Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Ascension and the Heart's Deepest Longing

For Catholics, Eastern and Roman, we now find ourselves between the Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost; we are at the end of the great season of the Resurrection. I've always experienced the Feast of the Ascension as a sort-of neglected Feast. Traditionally falling on a Thursday, the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. tends to push the celebration of this Feast to the Sunday following what would traditionally be "Ascension Thursday." I used to scoff at this until the difficulties of adult life prevented me from attending Divine Liturgy on Holy Days that fall in the middle of the work week. Thank God that I can still enter into this Feast through the celebration of the Divine Office.

As I prayed Safro/Morning Prayer for the Feast of the Ascension this past Thursday, it finally dawned on me that this feast is not just about Jesus' ascension to the right hand of the Father in order to prepare a place for us. That's certainly a huge part of the celebration, but I'd never really stopped to absorb what that actually means. This Feast is about the fulfillment of the deepest desires of the human heart! First of all, Jesus ascended in body into heaven! The Feast of the Ascension is, in a very real sense, the completion of our re-creation begun at Jesus' Incarnation. Our full human nature - body, soul and spirit - have been restored to the presence of God, to walking with Him in the cool of Paradise, as we read in Genesis.

Secondly, Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us alongside him. This is the great hope of our Faith; that Jesus Christ, through his Incarnation, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, has not only restored our fallen nature, but has transfigured it and brought it to that final destination that we were meant to enter into from the beginning. We are invited to enter into this restoration and transfiguration by participating in the life of Christ through His body, the Church, here on earth.

So we live now in this tension between the "already" and the "not yet." Jesus has "already" restored our fallen nature and elevated it up to the right hand of the Father, but as long as we are in this life we still feel within ourselves the effects of the original fall. As Jesus prepares a place for us in heaven, we are preparing ourselves to enter into that place, to receive that final dwelling. It is our job in this life, according to our Baptism, to put the old man to death in order that we might live in newness of life here on earth, and receive fullness of life after we pass on from this life. In other words, in order to prepare ourselves to enter into the heavenly glory that our Lord is preparing for us, we must first daily live out the reality of the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ in our own lives.

In this week between the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, I hope to offer at least one further reflection on the tension between the "already" and the "not yet" that is set before us by Jesus' Ascension. In particular, I want to show how - at least for the Maronite tradition - this Feast reveals to us the deepest longing of our hearts, as well as the path to obtaining/receiving that deepest longing through faith, hope, the mercy of God, and the consolation of the Holy Spirit.

Until then, let's reflect on the words of the Proemion of the Hoosoyo for Safro/Morning Prayer:

"Praise, glory and honor to the One who descended into the
depths of the earth
in order to raise us to the heights of heaven.
He clothed our corruptible bodies with incorruptibility
and our mortal bodies with immortality..." (emphasis mine)

And in the words of one of my favorite prayers from the Holy Qurbono/Mass:

"You have united, O Lord, your divinity with our humanity, and our humanity with your divinity. Your life with our mortality, and our mortality with your life. You have assumed what is ours and given us what is yours, for the life and salvation of our souls..."

Friday, March 18, 2016

Submission, Obedience and the Spiritual Elder

One of the defining characteristics of Eastern Christian spirituality is the need for/emphasis on having a spiritual father or mother; someone to guide us on the path of the spiritual life. For those of us who dive deeply into the mystical writings of the Christian East, I think it's only natural that we should desire to find such a spiritual guide to whom we can submit ourselves in obedience. I certainly appreciate this desire and absolutely agree with it for folks still living a single life, celibate parish priests, and above all for monastics. However, I question whether or not married couples should be seeking a "traditional" form of spiritual guide - and perhaps here even "traditional" isn't the right word because, as I think we'll find, there is another path that is just as ancient but less spoken of. Allow me to explain.

