Golden Words: on Prayer and Parish Life

If you do not feel like praying you have to force yourself. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force (Matthew 11:12).
~ St. Amvrosy of Optina

To the superficial and the guilty it is more comfortable to bathe in the shallow pool of human thought than in the dangerous depths of Christ.
~ St. Nikolai Velimirovic

A sure sign of the necrosis of the soul is evasion from church services. A person who grows cold towards God, first of all begins to avoid going to church, first tries to come to the service later, and then completely ceases to visit the temple of God.
~ Monk Varsanoufios of Optina

What does God want me to do? . . . The answer is: God is not interested in where you are or what you do. . . He is interested only in the quality and quantity of the love you give. Nothing else. Nothing else.
~ Mother Gavrilia

Every moment is Paschal when the eye of the heart opens and the uncreated sun shines forth into our lives.
~ Priestmonk Silouan (from ‘Resurrection’, 12th April 2017)

It is very important to understand that if we have entered the church, if we have been baptised, if we have partaken of the Holy Communion, then we became responsible for this and we cannot just pretend that holiness is not for us. I would like to say some words about the Divine Liturgy in this context. It is out of time. I mean, you cannot finish it and then start it again. It lasts constantly in our life. This is why we should understand that when we have left the church, we should keep this Divine participation. We should strive to save and bear it. And if we lose it, we should come back. The liturgy is not just a service in the church schedule, but it is our life. Christ should be the centre of this life. If in our lives it is not always like this, then we should struggle to change our approach.
~ Fr. Sergei Nezhbort (St. Elizabeth convent, Minsk)

Always be not only my children, but obedient disciples. Keep together and be like one soul- everything for God; and say like St. John Chrysostom, as he was sent into exile: ‘ Glory to God for all things’.
~ St. Elisabeth the New Martyr

We entreat you, make us truly alive.
~ Bishop Sarapion of Thmuis

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Foggy Tuesday

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József Rippl-Rónai, Un parc la nuit (1892-1895)

 

Foggy Tuesday

infinite grey
unknown forms above the water
salvation
~ Novica Tadić

All is indisdinct, veiled,
this foggy evening;
no sharp edges,
merely pastelling,
soft and blurred,
unfixed by frame or masking:
      this evening’s reality is the fuzziness, no illusion.

To those charting rigid,
less insubstantial regions,
all this opacity and imprecision
is peripheral, inadequate,
all liminality is scant:
      to them, what passes for inexplicable is less than interesting.

The hushing fog
muffles sound,
white undoes all hues, and is them;
it smells of incense.
I can smell and almost taste
its roseate pulse –
I do not know if you can?
      but, then, your inability is not negation.

In its truest sense,
ours is an approach
of tangential glimpses,
of ramifications
slowly, slowly drawn from obliques;
a slow and gentle
ellipsis:
      a caress of things hidden, not directly seen.

* * *

Love

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The person who loves God cannot help loving every man as himself, even though he is grieved by the passions of those who are not yet purified. But when they amend their lives, his delight is indescribable and knows no bounds.
~ St. Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love 1.13.

The Company we Keep

Keep the company of those who fear the Lord, those who ponder in their hearts the meaning of the word they have received, those who speak of and keep the Lord’s instructions, those who know the meditation is a work of gladness and who deliberate on the work of the Lord.
~ Epistle of Barnabas, 10. 

