remained powerless to attain his quest. The Ethiopian was trying to manage, but was nonetheless perplexed. Both were alone. And Saul felt no need for help and had been persecuting the very One Who was now reaching out to him. Moreover, in all three instances — the paralytic, the Ethiopian, and Saul — help was provided in accordance with obedience and mercy.

[NOTE: For other essays on this topic, see Blaming the Victim and Eyes, Legs, Heart.]

Imitating Christ

Composition, 1916, by Piet Mondrian

Composition, 1916, by Piet Mondrian


There are two stumbling blocks (two which I will discuss briefly today) to our theological terminology and our daily spirituality: (A) whether or not we are to imitate Christ, and (B) whether or not we have a relationship with God. The two troublesome terms for some Eastern Orthodox are imitate and relationship, for these are often associated with Roman Catholicism and Protestantism respectively. In the attempt to discern whether these concepts are appropriate to Orthodox thought, we must set aside any phobia of or overreaction to other religions in order to develop right definitions or justifiable rejection.

The term imitate is only sprinkled within Orthodox theological writings, but it’s there. It could be questioned if the translators of patristic works were unknowingly influenced by Catholicism, or if imitate was used as a synonym for abide in or in communion with, or if the translation is indeed accurate. However, if Fr. Thomas Hopko is considered an authoritative educator, then it must be noted that he used imitate in The Orthodox Faith series which provides a basic understanding of Orthodoxy for the average reader.

…to foster imitation of his [a saint’s] virtues in the lives of the hearers and readers.

Thus, among creatures, man alone is empowered to imitate God and to participate in His life. Man has the competence and ability to become a Son of God, mirroring the eternal Son, reflecting the divine nature because he is inspired by the Holy Spirit as is no other creature.

The Orthodox Faith, Vol. I, Doctrine (pp. 27, 43)
1976 Revised Edition

Through the perfect sacrifice of Christ, the believers receive forgiveness of sins and are “made perfect,” being led and disciplined by God Himself Who gives His Holy Spirit that through their sufferings in imitation of Christ, His people “may share in His holiness.”

The first letter of St. Peter is a passionate plea to all of “God’s People” to be strong in their sufferings in imitation of Christ and together with Him…

The third letter of St. John is addressed to a certain Gaius praising him for the “truth of life” and urging him not to “imitate evil but imitate good.”

The Orthodox Faith, Vol. III, Bible and Church History (pp. 50, 54, 59)
1973 Edition

Let it also be noted that the Antiochians use this term in “Nine Ways of Being a Credit to Your Church and Parish.” This is an old document but seems still in effect.

Give evidence of the Power of Christ by your Orthodox Christian Life.
Let the imitation of Christ be your guide.

Word Magazine, March 1960, (p. 10)

In Hopko’s work, imitate and participate are connected as qualities or processes, and are perhaps equivalent or complementary. Man is empowered to imitate and participate, and perhaps empowerment refers to grace or theosis. With that in mind, and borrowing from a few more of Hopko’s phrases, to imitate Christ could mean:

  • To follow Christ
  • To be like Christ
  • To witness of Christ
  • To be in conformity with Christ
  • To share in the holiness of Christ
  • To rely upon the presence of Christ
  • To stand firm in Christ
  • To affirm the Faith
  • To live the message of the Gospel
  • To keep the commandments
  • To be fruitful
  • To choose abundant life
  • To be in perpetual growth
  • To be obedient to God

In the Bible there are several instances of imitate in The New Testament Epistles in the RSV: 1 Corinthians 4: 16, 1 Corinthians 11: 1, Ephesians 5: 1, Philippians 3: 17, 1 Thessalonians 1: 6, 2 Thessalonians 3: 7, Hebrews 6: 12, Hebrews 13: 7, and 3 John 11. The NKJV also uses imitate in 1 Corinthians 4: 16, 1 Corinthians 11: 1, Ephesians 5: 1, and Hebrews 6: 12. In the other instances, the NKJV uses follow. The KJV uses follow in each instance.

If we are to follow Christ, and even to take the Apostle Paul as a model or pattern (because Paul follows Christ as his pattern), then it would seem that imitate is a synonym for follow and does not challenge the concept of theosis (deification or divinization, or partaking of divine grace). We might further say that to imitate or to follow Christ means to submit to His teachings.

It would also seem that the imitation of Christ is not some sort of baby step toward theosis, or something for beginners who have yet to grasp the meaning of theosis or to advance to that stage. Moreover, it would not be the case that the imitation of Christ is outward and therefore inferior, as opposed to grace which is inward and renews man into the image of God. Imitation is outward only inasmuch as it is behavioral. That is, our actions and deeds. But our conduct is based in and is an expression of our inward beliefs. Even if we removed imitation from our terminology, we would still have to understand terms such as follow and take as a pattern.

A Relationship with God

Now, the term relationship is disowned by some Eastern Orthodox who prefer to say that we are in communion with one another as well as with God and the saints. The Protestants emphasize a personal relationship with God, and this has perhaps monopolized the meaning of the word. Let’s look at two instances in the Bible for possible clarification:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3: 17 [RSV]

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25: 40 [RSV]

To be pleased with someone would seem to imply a relationship. And, likewise, to do something for or to someone means to have contact or to have an impact, to have communication, and to influence, inspire, and help. In other words, we have interactions with one another and these interactions form us into relationships. Again, this is not in conflict with the concept of in communion with, and it might be a hypercorrection when the use one term necessarily rules out any proper use of the other.

Father to son is a relationship. Brother to brother is a relationship. Doctor to patient, teacher to student, boss to employee are relationships. We relate to one another within certain roles, and we are all in communion with one another in the Holy Church. We might say that to do the will of God puts us in relationship with Him, or that the Ten Commandments create a relationship. (Hopko speaks of “God’s covenant relationship with His People,” Vol. III, Bible and Church History, p. 7.)

Conclusion

To be human means to have diverse yet coordinated capacities: biological, psychological, social, spiritual. This is not to compartmentalize life, and certainly not to separate spirituality into a distinct or optional category. This is just to say that we see and hear, we read and study, we attend staff meetings and conferences, we say our prayers, we lend a helping hand, we make decisions and solve problems, we write poems and play the piano, we go to lunch with a friend, and we have personalities and emotions. Maybe we imitate Christ even as we are being transformed and deified, and precisely because of that ongoing process. And maybe our relationships facilitate our functioning in society even as we are all one in Christ.

A Father from Rome

There is a certain quality which permeates the way Pope Francis presents himself before the public. This Pope seems foremost a father figure to the multitudes. Anyway, that was his manner of speech and his style of interaction during the recent visit to America, a visit which coincided with the World Meeting of Families 2015. The Pope focused on the alienated and the poor, the handicapped and the elderly, criminals and victims, and dignitaries and babies. The Pope did not relate to intellectuals, or align himself with a political agenda, or directly evangelize Roman Catholicism, or cry out in the wilderness for repentance. The only class of people whom he confronted was the irresponsibly wealthy, including those who live by blood-money.

Reportedly, when Pope Francis was bishop and archbishop in Argentina and known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he later felt that he had been too authoritarian in those duties. Perhaps that past strictness, in combination with old age and the impending end of his life on this earth, explains, in part, his charitably broad approach to a breadth of problems (although he did emphasize dialogue). Regarding illegal immigration, his outreach broke through legitimate lawfulness and national sovereignty. He presented himself as an all-inclusive bridge-builder, and not forgiving of but rather elevating illegal immigration to a global right (which is different from comprehensive reform because this still resides within a government’s legislative powers).

Whatever their national status, adults often still need a father, or a father figure or a spiritual father. In America, where cultural decadence has taken a drastic toll on the nuclear family, some people apparently yearn for fatherly acceptance or approval. And, it seems that Pope Francis intends to fulfill that need for others and perhaps his own need or capacity to be father. When the Pope was elected, a colleague told him not to forget the poor. In response to that, the Pope chose the name Francis and he is the first Pope ever to carry that name. St. Francis of Assisi loved Lady Poverty. He is the patron saint of ecology in the Roman Catholic tradition. St. Francis preached to the birds, and regarded the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.

Among members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, some condemn St. Francis as a heretic and reject the stigmata, while some view St. Seraphim of Sarov as the Orthodox version of St. Francis. St. Seraphim was a priest and monk, and a spiritual father to countless. He greeted everyone with “My joy. Christ is Risen,” bowing down before them. He was also a friend to the animals, sharing his food with the birds and bears. If Pope Francis aspires to this type of service, or if God has called him especially to the role of an all-embracing father, then those who felt blessed by him in America are spiritually connected to his message and ultimately to Christianity (more specifically to Roman Catholic doctrine). To live globally, then, has to mean to live sacredly as God’s people. Otherwise, the Pope’s message disintegrates into rhetoric or perhaps hides ulterior motives (like President Obama’s hope and change movement), or becomes potentially dangerous (like Obama’s apology tour).

This is an opportunity for illegal immigrants, whom the Pope supported and actually praised, to strengthen their family life and thereby improve society by upholding authentic spiritual values and principles. That means no spousal infidelity, no wife-beating, no premarital sex, no abortions, no child abuse, no alcohol and drug abuse, no homosexuality, no cheating and lying, and no shouting and cursing in the home. If there is such conduct, then it has to stop. Everyone is to live by the Golden Rule (as per Pope Francis) which is only properly understood within a Christian context and applied from a Christian perspective. In other words, the Golden Rule is not the same as moral relativism. Moreover, some people are going to need professional help in order to renounce or to recover from destructive behaviors. That probably means intervention by family members who are higher functioning or generally balanced, as well as involvement by their parish priest.

In a more proactive sense, the Golden Rule implies the practice of the Christian virtues. If Pope Francis can inspire acquisition of the Christian virtues, as well as worship of the Triune God, then that has the potential to transform families and restore society. Even if Pope Francis never accomplishes anything else, he will have contributed to the stabilization of mankind as a father figure to the multitudes. Pope Francis repeatedly asked everyone to pray for him. Indeed, I will humbly pray for him, that his love may be truly Christ-like and that everyone who felt uplifted by him will maintain that fervor and live according to the Gospel.

To Live Again

St. Leo the Great said, “For it is a sign, not of a modest, but an ungrateful mind, to keep silence on the kindnesses of God….” I have taken that statement slightly out of context, but I think the sentiment is applicable to all people who believe in God and who therefore praise Him in some way. St. Leo seems to affirm talking and writing about God — about His kindnesses. For those who live in turbulence and for those who have grown old and look back, I think it is especially important to perceive those kindnesses. We can become embittered due to our hardships and suffering, or we can become softened as we detect the divine thread of kindnesses that held everything together and enabled us to survive.

Impression Sunrise, by Claude Monet

Impression Sunrise, by Claude Monet

Old age is distinctive in that the bulk of our life is behind us. There is a tendency to reminisce, and to appraise and synthesize in either a destructive or productive way. If we focus on the turbulence — and some people have been stricken much worse than others — then we become disgruntled, ungrateful, and we do not praise God. If we discern the kindnesses and the grace, as well as realize our own personal failures in the mix, then we can humbly and thankfully praise God for the remainder of our life. We might say that old age is a test or an opportunity, a decision to go the way of Judas or the way of Job. And if we go the way of Judas we really betray all our misery and forfeit its healing.

Having entered the state of senior citizenship, I find myself retracing the gone-by years and living them again in retrospect — as a journey through already-lived time but with a new vision of different angles and facets, of hidden caves and unreachable mountain tops, of roads not taken and negative consequences not inflicted. Upon reading St. Leo, I feel inspired and strengthened not to keep silent but to write reverentially. And not just to live life over again but to live again in the present, as fully alive and not shackled to mere survival — but to use that survival as a passageway to understanding, fulfillment, gratitude, and expression.