As I examine the writings of the great Eastern mystics, particularly the Desert Fathers, one of the primary reasons I've found that they encourage having a spiritual guide is that we all need someone to submit ourselves to in obedience. Why? Because we're all plagued by self-will. We want what we want and we want it now regardless of whether or not it's actually for our own good. Even when we have the best of intentions for our spiritual growth, often what we desire is not actually for our good, but an indulgence of our self-well. We often don't see things, especially ourselves, the way they really are. I may wish to pray for eight hours a day. That amount of time in prayer is obviously good... for those who have been given that vocation. But if I, as a husband and father, were to spend that much time a day in prayer, I'd be neglecting the calling that I've received from God to be a holy husband and father. I'd be neglecting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of my wife and children. Not good.

So we all need someone to help us break that self-will. We all need someone to whom we can submit in obedience. For monastics, many of whom spend a great deal of time alone, this "someone" comes primarily in the form of a spiritual father or mother. I say primarily because often, while having a spiritual father or mother, the Desert Fathers would often turn to other elders as well for a different perspective on issues than what their spiritual father would give them; and often the spiritual father himself would send his children to another elder who could provide more insight into certain issues than he himself was able to provide. We can see here the importance of community.

In truth, the vocation to marriage has this "someone" built in. St. Paul tells us in Ephesians, "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ (other translations have "submit yourselves to one another..." the point is this is a free submission of the self to another, of the spouses to one another). Wives should be subordinate to your husbands as to the Lord... (notice here that St. Paul is just telling the wives again what he told both spouses to do in the last sentence!) Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her..." (husbands, are you dying to your self-will the way Christ himself died for the love of his bride: "Father, not as I will, but as you will...") Ultimately this mutual submission of husbands and wives to one another, this obedience that they freely give to one another, is a crushing of our own self-will. The primary purpose of the spiritual father or mother is built directly into the vocation of marriage! That should take some pressure off for finding the venerated geron to guide you in obedience!

This being said, as witnessed by the Desert Fathers, it's still good to get other perspectives. It's good to have spiritual friends, and even a wise spiritual guide to walk the path with you. It's good to have someone to whom you can turn to get another perspective. My wife is always encouraging me to go and visit a priest-friend of mine whom I do consider my spiritual father. Why? Because she knows when I'm having difficulties in certain areas of life, he can give me a different perspective that will resonate more deeply in me than anything she could say. She also knows that he has greater experience in some areas of life than she does herself.

Is this path of obedience easy? Absolutely not. Whether you're submitting yourself to a spouse or a spiritual father or mother, the road of obedience is one of the most difficult you will ever walk. But then again, the road Christ tread from Jerusalem to Calvary was the most difficult road that anyone in history ever walked. In the end, that road leads to the joy of the Resurrection. May heaven consume us.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Christian Calling

I realize it has been quite some time since I've written or posted anything on this blog. To anyone who has been anxiously awaiting, I apologize. Over the last six months or so I have been brainstorming over what direction I want to take this blog. Obviously, the blog itself is dedicated to spirituality according to the Eastern Christian tradition - particularly how it is expressed through the Jesus Prayer. However, I've been struggling to figure out what that means for those of us who have a non-monastic vocation.

I've often heard it said that "Eastern Christian spirituality is monastic." Essentially meaning that the closer a non-monastic's spirituality mirrors monastic spirituality, the better. Monasticism, in this sense, is held up as the ideal vocation to which all Christians ought to strive. Those of us who choose non-monastic vocations are left feeling like we chose a lesser of two vocations; like somehow we're not living the Christian/Gospel life to its fullest. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I came to realize that the reason many people think that Eastern Christian spirituality is inherently monastic (by the way, one could say the same of Western/Roman Catholic spirituality) is because all of the literature on spirituality in the East was written by monastics, and the vast majority of it was written with monastics as their primary audience. We get glimpses, however, of non-monastic spirituality when we look closely at a few different texts: St. John Chrysostom's writings on marriage, St. Theophan the Recluse's letters to a young noblewoman found in the book The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It, and even The Way of the Pilgrim. Although I haven't yet had the opportunity to read the book, my guess is that Paul Evdokimov's book The Sacrament of Love will give us a penetrating look into non-monastic spirituality in the Eastern Christian tradition.