Sweetest cherries, rotten apples

Do we ever, any of us, ever genuinely pause to ask how often are we blinded by the world, or how frequently are we deceived by surfaces? We see a rotten apple and we turn aside, revolted. We do not wish to engage with the unpalatable, with the troubling or overly challenging, we prefer to reach out for the easy pickings, and tug at the sweet, low-hanging fruit.  Our schema for what is ‘best fruit’ is tangled within a secular egocentrism of utility and personal taste: what suits me best, is best for me; what I like, what I desire, is, because I desire it, best for me.  But, perhaps all too often, that which is in reality, the sweetest, most flavoursome, cherry, is perceived by my eyes and ego to be a rotten apple.  Not worth the bother.  The climbing, the effort, not worthwhile for so poor a reward. Because we lack the necessary discernment (διάκρισις, diákrisis) to distinguish the spiritually wholesome food from the deadly poison, we miss the point, miss the opportunity, and if we’re not careful, altogether miss the boat.  Or actually, at worst, we load up the boat with the poorest fruit until we either gorge ourselves to death or we drown when our rickety boat eventually capsizes.
The sweetly delectable, the deliciously seductive, are all around us, all of the time; but, they can be nothing more than death wrapped in glamorous allure, a skeleton and sacks of offal wrapped in glossy, smooth, flesh.  And, in the reverse of worldly ‘finish’, the squalid and the tiresome, all too easily shroud the divinely beautiful.  In our blindness, we are left only with the insipid “if it feels/ looks /tastes good, it is good” of consumerism-hedonism.
Our perceptive capacities, like all our faculties, are not performing at their optimum. Because, on every level, the environment within which we exist, is suffering from the Fall.  We are all of us self-deceivers, not by nature, but within our fallen nature.
It is an irony and the greatest of tragedies, that the rotten apples may actually be the sweetest, God-given, cherries.  And, what we take to be cherries, are really the most rotten and poisoned apples of this world.  The rotten apples may be the most beautiful (beautiful because blessed) gift-  offering us (God-given) opportunities to stretch a little, to bend a little, to breathe a little harder, to sweat, to hold our nose and to toil, for Christ’s sake.
The ‘wanna-be-Christian’ must shun the queer Συμπόσιον, or ὄργια, where belching pagans are salivating over grapes and tasty tidbits. They should also shun the masochistic austerities of liberal-guilt, and the grandiloquent executioner of political-correctness. Between hedonism and self-loathing there is the liberating via media of ἄσκησις (áskēsis, ‘exercise’ or ‘training’).  The holy, patristic, path of discerning the best way to act, so that the result is of benefit to the soul and the entire kosmos, and not to this transient life.
However they may appear to our earthly eyes, the sweetest cherries are always there, always within easy reach.  They are constantly being placed there, lovingly, by a God who desires that we are all of us united with Him; placed so that we can partake of their sweetness every day, all the time; so that, wherever we might be, salvation is always possible, always attainable.
Θέωσις (theōsis, divinization, union with God) is possible in this life, every day.  But, only when we first have developed the discernment to see the Truth, to go beyond merely searching out bargains in the global supermarket, and to taste of, and savour, the bitterest and most rotten fruit.

Age-Authenticity

If you are a Lutheran, your religion was founded by Martin Luther, an ex-monk of the Roman Catholic Church, in the year 1517.
If you belong to the Church of England, your religion was founded by King Henry VIII in the year 1534 because the Pope would not grant him a divorce with the right to remarry.
If you are a Presbyterian, your religion was founded by John Knox in Scotland in the year 1560.
If you are a Congregationalist, your religion was originated by Robert Brown in Holland in 1582.
If you are a Protestant Episcopalian, your religion was an offshoot of the Church of England, founded by Samuel Seabury, in the American colonies in the 17th century.
If you are a Baptist, you owe the tenets of religion to John Smyth, who launched it in Amsterdam in 1606.
If you are of the Dutch Reformed Church, you recognize Michelis Jones as founder because he originated your religion in New York.
If you are a Methodist, your religion was founded by John and Charles Wesley in England in 1774.
If you are a Mormon (Latter Day Saints), Joseph Smith started your religion in Palmyra, New York in 1829.
If you worship with the Salvation Army, your sect began with William Booth in London in 1865.
If you are a Christian Scientist, you look to 1879 as the year in which your religion was founded by Mary Baker Eddy.
If you belong to one of the religious sects known as “Church of the Nazarene”, “Pentecostal Gospel”, “Holiness Church,”, or “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” your religion is one of the hundreds of new sects founded by men within the past hundred years.
If you are a Roman Catholic, your church shared the same rich apostolic and doctrinal heritage as the Orthodox Church for the first thousand years of its history since during the first millennium they were one and the same Church. Lamentably, in 1054, the Pope of Rome broke away from the other four Apostolic Sees (Patriarchates), by tampering with the original Creed of the Church, and considering himself to be the universal pastor over other Sees and infallible.
If you are a Uniate {Roman} Catholic of any Eastern Rite, you had your roots in the Orthodox Church, but were forced into the Roman Catholic Church, either by financial hardship, or regional political / ecclesiastical unrest (e.g.: Malankara Syrian Catholics), or by western colonialization (e.g.: Syro-Malabar Rite), or by military strength.

If you are an Orthodox Christian, your religion (Christianity) was founded in the year 33 by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It has not changed since that time. Our Church is now almost 2,000 years old. And it is for this reason, that Orthodoxy, the Church of the Apostles and the Fathers is considered the true “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” This is the greatest legacy we can pass on to the young people of the new millennium!

Πρόσχωμεν!

Πρόσχωμεν!
“Let us be attentive!”

Despite the many English translations available, Πρόσχωμεν, is not best translated into English as “Let us attend”.  Such a translation betrays the Greek and, in so doing, short-changes the anglophone listener; and it does really miss the point.  Πρόσχωμεν is not simply a call to just attend, to turn up, to just be there, to remain something rather passive- like a viewer or an audience member, or a couch-potato.  It is a call for active engagement, for participation – to demonstrate love for God and for His holy Church.  Beneath the emotional or romantic or sentimental skin, to love is to be attentive, to love fully is to be fully attentive.