Second Place

Saturday is a good day to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located in New York City, because public transportation runs on a regular schedule. There are numerous steps leading up to the museum doors, and the brass railings always look golden whether in sunshine or under cloudy skies. The façade and entrance are already magnificent, and serve to introduce visitors to the many riches kept inside that singular building. One Saturday morning, as I climbed those familiar yet grand steps, I saw an old acquaintance a few steps above me. She, too, was waiting for the doors to open, herself a canvas of portraiture with her wind-blown hair as golden as the brass railings.

She noticed me and smiled. I was glad for that welcoming spark of humanity on a cold day. We approached and said hello. We were both there for the same reason, and we intuitively recognized that in each other. In her broken English and as she swept open her arm toward the museum, she said, “This is best place in world,…….next to Church!” I agreed with her, and we chuckled because of her pause, nodding our heads yes. I understood the pause, and she saw that I understood what she meant. We both loved the Church and nothing could separate us from that, but we also loved the museum which was in a close second place.

We had originally met under tense if not precarious circumstances. Due to that, we had not become friends. There was distrust, suspicion, hesitation. In fact, when the museum doors opened, we each went our own way as though it were natural. I now wish I had been more assertive. I wish I had invited her to have breakfast with me in the museum cafeteria. I wish I had suggested that we meet again on another Saturday morning. But, I never saw her again — not at the museum and not anywhere. Perhaps she went back to her homeland. Or perhaps she remains somewhere in the crowd, praying to the apostles and saints, appreciating a Rembrandt or a Tintoretto, or having a cup of coffee and a muffin.

On that particular day, I believe we were indeed the Church, or an experience of the Church, because despite past obstructions we were gathered together in the same spirit and under the same guiding light. It was a moment of purity. It was an encounter, however brief in earthly terms, of goodwill and unity. The details of our lives were to be worked out in different arenas, and perhaps that was because of my own fears, but on that day we were in the “best place” and nothing could diminish that. Perhaps all places are best places insofar as we learn necessary lessons and are transformed into holiness, or as the impact from past troubled places is healed spontaneously and unexpectedly according to the overriding mercy of God.

Not Chained

People join churches and leave churches. If they do not like a church, sometimes for understandable reasons, they might be able to find another one only a few miles away. A more drastic step is when people not only leave a particular church but the whole religion as well. That usually involves a major shift in one’s beliefs. In other words, there has been a change in the perception of truth on the part of the believer. Truth itself has not changed, but the individual’s comprehension of truth has undergone change.

I am an Orthodox Christian by baptism and by belief in the truths professed by that religion. However, it has been a hard road. Years ago two friends of mine, unknown to each other and on separate occasions, said to me, basically, “Are you still Orthodox?!” One of these friends was also Orthodox and the other was Protestant. My Orthodox friend, whose family and social life was anchored in an ethnic environment, found it incredulous that I believed in Orthodox truths but endured in deprivation of its human milieu. My Protestant friend had always found it incredulous that I belonged to a religion that required me to stand during long services and to worship in a foreign language.

But truth is not subordinate to any setting, nor is truth chained to any population, nor is truth freed by accepting only parts of it. The Apostle Paul said it best:

Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead according to my gospel, for which I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

2 Timothy 2: 8-10 [NKJV]

Il filosofo o San Paolo, by Gemito Vincenzo

Il filosofo o San Paolo, by Gemito Vincenzo

The Gospel which St. Paul preached is truth. Not only did St. Paul comprehend truth intellectually and preach it effectively, but he lived it and suffered for it. There were people who did not want to hear truth. However, truth cannot be put in chains. Truth can be revealed, expounded, preserved, comprehended and honored — but it cannot be chained to tribes and customs, to denominations and divisions, or to physical stamina and esoteric devotions. Christ was raised from the dead for our salvation, so that we might abide in Him with eternal glory, and St. Paul dedicated his life to nothing less than that.

I thought about leaving my religion twice, but it was not because of a shift in my perception of truth. Rather, it seemed like the inevitable reality of a general alienation due to lack of access to an Orthodox Church or to services in the English language. I began attending a church of another religion. Additionally, I spent many Sunday mornings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the medieval and byzantine rooms, where language was not a barrier and silent prayer was evoked by a visual orientation to the beautiful.

Nevertheless, my being was centered in Orthodoxy, despite the hard road (that is, centered in Christ and in recognition of the Orthodox Church as the ancient Church which Christ established). I never officially joined, or acquiesced to, any other religion; although I wondered if I had been automatically excommunicated according to canon law. Likewise, I never denied or betrayed the teachings of truth, but actually sought deeper understanding along with congruent worship. The only way to do that was to break certain chains and steadfastly pursue my love of truth and my desire for salvation. I see no difference between that and Orthodoxy.

Eyes, Legs, Heart

In my essay, “Blaming the Victim,” I offered an alternate interpretation of the paralytic who lay helpless by the Pool of Bethesda (John 5: 1-9). Since then, I have found still another alternative in the writings of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. In his discussion of prayer, specifically the Jesus Prayer or the Prayer of the Heart, he introduces the concept of waiting.

The greatest reverence for contemplative prayer of the heart is inspired by the sublime descriptions of it in the writings of the Fathers. We need this reverence and real vision in order to renounce all premature, self-willed, proud, imprudent striving to enter the secret sanctuary. And reverence and wisdom teach us to wait with attentive prayer, the prayer of penitence, at the doors of the temple. Attention and contrition of spirit — that is the waiting-room that is given as a haven to penitent sinners.

It is the forecourt of the sanctuary. There let us hide and shut ourselves from sin. Let all suffering from moral or spiritual lameness, all lepers, all the blind and withered, in a word all who are sick with sin, come to that Bethesda and wait for a movement of the water (John 5:3) — the action of the mercy and grace of God. And the One Lord Himself, at a time known to Him, will grant healing and the entry into the sanctuary, solely according to His inscrutable will. I know whom I have chosen, says the Saviour (John 13:18). You did not choose Me, He says to His chosen, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit; so that whatever you ask the Father in My name, He may give it to you (John 15:16).

The Pool of Bethesda is viewed as a sanctuary where healing occurs, perhaps symbolizing a pure heart where the interior life of prayer can then flourish. The poolside is the forecourt or the waiting room to this sanctuary. It is a place where the paralytic is to cease from sin and wait for the mercy of God. That is, to wait for Him to allow entrance into the sanctuary according to His wisdom and timeliness. It is a lesson in humility and obedience, for we did not choose God but He chose us. Therefore, everything is at God’s discretion: His acceptance of our repentance, the healing of our sicknesses and sins, our consequent fruitfulness, and the efficacy of our prayers.

The standard interpretation of the question-and-answer interaction between Christ and the paralytic is that the paralytic was ambivalent about being healed. This is because the paralytic did not reply with an immediate or eager yes to Christ’s question. Let’s look again at that passage.

When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.

John 5: 6-9 [RSV]

The verbal interaction between Christ and the paralytic now presents itself in a matter-of-fact style. Christ’s question could mean: are you ready?, not in terms of ambivalence but in terms of preparation and waiting. In this regard, waiting is not a passive or irresponsible mode but a practice of the virtues of patience, fortitude, hope and trust. This waiting phase is a “haven to penitent sinners,” a time and place of renunciation in order to receive, utilize, and appreciate the blessings of the God Who both created us and chose us. The response of the paralytic could mean: I’m ready, but I lack access to the troubling of the water by the angel, and the angel was apparently sent by God for that purpose.

The interpretation of St. Ignatius shows Christ as having power and authority to heal the sick and suffering because He was sent by God as His Only-Begotten Son, and this Son is above the angels. We might say there is a transition or fulfillment between the Old and the New Testaments, or between the old self and the new creature, or between preparation and actualization. In terms of ambivalence, the account of the paralytic is sinner-focused, which is appropriate to making the point of ambivalence. But in terms of a concept of waiting, it is Christ-focused because He is presented as the Physician of Souls.

This concept of waiting is also evident in the episode of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Two elderly individuals, Simeon and Anna, had been waiting their entire lives for the redeemer of Israel. According to the account which begins in Luke 2: 22, Simeon had been “…..looking for the consolation of Israel….,” and his reward and the fulfillment was “…..mine eyes have seen thy salvation…..” Likewise, the Prophetess Anna, a widow who devoted the remainder of her life to prayer, then spoke about Christ to all the people who were “…..looking for the redemption of Israel…..” It is possible that the paralytic belongs in a similar category. Although he might not have lived in holiness like Simeon and Anna, his repentance was nonetheless acceptable.

The paralytic had been waiting his entire life for wholeness of being, for the salvation which only Christ could procure for him. It might not be a stretch of the imagination to say that all the sick represented this need or quest for completeness: the blind, the lame, the lepers, the aged, and all those with parallel or overlapping conditions of sin and sickness. We need eyes to see truth, legs to walk on the straight path, and a pure heart that stays focused on Christ. It seems that St. Ignatius regards the Prayer of the Heart to be sanctioned by …..so that whatever you ask the Father in My name, He may give it to you (John 15:16). In other words, the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” contains the name of Christ and is therefore a generalized asking for whatever is needed.

[NOTE: For other essays on this topic, see Blaming the Victim and Unless Someone.]

Straightening the Paths

When reading theological books or articles — a kind of reading which I have only just begun to take up again in my retirement — I always notice the year in which the work was published. Sometimes, by coincidence, the work was published the year that I was born or the year that I graduated from high school. Perhaps it is egotistic of me, or perhaps just a desire to link others into my development and become a part of the whole, but I start imagining the time and place of the author and what he was doing and how he was living in contrast to my own circumstances.

Portrait of Adeline Ravoux, by Vincent van Gogh

Portrait of Adeline Ravoux, by Vincent van Gogh

Just recently I came across a theological journal that was published the year that I graduated from high school, and one article especially pertained to my current needs. The author and I lived worlds apart and, years ago, there was certainly no indication in my life that I would one day regard this man, a priest, to be a significant contributor to my understanding of God. I was a teenager back then, just having gotten my first car, and eager to be finished with that wasteland of so-called education which had been forced upon me by law. Meanwhile, unknown to me but known to God, an accomplished priest was praying at the altar, contemplating the ways of God, and writing theological articles for seekers of truth.

We prepare, or perhaps straighten, paths through this world — for ourselves and for those who come after us. And those who come after us might very well be unexpected or unpredicted seekers of truth. We cannot really know who, or when, or how many will be affected by the path we took or the paths which we tried to straighten and to offer for consideration. Maybe our path will have meaning only for ourselves, which is within God’s purview, or maybe it might beckon across time and place in answer to the needs of someone who seems an illegitimate heiress to such continuity. But, that is also within God’s purview. Speaking for myself, I just thank God for His plan of salvation and for His mercy upon us all.

My Free Bible

Money was tight during my years of semi-retirement. I was wearing clothing which I already had in my closet, until everything started to get frayed and threadbare. That was when I started shopping at the thrift stores. I found nice clothing that I could wear to my part-time job as well as weekend clothing, and even name-brand leather purses. If I could not find what I needed in the thrift stores, then I turned to a discount store and finally to a department store — especially during the day-after-Christmas sales. It was a frugal lifestyle, but I managed.

While in the thrift stores, I would always go to the book section. Once, at the Salvation Army store, there were two Bibles. I looked them over and decided to buy one. When I checked out, however, the lady told me that there was no charge for Bibles. Yes, given freely. I was stunned, and felt a little uneasy about leaving the store with such a precious item in hand and without having paid for it. The lady seemed to think that I should take the other Bible, too, as she pointed out its good features. I took only one Bible, the one I wanted and which I knew that I could use.