There are, of course, similarities between monastic and non-monastic vocations and spirituality. Like St. Therese of Lisieux wisely pointed out, the Christian vocation is to love. Love requires self-emptying, self-sacrifice, purification from the passions. Only when we are free from our selfish desires are we truly free to love. Love requires that we follow Christ in his kenosis, that we take up our Cross daily. St. Paul tells us to "live in a manner worthy of the call you have received" (Eph. 4:1). This, of course, can be interpreted in the broad sense of living in a manner worthy of the Christian vocation - the call to decrease so that Christ might increase in us and radiate to others through our lives. But to this broad, general sense can be added a more specific sense of personal vocation. How do we live the general Christian vocation in the unique personal vocation/calling that I have received?

To use more "Eastern" terminology, St. Isaac the Syrian tells us in his 74th homily, "This life has been given to you for repentance, do not squander it in vain living." Essentially he is saying the same thing here that was said above. Repentance is not about beating our breast in guilt and saying "woe is me. I'm such a sinner." Repentance recognizes sin and the passions that dwell within us, of course. But it goes beyond that to challenge us to change our ways. To turn from the old man and be clothed in the new! To cast of the mind of the world and put on the mind of Christ! Essentially repentance is the call to self-emptying, kenosis, so that we may be filled with Christ. It is the call to empty ourselves of our passions, sinfulness and sinful inclinations, and everything that keeps us from living "in a manner worthy of the call" we have received. It is a call to reject that which keeps us from living life to its fullest.

The unique vocation to which each individual is called is the arena in which he will work out this self-emptying in order to be filled with the love of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit. If I am called to monasticism, that is where I will live out the general Christian calling in my life. If I am called to marriage, that is where I will experience the best opportunities to practice self-emptying love and be filled with the Holy Spirit.

These are themes that I would like to continue to explore moving forward. In doing so, I hope I remain faithful to the tradition that has been passed down to Eastern Christians for generations. In particular I hope to remain faithful to my own Maronite-Syriac tradition. May heaven consume us.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer: Part 2

In my previous post I began a series on the theological parallels between the Western Hail Mary and the Eastern Jesus Prayer. As I was waking up this morning it struck me that I ought to kick off this exploration by beginning with the central theme of both prayers: the Name and Person of Jesus Christ. At even the most cursory glance it is blatantly obvious that the Jesus Prayer is about invoking the Name and Person of Jesus. But isn't the Hail Mary about invoking the person of Mary, the Mother of God? Isn't the Hail Mary all about beseeching her intercession? The easy answer? Yes and no.

The Hail Mary is certainly about invoking the intercession of the Blessed Mother/Theotokos, but there is a much deeper aspect to this that can be found in the very construct of the prayer itself. The prayer can be divided into two parts: the first I will call "the glories," and the second I will call "the petition:"

1) Glories - Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb...

2) Petition - Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Uniting these two parts is the Name of Jesus. Although I left it out in the quote above for the sake of highlighting this point, the Name of Jesus comes immediately after the phrase "fruit of your womb..." and acts as the link between the the "Glories" and the "Petition." In fact, built into the second part is an implicit reference directly back to the Name and Person of Jesus that appears in the first part. In the "Petition" we refer to Mary as "Mother of God" or "Theotokos." Mary is the Mother of God because she bore Jesus - the Second Person of the Trinity - in her womb, gave birth to Him, raised Him, in short she fully participated in the Divine plan of salvation. By calling her "Mother of God" or "Theotokos" we are submerged directly in the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus in her womb, and so we are submerged in the mystery of the very Person of Jesus.

Even though the Name of Jesus is not always directly invoked in the most common Byzantine versions of this prayer, it can be assumed or implied because in those versions we still refer to Mary as "Mother of God" or "Theotokos." The person of Jesus is also implied at the end of these versions when we refer to the fruit of Mary's womb as "Savior of our souls." Again, through this phrase we are calling to mind the Divine plan of salvation, Mary's participation in that plan, and the very Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. "Savior," being one of the titles given to Jesus, can also be considered an implicit invocation of the Holy Name.

