by Christine Sine St Francis of Assisi was a person who modelled God’s peace (shalom) in very radical ways. October 4th is St Francis Feast Day and so it seems appropriate to begin our October emphasis on shalom with a reminder of his life story and the ways it challenges us also be be radical proponents of shalom. Francis’s goal was…
Several years ago my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting England. The beginning of the trip was terrifying – we had decided to rent a car. Our modest little Fiat fit well among the many toy cars that fill British highways. But there was a problem. Everything on English roads is backwards. You sit on the wrong side of the car; you drive on the wrong side of the road; you shift gears (yes, it was a manual) with the wrong hand. I felt that I had just gotten out of the dentist’ office and the entire left side of my car was “numb.” It was terribly awkward. I curbed the wheels on the left side three times before I got out of the parking lot. And then we burst immediately onto the highway, a monstrous multi-laned beast with high-speed toy cars and trucks flying along (on the wrong side).
I know how to drive a car. Indeed, I consider myself a good driver. However, my English experience demonstrated a fundamental flaw: driving is not an activity for thinking. When you are in the midst of flying objects, multiple lanes, with foot-work (I hadn’t driven a manual in years), and gear-shift all operating at various moments, in the dyslexic world of high-speed English traffic-flow, the one thing you do not have is the time to think about any of them. Friends do not let friends think and drive.
I managed not to kill us or anyone else, though I doubt anyone has logged more prayer-time in a single week on the roads of England than myself. But the basic lesson is worth noting: we do not drive by thinking. You may rationally reflect on what has happened, but you cannot rationally reflect on what you are doing while you are in the midst of doing it. We drive by feel (or something similar).
The Christian life, the life of faith, is much the same. Rationality is not the primary mode of believing. Faith is not simply what you believe, it is equally how you believe.
When confronted with a challenging and uncomfortable situation, the human body generally responds with a burst of adrenalin. It’s useful – people have been known to perform super-human feats (lifting a car or a piano) in extremely dangerous situations. But this same safety mechanism, triggered by fear or danger, can be paralyzing in the wrong setting. It is the physical mechanism behind what are called “panic attacks.” The mind tells the body there’s a saber-toothed tiger in the cave and the body responds with the instincts of “fight or flight.” If, however, the task at hand is driving a car in an unfamiliar setting, or simply sitting down to take a math test, the adrenalin is not only unnecessary, it is crippling.
Strangely, how we believe works in a similar manner. Our culture has reduced Christian believing to a set of rational propositions. The various doctrines can be described, defined, repeated, even rendered in Latin. But almost nowhere do we bother to think about how we believe those propositions. We can answer the question, “Do you believe in the Incarnation?” But we never bother to ask, “What does it look like to believe the Incarnation?” This disconnect leads to tragic, even paralyzing versions of Christianity.
When I was in high school, my adolescent Christianity was strongly committed to a pacifist position. The country was in the midst of the Vietnam War and passions surrounding the war ran at a very high pitch. We had a Catholic priest visit our school once for a “discussion” of the war. He was a well-known pacifist and very articulate. Our principal, who articulated the opposing view, was a decorated pilot from World War II. During the open discussion following their talks, my passions burned bright.
Afterward, the priest spoke to me. I was expecting some sort of congratulations since I thought I had spoken well for his position. “Stephen,” he said, “There is more than one way to do violence to a man. You use pacifism like a weapon.”
Truth always has a double edge. The Word of God is a “two-edged sword,” we are told. We generally know better than to let children play with sharp objects.
My previous articles describing noetic perception and the importance of a neptic life, are not meant to be obscure tropes about interesting Greek words. The kind of sober perception to which they refer are the essential requirements in the labor of salvation. We are not saved by correct ideas, if the ideas are not held correctly.
This reality lies at the heart of all communion devotion in the Orthodox Church. The truth of Christ’s Body and Blood are nowhere questioned, nor even pondered. All of the attention within the prayers surrounding the sacrament are directed towards the heart and lips that receive it.
Behold: I draw near to the Divine Communion. Burn me not as I partake, O Creator, For Thou art a Fire which burns the unworthy. Rather, cleanse me of all defilement.
The Gifts of the Holy Eucharist are not approached by mere doctrine or correct thoughts. However salutary such things might be, they fall short of the truth of our soul and being. It is entirely possible to confess the whole of the Orthodox faith, perfect in every letter, and yet lack the state of soul that receives without being consumed in the fire.