It is a King James Version, bound in leather which has become brittle and partially cracked off around the edges. Otherwise, it is in very good condition. I was attracted to it because of the lovely illustrations — old-fashioned biblical scenes, very Protestant, in color and on thick glossy paper. To the best of my knowledge, Bibles are no longer made like that. It does not have a concordance, but it has “Helps to Study the Bible”, charts on “The Gospel Dispensations,” and “A Table for Daily Bible Reading,” and also color maps.

The Bible was published by The International Bible Press, in Philadelphia. It does not give the year of publication, but there is a presentation inscription dated 1951. It was given to a girl whom I will call Debbie, and it was from Mom and Dad. I do not know how old Debbie was at the time, but the pages are in such good condition that she either seldom read it or took very good care of it. Let’s say that Debbie was 12-years old in 1951: that would make her 76-years old today. That is, if she were still living. Since her Bible had been donated to a thrift store, it would seem likely that Debbie has passed away. Apparently, nobody in the family wanted her Bible. Or, maybe, she died alone in a nursing home, and the housekeeper cleaned out her room and donated her stuff to the Salvation Army.

Whatever the dynamics of Debbie’s life, the Good News was preserved in written form and passed on. Mom and Dad probably had the best intentions when they gave the Bible to their daughter in 1951. It was then up to Debbie as to how she processed her parents’ beliefs and whether she developed her own faith. Her Bible belongs to me now, and I use it and take very good care of it, but someday I will pass it on to someone else — perhaps via the very Salvation Army thrift store in which I acquired it.

Hills and Churches

After writing my previous essay, I decided to continue with Metropolitan Leonty’s words on the seven gifts, moving on to the third gift (the Metropolitan refers to these gifts as both the gifts of God and the gifts of the Holy Spirit). The third gift involves the construction of buildings and their consequent qualities or effects, specifically the construction of churches to the glory of God, just as God created the earth to reflect His majesty and to provide for the wellbeing of mankind.

The third gift is that of building, and has both a domestic and social character. It includes the construction of temples to God most high, where people will feel inclined to realize the words St. Peter spoke on Mt. Tabor, “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” (Mt. 17:4). God’s majesty is shown in the formation of the heavens and the earth, in the plants, grains, and flowers. And mankind desires to linger here continually, forever; it is in here that we find applied and realized the Lord’s first “fruits” — the gifts of speech and song. By no means was this offering spontaneous for mankind, but in our times we certainly see fulfilled the Lord’s saying at the Samarian well (Jn 4:22 [“the time is coming, and is already here, when by the power of God’s Spirit people will worship the Father as He really is, offering Him the true worship that He wants”]), the prophet Malachi (MI 1:11 [“people from one end of the world to the other honor me”]), and the psalmists of Israel, “from the east to the west praise the name of the Lord!” (Ps 113:3). In these buildings, churches dedicated to the Almighty, people have received and will receive as spiritual reward, through the sacraments and offices established by Christ’s Church, that “grace from God which always heals all that is infirm and provides whatever is wanting” in us.

“The Seven Gifts,” by Metropolitan Leonty
St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly
Volume 28, Number 1, 1984

There seems to be a parallel between the productivity of God and that of man, so long as the process and outcome of man’s work are for the purpose of honoring God and for inspiring and gathering His people. A church building does just that, whether a magnificent church or a simple and adequate one. This brings me to a personal annoyance of mine: churches that are architecturally stereotyped or which contain substandard icons. And I know that I will be reproached for having said that, scolded for not being humble, and rebuked for not keeping my focus on interior prayer. However, if a church is to be a place where people would want to stay forever and worship God, then some kind of visual beauty or integrity is a vital component to that environment.

Metropolitan Leonty states that God’s majesty is evident in His creation of the earth, such as in the plants and flowers. As someone who appreciates both natural and manmade beauty, I was happy to hear this confirmation. Perhaps nature is a form of beauty superior to church buildings (or perhaps church buildings are to be complementary to the natural surrounding), except that the sacraments are not established in nature and icons are not present there. Yet, nature offers us access to God:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1 [KJV]

It seems that we can turn to nature, which was created by God, and contemplate God there and ask for His help. This does not mean that we worship the hills or the trees, but only that we are filled with awe when walking through a garden, or looking out over the ocean, or admiring the rocks on a mountainside. I am encouraged by this because there is no Orthodox Christian Church where I live, and I literally turn my eyes unto the desert hills and also upward to the stars and pray to God.

When I turn to nature, to my icons and Bible, I feel that I am offering God true worship or, at least, that is my intention. And I know that I will again be reproached, this time with the accusation that I am delusional. But here are three points in support of my sanity: (A) St. Mary of Egypt lived without access to regular church attendance, so it’s possible; (B) Metropolitan Leonty seems to validate both nature and buildings, as well as grace from the offices (which can be read in one’s home within the concept of “domestic church”); (C) the social aspect of the Church can be fulfilled through intercessory prayer at home.

View of an Orthodox Church on a Snowy Twilight, by Mikhail Belsky

View of an Orthodox Church on a Snowy Twilight, by Mikhail Belsky

As we advance in age, I think we carry the memories of the churches which we attended throughout our lives. There are a couple churches which I attended only once each, and I still remember the details of the beauty there, the feeling of tranquility and safety, and the glory of God that permeated the icons and even the very wood of the iconostasis. I am rooted, so to speak, in those churches as well as a couple others which deeply impressed me and became imprinted in my heart and mind. I still linger there, because it was good for me to be there and it is good for me to carry the spirituality which I gained there and to continue building upon it. I am grateful for that foundation — without it, I might not be able to turn unto the hills.

Let us remember that St. Mary of Egypt began her transformation in and her ascetic quest from a church which she was finally allowed to enter. Apparently, that experience was sufficient for her needs and for the lifestyle to which she was called. Her life seems a testimony to the benefits of the construction of church buildings as well as the lifting up of one’s eyes unto the hills — perhaps not as an ascetic feat for most of us, certainly not for me because I live comfortably, but as a place where it is good for us to be according to our capabilities or circumstances. St. Mary of Egypt ended her life with the reception of Holy Communion which was brought to her from a church and by a priest. It is as though her life came full circle and finished in total wholeness — nothing was wanting in her.

A Right to Write

Writing usually feels natural to me, even more than talking since I am generally a quiet person, but sometimes I am filled with unworthiness as I write about religious matters. Who am I to write about God and Church, or about the Bible and the saints? I am neither priest nor professor, neither abbess nor ascetic. I am just a senior citizen, an ancient lily — just a common flower from olden days which continues to bloom in this wilderness known as the modern world (or post-modern). Do I have any right to write about spirituality?

As it often happens, my answers are found in the writings of others who are more knowledgeable and worthy than I am. The other day, I made a pilgrimage to my tool shed and dug out my old copies of St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly. I have only a few copies which I bought years ago because, even back then, they seemed rather expensive as well as too highly technical for my needs. Nonetheless, I came across a very readable article by Metropolitan Leonty, published in 1984, which addresses the involvement of mind and heart in speaking, singing, reading, and writing. Below is an excerpt.

God’s first gift to mankind is that of speech. It differentiates us from the dumb animals. Speech has developed in different ways among different peoples, yet it receives its true direction when directed towards the confession of the grandeur, the magnificence, and the glory of God; when mankind in prayer offers the “fruits of its lips” to the Lord God. This is the origin of private, domestic, and communal prayer. It is the origin of mutual edification through writing and reading, through scholarship and preaching, both when the Church gathers and when the parish schools meet in the evenings and on Sundays. This gift comes from the mind and is for the mind.

The second gift concerns the human heart. It communicates our moods — from ecstasy to joy to melancholy to sorrow; both grief and joy; as well as hope, faith, and love. This gift is united with the harmony of sounds which emerge from our chests as song; it unites us with the world which sings, shouts, proclaims and speaks [the Triumphant Hymn] to God. It is capable of fulfilling the command, “Sing to the Lord, all the world!” (Ps. 100:1). The offering of this gift to God is the source of all the hymns, psalms, choirs, services both long and short, and of the Divine Liturgy.

“The Seven Gifts,” by Metropolitan Leonty
St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly
Volume 28, Number 1, 1984

It would seem that the communication of faith, hope, and love is appropriate to the Christian, whether we are worthy or unworthy, because we have been endowed with the gift of speech in all its manifestations or forms of expression. Whether through worship, scholarly research, or creative writing: we offer back to God, in a transformed way and as His grateful children, that which He has given us. It is not really a right, not in legalistic terms, but a privilege of the Church including her prodigals to participate in these gifts, working out our salvation and contributing to the brethren. In this way, everything is done in praise of the God Who fashioned each one of us as unique and yet connected. Whether from ancient times, or from 1984, or in the present: nourishment is not lacking for the mind and heart, and thoughts and feelings continue to pour forth from the mind and heart.

Staying Home

Throughout much of my life I was either working full-time and going to school part-time, or working part-time and going to school full-time. Like many people, I left for work in early morning darkness and returned home in early evening darkness — and then sometimes went out again to attend a class. During the daylight hours, I was cooped up in my office which became a second home. I spent many more hours there than in my apartment. In order to make my office a livable space despite the filing cabinets, I personalized it — hung some paintings on the wall, put some books in a bookcase, placed a bouquet on the coffee table, and brought in a radio and cassette tape player.

I also unintentionally accumulated too many vacation hours. As a clinical social worker, it was often difficult to take a week or two off. My priority was patient care. My caseload had to be stable before I felt comfortable in being away from the office. Of course, I always arranged for backup coverage, but if a patient was currently in distress I felt that I should be there. Occasionally, however, my employer would send out notices to those of us who had accumulated too much unused vacation time: use it or lose it.

Farm House in a Wheat Field, by Vincent van Gogh

Farm House in a Wheat Field, by Vincent van Gogh

An enjoyable way to use that excess vacation time was to take a stay-at-home vacation, whether for a week or just a day or two now and then. It gave me a chance to see the interior of my own apartment and relax on my own sofa, or take a day trip into Manhattan, or go to the laundromat and do some major laundry. It almost felt like playing hooky. Staying home was an unusual occurrence in my life, whether staying home from school as a youngster or taking a stay-at-home vacation as an adult.

Now that I have officially retired, I find myself staying home as a permanent lifestyle. Nothing in my retirement has turned out the way I had planned. I no longer take college courses full-time or part-time, and I no longer travel (for various complicated reasons). I stay at home where I write and I tend to my basic responsibilities. All of this prompted me to think about people from the biblical days who encountered Christ but did not or could not follow Him as disciples in His ministry. There is an example from the Gospel of Mark.

And as he was getting into the boat the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. But he refused, and said, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and all men marveled.

Mark 5: 18-20 [RSV]

It would seem that some people are meant to stay at home, or to express and fulfill their Christian beliefs from a home-base and as everyday people. We might even say that the activity of the apostles enabled others to stay within their own environment, and yet without any dilution of their access to Christ through prayer and worship. It really means that we are all a “royal priesthood” and there are no class distinctions, and there never were any such distinctions between those who physically followed Christ and those who went back to their homes. People have different gifts, but we all fit and work together in the same body of Christ.

Staying home has given me the opportunity to develop a concept known as “domestic church.” I always had a prayer corner, but my daily routine mainly involved going to work and navigating the outside world. There were also things I did to cope with stress, things which I no longer do because I now realize they are not worthy of my time, money, and focus. For example, I used to spend too many Friday nights shopping at the mall. Also, I have gone through all my old VHS tapes and gotten rid of some that seemed appropriate at the time, because of my own dullness, but which were really unsuitable for anyone living in a domestic church.

Although originally felt as a source of disappointment and frustration, I have learned to appreciate staying home. I do not need the world for much — just for food and supplies. I have my computer and the massive realm of the internet, some good books and DVD’s, and the convenience of my own washing machine. I have my icons, Bibles and prayers books, and a sense of constancy as a Christian who has gone home in the mercy of God.