For an even broader perspective it is worth pointing out that the Churches of the Syriac tradition have a version of the Hail Mary that is virtually identical to the Western version. There are a few slight differences, but it's practically the same. You can view a version of it here. Again, the central theme is the Name, Person and action of Jesus. Mary simply participates in the saving actions of her Divine Son.

So is the Hail Mary focused on invoking the intercession of the Theotokos? Sure it is! But we only invoke her intercession because of her participation in the saving actions of Jesus. Hence, we call upon the Name of Jesus while at the same time praying for Mary's intercession. Mary points us to her Son as we see in nearly every one of her icons. Therefore, any prayer to her is still a prayer centered on the person of Jesus Christ. Without Him we have no reason to pray to her. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer: Part 1

A thought occurred to me recently. As part of my daily routine, I've begun praying a 5-decade Rosary followed by 100 repetitions of the Jesus Prayer while on my lunch break. I do this while I take a half-hour walk on the grounds of my workplace. This is in part for the physical exercise, and in part in imitation of the nuns of the Divyevo convent, who walk around their monastery walls praying the Rule of the Theotokos given to them by St. Seraphim of Sarov.

In other posts I've attempted to demonstrate the similarities between the Jesus Prayer and the Rosary in terms of their liturgical connections, particularly their connection to the Divine Office. This past week, however, it occurred to me that there is a deeper theological connection between these two forms of prayer.

The first connection that occurred to me is the element of meditation. By "meditation" here I do not mean that common misunderstanding of meditation as an exercise of the imagination. I've heard many Eastern/Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Christians all but condemn the Rosary because of the supposed method of meditation that it encourages. By this they refer to that method of imaginative meditation that is presented in St. Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. This form of meditation would have one imagine oneself in a particular Biblical scene - usually a scene from the life of Christ - and imagine what one would see and hear, how one would feel, how one would react, etc. to a particular event or saying. This, however, is not necessarily the form of meditation that the Rosary encourages - nor is it completely condemned by the Eastern Fathers (it is seen as very much a beginner's form of meditation, and potentially dangerous if taken to extreme or confused for the heights of spirituality).

The form of meditation encouraged by both the Rosary and the Jesus Prayer is a basic pondering in the heart over the mysteries of salvation; a mulling or internal "chewing" on those mysteries until they become rooted in the depths of our person and become a part of who we are. In essence, this mulling or pondering over the mysteries of salvation take root in the heart, and then guide everything we think, say and do. One need simply take a quick glance through the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse or the Philokalia to see that this practice of calling to mind and mulling over the mysteries of our salvation is a practiced strongly encouraged by the great mystics of the Christian East.

I also realized that there is a strong theological connection between the Jesus Prayer itself and the Hail Mary. This is a connection that I would like to explore in more detail in my next post because I believe that a detailed exploration may get somewhat lengthy. At this point all I will say is that both prayers beautifully summarize in their own ways the core beliefs of the "catholic Faith of the orthodox Church" ("catholic" and "orthodox" have been deliberately written that way in order to emphasize the Faith, and not one particular Church over another). May Heaven consume us!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Images, Images, and more Images

Christ is risen!

Recently, as I've been meditating on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, a thought has occurred to me. I have spent the past couple of weekends watching videos on the Shroud of Turin. This amazing artifact is, potentially, a physical witness not only to the death of Christ, but also to the moment of His Resurrection. I say "potentially" because the scientific studies conducted on the Shroud are not completely conclusive. I personally believe that the evidence supports the belief that the Shroud is actually Jesus' burial cloth. I encourage you to check out some videos about it. The entire subject is very fascinating.