Rightness of heart is what a true noetic understanding and sobriety (nepsis) of spirit are about. I have had more than a few conversations with people who hold the faith with great “precision” and are yet a danger to themselves and to those around them. The “truth” of the faith, if divested of noetic insight and held in the grip of the passions, may be the deadliest form of delusion (prelest) known within the Church. St. James identifies this with devastating accuracy:
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe– and tremble! (Jam 2:19)
The demons are perfectly “Orthodox.” Indeed, the demons recognized and confessed Jesus as the Christ long before human beings. In the fathers, fasting without prayer is called the “fast of demons,” for demons never eat anything, but neither do they pray.
Christ invites us into a wholeness of being. We are given the right faith, but the right faith must rest in a right heart. Over the years, it has been my observation that the right facts are easy. Any compendium of doctrine or collection of patristic quotes can summarize the faith we hold. But no compendium can easily describe how we hold the faith. Of course, this is very frustrating for many. The facts make for an easy argument. The rational mind champions argument and judgment (it was always meant to measure, weigh and compare). But the rational mind was never intended to be the seat of the soul. That belongs to the nous. And it is only in the sobriety of noetic comprehension that the truth of the faith yields itself up as the life-giving Word of God. Only the sobriety of noetic perception is able to wield the fiery coal of the Divine revelation in such a way that it heals and doesn’t destroy.
And so we pray. And we tremble.
“Burn me not as I partake.”
World Trade Center, New York City When you think of 9/11, there are many feelings and emotions that likely flood your mind…the first might be the events and images of that fateful day and the chronicles of incredible feats performed by the “average person”. Or perhaps the life lost, ways our lives have changed since…
Someone remarked that their church’s attendance was up and down, “up in the mountains or down at the beach.” Labor Day is that last break before summer’s end, one last respite for teachers, students, and parents, and everyone else who wants a get-a-way. Labor Day is a celebration of how we all shoulder the load in our respective ways to keep the wheels of life in motion. It’s a day to take a break and relax as a reward. God has given us specific gifts that are needed, holiday or not. We should all contribute to the common good, if we will. It takes commitment.
Too often I am a person of divided allegiances. I’m no Colin Kaepernick who will only stand for the National Anthem when he feels that the country has done its part for him or others that have suffered injustice. Certainly, our flag has stood on…
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Ah, yes, August. When the boys of fall gather to prepare for a new season of our favorite sport. Pads and helmets cracking, crushed tires getting stuck in the shoes of players and coaches, junior college coaches challenging referees to fights, repetitive practice reports.
And over the last few years, the continuation of The War on Jadeveon Clowney.
I came across this article today on The Ringer entitled The One-Hit Wonder, with the sub-head Have We Already Seen the Best of Jadeveon Clowney?
The post is mostly fair, wondering if Clowney will ever develop into the most dominant defender in the NFL that seemed to be his destiny a few short years ago. And I must admit, each passing practice session or exhibition game or regular season game where I read “Clowney will not suit up” or “Clowney inactive” allows more doubt to creep into my Clowney-loving mind…
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I can think of two experiences where words fail: before the presence of God and in the presence of deep shame. The first is too great and too wondrous for words, the second too bitter and painful. Both are essential for our humanity if it is to be lived to the fullest. They represent not only the boundary of our vocabulary, but also the boundary of our existence. I have stood by the bedside of hundreds of persons at the time of death (particularly in two years as a hospice chaplain). It is generally a quiet place. There are words of parting, but finally – silence. I have also heard the confessions over long years of priesthood. Sometimes silence enfolds the tears that are the only voice that shame can offer.
Words interpret. Words express and communicate. But words fail when the experience transcends interpretation and when any expression or effort to communicate would only distort and reduce what has come to be.
We say with joy, “It’s too wonderful for words!” But this, I think, falls short of what I am describing. St. Thomas Aquinas had an experience of God in his last days, after which he refused to return to his task of writing. “I cannot. All that I have written seems like straw to me,” was his only explanation.
Orthodoxy holds that the highest and most fundamental form of prayer is found in “hesychia,” “silence,” or “stillness.” But quiet is not at all the same thing as hesychia as prayer. For the silence of hesychia is a silence-in-communion. This communion is deeply related to both of the wordless experiences described earlier. The silence of shame is brought about by the experience of the broken self. True silence in the presence of God is brought about by an encounter with God Himself. The former may very well be a prerequisite for the latter.