Blaming the Victim

We have all heard sermons on the paralytic who lay helpless by the Pool of Bethesda, alone and without anyone to lift him into the healing water. Generally, the interpretation is that the paralytic was ambivalent about being healed. This is because when Christ asked him if he wanted to be healed, his response seemed defensive: I have nobody to help me into the pool, and others keep getting in before me. I once heard a sermon preached in a tone of pitiless blame and ridicule, as though the paralytic was a total phony and his excuses had therefore been exposed for all true Christians to condemn.

Certainly, the question-and-answer interaction between Christ and the paralytic has to be spiritually digested, and I defer to whatever the Church officially teaches on the matter. The theme of ambivalence is valid, but I cringe at any self-righteous blaming of people or regarding oneself as superior to the struggles of mankind — and using the Bible as justification. Let’s refer to the Bible passage, and perhaps consider a possible secondary or alternate interpretation.

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

John 5: 1-9 [NKJV]

The paralytic had been that way for 38 years. That’s a lot of suffering. His condition was extreme and yet it was the only way of life he knew. Someone must have taken him to the pool, because he was not able to get there on his own. Moreover, it would appear that he had been dumped there, because there was never anybody to lift him into the pool at the time of the stirring of the water — no family member, no friend, no Good Samaritan. He was not deemed to have any human value, or to have the image of God in him, or to be worthy though unworthy of restoration.

There was a certain way in which things had to be done. He had to be the first one in the water and at the right time, and he needed someone to help him because others kept getting in before him. We might note, therefore, that when Christ asked him, “Do you want to be made well?’’ the regular method of healing became disrupted. Perhaps the paralytic’s reaction was not just to an inner wanting or not wanting to be healed, but to the outer procedure on how things had to be done (a procedure which he did not reject or rebel against). Christ then healed him, without the paralytic’s confession of faith or any commitment whatsoever — unless Christ perceived his heart and foreknew his cooperation and potential. Christ offered an ultimate way, through His divine authority, as He reached out to a wretched and forsaken man. When nobody else is there, Christ is always there. He conquers all barriers and transforms all which is unlovable and unloving.

“Do you want to be made well?” Sometimes questions can be transposed into statements. Christ’s question might mean, “You do not want to be made well,” or, “You want to be made well.” In terms of ambivalence, it could mean: You do not really want to be healed, to accept responsibility for a new way of life, or else you would have found a way to get into the pool by now. In terms of established systems, it could mean: You really want to be healed, despite the almost impossible chance of it, and so Christ is here to deliver you from sin and enable you to walk away from desolation and into abundance.

The meaning of the question could also depend on the emphasis of words: Do you want to be made well (i.e., ambivalence); Do you want to be made well (i.e., possibility); Do you want to be made well (i.e., worthy though unworthy). Whichever lesson we learn from this interaction, it is to be applied to oneself — perhaps as a form of introspection or as a turning point in one’s way of life. If we apply the lesson to others, it must be for the sake of understanding and helping. Christ did not blame the paralytic even if he was to blame; but noticed him, understood him, and healed him.

[NOTE: For follow-up on this topic, see Eyes, Legs, Hearts and Unless Someone.]

Ageing Out

When I was in my 40’s, I cherished the fact that I was able to keep up with people half my age. That mode seemed essential to my self-assurance when relating to colleagues. It also meant not just surviving, but engaging with the world as a participant in whatever was beneficial to me and to mankind. I was aware of, and often enjoyed, the latest contributions to literature, music, art, politics, psychology and social work. And, I could still run from the subway station to the ferry terminal and be among the last 4 or 5 happy people to catch the Staten Island Ferry before the gate closed. Missing the ferry would mean waiting 30 minutes for next one to arrive.

During those years, I began wishing that I could change my career focus. I had worked with the elderly, the emotionally troubled, and the addicted, but I had never worked with children or young people. Changing my specialty, however, would mean additional qualifications and so it was unlikely that my wish would come true. Meanwhile, I continued aging and, for complicated reasons, I bid farewell to cozy Staten Island and moved to sunny Arizona. It was like moving to a foreign country. In fact, I think I could have adjusted to living in Europe easier than living in the Desert Southwest.

Nonetheless, a peculiar thing happened — my wish to work with young people came true. Due to the lack of social work jobs, I took a job as a substitute teacher at the high school level. I mostly taught 9th and 10th grades as those assignments were the most plentiful, and I mainly taught English but accepted any subject when assignments were scarce. My point, however, is this: those kids kept me from getting old. I mean, from turning into an alienated and eccentric old woman. It was an opportunity to enter into their world, into the different era in which they were growing up, and to see what was important to them and how they felt about things. The kids energized me and kept me engaged with the times — if only out of concern for their welfare, because there were some things about their word to which I could not relate (rap music, violent video games, profuse cursing).

Blossoming Chestnut Branches, by Vincent van Gogh

Blossoming Chestnut Branches, by Vincent van Gogh

After I officially retired, I missed my former students as well as my former patients back in New York. I was no longer actively involved with life, but only mentally aware as I watched the news on TV. It gradually became evident that I was never going to go back to work — and not just because of the poor job market, but because of a psychological and spiritual progression within myself. I had completed my time, fulfilled my function, achieved my quests, and now survival and engagement were no longer issues — nor was old age. I mean, a harsh old age and condemned to irrelevance. I was finished with the world, ageing out of it as opposed to being split off, selecting what to preserve of the past while resourcefully managing the here and now, and facing the future in a creative way.

To be finished with the world is spiritual concept. It means not just to be finished with the world’s pain and confusion, but to waive life’s rightful and normal properties, which are often intermixed with sin, and to live purely for God and for God alone. It is almost monastic, except it is not a renunciation as much as it is a logical advancement. Anyway, that’s the way it is with me. I had thought to use my retirement years to go back to college, get another B.A. degree just for the joy of studying, and develop a new area of expertise. But that kind of thinking belonged to an outdated mode which I have now aged out of. A different path has opened up which was not of my choosing, but which I choose to accept.

Lose Not Your Faith

Another title for this essay could have been: “Living without Faith.” That’s because it is possible to acquire all of life’s necessities and enjoyments without faith in God, and without negative repercussions from a lack of faith. People without faith often do not seem to live any differently from people with faith (or vice-versa). Some people do not feel a need for purpose and meaning, but are satisfied with food and clothing, books and movies, art and music, and an occasional vacation — all of which we regard as essentially good things.

I have heard Christians say that it must be terrible to live without faith, especially during times of distress or when a loved one dies. However, my observation is that faithless people find other ways to cope. To say that it must be terrible to live without faith is to assume that all people are searching for purpose and meaning, or that all people feel unsatisfied and begin asking ultimate questions when they encounter suffering and sorrow. It is an understandable assumption, especially among those of us who feel the need to make sense of things — such as a belief in an afterlife where our departed loved ones now dwell and where we will all eventually be united again.

However, faith is more than or other than a coping mechanism, and it is deeper than or beyond any benefits of delayed gratification. Faith seems to involve other qualities: a love of God for Who He is, and not a love of or satisfaction with creation which exceeds our love of the Creator. Faithless people do not give any credit or glory to the God Who created them and provided for them. They recognize no ultimate source. Accordingly, they feel no fidelity or gratitude: two other qualities associated with faith. The fact that people can live comfortably without faith and nothing bad happens to them — that’s the temptation of losing one’s faith, because it does not seem to make any difference.

But do not lose your faith, because no matter how seemingly pleasant or neutral a faithless life might appear, it is a malignant tumor and a deceptive tactic of the evil one. Everything in life has consequences. Do not be fooled by the good things in and of themselves, but let the good things lead you to their source and sustainment. Faith is our proper connection to all forms of goodness and to ultimate goodness, beauty, truth, love, and mercy which are God. This is a pure life, regardless of whether we meet with fortune or misfortune on this earth. Faith brings us to eternity with God, as opposed to eternal separation from His love — and therefore living without faith is indeed terrible.

Gratification, Ambition, Pride

Everyone seems to have a favorite Bible verse which they use as a personal motto. When we read the Bible and if we are especially meditative (perhaps troubled) and receptive (perhaps desperate), a certain verse will stand out as the reality of our life thus far and as a guiding light into the future. Such a verse, its truth and abundance, seems to clarify or even vindicate our lifestyle, all our hopes, and our love of God. We might keep this verse close to our heart for a lifetime, or discover another verse at a later time and under different circumstances. For many years, my own biblical motto has been:

…..whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Philippians 4:8 [KJV]

This verse gave me permission to read and to ponder, to love knowledge and goodness no matter where I found it, to enjoy art and literature (beauty and creativity), to evaluate situations and solve problems, and to utilize whatever reflects the wonders of God. Recently, while doing research for something else, I happened across another one of those guiding-light verses. I may have been sensitive to it because I had the troubles of our nation on my mind — especially the recent decisions by our government which affect familial, cultural, and international relationships.

Apostle St. John the Evangelist, by El Greco

Apostle St. John the Evangelist, by El Greco

The verse is from 1 John 2:16. It reads, “For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father, but is of the world.” We might say that Philippians 4:8 is the opposite of 1 John 2:16. While the former points us toward whatever is worthy, the latter reveals that which is unworthy or worldly — gratification of impure desires, self-centered ambitions and extravagances, and smugness and confidence in one’s own assets and status in the world. The worthy things in Philippians 4:8 lead to Eternity, but the unworthy things in 1 John 2:16 lead to destruction.

Many of our troubles, in our personal lives as well as in our government, are the result of pursuing and treasuring things which are not intended by the Father. And, if it comes not from the Father, then it comes from evil. There are only two choices, two paths, for or against, an upward ascent or a downward spiral. Both choices seem to take on their own momentum once we give consent in our heart and mind. The upward ascent might involve a misstep here and there, but we get back up and never really lose sight of our destiny. The downward spiral, however, will suck us into a pit that keeps getting slimier and is extremely difficult to climb out of.

In order to appreciate 1 John 2:16 more fully, I selected some translations that differ slightly (thanks to Bible Gateway, as I do not own all these versions of the Bible).

For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father, but is of the world.

[KJV — King James Version]

Everything that is in the world — the craving for whatever the body feels, the craving for whatever the eyes see and the arrogant pride in one’s possessions — is not of the Father but is of the world.

[CEB — Common English Bible]

Because all the things of the world — the desires of the old nature, the desires of the eyes, and the pretensions of life — are not from the Father but from the world.

[CJB — Complete Jewish Bible]

For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh [craving for sensual gratification] and the lust of the eyes [greedy longings of the mind] and the pride of life [assurance in one’s own resources or in the stability of earthly things] — these do not come from the Father but are from the world [itself].

[AMP — Amplified Bible]

Our foolish pride comes from this world, and so do our selfish desires and our desire to have everything we see. None of this comes from the Father.

[CEV — Contemporary English Bible]

Because everything in the world — the desire of the flesh, and the desire of the eyes, and the boastful-pride of life — is not from the Father, but is from the world.

[DLNT — Disciples’ Literal New Testament]

Not everything that the world offers — physical gratification, greed, and extravagant lifestyles — comes from the Father. It comes from the world,

[GW — God’s Word]

Everything that belongs to the world — what the sinful self desires, what people see and want, and everything in this world that people are so proud of — none of this comes from the Father; it all comes from the world.

[GNT — Good News Translation]

For everything that is in the world — the desire for fleshly gratification, the desire for possessions, and worldly arrogance — is not from the Father but is from the world.

[ISV — International Standard Version]

For all these worldly things, these evil desires — the craze for sex, the ambition to buy everything that appeals to you, and the pride that comes from wealth and importance — these are not from God. They are from this evil world itself.

[TLB — The Living Bible]

Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.

[MSG — The Message]

Here is what people who belong to this world do. They try to satisfy what their sinful desires want to do. They long for what their sinful eyes look at. They take pride in what they have and what they do. All of this comes from the world. None of it comes from the Father.