As I've been studying the subject of the Shroud and meditating on the image the Shroud contains, I came to a realization. In the Christian East there is a strong understanding that mankind was made in God's image and likeness, keeping in mind that there is a distinction between "image" and "likeness." After the fall mankind lost its likeness to God, and the image of God in man was distorted. Now, it is understood that being made in the image of God means that man was fashioned after the pattern of the Logos/Word of God, Jesus. We were originally created as a reflection of Christ. Think of it this way. We often apply the saying of St. John the Baptist, "He must increase and I must decrease," to our spiritual lives. Christ Jesus must increase in us, and our fallen sinful nature must decrease, because only when Christ lives in us are we truly living as we were created to be. In the beginning, mankind was called to be transparent to Christ, to show forth the glory of God in creation simply by living after the manner and pattern in which they were created. As Christ the Logos is pure "yes" to the Father, mankind too was called to be a pure "yes" to the Father after the pattern of Christ. But at the fall man said "no," and so we lost our likeness to God and distorted the image of the Logos within us.

Jesus came to restore our likeness to God and renew the image of God in us. How does He go about doing this? By assuming our own humanity, taking it upon himself even in its fallen state. Jesus became like us in all things but sin, as the Scriptures say. This means that, while He did not sin, He did take on our fallen nature. St. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Christ became sin, not in the sense that He sinned Himself, but in the sense that He assumed what is ours so that He might redeem it and elevate it. There is a beautiful prayer in the Maronite tradition:

"You have united, O Lord, your divinity with our humanity, and our humanity with your divinity; your life with our mortality, and our mortality with your life. You have assumed what is ours, and you have given us what is yours for the life and salvation of our souls."

What am I trying to get at here? Well, as I meditated on the image of the Shroud I came to realize that through His passion and death Christ became the physical image of our fallen spiritual condition. If you want a sense of what it means that the image of God is distorted in us by sin, then look no further than Christ's passion! If you want a sense of what the tyranny of sin looks like, then look at how the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Roman soldiers treated Jesus during His passion. If you want to have a sense of what the oppression of sin looks like, then look at how Jesus was beaten to a pulp and then forced to carry a cross beam that weighed nearly 200 pounds.

I believe that we have become so accustomed to hearing about the crucifixion of Jesus that it has, in a very real sense, lost its "shock value," so to speak. Similarly we have become so accustomed to hearing about sin that we are missing the horrifying reality of sin in our own lives. When we forget the horrifying reality of sin in our lives, and when the Cross no longer shakes us to our very core, then we cannot possibly hope to grasp and experience the immense love of God for us, and the great hope that is the glory of the Resurrection! Without grasping the love of God for us, and without the hope of the Resurrection, we very easily forget our dignity as men and women created in God's own image and likeness. Without the hope of the Resurrection, we cannot be fully alive so as to show forth the glory of God once more to all creation. This is why Holy Week and the Paschal Season are so central to the life of the Church! May the hope of the risen Christ be with us all.

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Lack of Spiritual Guides?

In reading the writings of the great mystics, both those of the East and those of the West, it is not uncommon to find the saints morning the lack of experienced spiritual elders and guides in their times. The temptation is to believe that since such guides were lacking in the days of the saints - the supposed "golden age" of the Church (whatever age we define that as being) - then they must be absolutely non-existent in our own day and age, marked as it is by such rampant sinfulness. There are a number of problems with this viewpoint that ought to be addressed.

The first issue is the presumption that there is a "golden age" of the Church at some point in the past, and that everything in the Church since then has been in a state of decay and corruption. An honest look at Church history quickly disproves this presumption. There were sinners in the Church in the past, just as there are sinners (of whom I am the first) in the Church today. There were saints in the Church in the past, just as there are saints in the Church today. This notion of a "golden age" in the Church often completely ignores the holy people in the Church today; not only the great luminaries that we often hear about in the news, but those holy and humble men and women that we encounter in our parishes Sunday after Sunday. If we truly wish to find a guide for our spiritual life, then we can't ignore the fact that holy men and women exist among us today, just as they existed within the Church in the past.