In The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Step 4), by St. John Climacus, we hear:
Terrible indeed was the judgment of a good judge and shepherd which I once saw in a monastery. For while I was there, it happened that a robber applied for admission to the monastic life. And that most excellent pastor and physician ordered him to take seven days of complete rest, just to see the kind of life in the place. When the week had passed, the pastor called him and asked him privately: ‘Would you like to live with us?’ And when he saw that he agreed to this with all sincerity, he then asked him what evil he had done in the world. And when he saw that he readily confessed everything, he tried him still further, and said: ‘I want you to tell this in the presence of all the brethren.’ But he really did hate his sin, and, scorning all shame, without the least hesitation he promised to do it. ‘And if you like,’ he said, ‘I will tell it in the middle of the city of Alexandria.’
And so, the shepherd gathered all his sheep in the church, to the number of 230, and during Divine Service (for it was Sunday), after the reading of the Gospel, he introduced this irreproachable convict. He was dragged by several of the brethren, who gave him moderate blows. His hands were tied behind his back, he was dressed in a hair shirt, his head was sprinkled with ashes. All were astonished at the sight. And immediately a woeful cry rang out, for no one knew what was happening.
Then, when the robber appeared at the doors of the church, that holy superior who had such love for souls, said to him in a loud voice: ‘Stop! You are not worthy to enter here.’ Dumbfounded by the voice of the shepherd coming from the sanctuary (for he thought, as he afterwards assured us with oaths, that he had heard not a human voice, but thunder), he instantly fell on his face, trembling and shaking all over with fear.
As he lay on the ground and moistened the floor with his tears, this wonderful physician, using all means for his salvation, and wishing to give to all an example of saving and effectual humility, again exhorted him, in the presence of all, to tell in detail what he had done. And with terror he confessed one after another all his sins, which revolted every ear, not only sins of the flesh, natural and unnatural, with rational beings and with animals, but even poisoning, murder and many other things which it is indecent to hear or commit to writing.
And when he had finished his confession, the shepherd at once allowed him to be given the habit and numbered among the brethren. Amazed by the wisdom of that holy man, I asked him when we were alone: ‘Why did you make such an extraordinary show?’
That true physician replied: ‘For two reasons: firstly, in order to deliver the penitent himself from future shame by present shame; and it really did that, Brother John. For he did not rise from the floor until he was granted remission of all his sins. And do not doubt this, for one of the brethren who was there confided to me, saying: “I saw someone terrible holding a pen and writing-tablet, and as the prostrate man told each sin, he crossed it out with a pen.” And this is likely, for it says: I said, I will confess against myself my sin to the Lord; and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my heart. Secondly, because there are others in the brotherhood who have unconfessed sins, and I want to induce them to confess too, for without this no one will obtain forgiveness.’
…Do not be deceived, son and obedient servant of the Lord, by the spirit of conceit, so that you confess your own sins to your master as if they were another person’s. You cannot escape shame except by shame. It is often the habit of the demons to persuade us either not to confess, or to do so as if we were confessing another person’s sins, or to lay the blame for our sin on others. Lay bare, lay bare your wound to the physician and, without being ashamed, say: ‘It is my wound, Father, it is my plague, caused by my own negligence, and not by anything else. No one is to blame for this, no man, no spirit, no body, nothing but my own carelessness.’
The stories in St. John’s Ladder are often extreme, but they make an unmistakable point. Repentance is the path to knowledge of God and salvation. But the extremes he points to make another point: repentance is far greater than mere moral effort. The promise to try harder, to work more, to be better can themselves be little more than an effort to avoid the shame of our failures. They “lessen the blows.” How can we say we will try harder? If we are honest with ourselves and with God we will admit that our efforts have failed before and will likely fail again. Our promises are words that stand between us and the silence of shame.
We can only go to that place of silence voluntarily. No one can take us there, nor should anyone force us (the extreme treatment in the Ladder is only done with the robber’s permission). But at the heart of our wordless shame is the good God who accepts us, embraces us, and clothes us with His own righteousness. He will not crush us nor use our shame against us.