[NIRV — New International Reader’s Version]

All the things the world can offer to you — the allure of pleasure, the passion to have things, and the pompous sense of superiority — do not come from the Father. These are the rotten fruits of this world.

[VOICE — The Voice]

Nothing in the world comes from the Father. I mean the wrong things people like to do with their bodies. I mean the things people see and want to have. I mean all the things people are proud of in this life. These things come from the world, not the Father.

[WE — Worldwide English (New Testament)]

For Who You Are

Everyone should be loved for who they are, but there is something that keeps us from really loving people in their essence and for their potential. We do not see one another as images of God, but as shells with some kind of hidden life-form which we do not care about. If we are loved at all, we are loved for our outward appearance — for our ability to fit in among the other shells until our real self has dried up and we no longer remember the ocean of our origins or the destiny of our species.

We do not love as Christ loved, for Christ loved us while we were still living in wickedness and error. He accepts us, so to speak, as we are in order to redeem us and restore us. Yet, our love for one another is not a love of salvation and nurture. Our love is either given or withheld in order to induce conformity to the tribe (i.e., the elite, the status quo, the popular, the politically correct, the ecclesiastic jurisdiction, the professional network, etc.). We become either controllers or appeasers, out of fear — the fear of being alone, of being rendered unable to maneuver ourselves through the world and to survive.

Please do not think I am scolding or blaming. I am also guilty of not having loved you for who you are, of not facilitating your development and transformation, of reacting to your symptoms and not discerning your inner substance, of functioning inadequately from my own deficits and expecting you to fulfill the lack (since you seemed to be in charge of everything). However, there might be a major difference between you and me: I know that aloneness. It is not a virtue. It does not make me better than you. It is the result of my naiveté and not finding my niche according to any tribal love, exacerbated by my not having depended upon God for everything.

This may sound sarcastic, but I mean it sincerely: thank you for never having allowed me the dwellings which I craved, for I was spared my own undoing. And please forgive me for never having perceived you beyond your attractive shells. It was not the way life should have been — not among God-fearing people or humanitarians — not for you and not for me — and not toward any good except that the mercy and sovereignty of God should shine through all our efforts and all our failures — and that we should thank Him and worship Him — and in this we are blessed with a unity which only He can establish. Nobody is in control — not if there is an Almighty God. Nobody is dispossessed — not if there is a Holy Church.

Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it…

Psalm 127:1 [KJV]

Between Blogs and Books

There are different kinds of blogs just as there are different kinds of books, according to the purpose and the audience. I prefer blogs in which the author says something personal about himself. I am always curious about people. I am not looking for a shocking confession or an intimate self-disclosure, but a unique personality as created by God. Regarding religious blogs, I dislike a rote presentation of doctrine in the name of preserving truth. I would rather hear those explanations from someone who really grappled with truth, who lives it daily, and whose writing is filled with a certain illumination that comes not only from study but from Divine blessing.

People who visit religious blogs seem also to need this witness. I think it is both spiritual and psychological. We need to know that someone is there right now. I used to think that people wanted immediate gratification, but it goes deeper than that. It is a matter of connection as well as truth. People want a truth that is embodied, studied as well as lived out, and only then written down. However, if the blogger does not post daily or at least weekly, it is almost as though he is not there. The blogger has to be a prolific writer in order to serve mankind in this way. It may not have been the blogger’s intention to become a nurturer of souls, but that seems to be the need which he fulfills in the abundance of his written expression.

The Reader, by Jean Honore Fragonard

The Reader, by Jean Honore Fragonard

A book is also always there, but in a different way. A book can be owned, treasured, and read over and over as needed or desired. People who visit blogs tend not to peruse the archives or the entirety of the blog, but to seek their daily fresh bread from the faithful baker (so long as he continues to produce). Books, however, are permanent and concrete testimonies once they have been written and published. The reader can access various authors throughout history (which is not yet true of blogs). I think there is more commitment to a book because the reader generally reads the whole of the contents, returning to it faithfully until completed — and then perhaps returning to it again at a future time. A book also affords a sense of fullness in that it requires more than eyesight to appreciate it. A book must be picked up, carried, resumed, personalized with notes in the margins, and given a place to rest at night.

We might say that blogs involve the faithfulness of the blogger who is a provider of nurture, and books involve the faithfulness of the reader who accepts the provision entrusted to him. I find myself between blogs and books. Sometimes I need to know that someone is there. I need that connection of here and now. However, I also cherish what is tangible and yet a journey through the ages. I thrive on the wholeness and everlastingness of books. I like to get to know an author completely, reading almost everything he wrote, understanding his world and how he navigated it, walking with him as he develops his theme and reaches an ultimate destination. I will say this: there are many more good books than good blogs. Blogs give me a lifeline, but books give for a lifetime.

Responsibility for Self

Throughout my career as a clinical social worker, I wrote many psychosocial evaluations and many treatment plans. The majority of my patients were alcoholics, and one of the first objectives listed in any treatment plan was: Patient will accept responsibility for self and behavior. No matter the theoretical preferences of each therapist, most of us also relied on the disease concept of alcoholism and the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Despite being afflicted with a disease over which he has no control, the alcoholic is expected to take responsibility for his recovery and all aspects of his choices and actions.

No therapist (I never met one) working in the field of addictions ever regarded the condition as normal or acceptable, even though it appears that some alcoholics are genetically predisposed to the disease. There are alcoholics who say they became addicted at their first drink. There are alcoholics who had an alcoholic parent. There are also alcoholics who started drinking heavily in reaction to a traumatic event such as sexual assault. No matter how biological the disease or how painful the victimization, the alcoholic is expected to stop drinking and find positive ways to cope with life. Spirituality is often a part of this process.

Alcoholics, whether in recovery or actively abusing alcohol, have never asserted any legal right to be alcoholic. This might be for two reasons: (A) The damages of alcoholism to self, family, and society are obvious and directly connected to the condition, (B) The spiritual component to recovery instills hope and humility. There are causes of or reasons for alcoholism, but never excuses or justification for continuation of the condition and its consequences. There is no such thing as militant alcoholism. Alcoholics Anonymous has no political affiliation and makes no money.

Alcohol is legal in every state. Marijuana is now legal in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C., for recreational use (other states have new laws regarding medical marijuana and decriminalization of possession). This is due to the increased acceptance of marijuana, assertion of rights, and the prospect of making money from the growing and selling of marijuana. There is no concern for the problems which will ensue (e.g., more incidents of driving while under the influence of marijuana). It is as though government legalization removes the responsibility for self and behavior. It justifies defiance of civil norms, disregard for positive coping skills, and rejection of spiritual development

Situational Friendships

Portrait of Florence Arquin, by Diego Rivera

Portrait of Florence Arquin, by Diego Rivera

Most of my friendships have been situational. That is, when the situation changed, the friendship ended. I was never one of those people who could say, “We have been friends since the third grade,” or “She has been my best friend since high school.” Friendships were made according to the place where we met, and under the circumstances which drew us together. When one of us left that place, the friendship was finished. Yes, there were letters for a while, and in later years such friendships produced numerous e-mails, but only to further discuss the circumstances. Then, each friend would suddenly stop all communication. Such people seem able to terminate friendships pragmatically and acquire new friendships effortlessly.

Those friendships were important to me, but perhaps too deep for the other to sustain. Yes, I will admit that I am a very serious person. Nevertheless, I find that many people avoid a full investment or commitment of self to humanity. Among those who profess religion, they often prefer intellectualization of theology over its everyday application. Among those in the helping professions, they often prefer the security of a network over genuine camaraderie. Moreover, I think it has nothing to do with whether one is married or single. I remember an older woman who asked me, years ago, “Do you get lonely, being by yourself?” I replied, “Sometimes.” She then said, “Even married people get lonely.” At the time, I failed to recognize her hinting at her own loneliness — as though she identified with me as someone who had to cope with alienation. But her words and the sorrowful expression on her face became imprinted in my memory.

I have spent hours on the internet trying to track down people who used to be a part of my life. Some of them had no internet presence whatsoever, some had done well with their lives, some had taken divergent paths, and some were deceased. I reached out to a few of the living. Slowly, a third of them responded to me and we were able to revive correspondence. As for the others, I wondered if they even recognized who I was. Many years had passed, and my life had undergone drastic changes. Yet, even their lack of interest seems to point to a difference between those who remain emotionally bonded and those who terminate pragmatically.

There is another explanation beyond human reaction. I think God put certain people in my life on a need-to-know basis. People were there for me in the moment but not forever, not since the third grade — not that type of connection. Mine were usually friendships of mutual assistance, because of the difficult situations in which we found ourselves. Perhaps I gained the most and so I remain attached to my former wayfarers to this day. I am thankful that God let me see these people at their best, true to their beliefs and to His image, but having a different emotional makeup from my own. People change, for better or worse. I changed. Old friends would not know me, not now. It may have been the physical separation of friends that allowed for these changes. I trust that all of us are still working out our salvation and are therefore united in His grace.

Unwritten Words

There are various writing projects, dating back to the late 1980’s, which I never completed. There are novels and stories which I started in the pre-computer days, and which I typed on a portable typewriter and never transferred to my computer. I have kept that material all these years, packed and moved it from one residence to another and to another, always with the intention of finishing it. Now, these projects have gone into a state of permanent storage in my tool shed, as opposed to an undetermined dormancy, and I should really clean out my shed. This stuff is never going to get finished. I never had the time, and my mentality has changed over the years.

There are still other projects which I began after the dawning of the laptop computer. There are some stories as well as blogs which never came to fruition — nothing beyond a concept, a title, and maybe an outline. I even set up the blogs and was ready to upload the content, except the words never got written. It was not a matter of writer’s block, but of time and competing priorities. However, if things are not acted upon when the time is right, something happens to the creative impetus and it is very difficult to go back and recapture the original inspiration.

I think what happens to all those unwritten words is that everything gets updated and transformed into other and better projects. It starts in the mind and heart as we develop into whole persons and gain a more balanced perspective on life. Then unexpected words begin to flow, taking command of time and having priority over all other plans and even some of our daily tasks. During the past few years I was consumed with writing, and I found that I could not be both a good writer and a good housekeeper. Fortunately, my life has since stabilized, my purpose has opened, and my style has formed. My writing has become much less intense regarding time and focus. My home and yard stay clean. In fact, my current writing feels like a peaceful unfolding or a reasonable progression of thought.

Since I began writing via the internet in 2001, I have received only a couple criticisms of my work — and even my critics continued to read my essays. Most people do not pay any attention to me at all, but I continue to write because I believe this is what I am called to do. It has become a matter of fidelity to that calling. I do not know why, nor do I question why. Nonetheless, I invite correction if anyone notices that I am in error, especially regarding theological statements. I regard it as a matter of mercy. If you are a Good Samaritan, then please attend to my wounds.

Do not be afraid. I know what it is like to offer correction even in a most discreet and gentle manner, only to be given the cold shoulder. Perhaps those were words I should have left unwritten, but I felt a responsibility not just to the one who was in gross error but to those who might inadvertently be harmed in some way. When I notice my own errors, I go back and revise my essay or I include an explanatory addendum. My inspiration might be a little ahead of my knowledge, but I do try to coordinate research and creativity. It is ongoing, and I will probably never finish all my past or current projects before I die. And the ones that are completed might not be without error.

Mountains in Our Midst

There is an incident in the Bible that reads almost like a parable, except that it really happened among Christ, the disciples, and a suffering boy and his father. It brings out themes such as what it means to have faith, the application of faith to the healing of afflictions and the overcoming of obstacles, and the role of faith in doing the will of God. The following is from the Gospel of Matthew.

And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.”

And Jesus answered, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly.