The Myrrh-bearing women give us a perfect ikonisation of Christ-centred attentiveness.  They present us with perfect role models.  The Holy Myrrh-bearers are a benchmark against which we can, and must, measure our own love of, and attentiveness to, Christ.

We are usually half-hearted and not overly mindful of things which we do not like or find unimportant.  We give our fullest attention to the things, to the people, we love; we enjoy spending time on our sports and hobbies; we love to spend time with our loved ones; our heart aches when we are parted from them for any length of time, and we go into withdrawal.  This longing to be with, this heartache when away from, is a litmus-test for our love:

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mathew 6:21)

We make manifest our love, not through ‘enjoyment’ or through ‘taking’, not by just ‘being there’, but through engagement, through dedication which is giving, by yearning and learning, by treasuring detail and interaction.

And, it is in prayerful and liturgical interactedness, that grace shines forth and blossoms.  God continually, perpetually, eternally, offers Himself, freely.  It is we – who would be Christian – who are called to respond, we who must engage, we who must be attentive.

Shakespeare and Forgiveness

Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness; we believe in history, justice, and compassion – three pairings so similar as to sometimes seem the same, though they are not. The novelistic, psychological work of explaining why evil people are evil gets very little energy from him. His villains are the products not of trauma and history but of nature and destiny. He amputated Iago’s motive for malignancy from the Italian story where he found Othello’s tragedy, in order to make the evil more absolute. Even to ask if Shylock’s graspingness is a product of his people’s history of exclusion would not have seemed important to him. He wasn’t looking for causes. Though not satisfying to our modern sense of psychology, this is actually psychologically quite satisfying. The malevolent people we encounter in life are mostly just like that. They don’t have a particular trauma that, if addressed and cured, would stop them from being evil. They were creepy, malignant kids, too….

Shakespeare also believed in forgiveness in a way that we don’t. Really rotten people get forgiven, in the comedies and romances, at least, in ways that still make us uneasy. In The Tempest, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, bad actors get easy outs. Even Shylock isn’t killed. Dr Johnson thought the moment when Hamlet delays killing Claudius in order to deprive him of any chance of forgiveness was “too horrible to be read or to be uttered.” We are much more ostentatiously compassionate and much more effectively vindictive. Small incidents of plagiarism end careers – not a rule that Shakespeare himself would have escaped – and sexual sins can place their perpetrators forever beyond the bounds of redemption. In Shakespeare, rotten people do rotten things, but if they stick around and say they’re sorry they are forgiven. By contrast, we feel everyone’s pain, forgive no one’s trespasses.

~ Adam Gopnik, ‘Why Rewrite Shakespeare?’, The New Yorker, 17th October 2016

A FIERCE GUARDING

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In our world, the treasure of stillness requires a fierce guarding. Remember it is not a flimsy sign but a flaming sword that protects the Garden of Eden. The Gospel according to St. Matthew puts it best: “From the days of John the Baptiser until now the Kingdom of Heaven suffers much violence, and the violent take it by force” (John 11:12). One traditional interpretation of that verse is that the Christian life is not for the faint of heart. The renunciation of self, the taking up of one’s cross, the salvation work of “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) – these are soldier-images that suggest a disciplined struggle is needed if we are to enter fully into the journey of defeat and victory that is the Christian life. Defeat can bring humility, and victory, joy.

~  John Oliver, Touching Heaven: Discovering Orthodox Christianity on the Island of Valaam. Conciliar Press: Ben Lomond, CA, 2003, pp. 11-12.

SEEING DEEPER?

For the late Seamus Heaney (Nobel Laureate, Oxford professor), there was a poetical ‘elsewhere’ to be accessed (he was, after all, a big fan of the work of Czesław Miłosz), for which the power of perception was critical.  He peered into the ordinary and claimed to see the spiritual:

Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.
(from ‘Field of Vision’)

Poets of the secularised variety, like politicians of every variety, may well be clever but are mostly far less wise than they would have us believe.  Heaney invites us to look, to see “[d]eeper into the country than you expected” – Heaney dedicated an entire volume (Seeing Things) and much of his career to matters of perception and transcendence.  And, yet, is it not ironic, that the work of this self-avowed non-believer (“there’s no heaven, no afterlife of the sort we were promised and no personal God”), contains something unseen and quite “unexpected” by its author?  For while his work may move us to follow its author’s lead: to look at things for longer, to sit quietly, and to see all there is to see, what we might discover in and through such a process – when prudently undertaken – is that it leads to somewhere more radical: far “[d]eeper into” truth (into Truth) and meaning than ever Heaney could envisage; that things become not “more distinctly strange” as he claimed, but paradoxically, less so; that all created things, when truly seen, reveal themselves to be alive with meaning (λόγοι), and as leaves on a burning bush.
Heaney’s oft-lauded ‘transcendent vision’ is merely the classic, western, spiritual myopia disguised by picturesque verbiage and worsmithery.  For him, like every secularised poet, the quest to demonstrate himself to be superior to the common, sensual, man – to conform things to thought – is a dead-end, and finally a tomb (W.B. Yeat’s second, circular, “quarrel”).