Hesychia, true silence and stillness of heart, presses beneath the noise of the soul and its moral protests of promised improvement. I will not improve. I will not do better. I will be still. And know.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Rom 12:1-2)
The ideas of the modern project have been in place for over three centuries. Across that time they have come to permeate every aspect of our lives. They shape our institutions and the way we think about them. They shape our understanding of what it means to be human. They shape our instincts and gut reactions. Given the Apostolic commandment to “not be conformed to this world” we rightly struggle to be transformed and to have our minds renewed according to the truth. This work of renewal requires careful thought and reflection and the willingness to have our hearts changed through the daily efforts of repentance. All of this lies at the heart of my frequent writings and critique of modernity. We cannot refuse conformity to this world if we do not see it for what it is. How we think of the Church is a crucial part of the modern project – for, in large part, it was in reaction to classical Christianity and the Church that modernity came into existence. It is worth noting that with regards to the Church, the project has almost been entirely successful.
To think carefully about this, we need to look at the position of the Church prior to the rise of modernity. In Western Europe, the Church was synonymous with the Catholic Church. In thinking about this, lay aside issues you might have with Catholicism itself or the Papacy and simply think about the position of the Church. All of the peoples of Western Europe were Christian, and all were members of the One Church (as far as the West was concerned). In large measure, they lived in peace with one another. When Henry II of England went to war in France, it was not a case of England versus France. Rather, it was the claim of a king to territory that he believed to be his by right. The French were not his enemies – indeed they had been subjects of the English king from time to time. Rather it was the Dauphin and his noblemen that constituted the challenge.
In such struggles the Church could and did frequently intervene. Sometimes the Church was sought out as mediator. In daily life, the parish Church permeated every aspect of life. In Eamon Duffy’s exceptional book, The Voices of Morebath, a single parish in a single village are examined in detail over the period of 50 years, spanning the years of the English Reformation. It is a case study in the radical reshaping of every aspect of life and an example in particular of the movement from the classical Christian world to the foundations of modernity. It is also clearly demonstrated that this reshaping was in no way a popular uprising and force of history. It was a conscious, ideological imposition by the state and certain religious forces that enjoyed state sponsorship.
The picture of the pre-reformation parish was a Church life that permeated every aspect of culture. Every trade guild had its place and role in the Church. The culture was itself but the public expression of the Church’s life. We learn the names and details of individual lives in Duffy’s work as he draws from the records of those 50 years. And we see the changes. What we see is, interestingly, the secularization of parish life and the substitution of the state in places that had once belonged to the Church. Prior to the Reformation, the European state was integrated with Church, even an aspect of Church in many ways. At the end of the Reformation, the state had begun to take the shape of the modern state. Prior to the Reformation, the king’s subjects are the Christian people of the realm. After the Reformation, they are Englishmen, etc. above all else. It is worth noting that the nation state first comes into existence in Protestant lands. It was a slow and fitful, even very late development in Catholic lands.
Today’s denominational form of the Church is itself a creation of the modern project. It is incorrect to see it as an inner project of late Christianity. It was never an intentional plan, but is the result of modern principles consistently set in place. The Church is steadily diminished in the life of the nation, privatized and relativized. It’s loyalty becomes subsidiary to the loyalty of the State. The Church need not be One, indeed, it is the more easily reduced to subsidiarity if it is not One. The Church can no longer challenge the actions of the state, for it’s far too busy arguing with other Churches over one thing and another. Today, it is the state that appears as the most natural institution in modern society. The Church is a private matter, best served if it stays out of the “public” business.
Stanley Hauerwas at Duke once noted that the rise of the nation state and its success could be seen in its wars. Prior to the Reformation, Christians attacked and killed non-Christians. After the Reformation, Christians were glad to kill each other in the name of the state. The madness of the First World War is the apotheosis of the modern world. All history since can easily be seen as nothing more than the continued working out of the problems created in that conflict. In truth, we are still in the very same war. But the larger war of modernity waged against the classical world has been generally settled for more than two centuries. The state today enjoys a place within the minds of its citizens that includes a loyalty once only enjoyed by the Church.
The monopoly of the state is an interesting feature of the modern world. If I were to suggest that the institutions of the state be treated like the institutions of denominational Christianity, I would be taken for a madman. On your street, one family is German, another is Polish, another is Greek and a third counts themselves as American. Each of you has separate loyalties. If they have political or state needs, they apply to their own preferred identity. You can change “nationality” pretty much at will. Some people have been members of a half dozen different states, depending on who has the more attractive programs, etc. While this sounds crazy, it is in fact rendered absurd mostly because of its ineffectiveness in organizing war. It would be the state as gelding. But this describes the reality of denominational Christianity. It is only Body of Christ, after a fashion, but one that has been gelded and made irrelevant and beside-the-point. If you have “religious needs” or you’re “into that sort of thing,” then Church is nice. But in no way is it The Church.