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from hence to yonder place,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”

Matthew 17: 14-21 [RSV]

As I was reading this section, I noted the these relationships: (A) an epileptic + the demon came out of him, (B) because of your little faith + faith as a grain of mustard seed, (C) say to this mountain, ‘Move from hence to yonder place’ + nothing will be impossible to you. These interactions occur between the disciples and the suffering, between Christ and the disciples, and between the suffering and Christ.

There seems to be equivalence between disease and evil. Perhaps the boy was both epileptic and demon-possessed. It is also possible that one condition was mistaken for the other (at least, by the people involved but not by Christ Who had divine discernment). We know that the world is fallen because of disobedience to the God Who created us. Disease is hereditary and also part of the ageing process. Illnesses might be the passing on or the infection of sin from one generation to the next, as well as an impact from evil in the present. We know that some physical and mental disorders are the result of severe stress.

The disciples were not able to heal the boy, and Christ admonishes them for their little faith. He contrasts their little faith to a mustard seed. Now, the mustard seed is tiny. It seems that the contrast is not necessarily between small and smaller (or smallest), but between an incapacitated small and a small that has potential for growth. That is, a capacity for development into full stature and abundance. The mustard seed can become a large tree, even larger than what is characteristic of its type. It becomes large or complete by absorbing nurture from the earth and sun, and is thus able to provide a home for the birds. It functions or thrives so long as it remembers its source of life and its purpose.

Mountains at Saint-Remy, by Vincent van Gogh

Mountains at Saint-Remy, by Vincent van Gogh

Christ then tells the disciples that with faith as a mustard seed they could move mountains and nothing would be impossible to them. The mountains probably represent every kind of obstacle, disease, and falsehood which separate mankind from complete discipleship in Christ. It is evil subjugation, engulfment, and possession which elicit incapacitation. In the instance of the boy, it was actually life-threatening as he often fell into the fire and into the water. One must have faith and be a true disciple in order to confront evil and to help people in these severe conditions. Moreover, such faith and discipleship (each according to their gifts and talents) is within the will of God and all things are possible to those who do His will. Anything else is perverse, or tainted and obstinate.

People require care, from infancy through old age. We are meant to have interactions and interconnections at various levels of healing or helpful contacts — a kind smile, an encouraging word, the giving of assistance, the sharing of knowledge, intercessory prayer, and the exposure and defeat of evil. It would seem that these transformative exchanges are a part of God’s plan of salvation, as evidenced by Christ’s admonishing of the disciples when they failed to heal the boy.

When these failures of spirituality and humanitarianism occur, when the mountains are not moved out of the way, then we must go directly to Christ Himself. Of course, everything is done through Christ and we always give praise to Christ. But when there are failures of faith in the community of God, in the corporate body, then the needy individual is left unattended or cast aside to the margins of the community. If this were not the case, then Christ would not have admonished the disciples. It appears that Christ expected them to have a positive impact on people and to be stronger than the demons. That is, to have faith as a mustard seed and to spread the glad news through words and deeds.

Only a Memory, but Here

The world in which I was born and grew up no longer exists. The house where I spent my childhood was torn down and the property, along with my grandmother’s, was turned into condominiums and a gas station. The neighborhood where I spent my teenage years deteriorated and even became haven to some gangs. I can never go back and visit the same world that I knew, not unless I entered the Twilight Zone and went back in time. Then, my encounters and impressions as an adult would not be the same as those of a developing youngster.

Although I am not prone to nostalgia and I do not believe in golden ages, I wish that I could preserve certain parts of the past. Perhaps it is an unhealthy attachment, or perhaps just a way to recapture some of the good realities which have disappeared from this earth but survive in my memory. I miss rural America and the countryside, the way it was before suburban sprawl. I miss the rugged mountains and deserts, the way it was before four-lane highways and numerous hotels and amusement parks. There is just something about so-called progress that strays from meeting the needs of people to creating needs and wants that we never had before.

As if to restore that which had vanished, I found myself appreciating landscape paintings on a very emotional level. I bought a few paintings from an antique store. They were surprisingly inexpensive and some of them came with nice wooden frames. These are amateur paintings, small to medium in size. They are from the 1950’s to 1980’s, which is considered vintage nowadays. Of course, I picked out the best ones, but there was a time when I would have regarded amateur oil paintings as beneath my dignity. If I could not own a Constable or a Monet, then I preferred to do without. I could always go to an art museum and see the real thing.

These paintings, however, are of comfort to me in my senior years. They embellish my living room with a preservation of recent history, of a time when it seemed people were more connected to God’s earth with its trees and rivers and hillsides. Nature was like a church. Now, we are connected to the shopping mall as a focal point, as a place either to gather or to escape, and maybe the only place where we can find a waterfall even though it is manmade. At least, we can hear the sound of water and find a moment of rest from the things we need or think we need.

Changing the Past

Hand Study with Bible, by Albrecht Durer

Hand Study with Bible, by Albrecht Durer

We generally speak of resolving past events or putting closure on past relationships. There are certain realities that damaged us, usually abuse in childhood or a traumatic incident in adulthood, and we have to find ways to cope, move on, and thrive. However, as we age and gain distance combined with greater maturity, our view of the past can further change even beyond resolution and closure — because our position in life has changed to that of an old man or old lady. Most of the world is younger. Moreover, the world continues — deteriorates or flourishes — without our direct involvement in its activities.

When the past seems no longer personal in a hurtful way, hurt both coming in and going out, we can view it as history. When the wounds are no longer raw (because of resolution and closure) but have healed satisfactorily, and no more new wounds are incurred (because of our distance from interaction), then recent history can be viewed dispassionately as God opens our eyes to the pages which we had not been able to read until now.

In this sense, then, the past can be changed because our perspective has been changed or opened. We can see connections and doors that we had not seen before, nuances of kindness that we took for granted in our neediness, undercurrents of betrayal that we could not have faced in those days, and our own inadequacies and defects which intertwined with everything and rendered us into prodigal sons and daughters even as we have become old men and women.

If, added to this, we repent and try to bring forth fruits from our repentance, then the past, or history, can be transformed into a spiritual reality of forgiveness and reconciliation, or at least non-judgment and intercessory prayer. We can attempt to reach out to those to whom we failed to say thank-you, or to those of whom we need to ask forgiveness — unless, such attempts would only cause further misunderstanding and rupture. If someone responds to us in a positive manner, then that is a victory over evil. If they do not respond, then perhaps it is better not to ruminate over it — even the lack of response changes the past inasmuch as our heart became purified.

This is not in denial of physical reality or actual events, but in acceptance of the transformative power of Christ over the effects and repercussions of the past. We are not condemned to burdens of world and time, but we are bestowed with a certain level of insight, wisdom, and mercy by which to live out the remainder of our days. Perhaps some people acquire this in their youth or middle-age, but some of us had to enter old age in order to contrast the heavy bulk of sin with the light yoke of purity.

Objectivity Matters

Objectivity is akin to discernment. It is a rarity nowadays, as is common sense.  Let me begin with some definitions, so that we can work from the same understanding of these terms.

  • Common Sense: to know how to go about doing something, generally practical things.
  • Discernment: to accurately perceive the intricate makings of something or someone.
  • Objectivity: to view something or someone impartially, without undue influences.

Objectivity is not necessarily the opposite of subjectivity, not in the way I am using it, but it is contrasted to prejudice and delusion.

  • Prejudice: to treat those who are different with hatred, exclusion, and unfairness.
  • Delusion: distorted thoughts and irrational beliefs that have no basis in reality.

All these qualities or features are important to how we conduct ourselves in every aspect of life, particularly in politics, education, and religion. The law, for example, should be applied impartially. Government officials should be free of grandiosity. Educators should take into consideration the equal worth of all students while noticing individual and special needs. When the people employed in these institutions lack objectivity and discernment, then we are assaulted by propaganda, brainwashing, idolatry, elitism, favoritism, radicalism, and double standards.

In the realm of religion or spirituality, we speak of the revelation of truth and the acquisition of the virtues. Truth is expressed in Scripture and in the precepts of the Church. Virtues, such as humility and forgiveness, are values which Christians live by or characteristics which are developed. In other words, it means to live a life in Christ. Such truth and virtues, however, do not cancel out objectivity. That is, if objectivity is contrasted to prejudice and delusion. In fact, the virtues would only elevate the fair treatment of other people to include love of them.

This is not to say that some government officials do not love their constituents or that many teachers do not love their students. This is just to say that Christian love is combined with truth, with living the way that God wants us to live and worshipping Him as the only real happiness. Christians love not only their own kind or their own preferences, but all kinds including those who are different or who disagree. It is beyond objectivity, because it is merciful. Merciful love does not condone error or approve of vice, but it supports the spiritual and humanitarian development of all people.

In society today, particularly in government and schools, Christians are regarded as haters. Anyone who disagrees with certain political and lifestyle agendas, especially regarding issues which are included in an expanded concept of civil rights and reproductive rights, is regarded as hateful, dangerous, inflammatory, and supremacist. Therefore, genuine debate and disagreement (freedom of speech and assembly) are not allowed. And beyond that, there is the attempt to force the acceptance of certain political and lifestyle agendas upon those who disagree, whether through legislation or disruptive protests.

We can especially see a loss of objectivity in the public school system. This is the easiest place in which to indoctrinate children and teenagers and mold them according to a radical agenda. Not too many years ago, young people were taught how to think, such as how to use the skill of critical thinking. Nowadays, young people are taught not how to think as much as they are told what to think, as well as what to believe and what to feel. This loss of objectivity has enabled the spread of extreme multiculturalism, the acceptance of which has been further distorted into a belief (though it is actually a lie), and this belief is reinforced by revisionist history and enforced by political correctness. It has become a sort of religion, except it is not illuminated with truth and virtues but infested with error and impurities. It is not given by the Divine, but crafted by humans who desire temporal satisfactions and conveniences.

A Political Rainbow

Mother and Child, by Julius Gari Melchers

Mother and Child, by Julius Gari Melchers

The Supreme Court of the United States of America has just ruled in favor of homosexual marriage for all 50 states. There is a lot going on here besides whether or not homosexuality is normal or acceptable, but let me focus on the condition itself. Homosexuality is not sanctioned by the Church. That said, we still do not know the causes of it and there seem to be very few homosexuals (among those who have come forward) who have transformed to heterosexuality, and more (again, among those who have come forward) who claim to have been damaged by religious or psychotherapeutic attempts to change.

My own view is that of disidentity and identity, as I think this offers a plausible explanation for gender-disordered homosexuality. This view puts forth that, when the parent of the same sex is perceived as unsatisfactory (perhaps mentally disturbed, or emotionally unavailable or uncaring), some children will instinctively not want to become like that parent. A girl with a cold mother will not want to become that way, will not model herself after her mother, will not develop or maintain an identity with the same-sex parent. The girl will disidentify with her mother and identify with her father, taking on the traits of male behaviors while longing for the love of another woman — the love she never received from her mother. Hence, she becomes a lesbian or she feels an attraction to women even if she never acts on it.

The same is true for boys, although the process slightly differs. Boys, whose first attachment is to their mother, must eventually disidentify with the mother and learn to identify with the father and to model themselves after the father in order to grow up to be men. If the boy has a rough father whom he instinctively does not want to become like, then he will fail to disidentify with his mother and likewise fail to identify with his father. Hence, he becomes a gay man or feels an attraction to other men even if he eventually marries a woman.

This theory might not seem applicable to single-parent families, but the disidentification and identification processes could still take place regarding the single parent and whatever qualities the child perceives in persons of the opposite sex in his or her environment.

There are homosexuals who say they were born that way. That would mean disidentity and identity started in infancy or in the earliest stages of childhood development, which is not impossible. However, it is also not impossible that some were born that way, inasmuch as people are born with various problems such as heart disease and poor vision and — though I risk reproach for making this comparison — mental retardation. Science has not found a cure for mental retardation, and it might turn out that there is no medical cure for people who say they were born homosexual. We might never know, because nowadays it would be politically incorrect for science to try and find a cure.