For the Holy Fathers it is inner stillness – the transcendence of seeing, the transcendence of thought itself – which is critical to the genesis of an ars poetica and of homo poeticus. Stilness (ἡσυχία) is the prerequisite out of which grows a correct -– advanced – perception (θεωρία), and from which the result is not wordy culture but a wordless γνῶσις. Let us see what one of the Fathers, St. Maximos the Confessor, has to say:

Scripture refers to the higher form of the spiritual contemplation of nature as “hill country” [Deut. 11:11]. Its cultivators are those who have rejected the images derived from sensible objects and have advanced to the perception of the noetic essences of these objects through the acquisition of the virtues. (Second Century, 61.)

So long as the intellect continually remembers God, it seeks the Lord through contemplation, not superficially but in the fear of the Lord, that is, by practising the commandments.  For he who seeks Him through contemplation without practising the commandments does not find Him: he has not sought Him in the fear of the Lord and so the Lord does not guide him to success.  The Lord guides to success all who combine the practice of the virtues with spiritual knowledge: He teaches them the qualities of the commandments and reveals to them the true essences of created things. (Second Century, 62.)

Every intellect that has the power to contemplate is a true cultivator: so long as it has the remembrance of God to sustain it, it keeps the seeds of divine goodness clear of tares through its own diligence and solicitude. For it is said: “And with fear of the Lord he sought God in the days of Zechariah” [2 Chronicles 26.5 LXX]. “Zechariah” means “remembrance of God.” So let us always pray to God to keep this saving remembrance alive in us lest what our intellect has achieved corrupts our soul, filling it with pride and encouraging it to aspire presumptuously, like Uzziah, to what is above nature [cf. 2 Chronicles 26:16]. (Second Century, 66.)

Surely, this is the way to a truer poetry?  In comparison with the Fathers, Heaney, for all the refined surfaces and structural beauty of much of his work, and its obvious power to evoke, to make almost tangible his sensory experience (“I smelled the disturbed/tart stillness of a bush/rising through the pantry.” (‘Sloe Gin’); “Our hands were peppered/With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.” (‘Blackberry-Picking’)), is offering us something both less substantial and less essential.  Even by his canny use of the “covert of his gaze”, Heaney never fully escapes the call of materiality.  He never can divest himself of the compulsion of “gazing into a field of blossoming potatoes” (‘Last Look: in memoriam E. G.’); his ‘transcendent’ oeuvre is mere imagination: action without apparatus. He forever remains muddied, sodden, boggy; he, and his admirers, blithely unaware of the noetic essences of all things.  He has looked, but he has not seen, not discovered that there is a process to seeing, that context is key: that ascetical preparation is necessary for the cleansing of the eye.  Although he desired to approach “by what barred the way” (the apophatic method in a perfect nut-shell), Heaney is never convincingly “[f]ocused and drawn in” by what he sees, certainly not in the way of a St. Maximos.  The two men (Heaney and St. Maximos) are clearly seeing things, but they are seeing them differently; and above that, what they are seeing remain quite distinct from each other. Only one of them transcends, and that one is not Seamus Heaney.

In spite of the apparent wordsworthian skill of scrutinising things “[a]pparelled in celestial light” (Wordsworth, ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’), and for all his ‘spiritual’ pretensions (“Where does spirit live?  Inside or outside/Things remembered, made things, things unmade?” – ‘Seeing Things’), Heaney never transcends his own perameters, never frees himself from the damp presence of his father (Patrick Heaney, farmer and cattle-dealer): “All I ever did was follow/In his broad shadow round the farm.” (‘Follower’).  He might talk transcendence but he does not walk it.  And by this failure to escape, he is trapped by time and place (within his own culture) and by functionality (within the grossly material, however seemingly ‘mysticised’).  Heaney remains forever the stolid Ulster husbandman, with an “assessor’s eye” (‘Seeing the Sick’), and an essentially earthbound writer.  Heaney is shut firmly within western cultural urbanity and thereby shut out from ever really seeing anything.

Although the poetical surfaces may be alluring, and the words carefully chosen, the object of Heaney’s vision remains by his own admission “distinctly strange”, and the philosophical end-result somewhat insipid. Ensnared as he is within the western poet’s egoist gaze: a “big-eyed Narcissus”, staring into a mirror, Heaney manages ultimately only “[t]o see myself”, and fails altogether to reach his target, his ‘Personal Helicon’: to “set the darkness echoing”