The success of modernity has been to reduce The Church into an idea, a concept. When Christians of the modern world think of Christian unity, they mean something vague and ethereal, mostly including mutual recognition of sacraments, and open communion. And though American Christians often like to fantasize about a coming persecution, the truth is that they’re simply not worth the effort.
In the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia, the Church (Orthodox or Catholic) was a largely unreformed entity. It retained its identity as the One Church and its place in the lives of the people and the culture. What Pope John Paul II said in Poland could bring down a government. They feared him. And though the Church in Russia was deeply wounded by a sustained persecution of 70 years’ length, it remained. Nothing replaced it, nor was it gelded. In Romania, when the Ceaușescus were overthrown, the announcement on the radio was, “The anti-Christ is dead! Romania is a Christian country!” That carried power because Romania was 95 per cent Orthodox. The Church had continued to exist in an unreformed condition. Such an announcement in America would naturally bring the question, “Which Christians?” Indeed, many Christians in America today think that they’re nation is a Christian nation. It is not, nor has it ever been. It has been a country without The Church.
All of this brings me to the ecumenical question. For ecumenism is a deeply modern movement. Indeed, it can be said to be an unthinkable movement apart from the concepts of modernity. It is not a movement towards the One Church. It is a movement that assures that One Church will never happen because the inner consciousness of its people will have been completely conformed to this world.
What is modern about the contemporary ecumenical movement?
The consciousness of the ecumenical movement is of the Church as an abstraction. Beginning primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries, the notion of the Church as an “invisible” or “mystical” reality, not entirely identified with any earthly institution arose. It becomes the “churchless Church.” It could just as easily be asserted that everyone on earth is a citizen of the same country, that individual nations are not actually true nations, but only human constructions of the real nation.
But the Church, as taught by Christ and as established in actual history, is not “invisible” or “mystical” in any sense that abstracts it from the concrete historical manifestation of that Church in the world. Just as the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist are not somehow abstracted from Christ in any way, so the Body of Christ that is the Church, is just as concrete and real as the Incarnate Christ Himself. Indeed it cannot be otherwise. St. Paul’s challenge to any other concept is simple: “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). That the answer could be anything but “no” was unthinkable to him. The Church is “One,” in the words of the Creed. It cannot possibly be two, much less 20,000.
That the Church is One is a sign that it is the creation of the One God. So soon as this is removed from human consciousness or its meaning rendered inert, the Church is reduced to a human institution, a lesser reality among other lesser things. And while the Church is reduced to a multiplicity of human creations, the state retains its unity and authority from God (Romans 13:1). It is ironic in addition to being false.
But the modern project has so deluded Christians that they cannot face the topic of the One Church with anything more than shame, defensiveness and denials of what was and is, a clear, fixed, Apostolic doctrine. And I recognize that in even broaching the topic, I set some readers’ teeth on edge. But I beg a short indulgence.
For once, quit taking ownership of a false consciousness created by modernity itself. Denominational Christianity is not your fault, nor is it worthy of defending. Allow yourself to consider what the reality of “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic” means when not reduced to an abstraction or some eschatological dream. We do not confess that the Church shall be One, Holy, etc.” We confess what is true. And that phrase means what it meant, and it was not and is not an abstraction.
Allow it to stand as true on its face, and then ponder the current modernized, diminished ecclesiology. But refuse to reconcile the two by acquiescing to modernist claims.
The pressure of ecumenism (which is not about unity but about diminishing the ecclesiology of the faith) has been felt deeply within Roman Catholicism. The document Lumen Gentiumin Vatican II, declares that the Mystical Body of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church, thus no longer saying that the two are one and the same. It seemed a gesture of generosity, but it was a capitulation to the centuries-old demands of modernity. Orthodoxy feels the same pressure, and there are some within it who would gladly embrace such language. It is a fulcrum point, and modernity has its hand on the lever.
At stake is not just the true character of the Church and the Kingdom, but also the outrageous and unchallenged claims of the modern state. That Leviathan is currently eating the souls of its citizens and would gladly swallow the Church itself. We should refuse to come to the table.