The really sad thing about the Supreme Court’s ruling is that it has, de facto, normalized something that many regard as abnormal and which used to be listed as abnormal in the psychiatric manuals. Same-sex marriage is a political victory, not necessarily humanitarian, and not caring for the homosexual any more than the cold mother or the rough father. Today’s children and teenagers will have even less of a chance to work out their identity, because society has already told them that to live under this political rainbow is normal, acceptable, and even heroic. Again, I risk reproach, but I regard this as child abuse.

The challenge, then, is for the Church to care, to offer a love, or Love, which is truly attainable and an absolute alternative or solution to same-sex love. There are people in the churches every Sunday who are actively involved in pre-marital sex or adultery, but it is not obvious by appearances or mannerisms. Sexual impurity or deviation, and all the psychopathology that often accompanies it, exist even among those who believe it is wrong. If real good can result from, or in spite of, the Supreme Court’s decision, perhaps it will be to motivate Christians to maintain the Faith while understanding problems and offering viable solutions. All people can be welcomed into the true spiritual direction the Church — without our casting stones.

[NOTE: There could be multiple factors contributing to the practice of homosexuality. I offered only one view. My purpose was to understand and humanize the homosexual but not to justify militant demands for normalization and same-sex marriage.]

Totally Strange

That day was so totally strange and yet more real than real, or a representation of what is real about our earthly life, or what was already real to my childhood. Or, perhaps it was just a coincidence of irrational images which had no significance. I do not know why I am thinking about it today, but the memory of it tends to rise to the surface from time to time.

It happened when I was a young girl, still in elementary school. My mother took me to the dentist to have a tooth pulled, and the dentist put me under anesthesia. I still remember the white room and sitting in the big chair, and I remember a doctor and a nurse although their faces are not clear. I felt no pain. When the work was finished, my mother took me home. That’s when it happened, as we drove up the driveway which ran the length of the house and to a detached garage.

The scene was horrifying. I saw several animals — I especially remember a cat — which glowed red-hot, like branding irons. They were sitting on the step to the front door and blocking it. They were hideous with menacing expressions on their faces, and they were looking right at me. However, the only time I used the front door was when leaving for or coming home from school. Otherwise, the kitchen or back door, near the garage, was the main passage. My mother drove the car toward the garage, while the red-hot animals stayed at the front door as though confident of an eventual encounter.

My mother put me to bed. When I awoke, the tooth fairy had left me some coins in a nice leather coin purse. It had two pockets with flaps that snapped shut. I still remember these words embossed in gold letters: Genuine Leather. I went outside to be in the fresh air, going out the kitchen door to the back yard. I wandered over to the driveway and, looking up the road, I saw a holy man. He looked like the ancient people in an illustrated Bible story, wearing a robe and a turban and having a beard. He seemed to be walking and praying. I ran back inside the house and told my mother to come and look at the man. By the time she got outside, he had totally vanished.

I do not know if it was all a dream or hallucinations from the anesthesia. The coin purse was real. But I never saw the animals or the holy man again. What a strange thing to come from the mind of a little girl, even if drug-induced: symbols of evil and good. Evil was at my doorstep. Good was walking away, or walking toward something — perhaps toward an ultimate destination. That seems to summarize much of my life. That is, having to leave one place and go to what would prove to be a better place for me.

Another interpretation suddenly comes to my mind. Perhaps, after my mother had put me to bed, the holy man came and dispersed or destroyed the evil animals on the front doorstep. That way, I could safely go to school the next day and eventually grow into an old woman. Thus having completed his mission, the holy man proceeded up the road. That might also summarize much of my life — having been protected from worse things without my knowing it except, on that one hallucinogenic day, I saw part of the action if only in my own mind.

Criminal Minds among Us

There is something about our fallen human condition that I can only describe as criminal. There are people who possess, to greater and lesser degrees of severity, criminal minds. I do not just mean criminal in the manner of a criminal personality or actually doing things that are illegal. I mean people who have sociopathic, passive-aggressive, or narcissistic tendencies, and who mentally ill-treat other people for their own gain.

Black Cross, New Mexico, by Georgia O'Keeffe

Black Cross, New Mexico, by Georgia O’Keeffe

This type of criminal mind could be pinpointed as follows: they will try to get away with whatever they can get away with. Whether it is a matter of breaking reasonable rules, going against social standards, violating interpersonal boundaries, or lying and cheating, they will try to get away with it if they can. If one or both of your parents were of this type, or even a sibling, it could take you many years to figure out what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior within the family unit as well as in society. You may have unconsciously developed both tolerances and overreactions which are beyond your awareness but which others find confusing and disturbing.

Criminal minds invent their own rules, and their rules always work to their benefit and to your subjugation. They are adept at exploiting vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and loopholes. They play upon sympathy and goodwill. The more you share about your personal life, the more power they have to manipulate you. Moreover, they do not feel any embarrassment, guilt, or shame in any positive sense of regret — because they have little or no conscience.

Now, in this line of thought, maybe it is not surprising that Christ was crucified between two criminals. They were real criminals, robbers, but we might speculate that they also had certain psychopathic tendencies. Or, perhaps, they were themselves products of abuse and they had a blurred concept of what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Anyway, they tried to get away with something. But they got caught. One of them blasphemed Christ while the other repented.

Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”

But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”

And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23: 39-43 [NKJV]

We can immediately see how the unrepentant robber tried to manipulate and exploit Christ — save yourself, if you really are who you say you are, but — and this is the sneaky part of it — save us, too. That is, pardon my crimes even though I am unrepentant, and enable me to go back to my unholy lifestyle. I have no respect for you or my fellow robber. I do not want to be your disciple. I just want a free ticket out of this mess. Then, you will never see me again unless I need something else from you.

The repentant robber, however, confronted the manipulator. The good robber knew the inner workings of the unrepentant robber’s criminal mind because they both had that in common. He had probably also manipulated and exploited people, but he still had some level of conscience and some trace of interpersonal boundaries — he knew that he could not, or dared not try, to manipulate God. He feared God.

The two criminals probably represent all mankind. There are criminal minds within us, to greater or lesser degrees of severity, and we ill-treat other people for our own gain. Some of us are actually trying to tempt Christ with vain manipulations rather than worshipping Him with pure prayers. And some of us are repenting daily, our conscience having been stirred by the innocent Christ on the Cross.

Purpose, Meaning, Commandments

The search for purpose and meaning can take a long time. It is a quest within in the territories of religion and philosophy, and perhaps also stems from an identity disorder — not really knowing who we are, let alone what we want to do with our life. Some people know from childhood that they want to be a doctor or a firefighter, and they are able to steer a steady course to their goal. Others travel upon several paths according to interests and opportunities, and still others seem to flounder or to settle.

In terms of continued education, so valued by many Americans, purpose and meaning can expand throughout one’s lifetime with the acquisition of more knowledge and new skills. In terms of spiritual development, purpose is gained by doing the will of God, and meaning from the Scriptures and from Church precepts. Yet, discerning the will of God and understanding theology can also be an unfolding journey over an indefinite period of time.

The search and the journey, as well as the finding and embracing of its destination, is actually predated by a code of conduct known as the Ten Commandments. Whether you are a doctor or a firefighter, or whether you are still searching, or whether you decided to settle into a convenient mode, all humans are given instructions for a lifestyle of holiness through the Ten Commandments. You cannot neglect them if you are an accomplished professional, and you can find fulfillment in them even if you never accomplish anything on this earth.

Everyone can be found pleasing in the sight of God, with or without a specified or individual purpose, by adhering to the Ten Commandments:

The Ten Commandments

1) You shall have no other gods before Me.
2) You shall not make idols.
3) You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
4) Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5) Honor your father and your mother.
6) You shall not murder.
7) You shall not commit adultery.
8) You shall not steal.
9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10) You shall not covet.

The Commandments may seem basic, but the world is complicated and the human condition is fallen. Also, there is room for some interpretation. We might not commit murder, for example, but we wound people with our remarks. We might not worship a golden calf or a statue of Venus, but we are awestruck by politicians and celebrities. We might observe the Sabbath, and yet our heart is impure. We might believe in God, and yet we have no concept of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Let us give thanks for the Ten Commandments, for they are open to everyone and they are the great equalizer among all races and classes of people. They are sacred and, if we love God, they are nourishment for the soul and a delight to put into practice.

Where the Church Is Not

rouen1

Rouen Cathedral, Sunset, by Claude Monet

There is a saying among the members of the Eastern Orthodox Church that we know where God is but we do not know where He is not. The belief is that Christ Himself established the Church, that which today is known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches which separated off and which contain certain errors in doctrine and structure. However, most of these errors seem not to be fatal to a belief in the same God and to the worship of the same God among everyday people. This is not to underrate errors, but to say that God can bless and have mercy upon whomever He will.

A lot of my life has been spent where, purportedly, God and Church are not — not in purity or not at all, depending upon the severity of any manmade boundaries. Although I spent a portion of my life immersed in the Church, and for several years I was employed by a Church organization, I have navigated my daily life within religious variation as well as secularism — it was a matter of practicality and survival. Even within variation, however, there was enough similarity that I never felt God was not or that the Church was not. I think that was due to His having protected me from any fatal deviations and having shed mercy upon my environment.

rouen2

Rouen Cathedral, Sunlight, by Claude Monet

The difficult thing about conducting one’s life where supposedly the Church is not, is that some people are very uncomfortable with a God Who is absolutely sovereign and incomprehensibly merciful. Even though I was unaware of it at the time, those years of navigation required development of spiritual dexterity and discernment — nothing was handed to me in terms of family roots or ethnic heritage. Basically, it was just me and God. That may be a bold statement, but I speak from a position of or from a realm of where God is not — and yet He is here, as a Father who never deserts His children, and the Church is here, which is what I believe whether I see the image of God in other people or whether I look at my icons as windows into Heaven.

Custodian of Words

There are some religious people who regard any kind of creative endeavor to be ungodly. That is, all art and music must be concentrated into worship within a church. All words must be focused into hymns or explanation of theology. It is a simple but rigid way to live. It would be harmless if only other pursuits were not condemned and if the ways of God were not limited. Such piety seems to betray the Bible. We know that God is creative, having created the earth and all living things. That includes beautiful sunsets, shady trees, rippling brooks, fragrant roses, elegant giraffes, roaring lions, funny monkeys, and icky worms.

Regarding these things which God created, many people would agree that we are the custodians of the earth and the animals. We are to take care of and not exploit or extinguish His creation. Some people even object to the ownership of pets, believing that we are not pet owners but pet custodians. Nobody can own that which God created, not even a little kitten. Anyway, it is essential that we not love anything God created more than we love God Himself. That would include sunsets and kittens, our aptitudes, as well as our own visual and literary works of art.

In alignment with the religious and ecological view of creation and creativity, those of us who engage in creative writing might regard ourselves as custodians of words. Here, I will speak for myself. It is an opinion or conjecture — and I hope a humble opinion, put forth as a possibility and as an alternative to rigidity (which is not the same as asceticism or abstinence). Maybe we writers have been given a certain allotment of words for the purpose of expression and creativity. When my share is used up I will stop writing and probably do something else, or maybe that is when I will die. Such words, like trees and giraffes, belong to God but are entrusted to the care of humans.

There have been spiritual leaders (and I think St. John of Kronstadt is one of them) who have especially warned against novels, movies, and the theater. In order to understand and apply this, perhaps we must differentiate between that which is worldly if not indecent, and that which has an edifying and nurturing content and message. We might regard the latter as lesser lights — not shining as brightly as the Bible or hymns or the writings of the saints, but still worthy of attention if you are so inclined. Perhaps the real danger or allurement is to read novels and watch movies more than we read the Bible and pray, and to lose our grip on reality and the goal of our ultimate destination in Heaven.