The second issue that we find here is ignorance over what constitutes a qualified spiritual elder or guide. So often what we are looking for is a wise and aged monk or hermit who sits alone in his cell and prays the Jesus Prayer all day long, doling out pithy spiritual gems to pilgrims who come to him for "a word" as though he is a spiritual Pez dispenser. We seek a St. Seraphim of Sarov, an Optina elder, a Padre Pio, or a St. John Vianney, when often times the very person we ought to be talking to is the housewife who goes about her daily tasks for the love of God, or the gentleman sitting in the cubicle next to ours faithfully fulfilling his daily tasks. Dan Burke, in his wonderful little book on spiritual direction Navigating the Interior Life, has this to say:

"The committed Catholic or seasoned Christian warrior may be seeking the wise old priest-sage who prays four hours a day and has the gift of seeing souls, when they may need a holy layperson who may not have a doctorate in dogmatic theology, but who clearly understands the path of humility and what it means to have a vibrant relationship with Christ." (pg. 20)

Here too we see a misunderstanding of the word "elder." In Greek "geron" (staretz in Russian, or elder in English) does not necessarily refer to a person who is older in years, but to a person who's soul has gained a certain maturity through spiritual experience. The soul could be one of any number of people. They could be older than us, younger than us, or around our same age. The could be a monk or nun, a parish priest, or simply a humble lay person. Really, anyone who has more experience than ourselves in the spiritual life could be considered our spiritual elder. The question becomes, do we have the necessary humility to seek guidance from the day-to-day elders around us whom we may take for granted?

The final issue here is often the presumption that we can make absolutely no progress in the spiritual life without an elder of some sort. Such a presumption flies in the face of the writings of the great mystics. Universally they proclaim to us that it is indeed possible to make progress without an elder, although it is much more difficult. In the absence of an elder, we are told that what is needed above everything else is a spirit of humility. This spirit is brought up again and again in the writings of St. John Climacus, St. Isaac of Nineveh, St. Theophan the Recluse, and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, to name but a few.

St. John Climacus gives us the following advice for maintaining a sense of humility in our prayer life:

"In your prayers there is no need for high-flown words, for it is the simple and unsophisticated babblings of children that has more often won the heart of the Father in heaven." (Ladder of Divine Ascent, pg. 275)

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov tells us that even without a spiritual guide it is still possible to be given the prayer of the heart, so long as we cling to humility and child-like simplicity. In the absence of a spiritual elder, these ought to be our guides.

What are the characteristics of child-like simplicity? Openness, honesty. a lack of subtleties. This is where we find the genius of the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. One could lengthen this slightly to read: "As man I have sinned, Lord Jesus as God have mercy on me."

This simplicity in prayer must be accompanied by a certain simplicity in the way we live our lives. Nil Sorsky tells us that in the absence of a spiritual guide, we ought to simply dedicate ourselves to the work of God as found in our particular vocations. If you are a monastic, then live your vocation whole-heartedly. If you are a parish priest, strive to ever more fully live your unique calling. If you are a married person, be dedicated to living your vocation in joy and love, not looking for greener pastures elsewhere. By living our vocations, according to Nil, God Himself will guide us into purity of heart and pure prayer.

"We must always in all our activities seek to do all in soul and body, in word or deed and thought as far as our strength allows, to do all godly activities with God and in God... The mind must always be focused positively on God with deep reverence, devotion, and trust in order to do all unto God's good pleasure and not out of vainglory or to please other human beings." (Nil Sorsky: The Complete Writings, pg. 68)

Of course, none of what has been said above means that we ought not to seek a spiritual guide. We ought to seek a guide because such guidance makes progress in the spiritual life much quicker and easier. All of this is just to say that when seeking a spiritual guide we must first acknowledge that such people exist even in our own times: second, we must be humble in our search and be willing to look for a guide in places we hadn't even considered previously: and third, while looking for a spiritual guide we must continue to strive in humility for progress in the spiritual life and not put off such striving. God, our loving Father, will reward our efforts. May heaven consume us!