Such caution and discernment would also have to apply to blogs. Among the numerous religious blogs, I have narrowed down my regular visits to six blogs. I read these blogs not only for the content, but to feel a connection or fellowship with other people who share my concerns, values, and outlook. It lets me know that I am not alone. I regard this as a blessing, and for this I am thankful.

As I Die, but Live

As I age, and approach death as a final moment that will come upon me sooner rather than later, I realize that I have always sensed the passing of time as stressful. Yes, there were things to look forward to, such as Christmas and vacations, which could only be accomplished by a filling of time and waiting for the completion of its phases. Yet, the passing of time also meant the endurance of unpleasant situations. Moreover, it was marked by losses — losses which sometimes brought relief from those situations but which sometimes took from me the only support I had.

After years of experiencing and accumulating such situations and the people involved in them, and then coping with changes in those situations and the loss of those people (because they graduated, left their job, moved away, or I did the same, or they died before me), I have often found myself heartbroken throughout as well as in the end as a general condition. In these my senior years, I now realize that the past, which underwent change as a matter of course, is now permanent and unchangeable.

There have been a couple moments, over the past year, when I felt so tired at night that I thought perhaps I was going to die. In my bed, I would cry out, “O God, don’t let me die of a broken heart.” To die in such a state would be to give victory to all the hostilities, shenanigans, misunderstandings, separations, and forgetfulness. I recall a poem by Dylan Thomas, not one of my favorite poems or poets, which I have read again from the perspective of the aged rather than the younger generation.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Maybe I needed to rage — against heartbreak, against everything that destroys and disrupts, everything that poisons and pollutes, everything that separates and splits, and everyone who quits before the end.

Then, I thought of how Christ died — hanging on a cross, seemingly defeated at the hands of a corrupt justice system and a vicious people. I speculated on the possible interpretations of His words, “I thirst.” Was it a thirst for the salvation of all mankind? Was it for disciples from all nations, for a fulfillment of the Kingdom of God? The death of Christ was not of defeat, but of sacrifice. It was the only means to accomplishing the Resurrection and the Ascension.

American Horizon, by Jane Wilson

American Horizon, by Jane Wilson

Because of that, my own death will not be one of heartbreak — that is, in humble reliance on and total trust in the mercy of God — but a death into divine light. At this point, in my last phase, I no longer feel any burden or heartbreak from the past. On the contrary, I feel anticipation and, perhaps for the first time ever, I am fully alive.

Evil Joy

It was almost 20 years ago when Bob Dole ran for president against Bill Clinton. The question, “Where is your outrage?” became a campaign theme. Dole stated, “If Lincoln had an affair with a slave woman, it would be an outrage, but when Clinton does it with one of his staff, everyone is okay with it.” Dole’s comparison is not completely accurate — the slave woman would have had no choice whereas the staff member was a consenting adult. Nevertheless, there was still the appearance of an abuse of power. Some people were outraged over this, and some were not. Among some of those who felt outrage, they forgave or overlooked Clinton’s impropriety — or perhaps their outrage was only feigned.

Over the past week, there has been much news coverage of the child molestation which was perpetrated several years ago by a then 14-year old boy — on 5 girls, including 4 of his younger sisters and 1 female babysitter. That boy is now an adult and married with 3 children of his own and his 4th is due next month. His family of origin is famous, or perhaps now infamous, for being both very large and Christian (Protestant). Most people are outraged over the abuse, but some seem outraged over the religion of the family and the sub-culture in which the children were raised. Some people have forgiven the perpetrator, while others suspect that he is still a danger to society and should undergo a thorough psychiatric evaluation.

Almost everything becomes politicized nowadays, and politically polarizing, as people take sides and channel their outrage, real or feigned, into support for their side and to the discredit of the other side. Beneath the outrage, at least in some instances, it is possible there is the presence of what is called evil joy or malicious joy. This term is derived from a German word, and it does not translate precisely into a single English word. It means to find delight, pleasure, satisfaction, and amusement in the misfortune, suffering, or downfall of another human being. And, nowadays, it seems also to mean to further channel that evil joy into the total ruin of the other side.

Evil joy, politically and socially, is a form of prejudice because it is only applied to the other side. Forgiveness, or feigned forgiveness, is only applied to one’s own side. This is not a way to solve problems or to protect children. Evil joy cannot possibly bring about solutions, goodness, or healing. Moreover, some professional helpers such as psychologists and social workers, who have often had more compassion and provided more help than churches, have also become politically influenced if not politically aligned in their approach to diagnosis and treatment. It is as though the professional code of ethics has been replaced with political correctness. And nobody is outraged.

Very few people have noted that the above-mentioned child molester was probably himself molested, and very possibly by someone within his religious sub-culture. This is the inheritance of sin, perversion, and dysfunction in our fallen world. Not all victims of molestation will become molesters, but all will incur some form and level of psychological disturbance. Everyone inherits, or is impacted by, the perpetration or spread of unacceptable and intolerable behaviors or the repercussions thereof. If you see or know someone who acts in inappropriate ways, you can probably conclude that their inappropriateness is symptomatic of some type of trauma. This is not to excuse it, but to understand the dynamics and thereby find ways to eliminate it. (One way to stop that which is already in process is to arrest and imprison the perpetrators.)

Where is our outrage? Where is our sorrow for mankind, and our willingness to use whatever legitimate means to help the victimized and to protect the vulnerable? We should utilize both psychological and faith-based approaches, and not polarize everything into this side or that side. But if society itself degenerates into factions of evil joy, then confusion will reign and ‘help’ will only mean to attract victims over to one’s own side. This is neither real psychotherapy nor true religion.

What We Are

We have to be what we are, what we were meant to be, what we are called to be. If we try to be something else, then we lose years of development into what we were supposed to have been — unless we recycle the garbage of the past into a work of art for the present. I wish I could be like St. Mary of Egypt: totally dedicating her life to pure prayer, but I cower before rigorous asceticism. Yet, I feel a kinship with her in her total honesty with self and God. I wish I could be like St. Xenia of St. Petersburg: wandering, praying, helping even into her old age, but I am a homebody as I sit at my computer and write. Yet, I feel a connection with her in her renunciation of the pretenses of society.

Albino, by Marlene Dumas

Albino, by Marlene Dumas

Perhaps our best chance at humility and purity is to be exactly what God has mercifully called us to be and not what we wish we could be, or feel we ought to be, or think we have to be. Otherwise, we would probably fail miserably and then live with regret over what could have been. A false or forced spirituality is contrary to the very real arenas in which St. Mary of Egypt and St. Xenia of St. Petersburg worked out their salvation. They did not follow Christ into the desert or throughout the city streets under pressure but in loving obedience. They took up their cross — in rejection of any personal wishes and into wholeness of being through union with God, and they regarded themselves as unworthy nonetheless.

Living in the world, and utilizing our talents, does not rule out some form of an interior life of prayer, a certain level of contemplation or reflection, and occasional periods of solitude. It is a matter of setting our priorities and trying to establish a routine amid our responsibilities and the unexpected problems that infringe upon any given day. And aside from any routine, it may just be a matter of seizing moments for prayer as they arise — those moments of waiting in line, watering the plants, awakening in the night.

Moreover, an indication of a true spiritual life might be simply in how we treat the people around us. If we are not feeding the hungry, literally and figuratively, whether in our family or someone else’s family, then we have missed the compassionate message of Christ. We are anchored in the Church and surrounded by the multitudes: what we are is how we conduct ourselves among others. How we feed people can vary according to our talents, but without food we will all starve to death. That food includes fruits and vegetables as well as good deeds, edifying words, merciful forgiveness, and the transformation of our own garbage into works of art.

Save a Life Today

You can save a life. It can be as simple as giving a kind smile to someone in the supermarket. I really believe that, although I cannot prove it. But I know that lonely and troubled people invest much more meaning into small things than people who have supportive relationships. To the average person, a small thing is a small thing and quickly forgotten. To the distressed person, a small thing may be the only goodwill they receive that day and they will derive much nourishment from it.

A portion of my career was spent working with drunken drivers. This is a court-mandated clientele and very challenging. I always believed, and hoped, that I had saved someone’s life by helping a drunken driver to sober up — perhaps his life or the life of another driver whom he might have crashed into if he had not stopped drinking. That belief and hope, and I will go ahead and say it — that reality was worth more than any paycheck. It was not just a job, but a conviction. Moreover, I met some remarkable clients whom I remember to this day.

If you really want to save a life, perhaps your own, then do not use your cell phone while driving. I have encountered you on the roads as you text, your head down or tilted to the side, your car veering to the left and then to the right. I try to keep a good distance behind you until your drunkenness becomes too wearisome to follow, and then I carefully pass you. I save my own life. You do not even see me. You are not the type to give a kind smile in the supermarket, to care about the small things, or to have a conviction in the big things. You do not save life, but jeopardize it.

Every time I get ready to leave my home, I pause before my icon of the Protecting Veil of Our Lady and say a prayer to be brought back home safely. I ask that all my tasks be blessed, and that I might be a blessing to everyone I meet that day. Maybe I will save a life, and then there are times when I need someone to save my life. I feel the need for holy protection over my person, over the activities of the entire day, over the supermarket and the roads, and over all the recovering alcoholics who used to be a part of my daily interaction. Beneath the Protecting Veil, the reality is that of merciful intercession for the saving of lives and souls.

Silence, but Not Secrets

We live in a noisy world. Few people practice silence, not unless they are shy or simply scared to death — which is not true silence. Many people talk incessantly, almost compulsively or competitively, interrupting and shouting over one another. Generally, I am quiet in demeanor and poor at socialization. I know how to be polite and friendly, but I cannot keep a conversation going. Perhaps that is why I turn to writing as a form of communication.

Verbally, I need a structure in which to get my bearings. Put me in the therapy session with a client or in front of a classroom of students, and I know what to say and do. Put me in a casual grouping of people, at lunch hour or at a Christmas party, and I cannot maintain pace verbally. In fact, I often find it boring and fatiguing. My mind just does not work in that way.

True silence, however, is a way of maintaining inner calm and peace. It means not to blurt out everything we think, not to engage in fruitless arguments, and not to confront every shortcoming or peculiarity in the people around us. It is a spiritual quality, but we might also regard it as a spiritual-social skill. That is, as a regulating lid on impulses which betray our intentions, as a protecting boundary around our prayer life, and as a benevolent wall preventing harm to others. It is not the same as repression, and not a defense mechanism at all, but a focusing and centering of our being.

Marcelle Roulin as Baby, by Vincent van Gogh

Marcelle Roulin as Baby, by Vincent van Gogh

Therefore, silence does not mean to keep sick secrets. It does not mean that we passively or fearfully tolerate situations in which others are being physically abused or sexually violated. It does not mean that it is the will of God that victims endure these conditions and that nobody should intervene. We are to be Good Samaritans, attending to the wounds of others. We are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us — that means a humanitarian response to those in need.

If you think you should protect an offender’s reputation, or give him (or her) a second chance, then you need to understand that they will likely abuse again. You are not helping them. Your loyalty is misapplied. Their mind just does not work in that way. Unfortunately, everyone around them will be impacted by the damage they do. It is the victim who needs your protection, not the offender.

If you know or suspect that a child is being abused or neglected, report it. Suspicion is grounds enough to warrant reporting. You can make a confidential phone call to the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 or 1-800-4-A-Child. You can reach a counselor 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Each state also has its own hotline number. If immediate assistance is needed, call the police.

If you would like to read some educational and news articles about child abuse, please consider my Child Abuse Blog or google child abuse and find other resources.

You cannot maintain interior calm and peace while knowing that a child is being abused — and you are keeping it a secret and doing nothing to intervene.